The Fascinating History of Gaelic Sports in Ireland

Gaelic is an adjective that means “pertaining to the Gaels”, and refers to the Gaelic language spoken in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, and its associated culture. Gaelic sports, best known as Gaelic games, are ancient and indigenous sports unique to Ireland that have been played throughout the ages and are deeply embedded in the Irish way of life. 

There are six sports within the Gaelic games, each of which we’ll explore in greater detail. They comprise Gaelic football, ladies football, handball, hurling, camogie, and rounders. If your awareness of Irish traditions has yet to extend much beyond playing classic Irish-themed slot games at your favourite online casino, then you may not know much about these millennia-old games. But this is your chance to find out!

The Gaelic games (Cluichí Gaelacha in Irish) are organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Gaelic game clubs exist on every continent, with more than 300,000 players, 800,000 members, 2,000 clubs in Ireland, and 300 clubs elsewhere. They are collectively the most popular sport in Ireland, and each of the 32 counties within the island of Ireland has a team for each sport. The counties then compete against one another to become the All-Ireland champions. 

The games have remained distinctly amateur sports, and have thus rejected endorsement deals and international attention, preserving fans’ pure love of the game, though this in no way affects the games’ popularity: close to a million people attend the senior championships each year. 

Irish people consider the games to be a huge part of their cultural identity and use the clubs as hubs to celebrate their ancient language, traditions, music and dance, and of course, the sports themselves. But how did they come to be?

Origin of the Gaelic games

Irish sports have a rich and ancient history, with records dating all the way back to 1829BC when the Tailteann Games – a Celtic sporting festival named after a Celtic goddess – began. Amazingly, the games occurred annually around the 1st of August during the feast of Lughnasa for nearly 4,000 years, until 1169AD. 

A rough-and-tumble game, similar but less organised than what’s known today as Gaelic football, also existed in the Middle Ages, with historical references to a form of football being played in Ireland as far back as the 14th century. These games, called “caid in County Kerry” (in reference to the ball made of horse or ox hide, which contained an inflatable bladder), were cross-country; they involved hundreds of players, with frequent pauses for bouts of wrestling and fist fighting. The aggressive exchanges were considered the norm until as recently as the mid-19th century.

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, the game of hurling became popularised by landlords and gentry, and sports betting was a common pastime. Hurling became part of a major religious and sporting festival that attracted hundreds of spectators.

These native games were passed down from generation to generation, and the games were as much about socialising as they were about the sports themselves. The Gaelic games, whose exact origins are not entirely clear, thus existed in various forms over many centuries until the later formation of the GAA.

Challenges to the Gaelic games

Although heritage and patriotism were strong, not everyone took to this cultural pastime, and the ruling class, in particular, found the popularity of the games threatening. Throughout the centuries, laws were passed to ban Gaelic sports, including the Statutes of Kilkenny, which banned all Gaelic games in the 14th century; the 1527 Statutes of Galway, which only allowed Gaelic football to be played; and the Sunday Observance Act of 1695, which banned hurling and football on Sundays. (Hard to believe, isn’t it!)

This had changed by the 17th century when the ruling class began serving as patrons of the games, which resurged in popularity. However by the late 19th century, the survival of the games came under threat with the Great Irish Famine, and the survival of the Irish people themselves became more important than the preservation and longevity of the games. Yet, within a decade of the famine, the resilient people of Ireland once again reclaimed the Gaelic sports, and the GAA was established not long after to ensure that they would be upheld and protected for future generations.

How the GAA came to be

In the 1800s, Ireland was still under British rule. The fact that British sports were enforced at the expense of Irish games caused much resentment, and the country longed to gain national independence. As Ireland emerged from years of famine, the country wished to assert itself both culturally and politically, and the establishment of the GAA was in the midst of incredible political turbulence.

Though native games were still being played, they were very unofficial and lacked a central governing body to guide and protect them through the ages. Michael Cusack, who had established the Civil Service Academy, a school in Dublin, and Maurice Davin, Ireland’s most famous athlete at the time, gathered together to found a purely Irish athletic association. The GAA was founded on All Saints Day, November 1st 1884, at Hayes’ Commercial Hotel in Thurles, County Tipperary, with the help of some prestigious patrons, including Dr Thomas Croke, a clergyman with a passion for sport; Michael Davitt, leader of the Land League, which aimed to help Irish people gain back control of their land; and Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. The aims of the strictly amateur body were to “preserve and cultivate Ireland’s national pastimes”, giving the Gaelic games a renewed place in Irish culture.

The GAA did more than just give the games direction, however, and have to this day made an immense impact on the life of the Irish nation. They served first to de-anglicise Ireland by rejecting English games, and then to build up the Irish youth, giving them a sense of belonging and patriotism, as well as reviving the local spirit in rural Ireland, which had become increasingly depleted with mass emigration. The GAA became one of the first democratic moments in Ireland, belonging entirely to the Irish people, and has become a unifying force throughout the island.

‘The Ban’

The GAA was clear in its aims to promote Irish sport and culture, which inevitably led to what was known as “The Ban” in the GAA’s 1902 official constitution, which banned members of Northern Ireland’s security force from taking part in the games, as well as members of the GAA from participating in foreign games. This was, however, lifted in 1971, though the British security forces, including those in Northern Ireland, remain banned from competing in Gaelic games to this day.

Gaelic sports

Gaelic games consist of four main sports. While the women’s versions (ladies’ football and camogie  – the female version of hurling) are not organised by the GAA (with the exception of handball), they are still considered Gaelic sports and remain closely associated with the Gaelic games. Let’s take a brief look at all these Gaelic sports.

1. Gaelic football and ladies’ football

Gaelic football is most commonly called “Gaelic”, “football”, or “gah” (after the GAA). It is described as a fusion of rugby and association football, though it very much predates both. The field game is played between two teams of 15 players on a rectangular pitch approximately 137m long and 82m wide (slightly larger than a normal football pitch). 

The objective is to score by kicking or punching the ball into the opposing team’s goals, and the game lasts 60 minutes at most levels and 70 minutes at the highest level, with a 15-minute half-time. It’s played with a small, round leather ball that’s a bit smaller than a soccer ball. Shouldering someone off the ball, or snatching it mid-air, are highly valued skills – because this game is played as much with the hands as it is with the feet.

Games are organised for all age groups, and the All-Ireland Championships take place in the summer. The ultimate goal and highest prestige is to win an All-Ireland medal. Gaelic football is the most popular sport in Ireland, with the annual championships drawing more than 80,000 spectators to Croke Park in Dublin each year.

As mentioned, ladies football is governed separately – by the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association – but has only slight rule differences when compared to the men’s version.

2. Handball

Gaelic handball is similar to American handball – players must hit the ball against the wall without it touching the ground and their opponent has to return the ball after a maximum of one bounce with the aim of keeping it in play. Irish and Scottish emigrants brought the game to a number of countries in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, and it remains popular worldwide.

3. Hurling and camogie

Hurling is one of two of Ireland’s national sports (alongside Gaelic football), and is an ancient-warrior sport, referenced in many of Ireland’s legends and myths. It can be described as a mix of field hockey and lacrosse, and is played with a stick, called a hurley, and a small leather ball called a sliotar. The game is considered both the oldest (traced back thousands of years) and fastest field sports in the world and requires incredible skill. As we’ve mentioned, camogie is the female version of hurling.

The number of players, pitch, scoring, and rules are similar to Gaelic football. The aim is to score more points than the opposing team, and the ball can be caught with the hand but players cannot run more than four steps holding it. Players wear either a faceguard or helmet, as the sliotar can travel up to 112mph! 

These games are a spectacle to behold, combining incredible speed, intensity and accuracy. Big games have been known to attract crowds larger than at FIFA World Cup finals and NFL Super Bowls in the US.

4. Rounders

Rounders is similar to baseball, and it is generally accepted that baseball is derived from its Irish counterpart, which was likely brought to the US by Irish settlers. Two teams comprising a maximum of nine players take chances to throw and bat against each other on a field. Players score by running around the four bases on the field. 

This is a mixed-gender game and involves limited contact. It’s popular as both a recreational and competitive game across a number of age groups.

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