'It's not political. It's about racism. I was so angry' - Antrim ladies footballer Dahunsi calls on GAA for support

Antrim star Lara Dahunsi describes the racist abuse she has suffered playing ladies football.
'It's not political. It's about racism.  I was so angry' - Antrim ladies footballer Dahunsi calls on GAA for support

Still just 18, Lara Dahunsi was named at midfield in the LGFA’s team of the league for Division 4 last year. At 16, she was Ulster’s young player of the year.

What did she hear from opponents after those accolades? That it was tokenism.

“People say to me, it was because you’re the only black girl. They just want to use you for advertising.”

Cork ladies footballer Niamh Cotter yesterday asked the Gaelic games family to pledge support to the anti-racism movement.

She tweeted: “Very disappointed with the lack of response by the GAA, LGFA and Camogie assoc to the anti-racism movement. Missed opportunity to pledge to further promote an inclusive environment. Citing being a ‘non-political organisation’ not good enough when basic human rights at issue.”

Any action they take would mean an awful lot to Dahunsi.

In the last few days, Lara felt some of the old anger rise up again, the fury she has pledged to control. The anger that has got her in trouble on the pitch. When she has lashed out after suffering racist abuse.

There are several depressing aspects of her story of playing county football. It’s tragic enough that she still has to put up with all the same things her father endured when he came to Dublin from Nigeria at 19 more than two decades ago. It’s wrong too that Lara is almost reproaching herself for not being better able to deal. To turn the other cheek.

“My dad always tells me that because I’m the only black girl on the pitch, people will try to make racist comments to wind me up. And if I do something stupid, like start a fight, everyone will remember because I’m a minority.

“But my discipline is bad. I can’t hold back my anger. And I think people do it because they know I can’t. I know the best thing to do is to laugh it off.

“I got sent off once, it was a bad tackle. But it was to get anger out on the girl that said something racist towards me.

“My dad has told me, I know I should just put the ball over the bar and score goals and just make people be quiet and understand that we’re all the same. We all train. Race has literally nothing to do with how good you are or how bad you are.”

Lara shares a small taste of some of the stuff she puts up with.

“When I started playing, people were saying to me, why are you even playing Gaelic. You’re not even from here. And I say, I was born and bred in Dublin, my family grew up around it.

“It comes from other teams, other players. And people watching too. Women my own age, who’d understand I’m the only black girl on the pitch.

“Stuff like, 'why don’t you wash off that tan?'

“Or you’d hear them shouting among themselves, ‘you’re marking the black girl’.

“When I was younger, I probably thought it was, not normal… but now I’ve probably become aware of it, and have more anger towards it.

“In one match, I got brought to the side of the pitch before the game by our manager who told me to be careful because the team was known for being racist. I just think it’s disgusting that I’ve had to be told that.

“There was one time when there was really racial abuse towards me, and other players were getting involved, obviously having my back. And the referee just brushed it off.

“I think referees just let it brush under the mat, because it’s not going to happen in the next game. Because there won't be any black people in the next game. “

And it doesn’t even make a difference when they hear the accent?

“No,” she laughs, in a Belfast twang with a fair sprinkling of Tallaght still there.

She has never played against another black woman at senior level, club or county. But at least she had her two sisters alongside her, Abbey and Chloe,

Chloe also played for Antrim and was on the Team of the League in 2017.

“But she stopped playing for a while and that was one of the reasons. She just got fed up with it.

“I feel like other people are probably sick of being called names, and tired of hearing stuff and it pulls them away from the sport. Which shouldn't be the case. It should be growing.

“At club level, I don't get much in Antrim, Because I know the girls on the other teams, they are my friends. But when it goes outside of Antrim, it’s worse. They say what they say because they don’t have other black girls on their team.”

She has heard the stories from young black Gaelic footballers in the last few days, the likes of Stefan Okunbur and Franz Sauerland. She figures it’s probably worse in the men’s game. And she cannot understand why all the GAA bodies can’t issue some statement of support.

The LGFA and GAA point to the work they do behind the scenes for inclusion, but point out they can't make political statements.

Though the Antrim LGFA did support the Blackout Tuesday campaign on Twitter.

Antrim PRO Ciara Devine said they decided, as an executive, it was the right thing to do, particularly with Lara being the only black inter-county senior ladies player they are aware of.

Lara doesn't see why this is a political issue.

“My club didn’t put up a statement or anything. I texted them to see if they would. And in my head I was thinking they would, with me being the only black girl playing for their team.

“I was really annoyed that they didn’t and I left my group chat because I was angry. Because the support wasn’t there.

“They said they couldn't because it’s a political thing. I said it’s not, it’s about racism. They make statements about everything else, so why not now."

She acknowledges the backing within Gaelic games for the Pride movement.

“That would be the same.”

Education, she supposes, is the solution to all this. But really how often do people need to be told?

“It’s actually crazy in my mind that people need to be taught about it. They should know. But for a start probably education. Younger people need to have the knowledge of what’s right and wrong.”

Last year, she kicked four points from play as Antrim beat Fermanagh in a thriller to capture the Ulster Ladies Junior Championship.

Will she be playing football in 10 years, even if she has to turn the other cheek?

“Yes. I just love football. I got an unconditional offer to go to college in Liverpool but I want to stay here and play uni football.

“I want to play and raise awareness for other black girls who are scared to play or scared to deal with racism.”

She’s been to the Black Lives Matters protests in Belfast.

“It’s really good. No drama, really peaceful. And I’m wearing the mask and gloves.”

And will she be enduring the same things her father did in 10 years, in 20?

Despite all she has heard in her young life, there’s the resilient optimism of 18.

“I feel like it will be better. With everything that’s going on I feel the younger generation have more knowledge of what’s going on. Maybe in 20 years’ time, I feel like it’ll still be there but maybe not as bad. Hopefully.”

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