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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO
how did we get here

How writing about women's sport has changed over the decades

Behind the Lines: Women’s World Cup Special features Mary Hannigan, Cliona Foley and Emma Duffy.

WHEN I ASKED Mary Hannigan and Cliona Foley – two of the most respected sports writers in the country – to take part in the Behind the Lines podcast (which Gav Cooney graciously allowed me to borrow for this World Cup Special) they both wondered why I had called the accompanying WhatsApp group, ‘The OGs’.

“Cliona, I’m worried ‘OGs’ means Old Girls and is a reference to us,” Mary wrote within minutes. 

A few gifs of the Golden Girls and explanations later, the pair were clear that myself and Emma Duffy of The 42 saw them as The Originals – and particularly important influences on the sporting landscape in Ireland. 

Despite their protestations, they came armed with newspaper clippings and stories that showed decades of knowledge of and reporting on sportswomen’s feats, many of which would have gone unknown and unnoticed if it weren’t for them. 

Cliona recalls interviewing Anne O’Brien – the first Irish female to play professional football outside of this country. This year, her teammates from the 1973 Ireland team received recognition of their international caps for the first time. 

A sign of how far we had to come, rather than how far we have come. 

And that’s a theme of the conversation between the four of us. Listen to the full episode on the Behind the Lines stream on The 42′s app or a 10-minute clip here: 

The42 Podcasts / SoundCloud


Sinéad O’Carroll (SOC): ”What are you most looking forward to covering over the next month or so?”

Mary Hannigan (MH): “I’m just so excited about seeing the likes of Niamh Fahey, Louise Quinn, Diane Caldwell – that group, just playing in a World Cup. I mean, when they come out for that first game in Stadium Australia, I think I’m going to need several boxes of Kleenex, you know, it’s going to be quite a moment for them all.

“And so I kind of think of them. I mean, we’ve some wonderful younger players too. But goodness, when you think of the shift they’ve put in, and probably never would have entered their heads up until not that long ago, really, that this would ever have happened?

So maybe most looking forward to just even witnessing their joy at being part of the whole thing.

“But just the newness of it? We just have no clue how this is going to go. And we were speculating earlier about, ‘Oh maybe Nigeria aren’t as good as we worry they are?’, ‘What way will Canada be because of all their problems?’. It’s a total journey into the unknown and they are always the most exciting ones.”

Cliona Foley (CF): “When you put it into context, and you remember it was April 2017 when some of these women were in Liberty Hall going on strike for their conditions… just the progress that they’ve seen since and I think that’s why you think of people like Louise Quinn, Aine O’Gorman and those people who stood central in the middle of that and spoke up. The effect of what they’ve done is just seismic really and that’s brilliant.

“I’m also really interested in seeing how the country reacts…I can’t believe there’s no World Cup song yet. Nevermind the lack of merchandising… not seeing enough around the streets and the towns.

“There was a brilliant video this week of Denise O’Sullivan saying goodbye – she got a brilliant send off down in Knocknaheeny – that’s the kind of stuff I think is going to engage people as well before the football starts. So I’d love to see even a bigger build up already.”

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“The team themselves ended up singing ‘Olé, Olé, Olé’… Sky had an event for them on Wednesday night in the Mansion House and they all ended up with Gavin James. At the game against Zambia last week, I met these kids from Wexford… they were about eight – and they’ve adapted ‘We’re all part of Vera’s Army’ which was pretty amusing. And Pauw told me that they waited an hour and a half after the match to sing it for her.”

SOC: “Maybe that’s part of it. We just do it ourselves. The little girls are like, ‘Oh, you have no song. Okay, we’ll make up our own.’”

MH: “I was smiling when Sue Ronan was on Off the Ball there the other day. And she was talking about down the years and she was saying there was one particular away match Ireland had where the budget only allowed them to bring 13 players. So they took a gamble on bringing one goalkeeper so at least they’d have two outfield players on the bench. And of course, the goalie got injured in the game, so they had to put an outfield player on. So I was kind of smiling. We’re now bringing four keepers to the World Cup … 
But I thought, my goodness – changed times. That was a fairly wacky contrast.”


SOC: “We’re going to rewind the clock back… you might not remember the first but what were your early gigs covering women’s sport?” 

CF: “Well, the one that stands out for me still, I think again, because of the progress that’s been made since was when I started freelancing in the autumn of ’89. I came out of post-grad college and I pitched a story to The Irish Times because the Kerry women’s football team were going for eight in-a-row and there was absolutely nothing about them anywhere.

“I said I think if I went down to Kerry I might get a story. Malachy Logan was editor at the time, only recently retired and he said, ‘Yeah, okay, see what you get’.”

SOC: “Was he enthusiastic?”

CF: “Yeah he was, because nobody else had suggested it, you know. We just didn’t see them, you know, they weren’t on TV at the time. Nobody knew anything about it really. Except we knew they were brilliant. And I had seen them play a few times. But when I went down, it was a week before the All Ireland right. They’re going for eight in-a-row.

“They were thrown off the pitch they always trained on in Austin Stacks because there was a boys’ underage league starting for eight- to 12-year olds. So they were thrown off that pitch. They went up to Kerins O’Rahilys. There were five people on the sidelines and the players and Mick Fitzgerald, the famous manager. I had a chat with him and all the rest. And then I wandered back over to Stacks to see what was going on down there.

“And there was a load of people down supporting – plenty of women and mothers watching their kids playing. And then there was also in the other club in the town that day, Mitchell’s, there was a men’s league game on. So I went down to that and there was about 200 people at that.

“There wasn’t a flag in sight. There wasn’t a mention on them anywhere apart from probably local media. I mean, literally, there was no coverage.. And they were going for eight in a row and they were a sensational team.”

SOC: ”And how were you plugged into that?”

CF: “I had somehow seen them play once. I can’t even remember where it was, you know, but it was amazing. And it struck me… I asked Mick Fitzgerald – and he was camogie originally, I think – one of the things he said… struck me when when the GAA players, women’s GAA players, last week said they were working to rule. One of the things he said – I have it in the piece – was their commitment is amazing, and no less than many of the male players. [That] was his quote on the day. Now interesting, isn’t it?”

SOC: “And that was in 1989.”

CF: “That was 89. Yeah, and they went on to win nine-in-a-row the following year. Yeah.”

SOC: ”And we’re in 2023. And we’re still seeing quotes, very, very similar to that.”

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MH: ”It’s funny, though, I was using one of those Newspaper Archive sites a while back. I was doing a few different things on women’s football. I was looking into Vera’s coaching history. It was just astonishing how little there was, and like, you know, she would have managed Scotland… that was her first big job for a while and then the Dutch. It’s not just ourselves, obviously, this was just worldwide. 

“Often you’d see maybe a little footnote on an article you know, ‘Last week Ireland beat Wales 2-1 in Cardiff.’ Full stop, you know, and that was kind of it. So it just jumped out at you like that.

“My earliest memories, and sometimes if I come upon early stuff, I blush. Like, because I was always sort of looking for colour.”

CF: “Yeah, you know, it helps. That was essentially a colour piece.”

MH: “I remember one of my mortifying moments was covering an All-Ireland football final, I think Waterford versus Monaghan.” 

CF: “Yeah, they would have been very strong.”

MH: “…there was the big controversy about the countdown clock. So one of the managers was arguing, you know, not enough time was played – it was a very close game. I came upon the report I did in that match, I think 90% of it was on the clock. And then, ‘Oh, and by the way, Waterford beat Monaghan.

“Because that was my kind of instinct too… which was to always look for colour. There was almost a novelty aspect to covering women’s sports. Now, I don’t think you were like that [Cliona]. I mean, I used to read some of your reports on All Irelands and stuff. And you’d be kind of, if the match was muck, you’d say it, and I’d be going, ‘You can’t do that’.” 

SOC: “Because you’re trying to sell the sport to your editors. And your readers.”

MH: “And you kind of almost felt like an instinct to be – this sounds terrible – but to be protective, almost, if it was a terrible match or something. A lot was made then in recent years of the rugby panel, the women’s rugby panel on RTÉ being so critical/hard on the team. And initially you’re kind of, ‘Ohhhh’, but then you’re going, ‘This is great. This is brilliant.’ I kind of mentioned that one time, until women’s teams are scundered as much as the men’s, you know, equality will never be.”

CF: “I think as well maybe the reason you put a lot of colour into it was because again, the players weren’t well known. And sometimes that was a problem.

“One of the things I look back and I’m mortified by now… is identifying players by the fathers or the brothers. I used to do that because you were trying to get people to understand where this player came from, you know, or their calibre or whatever. And so you would very often say, so and so’s daughter.

“I saw an All-Ireland report I did and I was mortified because there was about four different references. And now I would never do that, never do it. And even when you cover women’s team sports now, I nearly go out of my way to quote players as opposed to managers, because women get a voice so rarely, I think it’s really important to give them their voice.”

CF: “I worked with the Indo for a long time, and they, at one point, had a bit of a debate in the office over should you rate GAA players. My argument was, ‘No, you shouldn’t rate them because they’re not full-time professionals.’ And then the other argument was, ‘Ah they get rated in the pub, and they like to be rated.’ So anyway, they agreed, okay, so we’re gonna rate male GAA players. So then I said, ‘Well, if you are, then when we cover women’s All-Irelands, we have to rate the women’s, and then we always did as well. So something I felt strongly… whatever you do, you judge women by similar barometers.” 

SOC: “It sounds like it wasn’t a fight. But were you always subtly pushing for changes to the women’s sport coverage?”

CF: “No, I don’t think I did enough to be honest. Now I look at and I don’t think I did enough at all. I think you would go in and you’d suggest things. But I think over the years sometimes, you got slapped down so often that actually, probably over the years, you didn’t push as hard as you should have.

“People always say, ‘Oh, God, you’re great.’ And I go, ‘No, actually’. It was only when I left the Independent – and it kind of coincided a bit with the 2020 movement, which came a few years later – and was freelance, I thought I could do a few things here now. And one of the things I’d like to do is kind of advocate for women’s sport more, because I could see that it was still not pushed forward the way it should be.

“You’re very busy covering the daily beat in sports. You’re working hard all the time and by the nature of things, a lot of the time you’re covering men’s sports. Wherever you could, you would occasionally but I do think I probably didn’t fight hard enough.”

SOC: “What were those slapdowns like?”

CF: “Oh, just, you know…. ‘Oh, look at the size of the crowd. And nobody’s interested.’ And that is a fair argument so if you’re getting that argument all the time… you know. Like I had brilliant colleagues, I have to say, most of the people I worked with were incredibly supportive. And I worked with men largely all the time, and still do.

“But at editorial level, decisions were always made really in general on how much interest there was. And you would get, ‘But come on, you know, there’s only going to be 1,200 people at that All-Ireland final or whatever, you know, compared to whatever it was.

“Men’s League of Ireland has suffered the same over the years. But it does need an advocate in there, you know, and I think at times, I probably didn’t push hard enough.”


SOC: “Mary was there a bit of sense of that … that you’re fighting on two fronts. You’re one of the only women in a very male dominated section of the media, which again, is male dominated. So you’re kind of fighting for yourself to try and get to cover the best of sport, but then you’re also fighting a little bit to try and get women’s sport coverage. So are you trying to divide yourself up too much?”

MH: “I kind of always found whoever I worked with, they were always very open to like if you had a big interview with a sports woman, and it was somebody you know, wasn’t known… there was interest in all of that.

“The battle was always say when it came to a weekend then and the battle for space over match reports. That’s really where you lost most of the time. But I generally found though, I agree with you Cliona, that was always an issue, like the crowd size: ‘But sure look who’s interested’ and all that kind of thing.”

CF: “My argument was always, ‘A good story is a good story is a good story.’ And if you get good editors, and they accept that, it doesn’t matter whether it’s men’s or women’s. 

“I think the match reporting, and just the lack of seeing that regular promotion, it does affect how people view women’s team sports because they don’t know the players, they don’t see the profile. Visibility is massive. It’s been talked about before, but like, you know, TG4 covering women’s football changed the game, really, because people saw how good they were.

“And then crowds started to move, and they get to know the rivalries and you get to know the quality of the players. But even still, I think there isn’t [enough]. Dublin and Kerry played first round of championship in Gaelic football few weeks ago, it was unbelievable. It was thunderous – three rows nearly broke out; players, managers, everybody was fronting up to each other. The play was unbelievable, really exciting. But like, I just, don’t know how many people saw that. Or, you know, the reports, certainly I didn’t think reflected it either. It was all kind of little bit sanitized.”

MH: “Another thing I find, and it’s something I’m trying to snap out of, is if you’re doing an interview with a sportswoman, whatever the sport, your instinct is always to start almost with a biography of the person, because you’re just very conscious most people probably don’t know who she is – if she’s from a, you know, a smaller sport. And so, that kind of makes sense, I know. But I would love to be – I know if I had to sit down and write something about Katie McCabe tomorrow, I don’t have to do that about her. Everyone knows Katie McCabe. And I think there are more and more sportswomen now in that bracket. You know, certainly like in individual sports. 

“Even in some pieces I’ve had to do recently on players in the team, I’ve kind of thought, ‘No, I don’t have to say, you know, she did this five years ago and then she went there. And I really kind of felt that difference. And I thought, ‘Okay, that’s good. That’s, that’s a bit of progress.’”

CF: “I thought that was really good as well with them… Just as this team had developed, the debate that was going on about where should Katie McCabe be playing. Like, that’s the first time that I said, ‘Oh, this is fantastic. Now we’re talking. Now we’re talking.”

SOC: “That was going to be my next question, can you now sprinkle in more of the actual sport, like instead of, you know, Katie McCabe just as the superstar, she’s actually, you know, someone people want to see higher up the pitch. Even Sinead Farrelly being new, why there is talk about her is her own story and the abuse she’s overcome, but it’s also, you know, that Vera was talking about her touch, and what she can do to the team, and Denise can play this way if she’s there holding up the ball. And I think we heard that phrase, like, she can hold up the ball, she can keep the ball at her feet.”

CF: “And I don’t know how much of a silo I live in. Like, I’m interested in all sports. And I don’t know whether it’s my bias as well, but I do think that this week, there was loads of buzz about the team: the squad selection; about who should have been in; who shouldn’t have be in; and on social media, it was all like, why she should be in and why she shouldn’t be in.

“And it was nothing to do with their personalities. Or how they looked or anything else. It was about what are they as footballers, what do they bring to the team? What are they going to do tactically? What’s Vera at? Why is she bringing four goalkeepers? It was nothing personal about anybody. It was like it was for proper analysis of an international football team.”

MH: ”I heard somebody on the radio the other day, kind of giving out about people grumbling about who was left out the squad. And I’m like, ‘No, that’s fine.’ Yes, we’ll move on, you know, in a couple of days, you know, we’ll put the tissues away.

“And we’ll focus on the players and look ahead to the games but, no, let’s have a grumble about Leanne Kiernan if you feel she should be in there, or Jamie Finn or whoever, that’s fine, but like this fella’s instinct was to be all happy, clappy and celebrate.”

SOC: “The thing I loved as well is kind of the dog on the street knew about Megan Campbell’s throws. Even if they knew nothing else, you could be a chancer at the watercooler and say, ‘Oh, isn’t it a pity Megan Campbell’s throws are gone.”

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CF: “That’s absolutely right. My niece’s husband is a mad Liverpool fan… he’s brilliant now so when the Irish women’s hockey team started playing [on TV], he was living abroad and following them. But whenever they’d be going to penalties, I’d get a text going, ‘It’s McFerran time!’ So good.

“To get that across a population of people who would know nothing about hockey; have no background in hockey, but has followed them since they did well internationally… That, to me, that’s when you’re breaking the barrier. But it doesn’t happen without visibility… TV coverage does matter. We’ve seen that in Gaelic Games and we’ve seen it now particularly with football.”

MH: ”My single favorite moment in the history of sports is the night Ireland played Canada in Donnybrook – so the Olympic qualifier… I remember telling them about this in work and I wish I had my phone out to film it because no one would believe it.

“I arrived and I’m shuffling down to go in the media entrance… and there was this character lurking and I just thought he was hiding from the rain. And next thing, he comes out, ‘Anyone for tickets?’ He was a ticket tout at a hockey game. Brilliant.

“Hockey people would cry loudest because so many of them spent so long playing in front of two men and a dog. I just kind of smiled to myself. This was bonkers. But that was a great story too – that whole team and that trip they were on. That was kind of unprecedented.”


SOC: “Mary, we’re going to stick on hockey but first we’re just going to introduce Emma Duffy who is joining us after returning from UCD where she has been waiting for team doctors and getting all the nitty gritty about the World Cup…”

Emma Duffy (ED): “I have to say, I’m very, very tired but it’s been an amazing week. All the fun yet to come. It’s going to be great.”

CF: “I’m so excited for Emma going to the World Cup because I know how hard she’s worked and how interested she is in women’s football. It’s just brilliant.”

MH: “I think in the last three days, you’ve written more than I have in the last 1o years. How many hours are in your day?”

SOC: “Just on that comparison, we were talking about 1989 – Kerry match, that there wasn’t a flag up even though they were going for an eight in-a-row All Ireland. Cliona, Mary, could you even consider that in 2023, Emma as a sports journalist will be going and meeting the backroom team of the women’s football team?”

MH: “Yeah, seriously, that’s true.”

SOC: “Talking to the statisticians; talking to the team doctor.. Emma, who else was there?”

ED: “Statisticians, team doctor, analysis, physio. And a hugely talented backroom team as well. So many stories I didn’t realise, like Siobhan Forman, the doctor was an international rower. ”

SOC: “And while the girls feel thankful… Chloe Mustaki yesterday said to me that this is the minimum standard. They’re grateful, but they’re not over-egging it either. They’re just like, ‘Well, yeah.’”

CF: “And that to me goes back to that day down in Liberty Hall. That’s because they took that stance that day. And the terrible thing is that women have to do that in team sports. Not in other sports. I always make that example. Would you ever be at an international athletics event and when the women’s 100m final comes on, everyone goes to the bar?

“You know, that’s the problem – it’s looked at through the prism of men’s sport and a comparative thing. And that happens all the time. I thought that was really interesting with the hockey – we didn’t do that in hockey, because we didn’t have that prism to look through it. We didn’t know hockey so we just said, ‘Oh my God, they’re brilliant hockey players. Look how fast they are, look how skillful they are. That’s what it demands now. That’s what they expect. But it’s because those women stood up and I’m really, in the last few days, that’s really come back to me how powerful and how brave they were.”

SOC: “That’s the period that I look back on Mary, the 2017 women’s almost strike and then 2018, the joy of that hockey and because it was a team, like yes, we had seen ladies football teams and we’d seen from camogie teams on TV… but for me, I get hugely emotional and I did get hugely emotional at the time with the hockey. I did play hockey when I was younger but I didn’t follow the Irish hockey team… I remember thinking afterwards, ‘Why was I so emotional about this?’

“And I had never seen a women’s team, celebrate, hug each other, just have the same emotions that I would have had as just a club player and that was really powerful. And then just to go back to the coverage, how big a moment could that have been for how we looked at women’s sport and how we looked at women’s team sport?”

MH: “It was a funny one because I think that people really did, to sound corny, take them to their hearts. I mean, everyone commented on, you know, the big smiley heads on them during the anthem, and it just kind of warmed you to them. Here were a group of players who never got any attention… other than an inch in the papers. But instead of suffocating under that spotlight, they just revelled in it, and they loved it.

“Just the way they loved being on that stage rather than being nervous about the whole thing. Even though, how many in the country would have been into hockey before then? But the sport kind of didn’t matter, even though you know, there was lots of chat like, ‘look at the speed of yer one’ or like Chloe Watkins and her strokes; or Ayeisha and her saves. But it was a magical couple of weeks and it came from nowhere.

CF: “I’m a freelancer so I don’t get sent to do jobs but because it was a World Cup and Ireland were playing in it, I just on spec said, ‘Here I’ll go over’, bought a ticket and went over. I was there for the USA game. I was actually right behind the goal where they scored two goals. And it was amazing. The facilities were great.

“It was really easy to get in and out of. It was a real spectators event, but like, that’s what hit people. I think as well, it was a World Cup. They were beating teams ranked way higher than them. They were afraid of nothing. They had all the drama, they held their nerve in all the brilliant shootouts. I think that makes a difference when it’s a major event as well. It changes people’s perceptions.”

ED: “And like, it’s an international team and us Irish people just love any little bit of success. We don’t care what the sport is. Straight on the bandwagon.”

CF: “I think that’s the other thing as well, they weren’t in any way bitter about the fact that nobody gave a damn about them before. They were like, ‘Here’s the bandwagon, hop on’. There was no, ‘Oh, you never covered this before.’ None of that. They absolutely embraced the bandwagon. And that was a brilliant part of it. I think they’re hoping that the same thing will happen for the football team as well.”

MH: “When you think if those hockey matches weren’t shown on TV, I mean, it’s unimaginable. So it just, I mean, not that we need to be reminded any time but my God, the power of television coverage. Imagine if they haven’t been on?”

ED: “I don’t think I had ever watched a hockey match before. I’m from Cavan so not a hockey stronghold. But we were glued to it in my house. My dad, my brother, sister, mom, like everyone wanted to watch the hockey because this was just such a big moment for Irish sport, not Irish women’s sport but sport.”

CF: “I was down with Off the Ball doing a live women’s sport roadshow with Sonia O’Sullivan and a few more Cork legends down in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. We were doing it live and we were getting updates. And we were calling them live into it for the semi final… We were all shattered after it.”

SOC: “They do penalties very well…”

MH: “We do love a penalty shootout in this nation, there’s no doubt.”

SOC: “Did you sell copy [from that trip Cliona]?”

CF: “I did, yeah. I ended up selling copy because I happened to be there. I was only there for the first game and I stayed over and I got quotes and, yeah, just the way it fell. Total fluke.”

MH: ”Absolute busman’s holiday in the end.”

CF: “It is just so rare for us to get to a World Cup, and I remember thinking, ’They’re playing in a World Cup and they battled so hard to get into a World Cup.’ If this was a men’s team of any sport in Ireland, people would really be thinking this is a major thing and just thought I’d go over. And that’s kind of how I feel now. That’s how you feel that the women playing in the Fifa World Cup that people will come to the realisation of the significance of that.”

SOC: “Emma for you, Cliona was saying that for her she wishes she had done more to help the representation of women’s sport in her career. I told her she had done enough but for you now, you said there you saw it as sport rather than women’s sport. But I’m also conscious that you might be kind of looking at your editor saying, ‘Yeah I’ll cover the women’s sport, but I also want opportunities in other places. How do you balance that? Or how do you think you want to balance that?”

ED: “Yeah, it’s a good question. And it’s something I’m asked an awful lot – my niche, I guess, is women’s sport but that’s where my passion and interest has always lay. When I came out of college, I was watching every single ladies football, camogie, women’s football, rugby match I could, but obviously, across both genders. I guess because I had such an interest and knowledge of it as well, and contacts through it, it just happened naturally.

“And it’s something that the editors at The 42 have always said, ‘Don’t feel boxed in, we want you to cover across the board’, which I do as well… I do think it’s important to stress that point too – I am not boxed in. It’s not just women’s sport I cover but that’s where my interest lies. That’s where my passion lies.”

CF: “I think the fact that online has developed to be so powerful and to be as strong as it is, there isn’t a space issue. It’s not such a space issue. When I started with print, it was a space issue all the time, so men would be getting all the space. And when you were arguing for women to get a tiny bit more space, particularly women’s team sports, that was the argument, ‘There isn’t a market for it. People aren’t interested. So the little space we have we give to the biggest.’

“That still applies. Certainly, there’s still that element of it. But I think online has allowed there to be so much more. And then you see things happening like the Telegraph in England, you know, employing the women’s sport editor, producing women’s sport on pages and in fairness to Malachy Logan in the Irish Times, he started a women’s sport page on a Thursday. 

“Maybe when I started, you were worried… Well, first of all, you were just trying to get on with your career. But secondly, you didn’t want to be pigeonholed into just being interested in women’s sports. You know, you had to be able to cover everything. And by its nature, that was mostly men’s sport. So you know, things have changed brilliantly, I think and, and to see people come to it with the passion that they have now. And it being editorially valued the same.”

ED: “That’s a really interesting point about the online side of things. Like would you guys have had to do much fighting for space?”

MH: “Oh, yeah, god. Yeah, like we were saying, space would have been kind of fine, say, for a big feature thing with a sportswoman because they love the color and the backstory and the personal stuff. But then, that sportswoman then might have been playing in an All-Ireland semi-final on the Sunday and, you know, it might be 100 words. Whereas the feature on the Saturday might have been 1,500 words. 

“Lots of battles like that. But it’s a funny thing though, I think it’s been a learning process too for the bosses. I kind of still smile, like in the earlier days like me being sent to do match reports on an All-Ireland final and I am literally the worst match report person on earth. I’m so bad. And like, I spent my time looking at, you know, like, the clock and missing what’s happening on the pitch, but it was kind of like, ‘We probably have to send a lady to cover the ladies match… which I guess they kind of felt like maybe that’s what they should do. Maybe that’s the right thing.”

SOC: “Two birds, one stone.”

MH: “But then you’re saying to them, ‘No, send your top person who covers All-Ireland finals.’”

CF: “I think that has really changed. I think you can probably see it in soccer… When I started, Pat Courtney, former Shamrock Rovers player, was a sports editor in the Indo, and he had a principal of not sending me to the women’s All-Ireland finals, which was brilliant. It was fantastic. His point was, ‘I want a really objective view here so you’re not doing it Cliona.’

“Then that changed over the years when he went… but what I really notice now and I’ve seen it with the football and soccer is the top correspondents are now sent. It’s the Soccer Corr or the top Gaelic writers are going. I really have seen that in the GAA in the last 10 years and have really seen it in the coverage of the women’s football team in the last five years. It’s not a freelance sent to do or it’s not one of the junior people – it’s the top person now that was being sent. And that to me is a big progress.”

SOC: “That’s the two fights then: the top corrs should be men and women. And the people going to these things should be men and women.”

ED: “It’s reflected in the numbers even traveling to Australia, like the amount of journalists going and, you know, big teams from RTÉ, Off the Ball, all the newspapers, online, everyone is going.”

SOC: “Me and you, Emma.”

CF: “That’s when you see it’s being taken as seriously as it should be. This is elite sport covered by the top people who can do it.”

MH: “That ties in to what we were saying earlier about the analysis now. It’s no longer you know, ‘Who’s her brother?’…’Aren’t they great girls?’ But now…I mean, I know Vera Pauw gets a little spiky when people are critical of her tactics or whatever, but that’s great too. But that wouldn’t have happened so long ago. But now like our own columnist Karen Duggan isn’t shy about questioning tactics and stuff. That’s great. That’s another kind of development, I think, and the coverage that’s kicked off more and more.”


CF: “Just the level of commitment they’re asked for now at intercounty level is as high as the men’s. I remember being shocked about seven years ago, a very, very prominent intercounty GAA player, I heard him on the radio on going, ‘I never knew our women didn’t get expenses.’ I went, ‘What rock have you been living under? Do you not talk to your [counterparts]?’

“And maybe they didn’t? I think there was a lot of that – where they didn’t talk to their male counterparts or female counterparts in counties. I think the GPA, a lot of people criticise them, and I think that’s one of the things that they have done well – actually made each other aware of where they are and a little more allyship there.

“You’d like to see a bit more. But I remember thinking, how does he not know? How could you not know that they don’t get a penny and not only do they not get a penny, but you know, as we heard last week they do their ACLs because they’re stuck on a crap [pitch] that a man had previously said, ‘We’re not training there.’ You know, that’s the basics are looking.”

SOC: “I think that word you use, that allyship thing, when it works and it’s visible, you can then compare when it’s absent, where it doesn’t happen. So, you know, Katie McCabe has been so vocal about Seamus Coleman being imperative to the equal pay deal and how important that was.

“The brilliant Dublin football team were very visible – there was a couple of relationships and siblings and stuff but you know, they kind of brought the whole team with them. And then when it doesn’t happen, there is very few rugby players you’ll see kind of look to the women and go, ‘Hang on, this isn’t okay.’”

CF: “2017 – the Women’s World Cup rugby was held here and I went to all the Irish women’s games. I saw one Irish men’s player at any match. It was played right beside Leinster and there was training going on. That actually surprised me. I thought, ‘Would you not just come over to support your colleagues?’”

SOC: “I don’t even think there were that many tweets. So I’m not surprised that there was no physical presence.”

MH: “Brian O’Driscoll has been… since retirement. He’s been supportive.”

CF: “He has made that point all the time, that it seems like you have to do something sensational in women’s sport to get any coverage. Whereas we get coverage even when we’re crap. And that’s true.”


SOC: ”I did want to touch a little bit on the Olympics and kind of the natural gender balance the Olympics coverage kind of has…You’ve gone to three Olympics, Cliona…  when you’re divvying up where to go, how to get to everything … Does the gender balance thing? Did it come into play for you? Or is it just about story, find the story…”

CF: “It has to do about quality. I did Winter Olympics with Vincent Hogan, who in my opinion is one of the greatest sports writers the country’s ever produced. So Vincent was there for the writing and there for the quality, and I was there basically doing everything else. And that’s how it works. You know, the star gets star billing. So it wasn’t a gender thing; it has to do with talent.

“But I mean, when you walk in – even at multi sports events like that – the number of women, the percentage of women in these massive Press Centers is obvious. There’s very few.

“Even internationally – so when you walk into it, it’s amazing. There are far less women – it’s really interesting.”

ED: “I’m really interested to see that at the World Cup. Because there’s a lot of really talented female sports writers around the world – like even we saw last summer, the Euros in England, the amount of fantastic soccer correspondents over in England. So I’m really interested to see that – how will the the balance work?”

CF: “And even in other countries – like in Australia, America and even in the African nations? Is there the same kind of gender imbalance still in writing? I don’t know. I never understood it.”

MH: “It’s a good kind of test to see how it’s come on.”

ED: “Do you think again, it’s the ‘can’t see, can’t be’ thing in a way? Because, I suppose, when I was growing up, I obviously read both you guys. But, I suppose, like, you could turn on the TV and see the likes of Jacqui Hurley, Evanne… So I guess now, the more women that are in sports writing, in general…”

CF: “I don’t understand why there aren’t more.”

MH: “I often hear bosses over the years saying, ‘When there’s a job, we get no women applying for them.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’ I think that still seems to be [the case]. It’s not a case of no women applying for job but I think for a long time, and maybe that’s Emma’s point.”

SOC: ”For a lot of people, sport isn’t a welcoming place for women because they don’t know it’s a welcoming place until you’re in it… like we all know it’s a really welcoming place when you’re in it.”

CF: “I don’t understand why there’s no interest. I’ve done a bit of teaching in NUIG in the last three years. And so I had a group of Master’s students specialising and doing a section on sport and in the three years, now they were small groups, there was only one woman. I mean they all want to be broadcasters anyway.

ED: “Well I’ve definitely had had a few people DM me on Twitter or email me … which is fantastic.”


SOC: “Gav [Cooney]‘s going to give out me because I’m doing his podcast all backwards because I never asked you two how you actually got into sports writing? When you were a rare jewel in the crowns of the editors…” 

MH: “That was 1852… probably because I couldn’t do anything else. No, I was just a sports fanatic from when I was a kid. You know, my dad was from Donegal. So every time Finn Harps were in Dublin, we went to see them. That was a lot – there were a lot of Dublin teams. And then, my brother was a big Dubs fan so I was in Croke Park all the time for them. I’d a Cork wing of the family – hurling was their big thing so we’d be there. My life was just consumed by sports – I played loads of sport really badly. In my head, I was brilliant. It just never transferred to my feet or hands.

“I kind of loved writing; loved English. So I thought, ‘Well, what’s the obvious thing, put them together.’ But there were very few, very, very few [women], but it never stopped me.”

SOC: “Were you in it before you realised there wasn’t that many of me around?”

MH: “Yeah, probably. But it just it never entered my head that, ‘Oh, maybe that’s not somewhere where a girl can work, you know?’ Because they were kind of my passions so I said I’d give it a lash, you know. And, partly, I didn’t want a proper job anyway.

“I remember a friend of mine… early on, I started doing a sport on TV column. And he was like, ‘You’re getting paid… You’re doing that anyway. And you’re getting paid.’… That was it. I still haven’t been found out… well I have been found out but still hanging in there anyway.”

CF: “When I was leaving school, I secretly wanted to be a sports journalist but I didn’t think I could sell that to my parents. So I did PE and English. And I taught PE and English for about seven years. And then got the money together to go back to do a postgrad. And then I went to DCU, into this really highly – you know, they were all out of Trinity and UCD. History and Politics and all the rest. And I was disaster. I mean, I was sweating just to keep up with them every day, right? And never had any experience, no written experience or anything.

“And then one day, we got the chance. He said, ‘Okay, we’ll do a bit of sport today.’ And we had to sub-edit a piece from the Evening Herald, and I got a really good mark. And the guy says, ‘You did a very good job.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I want to be a sports journalist.’ And I always remember the whole class laughed, they all laughed, everybody laughed.

“I used to go to America a lot… And so I read a lot of American sports journalism, where you read a lot of good women… I was thinking there’s no nobody’s doing it in Ireland, why is still nobody doing it and I had a subscription to the Sports Illustrated… So that’s how I got into it. I was very, very lucky. I got a work placement in the Indo and then the head racing correspondent retired and they decided to just employ a general sports person so that’s how I got into it.

“I love sport. Mary and I – there’s a weird thing going on. We both have one parent from Donegal, one parent from Cork, sports mad, were taken to everything. My parents didn’t drink – I always say it was a factor. So we went to matches always. We were always in the car going to matches.

“I played a lot of sports again, not to a good enough level to be the real top but I just loved all sport. And I used to always feel that thing – first of all, it was like, why don’t we ever see women writing about sports? Julie Welch. I had a brother living in England and Julie Welch was my hero. She was the first female soccer writer down in Fleet Street.  Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant woman. Mary’s writing reminds me of her because she had this brilliant sense of humour.

“I always think that thing about sport is more than life and death. What is that famous quote?”

MH: ”Bill Shankly, yeah.”

CF: “I mean, what a load of tosh. It’s not life and death, you know.”

MH: “We might feel that in Australia though.”

CF: “But it’s an amazing story. But it is amazing. It transforms our lives at times. It makes us happy, it makes us laugh, it makes us cry. But it’s not life or death. People think we revere sports journalists… but like why, you know. We don’t do a very important job, but it is an area that gives us all great joy.”

SOC: “That reminds me of a piece your colleague wrote, Mary. Malachy Clerkin’s piece on perspective after Axel Foley died and like people say, you know, this gives you perspective. He said, no, that diminishes the importance of sport and someone like Axel Foley’s life. So yes, it’s not life and death. But let’s not minimise it either. That’s always important as well. Like, look at these fights that we’ve all been talking about… you know, women’s place in society, like fighting that through the prism of sport is pretty important.”

CF: “You’re right, and I am diminishing by saying that. You’re absolutely right. We were only saying that this week, like this is 1990 for women’s football, and we lived through 1990. And it was absolutely – the whole country was just lifted so much, wasn’t it? And sport does have that ability to change our mood; to give us joy. And that is a factor about women in sport, it is a powerful representative area and a powerful area of empowerment for women.”


Post-script. In a story that didn’t make the final cut, Cliona recalls giving a pair of gifted Predator boots to an Irish international. She never accepted freebies but in this instance had worn them once as part of the press trip so was stuck with them. It was the late-1990s and she knew the Irish women’s team wouldn’t have been particularly well equipped and Predators at the time set you back over a hundred pound easily. 

She contacted the FAI to ask if anyone had ‘small feet like hers’ on the national squad. To this day, she doesn’t know who they went to but she hopes whoever the size-four recipient was managed a goal or two for Ireland wearing them. If it was you, let us know. 

Emma Duffy and Sinéad O’Carroll will travel to Australia for the Fifa Women’s World Cup later this month. Keep an eye on The 42 and The Journal for their coverage of the historic event. Sign up to The 42 here

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