“Taking the Sam home”: Why don’t Brits know anything about Irish Football?

By Emma Jones

Sunday was a big day in Ireland. The equivalent of the American Superbowl, everybody was telling me, with extortionate advertising costs to match. It is the final of the annual All-Ireland Gaelic Football Championship. I am surrounded by Dublin supporters, all dressed in pale blue and shivering with nervous excitement, all booing every mention of the opposition Kerry in their dark green. Whatever this was, it was a big event.

The whistle blows. The round white ball is kicked, then caught, then sort of dribbled, then kicked again. Within just two minutes, something happens and there is a big cheer from half of the crowd, but everyone around me is holding their head in their hands. I look at the corner of the screen and the score has altered to a mysterious Kerry 0-01 Dublin 0-00. A player in green has fisted the ball over the goal.

The goal looks like a soccer goal with a rugby post super-glued to the top of it. I am quickly informed that it is one point if you get it over the rugby post (written on the right side of your score), but three points if you get it in the soccer goal (written on the left side as one goal, and therefore requiring good knowledge of the three times table). After a few tense minutes, Dublin equalises with its own kick over the post, and the room sighs with relief. I am offered a Guinness.

Now, I may not be the biggest sports fan in the world, particularly when it comes to all-male team sports, but I like to think I know and understand all of the main ones. The rules of rugby, American football, Aussie rules, cricket, baseball and more still baffle me at times, but I have watched them all and attended games of most. So why hadn’t I heard anything of Gaelic football? This sport is the biggest thing going on in Ireland every year (along with hurling, which I haven’t yet watched), and yet most of us over the other side of the Irish Sea know nothing about it. A quick survey of even my most soccer-obsessed friends confirms this. Our ignorance seems very strange.

The main reason for British illiteracy in Gaelic football is simple: it is not shown and it is not reported. As with most things, we can only understand what we are helped to understand by our media, and our media completely ignores the sport except for in the murkiest areas of their websites. Yet we all know what the Superbowl is, are made aware of when it is taking place, and even have the opportunity to watch it without having to subscribe to an obscure US TV channel.

A deeper look as to why the BBC and others fail to give the Irish final any proper coverage goes beyond that they think Brits just wouldn’t be interested. It appears that the sport is politically far too sensitive. In Northern Ireland, those who play and watch Gaelic football are the nationalists, while those who abscond to it are the loyalists. By extension, any reporting of Gaelic football would be seen by some as politically one-sided, possibly even anti-British. Our obliviousness to the sport is therefore a living hangover of the Troubles. To someone of my generation who just appreciates good sport, this seems ridiculous. And to some of the thousands of Irish who have made Britain their home, I can imagine it must be somewhat irritating that they can only access their national sport in the most hardcore of Irish pubs.

The game continues quickly. Gaelic football players seem to need a much wider variety of skills than soccer players, requiring perfect control not only of their feet, but also their fists, arms and even shoulders. A certain amount of shoving appears to be allowed and nobody seems to mind. The pace is fast, the scoring high, and this match is a close one. The eye is very much on the prize of the enormous silver Sam Maguire cup, gleaming from the side of the packed stadium.

With only seven minutes to go, Kerry seems to have the championship in the bag. No-one around me is saying a word. The score is Kerry 1-10 Dublin 0-9, i.e. Kerry has 13 points to Dublin’s nine. Dublin must score in the soccer goal to stay in the game. Then quickly, they do! 1-10 to 1-09. Jubilation abounds. But they are still one point down and tension is high. Even I am now on the edge of my seat, urging a last minute slip over the post from one of the boys in blue. Two minutes later, Dublin scores to equalise, then quickly they do it again and they are winning.

In the final minute, Kerry scores to level again. It is 1-11 to 1-11. My head is in my own hands now. The referee gives two minutes of additional time. If the score ends equal, it will go to a full replay, which would be far too painful to watch. Then, although I fail to understand why, the Dublin team is given a free kick. There are 30 seconds left. He gets it over! Dublin has won. There would not be a sport-loving Brit who would not by now be standing up and cheering. Everybody hugs and the crowd starts singing songs I don’t know about Dublin pride.

Tomorrow there will be a huge party in the centre of the city, attended by tens of thousands, and over the course of the next few months the cup will visit every school and football club in the area. Meanwhile, over in Britain, it is just another ordinary week, and we will continue to think of Ireland only as that country doing quite well in the rugby but not so well in football. I hope that, some day, we can all see and experience where the country’s ultimate sporting passion really lies.


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