‘Women’s sport is certainly going in the right direction and long may it last’

‘Women’s sport is certainly going in the right direction and long may it last’

This afternoon Meath will take to the field to face the 'auld enemy' Dublin in their first ever All-Ireland SFC final and the tension around the county is already at fever pitch.

In one corner of the Royal stronghold Monica McGuirk and the Byrne sisters, Orla and Kate, are flying the green and gold flag proudly.

While that green and gold does represent Meath, it also represents their local club Duleek/Bellewstown, who the girls believe have played a massive role in not just their development, but in the development of women in sport in the whole community.

Monica McGuirk (MMcG): “The support has been absolutely fantastic from the club. We really have a close-knit community within the Duleek/Bellewstown club and throughout all the years, even at a younger age, they have always tried to progress and develop us as much as they possibly could.

“All three of us played with the club at underage and at minor level and they have been so supportive of us throughout our playing days.

“There has never been a problem with the club when we can't make training because of our training with the Meath teams, there are never any issues and they are always touching base with us to see how we are getting on.

“Even on game day it is great to see your team mates and coaches at the games supporting you too.

“Duleek/Bellewstown are a great club to be involved in and the three of us here are representing Meath for Duleek/Bellewstown.”

Kate Byrne (KB): “It really is a close knit community in Duleek/Bellewstown, you can really see it when you go up to the juvenile training, there is always a serious buzz about the place when the under-8s, under-10, under-12s are there.

“We were just there last week and it was great to see the girls enjoying the buzz that is around the community.

“We were there to do a few drills with the kids and get a few pictures with them, it meant so much to them and to the parents.

“It's only then when you step back and see how big events like the Meath Ladies getting to an All-Ireland final, how much of an effect it has on the community. We can see that through the support we are getting.

“Everyone is so delighted for us and even when we see someone in the street they are wishing us well, so it definitely is a massive support for us. It is a big GAA area and we are all so proud of our roots there.”

15-08-21. Meath v Cork - TG4 Ladies All-Ireland SFC Semi-Final at Croke Park.The Meath panel which defeated Cork in the TG4 Ladies All-Ireland SFC Semi-Final L to R.Back: Emma Troy, Emma White, Bridgetta Lynch, Katie Newe, Shelly Melia, Emma Duggan, Orlagh Lally, Monica McGuirk, Alison O'Sullivan, Kate Byrne, Aoibhe Monaghan, Aoibhin Cleary, Aoibheann Leahy, Maire O'Shaughnessy, Meadbh Byrne, Saoirse O'Kane, Aoife Farrell, Orlaith Duff.Front: Olivia Gore, Megan Thynne, Niamh Gallogly, Shauna Ennis (Capt), Vikki Wall, Stacey Grimes, Orla Byrne, Aine Sheridan, Ailbhe Leahy, Niamh O'Sullivan, Louise Coyne and Mary Kate Lynch.Photo: John Quirke / www.quirke.ie??John Quirke Photography, 16 Proudstown Road, Navan. Co. Meath. (info@quirke.ie / 046-9028461 / 087-2579454). Photo by John Quirke

Orla Byrne (OB): “Duleek/Bellewstown have been fantastic to us and to the whole community. They help create and foster a strong sense of community throughout the whole area.

“From the brilliant inclusion initiative in the club where they have made football available for everyone of all ability, to the drive-in bingo that provides a huge outlet for the people of the area to meet up.

“The club have recently built a new clubhouse and that will be a real focal point in the community, not just for the GAA, but for all sports in the town and for all societies in the area. We are very proud of our club.

Both Orla and Kate Byrne are teachers and know the value of engaging with young girls in sport. Both also work closely with young players from rival clubs and even rival counties, but they love the interaction with the children and the banter that inevitably follows.

OB: “I'm teaching in Realt na Mara Girls School in Donacarney and obviously there is great rivalry between my club Duleek/Bellewstown and the local club there, St Colmcille's, so there is great craic between the two.

“I take the coaching of the girls in school and it is great to be a role model for them. You probably don't understand the effect getting to an All-Ireland has until you go down to a training session and you see the buzz and the excitement on the girls faces when they see you.

“Even walking down the street people want to stop and talk to you about ladies football, there are people calling and texting all week since the Cork game, the support has been amazing.

“Being a teacher, I really appreciate how important all this is for younger people, to have positive role models in their life and to see them being successful on a national stage. It's been great.

KB: “I teach in St Mary's Drogheda, just on the border of Meath and Louth and there is a bit of rivalry there and a good bit of craic too, they're still not over that Leinster final in 2010.

“Just like in Orla's school we have a look of pupils from the St Colmcille's club as well, so there is plenty of craic too and there really is a great buzz around the place.”

While they play their football with Duleek/Bellewstown, the Byrne's are very also very proud of their roots in Ardcath where they received loads of support when developing as young footballers with the St Vincent's club.

OB: “Ardcath have always been very supportive of myself and Kate as well and everyone involved in St Vincent's have been great.

“We began playing football with St Vincent's in Ardcath and that is where we were introduced to Gaelic football because we went to school in Ardcath.

“Many of the mentors who coached us when we were young are still so proud of us and they're delighted for us. I was speaking to Gerard Tuite and Pat Hand last night and they were involved with us when we were playing football for u-12s and u-10s.

“Everyone in Ardcath is buzzing for us as well and they have always shown a great excitement and pride in us.”

In 1975 there were 700 people in attendance at the Ladies All-Ireland SFC final between Tipperary and Galway when it was played in Athy.

The 1985 final between Kerry and Laois had 5,000, but since then the sport has exploded in popularity with 56,114 in attendance at the 2019 final between Dublin and Galway.

There is no denying women's sport is the fastest growing game in the country and the three Meath players believe it will continue to get bigger and better.

MMcG: “Obviously we all started playing at quite a young age, so to see the development of women's football across both soccer and Gaelic is fantastic to see it.

“I remember when I started playing soccer and Gaelic at adult level and I was playing for teams not many would have heard of.

“You would be playing for your county and games wouldn't be streamed like they are now on social media, you would even struggle to find out the score of a game back then.

“The fact that we have hit record crowds in Croke Park over the last few years proves how much the sport has grown.

“Every year the crowds have increased at the All-Ireland finals. I always find that women's sport is more family orientated compared to men's sport and that is fantastic as it draws the crowds in families.

“Even having the game live on TG4 now is fantastic. Up to a few years ago you would only have seen finals on TG4, but now more and more games are being shown and it is great to see the development in the women's game.

“Even having our games on as double-headers with the men's game is massive. Before Covid we were starting to get to play our games as part of double-headers with the men's team and that was brilliant.

At the Meath Ladies Football press night at Dungann from left: Monica McGuirk, Kate Byrne, Orla Byrne, Fergal Lynch and Sean Wall.Photo: John Quirke / www.quirke.ie Photo by John Quirke

“Women's sport is certainly going in the right direction and long may it last. There is also loads more growth to come for women's football.”

OB: “The LGFA have done great work and the 20x20 campaign pushed greater awareness of ladies football and it is great to see.”

Having that support behind the players and the team is something that drives on the Duleek/Bellewstown girls and through the tough times, especially in the nail-biting semi-final win over Cork, that support helped get Meath over the line.

OB: “After the Cork game the first people we wanted to go to see were our family and friends in the stands, it is so lovely when you are on the field to hear the support from the sidelines.

“Throughout Covid we had got used to having no friends or families at the games, so having them back now makes it feel extra special in the last few games.

“It's a pity there are still Covid restrictions in place because I'd say they would have been driving to have 60,000 people there for the finals. Hopefully, everyone who wants to be there will be able to get a ticket because it does make a big difference having that sport, they can be the 16th player for us.”

MMcG: “The supporters really stood up for us when we were playing Cork, especially in extra-time and that was a real driving force for us.

“Playing in front of no one in Croke Park in the All-Ireland final last December was a daunting experience, compared to playing the previous two years when everyone was there. Our supporters really are a massive driving force on the pitch.”

Looking forward to next Sunday's All-Ireland final the Monica, Kate and Orla accept that Dublin are overwhelming favourites to make it five-in-a-row, but they are happy with the underdogs tag and have complete faith in their hard work, their fitness and their desire and they are sure that every single player on the panel will play their part

MMcG: “Going into any game we have expectations of winning, but there is no pressure on us going to Croke Park next Sunday.

“Winning is always our main focus and obviously because it is an All-Ireland final we will have even more focus on winning.

“We are not going up there to just fulfil the fixture or just enjoy the day because it is an All-Ireland final. We want to be the best in the country and the only way we can do that is by beating the best in the country who are Dublin right now.

“The team have belief that if we can perform to our full potential then we will be there or thereabouts at the final whistle.”

OB: “You know the girls are coming in are great. We are all training the same and all working hard and are all able to do that job.

“We all worked so hard during lockdown and we were all so committed to getting that training done. It wasn't easy at the time, but it is all coming to the fore now and coming together.

“It has been our fitness that has got us over the line in the last few games. Our fitness and condition were crucial against Armagh and Kerry and playing senior football that is crucial.

“We have been working hard on our fitness for a few years and we were ready for senior football this year because we really pushed on with our conditioning.”

Not only are Monica, Orla and Kate doing their club Duleek/Bellewstown proud, they are shining beacons of positivity for the whole county.