“And we believe in football,As we believe in song”
So wrote Gabriel Fitzmaurice in a collection of his work published in 2009, entitled In Praise of Football. Here, Mikey Sheehy isunderstood as “Nureyev with a football” and the game he played is portrayed as an art.
Dara Ó Cinnéide puts it brilliantly when he writes that the poems in the book “speak of heroes and of immortality. They sing of great deeds, of glory and of grace.
Fitzmaurice’s parishes and people are defined by the games and by how those games are played. Triumph, trophies, truth and betrayal are ‘things insufficient till they’re sung.’”
In his poetry, Fitzmaurice gives Gaelic football the sort of treatment that is normally reserved for hurling. That is to say, he writes about the game with reverence and love.
To speak about Gaelic football in this matter is not always — or even often — an easy thing to do. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any field game that is so routinely derided as Gaelic football. Not least when it is held in comparison to hurling.
Indeed, this desire to create a binary relationship between hurling and football is usually used to elevate the one while demeaning the other.
There is a basic problem, though, for people who insist on such comparisons and who see Gaelic football as a sporting and cultural abomination — this problem lies in the fact that football is more popular across Ireland than hurling.
That is to say, it has more people playing it, more people attending football matches, and more people watching football matches on television.
If hurling is so self-evidently superior, why is Gaelic football more popular?
It is worth exploring why that is the case and why a game which is considered to be perpetually in crisis, decline, disarray, or is simply diseased, draws so many people into its ambit?
The first and most basic reason lies in the pleasure of kicking a ball. This is a pleasure which is shared by societies across the world in a history that extends for millennia back past the modern organisation of sport.
For example, 2,000 years ago the Chinese played a hugely popular game called cuju (literally, kick-ball), medieval Japan had a football game called kemari, and for thousands of years the Indigenous Australians played a football game called Marn Gook.
The essential joy of playing with a ball is something that is revealed in poetry and in reports and in the words of footballers across Ireland for hundreds of years. In a 1720 poem about a football match in North Dublin, to give one instance, there is talk of dextrous kicks, of smooth and swift motions, and of how:
“The watchful Daniel caught the flying ball,He proudly in his arms embraced,The welcome prize; then ran with eager haste.”
This love of the ball is most easily understood when one is placed in front of a small child, or in the noise of a GAA nursery, where it is the ball that matters more than anything else.
Basically, it is the most natural thing in the world to swing a boot at a round ball and watch it roll.
And it is something that stays with people, long after they have stopped kicking a ball. Seamus Heaney once wrote:
“Those were the days –Booting a leather footballTruer and fartherThan you ever expected!It went rattlingHard and FastOver daisies and benweeds,It thumpedBut it sang too”
As well as the sheer joy of playing with a ball, the second factor to consider is the love of the contest; the physical contest between two opposing players and broader contest between two opposing teams.
Again, this is a contest now regulated by tightly defined rules, even if what constitutes a tackle in Gaelic football remains a point of widespread disagreement.
Such disagreement is irrelevant to the essence of the contest. Again, contested ball games (including football ones) are central parts of cultures in societies across the world, time out of mind.
For example, in the archaeology of Mesoamerica — the Aztecs and the Mayans, for example — the remains of more than 1,500 ball courts survive, despite the destruction of that culture following the fall of the Aztecs to the superior weaponry (and weaponised diseases) of Spanish conquistadores in the early 1500s.
Many more courts must have been lost to the jungle or destroyed by the Spanish, but this was a form of play which developed across 3,000 years, where players played games in opposition to each other.
It was a trial of strength and bravery, as well as of skill. And this is a story of a love of competitive play which is retold in Greek and Roman civilisation, and in European societies ever since.
The ‘folk football’ games played across Ireland through medieval and early modern history fit easily into this wider history.
In many of these contests, strength and ‘manliness’ are presented as a form of heroism.
These were traditions which Maurice Davin — the president of the GAA — drew from he presented a set of football rules at the third GAA meeting, held in Thurles on January 17, 1885.
These rules were published in the United Ireland on February 10, 1885, and were later reprinted in pamphlet form in early May at the cost of 6d.
Davin’s desire was to make rules for a ‘fine manly game’, one which was not as vicious as rugby, a sport he considered ‘brutal and demoralising’.
The rules constructed for this new game, which quickly became known as ‘Gaelic’ football, were relatively vague and as well as being influenced by the rules of modern sport (Davin used research on the rules of soccer in making his rules for Gaelic football), also made a nod to what were deemed to be traditional Irish ways of play — to this end, the game allowed for players to break away from the play and engage in wrestling matches with each other while the game continued around them.
The first Gaelic football match saw a large crowd turn out in Callan, Co Kilkenny, to see the home team play against a team from Kilkenny city on February 15, 1885. The match ended in a scoreless draw between two teams of 21-a-side.
It was obvious that the game needed to be opened out a little to allow for more scoring opportunities. And so it was that in 1886 the tradition of players breaking off and wrestling was eventually ended when it was stated: ‘Wrestling and handigrips to be henceforth prohibited.’ News of this rule change has yet to reach certain sections of the Association.
Back in 1886, banning wrestling led to complaint in the press, with letter writers grousing that the game had lost its manly aspect when denuded of wrestling. This controversy continued for several years.
In the way of these things, displays of strength were positively eulogised in reports of matches and in the reminiscences of those in attendance.
A local priest in Kerry, Rev John P Devane, wrote of matches in 1887 with “the tendency to play the man rather than the ball, especially when a side was losing”.
This was, he said, a most popular tactic with the crowd.
And as if to emphasise the importance of strength, at a remove of almost 50 years, he recalled a match between Castleisland and Tralee at the Tralee Sportsfield — who won the match escaped him but he did recall ‘Foxy Tom’ throwing three Castleisland fellows in a heap out over the ropes.
Press and public revelled in the fighting that occurred in Gaelic football matches. For example, when Ballyhale from Kilkenny played a football match against fellow countymen Slieverue in 1887, the reporter in the County Tipperary Independent was so appalled at the ‘disgraceful scenes’ that he felt compelled to offer an in-depth account.
Noting that the referee simply left the players at it when they started to fight, the reporter said that the entire match was little more than a faction fight. It got so bad that the Kilkenny county executive intervened and stopped the match by pulling up the goalposts.
Although the almost universal love of playing with a ball, and of engaging in a contest for that ball and for victory in a match, are essential to the enduring popularity of Gaelic football, it obviously does not properly explain why it is chosen by so many above other ball games.
There is now no shortage of opportunity for anyone who wishes to choose soccer (promoted as ‘the beautiful game’ by its propagandists) and rugby (the ultimate marketeers’ dream in its professional age).
The idea that Gaelic football was essentially doomed to defeat by these competitors is a familiar one.
In The Sunday Times in 1989, the broadcaster John Bowman wrote that it was naive to imagine that soccer, rugby, and Gaelic football could all prosper indefinitely on such a small island: “Many astute observers reckon that the threat must be to Gaelic football.”
In The Irish Times, Michael Finlan made a similar point: “We do seem to have reached the stage where soccer, a once-reviled symbol of foreign yokes and repression, is threatening to become the national game Ireland.”
But still Gaelic football rides out the inevitable ups and downs, and its hold remains strong.
This is rooted in the fact that between the 1880s and 1920s, Gaelic football established itself in almost every parish in the country, certainly in those parishes where hurling was not dominant.
In those decades a basic infrastructure of club formation and inter-club rivalry was established.
More than that, the framework for the progress of these clubs and competition between them was developed. TAnd more than that again, the fact the games were given additional meaning by tying them to boundaries of territory was crucial.
Basically, a game was not just made into a sport, but it was given additional meaning by making it stand for something more than just play.
From this meaning, a history has followed in which local loyalties are given free rein through the football teams that represent club and county.
It is true, of course, that hurling can do the same thing. But the difficulties in spreading hurling — rooted in the technical nature of the game and, historically, in the additional cost in playing it — hampered its expansion for many decades. It is arguable that they continue to do so.
Whatever about today, it was certainly true in the 1880s when the challenge facing hurling was immediately obvious to prominent hurlers such as PP Sutton, who wrote:
“The revival of hurling is heavily handicapped in comparison with that of football. The implements for playing it are far more expensive and more difficult to procure, while the practise necessary to attain any degrees of proficiency with the camán is vastly greater than that required for football.
"As regards football, all that is required to play it is a ten- or twelve-shilling ball, and without more ado a whole parish may indulge in the game to their hearts’ content.”
The supremacy of Gaelic football was clear from the very start. Many more teams entered the first football championships than entered the hurling championships.
And the story of the geography of modern sport is very much one where the game that established itself first in an area has usually proved exceptionally difficult to dislodge. There are, of course, many exceptions to this — but it is a widespread reality nonetheless.
The upshot is that it is this convergence of factors — love of play, love of contest, representation of place, and functioning infrastructure — that has provided the foundation on which the success of Gaelic football rests.
Like other football games across the world, it suffers in its portrayals beside studies of the stick-and-ball games with which it shares a sporting space.
For example, despite the obvious success of the NFL and the college game in the US, American Football is not portrayed in anything approaching the same elegiac manner as baseball.
Similarly, in England, the cultural positioning of cricket sees it sit high above soccer and rugby in the sporting literature of that country. The grit and realism of David Storey’s brilliant novel This Sporting Life focuses on the tale of recounts the story of a rugby league footballer, Frank Machin, in Yorkshire.
Storey, himself a former professional rugby league footballer, also wrote a screenplay for a film of the book in which Richard Harris (playing Machin) was nominated for an Oscar for best leading actor.
But contrast this film with the elegance with which cricket is portrayed. Nobody has captured the idea of the cricket as the ultimate expression of Englishness with quite the same brilliance as Neville Cardus did in his book English Cricket, which was published in 1945.
Cardus, for many years music critic and cricket writer with the Manchester Guardian, presented a story that was bathed in romance and nostalgia as it evoked the history of cricket and its meaning.
Cricket, he wrote, was not merely a game, but an institution that sat at the very heart of English life. This institution ‘holds the mirror up to English nature’, and in it ‘we see the men, the originals, the characters, all sorts and conditions, in a cavalcade of English character that travels down the years’.
For Cardus, the cricket field and its surrounds created a particular atmosphere and a way of life that was seared onto the nation’s consciousness.
And, more than anything, cricket was considered to offer a space where men could reveal themselves, their character, and their nationality.
This is certainly not something that is written about the football games of England — although it’s reminiscent of how people write about hurling!
Which brings us back to the poetry of Gaelic football.
Gabriel Fitzmaurice dedicated his In Praise of Football collection to Brendan Kennelly, whom he described as “Poet, Footballer, Kerryman”.
Kennelly, himself, has written some fine poems about Gaelic football, including one where he proclaims: “I’m shot through with the madness of football.”
But his best poem on football tells the story of attending an All-Ireland senior football final in the middle of September, as one of a crowd of almost 90,000 people. He writes of the band playing with verve, of hearing the national anthem, and of the electric feeling in Croke Park, a feeling that turns a stranger into a brother:
“It was, dare I say it, a religious occasion.The ball was thrown in and those two great teamsProceeded to kick the shit out of each other.”
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Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at UCD