Sports

Gaelic Football: A Uniquely Irish Sport

Imagine a sport with the high scoring of basketball, the finesse of soccer, and the physicality of rugby. If you’ve ever travelled to Ireland, and more specifically, if you’ve spent any times in Irish pubs (when in Rome, am I right?), you’ll know that while the Irish enjoy many sports, the national pride and easily the most celebrated amateur sport is Gaelic Football—also known as just Gaelic, or GAA.

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day we break down the the Emerald Isle’s very own game of football—from the best teams, stars of the game, a little history of the sport, basic rules, and where to watch.

A BRIEF HISTORY

Versions of football games in Ireland were played as early as the 14th century. However, In its current iteration, Gaelic football dates to the late 19th century. This current iteration was solidified with the GAA Rules of 1887—rules still largely adhered to today.

Throughout history, the sport has both divided and united. Due to its uniqueness to Ireland, Gaelic football served as a point of national pride, another way to distinguish Ireland’s culture from that of Britain’s. During the Anglo-Irish War, the GAA passed strict rules decreeing referees to only speak in Irish Gaelic.  

Today, Gaelic Football is still mostly played in Ireland, but enthusiasm for the sport has spread to the U.K., the US, and as far as Australia. By far the two biggest days in the GAA calendar are the All-Ireland finals in hurling and football. A sell-out attendance of 82,300 is guaranteed in Croke Park and the quest for tickets is intense as Ireland’s top counties do battle for the right to be All-Ireland champions. The finals are broadcast around the world.

FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME

Despite its extreme popularity in Ireland, one of the more interesting things that remains about this sport is that it is an amateur sport. Players aren’t compensated financially like in other pro sports. Players usually have other jobs, and their dedication to the sport is without monetary incentive. With some of the high-profile trade deals going around in all professional sports these days, some find it refreshing that Gaelic football remains untainted by financial compensation. 

BEST AND BRIGHTEST

Historically, the stars of GAA would be Kerry GAA. This football team has the most All-Ireland Senior Football Championships—the Irish Super Bowl of GAA, if you will) of any team in Ireland—a whopping 37 titles. The Kerry teams of the 1970s and 1980s were considered to be the greatest in the history of Gaelic Football. 

Kerry’s David Moran and Michael Cassidy of Tyrone. Photo by INPHO

An honorable mention, however, goes to Dublin GAA for their utter dominance displayed in the 2010s. It has won 30 All-Ireland Senior Football Championships, including an unprecedented six consecutive titles from 2015-2020. 

Jonny Cooper and John Small of Dublin. The GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin, December 19, 2020. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Of course, we’d be remiss to leave out the reigning All-Ireland Senior Football Champs, Tyrone GAA. Having won the title in 2021, they finally changed up the monotony of the dynasty that was Dublin GAA for the first time in six years. They defeated Mayo GAA 20 to 15 in the championship—the first ever time these two teams had met in an All-Ireland final.

Sean Cavanagh. Photo by INPHO

STARS OF THE GAME

David Clifford

The most promising young talent in all the GAA plays for Kerry. Though he has yet to win an All-Ireland title, at the age of only 23, this corner-forward has already created a lot of buzz winning three Munster titles, two Kerry titles, and two NFL (not the American NFL) titles.

David Clifford and Jonny Cooper. Photo by INPHO

Brian Fenton

A more established player, this midfielder possibly has the most ludicrous statistic of any GAA player ever, having never lost an All-Ireland Championship game he’s played in—and the lad has played in six of them! This Dublin star was the GAA All Star Footballer of the Year in both 2018 and 2020.

Brian Fenton. Dublin vs. Meath, Leinster final. Photo Courtesy of Sky Sports

WHERE AND WHEN TO WATCH

You can now not only watch live Gaelic Football matches in the US, but any GAA sport on GAAGO.ie. The GAAGO application is also now available on Roku devices in the USA. Keep in mind, if you’re watching live, much like Premier League soccer, you’ll be doing so earlier in the morning or afternoon due to the time difference, as most matches are played in the evening.

GENERAL RULES

As with all great games, there must be rules and regulations. Out of all comparisons, this Irish sport is most akin to rugby and soccer, but even then, it remains unique when it comes to its rules. 

THE FIELD

Firstly, the field is fitted mostly like a soccer pitch, but instead of just two netted goals on either side, a Gaelic football pitch also has two large upright posts atop either side of each goal. This means, as one may have guessed, that there are two ways of scoring: points and goals. 

  1. A point (worth 1 point) is achieved when the ball is kicked between the two goal posts, like a field goal in American football.
  2. A goal (worth 3 points) is achieved when the ball is punched or kicked through the netted goal, like in soccer.

TEAMS

Teams are composed of fifteen players each: one goalkeeper, six backs, two midfielders, and six forwards. 

MOVEMENT

Movement on the field is through carrying, dribbling, and passing the ball, but players can only move four steps before having to either dribble the ball on the ground once or kicking it back to themselves (this is referred to as “solo-ing”). Players cannot dribble the ball on the ground twice in a row.

TACKLING

Players must only make a play on the ball. However, a player can make full-body contact with an opposing player as long as it is deemed that he or she has made a play for the ball, and not the opposing player. 

PASSING

When it comes to passing, players must hold the ball in one hand, and strike the ball with the other. One cannot throw the ball to another teammate with both hands as in rugby.

DURATION

The game is played for two 35-minute halves (or two 30-minute halves if you’re playing in the 21-and-under division), and the team with the most points wins. Draws are settled with extra time, or else the match will be replayed to reach a definite conclusion.