Ireland Basketball: A rising tide

This summer, the international junior basketball community witnessed a surprise package emerging from the U18 Division B European Championships for Women, as Ireland, the hosts of the tournament not only finished runners-up, gaining promotion to Division A but the girls were also surrounded by loud, passionate support by Irish fans that usually reserve their fanatical cheering for rugby union, the country’s national sport along with football. Emmet Ryan, a well-known Irish journalist and editor of Ball in Europe was in Dublin for the championships and gives us his take on the growing phenomenon.

Ireland achieved its best ever result in international basketball, at any level, at this summer’s FIBA Europe U18 B women’s championships. Winning promotion to the A division next year, taking the silver medal in the process, represents easily the country’s best ever result in the sport. It comes on the back of a string of impressive finishes at underage level in recent years.

The road there was complicated, really complicated. To understand how Ireland has managed to get an awful lot better at women’s underage basketball out of nowhere, at least from the outside, you’ve got to look far beyond the sport.
This state’s history in women’s sport prior to the last 20 years would best be described as ‘you are a developed nation how are you so bad at women’s sport?’Prior to the 1990s Ireland had essentially achieved nothing in international women’s sport. Then along came Sonia O’Sullivan with a couple of world track titles and an Olympic silver medal. She was followed by Katie Taylor, a boxer who was a national icon before women’s boxing was even in the Olympics.

Those were the icons that grew but it’s no accident they were in individual sports, in a country where women and sport simply didn’t go together for assorted societal reasons (all of which are pretty much awful, like really awful), the culture wasn’t there for women’s teams sports at a mass participation level. The cultural changes of Ireland since the early 1990s coupled with broader media interest in sport, made it far more normal for women to get into it.

Among Ireland’s victories at the European Championships was neighbours Great Britain. Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Tommy Dickson

So essentially we hit the millenium with a bunch of young people who had returned as emigrants largely from places where women’s sports were farther along, coupled with a much more progressive society, and more women naturally being interested in sport, you had the recipe for several team sports to advance. That’s happened noticeably with women’s rugby, football, field hockey, and Gaelic games. In all of those cases save for rugby, there was already a reasonable amount or human infrastructure there to catch up fast. With rugby, they just went all out.

Basketball was a natural place for the sport to progress but the route to being a whole lot better hit a big bump in the road around the time of the global economic crash. Every international team, including youth sides, was shuttered. Talents like Lindsay Peat and Louise Galvin would eventually represent Ireland at senior level internationally after the 7 year absence ended, only they did so in a different sport. Both played for Ireland at the women’s rugby world cup. The road to success in Irish hoops was stunted to say the least. Galvin opened up about here frustration of not having that next level to go for last summer on a podcast with me.

The lack of cash however didn’t have the same impact on human capital. While emigration became a big issue again, there was still a pretty steady and committed core group of volunteers scattered across the country. The women’s superleague here (our national league’s top flight) also proved useful on two fronts.

By allowing two imports on the floor rather than the lone slot in the men’s league, there were more ballers coming over to work with young female players and give them an idea of what to aim for talent wise. The other factor has been a longstanding attitude with women’s sport here, if you’re good enough you’re old enough.

Claire Melia, who was named to the All Star team at that U18 tournament, was the primary offensive focus for Portlaoise Panthers in the Irish superleague last season and has already logged two summers with the national senior squad. Sorcha Tiernan played in the Irish cup final earlier this year with Liffey Celtics. Young players here know that this is a sport where if they excel, they’ll get their shot.

There are still plenty of bumps in the road ahead. This was, easily, the best Irish side put on a floor at any underage tournament ever. Repeating that isn’t going to happen overnight but it’s set a marker down. It also helps that for most of the games, these players were performing in front of a raucous full house. That’s the type of event young players will find appealing. The hope here is that this is just the start.

Be sure to follow Emmet to Twitter @action81 and also follow Ball in Europe @bie_basketball