The Girls in Green kicked off their FIFA Women’s World Cup campaign in July, inspiring an entire nation who watched and supported from all around the globe.
They continued to break new ground while at the tournament, with openly LGBTQ+ footballer and team captain Katie McCabe scoring Ireland’s first-ever goal in the competition, goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan recording the side’s first-ever clean sheet, and the team securing its first-ever point following a 0-0 draw with Nigeria.
While we celebrate these incredible achievements, it’s important to also acknowledge the decades of work it took to get to this point. There are countless inspiring female athletes who came before the ones we know and love today, who put in the the proverbial 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert, at a time when it was much more difficult to do so.
One of these trailblazers is Jackie McCarthy O’Brien, the first Person of Colour to play for the Republic of Ireland senior women’s football team.
Born in 1961 to an Irish mother and Jamaican father, Jackie achieved great success despite facing many obstacles throughout her life. As a child of unmarried parents, she was taken away from her Limerick home at a young age against her family’s will and placed into an industrial school by the Catholic Church.
“It was cruel. We were hungry, we weren’t treated well, and as a child of colour, you were treated even worse,” she shared. “There was no such thing as love, care or attention.”
After a traumatising five and a half years, Jackie’s mother and stepfather managed to get her out of the school, and she was finally able to return home. However, it was not all smooth sailing.
“I was one of only four children of colour growing up in Limerick,” she explained. “So, for me, life was pretty lonely in a certain way. I had brothers and sisters, but my brothers and sisters were white. I was the only one that was coloured in my family, so you’re walking around the streets of Limerick, people are staring at you…you’re the exotic thing that’s walking around.”
Speaking about how she dealt with that, she said, “I spent a lot of time in my own head and one of the things I took up was running, and I was quite an athletic child.”
Jackie remembered spending a lot of her time training in Shelbourne Park, jogging and doing sprints. “By chance, one day, there was a group of girls and boys playing [soccer] and the ball came my way. I kicked it back. The manager at the time was a guy called Junior King, and he said to me, ‘Do you want to fall in?’
“I fell in, and sure the rest is history.”
From that moment, Jackie became a notable figure within the women’s soccer scene and aged just 11, she was playing in the League of Ireland with girls who were over six years her senior.
“I was quite good and came to the attention of a lot of people through my sport. I suppose it got my head up from the ground…I always like to say, ‘On the pitch, I was a giant, off the pitch, I was a mouse’.”
Her timid nature came to the fore during her first Ireland trial. “I didn’t do myself justice because I travelled down on my own, again my shyness took over. I didn’t express myself, I was around people I didn’t know… I was very, very shy as a child growing up.
“I remember coming home on the bus that day and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’ve let myself down, I’ve let my family down, I’ve let everybody down’.”
However, it wasn’t long before she turned this disappointment into motivation.
“Something clicked in me, and I said, ‘You know what? If I ever get the opportunity again, I definitely won’t let [shyness] stop me’.”
Fast forward to 1983, roughly six months after Jackie gave birth to her first child, she finally got a call-up for the squad and made her debut against Northern Ireland. Not only would she go on to secure a total of 13 international caps in soccer, but she also earned herself a place on the Irish women’s rugby team, making a similar number of appearances and also being their first mixed-race player.
Due to her incredible achievements, she is a role model both for People of Colour and for the LGBTQ+ community. As an openly lesbian woman, she was selected to be Grand Marshal for Limerick Pride 2023, and used the opportunity to reveal more of her story regarding her sexuality.
The former athlete remembered befriending a group of girls when she was around 15, and realising she had feelings for another girl that she didn’t think were natural.
“This was my mindset back then, and having come from an industrial school, brought up by nuns, I was a good Catholic girl, my fear was that I was going to hell for whatever was going on in my head towards this girl,” she explained.
“I couldn’t live with the guilt that I was feeling.” Jackie took 20 painkillers, said goodbye to her family and went to bed that night. “But being the strong cookie I was, I woke up the next morning and had a bit of a headache. But I went away and took another 25,” she confessed.
That day, people around her noticed that she was slurring her words, and eventually, an ambulance was called and she was taken to hospital where they brought her back to health.
“I couldn’t put into words what I was feeling. There were no helplines, there was nobody there to tell me, ‘It’s okay, you’re not going to hell, this is natural, it’s who you are’.”
Although she buried the feelings for many years and stayed in the closet, after her marriage to her former husband broke up, she fell in love with a woman and began to live out and proud.
“I started to realise that life is way too short to not live to your true self. I overcame it as a Black child, now I’m overcoming it as a gay person,” she said.
“Not for one minute did I ever want any child to feel like I felt the day that I took those tablets. I wanted them to know it will get better…And that’s why I told that story.”
From her own experiences, Jackie knows how important visibility is, the impact of which is perhaps best seen with her own daughter, Sam.
“Sam never came out to me, she just brought her girlfriend home one day,” Jackie explained.
Not only was her daughter made to feel comfortable in her LGBTQ+ identity, but she also had an example of what she could achieve thanks to her mother. In another piece of history, Sam incredibly went on to play football for Ireland as well, making herself and Jackie the first-ever mother-daughter duo to do so.
“Sam grew up around the managers, players, some of them are friends of hers, they remember her from a young age,” Jackie recalled. “It was always a given that she would play…she was a gifted player.”
Jackie continued: “She made the national team because she kicked ball morning, noon and night, and that’s all she wanted to do. And unlike me as a small child with my head going down, she had the confidence - ‘If Mam can do it, I can do it’ -I suppose in a way, and I’m not bigging me up, she had an ingrown home role model.”
Having someone to look up to is incredibly important, whether it be in sport or when navigating your life as a queer person. As reflections are being made on the significance of this year’s Women’s World Cup, it’s commonly noted that the Ireland squad, playing on one of the biggest global stages, has encouraged young girls to dare to dream.
The phrase, ‘Can’t see, can’t be,’ has regularly been used with the team, and Jackie’s story further proves the importance of that statement.
Watching the World Cup, the former athlete felt “proud of the girls that went before,” and added, “Anything that the girls are receiving now is so deserved. I’m so happy to see them getting the recognition that they deserve, and more, the treatment they deserve.”
Importantly, she concludes, “Young girls that are out there now have role models to look up to”. We can confidently say that Jackie is one of them.
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