Got Game? Sporting some Irish Culture at the GAA

By Michaela Vitagliano, Visiting Student Blogger

Hi, my name is Michaela Vitagliano, and I hail from Boston. I am so fortunate to spend an academic year here in Ireland, studying at the historical and prestigious Trinity College. My Humanities major at Yale translates into several different departments here — already the European education system’s differences are apparent! Over the course of the year, I hope to not only deepen my knowledge academically, but culturally.

And what better way to learn and integrate myself into Irish culture than to watch and cheer on an Irish sports team? Well, to be honest, back home I couldn’t care less about sports. I remember being outraged at the salary figures, being perplexed at why teams would trade their players like mere cards, and getting so lost during a Red Sox baseball game that when it was over, I hadn’t even realized the game had started. To be fair, I was maybe only 9.

My first proper introduction to what my host father calls ‘the greatest organisation in the world’ was during the Semester Start-Up Programme’s trip to Croke Park (Páirc an Chrócaigh). There, I learned the formal rules. For example, the goal post is a big H. If the ball goes over, that’s a point. Under, and it’s a goal. Three points equals one goal. Having to do math to keep track of your favourite team? This was serious business. I also came away with some history: The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was founded in Tipperary in 1884 by Michael Cusack and Maurice David. The idea was to have Irish sports for Irish people, using Irish rules. Before this, sports in Ireland came under the guise of the very much English influenced rugby and cricket. Hence one can understand that the GAA’s beginnings were very much political. The games proposed were Gaelic Football and Hurling. Gaelic Football drew upon English football and the traditions of the Irish countryside for its rules – throw-in balls and tackling met. Hurling, on the other hand, went even deeper in Irish history. Literature on ancient Ireland depicts hurling as a mythical sport, wrapped up in folkloric tales of bravery and heroism. And I definitely could see the underlying heroism in these sports. Our tour started with a video that could give the US Marine Corps a run for its money in how it depicted the bravery, the challenges, and the sheer grit it took to play these games.

Michaela_Blog1_Photo1.pngAbove: Touring the GAA Croke Park Stadium with the Semester Start-Up Programme

Michaela_Blog1_Photo2.pngAbove: Parade float hurleys, the sticks used during a match of hurling

And yet, these heroes were amateur players. For instance, all of the players have day jobs. Some might be teachers, who, after a long day of work, travel back to their county club to train in the evening. Unlike in American sports, they do not play for money, and they are not traded away to other clubs and teams. What this does is it enables a strong sense of community, a sense of place, and a deep loyalty amongst fans.

So when the Men’s Gaelic Football Final occurred, who was I cheering for? I’m clearly not Irish, so it would have made perfectly good sense to cheer on Dublin (the Boys in Blue) and scream ‘up the Dubs!’, but loyalties do remain strong, and my heart lay with Mayo. Apparently everyone in Ireland, save Dubliners, was behind them, so I was in good company. But my reason for supporting the red and green jerseys of Mayo lay with the fact that my neighbours and good friends back home, who made it possible for me to stay with a host family in Dublin, are from County Mayo. To make it very clear, I even bet a fiver that Mayo would win.

Michaela_Blog1_Photo3.pngAbove: View of Drumcondra from a bus going back home after the Men’s Final Football Game (1st time around)

Perhaps I should have paid heed to the Curse of ’51. Legend has it that in 1951 when Mayo last won, as they were passing through a town on their way home, in all their merriment and celebration, they did not pay proper respects to a funeral. A gypsy or priest (take your pick), placed a curse on Mayo that they would never win a final until everyone on the team of 1951 had died.

Halfway through the very fast-paced game, Mayo had scored the most goals and points…for Dublin. It seemed like the curse was in full effect. During the half-time break, I shared a joke that we’d soon be reading news reports of a couple old Mayo men who had mysteriously died. But a friend retorted that Dublin probably had ambulances stationed outside the Mayo residents’ lodges in case of emergency. For all of that, by the very end, Mayo and Dublin tied. Instead of going into over-time, a tie match is settled with another game. So in two weeks’ time, Mayo would be back to challenge Dublin.

Michaela_Blog1_Photo4.pngAbove: Picture taken of the Mayo jersey (three cheers for Mayo!) in the locker rooms of the stadium.

In the meantime, my host family generously gave me tickets to the All Ireland Women’s Gaelic Football Final match: Dublin vs. Cork. If there was ever a game I wished to see live, it was this one, for the tour guide had said that the women’s teams this year were the strongest. Apparently a few women not only excelled at Gaelic Football, but were quite handy with hurling, too. Overachievers to say the least! I invited my friend Anne, and together we were both excited to support a team of women, something hard to do in the States.


Above: Not the golden ticket, but close enough!

A brief note: The first ever inter-county ladies football match was in 1973 and was met with much scepticism. I suppose that with the nationalist overtones of Irish sports, along with the Victorian age vestige that sports turn boys into men, it was not a surprise that having women step on the hallowed grass of Croke Park would come so late.

Michaela_Blog1_Photo6.pngAbove: Watching the Junior Women’s final football match!

Michaela_Blog1_Photo7.pngAbove: End of the junior match: Co. Clare is seen commiserating their loss, while nearby Co. Kildare gathers to celebrate their win.

We sat on the Premium Level of the Cusack Stand, which meant that between the matches (there were three – Cork vs. Dublin was the senior football match), we could go inside and stop at any of the restaurants or cafes for sustenance and either hot chocolate, coffee, tea, or whiskey. Maybe all of the above. It was a long day and we sat through rain and sun. The GAA had a good time with it, playing ‘Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head’ as the rain picked up speed, and transitioning to ‘Here Comes the Sun’ as the rays of sun tried in vain to warm us. I regrettably did not bring a coat with me, and was forced to go to Elvery’s (a sports store) to find something to keep me warm. Alas, the only item I could find was a Dublin jersey. It turns out warmth sometimes wins out over loyalty, but to be fair, Mayo was not playing that day.

Michaela_Blog1_Photo8.pngAbove: Anne and I, finally warm, and excited for the last match!

Apparently, while the stadium was not filled to capacity for this game, it was the highest record for number of people to attend a Women’s Gaelic Football game. I suppose that counts as progress? Classically, in the last few seconds of the match, Dublin scored a goal, but the cheers of Dublin fans soon turned into cheers of Cork fans, for the timer sounded, and Cork won by a point. Cork’s win, however, was not without contention. In fact, the game very well should have been a tie, for Dublin scored a point that was not counted. It was the referee’s call, and he decided not to count that point. When this normally happens, ‘Hawkeye’ is enabled, and it allows for computers to analyse and replay the contested shot.  But this is only in men’s games, and so ‘Hawkeye’ was unfairly not used in this game. Maybe in the future things will change, especially since it was Dublin that lost due to this interesting rule.

Michaela_Blog1_Photo9.pngAbove: The last match of the All Ireland Women’s Football Final: Cork vs Dublin. Notice how many Cork fans there are!

Finally, the long awaited day came. Mayo and Dublin once again. This time I watched from a TV screen, but that did not diminish my excitement. During some parts I was jumping up and down, other times I was screaming at the screen. The referees were struggling to keep up with all of the fouls, dealing out yellow cards and black cards as if they had a quota to reach. It was a dirty game, but a great one. When my host parents and I watched the analysis of the game that night, we all commiserated Mayo’s loss. It was then that I knew the GAA had won me over and I was indeed a sports person, or at least, a GAA sports fan. I’ve come to understand that the GAA reflects the Irish society in which it was created. Its history and evolution has been forged by countless individuals – their devotion, their effort, and ultimately, their love for a good game. It is no wonder now to me why this is a national pastime for Ireland, and I eagerly look forward to cheering on Mayo next year, donning all the red and green clothes I can find, from an Irish pub back home in Boston.

Michaela_Blog1_Photo10.pngAbove: The original 1928 Sam Maguire Cup. This cup is awarded to the winning team of the All Ireland Senior Football Championship.

Michaela_Blog1_Photo11.pngAbove: Croke Park.



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