While the games boast ancient roots, their modern history is inseparably linked with the revival of Irish culture and nationalism that occurred in the late 19th century.
In 1884, with Ireland under the rule of the British Crown, a group of Irish nationalists met in County Galway to establish an organization for Irish athletes, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). It is still the governing body of hurling and Gaelic football (as well as of ladies football and carmogie, a hurling-like sport for women).
Given these nationalist roots, it comes as no surprise that the GAA has always promoted more than just sport.
"The Gaelic Athletic Association was a cultural thing," said Keane. "It was created as a direct response to the way in which Irish culture was being eliminated, and they wanted to revive that culture."
To accomplish this goal, the organization focused on traditional athletics, but also on other activities. The GAA's official guide includes a mandate to "actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, song, and other aspects of Irish culture."
The GAA is active in all of these areas. It promotes Irish culture in much the same way it does athletics, through a network of clubs throughout the country. Competitions, called Scór, celebrate Irish literature, song, dance, music, and other traditions.
In its early years, the Gaelic games themselves took on political significance in the troubled Ireland of the time.
The athletic association developed a strong rural network across Ireland, and many GAA members were involved in events connected with the 1916 Easter Rising. By 1918 the organization was banned by the British government, but the games were still played as an act of Irish defiance.
The game was touched directly by the conflict. After the Irish Republican Army (IRA) killed 11 British officers in Dublin on November 21, 1920, on suspicion of espionage, government troops (the Black and Tans) exacted a reprisal by firing on the crowd at a Gaelic football game at the sport's "cathedral," Croke Park, leaving 12 spectators and one player dead.
As Ireland's political situation has evolved, its sports have always been a lightning rod for nationalist feeling. Not until a few months ago was a ban lifted that forbade current or former British Army officers from participating in Gaelic athletics.
Outside the Emerald Isle
Gaelic sports are no longer confined to the Emerald Isle. The waves of Irish emigrants who left their home shores took their important games with them.
John McDevitt is a Boston-based member of the North American Board of the Gaelic Athletic Association. The organization has 84 clubs in North America involved in football, hurling, and carmogie, and sends teams to play internationals in Ireland.
The clubs thrive in heavily Irish settled communities in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, but have also expanded across the country, from Florida to California and Seattle.
According to McDevitt, the first match in America was held in Boston in 1886, between Kerry and Galway. The players were recent immigrants, and they chose sides according to their home counties.
The tradition of county-based teams endures in North America, and many of the athletes are still originally from Ireland. That is changing, however, as increasing numbers of American-born players take up the games. Youth leagues are creating new generations of players born outside of Ireland, and some have no Irish connections at all.
"Minor (youth) football is just starting to really get going in the States," said McDevitt, "and it has a strong future."
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES