Gaelic or Irish football has historical references to around the 14th century, so this article in no way claims that Australians invented the game – but a case can be made that the Australian game helped in the codifying of the Gaelic game. Here’s how.
We all know that the first rules of the game of Australian football were written in 1858 and that by the 1860s thousands of men were playing it. It was very popular with miners on the Victorian goldfields in particular, but by the late 1860s a huge gold rush took place in the Thames area in New Zealand, prompting many thousands of miners to leave Victoria to try their luck over the Tasman. Many were either Irish or sons of Irish miners, and at one stage 18,000 miners were at the Thames.
At that time in New Zealand the Catholic archbishop was Irishman Thomas Croke. Three years of his 1870-75 tenure were spent travelling extensively, including to the Thames region due to the huge Irish population there. He also made visits to Melbourne, including one on 8 June 1872, when Carlton were playing Melbourne in a VFA game. Croke, an avid sports fan, returned to Ireland in 1875 – via Melbourne. Is it possible he saw the Australian game in both New Zealand and Melbourne? Perhaps he even picked up a set of the Victorian rules, which were rewritten in 1866. I think he did.
Ireland in the late 1870s and 1880s was going through a period of great nationalism, and by 1885 the Irish Parliamentary Party had won 86 seats in the 336-seat House of Commons and called for self-government from the British. What better way of promoting patriotic nationalism than by unifying or codifying the sports through the country?
Gaelic football, hurling, handball and other Irish games were all played in different ways in different counties, and by uniting the sports through common rules, Irish nationalism could be promoted to halt the spread of the recently codified English games of rugby and soccer, which had become popular in certain parts of the country.
On 1 November 1884 a group of Irishmen gathered in the Hayes Hotel billiard room to formulate a plan and establish an organisation to foster and preserve Ireland’s unique games and athletic pastimes. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was founded, and guess who was the first patron of the GAA? Sports enthusiast Archbishop Thomas Croke, whom Croke Park in Dublin is named after.
So where did the rules for the codification of Gaelic Football come from? Considering all counties had different versions of rules, have no doubt that the rules of the codified rugby and soccer games would be used as a template – after all, they were English and England was the enemy, although some people claim Gaelic football is a combination of rugby and soccer.
Aaron Dunne, an Irish sports writer and historian, suggests that the first codified rules of Gaelic football were extremely similar to the rewritten 1866 Australian Rules regulations. He states that the similarities between the ten founding rules of Gaelic football and the 1866 revised rules of Australian football were plain for all to see.
Dunne says that the only real differences between the 1866 Aussie Rules regulations and those of Gaelic football lay in minor alterations to restart rules. It’s also worth noting that until 1910 Gaelic football was played with goal and behind posts – behind posts were first used in the Australian game in 1866 and up until 1910 a goal was worth five points and a behind one in the Irish game.
The similarities were striking:
So how would the newly formed GAA get their hands on the 1866 rules of Australian Rules football? GAA patron Thomas Croke of course.
A couple of people who saw Gaelic football in the 1900s commented on the similarity between the codes. A rugby footballer visiting Great Britain in 1911 “saw a good deal of the Gaelic game, which is very similar to Australian rules, the main differences being that a soccer ball is used, the ball must be bounced every three yards, and a cross-bar is used on the goal posts.”
Another find, from 1912: “The Gaelic game of Ireland, in some features, resembles the Australian game. It is played 17 aside, and goals and points are scored, as are goals and behinds in Australia, though in the Gaelic game a goal counts for only three points” – remembering of course that prior to 1910 Gaelic goals were worth five instead of three points.
Even the great Australian footballer and cricketer Jack Worrall had an opinion in 1926: “I have always understood that there is a great resemblance between our game and the Irish one – which is called Gaelic – it appears that the similarity is remarkable, the principal difference being that they play with a round ball, while the ball we use is allied to the one played in the Rugby code.”
“The evolution of all games is interesting, and none more so than ours. I was speaking to the father of the game (Mr HCA Harrison) last Saturday, and the news that our code somewhat resembled the Irish one rather surprised him.
“The desire of Mr Harrison and his cousin TW Wills was to improve upon rugby, and that they succeeded is a matter of history. But when our game was in its infancy the desire was for a round ball – why, I know not – but as it was not procurable they got a rugby one instead.”
In 1866 Australian Rules football was played with usually a round ball. The use of a rugby size two ball was implemented in 1877 by the VFA and the Sherrin didn’t come until the 1880s.
So there we have it. There’s certainly no smoking gun or written proof, but it’s a pretty strong theory, so while Irish migration to Australia probably saw an impact of Irish folk football or versions of Gaelic football on our native game, the very early codification of our game may have influenced the Irish to do the same thing by borrowing from our rules.