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Irish sports stay true to their roots
Gaelic football and hurling attract crowds bigger than Champions League or Super Bowl yet amateur traditions continue.
Last Modified: 07 Aug 2011 09:51
Ireland and Australia compete in an International Rules game - a hybrid of Gaelic and Aussie Rules [GALLO/GETTY] 

In September, more than 160,000 people will attend two finals at Croke Park, Dublin.

The size of the crowds at each game will be bigger than the average crowd at a Super Bowl or a Champions League final. Both games will grip the Irish sporting nation, yet they will go almost unnoticed anywhere outside of the Emerald Isle.

These games will be a culmination of the All Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling Championships, Ireland's two biggest sports. They are sports that are unique to Ireland, and are generally only played in Ireland and by the Irish diaspora worldwide.

Fans of football (soccer) and rugby will see vague similarities to their own sports in Gaelic football.

Like soccer, teams must score into goals at either end, and the ball is the same size – but like rugby, they are allowed to carry the ball in their hands.

Aussie Rules fans will be quite familiar with Gaelic football for two reasons. Quite a few of Ireland's best young players have moved down under to play Aussie Rules, including Brownlow Medal winner Jim Stynes in the 1980s and more recently Tadhg Kennelly at Sydney Swans and Martin Clarke at Collingwood.

The games are so similar that every two years a series of 'International Rules' is played between an Australian Football League (AFL) team and a Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) one.

Physical and passionate

The rules of the game combine elements of the two sports, with both sets of players having to adjust to different styles of plays. It is tough, physical and passionate. Certainly not for the faint hearted.

Hurling on the other hand is quite different. It is played on the same size pitch and with pretty much similar rules and scoring systems, but hurlers instead use axe-shaped sticks and a small ball, similar in size to a baseball or a cricket ball.

Irishman Tadhg Kennelly left the Sydney Swans in the AFL to return home to play Gaelic [GALLO/GETTY]

The body that runs Gaelic sports in Ireland, the GAA, has woven its way into the fabric of Irish society.

Founded more than 100 years ago to keep Irish sporting traditions alive, it now boasts more than 2,000 clubs in Ireland alone.

Hundreds of teams have also sprung up across the globe, where the Irish diaspora have settled, in traditional places like the United States and the United Kingdom, but also in other places such places as Qatar, South Korea and Taiwan.

While other sports have gone down the professional road, the GAA has remained steadfastly amateur.

None of its players get paid for playing, and there are generally few transfers between teams.

Gaelic Football championships are played between each county in Ireland, and players play for the county of their birth.

Joe Brolly was one of Ireland's best known Gaelic football players and is now an analyst on Irish TV Station RTE.

He is adamant that the amateur ethos of Gaelic sports should always be kept, and that other sports turning professional hasn't always been a good thing.

Soccer capitalism

"It is a great thing that the GAA never went down the professional road. Soccer now is a byword for capitalism," he says.

"Whereas once, way back in the '40s and '50s it meant something if you were Liverpool-born, and you played for Liverpool.

"Now, that doesn't matter. Manchester City or Manchester United may as well be called McDonald's or BP, because they are now just a commodity. The GAA has stayed amateur, in spite of the power of capitalism.

Gaelic sports in brief

 Gaelic football is played between two teams of 15 players.

 Like soccer, teams must score into goals at either end.

 Hurling is quite similar in style to lacrosse and hockey, except the ball is allowed to be carried in a player's hand. Given the physical danger involved with sticks flying around, helmets are compulsory.

 Ladies football and Camogie, the female version of Gaelic football and hurling, are also extremely popular with large numbers of teams across Ireland.
While fans at English Premier League games are predominantly male, it is very different at GAA games, with as many women going to games as men.

"That is testimony to what the sport is, and what the sport means to people.

"A GAA team is more than just a sporting team, they are a community. Anyone can be involved in a team. From the people who make tea at games to the people who raise money for each small club. They can all say with one voice 'I am part of that team', because they are."

Brolly says that from its inception the GAA has bound the Irish community across the world together.

"The GAA took root because the people who were playing it in the early days were usually from a rural background, and the idea of playing a sport so obviously Irish was greater," he says.

"From that the games grew and grew and now the GAA is embedded in Irish sport and Irish life.

"What is important to remember now too is the waning influence of the Catholic church in Irish life. The church used to be the most important factor in Irish life for centuries, the cement that held the country together. That influence has now gone and in many ways has been taken over by the GAA."

The GAA may remain an amateur organisation, but many Irish sports stars who have gone on to make a name for themselves in other sports began their life playing Gaelic games.

Three-times Major golf winner Padraig Harrington played with his home club when he was younger, as did Ireland-turned-England Cricketer Eoin Morgan, who played hurling in his youth.

Many Irish footballers such as current Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn and former Manchester United star Kevin Moran played Gaelic games at a high level, while Celtic manager Neil Lennon played for his local county at youth level.

Gaelic games may never turn into the worldwide success that other sports have become, but its amateur ethos and community spirit will ensure it stays part of Irish society for generations to come.

Niall McDonald is a freelance sports journalist who has worked in broadcasting for the BBC and Al Jazeera, and in print for Irish newspapers. He has also set up his own video channel, Orchard TV, covering Irish sport.

Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites.

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Al Jazeera
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