The vast majority of you have most likely never heard about this game, a sport that mixes football, rugby, and handball at the same time. Is it possible, even? Yes, it does, and it’s called Gaelic Football indeed. But, before I tell you more about this pure concentration of adrenaline and thrill, I suggest you watch this video.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? When I first discovered it, I was doing a study trip in Ireland, and I remember that one day, with my group, we planned to visit Croke Park, the 3rd biggest stadium in Europe, with a capacity of 82,300 spectators: having the opportunity to entirely see it, from the bleachers to the locker rooms, we touched with our hands the value given to this place, and how Irish people care about their traditional sports. This might surprise you, but the curious thing (there are actually historical and cultural reasons behind) is that in this stadium only Gaelic games can be played: the most popular one is indeed Gaelic Football, played since 1884.
Gaelic Football has its roots back in the 17th century, when the Irish upper class started to finance this already widespread – and sometimes even banned – game and to create the first teams, especially in Kerry, a county located in the South-Western part of the Emerald Isle. Actually, the native place of this game is the town of Limerick, in the province of Munster, where the “Commercials Club”, a team of employees of a drapery store, started to draft the first rules. However, to have a detailed codification we have to wait until 1887, with the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). This association still officially organizes the different competitions nowadays, among which the most important one is the All Ireland Senior Championship, where all the top inter-county teams of the country participate one against the other, and challenge in games of 70 minutes each, where emotions and enthusiasm are never missing, from the Provincial Championship until the Final, played in Dublin in the month of September: goals, tricks, tackles are just a small part of what really is behind this amazing sport. Just to give you a taste, this is what happened last year, when the team of the capital city defeated the one from Tyrone, Northern Ireland.
But what I would like to focus on now, as also reported in the title, is the magic behind this game, and I would like to do it describing how it feels to stay in Dublin in the few days before the final match, the last battle that decides everything. The streets are full of colors, crawling with flags and banners of the contesting teams, people run everywhere and in the pubs it’s possible to spot the supporters of different “faiths” drinking and singing all together. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to watch the match, but as some of the people that I met there told me, it’s something unique and magical. Generally speaking, Gaelic Football is really different, in the mentality, from all other sports: unlike what happens in most of them, where nowadays professional players earn tons of money, Gaelic Football athletes play for free, and spend their entire career in the team of their county. Yes, you perfectly understood: there are no transfers and it is accessible to everybody, and that’s why this game is so deeply rooted into the Irish culture. Every Irish child dreams to play one day with his idols, and even if you were not born in a big city like Dublin, Cork or Galway, you can invest on your young players and maybe manage to win the trophy, as it happened to Armagh (a county in Ulster whose capital town counts less than 15,000 inhabitants) in 2002. Moreover, it’s faithfully followed by most of the population, and it’s an occasion for them to gather and support all together their favorite team, and even amalgamating with the ones of the other team, creating a strong sense of belonging, not only towards their region, but – above all – towards their country.
The feeling of national belonging is something especially important for the Irish people, as they didn’t have the opportunity to always show it in the past: we don’t have to forget that Ireland was controlled for a long time by the English crown, and proclaimed its independence from the United Kingdom only in 1916. Even in the years immediately after the Declaration (January 1919, exactly 100 years ago), Ireland had to face two cruel wars: the War of Independence (or Anglo-Irish War), from 1919 until 1921, which established the birth of the Irish Free State; and the Civil War (1922-1923), broken out after the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921), and fought between the two factions of the Irish Republican Army (Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty), with the victory of the former. Moreover, it happened, during this period, something that changed forever the destiny of the country, and of Gaelic Football as well: the military assault of the British against the Irish population on 21st November 1920, during a match being held at Croke Park, and that caused 12 victims. This is a scene taken from the movie “Michael Collins”, that describes what happened that so-called “Bloody” Sunday.
Since that time, British sports such as rugby and football were forbidden to be played in that stadium, as it is also today. The Bloody Sunday is still remembered by the Irish population as one of the worst tragedies ever happened, especially because the victims were civilians: people who just went to the stadium to assist to a match and have fun with their friends and families. In the photo below, the article published the day after on a newspaper.
Now we can understand a lot of things about Ireland and its population: a country that always had to fight to be recognized as such, and people who see in their traditions the best way to express their belonging to a unique community.
Gaelic Football contributed a lot to this and its presence is still a strong component of the Irish culture. And, yet, there is still somebody who says that it’s nothing more than a game…