The next few weekends are some of the most important of the year when it comes to sport in Ireland. It's around now that the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals of our national sports, hurling and gaelic football, take place – or in other words, our version of the Superbowl. Croke Park, the largest stadium in the country, is filled to bursting point with fans from all over the country. The rest of the nation who didn't manage to snag some much sought-after tickets watch at home, in pubs, or even on big screens as the action unfolds. It's impossible not to get caught up in the excitement, even if you have no interest in the sports themselves. Hurling and gaelic football are both important aspects of Irish history and culture; they've both been played for hundreds if not thousands of years, and their resurgence into everyday Irish life played a large part in the rise of the nationalist movement, which lead to the country finally gaining independence from Britain after centuries of conflict. The sports' popularity is all because of an organisation called the Gaelic Athletic Association, formed in 1884 and thriving ever since.
What does the Gaelic Athletic Association do?
The GAA is, believe it or not, an amateur sporting and cultural organisation. Unlike the NFL or the Premier League, none of the players have a salary (although plenty of the popular ones make money from advertising and sponsorship deals) and they all have day jobs. By day they are 'ordinary' members of society – office workers, teachers, or just about anything else – but on weekends during the summer months they become national sporting heroes. As well as running leagues and clubs in Ireland and around the world, the GAA also promotes all gaelic games internationally, and they support and promote other aspects of Irish heritage like the Irish language, music and dance. They act as an authority on gaelic games, and there are half a million members of the association worldwide. As a result, the GAA is a highly important organisation in terms of creating and connecting Irish communities both abroad and at home.
Sport however is the primary focus of the GAA. The sports they promote and organise are not limited to hurling and gaelic football, although those are by far the most popular. Others include:
- Camogie: Camogie is identical to hurling, and played by women. It consists of two teams of 15, each team member with a hurley (wooden stick). Teams hit the sliotar (a hard ball slightly larger than a tennis ball, made from cork and leather) with their hurleys aiming for either the opposing team's goal or through the bars that extend upwards from it.
- Handball: Gaelic handball is more or less the same as the American variation. Played either as singles (one player against another) or doubles (two teams of two), players hit a ball with their hand or fist against a wall, the aim being to stop the opposing players from returning the shot.
- Rounders: Like a simplified version of baseball, rounders involves one team of strikers and one of fielders. Strikers hit a ball and run as far through a series of bases as they can before the fielding team can catch and return the ball.
Origins of the GAA
The GAA was founded in 1884 by a man named Michael Cusack. Born in 1847 during the Potato Famine, he became a school teacher and later a professor. He established a Civil Service Academy to train bright pupils for a career in the civil service and prepare them for the necessary examinations. He was also active in the Gaelic Revival movement, which was gaining lots of traction at the time as new politicians and leaders came to the fore in a relentless battle for independence. While walking through the Phoenix Park in Dublin one day, Cusack and a few of his colleagues noticed that barely anybody was playing any sports. It was a past time that only the more privileged classes indulged in. Sport had always been a central aspect of Cusack's civil service academy; participants were encouraged to participate in rugby, cricket, rowing and weight throwing. He decided something should be done to make an interest in sport universal, and with his political leanings saw a prime opportunity to add something to the nationalist movement; a revival of traditional sports. Cusack began by becoming involved with the Dublin Hurling Club in 1882. They played weekly games in Phoenix Park and it proved so popular that within a year he had founded his own club. Soon after that, he was able to expand it to a city-wide club.
During one match in 1884 between the Metropolitan Hurling Club and Killiomor in Galway, play had to be stopped several times because the two teams were playing according to different rules. Cusack had a realisation; the rules of the game needed to be standardised, and a body needed to be set up to govern the sports across the island. He called a meeting with his acquaintance Maurice Davin in Thurles, County Tipperary, and there they founded the Gaelic Athletics Association. Davin was elected president, and Cusack the secretary. The Archbishop of Cashel, William Croke, as well as politicians Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell also came on board as patrons.
The GAA through History
With the GAA having a largely political ethos, it was inevitable that sooner or later there would be in-fighting when those with differing political views came together. Sure enough this happened in 1887. One faction of the association supported the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a precursor of sorts to the IRA who wanted to use force to gain independence. The other half supported peaceful protest and gaining independence through the Irish Parliamentary Party. The intervention of Archbishop Croke was the only thing that held the two factions together. In 1888 they embarked on a tour of America to drum up support and raise awareness of both the gaelic games revival and the political situation in Ireland. The in-fighting reared its head again and although the mission was a success for increasing interest, it was a huge financial failure – they had to borrow money to return to Ireland, and 17 of the contingent never even made the journey back!
After Archbishop Croke's death in 1902 plans were put in place to fundraise for a memorial. Although fundraising efforts were sporadic and took several years, in 1913 the association purchased Jones Road Sports Ground for £3,500, and renamed it 'Croke Park'. Little did they know it would one day become the nation's biggest and best sports ground, and the very heart of the GAA. Before that could happen though, the 1916 Easter Rising put a halt on the growth of the GAA – movement of traffic was curtailed by the British authorities and both players and spectators had difficulty meeting for matches. In 1918 they attempted to clamp down on gaelic games by banning all matches unless teams applied for a permit from Dublin Castle. As an act of defiance, the GAA introduced rules stating that anyone who applied for a permit would be banned from the association. They then held 'Gaelic Sunday', when some 54,000 members took part in simultaneous games across the country – not one of whom had obtained a permit! November 21st 1920 was quite possibly the darkest day in the history of the GAA. There was huge political tension in the country and civil war was imminent. The night before, Michael Collins had sent his squad to assassinate a team of undercover British agents known as the 'Cairo Gang'. 14 members of the British Forces died as a result of the mission, so during a high profile match between Dublin and Tipperary in Croke Park, the British Military entered the pitch and opened fire on the players and spectators, killing 14 people in return.
Once the civil war was over, the GAA went from strength to strength. In 1924 they held the first Tailteann games, a throwback to the Celts' version of the Olympics where hurling and gaelic football were likely first played. They constructed the Hogan stand at Croke Park for the occasion, and at various intervals over the following decades expanded them until the stadium took the shape we know and love today. The rules of the games were reviewed and modernised, and the sports took on the format that still remains today (with some subsequent modifications).
The GAA in the Modern Age
Although it has been refined significantly since its origins, both hurling and gaelic football are still considered to be a little wild by international standards. In hurling, broken hurleys aren't all that uncommon and if the players didn't wear helmets there would most definitely be head injuries too. Gaelic football isn't a whole lot better; some teams have been known to get into fist fights on the pitch during play! Nowadays each team has their own county jersey (usually the same or with some slight variations in design for hurling, football and the other gaelic sports), and fans of the game take great pride in wearing their county colours on match days. The Dublin teams have a combination of sky blue and navy; Kilkenny are one of the most distinctive with black and gold vertical stripes; Mayo are green and red, Galway are maroon and white, and Kerry are green and gold.
The football champions take home the Sam Maguire cup, a huge trophy that resembles the Ardagh Chalice in shape in decoration, although it's much larger - and not quite as old! The hurling champions take home the Liam MacCarthy Cup, smaller and more modern in style than 'Sam' (as it's known to everyone in Ireland). It's not uncommon to see babies, champagne, and just about everything else placed into the cups to celebrate! While up until recently it was tradition for the fans to storm the pitch after the final whistle of the final game, this practice has now been prohibited for health and safety reasons. Instead fans take to the streets around Croke Park to cheer on their champions, and the celebrations usually last for the rest of the day!
Claddagh Design and the GAA
- We are huge fans!
- Especially of Kerry football!
- And given that we live in Cork, we'll have to support Cork Hurling & Camogie (unless they are playing Kerry)
- And we occasionally have GAA related commissions, like this Silver Hurley and Sliotar Tie Pin
You can commission your own custom jewelry via the link.