Irish Sport: Gaelic Games Thrive on the Emerald Isle


Let’s face it: we all need a distraction from the Mets’ free fall into 2012 irrelevance. So how about I show you what I’ve been up to the last few weeks?

From June 7 to July 21 I was overseas for a study abroad program in Dublin, Ireland. When I came back I wanted to find out whether baseball had any relevance to the Irish and do a piece on that. That was my mindset going over to the Emerald Isle, but what I experienced was something I never would have expected. Dare I say it, even without baseball, sport in Ireland is Amazin’.

As you might expect, much like most other European nations, Ireland does not put much stock into American baseball. The extent to my finding the Mets’ appeal was meeting a fan from Long Island named Jerry in Temple Bar and a guy in a pub who looked kind of like R.A. Dickey. Aside from that, I saw a few Braves hats, some White Sox garb…and way too many hats with the other “NY” insignia on it. At least half the baseball caps I saw all over Ireland were those of the Yankee variety. Unfortunately, due to that team’s historic success, wearing a Yankee cap is considered a fashion statement. I’ll bet not even a quarter of the Irishmen sporting that cringe-worthy logo really know about the team that bares it. The most pleasant experience involving our national pastime I had in a pub in Galway. I met a Nationals fan and a Braves fan (he was tickled at my initial reaction: “Chipper Jones just murders us!”), and we talked baseball for a while over a hurling match on TV (much more on that sport later).

Just like America has four major sports (baseball, football, basketball, hockey), Ireland makes due with four major sports of its own. The first two are the more obvious of the bunch: soccer and rugby. During the first two weeks when I was there, the Irish national soccer team played in the Euro 2012 tournament, their first UEFA appearance since 1988. Despite the boys in green being the worst side in the whole tourney (outscored 9-1 in three matches), the atmosphere at pubs around Dublin was, as you can imagine, top-notch. Rugby is probably the fourth sport of four, on the same level as hockey in America. I didn’t spend too much time immersed in that game, but I did take away that the teams who compete for the Irish national rugby championship are organized by the four provinces: Leinster in the east, Ulster in the north, Munster in the south, and Connacht in the west.

While these two sports are quite popular on the Isle, they are seen by some as “Englishmen’s games” and take a backseat to the true national pastimes.

“Basketball on Grass”

Ireland’s two biggest sports are Gaelic football and hurling. Both are governed by the same body, the Gaelic Athletic Association, which also oversees the women’s versions of both sports (women’s hurling is called camogie) and more minor traditional sports such as handball and rounders. For national tournaments, teams are organized by county (kind of like States in the U.S.). There are 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland and six counties in British-ruled Northern Ireland. Despite the North’s political separation from the rest of the Isle, the GAA has as much presence in each of those counties as it does in the Republic. The 32 counties draw talent from their various parishes, each of which has a GAA club. County-wide teams compete within their four provinces (Leinster, Ulster, Munster, Connacht), with provincial champions and a few “wild cards” competing in the All-Ireland Final, which is played out at the Senior (major) and Minor levels.

Gaelic football is the reason why the Irish, like Americans, call soccer “soccer.” It is an exciting combination of soccer, American football, rugby, and even basketball. Players may advance the ball by carrying it, tossing it, kicking it across the pitch, kicking it to themselves as a sort of dribbling, and even actually dribbling it. Now, I grew up around Purdue football when Joe Tiller and Drew Brees were running the “basketball on grass” spread offense, but this sport is closer to that concept than Coach Tiller could have ever imagined.

A Warrior’s Game

Hurling is one of the world’s ancient sports, dating back thousands of years in Ireland’s history. In its earliest days it was used as a training exercise for warriors but eventually developed into the sport’s modern-day form. Called the “fastest game on grass,” hurling is a lightning-quick combination of baseball, lacrosse, and hockey. Players may use their hands or their sticks, known as hurls or hurleys, to advance the ball, known as the sliotar. A player advances the sliotar by either: balancing it on his hurl as he runs across the pitch; tossing it up in the air and batting it with his hurl; or even carrying it for five steps, after which he must either bounce it off his hurl back to his hand or toss it off to a teammate. Airborne sliotars may be caught by the player’s hands, which have no gloves, or corralled by the player’s hurl, which has no net. Like lacrosse, it is a full-contact sport. Unlike lacrosse, the only sort of protection a player must wear is a helmet, and even this was not mandatory in the GAA until 2010. With a sport like this, I suppose it is understandable why a relatively “tame” game such as baseball has failed to take off in Ireland.

For all of Gaelic football and hurling’s differences, they actually operate under very similar rules. The size and makeup of the pitch is identical in both sports. Each squad may field 15 men, including one goalkeeper. Each regulation match lasts 70 minutes, with stoppage time added on at the end of two 35-minute halves. Even the scoring systems are the same across both sports. At opposite ends of the pitch stand both nets and a set of upright goalposts. Sending the ball through the uprights counts for one point, while scoring a goal in the net counts for three points. Finally, players may not score by directly throwing the ball into the net: hurlers may score by batting the sliotar with their hurls, while footballers may score by either kicking the ball, heading it, or even punching it.

GAA athletes compete only for the county they were born in. There are no such things as free agency or trades (concepts that completely fascinated my Irish Literature professor). Even current living situations of athletes cannot be taken into account. This means a Cork-born hurler living and working in County Kerry may not compete for Kerry’s hurling team; he must travel back to County Cork and compete on Cork’s team. Fortunately, the entire Isle is just about the size of the State of Indiana, so while a train ticket may be relatively expensive, at least he won’t be suffering from jet lag when he gets on to the pitch.

All GAA athletes are amateurs; they are not paid to play Gaelic football or hurling. This means they must find day jobs and must be able to get off work in order to compete on match days. This is especially problematic for said Cork-born hurler living in Kerry; if the two sides meet, there’s a chance his employer will make him work that weekend.

While every county competes in every GAA sport, they each tend to specialize, with their best athletes choosing to play either one sport or the other. This results in counties being known as either a “football county” or a “hurling county,” rarely both. Another consequence is that the strongest counties in each sport tend to dominate the All-Irelands year after year.

The Yankees on the Gaelic football side include defending champions Dublin, who won last year’s dramatic Senior Football Final 1-12 (goals-points) to 1-11 over Kerry. “The Dubs” have won 23 football championships, second all-time to Kerry, who have won a staggering 36 titles. In a distant third place is County Galway, which has won nine All-Irelands, followed by Counties Cork and Meath with seven each.

Hurling is even more top-heavy than football, with Kilkenny (33), Cork (30), and Tipperary (26) combining to win 89 of the 124 Senior Hurling Finals. At a distant fourth is County Limerick with seven, then Dublin and Wexford with six apiece. Defending champions are Kilkenny, who beat Tipperary 2-17 to 1-16 last season for their eighth title in the past 12 years, including five of the last six.

Up the Dubs

While in Ireland, I was able to experience both of these foreign yet easily learnable sports. I attended a Gaelic football match between Leinster sides Dublin and Wexford in Dublin’s Croke Park one Sunday afternoon, with the Dubs coming out on top in a thriller. The next Sunday I was back there again for a hurling match in which surprising Galway defeated juggernaut Kilkenny. The trip to the football match was organized by my study abroad program; they chose to get tickets to football over hurling because they felt it was easier for beginners to watch. I’d have to agree with that sentiment. A football is much easier to follow than a tiny sliotar, and football, while still moving very fast, is not nearly as wickedly fast as hurling. There were times that my untrained eye missed a sliotar flying all the way across the pitch and one of my flatmates had to point it out for me. That being said, while I had a lot of fun with all my American friends at the Gaelic football match, I came away from both experiences enjoying hurling the most. I can imagine that’s not entirely unexpected considering what kind of blog this piece appears on.

A word about the magnificent venue both of these matches were staged in. Croke Park in Dublin is the national stadium of Ireland. It plays host to the All-Ireland Finals of Gaelic football and hurling, and up until recently only GAA sports were allowed to be played there. Recent renovations have been able to increase seating capacity to 82,300, making it one of the largest stadiums in the world. The original building is about the same age as Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, and much like most everything else in Irish society, it has some tragic revolutionary history attached to it. The standing-room only grandstands at one end of the pitch are built on Hill 16, a hill made of the biggest chunks of rubble from the failed 1916 Easter Rising. During the Irish War for Independence in 1920, Croke Park was the sight of the original Irish massacre known as “Bloody Sunday,” when pro-British forces killed 13 spectators and one footballer, Tipperary’s Michael Hogan, as retaliation for the earlier execution of 14 British spies by the Irish Republican Army.

I learned most of that during one of my final acts abroad: one of my last full days there I took a tour of Croke Park. I got to see the bowels of the stadium, the players’ lounge and locker rooms, skyboxes, and I even went down to pitch-level (never on the grass, of course). It was there I discovered one of the most unexpected hidden gems in the entire city of Dublin. It was there I found Irish Cooperstown.

Irish Cooperstown

The GAA Museum is located at Croke Park, and anyone who’s ever been to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York will understand the hallowed atmosphere of such a place. On display were the histories of the Gaelic games: everything from their humble origins to rustic trophies to the medals of the most famous athletes of each sport. Upstairs detailed everything from the historic rivalries to finer rules of the game (turns out in the event of a tie a whole match must be replayed). There were also interactive displays in which young kids could show off their skills with a football or a hurly and sliotar. I’m sorry to say that at target practice I was out-hurled by an 11-year-old girl. But hey, I was a mere tourist and she had been growing up around those sports her whole life. I would’ve been concerned if she hadn’t beaten me.

But as wondrous and awesome as those parts of the museum were, the biggest surprise was the most unexpected, and the one that brings a complete circle back to, of all things, National League baseball in New York City.

Recognize this place?

I found a display called “GAA: A Global Phenomenon,” and what’s the first thing that catches my eye? A scale model of…the Polo Grounds. It turns out that the very same stadium in which four years later my grandfather would begin rooting for Willie Mays and the New York Giants hosted the only All-Ireland Final to be played off of Irish soil: the 1947 Gaelic football championship between Cavan and Kerry. It was played there to mark the 100th anniversary of the height of the Great Famine, which forced one million emigrants to flee Ireland for places such as New York. The display taught me that thanks to these millions of Irish diaspora, Gaelic sports have put roots down in all parts of the world. Those roots are so strong in New York, in fact, that the New York GAA sends a team every year across the Atlantic Ocean to compete in the All-Ireland championships. Along with London, they are the only such non-Irish “county” in the world to do so. When you factor in jet lag, expenses, and difficulty convincing their employers to let them fly across the world to play an ancient Irish game for free, it should come as no surprise that New York teams rarely do well. But the mere fact that they are there is a testament to the strength of New York GAA.

So there’s a little taste of what dominates the sports scene in Ireland. I feel blessed to have been exposed, however little, to games so rooted in another country’s heritage. The Gaelic games truly are the Irish equivalent to America’s national pastime. And for you New York-based readers, the next time you’re looking for something to do and the Mets are off on a long road trip, perhaps you will ask around to see if there are any GAA matches going on that night. The next time I’m in the city, I know I will.

If you want to learn more about Gaelic football, hurling, or the GAA, please refer to the following links:

YouTube: Gaelic Football – The Original Beautiful Game

YouTube: Hurling – The Fastest Game on Grass

YouTube: 1947 All-Ireland Football Final in New York – Cavan v Kerry

Gaelic Athletic Association

GAA: Historical Results

Gaelic Athletic Association of Greater New York

Croke Park

GAA News: GAA – A Global Phenomenon

You can follow me on Twitter @MidwesternMet and at my own Mets blog of the same name. Thanks for reading, have a nice day, and L.G.M!