Fans of other sports will quibble but the biggest events in the Irish sporting calendar take place on the first and third Sunday of September every year – the All-Ireland hurling and football* finals respectively. On each day 30 amateur sportsmen will face off against each other in front of 82,000 people at Croke Park, Europe’s third biggest stadium (only the Camp Nou in Barcelona and Wembley are bigger). The event in each case is like the Superbowl shorn of the bells and whistles or the FA Cup final before the expansion of the Champions League reduced it to an unwanted consolation prize. No Irish domestic sporting occasion draws so many spectators and all manner of horse-trading is involved, with favours often asked of casual acquaintances in distant parts of the country to secure tickets for the matches.
Ireland is not unique in having its own sports that few people in other countries play or care for. The Americans and Australians have theirs too, but Gaelic games, as the two sports are collectively known, are unparalleled in being administered by an organisation that has been intricately related to the country’s history and even its national identity. Founded in 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) has from the beginning been at the forefront of Irish nationalism, both before and since independence. It was long notorious for its bans on its members playing “foreign” (ie British) games and its facilities being used for the same and, most notably, for a ban on British servicemen or Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers playing its sports. In 2014 the GAA has mellowed somewhat, with hurling and Gaelic football being carried for the first time by that quintessential example of contemporary British broadcasting, Sky. This, predictably enough, drew outcry in Ireland, though not so much on nationalistic grounds as for depriving ordinary Irish people of matches that were previously free-to-air. (Sky, in reality, has exclusivity only on a select number of championship games, with most, including the latter stages, still carried by the Irish state broadcaster RTÉ.)
Irish people have spent this summer being amused by the (mostly enthusiastic) reactions of British viewers to the sports, which, to the uninitiated, must look like insanely violent free-for-alls. Gaelic games may not be loved by everyone in Ireland but there is a national pride in the fact that the sports are played by amateurs (still the case today though in recent years players have been allowed to benefit from endorsements). It is an Irish cliché to say it but the same players you cheered on in a championship match on a Sunday you are liable to meet in the street in your local town the next day. Unlike in other sports, players play practically their whole career with their native county, with transfers rare and hardly ever solicited. The elite level in both sports is the county one but all players must also play for a club, which are mostly organised on parish lines (here, transfers are common, with many players playing outside their home county).
Many Irish people will have known personally at least one top-level county player in their lifetime. My father and my uncle both played inter-county football for Sligo. My dad still draws about a dozen plaudits a year from people in the street for a starry performance he gave as a 20-year-old at corner-forward in the 1965 Connacht final (one of the four provincial championships through which all contenders must pass). When people of a certain age in Sligo find out who I am, they often remind me of it too. Sligo that year narrowly failed to beat the reigning All-Ireland champions Galway, who were on their way to completing a three-in-a-row and cementing their reputation as one of the greatest teams ever. Sligo gave their best and the highlight of my dad’s game was setting up a goal in the second half. The mists of time have since attributed the goal to him in the minds of well-wishers. A less glorious incident befell him a year later when he missed out on the opportunity to play at Wembley (against Cavan in a long-defunct tournament called the Cúchullain Cup) because he cut up his hand instinctively catching a falling straight razor while shaving. This was a couple of weeks before Geoff Hurst won England the World Cup at the same venue.
The Galway three-in-a-row side
Kevin Moran playing for Dublin v Kerry, 1976
The demands of the inter-county game on amateur players force many to step down, as my father did shortly after his time in the sun. Professional sport also tempts others away, such as Kevin Moran – winner of two FA Cups with Manchester United and one All-Ireland football title with Dublin – or Jim Stynes, Tadhg Kennelly and Setanta Ó hAilpín, among the many who moved to Australian Rules. Still, there are some players that manage to combine both hurling and football, and, if they are lucky to be born in the right county, they can be successful at each. Jack Lynch, Taoiseach in the 1960s and 1970s, was one of the greatest hurlers of all time, winning seven All-Irelands, and he also added one football title to that haul. The two sports, though played on identical fields and each with fifteen players, are quite different spectacles and even occupy different places in the imagination of the Irish public. Hurling is the sport revered by all – even those who profess to hate the GAA – whereas football is very much the poor relation, less dynamic, less graceful and at times more barbarous. It’s not hard to understand why hurling is so loved – its athleticism, speed and basic skill levels are frankly awesome (in the literal sense of the word). There are few things in sport as stunning as seeing a player pluck the ball from the sky, amid a sea of hurls (as the sticks are known) and then land it with unerring accuracy over the bar from seventy yards out. Hurling is also ancient, with a direct link to Cúchullain (né Setanta), the hero from Celtic mythology, who, along with George Best, shares the unique status of being the only man idolised by both Ulster Nationalists and Unionists. It is also uniquely Irish (though the Scots do have their own related version, shinty, in which handling the ball is prohibited). An Irish person eager to show the best of the country to a visitor will most likely bring them along to a hurling match.
Some classic hurling scores
Joe Canning backward handpass
The Best of DJ Carey
The reality is though that even within Ireland hurling is a regional speciality. North of a line drawn from Galway to Dublin, it is a marginal sport (one theory for this is that the ancient game survived as a team sport in the south because the farmland was better and more favourable to playing). Football, on the other hand, is played all over the country, though not, it must be said, by every community. If hurling is the Irish language – beautiful, ancient, noble, irreducibly Irish and the envy of many not proficient in it – the more widely-played football is Hiberno-English: a native twist on an international theme, less ornate but with its own considerable qualities, and in which far more Irish people are fluent. Not that the popularity of either sport suffers – TV figures for both finals will be more or less the same throughout the country.
Offaly v Kerry, 1982 All-Ireland football final
Kerry Gaelic football golden years
For all the popularity of the two sports though, the GAA is a divisive organisation. For many well-heeled rugby-supporting urbanites, who dismissively refer to it as “gah”, it is identified with flat-cap rural Ireland. Many of the soccer-playing working-class in provincial towns are also scornful of the GAA (though not in Dublin, where both its sports are big among the working class). North of the border, it is seen by Unionists as a Republican association and Protestant GAA players in Ulster are rare, despite recent cross-community efforts by the association.
A history of inflexible nationalism has also coloured the perception of the GAA (even among many of its own members). The association was founded in 1884 to help preserve Irish sports in the face of the British ones being popularised through army garrisons throughout the country. Founder Michael Cusack, a County Clare-born schoolteacher, became the basis for The Citizen in James Joyce’s Ulysses, though Joyce’s portrayal of him bordered on the libellous – Cusack, however conservative and obdurate he might have been, was no anti-semite, unlike his fictional avatar. From 1902 to 1971, its members would be banned from playing or even attending “foreign” games (soccer, rugby, hockey, cricket) and hostility to them remained among hardliners for long after that, even as many footballers or hurlers grew up playing at least one of them. A similar ban existed on those sports being played in GAA grounds until it was relaxed in 2006, opening the way for rugby and soccer at Croke Park while Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped. Both those rules were defended on the grounds of protecting Gaelic games though “The Ban” did give rise to the ridiculous scenario of GAA spies – a parish-pump Stasi, if you will – attending soccer and rugby games to catch any offending members and it generated a fair amount of needless ill feeling in small towns.
Another ban, Rule 21, was more contentious. It prohibited members of the British Army and the RUC from playing Gaelic games. The ban long predated the Troubles though it appeared to be flouted often enough without punishment by Irishmen who served in Second World War. Late however, it contributed to the perception, especially in Northern Ireland, that the GAA was arm-in-arm with the IRA, which was not entirely true though many active Republicans were members. The British Army, which made few efforts to win the hearts and minds of northern Nationalists, hardly helped things either, with a 28-year occupation of part of Crossmaglen Rangers’ GAA ground in South Armagh, and harassment of GAA fans, which included the shooting dead of Aiden McAnespie in 1988. The rule was repealed in 2001, a result of the slowly unfolding peace process.
For an organisation that was for much of its existence a conservative one, the GAA adapted quickly to the social changes of the past twenty years. The opposition to foreign games died out largely because the GAA realised that, despite the inroads soccer and rugby made in non-traditional areas, they weren’t really a threat. Gaelic games, like many other sports, got a media makeover in the 1990s and emerged all the stronger and more confident. The GAA has also done much to combat racism and sectarianism as more people of immigrant backgrounds have taken up the sport. When Cork hurling goalkeeper Dónal Óg Cusack came out as gay in 2009, he got widespread support and what homophobic chanting that existed was rapidly shouted down. Women have become increasingly involved in the games too (though hurling’s female sibling camogie has been around for decades). Another thing to be said in the GAA’s favour is that, for an Irish institution, it is a model of administrative competence and is largely untainted by corruption. The latter is all the more remarkable given its historically close ties to three institutions that have been found to be riddled with corruption – the Catholic Church, the Fianna Fáil party and the banks. Such scandals as afflict the GAA these days usually involve the moving of football games to unpopular venues or
Clare v Cork, 2013 All-Ireland hurling final replay
Donegal v Dublin, 2014 All-Ireland football semi-final
This year’s finals are, as they say, mouthwatering affairs. The hurling final will be hard-pushed to match last year’s monumental battle between Clare and Cork but it features the sport’s fiercest rivalry with Kilkenny (a record 34 titles to their name) facing neighbours and 26-time winners Tipperary. In the football, 36-time champions Kerry find themselves in the unusual position of being underdogs, facing Donegal. The Ulstermen have a mere two championships to their name but are masterminded by Jimmy McGuinness, a marginally less urbane José Mourinho, a rustic silver fox with a similar knack for mind games and tactical pragmatism. The finals for the first time will reach a UK audience wider than the Irish community and, who knows, may even be watched in the Palace itself – the Queen is believed to have taken a liking to hurling. The GAA has indeed come a long way.
*For the purposes of this piece, “football” is Gaelic football and “soccer” is the international sport. People in Ireland use “football”, “soccer” and “Gaelic” interchangeably depending on the context and it’s generally clear which one they’re talking about. Few get animated by the asinine “it’s football, not soccer” debate.