Cavan’s Maggie Farrelly has a few firsts to her name.

Earlier this year, she was the first woman to referee a men’s national league football match, officiating between Leitrim and London in Division 4.

Last year, she was the first woman to referee a men’s senior county football final, taking charge of the Cavan clash between Ramor United and Gowna.

Forever cemented in the history books, Maggie looks on these achievements mostly in terms of what they could mean for other women in the future.

“Fortunatley or unfortunately for me, I was the first [woman] to be appointed to referee those games,” Maggie says. “Of course, the opportunity now lies for other women to follow that path. The opportunity is there.

“My involvement at Cavan County Board level was very accessible. I was very included. I was just on a referee panel, as it was. I was delighted to be involved. Once you become involved, you start to enjoy it and the pathway opened up for me to go further afield.”

The story of how Maggie came to be in this trailblazing sporting position starts off in a very normal manner: kickarounds with siblings, club, coaching and a bit of encouragement along the way.

Support systems

Maggie grew up on her family’s farm in Co Cavan. They were milking when she was younger and now have sucklers and beef.

Her club was and still is Laragh United – except for a period when she transferred to a Donegal club, as she was studying there at the time and she now works for Donegal Sports Partnership.

Laragh’s ladies football team had disbanded then. However, last year they re-established, and of course, Maggie is back on board playing.

As a young child, the sports on offer in the area were Gaelic football, camogie and athletics.

“I was involved in all of those three,” Maggie recalls. “My poor mother and father were constantly on the road taking us to training most nights of the week.

The support I got from my family was great – not only my mother and father but my dear uncle would have taken us to training as well. It wasn’t just me. Everyone was carted into the car and we headed off to training.

“I always had a passion for sport. At home that was instilled in us as well. We were always outside playing, my brothers, sister and myself. At that stage we needed a referee too and low and behold, there I was,” Maggie laughs.

Even though she speaks light-heartedly about her early days refereeing her siblings, Maggie never actually had any concrete intentions to become a referee.

She was involved playing with her club and coaching underage. At the time there was a bylaw within the county that every club had to provide a referee and her club chairman asked her would she take up the mantle. She obliged.

“I just thought it was going to be refereeing a few underage games. I didn’t think it was going to be anything else other than that. In a couple of years’ time I found myself refereeing a wee bit of adult reserve football. I made it into refereeing division one games, into the championship and so on,” Maggie explains.

In 2011 Maggie was nominated by the county board to go into the Ulster GAA Referees Academy for men’s football. She came out of that in 2013 and she has been on the Ulster panel and national support panel since. This opportunity ultimately led to the big games she has refereed of late.

In 2014 she officiated the All-Ireland senior ladies football final between Dublin and Cork. In 2016 she was the first woman to referee a men’s intercounty match at senior level, a McKenna Cup game between Fermanagh and St Mary’s.

In undertaking refereeing, Maggie highlights that support - both from her club and family – has been a key element of her success.

“Whether you’re male or female, it’s very important to have that support there. That somebody has your back and somebody sees something in you that you mightn’t see yourself – that you have the ability to do it.

“I had so much support when I was growing up as a youngster wanting to play sport. As I said, my mum, dad and uncle took me to training. And I still continue to have that support today. I’ve a couple of brothers who umpire for me regularly. My mum, dad and sister give me massive support.

“The support is massive and it gives you a wee bit more confidence in yourself as well, once you know that somebody is backing you.”

Ref respect

Without doubt, being a referee at any level is a tough station. Few will deny that. Abuse of referees is a topic that tends to rear its head time and time again.

Maggie remembers first getting into refereeing back in 2006. At the time friends and club members remarked on the difficulty of taking on such a task.

On the topic of respect for the ref, Maggie says that players and spectators need to keep in mind that the referee doesn’t win or lose a team a match. She also highlights that refs are people too.

“It’s those perceptions sometimes that people have that it’s down to the referee if you’ve won or lost the game, which is never the case. It’s always about the missed opportunities - the turn overs that happened or the loose ball that was never collected,” Maggie says.

“It’s important to recognise at the end of the day that the referee is a human being as well. They have roles outside of their sport and refereeing. As soon as I cross the white line, I’m a referee, but once the game is over I’m back in my life - I’m a sister, a daughter and I have a job.”

That said, Maggie would still encourage others to get into refereeing.

“I think if you have the confidence in yourself, regardless of being male or female, take it on. Give it a try, that’s all anybody would ever ask is to give it a try, because up to that point you’ll never know how it feels.

“It’s getting the support of a mentor in place just to help you find your feet, particularly when you’re starting out. Ultimately it will come down to you as an individual, whether you have the confidence, the resilience to do that and follow it on.

“Particularly at underage games, that can be where a lot of things happen along the side line and what not. It’s being able to put that aside, focus on the game and not to listen to the comments that are being made outside the white lines.”

With many firsts so far, we’ll be looking forward to seeing where Maggie goes next. However, as she says herself: “It’s week-by-week you get the appointments.”

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