GAA For Beginners

Every summer, men and women across Ireland become enthralled by the sight of 15 “local” (read: from anywhere within the county) men running around a field in pursuit of a small leather sphere. For some people, who have very little experience with the game, going to their first viewing can be similar to sitting a maths exam; confusing and challenging.

This weekend sees the culmination of the hurling championship in Ireland,with an All Ireland Final between Kilkenny and Galway to be played on Sunday. If you’re getting curious as to what the game entails, try and sit yourself next to a seasoned pro, preferably a friend moved over from the Emerald Isle. They might just answer some of the questions you have…

So, what’s actually going on here?

It’s a hurling match.

Oh. Cool. What’s that?

It’s 15 men with sticks hammering the living daylights out of 15 other men, who are also with stick. Sometimes they hit the ball, too.

It has been described, by some of your fellow Brits, as a cross between hockey and murder. We take our pastimes very seriously in Ireland, you know.

And how do they know where to go on the field?

Like rugby, GAA jerseys are labelled 1-15. Number one is the goalie, who stands on the goal line and, as his name suggests, protects the goal.

From two to seven, you have the back line- three full back line, three half back line, and these are the defenders. Beware number three- the full back. Many inter county full backs are strong as they’re found standing right in front of their own goalkeepers, so need to be on form to protect him/the goal. If the goalkeeper is missing for any reason, the full back is usually called upon to stand charge.

Eight and nine are midfielders. They generally stay in the middle of the pitch and run like demented toddlers.

From ten to 15 is the forward line- once again, three half forward line and three full forward line.

Ok. So why is everyone standing up?

The national anthem is playing. Everyone is silent for this, except for the last line when we can’t handle it and burst into patriotic encouragement of our own team. Unless they know the words, in which case they sing and STILL shout over the last few lines. No one actually knows what the last line is.

In fact, 90 per cent of Irish people don’t know the full anthem and just mumble through, so it’ll be fine.

Game’s on. How long does this last? 

You’ll spend the next 70 minutes of your life here. It’s 35 minutes a half in senior inter-county games, while other grades play each half for half an hour.

There’s also the 15 minutes of half time, when you either watch the analysis lovingly provided by The Sunday Game, or begin your own if you were lucky enough to be among the roughly 82,000 people at the game in Croke Park.

The Sunday Game. Is that like Match of the Day?

Almost, but in another way not at all. Unlike MOTD, The Sunday Game starts during the day, when it shows the games live. RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, has the rights for the big games like the All Ireland, while channels like TV3, TG4 (which broadcasts in Irish) and Sky Sports also have games aired throughout the summer.

It also has a pretty cracking theme song.


All Ireland Final. So the last day of the Premiership, right?

Wrong. More like the Superbowl.

The top teams in the country compete in qualifying rounds, then quarter and semi finals, until two teams are left to battle (to the death, if we’re still going with that murder comparison) for the Liam McCarthy Cup. This match always takes place on the first Sunday in September in Croke Park, and is regarded as the Most Holy Of Holy Days in hurling communities. The venue Croke Park, the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association, is Mecca for any GAA fan.

But what do you even do on All Ireland day?

If you’re heading for the match, you’ll need to be there early. With a capacity of 82,000 people, Croker (as it’s affectionately known) fills to bursting for an All Ireland. Get the day started right with a good breakfast, either at home or in a pub/cafe/restaurant/deli counter in Dublin, and a heated and serious discussion about the chances this year. Kilkenny can’t win them forever, you know.

I’m sorry, I have to kill someone to go?

No. Kilkenny is one of hurling’s strongest names, and the county has won an unbeaten 35 All Ireland titles, including a four year streak from 2006 to 2009. They also find themselves in almost every All Ireland Final, inculding this year’s match. 

Now, where was I?

All Ireland Day?

Ah yes. After breakfast you’ll wanna head for a few drinks to start the day on a high, and then hit Croke Park itself around two o clock. You might catch a bit of the minor (under 18) game, which usually starts about half one. The senior game, the main attraction for the day, has a half three throw in.

If you’re on the winning side when 5:15 rolls around, head out to the nightclub at home to celebrate. If you’re on the losing side when 5:15 rolls around, head out to the nightclub at home to peruse what might have been. On both occasions, county jerseys are absolutely essential attire.