Play like a girl: Ladies GAA

Continuing his series on women in Trinity’s sporting world, Joel Coussins talks to three of the stars of Trinity’s Ladies Gaelic Football team: Deirdre Kennedy, a 3rd year MSIS student, Petra McCafferty and Michelle Peel, Senior Sophister Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy students respectively.

How did you get into playing ladies football?

D: My town is quite small, and Gaelic was just something you grew up with – in primary and secondary school, and then College was just a continuation of that.

P: My family is heavily involved in the sport; my dad and his brothers help set up our club and my mum, sisters and brother would be on the committee, so I was almost automatically involved with the club.

How often do you train? What do you do in training?

M: Depends on the team. With the college side, we’d have two pitch sessions a week working on ball drills and fitness on the pitch. Then we’d have the gym one morning a week, focussing on strength and conditioning using weights, and doing squats and circuits. Then with county you train two or three times a week depending on matches and my club would be doing three training sessions a week – one strength and conditioning and two pitch sessions, but I don’t go to those at the moment because I don’t have the time!

What sacrifices have you had to make in order to pursue the sport?

M: You’re training so much that having a free evening is a real luxury, so you’re giving up a lot of social events.  At county level you’ll be on a drinking ban for certain periods…

P: I was on one for the best part of six months once for my club – we won the Ulster Championship in the middle of that, so we drank for that, but then the next day they ran the drink out of us in training. During summer, people will even cancel holidays for football – you don’t tend to book holidays for when you know there are big matches on.

D: When I was younger I was big into horse riding and Irish dancing, and you’d show up to dance class with bruises down your leg. Obviously your teacher wouldn’t want you to do both Irish dancing and football, so there came a time when you had to choose and choosing football meant cutting out everything else.

Do you feel that the lack of coverage of ladies football affects participation levels?

P: For sure – when young kids see sports people on television, it gives them someone to idolise, and although TG4 and Lidl do a lot to promote ladies football – and ladies sport in general – there’s not enough content out there, a lot more could be done.

M: If there’s a championship game for the men, it’ll be on social media in the lead up to the game. They’ll tell you the price of tickets, whether or not parking will be an issue and so on; whereas for the ladies championship they might say “best of luck to the girls in tonight’s game”, but you wouldn’t have the same level of build-up. I feel that has to change at club level before it’s going to change at a national level.

Does that discrepancy between men’s and women’s football, especially organisationally, originate at school level?

M: It was very equal at primary school: for a final the whole school would come along to watch, they’d put on buses to the game and everyone would come in their own clothes. Even at secondary school it was pretty good for us wasn’t it?

D: Yeah, you’d certainly have a following at the big games, if not every game.*

P: In primary school our headmaster took charge of the football, and he tended to focus more on the girls’ team because we were more successful, but then in secondary school our team wasn’t really a priority – in sixth year they actually forgot to put on a ladies team!

Is it more prevalent at college level then?

M: There would be more hype for the men’s first team compared with us. I can’t imagine many would come to watch our games. Part of the problem is we play out in Santry – I’d say you’d get more people at the games if we played in College, and we’d be competing at a higher level.

P: You lose so many players – there was a girl last year doing Dentistry who had played for her county but didn’t play for us because she said she didn’t have time to trekking out to Santry. You lose a lot of first year because it is so far away from Trinity Hall.

What are the rules differences between the men’s and women’s games?

M: You can pick the ball straight up off the ground in ladies football, instead of using your toe.

P: If you get a yellow card you get put in the sin bin for ten minutes, and we don’t have black or red cards.

Do those differences annoy you?

P: I don’t like the sin bin rule at all – it feels as though it was the LGFA [Ladies Gaelic Football Association] trying to be different to the men and I don’t think there’s any benefit to it.

D: The game is quite short, so it has more of an impact too. 

Would GAA benefit from becoming a professional sport?

P/D/M: No!

P: I think it would kill the community essence that GAA is built on – it would turn it into an “us and them” mentality between the players at different levels, because you’d have to draw the line somewhere between those players getting paid and those not. Where do you draw that line – do you pay the players but not the man selling lottery tickets for 20 hours a week to fund his club, simply because he’s less talented?

M: Being part of GAA is so much about the passion that you have for the sport and the community and when you go to different countries that essence is still there amongst clubs. If it were professional it would kill the community aspect and instill a sense of elitism – it would strip the sport of the sense that it’s for anyone.

In that case how would you best tackle the problem of participation and interest levels in ladies football and in football in general?

P: The profit made should be put back into grassroots football. We’re quite good at that as a sport – the money doesn’t all go to bonuses for the chairperson, there’s loads of courses put on for people to learn the fundamentals of GAA; however, at county level the revenue from matches is divided based on how successful a team is, which just creates a larger difference between the more and less successful teams. They’re trying to do the right thing, but it’s benefiting some teams more than others.

Perhaps if a funding cap was installed to level the playing field across the teams?

P: You’re on dodgy ground then – my club would be one of the only clubs to field two ladies’ teams, but if we had a limit to what we could spend we’d be at a disadvantage because we’d have to fund both those teams.

M: You could get a situation where clubs wouldn’t bother putting out a second team, and just put the money towards the first team.

What’s better: winning a title with your club or your county?

P: I’ve won an all-Ireland with my club and been quite successful with my county as well and it’s not the same. I’ve always played football with the girls at my club – they were there learning how to play whilst I was learning, they live down the road, so winning with my club was the pinnacle of my career so far. It’s far more dog-eat-dog at county level, whereas with the club you feel much more part of the team, even if you’re not the star of the team.

M: I’d disagree with that: my club suffered some rough years where we lost a lot of players and so club didn’t mean that much to me compared with county football. Also, at the time Meath were playing in all-Ireland finals, so I’d do anything for those girls, all I cared about was winning those titles. Although now it’s kind of the other way round, so I think it also depends on circumstance.

Lastly, what advice would you give to women looking to start playing ladies football?

M: Just go for it. It’s a great way to make friends, and it’s never too late to take it up!

P: If you’ve played any sort of ball game that involves hand-eye coordination then the skills are transferrable; it’s not like camogie, which is very technical, it’s much more beginner friendly. Plus it’s a good way of getting fit.

D: It’s a more active way to stay fit – you don’t mind the work when you’re playing Gaelic. In the gym you’re working purely for fitness, whereas playing football you’re doing it for fitness but also to hang out with your mates.

*Editor’s note: Deirdre and Michelle went to the same secondary school, if you hadn’t already guessed that.


Joel Coussins

Joel is a fourth year Philosophy student and Sport Editor for Trinity News.