Americans, by now, understand that in Europe, soccer is called football. You’ve undoubtedly heard one of your friends or acquaintances (not you, of course, you’re too cultured for this) refer to soccer in Europe as football, but when they do, they usually put on an accent that I guess is supposed to be ‘European’ but comes off as sounding more Ecuadoran as they pronounce it fut-bol.
In Ireland, however, there is another kind of football. Not the American kind, with their pads and their helmets and their cursory attempts to care about player safety. And not soccer, with its ‘no hands’ rules, and ‘only one way to score a point’ inaneness. No, in Ireland, they play Gaelic football. What the hell is Gaelic football you ask? I’m glad you did, that’s why I’m here.
While there’s no official start date for Gaelic football, all indications are that it’s been played for at least 500-600 years. Yeah, you read that right – they’ve been playing the same sport since at least the 1600s, and probably earlier than that. There are four main ‘Irish sports’, each varying in popularity depending on the region or county you happen to be doing your site-seeing. In my County Kerry, football is King, and all others (hurling, camogie and handball) take a distant backseat.
These were mostly informal contests that attracted interest for two main reasons: gambling (side note: I’m pretty sure this is how Paddy Power was formed), and of course inter-County shit-talking. (another side note: One thing I’ve noticed about Irish sporting events is that the athletes themselves don’t do a lot of shit-talking, but the fans certainly do. I play in a weekly soccer game, all with guys in their 20s and 30s. I made what apparently is called a tackle, (I never played a second of soccer until I moved to Ireland) and immediately followed it up with a ‘Get that shit outta here!’. In classic Irish fashion, they were a bit too friendly to actively confront me about it, so it just kind of hung in the air in awkward silence as play just sort of continued.)
This continued until 1884, when the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was formed. The GAA is basically the NCAA except instead of couching their ‘we aren’t going to pay athletes while we rake in millions’ philosophy under the guise of student-athletes, they couch their ‘we aren’t going to pay athletes while we rake in millions’ philosophy under the guise of ‘tradition’ and ‘County pride’. The largest stadium in Ireland is Croke Park, which is the GAA stadium in Dublin where all of the major GAA matches are held. Just like in the US, where all of the largest stadiums are for NCAA football teams. To maintain non-profit status while raking in millions but holding steadfastly against any sort of compensation for the athletes, well, that money’s not gonna spend itself, ya know?
The GAA brought some structure and organization to the whole sport, and most importantly, made sure that the traditional Irish sports remained in place and the island wasn’t overrun with sports from the English. Today, every town in Ireland – from Dublin and Cork to the tiniest of villages – is going to have two things: a pub where you can get a nice pint and a GAA pitch.
There’s effectively a regular season, and an end-of-season tournament, which culminates in the All-Ireland final played at Croke Park. This is where it gets a bit complicated (i.e. very un-American). The All-Ireland tournament is made up of 8 teams. Four of the spots are filled by winning the ‘provincial’ championship. In order understand this, we must take a quick step back and understand how Ireland has been split up politically. Ireland is split into 32 Counties (think of these like states) – 26 in the Republic of Ireland and 6 in Northern Ireland. Now, although Northern Ireland is technically part of the UK, they still get to participate in the All-Ireland tournament. Each of the 32 Counties are also part of a larger group or region, called a province. There are 4 provinces for the whole island – Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster. 4 of the 8 spots in the final go to the champion of each of these provinces. For example, County Kerry beat County Cork in the Munster final last year, so Kerry was automatically into the All-Ireland bracket.
The other 4 spots are determined through what is effectively a play-in tournament. All the losers from the provincial games get thrown into their own bracket to determine the other 4 spots in the All-Ireland bracket. For example, last year, Mayo lost in the Connacht final, but was able to make it to the All-Ireland bracket by way of surviving the ‘qualifiers’ bracket.
Speaking of Mayo. Oh the Green and Red of Mayo. They are something like the Cleveland Browns, the pre-2004 Red Sox, the pre-2016 Chicago Cubs, or the since-time-began Iowa State Cyclones, of Gaelic Football. They haven’t won an All-Ireland final since 1951, and are treated like the little brothers of every county in Ireland. Even though they have made the past two All-Ireland finals, you get the sense when talking to people that they look at them like the three-logged dog that doesn’t know it only has three legs and is still trying to dig a hole while looking for that bone, ‘Aww, Mayo. How cute.’
And, of course, we can’t talk about Mayo without bringing up the curse. This is how you know that, while the GAA is a greedy and likely-corrupt organization, it is fully embedded within the zeitgeist of the country: there is a cursed team. The curse goes like this: after the Mayo team won the All-Ireland Final in 1951, the team bus approached a funeral procession on the way back to Ballina or Castlebar or wherever in Mayo it happened to be going. Instead of remaining behind the procession and allowing the funeral to proceed and the grievers to mourn in peace, the bus driver decided he was in a hurry and decided to pass the funeral procession. The priest did not take too kindly to this, and, as legend has it, placed a curse on the Mayo football team. The curse states that Mayo will not win another All-Ireland final until all members of that 1951 team are dead. (Third side note: I was working in North Carolina when I was 22 running a campaign office, and part of my job required me to drive our staff to different points in the city so they could set up shop and register voters. Along the way we approached what I thought were just a bunch of slow moving cars. Given that time is money, I passed the line of slow moving cars. About halfway through, the staffer sitting next to me started laughing and when i asked why, she informed me I was passing a funeral procession. I asked if I should slow down and stop but she told me, ‘It’s ok, you’re just a dumb white boy’. At least I didn’t cursed).
As curses go, it’s a pretty good one really. It’s much better than a curse because of a farm animal or because a player signed with a different team. At least this has some religious orthodoxy behind it. I’m a believer in the curse myself, because I feel like its weakening. Mayo has made the last two All-Ireland finals, while no one can quite agree (for some reason) how many people from that 1951 team are left alive (I’ve heard as many as four and as few as one), the face that they are getting closer has to mean the number is low and the curse is weakening, right? I picture an old footballer on his last legs hobbling around in some retirement community in Florida. If they made a movie about this the guy would die in some heroic manner with really dramatic last words, right as the actor playing Paddy Durcan was lining up to kick a ‘free’ to win the All-Ireland as time was expiring.
This is a good time to bring up the fact that there is no such thing as Overtime in Gaelic football. Games are played in two, 35-minute halves, with a running clock. Similar to soccer, extra time can be added to the end of each half to make up for injuries, penalties, or whatever secret formula they use to determine how many minutes to add. Unlike soccer, however, and unlike pretty much every other sport, there is no overtime, no shootouts, no sudden death. None of that. So, what happens if the score is tied at the end of the match? They do a ‘replay’. That’s right – the come back the next week (or couple of weeks) and play the whole thing all over again. Imagine the Super Bowl or College Football Championship ending in a tie, and then everyone coming back 2 weeks later and doing it all over again? That’s what happens in Gaelic football. Doesn’t matter if its a final, or semi-final, or one of the play-in games. Thousands of people (Croke Park holds over 80,000) make a return journey just a few days later to watch the same teams play the entire match over again. The GAA loves it – imagine how much money the NFL would rake in from 2 Super Bowls? I must say though, it really kills the mood at the end of matches. The All-Ireland Final in 2016 was between Mayo and Dublin. Mayo came from behind right at the end and scored a point with just a few seconds remaining. The place erupted, the players were ecstatic and full of energy. Instead of seeing that continue until a winner was crowned, a few seconds later the match ended, and everyone just sort of filed out of the stadium. I, of course, was confused as hell at first, but the whole thing was very anti-climactic. Who wants to watch a match where no winner is determined?
Determining a winner, of course, depends on how score is kept. And in Gaelic football, score is not kept the way you think it is. That is, it’s not kept the way scores in other sports are kept – a running total. Even in golf, where the lowest score wins, it’s a running total of who has the lowest score. In Gaelic football, you must do math to determine the winner.
Before we get into the scoring, let’s take a step back and look at the actual gameplay. Gaelic football is played on a field (or a pitch, as the locals say), with varying dimensions. It’s basically a giant football field – complete with uprights at either end. The uprights are slightly narrower than your typical football uprights, and also are what I’m going to call, ‘high-school style’ uprights. What I mean by that is that each upright, the left and the right one, extend all the way into the ground, with the cross bar connecting them – basically making the letter H. This is not to be confused with NFL or college style uprights, which have the uprights extending from a single pole in the ground. Kick the ball through the uprights, and you score a point.
There is a second way to score, and it has to do with the space below the cross bar and between the two uprights – the bottom half of the H, if you will. In Gaelic football, that space acts similar to a soccer goal, complete with a goalie in front of it, and if the ball is scored in the net there, its called a goal, and worth 3 points.
The confusing part comes into play when, as mentioned earlier, they don’t keep a running total of the points scored. Instead, in Gaelic football (and other Gaelic sports), the totals are counted separately. What that means is that you’ll see scores like, ‘2-17’ and ‘1-19’ – meaning 2 goals and 17 points, and 1 goal and 19 points – instead of ‘23’ and ‘22’. To determine the winner, though, its the total that matters. How many goals scored vs. points scored does not matter all – they are just tallied separately. One can only assume this was done as a way to appease bookmakers back in the 1600s.
We’ve now sorted out how the sport was founded, how it’s organized, why Mayo hasn’t won in over 60 years, and how to keep score. The last piece of the puzzle is to figure out what the hell is actually going on during gameplay. I’ve seen it described in other places as a combination of soccer and rugby, but given that those aren’t very American and there is a good chance that 90% of the people reading this won’t really know what that means, I’m going to suggest it’s a combination of basketball and football.
The game is played between two teams, with 15 players on each team, including the goalie or ‘keeper’. There are positions, but in much the same way as basketball, they are very fluid and if you don’t know them or aren’t familiar with them, you really have no idea what they are or how they are different from each other. The tallest guy usually stands closest to the goal, but is he a forward? A sweeper? A full back or a half back? Did he score? That’s the only question that really matters.
The ball itself is actually a ball, not any goofy shape like a football or a rugby ball, and is similar to a soccer ball or volleyball. The ball can be carried like a football, but after 4 steps, whoever is carrying the ball has to either pass it, shoot it, or dribble it like a basketball (but only one bounce), or they must drop kick it. We’ll come back to drop kicks in a moment, but if the runner decides to dribble it like a basketball, then after that they have to drop kick it. So the sequence goes: catch the ball, take four steps, dribble, take four more steps, drop kick, four more steps, dribble, etc. In reality, after the first dribble and first drop kick, you most likely either get tackled and lose the ball, or pass or shoot. With 28 players moving around the pitch, there are lots of bodies flying around.
The drop kick (the technical term is to ‘solo’ the ball) is definitely the part of this game that takes the most skill. Running full speed, they manage to drop the ball and kick back to themselves, without ever breaking stride. They make it look really easy when you watch, but think about the practice and coordination it would take to be running full speed, drop a ball and kick it, but kick it in a way that it just comes right back to you and doesn’t go flying out of bounds or into the arms or another defender (or just to the middle of nowhere even).
Passing is done by either kicking the ball, similar to how a punter kicks a football, or by doing what I like to call the ‘underhand volleyball serve’ pass. Instead of a two-handed chest pass, or a bounce pass, or a Jason ‘White Chocolate’ Willams off-the-elbow pass, the Gaelic football pass looks just like an underhand volleyball serve.
Ok, a quick recap on what the game looks like. We’ve got a large grass pitch, with uprights at either end (think football). We got 30 players total on the pitch (football), with defined positions but really the players are moving all over at any given time, a free-flowing, back and forth game (basketball). The ball is carried by the runners (football), and only kicked if it’s a drop kick (not like any other sport), or passed (football punt). The ball can also be dribbled (basketball) or volleyball passed (volleyball).
Scoring looks most like soccer if it’s a goal that is scored, but kicking the ball through the uprights is done by punting it through – like if your field goal kicker and punter were combined into one position. These can be done at any time, and from any angle. Gaelic footballers are really quite adept at kicking through the uprights – on the run, from weird angles and with defenders draped all over them. After a point or a goal is scored, the keeper is allowed to immediately do what’s called a kick-out from the goalie box, 21 yards out from the goal. Imagine if in football, instead of having a touchdown, the extra point, a commercial, the kickoff, a touchback, a commercial, and then the offense starts from the 25-yard line, the offense just immediately started from the 25-yard line. And I mean immediately as in, as soon as the ball goes through the uprights. That’s what the kick out is like.
If offensive movements and patterns are most like basketball, in the free-flowing, any one can touch the ball and move, pass, cut or shoot, then it follows that defensive principals are the same as basketball also. Stay in front of your man, cut off angles, take away the right foot, etc. The difference is that the defense is allowed to do everything but tackle the offensive player. Grabbing, pulling, slapping, running into, all seem to be allowed. Trying to define what constitutes a foul vs. what is legally allowed takes watching several games. Tackling is definitely out, but did that guy fall down because I tackled him or because I grabbed him and his momentum made him fall down? It’s definitely worth it to try and push the limits because who the hell knows what the official is going to call.
There are no pads or protective gear (except maybe for cups) worn in Gaelic football, so the violence and injuries can be easy to see. Blood, bruises, and torn jerseys are all common sites on footballers after a match. This is more akin to your backyard game of football on Thanksgiving, or those pick-up games you would play just after high school when you were trying to relive the glory days and too manly (stupid) to play touch football and wanted to play tackle instead.
After watching a match for just a few minutes, you can start to pick up on some of the strategies. Lots of passing the ball behind you, catching on the run, and then of course the County Kerry classic ‘throw it up to the big guy near the goal and see if he can do something with it.’ Kieran Donaghy is like 2001 Shaq. Get him the rock and let the big man eat.
And now, you’ll also be able to talk intelligently about the GAA, to figure out who is actually winning the match, and to understand why Mayo can’t pull off the All-Ireland championship.