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An Introduction to Gaelic Football

Hands Allowed, Fouls Expected


Playing a final in Croke Park - every footballer's dream.

Playing a final in Croke Park - every footballer's dream.

© Bernd Biege 2014

Forget Beckham, forget the Superbowl ... for any true-blooded Irishman football is nothing but Gaelic Football. Often compared to Association Football (or "soccer" to you and me) or to Rugby. But maybe the origin of both these sports. And of American Football as well. And played with a vengeance all over Ireland.

A Short History of Gaelic Football

Nobody really knows where football came from. It was apparently mentioned in the Statutes of Galway of 1527, but the first definite reference was Iomán na Bionne. Seamus Dall MacCuartha in 1670 mentioned this game in a poem - but he could have meant Hurling as well.

According to him a prototypical version of football seems to have been played especially in Northern Dublin, Meath and Louth according to the poet. Eight men per side were fighting for control over a ball. Literally - MacCuarta mentions free-for-all wrestling matches as being not against the rules. The game lasted a whole afternoon.

Football was very popular in the 19th century, at the same time being very parochial - every parish played, but with rules as thought up in the parish. Not even size or form of the ball were regulated. Many "serious" sportsmen thus switched to rugby, just becoming popular in British schools, colleges, universities and army units. Teacher Michael Cusack was bitten by the rugby-bug too ... but soon refrained from playing because his Irish-nationalist politics estranged him from the rest of the team. Rugby in Ireland was the game played by "West Brits", Cusack an ardent supporter of home rule.

In 1884 Michael Cusack became one of the founders of the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA), promoting "national sports" in a decidedly nationalistic context. Football soon became the most popular game in the GAA (with hurling a close second) - with rules centrally compiled.

Gaelic Football - The Basic Rules

The basic rules of football are simple and surprisingly flexible in details:

  • The size of the rectangular playing field is at least 130 by 80 meters, up to a maximum 145 by 90 meters.
  • Scoring space is the middle of the shorter sides - marked by at least seven meters high goal-posts, 6.5 meters apart. A net is supported by the crossbar and the goalposts.
  • Team size is 15 players - a team can start off with 13 players but must field the full complement of fifteen at the end of the first half.
  • The ball should weigh less than 425 grams, but more than 370. It also should have a diameter between 69 and 74 centimetres.
  • A goal is scored when the ball passes between the goalposts and below the crossbar; should the ball pass between the goalposts and above the crossbar a point is gained. A goal is the equivalent of three points in the final score.
  • A player may either carry the ball in his hands for four steps (or the equivalent time), "toe-tap" the ball from his foot into his hands, bounce the ball off the ground back into his hands (but only after a toe-tap), shoot the ball by hitting it with his open hand or fist ... or even throw the ball away for a further toe-tap, for a kick or as a pass. Any player may relieve an opposing player of the ball by hitting it with his flat hand.
  • Players may physically attack other players in possession of the ball as long as the attacker remains with one foot on the ground. Only the goalkeeper may not be attacked within an exclusion zone in front of the goal - but the ball may be hit from his grip by an open hand.
  • "Aggressive fouls" warrant a free kick if taking place within a certain distance of the goal, immediately in front of the goal any foul will lead to a free kick. Free kicks are taken from the middle of the 13 meter line.
  • The fouled player may take his free kick with the ball dropped from his hands or lying on the pitch. He may also get another player to take the free kick - in which case it has to be kicked from the ground.
  • Should the ball not cross the goal line because it was stopped or diverted by anybody except players or a referee ... the referees may decide to award a goal anyway. Historical decisions regarding intoxicated fans or enthusiastic dogs have been seen.

Where to Enjoy Gaelic Football

Literally anywhere - just enquire at your current hostelry and they will guide you to the nearest match. As football is played in virtually every parish and by all age groups (and both sexes) it should be possible to see a match.

With luck you might even get tickets for inter-county matches, some of which are benefiting from a rivalry seemingly based on prehistoric clan feuds. The Holy Grail of Football is the All-Ireland Final in September, played at Croke Park (Dublin) where you will also find the fascinating GAA Museum.

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