As we face our first week without the Olympics, I thought I’d fill the gap with some information on Celtic sports! Some of these sports may seem familiar, as they have been integrated into American athletics, while others have maintained a more traditional sense. As we’ve seen throughout the course, the Celtic countries have their separate traditions, languages, food, and folklore, all of which occasionally blends together. The same is true for sports, which are also culturally relevant. Competitions can both be a cause for national pride and political tension.
This is best seen with the Gaelic Athletic Association, or Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, which organizes international hurling and Gaelic Football competitions. The GAA formed in 1887 to preserve Gaelic sports as a part of the national culture. Championship games are played at Croke Park in Dublin, where the the massacre scene we watched in Michael Collins took place in 1920.
I had the chance to visit this park when my team traveled to Ireland in 2012. The tour guide was careful to balance being informative and impartial when he recounted the events of the massacre. He instead emphasized the current cultural significance of the park. I got the impression that the Irish people are clearly proud of their respective Gaelic football and hurling teams, which are based on counties. Our guide described Croke Park as a place for centrality, as no teams are allowed to regularly practice there or call it their own.
Now, I should probably explain the logistics of these games. Luckily, my team and I visited a local Celtic sports club upon arriving in Dublin and were taught the basics! Gaelic football combines elements of American football and soccer, but is also similar to rugby. It combines passing and kicking a volleyball-type ball. The most difficult part of playing for me (maybe because of the height issue?) was “soloing,” which is sort of like dribbling. It involved dropping the ball to kick it back up to your hands.
We also were able to play hurling, which is similar lacrosse and field hockey. Hurling is actually older than Ireland itself. Cú Chulainn, the warrior hero we’ve discussed in class, was said to have played hurling, or at least carried around the gear as weapons. I first considered hurling and Gaelic football a fun combination of several “American” sports, but quickly remembered that these were around far before football and soccer as we know it. The games are a bit difficult to describe, so here are two videos of actual action!
Turning to Scotland, the Highland games are an integral and interesting part of Celtic sports. I may have mentioned being familiar with these games from attending an annual Celtic festival in my hometown. Some of you may have actually seen Disney’s rendition of these Scottish games in the childhood classic Luck of the Irish (which again shows how the Celtic traditions are often combined & conflated). If I remember correctly, there’s a scene when the kid goes back in time to compete against the evil leprechauns in a series of Highland games and Irish step dancing competitions. Sadly couldn’t find the clip of the cinematic masterpiece to share. Anyway, the Highland games are diverse and practical, in my opinion. Their traditional form hasn’t changed much, as tree trunks and stones are actually still used. Highland games include “heavy events,” such as the caber toss. Maud explained this event in class. It involves squatting to lift a carved tree trunk that’s usually about 175 pounds and resembles a telephone pole. The farthest toss wins. Traditionally, the caber toss emphasized form over distance, as throwers are judged based on both style and throwing in a straight line.
Above is a picture of the caber tosser preparing to throw…and failing. The amount of people watching and cheering was incredible. This probably wouldn’t be surprising to Hugh MacDiarmid, who actually mentions the sport in Focherty. The opening part of this poem appears to be about a large man who enjoys drinking (barley-bree) and throwing (a caber). This matches the description of many men at the local Celtic festival. Here’s an excerpt:
“Duncan Gibb o’ Focherty’s
A giant to the likes o’ me,
For love o’ the barley-bree.
He gangs through this and the neebrin’ shire
Like a muckle rootless tree
– And here’s a caber for Daith to toss
That’ll gi’e his spauld a swee!”
Other Highland games include the stone put, which is similar to American track & field’s shot put event. Herding dogs are another popular spectacle. Collies typically move sheep around fences and into gates. Bagpipe competitions are also popular events. There are hundreds of pipe bands in the U.S. alone. All of these events were featured at the Celtic festival, which demonstrates the enduring entertainment value of such traditional sports. Also demonstrating the popularity of these games, there is a Gaelic Park in NYC specifically for Celtic sports. Gaelic football and hurling organizations are well-established in several countries, from Australia to Argentina, largely as a result of the Irish Diaspora.
*I took all the pictures in this post, so let me know if you have any questions about them! Here are the resources I used, which would be helpful if you’re interested in learning more: