- 17 Dec 19
Following their nail-biting victory over Canada, the Irish women’s hockey team are heading to the Olympics for the first time ever. Captain Katie Mullan reflects on a remarkable year-and-a-half – discussing underfunding, the misconceptions surrounding the sport, and the body image pressures placed on young sportswomen.
It was just one in a series of celebrations the girls have managed to squeeze in over the last year-and-a-half, including their heroes’ welcome following the World Cup, with a turnout in its thousands that blindsided the team.
“We were in our own little bubble in London, so we didn’t even realise how big the support was back at home,” Katie recalls. “After the quarter-finals, we had all put our phones in our bedside lockers, and had logged off social media, so we weren’t really hearing things. We were just focused on the next game.
“It wasn’t until the day we landed back in Dublin Airport that we saw what was going on,” she continues. “We stepped off the plane and looked up to the big glass windows in the airport. There were all these people in green cheering and waving at us. We didn’t even have to go through passport control!”
A Garda escort brought the team to their 8,000-strong throng of supporters on Dame Street. Although they were about four months too early, highlights included a sing-a-long of ‘All I Want For Christmas’ – which even impressed Mariah Carey, who shared a video of the madness with her 20 million-plus followers on Twitter.
“That was outrageous,” Katie laughs. “We were worried when they told us they were going to do a homecoming for us on Dame Street. We thought it would be a flop – that there would be no one there, and the pictures on the news would look awful. Boy, were we wrong!
“The nicest thing about it was that our true personalities and our team morale came across. We were just being ourselves, and we’re all really proud of that. We’ve never had any media training, or any exposure like that before, so it was cool to know what the public were getting was 100% honest.”
Overnight, the team found themselves catapulted from relative obscurity as underdogs, to celebrity status – scooping up plenty of prestigious silverware, including RTÉ Sport Team of the Year.
“It was really special to be able to dress up and put on a ballgown,” Katie smiles. “Doing those things together is really important, but it’s a big change for us. We’ve gone from not even knowing that these events were going on, to getting invited and receiving awards.”
These starry highlights are something Katie could have never predicted when she started playing hockey at school in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim.
“My PE teacher was the vice captain of the Irish women’s hockey team,” she explains. “If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have even known that international hockey was a thing. It was her dream to play in the World Cup and the Olympics. These players that inspired me when I was younger are looking at us now, and they can’t believe where we’ve got to. I hope in 20 years time, I can look at the Irish women’s team and be able to say the same. That’s how I want to see the sport grow and progress. But never in my era did I think hockey was going to get to where it’s got, especially in terms of the media coverage.”
Katie, who has also found success in the GAA, winning the All-Ireland Intermediate Club Camogie Championship in 2010 with CLG Eoghan Rua, was surprised by the warped perception of hockey in Ireland ahead of the World Cup.
“The big perception would have been that hockey was a posh, upper-class sport in Ireland,” she says, “But what our team represents is a complete contrast to that. Hockey is a sport that’s not expensive to play, and everyone is welcome. It’s the number one sport for girls in most schools across the country. This perception just isn’t the reality, and I wasn’t even aware of it until we were asked about it before the World Cup. To be honest, I was a bit gobsmacked.”
In fact, the history of women’s hockey on these shores runs surprisingly deep. In 1896, Ireland hosted the first recorded women’s international hockey match – defeating England 2-0. 123 years later, the Irish side finally have the platform to raise awareness about crucial issues in their sport.
“In hockey, both men and women are equally underfunded – across the board,” Katie notes. “We just don’t have the programmes and funding that the GAA have, but there’s such a need for it, considering that it’s an international sport. The cost of us going to play games against other teams is huge.
“The number of kids playing hockey has tripled in the last 12 months,” she continues. “But the problem we’re facing now is that we don’t have the facilities to cope with those numbers, and we don’t have enough coaches. A lot of time and money has to be put into improving those resources.”
Like Serena Williams and Irish international rugby player Leah Lyons before them, Katie and her team have also used their voices to speak out against body-shaming culture, and its impact on young sportswomen. Fighting against the tendency to refer to muscular women as ‘manly’, Katie argues that “strong is the new skinny”.
“I’ve spent a lot of time coaching, and the girls have told me about the pressures of school and just being a teenager,” she explains. “Now, I’m not very old, but it’s even changed massively since I was at school. The pressures of social media just blow me away. It makes it very difficult for these girls.
“Playing sport, no matter what it is, creates such an important space for young people, where they can go and talk to their teammates about what’s going on. Kids should have somewhere to go to express themselves. Without sports, I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
While this passion for hockey has brought her international success, it certainly hasn’t come without some substantial sacrifices.
“Every one of us on the team has had to make some major life choices, in order to be able to commit to the programme,” she nods. “Whether that’s a change in career, where you live, or how often you get to see your family and friends. So many friendships don’t last because you just don’t have the time. There have been so many weddings, birthdays and trips away with my family and friends that I’ve had to miss out on.
“That’s why, when we qualified, a lot of the emotion was relief. There was a real joy, knowing that every sacrifice you’ve made along the way is worthwhile. You’ve achieved that goal.”
This success has coincided with the launch of the 20x20 campaign, which aims to increase media coverage, participation and attendance of women’s sport in Ireland by 20% by the end of 2020.
“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” Katie says. “It’s made a huge difference, and it’s definitely working – but of course, 20% more than not very much is still not very much! It’s brilliant when these campaigns reach their target, but we have to aim higher again. We have to keep pushing until equality in sport doesn’t even have to be a topic anymore.”
Although it’s been an unforgettable year for the Irish women’s team, their male counterparts haven’t been so lucky. A controversial penalty shoot-out in the last seconds of their own qualifier against Canada saw their Olympic dreams dashed.
“What happened to the men was heartbreaking,” Katie says sadly. “We all watched it, and we were absolutely gutted for them. There are some exceptional players there, and now a number of them will retire, which is such a shame.”
The men’s devastating loss aside, Katie reckons that Irish hockey is thriving.
“There’s a long way to go, but when you step back and look at where we were in 2015 versus where we are now, it’s chalk and cheese,” she smiles. “That’s a huge credit to the nation for getting behind us. When people contact us, and say that watching us on the TV has brought some joy to their life, that’s massive. This has become bigger than any of us could ever have imagined. When I first started playing for Ireland, you would get 30 or 40 people on the sideline, and a few dogs. Now we’re getting over 6,100 – the biggest crowd at a women’s international event ever. That says it all."
by Ronan Fox