Wednesday 21 March 2018

Sporting women win moral battle

Eamonn Sweeney

Gráinne Murphy's silver medal in the European Swimming Championships was just the latest result to underline the remarkable strength of our leading sportswomen. Her second place comes hot on the heels of Derval O'Rourke's silver medal in the European Athletics Championships which itself followed last year's world silver medal for Olive Loughnane in the 20km walk.

Our leading Olympic medal hope is Katie Taylor. Our most promising young athlete is Ciara Mageaan, recent world junior silver medallist over 1,500m, our second most promising is European youth bronze medal winning race walker Kate Veale. The most exciting prospects in golf at the moment are the Maguire twins from Cavan, Lisa and Leona, who recently became the youngest ever Curtis Cup players at the tender age of 15. Squash star Madeline Perry, who won the Australian Open last week, has risen to number seven in the world despite suffering a serious brain injury three years ago. And we also had the stirring spectacle of Katie Walsh winning the Vincent O'Brien County Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival on 20/1 shot Thousand Stars, leaving the likes of Tony McCoy, Paul Carberry and her brother Ruby in her wake. This is a golden age for Irish sportswomen.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that our sportswomen have had to come much further than those from other European countries. Because there was a time when the very idea of women competing in sport was anathema to the most powerful men in Irish society, so much so that they went to great lengths to prevent this abomination happening on their watch.

I speak, of course, of the collection of prize loons, twisted puritans and professional busybodies who made up the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the first half of the 20th century. Most powerful of them all was John Charles McQuaid, who, as Archbishop of Dublin, could lay claim to being the most powerful man in Ireland at a time when politicians routinely bowed the knee to senior churchmen.

McQuaid got the top job in the capital city in 1940 but six years earlier, while president of Blackrock College, he had gone out to battle against what he described as "a social abuse outraging our rightful Irish tradition."

As the Murphy Report revealed last year, turning a blind eye to abuse was a speciality of McQuaid and his successors. But child abuse by members of the clergy was one thing, the running of a women's 100m race at the National Athletic and Cycling Association championships was another. McQuaid announced his intention to withdraw his pupils from NACA events unless this terrible event was cancelled and his lead was followed by the heads of other Catholic schools. "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 the eyes of all," he thundered with that strange combination of prurience and self-righteousness typical of the sex-obsessed fundamentalist.

There was plenty of support for McQuaid's stance. "On the grounds of delicacy and modesty, there is grave objection to women taking part in athletics with men, and women should not be blind to this," editorialised the East Galway Democrat, and when the NACA caved in, the president of St Jarlath's College, Tuam, and future Archbishop, Joseph Walsh, wrote to McQuaid, "You must have the satisfaction of feeling that you have led the way to victory in a really important fight. I certainly have no doubt about the victory of our cause. I thank you for your magnificent lead and I hope you will be long spared to lead the way whenever similar perils threaten our country."

The director of the Camogie Association, Sean O'Duffy, reckoned the NACA had been subject to foreign influences and suggested a special modified form of athletics was all Irish women would be able for. Take that, bitch.

Sadly, such intellectual and moral giants are no longer in the national driving seat with the result that women are permitted to flaunt and display themselves at sporting venues throughout the country.

So the next time you see some unfortunate female from an Islamic country plodding along in one of those ludicrous running burqas they are forced to wear by their own religious fundamentalists, it's worth remembering that less than a lifetime ago the same attitudes held sway here. (And every time I read an Irish Times article about how the burqa is, like, y'know, pretty cool, I wonder if they've gone away at all).

It's also worth thinking of all the potential Gráinne Murphys, Derval O'Rourkes and Olive Loughnanes, all our grandmothers and great aunts, who never got a chance to even try sport because our moral arbiters were inflamed by the thought of women in shorts.

This used to be one seriously weird country.

Sunday Independent

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