Does Ireland’s rich variety of sports give us a unique set of sporting skills?

Michael Mackey

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The victors in any war tend to write the history of that conflict. Historically, it is fair to say they are often responsible for influencing the sporting culture of any occupied territories. Ireland is a perfect example of where a complex and unique set of circumstances has led to a finite pool of talented youngsters being pulled in many different sporting directions.

Stephen Cluxton by leinsterman
Stephen Cluxton by leinsterman / flickr

What does this mean for Irish sport? Do our  various sporting cultures give youngsters a wide and rich variety of skills? Or do they stifle the amount of real talent available to  any one sport? The evidence would seem to suggest they compliment each other. For the size of our population we seem to box above our weight in most sports. If we take boxing as an example, Katie Taylor representing her country in soccer doesn’t seem to have done her boxing career any harm.

Katie Taylor by cormac70 / flickr
Katie Taylor by cormac70 / flickr

The British Empire was the largest the world has ever known so it’s not surprising that many of the biggest international sports played today, came from there. Soccer, rugby, golf, cricket and tennis are all sports synonymous with Britain. That is not to say that all of these games necessarily originated in Britain but it is where they developed into the games we know today. The origins of cricket are still being disputed. Some believe it originated in northern Europe in the dark ages while others believe it is Celtic or Scandinavian in origin. What is certain is the formation of sports into clubs and societies as we know them today is an English phenomenon.

The oldest of the sports on this island are of course our own Celtic sports or Gaelic games. These sports were revived during  the Celtic revival of the late 19th century. Founded in 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association gave organisation and structure to these games as well as athletics in Ireland. The Celtic revival was so intertwined with nationalism and a break from the United Kingdom that these games were to become our national sports at the expense of other games being played on the island.

There has always been a complex and difficult relationship between the so-called “foreign games” and our national Gaelic sports. Up until 1971, there was a ban on any member of the GAA playing or attending any soccer, rugby or hockey games. Even after the ban was lifted, it was still frowned upon for members of the GAA to play foreign team sports. Many would argue that other sports should have been included in the GAA when it was founded. Organised cricket matches had been played in Ireland since the 1790’s  and records show it was played across the classes in many towns and villages in Ireland. It was its perceived quintessential Britishness that prevented it being included as a GAA sport. There are equally rich histories for soccer and rugby in Ireland which could argue for their inclusion as Irish sports despite the fact they were originally British.

While other factors must be taken into consideration, it is interesting that most sport in Ireland seems to have benefited from the lifting of the GAA ban. Many players who have played Gaelic games in their youth have gone on to have great success at senior level in other sports.  Hurlers and Gaelic footballers such as Niall Quinn and Kevin Moran had very successful soccer careers in England and with the Republic of Ireland.

Try Tommy Bowe by M+MD / flickr
Try Tommy Bowe by M+MD / flickr

The Irish rugby team in recent years is littered with players who played Gaelic Football up to at least minor level.  Mick Galway,Tommy Bowe, Shane Horgan, Geordan Murphy and Rob Kearney to name just a few. There is a serious argument to be made that the GAA has given these players another different set of vital skills in ball handling and kicking. Even those sports that were never connected with the empire have had their influence. Would Kieran Donahey have been so effective when he burst onto the scene for Kerry had it not been for his Basketball skills?

Perhaps learning a sport is like learning a language, the more you play, the easier it is to pick up another one. One can only speculate as to the positive or negative influences that different sporting disciplines have on each other but in Ireland’s case a variety of codes doesn’t seem to be taking away from any one sport. Most youngsters will gravitate towards that sport at which they are best. Unfortunately, the exception to this rule may be Gaelic games as they are for the moment at least, an amateur organisation. Youngsters who may prefer Gaelic games cannot be blamed for opting for another sport in which they could have a lucrative career.

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Michael Mackey