Gaelic football

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A fifteen-a-side outdoor ball game played throughout the island of Ireland by male teams who combine the skills of handling, passing, catching, bouncing (or hopping), carrying, and kicking the ball, with the intent of scoring goals by propelling the ball between two posts, under a crossbar for three points, over it for one point. The sport is unusual for the range of skills that players can exhibit, defying the highly specialist division of labour that has come to characterize sport performance at the highest level. In this, it shares characteristics with Australian Rules football. Rough and less organized forms of the game were played in pre-modern Ireland as early as the 16th century, and a six-a-side match was documented in mock epic format by the poet Matthew Concanen (1701–49) in his A Match at Football: A Poem in Three Cantos. The game was rough and violent, as the approach of one player (Terence, satirically described as ‘gentle’) to an opponent (Swain) testifies: ‘A Dextrous Crook about his leg he wound, / And laid the Champion Grov'ling on the ground’ (lines 85–6). Forms of the sport played in the later 18th and early 19th centuries involved much brawling, in unbounded limits between villages as well as on prescribed, marked pitches (where there could be more than thirty players per side).

It was in 1884 that, stimulated by the growth of the nationalist movement, the sport was codified and, under the guidance of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), transformed into a distinctive Irish cultural form, lowering the numbers on each side to 21, and introducing rules to curb excessive violence that could occur during tackling and wrestling. An All-Ireland Championship was first staged in 1887. During the 1890s, numbers were further reduced to 17 per side, and then 15 per side in 1913. In 1926, after Irish partition (1920), provincial and national leagues were instituted, with finals played at Croke Park, Dublin, in the Republic of Ireland. Gaelic footballers continued to play for the county sides of their birth, so that the sport provided a strong sense of continuity of regional culture as well as a symbolic cultural recognition of the integration of the whole of the island in a distinctively Irish practice and heritage (what Thomas Croke had called ‘football kicking, according to Irish rules’ in his 1884 letter to the Irish Republican brotherhood's Michael Cusack, who had been briefed to use the revival of traditional Irish sports as a tool of nationalist cultural politics, and became general secretary to the GAA). The sport championed most by Cusack was hurling, but Gaelic football was successfully promoted to become one of the top spectator sports in Ireland, regularly attracting capacity crowds of more than 80,000 to All Ireland Finals at Croke Park in the early years of the 21st century.

http://www.gaa.ie/ The official website of the Gaelic Athletic Association, including archives and its oral history project.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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