A bumper weekend of sports success for Irish women will “inspire the next generation of players and might even change opinion” towards female sport, says Mary O’Connor, CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport.
Last weekend the Irish women’s hockey team beat Canada to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, Wexford Youths edged out Peamount United in a five-goal thriller to take the FAI Women’s Cup, and Katie Taylor added another chapter to her glittering career by becoming a two-weight world boxing champion.
“Obviously from the perspective of women in Irish sport there was a lot of high-level sport played over the weekend,” said O’Connor.
“The more visibility you have for women’s sport, the more conversations you have the better, and these are very important, the three women’s events over the weekend.
But all those participants came originally from grassroots sport — they were looked after by volunteers and then progressed up the ladder, succeeding as they went.
“That’s something that’s important to realise — these women don’t become superstars overnight, there’s a lot of work involved. Obviously Katie Taylor is someone whose story has been well told over the years, but for the likes of the hockey team or Wexford and Peamount, their success is just as important.
“People play different sports in this country but it’s important they have that visibility to the sporting fraternity in the country.”
O’Connor agreed that having examples in individual sports — like Taylor — and team sports — like the hockey side — helps to encourage participation generally.
“Yes, I’m on record as pointing out that we’re very lucky in Ireland that boys and girls can play all manner of sports. You can be an individual or part of a team, you can play non-contact or contact sport, indoors or outdoors, on land or on sea.
“That’s the beauty of living in Ireland, we have those opportunities and they’re growing all the time. And people are realising more and more that they can avail of those opportunities as a family, and that keeps society more active... People can talk about specialisation but for the most part people play sport in this country to enjoy it and to be physically active.
If they show a talent for it and apply themselves, then they can progress, but it should be a matter of creating that opportunity for people to enjoy being physically active.
O’Connor also pointed to the increase in government funding for sport in the last two years: “Obviously when a team is successful the immediate thing is to talk about funding, and I understand that, but in terms of what hockey has achieved over the past 18 months to two years, funding will come with that success.
“The question that has to be asked is whether the success has to come first. In sport in Ireland we went through a recession, don’t forget, and everyone had to go through that. Last year for the first time in a decade the government increased funding in sport, and this year again the government increased funding for sport. I think that has to be applauded and welcomed.
“It’s also important that sport can generate its own income. There are sports in Ireland with legacies and tradition, sports which can generate revenue through gate receipts, sponsorship and so on, but some of the niche or emerging sports in the country might not have that pulling power.
They need support because those are the sports where we have world champions or Olympians.
“It’s about getting that balance right, and in fairness to the government and to Sport Ireland things are moving well in that regard. We have a national sports policy, which is very important: people forget about that at times but that policy is being delivered on by government: in the last two years, since it’s been launched, the government has increased funding for sport.
“That momentum will continue because the government itself has stated that sport in this country will have doubled its funding by 2027 — so funding has to increase year on year to meet that target.
"The women’s hockey team is another opportunity to show that when you put money behind sport in this country, you get success.”