A Beginner’s Breakdown of Gaelic Games

Gaelic games are the traditional sports of Ireland, and are as spectacular to watch as they are exciting to play. Their reach and impact wildly transcends Ireland’s borders, having become a worldwide phenomenon with clubs all around the globe.

In Ireland, each of the 32 counties is represented by its own teams, with players loyally playing for their county. Gaelic sports clubs are a key part of Irish life, defining community identities across towns and villages as social hubs that promote the country’s culture and history.

As all Gaelic games are strictly amateur sports, players do not receive any form of payment for their involvement. Entrenched in the nation’s identity, these sports are played at all ages and skill levels, by both men and women. 

More than a sporting activity, the Gaelic games are an expression of Irishness itself – a celebration of passion, honour, and skill on an equal playing field. 

How Many Gaelic games Are There?

Despite the fact that some people think there are only four Gaelic games, there are actually six different sports that are recognised as Gaelic games. 

The names of these traditional Irish sports are:

  • Gaelic Football
  • Gaelic Handball
  • Hurling
  • Rounders
  • Camogie
  • Ladies Football

Ladies Football and Camogie are the women’s versions of Gaelic Football and Hurling respectively, whereas Handball and Rounders are played by both men and women. 

How do you play Gaelic games?

Every Gaelic game has its own set of rules and ways to play, with different associations that preside over rule changes and other administrative measures. 

The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) governs Gaelic football, Handball, Hurling and Rounders, and collaborates with the partner organisations that organise Ladies Football and Camogie (the Ladies' Gaelic Football Association and the Camogie Association).

Hurling, Camogie, Gaelic Football and Ladies Football are all field invasion games, with each team having 15 players and trying to score points against one another. 

Handball is a game played between two or four people, which sees players hit a ball against a wall using their hands, similar to American handball.

Rounders is a baseball-style game played with bases, a bat and a small ball on a field, with two teams alternating between batting and fielding.

What Is the Difference Between Gaelic Football and Hurling?

On the surface, Gaelic Football and Hurling have some key similarities: they are both played by 15-player teams in the same structure, and they have the same scoring system.

However, in practice they are very different sports. Hurling is a ball-and-stick game, named after the stick used to drive the ball to the net. Gaelic football, on the other hand, is a sport where hands and feet are used to control the ball.

What is Gaelic Football?

Gaelic football, also called simply “Gaelic”, is the most popular out of all the Gaelic games. Played on a rectangular grass field, the aim of the game is to score points by driving the ball through H-shaped goals (similar to rugby) at each end of the pitch.

Players can use their hands and feet to bounce, kick, and hand-pass the football, which is round and made of leather, and slightly smaller than an association football or soccer ball.

Gaelic Football: Team Structure

Gaelic football has 15 players on each team, consisting of a goalkeeper, six defenders, two midfielders, and six attackers. The goalkeeper wears a different-coloured jersey to the rest of his team. 

Gaelic Football: Match Length

Inter-county games are composed of two 35-minute halves to a total of 70 minutes, while club matches last 60 minutes, divided into two 30-minute halves.

Gaelic Football: Scoring System

One point can be scored if the ball is over the crossbar, whereas a score under the bar, i.e. a goal, is worth three points. At the end of the match, the team with the highest score wins. 

Hurling stick and Sliotar from O'Neills

What is Hurling?

Hurling is a men’s sport involving an ash hurling stick used to hit a small hurling ball (called a sliotar) into the opposite team’s goalposts, similar to Gaelic football. The length of the stick depends on the player, and is usually around 35 inches for adults.

One of the oldest field games on earth (older even than Ireland itself), hurling is also believed to be the fastest! It incorporates elements of field hockey, lacrosse, and baseball, all combined into a high-skill game. 

The ball can be kicked, slapped with an open hand pass, or caught in the air and carried by hand for no more than four steps before being bounced or balanced on the stick. Fouls can include picking up the ball by hand off the ground, handling the ball more than twice while in a player’s possession, and hand-passing a goal.

Hurling: Team Structure

Hurling has 15-person teams, including a goalkeeper, six defenders, two midfielders, and six attackers. No padding is used, but players must wear protective helmets which have only become compulsory for players since 2010. Goalkeepers wear a different colour to the rest of the team, as different rules apply to them.

Hurling: Match Length

Inter-county hurling matches last 70 minutes, made up to two 35-minute halves. Club hurling matches last 60 minute, divided into two 30-minute halves.

Hurling: Scoring System

The hurling scoring system is just like scoring in Gaelic football. If the ball is shot over the crossbar of the H-shaped goal, the team gets one point. If the ball is hit into the net under the crossbar, the team gains three points. The team with the most points at the end of the match wins the game.

What is Gaelic Handball?

Gaelic handball is a sport played by both men and women, involving a ball and a wall – similar to American handball. Players take turns hitting the ball against the wall, aiming to make the ball hit the wall and bounce twice before the opposing team can hit it back. The ball must strike the front wall before hitting the ground

There are multiple versions or “codes” of Handball, with different court sizes, types of balls, and varying number of walls (between one and four). In Ireland, four different codes are played. Traditionally, the domestic 60x30 code (referring to the court size) is played with a smaller rubber softball. Hardball is also played in this court size, but with a much harder ball. The only international codes played in Ireland are the 1-Wall and 4-Wall versions.

Gaelic Handball: Team Structure

Like tennis, Handball can be played in singles (1 vs 1) and doubles (2 vs 2). Depending on the type of match, gloves and eye guards must be worn by players.

Gaelic Handball: Scoring System

In Gaelic handball, points are scored by the person who serves the ball when the opponent is unable to return the opponent’s shot before it hits the ground twice. When the serving side loses a rally (or two consecutive rallies in doubles), it loses the serve. Matches are played as the best of three sets, with adults playing two sets to 21 points and a final tiebreaker set if needed in Irish championships (U15 play sets to 15 points).

What is Rounders?

Rounders is a game involving a small leather Rounders ball and a rounded bat, played across multiple innings with teams alternating between batting and fielding. Not only is it similar to baseball – it is actually believed to be its ancestor!

Rounders is also played in England, but with a different set of rules and equipment. The GAA version of Rounders is played on a larger field with a larger bat and ball.

Rounders: Team Structure 

In Ireland, Rounders is played across all age groups by both men and women, and can be mixed or separate. It is played by two teams of nine players: the bowler, the catcher, four players across the four bases, and three deep fielders.

Rounders: Scoring System

The bowler throws the ball to the batter, who has three chances to hit it towards the field and run in a straight line around the first, second, third, and fourth home base. If the ball is caught by the opposing team, an opposing player throws the ball to the base before the batter arrives, or if the batter fails to hit the ball in three good balls, they are out. The batter is also out if they strike the ball onto foul ground.

Points can be scored by the batting team when one of its players finishes a circuit past all four bases – this is called a rounder. The team that has scored the most rounders at the end of the game, after five innings, wins.

What is Ladies’ Gaelic football?

As the name suggests, Ladies’ Gaelic football is the women’s version of Gaelic football. Overall, the women’s version of the sport has more in common with the men’s version than not – sharing the same 15-player teams, H-shaped goals, equipment, and scoring system as men’s Gaelic football.

However, there are some key differences in the gameplay and minor deviations in the set rules.

Ladies’ Gaelic football vs Gaelic football: What’s the difference?

One of the main differences between Ladies’ Gaelic football and the men’s game is that players are allowed to pick up the ball directly from the ground when standing.

There are also differences related to physical contact, as deliberate bodily contact is not allowed (e.g. no shoulder-to-shoulder contact, which is a legal move in men’s Gaelic) and can result in a yellow or red card, except when blocking the delivery of a ball or competing to catch it. There are also certain offences, such as pulling other players’ hair, which do not have specific rules in men’s Gaelic football.

The football itself is a size 4 instead of a size 5, similar to Camogie. Matches also tend to last 60 minutes compared to the men’s inter-county game length of 70 minutes.

What is Camogie?

Camogie is the women’s version of Hurling, involving the same equipment such as the hurley stick and sliotar ball. The team structure, field and scoring system are all the same as Hurling.

Camogie vs Hurling: What’s the difference?

Just as Ladies’ Gaelic football is less physical than the men’s version of the sport, Camogie involves less physical contact than Hurling due to the elimination of deliberate shouldering. Some of these rules are slowly changing over time to even out the men and women’s versions, for example allowing for minimal deliberate contact from the side to gain possessions.

In Camogie, all the players in the team wear the same coloured jerseys. This includes the goalkeeper, unlike in Hurling, as there are no rules differentiating goalkeepers from the other players. The game is played with a size 4 ball instead of a size 5. Finally, matches last less time: 60 minutes instead of 70 minutes for inter-county hurling games.


We hope this guide has been a helpful introduction to the Gaelic games and how to play them. If you’re interested in giving this quintessential Irish experience a go, it’s never too late to get involved in one of the hundreds of clubs located around the world!