Three-quarters of the way through the All-Ireland camogie final, the incumbent champions Wexford had just goaled to catapult themselves out of sight of a tiring Cork side. The game seemed to be getting away from the Rebelettes as Aoife Murray returned the ball to play, her puck out bouncing high towards an onrushing Wexford defender. Then Katrina Mackey flicked the ball from its course and into her own path. Gathering the ball in her left hand, it was immediately placed in cold storage on her bobbing camóg as she pumped her legs up and down akin to a 100 metre sprinter to leave her marker in her slipstream. She swerved to the left to give her time and space to shoot. Mackey shot early and from distance, on her weaker side, across the renowned Wexford keeper, Mags D’Arcy. The sliotar flew high and right of D’Arcy’s camóg and bulged the far corner of the net. In one inspired moment of camogie, Cork were back in contention.
Probably a more iconic moment followed in the next play as Una Lacey revived the dying art of the ground stroke to end the Cork women’s challenge but it was nonetheless fitting that a UCC student would provide one of the iconic moments of what will go down as the best All-Ireland camogie final for skill, technique and fitness.
From soon after the foundation of An Cumann Camógaíochta, camogie was sustained within the walls of the island’s third-level instutions, starting with UCC in 1913. There it found more support to help withstand the tides of opposition from the Catholic church.
17 years after the first Ashbourne Cup, the initial All-Ireland took place. In 1942 the Mardyke hosted an All-Ireland final, however it was a UCC lecturer of Irish and Cork County chairperson, Íde Bean Uí Shé who almost brought the association to collapse in 1944. She withdrew Cork from the championship in a feministic protest at the presence of the opposite sex in the Munster Council and would switch to speaking Irish if her decisions were challenged by board members. An unofficial All-Ireland held in the Mardyke against Dublin (protesting at the association’s ban of hockey amongst its members), got significantly more attention than the legitimate decider.
The Ashbourne continued with 4 colleges for almost 4 decades, but it was the unveiling of free education in the 60s which helped spread the game further.
However in spite of consistent progress camogie has never truly caught the public’s imagination. Perhaps this point is best illustrated by a few quick YouTube searches. Of the previous All-Irelands only the 2009 and 2011 editions have highlights online. The game’s greatest practitioner Angela Downey, who played as recently as the nineties, has no online record of her genius. Even a legend of the last decade Mary O’Connor, who was bestowed with an honorary doctorate of Arts from UCC this month, is invisible on YouTube. YouTube is of course the definitive user-generated content video site, proving the existence of a certain indifference to the game, which is backed up by the relatively few views that the videos that are online have received.
The two camogie All-Irelands that I’ve attended suffered from the comparison of being held after an All-Ireland U21 hurling final. Hurling is the fastest game on grass, so camogie as the fastest female sport on grass shouldn’t lag as far behind as it has. Before 1996, only once did a camogie All-Ireland attract a 5-figure crowd. It took until 1985 for a team to score a double-figure of points in a final.
To be fair, camogie rectified a lot of the perceptions of its inferiority with the move to 15-a-side on a full-sized field in 1999. The game has come on in leaps and bounds at the top level; but why not take it a step further? Why not 70 minutes at the Senior level? Why continue to allow handpassed scores? Why allow puck outs from the 13 metre line after a score? Why not 65s instead of 45s – after all I have seen women score from that distance.
Mackey and Lacey have now provided the YouTube moments and their general play has shown that camogie can be in the same ballpark as hurling in terms of entertainment and skill.
The ‘chicks with sticks’ advertising campaign of the past decade proved highly successful in promoting the game and it’s players, but it sounded like something out of Sepp Blatter’s filing cabinet of suggested ways of promoting women’s soccer. And as the long-range accuracy, sharp first touch and general skills of the women of Wexford and Cork have shown us, they’re not just chicks with sticks, they can play a bit too.