Gaelic Football, Hurling are Irish Passions

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated March 17, 2003
Come March 17, many Americans and other people around the world will don
green clothes, dine on corned beef and cabbage, and quench their thirst
with a pint of Guinness Stout. Such rituals are part of the annual St.
Patrick's Day celebration of all things Irish.

But how many of us
will thrill to the grace of an athlete as he hurls the sliothar into the
net for the winning goal? Or cheer battling footballers as they
hand-pass and kick their way up the pitch?

The Gaelic sports of hurling and Gaelic football, whose seasons are now under way, are authentic Ireland. Fast, rough, and exciting, they're great sport—but also something more. Gaelic athletics are a heartfelt Irish passion, and a physical celebration of ancient traditions and culture.

"It's ingrained in my nature as an Irishman," said John Keane of the Gaelic Athletic Association's North American Board. "It's a tremendously important part of my heritage. (As a child) you spoke Gaelic, enjoyed the Irish music and dancing, and you played the games."

While the sports are an integral part of Ireland's national heritage, he noted, their organization also makes them sources of intense local pride. Teams represent Ireland's counties, and players must have family connections to, or live and work in, the counties they represent (most players have second jobs). The free-agency system familiar to North American sports fans does not exist.

"This really makes you passionate about your team, because they really do represent you," Keane said.

Ancient Origins

Gaelic football and hurling have been arousing Irish passions for a long, long time. Football became popular as early as the 16th century, when teams might have consisted of all the able-bodied men of a town or parish. In those earliest days, the rather unorganized game would begin between the two towns and end when one side had managed to force the ball across a line into the other's territory.

The modern game plays like a mix of soccer and rugby. Fifteen-player teams battle across a pitch using a round ball slightly smaller than its soccer counterpart. The ball is carried for short distances, and passing is done with a kick or a "hand-pass," the ball struck with a hand or fist. The action is fast and furious, and play is rough. Protective equipment is nonexistent.

Hurling is similar to lacrosse or hockey. It's played on a large pitch with a curved wooden stick (or "hurley") and a small ball (or "sliothar"). It's one of the fastest games afield, and it's not for the faint of heart. Bodies bang, the ball is as hard as a baseball, and the sticks are made of solid ash.

While Gaelic football is an old sport, hurling is ancient. Irish mythology is replete with tales of heroes, such as the legendary warrior Cú Chulainn, who were expert hurlers. Such myths point to a hurling history some 2,000 years old and the sport's prominent place in Irish tradition.

Revival of Irish Heritage

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."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.