Gaelic football enthusiasts describe the game as a combination of association football, rugby and basketball. It is a fast game, played by two teams of 15 on a 137- by 82-metre grass pitch using a harder, heavier version of a soccer ball. During the 70-minute game, the ball can be carried, kicked and passed with a punch or slap. The field has rugby-union-style goal posts, with a net extending below the crossbar. One point is scored if the ball is hit with a fist or kicked over the crossbar; three points if it is kicked past the goalkeeper into the net below it.
Owen McKenna, a driving force in Christchurch Gaelic football, was killed in the February 2011 earthquake. McKenna had helped resurrect the game and, when an influx of Irish construction workers boosted player numbers, the city’s Gaelic footballers named their new club in his honour. When Auckland and Christchurch clashed in 2012, the team from Christchurch McKenna’s GAA club was the stronger, winning by three points.
It is likely that Gaelic football was played informally by Irish immigrants to New Zealand from the 19th century, but it was not organised until the mid-20th century. In 1949 the first Irish Games competition took place in Auckland and the first provincial games were played in Christchurch the following year. In 1953 the first New Zealand Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in Auckland.
The game was helped by Irish immigration, which was prompted by large construction projects. In the 1950s, the Meremere power station and the Tasman pulp and paper mill both attracted young Irishmen, who formed Gaelic football teams. Some settled in New Zealand after the projects were over, and continued to play. In the late 1960s more players were New Zealand born (in some cases the sons of those who had migrated in the 1950s). In 2013 the majority of players were still born overseas.
In 1959 the winners of the All Ireland Gaelic Football Championship (the Kerry team) visited New Zealand and played an Auckland side at Carlaw Park. Although the visitors won, the game was hard fought. There were also visits by teams from New York in the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s.
In the 1970s New Zealand joined with Australia to form the Australasian Gaelic Athletic Association. The 1980s and 1990s saw regular competition with Australia, and New Zealand teams won at both under-18 and senior level. Competition between Australia and New Zealand continued less regularly in the 2000s.
In 2012 teams from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch competed in New Zealand’s first Gaelic football and hurling league. Each of these cities had its own Gaelic athletic association.