Thursday 19 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Gender equality is still an uphill struggle, but last Sunday the final frontier was crossed

Sinéad Aherne and Nicole Owens celebrate at the final whistle of the TG4 Ladies Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Sinéad Aherne and Nicole Owens celebrate at the final whistle of the TG4 Ladies Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

On October 13, 1974 the teams of Tipperary and Offaly travelled to play the first All-Ireland ladies' senior football final on a pitch in Durrow with, in the words of The Irish Press reporter Dan Coen, "An incline that would put the heart crossways in a trainer." Tipp led by five points at half-time despite playing uphill and just held on against a spirited Offaly revival to win by 2-3 to 2-2.

The Ladies' Gaelic Football Association, founded just a few months previously in Thurles, was glad to see a reporter there. In the week leading up to the game they'd worried about a lack of coverage and held a press conference in Hayes Hotel on the Thursday which resulted in The Irish Press running a preview piece on the Saturday. "It's not just a gimmick or a flash in the pan. Ladies' football is catching on and the girls are taking it very seriously," said Association president Jim Kennedy after the final. "Some of the lads might come along for a bit of a laugh at the girls but I think most of them now realise that we can play good football," declared Biddy Ryan, the first All-Ireland winning captain.

That pitch in Durrow seems like a pretty apt venue for that first final because for many years those involved in the promotion of ladies' football faced an uphill struggle. The game struggled to find publicity or to be given adequate consideration when county boards drew up fixtures. It is striking that the great Cork team which dominated the game in the last decade never got to play a match in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Yet last Sunday, 46,286 attended the All-Ireland final in Croke Park between Dublin and Mayo, making it by some distance the most popular women's sports event in Europe and one of the biggest in the world. Just as notable perhaps is that this attendance was bigger than that at this year's Munster hurling final, the Pro12 final, all the provincial football finals except Leinster, and Ireland's home World Cup qualifier against Georgia.

Perhaps the most telling stat of all was that the crowd at the final was bigger than the attendance at every game in the recent Women's Rugby World Cup finals put together. I owe this statistic to Cliona Foley, a fine sportswriter who ploughed a pretty lone furrow in this game for years. When I started out, sports journalism seemed like the ultimate male preserve. That Foley, Sinead Kissane, Marie Crowe, Mary Hannigan, Joanne Cantwell, Mary White and others have broken through required, I suspect, an enormous amount of determination and perseverance as well as a great deal of talent. You only have to see the nature of the criticism which female journalists receive to realise how much tougher they have to be.

The increased female presence in sports journalism has, I think, had the effect of making the rest of us more aware of our past failures in the coverage of women's sport. And failures there have been, plenty of them. I'm sure I've been as, or even more, guilty of unthinking sexist assumptions as anyone else. The move away from an all-male model of sports journalism has brought with it the benefits that diversity always brings, it makes everyone see the story differently.

Anyone who wants to bang on about 'political correctness' should consider how cold a house Ireland has been for women for much of its history. In 1934, for example, President of Blackrock College and future Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, reacted to the decision of the athletics body, the NACA, to hold women's events at its sports meeting by describing it as "Un-Catholic and Un-Irish. The Christian modesty of girls must be, in a special way, safeguarded for it is supremely unbecoming that they should flaunt themselves and display themselves before all."

The Irish Independent weighed in with an editorial proclaiming that, "The intense cultivation of strenuous athletics by women is undesirable from the health point of view." The NACA caved in. This kind of attitude persisted long past the '30s. What were we like?

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So last Sunday's final was not just a triumph for the LGFA but for every woman who ever insisted that there was more than one side to the Irish sporting story. That attendance is on one level almost as significant as the triumphs of Sonia O'Sullivan, Katie Taylor, Annalise Murphy and Derval O'Rourke.

There's no room for complacency. I still think real equality in Irish sport will only come when you have something like the American Title IX legislation which mandates that every bit of funding for male sport must be matched by funding for female sport. The overwhelmingly male make-up of the governing bodies in the country's main sports highlighted by Patrick O'Donovan during his brief tenure as Minister for Sport has to be tackled too. But last Sunday was something to celebrate. We're getting there.

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