Gaelic Football

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Gaelic football (Irish: Peil or Caid ), commonly referred to as "football", "Gaelic" or "GAA ('gah')", is a form of football played mainly in Ireland. It along with Hurling are the most popular spectator sports in Ireland[1] .

Gaelic football is played by teams of 15 on a rectangular grass pitch with H-shaped goals at each end. The primary object is to score by pushing the ball through the goals. The team with the highest score at the end of the match wins.

A child kicks a gaelic football
A child kicks a gaelic football

Players advance the ball up the field with a combination of carrying, soloing (dropping and then toe-kicking the ball upward into the hands), kicking, and hand-passing to their team-mates.

Gaelic football is one of four Gaelic Games run by the Gaelic Athletic Association, the largest and most popular organization in Ireland. It has strict rules on player amateurism and the pinnacle of the sport is the inter county All-Ireland Football Final. The game is believed to have descended from ancient Irish football known as caid which date back to 1537, although the modern game took shape in 1887.

Diagram of a Gaelic football pitch.
Diagram of a Gaelic football pitch.

Playing field

The grass pitch is rectangular, stretching 130–145 meters long and 80–90 meters wide. There are H-shaped goalposts at each end with a net on the bottom section. The same pitch is used for hurling; the GAA, which organizes both sports, decided this to facilitate dual usage. Lines are marked at distances of 13m, 20m and 45m from each end-line. Shorter pitches and smaller goals are used by under-13s.


At intercounty level, Gaelic football matches last for 70 minutes, divided into two halves. At club level, the game is sixty minutes long.


Teams consist of fifteen players (a goalkeeper, two corner backs, a full back, three half backs, two mid fielders, three half forwards, two corner forwards and a full forward) plus up to fifteen substitutes, of which five may be used. Each player is numbered 1–15, starting with the goalkeeper, who must wear a different coloured jersey.


Further information: Gaelic football and Hurling positions

The ball

The game is played with a round leather football, similar to a soccer ball, but heavier, and with horizontal stitching rather than the hexagon and pentagon panels often used on soccer balls, and similar in appearance to a standard volleyball. It may be kicked or hand passed. A hand pass is not a punch but rather a strike of the ball with the side of the closed fist, using the knuckle of the thumb.

The ball, made by Irish company O'Neills, being used for a Gaelic football match.
The ball, made by Irish company O'Neills, being used for a Gaelic football match.
A player from a Canada GAA club shoots for goal
A player from a Canada GAA club shoots for goal

The following are considered technical fouls ("fouling the ball"):

  • Picking the ball directly off the ground
  • Throwing the ball
  • Going four steps without releasing, bouncing or soloing the ball. (Soloing involves kicking the ball into one's own hands)
  • Bouncing the ball twice in a row
  • Hand passing the ball over an opponent's head, then running around him to catch it
  • Hand passing a goal (the ball may be punched into the goal from up in the air, however)
  • Square ball, an often controversial rule: If, at the moment the ball enters the small rectangle, there is already an attacking player inside the small rectangle, then a free out is awarded.
  • Changing hands: Taking the ball from your right-hand to left or vice-versa.


If the ball goes over the crossbar, a point is scored and a white flag is raised by an umpire. If the ball goes below the crossbar, a goal, worth three points, is scored, and a green flag is raised by an umpire. The goal is guarded by a goalkeeper. Scores are recorded in the format {goal total}-{point total}. For example, the 1991 All-Ireland semi-final finished: Meath 0-15 Roscommon 1-11. Thus Meath won "fifteen points to one-eleven" (1-11 being worth 14 points).


The level of tackling allowed is more robust than in football (soccer), but less than rugby. The tackling rule has been criticised for being too vague.

Shoulder-charging and wrestling or slapping the ball out of an opponent's hand is permitted, but the following are all fouls:

  • using both hands to tackle
  • pushing an opponent
  • deliberately striking an opponent
  • pulling an opponent's jersey
  • blocking a shot with the foot
  • sliding tackles
  • touching the goalkeeper when he is inside the small rectangle

Restarting play

  • The match begins with the referee throwing the ball up between the four mid fielders.
  • After an attacker has put the ball wide of the goals, the goalkeeper may take a kick out from the ground at the edge of the small square. All players must be beyond the 20m line.
  • After an attacker has scored, the goalkeeper may take a kick out from the ground from the 20m line. All players must be beyond the 20m line and outside the semicircle.
  • After a defender has put the ball wide of the goals, an attacker may take a "45" from the ground on the 45m line level with where the ball went wide.
  • After a player has put the ball over the sideline, the other team may take a sideline kick at the point where the ball left the pitch. It may be kicked from the ground or the hands.
  • After a player has committed a foul, the other team may take a free kick at the point where the foul was committed. It may be kicked from the ground or the hands.
  • After a defender has committed a foul inside the large rectangle, the other team may take a penalty kick from the ground from the center of the 13m line. Only the goalkeeper may guard the goals.
  • If many players are struggling for the ball and it is not clear who was fouled first, the referee may choose to throw the ball up between two opposing players.


A Gaelic football match is watched over by eight officials:

  • The referee
  • Two linesmen
  • Sideline official/Standby linesman (inter-county games only)
  • Four umpires (two at each end)

The referee is responsible for starting and stopping play, recording the score, awarding frees and booking and sending off players.

Linesmen are responsible for indicating the direction of line balls to the referee.

The fourth official is responsible for overseeing substitutions, and also indicating the amount of stoppage time (signalled to him by the referee) and the players substituted using an electronic board.

The umpires are responsible for judging the scoring. They indicate to the referee whether a shot was: wide (spread both arms), a 45m kick (raise one arm), a point (wave white flag), square ball (cross arms) or a goal (wave green flag).

All officials are also required to indicate to the referee, foul play or other misdemeanours he may have missed, but unfortunately this is a rare occurrence. The referee can over-rule any decision by a linesman or umpire.

Dissatisfaction with officials is common in Gaelic football. Referees are often criticised for leniency and inconsistency (particularly with regard to the "square ball" rule, sending players off, and dissent), not seeing fouls, and playing an inordinate amount of stoppage time at the end of games (said to be hoping the losing team gets a draw). A common (but untrue) urban legend refers to a referee who was locked in the boot of a car after a Wicklow club game by unimpressed players. A macho attitude, which is similar to that which prevails in Australian rules football, does nothing to enhance the image of the game which strives to attract young people in preference to soccer and rugby where discipline is more rigidly applied.


The first mention of football in Ireland is found in 1308, where John McCrocan, a spectator at a football game at Newcastle, County Dublin was charged with accidentally stabbing a player named William Bernard.

The Statute of Galway of 1527 allowed the playing of "foot balle" and archery but banned "'hokie' [sic] — the hurling of a little ball with sticks or staves" as well as other sports. However even "foot-ball" was banned by the severe Sunday Observance Act of 1695, which imposed a fine of one shilling (a substantial amount at the time) for those caught playing sports. It proved difficult, if not impossible for the authorities to enforce the Act and the earliest recorded inter-county match in Ireland was one between Louth and Meath, at Slane, in 1712.

By the early 19th century, various football games, referred to collectively as caid, were popular in Kerry , especially the Dingle Peninsula. Father W. Ferris described two forms of caid: the "field game" in which the object was to put the ball through arch-like goals, formed from the boughs of two trees, and; the epic "cross-country game" which lasted the whole of a Sunday (after mass) and was won by taking the ball across a parish boundary. "Wrestling", "holding" opposing players, and carrying the ball were all allowed.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Rugby and Association football started to become popular in Ireland. Trinity College, Dublin was an early stronghold of Rugby, and the rules of the English Football Association were codified in 1863 and distributed widely. By this time, according to Gaelic football historian Jack Mahon, even in the Irish countryside, caid had begun to give way to a "rough-and-tumble game" which even allowed tripping.

Irish forms of football were not formally arranged into an organised playing code by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) until 1887. The GAA sought to promote traditional Irish sports, such as hurling and to reject "foreign" (particularly English) imports. The first Gaelic football rules, showing the influence of hurling and a desire to differentiate from association football — for example in their lack of an offside rule — were drawn up by Maurice Davin and published in the United Ireland magazine on February 7, 1887.

Ladies' Gaelic football has become increasingly popular with women since the 1970s.

The relationship between Gaelic football and Australian rules football

While it is clear even to casual observers that Gaelic football is similar to Australian rules football, the exact relationship is unclear, or even controversial. The Australian historian B. W. O'Dwyer suggests that there is circumstantial evidence that traditional Irish games influenced the founders of Australian rules.[2] O'Dwyer argued that both Gaelic football and Australian rules are distinct from rugby in elements such as the lack of a limitation on ball or player movement — the absence of an offside rule. It has not been shown that other common elements of Gaelic and Australian rules, such as the need to bounce or solo (toe-kick) the ball while running and punching the ball (hand-passing) rather than throwing it were also elements of caid. For example, the requirement that players bounce the ball while running was not in the first Victorian rules (1859). There is no conclusive evidence to prove a direct influence of caid on Australian rules football.

Other unofficial accounts suggest that a relationship may have originated from the opposite direction: Archbishop Thomas Croke, one of the founders of the GAA, lived in New Zealand in the early 1880s and had the opportunity to witness Victorian Rules played there. Like Australian rules, the Irish football games of the 1880s allowed players to grab or push each other. If Croke was influenced by Australasian rules, the two games were soon developing and diverging in isolation from each other.

In 1967, following approaches from Australian rules football authorities, there was a series of games between an Irish representative team and an Australian team, under various sets of hybrid, compromise rules. In 1984, the first official representative matches of International rules football were played, and the Ireland international rules football team now plays the Australian team annually each October.

Since the 1980s, some Gaelic players, such as Jim Stynes and Tadhg Kennelly, have been recruited by AFL clubs and have had lengthy careers with them.

Team of the Millennium

This was a team chosen in 1999 by a panel of GAA past presidents and journalists. The goal was to single out the best ever 15 players who had played the game in their respective positions, since the foundation of the GAA in 1884 up to the Millennium year, 2000. Naturally many of the selections were hotly debated by fans around the country.


Dan O'Keefe

Right Corner Back Full Back Left Corner Back
Enda Colleran
Joe Keohane
Seán Flanagan

Right Half Back Centre Back Left Half Back
Sean Murphy
J.J. O'Reilly
Martin O'Connell

Mick O'Connell

Tommy Murphy

Right Half Forward Centre Forward Left Half Forward
Pat Spillane
Seán Purcell
Seán O'Neill

Right Corner Forward Full Forward Left Corner Forward

Mikey Sheehy
Tommy Langan
Kevin Heffernan

Leagues and team structure

All Gaelic sports are amateur; easing the strictness with which this is interpreted is advocated by the Gaelic Players Association.

The basic unit of each game is organised at the club level, which is usually arranged on a parish basis, with various local clubs playing to win the County Championship at various levels:

  • Senior: the better adult clubs
  • Intermediate: junior champions compete in this the following season
  • Junior: weaker adult clubs, from small communities
  • Under-21
  • Minor: under-18
  • Under-age: all ages from under-17 down to under-9

On a national level, the team is organised on the old Irish county system 1, producing 34 teams representing the original 32 counties that cover the island of Ireland, plus teams representing the Irish diaspora in London and New York. Splitting Dublin into North and South due to its enormous population has been considered, but is unlikely to happen any time soon. There are also clubs in other parts of the USA, Britain, Asia, Australia, continental Europe and Canada (see ClubGAA link at bottom).

Though Ireland was partitioned into two states in 1920, Gaelic sports (like most cultural organisations and all religions) continue to be organised on an all-island basis.

A team of 15 players plus substitutes is formed from the best players playing at club level.

Nearly all counties play against each other in a knock-out tournament known as the All Ireland Championship.

These modified knock-out games are organised on the four Irish provinces of Ulster, Munster, Lenister and Connacht.

In the past, the best team from each would play one of the others, at a stage known as the All-Ireland semi-finals, with the winning team from each game playing each other in the All-Ireland Final.

A recent re-organisation now provides a 'back door' method of qualifying, with knocked out teams getting another chance to win back into the competition.

County teams also compete in the National Football League, held every spring. The League is nowhere near as prestigious as the All-Ireland, but in recent years attendances have grown and interest, from the public and from players, has grown. This is due in part to the organisation of the league into the above format, the provision of the Division 2 final stages and the relatively new change of starting the league in February rather than November. Live matches are shown on the Irish-language TV station TG4, with highlights shown on RTE2. In 2006, Kerry won the Division 1 title for the 18th time defeating Galway in the final. Louth defeated Donegal to win the Division 2 title.

The All Ireland Final

The final game of the inter-county series is the All Ireland Final which takes place on the fourth Sunday of September in Croke Park. Before 1999, the final was held on the third Sunday of the month, but this custom was changed due to an overloaded schedule of matches.

Over the four Sundays of September, All Ireland Finals in men's football, women's football, hurling and camogie take place in Croke Park, the national stadium of the GAA, with the men's decider regularly attracting crowds of over 80,000. Guests who attend include Uachtarán na hÉireann, An Taoiseach and leading dignitaries.

Two levels of the game are played at each All Ireland, the Senior team and the Minor team (consisting of younger players, under the age of 18, who have played their own Minor All-Ireland competition.)

The winning senior county football team receives the Sam Maguire cup. The most successful county in the history of Gaelic football is Kerry, with 34 All-Ireland wins, followed by Dublin, with 22 wins.

In 2006, Kerry took the Men's Senior Football Championship, defeating Mayo in the final, with Roscommon winning the Minor equivalent.

See also


Jack Mahon, 2001, A History of Gaelic Football Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. (ISBN 0-7171-3279-X)


  1. ^ GAA attendance figures. Retrieved on 2006-11-27.
  2. ^ B. W. O'Dwyer, March 1989, "The Shaping of Victorian Rules Football", Victorian Historical Journal, v.60, no.1.

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