Con Houlihan’s column on the back page of the Evening Press on the Monday after All-Ireland finals was essential reading for players from the Kerry women’s Gaelic football team.
Houlihan was ahead of the curve at a time when women’s team sport was given scant, at best, recognition. The day after Kerry won their eighth consecutive All-Ireland ladies football title in October 1989, Houlihan wrote his column about that game, while most of the other coverage was given over to the Republic of Ireland’s Italia ’90 World Cup qualifier with Northern Ireland two days later.
In his inimitable way, Houlihan described Kerry’s hunger for success as one that “reminds me of the boy who won the bun-eating contest – he spends the prize-money on buns”.
“He used to give us great press and we’d always wait to read what he said about the match,” says former Kerry player and captain, Eileen Lawlor (Dardis). “That was kind of our bible. I think he genuinely saw that we could play.”
It’s 40 years since the start of one of the greatest and most under-rated feats in Gaelic football history. On October 3, 1982, Kerry won the All-Ireland final in McDonagh Park, Nenagh, and thus began a run of nine consecutive All-Ireland victories – a record that still stands today.
There was no Kerry’s ‘Golden Years’ video about them, no nine-in-a-row T-shirts or Bendix washing machine sponsorship deals. But this Kerry team helped move the dial. Their dominance crossed the era from All-Ireland finals being played on parish pitches to Croke Park.
As well as players with 10 All-Ireland medals, this Kerry team had one of the all-time greats with Mary Jo Curran winning 11 All-Stars which is a record she still holds with Cora Staunton.
We’ve all heard about what happened to the Kerry team in the 1982 All-Ireland final against Offaly but less so about what happened to the other Kerry team in the 1982 All-Ireland final against Offaly. Fourteen days before she played in her first All-Ireland senior final, Eileen Lawlor remembers exactly where she was.
She was 19, on the Hill with her three sisters and with tears rolling down her face after Séamus Darby’s goal.
Two weeks later, Kerry’s women were playing the defending champions, Offaly, who beat them in the semi-final in ’81. The rivalry was heightened by what happened to the men’s team. “It was definitely a motivating factor in us wanting to win,” Lawlor says. “Well, we wanted to win anyway. We loved football.”
And they got the win. They beat Offaly 1-8 to 1-2. One of the main memories Lawlor and Mary Jo Curran have from that day 40 years ago was the brutal weather (and the cold showers in the dressing-room after). The Kerryman had a young reporter, Des Cahill – now RTÉ presenter – in Nenagh. Cahill wrote about “being amazed at the level of skill” and included the, ah, unusual stat that there were “only two married girls on the Kerry team”.
Different times. There was no getting away from what happened two weeks previously. “There was a desperate cry from an Offaly supporter behind me: Bring in Seamus Darby’s sister,” Cahill wrote.
The end of the Kerry men’s winning run ran into the start of the Kerry women’s success. They had an average winning margin of seven points in All-Ireland finals over that nine-year period.
There was also a Mick in charge of this Kerry team – Mick Fitzgerald – who was manager for seven of those nine All-Irelands.
“I think Mick Fitzgerald was ahead of his time compared to other managers,” Curran says. “We had the ball in our hand virtually all the time doing drills even when we were running. Our skill levels were probably a small bit ahead of other teams.
“Some of the players, their skill was unreal. People don’t realise how good they were. All frees had to be taken off the ground. And Margaret Lawlor could kick with the right foot or the left foot. Mary Jo Curran was unreal altogether,” Mick Fitzgerald says. “There might be 50 people out to meet them (after an All-Ireland final). Even when we did the nine-in-a-row outside here in Castleisland there was a couple of bonfires, but there wasn’t much recognition at all.”
Curran remembers “a few dozen” waiting for them in Tralee station when they used to arrive back with the Brendan Martin Cup and the back of a truck was used a few times for a homecoming.
The weekend before their five-in-a-row game, they were paraded onto the pitch at Austin Stack Park at half-time in the county men’s football final in 1986.
“It was the most embarrassing ten minutes of my life, I’d say,” Curran says about her shy, younger self.
“We never thought about records. You’d just be looking at the next game. Like three-in-a-row and four-in-a-row, there was never a sense that we were creating history,” Curran continues.
“The funny thing is, it (lack of recognition) didn’t bother us at the time and we didn’t know any better. I just think it’s fantastic now. The LGFA – they’re doing an unbelievable job now promoting the game.”
As you can imagine, the gear didn’t exactly come in the skip-load back then. They got tracksuits for the occasion of playing in the first All-Ireland women’s final at Croke Park in 1986 while jerseys were never for swapping.
“I’d say we had the same set of jerseys for five or six years,” Curran recalls. “I’d have a few friends involved in charities and they often asked me for a jersey. And I was embarrassed. I actually bought jerseys and gave them to people sometimes. I’d say I had maybe two jerseys and they were so old and tattered, you couldn’t give them to anyone.”
Kerry’s winning sequence ended in 1991 when they were going for their 10th All-Ireland in a row. Margaret Lawlor (Eileen’s sister) was captain but Kerry were knocked out by Waterford in a Munster Championship game in Listowel.
Kerry were beaten again in Munster in 1992 but in 1993 – and in what was one final swing at it for many players – Kerry won their 11th All-Ireland overall (a record they hold with Cork). Eileen was captain that year. “To go back then and win a 10th one... it wasn’t a case that I wanted to win 10 All-Irelands. It was just the competitive edge in me. I wanted to go out on a winning note,” Lawlor says.
Over the years, Lawlor has changed the way she talks about winning 10 All-Irelands. “Before people would say, ‘How many All-Irelands do you have?’ And you’d say, ‘Ah I’ve just a few, I’ve one or two’. So now I say, ‘Well I have 10’ because I’m proud, I think we need to say those things. Before, we (women) didn’t express ourselves enough. So now, it’s fine. I can say that and I’m definitely not boasting.”
Curran, who also has 10 All-Irelands, wouldn’t have spoken openly about her achievements.
“I would have avoided talking about it to be honest. It’s a bit backward, I suppose really, in terms of – it’s important to promote the game. Eileen is right, we wouldn’t have spoken about it ourselves that much, unless people approached us.”
Both Curran and Lawlor were subsequently involved in coaching – Curran in Kerry and Lawlor in Meath where she now lives. Lawlor even trained some of the players in Meath’s 2021 All-Ireland-winning panel through her school in Navan and her club, Summerhill.
There is one thing Lawlor is happy to let go of. “I was captain in ’93 and that was the last time Kerry won the senior All-Ireland. I still have that title and I’d like to get rid of it!”
Whatever future teams do, no team is ever likely to emulate what this group of women pulled off during Kerry’s golden years.