Gaelic Games in Northern Ireland
The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed to promote Irish sports and culture
The contested definition of ‘Ulster’ makes discussing the Gaelic Athletic Association in Northern Ireland problematic. I would find myself in trouble at Croke Park if I debated the strengths and weaknesses of Ulster Gaelic teams without considering the three counties of the province that lie in the Republic of Ireland.
Partitionist commentary, as this has been dubbed, has thrown up very surprising coverage in Northern Irish publications. In 2003, Armagh overcame Donegal to reach the All-Ireland final, and the result was carried in a paper in Armagh with the headline, ‘Great victory for Ulster football’.
Both counties lie in the historic province of Ulster, although the team from Northern Ireland merited congratulations for overcoming a team from the Republic of Ireland.
The strength of Northern Irish Gaelic football teams in the past decade has seen other GAA sports receive little coverage. Of the three northern counties entered into the All-Ireland hurling inter-county Championship in the summer of 2004, only Antrim demonstrated a level of consistency and ability capable of challenging the southern powers’ claim on the title.
The support and strength of a local hurling team is often directly correlated to the weakness of their footballing side. Down and Derry also entered teams in the All-Ireland Championship, but usually supporters only watch the hurling when their football team have either been eliminated already, or are not playing until the following week. Antrim’s hurlers enjoy passionate support only because the football team are so poor.
Hurling’s traditional home is in north Antrim and the northeastern coast, around the Glens of Antrim. Towns such as Armoy, Cushendall, Dunloy and Cushendun have produced some of the finest hurlers in Ireland. Hurling also fosters intense passions and deep-rooted tribalism in these communities, and a match between two local sides can sometimes resemble civil war.
In 1904, the Gaelic Athletic Association decided to establish the Cumann Camógaíochta ma nGael to provide women and girls with the opportunity to participate in Gaelic games. Camogie soon flourished, and became hugely popular with both participants and fans.
It is basically a version of hurling, but with a smaller ball and greater dependence on skill and quick thinking than the strength and speed encouraged in the men’s game. It is played throughout Northern Ireland at club and inter-county level, and the two universities have produced fine camogie sides over the years.
The traditional hurling hot spots of north Antrim and the Ards peninsula have also produced a high calibre of camog or camogie player. Northern Ireland’s Crossmaglen Rangers won the All-Ireland club intermediate title in 2003, and their counterparts in Antrim won the same award at county level. The Cumann Camógaíochta ma nGael celebrated their centenary in 2004.
Numbers of participants, spectators and television viewers have increased significantly in recent years.
Women’s Gaelic football has recently enjoyed resurgence at club, university and county level. This rise in popularity was displayed in 2004 when the women’s football championship was rewarded with a prestigious sponsorship deal.
The most widely recognised GAA sport outside Ireland is handball. Very similar to squash but with the hands used instead of rackets, handball can be played by two opposing players or in teams of two. It is commonly played on the back streets of Northern Ireland, but unlike Gaelic football and hurling, it is popular throughout the world. In 2004, the world championships were held in Seattle, Washington.
The GAA was formed with the dual purpose of promoting traditional Irish sports and culture. Rule Four of the GAA guide states: ‘the Association shall actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, song and other aspects of Irish culture’. GAA clubs fulfil this function by hosting events known as Scór. Scór are competitive, with the best performers playing against other clubs. A winner is finally declared All-Ireland Champion.