The Square Ball: Trials and Tribulations Of A Sassenach Mother

Where do I start? Fifteen years ago I had never even seen a Gaelic football match. Hurling was a delight yet to be sampled. The understanding of the square ball was a mystery unknown. Forty shades of green? I only knew the holly and the ivy. Let’s start at the very beginning and go back to 6th June 2001. Paul Gannon had a dream of starting a girls’ (don’t interrupt me now – the “women’s” team came later) team. We met in the Marian Hall, Tullycross and the twenty of us present ( all of us like myself having ferried children to and from matches during their time at national school) colluded in the idea that our far-flung community could take on the rest of Galway (our ambitions were small at first) in helping to blaze a trail for our daughters. Many hundreds (thousands?) of miles down the road, I can only say it was a brilliant notion.

I was elected (heaven only knows why) to be the representative of the newly formed club to the County Ladies Board. Anne Mullen and myself were the first appointees of the Gráinne Mhaols. Before they’d even played a match, we attended our first meeting in Tuam. I had fondly hoped that Anne would be considerably more knowledgeable than myself (no one could have been less) but she was as nervous as I. We had nothing to bring to the party, and as rows waged concerning non-shows at matches, accusations of unnecessary cancellation of fixtures and bad refereeing, I knew I was not the woman for the job. As fate would have it however, I never voluntarily give in even when I know I’m completely incompetent and not up to the job. I had for health reasons to take a year of absence. No bother, said him-in-doors. I’ll go in your place. So now Gráinne Mhaols were being represented by a pony-tailed man in a cowboy hat, who had probably never seen a match in his life. (He’s a musician, and tends to avoid life until after dark). Himself and P J Fahy got on immediately so I regret to note that my unavoidable absence went unmourned. But I digress.

We started off with two teams, U12s and U14s, and the history of our successes and expansion are being recorded by others much more able to remember what happened. I don’t recall scores or details. I can’t analyse any matches that I have seen with intelligence. However, I do know there were times in the pouring rain when I found myself roaring like a banshee on the sidelines and swearing like a trouper. And all this from a woman who had never been to any game in her life, and did her level best during her teenage years to avoid playing netball in the winter and tennis in the summer (our convent school in east London had no playing fields, of course, so we were limited to small court games). My first brush with football came soon after we moved to Renvyle and I kept hearing about how well the local teams did against teams from much larger communities. I asked a neighbour while pointing out a bunch of children (my own being part of the gang) who were “training” on the side of Leitir Hill. Look at the gradient, he said; when Renvyle get on the flat ground they just fly. Just after this came a moment I can now treasure, though I used to blush. The Sam Maguire Cup came to the local hotel, together with various well known players. I was asked to organise a photographer. As we sat in the foyer, my picture journalist (I really think it would be kindest if he remained nameless) asked me if I could point out Sam Maguire. I looked blank and to my eternal embarrassment, sent him off to ask one of the men who might be able to introduce him. My ignorance was and is still woegeous, though it’s improved over time.

I was supposed to be writing about the ups and downs in the life of a gaelic football mother. I am failing in my task, because the only down I can think of is the travelling. Daughter numero uno played for Galway county for one season (she was spotted whilst playing for Gráinne Mhaols) and then we both decided that we could have driven half way round the world if we added up the miles driven to the outer reaches of Galway. She also prefers playing for her club, and now she has finished school, is looking forward to playing for Gráinne Mhaols without me and the school on her back regarding homework, time management and so on. Our tiny beginnings have now sprouted into a club with U12, U14s,U16s, U18s and Intermediates and we’re setting sights on competing at the highest level of football, Senior! As we have progressed through the ranks, daughter number two seems to be playing for about three of those teams, but as I said, I leave the details to those who know and understand what is occurring.

The plusses of the forming of Gráinne Mhaols have been huge. My girleens have friends throughout West Connemara. I am greeted everywhere I go by mothers of our “opponents” and “dignitaries” of the LGFA. My daughters are fit and healthy, and so proud of their black and white membership of their club .It’s infectious. Perhaps one day, I’ll even learn to understand what a square ball is. Maybe the fun I’ve had (forget about the offspring) more than compensates for my woeful inability to really understand the finer points of the game.
I’ll finish with an anecdote that I think says something about the world to which I was introduced by the forming of Gráinne Mhaols. Himself indoors (ponytail, cowboy hat, rep to the County Board etc….) and myself broke down on our way to Donegal, having dropped the two daughters off at a match en route. Ireland Assist come to our rescue. Our gorgeous saviour pronounces Volvo irreparable until after the weekend. He can offer us either a night in a hotel or a hire car for twenty four hours. Donegal beckons. A car, please, I say. It’s a Bank Holiday weekend, and there’s not a vehicle to be had in Mayo, it seems. No worries, announces Mr Ireland Assist, someone will have a car we can rent. Two and a half hours later, having visited every homestead within a twenty mile radius without finding a motor, we are all getting gloomy.

We keep the conversation light. Children? (Always a goody) I confess to the daughters. ‘’ Are they interested in sport?’’ asks your man. I am anxious to get to Donegal and don’t want to antagonise a Mayo man who is being so helpful. “Yes,” I say, “just dropped them off at a match.” His eyes narrow. “Dunkley? There was a mighty wee girl was playing three weeks ago in Sligo. 3-11 to 2-8, scored a couple of points, so she did. Not a bad player. Hannigan-Dunkley, I think was the name. I live in Mayo, but I’m a Galway man, and having three girls myself, I follow the Galway Ladies. Is that the daughter?” Crushed between himself not-in-doors and our mechanical man I nod appealingly (with optimism). I couldn’t have quoted the stats if you’d hung me up by the ankles. “I’ll not see the mother of a Galway football player left short. Take the wife’s car!” And so we did. We got to Donegal, and when we returned three days later, our recalcitrant Volvo was repaired. I do wish during that two and a half hours trying to find a hire care I’d asked him to explain what the hell a square ball is.

Remembered and written by Eithne Hannigan (RIP)