First Amongst Women

My  initial introduction to the gaelic sporting experience was through the primary school competitive structures of the nineties. My two children Shane and Ciara attended our local school in Lettergesh and there was a very intense footballing rivalry between the four schools of the parish at that time. Shane was able to further his involvement at club level and played at midfield on the Renvyle Under 14 team that won a first ever county league title in 1999. It was a different scenario for Ciara however. There could be no continuity for her as there was no club structure, so when I received a phone call of invitation completely out of the blue in June 2001, to attend a meeting in the parish hall for the purpose of setting up a local unit of the LGFA, I was both intrigued and delighted, and made it my business to attend. Falling numbers had necessitated some of the local schools joining forces for football competitions in the preceding two years yet this was a development that I could see great merit in for my daughter in particular, because it afforded her a great opportunity to broaden her social horizons locally, something that Renvyle GAA was already doing for my son. The amalgamated school teams had helped to engender a spirit of togetherness and friendship among girls from different ends of the parish and I was confident that the establishment of a club could only serve to enhance same.

07D killannin forum 2007-NEEDS CAPTION

The meeting was attended by about twenty mothers, all of whom had daughters playing football. We were all permanent residents of the parish of Letterfrack-Ballinakill but when Paul Gannon outlined his plans for an inter parochial or regional entity covering the whole of West Connemara, we were sold on the concept straight away because we could see the vast potential that lay therein, and not just in the sporting sense. I had never heard of Grace O Malley but as I listened to the impromptu history lesson that night, I found myself relating to her experience on a number of different levels. I love the sea which plays a big part in my life’s work and I had embarked on a few maritime voyages of my own over the years. More importantly however, I was fascinated at how a woman living in sixteenth century Gaelic Ireland could assert and establish herself in the manner in which she did. When I first settled in West Connemara over four hundred years later, I somewhat dismayed at the very low profile of women in both sport and business and felt very much like a fish out of water in the latter in particular, as I tried to build up my own from scratch.

photo 24

Although our founder was a man, he was adamant from the outset that he wanted our new independent female sporting organisation to be controlled and administered by women, so in a sense, he was throwing down the gauntlet to us, to take him up on the challenge. I could see that we were being  presented  with a huge opportunity to open up new opportunities and avenues, to set sail on a series of exciting voyages to different destinations and to forge a new identity that would empower and sustain us over a very long period of time. He assured us that he would take care of the technical development of the young players as well as the secretarial responsibilities re County Board matters and then proceeded to outline the other key positions that needed to be filled. When I was nominated for the position of Chairperson on that historic night, I readily accepted the role. I felt reasonably confident that the bank of experience that I had built up through years of involvement in the patriarchal world of business and commerce, would enable me to make a meaningful impact on the coalface of Grainne Mhaols LGFA. I am a pragmatist at heart with a hard work ethic and good organisational and communicative skills, which I felt I could put to good use in a spirit of volunteerism, at the head of our newly established Executive Committee which was distinctly female in character.

The above is Paul’s take on the early years of the club. I remember representing Grainne Mhaols as Chairperson in Clifden one evening when the successful Galway Senior team with Lisa Coohill came to display the Brendan Martin Cup and thinking that my accent was very English when I welcomed them!   I have many memories of travelling all over the county to places I old never have thought of visiting and seeing the amazing positives that LGFA brought to so many girls. The conversations of the younger members in the back of the car, never down for too long even if they lost, provided many a happy hour and will never be forgotten. The triumphs and disasters, from winning the U16 in Pearse Stadium to  losing out on a place in the All Ireland final after a late collapse in Kerry,  to weekends away just playing for the love of sport, all of these are great memories to hold on to.

Looking back on the whole experience all these years later how does one measure the achievement? It is perhaps to remember back to the early nineties and the small shoots of new found self confidence that were sprouting in the various groups of local girls. Perhaps the biggest positive was that the club’s success mirrored that of Ireland’s growth into the new century and the increase in the girls’ self esteem was huge. Wherever the girls went across West Connemara they would forge new friendships with others and for those who went further into the county set up, the same applied.  Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity was the failure of the Conamara representative team to gain official entry into the inter county structure after performing so admirably in the 2008 Connacht Junior Championship. The pride that all the Connemara girls took in this was wonderful to behold and Grainne Mhaols were an integral part of the whole dynamic. Was not the whole point of LGFA to get as many girls playing as possible. Were we really that much of a threat out on the western seaboard.

Seeing Grainne Mhaols go from strength set many of us along a journey that spanned over a decade (and for Paul, he is close to a second!). I helped out coaching various teams from U14 to Senior. I refereed a challenge match in Galway City with almost no knowledge of the rules, solving any disputes or fouls with a series of hopped balls before blowing the final whistle five minutes prematurely in order to avoid fisticuffs. Perhaps my most frightening moment was when I played for the club’s adult B team in Killannin in the goalkeeping position as some of the players hadn’t turned up and I was a registered player for the purposes of coaching. Living the reality of endless players haring down on me, determined to hit the ball as hard as they could in my direction and I was supposed to save it-gave me a new found respect and awe for Becky Heanue-and still gives me nightmares, although I would have to add that the endless cheers from the girls on the sideline whenever I laid hands on the ball was very heartening.

I ended up an assistant on the Galway U14 Management team ( a very junior one as my knowledge of the game had only recently been learnt) and ultimately I went forward from the club as a representative on the Galway Ladies Football Board Executive Committee where I spent two interesting years as Child Welfare Officer, a role I fulfilled for a number of years with Grainne Mhaols also. Altogether it was a wonderful journey alongside many different people who I would never have got to known through my professional life but from whom I learnt so much. So thanks for the memories and good luck into the future.

Written by Mary Young and Paul Gannon