On Thursday, February 6th 2015, I had the honour of speaking at the Evening Echo Ladies Sports Awards Luncheon, which recognise the sporting achievements of Cork women across all disciplines. Here are my thoughts…
Pic: David Keane, Evening Echo
Award winners, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted and hugely honoured to have been invited to speak at today’s event. I’m also very humbled to be here in the presence of so many fantastic women who have achieved so highly in their sports – much may have been made recently of my election as the first woman vice-chairman of Cork County Board, but really that’s a very minor achievement compared to the heights reached by today’s award winners. When I was asked to do this, my first reaction was to wonder what exactly I would have to say that could be of any interest to anyone at this event. I’m still not sure!!!
However, there are a couple of important messages that I would like to get out there, so I decided to take this opportunity.
I suppose I am an example of what involvement in sport has to offer to everyone – we can’t all be star players but we can all contribute in some way, and we can all benefit hugely. When I think of my own attempts at various times to actually play sport, I’m always reminded of that song we learned at school – All God’s Creatures Got a Place in the Choir. You know – some sing low and some sing higher and so on? Well when it came to singing, I was in the “some just clap their hands” category, and sadly, it was pretty much the same when it came to camogie, hockey and volleyball. However, the fact that I couldn’t play did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm, and I was probably very lucky to grow up in Killeagh as a contemporary of players like Joe Deane, Mark Landers and Mary O’Connor who brought great underage success to the club. Many happy hours spent shouting on sidelines and hanging out of car windows in victory parades ensured that I was hooked from an early age.
For a tiny village, Killeagh also experienced phenomenal success on the camogie field during my childhood, winning five County Senior titles and an All-Ireland club championship in the 1980s alone. Greats of the game like Cathy Landers, mother of Cork hurling star Seamus Harnedy, Pat Moloney and Patsy Keniry captained Cork teams, and the first time my slightly over-protective parents allowed me off on a bus trip on my own was to go and watch Cork play at Buffers’ Alley in Wexford. I can’t remember the result and in fact I think Cork probably lost, but I realised that day that sport was something that could bring with it both independence and community. That day, I was out on my own, free of parental influence, but also part of something much bigger.
And of course, that sense of community is one of the huge attractions of involvement in sport. Whether you practice an individual sport or are part of a team, whether you are an administrator, a star player or the person who cuts the grass, you are part of something bigger, and that sense of belonging fulfils a basic human need. For me, being part of the GAA community means that no matter where I am, I will find someone who shares that community. I often joke that whenever I meet new people, I can tell instantly whether they are sports people or not when they ask where I’m from. When I say I’m from Killeagh, if they’re not sports people, they’ll say “Where’s that?”. If they are, they’ll say “Joe Deane”!
In terms of my own personal development, there is no doubt that my involvement with the GAA has brought huge benefits. All my life, I’ve suffered from what has been at times crippling shyness, and coupled with an introverted personality, my involvement in sports administration has forced me out of my comfort zone and helped me to conquer this to some degree. At all the difficult times in my life, I’ve had to pick myself up and keep going because there was a match to go to or a meeting to attend, and of course, whether as a player or a fan, nothing beats that winning feeling.
Ladies and gentlemen, the point I really want to make here is that sport has something to offer to everyone. We can’t all be stars on the field, like the fantastic women honoured here today by the Evening Echo, but we can all find a place, whether as administrators, backroom staff, helpers, or most importantly of all, supporters.
And that’s the other point I want to get across today. You are all well aware that women’s sports don’t have the level of support that men’s sports do. You are all well aware that women’s sports don’t get the media coverage that men’s sports do. And you are all well aware that women’s sports don’t get the level of funding that men’s sports do.
There have been encouraging signs lately – Liberty Insurance’s sponsorship of both the hurling and camogie championships is a huge step forward and an example of the benefits of bringing all our Gaelic sports under one umbrella. There is no doubt that this has helped to raise the profile of the game. Ambassadors like Anna Geary have become household names and I think it’s safe to say that Anna is now as recognisable a presence as any current Cork hurler. The achievements of Briege Corkery, a former overall winner of these awards and also a monthly winner in 2014, simply cannot be ignored, and again have done much to raise the profile of women’s Gaelic Games.
RTE’s coverage of women’s rugby is another green shoot, and I’ve no doubt that the recent formation of the Women’s GPA will benefit elite camogie and ladies football players in achieving some of the benefits enjoyed by their male counterparts. Locally, journalists like Mary White are constantly pushing and publicising women’s sports and certainly anyone who follows Mary on Twitter can have no excuse for not knowing what’s going on!
Slowly but surely barriers are breaking down – other encouraging examples recently have been the increasing appointments of women referees for men’s games, and the nomination of Stephanie Roche for the Puskas award, and hopefully the day will come when occurrences like these are the norm rather than the exception.
However, the bottom line for broadcasters and publishers has to be demand. Commercial organisations have other goals besides the promotion of sports – they will publish or broadcast whatever sells. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where we come into it. While there are many people in this room who are participants in and huge supporters of women’s sports, there are many others who are not and may have never attended a women’s sports event. The legendary Eamonn Ryan has highlighted this issue, saying that “One of the problems with women’s sport is that it needs more support from other women.” In the same article, he pointed out that this is not just an Irish problem, and that despite the difference in population, there were probably more women at the All-Ireland Ladies’ Football Final than there were at the women’s FA Cup Final. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation – if we can increase interest in women’s sports events, they are likely to get more coverage, but how can we increase interest without more coverage?
We can’t as individuals control what the media do, but we can control our own actions. I’m calling on everyone here today, but particularly those who are not regular attenders, to make a small and simple commitment – in 2015, make the effort to go to just ONE more women’s sports event than you normally would, and if possible, bring someone with you and spread the word. As the Chinese proverb says, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Gaelic games and rugby are my favourite sports, but there is something for everyone out there, and with so many disciplines represented here today: basketball, swimming, camogie and ladies football, hockey, handball, kickboxing, soccer, athletics and rugby, there is really no excuse for any of us. And the good news in these tough economic times is that it will probably cost you a lot less than it would to attend the male equivalent! I’d be the first to admit that I haven’t been the greatest attender at women’s games in recent years, and I’m determined to take on this commitment myself and I hope many of you will too.
Of course, it’s not all about women supporting women, though that is very important. I certainly wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today without the support of men, and whether we like it or not, men play dominant roles in many women’s sports. I’ve been asked a number of times recently if being a woman has been any barrier to my progress in the GAA, and hand-on-heart, I cannot say it has ever stopped me. The fact that I am now vice-chairman of Cork County Board is largely due to the many men who have encouraged my involvement from day one, from club level right up to the current president of the GAA, who is a huge supporter of women. It’s not the case across the board, but many of our women’s teams and individuals are coached by men, many of the top administrators in women’s sporting organisations are men, referees are men… The list goes on. And there’s nothing wrong with that – despite the old joke that women who seek equality with men are selling themselves short, my dream is an equal world, where men and women are represented more or less equally in all relevant areas of life. I look forward to the day when a woman being elected to a senior position in the GAA or a woman being appointed to referee a men’s game will be no more newsworthy than if it was the other way around. But as women, we need support and encouragement from the men in our lives if we are to achieve highly, be they our fathers, brothers, partners or friends.
My mother has always been a very inspirational figure in my life and I have always been well aware of this – her support, encouragement and unconditional love have always been clear to me. However, when studying for a Masters in Education some years ago, I learned that the support of a father or father-figure can be hugely significant in the development of girls, and this caused me to reflect on my relationship with my father. He was was, in some respects, a rather hands-off dad who left the difficult parenting tasks to my mother, or maybe as my sister says, he was just afraid of me! However, he was a constant supporting presence in my life. We had a farm, and with no boys in the family and I being the eldest, I was always out on the farm with him, feeding cattle or lambing sheep or doing whatever needed to be done and there was no special treatment because I was a girl. One of the most important lessons I learned from him was that being a woman should never be a barrier to anything I might want to achieve.
Once upon a time, one of Shakepeare’s characters uttered the immortal lines: “Her voice was ever soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman.” Society has moved on a lot from those days, but to the men out there, I urge you to believe in the women in your lives, especially if you have daughters, let their voices be heard and do everything you can to further their ambition while at the same time letting them know that you love them no matter what.
And so to today’s winners – what an amazing array of talent! According to tennis legend, Billie Jean King, “A champion is afraid of losing. Everyone else is afraid of winning,” and certainly none of these monthly award winners are afraid of winning! I want to congratulate you today on your achievements so far, some of which have been truly momentous, and to wish you well in your future endeavours. I attended the 96FM C103 Sports Awards last Friday night, and had no problem in predicting an overall winner as the joint achievements of Anna Geary and Briege Corkery were head-and-shoulders above all the other very worthy monthly recipients, but faced with the quality of the monthly winners of these awards, I couldn’t even begin to predict who might take the overall title! One thing is certain, however, and that is that you are all winners and that your efforts are vital to the promotion of your various sports and to women’s sport in general. In terms of your achievements, the rest of us can only look on and admire, but one thing we all have in common is a shared love of sport and a recognition of its value in our lives. To quote former American soccer player Mia Hamm, “If you don’t love what you do, you won’t do it with much conviction or passion.” I don’t think that’s a problem for any of us!
I want to finish up by reading the last verse of a wonderful poem, Phenomenal Woman, by the recently deceased inspirational American poet, Maya Angelou, which I dedicate to all today’s award winners.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman