MARY O’Connor, the CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport, says that, while camogie and ladies’ football have made progress in recent years, there is still ample room for improvement.
This year is considered a pivotal one in terms of women’s sport with the FIS leading the ‘20x20’ charge, where sports have been encouraged to aim for improvements of 20 percent under three headings.
O’Connor, an All-Ireland winner with Cork in both codes, is keen to see the positive trend continue but knows that it won’t happen without effort – and proper media evaluation rather than ‘scoreboard journalism’.
‘Ladies’ football has been on an upward curve for a number of years,’ she says.
‘Camogie is maybe caught slightly in the sense of the same teams getting to final, whereas football has had one team consistently getting to the final but against different finalist.
‘I think the point to make is that ladies’ football isn’t even 50 years old yet and look what has been achieved, especially in the last five or six years, and obviously in 2019 again there was a record-breaking crowd. While the standard of football in the final wasn’t fantastic, that shouldn’t take away from the calibre of football all year, particularly the semi-finals, which were very good to watch as a spectacle.
‘I think, the more exposure those games outside of finals get, the more important it is. I was playing up until 2010 and up until 2006 and 2007, only the All-Ireland camogie final was shown live and if it happened to be a poor game, that defined people’s perceptions.
‘The 2019 camogie final was exceptional, Galway brought something new but it was a good standard too. We have to be grown-up about it, people shouldn’t be going to the games just because women are playing, they should be going because they’re good games. We have to be able to criticise as well as admire the players and not just put them up there.
‘It’s something Rena Buckley has said previously and I would have gone on record with it, I don’t think any player wants scoreboard journalism. When I played camogie with Cork, I was a back and the backs were never mentioned, only the scorers. Only by actually covering the games in a bit more detail and critiquing the players, that will create a bit more seriousness around them.
‘It’s important that the wider Gaelic games family see that there’s a real talent and skill-set there and the players are applying it.’ The 20x20 campaign comes at a time when women’s sports are getting more notice, but O’Connor knows that the opportunity to move forward won’t last indefinitely.
‘The campaign was launched in October 2018 and we had 71 national governing bodies [NGBs] and local sports partnerships signed up,’ she says.
‘There were three headings – media coverage, participation or attendances at games – and they all signed up to at least one of those, or in some instances all three, and they would have a plan for how to achieve the stated goals.
‘For instance, under participation, they might have a low number of coaches at a certain level and seek to increase it by a certain amount. We didn’t prescribe to them what they had to do, it was for them for decide.
‘Then, in 2019 Sport Ireland appointed Nora Stapleton and brought out their Women in Sport Policy and Women in Sport funding. Those three things will complement 20x20 and vice versa, because the policy is going to have outcomes.
‘The governing bodies will be able to really fine-tune their targets now because they have the resources and some of them have taken on Women in Sport Officers to drive that and that’s important. Nobody in the country owns ‘women in sport’ and 20x20 doesn’t either, but what we’re trying to do is create a platform where real conversations take place and provide strength in unity.
‘This is about getting people to think in a different way and that’s why the Sport Ireland Women in Sport Policy is so important. I can’t overstate that enough because it puts objectives in place and holds governing bodies to account on what they’ve committed to.
‘Women’s sport in Ireland is in a good place but can it get better? Absolutely, there’s appetite for it and people don’t see it as a threat anymore. We know there are challenges but we need to be looking at solutions and how we’re going to get there rather than continually going back over old ground.’