Why does women’s sport still suffer for recognition, asks Paul Rouse

In sport, the past holds a tight rein on the present. The parameters defining patterns of play are long established and too entrenched to be easily shifted. The place of women in the Irish sporting world reveals this with repeated clarity.

And it is revealed in the most basic ways. Last Sunday, the streets and pubs around Croke Park were exploding with people who had no ticket. There was all manner of fancy signs soliciting assistance — and none appeared to be working.

But this Sunday, Croke Park will be at best half-full for the All-Ireland Ladies’ Football final. This is a reminder the sporting mould shaped by the Victorian world has never properly been broken.

Almost all of the national and international bodies, which now govern sports, were founded in the five decades between 1850 and 1900 when popular culture merged with public school muscularity.

These organisations were not just set up for men, but for a very definite type of man.

The sporting male was to be strong, vigorous and tough. To be good at sport was to be naturally male. At least that it is how the rhetoric of the time presented it.

Sport, a weekly newspaper dedicated to coverage of Irish sport in the 1880s, wrote that playing organised sport was crucial to discourage effeminacy in an age of “gentleman’s corsets” and of men writing “maudlin poems in praise of each other”.

The 1880s, of course, were when Michael Cusack founded the GAA. He pledged then to open its doors to men of all classes. It never seems to have occurred to him women, too, might wish to play.

It was simply assumed a woman’s enduring role would be as part of the scenery, rather than at the heart of the action. This inability to see women as athletes did not stop Cusack from noticing that women turned up in their droves to football and hurling matches all across Ireland. Every week, in his newspaper, The Celtic Times, Cusack eulogised their “native beauty”. And, for him, none were more beautiful than the women of Tipperary. According to Cusack, the women of that county turned up to matches dressed in their “gala attire to flash looks and smiles of approval on their rustic knights”. In 1887, in the course of his work, he took a train from Dublin to Carrick-on- Suir to report on a hurling tournament being played in the town. Among the huge crowd of 7,000 who turned up to the field, many were women.

Cusack reported: ‘The ladies present were amongst the most earnest admirers of the play. Indeed so much taken was one of them with the dexterity and skill of the play, that she expressed her regret they were not eligible for election as members of the GAA, because, she said, if they could not play, “they could decorate the jerseys for the boys”.

When it comes to sporting chauvinism, the Gael was cut from precisely the same cloth as his counterparts in other sports. He could even claim to have been led astray by the very people who founded modern sporting organisations — the English. The English were the midwives of the modern sport world, delivering codified games suitable for urban life. And games were what made boys into men. Sport was perceived as the perfect academy to learn the skills that made life possible. It was where men learned the virtue of courage, vigour, and stamina.

The ideology of sport was carried across the British Empire in tandem with the games themselves. Ties of kin and commerce, not to mention the union of two islands in one kingdom, brought Ireland to the very centre of organised sport in the Victorian years.

And the order of sport was clear: men played games, and women watched.

In Sport, which was published in Dublin but covered the entire country, noting the attendance of women was a prominent feature in most reports of every sport. A cricket match in College Green against a visiting English team was looked forward to by the players, “while our women anticipate three charming days promenading, arrayed in the choicest toilets of the latest fashions”. At a regatta in Ringsend, meanwhile, it was noted “there was an array of the fair sex that would have done honour to St Patrick himself”.

And even when things went wrong — badly wrong — women got a mention. At a polo match in Ballyseedy, County Kerry, it was reported: “Capt. Ellice, 48th regiment, was to have played for Mr. Blennerhassett, but we regret to say he met with a nasty accident when starting from Coralea — the pony he was riding ran away, tried to jump a wire fence and threw the gallant captain, dislocating his shoulder. In consequence of the accident, we regret none of the fair sex honoured us with their presence, though several of them were ready in their carriages for the scene of action.”

Clearly, men — rich and poor — considered women’s involvement in sport to be decorative. And, among many women, too, there was a lack of conviction regarding their own suitability for athletic endeavour.

Wealthy women, who might have been expected to lead a sporting movement for women, held other priorities. It was considered vulgar to have a robust fitness. The very abstinence from activity made women more prone to illness. And the less women did, the less they appeared able to do.

Science fed the belief men and women were complementary opposites. The notion was still current that excessive sporting activity could diminish a woman’s capacity to have children. Women were considered only to have a fixed amount of energy and wasting it on sporting activity deflected them from fulfilling the roles of wife and mother.

For example, in 1887, the Chairman of the British Medical Association said: “In the interests of social progress, national efficiency and the progressive improvement of the human race, women should be denied education and other activities which would cause constitutional overstrain and inability to produce healthy offspring.” Even the visionaries of continental sport, believed women had no place in the world of sport. The founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, argued in the 1890s women’s sport was “against the laws of nature”, and “the eternal role of woman in this world was to be a companion of the male and mother of the family, and she should be educated towards those functions”.

In time, of course, the boundaries began to shift. Independent women sought their own place in the world and sport played a significant part in shifting perceptions of what a woman was capable of doing. That women began to redefine sport for themselves is a tribute to the pioneering few who defied the conventions of their age.

They established their own organisations for golf and camogie, for example. Successive generations have continued to work against the prejudices of their times. And advances have, of course, been made (particularly in the last two decades) in the organisation of women’s sport — and Ladies Gaelic Football (along with rugby) is the finest example of this. But these advances have been tempered by a wider tendency to patronise and to parody the sporting female. Women’s sport has too often been belittled, trivialised, or simply ignored. The overt discrimination of Victorian times has now largely disappeared, but its remnants determine that sportswomen remain very much the poor relation to men.

A basic question remains: why has sport been so slow to evolve in a country which has managed to elect two female presidents? After all, man walked on the moon before women played football in Croke Park.


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