Liz Howard: ‘We still have some dinosaurs in camogie, ladies football and in the GAA’

She ploughed a lonely furrow as a female GAA administrator during the 1980s and the former Camogie Association president keeps a keen eye on the gender balance and integration debate

Gender balance. It wasn’t a recognisable expression never mind a realistic aspiration when Liz Howard became PRO of the Tipperary County Board in 1980.

Her appointment was a watershed moment, the first woman on the GAA board of the county where the association was founded in 1884.

But Howard wasn’t some unknown maverick merely hell-bent on shaking up the patriarchy. She was there to improve Tipperary. And she would.

By then she was already familiar to the GAA fraternity as an analyst on RTÉ's swanky new television programme, The Sunday Game – which launched in 1979.


She spent three years on the show, over two decades as Tipp PRO, and from 2006-09 Howard was president of the Camogie Association. Ahead of her time? Just a tad.

Howard, who played camogie for Tipperary, Clare and Dublin, watched with interest last weekend as 78.5 per cent of GAA’s Special Congress voted to support a motion requiring the association’s management committee to comprise of at least 40 per cent female or male members.

The proposal was tabled on foot of a Government directive, notifying sports organisations that failure to do so could impact on future State funding.

Howard was pleased to see the motion pass, but she has a pragmatic view on the gender balance and integration debate.

“When you look at it in terms of the FAI and IRFU, there are obviously huge positives but also some big concerns,” she says. “I think there is a degree whereby it is being imposed upon the GAA by Sport Ireland and by the Government.

“How the GAA responds to that is important and I believe Tom Ryan made a very good presentation at Congress last weekend. But you still had 20 per cent voting against it. I found that interesting.

“It’s a very complex issue, differences regarding the parish rule, membership, facilities, voting rights, and how would it work with three bodies pulling from one pool of money?

“It’s not simple and I’m very conscious of that, but I think attitude is the biggest mindset requirement change of all. We still have some dinosaurs in camogie, ladies football and in the GAA.”

Not that it should be equality by numbers.

“I feel you must have competent people in every position,” she continues. “Mentoring is very important for men and women in any organisation. It should be equality on merit.”

Howard should know, because few have gained access under the bonnet of both the GAA and Camogie Association to see how their respective engines purr.

During her time as Camogie president, she modernised the association and strengthened relationships with the GAA. She wasn’t afraid to back her beliefs, either. Howard once said in an interview that she would not be against rebranding camogie as women’s hurling.

“At our next ardchomhairle meeting I was lucky I wasn’t beheaded like John the Baptist,” she smiles. “I still believe it would be sensible to call it women’s hurling, though.”

Her Dad, Garrett, won five All-Ireland SHC titles – three with Limerick and two with Dublin (when he was based in the capital for work).

When the Howard family lived in Clare, they set up a camogie team in Feakle.

“I grew up in a household where equality was never mentioned, it just existed,” she recalls.

“We never thought we were any better or worse than our male counterparts. I think that was a great bonus, but in other ways it was also a big impediment because I believed everybody thought the same.”

Howard worked in HR for Aer Lingus, and on one occasion she was dispatched to Montrose to speak on RTÉ Radio as part of the airline’s recruitment drive. Mick Dunne, a groundbreaker in sports broadcasting, heard the interview and felt Howard had some stardust. She subsequently tried her hand at GAA punditry on radio and covered three All-Ireland finals alongside Jimmy Magee.

She was then asked to consider presenting a new GAA television highlights programme.

“I said no, I didn’t have the training and just didn’t feel I was ready. I didn’t want to make a fool of RTÉ or indeed of myself,” she recalls.

But Howard enthusiastically accepted a position to analyse matches. These days, sports broadcasters around the world scramble to ensure they are moving away from male-dominated panels, over four decades after Howard appeared on The Sunday Game.

When she became Tipperary PRO, she set about transforming a role which in many counties had been little more than a dust-catching afterthought. Howard completed a diploma in public relations, but some archaic resistance remained.

“I wasn’t allowed to be a member of the executive,” she recalls. “But I just thought, there’s no point in fighting this battle, I can carry out my role without them. Tipperary was bigger than these people.

“The hurlers and footballers were far more important. I had an extremely good relationship with the players, managers, and the clubs. They were key, so I could work independently.”

Her time as Tipp PRO ended in 2003, but Joe McDonagh (GAA president between 1997-2000) had asked Howard to be part of a committee examining better integration and inclusiveness. She was there at the start.

She became camogie president in 2006 and during her reign Howard found like-minded allies in then GAA president Nickey Brennan and Leinster chairman Liam O’Neill, who would become association president in 2012.

“I couldn’t speak highly enough of Nickey and Liam, they were so supportive of the women’s games. I’d have immense respect for them both.”

She managed to persuade the GAA to finance the recruitment of camogie development officers and also stump up the cash for a new O’Duffy Cup.

In recent years, Howard has observed the integration progress with interest. However, despite having had a ringside seat for so long, her expertise has not been tapped.

“I’m not saying I know it all, absolutely not,” she adds. “But I’ve been involved in camogie and the GAA all my life, yet nobody has spoken to me.”

She also has some reservations on the appointment of Mary McAleese as chairperson of the steering group on Integration.

“I have huge respect for Mary McAleese and her work as president, I thought she was fantastic,” adds Howard.

“But I’m not sure she is the best choice to lead integration. That might sound a bit harsh, but you need to have been involved in the nuts and bolts of a club or a county to really understand the complexities around integration.”

The equality protest by intercounty women footballers and camogie players generated plenty of debate when it began in June, but Howard questions how it was co-ordinated.

“I think the GPA used the camogie players during that situation,” she says. “I think the GPA serve a purpose, a very good purpose, but I feel they used our members with that protest and unfortunately the players fell for it.”

Still, while integration has seemingly dragged along at glacial pace, without pioneers like Howard so much of the old-fashioned rigidness would not have already melted away. She ploughed a lonely furrow as a female GAA administrator during the 1980s.

“I was never lonely,” she shoots back. “I had the support of great players and clubs and managers, great people. It was an honour and a privilege to have a position in your county.”

But when integration does happen, what does one of the genuine trailblazers think the new Gaelic games family will look like?

“If integration is entered with an open attitude, acceptance, respect, and in the true meaning of the word equality, then it can be the most powerful amateur sporting organisation in the world.”

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times