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'To Get On The GAA National Panel Was A Massive Stepping Stone'

Pictured is leading GAA referee Maggie Farrelly at SuperValu’s launch of the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. Sponsors of the Championship for a 14th consecutive season, SuperValu were joined by Gaelic Games role models and advocates from across the country in Croke Park today to highlight the role of GAA communities in making Ireland a more diverse, inclusive and welcoming country for all. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
PJ Browne
By PJ Browne
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Maggie Farrelly's job with the Donegal Sports Partnership doesn't really feel like work.

"I am the education and training co-ordinator, which essentially is working in sports development," says the inter-county football referee, speaking at SuperValu’s launch of the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship.

"It’s sporting development across all the different sports, A to Z, so athletics, boxing, watersports, whatever it is.

The Cavan native - who has been in the role since December 2018 - is currently working on a project on Arranmore Island, just off the coast of Donegal.

"We've seen an influx of Ukrainians, so we’re doing a TUI health and safety sea session programme at the moment," she says.

"The Ukrainians have just landed to the island in recent times. Water safety is paramount, and for them to be included in those activities through the schools. You have two primary schools on the island and a secondary school.

"Come June we’ll be doing an open water swim session as well so the opportunity will be afforded to all the children on the island as well as adults to take part. That will build confidence and hopefully reduce the risk of injury or loss of life on the island."


A particular issue which Farrelly has noticed since the Covid-19 pandemic is a decrease in volunteerism. "Volunteers are no longer giving the same amount of hours on a week-to-week basis," she says, "we see instances now where clubs are actually setting up a rota which probably wasn’t done prior to this in relation to the spread out of volunteers."

maggie farrelly gaa referee work

31 July 2022; Referee Maggie Farrelly with team captains Anna Galvin of Kerry and Shauna Ennis of Meath before the TG4 All-Ireland Ladies Football Senior Championship Final match between Kerry and Meath at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Last year, Farrelly - who has officiated two All-Ireland Senior Ladies Football Championship finals - made a major step towards her goal of refereeing the Sam Maguire decider when she was added to the GAA's national panel.

"I have been very fortunate in both [Gaelic football and ladies football], my progression has been steady," she says.

"For me to get onto the men’s national panel last year was a massive stepping stone in my own career and pathway, and one I was delighted with and the number of gamers I was involved with.


"Even throughout the championship last year, I was involved in all three tiers from the junior, Tailteann Cup and senior championship.

"You got a sense and you got a good flavour of what was expected from you in a championship game in your role as a sideline official.

"Championship football is very different from your league football, as you can imagine. There’s a massive step up there albeit we saw in the leagues this year that it was very competitive. It was very competitive right up to the end, there weren’t too many dead-rubber games.


"It’s good to see that that the leagues are competitive and that gives you a good stepping stone going into championship."

maggie farrelly gaa referee work

12 March 2022; Referee Maggie Farrelly throws-in the ball during the GAA National Wheelchair Hurling/Camogie Interprovincial leagues match between Munster and Ulster at Omagh Leisure Centre in Omagh, Tyrone. Photo by Ben McShane/Sportsfile

It's now seven years since Farrelly became the first woman to referee a senior male inter-county game. The interim has seen no other woman join her at the top level of the men's code.

"Who knows? In five or 10 years that possibly will be extended and you’ll see a lot more women actually refereeing," she says.

"We also see the recruitment drive that happening within clubs and at county level. Counties want to get more referees involved, particularly younger referees.


"Our volunteers who are refereeing are at an age of 50, 60, maybe 70 years plus. With that comes a demand of actually referring a number of games, particularly on a Saturday or Sunday when you might have to referee maybe two or three games and that can be physically demanding.

"I think within the GAA there is strides being made to recruit new volunteers in as referees and officials, but it’s very challenging, there’s no question about that.

"In Cavan over the last couple of years we had a couple of drives and we were very fortunate that people were putting their hands up and being referees or at least doing the course.

"Then they have to put that into practice and more often than not they are refereeing juvenile games. Juvenile games, as we know, can be the most problematic games that you can actually referee due to the fact that the sideline has parents and coaches going absolutely bananas.

"The unfortunate thing about it is that they don’t know the rules of the game. Wee Johnny is Wee Johnny and all they can see is their player but they can’t see the overall picture of what the rules are."

maggie farrelly gaa referee work

20 February 2022; Referee Maggie Farrelly throws the ball in during the National Football League Division 4 match between Leitrim and London at Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence in Bekan, Mayo. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Along with refereeing, Farrelly is also still playing with her club, Laragh United, in Cavan,

"It’s the camaraderie, the friendship and the bit of craic you have when you go to training," she says about what keeps her coming back.

"You’re developing your fitness and the skills of the game but it’s also the social skills that you’re developing. That opportunity to offload and have a bit of a chat and a bit of craic with your team-mates.

"It’s the nights out, you organise those as well. Our GAA culture is very much built around that.

"It’s an opportunity to play and enjoy football for as long as you can, albeit I’m probably reffereeing 95 per cent of my time and playing or training 5 per cent of the time with my club or my peers.

"It’s an opportunity I enjoy and I love being part of it."

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