Gaelic Athletic Association

Gaelic Athletic Association
Gaelic Athletic Association
Cumann Lúthchleas Gael
Formation 1 November 1884 (1884-11-01) (127 years ago)
Type Sports organisation
Purpose/focus Primarily the managing and promotion of Gaelic games also the promotion of Irish culture and language
Headquarters Croke Park, Dublin
Region served Worldwide
Membership 1,000,000
Official languages Irish
President Christy Cooney
Staff Limited full time staff

The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) (Irish: Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, [ˈkʊmˠən̪ˠ ˈl̪ˠuh.xlʲæsˠ ɡeːl̪ˠ]) is an amateur Irish and international cultural and sporting organisation focused primarily on promoting Gaelic games, which include the traditional Irish sports of hurling, camogie, Gaelic football, handball and rounders. The GAA also promotes Irish music and dance, and the Irish language.

It has more than 1 million members worldwide.[1][2][3][4] Gaelic football and hurling are the most popular activities promoted by the organisation, and the most popular sports in the Republic of Ireland in terms of attendances.[5] Gaelic football is also the largest participation sport in Northern Ireland.[6]

The women's version of these games, ladies' Gaelic football and camogie, are organised by the independent but closely linked Ladies' Gaelic Football Association and the Camogie Association of Ireland respectively. GAA Handball is the Irish governing body for the sport of handball.

Since its foundation in the late 19th century, the GAA has grown to become a major influence in Irish sporting and cultural life with considerable reach into communities throughout Ireland and among the Irish diaspora.[7]



Foundation and aims

The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded at 3 p.m. on Saturday, 1 November 1884, in the billiards room of Lizzie Hayes' Commercial Hotel, Thurles, County Tipperary.[8][9] All present that day had come in response to a circular published in the national press, or had been invited privately by Michael Cusack and Maurice Davin, both of whom were leading figures in Irish athletics. From its very beginning the GAA was considered to be no mere sporting organisation, with T. E. O'Sullivan their first historian noting that the association was founded by men who wished to foster a spirit of earnest nationality and as a means of saving thousands of young Irishmen from becoming mere West Britons. A police report written by Inspector A. W. Waters in the mid-1880s claimed that the GAA had been founded by the Irish Republican Brotherhood with the intention of getting the muscular youth of the country into an organisation, drilled and disciplined to form a physical power capable of over-awing and coercing the home rule government of the future. Marcus de Búrca, author of The GAA A History (1980), writing in the Tipperary Historical Journal (2004), notes that the suggestion that the IRB were the true founders of the GAA, far from this theory fading out the further away we move from the 1880s, the more convincing it is becoming, in light of new information coming to light,[10][11]

While the accepted number of founding members is seven according to Marcus de Búrca, there was probably not more than thirteen and possibly only eight who attended the meeting in Hayes'. Cusack himself put the figure at twelve, changing it later to nine. F. R. Moloney of Nenagh while undoubtedly attending, was not included on the list of attendees.[9] W. F. Mandle, says that Moloney a leading IRB member, 'notoriously so' attended and that his presence at the meeting was not made public. Two other members of the Brotherhood who were recorded as attending were John Wyse Power, who would become one of the secretaries of the Association and James K. Bracken from Templemore, County Tipperary.[12] P. S. O'Hegarty, a former member of the Supreme Council of the Brotherhood,[13] while suggesting that they were probably all Fenians, says that at least four of the seven of them were.[14]

Also present was Joseph Ryan, a local solicitor, John McKay a journalist from Belfast, and St. George McCarthy, a District Inspector of the RIC in Templemore. It seems likely according to Mandle that William Foley, from Carrick-on-Suir, Dwyer Culhane, William Delahunty, John Butler and Michael Cantwell all from Thurles were also present. Another leading IRB member, John Sweeney from Loughrea was prevented through illness from being present.[9][12] The IRB by 1886 dominated the GAA executive and Cusack as secretary was ousted.[15][16]


The initial plan was to resurrect the ancient Tailteann Games[citation needed] and establish an independent Irish organisation for promoting athletics, but hurling and Gaelic football eventually predominated. The following goals were set out:

  1. To foster and promote native Irish pastimes
  2. To open athletics to all social classes
  3. To aid in the establishment of hurling and football clubs which would organise matches between counties

The Gaelic Athletic Association in the twentieth century

In 1918 the GAA was banned by the British government, but Gaelic games were still played.[17] It was very closely associated with the nationalist cause[18] and got caught up in the troubled politics of the age. In 1919, the association took a decision to expel any civil servants who had taken the Oath of Allegiance.[19] In November 1920, RIC policemen and British Soldiers surrounded Croke Park and fired indiscriminately into the crowd and onto the field killing 14 innocent people as a reprisal for political violence that had taken place earlier in the day elsewhere in Dublin. The day came to be known as Bloody Sunday and one of the stands in Croke Park was subsequently named after Michael Hogan, a Tipperary footballer who was among the dead.[20]

In 1922 it gave up the task of promoting athletics to the National Athletic and Cycling Association.[21]

In 1984 the GAA celebrated its hundredth year in existence. This anniversary was celebrated by the GAA with numerous events throughout the island. The All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship final was played in Semple Stadium in Thurles to honour the town in which the GAA was founded.



The GAA organises competitive games in both codes and at all levels from youth all the way up to adult senior.

The highest level of competitions in the GAA are the inter-county All-Ireland Championships where the counties of Ireland compete to win the Provincial championships, All-Ireland Senior Football Championship and All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship. Before 1892, the winning club in each county championship contested the All-Ireland championship representing their county. In 1892, Congress granted permission for the winning club in each county championship to use players from other clubs in the county. This evolved into the modern practice of county teams consisting of players selected from various clubs throughout the county.

The inter-county All-Ireland championships have become the most prestigious competitions in the GAA and major national sporting events. The All-Ireland finals attract capacity crowds of over 80,000 at Croke Park, domestic television audiences on a par with international soccer and rugby, and worldwide viewing audiences.


While some units of the GAA outside Ireland participate in Irish competitions, the GAA does not hold internationals played according to the rules of either Gaelic football or hurling. Compromise rules have been reached with two "related sports."

Hurlers play an annual fixture against a national shinty team from Scotland.

International Rules Football matches have taken place between an Irish national team drawn from the ranks of Gaelic footballers, against an Australian national team drawn from the Australian Football League. The venue alternates between Ireland and Australia. In December 2006 the International series between Australia and Ireland was called off due to excessive violence in the matches,[22] but resumed in October 2008 when Ireland won a two test series in Australia.[23]

Modern challenges

Lights display in Croke Park to mark the Gaelic Athletic Association's 125th anniversary, after the opening game of the 2009 National Football League

The association today defines itself as "a National Organisation which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the National Identity in a 32 County Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic games and pastimes."[24]

Additional aims of the association are stated as:

  1. To actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, song, and other aspects of Irish culture. It shall foster an awareness and love of the national ideals in the people of Ireland, and assist in promoting a community spirit through its clubs.
  2. To promote its aims amongst communities abroad through its overseas units.
  3. To support the promotion of Camogie and Ladies Gaelic Football.
  4. To support Irish industry by sourcing equipment from Irish manufacturers.[24]

Ireland has changed rapidly since the mid 1990s. EU enlargement, combined with the Celtic Tiger economy, had led to a large influx of foreign nationals from the EU's new member states in Eastern Europe.[25] This means that a large proportion of the country's population is now outside the traditional native-born family structure through which the GAA tradition was passed from generation to generation. This presents a challenge to an organisation that was previously not geared towards marketing itself to people who have not heard of it or its games, and instead relied on people who had been reared watching and playing Gaelic games. The GAA has launched a number of projects to attract non-traditional members such as consulting with the Australian Football League[26] and running leagues aimed at non-Irish nationals.[27][28] The fact that increasing numbers of Irish people live in cities presents challenges to the GAA as well.[29][30][31]

Maintaining the GAA's activities in the overseas units is also a challenge for the modern association with the number of Irish people emigrating overseas in decline.[32] Despite the large Irish diaspora, Gaelic games remain fairly low-profile outside of the Irish expatriate community. Initiatives such as full-time development officers and high-profile competitions such as the Continental Youth Championship and a North American College Hurling Championship currently contested between UC Berkeley and Stanford are helping to bring the games to non-Irish people everywhere, while the British GAA is promoting Gaelic games to youth in Britain.[33]


The GAA is a democratic association consisting of various boards, councils, and committees organised in a structured hierarchy, and the basic unit of the association is the club.[34][35][36][37] Its world headquarters are at Croke Park. All of the association's activities are governed by the Official Guide. Each County Board may have its own by-laws, none of which may conflict with the Official Guide. Each Divisional Board may have its own regulations, none of which may duplicate or contradict the Official Guide or county by-laws.

  • Annual Congress
  • President
  • Central Council
  • Provincial councils
  • County Board
    • Divisional Board (in larger counties)
    • Sport specific board (in some counties)
  • Club Committee

All of these bodies are elected on a democratic basis and the members are volunteers. There is a small paid staff.

The organisation is overseen by the President, currently Christy Cooney. The President travels across Ireland and the world to promote the organisation and attend games; Cooney's predecessor Nickey Brennan travelled over 250,000 kilometres (160,000 mi) in Ireland alone during his three years as President, and visited Great Britain, Europe, North America, Asia, Australia and the Middle East on several occasions, meeting dignitaries such as New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg along the way.[38]

The Director General (Irish: Ard Stiúrthóir) of the Association is the person who leads the executive work of the Association and oversees the work of the full-time staff, the current holder of the post is former Monaghan County Board Chairman Paraic Duffy who was appointed in 2008.

Cultural activities

Through a division of the association known as Scór (Irish for "score") the GAA promotes Irish cultural activities, running competitions in music, singing, dancing and storytelling.

Rule 4 of the Official Guide states:

The Association shall actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, song, and other aspects of Irish culture. It shall foster an awareness and love of the national ideals in the people of Ireland, and assist in promoting a community spirit through its clubs.[39]

The group was formally founded in 1969, and is promoted through various GAA clubs throughout Ireland (as well as some clubs outside of Ireland).

Cultural impact

The Gaelic Athletic Association has grown to become the largest and most popular sporting organisation in Ireland with over 1 million members including those in clubs beyond the island of Ireland (referred to overseas units), more than 2600 member clubs, of which 300 are outside Ireland,[4] and manages about five-hundred grounds throughout the world.[5][40][41][42]

The extinction of the Gaelic games of hurling and the native style of football was averted in the nineteenth century.[43][44] The rules of both hurling and football were standardised,[45] which helped to spur the growth of the modern games since they were now being organised on a structured basis.

Hurling and Gaelic football have become the most popular spectator sports in the Republic of Ireland;[5] 1,962,769 attendances were recorded at senior inter-county hurling and football championship games in 2003[46] while 60% of all attendances to sports events in the Republic of Ireland were at Gaelic games, with 34% of the total going to Gaelic football and 23% to hurling. Soccer is the closest rival with 16%.[5] This presence means that the GAA has become a major player in the sporting life of Ireland and in the country's cultural life though its Scór section.[47] The association is recognised as a major generator of social capital thanks to its promotion of healthy pastimes, volunteering, and community involvement.[7]


The GAA has many stadiums in Ireland and beyond. Every county, and nearly all clubs, have grounds on which to play their home games, with varying capacities and utilities.

The hierarchical structure of the GAA is applied to the use of grounds. Clubs play at their own grounds for the early rounds of the club championship, while the latter rounds from quarter-finals to finals are usually held at a county ground, i.e. the ground where the Inter county games take place or where the county board is based. For example, a team like Gweedore GAA will play most of its games at Páirc Mhic Eiteagáin, if they reach the final of the club championship then the game will be played in MacCumhail Park, Ballybofey.

Áras Mhic Eiteagáin clubhouse in Gweedore, Co. Donegal. These grounds resemble the typical clubhouses to be found in rural areas all over Ireland.

The provincial championship finals are usually played at the same venue every year. However, there have been exceptions such as in Ulster, where in 2004 and 2005 the Ulster Football Finals were played in Croke Park, due to the fact that the anticipated attendance was likely to far exceed the capacity of the traditional venue of St Tiernach's Park, Clones.

Croke Park

Croke Park is the GAA's flagship venue and is known colloquially as Croker or Headquarters, since the venue doubles as the GAA's base. With a capacity of 82,300, it ranks among the top five stadiums in Europe by capacity, having undergone extensive renovations for most of the 1990s and early 21st century. Every September, Croke Park hosts the All-Ireland inter-county Hurling and Football Finals as the conclusion to the summer championships. Croke Park holds the All-Ireland club football and hurling finals on every St. Patrick's Day.

Other grounds

The next three biggest grounds are all in Munster - Semple Stadium in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, with a capacity of 53,000, the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick, which holds 50,000 and Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Co. Cork, which can accommodate 43,500.

Other notable grounds include:

Nationalism and community relations


The speed of the association's early growth was attributed to its role as part of the larger Gaelic cultural revival which was closely associated with Irish nationalism.[48][49][50][51][52] Michael Cusack, one of the leading founders of the GAA, stated that he wished to ‘nationalise and democratise sport in Ireland’ and to revive and promote Gaelic Ireland whilst discouraging anglicisation.[44]

The GAA's nationalist aspect was further enhanced upon its creation with the appointment of Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, and Michael Davitt, head of the Land League, to become patrons of the association,[not in citation given] whilst the nationalist MP, William O'Brien, offered to provide space for weekly articles and notices within his newspaper, United Ireland. In its early years the association was infiltrated by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, whose members rose to prominent positions such as president and chairman, with them eventually gaining control of the associations central executive in 1887.[44][further explanation needed]

Divisions between constitutional and revolutionary nationalism came to the fore in the association and the politicisation of the GAA was reflected in the naming of clubs indicating support for either the Irish Parliamentary Party or the Fenians, for example: the Parnells, the Davitts, the Ballina Stephenites, and the Kickhams.[not in citation given] However, IRB dominance within the GAA central executive came to an end on 4 January 1888, when they were outnumbered and ousted from the organisation, and saw them going underground.[44][dubious ]

Protestant and unionist alienation in Northern Ireland

The GAA’s nationalist ethos secured support amongst the Catholic and nationalist community, but also opposition within the Protestant and unionist community. In Northern Ireland, the sports are played almost exclusively by members of the mainly Catholic nationalist community.[53][54] While the GAA's tendency towards overt nationalism has waned,[55] some practices still remain in place which raise concerns in Northern Ireland [56] where the Protestant unionist population still largely considers itself excluded from the games by a political ethos[57][58][59] despite rules that prohibit sectarianism or involvement in party politics.[60] The Irish tricolour is flown at all GAA matches and Amhrán na bhFiann, the national anthem of the Republic, is played or sung at major fixtures. Some GAA grounds, clubs, competitions and trophies are named after nationalists or republicans, such as Sam Maguire, Seán Treacy, John Mitchel, Theobald Wolfe Tone, and the hunger striker Kevin Lynch.[61][62][63][64]

Suspected associations between GAA members and republicans are also said to have deepened mistrust.[65][66] Two incidents of hunger strike commemorations on GAA grounds drew criticism from unionists, even though these events were not officially approved by the GAA.[67][68][69][70] In response to one such incident, the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion calling on the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure to ensure that no sports club that facilitates a commemoration or glorification of terrorism receives financial support through his Department, either directly or indirectly.[71] Other critics point out that the "parish rule" can appear to align the GAA with the Roman Catholic Church, and the former Rule 42 was criticised for seeming to prohibit the use of GAA facilities for other sports perceived as British (and referred to by some as "garrison games")[20][72][73] or foreign sports. Many GAA members or supporters were killed by loyalist paramilitaries and British security forces during the Troubles, and many clubhouses have been destroyed or damaged in bombings, arson and other attacks.[74][75] As the profile of Gaelic football has been raised in Ulster so too has there been an increase in the number of sectarian attacks on Gaelic clubs in Northern Ireland.[76]

Some of the protectionist rules are as follows:

Rule 42 ban on other sports in GAA grounds

Rule 42 (Rule 5.1 in the 2009 rulebook)[77] prohibits the use of GAA property for games with interests in conflict with the interests of the GAA referred to by some as "garrison games"[20][72][73] or foreign sports. Current rules state that GAA property may only be used for the purpose or in connection with the playing of games controlled by the association. Sports not considered 'in conflict' with the GAA have been permitted.

On 16 April 2005 the GAA's congress voted to temporarily relax Rule 42 and allow international Soccer and Rugby to be played in the stadium while Lansdowne Road Football Ground was closed for redevelopment.[78] The first soccer and rugby union games permitted in Croke Park took place in early 2007, the first such fixture being Ireland's home match in the Six Nations Rugby Union Championship against France.

In addition to the opening of Croke Park to competing sports, local GAA units have sought to rent their facilities out to other sports organisations for financial reasons in violation of Rule 42.[79][80] The continued existence of Rule 42 has proven to be controversial since the management of Croke Park has been allowed to earn revenue by renting the facility out to competing sports organisations, but local GAA units which own smaller facilities cannot.[79][81] It is also said that it is questionable as to whether or not such rental deals would actually be damaging to the GAA's interests.[79]

The parish rule

Clubs, which are the basic unit of administration in the GAA, may have their catchment areas defined by the local Roman Catholic parish boundaries.[82][83][84][85] A parish is defined as being, subject to county boundaries, "the district under the jurisdiction of a Parish Priest or Administrator." The purpose of the rule is to ensure that local teams are represented by local players, and to prevent players flocking to a more successful club outside of the local area. The rule was not part of the GAA's original rules and today it is applied in some counties and not in others.[86]

The rule has become a topic of debate since changing demographics and settlement patterns in Ireland have meant that enforcement of the rule has caused problems for some clubs which face declining numbers and need to amalgamate with clubs in neighbouring parishes.[86] A policy review in 2002 recommended that the rule be relaxed or replaced by county by-laws which can use more modern and relevant means of defining local communities.[86]

Defunct rules

The GAA has had some notable rules in the past which have since been abolished.

Rule 21, instituted in 1897 when it was suspected that Royal Irish Constabulary spies were trying to infiltrate the organization, prohibited members of the British forces from membership of the GAA, and prevented GAA members from attending social events with such people.[87] Support for the ban remained throughout The Troubles, particularly in Northern Ireland where GAA members were often targeted for harassment and abuse by the RUC and British Army.[88] Nonetheless, at a special congress convened in November 2001 the GAA voted by an overwhelming majority to change the rule and allow members of British security forces to play hurling and football.[89][90]

Rule 27, sometimes referred to as The Ban, banned GAA members from taking part in or watching non Gaelic games. Punishment for violating this rule was expulsion for the organisation and it remained in place from 1901 until 1971. During that time people such as Douglas Hyde, GAA patron and then President of Ireland, was expelled for attending a soccer international.[91] In order to circumvent the ban members such as Moss Keane would commonly adopt a false name.[92] The last person to be suspended from the GAA for violating Rule 27 was Liam Madden, an architect and member of Longford GAA in 1969 [93]

Cross-community outreach in Ulster

The GAA points out the role of members of minority religions in the association throughout its history. For example the Protestant Jack Boothman was president of the organisation from 1993 to 1997, while Sam Maguire was a Church of Ireland member. Nonetheless, to address concerns of unionists, the GAA's Ulster Council has embarked on a number of initiatives aimed at making the association and Gaelic games more accessible to northern Protestants. In November 2008 the council launched a Community Development Unit which is responsible for "Diversity and Community Outreach initiatives".[94] The Cúchulainn Initiative is a cross-community program aimed at establishing teams consisting of Catholic and Protestant schoolchildren with no prior playing experience.[95] Cross-community teams such as the Belfast Cuchulainn under-16 hurling team have been established and gone on to compete at the Continental Youth Championship in America.[95] Similar hurling and Gaelic football teams have since emerged in Armagh, Fermanagh, Limavady.[96]

The ‘Game of three halves’ cross-community coaching initiative was established in predominantly Protestant east Belfast in 2006. Organised through Knock Presbyterian Church, this scheme brings GAA coaches to work alongside their soccer and rugby counterparts to involve primary school children at summer coaching camps.[97][98] The Ulster Council is also establishing cross-community football and hurling teams in schools and is developing links with the Ulster-Scots Agency and the Church of Ireland.[98] The Council has also undertaken a series of meetings with political parties and community groups who would have traditionally have had no involvement in the GAA.[98]

Other community outreach

In January 2011 President Mary McAleese announced the launch of an island-wide project called the GAA Social Initiative. This aims to address the problem of isolation in rural areas where older people have limited engagement with the community.[99] The initiative was later expanded by teaming up with the Irish Farmers Association to integrate that organisation's volunteers into the initiative.[100]

Winter training ban

To address concerns about player burnout, the GAA adopted a rule in 2007 that prohibited collective training for inter-county players for a period of two months every winter.[101] This has proven to be controversial in that it is difficult to enforce, and in the drive to stay competitive, managers have found ways to get around it such as organising informal 'athletic clubs' and other activities which they can use to work on the physical fitness of players without overtly appearing to be training specifically at Gaelic games.[102]

See also


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