Aoife Lane: ’I love the GAA and there’s a bit of a feminist in me’

YOU might remember her from the winter. When the camogie and ladies footballers launched their players union, Aoife Lane was to the front: founder, leader, chairperson.

Aoife Lane: ’I love the GAA and there’s a bit of a feminist in me’

She had a word on the Last Word with Matt, made the papers and news bulletins as everyone who went along to the hip Smock Alley Theatre that day left there feeling better about not just women’s sport but themselves.

Sisters were doing it for themselves but they were going to get a little help from more friends. They deserved such support, more coverage, greater recognition.

Then what happened? We all went back to our own thing while she and her colleagues went about making sure it wasn’t mere tokenism and winter talk.

It’s been a challenge because that’s what all our January goodwill now seems like.

It’s something of a secret but tomorrow is also the semi-final stage of the camogie as well as hurling national league. At the same time the Cork hurlers take on Dublin in Nowlan Park, their female counterparts face Limerick, in Charleville: you’d have to be a special person to take in both games.

In Waterford, it grates with their camogie team that their Division Two semi-final has been fixed for Nenagh at the same time the ball’s thrown in for their men’s team’s clash with Tipperary.

At least though they’ve known well in advance where they’re playing.

For the past three months the Women’s Gaelic Players Association project manager Gemma Begley tries to compile a fixtures list for the upcoming weekend. And by the Friday morning, she’s often found that still three or four national league games still haven’t got a pitch. Even the day before the All Ireland club semi-finals, administrators were still scrambling for a venue, players in the dark.

That was one of the reasons why the WGPA was founded. Most clubs may now accommodate their own camogie and ladies football teams but county teams and national fixtures have huge difficulty finding a place to play, let alone call home.

“I think we can resolve a lot of these things by better organisation and better leadership,” says Lane. “I still can’t get my head around that people had to make 30 phonecalls to get a pitch for an All-Ireland club semi-final. Why are there still 29 nos? Is it just a bit too easy to say no and are people a bit too quick to say no? I’d like to get the bottom of that.”

Well, she must have a theory as to why.

“I suppose it’s not a priority. The men’s games are priority because the pitches essentially belong to the men’s clubs. And I get that. But I’d like to think we can sit down with others and start to have a conversation towards a solution to this. Maybe there needs to be a mandate from national level to say there needs to be a greater distribution and availability of pitches.”

She’s always been steeped in the GAA. Her father Noel hurled in eight senior All-Ireland finals for Galway, winning three. She wasn’t around for 1980, though she revels in the folklore of it all, especially the yarn about an excitable Bernie Forde swinging his hurley running onto the pitch and catching her father’s forehead, leaving him requiring eight stitches: didn’t faze him, he’d still start and would finish with three points, the difference between Galway and Limerick on the day.

For ’87 and ’88 she watched the finals in her grandmother’s, seeing her father come on to score the winning goal each day. The next night she was in Eyre Square, up with him on the stage.

By 1990 she was big enough to be in the upper Hogan Stand where she’d bawl her eyes out after John Fitzgibbon and Cork went even more goal-mad than her dad.

By 2001, when he was team manager, she was in the dugout, a conduit for him and his eye in the sky, a Michaela Harte before Michaela Harte. That year they shocked Kilkenny before Nicky English in the final would have revenge for ’88. Indelible memories, heightened experiences, yet the most enduring and enjoyable were those in the front driveway and back garden.

“Once Dad pulled up in his car, he was out playing with us right away. I can’t remember watching TV as a kid. We just played hurling non-stop. I was obsessed with it.”

She was good enough to make the panel of a couple of All-Ireland-winning minor teams and would play with the club, Ballinderreen, up until three years ago. Her real talent though was in volunteering, administering, advising. For the last 12 years she has been a senior lecturer and course leader in exercise and health studies in Waterford IT and she’s chaired the camogie association’s national player welfare committee.

By her own admission it “did a few nice things” but its remit was too broad, ranging from underage to adult and club to county. When Dónal Óg Cusack asked at the 2013 camogie All Stars why weren’t female players in the GPA, it caused her to ponder. If the county players got certain standards in place it could permeate to all levels. She approached him later that evening, took his card and a month later she was up in the GPA offices meeting its head administrator, Siobhan Earley. A month later she had 14 players along with her.

“Within half an hour of that meeting it was very obvious there was a need for this. It was just the sharing of stories. Like being asked to leave dressing rooms because the lads needed them. Having to pay to train on a county board’s grounds. Not having hot showers. The fact we had seven or eight different counties around the table, they were all kind of going ‘Oh, it’s like that for you too?’ We realised then that this was a national problem.”

It was also unique to them. They’d entered that room thinking they’d look to be absorbed into the GPA. They left realising they needed their own group. They also needed a leader. Lane was up for it.

“In a way, it was my perfect task. I love the GAA and there’s a bit of a feminist in me. Whether it’s something in the work place or in sport, I don’t like inequity. In fairness the girls leaving the GPA offices that day said we could all have been driving home and be bitching for an hour and think why didn’t we do something about it. And I’m the kind of person who likes to do something about it.”

Over the summer they met up with more players and conducted a survey in which over 600 county players participated. The issues remain now but they’re being addressed.

Some will be challenging because they’re largely financial, such as physios. You might get them for games but it costs a lot, often too much, to have them at training. This isn’t the men’s inter-county game that generates millions at the turnstiles.

But some issues are simply a matter of respect. Only a third of players have regular access to hot showers after county games and training. In 2015.

“Is it that the person in charge of the pitch isn’t going down on time to switch on the showers because they’re not that bothered? Or is that people are being overworked that they’re forgetting the little things? Either way it’s not good enough.”

Even at the local club that gladly facilitate Lane and her club colleagues on the local pitch, showers of any kind were never an option. For the fellas, it was never an issue.

So try and get this right. You have a son who plays hurling and a daughter who plays camogie on the same club field. The son can expect to have showers and the daughter will accept not having any. Have we got that correct? Yes, Lane nods. Is it right? No. The third-level colleges don’t accept it; there, female players are treated equally. But almost everywhere else in the GAA, women are treated as — and tolerate being — second-class citizens. That has to change.

“If the showers can be hot on Tuesday night for the boys, surely they can be hot on the Wednesday night for the girls?

“But we’re now looking to push the responsibility onto the players. To ask for more. To say ‘Sorry, this isn’t good enough.’ To set up a liaison process with the county board and management which establishes some basic requirements. Showers cost hardly any money. It’s just a lack of leadership, organisation and respect.

“It’s a big problem with women. They tend to just get on with it and say nothing. ‘Whatever, it’s grand.’ We can’t accept that anymore. It’s about women treating themselves with more respect.”

It’s not that county boards are disrespecting them. They too are volunteers. In a way, they’re also victims of conditioned thinking.

“It’s just not being in the mindset. To realise this is not taken seriously enough. Showers should just be a given. It’s a given for the men. So part of our role will be changing that mindset among the players and the powers that be.”

She knows how influential and inspiring the GAA can be. She serves on the association’s health and well-being committee. At the moment there are 18 clubs participating in a healthy club pilot project that she’s evaluating through her expertise in Waterford IT.

In Castleblaney, the local club’s Operation Transformation had hundreds running a 5k event at the end of a six-week programme. In Cork, St Finbarr’s and Midleton championed a stress control and mental health programme that resonated throughout both communities. In Nenagh, the Éire Óg club have gone to care homes and brought older people back to the club pitch for matches. In Thomas Davis’s in Dublin, widowers with no connection to the club have learned to cook for themselves. Lane with all she has going on still has time to serve on a European project on sport clubs promoting health in the community and is struck by how her continental colleagues are struck by the example of the GAA.

“They’re always mad to hear about what the GAA can do. They’re fascinated that a sporting governing body can be such a focal point and have that kind of social impact in the community.”

She sees the camogie and ladies football associations as partners. Both attended the WGPA launch. In the next couple of months she plans to meet them so they can plan together.

“We want to be pragmatic. There’s no point in women in sport groups operating separately. I’m not going to presuppose whether or not they’ve already been talking to the GAA about more double-headers. But I’d like to think we can sit with them and say is there a way we can do better on this?

“Monaghan are filling their stand most days because they do a huge amount of publicity. We’d maybe like to work with counties and roll out that model elsewhere to increase the visibility of the players and games.

“We all need to up our game a bit. Camogie is brilliant and has 110 years of history and tradition but if there’s one thing I’ve learned already in this role, it’s that you shouldn’t be bound by history. All that tradition isn’t going to keep camogie safe, ladies football either. Rugby is coming in and talent spotting and bringing some of our top players into the sevens game on contracts.

“You can’t just sit there and let that happen. You’ve to react, be proactive.”

That’s where the WGPA come in. So far they’ve found sponsorship hard to come by but 10 days ago in Carton House, they were able to announce scholarships for 12 players from 10 different counties attending 10 different colleges, such as Limerick’s Sarah Carey, daughter of Ciaran. It only covers the rest of the academic year but it’ll allow some of them forsake part-time work and rest and study more for upcoming exams; get a bite before training, cover some of the cost to get to training. As an academic herself, Lane wants to help players develop off and on the field.

Another seven players as well as Lane herself have also participated in the John Madden Leadership programme in conjunction with the GPA. Lane finds it’s good for the men — “having women there has freshened it up, lightened the mood”— and it’s been especially insightful for her.

“One of the first speakers in to us was Paddy Cosgrave, the Web Summit CEO and founder. I found it inspiring, his story of persistence and learning. He kept sitting in front of a computer sending messages to the head of Skype until he relented to come to Dublin. Now an event that first had 400 attendees now has 22,000. He said you should always be able to look back in a year’s time and say you’ve improved.

“I really like that idea. My heart is in the right place but right now do I have the skills to lead this kind of organisation? Probably not. But I’d like to think in a year’s time, I’ll be able to say I’m a bit better at it than I am now.”

With that outlook and humility, women’s sport should be better as well.

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