What is Gaelic football?

By Abby Grace Shrader

GALWAY, Ireland – A Gaelic football match pits two teams of 15 players against each other on a 425-foot-by-300-foot field with H-shaped goal posts. The team with the most points after two 30-minute halves is your winner.

“The primary objective is to score by driving the ball through or over the goals,” according to the Na Fianna Gaelic football club in Dublin. A ball kicked over the bar of the goals earns a team one point. A ball under the bar and into the netted goal mouth earns a team three points.

Galway, in white, versus Cork in a Gaelic Athletic Association game in February 2022. Photo by David Ribeiro.

Gaelic football is unique in the ways that the ball can be handled. Shaped like a soccer ball but slightly heavier, the Gaelic football can be dribbled like a basketball, fisted like a volleyball and kicked like an American football. It can also be “soloed,” which is when a player punts the ball off his foot as players do in soccer.

Gaelic football is a fluid sport, with players positioned all over the field, much as they are in soccer.

The Gaelic Football Association describes itself as the largest sporting organization in Ireland, with 2,800 clubs representing about 182,000 footballers at many levels of age and ability.

Metaphor for war

Irish typically root for the team or teams from the city or region in which they live. A player must be 18 to qualify for a roster spot on an adult inter-county football club, according to the GAA, but, there are clubs for different age ranges in every county. Because of this, Irish can recreationally play Gaelic football their entire lives.

“When it comes to the All-Ireland (Gaelic football) final, it is exceedingly difficult to get a ticket,” said Brendan McGowan, education and outreach officer for the Galway City Museum. “Even though there are over 80,000 seats in (Croke Park in Dublin), it is virtually impossible (to get a ticket) because the sport is so popular.”

Declan Varley, group editor for the Galway Advertiser newspaper, compared Gaelic football to warfare, noting that fans organize themselves much like the ancient tribes of Celtic Ireland.

“There’s a great interest in sports, because sports really is our warfare,” Varley said. “Since we were living in caves, we would just go out with clubs and beat each other. Now we just do it through sports.”


Gaelic football has been played in Ireland for well over than 600 years, according to the GAA, or more than 400 years before the United States was established.

A Gaelic football match in Armagh, Northern Ireland, the date for which is not known. Photo by H. Allison & Co.

Gaelic football is the most popular sport in Ireland, according to John Geraghty, a bartender at Richardson’s Pub, a favorite haunt on Galway’s Eyre Square. He said the sport is popular among both boys and girls and that many Irish begin playing it when they are young and play it well into adult life.

To the casual observer, the sport seems to combine elements of American football, soccer, rugby and even basketball, yet Gaelic football pre-dates all these sporting endeavors. The rules have changed over the years, with influences from Australian football and even the potato famine influencing how the sport is played, according to the blog, Rebel Óg Coaching. For example, in the 1600s, players were not allowed to kick or catch the ball. The famine nearly drove Gaelic football, among other native games, into extinction, according to the blog.

Modern Gaelic football is less violent compared to its centuries-old precursors, though it remains very much a contact sport.

The first record of an unofficial or recreational Gaelic football match was in the countryside in 1527, according to Rebel Óg Coaching. This match had few rules. The earliest reported match with official teams and established rules took place in the city of Slane in County Meath in 1712 when Meath played neighboring Louth.

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