Derry Girls star Tara Lynne O'Neill on helping young footballers to share their stories about the beautiful game

In the week the Northern Ireland women's team made history by qualifying for the Euros, David Roy speaks to playwright and Derry Girls star Tara Lynne O'Neill about backing a new initiative to get young girls playing soccer while inspiring their creative side...

Tara Lynne O'Neill launches Electric Ireland's Shooting For The Stars competition with the help of Alice Smyth. Picture by Brian Morrison

IT'S been a massive month for women's football in the north with the Northern Ireland women's team making history by earning their first ever qualification for a major tournament.

Northern Ireland captain Marissa Callaghan and her squad of fellow 'game changers' are off to the Euros next year, and now team sponsors Electric Ireland are hoping to inspire the next generation of young footballers to follow in their bootsteps with a new short story competition.

As part of their Game Changers NI campaign promoting women's football in partnership with the Irish Football Association, they've commissioned a new children's book: Shooting for The Stars is aimed at football-mad boys and girls between the ages of seven and 11, who are currently being invited to submit girls' football-themed short stories of up to 500 words for a chance to have one of them produced and illustrated in the final book, to be published by Blackstaff Press and made available to schools and libraries across Northern Ireland.

The judging panel will include Gail Redmond, Irish FA women's development officer, illustrator Rory Jeffers and 'key judge' Tara Lynne O'Neill, better known to millions as 'Ma Mary' from TV hit Derry Girls.

The Belfast actress and playwright knows quite a lot about women's football in the north: her new play Rough Girls is centred on how the female version of the sport became huge here during the First World War, only for star players like Shore Road defender Mary Ann 'Big Molly' Seaton to be shut down in their prime when the English football authorities imposed a ban on the women's game in 1921.

What a difference 100 years makes.

"This is a project that's close to my heart," enthuses the Derry Girls star, who saw Rough Girls' run at the Lyric in Belfast being postponed last year due to Covid.

"I just think it's an amazing way to make a little piece of history about women's football, especially in the year that's 2021 with the NI women in the Euros and the 100th anniversary of the ban."

So, what is she looking for from the Shooting for The Stars short stories?

"Something truthful, honest and fun," says O'Neill (46). "Mainly though, I just want them to write what they think and what they feel – because so often youngsters are dismissed. This is about women's football and what they think and feel about it now. It could be about women's football in Northern Ireland set in space – use your imagination."

Northern Ireland celebrate their qualification for the Euros at Seaview in Belfast earlier this week. Picture by Colm Lenaghan

"When it's published and illustrated, in 100 years time someone like me is going to be writing a play about women's football in 2021 and this will be their little bit of history to work from."

The actor and writer first caught the football bug while researching Rough Girls, which involved speaking to female Northern Ireland players past and present about their experiences of the women's game.

"They just became an inspiration to me," says O'Neill, who is hopeful that the production will finally open later this year, "not just in terms of writing the play but in life in general.

"It also made me realise how similar theatre was to football. We both work as a team and try to find supporters so we can play for people. Theatre can't be done on your own, you're relying on the others on your 'team'."

Of course, as in the creative arts, sporting success can only be achieved with the right kind of backing and belief behind you.

"If the Lyric hadn't commissioned Rough Girls as a play and in doing that said that they believed in me as a writer – this is what Electric Ireland have done for these girls [the NI women's squad] over the past four years," enthuses O'Neill, who counts local playwright Marie Jones as one of her main creative inspirations and champions.

"They have said 'we believe in you, you are going to be game changers and you should shoot for the stars'. That's what's got women's football to where it is now – people believing in it."

The actor hopes that the success of the Northern Ireland women's team and initiatives like the Game Changers programme will help inspire the sporting stars of tomorrow to get involved with football at an early age, as she explains.

"I think it's about starting young," O'Neill tells me. "This campaign is aimed at telling young girls them that they can be and do whatever they want. When you put that work in at the ground level to give them those possibilities and hope – that's priceless. And now they have people like Marissa Callaghan and [Northern Ireland and Everton forward] Simone Magill to look up to and aspire to be.

"This Northern Ireland team has already made history. Each one of these girls is an idol and looked up to by other people in their community – and that's what it's about: seeing people doing great things makes us want to be able to achieve great things too.

"Some of these women have children. Imagine being able to say 'my mum plays for Northern Ireland'? So, it's not just something to be proud of if you're a young woman or a young girl, it's something we can all be proud of."

Derry Girls: Tommy Tiernan, Tara Lynne O'Neill, Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Louisa Harland, Kathy Clarke and Ian McElhinney

She adds: "I think it's totally changed since I was a youngster. And I think the whole world has kind of shifted on its axis for it to happen. Working with young women like Saoirse-Monica Jackson and Jamie-Lee O'Donnell on Derry Girls – they are 20 years younger than me and their drive, ambition and confidence is an inspiration."

As for when we can expect Derry Girls to be back on our screens and what the third series of Lisa McGee's international hit sitcom might have in store for fans, O'Neill is saying nothing.

"All I can tell you is that we will be filming in 2021 – but they won't let me see the scripts, because I'd only tell you everything that's going to happen," she laughs.

"But we are all back – and we can't wait to get into a room together, just even for the craic!"

Indeed, the Derry Girls star is looking forward to us all to be able to get out and enjoy both the arts and sport again post-lockdown.

"I think there will now be a greater appreciation of what we have on our doorsteps in terms of the arts and sport. It's all there – you can go and support your local women's football team on Saturday afternoon and then go out and watch a play on Saturday night. There's so much available."

And, in case you were wondering, it seems that the Belfast actor's film, theatre and TV success has not robbed us of another potential soccer star.

"I am shocking – I have all the agility of a trout," laughs O'Neill. "I couldn't keep up with the girls in this Northern Ireland team. I do have a very loud voice though, so I'm better in the stands cheering people on. Although I could maybe be useful as a goalkeeper – I mean, we've all eaten a bit too much during the pandemic, haven't we?"

Full details of how to enter can be found at Closing date is May 14 at 5pm.

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