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Ireland’s most popular Gaelic Games

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Soccer, rugby and basketball are played all around the world. They are international sports where almost everybody knows the rules. However, in many countries there are traditional games that aren’t well known outside their country. In Ireland the traditional, Gaelic games are football, hurling, handball and rounders. Out of these four, football and hurling are by far the most popular.
They are very similar sports, the main difference being that football is played with a ball, similar to a soccer ball and hurling is played with a stick called a hurley and a small ball, around the side of a baseball, called a sliotar.

They have a very ancient history with hurling even being mentioned in some of the myths and legends of Ireland. The first recorded mention of football is from a legal case in 1308 when a man called John McCrocan was charged with accidentally stabbing another man at a football game. There are further mentions in legal documents in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it began to get very popular.

Hurling is much older than football and has its origins in prehistoric times with some people claiming it’s over 2000 years old. Traditionally, it was said that whole villages would play each other with hundreds of people playing at once, resulting in many injuries. Some sources even claim that ancient hurling had sticks with spikes* on them that you could use to injure the other players. Hurling is still believed to be the fastest field sport* in the world.

In 1884 the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was formed and in 1974 the Ladies Gaelic Football Association followed. They are separate associations but are very closely linked. The GAA standardised the rules of the games as there were many regional differences depending on whether you were from the north or the south.

Both games have 15 players on each team. The pitch* looks like a rugby field but is larger, stretching 130-145 metres long and 80-90 metres wide. At each end there are nets that look like soccer nets but with long posts* on either side making a ‘H’ shape.

For the women’s games or under 21 games the matches last 60 minutes with the men’s seniors lasting 70 minutes. The aim of both games is to get the ball either over the bar but between the posts, which will score you one point, or under the bar and in the net, which will score you a goal. A goal is worth three points.

In football you are allowed to use either your hands or your feet but there are many restrictions in how you do this. You cannot run more than five steps holding the ball. After five steps you have to pass the ball, bounce it or solo it. Soloing is where you drop the ball and kick it back into your hands. You can solo the ball as many times as you wish but you are not allowed to bounce the ball more than once. To give the ball to other players but you can either kick it or hand pass it. A hand pass is where you balance the ball flat on one hand and use the palm of your other hand to hit it.

The rules of hurling are slightly different as you use the stick and a small ball instead of the football. In hurling the ball can be balanced on the hurley and you can run with it. You can’t pick the ball up but have to flick it up* with the end of your hurley.

Both sports have separate but very similar versions for women. For example, Ladies Gaelic Football uses a smaller ball and they can pick the ball up without using their foot. The female version of Hurling is called Camogie, which again is almost identical with only a few rule changes.
Nowadays, the sports are very popular in Ireland. There is a tournament every year called the All-Ireland Championship. The sports have also travelled around the world to countries where there is a large Irish diaspora. If you are interested in finding out more about the games you can find examples on YouTube or full matches on sky sports.

Glosary

  • Spike: short, sharp points.
  • Field sport: any game played on a pitch.
  • Pitch: the ground you play sports on.
  • Flick up: using your wrist to make the ball jump.
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