The History of Gaelic Football

A rough-and tumble form of Gaelic football was common throughout the middle ages, similar versions of which abounded throughout Europe and eventually became the forebears of both soccer and rugby.

Gaelic football (Irish: Peil Ghaelach; short name Peil[1] or Caid), commonly referred to as football or Gaelic,[2] is an Irish team sport. It is played between two teams of 15 players on a rectangular grass pitch. The objective of the sport is to score by kicking or punching the ball into the other team’s goals (3 points) or between two upright posts above the goals and over a crossbar 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) above the ground (1 point).

Though references to Irish Football are practically non-existent before the 1600s the earliest records of a recognised precursor to modern Gaelic football  Bardic sources provide an insight into the character of the pre-GAA games. Hurling predominates, but there are also references to football. Fragments of the ancient Brehon Laws show that hurling was regulated from at least the eighth century. After the Norman invasion of the 12th century, hurling was proscribed by the English Crown. The first record of Gaelic football is in the Statutes of Galway (1527) which allowed the playing of football but banned hurling. The earliest reported match took place at Slane, Co. Meath in 1712 when Meath played their neighbors, Louth. Foreign visitors to Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries noted that hurling and football occupied an important place in the social life of the community. At that time a team consisted of all the able-bodied men of a town or parish; the number of players on each team ranged from 25 to 100. Frequently the game started at a point midway between two towns or parishes and ended when one team had driven the ball across a boundary line into its opponent’s town or parish.

Gaelic Football can be described as a mixture of soccer and rugby, although it predates both of those games. It is a field game which has developed as a distinct game similar to the progression of Australian Rules. Indeed it is thought that Australian Rules evolved from Gaelic Football through the many thousands who were either deported or emigrated to Australia from the middle of the twentieth century.

Notwithstanding the banning in 1695 of Sunday football (and Hurling) by the Sunday Observance Act, the 17th and 18th centuries provided several detailed accounts of the playing of both codes. The blind Louth poet Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta described a football match played near Slane in the late 1600s between teams from the districts bordering the rivers Boyne and Nanny. Between 1758 and 1766, Dublin newspapers reported games at Finglas, Milltown and Drumcondra.

Football flourished in many areas in the first 40 years of the 19th century. In Kerry, the cross-country version known as caid was then popular, as it continued to be all through the century. A six-a-side version was played in Dublin in the early 18th century, and one hundred years later, there were accounts of games played between county sides.

Before the potato famine of the 1840s which proved hugely detrimental to all Irish sports, a codified game had emerged in east Munster, but the arrival of rugby union and soccer with fixed rules caught the imagination of the upper classes and native football was in danger of dying out. A particular signpost of this decline was the speed with which the schools of the middle classes adopted and promoted the newly arrived games, particularly in Dublin, Cork and Belfast. All over the country, Hurling and Gaelic football were either discreetly discouraged or openly prohibited by Government officials such as policemen and magistrates, as well as by some Catholic clergy and many landlords. The reasons given for such action varied from fear of violence and insobriety to suspicion of games being used as cover for meetings of various nationalist bodies.

From the middle of the 19th century, cricket began to rival Irish games in many areas. By the late 1860s nearly every town had its own cricket club, patronised by members of the local loyalist community and supported by the local garrison. Yet, while the forty-year period from the famine to the rise of the GAA probably saw Gaelic games nearer than ever to extinction, native games did not die. Limerick was a stronghold of the native football game around this time, and the Commercials Club, founded by employees of Cannocks’ Drapery Store, was one of the first to impose a set of rules which were adopted by other clubs in the city. Competition remained localised, with occasional friendly matches against various sides around the county. Of all the ‘National Pastimes’ which the GAA set out to promote, it is fair to say that football was in the worst shape at the time of the Association’s foundation.

In modern times, Gaelic games have formally existed since the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in the billiards room of a Tipperary hotel in 1884. There, led by visionaries Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin, the first formalised codes and cohesive organisation of the ancient Irish games were initiated, and the seeds planted for what would become Ireland’s largest sporting organisation.

The modern game of Gaelic football has evolved to a great degree from the games first codified by the Gaelic Athletic Association. The original core concept of man-on man contests for the ball within the defined framework of a positional game has been added to and eroded to varying degrees over time.

In August 1884 Micheal Cusack and Maurice Davin met a group of nationalists in Loughrea, County Galway, and outlined their plans to establish a national organization, the Gaelic Athletic Association, for Irish athletes and to revive hurling. Dr. T. W. Croke, (Archbishop of Cashel) became the first patron of the Association, and Croke Park in Dublin (the Association Headquarters) is named in his honor. The Gaelic Athletic Association is more than a sporting organization. Although it is dedicated to promoting the games of hurling, football, handball, rounders, and camogie, the Association also supports activities which enrich the culture of the nation and further Gaelic ideals, including the Irish language and Irish music and dance. The GAA endeavors to strengthen pride in the communities it serves.

The GAA is the largest sporting organization in Ireland, boasting 2,800 clubs comprising of approximately 182,000 footballers and 97,000 hurlers. Membership of the GAA exceeds 800,000 at home and abroad ensuring its role as a powerful national movement with an important social and cultural influence in Irish life.

The players are all amateurs, and so are playing for “the glory of the parish pump”. Games are organized along age group levels. Players are classed as juvenile up to 16, minor up till 18, and Senior from there on up. Additionally under 21 games are organized at an inter-county level, in order to give younger players regular games throughout the season. There are two other groupings, junior and intermediate but these are based on skill rather than age. As well as this, the games are played at schools and colleges levels at varying standards, which at college level, oft times rival inter county under 21 standards.

During the summer months, the All-Ireland championships takes place. It is the dream of every player in the country to win an All-Ireland medal for his county. This is seen by all as the ultimate goal. The championships are first played province by province. Each of the four provincial champions then play in All-Ireland semi-finals, and the subsequent winners in the All-Ireland final.

Gaelic Football is played on a pitch approximately 137m long and 82m wide. The goalposts are the same shape as on a rugby pitch, with the crossbar lower than a rugby one and slightly higher than a soccer one. The ball used in Gaelic Football is round, slightly smaller than a soccer ball. It can be carried in the hand for a distance of four steps and can be kicked or “hand-passed”, a striking motion with the hand or fist. After every four steps the ball must be either bounced or “solo-ed”, an action of dropping the ball onto the foot and kicking it back into the hand. When played by men, the ball may not be picked directly from the ground. You may not bounce the ball twice in a row. To score, you put the ball over the crossbar by foot or handfist for one point or under the crossbar and into the net by foot or the handfist in certain circumstances for a goal, the latter being the equivalent of three points. Physical contact is allowed, shoulder to shoulder.

Each team consists of fifteen players, lining out as follows: One goalkeeper, three full-backs, three half-backs, two midfielders, three half-forwards and three full-forwards. Players advance the football, a spherical leather ball, up the field with a combination of carrying, bouncing, kicking, hand-passing, and soloing (dropping the ball and then toe-kicking the ball upward into the hands). In the game, two types of scores are possible: points and goals. A point is awarded for kicking or hand-passing the ball over the crossbar, signalled by the umpire raising a white flag. A goal is awarded for kicking the ball under the crossbar into the net, signalled by the umpire raising a green flag. Positions in Gaelic football are similar to that in other football codes, and comprise one goalkeeper, six backs, two midfielders, and six forwards, with a variable number of substitutes.

Gaelic football is one of four sports (collectively referred to as the “Gaelic games“) controlled by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), the largest sporting organisation in Ireland. Along with hurling and camogie, Gaelic football is one of the few remaining strictly amateur sports in the world, with players, coaches, and managers prohibited from receiving any form of payment. Gaelic football is mainly played on the island of Ireland, although units of the Association exist in other areas such as Great Britain, North America and Australia.

Gaelic football is the most popular sport in Ireland in terms of attendance, and the final of the All-Ireland Senior Championship, held annually at Croke Park, Dublin, draws crowds of more than 80,000 people. Outside Ireland, football is mainly played among members of the Irish diaspora. Gaelic Park in New York City is the largest purpose-built Gaelic sports venue outside Ireland. Three major football competitions operate throughout the year: the National Football League and the All-Ireland Senior Championship operate on an inter-county basis, while the All-Ireland Club Championship is contested by individual clubs. The All-Ireland Senior Championship is considered the most prestigious event in Gaelic football.

Under the auspices of the GAA, Gaelic football is a male-only sport; however, the related sport of ladies’ Gaelic football is governed by the Ladies’ Gaelic Football Association. Similarities between Gaelic football and Australian rules football have allowed the development of international rules football, a hybrid sport, and a series of Test matches has been held regularly since 1998.

The physical conditioning of the modern player has allowed him to move quickly into space to gain possession of the ball, in many cases uncontested, while a focus on maintaining possession has resulted in the movement of the ball in a more designed manner, giving clear advantage to a team mate. This latter trend has also resulted in the reduction in frequency of use of many of the less controllable skills of both games, for example, the drop kick in Gaelic football, as the use of these may often lead to a more equal contest or the loss of possession altogether. The focus on maintaining possession once you have it has antagonistically resulted in the adoption of defensive tactics designed to concentrate players in front of the scoring area or around the ball when not in possession.

While there is much debate about the value of such tactics to the games, modern coaches seek to position their players against opponents they perceive to have advantages over – whether in the contest or once in possession – maintaining the dramatic combat or duel concept of the games. All the while tactical innovation is sought from far and wide to overcome those of their opponents, and improve their team’s chances of winning.

The highest attendance ever recorded at an All-Ireland Senior Football Final was 90,556 at the 1961 Down vs Offaly final. Following the introduction of seating to the Cusack stand in 1966, the largest crowd recorded since has been reduced to 73,588. When the current development to Croke Park is finished the capacity will be 79,500.

The highest number of appearances in the All-Ireland Senior Football final is 10. This has been achieved by Paudie O’Shea, Pat Spillane and Denis ‘Ogie’ Moran. They were winners on no less than eight occasions with Kerry.

The highest individual score in the modern 70-minute game was recorded by Jimmy Keaveney (Dublin) in the 1977 Final against Armagh where he scored two goals and six points (12 points), and by Mike Sheehy (Kerry) in the 1979 Final against Dublin where he also recorded 2-6.