Women of Influence in Irish Sport 2019

Welcome to the publication of our seventh annual list of 50 Women of Influence in Irish Sport.

Since we began back in 2013 the game has certainly changed for how Women’s sport is seen and how Women in Sport are treated with full respect for their talent and skills.

We have more CEO’s of sporting organisations than ever before, more women in positions of influence at our major sporting sponsors and in the media.

On the field of play, we are now more familiar with our female stars across a wide variety of team and individual sports. It makes a real difference. The gap in sporting participation between boys and girls is now down to 4.5 %, lower than it has ever been but still not at the parity which it should be.

The final stages of any journey are always likely to be the hardest but with the right people leading the way and showing that there should be no reason for discrimination and plenty of reasons to create more diverse leadership, it can be achieved.

Over the coming weeks, we will highlight 50 women who are leading the way, making sport and society better through what they do.

We are grateful once again for the support of Liberty Insurance in bringing this list to life.


Michelle O’Neill

Michelle O’Neill is the highest performing football official that Ireland has ever produced.  In July she ran the sideline in the World Cup Final between the United States and the Netherlands.

Then in August, she took another major step when doing the same alongside referee Stephanie Frappart at the UEFA Super Cup in Istanbul.

O’Neill played as a forward in local leagues in Wexford and chose to follow a path as an official from early on in her involvement with the game.

It’s an important part of the normalisation process of integrating women into the highest, and the most prosaic levels of sport, that the officials in charge should be women and that applies for the men’s and the women’s game.

She is not the first to make her mark.  Paula Brady from Dublin is also on the FAI’s list of 60 qualified officials as well as the 15 who have progressed to officiating in international competition.

O’Neill though is the only one to have now been involved in two FIFA World Cups and is a role model for others who want to follow the path.

Joy Neville has set a benchmark in Rugby having refereed the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup Final. O’Neill is doing likewise, mixing up her commitments in black with teaching swimming and aqua therapy in her native Wexford.


Shireen McDonagh

Shireen McDonagh is Head of Brand Marketing and Sponsorship with Life Style Sports.

Guiding the way in which the brand delivers its message, and its exclusive retail partnerships with Leinster Rugby and Munster Rugby puts her firmly in the spotlight as someone who is influencing how fans and consumers maintain a physical and a monetary connection to their favourite sporting teams.

McDonagh stepped up to the role in October 2018 having joined the company the previous year as Brand and Communications Manager.

Prior to that, she had built up a strong portfolio of experience working for agencies Atomic and TBWA.

She is a sprint and hurdling athletics coach with Dundrum South Dublin Athletics Club and previously worked as a model, even starring on the RTÉ Reality Documentary about the modelling world Fade Street.

A woman of many parts, she has become a key player in how sport is seen online and on the high streets of Ireland.



Vera Pauw

Vera Pauw is the manager of the Republic of Ireland Women’s Senior team in football.  She was appointed to the role in September and will oversee the team’s qualification campaign for the Euro 2021 Finals which will take place in England.

Capped 89 times by the Netherlands, Pauw was the first Dutch woman to play professionally outside the country when she signed for Italian side Modena in 1988.

A renowned coach who is an instructor with FIFA and UEFA, the 56-year-old Pauw began her management career with Scotland in 1998 before she led the Netherlands to the European Championship Semi-Finals in 2009.

Since then she has managed the national teams of Russia and South Africa and worked as an advisor to the Thailand FA. Pauw also coached the Houston Dash for a season in the United States.

She has a two year deal with the FAI to take the team as far as they can in this latest cycle.  Pauw has a passion for cycling away from football.  This qualification campaign promises to be an exciting ride, kicking off in front of a sold-out Tallaght Stadium.



Mary O’Connor

Mary O’Connor is the CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport.  In her near two years at the helm of the organisation she has overseen the launch and strong support of the 20X20 initiative, and been a strong representative for the wider sporting community as part of the Sports Leadership Group charged with planning the implementation of the National Sports Policy.

O’Connor represented her native Cork with great distinction both in Camogie and Ladies Football winning a total of 12 All Ireland medals over a 16-year dual inter-county career.

She was captain of the 2009 Cork Ladies Football team that completed five titles in a row. An All-Star in both codes she was Player of the Year in 2006.

She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from University College Cork in recognition of her contribution to sport and in particular to Women’s sport.

She spent the early part of her career working for the Camogie Association where she was involved in the delivery of three national development plans that saw growth in both the number of clubs and in participation. In 2013 she served as acting CEO of the Camogie Association.

In 2018 she joined the Advisory Board of the Dublin City Council Sport and Wellbeing Partnership where we have worked alongside her and seen at close quarters what an intelligent and committed advocate she is for sport in all its forms.


Tracey Kennedy

Tracey Kennedy is Chair of the Cork GAA County Board. She was elected unopposed to the position at the end of 2017 and has overseen a turbulent couple of years with the development of Páirc Uí Chaoimh central to that.

The Liam Miller controversy was another factor thrown into the mix to test her like could rarely ever have been the case with a voluntary position but she has come through all that has been thrown at her with grace and resolve.

Activity on the pitch and off the field of play has begun to turn with a Minor and U20 Championship double in Football backing up continued progress in hurling having landed back to back Munster Championships in 2017 and 2018.

The appointment of new key staff in administration and coaching is another indicator of a more positive future than has been evident in Cork over recent years and Kennedy can be credited with playing a significant part in that.

She is Vice Principal of Carrigaline Community School in her ‘day job’ and overcame a serious health scare in 2015 while still serving as PRO for the Cork County Board.

There are yet more challenges to be overcome in Cork but Kennedy has shown her aptitude for meeting them head-on and finding a solution.

When she completes her service with the Cork County Board there may yet be a higher office in the GAA considered in the future.

There have been 39 Presidents in the history of the GAA. Four of them have hailed from Cork.  There has yet to be a Woman President.


Dr Una May

Dr Una May is Director of Participation and Ethics at Sport Ireland.  Her dual responsibility is substantial and covers the maintenance of a clean approach to sport through heading the anti-doping function, and also to drive as many people as possible to participate in sport in all its forms.

Both of these are key elements of the Government National Policy on Sport published in 2018 and the implementation of which will dominate sports administration policy for the foreseeable future.

This time last year controversy raged over the readmission of Russia to the World Anti-Doping Association.  May and Sport Ireland were staunch critics of a perceived light touch on Russia’s adherence to the right procedures and now again, the spectre of ‘inconsistencies’ is to the fore once more.

Maintaining Ireland’s strong approach to anti-doping sits on May’s desk and in an Olympic na Paralympic year to come it will be a key priority.

May has been a pathfinder and an effective example that skill and competence are defined by an individual, not by their gender.  She is the most senior woman in an executive role and a likely strong contender to eventually succeed John Treacy as CEO.


Cliona O’Leary

Cliona O’Leary is the Deputy Head of TV Sport at RTÉ.  The broadcaster is our most visible and important window on the world of sport and by any comparison to other countries in Europe, Ireland is very well served by our national public service broadcaster.

O’Leary joined RTÉ Sport in 1997 and worked as Series Editor on International soccer and rugby.  She produced RTÉ’s Top 20 GAA Moments and edited World Cup and Olympic Games coverage as her career developed.

She held the post of Assistant Commissioning Editor within the Sports department from 2006 and stepped up to her current role in 2012.

She was RTÉ Sport’s Away Team leader in Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games and Rio for the 2016 Games and has already been out to Tokyo preparing for next year’s 2020 Games.

She is a strong advocate of giving Women’s sport a high level of visibility both on and off the field of play, and has been a key driver in ensuring that broadcasters like Joanne Cantwell, Jacqui Hurley, Evanne Ní Chuillin and Claire McNamara, as well as analysts like Bríd Stack, Fiona Coghlan, Ursula Jacob and Hope Solo the chance to be involved at the highest levels of sports coverage regardless of whether it is men or women in action.

O’Leary is originally from Drimoleague in West Cork and graduated with an honours BA degree in and Media & Communication Studies from Mary Immaculate College in Limerick.


Fiona Coghlan

Fiona Coghlan is to become the first woman to be co-commentator on a Men’s Rugby World Cup match as the tournament progresses.

She has been a regular feature of RTÉ’s coverage of the sport since hanging up her boots after captaining Ireland to a first-ever Grand Slam in the Women’s Six Nations in 2013 and to a World Cup Semi-Final the following year.

Stepping into the commentary box for a World cup though is another step up the ladder of recognition that not every voice and face talking about the biggest sporting moments has to be male.

Coghlan was the first Chair of the Dublin City Council Sport and Wellbeing partnership when that was founded in 2016 and was an ambassador when Ireland hosted the Women’s Rugby World Cup the following year. She is also an ambassador for Liberty Insurance.

She works as a Maths and PE teacher in Lucan and combines that with a role as an advisor with Navy Blue Sports helping to guide the off the field careers of Garry Ringrose, Andrew Conway, Sarah Rowe, Joy Neville, Darragh Moloney and many more.



Rachael Blackmore

Rachael Blackmore is a leading National Hunt Jockey competing at the highest level of her sport against both Women and Men.

She became the first woman to take out a professional licence in over 30 years when doing so in 2015 and last year came second only to Paul Townend in the race to become Irish Champions Jockey.

This year also marked her first winner at the Cheltenham Festival and she came to a wider audience with the screening of the Jump Girls documentary.

Hailing from a family in the racing heartland of Tipperary, she nonetheless came from a family with no background in the sport and came into it after studying equine science at the University of Limerick.

The greatest challenge for women jockeys has always been to get enough rides to prove themselves in the saddle as a match if not better than the men they are racing against.

Blackmore has broken through that hurdle with over 600 rides last year and was even the subject of a giant statue erected outside Chaletenham by bookmaker Paddy Power.


Antoinette McKeown

Antoinette McKeown is the CEO of Sport NI and as such serves as the most influential person in Northern Ireland connecting sport to Government.

Her twitter biography contains the quote that ‘Resilience is made easier when driven by integrity.’  They are appropriate words given the drama she has gone through that resulted in her being suspended from the position for ten months in 2017 but returning last year and knuckling down to serve sport once more.

Overturning a dismissal which dated back to a fractious time in Northern Ireland sport amid rows and recriminations over the development of Casement Park, she has put that behind her now but faces major challenges outside of her control with the impact of Stormont not sitting and the oncoming crisis in Government that Brexit represents.

Life and Sport continue though and Sport NI is currently undertaking consultation on a new Strategic Plan to replace the five-year plan which McKown oversaw after her appointment to the role in 2013.

A former CEO of the Consumer Council she is a fan of most sports and an effective public administrator, she will open the Game Changer Conference being hosted by Sport NI on September 30th and October 1st at the Titanic Belfast, painting a picture of sport in a good place in Northern Ireland.


Miriam Malone

Miriam Malone is the CEO of Paralympics Ireland and is facing into the final preparation stages of taking a strong Irish team to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

She joined the organisation from her previous position as Director of Business Partnerships at the FAI in 2017.

Malone was instrumental in delivering a successful 2018 Allianz European Para Swimming Championships at the Sport Ireland Campus in August 2018.  She doubled up as Chair of the Local Organising Committee for that event, one of the most prestigious international events to have been staged in Ireland.

The team is shaping up nicely for next year with Ellen Keane securing World Championship Bronze last week, Katie George Dunleavy and Eve McCrystal winning Silver at the ParaCycling World Championships and Jason Smyth and a strong Para Athletics team gearing up for their Worlds later in the year.

Malone began her lifelong career in sport working in San Francisco before returning to Ireland to work with Special Olympics Ireland.  In 2004 She set up the first Kilkenny Sports Partnership and then in 2006 she joined the FAI in Dublin working across grassroots and then into business partnerships.

She is well prepared for leading a strong team into a Paralympic Games off the back of major success in London and Rio.


Michelle Carpenter

Michelle Carpenter is the CEO of Rowing Ireland.  Appointed to the role in May 2018 she has overseen a very strong year for the sport with Ireland now ranked second in the world in Olympic boat classes ahead of both the UK and the United States.

Four boats have already been qualified to take part in next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo but there has also been real success at the grassroots level and in forming a new commercial partnership with Kinetica.

Membership at Rowing Ireland has grown by 25 per cent in the past year and the Get Going Get Rowing programme in schools and colleges has engaged with 30,000 participants.

Originally from Limerick, Carpenter was one of the first registered female rowing members of Shannon Rowing Club, rowing in their first winning women’s championship crew of 1988.

She is actively engaged at international level within World Rowing and was the sports nominee to a 2017 IOC Women in Leadership Forum in Lausanne.

Before becoming involved in the world of sports administration Carpenter was part of the team that launched the Euro currency while working at the European Central bank in Frankfurt.


Sinéad McNulty

Sinéad McNulty was appointed to become Ard Stiúrthóir or CEO of the Camogie Association in June of this year.

The first three months in the post have been a whirlwind but one which has produced some fine results.

The Liberty Insurance All Ireland Final between Galway and Kilkenny produced a game for the ages, the highest scoring Final since 1988, and a record stand alone attendance.

Throw into the mix that television numbers and attendance at the semi Finals stage in Limerick were both up by nearly 20 per cent and it has been a good start.

McNulty is a Dublin native, and a graduate of the Leisure Management and MBA programmes at TU Dublin (DIT). She had been Head of Sport at the third level institution for the past ten years and overseen the transition of sports facilities as a central focus of the new Grangegorman Campus.

She brings valuable experience from community sports development and leisure consultancy having worked in sport development roles in Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, and as a leisure consultant with Holohan Leisure before joining TU Dublin (DIT) in 2008.

A friend of Sport for Business since our early days, McNulty has also been a highly valued colleague on the Board of the Dublin City Sport and Wellbeing Partnership.

She served as Chairperson of the Scheme Implementation Group of the Government Grant Scheme supporting intercounty Camogie and Ladies Gaelic Football players, Chairperson of Student Sport Ireland’s Finance and Governance Committee, and a member of the GAA’s Towards 2034 Committee.

She is a member of Round Towers GAA Club in Clondalkin, alongside GAA Head of Communications Alan Milton, where she played Ladies Gaelic Football and has worked with the development committee in the club to secure new facilities and government grant aid.


Helen O’Rourke

Helen O’Rourke is CEO of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association.  She has overseen a transformation in how the sport is seen by the general public and is celebrating in 2019 having smashed again the attendance record at the TG4 All Ireland Finals Day for the third year in a row.

This year’s attendance at Croke Park hit 56,411.  Last years was a record 51,141 and before that 46,286.

At the current rate of growth, there would be a full house at the stadium, of over 82,000, by 2023.

It is not a record that has grown easily.  It is a focus of management and staff at the LGFA from the morning after each year’s Finals and significant energy goes into making sure that the growth in numbers watching is backed up by similar growth at a grassroots level in the number of young girls coming into the sport and those who do staying and playing longer.

The partnerships which the association have built with Lidl and nurtured since 2001 with TG4 have been a core element in how the sport is seen and the important part it plays in the overall movement increasing the importance of sport for women to the same traditional position it has always had for men.

Coaching and Leadership across the organisation are vital for sustainable growth behind the headline figures and O’Rourke has enabled massive improvement here as well.

Speaking to Sport for Business earlier this year she said: “We are seeing a lot more players coming back and getting involved in their clubs and schools.”

“We commenced a Leadership Programme this year where we are looking at giving women the confidence to get involved in refereeing, coaching, management and all aspects of the game.”


Kellie Harrington

Kellie Harrington is the reigning Sport Ireland / Irish Times Sportswoman of the Year.  She is a World Champion.  She has the potential to win Olympic Gold in Tokyo next year.  But perhaps more than any of that she is one of the most engaging human beings we have ever come across.

She is a fighter from the North East Inner City of Dublin and her roots in the city are a key part of her character.  We have been involved with her in events around the Dublin SportsFest and she is the star that everyone is attracted towards.  A ready smile that masks the core of steel that you need to cut from fighting at 69 KG to doing so at 60 KG because that gave her a better career path.

She is grounded.  Weekends in recent years were about working in the local St Vincents Psychiatric Hospital in Fairview.  It supplemented the funding that came from Sport Ireland after winning her World Title.

She is important because she reaches out to groups of young girls, and boys, with the hope that they can grow up to be like her, if not in the boxing ring then in whatever they want to turn their hand to.  It’s easier to solve a drop off in sport when school, club and family life is more comfortable, a lot harder when other concerns and social challenges are always just around the corner.

When the National Sports Policy was launched in the summer of 2018 it took place in the streets where Harrington grew up, less than a mile and yet a million miles away from the gleaming glass fronted offices of the IFSC.

Kellie Harrington was the star act that day.  If we can bear her spirit and fortitude in mind as that policy develops over the next decade, we will, as a society, have done a good job.


Anne O’Leary

Anne O’Leary is the CEO of Vodafone Ireland who in 2019 confirmed a four-year extension as the main commercial partner of Irish Rugby.

Since taking over the role of CEO six years ago she has followed a policy of balance in the workforce with 39 per cent of senior leaders, 63 per cent of the senior leadership teams and 48 per cent of middle management being women.

She has also fostered a company culture where diversity is very much seen as a positive.  The company’s strong sense of openness to the LGBT community was a major factor in their support of this year’s Union Cup in Rugby.

The extension of the partnership with the IRFU comes at a key time just before the Rugby World Cup and is a statement of support that gives the sport confidence in knowing that regardless of results on the pitch, the infrastructure for developing the sport is secure.

In addition to the portfolio of rugby assets from 2020 Vodafone is also taking over as official sponsor of the Women’s Interprovincial tournament.

Speaking to Sport for Business at the time of the announcement O’Leary said  “We have a shared ambition with the IRFU to grow the game on the island of Ireland. We are very proud that our support of Irish Rugby encompasses men’s rugby, women’s rugby and the game at all levels. When it comes to Irish Rugby, we all belong to the Team Of Us.”

O’Leary remains active in sport and is a keen runner, swimmer, cyclist and triathlete.


Joanne Cantwell

Joanne Cantwell stepped up as the Main Presenter of RTÉ’s Live Gaelic Games Coverage in 2019 and has taken to the role with ease.

The Sunday Game Live coverage of the Drawn game between Dublin and Kerry in the All Ireland Football Championship attracted a peak audience just short of 1.1 million making it the most-watched TV programme of the year so far.

It is a measure of how professional she has been throughout her career in front of the camera that her presence now in the hottest sporting seat that RTÉ has gone by without comment.  The era of Women being accepted as the norm in all areas of sport including media coverage has taken quite a leap forward.

Cantwell has been one of a wave of strong female presenters given a chance and then developed in their career at RTÉ, long before it became an imperative.

She joined from TV3 in 2007 and her first job was as a reporter on The Sunday Game.  Since then she has gone on to host coverage from the Olympic and Paralympic Games as well as programming across a variety of sports.

Cantwell played Ladies Gaelic Football for Dublin, winning an All-Star in 1998 after helping Dublin to a first Leinster title.


Nora Stapleton

Nora Stapleton was appointed to the newly created position of Women in Sport Lead at Sport Ireland in April 2019.  She has executive responsibility on overseeing the additional €3 million funding which was allocated to different programmes across a multitude of sports by Sport Ireland announced in September.

Before taking up the role at Sport Ireland Stapleton had spent six years working at the Irish Rugby Football Union as Women’s Rugby Development Manager.  This overlapped with the period in which the Irish Women’s team won the Six Nations Grand Slam and Ireland hosted the Women’s Rugby World Cup.

Aside from managing the legacy of both those events she was also an integral member of the team, winning a total of 50 caps.

She only came to the sport at the age of 24 after playing in a Tag Rugby event with her employer at the time Bank of Ireland.  Prior to that, she played inter-county Ladies Gaelic Football for Donegal, winning the Intermediate All Ireland Championship in 2010.  She attended UCD on a soccer scholarship and was part of the UCD team that won three successive FAI Women’s Cup Finals.


Sarah Keane

Sarah Keane is President of the Olympic Federation of Ireland and CEO of Swim Ireland. In both of those roles, the next twelve months will be of huge importance.

Having taken over the old Olympic Council in the wake of the scandals that engulfed it through Rio 2016, she has brought together a winning team and steered to ship into a better place than it has ever been.

Survival was the minimum expectation through the dark days of having Government funding withheld and the confidence of Ireland’s sporting establishment at an all-time low but that was very quickly exceeded.

A new name, a new identity and a new team came into focus under Keane’s leadership and now there is a sense that Tokyo could yet deliver our most successful ever Olympic Games.  It will certainly be our best organised and that is the foundation upon which the vagaries of international sport have the best platform from which to shoot for the moon.

It is not only Tokyo though that Keane has on her list of priorities.  A new major sponsor in Tesco has been brought on board to lift swim Ireland’s reach and in the coming months, we will see Championships televised on RTÉ and swimming stars given a greater spotlight than ever before.

Keane is humble about the success she has achieved, placing as much credit as she can to those who have played their part.  In terms of the leadership, though that is needed for better things to come to life, she is very much to the fore.


Image Credits: Inpho.ie

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