The sport has come a long way from being promoted alongside tug-of-war competitions and dancers at carnivals and fairs

Ladies' football in Ireland has come a long way from the 1960s when it was considered a novelty act. Historian Hayley Kilgallon spoke at the Sidelines, Tramlines and Hemlines - Women in Irish Sport conference earlier this year about the emergence of ladies' football and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association. She joined Myles Dungan on RTÉ Radio 1's History Show to talk about some key events in the evolution of the sport. 

Kilgallon started by highlighting a letter to The Sunday Independent in 1967. "This farmer wrote to the Sunday Independent, calling on the GAA to ban women from attending the upcoming All-Ireland finals", she said. "He said that women would take up valuable space in Croke Park. But he went a bit further, saying that the sight of women, outside the home, up in the city for fun and enjoyment, was revolting and unnatural to him."

However, it turns out the the farmer was very much alone in his views. "All the responses published by the Sunday Independent a week later argued against the farmer, and they came from men and women. They said that women were human beings, not mechanical instruments, and that if the GAA was a male-only organisation, as he said, then match attendances and gate receipts would be much lower. I think it gives an interesting insight there into women's place in society at the time, and the way society was reassessing the traditional role of women."

From RTÉ 2fm's Game On, Brid Stack on the increasing interest in ladies' football in Cork

The sport first emerged in fairly inauspicious circumstances. "We first started to see ladies' Gaelic football appear at carnival tournaments in the late 1960s, and it was advertised alongside traditional carnival activities like tug-of-war competitions and dancers. It was seen as an activity that would just bring in a bit of extra money to these carnivals.

"At the same time, you start to see workplaces and county associations organise tournaments themselves, often for charity. In 1969, a tournament took place in Tipperary that was a charity tournament, and the Offaly County Association included ladies' Gaelic football on their county sports day in '73. There's evidence that by 1973, it was played in about 16 counties, or had been played at that time, but mainly on a small local scale.

Ladies' football was advertised alongside traditional carnival activities like tug-of-war competitions and dancers

The 1970s was when the women's movement was on the rise worldwide and Ireland was no exception to this. "I don't think you can ignore the fact that there was a strong women's movement at the time, and it definitely created pathways for women to get involved in public life more than they had previously", said Kilgallon.

"In the research I did, I didn't find any motivation from the women who were playing Gaelic football to do so out of a feminist agenda. They were just looking for an active social life outside of the home, and that was their main driving factor to play Gaelic football."

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report on Pauline Gibbons, the first nun to line out in an All Ireland Football Final

While 1973 saw the first All-Ireland final for ladies football, it was the 1977 decider which attracted more attention - thanks to Sister Pauline. "In 1977, Roscommon reached the All-Ireland final, and they were to play Cavan. But prior to the All-Ireland semi-final, one of their players, Pauline Gibbons, left to take her vows as a nun in England. So ahead of the All-Ireland final, the Roscommon County Board wrote to her mother superior and asked for special permission for Pauline to play the final, which her mother superior gave her.

"I believe sister Pauline was nicknamed George Best in her convent. Unfortunately despite the prayers, Roscommon ended up as runners-up, and Cavan were the All-Ireland champions in '77."

Hear the discussion in full below (begins at 5.50)