Farrelly eyes top rung as she takes first steps on refs’ ladder

Maggie Farrelly doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer or history maker.

She just happens to be a woman making headlines in a man’s game.

On Sunday, Farrelly was one of the officials patrolling the sidelines for the Dr McKenna Cup clash of Tyrone and Derry — the first time a woman has had such a role in an inter-county GAA fixture.

She is both surprised and embarrassed by the interest shown in her achievements. But her enthusiasm for the role is impossible to hide.

Yet her progression into officialdom was by accident rather than design.

“There was a bye-law in Cavan GAA a few years ago where the county board recommended that each club had a referee,” she said last night.

“I was involved in coaching, playing and refereeing ladies’ football so it seemed a natural progression to try the men’s game.

“That is how I got into it. It was not like that I put my hand up as a child wanting to be a referee! But I’ve no regrets since I have.

Farrelly, a member of the Laragh Utd club, began plying her trade at underage level and quickly stepped up to adult competition and took charge of the Cavan senior league final last year.

Her performances also brought her to attention of provincial council chiefs and soon she was mixing it with some of the best and brightest young whistle-blowing talent up north.

“Back in 2011, I was brought onto the Ulster Referee Academy which has referees from throughout the province.

“Last year I got to take charge of a Quinn Senior League game which was a massive boost to my confidence as I was dealing with big teams from outside of Cavan.”

One of the biggest kicks which Farrelly gets out of refereeing is the fact that she is not treated any differently than her male counterparts.

She explained: “I have to do the same as the men when it comes to the exams and the fitness tests.

“Everything that is expected of them is expected of me.

“I don’t get anything easier because I am a woman and that is what I love about it. I’d hate to think that different rules and regulations were in place for me because I am a woman.”

“Thankfully that isn’t the case. It is crucial that everyone is treated in the same way.”

How does that approach compare to that of players and mentors she has encountered?

“The reaction from players and officials has been brilliant. You have one or two that might say something but overall I get a massive amount of respect and encouragement from everyone I work with.”

Farrelly’s achievement has greater resonance given she has a keen interest in the role of women in Irish sport.

She revealed: “I did a dissertation on female refereeing as part of my honours business and sports development coaching degree in Letterkenny IT. The role of women in Irish sport is a relatively recent phenomenon, going back only to the turn of the century. So it is nice to be doing something which is another step on the road for the involvement and progression of women in Irish sport.”

Farrelly, who is looking for work at the moment, admits that refereeing isn’t for everyone no matter what their sex — “you need to have a thick skin” — but believes more and more women should and could follow her path.

“The advice is to believe in yourself. Taking up refereeing is like starting a new sport, you have to work hard to get places. The support from my family, friends, the county board and officials has been incredible. I am reading Katie Taylor’s book at the moment and everything about her is inspirational. If she can do that in boxing, then why can’t girls become referees?”

The immediate target is to continue to feature on sidelines of big games in the McKenna Cup.

Long term the hope is that she will be getting a call from Pat McEneaney, the chief of inter-county referees. She smiled: “The dream would be to take charge of League and Championship matches at intercounty level. When you are on the ladder you are trying to climb up and not to slip off. If I am good enough then I will get there.”

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