With the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship set to take place in Dublin’s Croke Park on Sunday, September 17 – when the county teams of Dublin and Mayo will compete for the coveted Sam Maguire Cup at the iconic 73,500 capacity stadium, known affectionately by locals as Croker – there is, perhaps, no better time to delve into the wonderful world of Gaelic Games.
While Europe as a whole is undoubtedly enthralled with soccer, an enduringly working-class sport recognised globally as “the beautiful game”, the strictly amateur Irish games of Gaelic football, hurling and camogie are among the most popular sports on the Emerald Isle with regards to participation and attendance.
They are prehistoric sports indigenous to Ireland, created hundreds of years ago by the Celts and first referenced by scholars reporting on organised competitions 800 years before the first Olympic Games took place in Athens.
Today, these sports are governed by the Gaelic Athletic Association, which was formed as a benevolent society, of sorts, in 1884, with the aim of promoting and protecting the Irish language, culture and sport, deemed to be under threat at the time from increased emigration and the perceived Anglicisation of Irish society.
The GAA has since become incredibly influential in Irish life, with over 2,200 clubs operating across all 32 counties of Ireland, North and South. It holds a special place in the hearts of many Irish people but has historically been viewed with suspicion by some Unionist organisations.
Over the years there have been innumerable high points for the GAA – unforgettable finals between Samson and Goliath teams at Croker, points records broken, heroes made, championships won – but there have been low points also.
On November 21, 1920, for example, during the Irish War of Independence, 14 innocent people were killed and 65 injured when British troops opened fire on the Croke Park crowd during a Gaelic football match. What became known as Bloody Sunday marked a nadir in British-Irish relations, and brought the GAA into direct conflict with the British establishment.
In 1922, however, as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland became a free state and was subsequently officially declared a republic in 1949. Before and since, the GAA has played a huge part in the formation of a proud, inclusive Irish national identity. Gaelic football is the most popular sport within its remit.
Gaelic football will be recognisable to fans of Australian-rules football and incorporates elements of soccer but is much more of a contact sport, with players permitted to shoulder tackle opponents during play.
It involves two teams of 15 players competing over two halves of 30 minutes, with each team aiming to score the most points and goals, goals being worth three points each. The sport is played at local, county and national level, and with the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship taking place on the third or fourth Sunday in September.
Hurling, meanwhile, is an instrument-based sport, played with flat wooden sticks known as hurleys or hurls and a small ball known as a sliotar, similar in size to a cricket ball. Players must also wear protective helmets at all times – it is not a sport for the faint of heart. The points and goals system also applies, with the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship also taking place at Croke Park, but on the first Sunday in September.
Finally, camogie is the female equivalent of hurling, with the same rules and objectives. While the GAA does purport to represent camogie, it does so to a much lesser extent than Gaelic football and hurling. Rather, camogie is in effect governed by sister organisations, including the Camogie Association. The All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship Final takes place in Croke Park on the second Sunday in September.