Much like music, sport and national identity have a thorny relationship. National sporting obsessions exist, but they are tricky to pin down without resorting to crude cultural stereotypes. Kiwis love rugby, Americans love baseball, Canadians love ice hockey, and so on.
There are some countries, like England and the U.S., that have conceived so many popular sports that they are overstretched in their love for them, and any link to national identity is tenuous. In these countries a person’s sport of choice is more revealing of social class or local region rather than national identity. Ireland too is a bit like this, yet it has two national sports, of which few outside the island are aware, deeply woven into the country’s political history and cultural identity.
These sports make up a part of Gaelic games; Gaelic referring to the language and culture that once dominated all of Ireland and parts of Scotland. Technically, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) administers four Gaelic sports, although only two have any important following: Gaelic football and hurling.
The former is the most popular sport in Ireland, something aficionados of rugby and soccer grumble costs Ireland sporting excellence in international sports. Gaelic football consists of 15 players a side playing on a field similar to rugby, aiming to kick the ball over the bar between two long posts for one point, and under the bar (in the goal) for three points. It’s a highly physical, skilful, fast, and violent game, with strong regional concentrations of excellence. Dublin and Kerry often square up in All-Ireland football finals, a rivalry roughly equivalent to the Yankees and Red Sox, except that the Dublin-Kerry rivalry represents the divide between rural Ireland and the city, old and new. In other words, Gaelic football has all the ingredients of a perfect spectator sport.
Hurling is far more ancient and is arguably the original Irish game. Played with sticks – called hurleys – carved from ash, and a small, rock-hard ball – called the sliotar – it is also much more violent. The earliest surviving written evidence for the sport comes from the 5th century, though it is likely much older than that, making it one of the oldest recorded field sports in the world. For example, Irish mythology is awash with references to the game. Cú Chulainn, a sort of Irish Achilles, is celebrated both as a warrior and a talented hurler. His hurling skills caught the eye of a local king, who brought him into his service as a guard after the boy slew his guard-dog with his hurley and and sliotar. Fionn mac Cumhail – known as Finn McCool in English – and his band of legendary warriors, the Fianna, would undertake military training in the morning and play hurling in the afternoon. The game today still retains a heroic quality, and though few outside of Ireland are aware, it is considered the fastest field sport in the world.
Under colonial rule, any expression of Irish identity could be construed as a political, anti-imperial act, and so many revolutionary organizations also adopted these mythological tropes, and promoted native games as a counter to colonial pressures. Indeed, the Fenian Brotherhood (a 19th century precursor to the Irish Republican Army (IRA)) took their name from the Finn and his Fianna, which means warrior in Gaelic. Similarly, Fenian is often used as a derogatory synonym for Irish nationalist, and the Fianna Fáil party – which, translated, means “warriors of destiny” – is one of Ireland’s largest political parties.
Formed in the late 19th century, the heyday of the Celtic political and cultural revival, the GAA administered Irish sport while encouraging native culture and language. It still remains an important fixture in Irish life. Furthermore, its reputation as an organization dedicated to championing native concerns was probably helped by one of the bloodiest atrocities committed during Ireland’s ‘revolutionary period (1910-1920). In response to a series of assassinations of British spies in Dublin, British troops opened fire on a crowd watching a Gaelic football match in Dublin on November 21, 1920, killing 14 civilians and forever immortalizing the day as Bloody Sunday. On top of that, along with the Catholic Church, it was one of the few organizations that spanned Ireland after independence, and was seen as a unifying force.
It is little surprise, then, that the GAA the has remained a deeply politicized organization with ties to the nationalist and Catholic Fianna Fáil party, and the history of Gaelic games is often pegged alongside struggles for self-determination.
This sounds innocuous enough, but as with most issues affecting ‘Irishness,’ it is explicitly political. Until the early 1970s, the GAA explicitly forbade members from taking part in “foreign” games – what is really meant by “foreign” is English. Still today, players in Gaelic sports are discouraged from playing English games. The GAA has yet to completely shed its antagonistic relationship with the culture of the old colonizer England. In the interests of reconciliation, and even sportsmanship, this is a sorry historical hangover.
Indeed, to Canadians who might suspect that history is just history, such questions are still very tense in Ireland. Croke Park, a GAA stadium in Dublin with a capacity of 80,000 – making it the largest amateur stadium in the world – still retains a rule that prohibits the playing of foreign games on its grounds. When the other stadium in Dublin was in disrepair, and Ireland was due to host a series of international rugby matches in 2007, a controversial decision was made to overturn this rule. Although the rule banning foreign games still technically exists, it can be overturned at any time by the Central Council. The first fixture of the matches was Ireland against England, the first time that a foreign game had ever been played on the grounds. The match was highly symbolic; much was made of the of the fact that “God Save the Queen” would be played at one of the most hallowed sites of Irish identity. In the end, the stadium stood silent and respectful during the English anthem, but the symbolism was lost on no one, and the Irish anthem was bellowed at full-cry in response.
Sport and identity are thus inextricably linked. Over the centuries, Ireland emptied due to oppression, economic exploitation and enduring poverty. Emigrants mostly lost their language when they left, but their sports stuck with them. Indeed, it is fascinating to watch how Gaelic games have spread across the globe in tune with Irish emigration, and how local GAA clubs act as anchors in immigrant communities. These clubs follow the diaspora wherever they go and are found all over the Americas and Antipodes. Even Irish-born people are surprised to learn that at one time Argentina had an active hurling league, with full coverage in Spanish language newspapers. Montreal follows the trend and has its own GAA club, founded by in the late 19th century by Irish immigrants. That the club is still active today is a testament to the pull of Gaelic games on the Irish community and the strength of cultural identity. Recent Irish immigrants, as well as Canadians of Irish descent, play Gaelic sports at the club in Montreal, perhaps as a reminder of home, or as a celebration of some intangible feeling of identity.
Visit a GAA club outside of Ireland today and you will find an eclectic mix of people of all backgrounds. Often drawn by the novelty, the drama, and the romantic glamour of these ancient sports, newcomers are sometimes prone to forget the politics behind them. This is a good thing. International sport is usually political, but rarely do sports in themselves symbolize political movements. If painful political shadows are gradually disappearing from Gaelic games, this marks a victory for the politics of self-determination. Irish identity is perhaps no longer seen as threatening. May it serve as a reminder that cultural identity can be preserved, even under external pressure.