Pioneering women like Una O’Connor changed everything

This week I couldn’t find one single picture of Una on the all-seeing, all-hearing internet, writes Cliona Foley.
Pioneering women like Una O’Connor changed everything

‘Family flowers only. Donations, if desired, to Dogs Trust Ireland.’

Thus ended the death notice for Una O’Connor, whose funeral takes place in Marino on Saturday.

Una O’Connor (second from right) in this picture of a Dublin team training session in 1954.
Una O’Connor (second from right) in this picture of a Dublin team training session in 1954.

She was a giant of camogie, an absolute laoch.

She debuted for Dublin’s seniors at 15, won 13 senior All-Irelands, was on the Team of the Century and, in 1966, was the first camogie player to win the Caltex award (equivalent of the Texaco).

She starred for a club called Celtic, scored 3-1 for them in the inaugural All-Ireland club final and obviously loved dogs, but how little else we know of her.

This week I couldn’t find one single picture of her on the all-seeing, all-hearing internet.

Dublin camogie’s website - the only place that subsequently carried a decent tribute – eventually had one but it was a team photo. Even kneeling in the front row she towered over her teammates and was ahead of her time in favouring a short hurl.

She played from 1953-67 (came out of retirement briefly in 1975) so her career converged at points with Christy Ring’s yet the media of the day virtually unrecorded her.

Sunday is International Women’s Day (IWD) but March is also ‘women’s history month’ and a conference to mark Irish women’s sporting history in Dundalk Museum last week underlined just how lost and under-catalogued so much of it is.

Hayley Kilgallon from Sligo, who did a thesis on it for her Masters in Public History at UCD, gave great insight into the genesis of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA), founded in 1974.

She showed a cutting of a letter printed in the Sunday Independent on August 27, 1967, a year after Una’s Caltex award.

Headlined ‘Keep Women out of Croke Park’ it came from a ‘Cork farmer’ who hoped women would be barred from All-Ireland finals because “to me there is nothing more revolting or unnatural than to see a pleasure-bent woman up in the city for fun and enjoyment, instead of being satisfied with her lot at home.”

The great news, Kilgallon explained, was that this steaming pile of verbal manure was returned to the Cork farmer, with interest, from many protestors.

Fifty-four years later Croker had plenty of pleasure-seeking women in it last Sunday, lighting up the AIB All-Ireland camogie club finals.

Gailltír’s super-sub Una Jackman stole the headlines for nabbing a brilliant injury-time goal to win the intermediate title but the insurance point was provided by her sister Trish who has been commuting from England, for club and county, for the best part of five years.

Waterford star Jackman is a professor of sport and exercise psychology at the University of Lincoln.

As she quipped to reporter Valerie Wheeler afterwards, “I’m the only one who has to write ‘passport’ on her gear checklist.”

She was on a flight back to England that night and, depending on where she flies from, often faces a three-hour-plus drive on return.

A male inter-county player of Cashman’s skill and importance would be a household name.

For such remarkable dedication, he’d be sainted. She is neither. So while women’s team sports (the big area of inequity) are slowly gaining more recognition, support and funding, there’s still massive ground to be made up.

That’s why special initiatives are needed.

I’ve heard some argue that the 20x20 campaign is just a load of PR fluff for the Insta-generation and won’t effect lasting change.

It may not exactly achieve its stated goal – 20% more participation/attendance/coverage/leadership of women’s sport by the end of 2020 – but it has, inarguably, shifted the conversation and highlighted inequities.

It’s not alone.

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A combination of feminism’s fourth wave, the #MeToo movement and the power of social media means 20x20 is part of a worldwide movement to give more recognition and reward to female athletes.

In Australia on Sunday, all eyes will be on the T20 Cricket World Cup in Melbourne where they’re aiming to break the world record attendance for a women’s sporting event ( 90,185 from the 1999 FIFA World Cup final).

They’re flying in Billie Jean King and employing Katie Perry as entertainment but, with 16-year-old Indian wonderkid Shafali Verma involved, it should sell out anyway.

Verma comes from the same very conservative Hindu state that produced Kapil Dev but, at nine, there was no girls cricket in her town and no boy’s club would accept her.

So her father cut her hair and enrolled her as a boy.

Her old school now has girls’ teams but such obstacles still aren’t confined to religious or cultural differences.

This week, via 20x20, we heard Rebecca McMahon (15), a member of the FAI’s U16 girls’ squad, explain how she had to initially play with a boy’s team for similar reasons.

When it got “competitive, around nine to 10” she’d only get on in the last 10 minutes.

She plays for Ireland now but still hears that old brickbat: ‘Sure it’s easy to get on the girls’ team - youse aren’t as good as boys.’

“It feels sometimes like our achievements are diminished because we’re girls,” she said.

Heartbreaking to hear in 2020.

New initiatives don’t always get it right or attract consensus.

The T20 World Cup’s been criticised for having no semi-final ‘reserve’ day for weather delays, giving India free passage past England into the final.

#FilltheMCG coincides with another IWD initiative, Britain’s #JustJockeys campaign, which stresses that no gender differentiation is needed or wanted in horseracing.

Polar opposite campaigns yet room for both surely?

In Ireland 20x20 has coincided with, and arguably caused, others to up their game, including media, national governing bodies (NGBs) and sponsors.

Sport Ireland’s been funding NGB’s own women in sport (WIS) projects since 2005 yet had no formal WIS policy itself, which was always puzzling.

In 2018 they finally produced one, set up a women’s sport committee (chaired by Lynn Cantwell) and, in 2019, employed their first fulltime WIS lead (Nora Stapleton).

So, have things improved? Irrefutably.

Have we a long way to go still? Yes.

Like, what could even a fraction of Mick McCarthy’s €1.1m ‘exit fee’ from the FAI do for the development end of the women’s game and rising talent like Rebecca McMahon?

The hashtag for 2020 International Women’s Day is a worthy #eachforequal.

But sport, surely, demands something more active, tangible and assertive.

So I’m suggesting #pleasurebentwomen.

I really regret never meeting or seeing Una O’Connor in action but suspect she’d approve.

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