With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games fast approaching, Ireland’s female athletes are set to be well represented. The recent high-quality levels of performances indicate that Ireland are projected to match their best ever performance in the long history of the Olympic Games.
This platform and opportunity hasn’t always been available for Irish women. Up until 1956, no Irish female had ever represented Ireland at an Olympic Games. The perception of a woman’s role in society was very much confined to getting married and staying at home to become a housewife.
This social norm was clearly evidenced by the 1937 constitution. Per Article 41.2:2, ‘the State, shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.’
Fast forward to the 2012 London Olympic Games, Ireland marked its highest point of women participation. Thirty Irish female athletes took part and Katie Taylor made history winning a gold medal in the first ever women’s lightweight boxing event.
Where did this all change?
Over 60 years ago, in 1956, Maeve Kyle became the first Irish woman to compete at an Olympic Games. Kyle’s courage, bravery and sacrifice was pivotal in shifting the perception of women and empowering other Irish females to challenge the status-quo and follow suit.
Maeve Kyle was born in Kilkenny in 1928, where her father was the headmaster of Kilkenny College. Ever since she was a kid, sport was a major part of who she was. There were no barriers, Kyle was raised by her family knowing she had the opportunity to do whatever her brothers were doing.
“Sport was part of my social life growing up. It didn’t cost you anything. It couldn’t because we had no money!’” Kyle said.**
“I played touch rugby with the boys. I played hockey with the boys. I swam in the river with the boys. I was convinced I was a boy, too – living in a boy’s school with two brothers.” *
“When I was about 13, I was at home in Kilkenny for the school sports day and I told Daddy that I wanted to run. ‘I’m not putting on a girls event’, he said.” *
“’I’ll run against the boys’, I told him. And I did and I won. And I won the next year as well.” *
The Kilkenny native was first and foremost a hockey player. Having mastered the sport in school, she went on to win 58 Irish caps and was named in the World All-Star team in 1953 and 1959. In 2006, the talented and pioneering athlete was inducted into the Irish Hockey Hall of Fame.
It was through hockey where her life changed. In 1953, she found herself at a post-game hockey party in Antrim. Here she met her husband to be, Sean Kyle whom encouraged her to take up sprinting, with him as coach.
The pair began to train and with the athletic base and foundations already present from hockey, she was ahead of the curve.
“Because of the hockey, I was introduced to international sport quite early. Then, of course, you get a taste for that level. I was fast enough, fit enough. I had a good enough eye and I had the hunger”, she said. *
“I remember some ferocious training in the winter. On Christmas Day, I was in the kitchen and cooking the dinner and he’d say ‘You’ve got a 15-minute run to do now before we sit down’. *
With the 1956 Summer Olympics approaching in Melbourne, her husband spoke more and more about her going. Within three years, he was confident she was ready and wasn’t prepared to let the cultural norm to get in the way.
“I said to him, ‘Don’t be silly. Ireland don’t send women to the Olympics’. ‘I think they do”, he said. ‘In 1948, we sent a female fencer’.*
“Now, those Games weren’t the proper, fully-fledged Olympics but the lady in question was my PE teacher in Alexandra College– Dorothy Dermody. Sean knew all of this. He was a divil for detail. So he said ‘You won’t be the first, you’ll be the second. But the first in track and field.’” *
It wasn’t until two months prior to the Olympic Games where the Kilkenny athlete was given confirmation that she was selected to represent Ireland in the Women’s 100m and 200m in Melbourne. As expected, the decision was met with uproar from the Irish public.
“My biggest claim to fame is that I was the first Irish woman to go to the Olympics. You could call me an athletic suffragette, I suppose. Young married women just didn’t go running in foreign lands. They didn’t feed me to the lions but I’m sure some of them would have wanted to!” **
“I was a disgrace to motherhood and the Irish nation”, said Maeve Kyle proudly.
“That’s what one letter in The Irish Times said. Imagine! A woman leaving her husband and daughter to go and run!” she said ***
“People in conservative Ireland did not believe I should be running around the world leaving my husband and children. But my family did not take any notice and thought the letters written to the papers were hilarious. I grew up with a belief I was perfectly entitled to do what the boys were doing.” ***
The sprinter was leaving her husband and two-year-old daughter behind. She was getting on a plane for the first time. Inevitably, it proved to be quite a trek to get to the other side of the world. The family had to raise £200, a huge sum in that era, to fund the trip.
The journey took over two weeks with stop-offs in New York, San Francisco and Fiji. Eventually when they arrived in Melbourne, they were treated to a wonderful reception from Australia’s large Irish ex-pat population.
The Irish team returned home with five medals. Kyle ran in both the 100m and 200m as at that time, those were the furthest distances women were allowed to run.
“They felt we would require resuscitation if we ran any further”, said Kyle as she chuckled. **
While Kyle travelled to her first ever Olympics a novice athlete, she returned home more experienced and aware. She improved with age, recording her best times between 1960 and 1964.
Kyle competed in the 1960 Rome Olympics where the Olympic Council introduced two new distances for women, 400m and the 800m. The 400m became her preferred event as she enjoyed the strategic element of the race and this is the event which she excelled.
“To me the 400 is the greatest event of the lot. You have to stay in your own lane. You’ve got to think. You can’t sprint the whole way. You’ve got to judge and you’ve got to not be influenced by the people either side of you. Those are all serious challenges, both mentally and physically,” she said. **
In 1964, Maeve was now rated amongst the fastest 400m runners in the world. At the age of 36 she made her mark on the history books again as she became Ireland’s first triple Olympian at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964. In Tokyo, she ran in the 400m and 800m, reaching the semi-finals of both.
Towards the end of her career, Kyle was still competing at the highest level. At 38 years old, she claimed bronze at the European Indoor Championship in Dortmund in 1966, with a time of 57.3 seconds.
Bravery is one of those ancient virtues that we bestow as accolades too easily in this celebrity age. We often celebrate athletic courage. Whether it’s applauding a body on-the-line tackle, watching a footballer step up to take a last minute penalty or seeing our sports stars performing in front of a packed stadium in Croke Park. We laud their courage.
Such feats are athletic, wonderful and memorable. However courage is also being 28 years of age and risking all. Risking the anger of newspaper and television reporters and thousands of the Irish public who view you as a as a public enemy, to go against the status-quo.
Regardless of this, Kyle was determined to follow pursue her beliefs and was intent to pave the way for the future generation of women to have their chance and follow their dreams. A true pioneer for Irish women in sport.