A Tale of Two Irelands
Religious and political reasons keep the island of Ireland divided: an independent, republican and catholic state in the south and a British and protestant part in the North. But once again, sport promotes union in a conflict with a long history of blood and pain.
I’m Argentinian. In Argentina, there are things that we don’t talk about in order to avoid conflict: politics, religion and football. In Ireland, the first two divided the island in 1921, but football has the beautiful function of putting it back together.
However, it’s worth saying that I don’t mean “our” football (a.k.a. soccer) but its Emerald Isle version: the Gaelic football, the most watched sport in Ireland with fan-filled stadiums.
This game is played between two teams of fifteen players (fourteen plus a goalkeeper), which in two 35-minutes halves try to get the possession of a round ball, similar to a volleyball. It’s tougher than football but less hard than rugby. The goal posts are H-shaped, with a net in the part below the crossbar. If the ball is kicked or punched between the posts and above the crossbar, the teams scores one point; if its kicked into the lower part, three. Oh, yes, “punched”, because it’s played with hands and feet. It’s a very dynamic sport in which things are happening all the time and even today it’s played in an amateur way.
For women, the rules have small differences, like ball size and period length.
The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is the entity which organizes the traditional Irish sports, with Gaelic football and hurling as main examples. In 2015, as a way of promotion, it organized the first GAA World Games in Abu Dhabi, where Argentina won the Gaelic football competition after beating Galicia in the final. In the South American country, the sport is only played in Hurling Club and San Isidro, both in Buenos Aires suburban area.
But the tournament which truly impassions Hibernia (name given by the Romans to the island of Ireland) is the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. It’s played by representative teams of 31 of the 32 traditional counties, both from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In addition, a team from London and another from New York take part in the competition.
This tournament is held since 1887 and the senior male final, the most watched sport event on the island, is played on the third Sunday of September at Croke Park Stadium in Dublin, in front of more than eighty thousand people. Six of those 32 traditional counties belong to the United Kingdom. This turns the competition into a real celebration that unites all of the Irish people, whether Catholics or Protestants, republicans or Queen’s subjects.
In the 2018 final, Dublin, capital of the Republic of Ireland, played against Tyrone, a Northern Irish county. There was no trouble among the public nor the players.
One of the grandstands of Croke Park is named after Michael Hogan. On the 21st of November 1920, in the middle of the Irish War of Independence, the police entered the stadium with support of British forces and opened fire on the public. This event took part of one of many “Bloody Sundays” in Irish history. 14 people died, among them Hogan, a Tipperary player. That’s how delicate the relationship is between Irish nationalism and sports.
Nevertheless, Gaelic football and hurling are not the only sports where there are not borders between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. In rugby, cricket, and field hockey the national teams represent the island as a whole. The box and golf associations also rule their disciplines on both sides of the artificial border. In many cases, at anthem time, they sing “Ireland’s Call”, an unofficial song which promotes union between Irish people no matter their origin.
In FIFA organized football, this couldn’t be possible. That’s why two associations exist today: the Northern Irish one (IFA), founded in Belfast in 1880 and with a permanent seat in the International Football Association Board, the entity that controls the game rules; and the Republic of Ireland one (FAI), which is Dublin-based, founded in 1921.
Neither of them have had good participations in World Cups, but they managed to produce great players: George Best from the Northern side and Roy Keane from the Republic. Both harvested success wearing the Manchester United jersey.
Since the forties, there have been many tries to form competitions with football clubs from both sides. The longest-lasting was the Setanta Sports Cup, played between 2005 and 2014 but discontinued due to financial reasons.
In Ireland, there are old wounds which are still not healed yet, and many religious and political conflicts continue. But passing by any pub in the island helps to understand that, under any flag, all the Irish people have a common characteristic: the passion for sports. This might be the way for reconciliation and living together.