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Hurling and Gaelic Football: Two Irish Sports

If you are from Ireland, then you have definitely heard of hurling and Gaelic football. Chances are that you played either one of these two sports or perhaps you even consider them to be your favourite sport. But for the people that aren’t from Ireland, they are two relatively unknown sports. Both hurling and Gaelic football are sports that are immensely popular all over Ireland and are two of Ireland's many national sports. Come and explore with us the culture of hurling and Gaelic football.

A sliotar laying in a grass field

What is Hurling anyhow?

Hurling is an incredibly unique and old sport. A regular match of hurling would consist of two teams running across a field trying to score points on their opponent. There are 15 players in each team. The players are called hurlers. But that’s not all, it gets trickier. They use a stick made from Ash wood. The stick is called a hurl and it can vary in length, but most often they are between 61 and 91 cm long. They use the hurl to carry a ball whilst moving on the playing field.

a hurling player tossing a sliotar

The ball they use is called a sliotar. It has a leather cover and a cork centre. It is small (usually 72 mm), and it weighs around 120 grams. But because of its leather surface, it is very hard if you get hit with it. A good strike with the hurl can send the sliotar flying at 150 kilometres per hour and it can travel more than 110 meters. The players are allowed to run and carry the ball in their hand, but the hurlers cannot take more than four steps with the ball in their hands. After that, they must pass the sliotar to a teammate or they must throw it onto their hurling stick and continue running with it. And the rules make the game even trickier. There are two ways to score points, but more on that later.

How is Gaelic Football different?

The second sport I mentioned in the introduction was Gaelic football. In many ways it is like hurling as it is played on the same exact field, the scoring system is the same, the number of players on the field is the same and so are the officials that are present on the field. But despite all the similarities, there are some major differences. Let’s begin with the fact that they don’t use a stick in Gaelic football. They use their hands and their feet. Players can run with the ball and kick it just like they would do in a regular game of football. The twist is that they can kick the ball into their hands and run with it and bounce it just like you would do when you’d play a game of basketball. However, the players are not allowed to pass the ball as they would normally do in a basketball match, but they must punch it with the side of their closed fists. And when they have the ball in their hand, they aren’t allowed to take more than four steps without bouncing it off the floor (just like in a basketball match).

action in a Gaelic football match

And to complicate the rules, even more, you may not bounce the ball more than once. After your bounce, you must take four steps before you can bounce it again. So, if the main mechanic of the game consists of bouncing and kicking, then that must mean that the ball must be different to the sliotar that is used in hurling. The ball must be kickable, but still rubbery enough to be bounced. It is also a lot bigger than the sliotar or a regular football. It is made of 18 stitched leather panels, and it can weigh up to half a kilogram! But knowing all that still isn’t enough, as Gaelic football is an amateur sport. On all levels of skill. That means that even athletes that are playing at an elite level for the national team in different championships cannot receive payment for their performance.

What do these two sports have in common?

The playing field on which Gaelic football is played is identical to the playing field of hurling. This was decided by the GAA (the Gaelic Athletic Association) to preserve space. The field is like a rugby field, but the Gaelic football and hurling field is larger. It is in the shape of a rectangle and stretches about 145m and it is 90m long. At both ends of the field, there is a goalpost that is in the shape of the letter H. The H-shaped goalpost is around 6 or 7 metres tall, and 6.5 metres wide. The middle crossbar is 2.5 metres off the ground. On the field, there are lines that mark a certain distance from the end line. The lines are marked at 14 yards, 21 yards, and 45 yards for Gaelic football and 65 yards for hurling.

Both in hurling and in Gaelic football there are two ways to score points on your opponent. A player can shoot the ball into the opponent’s goal, past their goalkeeper. That earns his team three points. However, if they send the ball flying across the crossbar of the H. That earns their team one point, as it is easier to score and harder for the goalkeeper to defend. If you earn a point by scoring across the crossbar a white flag is raised. If a regular goal is scored, then a green flag is raised.

a hurling pitch

As previously mentioned, the teams are made up of 15 players. Of course, there is the goalkeeper. His job is to defend the goal and prevent the opposing team from scoring. He usually wears a different-coloured jersey compared to the rest of his team. Then there is the full-back position, in which there are 3 players. One left and right corner-back and a full-back player. The right and left cornerback players stay back, and their job is to defend against the opposing team's attackers. The fullback is the most important player, as he organises the defence and is the key defender in front of the goal. The next position is the half-back position. Here are also 3 players. One left half-back, one right half-back and of course the centre half-back. The left and right half-backs have a defensive position, even though they make provocations against the opposing team’s players. The centre half-backs task is the same as the full-backs, just less important. Then there are two midfielders. They usually catch kick outs, and they act as the main link between the defence and attack parts of each team. Then come the left, right and middle half-forwards. Their main role is to build up attacks and pass the ball up to the full-forwards. The full-forwards main job is to score goals and make attacks. The numbers on the jerseys that the players wear represent their field positions. So, the goalkeeper's jersey number is 1, and the middle full forwards is number 14.

A match of Gaelic football or hurling typically lasts for 70 minutes. There can also be extensions if there is a tie. There is a longer break period at the 35-minute mark. In every match, there are usually eight officials present and they supervise the game. Obviously, there is the referee. As in any sport, he is the most important on-field official. He starts the game, issues penalties, awards free shots and so on. The second most important officials on the field are the umpires. Usually, there are four on the field, two by every goal. They judge the scoring, and when a player manages to score, they raise a certain flag in correspondence to the number of points the team should be awarded. If they score a point over the bar a white flag is raised, but if they score a goal the green flag is raised, if the shot is wide (misses the goal) they spread both hands or raise one arm if the shot was a 65m puck. There are also two linesmen present, and they dictate the direction of the ball after it goes out of bounds. And in bigger tournaments, a Hawkeye supervisor can be present.

What is the history of Hurling and Gaelic Football?

Even though hurling and Gaelic football may not be that well known outside of Ireland, their roots are as old as Ireland itself. Well, at least the roots of hurling. Hurling came to Ireland with the Celts before Christianity. The first literary mention of hurling can be traced all the way back to 1272 BC! So that is one of the reasons why we consider hurling to be one of the oldest sports in the world. It was also mentioned quite frequently throughout Irish mythology with the most popular being in Táin Bó Cúailnge, or, as most people know it, The Cattle raid of Cooley. In the tale, the protagonist is described whilst playing hurling. Mentions of the sport are present on many statutes of Kilkenny and even on a gravestone slab in Inishowen from the 15th century. And a couple of years before that, a new sport became present in the Irishman’s life. The first literary mention is from the 14th century. But the story is quite grotesque compared to the mythical tales containing hurling. It was the year 1308 when a man named John McCrocan was watching a football match in County Down. After the match, he accidentally stabbed a player. No further information was provided, and that is all that we know of the first “written legal” mention of football in Ireland. But that was regular football, not Gaelic.

The next stopping point in history is the 18th century. This period is considered by many as the golden age of hurling. At the time, it was common for wealthier English men to have private hurling and football teams on their estates. Often, they would challenge other wealthy men and their teams to compete. They would place bets on the teams, but it would also provide a source of entertainment for the common people. The matches were frequently organised as a part of larger entertainment events such as fairs and carnivals. The matches were so popular that crowds of up to 10,000 people would gather to cheer and bet.

In the late 1860s, there was a rise in the popularity of rugby as it was a rough and tumble game that many people enjoyed. The rules even allowed people to trip their opponents. At the time rugby and soccer were popular, and many people played those two sports. But a third sport emerged in 1874. It was a mix of the two with the energy of rugby and the skillset of football. That sport is known to this day as Gaelic football.

So, hurling became such a recognisable sport, and Gaelic football was paving the way for itself, there was a need for rules and regulations. Otherwise, people would just make rules on the spot, and they would differ from region to region. That is why in 1884 the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded. They wrote and enforced the rules, which are still in place today (of course with some alterations). One of these alterations is the requirement to wear a helmet in hurling. Before, headwear was optional and not many players wore them. This new rule was implemented in the year 2010 as a preventive measure to reduce the trauma caused to the head.

closeup of a sliotar and a hurling bat

Hurling and Gaelic football are primarily known as Irish sports. But they are both present in certain parts of the world. Both sports were once even part of the Olympic games, but only as a demonstration sport. It was at the Summer Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri in the USA, where two American teams played against each other. This was the only time that they were present in the Olympic games. Today there are many hurling and Gaelic football clubs all over the world. Most commonly we can find them in Australia or New Zealand, but they are also present in China and Japan, the Middle East, North and South America and even in certain parts of Africa. Despite all these countries having hurling and Gaelic football clubs, a national hurling/Gaelic football team can only be found in Ireland.

And now you know all that you need to know about hurling and Gaelic football in a nutshell. If you want to see the real deal in action, come to Ireland and book tickets for a match. You definitely won’t be disappointed.


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