Eimear Ryan: 2017 - A year when women made themselves heard

In sports, as in politics, we seem to have reached a tipping point. Now we are righteously angry, writes Eimear Ryan

Eimear Ryan: 2017 - A year when women made themselves heard

(Picture, above: Members of the Mucklagh Girls Football Club U15 team, from Tullamore, Co Offaly, celebrate winning a match at the Aldi Community Games Festival in Abbotstown this year. Picture: Cody Glen)

It was the year of The Handmaid’s Tale and Wonder Woman. Of Hillary’s composure as the Misogynist-in-Chief was sworn in. Of 46,000 spectators in Croker for the ladies football final.

When Time magazine gave Person of the Year to a group of female ‘Silence Breakers’, and Merriam-Webster declared ‘feminism’ the word of the year. When more camogie matches than ever before were televised. A year of Weinstein and nasty women.

Depending on your perspective, 2017 was either a groundbreaking year for women or a wholly depressing one. While campaigns like #MeToo, the Women’s March and Repeal the 8th are empowering to watch unfold in real time, the fact that these movements need to exist at all in 2017 should give us pause.

In sports, as in politics, we seem to have reached a tipping point. Whereas before, women might have taken what they were given and made do with it, now we are righteously angry.

Whether it’s equal pay, bodily autonomy or simply basic respect, women are refusing to be quiet any longer. Better still — for the most part, women are now being believed when they tell their stories; their credibility is not on trial to the extent it might have been before. When Ashley Judd, Mira Sorvino, Rose McGowan, Rosanna Arquette, Kate Beckinsale, Lea Seydoux and dozens of others came forward in October with their horror stories of Harvey Weinstein, bathrobes and massages, they were listened to. Harvey got fired.

Maybe there’s strength in numbers. Back in April, 13 members of the Irish women’s soccer squad held a press conference to publicise their lack of support from the FAI. Visibly uncomfortable, the players revealed an embarrassing list of basics they lack, such as appearance fees, compensation for wages, gym memberships and even tracksuits. They’d had to endure a number of slights, from togging out in airport toilets to staying in hotels without wifi, a disaster for players trying to keep up with day jobs while on international duty.

The players maintained they were looking for ‘just the basics’: “In the past we have been getting changed in public toilets in the way to matches, this just highlights the lack of respect. It’s not a lot we are looking for,” said Aine O’Gorman.

Emma Byrne added that they were thinking of the players coming after them: “We are fighting for the future of women’s international football, this isn’t just about us.”

Emma Byrne
Emma Byrne

That a publicly funded body would fail one of its national teams so thoroughly, and for so long, was galling.

The FAI’s response to the press conference had a barely- repressed fury about it, replete with snippy alliteration: They were “deeply disappointed” at the “unprecedented ultimatum”.

With the help of the PFAI, the issues were resolved largely to the team’s satisfaction. At least the season ended well, with a hard-fought 0-0 result against European champions, the Netherlands, keeping our hopes alive for World Cup qualification in 2019. Any year that ends with a bit of spontaneous Rihanna can’t be all bad.

In August, Ireland hosted the women’s Rugby World Cup — one of the most anticipated and, as it turned out, most tweeted-about sporting events of the year. But what should have been a glorious centrepiece in the sporting calendar didn’t quite work out that way.

After a promising start with wins over Australia and Japan, Ireland suffered a heavy defeat to France in their last pool game and found themselves in a dispiriting series of play-offs, ultimately finishing eighth. A searing piece by departing player Ruth O’Reilly in The Irish Times detailed another disorganised setup, where preparation and investment in the squad was nowhere near what you’d expect for a national team. Coach Tom Tierney wanted the players to come up with a training plan ahead of the tournament; when O’Reilly naturally queried why this was the players’ job rather than the coaches’, she was told to sit out training.

As she put it: “The guys in the blazers need to decide if this is something they are serious about.”

Even before a ball had been kicked, however, there were a few bad omens for Ireland. First of all, talismanic captain Niamh Briggs was ruled out of the tournament because of an Achilles tendon injury; secondly, former Irish rugby international David Corkery took to Facebook to reveal that while he might watch the odd game, he was certain he wouldn’t enjoy it: “I simply do not like watching ladies knocking lumps out of each other … when I see women partake in any kind of confrontational and aggressive behaviourisms, it just doesn’t sit right with me.”

Niamh Briggs
Niamh Briggs

The post inspired a sort of dull, exhausted annoyance in women’s sporting circles on Twitter — not least because it proved a distraction from the World Cup itself. (The day after Ireland’s first match against Australia, the national airwaves were more concerned with Corkery’s opinions than the actual match).

It was hard to know where to start with Corkery’s comments. Why should it only be men and boys who have healthy outlets for their ‘confrontational and aggressive behaviourisms’? We all have a need for this; we’re all human, after all. It made me sad to think that when David Corkery looks at the Irish women’s rugby team, he doesn’t see fellow rugby players — Irish internationals with the same commitment, determination and ambition as himself. He just sees a bunch of ladies.

“This is only an opinion,” he said in the post, and that is true. It may very well be true that David Corkery is a decent and well-intentioned man, and that many other decent and well-intentioned men share this opinion. But I wonder if they realise that this very attitude is what lies behind so much discrimination towards women. The idea that we are fundamentally different. That we are impossible to relate to or identify with or even understand. How many male politicians and public figures have prefaced their outrage over Weinstein with the words ‘As the father of daughters’, as if this is the only way a man could possibly empathise with a woman?

Of course, not all men (to borrow another hashtag) share this view. At Wimbledon, Andy Murray won sportswomen’s hearts by correcting a journalist who suggested that his opponent, Sam Querrey, was the first US player to reach a major semi-final since 2009.

“Male player,” said Murray, quietly, voicing what every woman in the room was probably thinking. The previous year, he similarly fact-checked a BBC reporter who congratulated him on being the first person to win two Olympic medals in tennis. “I think Venus and Serena have won about four each.”

Never change, Andy.

I’m going to be optimistic and say that most men involved in sport are more to the Murray end of the scale than the Corkery end. In my experience, men — dads, brothers, uncles, cousins, boyfriends— are among the staunchest supporters of young sportswomen. It’s also been my experience that players support other players, regardless of gender. It’s part of the reason why I love that brief Liberty Insurance ad that runs before The Sunday Game, in which a hurler and a camogie player puck around together. A simple, unshowy ad, but groundbreaking in its own way. Male and female players pucking around together is something that happens at grassroots level all the time, but it’s rarely represented in the media.

And representation is vital. Ladies football has never been bigger, in part because of its double threat in TG4 and Lidl, who between them are ensuring that the sport is everywhere from our TV screens to social media to town billboards. Investment, it turns out, is crucial to success.

“What a great setup,” I kept thinking over and over as I watched Blues Sisters, Pat Comer’s documentary about the Dublin ladies’ successful 2017 season. We watch the players immersed in a highly professional programme: group gym sessions, bonding weekends, stats analysts constantly collecting data on each player. AIG branding is prominent throughout.

Besides seeming to set a new standard for elite women’s teams, Blues Sisters was a wonderful watch. It follows the squad from early in the year as they strive to overcome the psychological damage of losing three All-Irelands in a row.

There’s little mention of the juggernaut Cork team that dealt Dublin those three losses and are likely central to Dublin’s psychological block; instead, it’s framed more as the Dublin girls beating themselves.

There were several striking moments, from Noelle Healy stoically enduring a half-time dressing down, before going out to play a blinder; Niamh McEvoy’s observation that she finds it much more stressful watching her boyfriend Dean Rock play than to play herself; coach Ken Robinson’s encyclopedic knowledge of the dimensions of each pitch they played on (‘Nolan Park, beautiful sod, slightly shorter as well, not 144 and a half like Croke Park, more like 139 metres long’); and county secretary Kathleen Colreavy lamenting the jersey design: “When I saw the white collar on these jerseys I nearly died. I was thinking of makeup, fake tan. You’d know ‘twas men designed the jerseys, wouldn’t you.”

An especially memorable subplot involves full-back Sinead Finnegan, who missed their last successful season in 2010 due to the death of her father and who had to come off 10 minutes into this year’s final due to a calf injury.

“The adrenaline will get you through,” manager Mick Bohan assures her before the game. When she comes ashore, he tells her “You did brilliant.”

“No I didn’t!” she fires back, in a moment so relatable I nearly gasped. “You did brilliant,” is the last thing you want to hear when you haven’t lived up to your own high standards. The camera cuts to Finnegan frequently as the game plays out: the looks of worry, outrage, and joy on her face are a delight to watch.

The documentary was at its most moving when focusing on the bonds that sport creates. “My teammates have probably seen me at every emotion there is,” says Sinead Goldrick.

“We’re all from different backgrounds, we definitely wouldn’t have met unless we played football.”

Nicole Owens, who talked honestly about her depression, said that her other friends are almost jealous of the tight bonds she’s developed through football. And it’s true — sport creates the sort of closeness and emotional honesty that normally only extreme duress or a few too many glasses of wine can produce. Goldrick sums it up simply: “They’re my best friends.”

So that was 2017, and in some ways, there was lots to be thankful for. It was, after all, the year of Joy Neville, who made history last week by becoming the first woman to ref a professional European club rugby match. Of Rena Buckley, whose achievement of 18 All-Ireland medals wasn’t enough to win the RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year. Of the Blue Plaque Rebellion, journalist Anna Kessel’s campaign to recognise pioneering sportswomen throughout history.

It’s nearly always women who try to redress this balance. As Anne Enright wrote this year about the efforts of female academics to redress the gender balance in the Irish literary canon: “It always seemed to me a double burden that women should suffer the discrimination and do all the work to fix it.”

In a recent piece reflecting on her time as Fiction Laureate, she was blunter still: “The business of writing is hard enough without taking on the additional burden of gender politics … If you are a woman, making these arguments will eat your head, your talent and your life.”

Duly noted.

It was the year the Irish women’s hockey team qualified for the World Cup, though they’re still in search of a sponsor; the year of Chloe Magee and Gina Apke-Moses and Mona McSharry. The year of Elizabeth Warren and ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’; of Meghan Markle and Lady Bird and a fantastic-looking Ocean’s 8 trailer. The year Katie went pro. The year Cora went pro, flying to Sydney to begin her Aussie Rules career after collecting her sixth club All-Ireland medal with Carnacon. And that record-breaking crowd in Croke Park for a women’s final — most of them girls, as Nicole Owens noted in Blues Sisters: “40,000 screaming girls, essentially, make a lot of noise.”

A year when women made themselves heard.

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