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Fitness pioneer who brought women into the public sphere

When Kathleen O’Rourke set up the first branch of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty in Dublin in 1934, it generated enormous interest among women — and anxiety among Catholic leaders concerned that women wearing shorts would contravene ideas of modesty in the new Irish State.

Bishop John Charles McQuaid — later Archbishop — was a cousin of Kathleen’s and he met her several times to insist that women wore skirts over their shorts. He also wanted the league to tone down its ‘risqué’ logo and remove the word ‘beauty’ from the title.

The League of Health and Beauty logo was considered too risky by clerical leaders.
The League of Health and Beauty logo was considered too risky by clerical leaders.

The league, the first mass keep-fit system developed by women for women, had been established four years previously in London by Dubliner Mary Bagot-Stack. Within a decade, it had some 100,000 members worldwide.

For the first time, here was a revolutionary exercise programme that put the focus on the female body. Little wonder it caused concern in a country that would, in 1937, introduce a constitution that treated “the women of the country as though they were half-wits”, to use the choice phrase of Margaret Buckley, first female president of Sinn Féin.

Bagot-Stack and Kathleen O’Rourke, however, were determined to make sure the league operated in Ireland, even if it meant changing the name, the logo and the uniform. The beautiful British logo, which featured a member in shorts leaping through the air, was stripped of its ‘racy’ image. The word beauty was dropped, and Irish members wore a skirt; an addition that backfired gloriously when those ‘modest’ skirts flew up while women put their legs in the air during floor exercises.

The logo of the Dublin branch of the League of Health and Beauty.
The logo of the Dublin branch of the League of Health and Beauty.

In any event, the organisation flourished. In May 1936, the Irish Times reported that three generations — daughters, mothers and grandmothers — took part in the Women’s League of Health in the Mansion House in Dublin.

“Within five years, O’Rourke’s classes grew in popularity,” says Conor Heffernan, lecturer in the sociology of sport at Ulster University. “She trained hundreds of women a week and, more importantly, helped in the development of exercise classes for women across the island, in both Northern Ireland and Éire.”

Mr Heffernan, author of The History of Physical Culture in Ireland, goes on to describe a woman of immense dynamism who acted as organiser, teacher, administrator and advocate and fought tooth and nail for her students. At one point, during the Second World War, she overcame security and visa issues so that her class could train in London.

Meantime, in Dublin, she held classes everywhere, including in Bewley’s café in Dublin where, during promotional events, she had the people attending do exercises on the tables.

Sport exhibition

She had another battle on her hands when the Irish branch was invited to take part in Lingiad, a universal sport exhibition in Sweden in 1949. The invitation represented international recognition for the work being done here, yet the government refused to provide any funding.

In articles reminiscent of recent struggles for funding for women’s sport, journalist Anne Kelly wrote a strongly worded piece in the Irish Press decrying the fact that the Irish gymnasts were “all dressed up” with nowhere to go.

Kathleen, though, engaged in a campaign of fundraising, promoting and organising. As Dr Heffernan puts it: “She had an evangelical zeal for health and fitness which propelled her well beyond the traditional roles assumed by women [or imposed on women] during the 1930s.”

Her links stretched beyond Ireland which meant she was something of an anomaly in Irish society, he adds.

“This was a woman who not only established herself as an expert of health within her own country, but one who held an international reputation. 

“From all accounts, she was an incredibly learned, empathetic, and well-travelled individual. 

“Over the course of the 1930s and 1940s alone, she made regular trips to England and mainland Europe where she established connections which lasted a lifetime.”

Kathleen O'Rourke 
Kathleen O’Rourke 

The work for which she is perhaps best known — as co-founder of the Central Remedial Clinic — had yet to begin. After the polio epidemics of 1948 and 1950, she was very conscious of the need to provide aftercare for people left with disabilities.

Kathleen O’Rourke, a remedial gymnast and a member of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, began to see children in her own city-centre flat in Dublin in 1951. They were carried up three flights of stairs and treated on a dining-room table covered with blankets to bring them to the right height to receive rehabilitation therapy.

With orthopaedic surgeon Boyd Dunlop, Kathleen and her co-founder, Valerie Goulding, established a clinic in Goatstown before moving to Clontarf where it would become the Central Remedial Clinic.

Kathleen, meanwhile, continued to talk of the importance of getting and keeping physically fit. She had a first-class diploma from the Liverpool College of Physical Education, and she used her qualifications to inform a lively weekly health column in the Irish Press.

She also set up the Dublin College of Physical Education (now Thomond College, Limerick) and was the first to run ante-natal classes in Dublin.

Mary McDaid has more reason than most to remember her. She is a part-time teacher at the Fitness League Ireland — as the League of Health is now known — and she went to Kathleen’s early ante-natal classes in Dublin.

“They were wonderful. And Kathleen happily included men in the classes, making them do their breathing exercises beside their women.”

Kathleen would be pleased to know the league is still thriving, running more than 60 weekly sessions in Dublin, Kildare and Wexford. It has also reinstated the original logo showing an early member leaping through the air — wearing shorts!

“So few people realise the profound impact she had on the Irish exercise world, and in particular on the rehabilitation provided by the Central Remedial Clinic, which is her legacy,” Mary McDaid says.

Conor Heffernan adds to that: “Informally, O’Rourke’s legacy can be found in the thousands of Irishwomen who train on a regular basis, unaware of the lengths their predecessors went to bring women out into the public sphere.”

The last word, though, must go to Valerie Goulding, who paid tribute to a woman of “supernatural resources” who dedicated her life to helping others when she died in October 1980.

“If there had not been a Kathleen O’Rourke, there would never have been a Central Remedial Clinic… There are many mothers also, who owe her so much for her teaching of natural childbirth. A brave and bright spirit and has left us.”

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