Gaelic Football 

Irish Sport 1950-2000, An Insight into Irish Sporting Success, ed. Ian Foster, Manticor , 2002, pp 51-70.


The Rules

The following rules were the first codification of the playing rules of the game. They laid the basis of the game that was to become the most popular in the country. The first recorded game under GAA rules was that between Callan and Kilkenny on February 15, 1885. At that time the rules were as follows:

  1. There shall not be less than fourteen or more than twenty-one players a side;

  2. There shall be two umpires and a referee. Where the umpires disagree the referee's decision shall be final;

  3. The ground shall be at least 120 yards long by 80 in breadth, and properly marked by boundary lines. Boundary lines must be at least five yards from fences;

  4. The goal posts shall stand at each end in the centre of the goal line. They shall be 15 feet apart, with a cross-bar 8 feet from the ground;

  5. The captains of each team shall toss for choice of sides before commencing play, and the players shall stand in two ranks opposite each other until the ball is thrown up, each man holding the hand of one of the other side;

  6. Pushing or tripping from behind, holding from behind, or butting with the head, shall be deemed foul, and the players so offending shall be ordered to stand aside, and may not afterwards take part in the match, nor can his side substitute another man;

  7. The time of actual play shall be one hour. Sides to be changed only at half-time;

  8. The match shall be decided by the greater number of goals. If no goal is kicked the match shall be deemed a draw. A goal is when the ball is kicked through the goal posts under the cross-bar.

  9. When the ball is kicked over the side line it shall be thrown back by a player of the opposite side to him who kicked it over. If kicked over the goal line by a player whose goal line it is, it shall be thrown back in any direction by a player of the other side. If kicked over the goal line by a player of the other side the goal keeper whose line it crosses shall have a free kick. No player of the other side to approach nearer 25 yards of him 'till the ball is kicked;

  10. The umpires and referee shall have during the match full powers to disqualify any player, or order him to stand aside and discontinue play for any act which they may consider unfair, as set out in rule 6. No nails or iron tips on the boots (strips of leather fastened on the soles will prevent slipping). The dress for hurling and football to be knee-breeches and stockings and boots or shoes. It would be well if each player was provided with two jerseys, one white and the other some dark colour. The colours of his club could be worn on each. Then when a match was made, it could be decided the colours each side should wear.

Numerous changes in the rules were to occur over the years. In 1886 wrestling and hand grips between players were prohibited. Point posts, as still obtain in Australian football, were introduced. Points were to count only if no goals were scored but no number of points was to equal a goal. Balls going over the sideline were to be thrown in by umpires or the referee. Two years later the referee was recommended to use a whistle. Forfeit points, which were given if a player put the ball over his own end line, were replaced by a fifty yard free.

More important changes were made in 1892. The maximum number of players on a team was reduced from twenty-one to seventeen, and this number was to be reduced to fifteen in 1913. The county champions, who represented their county in the All-Ireland championship, were now given the right to select players from other clubs. Five points were declared to be the equivalent of one goal, and the number of points was reduced to three in 1895. The following year the cross-bar was lowered from ten and a half feet to eight feet. In 1910 the point side posts were abolished. Goal nets were introduced. Three years later the backs took up their positions before the ball was thrown in. Prior to then all the players remained in the centre of the field for the throw-in. From 1914 the AII Ireland final was played on the fourth Sunday of September.


Gaelic Football cannot claim the antiquity of hurling, but it is by far the most popular of Irish sports today. The first direct reference to the game is to be found in the Statutes of Galway in 1527, which forbade citizens to play football and under the Sunday Observance Act of 1865 the game was again forbidden. The laws failed to suppress the game. In Kerry, one of the strongholds of the game, there were two forms of the game: field caid, which was confined to one field with goals at each end, and cross-country caid, in which the object was to take the ball from one parish to another. However, by the late 19th century, as with hurling, the game was in danger of extinction because of reasons already mentioned and also because of the lack of proper organisation and proper rules. Rugby and soccer were better organised.

The foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association in 1884 improved matters. In January 1885, Michael Davin, the first President of the Association, instigated the adoption of a set of rules. These rules were the first codification of the playing of the game. Numerous changes in the rules were to occur over the years. Perhaps the most important being the introduction of point posts, goal nets and the reduction of players from 21 to 15.

Competition has always been an important feature in the sport. Initially there was the senior championship which was played between the respective county champions. The first All-Ireland championship was played in 1887, and in the 1920s the Sam Maguire Cup was presented to the winners of the All-Ireland senior football final. The Railway Shield for interprovincial competitions was introduced in 1906, the Croke Cup for the defeated provincial finalists in 1909 and the Sigerson Cup for the inter-university championship in 1911. The Junior AlI Ireland championship, for players who were not up to senior standard, was introduced in 1912. The National Football League began in 1925 and Laois became the first champions. The first Railway Cup competition, for provincial teams, began in 1925, with Leinster becoming the first champions. A minor All-Ireland championship, for under-18 players, was introduced in 1929 and Clare became the first champions. An under-21 championship began in 1964 with the first final won by Kerry. A club championship, for county senior football champions, began in 1971, with East Kerry becoming the first champions. Championships for secondary schools were introduced in 1915.

Games were badly disrupted between 1919 and 1923 because of the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War. In one game during the period, between Dublin and Tipperary on November 21, 1920, British soldiers entered Croke Park and began shooting into the crowd. Thirteen people were killed, including Tipperary player, Michael Hogan, whose name is commemorated in a stand named after him in the stadium. The shooting was in retaliation for the killing of a number of British Secret Service agents by the Irish Republican leadership in Dublin that morning.

The 1920s saw the introduction of a new skill peculiar to Gaelic football, the solo run or toe-to-hand. The year was 1921 and the player was Sean Lavan from County Mayo. In a game against Dublin at Croke Park having got possession of the ball he set off for goal at speed, playing the ball from toe to hand and then shooting a point. It was the first time the skill was seen and ever since it has been an important part of the repertory of skills of the Gaelic footballer. It is the only legitimate way to carry the ball in Gaelic football.

Kerry with 16 wins, followed closely by Dublin with 15 wins dominated the All-Ireland championships and finals in the pre 1950 period; Wexford, Tipperary, Kildare, Galway and Cork each had three or more wins in this period; the 1947 final was unique in that it was the only All-Ireland final to be played outside Ireland. The decision to play the final in the Polo Grounds, New York was taken to revive interest in the game in the USA where it had declined during the war years and to commemorate the centenary of the Great Famine which had been responsible for creating the large Irish population in the USA. The decision generated great interest in the championship and Cavan and Kerry emerged to contest the final in New York on September 14. An attendance of 35,000 saw Cavan win by 2-11 to 2-7.

Kerry was again the dominant side of the 1950s, but others were to challenge their position. One of the strongest footballing counties of today is Meath but they were late winning their first All-Ireland. The year was 1949 and they had to play Louth three times in the Leinster semi-final before coming through. These contests captured the imagination of the public and gave the victors a high profile. Westmeath were beaten in the Leinster final, Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final and there was huge excitement in the county when Cavan were conquered in the final. Meath lost two successive finals in 1951 and 1952 before winning again in 1954, beating hot favourites Kerry well in the final. The victorious side included eight of the 1949 team, among them such stalwarts as Paddy O'Brien at full-back, the two corner men, Mick O'Brien and Kevin McConnell, and Brian Smyth and Peter McDermott in the forward line. It was to be ten years before Meath came out of their province again, and thirteen before another All-Ireland was won.

Mayo had been a great team during the thirties but went through a barren stretch during the forties. Their fortunes began to improve late in the decade as a result of a new approach to training and team selection. They were narrowly beaten by Cavan in the 1948 All-Ireland, lost to Meath in the semi-final the following year and came through for two All-Ireland victories in 1950 and 1951. Louth were defeated in 1950 and Meath the following year. The team included players whose names became legends in households around the country, players such as Sean Flanagan, who captained the two winning teams, Henry Dixon at centreback, Eamonn Mongey, who was an outstanding midfielder, Padhraic Carney and Tom Langan. After that it was to be lean times for the county. Mayo didn't win in Connacht for some time after that. There was a single success in 1955, followed by defeat in an All-Ireland semi-final replay, and the county had to wait until the late sixties before their graph began to rise again.

According to Jack Mahon in A History of Gaelic Football, Eamonn Mongey tells a good story against himself Soon after retirement he gave a pair of football boots to be sold in a fund-raising sale. They were bought by a publican in Tobercurry. 'A few years ago, after heart surgery, my wife and I journeyed west for a holiday during my convalescence, and we decided to visit Killoran's and see the old boots again. On entering we ordered coffee and enquired of the man at the bar about the boots and who owned them. He told us they belonged to a fellow named Mongey, who won All-Irelands with Mayo about 50 years before. He then added: "You know, the same Mongey looked old when he was playing and often wore a cap to hide his baldness, and I do believe the so-and-so is still alive." Now what could I do but laugh.'

Kerry recorded three victories in 1953, 1955 and 1959. In the first of these years they defeated Armagh, who were making an attempt to bring the Sam Maguire across the border to Northern Ireland for the first time. In fact many would regard it as the best Armagh team of all times. In a game which will be long remembered for its excitement and football skills, for brilliant individual performances and for sportsmanship which has seldom been bettered over the years, Kerry won by 0-13 to 1-6. Armagh missed a penalty at a vital time of the game. In the 1955 final they beat Dublin. The latter had been in the football doldrums since 1942 but were a rising force in the game at this time. Many of the players were products of the great St Vincent's club, which was hugely successful at this time. In the history of the club there is reference to 1955: 'All-Ireland final day 1955 is remembered as one of the most colourful and emotion filled days in All-Ireland history. It was the day that for the first time Hill 16 (the Railway end terrace in Croke Park) became the undisputed property of Dublin supporters. To have stood on the Hill that day is to boast of a singular honour and to lay claim to have been part of one of Ireland's great sporting occasions.' A crowd of nearly 90,000 watched the game which the more seasoned and more wily Kerry side won by 0-12 to 1-6. Kerry's third victory in 1959 was against Galway, who were an emerging force in the late fifties. The score was level going into the final quarter of the game butKerry, inspired bySean Murphy, TomLong and MickO'Dwyer, subsequentIy one of the great coaches in the game, dominated the final stages to win decisively by 3-7 to 1-4.

Galway had an impressive run of success in the Connacht championship in the fifties, winning five finals between 1954 and 1959. During the same period they had one All-Ireland success, in 1956, when they defeated Cork. It was a success long cherished in the county and in particular, the displays of Sean Purcell, Jack Mangan and Frank Stockwell, who scored 2-5 from play. It was a great team that deserved more success.

Cork lost the 1957 All-Ireland, this time to Louth, the smallest county in the country. The winners were captained by Dermot O'Brien, who became famous as a musician. Louth had won two All-Irelands in 1910 and 1912 and this was to be their last victory to date. The victory was received with tremendous excitement in the county and 40,000 fans lined the streets of Drogheda to welcome home the team. Dublin achieved All-Ireland success in 1958, beating Derry in the final. The latter had won their first ever Ulster final that year and were inspired by two great players, Sean O'Connell and Jim McKeever. They beat Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final but lost to an able and experienced Dublin side, which was captained by Kevin Heffernan and had talented players like Ollie Freaney and Dessie Ferguson, among others. 

The '60s saw the emergence of Down for the first time as a football power. The first year the county came to the notice of the public was in 1958 when they reached the Ulster final, only to be beaten by Derry. The following year they won their first Ulster tide but were beaten by Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final. In 1960 they went one better to claim All Ireland success, defeating Kerry in the final. Down's success was due to an extremely talented side, which included such players as Sean O'Neill, James McCartan, Kevin Mussen (capt.) and Joe Lennon, allied to a very professional management team. They were the first county to bring the Sam Maguire across the border into Northern Ireland and the success was greeted with incredible outpourings of joy and celebration. Down repeated the success in 1961, beating Offaly in the All-Ireland. This game attracted a massive crowd of 91,000 to Croke Park, the greatest attendance ever at an Irish sports fixture. Down had further successes in Ulster in 1963, 1965, 1966 and 1968. In the latter year they won their third All-Ireland, beating Kerry in the final. In doing so they established a unique record of never losing an All-Ireland final, a tradition they were to continue when they won in 1991 and 1994.

Galway were the other exciting team of the sixties, also winning three All-Irelands. They won out in Connacht six times during the decade but the high point were the years 1963 to 1966, when they played in four All-Irelands. In the first of these years they lost to Dublin. Galway led at half-time by two points but Dublin, inspired by Des Foley, Mickey Whelan, Paddy Downey and John Timmons, took over and won by 1-9 to 0-10. The experience was to serve Galway well the following year. Their opponents in the final were Kerry. Galway were on top at all times, led at half-time by four points and had five to spare at the final whistle. Kerry were defeated again in the 1965 final, this time by three points. Galway's opponents in the 1966 All-Ireland were Meath. They were well ahead at half-time, 1-6 to 0-1, and even though their margin of victory in the end was only six points, their superiority was much greater than the score would indicate.

In all 10 players took part in all three winning finals. Mattie McDonagh became the first Connacht man to win four All-Ireland senior football championship medals, as well as the only Connacht man to win ten Connacht senior football championship medals. Goalkeeper Johnny Geraghty did not concede a goal in any of the three victorious All-Ireland finals. From these dizzy heights of success Galway and Connacht went into decline and it was to be 32 years before an All-Ireland senior football title was won again by a team from across the River Shannon.

Kerry added two further All-Ireland tides during the sixties, in 1962 and 1969. In the former year they beat Roscommon in the final. The Connacht side made a brief resurgence in 1961 and 1962, losing the first year to Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-final and beating Cavan the second year. In 1969 Kerry defeated Offaly in the final after narrowly overcoming Mayo in the AlIIreland semi-final.

Mick O'Connell, who shone for Kerry in the '60s, was probably the greatest footballer of all time. He was a perfectionist in eveything he did, in his preparation and in his play. In his autobiography A Kerry Footballer he states: 'I practised several self-devised exercises to improve agility and pliability. One was to simulate the blockdown first on one side and then quickly across to the other side. This twisting and turning, when continued on for a while, was a great workout for the midriff section. Hurdling rows of wire fencing, approximately three feet high, which were dividing the field next to where I trained, was another exercise that I relied a lot on. Allowing myself only a very short run-up, I repeated this jump rapidly over and back several times. This served the purpose of strengthening the jumping muscles.'

Meath won the All-Ireland in 1967 after a lapse of 23 years. The county had been a force for some time but were unfortunate to have to contend with brilliant Galway during the period. They beat Cork in the 1967 final and the team included well-known stars like Jack Quinn, Pat Collier, Bertie Cunningham and Matt Kerrigan. It was Cork's third All-Ireland defeat since their last victory in 1945.

Attempts were made from early in the 20th century to establish an international dimension to Gaelic football. From the 1920s, teams from Ireland began to travel to the UK and the USA to play selections picked from among the Irish diaspora in these countries. In the early sixties the Central Council of the Gaelic Athletic Association agreed to issue an invitation to an Australian Rules football team to play a game in Ireland. There was a belief that the development of Australian football owed much to the influence of emigrant Irishmen. The two games are similar in their methods of catching, screening, running with the ball, punting and passing. In the Australian game the ball is oval, the game is played on a round pitch, the ball is lifted from the ground, the play is in quarters rather than halves, the tackle is different and the game uses point posts similar to those used by the GAA until 1913. In 1967 an Australian team from Victoria State, called the Galahs, organised by Harry Beitzel, came to Ireland and played the newly crowned All-Ireland champions, Meath. The sole concession granted to the Australians was being allowed to pick the ball off the ground; otherwise it was GAA rules all the way. The men from Australia took Meath apart with a display of high fielding and long kicking. Meath, stung by the defeat, set about organising a trip to Australia the following year. The trip was an outstanding success and Meath recovered their honour. Since then there have been other trips between the two countries. In 1984 a set of compromise rules was drawn up for games between the two countries. Since then these rules have been perfected and compromise rules games between the two countries have now become part of the GAA calendar. These games have given international dimension to Gaelic football.

The '70s were a really exciting decade because of the great rivalry between Dublin and Kerry. The latter began the decade in grand style, defeating Meath in the All-Ireland final. However, they had to play second fiddle to Offaly for a few years after that. Offaly were a new force in football. They never won out in Leinster until 1960, when they lost the All Ireland semi-final to Down in a replay. The following year they lost out to the same opposition in the All-Ireland final. The county was unlucky to have come up against a great Down team.  All these defeats were forgotten with the successes of 1971 and 1972. In the former year they defeated Galway in the All-Ireland final and repeated the success against Kerry in the replayed final of 1972. The successful teams included players who have entered the folk history of the county, legends like Paddy McCormack, Willie Bryan, Tony McTague, Murt Connor, to name a few.

Cork eventually came good in 1973 when they beat Galway in the All-Ireland final. The team included Jimmy Barry-Murphy, who was the minor sensation of 1972. He was as good at hurling as he was at football and other players on the victorious side, like Brian Murphy, Denis Coughlan and Ray Cummins, were equally adept in both codes. The captain of the side was goalkeeper, Billy Morgan, an inspiring figure for club and county.

The great Dublin-Kerry rivalry began in 1975. Dublin won glory in 1974, beating Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final and Galway in the final. They qualified for the All-Ireland again the following year but were well beaten by Kerry. When the sides met in the 1976 final, Dublin reversed the result. The following year Dublin defeated Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final and went on to defeat Armagh in the final. Kerry then took over to win four All-Irelands in a row, beating Dublin in 1978 and 1979, Roscommon in 1980 and Offaly in 1981.

One of the most talked-about incidents in Gaelic football was an incident that took place in the 1978 All-Ireland. Dublin dominated the game for the first 20 minutes and seemed destined for victory, when they went five points ahead. But against the run of play, Kerry came back to draw level. Then three minutes before half-time, the referee, Seamus Aldridge of Kildare, awarded a free to Kerry after the Dublin goalkeeper, Paddy Cullen, had cleared the ball. While Cullen argued with the referee about the free, his goal was left unguarded. Mikey Sheehy was handed the ball by a Dublin player and, instantly seeing an opportunity, took a quick free. At the last minute Cullen realised the danger. He made a desperate effort to back-track to the goals but the ball floated over his head into the net and he backed into the side of the netting. The goal was allowed; the incident was replayed again and again on the television screens and Paddy Cullen must have had waking nightmares for years afterwards. Dublin never recovered from the setback and were well beaten.

Kerry were going for a record fifth in a row in 1982 when they met Offaly in a repeat of the 1981 final. They appeared to be heading for victory and were two points up with about five minutes remaining. A long ball was floated in to the Offaly left corner-forward, Seamus Darby, who had come in as a substitute shortly before and was told by his manager, Eugene McGee, to stay near the goal. He beat his man to the ball, turned, and scored a goal to give his side a one point lead, which they held onto for the remaining minutes. It was a sensational victory for Offaly and a hugely disappointing result for Kerry, who seemed to be on the brink of creating history. That Kerry team, which was to win three more All-Irelands in the mid-eighties, is regarded as the greatest football team of all time. Wherever football is spoken the names of Mikey Sheehy, Pat Spillane, Ger Power, Jack O'Shea and others will be mentioned. The strength of the team was in its scoring power. No other team, either then or since, had such capacity for putting the ball between the posts. The longevity of the side was also impressive. Most of them came into the side in 1974 and lasted until 1987, four of them winning as many as eight All-Irelands each. Of great importance to the side was the influence of manager, Mick O'Dwyer, who came into the position in late 1974, after Kerry's defeat by Cork in that year's Munster final at Killarney.

Any account of the '80s has to take account of another manager, Kevin Heffernan, who came in as manager of Dublin in 1973 for a three-year period. His objective was to restore Dublin's senior football pride by gathering a group of players who would give total commitment to this objective. A group of players gathered together over a period of time and the new manager set about developing a team by improving individual skills, achieving maximum fitness and developing field tactics suitable to the team. The result was a very successful period for Dublin football and the winning of three All-Irelands. As a result of this period of rivalry between Kerry and Dublin, and between O'Dwyer and Heffernan, managers began to play a bigger part in Gaelic football. They were responsible for a growing professionalism in the approach to the preparation and training of teams. They were given almost absolute control over teams and became centres of media attention. Until 1970 the duration of an All-Ireland final was 60 minutes. In 1970 the first 80-minute final was introduced and this was to be the case until 1974. The 75-minute final was introduced in 1975 and has been the case since.

After the disappointment of 1982, Kerry suffered further defeat in 1983 when they were beaten with a last-minute goal by Cork in the Munster final. Kerry were seeking their ninth successive Munster tide. Cork lost to Dublin in a replayed All-Ireland semi-final and Dublin went on to defeat Galway in the final. But Kerry were far from finished. They came back to win the next three All-Ireland tides. In 1984, the centenary of the foundation of the Gaelic Athletic Association, they outclassed Dublin to win the final. In 1985 they beat the same opposition by a smaller margin, but still very convincingly. In 1986 their victims were Tyrone, who were seeking their first All-Ireland. Until early in the second half it appeared that Tyrone might be good enough but Kerry took over and won easily in the end. For five of the players, Paidi O'Shea, Ogie Moran, Pat Spillane, Mikey Sheehy and Ger Power, it was their eighth All-Ireland tide. O'Shea and Moran had been on the starting fifteen in every final. Spillane came on as a substitute in the 1981 final. Moran had the distinction of playing in the same position, centre forward, on all the winning teams. Nobody anticipated after the victory in 1986 that it would be eleven years before Kerry won another All-Ireland.

One of the greatest Kerry footballers of the glorious team of the '70s and '80s was Pat Spillane. In his autobiography Shooting from the Hip, he said: 'I am amused nowadays when I read about team managers banning their players from giving interviews or reading newspapers before a big game. Throughout my career I made a point of reading as many papers and listening to as many interviews on radio and television about the big games I was involved in. It helped that I am the most positive thinker imaginable. I wasn't the greatest footballer of all time. But, I believed I was much better than my opponent, even if I had no solid ground to back my argument. The day you go out thinking your opponent is better than you - you're in trouble. I never lacked confidence and I had the capacity to take positive meaning out of anything that was written about me. If a journalist wrote that I was the best footballer in Ireland I would be pleased, but also anxious to prove it was correct. On the other hand, if somebody suggested I was past it then I would go out and try to prove them wrong.'

The team that succeeded Kerry for All-Ireland honours was Meath. The county got a new manager in 1982, when Sean Boylan took over, and he has been with them over the intervening years. Meath won out in Leinster in 1986 but went down to Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. The experience was to stand to them the following year. Meath hadn't been in an All-Ireland since 1970 and Cork were their opponents. After a bright start Cork were pegged back and Meath ran out easy winners with six points to spare. Cork were again their opponents in the1988 final. The game ended in a draw as a result of a late Meath point from a free. The replay was a tough encounter at the end of which Meath had a point to spare, 0-13 to 0-12. Cork got their own back in the following two years. In 1989 they defeated Mayo in the final, after accounting for Dublin who had beaten Meath in Leinster in the All-Ireland semi-final. Cork won their second tide in 1990, beating Meath in the final. The team included players, who became national figures. Such were Niall Cahalane, Stephen O'Brien, Larry Tompkins, Shay Fahy and Teddy McCarthy. The latter had the distinction in 1990 of winning a hurling as well as a football All-Ireland. 

The first half of the '90s will be remembered for what has been called the 'Northern Renaissance', a succession of four All-Ireland victories by teams from Ulster. Down started the pattern in 1991. Since the glory days of the' 60s, when three All-Irelands were won, the county had not much in the line of success. There were victories in Ulster in 1971, 1978 and 1981 but no advancement beyond the All-Ireland semi-final. At the beginning of 1991 the county's expectations weren't great. However, the team won through to the provincial final, which was won easily against Donegal. Down's opponents in the All-Ireland semi-final were old rivals, Kerry, who had never yet beaten the northerners in a senior football championship game. Down came through the encounter, easily in the end, and qualified to play Meath in the final. Down were ahead by eleven points with sixteen minutes to go but Meath made a dramatic fight back and got within two points by the final whistle. Down had kept their All-Ireland final record complete.

Donegal were the successful team in 1992 when they won the All-Ireland for the first time. Even though there was a long tradition of football in the county, the first Ulster title wasn't won until 1972. The county's resurgence continued after that with further provincial titles in 1974, 1983 and 1990. All these four successes had been followed by All-Ireland semi-final defeats. The 1992 campaign began with a draw in the first round but it gathered momentum along the way. Derry were defeated in the Ulster final. The next test was against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final which Donegal won despite playing badly. So, it was into their first All-Ireland against the experience and tradition of Dublin. After a nervous start Donegal got into their stride and thoroughly deserved their four point victory.

Derry won their first ever All-Ireland the following year. Somewhat like Donegal, Derry were late winning their first Ulster title. That was in 1958 and further titles were won in 1970, 1975, 1976 and 1987. The county got to the All-Ireland in 1958 only to be beaten by Dublin, but lost the other four All-Ireland semi-finals. In the 1993 Ulster final they defeated Donegal, their conquerors of the previous year. Dublin were their opponents in the All-Ireland semi-final and, after a very close game, they won through by a point. In the final against Cork, Derry started badly and were 1-2 down after six minutes. They came well into the game after that and led by three points at half-time. Cork went ahead in the second half but Derry kept plugging away and had three points to spare at the final whistle. The victory was a very emotional one not only for the team but for all their loyal supporters down the years. Down came back to win again in 1994 and make it four out of four for northern counties. After the victory in 1991 Down fell to Derry in the 1992 and 1993 Ulster championships. They overcame the same opposition in 1994 and went on to beat Tyrone in the Ulster final. Down decisively beat Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final and preserved their 100% record in All-Ireland finals when they defeated Dublin by two points.

By seven o'clock on Tuesday morning after the 1991 All-Ireland final, Paddy O'Rourke, the victorious Down captain, had had enough, according to Jerome Quinn in Ulster Football and Hurling. 'Thirty-eight unforgettable but exhausting hours after winning Sam (the Sam Maguire Cup), it's time to take leave of the celebrations at his Burren club and take the Cup home.

Dozens of cars block the road, their owners still in party mood, so the Down captain improvises by taking the short cut he had taken as a young boy, over Burren hill. It was the most idyllic setting, dawn breaking over the beautiful Burren valley and rabbits scurrying for cover as the local hero climbed to the top of the hill. At the summit he paused for breath, turning and looking down at the club rooms he had just left. Some happy faces caught sight of him, others were called to the windows and, as they cheered, O'Rourke lifted the Cup and shook it vigorously above his head, as he had done at Croke Park. "It all came home to me at the moment, 20 years of hard work to achieve the ultimate goal of bringing Sam Maguire to my county and my people."

Two other teams from these years deserve mention. Clare made it out of Munster in 1992 for the first time since 1917 and Leitrim won out in Connacht in 1994 for the first time since 1927. Neither team progressed beyond the All-Ireland semi-final stage but their provincial successes bred hope in every other unsuccessful county and generated fresh enthusiasm.

In 1995 Tyrone came out of Ulster and hoped to emulate the achievement of the other successful Ulster counties and win their first senior football All-Ireland. Although the county made it to the All-Ireland final, having beaten Galway in the semi-final, they failed against Dublin. The latter came out of Leinster for the fourth successive year and, after failing to win on three of the occasions, were determined to succeed. Meath had played second fiddle to Dublin in Leinster since 1991 but eventually succeeded in 1996. They beat Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final and met Mayo in the final. The latter came to Croke Park with great expectations, having beaten Kerry in the semi-final and they did everything but win. They dominated for great stretches of the game but due to poor scoring ability and the undying spirit of Meath, they could only draw. The replay was a controversial affair in which the verdict was uncertain until the very end but it was Meath that had the point advantage at the final whistle to take their fifth All-Ireland title.

Mayo were back again in 1997 and qualified for the final when they defeated Offaly in the AlIIreland semi-final. Their opponents were Kerry, who defeated Cavan in the other semi-final. Mayo played poorly, didn't score until the 23rd minute and were led by five points at the interval. They did improve in the second half but were always struggling and Kerry had three points to spare in the end. It was their first All-Ireland title since 1986. Galway and Kildare brought great excitement to the 1998 championship. The Galwaymen hadn't won since 1966 and beat Roscommon in a replayed Connacht final. They beat Derry in the All-Ireland semifinal and came up against Kildare in the final. The latter defeated Kerry in the other semi-final and there was great expectation that they were going to win their first final since 1928. Since 1990, when the former Kerry manager, Mick O'Dwyer, had taken them over, there had been a resurgence in the county. They led Galway by a goal at half-time but an outstanding performance by the Connacht men in the second half put paid to Kildare's hopes and dreams.

Meath were back in the winners' enclosure in 1999. They beat Dublin in the Leinster final and accounted for Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-final. Mayo came out of Connacht again but were beaten by Cork in the second semi-final. Meath were favourites to take the tide and duly obliged, beating Cork by three points. It was their seventh All-Ireland crown and was won on the 50th anniversary of their first in 1949. It was also the 17th year for the fortunes of the county to be guided by Sean Boylan, who had been elected manager for the first time in 1982.

The Millennium All-Ireland was won by Kerry. Having won their 67th provincial tide when they beat Clare in the Munster final, Kerry took two games to defeat Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-final. Many believed the northerners left victory behind them in the drawn game. Their opponents in the final were Galway, who won their 40th provincial tide when they defeated Leitrim in the Connacht final, and who then beat Kildare in the All-Ireland semi-final. Galway opened very badly in the final and trailed by seven points after 25 minutes. But they made a great recovery and with 20 minutes to go were within a point of Kerry. At this point they looked like winning but in the remaining time could manage only a point to draw level and the game ended at fourteen points each. Kerry claimed their 32nd All-Ireland tide two weeks later when they won the replay by 0-17 to 1-10.

The game of Gaelic football has changed over the past 50 years. There have been a number of significant changes in the rules in Gaelic football in the period since 1950. For instance the number of substitutes is now set at five, no stoppages are allowed for injured players, goalkeepers must wear distinctive jerseys and are allowed to pick the ball from off the ground and may not be charged within a triangle 15 by five yards and there are rules in regard to dissent, free kicks, throw-ins and sideline kicks. Prior to the '70s the game was much more free-flowing with the traditional skills of catching and kicking and solo running very much to the fore. A change came about at that time with the evolution of the running game in which possession became more and more important. Short passing became a feature. The game became much tighter and this led to an increase in frees as pull and drag tactics were employed to halt the movement of the play. With this development there was the need for a top class place kicker to convert frees. Tony MacTague of Offaly was one of the first. The game became more professional and players more cynical, with the resulting development of negative tactics to counteract the strengths of the opposing team. The advent of managers, with a fierce desire to prove themselves and pressure to win, aggravated many of these developments.

Sponsorship and live television coverage have given the game a higher profile. Attendance at games has increased. Coverage of the sport in newspapers has expanded. Personality reporting and dramatic action shots have become commonplace. Another development has been the spread of women's Gaelic football, the fastest growing sport in the country at the present. The promotion of the game at underage level in the clubs and the schools, the creation of many competitions at secondary school and third level have contributed to the general popularity of the game.

But everything in the game in not as it should be. There is massive competition from other sports for the loyalty of young players, who pick and choose from a supermarket shelf of choices. The dropout rate at an early age, as students concentrate on examinations or prefer the easier option of vicarious experience from the television set, is alarming. The game itself is in difficulty. The hand pass is not clearly defined. The traditional skill of the toe pick-up of the ball has almost disappeared. There is no effective way of tackling the player in possession of the ball. Positional play has largely been eliminated by the running game. Refereeing is a serious problem because of the wide difference in the interpretation of rules.

Despite these problems, Gaelic Football remains one of Ireland's most popular and supported sport. In 1961, 90,000 spectators attended the All-Ireland senior Gaelic Football final and equally in comparison, in the 2001 final when Galway defeated Meath, the game was played before a capacity crowd. The pride in Ireland's traditional native sports, Hurling and Gaelic Football, will ensure their position as the country's premier sports.