Members of HIS 323 heard an interesting presentation this week on Irish sports. As you may be aware, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884 as part of what has been termed the Gaelic Revival – the renewed interest in the Irish language and related aspects of indigenous Irish culture. The GAA’s task was to codify and promote the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football; it also governs camogie, handball, and rounders. Of these sports, hurling has the longest pedigree: it is played by Cú Chulainn in the Ulster Cycle, and was banned in 1367 by the Statutes of Kilkenny. One thing that did not come up: the distinctive Irish style of horseback riding, also mentioned in the Statues of Kilkenny and in Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland (twelfth century). Horse racing is very popular in Ireland, but it seems that the GAA was uninterested in reviving the Irish riding style; Irish horses and jockeys compete in Britain and on the continent in the same manner as that of their opponents.
The Gaelic Revival was an expression of a quite insular nationalism. Both the language and the sports were Our Thing, practiced in Ireland and maybe among the Irish diaspora, and nowhere else. That’s fine, but surely there are times when you want to compete on equal terms with other countries, thereby publicizing yourself, gaining the respect of others and even demonstrating your superiority? The GAA, however, had strict rules against its members playing cricket or soccer, the effete, non-contact sports of the enemy, rules which were only repealed in 1971! This seems counterproductive – what you want to do is be competitive in a sport that other people also play, like Brazil in soccer, New Zealand in rugby, Canada in hockey – or Ireland in horse racing!
To this end the GAA should try proselytizing its sports more (or should have tried – it’s probably too late now). They certainly look like fun.