Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
The Sport That Can't Stick To Sports

The Sport That Can't Stick To Sports

Illustration: G/O Media, Photo: Getty

Dublin beat Kerry 1-18 to 0-15 on Saturday to take their fifth straight All-Ireland football championship, and become the first team to five-peat in the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association’s annual national inter-county tournament. And we’re talking a long history: Dublin and Kerry first faced each other with the title at stake in ‘93. As in, 1893.

Almost nobody outside Ireland gives a rip about the rivalry or the title streak or anything about the ancient, homegrown and wonderfully fast and furious sport of Gaelic football. Heck, almost nobody outside Ireland can make sense of that line score. But that’s their loss, as the Irish know.

Gaelic football, often simply called “Gaelic” by the hardcore indigenous peoples, is rooted in the depressed and oppressed Ireland of history books. The country’s standing in the world is ascending these days and its economy and population (about 4.8 million) are booming; for the first time ever, large numbers of Englishmen are crossing the Irish Sea not to take over the place by force, but instead seeking work and a better quality of life. Yet the old game, which holds a pivotal and tragic role in Ireland’s centuries-long struggle against the entitled imperialist Brits, still has a grip on the Irish as tight as any pastime has on any populace. In Ireland, finals day is Super Bowl Sunday, with Memorial Day, Independence Day, and even Easter flourishes thrown in.

Gaelic football dates at least as far back as the 14th century in County Down, and can be nutshelled to outsiders as an amalgamation of rugby, basketball and soccer. The modern version was put in place by the GAA in the 1880s, and has 15 players per side, generally in a 6-2-6 formation, plus a goalie. The All-Ireland championship, like all senior division matches, is played in two 35-minute halves, with a running clock and stoppage time, on a rectangular field that’s 145 meters long and 88m wide. (That translates to about two-and-a-half times the size of an NFL gridiron.) Players advance the round, leather ball by carrying it no more than four steps between dribbles off the ground or a foot (the foot dribble is known as a “solo”), or by punching or kicking it to a teammate. There’s no throwing, or picking the ball up off the ground with your hands, so players gain possession of loose balls by lifting them up with their feet. Scores come either by punching or kicking the ball into a goal that’s 6.5m wide and 2.5m high for three points, or between super-tall uprights for 1 point. The box scores for Gaelic games list each team’s goals first, then the single-pointers, separated by a hyphen. (So Saturday’s 1-18 0-15 line score adds up to a 21-15 beating.)

Dublin flags and the Sam Maguire Cup adorn Dublin Port’s famous Ronnie Drew crane.
Dublin flags and the Sam Maguire Cup adorn Dublin Port’s famous Ronnie Drew crane.
Photo: PA via AP

This year’s All-Ireland matchup was the Lakers-Celtics of Gaelic. Between them, Dublin and Kerry have a combined 66 All-Ireland wins since the first GAA championship was conferred in 1887. This was the 14th season to end with Dublin facing Kerry with the trophy now known as the Sam Maguire Cup at stake. Kerry’s got the big historic lead with 37 titles (more than any other county) to Dublin’s second-best 29. Only two teams had ever won four consecutive Sams in the 132-year history of the championship before Dublin’s recent run of titles. One being Kerry, which took the cup every year from 1978 through 1981. Kerry’s 1982 bid for its fifth straight was busted up with a last-minute goal by a County Offaly squad; Dublin’s “Drive for Five” was the year’s biggest sports story, and the squad’s seemingly neverending dominance has led to questions about “financial doping” and even pleas from less-populated and financially endowed Irish counties that the Dublin-based GAA should explore ways to break up the dynasty. By current rule, footballers can only play for a team in the county where they live. Dublin has at least twice the population of any other Irish county, and is 10 times Kerry’s size. But tradition generally trumps everything else in GAA matters, so it’s unlikely drastic rule changes would be implemented to artificially bring parity to Gaelic no matter how long the Dubs’ All-Irelands streak goes on.

One example of rule-making inertia: Dublin and Kerry had already tried to settle the 2019 championship once, with a Sept. 1 battle that ended in a draw. The GAA, which since the 19th century has also governed Ireland’s other wondrous provincial pastime, hurling, has never implemented a same-day mechanism to break deadlocks for the senior finals. So, Dublin and Kerry took about two weeks off and went at it all over again.

Both games were played in front of capacity crowds of 82,300 at Croke Park, the 128-year-old temple of Gaelic games located on the north side of Dublin. There was no public sale for tickets for either of this year’s All-Ireland finals. There never is. GAA controls all ticket distribution, and you pretty much have to know a guy who knows a guy at GAA or one of its affiliate clubs around the country to to buy a ticket. I went to the first Dublin v. Kerry All-Ireland match on Sept. 1; I saw no visible scalpers working the crowded streets surrounding the stadium, also known as the Croker, in the hours before the opening throw-in. (But I did see British Open champ Shane Lowry walking on those same streets, totally unbothered by the masses too preoccupied with the upcoming match to heed even the country’s reigning most popular athlete. Lowry’s dad, Brendan Lowry, has long been famous in Ireland for his All-Ireland heroics with the 1982 Offaly squad that upset Kerry.)

The Sept. 1 Dublin-Kerry match was viewed by 76.5 percent of those watching television in Ireland at the time. Only one Super Bowl telecast has ever gotten a larger share of a U.S. TV audience, and that was way back in 1976, when the Dallas Cowboys vs. Pittsburgh Steelers drew a 78 share. Saturday’s replay, with an exceptionally late 6 p.m. throw-in to accommodate a dog racing card already scheduled on RTÉ, averaged a 72.3 percent audience share; smaller than the first match, but better than the 2019 Super Bowl, which got a 67.

While a typical modern American sports stadium is basically a shopping mall with a food court where you can watch a game, there are few concessions available at Croke Park during Gaelic football matches, and no vendors walk the massive stadium’s grandstands, where there’s no drinking allowed. The absence of retail is not noticed come game time, because other than halftime there’s almost no downtime in Gaelic; the game plays on while trainers run out on the pitch to tend to the wounded or bring water (and likely illicit instructions). One GAA study found that players run about 11.5 kilometers during a single match, while American footballers only travel about 2.2km per game. Yet for all the active bodies on that huge pitch, Gaelic football matches have only one referee. That means away from the ball, roughhousing and shenanigans abound.

Kerry defeated Galway in a replay to win the 2000 final, its 32nd.
Kerry defeated Galway in a replay to win the 2000 final, its 32nd.
Photo: Getty

By rule, you can use a hand to tackle the ball, but not the player, and that shoulder-to-shoulder hits, and only shoulder-to-shoulder hits, are okay, but given the pace of play and the game’s inherent violence those edicts leave enough gray area to justify any foul call or non-call. But missed calls are part of Gaelic: Replays showed that Eoin Murchan’s goal straight off the second half throw-in, the only goal of this year’s All-Ireland final and the play that turned the tide Dublin’s way, was scored after he’d taken at least 10 steps without a dribble.

GAA games are also notable for being perhaps the last great amateur sports in the world. Gaelic stars are as famous in their homeland as NFL heroes are in the U.S. At a banquet for GAA legends held a day before the first Dublin-Kerry match, Ogie Moran, a retired Kerry football hero, got knowing looks from most of the room when he said that from personal experience he knows any player who wins an All-Ireland championship “will never again have to put their hand in their pocket” in any pub back home.

For all the free pints and provincial pride that comes a player’s way, they are not paid a salary. GAA rules call for coaches to be volunteers, too. Both coaches in the All-Ireland finals are national stars. But Dublin boss Jim Gavin is a commercial pilot, while Kerry’s manager, Peter Keane, runs a SuperValu grocery store as his day job. After getting the Kerry gig, Keane told a reporter for the Irish Examiner that his ”wife, Siobhán, has had to “take on an increased workload” at the supermarket.

It’s understandable that anybody growing up in Ireland would think of Gaelic as more than a mere game. Irish nationalism and football have been linked here since the earliest days of the GAA. The group was founded in the 1880s by Maurice Davin and Michael Cusack, both nationalists who believed preservation of Celtic traditions, the Irish language, and homegrown sports was a key component in preventing the domineering English occupiers from making the indigenous culture disappear. Davin, who served as GAA’s first president, decreed the need for a governing organization, and a formal set of football rules, after noting that the sports he saw being played around Ireland “were designed mainly for the guidance of Englishmen.” Davin and Cusack couldn’t possibly have known how big a role the game and their group would ultimately play in Ireland’s struggle for sovereignty.

I got a fascinating lesson on the nationalistic importance of Gaelic, and a primer on why Croke Park is sacred ground to anybody Irish, when I went to stadium in August and met with Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh. He’s the Vin Scully of Gaelic sports; his career announcing hurling and football matches began as a teenager in the late 1940s. Now 89, Ó Muircheartaigh told me nobody bothers trying to separate Gaelic footbs history from Ireland’s history.

“You really can’t,” he said.

Then, looking out over the gigantic, empty stadium from an upper section, Ó Muircheartaigh pointed to a terrace at the railway end of the stadium, and tells me the legend of the section now known as “Hill 16.”

“The base of that section was built with rubble from the Rising,” he says, with a grizzled brogue and steady cadence that to a Yank would make even a reading of Gaelic line scores seem profound.

Hill 16, before and during the match.
Hill 16, before and during the match.
Photo: Dave McKenna (G/O Media)

The Rising to which Ó Muircheartaigh refers is also known as the Easter Rising of 1916, a pivotal point in Ireland’s long, violent march toward independence from British oppressors. This particular insurrection started when armed rebels took over the General Post Office and other buildings in downtown Dublin to protest the occupation by the British army and proclaim independence from the imperialist foreign power. “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible,” read their proclamation. The British responded by leveling much of Dublin with long-range artillery, and forces loyal to the occupiers mowed down civilians with machine guns, and forced the rebels to surrender after five days of fighting. Sixteen Irish leaders of the rising, a group that included politicians and poets, were arrested and quickly executed by British firing squads. The brutality caused the outside world to start paying closer attention to the evil the imperialists had long been perpetrating in Ireland.

There’s been some debate in recent decades over whether rabble-rousers ever actually brought rubble from the Rising to Croke Park to aid in the stadium’s construction. Propaganda or no, the tale of Hill 16 remains part of Croke Park’s official history to this day.

Besides, as Ó Muircheartaigh told me, the nationalist bona fides of the Croker and the links between Gaelic and the struggle for independence are sturdy even if the historically consequential concrete isn’t literally in the stadium’s foundation. As soon as he finished mulling the history of Hill 16, he directed me to the pitch below.

“That’s where Hogan died,” Ó Muircheartaigh says.

And in his sublime tones, Ó Muircheartaigh recounted the death of footballer Michael Hogan and the awful events of November 21, 1920. That’s when members of the Black and Tans, an armed battalion put together a year earlier by England’s secretary of state for war, Winston Churchill, to keep the Irish in their place, showed up at Croke Park. A Gaelic match between Dublin and Tipperary squads was taking place. But the soldiers were there looking for retribution for recent guerrilla attacks on suspected British spies organized by IRA leader and GAA supporter Michael Collins.

The GAA had by then long banned its members from playing soccer or rugby, pastimes regarded as tools of the British occupiers. Any Irishman caught playing soccer was subject to being labeled by his countrymen as “Shoneen,” a derogatory term hung on any Gael thought to be catering to the British oppressors. In 1908, Collins had dubbed those sports “Garrison games” that “only aid the peaceful penetration of Ireland by the British.” (Collins, who even while being hunted down by the occupiers took in GAA events at Croke Park, was assassinated in 1922. He gained global celebrity posthumously when Liam Neeson took the title role in the 1996 feature film, Michael Collins.)

Meanwhile, support for the GAA and its homegrown sports, hurling and football, equaled support for the fight for Irish home rule. In 1898, the group had passed Rule 21, which forbade members of the British armed forces from GAA membership.

So to the Black and Tans, everybody on the pitch and in the stands in Croke Park on that fateful Sunday in 1920 was the enemy. According to first-day wire reports from the Associated Press, the crowd “hooted” at the British soldiers as they entered the stadium. Then the armed interlopers opened fire, randomly gunning down spectators and players with revolvers and machine guns and creating a massive stampede. Fourteen people, including Tipperary footballer Michael “Mick” Hogan, were killed.

The day became immortalized as “Bloody Sunday.”

The GAA has done a lot to insure that football fans don’t forget the murders or the sport’s nationalistic history. In 1924, the organization renamed a massive section of Croke Park as Hogan Stand, and unveiled a memorial outside the stadium to the martyred athlete.

In 1928 the GAA’s All-Ireland football trophy was named the Sam Maguire Cup, after the GAA veteran who recruited Michael Collins into the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the rebel group that led the 1916 Easter Rising.

The GAA has also periodically held events commemorating those killed during at a Croke Park football match, including the Bloody Sunday Graves project. That program, initiated in 2014, seeks to locate the burial sites of all the victims, many of whom were buried in unmarked plots so as to not rile the occupiers.

The history lessons seem to have been learned. Paul Flynn, the 33-year old former All-Ireland winning footballer for Dublin who now heads the Gaelic Players Association, the footballer and hurlers union, said that young players and fans absorb the good, bad and ugly chapters from the sport’s past. “People going to the games now aren’t showing up thinking, ‘Wow! The Black and Tans came in here and killed 14 people!’” Flynn says. “But that’s in our DNA.”

I asked Ó Muircheartaigh how many of the spectators who will show up for the All-Ireland football final will be aware of the Croke Park atrocity and how played into the founding of a free Ireland. All of them, he says.

“Everybody,” he says. “Everybody here knows about Michael Hogan from Tipperary.”

The sport’s Irishcentricness is blatant by design. The GAA, as its founders wanted, still uses football to promote the speaking of the Gaelic language, for example. So there’s a Gaelic-only radio broadcast of GAA games, despite a 2016 study by the Irish government that found only 1.7 percent of the population now speak the ancient native tongue (also called “Irish”) on a daily basis.

The TV and radio broadcasts of All-Ireland finals are offered free in Ireland over Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ), a broadcast network founded and funded by the government. But outside Ireland’s borders the games are almost exclusively available only a on a pay-per-view basis outside Ireland’s borders. (I paid $25 to watch the replay on GAA-GO, the association’s PPV network.)

All ticket and TV proceeds go to the GAA, so the group wins big whenever no winner is declared: Irish media said that the draw in the Sept. 1 Dublin-Kerry football final was worth another €5 million to the group because of ticket and broadcast money for the replay.

The GAA then funnels most of that money back to its affiliates around the country to fund such things as stadium construction and youth programs for football and hurling. According to figures supplied earlier this year by GAA, out of total 2018 revenues of €63.5 million, about €10 million was spent on administration and €52.89M million (or 83.3 percent of all revenues) was redistributed to counties, clubs, and schools.

Occasionally, the issue of getting the GAA to share some Euros with the players comes up, as in a 2018 report by the Irish Times. But there’s nothing that compares to the groundswell in America to force the NCAA to start paying college athletes, and the amateur status of Gaelic games does not seem in any danger. Kevin Moran has been on the remunerated and unremunerated sides of sport, having played soccer for Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers (from 1978 to 1994) and Gaelic football for Dublin, winning Sam Maguire Cups in both 1976 and 1977. At the legends gathering, Moran, now 63, tells me he grew up wanting to play Gaelic for the local squad, knowing the only possible pay would be in the forms of local and national glory, not pounds. And he wouldn’t change a thing.

“For me,” Moran says, “the greatest feeling you can ever have is to play for your county in an All-Ireland final.”

Dublin and Kerry meet at the Polo Grounds in a 1956 match meant to grow the sport among New York’s Irish expat community.
Dublin and Kerry meet at the Polo Grounds in a 1956 match meant to grow the sport among New York’s Irish expat community.
Photo: AP

But does the sport have a future outside its homeland? The GAA has made some effort to spread Gaelic games outside Irish border through the years. The 1947 All-Ireland football final between Cavan and Kerry was moved to the Polo Grounds in New York, the only time in the last 100 years that the big game wasn’t played at Croke Park. And the organization does occasionally send its top hurling teams on barnstorming jaunts to American outposts with heavy concentrations of the Irish diaspora—Fenway Park has hosted three such exhibitions in recent years, and 2019 All-Ireland hurling finalists Kilkenny and Tipperary are slated to face off at New York’s CitiField in November.

The GAA licensed Gaelic Games: Football, a Playstation 2 videogame that was released in 2005. The early buzz was very strong, but only in the home of the sport: One report said the game outsold Call of Duty in Ireland over Christmas season that year. But very quickly, Gaelic fans learned to hate everything about the video game except for Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s voiceover: Every halftime whistle triggered the digitized Ó Muircheartaigh to say, “Now the players are going in for a cup of tea and a banana.” The PS4 game was out of production within a couple years, and can now be found on a list of the worst sport videogames of all time. 

The GAA also supports a network of more than 400 Gaelic sports clubs globally, with about 130 affiliates in the U.S. The GAA’s desire to spread the game on American shores inspired the group to bring a fledgling Florida YouTube comedian named Josh Pray over for the first Dublin-Kerry match. Pray received an introduction worthy of an international celebrity, and even was interviewed on the pitch during the game, as his fish-out-of-water takes on Gaelic football were shown on Croke Park’s video screens, Alas, the effort ended up a fail. Last week, just days after returning home from Croke Park, Pray announced on his social media sites that he’d stopped posting Gaelic football videos because of “the negative nature of some messages that I’ve gotten from some Ireland-based individuals.

“[They] think I should let Irish-bred folks commentate Irish sports,” Pray wrote.

The authors of The GAA: A People’s History, a 2010 book commissioned by the organization for its 125th birthday, summed up Bloody Sunday thusly: “[O]f all the bloody days of the War of Independence, this was the bloodiest of them all—at least in terms of its impact on the public psyche.” Within a couple years of the Croke Park massacre, a free Republic of Ireland was declared, and home rule commenced over most of the island.

But not all. The English oppressors held on to six counties, and those territories now make up Northern Ireland. This particular keepsake from England’s imperialist past, more than anything else, is what’s mucked up Brexit thus far. Simply, the braintrust behind Brexit never figured out how to have an island with two countries, one inside the European Union and one part of the U.K., without putting up a hard border between them. And the idea of a hard border scares people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

So the Dublin-Kerry finals came at a time when Ireland-England history was again quite relevant, amid all sorts of fears that the Brits will try to yet again screw over the Irish. Vice President Mike Pence made everything worse when he showed up in Dublin between the first game and the replay. Pence, as if completely unaware of the history of the country he claims to be descended from, delivered a tone-deaf demand that Irish leaders “protect the U.K.’s sovereignty.” He also counseled Ireland to “negotiate in good faith” with Trumpish bozo Boris Johnson to ease the Brits’ debacled secession from the E.U. Pence’s performance led Miriam Lord of the Irish Times to write a column headlined “How Mike Pence Shat on the New Carpet in Ireland’s Spare Room.

The GAA never completely recognized the forced breakup of Ireland: Gaelic football and hurling teams from counties in Northern Ireland still compete for All-Ireland titles, just like they did in the 19th century. To get to this year’s football final, Kerry beat Tyrone, a club from the North, in the semifinals.

The GAA has occasionally made it known through the decades it’s not totally ready to make nice with the Brits. GAA’s so-called “Rule 42,” implemented around the turn of the last century, banned the playing of the Garrison games that Michael Collins despised at all hurling and football grounds. That edict wasn’t loosened until 2005, which allowed GAA officials to approve non-Gaelic events on a case-by-case basis.

But every now and then the group still acts as if it wants just Gaels to have fun at its playing grounds. Last year, the GAA initially rejected a plea to hold a memorial soccer match for former English Premier League and Irish national team star Liam Miller at Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the main football and hurling stadium in Cork. Miller had died of cancer at 36 years old. The organization ultimately bent to overwhelming public pressure and ignored the old nationalistic rule, so a sport that was once banned by the GAA and tagged as a “foreign game,” was played on the Gaelic football pitch.

The most rancorous of these debates came over a rugby game. While Trinity College in Dublin was recognized to have the oldest rugby club in the world, founded in the 1850s, rugby was always banned from being played across town at Croke Park. But in 2007, while Ireland’s national rugby team’s home grounds at Lansdowne Road were being renovated, Ireland participated in the Six Nations tournament, a top international competition. No other non-GAA stadium in the country was big enough to host any games. Without a waiver of Rule 42, the Irish team would have to play all its Six Nation games on foreign soil. So GAA relented and the allowed the home squad to use Croke Park.

The most controversial and emotional moments of that Six Nations tournament came when Ireland faced England. That meant “God Save the Queen,” the British national anthem, would be played at the very site of the Bloody Sunday atrocities perpetrated by the anti-Irish forces loyal to the throne. After much debate, the match went ahead, anthem and all, with no hiccups.

“That was the proudest moment of my career, playing ‘God Save the Queen’ at Croke Park,” says Pat Kenny, a Dublin police officer and longtime conductor for the An Garda Síochána band (“Guardians of the Peace” in Gaelic), the official band of the Dublin police department, with whom he’s marched before Croker crowds for 37 years. Kenny’s wearing a Dublin football jersey as he’s remembering his biggest day as a bandleader. “Everybody was listening,” he says. “You could hear a pin drop in that stadium. It was a great day.”

Ireland won the ensuing game, 43-13, handing the British their worst defeat in the history of the tournament. Foreign game or not, the Irish have embraced rugby by now. And thrived: Ireland heads into the Rugby World Cup in Japan this week as the top-ranked team in the world. Many of Ireland’s recent rugby stars grew up playing Gaelic football before pursuing the professional game.

It’s not all about appeasement at Croke Park, however. As Dublin and Kerry were in the locker rooms at halftime of the Sept. 1 All-Ireland final, “Foggy Dew” came over the public address system. That’s among the most popular, sadder and angrier of the Irish rebel songs, with lyrics blasting “Britannia’s huns with their long range guns” and mourning “those who died that Eastertide.” It was born out of the same rising of 1916, just like, according to legend and the official GAA history, Croke Park’s Hill 16.

With their win in the All-Ireland final, Dublin will enter next season as the first team to ever go for a sixth straight championship. But the streak might not be the biggest story in Gaelic for 2020. It’ll have to compete with the centenary of Bloody Sunday, the day a football pitch became a killing field, and a game became forever linked with a freedom fight.

“One hundred years,” said Ó Muircheartaigh. “That will be a big deal.”

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