When Croke Park opened its gates to women’s soccer

Today is International Women’s Day and we have just commemorated 100 years of enfranchisement for some women, at least. Yet, some of the most fascinating breakthroughs for women in social history happened before that, in the sporting arena.

One of the very first blows for women’s sport in Ireland was struck in 1896, when international women’s soccer came to the City and Suburban Grounds at Jones’s Road, Dublin: Croke Park occupies the site these days.

The main impetus for the game came from Britain. Women’s football was particularly strong in Scotland and in some of the bastions of England’s industrial revolution. Among the great early players in Britain was Mary Hutson, thought to be a Dubliner, who went under the pseudonym, ‘Nettie Honeyball’.

The news that a women’s (association) football match was to be played in Dublin was reported by the Irish Daily Independent, on May 16, 1896: “Today… the Dublin public will be enabled to see ladies playing football. They do their business very well, and can beat several pretentious teams of the sterner sex. This they have demonstrated already when they were tested, and the exhibition at Jones’s Road should prove most interesting.”

Unfortunately, the teams coming from Holyhead missed the boat and were unable to field on Saturday, as planned. They travelled on the next day’s ferry, and the game was hurriedly re-fixed for the evening of Monday, May 18. The Independent reported the following morning on “an excellent and interesting display”, and that “there was an enormous company of spectators, and those who came to scoff remained to praise”.

Despite the lovely allusion to Goldsmith, and the best intentions of the male writer, this virtually unique effort to write on women’s sport in Ireland was bound to echo much of what we would today term the ‘sexist’ attitudes of the day. For instance, having begun with the mildly condescending “the ladies acquitted themselves with marked ability”, the commentator then focused substantially on their outfits: “Their costumes were pretty blouses, with short frocks over serge knickers, long stockings fronted with shin guards, high laced-up boots, in fact the regulation costume that one might see every day in the Dublin Gymnasium.”

To his credit, the writer was also moved to comment on “the fresh, healthy faces” of the players, and argued that this sort of healthy activity ought to be encouraged for girls. This comment was quite avant-garde in itself, as there were many opinions in 1896 which argued that such activity was a danger to women’s health, to their chances of procreating and so on.

“There were plenty of collisions last evening, and the girls got plenty of falls, but they were up again in an instant, and went on with the play in the best of good humour.”

The writer did feel the need to point out that the match was played under Association Football rules and not rugby rules, for instance, fearing that “the collaring and scrummaging of the rugby rules would not be desirable and, perhaps, the tight jerseys of the same code might not be so becoming to some of the players.”

Eventually, we did get some commentary on the game itself at Jones’ Road: “The form all round, considering the state of the sod, was very good, the shooting for goal being particularly effective, when it is recollected that there were gentlemen goal-keepers of no mean capability, and in the end the team which represented a combination of Ireland and Scotland just defeated that which did duty for England by 3 goals to 2.”

One way or another, the impact and indeed the profitability of the venture seems to have been assured, as the Independent announced a second match on May 23, this time a ‘Ladies V Gentlemen’ encounter: “A challenge match under [the] Association code will be played at Jones’s road to-day between teams representing the above sexes, which is sure to attract a large gathering of spectators. The ladies gave a very fair exhibition of the dribbling code since their arrival in Dublin, and we should not be surprised to see them victorious.”

I have failed utterly to find out how that second game went. The Independent never reported on it, nor did any other paper, that I have searched through. Perhaps this is the most sexist accusation of all that one can level against our otherwise ground-breaking, nameless Independent reporter, ie, that somehow or other, the result of the match did not matter.

Perhaps, in another way, the result really didn’t matter, and what mattered was that one small step had still been taken in establishing women’s sport in Ireland. Ninety years later, the first ladies’ Gaelic football All-Ireland final would be played in the same field.

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