Celtic Sports


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:






Irish Step Dancing

As someone who Irish danced for over 10 years, I feel obligated to make this my first post! When we opened our first class with the question of what comes to mind with the term “Celtic,” someone said the inevitable…Riverdance. The show’s creator, Michael Flatley, made his choreography a bit more theatrical than the traditional steps, but his work was well-received and brought parts of Irish culture to the international community.


Irish step dance has changed significantly since I started in ‘95. I would describe the the process as two-fold: cultural & competitive. My school held daily practices and usually performed on weekends at festivals, parties, and parades. These traditional included group dances, called “céilís,” or solo sets with predetermined songs & steps that told some type of folklore tale. The rest of the time we would participate in “fèises,” or Irish dance competitions. Our biggest annual event was Celtic Fest, which is still the largest free Celtic festival in North America. Below is a picture of me (far left…I used to be short!) and the group about to dance at the Grand Pavillion. The next picture I took last year at the same Celtic Fest stage when I went to see my old school perform.




Clearly, a lot has changed. The visual aspect of Irish dance has honestly become similar to Toddlers & Tiaras. It’s much more competitive overall, but significantly more materialistic. When I was dancing, “solo dresses,” or costumes a dancer had made specifically for her, costed between $1000 and $2500. These normally contained beautiful detailing of Celtic crosses and knots. The dresses are now more abstract/geometrical and I’m sure their prices have skyrocketed. There was always an emphasis on having extremely curly hair, which seems to be a tradition derived from the beauty ideal of Irish folklore. Since the late 90s, Irish step dancers started to wear wigs. I didn’t mind because it meant avoiding the painful process of hair curlers, but the wigs were quite heavy and difficult to dance with. According to my friends who still dance, serious competitors must have spray tanned legs, theatre-style face makeup, two wigs, and a blindly sparkly solo dress.

I think this takes away from the actual art of the dancing and distracts from the truly difficult moves dancers must pull off. At fèises, dancers must impress the judges by jumping high, moving their feet swiftly, keeping to the beat, having their hands at their side, maintaining perfect posture, and being forceful in their steps…all while smiling. The highest level I got to was the East Coast championship, which is still held annually in Philadelphia. This competition was called the “Oireachtas,” which is also is the name of Ireland’s national parliament. The competition was so chaotic but exciting, as each stage had it’s own small band to play reels and jigs. At this level, dancers go onto the national competition and potentially the world championship, which is actually held in London this year.

Irish dance has become an international sport of sorts. I danced with girls & boys from all backgrounds and met people along the way who have no ties to Ireland, but were genuinely drawn to the style of dance and the traditional music that goes along with it. I wanted to talk more about the history & tradition of the dancing itself, but got a bit carried away so maybe I’ll have to save that for another post. Let me know if you have any questions! Don’t ask me to step dance for you though, as I’ve gotten too old.(: Check out this trailer if you’d like to see how things have changed since Riverdance: