Tadhg Coakley: A blend of then and now in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh

There was a rewarding blend of new and old inside the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday evening when the women came to play. I was glad I went along.

Cork's Maire O'Callaghan under pressure from Westmeath's Sarah Dolan in Saturday night's historic Lidl Ladies NFL Division 1 game at Páirc Ui Chaoimh. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Cork's Maire O'Callaghan under pressure from Westmeath's Sarah Dolan in Saturday night's historic Lidl Ladies NFL Division 1 game at Páirc Ui Chaoimh. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

What was new? This great Cork women’s football team gracing the main Cork GAA stadium was new; so too the pitch they played on; the venue hosting a male-female double-header was new; new, too, the Cork men’s footballers playing in Division 3 of the National League.

The immaculate state of the new pitch was novel. From start to finish, hardly a sod was broken, even by the heavier men in the second game. Even in the middle of winter. Even under the South Stand. The flawless surface allowed us to focus all our attention on what mattered: the games happening on top of it.

Long may that last.

The familiar sense of tension as I approached the ground was old. Crowds gathering, even in midwinter is stirring. It doesn’t matter if it’s women or men playing, it’s the same adrenaline high. Old too, that tightening of the throat when players (women or men) in red and white jerseys take to the field. Pitches are old, whatever the quality of the surface; that frisson when floodlights come on is old; the gathering of fans, officials, volunteers, media, mentors, players, and then the referee calling the players together to play – all familiar and deep-rooted in memory. The same old rites and rituals, the same communality.

Women taking to the pitch in Páirc Uí Chaoimh was new and welcome and overdue. The sight of these great champions – pound for pound probably the most successful recurring team in the history of inter-county sport in Cork – playing in the premier venue in their county is the least they and their fans deserve.

The least we all deserve.

Being part of the crowd for a women’s game was new to me, too. It was mostly young women and couples, the cheering was sparser and higher-pitched, without a testosterone base. A kindlier crowd than that for the men’s game. More accepting and less frantic, accusatory or charged than the fraught masculine tautness in the men’s game, with which I’m more familiar.

But nothing radically new in either game, really. The same core elements: the protagonist (Cork), the antagonist (Westmeath and Offaly). Heroes and villains and the struggles they undergo – the oldest story in the book, older than books themselves and the basis of all story, all art. Transgression followed by redemption or retribution. On Saturday night it was redemption for Cork in both games.

Similarities, too in the expression of particular areas of genius in both sets of players: Ashling Hutchings and Mattie Taylor orchestrating space to conform to their needs, thinking four moves ahead; Roisin Phelan and Michael Hurley asserting their will on the game, spinning webs of influence near and far; the graceful ease in the ball striking of Orla Finn and Leona Archibold and Sean White and Anton Sullivan; Sadhbh O’Leary and Sean Powter floating over the ground, not on it, like dragonflies through air, defying Newtonian laws of motion.

The contrast between the games provided an equilibrium to the overall experience. The elegance and riparian flow of the women, the stop-start tense aggression of the men; the long streaming hair of the women, the shaven heads of the men; contrasting too, the sets of rules between the games. These delivered a rare sporting counter balance, a harmony of yin and yang – a duality that provided us with a better perspective on both games, on all games.

Sport is sport, whatever the gender, whatever the game, whatever or wherever the venue. Men or women, it doesn’t matter and we men need to recognise this and to accept it with good grace and openness. There’s a natural inclusion in sport if we seek it out. It can have a sense of duality – instead of being binary; it can be multi-layered, not thin; complex, not simple; bi-partisan, not partisan. Like all the good things in life, its natural state is warm not cold; inclusive, not exclusive. Women deserve this inclusivity, it must happen. Men must make it happen.

That’s how it was on Saturday night, under a misty darkening Cork sky. The similarities in both games deepened our understanding of sport’s multi-layered pull. The differences in both games expanded and heightened the overall experience. The occasion was better for it. Days like this, where men and women enjoy women and men playing sport as part of the same occasion need not be the exception – rather they could be the rule. Not just for minor events but major ones. Not just for Gaelic football but for all sports.

Bring it on.

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