Ireland is a nation of sports fans. Whether it's on two legs, or four legs, the Irish will play it, watch it, talk about it and bet on it! But while international sports like soccer and rugby are played and followed by many in the country, it's the native, Gaelic sports of hurling and football that really stir up the passions in Ireland. And come September those passions reach fever pitch as the Gaelic season culminates in the All Ireland Finals.
Gaelic Football and Hurling are the most widely played sports in the Ireland. Each parish throughout the island has a team playing one or the other, or even both sports and you'll come across playing fields with the distinctive ‘H' style goal posts in every corner of the land.
Amazingly, Ireland's Gaelic games are both amateur sports, making Football and Hurling the most widely played amateur games in the world. Both Football and Hurling are played by 15 men on a team with 5 substitutes, playing 35 minutes (at inter county) level each half. Both sports are fast moving and are very much contact sports where no quarter is given or asked for!
Football is like a cross between, soccer and rugby. It is similar to Australian Rules Football, which actually evolved from Gaelic Association Football, brought by the many thousands of Irish who emigrated or were deported to Australia during the 19th Century. Gaelic Football is played with a round ball, slightly smaller and heavier than a soccer ball. Points are scored by either putting the ball over the opponent's bar, as with rugby, which is worth one point, or within the goal posts as with soccer, which is worth three points. Players can kick the ball or handle the ball, but just to make it more difficult, they can't travel with the ball for more than four steps - players have to bounce it on the ground or drop the ball onto their foot and kick it back into their hand, which, in the game, is called soloing.
Hurling follows the same scoring system and similar rules to Football, but, like hockey, it is played with a stick, called a ‘hurley' and a small hard ball called a ‘sliothar'. Whereas a high ball is deemed dangerous play in hockey, you'll see sliothars and hurleys flying around at head height in Hurling and though some players wear helmets, it isn't obligatory and the majority don't even where them! Hurling is the oldest field game in Europe and was brought to the shores of Ireland by the ancient Celts some 2,000 years ago and the sport is chronicled throughout Irish folklore.
The main competition for both Hurling and Football are the Inter-county championships. Teams from each of the 32 counties of Ireland, as well as teams from London and New York, battle it out for a place in the All Ireland Finals, held at Croke Park each September. These finals are the biggest sporting events in the country, as 80,000 people pack out Ireland's largest stadium, to cheer on their home county and hopefully watch their team lift Football's Sam Maguire Cup or Hurling's Liam MacCarthy Cup.
Over the years Football has been dominated by County Kerry. Known as the Kingdom, Kerry has been crowned Kings of Football more times than any other county and are followed by fierce rivals Dublin and Meath. Hurling has proved more open throughout the years with counties Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary sharing much of the honours.
Both games have had their share of characters and sporting heroes. These men not only won at the highest level, training as hard as any sportsman, but they also held regular jobs, playing their sport as amateurs, for the love of the game - a rare quality indeed for any sport today. Men like Mick O'Connell, the Kerry footballer of the 60s, who would row over from Valencia Island to the mainland for matches. Considered one of the most accomplished footballers of his day, Mick O'Connell played in nine All Ireland Finals for Kerry, winning four. And fellow Kerryman, Pat Spillane, who won eight All Ireland medals between 1975 and 1986 and is one now one of football's most well known commentators. For Hurling there are greats like Eddie Keher, who helped Kilkenny win six All Ireland titles between 1963 and 1975 and scored 194 points in just 21 games. Or Christy Ring, the Corkman who won eight all Ireland medals during the 40s and 50s, Ring is still one of the games all time top scorers and is so respected in his native Cork, that they named a bridge after him. And of course there is Jack Lynch, a successful Hurler and Footballer wining All Ireland medals with Cork in each sport, who went on to lead Ireland as Taoiseach (Ireland's Premier), during the 60s and 70s. The reverence in which these sportsmen are still held, speaks volumes about what Football and Hurling mean to people in Ireland, regardless of their amateur status.
The driving force behind both these amateur sports is the Gaelic Athletics Association, though there is nothing amateur about the GAA. The old joke in Ireland goes that Hurling and Gaelic Football are amateur sports run by a professional organisation, while soccer is a professional sport run by an amateur organisation. The GAA established Football and Hurling in the mid 19th Century, it set the rules in 1885 and drew up the county structure of the sports in 1887. Throughout its early history the GAA was closely linked with Irish nationalism, it banned its players from playing non Gaelic games such as soccer and rugby and many of the GAA's members offered their voices to the Home Rule for Ireland movement of the early 1900s. During the War of Independence the GAA was deemed a banned organisation by the British government. Then on 21st November 1920 came one of the most significant events in GAA folklore and the most damning events in Anglo-Irish history, when the British Black and Tan forces entered Croke Park, during a football match between Tipperary and Dublin and opened fire, killing 12 spectators and a player, in what became known as Bloody Sunday. Over the years the GAA has evolved into one of the most prominent organisations in Ireland and its history and that of Hurling and Football is outlined in the GAA Museum at Croke Park.
The GAA Museum offers a unique insight into Gaelic Games and their important place in Irish heritage. It allows visitors to relive some of Hurling and Football's greatest sporting moments, you can test out your skills at the game, take a tour Croke Park Stadium and imagine you're playing in an All Ireland Final. And if you ever get the chance to sample the atmosphere of an All Ireland Final at Croke Park, you'll be experiencing something uniquely Irish.
this time next month...
Conor B & Seamus.