Half ice-dancing, half wildlife film

Gaelic football has its roots in tribal warfare, but lost its lethal habits.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"WE USED to kill each other with sticks, but now we play football," explained my guide to this arcane game, Pat Compton, a former player. "Gaelic football replaced faction fights between parishes. As a child, I was shown the skulls of some of those antique sportsmen in Lissonuffy Abbey."

The other national game, hurling, is favoured in the flat, rich lands of Tipperary, "but here in the west, where you can hardly find a level field, football is the game. Indeed, in Leitrim it is the way of making sense of the world."

At a time when the big soccer teams (it is always called "soccer" in Ireland to differentiate it from the native game), are increasingly losing contact with their home territory and becoming satellite dish property, it is curious to find a national game still so intensely (and literally) parochial. Clubs are defined by the parish boundaries, and the teams are drawn from local people.

"It's amateur - there's no transfer market," said Pat. "Great footballers are stuck with poor teams all their lives. That's football." That's Ireland.

Pat and his family took me to the big match last season between counties Roscommon and Galway for the Connaught championship. The champions would then play the winners of the other three provinces, culminating in the All-Ireland Final. His cousin Frank, and friends Fionnuala and Kevin, and their families, were all there to support Roscommon, except Fionnuala, who is from an august Galway footballing dynasty.

Pat and Frank did their best to describe the rules (you have six forwards, six backs, two mid-fielders and a goalie; a goal - into the net - counts as three points, and over the net but between the posts counts as one point; players can't throw the ball but can fist it to another player) but nothing prepared me for the strangeness of the game itself. Less finicky than soccer and flightier than rugby, Gaelic football might have been made for television, being somewhere between ice-dancing and a wildlife documentary - specifically the one where the cheetah in the spotted strip finally manages to grip the baggy grey jersey of the buffalo.

The players seemed to ricochet off each other, until one Galway player fled up the field with the ball.

"That's called solo-ing," explained Pat. "The rule is that you must drop the ball every four steps, as you run, and toe it back into your hand or bounce it."

Though it lacks the exhaustive foreplay of soccer, and the exquisitely delayed climax of the classic rugby try, Gaelic football's art of turning the inherently crippled action of the "solo" into a fluent rhythm at high speed, animated more than interrupted by its tic, has a fascinating beauty of its own.

"But if you look," amplified Kevin, "you'll see that they rarely take only four steps - it's always more. How many more you can take is a grey area."

I watched aghast as one player cannoned into another, sending him flying, and yet the ref seemed unperturbed.

"What about that?" I asked Pat.

"That was all right - it was a shoulder charge."

More than in any other game, the ref must be an artist - regulating the mayhem without spoiling its free form.

As a Galway player kicked the ball towards the goal, a roar went up, and, because fans are not segregated but mingle freely and good-naturedly, the whole stadium flushed maroon and white with hopeful Galway flags. When the ball went wide, those colours drained from the crowd, and were replaced by a sea of blue and yellow.

The game was fast and even, but at half-time Galway were ahead by three points. One of Fionnuala's cousins who was playing - Michael Donnellan - has a name that recalls to Galway football the most momentous match in its history, the 1966 All-Ireland Final.

Fionnuala as a small child had been taken to Croke Park, the national stadium in Dublin, by her father, to see John and Enda Donnellan, Michael's father and uncle, play for Galway. The occasion was further dignified by the presence of the patriarch, their father Mick Donnellan, a venerated footballer and famous politician.

"He died at half-time" said Fionnuala. "They didn't tell his sons, who played on, unaware, and Galway won the final. The funeral was the next day, and it seemed as though all of Galway followed the coffin home."

Very early in the second half, Roscommon fought back from being 5 points to 8 behind, to be 9 points to 8 ahead. It is five years since Roscommon have won the Connaught final - and they last won the All-Ireland in 1944.

It was in extra time that the disaster happened. During a ruck at the Roscommon goal mouth, the ball slipped from the goalie's hand and into his own goal. Fionnuala and all the tribes of Galway erupted in a triumphant roar. Pat buried his head in his arms.

The vast tide of disappointed Roscommon supporters streamed from the stadium and flowed through the streets of the town. The paradox is that, notwithstanding football's pugilistic ancestry, violence - even ill-humour - among supporters is rare.

"It's completely different from soccer," confirmed Pat. "A triumph of ethos."

An atmosphere of sorrow but not of gloom filled the town, for there was still one thing to look forward to. "We're beat, and that's it," said Pat, who offered his downcast children the traditional consolations, first of resignation and then of something sweeter - "and now we're going to the pub."