There can be few countries in the world whose sporting passions are fuelled by so many different sports. The big four of soccer, rugby, football and hurling dominate the sporting horizon, although each of these waxes and wanes in terms of popularity from one year to the next. And there are those other sports which regularly enjoy a moment in the spotlight according to their current fortunes, whether that may be the ladies’ hockey team, mens’ cricket team, rowers, boxers or other Olympic athletes. So with so much competition, is it possible to state with any confidence that we have one ‘national’ sport in the same way that the US has the NFL and New Zealand has rugby?
Hurling will lay a claim for this title based on the fact that it is Ireland’s oldest sport, its beginnings pre-dating recorded history on this island. Hurling is the sport of legend and myth, the sport favoured by that ancient warrior of mythical tales: Cú Chulainn. The game today is in robust health too, with this year’s Championship throwing up epic clashes which have further cemented the idea that hurling is ‘the greatest game in the world’ among its fanbase. The argument against hurling being Ireland’s national game is the fact that its heartlands are a select group of counties in the South of the country. The game barely has a presence in many other counties and only half of the country is eligible to win the All-Ireland.
Neil Francis famously declared earlier in the year that ‘the people are embracing rugby as our new national sport’, and certainly had some grounds to make this claim. He was writing after the Irish national team had claimed the Grand Slam and hopes are high for the upcoming World Cup. There are not many international sports where Ireland ranks amount the top two or three nations, giving rugby a leg up on the competition in terms of the most popular national sports. However, rugby still suffers from the fact that it is a game primarily rooted in Leinster and pockets of Munster. Whatever about the successes of the national team, the club game is dying, and participation rates are not high outside of these traditional breeding grounds.
Gaelic football certainly has a strong claim to be called Ireland’s national sport. With over 30% of people who go to see live sports made up by attendance at Gaelic football games it is certainly the front-runner in that metric. The game is widely played – although much more by men than women – and has a social element unrivalled by other competing sports. The game is widespread throughout the country and is relatively easy to pick up. The counter-argument would be that football has hit something of a low point in recent years, dogged by controversies and criticism. From the dominance of Dublin to blanket defences killing entertainment to various incidences of cheating and violence, football has been suffering in the last couple of years. Perhaps the rule changes demanded by so many will help to bring football back to its former glories.
The last of the big four sports is soccer, and again this is a sport which can lay a strong claim to being the national favourite. The country comes to a standstill when the Irish national team is involved in the latter stages of an international competition, grabbing the spotlight in a way that no game – not even rugby – can match. Unfortunately, the current incarnation of the national team doesn’t look like qualifying for major tournaments any time soon. The domestic game still suffers from being in the shadow of the Premier League and that is a situation that is never going to change, barring major upheavals in the world of club football. Soccer is the team sport which attracts most participants – both male and female – and is the world’s favourite game for a reason.
So can we definitively state that one of these deserves to be called ‘Ireland’s National Sport’? The true answer is that this title is filled on a revolving basis by one sport or the other from one year (or month, or week) to the next. As the World Cup approaches rugby will move into the top position, but this time next year the story will be very different. The best approach is probably to enjoy these and all those other stories of Irish sporting triumph as and when they occur rather than seeking to raise one above the others.