The Journey of Irish Women’s Cricket
As in most sports, it took a long time for women to win a place at the top table of Irish cricket. But unlike most other games, Irish women have been playing cricket for an awfully long time.
Throughout the 19th century women rarely won the attention of the sports pages, except when they were mentioned for their “fashionable garb” at various race meetings or grand cricket matches, to which they were admitted free. But reports crop up from time to time of women taking to the field.
The first evidence of a game involving a full women’s side was in July 1884, when that team of women beat a team of men by one wicket at Camus Rectory near Strabane, Co Tyrone.
Before the end of the century there were frequent reports of women’s cricket. In 1892 the Kerry Sentinel wrote that there were “quite a number” of ladies’ cricket clubs “in full swing in various parts of Ireland”. It mentioned Mrs Saunders’ of Corolanty, King’s County (now Offaly) “whose 1st XI can hold its own against all-comers”, as well as Mrs Darby’s of Leap Castle; Mrs Marshall’s of Baron’s Court, and Miss Bicknell’s of Shinrone.
Portrait: An Irish cricketer “Keeping Wicket against the English” - Lord’s Museum (19th century)
The first inter-county game – King’s County v Galway – took place in Gurteen, Co Tipperary on 7 September 1895. There were also several games where women took on men in Wexford, Kerry, and Cork. Codes of Victorian and Edwardian dress may have meant the games were less than vigorous.
Women’s cricket in Dublin
The first sign of women playing in Dublin came in 1909, when at least four clubs were active – Lansdowne (who held practices at Railway Union), Ailesbury, Killiney and Alexandra College Ladies. The only result that was printed saw Ailesbury beat the Alex side by 18 runs “before a fair attendance,” at Park Avenue. The Ailesbury club was quite active socially, staging several dances and balls in their short existence - the venue for these was usually the Café Cairo on Grafton Street.
Another bid to get the game going in the Irish capital came in 1920, when Mrs Elliott-Lynn put a notice in the press calling for prospective cricketers to write to her. Nothing apparently came of this, which is a shame, as Mrs Elliott-Lynn – later Lady Heath – could well have given the game some impetus. She was a tennis champion, and helped set up the women’s athletics association, setting world records at high jump and javelin. She instead turned to flying, then in its infancy, especially for women. She became the first female to fly from Ireland to England, and from Cape Town to London.
In the 1920s and early 30s, cricket was played sporadically in Ulster – Armagh and Lurgan ladies were quite active – and in a handful of Dublin girls’ schools. But the impetus for the first major breakthrough came from a strange source.
Organise a ground and we’ll be there!
George Bonass was the first Honorary Secretary of the Irish Cricket Union, a former men’s international, and cricket columnist with the Sunday Independent. He explained how he had been on holidays to England and was impressed by the standard he had seen in a woman’s match. “Where are our lady cricketers?”, he demanded.
A Muckross Park schoolgirl, Isolde Howard, wrote back to him saying if he organised a ground she would organise two teams. And so, on 28 May 1936, a game between Miss Isolde Howard’s XI and Miss Deirdre Ennis’s XI took place at Sydney Parade with the bulk of the players from Leinster CC, and schoolgirls from Muckross, Wesley and Alexandra. That spark lit a flame that saw several clubs spring up that summer and Howard and Evie O’Kelly founded the Leinster Women’s Cricket Union in 1938.
Clare Cordell putting on her pads, going to bat with Gladys Smith, 3 shots of Clare at the wickets & North Dublin team members wait to go in from Weekly Irish Times, July 1943, of North v South Dublin courtesy @DeryckV pic.twitter.com/2x8awzvHMh— Club Cricket in Ireland (@CrickResearch) February 10, 2021
The first season saw teams from Clontarf, Railway Union, Dartry, Leinster and Ling Institute of Physical Training. Betty Magee presented a trophy and the sport proved quite a hit. Trinity, Civil Service and Rush soon joined in – the Fingal club’s players included the actress Marie Kean, who later starred in the Hollywood movies ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ and ‘Barry Lyndon’.
The game spreads around Ireland
The game spread to Munster, who got a provincial side together and arranged to play Leinster on 10 September 1939, but Germany’s invasion of Poland put an end to the fixture. In the south, cricket continued throughout war-time but it was not until peace returned that the game became established in Ulster. The need for competition led to an invitation to the English county Northumberland & Durham who sent a side to play Leinster selections in 1947. Leinster went on tour to England on several occasions to play the strongest clubs.
Pauline Furniss, a student at Trinity, had been cajoled into playing by her friend Clarissa Crawford. On return home she gathered some hockey-playing friends to set up Belfast WCC, which was loosely connected to Cliftonville, and set up the Northern women’s union in 1947 with Margaret White. A league cup was formed with clubs in Muckamore, Lisburn, Holywood and Newtownards.
Action from the Leinster Ladies trial match at Clontarf in in 1947 from Times Pictorial (The Weekly Irish Times) courtesy @DeryckV Imelda Howard (batting), Una Curley (bowling), Thelma Menton (keeping score) while waiting to bat. pic.twitter.com/nkdSQTpmzx— Club Cricket in Ireland (@CrickResearch) January 30, 2021
Not long afterwards, Betty Love spearheaded the formation of a North West body, with clubs in Derry, Bonds Glen, Clooney, Stradarran, Bready and Fox Lodge. A trial between Tyrone and Derry was played to decide a team to play the Northern union each year, with a side then selected to play for Ulster v Leinster. Sion Mills, formed in 1954, produced some excellent players – 13-year-old Annette Patton of Sion took 3 for 5 in the Tyrone v Derry game in 1956, when Betty Love made an unbeaten 57.
Most clubs were happy to provide grounds for these sides, but women still came up against old-fashioned attitudes. In 1956, the Irish Times editorial expressed doubts about a woman teaching cricket to youngsters. It wrote: “One hears of ladies cricket matches, but as yet no member of the sex has been elected to the MCC; and until that happens, women must remain, at best, suffragette-missionaries of the game.” Trinity’s College Park was also off-limits to women, who had their own grounds at Trinity Hall in Dartry.
An Ulster v Leinster fixture, or North v South, was held every year from 1947 to 1967, with the southern province usually prevailing. Ulster picked up their first win in 1955. Played at Castle Avenue, Ulster made 91 with Heather Black top scorer with 21. Leinster included both Howard and Ennis from the 1936 match, but despite runs and wickets from home club players Ann Carroll and Marie Coffey, they lost by twenty runs.
In that match, Ulster’s Cherie Britton made a duck, but later moved to Australia where she played state cricket for New South Wales. She was not the only post-war Irish player to make a mark overseas – Ling’s Heather Smith, later Wheatley, played county cricket and got an England trial. Coffey was one of several talented players who lit up the game in the 1950s and 60s, including Ivy Hadden (Dartry) and Clarissa Crawford, later Pilkington (Trinity and Phoenix).
Decline then re-emergence
In 1951, the Australian women came to Britain, and a visit to play Ireland was mooted. As hosting would be costly, the Irish Times suggested “a spot of courting” with the Irish Cricket Union. It was a courtship that took 50 years.
There were very few representative fixtures, although Ireland turned out against English counties and strong clubs such as Riverside. But New Zealand was to be the first true international opponent on their 1966 tour of these islands. August 13 was the appointed date, and fittingly, Isolde Howard was named as captain, thirty years after she kick-started women’s cricket in Dublin. More than half the side came from Ulster – Rosalind Armstrong, Cherie Britton, Joyce McIlwrath, Maura Smyth and Maureen Monaghan (all Belfast CC), and Annette Patton (Sion Mills). The five Dubliners were Howard (Leinster CC), Ivy Hadden, Beryl Squire, Heather Squire and Gladys Ruddock (all Dartry). Sadly, torrential rain in Belfast meant not a ball was bowled and it would be another twenty years before Ireland took the field again.
The women’s game hadn’t taken root in schools and without regular fresh blood it went into slow decline, fading out completely in the late 1960s.
Video: Enjoy a great chat with Miriam Grealey, Nikki Squire and Saibh Young on women’s cricket from the 1980’s to 2000’s.
After several years with no cricket at all, a group of women came together to organise a game in College Park to mark the annual Trinity Week in 1975. Jenny Halliday and Barbara Schmidt got up teams from the university and Phoenix, and it proved to be the spark that reignited the sport.
Several clubs opened women’s sections and Isolde Howard again came to the fore to set up a league in time for the summer of 1976. The women of Clontarf were particularly strong and they dominated the early years – veteran Marie Coffey had lost none of her wiles and topped the bowling averages in the first season with 31 wickets at the remarkable average of 3.6, collecting the trophy she had last won in 1955. Her fellow opening bowler was aged just 11 but took 26 wickets at 4.38 including a hat-trick against Phoenix – her name was Stella Owens and she was to become a leading figure in the game’s progress.
Image: William West’s compendium of Ireland’s international women cricketers covered the era 1982-1992 (now out of print)
By 1981 Ulster had started again, with Donna Armstrong their leading player, and formed a three-cornered inter-pro with Munster. Leinster, who were by far the strongest province, later split into north and south. In 1982 the Irish Women’s Cricket Union was set up, with Clarissa Pilkington its driving force and first president.
Start of Irish women’s international cricket
The first steps onto the world scene were taken in Utrecht the following summer, at a tournament to celebrate the Dutch centenary. Stella Owens had the honour of bowling the first ball – against the hosts – and taking the first wicket. Ireland lost the first 55-over game by 25 runs, but a fifty by Annie Murray helped secure the first win against Denmark (see a publication from a subsequent quadrangular tournament in 1986).
Ireland soon established themselves as the next best in Europe after England, and although they heavily lost three home ODIs to Australia, they secured an invitation to the 1988 World Cup down under. With just five teams, everyone played everyone else twice and Ireland secured two wins over Netherlands under captain Mary Pat Moore and coach Noel Mahony (see the original Tour Programme).
It was the first of five successive World Cups for Ireland, although results were hard to come by as other countries grew increasingly professional. Pakistan were beaten in front of an enormous crowd in Gurgaon, near Delhi in 1997 and perhaps the finest hour came when England was conquered, and the European Championship secured, in 2001. The English were bowled out for 60, with Saibh Young’s hat-trick – including TV commentator Ebony Rainford-Brent – the highlight.
Image: Part of the 2001 European Championship-winning team celebrate the win
Another milestone came just prior to the European Championship success in the summer of 2000 when Pakistan came to College Park for the first – and so far only – Test match Ireland Women has played. It was a bit of a mismatch and Ireland, captained by Miriam Grealey, won in two days by an innings and 54 runs.
Image: The historic first Ireland Women’s Test team
That year also saw talks to amalgamate with the Irish Cricket Union, which was completed under the presidency of Siobhan McBennett in February 2001.
Ireland continued to produce excellent players, and over the next two decades they relied heavily on Clare Shillington, Isobel Joyce, Cecilia Joyce and Ciara Metcalfe who all had long careers and retired together after the 2018 World Twenty20.
One success in recent years that numerous players cite as their favourite tournament was in 2015, when Ireland Women won the ICC Women’s World T20 Qualifier that was played in Thailand. A dramatic final ball win over Bangladesh in the final in Bangkok gave the side their first major tournament title since the Women’s European Championship in 2000.
The new format became increasingly important and is now the dominant form of the game. It has given some a chance to shine, and Isobel Joyce and Kim Garth were recruited to play in the high-profile Big Bash series in Australia. Their male counterparts had played on the county circuit in England, but ambitious Irish women looked further afield and wintering down under has seen several break into State sides in Australia and New Zealand.
Ireland Women has had a full-time coach since 2015, when Australian Aaron Hamilton was appointed. He oversaw wins against Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and South Africa and was succeeded in 2019 ago by Irish men’s cricket legend Ed Joyce. Joyce’s work has been interrupted by Covid-19, but he has seen the sport take great strides outside Dublin with several players from Northern Ireland now playing in the Super Series.
To further support the growth of the senior international side, a new sponsor was brought on board in 2017 (Hanley Energy), and with the support of Sport Ireland, in 2019 the first-ever part-time contracts for women were awarded, with the first six recipients being Laura Delany, Kim Garth, Celeste Raack, Mary Waldron, Shauna Kavanagh and Gaby Lewis.
As a recognition of the growing role of women in the sport in Ireland, former captain Miriam Grealey was inducted as an Honorary Life Member of the MCC (a first for Irish cricket) and Cricket Ireland appointed its first women president, Aideen Rice, in 2018.
With qualifiers for ICC global events in both formats coming up in 2021, there is renewed hope Ireland can move forward on the world stage. Exciting young talents such as Gaby Lewis, Orla Prendergast, Una Raymond-Hoey, Leah Paul and Rebecca Stokell have come to the fore, and with Ed Joyce and captain Laura Delany leading the way, the sky is the limit.