restricted access “Looking on for Centuries from the Sideline”: Gaelic Feminism and the Rise of Camogie
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“Looking on for Centuries from the Sideline”:
Gaelic Feminism and the Rise of Camogie1

In the first decade of the twentieth century women’s rights movements expanded throughout the West, and civil associations grew in number. These two developments converged in new women’s sporting, cultural, health, educational, and political organizations. While some organizations worked toward achieving gender equality, women’s sport—from the first soccer matches in Britain to the biking craze in Canada—was opening up new spatial and societal freedoms for women.2 In Ireland the first generation of women to attend university graduated at the end of the nineteenth century, and the right to vote and stand as candidates in local-government elections was extended to women with property in 1898.3 Such gender-specific progress accompanied wider cultural stimulation: the Gaelic revivalist movement and the Anglo-Irish literary revival were both gaining in momentum by the turn of the twentieth century.

In this period of political and cultural activity a small group of educated feminist nationalists established the sport of camogie. This sport was a women’s alternative to the popular Gaelic game of hurling, and its founders promoted it as a means of enhancing their fellow-countrywomen’s lives. Camogie was initially a middle-class [End Page 168] and urban-based sport played by well-educated young Irish women. However, during the first few decades of the century it also took root among rural and less affluent sections of society as well as among Irish emigrants in cities such as London and New York. Through an overview of the construction and evolution of camogie, including an analysis of how contemporary assumptions influenced perceptions of the sport, this essay offers a new lens for the study of early twentieth-century cultural nationalism. It also explores how the founders and early directors of the Camogie Association voiced inconsistent and often contradictory feminist ideologies—difficulties suggesting parallels with other early feminist movements in the West.

Women and Sport in Late Nineteenth-Century Ireland

Small numbers of upper-class Protestant Irish women and girls played tennis, croquet, and hockey in the late nineteenth century, most often within a school system that was shaped by English educational traditions; however, organized sport assumed an inconsequential role in the lives of most Irish women.4 Drawing on her own experience as a student at Methodist College, Belfast, leading cultural nationalist Alice Milligan described the limited role of women’s sport in the 1880s:

When I was myself a school-girl, I became a mutineer and reformer, the organiser of a great petition that the girls of our school should have the privilege of playing games in a playground in the open air. When denied this privilege, we brought balls, fencing sticks, tennis rackets, and created tumult in our lecture-halls. For this I suffered imprisonment or detention and punishment. Finally, getting no satisfaction from our school authorities, I was one of a daring group, which being denied the use of the school grounds for recreation, appealed for and got the use of a tennis-court in a public Belfast park, in which no games had been formerly played by ladies. We were given the use of a house formerly occupied by a pair of Australian emus in the Ormeau park, and stored our implements here.5 [End Page 169]

From such modest beginnings other amateur Irish women’s sporting organizations developed throughout the 1890s. Most notable was the Irish Ladies’ Hockey Union (1894),6 an upper-class Protestant organization influenced by late-Victorian traditions, whose members had long-established social networks from which to build their sporting aspirations.7 Accounting for the vast majority of Irishwomen, middle-class or poor Catholic women had fewer educational opportunities and less leisure time than their Protestant counterparts; participation in athletic activities accordingly had less relevance to their lives. Nevertheless, a small group of middle-class Catholic women, feminists and cultural nationalists, established a quintessentially Gaelic sport for Irish women who had the luxury of leisure time. The ethos of this new sport, camogie, reflected its founders’ desire to provide alternatives to female domesticity and to envision...