You’ve got to love Gaelic games: “Players compete with non-stop-until-you-drop attitude. A steely determination. A belief that a show of pain is a show of weakness”
These are the words of Dean Goodison who makes his living standing on the sidelines of playing fields up and down the island of Ireland. He continues with: “It's a fast-paced, frantic kaleidoscope of action that will have you trying to look in several directions at once…”
Pen in hand, he carries the thrill of the game to newspaper. For Dean, the spectacle of live Gaelic games is sport at its most elemental: “Whether it's Gaelic football, hurling or camogie, the experience encapsulates everything that's synonymous with the Irish. It's a rip-roaring good time, it's tribal and about deeply engrained rivalries. But it's always respectful.”
What are the Gaelic games?
Dean, as much as anyone, will know the weight of history that towers over Gaelic games. Collectively the official games organised by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) include Gaelic football, hurling, handball and rounders. Women’s versions of hurling (camogie) and football are also played and, although they’re not organised by the GAA, there is a very close association.
Myth and legend
Gaelic games are entrenched in myth. Ireland’s greatest warrior Cú Chulainn is said to have carried a hurl (the ash wood stick for hurling) and a sliotar (the small leather ball used in the game) as weaponry. It was a well-earned shot from the two that killed a fearsome hound and saved his life.
Even now, the image of Cú Chulainn stalking the Antrim hills with a hurl hanging from his hand is an iconic one.
That fervor in the stands isn’t just for show. Gaelic games enjoyed a revival in the 1880s during a time of political turbulence on the island. Running out for your club or county was a show of patriotism.
It still is.
Ask not what your county can do for you…
This is a sport rooted in community and driven by volunteers. The excesses of other games are swapped for raw devotion. The guy who scored that goal? He’s a bank clerk during the week. The girl who plucked the sliotar from the sky? She’s the local vet.
Hanging over Dublin’s Royal Canal, Croke Park stands as a dazzling testament to this amateur sport. Championship games here are raucous and loud. Hairs stand on necks and goosebumps cover arms.
As Dean tells us, though, you don’t have to be in the Republic's capital to dip your toe into the waters of Gaelic games:
“Part of the beauty of the game is that it's so accessible. Sure, the best of the best ply their trade in the stadium, but from Antrim to Athenry, Ballybofey to Blessington and from Westport to Wexford, you'll have an array of games to watch from January to November.”
Pick a game, any game, and it will be hotly contested. When the final whistle sounds, though, fans are back on level terms:
“There’s one thing that brings everyone from all sides together, a common ground that, no matter what happens in the game, you hear as you leave: 'My God, that referee was terrible wasn't he?'"
Some things, it seems, are common to all sports.