The history of the women’s game on the island of Ireland is comparatively short, though it has had its moments of controversy, and brilliance, not least in the form of a young Inchicore player who became an Italian sensation, writes Donal Fallon.

Dick, Kerr's Ladies in 1921

The Irish national team’s recent stance against the FAI shone the spotlight on women’s football and women’s sport in general. Donal Fallon of Come Here to Me charts the history of the women’s game in Ireland, which though short, has had its moments of brilliance, and controversy. 

Football, Oscar Wilde proclaimed, “is all very well as a game for rough girls, but is hardly suitable for delicate boys.” The football authorities of the world haven’t always agreed with Oscar’s observation, and in many ways it has been a serious battle for women to be taken seriously as footballers globally.

In recent weeks, the controversy around the manner in which Ireland’s international women’s team have been treated by the Football Association of Ireland has brought the spotlight very much onto women’s football here. By comparison to our neighbouring island, the history of the women’s game on the island of Ireland is comparatively short, though it has had its moments of controversy, and has also produced its moments of brilliance, not least in the form of a young Inchicore player who became an Italian sensation.

Women’s football had something of a moment in Britain in the early twentieth century – indeed, one particularly famous clash was played in front of a spectator audience in excess of fifty thousand people in 1920. The period around the First World War was good for women’s soccer, and good for women’s pockets. The munitions industry saw women in their tens of thousands entering the labour force. In the absence of men, busy risking life and limb in the trenches of Europe, women proved more than willing to take up positions on football pitches too.

The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies F.C in Preston emerged as a particularly strong team against the backdrop of wartime Britain, and formed the nucleus of an English squad that defeated a Scottish women’s select 22-0 in 1920. They emerged from the company Dick, Kerr & Co, a locomotive manufacturer rushed into wartime service as a munitions factory. The football team would become internationally renowned, and was by no means unique in Britain. In January 1921, the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team drew a large crowd to Belfast, when they took on an Irish selection. It was clear that early advocates of women’s soccer here looked to the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies for inspiration.

Female munitions workers in Britain had even taken part in soccer leagues, but the British F.A grew increasingly cold to the idea of their participation in the sport, and in 1921 the hammer came down. A resolution passed by the F.A stated that “Council feels impelled to express the strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged.” The wonderful Dick, Kerr’s Ladies team struggled on, not hindered by the misogyny of the F.A, and their manager proclaimed that “the team will continue to play, if the organisers of charity matches will provide grounds, or even if we have to play on ploughed fields.”

Lazio's Anne O'Brien (right) Image: LazioWiki
Lazio’s Anne O’Brien (right) Image: LazioWiki

Any history of sport – indeed any history of anything – in an Irish context is shaped by the course of Irish history and the question of Irish national identity.  In a country where GAA founder Michael Cusack had rallied against “the foreign faction, the Orange Catholics and the West Britons” who dared to kick a football in the Phoenix Park, politics and sport were inseparable. While British female factory workers looked to soccer, many young women in Ireland would turn to An Cumann Camóigeachta, founded in 1905. Sports historian Paul Rouse has maintained that “early Camogie players were pioneers who flew in the face of public opinion; many hid their hurls under their coats as they travelled to play, in order to deflect ridicule from the wider populace”.

Many women in Ireland turned to sport for the same reasons as women in England of course, but there was the added dimension of Irish politics. Cáit Ni Dhonnchada, a young Camogie player, wrote in 1911 that “We want something to supplement the ballroom and the skating rink. We want to organise the womanhood of Ireland into one grand body, whose sole object, under that of national emancipation, would be the raising of our sex from the slough of a false and foreign civilisation.”

In the newly independent Ireland, the question of women’s participation in sport was wrapped up in religious moralism, as were most questions. John Charles McQuaid loudly denounced the National Athletic and Cycling Association for increasing women’s participation in the early 1930s, something he denounced as “un-Catholic and un-Irish”. One newspaper that rallied to his cause maintained that “On the grounds of delicacy and modesty there is grave objection to women taking part in athletics with men, and women should not be blind to this.” It was clear to some that a woman’s place was in the home, and certainly not on a football pitch or a running track.

And yet, things did improve. The 1960s and 1970s brought a sort of renaissance moment for women’s football in these islands. In Britain, this was undoubtedly inspired by the hosting of the 1966 World Cup in England, when the beautiful game was beamed into millions of homes. The Women’s Football Association was born in 1969, and four short years later came the Ladies Football Association of Ireland, later the Women’s Football Association of Ireland.

The 1970s, as historian Diarmuid Ferriter’s survey history of the decade suggests, was in many ways Ireland’s 1960s. Rock festivals arrived, Catholics entered Trinity College, feminism made its presence felt and women took up football.  Just as it had in England, football thrived here among young women, in particular in working class urban areas. Finglas produced the wonderfully named Suffragettes FC, while Ballyfermot gave us the All Stars. Like in wartime Britain, women’s teams were still often drawn from workplaces; the Vards team was drawn from the workforce of Julian Vard’s furriers on Harcourt Street, while other teams came from women in the civil service.

The sport received significant media coverage, and there was great hope when young Inchicore footballer Anne O’Brien departed these shores at the age of eighteen, signed by French club Stade de Rheims. Anne told one journalist before departure that she’d been informed “the only alcohol we are allowed is locally-sourced champagne.” Her remarkable career would bring a few bottles of champagne, with league victories at Stade de Reims and Lazio. She would later manage Lazio’s women’s steam, and even managed the Italian national Under-17 side. At the time of her passing last September, journalist Aisling Crowe rightly heralded her as “the best Irish sportswoman that you never knew.”

Was there reason to be hopeful in the 1970s beyond these shores? When FIFA sent a questionnaire to footballing bodies in 135 countries, some responses suggested not. One country simply replied “May God have mercy on us”, while Paraguay repeated the claim in their rule book that football was against “the natural femininity of women.” FIFA took little confidence from the responses, noting that “the answers show that women’s football has still a long way to go before being more widely accepted as a sport suitable for, and practised by, women.”

Certainly, there remains a lot of work to be done both in Ireland and internationally to promote women’s football, and to encourage more women to partake in sports generally.  Let us hope that future reports on our women’s team focus on successes on the pitch, and not controversy off it.

Donal Fallon writes for Come Here To Me, a group blog that focuses on the life and culture of Dublin City. Music, history, football, politics and pubs all feature.

Main image: Dick, Kerr Ladies, 19219 WikiCommons