Clonliffe Women’s Athletics 1963 – 2023

As last dark night of 2022 turns to the sunrise of 2023 with the prospects of new beginnings in the New Year Clonliffe Harriers will celebrate 60 years of women’s athletics in our club since the foundings of the Clonliffe Harriers women’s section in December 1963.

60 years ago our women endured some pretty horrendous beginnings. In the best traditions of Clonliffe that Nil Desperandum spirit has come to the fore as obstacles were overcome and success followed with our women athletes winning national titles, team titles and competing for Ireland internationally and at the pinnacle: the Olympic Games.

Back to 1963. Although it was the swinging 60s , Beatlemania was the latest phenomenon – the Beatles played their only ever shows in Ireland in the Adelphi cinema that year, and John F. Kennedy paid an emotional ‘homecoming’. Ireland was, however, a grim place very much under the influence of the Catholic Church. Women had a particular place in Irish society and that place certainly did not include the vulgarities of the sport of athletics. The first club in Ireland to have a women’s section was Crusaders AC back in 1947, it lasted all of 4 years until the protests of the Catholic Church led by Archbishop John McQuaid prompted its discontinuance in 1951. Crusaders resurrected its women’s section in 1963.

Billy Morton with Clonliffe Women at Moran’s Hotel

Clonliffe Harriers at its 1963 AGM approved a motion for the setting up of a lady section of the club. The ladies did not have full rights and at that stage were associate members of the club. It took another 10 years before that was rectified. . In November 1963 a notice was published in the national newspapers announcing the formal meeting of the Clonliffe Harriers ladies at Moran’s Hotel, on Talbot Street, Dublin 1. The opening race took place on 17 December 1963 on Santry Avenue, a 600 yds race.

The newspaper published an article the night before (now dear reader please bear in mind that you are back in 1963 so try to keep calm!):

‘Call them Morton’s Marvels! They are the mustard keen lasses who just won’t stay home knitting on these shivery nights but who 3 evenings a week and on Sunday mornings, bus it or pedal it out to Santry Stadium for group training sessions. Up to 30 girls are regularly in attendance and a full quota is expected tomorrow night for their first race.’

Claire Dowling on Santry Avenue in “more appropriate attire”!

Th winner of that historic race was Claire Dowling who led home a field of 32 athletes. Claire took the star prize of a pair of candlesticks! Ann Killeen the runner-up took home a table lamp! 9 years later Claire Dowling, now Claire Walsh, became Clonliffe Harriers’ first woman Olympian competing in the 800 at the Munich Olympic Games.

The first club cross country race for the women took place on the 29th of February 1964, it was a one-mile handicap, again won by Claire.

The Clonliffe women endured ongoing complaints being made to the club concerning the immorality of women running on the roads, there was consternation as the weather improved and shorts were produced!

Frances Mansfield recalled “At first it was considered immoral, unladylike and immodest for women to be seen in shorts and many spoke out against it. But we had the support of each other and overcame the prejudices.”

Another problem was sourcing women’s sports gear. “No sports shop had shorts for women and so we had to make our own. One of the women had seen an ad in Athletics Weekly for stretchy knicker shorts. We ordered the shorts and were very proud of ourselves turning out on the track one Sunday morning. Billy Morton nearly had a heart attack then he saw us. ‘Bejapers girls, if the archbishop sees you now, you would be excommunicated’ he said. A picture of some of the women in shorts appeared in a national newspaper, and as a consequence, one of the girls was told to leave the Children of Mary.” continued Frances.

Club races where the main outlet in the early years and then with Crusaders AC as the only other club with women athletes an interclub league was arranged between the clubs. That was fine for the summer months but when winter came, as Crusaders did not have any cross country athletes, cross country competition was identified north of the border with the women travelling up to Antrim to complete there. In February of 1963 further history was made as a group of 13 Clonliffe women travelled to a cross country race in Bury, England.

These women blazed a trail for those who followed and for those who will follow. Clonliffe Harriers owes a great debt of gratitude to those pioneering women. They were indeed Marvels. Their fortitude, doggedness and spirit will be celebrated throughout the course of 2023. Over the course of these 60 years the Clonliffe women have won the national cross country title on 4 occasions, 1966, 1967, 1970 and 1976. Clonliffe women have won the individual national cross country title on 7 occasions, the legendary Anne O’Brien (1968, 69, 70, 71), Katheryn Davis (1978), Mary Donohue (1986) and Sarah McCormack (2014). Sarah was a member of the Irish women’s cross country team that took gold in the European cross-country in Budapest in 2012. In addition to Claire Walsh competing in the 1972 Olympic Games, Anne Keenan Buckley compete in Barcelona in 1992 (3000) , Patrice Dockery was a 6 time Paralympian (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008) and more recently Greta Stremikyte Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 (delayed until 2021). Greta also took gold in the T13 1500 at the European para games in 2018. (Throughout the course of the year intention is to have further articles outlining the historic achievements of our women athletes since 1963)

2023 will be a year of celebration of 60 years of Women’s athletics in our club. There are be a number of events taking place to mark this very special year. Already a subcommittee has been set up by women’s Captain Jenny Johnston and work has begun. The highlight of the year, and a not to be missed occasion, will be a gala ball on September 30 at the Hilton Hotel. More details on that soon but in the meantime save the date!

Please also share your stories of your time in Clonliffe Harriers. We are particularly interested in hearing from those who were around during the early days. Please email Jenny: , also of course if you have any photographs maybe they similarly could be sent. The plan is to gather in as much detail and info as possible and then to publish on the website throughout the year. Please share your memories.

Happy 60th anniversary and happy New Year!