By Rachel King
Photos by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
We’ve come a long way.
It wasn’t too long ago when the participation of women in sport in Ireland stopped at onlooker and went no further.
It was 1974 before the LGFA was formed and the very first Senior Ladies All Ireland was played, some 90 years after the foundation of the GAA. The first Irish women’s soccer team was established in 1973, 52 years after their male counterparts first kicked a ball. In fact, it was the 1970s and our nation’s entry into the EU before gender discrimination was abolished for issues in the workplace like pay, promotion and dismissal. But we can leave politics at the door for today.
Small but mighty
The Irish are known for their ability to fight well above their weight, our magical nation of just four million people producing some of the finest musicians, poets and writers the world has ever seen. We have been blessed too with outstanding athletes who have achieved greatness in their field. From Roy Keane to Michael Carruth, Liam Brady to Brian O’Driscoll, Steve Collins to Ruby Walsh to Padraig Harrington.
Irish sportswomen have risen to the top too. Long distance runner Sonia O’Sullivan is a world champion, three-time European champion and Olympic silver medallist. Deirdre Gogarty was the first Irish female professional boxer and the 1997 world featherweight champion was inducted into the women’s international boxing hall of fame in 2015, paving the way for another boxing legend in Katie Taylor. Our Bray hero went on to become five time world champion, six time European champion and Olympic champion as well as build a professional resume as an undefeated, undisputed multi-weight world champion. She is considered one of the greatest pound-for-pound boxers in the world, male or female.
We have produced a long list of professional female soccer stars; Ciara Grant, Emma Byrne and more recently, Niamh Fahey and Katie McCabe to name but a few. Ladies GAA and camogie have gone from strength to strength in this country and players such as Briege Corkery, Rena Buckley, Sinead Aherne and Cora Staunton are all household names. Derval O’Rourke, Angela Downey, Fiona Coughlan; all outstanding female role models who have achieved greatness in their sport.
As participation and, more importantly, the visibility of women in sport has increased, so too has our production of female sports stars. 2021, however, has truly been the year of Mná in Sport.
…to our Tokyo heroes…
Aifric Keogh, Eimear Lambe, Fiona Murtagh and Emily Hegarty won Olympic bronze medals in the women’s coxless four and became the first Irish female rowers to bring home an Olympic medal.
The magnificent Paralympians, gold Medallist Ellen Keane, two time gold medallists Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal and silver medallist Nicole Turner ensured a hugely successful return for our Paralympic team at the Tokyo Games.
Leona Maguire, a 26 year old professional golfer from Cavan, took the Solheim Cup by storm, winning 4.5 points for Europe and creating history by achieving the most amount of points by a rookie in the tournaments history.
Tipperary native Rachael Blackmore made history by becoming the first female jockey to win the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham and the famous Aintree Grand National. She was also the first female jockey to win the leading Cheltenham jockey award for most wins at the festival.
Meath Ladies GAA team won their first Senior All Ireland title, less than a year after gaining senior status. It was a year when they were supposed to be also-rans, to “enjoy their first year with senior status for what it was”; a “learning curve”.
Instead, they blocked out the sceptics and doubters and stood toe-to-toe with their rivals. They were six points down with 60 seconds to go in the All Ireland Semi-Final before staging a remarkable comeback to earn the scalp of Cork, long-time leaders of the pack in ladies football. They went on to outclass a favoured Dublin team, looking for their fifth All Ireland title in a row, to bring the Brendan Martin Cup to Meath for the first time.
…to equal pay…
2021 was also a year which saw a remarkable agreement confirmed by the FAI – equal pay for both their senior men’s and women’s teams. This added Ireland to a small group of just six nations that pays their international male and female footballers equally. How far we have come from changing out of tracksuits in airport toilets to professional contracts and equal pay.
… to Kellie…
And, of course, 2021 saw the Darling of Dublin Kellie Harrington win Olympic gold in the lightweight division for Ireland, adding to her 2018 World Championship Gold at the same weight class. Kellie Harrington’s greatest achievement may be what she didn’t become, and how she turned her lack of opportunity into a drive to succeed.
Resilient, tough, full of humour and wit, with a wonderful sense of community to match. She is the role model and real-life hero our children need and the one we all can admire with a great sense of pride.
…and we saw it all
It has truly been a landmark year for Irish women in sport. All have shown a remarkable level of skill, drive, and dedication to reach the pinnacle. But just as important as their display of talent is their visibility to the next generation.
The young girls (and boys) who have logged on to social media or sat down to watch the telly at home have seen the heroics, the homecomings and the open-top bus tours, the gold medals, the well-deserved prize money and equal pay. And most importantly, they have heard the stories of sacrifice, the years of dedication and the resilience to battle through the many obstacles of life and rise right to the very top.
The trials and tribulations of sport can be a mirror for those we face in life. Sport teaches everything from honesty, to strength of mind to resilience. It provides skills that are vital to achieving success not just in the chosen field but in all aspects of life.
Through the doom and gloom of the Covid pandemic, what a beautiful sight it was to see the front pages of so many national newspapers awash with the faces of our female sporting heroes.
The Mná na hÉireann of 2021 have inspired a nation. Through the foggy, obstacle-laden past, the path is now clear for the young generation of today. You will no longer be limited because of your gender, but rather free to dream big, work hard and achieve even the wildest of dreams.