When you are in Dublin…
When you are in Dublin, especially over the summer months, make an effort to see a game of Gaelic football or Hurling, uniquely Irish sports that have passionate support throughout the country. The summer period is when the annual championships in both sports take place, each county fields a team. The championships culminate in September, tickets are like gold dust. You might find another event earlier in the summer that isn't sold out. The biggest stadium in Ireland – for any sport – is Croke Park and that's where the highest profile events take place.
Gaelic football became popular as early as the 16th century, when teams might have consisted of all the fit men of a town or parish. In those earliest days, the rather unorganized game would begin between the two towns and end when one side had managed to force the ball across a line into the other's territory.
The modern game plays like a mix of soccer and rugby. Teams of 15 players kick or hand pass a ball around a grass pitch towards each other's goals to either score a point over the bar or goal. The ball used in Gaelic football is round, slightly smaller than a soccer ball. The action is fast and furious, play is rough. Protective equipment is nonexistent.
Hurling is similar to lacrosse or hockey. It's played on a large pitch with a curved wooden stick, hurley, and a 6.5 centimeter (2.5 inch) leather ball, sliothar. It can be described as one of the fastest and most skilful field games in the world, not for the faint of heart. Bodies bang. The ball is as hard as a baseball, the sticks are made of solid ash.
While Gaelic football is an old sport, hurling is ancient. Irish mythology is replete with tales of heroes, such as the legendary warrior Cú Chulainn, who were expert hurlers. Such myths point to a hurling history some 2,000 years old and the sport's prominent place in Irish tradition.
Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA)
While the games boast ancient roots, their modern history is inseparably linked with the revival of Irish culture and nationalism that occurred in the late 19th century.
In 1884, with Ireland under the rule of the British Crown, a group of Irish nationalists met to establish an organization for Irish athletes, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). The initial plan was to resurrect the ancient Tailteann Games and establish an independent Irish organisation for promoting athletics, but hurling and gaelic football eventually predominated.
It is still the governing body of hurling and Gaelic football (as well as of ladies' football and carmogie, a hurling-like sport for women). GAA has always promoted more than just sport. The Gaelic Athletic Association was a cultural thing, created as a direct response to the way in which Irish culture was being eliminated. Along with the Gaelic League and the Irish Literary Revival, it provided a mechanism for the creation of a sense of Irish identity.
Gaelic games in politics
In its early years, the Gaelic games took on political significance in the troubled Ireland of the time. The athletic association developed a strong rural network across Ireland. Many GAA members were involved in events connected with the 1916 Easter Rising. By 1918 the organization was banned by the British government, but the games were still played as an act of Irish defiance. The game was touched directly (was itself influenced) by the conflict.
On 21 November 1920, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) assassinated 14 British agents and their informants in Dublin. Later on that day, British forces (the infamous Black and Tans) opened fire on the crowd at a Gaelic football match in Croke Park killing 14 spectators and one player, Michael Hogan, who was playing for Tipperary that day. The day went down in history as "Bloody Sunday".
Until recently, current or former British Army officers could not participate in Gaelic athletics.