One of my best friends is Bronagh Sheridan, known to many in GAA circles, myself included, as the best footballer to ever come out of Cavan.
ast week we went to the theatre, and before the show enjoyed a glass of wine. I told her I’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to interview Helen O’Rourke, the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association’s CEO.
“Remember when you did one of your college placements in Croke Park with the LGFA?” I asked, and the laughing started. “What was it like working for Helen?”
“She was intimidating but not intentionally. I was a bit in awe of her. She definitely had the respect of everyone in there, she surrounded herself with people who were always going to go in her direction, sure, isn’t that good leadership?”
Bronagh told me that years later on an All Stars trip to Hong Kong, Helen assured her that her teenage indiscretions had long been forgotten, making sure she was at ease and able to thoroughly enjoy a holiday of a lifetime.
“You mustn’t have been that bad in the job then so?” I offered.
“Oh no, I was chronic, Helen was just sound.”
Yesterday’s LGFA Congress in Belfast marked 25 years since Helen O’Rourke became the inaugural Ard Stiúrthóir of the LGFA, making her the longest-serving CEO in the history of Irish sport. She is also one of the most successful and inspirational female leaders in the country in both business and sporting contexts. She has overseen unrivalled success in placing ladies’ football at the top of female sports in Ireland, building an LGFA empire out of nothing.
From her humble beginnings as a volunteer and player at club level to CEO in less than 10 years, the motivation behind her involvement was simple — organisation unleashes potential.
O’Rourke started out as a primary school teacher in Rathcoole, Co Dublin. As a founding member of the Dublin Ladies’ County Board she identified early on that a proper strategy and development plan was necessary for the growth of ladies’ football in the county, with her initial focus on underage structures in clubs.
She was responsible for schoolgirls being allowed to take part in the Cumann na mBunscol competition at primary level. Identifying the grassroots of the sport as the key to longevity and growth was a master stroke on O’Rourke’s part, one of many throughout her career.
She quickly progressed to Dublin delegate at national level and within three years held the positions of National Cultural and Language Officer and National PRO.
In 1994, O’Rourke became president of the LGFA and in her three-year term growth in the Association accelerated to the point that a decision was taken to appoint a CEO in 1997.
It was felt at that time that the best candidate to fill the role would be someone with a full understanding and insight into the LGFA. An office was made available by Tony Towell in O’Neills on the Long Mile Road, and Helen O’Rourke was approached to fill the role. She left behind her teaching job and volunteer roles within the Association to become a full-time sports administrator.
Few could have thought that 25 years later, she would still be in the role, and that ladies’ Gaelic football would become so strong. O’Rourke has overseen a multitude of successes, arguably the most significant being a 22-year partnership with TG4 and a €10m sponsorship deal with Lidl. The union with TG4 has completely changed the landscape in terms of exposing the game to the public, a platform that was necessary to grow the membership to the 200,000 we have today.
A world record was set in 2017 for attendance at a stand-alone female sporting event with 46,286 people attending the All-Ireland finals in Croke Park, surpassed two years later by an attendance of 56,114.
Geraldine Giles served as LGFA president for two consecutive terms from 2003 until 2009 and has worked alongside O’Rourke from the beginning. “Helen is a supportive friend who would always have your back,” says Giles. “It wouldn’t matter if there was ever a difference of opinion, you could always walk away and come back. She always holds a great respect for the position of office held, in my case it was as president.”
Giles feels it is the ongoing, unseen work in the background that she deserves most credit for. “You have to admire Helen because she does keep pushing. For example, the changes she has made within the staffing arrangements. They now have roles and titles, with reviews, and outsiders coming in to review and advise on your strategic planning. It takes a lot of courage to open your doors to an outside agency and have holes picked in your strategic plan and then make changes. What Helen and her staff have achieved is incredible when you consider their staffing levels are only a fraction of the GAA.”
The LGFA pride themselves on being proactive and fast-acting when it comes to rule changes to improve the game and keeping it free-flowing. In 1998 the countdown clock and hooter system came into operation and it was transformative in limiting controversy surrounding injury time, an ever-present problem in the men’s game. At the time O’Rourke described its introduction as a response to the All-Ireland final controversy the previous year when 18 minutes of injury time had been played.
In 2000, John Treacy, CEO of what was then the Irish Sports Council, saw the importance of women in sport and O’Rourke was able to capitalise on that. They collaborated on a strategic plan that paved the way for seismic change. It allowed for the recruitment of further administrative staff, office space in Croke Park, forging relationships as high up as the office of An Taoiseach and a significant increase in grants, funding and sponsorship.
Giles recalls the tireless work around this time when the Association literally had no funds. But, she laughs when recounting O’Rourke’s political steel. “We literally went knocking on doors, the door of every Minister for Sport, business people, companies, you name it. Helen would know who was in the vicinity and she would strategically show up and make it her business to go and talk to them. That takes a lot of courage and nerve. We begged for money.”
These days, the LGFA’s financial position is very strong. There are so many initiatives, education programmes and supports available to players, coaches, administrators and volunteers of all ages.
The Association does not continue to grow by chance. Strong leadership has been crucial to the strides made by the sport in player numbers, player welfare, clubs, coverage, funding and attendance over the past 25 years.
Of course O’Rourke’s time in charge has not been without stumbling blocks and setbacks. Even as president, attitudes towards her and female leadership in general could make things difficult. At 31, she was perceived by many to be too young and inexperienced — and a woman.
In the 1980s she endured plenty of opposition, from being laughed at at an initial meeting with Cumann na mBunscol in The Teachers’ Club in Parnell Square, to struggling to get recognition for ladies’ football from the top table in Croke Park. There was a belief that it was just a fad and many in the upper echelons didn’t see football as being suitable for women. Next year the LGFA will celebrate 50 years in existence and in her 25 years at the helm she has clearly helped to change mindsets.
Ironically, it appears that O’Rourke is now the one with the power and that roles have been reversed, with the GAA imminently due at her door to officially request a deal towards unification.
If there has been one consistent thorn in her — and the LGFA’s — side in all that time it has been fixtures and venues. Relying on the GAA for pitches has been the Association’s Achilles heel with players fed up with last-minute venue changes, no pitches and substandard facilities.
The issue came to a head at last year’s Congress when, delivering her annual report, O’Rourke accused former Galway manager Tim Rabbit of attempting “to destroy the integrity of the Association and the people involved”. Her comments surrounded the fallout from the All-Ireland semi-final between Cork and Galway that was moved from Parnell Park to Croke Park on the morning of the game and had its throw-in time brought forward by 30 minutes.
Rabbit’s response sent a clear message on behalf of the players: “I know that the LGFA is a progressive organisation, that it is working hard to promote the ladies’ game, however this does not mean that they are above criticism when expected standards of competition are not met.”
That controversy served to rock the foundations of the GAA family as we know it. The public reacted in a way not seen before, and even politicians said their piece. It was a catalyst for female and male players across the country to come together and take action. It has brought us to where we are today with the GPA motion on unification having been approved overwhelmingly at GAA Congress last weekend and now being prepared for the Camogie Association Congress in April.
The most significant collateral damage from that day was the distrust it manifested between the players and the LGFA. Footballers across the country felt abandoned as the LGFA publicly thanked the GAA for their ongoing support and use of facilities, especially at such short notice, while all but saying that both teams should have been thankful to have played in Croke Park regardless of the circumstances. O’Rourke’s own silence, failing to appear or comment in the media, was seen as a let down by the players. They see her and the LGFA as the ones who should be advocating for them, but over those few days they felt deserted.
Just as she showed at last year’s Congress, though, she has shown again this weekend that she is not afraid to fight her corner. She used her annual report to criticise Liam O’Neill’s attempts to unify the three bodies during his time as GAA president. She also said that unification will take time.
“Despite the public perception for some years, the LGFA is not against integration of the three Associations,” she wrote. “Quite the opposite, in fact, and we do not need outside influences and uninformed sources to tell us that this is where the future lies.
“Our stance at all times has been to ensure that a proper, open-minded process would take place involving stakeholders of all three Associations, where matters relating to integration at all levels of the Associations would be debated and ironed out, prior to the formation of a new incorporated body.
“We also need to learn from the mistakes of other sporting organisations that followed this route in recent years and ensure that this does not happen within the new Gaelic Games organisation.”
O’Rourke has been consistent on this point. Ten years ago she said that there needed to be assurances that the LGFA would not lose total autonomy. “It is important for us to still be able to make decisions ourselves, finding a way that we’re not going to be lost in the wider Gaelic games family,” she said. “It is going to happen some day but it has to be the right formula for everybody.”
Curiously, even after 25 years in a role which has become very high profile in recent years, O’Rourke remains an enigma of sorts. She does not do media interviews.
At an LGFA Learn to Lead event a few weeks ago, I was on a panel with Helen to discuss female leadership. When discussing decision making she said that if she feels strongly enough about something she will listen to others and reflect, but in general she will go with her initial instinct.
When my generation started playing in the early 1990s, the bar was very low in terms of how we expected to be treated as female footballers. With no social media and a certain level of naivety, we were very unaware of the huge inequality that existed between us and the men’s game. I was thrilled to be playing football, having a coach and wearing the black and amber of my club St Eunan’s. Over the years it didn’t occur to us to complain because conditions continued to improve, albeit from a low baseline. Behind the scenes our battles were being fought by O’Rourke and her team and for that I will be eternally grateful.
There is, perhaps, a cohort of current players who have a limited insight into the work the LGFA has done over the last 25 years and that is no fault of their own, but this is where I feel there may be a further disconnect between the current players and the administration. Thankfully this generation hasn’t experienced all of the negatives we did, just as we didn’t experience what the generation before us had to endure. Today the bar has been raised significantly higher in terms of expectations. Today’s players expect more and they have to keep pushing for the equality they deserve.
For the majority of the public and the GAA community, unification should be simple, straightforward and happen immediately. For the LGFA, and its CEO, it could signal huge changes to the autonomy they have worked for since the 1980s.
Throughout her career, O’Rourke has navigated many challenges while embracing and encouraging change. She has a proven ability to negotiate deals that are in the best interests of the Association. In her 25 years she has grown the sport at such a rapid pace it is now at a crossroads and difficult decisions lie ahead that will influence what form the LGFA takes over the next 25 years.
Whatever the outcome, O’Rourke’s legacy and achievements are likely to remain unrivalled.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/gaelic-games/ladies-football/helen-orourkes-25-year-battle-to-develop-ladies-football-shows-no-signs-of-stopping-41415857.html Helen O’Rourke’s 25-year battle to develop ladies’ football shows no signs of stopping