A Beginner’s guide to the GAA: An Outsider’s Perspective
“The GAA was formed in Hayes Hotel in Thurles, Tipperary in 1884, but it’s history goes way beyond that.” This is what a sports fan would tell you. It can be hard to escape sports on games nights in Ireland; whether it’s football or rugby, there are proud supporters everywhere cheering for their town, wearing their team’s colors and the GAA logo. If you are not even sure what those three letters stand for, then this article is for you!
Not a sports fan? Don’t be discouraged, neither am I. I enjoy the occasional French national team game, but I wouldn’t go outside wearing some city’s emblems on my face. I have often heard that sports gather people together. Sure, we sometimes hear about extremes, like supporters fighting the other supporters in the streets or even the stadiums, but for most people a game is the occasion to see some friends, meet some people and share a good time.
The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), or Cumann Lúthchleas Gael in Irish, is a sporting association that promotes Gaelic games and culture. The GAA incorporates Gaelic football, hurling and Gaelic handball, as well as lesser known sports such as international rules football and shinty hurling.
The GAA often face many critics, from money management to the lack of diversity in the teams. However, what surprised me the most was when I realised that Handball is the only sport played by women which comes under the jurisdiction of the GAA – Camogie and Ladies Gaelic Football have their own association. A voluntary omission from the GAA or a will from the women to disassociate from the GAA? No matter the reason, for an association whose motto is “where we all belong”, we can only hope that things are being done to gather all the Gaelic players together.
The GAA’s history
The history of the GAA is deeply connected to the history of Ireland. Indeed, after the Great Famine of 1845 – 1849, many Irish had left their homeland. The country had lost its national unity and was on the verge of losing its long heritage, so the Gaelic revival movement was born to bring back the Irish language as well as Irish traditions and sports, which led to the GAA’s foundation.
The GAA was founded November 1, 1884 in Thurles by seven members. However, the story of its creation starts a few years before with Michael Cusack.
Michael Cusack was a teacher who believed in the revival of the Gaelic culture, which had suffered during the British occupation. He wanted to bring back Irish customs and preserve the language to recreate an Irish identity and bring the Irish nation back together.
Cusack, based in Dublin, turned his attention to indigenous Irish sports in the early 1880s. He started the Cusack’s Academy Hurling Club in 1883 as part of his own Civil Service Academy, which then became the Metropolitan Hurling Club. In 1884, a game against Killiomor highlighted the need for standardisation, as the teams were playing different rules.
Based on this idea, the GAA was created on Samhain day, November 1st 1884. Soon after, it received backing from prominent figures and organisations, as well as the interest of the citizens. Most of the founding members were part of other Gaelic preservation associations, like the Gaelic Union. The GAA was only a part of the nation wide efforts to bring Ireland back and preserve the culture.
In 1886, the county committees were established. Their role was to divide Ireland in counties that would have different teams and play against each other. The almost same counties are still used to this day, and have grown to include London, New York, and many more.
The GAA played a key role in the Irish War of Independence. In 1920, 12 spectators and players were killed in a raid during a match in Dublin’s Croke Park as a repercussion of the IRA’s (Irish Republican Army) assassination of 12 British military. This event is known as Bloody Sunday. A ceasefire began in July 1921, and a treaty was signed in December of the same year. The Irish Free State was created the next year.
To the untrained eye, Gaelic football, Peil Ghaelach in Irish, looks like the forbidden child of rugby and football (or soccer for the suckers). Two teams of 15 players each (one goalkeeper, six backs, two midfielders, six forwards), a rectangle grass pitch, and a ball that changes hands more often that we heard “Covid” in 2020: if this isn’t a twisted mix of both sports, then I don’t know anything about sports.
Undeniably, I don’t know anything about sports, and Gaelic football is actually a bit more complicated than it looks. First rule to know: the players cannot take more than four steps with the ball. After four steps, they have to pass it or bounce it on the grass or their feet. So, unlike rugby, the other teams have plenty of openings to get the ball back and start running in the other direction.
Once a player is close to the other team’s goals, he can try to score by kicking or punching the ball. The goals are, again, a mix of football and rugby: a football goal cage and two rugby poles at 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) above the ground.
If the ball goes through the goals, the team gets 3 points. If it goes above the cage and between the poles, the team gets 1 point.
Gaelic football is one the last strictly amateur sports in the world. The first reference to football in Ireland dates from 1308. Different forms of the game we know now were played around Ireland for centuries, until the GAA created a set book of rules to allow teams to play fairly. To this day, Gaelic football is still the most popular sport in Ireland, with around 80,000 people every year attending the finals in Dublin.
Gaelic football and Australian rules football created a hybrid sport between the two: international rules football. Matches have been held regularly between the two nations since 1984.
Hurling is one of the oldest games played with a ball and stick. In fact, the game has been popular for 3000 years in Ireland. Most cultures have some sort of cross and ball game in their history. A representation of the sport was found on a tombstone in Egypt, dated from 2000 B.C.
Hurling is often compared or mistaken with lacrosse and field hockey. Even though those sports are similar, they all have different rules and use different sticks. Hurling is played on the biggest field (90m x 145m) and has a goal post close to Gaelic football with a cage and poles. A game lasts 70 minutes and each team has 15 players.
In the old legends of Ireland, hurling was seen as a martial art and a demonstration of battle skills. The Brehon Law, the old law of Ireland, made it illegal to deliberately strike someone with a hurley – the cross/stick used to play.
The game was outlawed in the 12th century after the occupation of the Normans – but it survived. Hurling almost died out during the Great Famine and was brought back thanks to the creation of the GAA. In the years before the creation of the GAA, hurling was popular within the upper classes of the population, with clubs among the gentry. The Irish Hurley Union was founded in Trinity College. It was exclusively an upper-class preserve. The GAA opened the game back to the rest of the population.
Gaelic handball first appeared in Scotland, then in Galway, where it was written in the laws that it was forbidden to hit the ball against town’s building.
Playing Gaelic handball sounds easy: all you need is a ball and a wall. The player hit the ball against the front wall without it touching the ground. His opponent must return the ball after a maximum of one bounce on the ground. If the principle is the same as squash, the main difference is that in squash, players use a racket, while handball is played with your hands. However, Gaelic handball is close to its american counterpart and both countries often play against each other.
Gaelic handball was included in the GAA at its creation, then the Irish Handball Council was established in 1924. The Irish Handball Council was later rebranded as the GAA Irish Handball Council.
In 1970, Comhairle Liathróid Láimhe na mBan was created to administer the sport for women players, and handball for both sexes was included in the National Community Games. Later on, both sports were amalgamated then put under GAA Handball.
For the longest time, and sometimes still to this day, Gaelic football is considered a “man’s game” for its brutality and physical demand. However, many women teams around the country are playing Gaelic football, and thriving.
In the 1960s, women wanted to be more than housewives. The society was changing, and so were women. Soon, women started to play Gaelic football – it was their time to claim back their heritage. People were looking for something new, so women’s gaelic football games were organized. It was mostly supported by the youth, and often considered an “attraction” more than a sport. However, the first “finals” were covered by a newspaper.
In 1970, a few official clubs were formed, and in 1974, the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA) was founded at the exact same place as the GAA, many years before. Rules were set: they were similar to the GAA ones, as well as the camogie’s rules.
After a year, the novelty of the sport wore off, but it was only the beginning. More and more counties joined, teams were created, and every year, a tournament is held. In 2016, the brand Lidl signed a sponsorship with the LGFA of €1.5milion, making it the highest sponsorship ever for the association. The brand created a large marketing campaign to promote women in sport and women’s Gaelic football.
Camogie, camógaíocht in Irish, is the feminine equivalent of hurling. Unlike women’s Gaelic football, camogie was quickly accepted in the Irish society and not as frowned upon as by men at its beginning. The Camogie Association was founded in 1904. It is very similar to hurling, but less physical. Shouldering is not permitted and a game lasts 60 minutes instead of 70.
The Women Gaelic Players Association (WGPA) was launched in 2015 to represent the interest of all women Gaelic players. However, why is it an issue that women’s teams are not in the GAA? Because the GAA is a powerful organisation with lots of coverage, sponsorship and opportunities. Women’s sport can be a vicious circle: sponsors don’t want to invest because of the lack of audience and popularity, but because they have less sponsors, they cannot play in big arenas with a bigger crowd, then cannot gain popularity and interest.
Things are changing, as are societies. Yet, more often than not, men’s teams make the headlines where women’s teams barely have a picture in the sport section. It should be a team effort, from newspaper, to TV coverage, to P.E. teachers encouraging young girls to try out, and shaping young men’s minds to remember that throwing like a girl should not be an insult.
Everyone needs heros, and young children often look up to athletes to make them dream. They want to go faster, further, higher and win. That drives to succeed and to shake things up will bring them places, but it starts with representations. When there are no women in the news, no women’s teams on the TV, it can be hard to identify with those amazing athletes.
Plus, the GAA has a rich history of pushing boundaries. It was created to fight for the Irish culture and traditions. It should be time for women to be a part of it, and add to the story. Different parties are working on a merge, but nothing is decided yet.