Speculation that the first state visit by a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland will take in Croke Park prompted this thoughtful piece in the Irish Times on the position of sport in the often turbulent relationship between the islands of Ireland and Great Britain.
Croke Park is the spiritual home and headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association. The GAA was established as the ‘Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of National Pastimes’ on 1 November 1884 partly in response to the growing popularity of sports such as soccer and rugby that had been codified in Victorian England. The Football Association had been established in 1863 before rugby formally broke away as a separate sport in 1871. By the time the seven founders of the GAA met at the Hayes Hotel, Thurles, Ireland had already made its international debut in rugby – against England at the Oval in February 1875 – and soccer, under the auspices of the Belfast-based Irish FA, at the Knock Ground, Bloomfield in February 1882.
Since its founding, the GAA has demonstrated a dogged determination to fulfill its remit to preserve Irish sporting culture. Until as recently as the 1970s, a GAA member caught playing soccer, rugby or cricket could be stripped of their GAA membership. Rule 42 of the Association’s constitution prohibited the use of GAA property for games deemed to be in conflict with the GAA’s interests – most commonly interpreted to include association football, rugby and cricket. The suspension of this rule in 2005 paved the way for Croke Park to host major rugby and soccer matches during the redevelopment of Dublin’s Landsdowne Road between 2007 and 2010.
An indication of the Association’s success is the fact that with a capacity of 82,300, Croke Park is the third largest stadium in Europe – after the Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Wembley.
The stadium is invariably packed for the annual All-Ireland finals in Gaelic football, hurling and camogie, . The 82,208 people who attended rugby’s Heineken Cup semi-final between Munster and Leinster on 2 May 2009 set a world record for attendance at a club/provincial rugby match.
Even in a proud republic, the stadium which is the mecca for Gaelic sport enthusiasts is a sporting landmark fit for a queen.
The International Football Association Board, the guardian of the laws of association football, meets in the spring of each year. The 2011 meeting on 5 March (pdf of agenda) takes place at Celtic Manor – which gained global prominence as a sporting landmark in October 2010. Founded in 1886 when representatives of the football associations in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland met to harmonise the sport’s laws across the ‘Home Nations’, the Board was joined by FIFA in 1913. Football’s world governing body now contributes four members to sit alongside the four founding members. (The Irish FA was founded in Belfast in 1880 and governed the game across the whole of Ireland until clubs in the south formed the Football Association of the Irish Free State, later the FAI, on 1 June 1921.)
It’s fitting that IFAB meets in the spring as it falls within the season of shrovetide when ancient folk football matches that are still played in various parts of England and Scotland. These games, which resisted the prohibitions of numerous monarchs down the centuaries for fear of their impact on archery practice, the defense of the realm and general good order, provide a glimpse of the ancestors of the modern sports of both football and rugby.
Ashbourne, Derbyshire hosts the oldest and probably best known Shrovetide game. Asbourne Royal Shrovetide Football is played on both Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. The earliest reference to the game is a poem written in 1683: its ‘Royal’ title dates from a visit by the Prince of Wales – later Edward VII – in 1928.
A team ‘Up’ards’ born in the north side of the Henmore River take on the ‘Down’ards’ born on the south side. The pitch stretches between two goals situated 3 miles apart – one at Sturston, and the other at Clifton. Originally, the goals were the water wheels of two mills: today, they are purpose built plinths.
Kick-off or “turning up” of the specially made and painted ball takes place at 2pm from a plinth in the town centre. A goal is scored by tapping the ball three times against a marker board attached to one of the goal plinths. The game continues until 10 pm. If a goal is scored before 6 pm, then a new ball is “turned up” and a new game starts. When a goal is scored after 6 pm, the game ends for that day.
The Shrovetide football match in the Northumberland town of Alnwick is called “Scoring the Hales” which is now played in the Pasture, a meadow across the river from Alnwick Castle. Before 1825, the game was played in the town’s streets. Contested between the parishes of St Michael & St Paul, teams typically have around 150 players each. Victory goes to the team that scores two goals, or “Hales” first.
In Atherstone, in Warwickshire, the Shrovetide match is played along Watling Street, the Roman road linking London with Chester and the northwest. Thought to date back 800 years, the game is played between 3pm and 5pm. The winner is the person in possession of the ball at 5pm: the game doesn’t depend on teams or goals.
The Ball Game in Sedgefield, County Durham, is started at 1pm by passing the ball three times through the ‘bull ring’ in the middle of the village. It is then kicked around the village for the next three hours. There are no teams: the first person to get the ball to any of the pubs receives a free drink. After 4pm the obective is to ‘ally’ the ball into the local stream, retrieve it and then return it t the centre of the village, passing it through the bull ring three times.
Roxburghshire hosts a number of folk football matches around Shrovetide: Hobkirk’s is on the Monday after Shrove Tuesday with Jedburgh and Ancrum & Denholm staging matches during February.
Folk football is not confined to Shrovetide. Workington in Cumberland is host to a series of three matches around Easter
The Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking at in Leicestershire shares many of the characteristics of other folk football games but makes use of a cask of beer rather than a ball. The contest between the villages of Hallaton and Medbourne takes place on Easter Monday.
In Berwickshire, the married men of Duns take on the batchelors during the Reivers Week summer festival and even further north, in Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands the Ba’ Game is played on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, between more “Uppies” and “Doonies” defined by their places of birth. For Uppies the objective is to touch the ba’ against the wall in the south end of the town, while the Doonies aim is to propel it into the waters of Kirwall Bay. Games start at 1pm and can last for up to eight hours.
Whether your passion is the Five Mile Run, the Championship of the Hill or the British Shin Kicking Championships, Robert Dover’s Cotswold Olympicks should be at the top of the list of ‘must-attend’ events for sporting historians in 2012.
This unique British institution takes place in and around Chipping Camden in the Cotswolds and dates back to at least 1612. The programme explains what’s in store for the 400th anniversary Olympicks on Friday 1 June 2012.
Conceived by Robert Dover, a Norfolk-born lawyer, in around 1612, the Cotswold Olympics were staged annually until the outbreak of the Engish Civil War in 1642. The Games were resurrected with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and continued until the enclosure of Dover’s Hill in 1852. They were revived for a second time in 1951 for the Festival of Britain and became an annual event again from 1966.
As the crow flies, Chipping Campden is around 50 miles, or 80 km, from Much Wenlock. As the Cotswold Olympicks were still in existence when the first Much Wenlock Olympian Games were organised by William Penny Brookes in 1850, it is more than likely that the man who inspired De Coubertin to create the modern Olympics was himself influenced by Robert Dover.
The 2012 Olympic Torch Relay will visit Chipping Campden on Sunday 1 July. This welcome, but all-to-rare instance of the Relay show-casing Britain’s sporting heritage highlights the convention that the Relay tends to avoid visiting other events for fear of falling victim to ambush marketing, traffic jams or both. This practice means that Relays can’t take advantage of the crowds generated by other events. Equally, it can be argued that brands sponsoring the Relay would be perceived as more approachable and less aloof if they were seen to be engaging with local events that play an important role within their communities.
Watch this video for a flavour of the ancient art of Shin Kicking.