The rise of Gaelic for Mothers and Others can benefit the next generation of girls too, writes
How do you measure a cultural shift?
That is what the 20X20 campaign has set out to achieve — to change Ireland’s cultural perception of women’s sport by next year. “To change the subliminal bias in the Irish psyche that exists around girls and boys, or women and men, when it comes to sport.”
How will we know if change is happening? A few articles in the paper? More games on TV? A huge All-Ireland final attendance? A record sponsorship deal? More girls at Cúl Camps?
How about this? In late January, Douglas ladies football club posted a Facebook message to gauge interest in a ‘Mothers and Others’ football team. Since then, more than 80 women, aged between their 20s and mid-50s, have been gathering at 9pm on cold Monday nights in Harlequins hockey club in Cork. Many had never kicked a ball before.
“Suddenly we were inundated with people,” says Rosemary Browne, PRO of the Douglas ladies football club and one of the organisers.
“We didn’t even need to put up posters. We thought we’d get maybe 20 or 30 people from the ladies football side of the club. But there were enquiries from the camogie side, from the lads’ side, mothers with kids playing. And women who don’t have kids. We have about eight Spanish au pairs playing.”
The 9pm start came about by accident, Rosemary says, but seems to work.
“It’s late, but turns out it’s not a bad time. Younger kids are in bed, or older kids’ activities are over.
Mothers have so many commitments. They are the ones who will drop out of training if someone is sick or someone is working or whatever. But there is no pressure here. Just come when you can.
“It was brave of people to come up initially. We started on the 21st of January in three degrees and sleet and people saying this is absolute madness. But I have 85 women on my list now. On average at training we have 50 or 60. It’s absolutely nuts.
“It’s just for fun, it’s not competitive. But as well as being a fitness activity it’s a great social opportunity and great for the club, that mix of people coming together.
“A club in a city wouldn’t normally have that, whereas out in the country everyone might know everyone.”
Tonight, the rain can’t dampen the spirits of more than 40 women. A few put the slight drop-off in numbers down to Confirmation week and last-minute preparations. “That mightn’t keep dads at home, but…”
The women who are here are strung out in three groups across the astro. Mastering the solo, doing passing drills, and then playing games.
Rosemary is among what she calls the ‘Couch to 5k football’ group, women who haven’t played the game and don’t consider themselves all that fit. They are put through their paces by Christine McCarthy, who got this ball rolling last year when her club under-13 team took on their mammies in a challenge match. The mammies won.
The middle group, trained by Douglas junior player Sinead Duggan, have decent general fitness and maybe played a little Gaelic before, or another sport. Claudia Trallero played basketball back home in Spain, and has no trouble with the handpass.
And there’s the advanced group; taken by Nemo Rangers player Caroline Hartnett — not quite on enemy territory since her daughters play for Douglas. Caroline’s group played Gaelic before life got in the way and this is a route back in. In that third of the astro, the tempo is a little quicker, but one thing carried across all three zones; the laughter.
“It’s just so much fun,” says Susan Murphy. “There’s just a great camaraderie among all the girls.”
“I nearly broke my nose doing a solo,” grimaces Jenni Lynch, who used to play for Fermoy.
I really missed team sport. I absolutely love it. It’s a very sociable way to get fit with a lovely bunch of people who are there to have fun… and learn a bit of football.
“Just really enjoying the laugh every week and great to see our skills improving too,” says Claire Conway.
It might be uncompetitive but when the game starts, every goal is cheered. And there’s the odd protest too when the coaches pull up the dodgy handpasses.
“The ref will be stricter against Passage,” warns Sinead.
Gaelic for Mothers and Others (G4M&O) began as an LGFA initiative in 2008 and now has more than 200 teams signed up. More than 1,000 women played in the annual national blitz in Dublin last year. Last week, Dublin’s Sherriff Street Gaelic4Ma’s programme featured on RTÉ’s.
In Cork, there are clubs from Banteer, Kilmurry, Inch Rovers, Delanys, Passage West, Aghada, Bishopstown, Cloyne, and Erin’s Own as well as Douglas.
The Douglas women will play Passage in their first blitz this month, then they’ll take on Aghada, where they will face a player better placed than most to vouch for the importance of this movement.
Dr Jennifer Hayes is the Principal Clinical Psychologist for HSE South. She takes on board Cork’s stresses in her day job and knows well the value of exercise and companionship in shaking anxiety.
She found G4M&O in Aghada last summer, where the group is coached by inter-county referee Cathal McAllister.
“It changed my summer last year for the better. You’re out with other women, covered in mud, out in the fresh air. You’re carefree, you don’t worry about a thing for the hour, hour and a half.
“I’d never played Gaelic before. I’d have been physically active, but I just loved this. Out kicking a ball around on a sunny evening overlooking Cork harbour, and playing a few blitzes. Playing our fierce rivals Cloyne. Brilliant craic.
“There aren’t that many things you can do as a 40-year-old in terms of team sports.
“And I think it can be quite an isolating age, for men too. In your 40s, you’re not part of the 30s gang any more, you’re working away, paying the bills. It’s a tricky phase of life. The kids are not grown up enough to do their own thing so there’s a lot of ties and pressures. To go down to the local club and have a laugh and meet other women, it ticks so many boxes. In terms of physical health as well, which is intertwined with mental health.
“And whether you have experience or not, whether you are any good or not, it doesn’t really matter. You can turn up and play away according to your own standards, reach your own potential and you’re not judged for it.
“I’ve two kids, so you’re always bringing them to matches, stood on the sideline under the umbrella. And I’m delighted to be doing it and proud of them. But this is role reversal. You’re playing Cloyne or whoever and they turn up and support. It’s hilarious. You hear all the kids on the sideline, ‘my mammy scored’, and it’s great.”
In Aghada, they have had a close-up view of the power of the Gaelic games community, in the outpouring of support for the club’s great Cork player Kieran O’Connor, who is suffering with cancer.
“I do think the GAA are sitting on a mine that’s waiting to be tapped into,” Jennifer says. “I don’t think they know themselves what they have. The whole community spirit, combined with the exercise, and the idea that if someone is in trouble in the club the whole club will rally around.
“It’s an absolute goldmine in terms of psychological well-being. That’s rare, to find that kind of stuff. And so valuable. And part of the value is that it’s not what it was set up for, it’s just organically there.”
A true cultural shift will see women enjoy a fair share of that well-being, but Jennifer knows there are hurdles.
It’s so sad to see girls drop out of sport, but it’s difficult for them too to hang in there and get past those teenage years. And then it can be hard to reconnect back to something.
They see that in Douglas, where big numbers at the younger age groups taper at under-16. Legendary Cork player Brid Stack recently spoke to their underage teams about hanging in there.
“She was very encouraging and understanding of girls and the different issues they face at different ages,” Rosemary says.
Rosemary, Susan, Jenni, and Claire and many of the other women at Harlequins last Monday help out with their daughters‘ teams, are doing coaching courses.
“We’re hoping this will get people involved, and maybe go on and do a course or maybe come in to committee level, to strengthen the backbone of the club,” Rosemary says.
In Aghada, they have even lost three women to junior teams. A route back into the sport stirred that competitive streak.
Rosemary adds: “I’ve two girls playing and they’ve made friends for life. If mothers are playing, they’ll encourage the kids to keep it up.”
Can see, can be.