Although she is still just 25, Grace Clifford is a seasoned campaigner with Kildare's footballers. She has played in an All-Ireland intermediate final with a torn cruciate ligament, and sat out another as she recovered from it. Kildare lost the first, and won the second. "I'm trying to make up for that now, and get to another All-Ireland final and actually win and play," she says.
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Maria Kinsella is four years older. She is enjoying a second coming playing football with Carlow, juggling a busy career as one of more than 30 male and female inter-county players working for PwC in Dublin and starting her second year as chairperson of the Women's Gaelic Players' Association, which has just celebrated its fifth birthday.
Hannah Looney is a dual star for Cork who spent the winter coming to terms with the disappointment of losing two All-Ireland semi-finals last August. At 22, she has four All-Ireland camogie medals.
Looney was part of the Cork team which beat Westmeath in the opening round of the National Football League last Sunday, and last night the camogie team which won its opening league game against Waterford. Despite the obvious pressures, she is determined to remain a dual player and will be with the Cork footballers in Tipperary today.
"It's a busy league ahead, between football and camogie, but I'm just going to take it day by day, session by session, game by game," she says.
And her former teammate Rena Buckley is one of the most famous dual stars in Gaelic games history, having departed the inter-county stage with 18 All-Ireland senior medals in football and camogie. "I definitely miss it," she admits, "especially when it comes to the big days. The big thing for me - without sounding cheesy or cliched - is that I gave it everything when I was playing and to be able to look back and be content that you did that leaves it much easier to step away."
Last November, though, she experienced one of the great highs of her career when her club Donoughmore won the All-Ireland junior title.
"I don't think anyone really reflects on what they achieve until they're done," adds Looney. "I'm not sure if Briege [Corkery] and Rena have even reflected on what they have achieved. They [the medals] are very irrelevant. The memories you'll kind of keep. I don't think anything will ever replace when a final whistle goes in Croke Park, but still it's always about the next one."
All four have lived through the good and the bad of inter-county life for women. They have seen how things have undoubtedly improved in recent years, especially since the WGPA came into being, but also how there is still such a long way to go for women to get the same opportunities in sport as men.
Grace: I've been playing with Kildare since I was 11, all the way up. Unlike the men, girls get drafted into the senior panel a little bit earlier so I was brought in at 16. I've been there ever since. I've enjoyed it. We've had ups and downs.
Maria: I made my debut back in 2007 as a very young 16-year-old in the national league. I took a couple of years off in the mid-2010s. Carlow had no team. I went back playing club camogie, went travelling, went working abroad and I'm back in the inter-county scene now - this is my third year back.
Rena: It was definitely always my dream to play with Cork. I always wanted to play and play at as high a level as I could. I thoroughly enjoyed every year I played. We won some years, we didn't win other years, but every year I really enjoyed it, even if you didn't play particularly well.
Maria: I hugely enjoy it, and it's been a huge part of my life growing up, and I wouldn't change it for the world. Do I see myself continuing to play inter-county football for another five years? No, and that's probably because the commitment to play inter-county football is getting so big at the moment that I probably feel I have a year or two max left representing Carlow.
Grace: When you're not winning it's really difficult to be committing so much of your time. There's tons of teams who do it but we struggled for years in senior and eventually, when we got relegated to intermediate, there was a big influx of players back into the panel because I think people knew, 'Right we're on to something here, we're probably going to get a bit of silverware'. I'm not saying that playing inter-county is all about silverware but when you're being hammered week-in, week-out it's just not an easy thing.
Hannah: Last year was very tough to be honest. I think I really struggled this winter as a result of it. We lost the All-Ireland semi-final in camogie and then turned around a week later and lost the All-Ireland football semi-final in Croke Park against Dublin, so I think that took a toll. Being from Cork we are used to winning so to be knocked out in the semi-final stages was extremely disappointing. It took me a while to get through that.
Grace: We'd a mixed league last year. I don't think we were focussing on it, we were focussing on the bigger picture and we only lost to Meath by a point so we're there or thereabouts. Our main focus this year is to get to a league final because there's no semi-finals this year.
Rena: We [Donoughmore] won our last senior club county in 2011. Up until that point we had a group of excellent players, who had served the club for a long, long time. Shortly after that we started to struggle . . . I suppose a lot of people came to an age that they were finishing up playing, particularly with girls you get married, you have kids, and you can't give an extra year even if you want to, which can often be the case in men's teams, to help bridge a gap until the underage [players] come through. At the same time, a couple of our players emigrated for work and for college and so on and we were just left with a lack of numbers . . .
We struggled hugely for a couple of years. We tried playing intermediate for a while - with some success - but it was numbers that was our issue, it wasn't really standard. In 2016 we didn't fulfil our championship fixtures. For 2017 we didn't field at all. I played no football that year, but I was playing senior inter-county camogie. What are your choices? Your choices are that you go play with another club that you actually won't train for because you're playing senior inter-county camogie.
We fielded again in 2018. So I played for all of 2018 because I wasn't playing any inter-county at that stage. We fielded at junior level, got as far as the county semi-final and we were beaten by Glanmire. So last year we went back at it again. We went back a bit earlier and a bit harder, and we ended up having a brilliant year with a very new kind of team. It was mostly a young team, with a couple of older players. It was a fantastic experience and a great, great boost for the club.
Hannah: It's hard to see your club once you're in full swing, especially when you're not living at home. It's a lot harder to get down. They are understanding and I do try my best to get down there as much as possible. It's even harder when I have football and camogie, and two different clubs. It is something you wish you could give a bit more to.
Grace: Eadestown is really small. There's nothing really bar a GAA pitch, a church, a school. If you didn't play football you didn't really have much else to do so you kind of fell into it . . . I fell into it in school, aged five, and played with the boys and loved it. At under 12 we branched into the girls' team. That's when I got really into it and went to Kildare trials, and got addicted, that's the only word for it, that's what it is. I just loved it; I thoroughly enjoyed putting on the jersey. I remember watching the lads, the Kildare men, seeing them in the white jersey, you want to wear that so it was unbelievable to be able to do that.
We've a main pitch and then we've a training pitch that has a big hill in it. It's great for pre-season! Obviously in the summer months you want to be on the main pitch because your practice is football not running, and we're actually really lucky because we train the same night as the men and they use half and we use half. I can't complain. I go to Kildare training on a Wednesday night and I hear the girls going, 'I was on the back pitch last night for a championship game because the lads were training'. That's still happening in some clubs, which is really frustrating to hear - girls have a championship game but they are put on the back pitch while the lads are training! It's ridiculous. In my club I cannot complain.
Maria: My first memory of it is that I grew up in a house that's GAA-mad. My dad would have been chairperson of the club, mam would have had a huge interest, my brother and sister played club and county.
I remember in secondary school, my brother was playing on the senior hurling team and they reached a Leinster final and got brought out for a nice dinner. The ladies' football team at junior - and I was on it - reached a Leinster final as well but we didn't get brought out for a nice dinner and I remember going up to the vice-principal and asking why was this the case.
My brother's older than me and he would have been on dual panels all the way at underage and I would have been quite conscious of him laden down with gear, and boots and everything else. I was probably just starting off underage inter-county at that stage and we were lucky to get shorts and socks. We were hopping around different facilities. You see the inequality immediately there.
Grace: I went to Carlow IT which would be a really good GAA college. I did the sport and exercise GAA course - it was all GAA coaching and everything like that and I loved it. Carlow was really good . . . My club are really good at equal treatment and stuff like that but definitely in Carlow there was no difference between the boys and girls in that class. We did a training development, personal development class where there's work on you as a person and as an athlete and stuff and like everyone was just treated equally. It didn't matter if you were a Kilkenny senior male hurler or if you were a Carlow footballer - everyone was just treated on a level playing field.
Maria: I'm competitive so I've always kind of naturally come into that role where I was trying to improve things for the female side, trying to close that gap. I went to DCU and became involved with the GAA executive there. I was treasurer of the ladies' club for a number of years and that was probably my first real exposure to the politics and administration in the ladies' game.
Rena: I'd be quite passionate about ladies' sport gaining an equal status to men's sport, but at the same time, you have to look at where we've come from. Ladies' football was only established in 1974, it's a relatively young sport. Men have had such a head start . . . I'm very hopeful the catch-up will take place, and it does need to be incentivised to take place. The whole of Irish culture is changing in terms of how people are looking at a lot of things, including women, so I'd be hoping that process is working, and is being pushed by things like the 20x20 [campaign] . . . that RTE, Newstalk, TG4, big corporations are all taking it seriously and investing time and money . . . I think the participation levels are shooting up, hopefully the following will follow-on as well . . .
Hannah: I think it's probably underestimated what the WGPA have done. They've been around now for five years and it's hard to imagine what it would be like without the WGPA. Like, five years isn't that long ago. Luckily I was just getting onto the inter-county scene when they were setting up.
Grace: The WGPA is a place where if you're Kildare, Louth, Fermanagh, doesn't matter what county you are, they just treat you as an elite athlete and you all have the same goal. At the end of the day it doesn't matter what county you're from, I'm sure if you spoke to everyone, they are all training the same amount of times and I think that [WGPA] being set up for us was huge because it was an opportunity, it was a players' voice, because for a lot of years the players hadn't a voice. I saw that straightaway. That was definitely a huge thing.
Hannah: I think it's so great that they are all about the wellbeing of players, supporting [players'] academic study as well as their field study. I think services that don't get enough attention are their helplines and counselling services.
I've mixed opinions on mental health and how people should address it. We all hear about these famous people, sports people included, who have been through an awful lot, or been through something horrific and how they've come back and loads of people gain so much inspiration from that. But do people then forget the kind of every-day mental health problems that people maybe ignore, that build up and get to a stage? I don't know how we make it more normal to contact the WGPA helpline and I don't think people realise there's free counselling sessions. I don't know is there maybe a stigma that counselling is for if you have something big or horrible in your life, or you're really depressed, when it can be just so good to talk and chat about anything.
Just looking back at the last winter, and you're in a bit of a hole after losing two All-Irelands, and not around your friends anymore, it was so good to chat to someone and think it through.
We're so lucky to be part of the WGPA and have access to this free service. I'd recommend more people just take it up, even if you're completely happy with your life I think there's definitely no harm in talking about whatever. You know, everyone has their own problems and some people hide them better than others; some people are good to talk to their friends and family, and some people aren't.
I've been involved with Cork camogie since 2014 so we've gone through a good few transitions, just even seeing how much stats have evolved, strength and conditioning has evolved, in the last couple of years is crazy. That's an area that has gone so technical now - all these gym sessions and all these stats - that you feel like, and with the WhatsApp and stuff, it's really hard to switch off. You need to be filling in how you're feeling today so people can monitor how you're doing, so that's a disadvantage of all this. Maybe when I started in 2014 you'd just train three times a week and that was it. You went to training, you gave it your all, you tuned off then, maybe the odd video session, the odd discussion, the odd talk and this and that, but now it's literally a 24-7 thing. I think that could be an issue for people. For me, I do find it a bit overwhelming, but at least I'll talk about it, I'll tell people if I am [feeling that]. But for younger players you'd kind of be a bit worried - is it a bit too much? It's just important that people remind themselves to switch off, to mute the WhatsApp group every now and then. I think you have to. Probably some people will disagree with me but I think if you're happy with what's going on outside sport you're going to do better. That's my attitude; that's what I'm trying to take into this year.
Grace: Along with that then has been the grant. That has been life-changing for us. We've been quite lucky compared to other counties, we've had senior players before me who fought to get fed after training. At the beginning that would have been a no-go, like food after training, sponsorship and gear, but we had girls ahead of me who fought for the food at training or after a game.
Maria: I left before the introduction of the government grant and 2018 would have been my first season back and I would definitely feel a tangible impact of the government grant on our set-up. We had physios at games and training, you have an S & C coach, you have resources that we've never had available to us as a result of that funding. Does it cover everything we would like to have? No. I suppose we look back now at the WGPA being five years' old and the initial sentiments at that time from the players' survey was that they wanted a team grant. But now in a recent survey we've seen that now there's a mindshift a little bit. Where 90 per cent of players wanted a team grant to improve resources now 64 per cent want the team grant plus expenses for players.
I definitely think players are recognising that. We asked a question within the survey as well: Do you think female athletes deserve to have their travelling expenses covered? And 94 per cent said yes. The amount of players actually getting travelling expenses is five per cent. There is some counties who have financial arrangements in place, but they are very few and far between.
Grace: The men's grant is split differently. Going on figures from 2019, the men get €3m, we get €700,000. So I think it works out at maybe about a grand a player for the men, whereas for the women it's about nine grand for a panel. I think the men can put it towards the likes of diesel and travel expenses and stuff like that, but that's way down the line for women, for a lot of counties anyway, I don't know about the bigger counties. I think there's a lot more things that are priority for us, the likes of sports psychologists and video analysis - it's like a no-brainer, sure clubs have video analysis now. To have things like that and to be able to use them is just brilliant.
Hannah: My parents would have taken the brunt of the travelling expenses so it's only in recent years that I have my car and am driving that I can see that and what a huge deal it is. There's a good few of us in the city for various reasons so maybe we're least priority, but Jesus in Cork you've girls driving two hours nearly to get to training. We've girls coming from Dublin. Like, they really should be getting something.
Maria: I think players shouldn't be out of pocket for representing their county. This is an amateur game and I hope it stays amateur, and it's very important to keep that amateur ethos in mind, but players should not be financially worse off for opting to represent their county at the highest level. I would love to see equal government funding. I think that would be an incredibly powerful statement. I think people talk about equality but the first step in my mind is equity.
Rena: I wouldn't say we were wined and dined and treated like lords and ladies. In my last year with Cork camogie we would have got food after training but we were paying for it . . . I suppose as you get older as a player you learn to mind yourself. If those structures are not in place you just mind yourself, you make sure you are prepped for after training.
Hannah: I know personally from Cork camogie that we've benefitted hugely on the strength and conditioning and physio side of things, which you think should be basic. You should have a physio, you should have food after training when unfortunately that's not the case for a lot of female inter-county teams. I think the WGPA are working hard to help with that. I think the growth of the organisation in the last couple of years really shows that.
Management have told us where they've put that money, and what it's done for us from a strength and conditioning, and logistics and stats side of things, so I can imagine the benefit it's having on us, but also the huge benefit for the weaker counties who are probably missing basics from day one.
Maria: I think DCU really opened my eyes to what other teams are doing, to the standards in other counties. But also it was nearly comforting that you'd talk to players from those counties and they are not getting food after training either and they are trying to think of innovative solutions to a problem, as we are. It definitely opened my eyes and made me want to go back to Carlow and improve things, to say 'right lads this needs to get better, we deserve more as players'.
Grace: The grant money has allowed us to get a sports psychologist in, which is unbelievable; video analysis, which is another huge part of the game, that's what the top teams are doing . . . Nine/10 years ago when I was starting out that was a no-go and Kildare at that time would have been a senior team and had a fairly professional set-up. Comparing it then to now, even though we are intermediate now, we're miles ahead.
Hannah: We should be getting food after training. Thankfully we have that with Cork football but not with Cork camogie. It is an expense. Someone has to pay it.
Rena: I suppose even though the Cork teams we played with were hugely successful, it's not like we had an unlimited budget or anything like that. Our essential needs were always catered for but we wouldn't have been receiving any travelling expenses or stuff like that but our basic needs were always looked after.
Grace: We still have to do our own fundraisers. We get our kit, our jerseys and socks . . . we still have to fundraise for our own gear. There is money but it's filtered through the underage teams as well, and running costs, more than anything else. That's why the grant, that nine grand that we get, has just been so good that this is for the senior panel, this is for things like that, and frees up money elsewhere as well. It's expensive obviously to run a senior team, without a shadow of a doubt.
Hannah: We're fortunate enough we haven't had to hugely fundraise, but in Cork football we did run a fundraiser last year to get some funds. And we have done with Cork camogie in the past. That's so wrong. The only focus should be playing football or playing camogie, getting the best out of ourselves, and we should all be getting the resources we need to do that. I've heard of a lot of counties fundraising and I know in Cork camogie we are really underfunded this year and it has been highlighted to us. Thankfully the management are not making that a priority but I can see that we'll have to do some fundraising. I've kind of heard from the captain and vice-captain that it's something they are going to have to address. It shouldn't be like that.
Grace: It's a pressure. When you're trying to play football you want to focus on just playing football and, like, a lot of girls are not comfortable doing that. It's an unnecessary distraction for them as well. That's all we want - is just to play football and play to the best of our ability and represent our county as best we can but sometimes there's these hurdles that you have to overcome and they're not ideal.
Maria: From a Carlow perspective, players are heavily involved in administration regarding involvement in fundraising to have money to provide resources for our senior team, be it gear - we were heavily involved up to two or three years ago we contributed to our own gear, we don't have food after training, we don't get any travelling expenses.
Players are definitely heavily involved in the day to day running. I look at our own county board and it was senior players who ran our whole social media last year - be it Instagram, Twitter, anything like that. So when you have players contributing on the administration side there's no doubt it takes away from time that they could be spending on the performance side, be it mentally, physically or otherwise.
I think all female players are involved in fundraising. I don't think the ladies game in either code has gotten to a stage where players and county boards do not have to do fundraisers. It's just something we've probably become accepting of and realise that if we want to have those high performance environments then the money has to come from somewhere.
Grace: The lads don't have to go fundraising, they don't have to in Kildare. The work that we've to do away from the field is just colossal at times, compared to the lads, and that just becomes a distraction.
Maria: The gap currently stands at 77 per cent, €3m to men inter-county players, €700,000 to ladies players. There's been an historic under-investment in female sports in this country. When is it time to address it and close that gap?
I'm very conscious that there is a potential economic contribution to society argument that could be made. The GAA bring in revenue of €63m a year to society, the female associations bring in around 10 per cent of that, maybe around €7m. So I think we do need to recognise that our contribution to society is a lot lower, but in my opinion that isn't a valid argument as to why funding should be reduced, or why the gap is so big.
Grace: I can respect a lot of people's point of view that women don't generate the same amount of money as the men's side do and I respect that absolutely, but that doesn't mean we should be completely disregarded. We're not comparing ourselves to soccer, say, and I think that's what a lot of GAA people do, and I can understand that if that's your opinion on it, but at the end of the day the GAA is a volunteer organisation. We're not professional athletes; we're not being paid, therefore why should we not be treated the same? That's all.
Rena: It's a complex issue I know. You need financial backing to run organisations as well but I think the way the world is going, if you look at equality in work places, I think equality will have to come into sport as well. It's coming into Irish culture, and it has to come into everything really.
Maria: My sister has been involved in the backroom team for the Carlow hurlers for a number of years. They are fed after training. I see all the gear they get, I see their nutrition allowance . . . Do I envy them? Yes. Are they shocked when you tell them what conditions you face? Yes.
Females are definitely becoming more engaged in this and want to put their hand up and say enough is enough.
Grace: The ladies' side have to pay the men's, so we pay 11 grand a year to train in Hawkfield. We love training in Hawkfield, it's a brilliant facility. It has everything - there's a gym, a canteen, hot showers, and there's pitches and lights . . . we can't ask for more. It's brilliant, but the unfortunate side is we're not always guaranteed it. We could find out on a Wednesday that, look, there's underage blitzes on a Friday or Sunday and then it's a scramble to try and get a club pitch . . . It would be a case of everybody contacting their club and seeing can you get in [there]. It definitely happened once or twice a month last year . . . yeah, last year particularly was bad, I don't know if it was the pitches or what it was, but it was becoming a little bit frustrating for everybody. Like, if you're working in Dublin, you plan, have your gear with you because you're going straight to Newbridge and then you find out we're actually training in Athy so you have to leave work early . . . It's such a commitment as it is, none of us are professional, we have our own working lives and you are trying to balance a working lifestyle with training four or five times a week so you need the respect to be able to plan it. That's what we ask, that's what we want.
Rena: I think the national bodies probably have to create equal opportunities for males and females in sport. That's definitely important. It's not there at the moment in every sport - yes, some sports are better than others, so you can't label everybody the same.
There's an argument to having everyone under the one umbrella.
If you look at soccer as an example, men's and ladies' soccer are under the one umbrella and there's not equality there either so that's not the answer to everything, but I think it's something that should be looked at. Our facilities are the same, our people on the ground are the same, so in reality we should all be working together in the one organisation. That would be my gut feel on it. The females still need to catch up so there needs to be a driving force there to make sure that the females are being looked after and that the catch-up project is still underway.
I think one thing that's very important is that women need to pull up their socks as well. Women need to support women. Women have to consciously make a choice that 'I'm going to support women. I have three daughters that are playing, I'm going to bring my three daughters to the women's game so that they can see where they are going to go'. And, 'this year instead of going to three men's games, I'm going to go to three women's games'. That's important.
Hannah: I'm doing it all for personal reasons. I'm playing football and camogie, and yeah it [inequality] bothers you but you kind of just block it out. With your group you're in your own little bubble. It seems to be the players who are just retiring who are coming out saying this is wrong this needs to change, that are kind of driving the changes because everyone who is playing is just in their little bubble. At least there's changes. It can be a bit disheartening at times.
Rena: I think when I stepped away I had made my mind up and I was comfortable with the decision and it coincided with doing the Jim Madden leadership course. Doing that course forced you to reflect on yourself quite a lot, it forced you to reflect on your life to date and also to fully realise what your own purpose was, what your mission statement in life was, where you wanted to go with your life. So I suppose it was a huge aid to me in terms of looking to the future. When you're playing sport you always have ambitions and goals, and particularly when you're playing at inter-county you're always focussed. You put other things on the back burner. Being forced to reflect like that and also to get to know yourself as a person and know where you're going and where you want to go was a huge aid to me in terms of that transition and I'm very grateful for that.
It's something I am absolutely delighted that I did. It was a huge help to me. There was a couple of aspects to it - there was the theory of leadership in it; there was some one on one coaching; there was a developmental centre which worked on your presentation skills, your interview skills and just some general workplace stuff. And then there was a little bit of work with local primary schools as well.
It was the first time I'd ever done a course like it. It was really helpful to me as a person, it definitely helped me develop. It was lovely in terms of meeting with other players from other counties as well. It was a thoroughly rewarding experience, I've gained loads from it in terms of myself as a person - and from a work point of view as well it was excellent.
Grace: Five years' time? On a small scale I'd like to see the participation in Kildare higher than what it is now, even though it's in a really good place at underage. I'd like to see Kildare in senior, competing where they should be. As a player I'd like to see us not having to fundraise to the scale that we have to just to get the basic things. I'd like to see the LGFA with the GAA, under the same umbrella at least, but obviously with their own voice, which is important. And that we wouldn't have to be paying for the likes of Hawkfield at that point because we're all the same entity. I'd like to see double-headers as a given. And I'd like to see not just the [All-Ireland] finals on television - there's the provincial finals and the league finals as well. The LGFA did a lot of Facebook streaming and they were so successful. I was watching some of them myself and there was thousands of people watching them so there is a demand for that. I'd like more visibility, more promotion, equal to men - or as equal to men as we can be.
Rena: I think they're probably in as good as place as they've ever been. I would be hopeful that there is probably a change coming in terms of how people are viewing women in sport.
Grace: We're on the right path, absolutely yeah . . . not just for Kildare, in general across the country. There's still a lot to do, though. It's going to go that way anyway. People are realising it.
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