Katie Kilbane has a wealth of experience when it comes to wielding the whistle. Having refereed for 12 years now she has taken charge of games at as high a level as Women’s AIL, J1, and U20s in both Connacht and Munster.
Kilbane first played rugby during her time in university. She says: “I had wanted to play for years but dad wouldn’t let me, he thought it was bad enough that I was breaking myself playing football, so I definitely shouldn’t play rugby.” But by that point, she was an adult and instead of joining the college football team, she signed up for rugby.
While playing with the University she also joined Galwegians and played a season in the Women’s AIL, but says she didn’t keep it up due to other commitments: “I was rowing, I was playing county football, I was playing rugby with the college and then I took up reffing on top of that so it was just a lot.”
It was clear that once Kilbane had a taste for the sport she fully emersed herself in it. After playing for about a year she had already signed up for a refereeing course. When asked what the appeal to refereeing was she responded with a laugh: “baiting literal baiting,” from a friend and referee Mike Forrestal who ebbed her to “try refereeing a real game.”
Having refereed GAA from under 12s and getting her qualifications as a GAA ref at the age of 16 Kilbane says she was always “weirdly interested” in refereeing: “I spent my Junior Cert results night refereeing a camogie match instead of going out.”
Since becoming a referee the 29-year-old has worked her way up through the ranks where she now takes charge of games in J1 U20s and in the Women’s AIL. Some might imagine that being a female referee in the men’s game would be difficult but Kilbane says otherwise: “Men can be easier than women, I guess it’s a little different for me as I have played with the women and some of them know me personally where as with the men they don’t care if your male or female, donkey or a dog as long as you’re doing a good job.
“It’s a very enjoyable sport and a very welcoming sport that has a good degree of respect there from men and women.”
A highlight in Kilbane’s career came in 2017 while she was refereeing in Munster. She was chosen to officiate as a touch judge during the first-ever women’s Barbarian series: “It was probably the closest to a professional environment that I’ve been in.” The Barbarians came out as clear winners over Munster in Thomand park with a 19-0 victory.
Kilbane stopped playing the sport a couple of years back through various different injuries and that was when she decided to focus on refereeing which in return gave her the outlet to stay involved in the sport: “It was my way of competitively staying within the game not everybody joins refereeing to be competitive about it and to try and get to the top, I do. It gave me a sense of purpose within the game when I couldn’t physically play it anymore.”
Without referees our game wouldn’t be able to function but refereeing isn’t there just to facilitate the player but for people like Katie, it’s a way to stay involved and competitive and an overall great sport to be involved in.
She says: “So if you’re falling out of the game it’s a great way to stay involved in it at a high level and it’s also just a great way of giving back if you want to volunteer.”