In March 2016, I received an email from Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith of the essential arts anthology Winter Papers, asking me if I’d write an essay about ‘girls in the gaah’.
I’d been writing seriously for about eight years at that point, but my work was mostly fiction and never about camogie, my other great pastime.
I’d once made a few sketchy notes for an essay about the GAA but always ultimately shied away from fleshing it out — I was, frankly, afraid of the material. It was one thing to try to express truth in fiction; to try to write about the sport that had shaped me, that encompassed my childhood, family, community, hopes, and dreams — that was something else.
The essay ended up being as much about gender as it was about hurling, as I tried to convey what it was like growing up in a sport where the women’s code was always secondary to the men’s.
I sent it off in trepidation and nearly cried with relief when Olivia told me at the Cork Midsummer Festival that she’d enjoyed reading it.
Upon being published in Winter Papers and subsequently reprinted in this newspaper, ‘The Fear of Winning’ quickly became the most-read thing I’d ever written.
I enjoyed a few days of likes and clicks and assumed that would be that, but not long afterwards I got an email from the filmmaker Iseult Howlett.
The subject line was ‘Engine not ornament’ — a line from the essay that tried to describe the transformative feeling of power in one’s body that sport gives women.
She wanted to know if I’d be interested in having the essay adapted into a short film; she was an award-winning editor of documentaries such as I Am Immigrant and Playing Straight, and had been looking for a project about women’s sport to make her directorial debut.
I was immediately taken with the idea. Iseult’s proposed title, The Grass Ceiling, perfectly encapsulated how women in team sport keep playing despite receiving lesser resources, media coverage, and support than their male counterparts.
I felt that she completely understood what I was trying to say, and I knew that there was no better way to portray the kinetic, dynamic brilliance of women’s sport than through film.
I was proud of the essay, but as the truism goes, writing about music — or sport — is like dancing about architecture.
There is only so much you can convey with words.
“I should be up front and say that being on camera isn’t my favourite thing in the world,” I wrote in an early email to Iseult. “I’d probably be happiest in a writing or consulting role. But these are things we can figure out!” Two and a half years later, I’m one of the film’s three protagonists, alongside soccer international Rianna Jarrett, and former Ireland rugby player Elise O’Byrne-White. Iseult has a way of convincing you.
On a glorious sunny Sunday in March of this year, Iseult, producer Frankie Fenton, director of photography Eleanor Bowman and a full crew came down to St Finbarr’s in Togher, to film the camogie squad going through our paces.
Really it was like a normal training session or match, except seven hours long and with a golf cart mounted with a camera weaving in and out of play, capturing our every move.
My teammates gamely put in a long day on set and were relaxed and charismatic on camera; Barr’s and Cork legend Colette O’Mahony volunteered to ref the match; and our manager, Brian O’Sullivan, was instrumental in making sure the shoot went as planned.
It was a long and sometimes nerve-wracking day, but it was also an incredibly rewarding team effort.
The scope of the film was always going to go beyond the GAA. Iseult subsequently filmed with Rianna and her club Wexford Youths, and then with Elise and her teammates at Old Belvedere. In the final cut, the three sports are edited together seamlessly. One of the nicest things about the essay’s publication had been the response from other sportswomen; when you write something personal, it’s a relief and a thrill to discover that other people feel the same. That’s part of why you write; to communicate, to find fellowship. Watching Rianna and Elise’s contributions to the film made me feel the same way; that despite the fact we had never met, we had shared experiences and understood one another. In many ways, their contributions are what make the film.
All three of us started out as kids playing against boys; Elise had even captained the boys’ U10 and U12 teams. Rianna describes being six and battling with her mother to be allowed play with her twin brother and the other local lads. “She didn’t think I’d stick at it. She said football was for boys, it wasn’t for girls … she hates me telling people that!’ Both of them talk about how sport allows them to develop and express parts of themselves that bleed into their everyday lives: courage, communication, decision-making. “I don’t know where we ever get the idea that girls can’t take a hit, go down and get up again, or they can’t fight back,” Elise says with palpable frustration.
“That’s always what they’ve been able to do but we’ve just slowly expected that they be polite and nice and step back and have manners.”
Rianna talks about the unspoken understanding and respect between players. “When I’m playing football, people trust me. There is that sense of freedom to go and express yourself.”
In everyday life she describes herself as shy and quiet, but on the pitch, she transforms.
“Sport allows me to be that version of myself.”
Near the end of the film, Elise says “I’m the way I should be” — quietly, simply, and with just a hint of defiance.
It could be the film’s tagline. Ultimately, the film portrays how sport helps us to access the best versions of ourselves — grass ceiling be damned.
The Grass Ceiling premieres as part of the Screen Ireland World Premiere Shorts programme at the Cork Film Festival today in the Everyman Theatre
The Grass Ceiling knows no bounds