Gaelic Football N’at
“Up the Dubs,” is a phrase that would have meant absolutely nothing to me, if my life had taken a different turn. Yet, for the fourth year in a row, I will find myself sitting at a bar in the South Side on a Sunday morning in September, screaming the phrase at the TV around a mouthful of black pudding, in an effort to support my husband and his “boys in blue.”
You see, my husband, Killian, is from Dublin, Ireland, and he originally came to the U.S. on a scholarship to Mercyhurst University in Erie. We met on our first day of freshman orientation in 2008, and from that moment on, I have found myself doing all sorts of things I never could have predicted, such the ongoing search for Bisto gravy in the international section at grocery stores, or the frequency at which I find myself lovingly saying the words, “Speak American, boy, I can’t understand you!” But the most out-of-character change for my lipstick-wearing, artistically minded self has been an appreciation for sports—particularly Gaelic football.
In a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon, Irish comedian Chris O’Dowd described Gaelic football as, “a great sport. You should try it if you like wrestling or death,” after recounting a list of Gaelic injuries that have left him with the “skeletal structure of a very old giraffe.”
It’s fast-paced. It’s a bit violent. And it’s, dare I say, far more exciting than American football.
The game is easy enough to understand: 15 players per team try to gain possession of a ball, which is round and slightly smaller than a soccer ball, on a rectangular grass playing field approximately 160 yards long and 100 yards wide. Once a team has the ball, they kick or punch it through the other team’s goalposts, which resemble the ones in American football, but with a soccer net underneath. To transport the ball, players must either pass, bounce or “solo” it across the field (dropping the ball onto your foot and kick it back into your hand). They can score a goal, worth three points, for getting it past the goalkeeper and into the net, or they can score one point by lobbing it over the crossbar, between the goal posts (sort of like a field goal).
Make sense? Watch the video below for a basic overview on the major Gaelic sports: football, hurling and camogie. As you will see in the video, hurling is a stick-and-ball game similar to Gaelic football, except that the players carry hurleys (sticks) that they use to hit the sliotar (ball). And even though the rules are slightly different, camogie is basically just hurling for women. I’m not as well-acquainted with hurling or camogie, as my husband mainly follows Gaelic football.
What I find fascinating about the Gaelic sports is the fact that they are all very old—and I mean ancient old. The first written legal reference to “caid,” an archaic ancestor of Gaelic football, was in 1308, when a spectator named John McCrocan was charged with accidentally stabbing a football player, William Bernard, at a game in Newcastle, Dublin. Hurling, on the other hand, likely predates the written history of Ireland, as stick-and-ball games are present in Irish mythology and are thought to have come to Ireland with the Celts (around 400 BC).
Despite periods of large-scale emigration, poverty and turmoil due to British rule in Ireland, both football and hurling survived and evolved over the centuries. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was formed on November 1, 1884, in the billiards room of a hotel in Tipperary, and the codes that the founders formalized at that meeting became the basis for the modern games.
Since its formation, the GAA has played an incredibly important role in Irish history and the preservation of Irish culture. The club purchased the grounds for Croke Park in Dublin in 1913, which today is the site of the GAA headquarters and the largest stadium in Ireland. The GAA’s political influence increased when many of its members were imprisoned for participating in the 1916 Easter Rising, and it played an important role leading up to the Irish War of Independence when it peacefully defied British authorities by organizing “Gaelic Sunday,” a 54,000-member countrywide day of unsanctioned matches on Sunday, August 4, 1918.
Today, the GAA has representation in all 32 counties of Ireland through more than 2,200 clubs in the country’s largest cities and smallest villages. It is considered one of the greatest amateur sporting associations in the world. The inter-county All-Ireland championships in hurling and football take place from May to September, culminating in the All-Ireland finals, which sell out Croke Park every year with 82,300 in attendance (including those who watch from Hill 16—an undeveloped terrace patronized mostly by Dubliners with a reputation for getting a bit rowdy).
The All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final was held on Sunday, August 19, between Galway and Limerick, with Limerick bringing home the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Up next is the All-Ireland Senior Football Final, which will be happening this Sunday, September 2, at 10:30 a.m. EST against Dublin and Tyrone. Call your favorite Irish pub to see if they will be streaming it!
When it comes to Gaelic football, my husband, forever a Dublin boy, is fiercely loyal to the Dubs. And if you are the sort of person who likes to support teams that actually win, you should root for the Dubs, too. Dublin has held on to the Sam Maguire Cup for three years—they won in 2015 against Kerry, and in 2016 and 2017 against Mayo—and we’re obviously hoping for a fourth in 2018.
For this reason, I often equate the Dubs to the New England Patriots, even though I know that’s not doing them any favors here in Steelers Country—Dublin has a reputation for playing a bit dirty, and they are admittedly an excellent team, so people love to hate them.
Perhaps this is why we rarely find other Dublin fans in Pittsburgh. Or maybe it is simply because more people have immigrated to Pittsburgh from the west coast of Ireland. Regardless, for the past two years during the Gaelic football final, we have been part of a small pocket of blue-attired Dubliners amidst a sea of rowdy Mayo fans sporting their Christmassy greens and reds.
If you aren’t able to watch the match this Sunday, or if going to a bar at 10:30 a.m. just isn’t your cup of tea, do not fear! Because we are in Pittsburgh (and Pittsburgh is the best), you have multiple opportunities to catch some Gaelic sports live.
First, the Pittsburgh Irish Festival will feature hurling matches at 2 and 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 8, and at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, September 9. The Pittsburgh Pucas hurling club will face off against the Panther Hurling Club from the University of Pittsburgh in three exhibition matches near the Celtic Spirit Stage. Guests will even have the chance to try their hand at the game following each match.
Also, remember how I said that the GAA has 2,200 clubs in Ireland? Well they also have more than 400 international clubs, one of which is right here in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Gaelic Athletic Association (PGAA) was founded in 2010 and focuses mainly on football. The PGAA is home to three teams—the Pittsburgh Celtics Gaelic Football Club and the Pittsburgh Banshees Ladies Football Club, both of which have won multiple championships, and the Pittsburgh GAA Youth Team, for ages 6 to 16. Unfortunately, Gaelic football is winding down for the season, but you can keep tabs on upcoming games by visiting their website.
Even if you choose to simply file all of this information away, without ever pursuing an interest in Ireland’s great Gaelic sports, spare a thought for Killian and I this Sunday. We will likely find ourselves outnumbered, cheering for the boys in blue in a pub full of white-jerseyed Tyrone fans and confused Americans just trying to enjoy their breakfasts. If you happen to see that Dublin should win, we invite you to stop whatever you are doing, raise a glass of whatever you are drinking and join us in saying “Sláinte” (pronunced “Slan-cha,” the Irish version of “cheers”) in honor of an incredible four-year winning streak for Dublin. Up the Dubs!
PGAA is much older than 8 years…..closer to 50+. My father, a Galway man, was involved before I was born. Great organization! Thanks for writing this.
Laura Pace Lilley
Editor’s note: The PGAA’s history says it was founded in 2010 but that Gaelic football has been played in Pittsburgh since the 1940s.https://www.pittsburghgaa.com/