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Ciarán Murphy: If Gaelic football is dying, how come it can still make you feel so alive?

There’s nothing quite like Gaelic football, no matter how it changes

“Why do you like Gaelic football?”

This seems like a revolutionary question to ask at this particular stage in humanity, 2024 years after the time of Christ, and more specifically three days before the start of the National Football League for the above-mentioned year.

I mean, sure, we are all interested in it. We are invested in it. But why do we like it? I’ll tell you. Here’s why I like Gaelic football. I like it because ... let me just gather my thoughts for a second here.

Okay – Gaelic football is great because it’s a field sport, with ... eh, freedom of movement. This is important. And the freedom of movement of any player over the field is what ... I mean, who wants offside, right, because ... actually, let me start over.


Gaelic football is an expression of ... well, it’s an expression of Irishness, isn’t it? An expression of competition and, eh, sporting excellence which did not spring from the playing fields of ... well you know the playing fields I’m talking about.

Obviously that’s not to say that, eh, other sports aren’t also ... I mean, I watched Gambia play Cameroon on Tuesday night and it was great but ... and the Six Nations, I mean it’s tremendous, but at the same time of course it’s not what I grew up on, eh ... I’m getting sidetracked here. Gaelic football. I like it. I just really like it. A lot.

The question was answered rather more definitively and poetically on the Irish Examiner’s Madness of Football podcast series, which has been running for the last month, with a new episode released every week. In it, UCD professor of history, and GAA polymath, Paul Rouse talks us through the evolution of the game from the 1880s right through to the present day, in the company of Examiner sports journalist Maurice Brosnan and the former Mayo player and manager James Horan.

A history of any sport is worthwhile and interesting, and illuminating. But for a man of Rouse’s many, many talents (and two hours in his company talking about Gaelic football would be enough to gladden the heart of even the most cynical GAA fan) to turn his attention to Gaelic football at this particular moment does seem pointed.

Because one of the main themes of the podcast is that Gaelic football is dying – and in fact that it has been near death for much of the GAA’s 140 years of existence. Listening to this sent me scurrying to the now-ceased, much-mourned Grantland website to find an article from 2014 by Brian Curtis, outlining the many times that baseball has had its obituary written.

The first such piece he could find quoted Pete O’Brien, captain of Brooklyn’s championship Atlantic club – “Somehow or other, they don’t play ball nowadays as they used to some eight or ten years ago. I don’t mean to say they don’t play it as well ... But I mean that they don’t play with the same kind of feelings or for the same objects they used to.” That quote was from 1868.

Gaelic football has always been striving for something more. The podcast charts the history of the sport through matches from different eras, in the hope that information gleaned from a statistical analysis of what actually happened in the game can replace those “kinds of feelings”.

Galway hand-passed the ball seven times in the 1966 final. What are we to do with this information? We’re supposed to interrogate why the game changed from one based on territory to one based on possession.

The game was one way, then it went another way. Rule changes, like taking frees and sideline kicks from the hand, sped up the game. Changed it. The game is not a monolith we are now trying to tear down, but a living, breathing organism that has always relied on the rule book to grease the wheels when necessary.

A potted history like this also forces you to think about when you felt the sweet spot for Gaelic football was. When was this Camelot that we all yearn for? I instinctively thought 2004, 2005 ... when I was 22 years old. If you asked people when music or film reached its peak in their lifetime, how many people would say the year they were 22 or 23? Now, it turns out I might actually be right when I say Gaelic football was never better than it was in the mid-2000s ... but it’s still something worth remembering.

Okay. I’ve got my composure back. So why do I like Gaelic football? At some unspecified date in the near future, Damien Comer or Con O’Callaghan will get a ball out in front of them. They’ll turn around, look their defender in the eye, take them on – and this will electrify the crowd.

Jack McCaffrey or Paddy Durcan will see 30 yards in front of him and a chance to make something happen. Shane McGuigan will be through a gap no one else has seen. Conor Glass and Brian Fenton might circle each other for 20 minutes before going toe to toe. And there’s always David Clifford.

It all starts this weekend. You will be frustrated. You will yearn for your lost Camelot. But something will get you off your seat. Roll on 2024.