Last weekend, reading The Sunday Independent sports section with a cup of tea, a sentence written by Dr. Katie Liston in an article titled ‘Struggle for public honour for women’s sport ongoing’ stopped me in my tracks…
“When we read, listen to, and consume history it appears much faster, because as we live history, it often feels slow… especially for those who continue to strive for gender equality in sport.”
Gender equality in sport is something I think about, read about, talk about or write about on a daily basis. It’s a constant in my life, a relentless pursuit; one which can be both hugely rewarding, and incredibly frustrating. This 33 word sentence, so simply but perfectly crafted by Dr. Liston, really got me thinking how important it is to keep sight of the fact that although progress can at times feel incredibly slow, that doesn’t make it any less real.
That afternoon, with a rare Sunday off work, I settled onto the couch to watch the All Ireland Camogie Senior Club Championship final live on RTÉ News Now on my TV – the first time it’s ever been possible to do so – whilst simultaneously streaming the LGFA National League Division One clash of Cork and Mayo on Facebook via my iPad. Double-screening at it’s finest, in my book. I had previewed both matches in detail with Marie Crowe on RTÉ 2FM Game On’s new weekly women’s Gaelic Games slot during the week, alongside Nadine Doherty and Sinéad Farrell, and was keen to see whose predictions would stand true.
Before this ideal Sunday afternoon setup on the couch, I had been listening to the All Ireland Intermediate Camogie Club Championship final updates on RTÉ Radio One’s Sunday Sport whilst driving home, and heard the excitement of Úna Jackman’s last-minute goal for Gailltír to clinch the title – but I hadn’t seen it. I opened Twitter on my phone and searched ‘Jackman goal’ and up popped the video of it from both the AIB GAA and RTÉ Sunday Game official accounts, as well as an on-the-whistle in depth report from The42.ie’s Emma Duffy in Croke Park. I wanted to check if it was the club’s first ever All Ireland, expecting a tedious trawl for such basic information – and was pleasantly surprised to find that Wikipedia now has full Roll of Honour details on all finals ever played in the Junior, Intermediate and Senior All Ireland Camogie Club Championship competitions since they respectively began.
Cork got the better of Mayo in Mallow to take the points and top the table with one foot in the final; before Slaughtneil’s hunt for a historic 4-in-a-row was halted by the women of Sarsfields hell-bent on making some history of their own, by claiming a first ever title – sealed with another injury time goal. Again, I went online to soak up the reaction to both results – tweets from players past and present alongside journalists who cover women’s Gaelic Games, post-match interviews from ever-reliable regional media, and official match reports emailed out by the LGFA and the Camogie Association.
Sunday turned to Monday, and I eagerly awaited the Women’s Hurling website’s weekend wrap article in the morning, and Valerie Wheeler’s podcast The Camogie Show to land in my feed in the afternoon. As the week progressed, the standard practice of keeping a keen eye out for match stream confirmation, team sheet releases and preview features ensued – ready to do it all again.
Specific as this account of a simple 48 hours of sports consumption may seem, all of the above has not always been the norm – and anyone who has either covered or supported women’s Gaelic Games throughout the years will know that to be true. It’s often said that the only time you should ever look back is to see how far you’ve come. Well, this International Women’s Day, that’s exactly what I’m doing. Because in our seemingly endless quest for gender equality in sport in the future, it’s vital that we don’t lose sight of the huge strides that are actually being made at present, and be thankful for certain frustrations becoming relics of a bygone era in the past.
The national leagues and the club competitions are for the die-hards, no doubt – but it all feeds into building buzz towards The Championship… the flow of information from the associations, access to watch matches online for those who can’t travel, increased coverage from traditional media both regional and national, new-media outlets carving out their own niche and bringing fresh voices into the mix, more retirees swapping the pitch for punditry and enhancing analysis, players and managers giving so much of themselves in interviews, and the online chatter around it all – these have all been essential components in the enhanced footprints of both codes across the calendar year covering not just county, but club and college too. Camogie and football are no longer the GAA’s spurned sisters – the sisters are very much doing it for themselves. This will all be even more palpable as we build towards summer.
Last year’s attendance figures for the All Ireland semi-finals were the major takeaway from women’s sport in 2019 for me, personally. The Camogie Association welcomed over 4,300 fans to The Gaelic Grounds in Limerick as their Final Four did battle, with Galway’s dethroning of Cork the undisputed match of the season. The LGFA got the keys to Croke Park for their semi-final double-header for the first time, and 10,886 people showed up to watch two thrilling football matches befitting of the occasion. Both codes followed up these notable increases by going on to break the existing attendance records for their respective Finals Day in Croke Park; and both also surpassed the quarter-million mark for average TV viewership of the deciders – in fact, the most viewed live women’s sports event on Irish TV in 2019 was the All Ireland Senior Camogie Final.
This year, my true hope for the progression of women’s sport is for more people to buy into supporting their county in either camogie or football the same way they have traditionally done for men’s teams, right throughout the summer. That, to me, would be the ultimate cultural shift to see. Footfall on Finals Day is phenomenally important, and the increases in the past five years have been thrilling to witness – but being invested in a team’s journey to get there makes the big day all the more rewarding as a fan. Any given Saturday or Sunday throughout June, July and August, huge displays are made far beyond Croke Park that deserve to be seen by the masses.
Take last year, for example… Kilkenny’s flyin’ forwards hitting five points from play in the opening five minutes in John Locke Park. Armagh beating Cork for the first time ever by a single point in O’Connor Park. Tipperary running riot in the middle-third of The Ragg. Dublin’s next generation of sharpshooters making their impact off the bench on the road. Limerick playing their first camogie championship knockout match in 14 years in Semple Stadium. Tyrone dumping Ulster Champions Donegal out of the All Ireland football championship in Cusack Park. A Waterford camogie team on the rise, pushing Galway all the way in the All Ireland quarter-finals. A resurgent Mayo football side, battling their way back to the business-end of championship. Semi-finals on both sides that were talked about long after the final whistles sounded.
The days of passing judgement on the ‘spectacle’ of an entire sport based on 60 minutes in the space of an entire calendar year are gone. There’s never been a better time to follow women’s Gaelic Games – be it supporting in the stands, watching live on TV, listening in on the radio, streaming matches online, or immersing yourself in preview and review coverage across other platforms. Come September, two teams will climb the steps of the Hogan Stand to claim the O’Duffy Cup and the Brendan Martin Cup. All others go back to the drawing board to work their way through the winter of discontent and find the will to go again. Whichever side your fandom ultimately falls on, it’s excitement and intrigue all the way.
Yes, the struggle for gender equality in sport is real – but so too is the progress. This International Women’s Day, make it YOUR pledge to remember that women’s Gaelic Games are so much more than one day in September, and get behind your county for the year that’s in it to play a part in a real cultural shift. I promise that you won’t be disappointed.