gaa oral history project
Founded as it was, by men, and at the height of the nineteenth century obsession with masculinity and fitness, it is unsurprising that those meeting in Hayes Hotel in 1884 gave little thought to the women of Ireland. The early years of the GAA was dominated by male players and officials, and the rare times that women appeared in newspaper reports were as spectators (and with the journalist usually making some comment about their dress and appearance).
All this began to change as women started organising themselves and began carving out a space on the playing field. While the two main women’s games still remain officially independent, camogie and ladies football have become part and parcel of the world of the GAA.
Camogie began in 1903 when Màire Ní Chinnéide, Seán O Ceallaigh, Tadgh O’Donoghue and Séamas Ó Braonáin came together and adapted hurling into a game for women; the first practice sessions and games were held in Drumcondra Park and later the Phoenix Park. Slowly, other clubs emerged in Dublin and in Newry, and in 1904 the first public challenge match was played between Keatings and Cúchulainns during the Gaelic League Aeridheacht at the Meath agricultural grounds in Navan. By the end of summer 1904 five teams from Dublin had taken part in a league competition and camogie was established as the women’s game. The game grew steadily in popularity, although not across the whole country, and such was the number of clubs that in April 1911 the national Camógaíocht Association was founded. The first inter-county game took place in 1912 and the Ashbourne Cup, the inter-varsity competition, was established in 1913.
Once established on a national footing camogie existed as the single most important game for women until the advent of ladies football. Full-time officers were appointed for the first time in 1978, and television coverage, particularly on TG4, has cemented the game as one with a solid and popular following.
Given that camogie was an adaptation of hurling, it is perhaps surprising that a women’s version of football took so long to emerge. It would take until the 1960s before regular fixtures for a women’s game were staged for teams from Galway and Offaly in sevens tournaments, and in June 1968 a women’s tournament was organised as part of the Dungarvan Festival. In the first years of the 1970s football teams sprung up across the country and challenge games and mini-tournaments became a common feature of the sporting summer. In 1973 and 1974 several county boards were established to oversee the women’s game, and on 18 July 1974, at Hayes’s hotel ninety years after the GAA had been founded, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association was established. A sign of progress was immediate as, on 13 October 1974, the first Ladies All-Ireland final took place at Durrow, Co. Laois, between Offaly and Tipperary, with Tipperary the eventual winners.
Ladies football was regularly cited through the 1980s and 1990s as the fastest-growing participation game in Ireland. Support for the game in schools was strong and a developing scheme of university scholarships in the 1990s and into the 2000s did much to keep key players involved while constantly improving their skills and the spectacle of the game. As with camogie, support from TG4 in television coverage and the GAA in terms of opening Croke Park for major games has been vital in spreading the sport to an ever-wider audience and giving it a seal of approval. While it is clear that football has overtaken camogie in terms of player numbers and spectator interest, both games flourish. They reflect the growing importance of sport for women and the delivery of the spirit of Cusack (although he would never have envisaged women athletes) and his Irish games for an Irish people to the non-male half of the population.
As well as the games themselves, women have long played an important, albeit backstage role in the development and maintenance of GAA clubs across the country. From an early date the female members of Irish communities supported the GAA through their traditional roles as wives and mothers – washing several sets of team jerseys every week, providing refreshments and making the tea at the local clubhouse, ferrying children and husbands to and from matches, nursing the injured and roaring their support from the stands and terraces. More recently women have begun to come into their own as administrators both at club and county level. Many county boards have several female officers, particularly secretaries, while women officers at club level are now commonplace.