Eimear Ryan: What's in a name? Words matter in integration process

The appointment of Mary McAleese as chairperson of the integration process is welcome. But will camogie still be called camogie, or will it be called what it actually is – hurling played by women?
Eimear Ryan: What's in a name? Words matter in integration process

CHAIRPERSON: Former President of Ireland Mary McAleese has been appointed chairperson of the integration process - the mammoth task of unifying the GAA with the Camogie Association and the LGFA. Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile 

For a while there, it was all quiet on the integration front, but now – with the appointment of former president Mary McAleese as chairperson of the process – the mammoth task of unifying the GAA with the Camogie Association and the LGFA is back on the media agenda. (To be fair, it never really went away, but there were matches on; and administrative drama, no matter how intriguing and popcorn-worthy, always takes a back seat to action.) 

It’s encouraging to see someone of McAleese’s calibre appointed, and important, too, that a woman will join Mark Dorman, the Croke Park chief who has been appointed as integration’s project manager, to oversee the process. McAleese’s legal and political brain – as well as her reputation for bridge-building – will stand her in good stead in what promises to be a thorny and fascinating undertaking.

Even agreeing on the need for integration was an enormous first step, and the urgency of this process remains readily apparent. You only need to look at Cork’s club scene right now, in particular the schedules of dual clubs and players. While the men have the luxury of hurling one weekend, football the next – allowing them to both remain injury-free and retain their sanity – their female colleagues sometimes get less than 24 hours between games in different codes.

When it comes to integration, it’s hard to know where to start first. There are so many knotty issues to be grappled with – the timeframe; the allocation of fixtures, grounds and funding; the administrative structure – that one issue has escaped scrutiny: the nomenclature. Once we’re all one association, will camogie still be called camogie? Or will it be called what it actually is – hurling played by women?

It’s hard to think of another sport where the women’s code has an entirely different name to the men’s. It makes name recognition difficult. I was hanging out with a friend recently, a worldly person who grew up in multiple different countries and is married to a Waterford man. In explaining why I was on the pints of water, punctuated by the odd Heineken Zero, I said that I had a match at the weekend. ‘What do you play?’ she asked. ‘Camogie,’ says I. ‘What’s that?’ she reasonably asked. ‘Do you know hurling?’ I said. She said of course, her spouse watches the Waterford matches on GAA Go. ‘It’s the women’s version of hurling,’ I replied. She nodded, but was surprised when no further context or explanation was forthcoming. I couldn’t really explain it myself.

The word camogie stems from the stick used in the early 1900s: if men used a camán, women used a camóg, a smaller version of the standard hurley. Though the camóg is now obsolete, the word camogie has survived all these years. Perhaps it made sense, when camogie’s rules were significantly different, to give the sport its own name; there was once a time when camogie was as different from hurling as cricket is from baseball. But now the only material difference is that camogie is played by women.

If there’s one thing writers agree on, it’s that words matter. When we refer to women’s hurling as camogie – when we refuse to call a spade a spade – are we, in effect, othering the women’s code? How can the sport be held in the same esteem as hurling when it’s given an entirely new label, treated like a different entity altogether? Additionally, we cut ourselves off from the mythical past when we call it camogie. The word camogie was invented in 1903, but hurling goes all the way back to the Tain. Why do men get to inherit that rich legendary past, but not women?

And then there’s ladies football: another term that has become normalised with usage but which, when you really think about it, is very much of its time. I prefer the TG4 phrase ‘peil na mban’ – simple, classic, to the point. (Delightfully, there isn’t really an Irish word for ‘lady’, unless you count ‘bantiarna’, which basically translates as ‘woman-lord’.) Renaming ladies football as women’s football would also solve the sport’s grammar problem; technically, there should be a possessive apostrophe at the end of ‘ladies’, but because the sport’s governing body leaves it out, so will I.

It’s not that a naming convention automatically brings about equality and parity of esteem. You only need to glance at the headlines right now to realise that women’s sports – and perhaps women’s team sports in particular – are going through a reckoning. From the Spanish women’s soccer team protesting abusive working conditions (while all the while being scolded by Spain’s soccer federation), to the English women’s rugby team flying economy class to the World Cup (when the men got a chartered jet), battles for equality grind frustratingly on. But whether it’s women’s tennis, women’s athletics or women’s basketball, giving the sport the same name as its masculine equivalent establishes at least the intention of parity. It acknowledges that we are all on the same team, doing the same job: in the naming, at least, one is not alienated from the other.

There are those who might advocate for the retention of camogie, who would argue that it has a distinct identity from hurling. And it’s true that camogie has its own hard-fought history. It has travelled a huge distance in its nearly 120 years of official existence, sometimes with support from the GAA, sometimes without. To rename it women’s hurling would be to erase that identity, goes the argument. But as former Camogie Association president Joan O’Flynn memorably pointed out in the 2018 RTÉ documentary The Game, ‘The verb is to hurl.’ It’s what we all do. It’s what we all love. And if we’re going to truly integrate, maybe we should start by acknowledging what we share. Maybe we should start with names.

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