Gaelic football (Irish: peil ghaelach), commonly referred to as “football”, “Gaelic” or “gah” is a form of football played mainly in Ireland. Teams of 15 players kick or punch a round ball toward goals at either end of a grass pitch. Gaelic fooball is one of four gaelic sports run by the Gaelic Athletic Association also called the ‘GAA’.

General description

At first glance Gaelic Football resembles a combination of soccer and rugby and/or Australian rules football. Players advance the ball up the field with a combination of carrying, kicking, and hand-passing to their team-mates. Some plays include a ducking and weaving movement where the player in possession will run toward an opponent, and at the last minute change direction after wrong-footing the defender. Passing takes place to players on the run, so rather than passing directly to a team-mate, players will pass the ball into mid-air just ahead of the receiving player so that he can run into it. The scoring system adds another dimension to the game. If a team has a two-point deficit in the dying minutes of a match, they will start to try to get in closer to the goal and create a goal-scoring opportunity. Fans enjoy the high speed and frequent scoring, the many different ways to deliver the ball, and the unpredictable nature of the game.

Playing Field

The pitch is of grass and rectangular, stretching 130–145 metres long and 80–90 metres wide. There are H-shaped goalposts at each end with a net on the bottom section. The same pitch is used for hurling; the GAA, which organises both sports, decided this to facilitate dual usage. Lines are marked at distances of 13m, 20m, 45m (Football) and 65m (Hurling) from each end-line. Shorter pitches and smaller goals are used by under-13s and younger.


Teams consist of fifteen players (a goalkeeper, two corner backs, a full back, three half backs, two midfielders, three half forwards, two corner forwards and a full forward) plus up to fifteen substitutes, of which five may be used. Each player is numbered 1-15, starting with the goalkeeper, who must wear a different coloured jersey.

The ball

The game is played with a round leather ball, similar to a soccer ball, but heavier, and with horizontal stitching rather than the hexagon and pentagon panels often used on soccer balls. It may be kicked or punched. Punching the ball from one’s hand is called a “handpass”.

The following are considered technical fouls (“fouling the ball”):

Picking the ball directly off the ground

Throwing the ball

Going four steps without releasing, bouncing or soloing the ball. (Soloing involves kicking the ball into one’s own hands)

Bouncing the ball twice in a row

Handpassing the ball over an opponent’s head, then running around him to catch it

Handpassing a goal (the ball may be punched into the goal from up in the air, though)

Square ball, an often controversial rule: If, at the moment the ball enters the small rectangle, there is already an attacking player inside the small rectangle, then a free out is awarded.


If the ball goes over the crossbar, a point is scored and a white flag is raised by an umpire. If the ball goes below the crossbar, a goal, worth three points, is scored, and a green flag is raised by an umpire. The goal is guarded by a goalkeeper. Scores are recorded in the format {goal total} – {point total}. For example, the 1991 All-Ireland semi-final finished: Meath 0-15 Roscommon 1-11. Thus Meath won “fifteen points to one-eleven” (1-11 being worth 14 points).


The level of tackling allowed is more robust than in soccer, but less than rugby. Shoulder-charging and wresting or slapping the ball out of an opponent’s hand is permitted, but the following are all fouls:

using both hands to tackle

pushing an opponent

deliberately striking an opponent

pulling an opponent’s jersey

blocking a shot with the foot

sliding tackles

touching the goalkeeper when he is inside the small rectangle

Restarting play

The match begins with the referee throwing the ball up between the four midfielders.

After an attacker has put the ball wide of the goals, the goalkeeper may take a kickout from the ground at the edge of the small square. All players must be beyond the 20m line.

After an attacker has scored, the goalkeeper may take a kickout from the ground from the 20m line. All players must be beyond the 20m line and outside the semicircle.

After a defender has put the ball wide of the goals, an attacker may take a “45” from the ground on the 45m line level with where the ball went wide.

After a player has put the ball over the sideline, the other team may take a sideline kick at the point where the ball left the pitch. It may be kicked from the ground or the hands.

After a player has committed a foul, the other team may take a free kick at the point where the foul was committed. It may be kicked from the ground or the hands.

After a defender has committed a foul inside the large rectangle, the other team may take a penalty kick from the ground from the centre of the 13m line. Only the goalkeeper may guard the goals.

If many players are struggling for the ball and it is not clear who was fouled first, the referee may choose to throw the ball up between two opposing players.


A Gaelic football match is watched over by 8 officials:
– The referee
– Two linesmen
– Sideline Official/Standby Linesman(inter-county games only)
– Four umpires (two at each end)

The referee is responsible for starting and stopping play, recording the score, awarding frees and booking and sending off players.
Linesmen are responsible for indicating the direction of line balls to the referee.
The fourth official is responsible for overseeing substitutions, and also indicating the amount of stoppage time (signalled to him by the referee) and the players substituted using an electronic board.
The umpires are responsible for judging the scoring. They indicate to the referee whether a shot was: wide (spread both arms), a 45m kick (raise one arm), a point (wave white flag), square ball (cross arms) or a goal (wave green flag).
All officials are also supposed to indicate to the referee anything he may have missed, although this is a rare occurrence. The referee can over-rule any decision by a linesman or umpire.


The first mention of football in Ireland is found in 1308, where John McCrocan, a spectator at a football game at Newcastle, County Dublin was charged with accidentally stabbing a player named William Bernard.

The Statute of Galway of 1527 allowed the playing of “foot balle” and archery but banned “hookie’ the hurling of a little ball with sticks or staves” as well as other sports. However even “foot-ball” was banned by the severe Sunday Observance Act of 1695, which imposed a fine of one shilling (a substantial amount at the time) for those caught playing sports. It proved difficult, if not impossible for the authorities to enforce the Act and the earliest recorded inter-county match in Ireland was one between Louth and Meath, at Slane, in 1712.

By the early 19th century, various football games, referred to collectively as caid, were popular in Kerry , especially the Dingle Peninsula. Father W. Ferris described two forms of caid: the “field game” in which the object was to put the ball through arch-like goals, formed from the boughs of two trees, and; the epic “cross-country game” which lasted the whole of a Sunday (after mass) and was won by taking the ball across a parish boundary. “Wrestling”, “holding” opposing players, and carrying the ball were all allowed.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Rugby and Association football started to become popular in Ireland. Trinity College, Dublin was an early stronghold of Rugby, and the rules of the English Football Association were codified in 1863 and distributed widely. By this time, according to Jack Mahon, even in the Irish countryside, caid had begun to give way to a “rough-and-tumble game” which even allowed tripping.

Irish forms of football were not formally arranged into an organised playing code by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) until 1887. The GAA sought to promote traditional Irish sports, such as hurling and to reject “foreign” (particularly English) imports. The first Gaelic football rules, showing the influence of hurling and a desire to differentiate from association football — for example in their lack of an offside rule — were drawn up by Maurice Davan and published in the United Ireland magazine on February 7, 1887.

While it is clear even to casual observers that Gaelic football is similar to Australian rules football, the exact relationship is unclear, or even controversial. Australian rules was devised in Melbourne, in the Colony of Victoria, from 1858. Because of the Australian goldrushes, there were many Irishmen in Victoria at the time. Both games have always been differentiated from rugby football by having no limitation on ball or player movement (in the absence of an offside rule); the need to bounce or toe-kick the ball, known as a solo in Gaelic football, while running; punching the ball (hand-passing) rather than throwing it, and other traditions.

Other accounts suggest that the relationship may have originated from the opposite direction: Archbishop Thomas Croke, one of the founders of the GAA, lived in New Zealand in the early 1880s and had the opportunity to witness “Australasian rules” (as it was once known) being played there. Like Australian rules, the Irish football games of the 1880s allowed players to grab or push each other. However the two games were soon developing and diverging, largely in isolation from each other, and the precise connections between the two games are unclear.

Since 1967, there have been many matches between Australian football and Gaelic football teams, under various sets of hybrid, compromise rules. In 1984, the first official representative matches of International Rules football were played, and the Ireland international rules football team now plays the Australian team annually each October.

Gaelic football has become increasingly popular with women since the 1970s.