A friend from Galway tells of his mother volunteering an opinion on a GAA match years ago, only to draw a withering response from a man nearby who advised her to “stick to yer women’s talk”. In 1978 Dr Mary McInerney entered the male fortress when when she took on the role of Galway team doctor, the first woman to assume such a position. She wasn’t campaigning for equality or greater recognition for women in sport, but her presence helped shift perceptions and soften gender distinctions and prejudices.
In 1979 during the All-Ireland final between Galway and Kilkenny, Michael O’Hehir hailed McInerney as being a novel figure in the dugout by virtue of her gender. Those were the times. “It was a man’s world,” says Dr Con Murphy, who started with Cork as team doctor in 1976. He crossed paths with McInerney over those years, until she stepped away in 1987 due to pressures of work and family.
“One thing that frightened me,” he says jokingly, “was that she was as fast as me going on the pitch, I remember in particular Pat Hartnett and Brendan Lynskey clashed in ’86 (All-Ireland final) and we both ran in but I would say she was first in.”
She was less of a misfit by virtue of being the wife of Niall McInerney who she had met in UCG. Born Mary Gilmore in Moylough, her childhood hero was Enda Colleran, a close neighbour, and after qualifying in medicine from UCG in 1975 she moved into psychiatry, working as a chief consultant for Clare mental health services for almost 30 years.
She held that demanding and influential position while giving over her spare time to tending to the Galway hurlers’ injuries. Her job in Ennis entailed driving from Galway each day of the week, and she began clocking up 30,000 miles a year as part of her work duties. She also had two young children.
“I could go to the training and take my two sons with me,” she explains. “Niall (her youngest of three sons) wasn’t born until 1983, and maybe I’d have them dressed in their pyjamas and coats on over so I could put them to bed when we got home. I went to the matches. Niall (senior) would go ahead of me. I ended up with the minors and under 21s as well.”
There were much fewer knee cartilage injuries then but plenty of head wounds. In the early 1980s she was one of the people campaigning for compulsory helmets for juvenile players, motivated to some extent by a serious eye injury suffered by Limerick’s Pat Hartigan. “There was a big conference in Croke Park I think after the All-Ireland in 1980 and I had one or two other medics against me when I was being a proponent for using helmets for underage hurlers, maybe mouth guards at times, even shin guards, because a lot of fellas were getting bad injuries.”
She smiles as she recalls differing with Con Murphy. “He might have put up a photo of Jimmy Barry Murphy, when Jimmy had what is now known as a grade 1 hair cut, let’s say. But he would have evidence of sutures all over the scalp. And Con’s thing was: this player never wore a helmet but still is perfect to this day and obviously had no post-concussion like rugby players from what I know. Then he also put up another photograph of Gerald McCarthy who had a fine big head of hair. And he says, sure this fella has so much hair, how could you put a helmet on him? I think that was the other side of the debate.”
Her two sons, Niall and Daragh, loved being part of the Galway set-up. After training in Athenry the players were served cartons of milk and sandwiches in the local mart. Phelim Murphy, county secretary and team selector, would see to it that the boys went home with milk and a club milk each. “Sure they were absolutely delighted,” says their mother. “Daragh, my middle son, at one stage idolised Iggy Clarke. He said to me, ‘Mam, when I grow up I am going to change my name’. And I said, ‘what are you going to change it to?’ ‘Daragh Iggy Clarke McInerney, he says’.”
But there was work to be done, sometimes in pressurised environments, and hurling was not a place for the faint-hearted. Coming out on to the field for the 1980 All-Ireland final, Noel Lane got hit accidentally by Bernie Forde and sustained a nasty cut over the eye. Dr McInerney went immediately to his aid.
“Noel, I said, I need to examine that eye. If you have any eye injury I will have to send you to the eye and ear hospital. And I was saying that as a precaution before I examined him. He didn’t seem to have any gross abnormality. He had no pain. And his vision was very good. Also I said, Noel, you need to be sutured. And Noel turned around and says, ‘Mary, you can take my eye out and take it to the hospital, and you can come back two hours later but I am not leaving the pitch’. Now, no anaesthetic, nothing. I stitched him on the side of the pitch.”
In the 1986 All-Ireland final against Cork Brendan Lynskey suffered a serious injury. “He was a great hurler,” she says. “He also had his own personality, we’ll say. Brendan had a bad head injury. He refused to come off for me. I called Brendan in and said, you have to come in. There and then I put him down on the ground, it was on the passageway in the Hogan Stand. I said, Brendan you need to go off, if I can’t do it here I’ll have to send you to hospital. I got some nice flowery language. ‘No,’ he said, ‘whatever you’ve to do, do it now’. So I did maybe 12 sutures. I had Cyril Farrell coming in, What the f**k are you delaying for Mary, will you ever hurry up and let him back out!? I said, Cyril, he has lost a lot of blood, ideally he needs to come off. Brendan said no, Cyril said no. After half-time, against my best wishes, he came back out, but subsequently he came off.”
Mary and Niall McInerney separated in the 1980s, but remained strong friends. Full-back on the Galway team that won the 1980 All-Ireland, revered for containing the threat of Joe McKenna, he died at just 55 in 2004. Last year she lost her second husband, Noel Cheevers, whom she had known since childhood and who won an All-Ireland minor football medal with Galway in 1960. He went into the priesthood, but later left and married. After his first wife died, he and Mary McInerney became a couple and later wed. The first anniversary of his death will be on May 31.
Her children have all grown up and done well in their careers, the family circle now widening to include her six grandchildren. She lives in a beautiful home overlooking Lough Corrib on the outskirts of Galway city. All the people she graduated with have retired, but she continues to work, running a medico-legal practice in Galway.
In the 1980s she was a central figure in a drive to transform mental health services, with a vision to close Our Lady’s hospital in Ennis. As with any change, there was opposition, but the move was designed to break down the old model of high-walled institutionalised mental health solutions. She retired from that in 2009. One of the people she worked with in Clare guided her into set dancing to which she soon became hooked.
“My confidence and self-esteem also improved, socially, from meeting people. Noel didn’t dance. My brother Martin, he was tragically killed four years ago, he was a great jiver. I’ve a cousin Tom who is a great jiver. But in set dancing I don’t have a regular partner. So you learn to put your hand up and it could be a man, woman or child that would come.
“Monday last, I was working on Monday, came home, fed the cat, had my dinner, changed my clothes and drove to Athenry where Michael Cannon does classes each week. It starts at 8.30 and reluctantly we left at 11.30. And other than the break in between I never got off the floor. It’s great. And the fun!”
Filled a gap? “Oh it did of course. When I retired in 2009 I had given huge commitment for nearly 29 years, the 1st of March, 1982, I had gone to Ennis. And it was a large psychiatric hospital. I don’t know if there was 750 patients there at the time and then planning for the future was a kind of roadmap for mental health. I started the rehab process, I mightn’t have been the most popular, but it was the right thing, the community psychiatry.”
The Galway players developed a lasting affection for her. “We were so lucky to have her at the time, most teams did not have a dedicated team doctor,” says Noel Lane. He says she was also a huge help getting inside players’ heads, preparing them psychologically. “You could confide in her and trust her with private and sensitive matters,” says Lane. He tells also of the influence she had in ensuring that the partners of the players would be included more in post-match functions and trips.
Working at that time meant dealing with facilities that were basic by today’s standards. “In 1983, I will never forget it,” she recalls, “the Railway Cup final was in Breffni Park in Cavan. Ulster were playing Leinster in the football and Connacht against Leinster in the hurling. Snow on the ground. Ambulance outside waiting to take the injured and the bruised and battered. Yet a footballer, well known, and a Leinster hurler, refused to go in the ambulance. I think there might have been a doctor with the Leinster hurling team. But I was asked, eight months pregnant, to go into the different dressing rooms and offer assistance. And I’d to suture. I would hear, ‘but a male dressing room?’ But sure you go in and you do your duty.
“And I can remember with an eight-month pregnant bump trying to kneel down to suture.”
Away from the glamour of the All-Ireland finals there were league games and Oireachtas matches, long drives to Wexford and Cork and back. Galway had a few masseurs at the time, like a lot of county teams, but bringing in a doctor broke new ground. There wasn’t much she could do for Iggy Clarke when he had to leave on a stretcher during the All-Ireland semi-final of 1980. His loss became one of the motivating factors for the performance that followed, leading to a first Galway MacCarthy Cup in 57 years. Among those needing stitches later that day was captain Joe Connolly, applied after his famous speech, without anaesthetic.
She remembers being the only woman on the epic coach trip back to Galway after the 1980 win. “Fourteen hours! I think we got into Galway close to midnight or one in the morning. The speeches in Eyre Square. In fairness families kept the kids up. And they would still remember that day, so for young and old it was fantastic. I think we were having dinner maybe in the Sacre Coeur hotel in Salthill at two or three in the morning. It was life-changing.”
The improvement had been building steadily from the 1975 league final victory, but crossing that barrier to winning an All-Ireland posed a psychological challenge. “In my own quiet way I would have given suggestions about how to improve their own social skills and if there had been nerves doing a bit of the anxiety management, in a discreet way. I know they talk about mindfulness today. But it was giving the players maybe a sense of belief in themselves. I would have tried to instil that because I would have great resilience myself. We can often get our knocks, we all do, often it’s learning from the knocks.”
Golf and bridge are other interests. “Thank God, I have great energy,” she says at one point. “As I said to somebody recently, there will be no cobwebs on this corpse.”