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The Tipperary Girls Who Paved The Way — The Story of Ladies Gaelic Football

Published 1 month ago 20th February 2023 by Big John

While visiting the graveyard in Templemore recently, I stopped to say a prayer at the grave of the late Enda McDonnell. Enda was a former Chairman of The Tipperary Ladies Football County Board and Munster Council. Many people will recall Enda as a “passionate” man while a game was in progress but off the field he was good company with an astonishing knowledge of a wide range of subjects. For instance, he once told me that the birthplace of the River Loire, the last “wild river” of Europe, is a wooden pipe in a farmer’s yard in the South-East of France. How that came up in conversation I do not know but a chat with Enda could go in any direction. (As an aside I have Googled if the Loire rises from a wooden pipe many times since and have never found the answer but that doesn’t matter. Enda wasn’t always right but he was seldom wrong).

Speaking of birthplaces, Enda also told me that Clonmel was the birthplace of Ladies Gaelic Football. The first ever 15-a-side game of Ladies Gaelic Football was played in ClonmelSportsfield in 1968. In an effort to raise funds for thousands of children dying from starvation during the Biafran War, a Ladies Football match between the staff of Clonmel Post Office and the staff of County Council office was organised. I’m sure the pioneering ladies who took to the field that day didn’t realise that they were starting a sport which today has over 193,000 members.

For the record the teams lined out as follows (as the marriage ban was still in place in 1968, it is probably safe to assume that these are all maiden names),
POST -OFFICE: Betty Mc Carthy, Helen O Flynn, Mary O Connor, Pat Hoare, Ann O Meara, Monica Sayers, Eileen Bolger, Ann Nolan, Kathleen Nolan, Eileen Bowes. Ann Sheehan, Bernie Cullen, Joan O Dwyer, Judy Cleere, Breda O Meara (capt).
SUBS: Ann Ryan, Joan Ryan, Mary Dennehy.

COUNTY COUNCIL: Noelle Dempsey. Eileen Acheson, Maura Dalton, Carmel O Brien, Eileen Ryan, Josephine O Callaghan, Theresa O Regan, Kathleen O Brien, Mary O Dwyer, Pat Lynch, Kitty Connolly, Margaret Dawson. Ann O Connell, Mary O Keefe, Mary Keane.
SUBS: Una Cooke, Joan Mc Carthy.

Such was the interest in this game that a couple of weeks later, another fundraiser was arranged between the Post Office and the girls from the Carrick-on-Suir Exchange and therein lies a story.
During that game one of the Carrick-on-Suir girls got injured and was been treated on the field by their “first aider” Stephanie Flynn. The manager of the Post Office team, Christy Aylward, decided that Stephanie wasn’t administering the treatment correctly and went over to offer words of advice. Christy and Stephanie’s eyes met across a swollen ankle and a few years later they were married. In over 40 years of marriage, that remains the one and only time that Christy has told Stephanie she was wrong. The Post Office won the game so it was a great day all round for Christy Aylward.

The success of these two games led to the organisation of a league in 1969. This league would also be run as a fundraiser. This time the proceeds would go to the Northern Refugees. Eight teams from various organisations entered – Burkes Bacon Factory, Clonmel Industries, Showerings, Currans, Schiessers (2 teams), and of course the girls from the Post Office and County Council. Many of the rules drawn up for this league are still in place in Ladies Gaelic Football today, the most notable being that the girls were allowed to pick the ball up directly off the ground. The final was played out between the Post Office and Showerings with the Post Office coming out on top.

These were the days of parish fetes and the organisers of the fetes soon realised that wherever you had young eligible young girls then young eligible fellas would follow and profits would increase. As a result Ladies Football matches became regular features at these fetes. By 1970, clubs were formed in Clonmel, Newcastle, Ardfinnan, Kilsheelan, Fethard, Emly, Solohead and over the border in Ballymacarbry. Dan O’Mahony who worked in Bulmers organised a lot of the games that were played in different festivals around South and West Tipperary.

1971 saw “championship” matches organised in Tipperary and Waterford. In Tipperary, Ardfinnan beat Newcastle to become the first county champions. By now the gospel had spread to counties like Limerick, Cork, Kerry and Offaly and the idea of an inter-county game arose. John Donovan (Killurney) and Jim Kennedy (Clonmel) organised a game between Tipperary and Waterford which was played on the 3rd October 1971. Ballypatrick had the honour of hosting the first ever inter-county Ladies Football match.
With the game growing in popularity, there was nothing for it now only to see if a national organisation could be set up. A meeting was held in Killurney with a view to doing this. A number of delegates from different counties attended. Realising that the interest was there, another meeting was called for Hayes Hotel in Thurles and on the 8th July 1974, The Ladies Gaelic Football Association was formed. Jim Kennedy was elected as the first President.

An inter-county championship was organised with eight counties entering. Roscommon, Laois, Offaly, Galway, Kerry, Cork, Waterford and Tipperary.

Tipperary accounted for Waterford in the quarter finals and then beat Kerry in the semi-final at Kilsheelan to set up an All-Ireland Final clash against Offaly. The final was held in Durrow on 13th October 1974 and after an epic battle Tipperary emerged victorious on a score-line of 2:03 to 2:02. Kitty Ryan of Ardfinnan became the first lady to lift the Brendan Martin Cup.
The 1974 winning team was:
Margaret Carroll – Ardfinnan, Majella Sweeny – Newcastle,, Ann Croke – Mullinahone, Sally Clohessy – Moycarkey, Catherine Keane – Mullinahone, Tina Flynn – Ardfinnan, Ena Hackett – Newcastle, Eileen Dudley – Golden, Betty Looby – Golden, Lillian Dorey – Killusty/St. Bridgets ,Eleanor Carroll – Ardfinnan, Josephine Keane – Mullinahone, Mary Power – Mullinahone, Kitty Ryan – Ardfinnan, Mary Burke – Emly, Cait O’Dwyer – Moycarkey,Ann Brogan – Moycarkey, Mary Lonergan – Emly, Nora Moran – Ardfinnan, Jim Kennedy ( Co-Chairman) Bridget Ryan (Secretary) John Donovan (Selector) Teddy Keane (Selector) John Elmer (Trainer) Derry Shanahan (Trainer) Jim Strappe (Selector).

All-Irelands in any sport at any level are not won without the help of a lot of hard working people. Along with Jim Kennedy, people like Fr Lucy (Ardfinnan) Sean Geory(Drangan) Teddy Keane (Cloneen) Ned O’Gorman (Ardfinnan) Willie Croke & Jimsey Kelly (Mullinahone) John Donovan (Killurney) Sean O’Connell (St Brigid’s) John Aylmer (Emly) Gertie Strappe (Golden) Derry Shanahan (Littleton) John Lambert (Ardfinnan) and three Mulliahone ladies Mary Denny, Breda Power and Mary Fitzgerald all played their part in putting the groundwork in place to help Tipperary Ladies team become the very first All-Ireland Ladies Gaelic Football Champions. Of course sponsorship was needed to run the team and the late Carrie Acheson presented the Tipp girls with their first set of county jerseys.

Tipperary would retain their title in 1975 with an easy 1.04 to 0.00 win over Galway in the All-Ireland Final which was played in Athy. In two years, the Tipperary Ladies had only lost one match and that was a challenge match against Offaly.

The 1975 winning team:
Margaret Carroll – Ardfinnan, , Ann Croke – Mullinahone, Sally Clohessy – Moycarkey, Catherine Keane – Mullinahone, Tina Flynn – Ardfinnan, Betty Looby – Golden, Lillian Dorey – Killusty/St. Bridget’s , Eleanor Carroll – Ardfinnan, Josephine Keane – Mullinahone, Mary Power – Mullinahone, Kitty Ryan – Ardfinnan, Mary Burke – Emly, Cait O’Dwyer – Moycarkey, Chrisse Byrne – Ardfinnan, Catherine Treacy – Loughmore, Josephine Stapleton – Loughmore, Bridie Ryan – St. Bridgets, Susan O’Gorman – Ardfinnan, Josephine Murphy – St. Bridgets, Breda Webster – Loughmore, Alice Moore – Moycarkey, Jim Kennedy ( Co-Chairman) Bridget Ryan (Secretary) John Donovan (Selector), Teddy Keane (Selector) John Alymer(Trainer) Derry Shanahan (Trainer) Jim Strappe (Selector)

Tipperary were less successful in 1976 & 1977. However the 1977 season brought it’s own unique story to Ladies Gaelic Football. Pauiline Gibbons was a member of the Roscommon team but mid-season she left the panel to become a nun. She was denied permission from the convent in England to travel home for the semi-final but when Roscommon reached the final the county board wrote to her Mother Superior pleading with her to all Pauline to travel home. Permission was granted and to the bemusment of her fellow nuns, Pauline did all her training for the final inside the walls of the convent in Sussex. Her story received interest from the media and over 3,000 people turned up to watch her play in the final against Cavanin Dr Hyde Park. However there was no divine intervention as Roscommon lost the final by 6 points.
The Tipperary Ladies were back in the All-Ireland Finals of 1978 & 1979 but lost out on both occasions to Roscommon (minus Sr Pauline) and Offaly. But they bounced back in 1980 to win their third All-Ireland title with a 1.01 to 0.01 over Cavan in Edenderry.
The 1980 winning panel was:
Ann O’Rourke (Moycarkey Borris), Josie Stapleton (Capt.) (Loughmore), Margaret Leahy (Moycarkey Borris), Mary Griffin Moycarkey Borris), Sally Clohessy (MoycarkeyBorris) Cait O’Dwyer (Moycarkey Borris) Ann Clohessy (Moycarkey Borris) LillianGorey (Slievenamon) Marian O’Shea (Slievenamon) Ann Maher (Slievenamon, Ann Lyons (Slievenamon), Diane Lannigan (Slievenamon), Nuala Shelly (Slievenamon) Breda Rohan (Slievenamon) Antoinette Lambert (Ardfinnan) Liz Doyle (Ardfinnan), Paula Ryan (Ardfinnan) Geraldine Ryan (Cappawhite) Bernie Butler (Cappawhite) Eithne Bonnar (Cashel) Delia Minogue (Poulmucka) Catherine Lonergan (New Inn) Christy Peters (New Inn) Michael Dooley (Rosegreen) Dick O’Shea (Slievenamon) Liam Shinnick (Cahir) Derry Shanahan (Moycarkey Borris).

In this column over the years I have often quoted Thomas Davis who wrote in The Nation newspaper in 1841 “where Tipperary leads, Ireland follows”. Never was a truer word spoken with regards to Ladies Gaelic Football. It started in Clonmel with the girls from the Post Office and County Council and it is now the fastest growing game in Ireland, with All Ireland Finals regularly attracting crowds of over 50,000. As success stories go, the story of Ladies Gaelic Football is right up there with the best.

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