Opinion: when the GAA was founded, there was no suggestion that women should play the games, so how and when did this change?

By Paul Rouse, UCD

The place of women within hurling and the broader hurling world is absolutely reflective of the place of women in Irish society. You look at what was happening in the 1880s and the establishment of the GAA and the hurling championship and everything. There are women everywhere, but they’re all around the sidelines or they’re in the background. There is no suggestion that they should play, none. It doesn’t seem to have dawned on anyone.

When he founded the Gaelic Athletic Association, Michael Cusack made huge play about the fact that the association would be open to everyone. That this was not for the rich, but it was also for the poor. Basically, if you wanted to play, you could play.

But his "everyone" was male. There was no suggestion that women should play the games and indeed, women themselves wrote to Michael Cusack. A woman called Annie Butler from Rathmines wrote to Cusack in 1887 and said "look, I understand we can’t be playing members of the association but we could at least decorate the jerseys for the boys". This was instructive of a mind and of a time, absolutely reflective of the place of women in society at the time.

From RTÉ Archives, a camogie match in Mayo in 1956 filmed by PJ Gilmore

So how did it change and when did it change? It began to change in the late 1890s and early 1900s, as a small group of women developed a more independent life within Irish society. They came to Dublin and were working as teachers or civil servants and in various industries. They became involved in the Gaelic League and they saw men playing hurling in the Gaelic League and resolved to do the same thing for themselves

In 1903, a small group of women, assisted by a very small group of men, went to the Phoenix Park on a tram, up to the back corner and started hitting a ball around. Between 1903 and 1905, this game of camogie was invented.

This was the ideology of the time: Women should not be involved in such robust competition

Now, why was it given a different name? Well of course, the story of the time is partly to do with the ideology of sport at the time and the idea that there were games that were appropriate for men, where they could show their manliness, their courage, their vigour, all those things for which men are famous. And women, of course, should not be involved in such robust competition. This was the ideology of the time.

If you look at pictures of those first games of camogie and you look at the clothes that people are wearing, it’s restrictive dress and ankle-length skirts. You wonder how someone can move at all, let along hit a ball. Go forward 10 years and you look at the transformation. The flow of the play. How unbelievably competitive the game became. The notion that women are less competitive than men or the notion that women are less sporting than men is, of course, a nonsense.

Senior inter-county players at the launch of the 2018 championship

But what is real are the restrictions on women within society, both now and then, and the perceptions of women within society, both now and then. It is true, undeniably true, that there are probably more women playing Gaelic games in Ireland now than ever played before. But it’s still a small number compared to the number of boys and their position within the sporting world is still lesser.

READ: Paul Rouse on the roots of the greatest sport on earth

The manner in which they were treated is much diminished compared to the manner in which men are treated. And that's because of two things. This is the legacy of history and the fact that at the start of the sporting revolution women were excluded. And it is also the enduring position of women within Irish society so it’s a reflection of both things.

This piece is taken from an interview given by Paul Rouse for The Game: The Story of Hurling, the RTÉ One three-part TV series which concludes next Monday 

Dr Paul Rouse, is a lecturer in the School Of History at UCD. His new book The Hurlers: The First All-Ireland Championship and the Making of Modern Hurling will be published by Penguin in September


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ