Women in sport: the Morton Marvels

With this week Clonliffe Harriers celebrating women in sport and the inspiration of our sportswomen, and with this special 60th anniversary year for our club to celebrate, our thoughts go back to those pioneering women of 1963.

60 years ago had those pioneers any idea of the sea change that they were driving not only in Clonliffe Harriers but in Irish society?

The women who answered the newspaper advertisement to attend the first formal meeting of the Clonliffe women at Moran’s hotel on Talbot Street in central Dublin on the 5th of November 1963 where indeed ‘going out on a limb’. These were the fledgling days of women’s athletics. Women were actively discouraged from running, let alone racing, any distance. The 800 for women had only been reintroduced in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games. That would remain the Olympic “distance” race for women until 1972 when the 1500 came in! Marathon running was completely unheard of for women, the famous Boston Marathon incident when officials forcibly attempted to remove Kathy Switzer mid race occurred in 1967.

Ireland in 1963 was also a very different place, dominated by the Catholic Church. A woman’s place was in the home. Women who married had to ‘retire’ from the Civil Service, incredibly that was the legal position until 1973, so they could be at home to look after their husbands and raise their children. With the dictation firmly that women should work on the ‘home front’ the odds were well and truly stacked against them coming to Santry to take part in the vulgarities of sport.

The ladies section was formally founded following the 1963 AGM, although only as associate members, not becoming full members for another 10 years. The first women’s race was a 600m race down Santry Avenue, around the corner from the stadium set for December 15, 1963. Billy Morton, never one to miss a trick, had the press well briefed with the newspapers announced the event as follows:

‘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.’

That opening race for the Clonliffe women attracted what would have been a bumper field of women athletes numbering 32. Claire Dowling won the race in a time of 1.37. Claire went on to win the Clonliffe’s first ever women’s cross country race the following February and in 1972 became Clonliffe Harriers first ever woman Olympian competing in the 800 at the Munich Games.

All who have followed have followed in the footsteps of Claire Walsh and these pioneering women for the past 60 years. Those footsteps have carved the way from 1963 to 2023.

Could these women 60 years ago ever have envisaged what they were starting? Could they ever have foreseen the changes in our club, our sport and our society? Without them, who knows what our club would have become? What is certain is that it would have remained in the Dark Ages, not the bright vibrant Clonliffe Harriers AC that we know and love today.

Clonliffe Harriers, our women and our men are forever indebted to those inspirational Morton Marvels.

Do please celebrate the Morton Marvels, women in sport and women in Clonliffe Harriers by coming along to the Poppintree Park Run on Saturday morning. Brave the cold. The original Morton Marvels braved a lot more than a cold snap!