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GAA Camogie president Woods to focus on equality

 

By Declan Bogue

You are midway through a highly enjoyable conversation with Kathleen Woods, newly-elected president of the Camogie Association, who is getting her teeth into the subject of where women have come from in society and the progress made by various movements going back to the Suffragettes, when she says, "I'm not a radical, but…"

And, you realise that while she says that, what she does is completely, undeniably, admirably radical.

Married to Brendan, they have four children - Aoife, Shane, Keelan and Ailbhe. She has 10 grandchildren. When we first speak, the retired school principal of St Joseph's in Bessbrook is peeling carrots at her kitchen sink. So why would she need the hassle of what amounts to a full-time job?

"I suppose it was a drive to maintain and bring forward an organisation and a sport that I have seen give so much to children," she answers.

"I remember a couple of years ago somebody was doing a survey and somebody asked me, 'Kathleen, why do you volunteer?'

"And my reply was, 'Well, do you know, 99% of our children weren't born with silver spoons in their mouths. But we can provide them with silver medals that they will look back on, with memories that last them a lifetime. And relationships that will last a lifetime.' That's why we all do it."

No-one could deny she has risen to the highest office - the first Ulster person to hold the role since Belle O'Loughlin from Warrenpoint in 21 years - without putting in the hard yards.

In the mid-80s, the Derrynoose club had been defunct for 15 years when she and a few other friends resurrected it, starting with the local girls in Derrynoose school, where she was teaching at the time.

By the time those girls came of age to play seniors, she went back playing herself. She progressed to the Armagh junior team, where, "we never won anything, but we had a lot of fun".

"The senior team was winning All-Ireland titles at their level, but the junior team, we were having more fun! We were happy with that."

When you only have three people running a club, you soon become familiar with administration work at every level, and she progressed through to the Ulster Camogie Council, volunteering and taking on the new role of children's officer, then assistant chair and, up until her elevation, chair of Ulster.

"Personally, I couldn't give the energy to a full-time employment and this role," she states.

As president, she repeats the pledge she made in her inauguration speech.

"My focus will be on child safeguarding," she states.

"Camogie has reached a high level of that, but I don't think you can get to a high enough level. It's something we must be so vigilant of and safeguarding is not about safeguarding of the children, it's about safeguarding every participant in our game."

Despite the long hours involved, there are pointers that camogie's tag of 'poor relations' of the gaelic games world is shedding fast.

It's something she is intimately familiar with, seeing as Ulster clubs have led the way with the 'one club model', which was set up to integrate the various teams in gaelic football, hurling, camogie, ladies' football, hurling and rounders at grassroots level.

That movement suffered a blow in 2015 when, at the Ulster Poc Fada competition, hurling winner Patrick McKillion was awarded a medal, a trophy and a skiing holiday.

The camogie winner, Catherine McGourty of Ballycran, was granted only a medal, leading her to say: "It came as a shock that they can do this, it's totally sexist."

Three years on, Woods does not shy away from the incident.

"It hurt us," she admits.

"It hurt both codes. And the press that it got hurt both codes. Because it was almost an oversight, it literally was an oversight of where we were going.

"From that, it was addressed very, very quickly and rectified immediately and now everybody is awarded the same. These things transpire."

In the years to come, camogie and ladies' football will be under the same banner, though the ladies' football wing is said to be more reluctant to come on board.

Woods quotes former GAA president Aogan O'Fearghail, who once described his take on the various ruling bodies: 'If we were to start today, we would have one organisation, we wouldn't have three.'

"I am a total believer in that," Woods adds.

"But integration must come at a pace that is comfortable for everybody. It is not an imposition, it is an understanding of where we are going which is vital to this process."

Post-Weinstein, the world is waking up to casual sexism. The provincial integration committee is five years old now. A number of double-headers featuring camogie and hurling have proved extremely successful, not least the last few Ulster hurling and camogie finals days.

And while young girls and women are playing camogie, Woods believes in the positivity involved but rails against the body-conscious attitudes portrayed.

"All sport is a counter-balance to distractions that society put on our children," she begins.

"And sport gives us resilience, it gives us decision-making, motivation, you can list all of those life skills that sport gives us. Where I would say maybe the media, as a body, have failed to take on board the amazing athletes we have across our female sports.

"You know, they are the images that people must begin to give to our children. Like, the camogie girls in Slaughtneil, they are legends at this stage."

If Slaughtneil have progressed, then so too, argues Woods, has society, though it still has some way to go.

"One hundred years ago, women got the vote. Or, some of them got the vote, it was the start of women getting the vote.

"If you look at how equality has evolved, even look at what we are watching last week, the closing date for industry to publicise their equality of pay. We had the women's lib movement of the '70s. What is the movement now?

"There is another movement now where women are empowering themselves. They are not waiting to be empowered, we are empowering ourselves."

Refreshing and energetic, the presidency of Kathleen Woods will be worth following.

Belfast Telegraph

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