The Gaelic Athletic Association

Arial view of Croke Park, from a postcard.

Entrance to Croke Park, with its name rendered in Irish and the GAA logo on the wall.

I was pleased to be able to visit Croke Park with two of my students while we were in Dublin. Named after the prominent Irish nationalist Thomas Croke, Archbishop of Cashel (1875-1902), it is the headquarters and national stadium of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which governs the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football. Croke Park, they claim, is the third largest stadium in Europe but the largest stadium for amateur sports in the world and, like the GAA itself, has a prominent place in Irish national history: on Sunday, November 21, 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, the Royal Irish Constabulary thought it would be a great idea to go to Croke Park and shoot the place up during a Dublin-Tipperary match, in revenge for the IRA’s assassination of fifteen British intelligence officers earlier that day. At Croke Park, fourteen people were killed and over sixty wounded in what became known as the original Bloody Sunday. It was a moral victory for the IRA – whereas their operation was targeted at specific individuals, the RIC’s was indiscriminate and against civilians out enjoying themselves. One player, Michael Hogan of Tipperary, died in the event, and in 1924 a stand at Croke Park was named in his memory.

The GAA itself was founded in 1884 in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, by seven people including Michael Cusack, whose statue stands outside the main entrance to Croke Park. It was part of an international movement to codify rules for sports and to organize teams to play them, such as the National Association of Base Ball Players (1857), the Football Association (1863), the Rugby Football Union (1871), or the modern Olympic Games (1896). The Gaelic Athletic Association was set up as a specifically Irish organization. Hurling, which involves running around on a field and hitting a ball (“sliotar”) with a stick (“hurley”), has a long pedigree in Ireland – the mythological hero Cú Chulainn plays it in the medieval Ulster Cycle, and one of the Statues of Kilkenny in 1361 forbade it to English settlers.

From a postcard: “Hurling in action! Eoin Larkin from Kilkenny takes on Tipperary men Michael Cahill (left) and Paddy Stapleton (right) during the 2011 GAA Hurling All-Ireland Senior Championship Final at Croke Park.”

The hurling game that the GAA formalized ended up with fifteen men a side, a 90 by 145 meter field, and two ways of scoring (in the net for three points, over the net for one), along with various permissible ways of handling and passing the ball and of contact between opponents. Gaelic football does not have as long a history as hurling, but it was devised in tandem with modern hurling, and so deliberately uses the same size of pitch, number of players, and methods of scoring. More to the point, Gaelic football was to be different from rugby and soccer, the two other major codes of football, which were English in origin and thus morally tainted.

From a postcard: “Jumping! A general view of the action from the 1966 All-Ireland Senior Football Final between Galway and Meath at Croke Park, Dublin.”

Having now seen a Gaelic football match in Dingle, I will say that it seems to be a well-designed game. One cannot argue with the immense worldwide popularity of soccer, which is cheap to play and easy to understand, but I am reminded again in this World Cup season about Adam Gopnick’s observation that:

The game has achieved a kind of tactical stasis. Things start off briskly and then fritter away into desultory shin-kicking, like a Wall Street Journal editorial. In soccer, the defense has too big an edge to keep the contest interesting, like basketball before the coming of the twenty-four second clock or the Western Front before the invention of the tank…

Since a defensive system keeps players from getting a decent chance to score, the idea is to get an indecent one: to draw a foul so that the referee awards a penalty, which is essentially a free goal. This creates an enormous disproportion between the foul and the reward… The customary method is to walk into the “area” with the ball, get breathed on hard, and then immediately collapse, like a man shot by a sniper, arms and legs splayed out, while you twist in agony and beg for morphine, and your teammates smite their heads at the tragic waste of a young life. The referee buys this more often than you think.

More fundamentally, as Steve Sailer notes:

There’s a cost to abjuring the use of the opposable thumb: competence. While the average National Basketball Association team sinks three dozen field goals per 48-minute game, the all-star squads in the knockout rounds of the 2002 World Cup averaged less than one goal per 90-minute game. The reason soccer so often seems like an exercise in futility is that it’s played with the wrong part of the anatomy.

Rugby (founded, according to legend, by William Webb Ellis, who “in a fine disregard for the rules of football, picked up the ball and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the game of rugby football”) does not have this problem, but it is immensely more complicated – I played the sport in high school and have been watching it for years, and even now I have to have the commentators explaining its minutia to me. Moreover, the trouble with the sport right now is that it is too easy to commit penalties. Often you simply can’t prevent going over the top of the ruck, or collapsing the scrum – and, like soccer, there is a disproportion between the foul and the consequence, since a penalty equals a kick for the other team and thus a pretty good chance for them to score three points. England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003 using this strategy.

Gaelic football thus seems like the sport that Goldilocks chose. Players can pick up the ball with their hands, and run with it, although every four steps they have to kick it back up to themselves, or bounce it off the ground. They can pass the ball by hand, but only by holding it in one hand and hitting it with the other (a feature shared with Australian Rules Football if I’m not mistaken). They can kick it along the ground and at the goal as in soccer if they wish. Rugby-style tackling is not allowed, but shoulder-to-shoulder body checking certainly is, and as a consequence there is a minimum of play-acting. Forward passing by hand is allowed, and thus there are no knock-ons like in rugby, and there are no offsides, meaning that the game is open in way that soccer or rugby aren’t (my brother-in-law insists that the key to improving soccer is to get rid of the offside rule). Our guide at Croke Park, a hurling man himself, did claim that Gaelic football is currently dominated by the defense, but that is not the impression I got in Dingle, whose junior team lost to Ballyduff by a total score of 22-21.

From a postcard: “Arthur Griffith, Eamonn de Valera, Lord Mayor Laurence O’Neill and Michael Collins at Croke Park for the 1919 All-Ireland Senior Hurling final between Cork (6-04) and Dublin (2-04), 21 September 1919.”

It’s a shame this sport is not more popular, but something tells me that the Irish wouldn’t want it that way. The GAA was, and remains, very much a nationalist organization. In addition to promoting indigenous sports, it set itself the task of promoting the Irish language, Irish dance, and Irish music. In the late nineteenth century the organization was infiltrated by members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who recruited through it. During the War of Independence, apparently some GAA teams were simply front organizations for IRA units, and in response at some point the British banned the playing of Gaelic sports, something that the Irish happily ignored in a coordinated effort. (As late as the 1980s, numerous county GAA boards supported the IRA and INLA hunger strikers in the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.)

Thomas Ashe (1885-1917), member of the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and the Irish Volunteers, and namesake of the Dingle GAA grounds. Ashe died in police custody in 1917.

But the GAA did some banning of its own: from 1897, members of the Royal Irish Constabulary were forbidden from joining the organization (Rule 21), and from 1901, GAA members were forbidden from taking part in or even watching non-Gaelic games (Rule 27). The most famous victim of this policy was Douglas Hyde, who in his capacity as Ireland’s first president, attended an Ireland-Poland soccer match in Dublin in 1937, and who was subsequently removed as patron of the GAA! I saw a book about this episode in a shop at Inch Strand. This does seem a bit self-righteous and psychologically insecure.

Since then both Rule 21 and Rule 27 have been abolished, and even Rule 42, which prohibits GAA grounds from being used to play “garrison games,” has been relaxed. When Lansdowne Road, the Irish national stadium for rugby and soccer, was being redeveloped over the period 2007-2010, the GAA graciously allowed the Ireland rugby team to play its home games in Croke Park, including against England. A sculpture in honor of this event greeted us as we arrived at Shannon Airport.

“Saturday 24th February 2007 Ireland v England, Croke Park, Dublin. ‘The Day that Changed Ireland.’ Rugby lineout featuring Paul O’Connell, Donnacha O’Callaghan and John Hayes. Sculpture by Paddy Campbell, February 2015.”

Our guide at Croke Park said that some people protested this game outside the stadium, but that there was dead silence for the playing of “God Save the Queen” before the match, indicating a certain maturity on the part of the Irish. I suppose it helped that Ireland handily won the match, 43-13, although I would be curious to know what the reaction would have been if Croke Park had been filled with fans of the GAA, and not the IRFU.

Paddy Bawn Brosnan‘s Bar and Lounge, Dingle. Brosnan was Co. Kerry senior Gaelic football captain, 1937-52.

Statue of famed Gaelic football player and manager Páidí Ó Sé (Paddy O’Shea), outside his eponymous pub in Ventry, Co. Kerry.

Painting of a hurling player, Falls Road, Belfast.

Apart from the politics, it does seem that the GAA is something that binds the country together. The organization remains amateur, with all the romance that this entails, and it is organized by county, the fundamental subunit of the Irish state. The sports, I discover, are very popular – people walk around in replica jerseys, and county colors fly from pubs and from private homes.

County banners, GAA Museum, Croke Park, Dublin.

The museum is pretty good too. I did not recognize anyone in the GAA hall of fame, but the exhibits on the history of the organization are well done, and a visitor can even get the opportunity to see how hard he can hit a sliotar with a hurley (I kept missing it, to my students’ mirth).

Outside Croke Park: GAA club logos by county.

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