Being from Kerry I couldn't let this week pass without mentioning the All Ireland Final this weekend. Just in case you didn't hear Kerry will take on Donegal to hopefully win their 37th Gaelic Football Final. Now I could spend the day writing about the history of Kerry football but instead I thought I'd give you a brief explanation of Irish sports. So if you don't what a sliotar is and want to know the difference between hurling and camogie read on!
There are a lot of unique aspects to Irish life and culture that many non-natives are surprised to discover. Certain Irish traditions are well known all around the world; Saint Patrick's Day thanks to the massive Irish diaspora settled all around the world, or Irish dancing thanks to the huge success of Riverdance, for example. There are plenty of people, however, who only realise that we have our own language when they hit Irish shores for the first time. The same is true of traditional Irish sports, which are unbelievably popular all over the country, but little known outside of it. If you've ever heard Irish people having a heated discussion about the 'GAA' and had no idea what they were talking about, don't worry, we're here to explain it all – whether you're Irish or not!
What are Irish sports?
The two most popular Irish sports are hurling and gaelic football, along with camogie, handball and rounders, which are slightly less popular. Hurling is a very fast paced game played with wooden 'hurleys' (similar to hockey sticks but with much wider and flatter heads) and a hard ball known as a 'sliotar'. It is considered to be the world's fastest field sport, and it is probably one of the most dangerous too since players can catch the ball in their hands and hit it into the air with the hurley; like you would with a baseball bat or tennis racket. Imagine doing that in a field full of other people who are all trying to stop you so they can do the same thing – needless to say, it can get chaotic!
Gaelic football is much more sedate by comparison, and is very similar to Australian rules football – so much so that teams from Australia and Ireland often play exhibition 'crossover' matches together. In Gaelic football, the players are permitted to pick up and carry the ball for a short time before kicking it. Again, they can kick it high up into the air and across the field, unlike in soccer. The goal posts are a mixture of soccer and rugby goals; players can score either by hitting it into the net past the goalkeeper or through the two tall bars that extend into the air from each end (the same is true for scoring in hurling).
Camogie is more or less the female version of hurling, with some differences in the rules of play. Irish handball is largely the same as other variations of the sport around the world, and rounders is a less complex version of baseball, often played by kids on the street or in the schoolyard. While camogie has a decent following in the country, handball and rounders are not really as popular as the other Irish sports.
Origin of Irish Sports
Irish sports have roots way back in prehistoric times, dating back 3,000 years in some cases – before any recorded history in Ireland began! The earliest written references to hurling date from the 7th and 8th century, and mention sporting injuries that should be compensated. However, the most famous early account of hurling appears in the legend of the Tain Bo Cuailgne. Although the earliest surviving copy dates from the 12th century it is widely thought that the story itself is much older, from around 500BC.
The tale describes the actions of a mythical Irish hero known as Cu Chullainn, who was said to have superhuman strength and fighting prowess. Setanta, as he was then known, was heading to a feast in his king's castle when the king's hound was mistakenly set upon him. Setanta had been playing hurling nearby and used his hurley and sliotar to kill the vicious hound, hitting the ball straight into its mouth and right through its body in one shot. To make up for the loss of the king's dog, Setanta promised to guard the castle himself until another worthy guard dog could be found, and got the name 'Cu Chullain' (Cullen's hound) in the process. He was known by that name for the rest of his life.
Gaelic football started off as a sport known as 'caid', and was first historically recorded in 1308 when a spectator at a game was charged with accidentally stabbing a player! Caid was a part of the Tailteann games, an annual Celtic sporting festival which began in 1829 BC and continued for almost 4,000 years until 1169 AD. Hundreds gathered to watch the matches and victorious players would be generously rewarded. Like many other aspects of Irish culture, it was most likely brought here by the Celts who picked the practice up along the way from central Europe. This would also explain why football in general is still such a popular sport all over the continent.
History of Irish Sports
Gaelic football and hurling continued throughout the centuries, gaining popularity and becoming more complex and organised as the years passed. When the British empire took over the ruling of Ireland after the feudal system was abolished, they cracked down on all things native such as music, dancing, language, religion and of course, sport. Eventually in the latter half of the 18th century a revival of all things Irish sparked up along with the beginnings of rebellion and a push towards independence. All the while hurling and gaelic football were gaining popularity, with matches drawing bigger crowds every year and more and more people calling for an official regulatory body to be set up so that everyone could play from one rulebook. At this stage, there were many variations in the rules of the game depending on what part of the country you were in, which often led to blows when teams from different regions played against each other.
It was a man named Michael Cusack who transformed hurling and gaelic football from the localised, informal and sometimes erratic games they were then into the all powerful national sports they are today. He observed that the sports were limited to the middle and upper classes, had inconsistent rules throughout the country, and most importantly, they could potentially be a very influential aspect of the independence movement if they were made into unified and governed sports. Luckily, he was a journalist by trade and so had a good deal of leverage when it came to gaining support and followers for his cause. In October 1884 he wrote and article with the title 'A Word about Irish Athletics', which was published in the United Ireland and The Irishman, both widely read publications. Based on the positive feedback from this article, he submitted a signed letter the next week announcing the first ever meeting of the 'Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes'. This became shortened to the Gaelic Athletic Association or GAA, the governing body of the two most popular sports in Ireland.
The first, biggest objectives of the GAA included coming up with a definitive set of rules for gaelic games and finding dedicated spaces to play them in. At the most basic level, they decided that; matches must be played on a rectangular grass pitch measuring 130 - 145 metres x 80 – 90 metres. Two H-shaped goalposts stand at either end. Matches were to last for 70 minutes, in two halves of 35 minutes with a short break in between. There must be fifteen players per team, with the following roles; one goalkeeper, six 'back' (defensive) players – two corner backs, a full back, two wing backs and a centre back – two mid-field players, and another six 'forward' (offensive) players in the same manner as the back players. The game is played with a leather ball of 18 stitched panels, and players can pass the ball to each other by kicking or hand-passing. It is not permitted to bounce the ball twice in a row, change it between your hands, or move four steps without releasing, bouncing or soloing the ball (kicking it into your hands). It is also considered a foul to hand pass a goal, pick the ball directly up off the ground, and throwing the ball (i.e not hand-passing it).
So how do you actually win the game? If the ball is kicked over the crossbar between the two extended posts, one point is scored. If the ball goes below the cross bar it's a goal, which is worth three points. So the points will be awarded in a formation like: Wexford 1-19, Wicklow 2-16. Wexford scored one goal and 19 points, a total of 22 points, while Wicklow scored two goals and 16 points, giving them 22 points also. The team with the most points at the end wins, but in this case there's a draw between Wicklow and Wexford, so there will be an added 20 minutes of extra time. If they're still equal after that, the match will need to be replayed from the beginning! New disciplinary rules were introduced this year in an attempt to reduce the sometimes too regular fisticuffs that occur between players. If a referee shows a yellow card to a player it is considered a warning; a black card means the player is sent off the pitch but a replacement is allowed, and a red card means the player must leave the pitch and not be replaced.
Irish Sport Today
Gaelic games are still as popular as ever today and it doesn't look like the interest will fade any time soon. Ireland's national stadium, Croke Park, was specially built for the GAA in the 1920s and only hosts Irish sports games (as well as the occasional open air concert). It sits proudly in the heart of Dublin city and is where all of the major matches in the All-Ireland Senior Championships are played every year. With a capacity for a crowd of 82,000 people, watching any of these matches is in Croke Park is an exhilarating experience.
The big event in the GAA calendar every year is, you guessed it, the aforementioned All-Ireland Senior Championships. Each of the 32 counties in Ireland has a team, all of whom play against each other, so competition is fierce, the standard of play is fantastic and the excitement around the country is palpable. The finals are usually held on the first Sunday of September each year. Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary are considered the best hurling teams in the country, having won almost three quarters of all championships ever played between them! In gaelic football, Kerry have been the most successful team, winning on 36 occasions.(Woohoo!) As I mentioned above my beloved Kerry will take on Donegal in the the football final this Sunday, while Kilkenny and Tipperary will have to replay hurling final as the match ended in a draw last week.
Best of luck to both teams, and if you're not sure who to cheer for shout for Kerry if only to keep this silversmith happy!