‘In sport, I could walk like a giant. Outside it, my head went down:’ The remarkable life of Jackie McCarthy-O’Brien
In the penultimate instalment of our ‘Trailblazers’ series, we speak to the former Ireland rugby and soccer international who led the way for mixed race players.
‘TRAILBLAZERS’ IS OUR new series, telling the unheard stories of the women who fought for recognition in Irish rugby, and those who brought the sport to where it is today.
With Guinness – a proud sponsor of the Women’s Six Nations – The42 is paying tribute to their achievements, shining a light on the challenges they overcame, and looking ahead to what’s next for women’s rugby in Ireland.
In the penultimate instalment, Daire Walsh speaks to Jackie McCarthy-O’Brien about her unique journey in the game.
“Paying out of their own pockets, trying to get pitches. Trying to get referees. Buying their own jerseys. Really wanting to have a women’s international team. They for me were the giants and I think the teams of today are really standing on their shoulders.”
Having seen the foundations laid by the first Irish rugby side in 1993, Jackie McCarthy-O’Brien picked up the baton and ran with it – breaking down new barriers and becoming a trailblazer in her own right.
Born in Birmingham to an Irish mother and a Jamaican father, McCarthy-O’Brien moved to Limerick with the former when she was just a month old and has been there ever since.
Placed in an industrial school for the first five years of her life, she eventually settled in the suburb of Kileely following her mother’s marriage to Mickey O’Brien – an All-Ireland handball champion whom she considers to be her real father – in 1966.
She was the first female soccer player of mixed race to represent the Republic of Ireland and later repeated this feat in rugby union when making her debut for the Irish women’s national team in the spring of 1997.
Becoming a groundbreaking dual international may have been more by accident than design, but it’s a path she was happy to take.
“What happened was, a bit like Paul McGrath, the knees started to go from the hard ground in the soccer,” McCarthy-O’Brien explains. “Ladies only got the pitches when the men’s season was over. So I retired from soccer completely at 32 or 33.
“I went to Old Crescent here in Limerick to coach a team. I wanted to stay in sport, I was still super fit, but the knees were just giving me jib. One night, some other coach turned up so I fell in just to do a [rugby] session. The next thing he said ‘you’re signed. You’re a second row. You’re tall, you’re thin. You’ve got good strength.’
“I think within six months I made the Munster team. Then I was spotted by the Irish manager and joined the national team. It was a softer ground. I had also done a lot of weights on my knees and got back to a fitness that was good enough to play internationally.”
As one of very few children from a mixed race background in her locality, she admits that growing up on the streets of the Treaty county wasn’t easy.
“It was a lonely time, to be honest. We would have been the exotic oddity around the town. You would get stared at. Children would look at the black child. You very much stuck out like a sore thumb. Calling it racism seems a bit odd now at the age I’m at, because I think it was more curiosity.”
McCarthy-O’Brien is therefore eternally grateful to her stepdad for introducing her to sport at such a young age, something that acted as a great release from the troubles of the everyday world.
“My Dad recognised early on that I was very athletic. Being good at sport was my saving grace because off the pitch I was just the black kid. On the soccer pitch, I could put the ball in the back of the net and all of a sudden it was ‘did you see that young one?’.
“In sport, I could walk like a giant. Outside of it, my head went down. That for me would have been an enlightening moment – that I didn’t have to be the shy kid on the pitch.”
By the time McCarthy-O’Brien transitioned to the oval ball game – a sport that had been non-existent for girls and women alike during her youth – in the mid-1990s, Irish society was becoming more diverse.
Even if some of the old attitudes remained, there was more acceptance of people from different backgrounds in all walks of life. This led to a richly rewarding second chapter in her unique sporting career.
“Things had moved on. We had an influx of refugees and asylum seekers to Ireland, but even within that, it brought racism as well. It seemed to come in a little bit more, but I was very much protected by the people of Limerick.
“It’s a sports mad, crazy city. Once you’re good, they take you to their heart and you’re more accepted. I would say when we travelled away, outside of Ireland, then you would find it [racism] a little bit more. ‘What is a black person doing on a white team?’
“But my team-mates looked after me. I made friends [in rugby] that are friends for life. Some from New Zealand, some from Australia – all over. That had come to live in Ireland and represented Ireland.”
In total, McCarthy-O’Brien made 13 appearances in green – matching her caps haul with the Ireland women’s soccer team. This included outings in the Home Nations Championship, the 1997 European Championship in France and the 1998 World Cup in the Netherlands.
In the aftermath of the latter – where she scored a try in a victory against the host nation – she decided to announce her retirement from international rugby. She continued to line out at club level for Shannon, with whom she won a Women’s All-Ireland League title (just shy of her 40th birthday) in 2001.
As has been well documented, it was a long time before McCarthy-O’Brien and her compatriots from this era received their Ireland caps. Finally – in a ceremony held at the Aviva Stadium in March 2018 – she was afforded full recognition for her commitment to the cause.
“That really was a fantastic year, because we went up to Malone the August before that to play Legends versus England and got a 12-12 draw. That was quickly followed by the caps.”
Now a painter and decorator by trade, she was listed amongst the 1997 group on the day, having made her international bow in that year’s Home Nations Championship against Wales in Bridgend.
This was the endpoint of a long campaign spearheaded by some of the country’s earliest internationals, who had fought relentlessly to give the women’s game an equal footing within the rugby fraternity. Without their innovation, McCarthy-O’Brien is adamant she wouldn’t have been able to create her own piece of history.
“That was an amazing night,” she adds. “They really made us feel like ‘I’m as much an international as Paul O’Connell or Brian O’Driscoll’.
“To be presented with your caps and seeing so many of the ex-players, it was an acknowledgement and a recognition. I’m not speaking of myself, I’m speaking of the girls from ’93 who started the women’s game.”
Although McCarthy-O’Brien was more than content to blaze a trail in women’s rugby, she is greatly encouraged by those who have followed in her footsteps. Born and raised in England to a Nigerian father and a mother from Lisburn in Co. Antrim, Sophie Spence made her Ireland debut in 2012 and went on to win two Six Nations Championships – including the Grand Slam success of 2013.
Others such as Lauren Day and current international star Linda Djougang (who moved to Ireland from her native Cameroon at age nine) have featured in recent years, but McCarthy-O’Brien feels the emergence of Spence was an important step forward in the quest to get more players from a mixed race upbringing into the sport.
“With the likes of Sophie and the other black players on the Irish team, young girls now have a role model to look up to. If you want to promote and get more ethnicities into it, you need to bring players like Sophie to the fore. I think that happened when she was playing. She was very much out there and used as a spokesperson for the team at times.”
There is always scope for participation levels amongst ethnic minorities to increase across all levels of rugby, leading to a point where it becomes the accepted norm rather than the exception. Yet McCarthy-O’Brien insists the sport needs to be cautious in how they approach this particular issue.
“It’s society as a whole being accepting of people,” McCarthy-O’Brien says. “I think it will happen, but it will be a society that will change rather than the game itself.
“Like with everything, it’s the visibility of these players for the children to say ‘okay, who am I going to emulate?’. You like to gravitate towards somebody that you can see yourself in. I think if we do have players of colour playing for Ireland and they are made more visible, then I think the younger generation will come in and feel ‘well, this isn’t an all-white team’.
“No kid wants to join the club where they’re the only one. I grew up the whole of my sporting life being the only one. If you’ve got somebody else there, it will become more visible. I don’t think there are as many barriers to stop young children from mixed backgrounds coming in nowadays.
“I think the clubs are very aware and very welcoming of children of all races and backgrounds to play. It will just take time for society to catch up on what is acceptable and what isn’t for children of mixed race to feel more comfortable being in that sporting environment.”