Ireland

Author: Sandrine Wyrich

The 2014 FIFA Puskás Award went to James Rodriguez, but, frankly, the story around the runner-up spot is the way more interesting one. Stephanie Roche, back then playing for Peamount United, was the first woman ever to be nominated for the prestigious award and came second with 33 per cent of the vote, beating Robin van Persie. Rather peculiarly, while her colleagues’ goals were scored in front of packed stands and filmed from multiple angles with HD cameras, only 95 people witnessed Stephanie Roche’s goal live. The Women’s National League fixture was not televised either and it wasn’t until Peamount United manager Eileen Gleeson uploaded the footage recorded on a shaky handheld device that the goal not only received international recognition but became an internet sensation. The journey of Stephanie Roche and her spectacular volley from Ferrycarrig Park in Wexford to Zurich and the Ballon d’Or awards ceremony is almost allegorical of the uphill struggle women’s football faced in the Republic of Ireland. Scarce funding, poor facilities and a general lack of recognition forced female players to fight to even be able to practise football. Until the FAI’s (Football Association of Ireland) ‘Women’s Development Plan’ was launched in 2006, a marked absence of a planned approach to improving resources and facilities prevailed. Nevertheless, the Girls in Green achieved equal pay in 2021, becoming only the fourth national women’s team in the world to do so. The groundbreaking accomplishment had been a long time in the making and is the culmination of a truly remarkable story.

Association football did not always have it easy in the Republic of Ireland. The traditionally urban sport struggled to find a place in the predominantly agricultural society and for a very long time it was even largely considered anti-Irish and commonly referred to as ‘the garrison game’. If this rather hostile mindset wasn’t enough to scare any football sympathiser off, legislative action too played its part in holding popularity in check when the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) enforced its Rule 27 in 1905, better known as ‘The Ban’. This rule infamously prohibited GAA members from practising or watching foreign games – specifically association football, rugby, cricket and hockey – since they were perceived as rival sports to Gaelic football and hurling. While the primary intention of The Ban was safeguarding the very existence of the GAA, which was still in sporting organisation infancy, and seeking to gain loyalties and affiliation fees, the mutual nemesising in Ireland was palpable. In response to Rule 27, the Irish Football Association (FAI) introduced a ban on its members playing games on Sundays. It is neither a coincidence nor a surprise that the majority of GAA matches were held on Sundays – same effect, just a slightly more subtle execution.

Considering this deprecating climate, it seems logical that the history of women’s football in the Republic of Ireland, or at least what is known of it, is a relatively short one. When discussing anything related to Irish women’s sport, except for GAA disciplines, it must be noted that the time before the mid-20th century is characterised by a conspicuous lack of information. The emergence and development of the game was far from being a coordinated process and the existence of clubs predates the establishment of actual national sports associations which means records of sport practices are frustratingly rare. The earliest evidence of women participating in association football dates back to 1927 when as many as 12000 spectators attended a match between a Dublin selection and Rutherglen, a Scottish team that was touring Northern Ireland at the time, in Milltown during the Irish Free State period. Talks of forming a permanent team in Dublin emerged in December 1937 with all sorts of opinions voiced, ranging from sympathy to rejection. However, the overall sentiment appeared to be in favour of establishing a club with reader letters to the Evening Standard saying girls loved playing football and looked up with envy to the English female players they saw on screens. It is uncertain if anything ever came off these ideas, but they likely never materialised. Similarly, 19-year-old Peggy Robinson, who worked as a stenographer, organised a women’s match in 1951. The game turned out a huge success and a subsequent campaign to form a women’s team followed. While this movement received support, it likely too failed to actually come into effect. The popularity and practice of women’s football was additionally afflicted with the prevailing chauvinistic attitudes that understood females as inferior and came with an increasingly narrow-minded view of women’s sport in an overwhelmingly conservative society. The subsequent widespread efforts to limit its presence were joined by mass emigration and the institutionalisation of women by the church and the state which only exacerbated this dwindling female representation and further limited any opportunities for women to engage in sport. It was a time when it was widely thought that “a woman’s place was at home”, as indicated in the 1937 constitution drafted by Eamon de Valera. However, despite the obstacles, women – and football – found their ways …

As youth and female employment went up in the 1960s, women were introduced to football as a leisure activity often played within their workplaces and soon, interest and participation picked up pace. Curiously, the origins of the Irish women’s game are not rooted on the pitch but on the dancefloor. Indoor football, famously played in dance halls, was highly popular in the 1960s among both men and women and, quaintly, escaped the GAA ban. The indoor game was seen as entertainment rather than sport and the GAA was effectively forced to look the other way by the crowds of thousands attending the matches. Organised indoor football leagues popped up across Ireland and for the first time in the Republic’s history, working class women had a chance to engage in sporting and leisure activities. Only camogie, golf and tennis had been available to women beforehand and with the latter two being dearly expensive, the opportunities were extremely limited. Indoor football did not require equipment and it was easy to find a club to play with as numerous workplace and leisure teams were formed across the country. Adelphi Ballroom in Dundalk became a pioneer in taking indoor football competition to an organised league structure, operating as early as 1965. Others followed suit and particularly the east coast area soon turned into a hotspot for indoor football with major ballroom leagues in Blackrock, Navan and Ashbourne. Ambitious teams routinely competed in several leagues and gained widespread popularity with their arrival anticipated in ballrooms across the country.

One of the most famous leagues was that of Abbey Ballroom in Drogheda established in 1966. Reports in the Drogheda Independent show that women’s teams travelled from all over the north east; counties Louth, Meath and Dublin were well-represented, while men’s teams came from as far away as Cork and Cavan. Abbey Ballroom was a luxurious place with an excellent dance floor that had springs underneath it – ideal for both, dancing and playing football. The games were initially designed as a fundraiser but developed into a full-on league with rising interest and participation. Men played 25 minute matches while women contested over 15 minutes. The rules of the Abbey Ballroom League were rather straight forward and regularly printed in the Drogheda Independent to persuade more people to come along and take part:

  1. What to wear:
    Men: All players must wear shorts and a jersey or shirt.
    Women: All players must wear a blouse, shorts or tights.
  2. Only rubber soled canvas shoes are permitted.   
  3. Each team can register seven players but only five of these players will play in a match.
  4. There are no substitutes allowed during play, but a team can alternate between the seven registered players from one game to the next.
  5. The choice of players who play in each match is at the discretion of the captain.
  6. During play the ball must not be handled and the ball must not be played above four feet from the ground.
  7. Heading the ball is a foul as it would be a ‘high ball’.
  8. All free kicks must be indirect; you are not allowed to kick directly at the goals.
  9. A penalty kick is kicked directly against the goalkeeper.
  10. A goal can only be scored inside the goal area parallelogram.

The participating teams even wore self-made uniforms and got real creative with their squad’s names. Besides names deriving from the clubs’ respective workplaces, like the Drogheda Independent’s ‘The Independents’ or the ‘Carrollettes’, a team formed at Carroll’s Cigarette Factory Dundalk, famous sporting clubs and even the popular culture of the time famously served as inspirations. Current affairs branded ‘Sputnik’ or the ‘Busby Babes’ while TV programmes and movies imbued the ‘Thunderbirds’ and the ‘Batgirls’. One of the wittiest titles was ‘The Dedicated Followers of Football’, named after the Kinks song ‘The Dedicated Followers of Fashion’. Curiously, the Kinks themselves are known to have played at Abbey Ballroom.

Indoor football was on a triumph march with more and more people engaging in the discipline. Remarkably, despite its popularity, indoor football never perceived a competition or even an enmity between itself and the GAA or the FAI. In fact, organisers of the game, especially of the women’s leagues, were actively trying to break down barriers and the All-Ireland Indoor Football Association soon sent the rules of the game out to 1000 places across the country in a bid to bridge the gap between the GAA and other codes of football. The efforts were crowned with success as participation numbers, particularly on the women’s side, kept growing. Camogie – an Irish stick-and-ball team sport played by women also known as women’s hurling – went as far as introducing a ban on indoor football in 1967 because the game was so popular among its players. A whole host of high-profile camogie players got suspended due to competing in indoor football leagues. A prominent team from north Louth even missed out on winning the Louth Camogie Championship, a title they had held for several years, because five of their players were banned. Once the suspensions were over, the team went back on another winning streak. For the best part though, women were indeed encouraged to play indoor football and as a high number of females engaged in the sport, it eventually became a springboard for contemporary women’s soccer and Gaelic football. The GAA ban ended in 1971 and the indoor game had served its time. Female keenness to practise sport prevailed though, and since ballrooms were no port of call anymore, women curtly moved from indoor to outdoor.

It is well worth noting that female participation in outdoor sports had already been gradually developing alongside the indoor game. Benfica, a club from Waterford and one of the oldest women’s association football teams in the Republic of Ireland, was indeed already founded in 1965. Records also detail an early ‘Intervarsity’ women’s game between University College Dublin and Dublin University in 1967 as well as a 1968 Dundalk versus Waterford fixture. Evidence even suggests that an equivalent of the FAI Women’s Cup, a national knockout competition, existed as early as in 1968 with a Munster Express article marking Benfica’s twenty year anniversary in 1985 mentioning participation in a cup series. The yet scattered but ever increasing footballing activities led up to a groundbreaking fixture on 10 May 1970 when Dundalk Ladies played Corinthian Nomads from Manchester, a game that de facto was an Ireland versus England international. Established in 1968, Dundalk Ladies had only been playing for two years and contested half-hour a side games before the Dundalk men’s team’s League of Ireland encounters at Oriel Park. However, they remarkably were one of the founding members of the Women’s FA, which governed women’s football in England, in 1969 which inspired the fixture and gave the young team a great opportunity to test themselves on a big stage. Since women’s football was banned from official pitches across the UK at the time, the match took place at Prestatyn Raceway in Wales, but even just getting to the venue was a challenge as support and finance were few and far between. Dundalk’s star striker Paula Gorham, 16 years old at the time and later a prominent Ireland international, recalls that the players regularly sold raffle tickets at half time during the men’s games to even finance trips across Ireland and the club held quiz nights and other events to generate the money to go to Wales. For many players in the young Dundalk team, it was the first time ever they left Ireland and having never lost a game at home, facing the far more established Manchester side was quite the experience. The game ended 7-1 in the Corinthians’ favour which may sound like a trashing but was rather respectable considering the Corinthians routinely played exhibition matches across the world and were used to winning by 15, even 20 goals to nil. A news article reporting on the fixture was titled ‘Ladies beaten but they impress’ and was the top item in the paper’s soccer section on the day, ahead of the men’s Dundalk side. The importance of this game cannot be overestimated – in a hostile climate, in the UK even more so than in Ireland, the women who took to the pitch that day fought against tradition, the establishment and everything else, simply for their right to play football.

The wave indoor football kicked off became a storm for real when the ballroom leagues were abandoned and women’s football, both soccer and Gaelic, subsequently became extremely popular in the 1970s, alongside an increasing female participation in body-contact sports generally. Teams and clubs emerged on an ad hoc basis all over Ireland, commonly established and organised by employees of big companies, such as the civil service, banks, and manufacturing businesses, or by existing men’s clubs that added a female section to their structure. Although the numbers of players and leagues were on a sharp rise, the sport remained largely unorganised and social pressure soon increased to found a central governing body. The Women’s Football Association of Ireland (WFAI), back then still known as the Ladies’ Football Association of Ireland and not to be renamed until 2001, was eventually established in 1973 to coordinate the game. Interestingly, this was a year before a governor for women’s Gaelic football, the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association, was founded in 1974. The WFAI was independent from the FAI and relations between the leading personnel in both bodies weren’t particularly warm, not to say rather frosty.

With a governing body now in place, a national league was launched in 1973: the Ladies League of Ireland. Games were to be played in two 35 minute halves and the competition started off with 12 founding members, several of them teams associated with League of Ireland men’s clubs in Dundalk, Finn Harps, Cork Celtic and Sligo Rovers. Others were Evergreen from Kilkenny, Dublin outfit Avengers, Tipperary’s Cahir Park and the three Galway sides Beejays, Happy Wanderers, and Wasps. Another Galway team in Elms United would also join the series soon after its foundation. The first league fixture took place on 4 March at West Park, Galway and saw Cahir Park walk out 1-0 winners over Elms United. Going forward, fortunes waxed and waned between the clubs; Evergreen withdrew from the league following defeats in their first three games while Limerick became the first champions after going unbeaten in a 15 match series. Although the Ladies League of Ireland was the premier league competition in the country, around 60 regional and national leagues were affiliated with the WFAI by 1977. Clubs would play their league fixtures and go on to contest inter-league competitions to hunt for more silverware and on-pitch talent. Teams came and went in the Ladies’ League of Ireland, but dropouts gradually became the overall tendency. The series sported eight sides in 1977 when league secretary Kevin Gaynor – interestingly, his wife Nan was the assistant secretary – wrote a letter to David Marlow, chairman of the WFAI: ‘Teams have to travel up to 280 miles to play fixtures and pay all expenses, which demonstrates their interest in soccer. (…) Our league won all the major [inter-league] trophies in 1976 and provided at least 90% of the international players as well for the Irish national team.’ Nevertheless, the competition was down to seven participating teams in the late 1970s and eventually went into demise.

1973 also saw the Ireland Women’s first official international outing when they headed to Stebonheath Park in Llanelli on 13 May to face Wales in a friendly. Paula Gorham scored a hattrick and led Ireland to a triumphant 3-2 victory that left the squad hungry for more. A couple of friendlies followed, including a 4-0 away defeat to France at the Parc des Princes in Paris, with mixed results overall. It took almost another ten years until Ireland lined up for their competitive debut when they took part in the qualifiers for the 1984 European Competition for Women’s Football, a precursor of the Women’s Euros. Their away fixture against Scotland on 19 September 1982 ended in a 3-0 loss, but a first competitive victory followed suit two weeks later when they beat Northern Ireland 2-1 away in Newtownards. However, the Irish qualifying campaign would come to a close in the group stage as two losses to England, a draw with Scotland and another win over Northern Ireland weren’t enough to earn a shot at the 1984 tournament. It was curtains after the group fixtures again and again in the subsequent qualifiers, leading up to a painful 10-0 loss away to Sweden in September 1992 while trying to qualify for the 1993 Euros. The result stands as Ireland’s biggest defeat and at the time sparked a withdrawal from international competitions for a few years to focus on team development.

While both the national league and the national team got off to a rocky and rather humble start, fortunes were brighter for the national cup competition. As previously mentioned, evidence suggests the existence of a knockout series since as early as 1968, but the first official branding of it as the FAI Women’s Cup can be dated to 1975 when Limerick beat C.S.O. Dublin 2-1 in the final to take the title. The Cup has since been held annually. Additionally, Thomond College (Limerick) became the inaugural Intervarsity Cup champions in 1982. The competition was established as a women’s equivalent of the Collingwood Cup, an association football cup featuring university teams from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Played since 1914 – an astonishing 68 years before the female edition was founded – the Collingwood Cup is the oldest surviving All-Ireland association football competition.

Endeavours to run a national league, however, weren’t abandoned. The Ladies’ League of Ireland re-launched in 1987, this time with 40 minute halves and Eamonn Darcy, former manager of the Irish women’s national team, as vice-president. Cork Rangers became champions in 1987, followed by Dublin Castle in 1988, but the league was scrapped again after these two seasons. The good news at the time though were that relations between the WFAI and the FAI started to improve, largely due to the efforts of Dr Tony O’Neill, the then General Secretary of the FAI. In 1991 the WFAI finally affiliated with the Football Association of Ireland and gained full status on the Senior Council. Desires for a national league remained, but another attempt to relaunch the Ladies’ League of Ireland in 1996 failed miserably. The Dublin Women’s Soccer League – a county league played since 1994 when Elm Rovers from Galway became champions – had developed into a de facto national league and attracted many of the top players in the country. The Women’s Soccer Colleges Association of Ireland additionally organised a university league and both series featured teams that would star in the Republic for years to come with the likes of Peamount United, Shamrock Rovers, Raheny United and Shelbourne Ladies. Winning the 2001 FAI Women’s Cup, Shamrock Rovers qualified for the 2002-3 UEFA Women’s Cup and became the first team to represent the Republic of Ireland internationally. They went on to finish third in their group behind Germany’s Frankfurt and Masinac Niš from Yugoslavia but ahead of Croatian side Osijek.

The Dublin Women’s Soccer League remained the closest thing to a national league until 2011 when WFAI and FAI received support from UEFA to found the Women’s National League (WNL) which stands as the top tier of Irish women’s football until today. 26 teams applied for the seven spots on offer to take part in the inaugural season; Peamount United, Castlebar Celtic, Cork Women, Raheny United, Shamrock Rovers, Wexford Youths and Bray Wanderers/St. Joseph’s became the chosen few, but a lack of playing resources meant that Bray Wanderers/St. Joseph’s had to withdraw before the campaign even started. The number of clubs involved has since been expanded to nine. Peamount United became the first WNL champions, three points clear of Raheny United at the top of the table. The South Dublin side even managed the double by also winning the Women’s National League Cup, launched simultaneously with the league series, with a 1-0 victory over Shamrock Rovers in the final. Since a WNL trophy also bags a spot in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, Peamount United headed to the 2011-12 edition of the prestigious series and became the first club from the Republic of Ireland, including men’s teams, to qualify for the knockout stages in a European competition. Their campaign, however, ended in the Round of 32 with a 5-0 aggregate defeat to Paris Saint-Germain. A few years later in the 2014-15 UEFA Women’s Champions League Raheny United went a step further when they became the first Republic of Ireland side, again including men’s clubs, to win their group in a European competition. They too, however, had to surrender in the Round of 32, losing out to Bristol Academy.

The WNL also caused a revamp of the FAI Women’s Cup and scheduled it to be played between August and November as a warm up and appetiser for the league season. From 2013 to 2019 the cup final was staged as a double header at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium alongside the men’s FAI Cup final. The double header system sparked controversy though in 2015 when the women’s match went to extra-time and penalties. During the shoot-out, players from Cork City FC, who were due to play in the men’s cup final, began their warm up preparations on the pitch. Reactions were motivated by all sorts of points on the pro/contra women’s football spectrum, but they overwhelmingly tended to be on the indignant side of matters. From the 2020 season onwards, Tallaght Stadium in Dublin has been home to the Women’s Cup final, held on a separate day to the men’s fixture.

While domestic competitions picked up pace and clubs even earned opportunities to compete on an international stage, the Irish women’s national team too returned from its hiatus following the 1992 defeat to Sweden. The squad came agonisingly close to qualifying for the 1997 Euros, winning six of their eight group matches and finishing runners-up behind Belgium, and suffered a similar fate in the 1999 qualifiers campaign. Minor successes in the early 2000s – including winning the Celt Cup, a four-team-tournament between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man – brought some consolation, but 2005 really should have been the year the Girls in Green finally made it to the Euros. Competing at the second qualification level at the time, they won their group which would have secured promotion to the elite group of nations that competed directly for qualification to major tournaments, had the two tier system not been scrapped for the next qualifying campaign. The most notable success since was the 2013 Cyprus Cup when Ireland won their group, seeing off South Korea, South Africa and Northern Ireland.

The women’s squad made headlines of a different sort in April 2017 when they called for better treatment from the FAI and threatened to boycott their home fixture against Slovakia. Denouncing the “fifth class citizens” handling, the team demanded to be paid higher match fees as well as broken time payment for amateur players missing work in their day jobs. Complaints were voiced about having to share travelling tracksuits with underage teams and having to change out of them in airport toilets until eventually, an agreement on improvements was reached and the boycott threat was lifted.

Nevertheless, ongoing and immense calls for equality in Irish football remained. A combination of activist players and the progressive climate generally culminated in a groundbreaking act in August 2021 when the FAI announced that the men’s and women’s senior international teams will henceforth receive the same match fees while on international duty. Remarkably, the deal included agreement from the men’s squad to accept a reduction in their international fees to allow a rise on the women’s side and still match the FAI budget overall. A delighted Katie McCabe, captain of the Ireland women’s team, acknowledged all of the year-long efforts that went into the equal pay agreement: ‘I am very proud of the work that has been put in to get us to this point, not just the current team but by so many Irish players in the past. They are the real heroes in this story, they took a stand and they passed on the baton to the current generation. [Ireland captain] Seamus Coleman and his teammates in the senior men’s squad also deserve credit for being brave enough to support us in such a progressive way.’

A lack of funds and resources as well as a range of other structural problems continue to haunt the women’s game in the Republic of Ireland. However, the fight for equality in football has made some impressive strides and accomplished major achievements. The national team has a permanent home in Dublin’s Tallaght Stadium since 2013 and the Women’s National League has the same sponsor as the men’s League of Ireland since SSE Airtricity took over WNL sponsorship in 2021. The FAI organises the Gaynor Cup, a competition that serves as a showcase for underage women’s football in Ireland to not only keep girls in the sport but to also offer them a perspective and springboard. From gradually emancipating females that played in a ballroom, over Paula Gorham scoring from 30 yards at Prestatyn Raceway, to Katie McCabe proudly wearing her Ireland top as equal pay is announced, the women’s game is in good hands and continues to develop in the right direction.

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