Gill, Mollie (Ní Giolla, Máire) (1891–1977), camogie player and administrator, was born Mary Anne Gill on 24 March 1891 at Murphystown, near Leopardstown, in south Co. Dublin, the daughter of James Gill, a shoe-maker, and his wife Jane (neé Daly). Census records suggest that she was the middle child of four daughters and three sons.
In 1908 she became an ‘assistant printer’, possibly at first with Dun Emer Industries, before joining Cuala Press, which was founded that year when Elizabeth (Lollie) Yeats (qv) and Susan (Lily) Yeats (qv), sisters to W. B. Yeats (qv), broke away from Dun Emer Industries to create their own venture. The Yeatses sent Mollie to art school and arranged Irish classes for her; there were also regular visits to the Abbey Theatre and the opera. She recalled ‘We met all the top people. There was Michael Collins coming in, and George Bernard Shaw’ (Irish Times, 21 Nov. 1975). She worked at Cuala Press for six decades, as it moved from its first base at Churchtown (1908–23) to W. B. Yeats’s residence at 83 Merrion Square (1923–5), on to Lower Baggot Street (1925–42) and on again to Palmerston Road (1942–69). For most of her adult life, she lived in Rialto, Dublin.
From her first days at the press, Gill worked closely with Esther (Essie) Ryan (1887–1961), from Churchtown. Gill and Ryan were inseparable, and together they were active members of Cumann na mBan. During the civil war they supported, or at least sympathised strongly with, the republican side, which presumably led to their arrest in a raid on the Cuala Press premises on 19 May 1923. Gill spent two months in Kilmainham Gaol before being released on 20 July. Though the extent of her activity in Cumann na mBan is uncertain, in 1948 both she and Ryan were awarded service medals for the period 1917 to 1921. Gill also served on the executive of the Irish Republican Prisoners’ Dependents’ Fund.
She began playing camogie with the Crokes club, which had a team from c. 1906; its members were to the fore in the second phase of the game’s development, including the re-invigoration of An Cumann Camoguidheacht (the Camogie Association) in 1911. During the 1910s, Gill played for Crokes in the Dublin League. She said of this period that ‘Respectable citizens regarded them [camogie players] as unsexed young women,’ while ‘the girl carrying a camogie through the streets of Dublin, took the precaution to wrap it in brown paper in order to avoid unpleasant notice’ (Loretta Murray Clarke collection, ‘Transcript of interview’). In January 1915 she was invited to train University College Dublin’s (UCD) new camogie club in preparation for the first iteration of the Ashbourne Cup, which they won, defeating University College Cork (UCC) that April.
She established her reputation as a player at representative level during the 1920s. Her performance on 18 March 1923 for a Dublin League selection that defeated UCC was praised in the Evening Herald, which described her as the ‘pivot’ of the side, reporting that she ‘shone out above all the others … leading, attacking, defending’. She scored both of her side’s points and set up their only goal. Dublin played three inter-county contests in 1923 but such matches were irregular and would remain so throughout the decade. She captained Leinster to victory in inter-provincial camogie competitions held as part of the 1928 and 1932 Tailteann Games.
The first inter-county All-Ireland camogie championship was held in 1932. Having overcome Wexford in the semi-final, Dublin, captained by Gill, played Galway in the final, which did not take place until 30 July 1933. While the correspondent for An Camán was generally unimpressed, the report acknowledged that ‘Miss Gill was best in the second half’ as Dublin won 3–2 to 0–2. Less than five months later, the final of the 1933 championship was played on 17 December at Killester, Dublin. An Camán was more enthusiastic on that occasion, recording that Gill, who played in midfield, ‘was outstanding and time and again fed the forwards’. Dublin scored 9–2 as they defeated Galway again. In November 1935 Dublin returned to the final, losing to Cork (3–4 to 4–0) in an exciting match at the Athletic Grounds, Cork. The Irish Press lauded ‘Dublin’s grand defence’, characterising Gill as one of its ‘stars’. This was her last appearance in the All-Ireland decider: she was forty-four-years-old. That Gill was admired for her play in attack, midfield and defence suggests a versatility that almost certainly prolonged her career.
In parallel with, and after, her playing career, she was an important camogie official. In June 1917 the Dublin League was re-organised and she became chair (remaining so till 1935), while she refereed matches from as early as September 1917. The Gaelic Athletic Association’s (GAA) Dublin county board offered to manage the Dublin League’s finances and administration, but she turned this offer down in order to preserve the Camogie Association’s independence. In leading the league during the 1920s, she worked with Ryan, who was an assertive secretary, to achieve the allocation to camogie of first one, then a second pitch at the Phoenix Park. In a 1936 radio interview Gill explained that by 1928 camogie in Dublin had expanded sufficiently to sustain senior, intermediate, junior, schools and college leagues, while acknowledging that progress was far more modest in rural areas.
From 1922 Gill and Ryan represented camogie on the executive committee charged with organising the proposed Tailteann Festival. Then, in January 1923, Gill was elected president of the Camogie Association. Her election coincided with the establishment of a three-person ard coiste, or executive committee: in 1923 the other members of that triumvirate were Kathleen Ryan, as vice-president, and Áine Ní Riain (Essie Ryan) as secretary. In July 1924, the Camogie Association withdrew camogie from the upcoming Tailteann Games, claiming it had not received sufficient financial support to facilitate participation. When a team from Wicklow turned out as ‘Ireland’ and played ‘England’ in an exhibition match, the ard coiste expelled sixteen women from the association, including Lucy Byrne, wife of the Cumann na nGaedheal TD for Wicklow, Christopher Michael Byrne (qv). Civil war politics may have been a factor – establishing the Camogie Association’s authority certainly was. The assertive approach of the determined group fronted by Gill generated resentment and, over time, enduring rancour within the association, not least because they were sometimes viewed as a Dublin clique.
From the mid-1920s their continued efforts can be tracked in incremental development: the appointment of Seán O’Duffy as national organiser, the holding of an inaugural annual congress (April 1925), the adoption of less constrictive on-field attire for players, the proliferation of clubs and the consequent emergence of a series of county boards. The introduction in 1929 of a second horizontal bar above the goalmouth, thereby creating a rectangular ‘points space’, unlike in hurling, may represent a further assertion of the Camogie Association’s independence from the GAA. In 1932 congress sought to broaden the geographic base of the central council (though Gill and Ryan remained president and secretary) while pursuing an extension of the association’s effective jurisdiction. The first All-Ireland championship followed that year. By 1935 the association boasted 423 clubs, totalling some 10,000 players, but it was vulnerable to the hostility of the catholic church and beset by internal disputes. Conscious of provincial resentment at the urban dominance of the association, in 1936 Gill stressed the desirability of extending the game’s reach in rural areas, pointing to the establishment of provincial councils (in 1934) as a measure of achievement in this regard.
During the mid-1930s this urban–rural division exacerbated a deep rift inside camogie over the merits of a GAA-style ban on foreign games; in reality a ban on hockey. When, at the annual congress held in February 1934, delegates from Galway and Antrim proposed a motion to introduce ‘the ban’, Cork and Dublin delegates led the opposition. Ryan was, perhaps, the most determined opponent. During a long and heated debate, Gill intervened, as chair, to ask pro-ban speakers ‘not to introduce politics’ and ‘requested the delegates present to act in the interests of camoguidheacht [camogie]’, reminding them that ‘this was not a GAA convention’ (Minutes of congress, 24 Feb. 1934). So clear was her anti-ban view, that an Antrim delegate accused her of delaying the vote in the hope that provincial delegates would have to leave for their trains. When Gill called it, the vote was carried by twenty-six votes to seventeen.
Banning hockey players had little effect in much of rural Ireland whereas in Dublin and Cork it ensured that existing and potential players were deterred from playing camogie. If Gill’s opposition had a pragmatic reasoning, it also reflected her general attitude to sport. She lauded camogie as the ‘best game for women’ and stressed that it was ‘a national game’ but railed against gendered and class attitudes that restricted women’s access to sport. ‘There is’, she said in 1936, ‘a broader attitude towards the game [camogie] now. Towards every game. Time was when tennis, golf, hockey were only for the favoured few, now the humblest fireside may have its representative on the playing fields’ (Loretta Murray Clarke collection, ‘Transcript of interview’).
The 1934 vote led to a series of aftershocks that further hobbled the Camogie Association. Senior voices believed that the ban had been pushed through by men who were not primarily concerned with the well-being of a woman’s sport. Consequently, the congress of February 1935 passed a motion that only women delegates could be sent by county boards to congress or central council or provincial councils. Then, in 1939, the anti-ban faction achieved a repeal of the ban by using the mechanism of a special delegate meeting, which gave Dublin more clout given its strong player and club base. This prompted the establishment of a rival pro-ban organisation, the National Camógaíocht Association, which drew strong support from a wide range of counties, notably in Ulster. While influential loyalists such as Seán O’Duffy and Agnes O’Farrelly (qv) urged compromise, Gill and Ryan held out for two years until it became evident that theirs was the rump organisation. Despite their objections, in October 1941 their colleagues accepted mediation from Pádraig Ó Caoimh (qv), the general secretary of the GAA, prompting the re-emergence of a single camogie organisation, led by pro-ban officials, in December. Thereafter, Gill lost all influence over the Camogie Association.
In 1937 she had become the principal compositor at the Cuala Press, and from 1939, following a reorganisation, she had a small shareholding. From 1961 she worked alone: indeed, the business had contracted in 1946, when it ceased producing books. She was still working for Cuala Press in 1971, two years after it had been revived upon passing into the ownership of a new generation of the Yeats family. Retiring in the early 1970s, she was described in 1975 as ‘amazingly energetic and cheerful’ (Irish Times, 21 Nov. 1975). Mollie Gill died at her residence in South Circular Road, Dublin, on 15 March 1977. Her remains were buried at Glencullen cemetery.