WHEN VALERIE MULCAHY is asked how she is and how things are going, it always comes back to football.
“I’m grand, kept going,” she smiles.
“Getting used to retirement. It was nice to be able to witness Cork win another league title. I thought it was an excellent game, the league final against Donegal. It was great that they came out winners in the end.
“Days like that when the sun is shining and there’s a buzz around, of course I miss it. But I was delighted to be able to sit back and watch from the other perspective this time.”
She donned her beloved Cork jersey in Croke Park for the last time in September 2015, as the Rebels beat Dublin by two points to get their hands on their tenth All-Ireland title in 11 years.
Mulcahy lead the scoring on the day — as she did throughout her glittering career — and officially hung up her inter-county boots the following April. At the age of 33, she stepped away from the admirable Cork set-up with 10 All-Ireland medals, 10 Munster senior championship honours and nine Division 1 league titles.
Also a talented soccer player, the prolific Rockbán forward has also lined out for Cork City WFC in the Women’s National League of late but has committed to neither code at club level this year.
2003 was the year of the big decision. Mulcahy was chosen to represent Ireland at the World Student Games in Korea, an opportunity which she welcomed with open arms.
It’s also the last year that Cork failed to feature in the Munster senior final. That July, one Saturday was spent being schooled by Waterford and the following, Cork were edged out of the championship by Kerry.
A young and promising Mulcahy subsequently missed out due to her engagements over the other side of the world.
“We only lost by a point and when I came back, I was gutted that I had missed it after the hard months of training. We were getting closer to the likes of Kerry and Waterford.
“Football was always my preference, it was always closer to my heart. Maybe that was down to the fact that my family are a real GAA family.
“I would have always played soccer in the schoolyard but playing with teams, first it would have been with ladies football. I was with the boys actually underage, but it always would have been football.”
After her return from South Korea, her focus was set solely on football, and Cork’s remarkable rise to the top of the game. Eamonn Ryan took the reins the following year and they won their first provincial title.
The Brendan Martin Cup made the trip Leeside for the first time in 2005, with the same outcome every year since, apart from one.
Reeling in the years, and looking back on her time with ladies football’s most relentless force, Mulcahy is still coming to terms with the history they have written.
“It was phenomenal. When you leave it, you get time to reflect more and appreciate what you had. What we achieved was amazing and it’s wonderful to have been part of that. It’s lovely to look back and always have that. We had many good days, and some bad days, but that allowed us to drive on.
“When you’re playing you have to keep driving for the next goal and next challenge. When you retire you have a broader perspective and can look back over everything, and just appreciate it.
“I look back with fond memories, I’ve made great friendships and sport has given me an awful lot.”
A secondary school PE teacher, Mulcahy has also had the chance to reflect on her contribution to ladies football and share her grá for the game through her columns in the Irish Examiner.
In one, she writes about how she fulfilled all her Croke Park dreams with Cork, but one — running out to see the stadium ‘full to the brim with 80,000 plus supporters roaring on’.
Mulcahy hopes that the next generation will have the opportunity to experience that feeling first-hand. In terms of progress, and gender equality in sport in general, the Whitechurch native feels that a lot has been done, but there’s a long way to go.
“There are improvements being made,” she continues. “There’s more exposure and you see more women playing sport on television and getting more press and extra support. Every little helps.
“You’re getting brands coming on board and getting involved in women’s sport to show their support, and that funding is vital.
“It’s great for women, and to support women in sport is vital.
“Improvements are being made, they’re gradual, but definitely in the last two years, I’ve seen a big shift and the future is looking a bit brighter. There’s a lot of work to do, but there are improvements.”
At the end of March, history was made as Dublin and Mayo clashed in the first-ever Ladies National Football League match in Croke Park.
The decision was warmly received across the country, as Dublin’s male counterparts and Roscommon’s Allianz League fixture was played afterwards.
Mulcahy praised it as a hugely positive step, and hopes that double-headers and more ladies football matches at GAA HQ will be run off in the near future.
“It was monumental really. We’ve so little opportunities to play on the big stage. I know all the girls that were involved really thrived and were looking forward to playing in Croke Park. Before the men then, that’s more exposure. People were more aware that the match was on.
“It just makes sense — with two fixtures on the one day. You’re attracting the same crowd to both, the same GAA community. There should be interest in both male and female sports.”
Of course, when gender equality in sport is debated, it always boils down to two main subjects — attendance and interest.
‘There’ll never be as many people at female sporting events’ and ‘women don’t even care about female sports’ are just two of the comments that are thrown out again and again.
Mulcahy discussed this in another of her columns. ‘We need to change tradition,’ she writes.
By this, she means that our tradition in Irish sport is to support male sports and male athletes. Why can’t we support females in the same way?
“It’s just bringing people out to watch matches,” she tells The42. “I don’t think people should pick what teams they go to watch based on gender.
“If kids go and watch games, especially girls, if they’re going out then they’ll realise they might have a love for it, they’ll want to be playing. I was always brought to Cork games — both women and men — and because I was watching the women’s games, I realised ‘this is an opportunity for me, I can one day play and wear the Cork jersey.’
“I looked up to those people playing and realised ‘Jesus, this is something I want to do.’ If more people go to games, it will hopefully increase opportunities [for kids] to realise ‘we can be here representing our county too.’ It would create role models of the players that are playing, but also to create future players.
“If more people are going to games, people will feel that there’s more of a respect there, something good to be part of and involved in. It all makes the game more attractive to be part of.
“If women can see women excelling, then they can reflect and say ‘why can’t it be me?’
“That’s why the exposure is so important. I think people will put more into something when they see that there are rewards there. It’s a bit demoralising when you’re going out playing a big game and there are very few there watching you.
“There’s an added buzz when people are present. Things like that help lift people and bring a whole lot to performances. That buzz makes people want to be involved in an inter-county set-up, or be more involved and have those opportunities.”
Her sporting endeavours on the pitch aside, Mulcahy also hit the headlines in early 2015 as she came out publicly, and became the first high-profile ladies Gaelic games star to do so.
It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but Mulcahy — who has since wed her long-term love Meg Blyth — was delighted with the response.
“When I did the documentary and when that had gone to air after, there was huge positivity shown. The fact that teenagers came up to me after matches and thanked me personally for sharing it.
“It was great to get that feedback, but it was easy enough for me. I had been true to myself for a long time and I have a good support network around me. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences.
“It helped other kids and they saw that it’s ok to be gay. It helped them in their lives, so that was a wonderful thing to come out of it. Exactly what I had intended, or hoped.”
The 34-year-old’s life is still almost fully immersed in ladies football, without gracing the pitch. Just this week, she was announced as a Sona ambassador — who are set to be the broadcast sponsor for Peil na mBan on TG4.
It’s a role she’s excited about, and she feels that both parties will benefit from the link-up.
“It’s wonderful for both the Peil na mBan broadcasting and Sona. We were on about generating awareness in women’s sport — having an Irish company involved is wonderful. It’s another step.
“The fact that it’s tied in as well with healthy lifestyles, and the whole thing with Sona is that you optimise your health and get the best out of yourself really. It’s a wonderful partnership, a great fit and I’m delighted to be involved.”
Sona, Ireland’s leading provider of vitamins and nutritional supplements, is the official broadcast sponsor of the Ladies Gaelic Football coverage on TG4. For more information see: www.sona.ie / #SupportLikeNoOther.
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