An Post Irish Book of the Year Nominees 2023: Gender, Hope and Heart with Eimear Ryan

In the running for this year's An Post Irish Book of the Year are six outstanding and unique books from a selection of incredibly gifted authors, editors, and an illustrator. We caught up with Eimear Ryan, nominated for her phenomenal memoir The Grass Ceiling, in light of her win at this year's awards for Eason Sports Book of the Year, in association with Ireland AM.

 

Personal, moving, and reflective, The Grass Ceiling is an exploration of the confluence of gender and sport, and all the questions it throws up about identity, status, competition and self-expression. At a time when women’s sport is on the rise but still a long way from equality, this powerful memoir is a sharp, nuanced and heartfelt probing of the questions that affect everyone who loves sport.

 


 

Can you tell us a bit about how and why you decided to write this book?

The book has its origins in an essay, ‘The Fear of Winning’, that appeared in Winter Papers in 2016. The editors Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith asked me to write about being a girl in the GAA, and even though I’d been writing for years at that point, I’d never written about camogie. I knew that it would involve so much more than sport – family, childhood, community, identity. The essay was well received, and Brendan Barrington from Sandycove then approached me to expand it into a book. In the meantime, the filmmaker Iseult Howlett made a short documentary based on the essay called The Grass Ceiling, which premiered at the Cork International Film Festival in 2019. She very generously allowed me to reuse the brilliant title for the book.

 

How did you find the process of writing something so personal compared to writing fiction?

It felt very different emotionally. Of course, fiction is personal too, but you have the luxury of disguising certain things, or tweaking them so the outcome is different. With memoir, you are stuck with the facts. I quickly made peace with writing about myself, but I had a lot of anxiety about bringing in different characters like family members, friends, old teammates. It’s strange to be a character on someone else’s page. But when I showed sections to family members and friends ahead of publication, they were all very supportive and only suggested minor changes.

 

How did you go about tapping into your younger self?

I was lucky in that I had a lot of material from my childhood to sift through and immerse myself in – lots of match programmes, newspaper clippings and photos, as well as more personal stuff like diaries and scrapbooks. It was actually really helpful to think of my younger self not as me but as a character – it made it more fun to write, too.

 

What was the experience like of reliving some of the more difficult memories from your school days?

It was hard and I danced around it for a good while in the writing process. I think everyone has memories that we don’t necessarily like revisiting. To actually go in and grapple with them was unpleasant, but ultimately it forced me to reckon with those buried feelings. I realised I was carrying around a lot of shame from those days and a belief that I was unlikeable. I also felt ashamed that something so commonplace as school bullying had made such an impact on me even into adulthood. But the flipside of that was realising that many other people would have gone through the same thing, so it would form another point of connection in the book.

 

How did writing the book change how you think about your younger self and your camogie career? Was there any process of reconciliation or reassessment involved in the writing of the book?

There was definitely a process of acceptance. I got burnt out early in my intercounty camogie career, fell out of love with the sport and went off to explore other interests, namely travel and writing. I’m really happy that I was able to come back to camogie at club level and enjoy it for several more years, but I had always had this nagging feeling that I had never reached my full potential as a player. It was oddly satisfying to admit that and explore it on the page.

 

At what point did you start to question some of the experiences you had growing up as a girl/young woman playing sport? Do you think you felt aware of certain issues while you were playing sport, or did that realisation come later? 

Since I played both hurling and camogie for my club Moneygall underage, the differences felt very stark and very arbitrary. When I played camogie I had to wear a skirt and cover up the hoop on my hurley with tape; I didn’t have to do that with hurling. There were different rules in camogie – 12 players versus 15, three catches versus two – most of which have since been overturned. And there was always a good local crowd for our under-12 hurling matches, whereas there would only be a handful at camogie games. My concerns changed as I got older, extending to things like media coverage and travel expenses, but I was certainly conscious of the differences from a very young age.

 

How do you perceive our present moment in terms of women and sport? Should we be hopeful for the future?

Absolutely! When you look at the way things are now, you’d love to be starting out again. It makes me really happy that my nieces are having a completely different experience than I did when I was their age, e.g. seeing women’s team sport on TV all the time and represented in the media. It’s so good to see the genuine excitement around the Irish women’s soccer team, the quality of the camogie and ladies' football championships, and even the AFLW league in Australia. There are so many viable pathways for young women in sport now.

 

What top-down changes do you want to see happening to improve equality for women in sport?

I’m keeping a close eye out for any developments in the integration of the three Gaelic organisations in Ireland (the GAA, the LGFA and the Camogie Association). Progress on a merger of this scale is very gradual but I’m hoping we see movement in the next year or so. It’s really important that female intercounty players receive travel expenses and no longer have to pay to play (a move that the GPA is supportive of), and at club level, it’s important that female players and teams have equal access to playing pitches and facilities.

 

If you were to write this same memoir ten years from now, how do you imagine your memories of your younger self might be different? (if that question can be answered)

I have no idea! I’m sure I’d have a different perspective, especially as I get further away from my playing career, but it’s hard to say in what way exactly.

 

How does it feel knowing that so many people have voted for your book that it has now made the top 6 nominees for An Post Irish Book of the Year?

It feels wonderful – I’m honoured, and so thankful to everyone for voting. It also feels like a sign of the times that a book about female experience in sport is nominated for an award like this. I think there’s now a realisation that there are brilliant untapped stories in women’s sport, and hopefully there will be many more books on this subject to come.

 

The-Grass-Ceiling_Jacket

 

Explore the 6 titles in the running for An Post Irish Book of the Year 2023 here.

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An Post Irish Book of the Year Nominees 2023: Gender, Hope and Heart with Eimear Ryan