Ireland is a strange place, where a word like “football” can be divisive.
As dusk settles upon Trinity College, Dublin, the players of Dublin University Football Club hone their skills upon the turned earth. Steam rises up into the air, the fumes of their labours, lit to a sweaty haze by the straining floodlights above. Late into the evening, they trickle into the dressing rooms beneath the Pavilion Bar, where less active student slug cans of warm lager sold at €2.40 a pop, or four for €8. Whatever you’re into.
As the music plays above, those below wash and change, discussing training and their upcoming match against University College Dublin, their bitter rivals. However, while their tactics might include “spreading it out wide as much as possible,” and “tearing them up in the tackles,” there is also talk of “getting to the rucks first,” and “disturbing their lineout.” Dublin University Football Club, DUFC, is actually the world’s oldest rugby club.
None of the players call themselves footballers; they play rugby. Football is something else. DUFC does stand as a relic of a much older Ireland though. When the club was founded, Trinity College was a playschool for Dublin and Ireland’s Protestant ascendency. Football, to those long gone generations, was played with an oval ball, and a more dignified and Protestant sort. It was a socio-economic and religious barrier. Football, to the majority of the land, was gaelic football. This was not the case on College Green.
More than a century and a half later, it would be rare to hear such an archaic use of the word. Now, “football” essentially has two meanings across the island of Ireland, and both mean far more than the opposing sports that they denote.
On Sunday the 18th of September, just a few days away, “football” will mean gaelic football. Masses of green and gold clad Kerry folk will venture up to Dublin’s Croke Park to see their county take on Dublin for the All Ireland Football Championship. Those they leave behind at home will be glued to television screens at home or in their local pubs, screaming for Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper, one of the greatest footballers of his generation, to lead the Kingdom to victory.
In Kerry, as in many counties, football means gaelic football. An English tourist might unknowingly walk into a pub in Kilarney on Sunday morning (somehow oblivious to the carnival atmosphere of All Ireland Sunday) and ask, “are you showing the football today?” Of course they are, why wouldn’t they. They’re not showing Manchester United and Chelsea though; they’re showing the f***ing football.
If that same tourist had instead decided to visit Dublin that weekend, it might be slightly different. “Are you showing the football today?” This is a complicated question in Dublin.
Of course, it is the Sunday of the All Ireland Football Final and yes, Dublin are contesting it. They haven’t won an All Ireland title since 1995, their last final appearance, so maybe this year there is a bit of excitement for gaelic football, rather than the usual denial. The wider Dublin public is embracing gaelic football now because - up until the point where Kerry beat them on Sunday - it is quite a fashionable turn.
In Dublin and, by proxy, most of Ireland’s mainstream media, soccer is given the status as the dominant “football.” If you and your mates go down to your local to watch the football inside the historical English Pale of greater Dublin and further, you’ll be watching Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Ledley King. Well, maybe not Ledley King, but you’ll be watching a game where handball is an offence and sticking the ball over the bar and into the crowd behind the goal is a bad thing.
Those who do give soccer the “football” crown do so out of a background of not being from the sticks, basically. Through the latter half of the twentieth century, larger towns and cities adopted soccer as foreign and wonderful. In these places, the English Premier League has replaced Sunday morning mass as the priority for the weekend, and is certainly preferable to bog ball (gaelic football).
Similarly, gaelic football is “football” for those who descend from a line that distanced themselves from Dublin, from the Pale, from the British and from the type of people that founded Dublin University Football Club. But now those rugby heads are soccer heads, leaving the national games of hurling and gaelic football behind.
Use of the word “football” to describe a particular sport thus becomes a socio-cultural thing; it becomes a marker of who a person is, their background, their class etc. Friends brought up a stone’s throw up or down a motorway from each other will argue until dawn over pints of creamy stout about which is which and nobody but the publican ever wins. It is like a localised, rather drunk adaptation of the trans-Atlantic debate about what “football” is.
After Sunday’s game, “football” will return to whatever it usually means for most people. For rural communities, “football” will again be an oppositional term against colonialism and those bastards from Dublin. In urban areas, “football” will be the Premier League, and Barcelona during the week. For those in between, it doesn’t matter that much, as long as nobody starts calling rugby “football” again.
You can follow Cathal on Twitter @iltrequartista