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Valentine was first lady of rugby

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Portora Royal Schoolgirl Emily Valentine became the first female to play rugby in 1887

By Kay Crewdson
BBC Sport

The story of Emily Valentine first came to light here in BBC Sport NI after Alison Donnelly, a BBC press officer and keen rugby player, got in contact.

Outside of work, Alison runs a website based on women's rugby and had been researching the history of the sport.

With the help of a colleague and fellow historian they came across the memoirs of a lady called Emily Valentine. In those memoirs Emily described her first game of playing rugby back in 1887.

We felt that this was a remarkable finding for Northern Ireland as well as women's rugby.

Here lay proof that the first female documented to have played rugby was more than 125 years ago and came from County Fermanagh.

In order to do justice to the story, I felt that we had to go to the school where Emily played this, now famous, rugby match. So we headed off to the Royal Portora School in Enniskillen where, in 1887, her father had been headmaster.

With the help of the school's vice-principal, Robert Northridge, we put together a version of the match Emily played in.

We also felt that we had to highlight Emily's cheeky characteristics after her tales of sliding down the schools wonderful staircases.

Our shoot editor Gary McCutcheon treated the footage in post production to depict how the material might have looked back in 1887.

Whilst researching Emily Valentine, it was not just her memoirs that were found. Some of her grandchildren were tracked down and one in particular, Catherine Galwey, from Norwich who had lived with Emily during her grandmother's later years.

I had many telephone conversations with Catherine about her grandmother. She described her as being "loveable, resourceful and good fun", but still I wanted more for Emily Valentine and for her story, it needed a human element.

So we flew to London and then drove to Norwich to meet Catherine, to put together the final pieces of the story.

Catherine kindly read Emily's memoirs which we played out over the re-enactment of the game - a way of drawing together the story, the family and the legacy of Emily Valentine.

The story of Emily is remarkable as there are no other records of any other female rugby players in the 19th century.

According to Alison Donnelly, there are some vague suggestions that women's rugby teams may have played in France and possibly New Zealand in the 1890s, however it is not until 1917 that we know of another female player - 16-year-old Mary Eley - who played for Cardiff Ladies.

So, as far as we here at BBC Sport in Northern Ireland are aware, the first female of rugby came from Northern Ireland, a legacy we are proud of.



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