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A Meeting of Cultures in an International World

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International Rules

Editor: The International Rules series between Australia and Ireland sees the two nations adopt a hybrid set of rules that combines Australian football and Gaelic football to form a new sport that allows the two countries to compete internationally against similar quality opposition. The series has had many ups and downs but has a surprisingly long history.

The following article is an interesting reflection on that history with an emphasis on the cultural aspects of globalisation and opposition to change.  It's by one our writers, Professor Stephen Alomes.  Please note it was first published in 2000, and has not been updated so should be read in that context.

'A Meeting of Cultures in an International World: Australian Football-Gaelic Football International Tours 1967-1998', in T Foley and F Bateman, eds, Irish-Australian Studies, Sydney, Crossing Press, 2000, pp.1-17.

At first glance the story of the attempted creation of regular Australian Football-Gaelic Football international matches is a simple tale.  It involves two groups of sporting authorities on different sides of the world seeking to provide international representation for players in two of the most exciting, but also most localised, sports on earth.  International matches were played in Ireland in 1967-8, 1978, 1984, 1987 and 1998, and in Australia in 1968, 1970, 1986 and 1990.

The Victorian Football League (VFL) - later Australian Football League (AFL) - and the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) hoped that these matches would help them meet the challenge of Olympic and other ‘international’ sports.   Football authorities in both countries hoped that these international matches would add to the prestige of their games at home.  At a second glance the story becomes more complicated, from its entrepreneurial beginnings with the ex-umpire, media commentator and entrepreneur, Harry Beitzel to a later era of ‘globalising’ trends when television replays and other international Australian Football exhibition matches were set in this larger context.

A historical perspective might also find deeper cultural, or even ‘mythic’, resonances in the experiments.  Did Irish folk football, played casually by Irish immigrants, help shape that ‘game of our own’ Australian football as it was codified from 1858 onwards, as Patrick O’Farrell has suggested? How much did that first codified and organised football influence Michael Cusack’s codification of Irish Gaelic Football from 1885?

Did these indigenous games reflect certain social and cultural realities in two countries which defined their nationalism against the English?  Were these creative codes expressions of a rebellious spirit against the English public school game, rugby (played by colonists and subsequent élites in both countries), its working class offshoot, rugby league, and the English organised game, Association Football, disparagingly reduced to ‘soccer’ in Australia?  In Ireland, the divisions between Gaelic Football and the ‘garrison games’ (cricket, rugby, soccer and hockey), on which the Gaelic Athletic Association placed the ‘Ban’ until 1971, was deep.   It was different in nature, as well as degree, from the class and cultural tension between the establishment cricket clubs, which often controlled the grounds, and the football clubs in Australia. Australian Rules football, as it was long known, had been devised as a winter game for cricketers.  And, as Gramscian Marxists lamented, Australian Football had a hegemonic role, as an opiate to all classes, a secular religion, keeping the people’s minds on the ball and off the revolution. 
The links between Ireland and Australia were real.  The Irish immigrants, bond and free, their Celtic ballads and jigs and the smaller-scale Gaelic games of the 1880s involved continuing connections.  The parallels were there also in cultural spheres   for example, the Abbey Theatre was a model for Louis Esson’s national theatre ideals of the 1920s.

The dissimilarities were arguably deeper.  The GAA’s links with Irish revolutionary nationalism gave a different meaning to Michael Collins’s suggested ideal of a game of their own, played by their own rules rather than by the rules of the English.   Nor has Australian Football ever faced the horror of ‘Bloody Sunday’ at Croke Park on 21 November 1920 when the ‘Black and Tans’ shot one player and twelve spectators.  Only Bodyline cricket, at the time of the financial punishment extracted by the Bank of England in the early 1930s, made sport political; the ersatz social cultural conflict of Test matches between the ‘aggressive colonials’, the Australians and ‘the old enemy’, England was a psychodrama which reinforced the ties of Empire.

In middle-class Melbourne, the Victorian Football League - and its counterparts in the other capitals south of the Murray - was linked to elite and popular society. Australian Football, which had begun as a winter game for cricketers, became the dominant sport played by the silvertails of Carlton, Claremont, North Adelaide and Sandy Bay as well as by the working classes of Collingwood, East Perth, Woodville and North Hobart. 

In the northern autumn of 1967 the world seemed an orderly place. In Ireland, God was in his rural Heaven.  In Australia, anti Communism, the Returned Services League and the cult of the air hostess (the ubiquitous Susan Jones in one advertising campaign) suggested that despite the Beatles, the ‘Sixties’ and increasing rumblings over Vietnam, a certain provincial order would prevail.  In Ireland in this era, the Gaelic Athletic Association maintained the ‘Ban’.  In Australia, despite the increasing interest in the Olympics, basketball was a minority sport and soccer was a ‘foreign code’ on the ethnic fringes of society.  In Ireland, divorce was unthinkable; in Australia, which was also protected by various political and moral censorships, it was still viewed by the law as more aberrant than anything else. 

Change was in the air however.  By the 1960s, Australia and Ireland were becoming more pluralist: secular, urban and immigrant Australia even faster than religious, rural and emigrant Ireland. In 1961 television had come to Ireland as it also did to Tasmania.  Later, satellite television experiments, the Olympics on TV from Melbourne to Mexico City, jetliners crossing the oceans, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Coca Cola and the Vietnam War brought internationalising tendencies.   On a smaller scale the Victorian Football League  was becoming a new Roman Empire, taking the best players from around the country and feeding back TV replays to Perth, Hobart and Adelaide in exchange. 

All these changes threatened older traditions including grass roots local sport. At the very time when over ten per cent of the population went to the football in Hobart and Perth and when young Irishmen played Gaelic Football as naturally as they went to church and the pub, critics and commentators feared for the future of their respective games.

In Melbourne, Harry Beitzel believed that the Australian game was in trouble.  Poor spectator facilities, including muddy terraces and historic toilets, television coverage and the competition of other sports, did not augur well for the future.   In a changing Ireland, the traditional sport of Gaelic football both gained and lost from the established authority of the GAA.  While the GAA and other local Gaelic football structures delivered boys to this amateur game, some people thought that the GAA looked old-fashioned in the era of the cult of the New.  As Ireland too looked to the Britain of the Beatles and Carnaby St, wouldn’t English soccer with its large player payments, and rugby union with its social and therefore career associations, attract young Irishmen?  By the late 1980s similar questions were being asked in Australia about basketball which had another additional cachet - it was not only international and American but its peer-group ‘coolness’ grew from the fact that teenagers’ parents had no ownership or knowledge of the sport. 

In October 1967, flying by the seat of his pants, Harry Beitzel took a selected team to Ireland, London and New York.  Although the Kangaroo Route took most Australians going overseas to Europe, it was now possible to fly back to Australia across the Pacific on a Qantas 707.  The shifting focus of 1967 involved an Australian Football exhibition match in London, Gaelic Football matches in Dublin against All-Ireland champions Meath and the runners-up Mayo and in New York; it would set a pattern which would continue over the following decades.

The team left on Sunday 22 October 1967, marked by a Lord Mayoral reception and a motorcade through the streets of Melbourne.  It should have been a small beginning with big results, the planting of a great international gum tree with shamrocks in its branches.  However, Harry Beitzel had not reckoned with an Australian tradition which went beyond sport.  The Colonial Cultural Cringe, which undervalued Australian achievements, and the related tradition of cutting down over-reaching ‘tall poppies’ encouraged scepticism towards visionary ideas.  Harry Beitzel had to defend the proposal.  Under the headline, ‘Justified or joke?’, he maintained that the tour was not ‘a publicity stunt by my Public Relations Company’ but a ‘genuine and sincere endeavour to establish a common link with the Irish game’.  His tour’s aim was ‘NOT’ to ‘establish Australian Rules overseas as an international game ... Nor ... to alter our great game here in Australia’.  

‘The greatest spectator sport in the world’ did need, however, the opportunity for overseas tours to ‘help counter the overseas tours of other football codes such as soccer and rugby’.

Despite some press support the team would be seen by many as a joke.  Jack Cann
on, in the Melbourne Herald, suggested that as Australian sports teams were named after animals the team   with its uniform of green Australian blazers, with a motif of a kangaroo encircled by the map of Australia and fawn up turned Digger hats with individual feathers in their club colours   looked like galahs.  In a cruel form of colonial mockery the tall poppies were cut down before they had a chance to grow, to fly high for the ball.  Australian Football international was being pioneered by no-hopers, in the vernacular by ‘a bunch of Galahs’.

Although some players wore the offensive sobriquet with pride, as the Diggers defending Tobruk had inverted Rommel’s jibe ‘the Rats of Tobruk’, it was not an auspicious beginning.  The themes of parody, joke, artifice and oddity would recur over the next quarter century as a self-satisfied and smug media sought to deflate the international fantasies of Harry Beitzel, the National Football League and the VFL-AFL.

Was this a deeply resonant theme in Australian culture?  Or was it also the unfortunate by-product of a marketing ploy?  Had the wily ex-umpire Harry Beitzel outfoxed himself?  It has been suggested that Beitzel had Jack Cannon call the team ‘Galahs’.  Was this a theatrical device to maximise media interest and provoke a more sympathetic reaction?  If so, in encouraging a habit of disparagement towards international football matches the novice public relations man, Harry Beitzel, succeeded too well.  If not, and the ex air-force man, Jack Cannon, still reaffirms his distaste for the ‘Galahs’ and their appropriation of the Diggers’ slouch hat, it was an even bigger problem.

The team arrived in Dublin after a bitterly cold night match before a small crowd of 4,000 at London‘s Crystal Palace.  By then, with great difficulty, a match had finally been arranged at the cathedral of Gaelic football, Croke Park, and against the All Ireland champions, Meath.  This was being slowly organised despite an understandable scepticism about these novices at the Gaelic game with their diverse membership, including the Italian-sounding name of Ron ‘Barassi’, the captain coach, and the Germanic ring of Harry ‘Beitzel’.  At the airport press conference on a wet Dublin day, the journalist, John D Hickey, who knew of the duststorm which had arisen in Melbourne after their departure, asked, in his Irish brogue, about the  term galah.  ‘Would you be telling us what’s with this name, “the Galahs”?  What does it mean?’  As Harry Beitzel tells the story, he responded with a fanciful   almost Irish   tale of this magic bird:
    I told him what it meant.  ‘It meant according to aboriginal folklore that it was a very rare bird, hardly ever sighted, golden wings, a great big bird, golden wings and if it ever flew over you you’d have golden sunshine in your lives, in your hearts for the rest of your lives.  The Galah has flown over Dublin today.  Look outside and it’s raining.  Come Sunday we’ll have perfect sunshine’.  ‘You obviously haven’t seen the weather forecast’, he said ... And there were a lot of negatives, and we turned it all around ... I said:  ‘We may not win this game as it’s a game we don’t know but I can assure you of four things: 1. you’ll never have seen athletes like you see our Australian boys.  2. you’ll never ever see your game played like we will play it.  3. you’ll never forget us and 4. we will change the way you play your game - I can guarantee these things - we’re going to bring excitement to it.

The press reported captain Ron Barassi’s confident remarks about the game under the headline ‘We’ll thrash you’, creating some interest in ‘The Cheeky Boys from Down Under’.

On that Sunday at Croke Park the clouds retreated as the Australians came onto the ground to give a kicking exhibition with the Australian ball.   A ‘stunned crowd’ saw Meath, the All-Ireland champions, go down to the travelling novices who had only played Gaelic Football against a few Irish immigrants in Melbourne and a Civil Service team in Ireland.   Was Meath’s defeat Gaelic Football’s Pearl Harbour, when the shock attack of these Antipodean Zeros blasted Ireland’s finest?  Or was it a new beginning for the Gaelic game - and also for international matches between these two exciting forms of football?

In this time of pioneering, ad hoccery ruled. The team returned to London while Harry Beitzel organised a second game, against Mayo, the runners-up to Meath. Again the Galahs won - by a goal.  New York was, inevitably, different, for the Galahs who had only stepped off an Aer Lingus jet a few hours before.  It would be remembered for Barassi’s nose, which ran into the fist of one of New York’s finest.  Having defeated the Irish teams because of their superior fitness, the jet-lagged Australians won neither the match nor the fight against the New York Irish.   This introduced a different theme, more related to footbrawl than football.  End-of-season release, the lack of clear disciplinary structures and of the threat of suspension from regular roster matches, and the frustrations of playing a game which denied the Australians’ normal tendency to tackle would often lead to aggression which threatened these meetings of cultures.  

The March 1968 tour to Australia by ‘The Mighty Men of Meath’ was a foretaste of the possibilities and the problems facing the pioneers.  When the Meathmen, fitter than before, defeated the Galahs before 30,000 people at the MCG on the Moomba/Labour Day holiday Monday and again on St Patrick’s Day it seemed that the international relationship had been consummated.  The creation of the Harry Beitzel trophy for international competition between Australia, Ireland and the USA - and held by the Americans after the 1967 victory - suggested that a sporting tradition was being invented.   Irish pipers and a hurling demonstration at the MCG also suggested an active link with Irish Australia.  Despite this occasion, and the use of local Gaelic footballers in demonstrating the Gaelic game to Australian footballers, this connection was usually only in the background.

Yet, the trip was short and Harry Beitzel had to spend $9,500 on publicity as media interest was variable.  In Perth, the West Australians - who were defeated 6 goals, 3 points, to no goals, 3 points - tackled illegally, raising the on field temperature as well as attracting boos from the crowd of 11,000.  The frustrated Australians’ attempts to ‘offset the rules disadvantage by forcing their opponents off the game’ - ‘playing the man not the ball’ - would also be a recurring pattern.

The Meath manager (coach) Peter McDermott, Seán Ó Siocháin, General Secretary of the GAA and Harry Beitzel were all aware of the problems.  Peter McDermott reflected on the strength of tradition in Meath, where one person in thirteen played Gaelic Football, and in Ireland more generally: 

    There is a great deal of nationalism connected with Gaelic football and this helps to explain the tremendous support the game has at home.
    It is our heritage and this could be a barrier to the establishment of an international game based on a combination of our game and Australian football.
    I would like to see a new game of football emerge from an amalgamation of the codes because it could be an outstanding game with great appeal.
    However, I can envisage strong opposition to the introduction of this new code at home as well as in Australia and it could probably only be played, in the near future, on an international basis.

Harry Beitzel took pride in the tours’ success but, along with Seán Ó Siocháin, was a little on the defensive.  After March 1968, Beitzel reported the sceptics’ views and then celebrated their defeat: 

    A lot of people said it couldn’t happen. In fact, many ridiculed it. Still others degraded it by their lack of foresight.
    But, regardless of all the opposition, it did happen.
    An international competition between Australian footballers and the Irishmen has gained strength.  And for those close to the teams it WAS a success.

Both Beitzel and Ó Siocháin were aware of the problems.  Whereas the Irish press had welcomed the Australians in a tradition of Irish hospitality, neither the press nor all VFL clubs had reciprocated.  Seán Ó Siocháin noted that the Australian press coverage’s ‘hurtful cynicism of the Irish game’ and the several VFL clubs which had refused to make their players available for the Galahs’ March 1968 matches against Meath were real causes for concern.  He appealed ‘to the Australian Press for goodwill and club co-operation’, declaring that the Irish had not come with ‘the spirit of conquest’.  ‘We’re not trying to change your game.  It’s a wonderful thing that after 100 years a bridge has been found between our games which have a common root’.  Future prospects were ‘great’ but ‘goodwill is needed’, he concluded.

Beitzel’s ‘Official Report on the Irish Tour of Australia’ was thoroughgoing, analytical and realistic. He argued that beyond the immediate challenge of a 1968 tour and ‘exhibition matches’ of Australian Football in America and Europe as well as in Ireland, other changes were needed.  Ó Siocháin had argued for rule changes to facilitate the Australians playing Gaelic Football:
     (i) allow the hand pick up 
    (ii) introduce some form of tackling 
    (iii) have the player with the ball ‘play it on’ when grabbed by an opponent and 
    (iv) have handball as used by the Australians adopted in the Gaelic game.

Harry Beitzel was pleased with the success of the Meath tour.  It made ‘the cynics back in Ireland realise that overseas tours are a reality’ and augured well for the October ‘gates’ in Ireland.  It also had cultural benefits, as the Irish players learned about ‘Australia, its people and its easy way of life’.  But now the enthusiasm was not just ‘on this side of the world with a handful of Australian footballers’; now that the Meath party had seen ‘a wild dream come true’.  Perhaps the Meath players’ enthusiasm ‘back home in Ireland will be contagious’.  Realism tempered his excitement however.  ‘Financially [the tour] could have been better’.  There was no great surplus to aid future tours such as that in October.  What was needed, the self effacing entrepreneur believed, was for ‘officialdom to take over the control’.  It could not do this until

    (a) it alters its charter and 
    (b) it can see that there is no chance of losing money on such an enterprising world tour.

As he had said ‘many times in the past   this job is too big for an individual’.  It needed ‘the support of all the Australian Football Leagues through the parent body, the ANFC’ (Australian National Football Council), longer promotional time in Melbourne and Adelaide before matches and perhaps less games, possibly deleting Sydney.  Finally, there was the problem of the lack of support from some clubs and from some of the Melbourne media.  

Given those problems, and the costs involved, Ron Barassi feared that interest in the Galahs would diminish over the next few years.   It did. Beitzel had lost money on both trips.  The Beitzel dream faded for a decade until he organised the 1978 tour to Ireland.  In a sense the conversion of the faithful to the new footballing ecumenical religion had to begin again.  He resumed with media and official support.  The exciting 1978 VFL Grand Final had been shown on the new Multi-Channel TV in Dublin and later on RTE.  He invited the VFL principals, Allen Aylett and Jack Hamilton on the tour and, as before and after, the visiting Australians were received by the Taoiseach (prime minister) at Leinster House.

It was already an internationalising world. Even in 1967-8, when the first teams had toured, Footy Week had carried advertisements for the three stripes of Adidas, the importance of being a ‘Levis Guy’ and the new international status cigarettes from Rothmans to the short lived Idlewild.

International sport on television had become common during the 1970s and competition between sports   for spectators, for television audiences and for media interest   was increasing.  The 1978 tour coincided with an Irish soccer international against England and an international rugby union series.   During the 1980s, matches played in Australia would clash with the Defence of the America’s Cup in Perth and the Grand Prix in Adelaide.

The 1980s would see the maturation of the competition under modified ‘international rules’.  More frequent tours saw coaches, players and spectators, and even some commentators, getting a feel for this exciting new game.  Interest grew in the ‘Test’ matches, as the Australians called them, or ‘internationals’, as the Irish termed them.  The deciding Test at Croke Park in 1984 was ‘Space Age’ football said the then VFL President Allen Aylett.  The new game was more exciting than Gaelic Football and faster than Australian Football.  At its highest, it excited supporters and the players.  After winning the close deciding Third Test, Gerard Healy, who had never played in finals, exulted ‘if grand finals are like that, let me at them’.  Later, the team’s captain Terry Daniher reflected that the victory was ‘a great a thrill as winning a Premiership with the Bombers’ [Essendon]   ‘I’ll never forget it as long as I live’. 

The new game had even more impact on Gaelic Football than on Australian Football.  Since 1967, the Australians’ use of ‘the fisted pass’, their fitness, speed and teamwork and their ability at ‘high fielding’ (the high mark) had started to stimulate changes in the Gaelic game.  After the 1984 Third Test, Seán Kilfeather of the Irish Times sensed a new mood which would influence the character of Gaelic football:
    The winds of change are gusting to gale force through the GAA following the highly
    successful tour here of the Australian Rules players. There were very few at Croke
    Park yesterday who would have been regarded as conservatives, and tackles and
    marks and free kicks (out of the hand) were being discussed as a crowd, which was
     estimated at close on 40,000, steamed away from the holy of holies with excitement
    on their faces.

The Irish television commentator Mike Murphy lauded this ‘marvellous’ game: ‘It moved so fast, the scores were great and the whole thing was played in an atmosphere of excitement’.

Even then, Irish and Australian press sceptics criticised the new game.  Irish players were also critical of the Australians’ illegal tackling.  After the controversial First Test in 1984, Ireland captain Jack O’Shea remarked that ‘We really were playing by two sets of rules out there’.   It seemed that the Australians would ‘follow their instincts to tackle hard and ignore the ‘no-tackling rule’ which was part of the series’ ‘compromise code’.  The hard-bitten professionalism of the Australians, tackling but conceding the free kick to slow the Irish down, jeopardised this international exercise in good sporting relations.

Four problems, practical and attitudinal, would bedevil the series during the 1980s.  They would limit the games’ development, despite the enthusiasm of the players and the recognition of rare visionaries that this international dimension was crucial if these two home grown religions were to survive the invasion of foreign codes, for the infidels were at the gates.  Firstly, the conflict over tackling would be ongoing, particularly in 1986 when the Australian coach, John Todd approached the series with a cynical professionalism.  This problem led, in turn, to a second one: a more general media cynicism about this ‘hybrid game’.  Some of the critics, who simply didn’t like the idea, focused on the tackling question to give particular point to their distaste.  Was it, as Paddy Downey believed, that Irish journalists who did not get to travel Down Under had a spirit of begrudgery?  Australian journalists either condemned tackling as unduly hostile to the spirit of international goodwill or demanded tackling as a prerequisite for an interesting game.

The third problem was, that in the 1980s, the then VFL started to cast its eye in several international directions for exhibition matches, following upon the spread of Australian Football on pay television.  It also got into bed with several 1986 style nouveau riche entrepreneurs.  They had their own idiosyncratic agendas for international matches.  The idea of inventing a tradition in Irish Australian matches was lost in this context.  Finally, variable commitments by television, by sponsors and by the clubs, and eventually by the GAA and the VFL AFL limited the development of the concept, leaving it to languish after the 1990 tour.  The tendencies of 1967 68 were all there two decades later, although the wider worlds, in which the two traditional sports Australian Football and Gaelic Football now found themselves, had changed.  Even more than the international era of the 1960s, new sports with national competitions in Australia and through American and European programmes on television threatened the dominance of Australian Football.  In Ireland, saturation soccer through English television and the popular cults of such top UK teams with traditional Irish connections (Manchester United, Liverpool, Glasgow Celtic) all threatened this still amateur, and only recently televised, national game of Ireland. 

In physical contact sports, conceptions of acceptable physical contact and of tolerable responses to physical contact vary.  In Australian Football, the cardinal offence is kicking so the Australian players reacted angrily to Irish players kicking the ball off the ground when hands and/or heads were near.  Although the Irish players were not backward in coming forward when challenged, they reacted against the throw down tackle, a sending off offence in their sport.  The lightly built Irish players were particularly vulnerable to heavy physical contact and also had a tradition of theatricality when injured, an operatic performance of pain and suffering which the Australians, whose theatrical repertoire was more controlled, found excessive.   Each found the play and attitudes of the other hard to understand.  In 1986 in Perth, when the Irish protested at the Australians’ illegal tackling and coach John Todd attacked them for ‘laying on the ground’ after a tackle.  The Irish were ‘bloody wimps’ who acted and took ‘a dive’ rather than accepting pressure and not whinging in the Australian way.   Despite the success of the game as a ‘fantastic’ spectacle and it being faster than Australian football, according to the sportswriter Peter Simunovich,  although Paddy Downey thought it was less of a spectacle than the Gaelic Football 1984 Tests at Croke Park, ‘International Rules’ was, in the words of the Irish Times headline, ‘threatened by violent battle’.  The GAA President, Dr Mick Loftus, said that if brawls which broke out in the match - a product of Irish tempers roused by the Australian tackling - were repeated he would ‘have no hesitation in recommending to the General Council that we abandon the series’.  Strangely, although five players (two Irish, three Australian) were sent off, they did not face penalties in the form of suspension from their domestic rosters.   The Australians won the match 64 to 57.

While the controversy increased press coverage it only added to the difficulties. No mean stousher himself, Brent Crosswell asked in the Age, ‘Do we want to establish friendly sporting ties with Ireland, or are we seeking a pretext for a pre-emptive strike?’  Condemning John Todd’s remarks about Irish ‘paranoia’ and the game being a ‘test of character’, he asked ‘Did it occur to these patriots that the game may have been a national disgrace?’

Despite the onslaught of the Australians and press criticism of the game and its inequalities, the Irish won the series.  A victory banner at Dublin Airport on their return proclaimed ‘Welcome Home Winning Wimps’.

The Australian’s journalist Jim Main, who was a supporter of the series, believed that tackling needed to be introduced for Australian fans and that it would be popular in Ireland too.   He argued that the Irish had to compromise.  If one of the problems with Gaelic football - leading to decreasing attendances - was the no-tackling rule which made the game ‘boring’, tackling had to be allowed in the 1986 tour of Australia.  ‘Attendance figures in Australia would be appallingly low if no tackling was allowed.  Fans would prefer to watch the grass grow at VFL Park’.  Even on this tour, Main argued that the Irish newspaper headlines ‘screamed ... “Thuggery”, but the fans loved every minute of the action’.  In Main’s simple equation - Gaelic football ‘once had tackling.  It also was enormously popular, and was that a coincidence?’

Some Irish newspaper headlines were enthusiastic: ‘Jacko sees glowing future with Aussies’, ‘G.A.A. go International!’, ‘“Croker” the place to be today’.  Others expressed scepticism: ‘What Game Do They Think They’re Playing’, ‘The Australian Controversy - Crude tackling is unacceptable’, ‘New game lacks identity’ and ‘Trial Marriage - How long can it survive?’

In the 1980s crowds were sometimes good, more often limited.  Although the WACA ground was a sell-out of 21,000 (and with a reported 5,000 more spectators locked out) in 1986,   wet weather, limited promotion, direct telecasts and competing sporting events made Australian crowds usually poor (in the 10-20,000 range).  Television coverage was erratic with delayed coverage in Ireland of most of the exciting 1986 Australian tour.  In Australia, Channel 7 had lost interest by 1990.

Despite these media problems, the 1986 tour, with sponsorship by the Bank of Ireland and Fosters, made a good profit.  With sponsorship, the costs of an international tour did not inevitably lead to a loss.
The third problem reflected the extent to which the VFL was caught up in the mood of the nouveau riche capitalism of the 1980s.  This meant the VFL, under its President, the dentist and businessman Allen Aylett, chasing the new dollars available from sponsorship, advertising and new markets (from product licensing in Australia to international TV markets).  At a time of increasing player payments, this general reorientation, along with the creation of a national league covering five capital cities, was arguably the right thing to do.  It led to the success of the AFL in the 1990s as a national media and popular sport.  However, when pursued in the speculative manner of the eighties, it was less well thought out in practice.  Dreaming of the demographics offered by television and the American market, the VFL got into bed with several entrepreneurs to stage exhibition matches in Tokyo (the Aussie Bowl), London, Los Angeles, Miami and Vancouver and even a ‘World Championship’ match in Toronto.  Often, these schemes were driven by beer barons at home or by small entrepreneurs making exaggerated promises overseas.  Such trends were, in the business management jargon of the following decade, unfocused and the numbers of interested Americans and potential pay TV viewers were exaggerated. 

The 1980s experiments suggested that the VFL AFL admixed professionalism and 1980s’ projects with other less business like attitudes.  In some ways the exhibition matches were also a new form of club end of season trip, as the clubs now looked beyond a week in Tassie or the beach at Surfers Paradise.  In this process, the theme of Tests against the Irish and the importance of playing for your country were often lost in this blurred international vision.

The fourth problem was that for the Australian media, the clubs and the fans the ‘Irish Experiment’ was only defined in the most selfish and narrowest terms: the players it brought to the VFL-AFL - the Brownlow Medallist Jim Stynes and the backman Sean Wight who both played for Melbourne and half a dozen more who couldn’t settle in or didn’t make the grade (or the transition?).

Media, club and fan scepticism in Australia, and to a lesser extent in Ireland, and the Irish victory in 1990 saw the international prospect fade over the next few years.  Within the Cabinet rooms of the AFL, the NFL and the GAA there were enthusiasts and doubters.  In 1990, Ed Biggs of the NFL (and at that time the National Australian Football Council which was by then found within the VFL cum-AFL), confirmed that the Council had met and decided to send a team to Ireland in 1992 if the GAA wished to keep the competition alive.  ‘It would be a tragedy if this marvellously skilful game of football were allowed to die’ as it ‘must rank among the greatest team games in the world’.   At the same time the players themselves wanted the series to continue.

In the 1990s the world had changed.  The international culture suggested by satellite TV experiments in the 1960s and the marketing of international consumer products (from sports shoes to fluids and drinks) had evolved into a global developed world.  Companies, products and marketing strategies were international rather than national and sport steadily looked to larger stages, state and national and international competitions supplanting the dominant regional competitions of an earlier period of less than half a century ago.  Pádraig Puirséal’s centenary history of the GAA was called The GAA in Its Time.  In 1984, the GAA’s centenary year, was it still the time for these national sports?  In the 1990s, in the new Ireland of American sitcoms, Italian takeaway and Bulgarian wine (as well as Riverdance and Roddy Doyle), the Ireland of ‘global capitalism’, had ‘Gaelic culture’ lost its role in defining the present and the future?   And what did this mean for Gaelic sports? 

In the face of this increasingly global world, sports administrators, club executives and fans had two different responses.  One was to bury their heads in the sand, to celebrate the local and to shout ‘Go away’ to everything they, often justifiably, didn’t like.  Turning inwards and rejecting all that was not traditional was the easiest reaction.  The other response was to seek to defend the local and the national, in part through compromises with the new and the global/international.  The AFL signed up the two top American youth product food and drink companies (McDonalds and Coke) as sponsors and built the ‘Great Southern Stand’ at the MCG with increased superbox provision for corporate sponsors and advertisers.  At the same time, the GAA had built new administrative headquarters at Croke Park and then started to rebuild the old ground to create a new modern stadium (also with sponsors’ superboxes) in the 1990s.

So, where is this meeting of cultures now?  The 1992 and 1996 planned tours did not eventuate. The GAA has been putting its many pounds into the Croke Park redevelopment.  The AFL put its dollars into a successful 1996 centenary, despite the death of its international advertising celebrity George Burns   ‘a game that’s older than me   I’d like to see that’.  Now, it too is putting money into new stadiums in Melbourne and Sydney.  According to the AFL, a 1998 Australian junior tour to Ireland, comprised of the members of its new Football Academy, is on.   According to the GAA in April 1997 it had not been agreed.   In June 1997, AFL Football Operations Manager, Ian Collins, travelled to Ireland to try to resume communications, although the Australian football media was more interested in the possibility of further players being recruited from Ireland.  
 Would a new senior tour occur?  The players, coaches and commentators believed it should happen. The ‘threats’ to the national games have increased, not decreased.  The World Cup soccer stampede, and related marketing (and possibly in future professional rugby union), have increasing mass media impact in Ireland.  In Australia, the basketball bandwagon with Michael Jordan at its symbolic head and newly de ethnicised soccer, also on a national and international level, provide new challenges.

Communications remained poor for several years during the 1990s.  While the GAA Director-General, Liam Mulvihill, acknowledged that, in the lead-up to the 1998 World Cup in France, ‘the enormous television and spin-off marketing opportunities of soccer pose a huge threat to us’, the AFL, having defeated the basketball wave of the early 1990s, still preferred, in public, denial mode.   It found it easier in 1997 to put on sponsored exhibition matches in London and South Africa (a new direction, a new continent) even though it knew that exhibition matches did not catch the public imagination.  Even advocates of resumed tours, such as 1990 coach David Parkin and Jim Stynes who played for Australia in 1987, and for Ireland in 1990, were aware of the problems, particularly the likely opposition of the clubs.   Parkin stressed that the Ireland option was the only way to ‘put the best [athletes] against the best’; it would give players ‘this one thing to aspire to’ (representing their country) which would help ‘attract the best athletes to our sport’.   Stynes agreed, but, taking up an old theme, said that the tours would have to be short.  In Ireland, Jack O’Shea and longtime tour reporter Paddy Downey both believed that an oval ball would help win the Australian fans to ‘International Rules’, a game which had begun to settle down by 1990.  In Australia, while eccentric visionaries, like Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy, talked of overseas matches for points, officials and administrators generally found it easier to fiddle while their international dreams faded away and the ‘global’ and ‘international’ sports advanced.  As Ron Barassi had remarked on this subject, ‘Australians are not famous for their vision’.  In Ireland too, too few people realised the possibilities of this hybrid game.   The Irish Times sports journalist Seán Kilfeather agreed that it was a ‘bastard’ game, but pointed out that all ball sports were of the same ilk, having developed over hundreds of years.  The co-operative game was now more than something worth working for.  It was working to the benefit of both codes and both cultures.

* Despite the hesitancies of 1997, the April 1998 Australian schoolboys tour to Ireland went ahead, and was a great success, as were the exciting, close matches of the October 1998 senior tour of Ireland. Even more successful was the 1999 Australian tour. Its highlight was when 64, 326 excited fans saw Ireland defeat Australia by 8 points in a great match at the MCG. In the sixth official international series since 1984, and over 31 years since the last match at this cathedral of Australian Football, the game was being taken to heart in Australia and Ireland.

I would like to thank the libraries of the Australian Football League, Melbourne Cricket Club, the Age, the Herald-Sun and the Irish Times, NUI, Galway, Deakin University and a Deakin University conference grant for assistance with this research.

Please note that the references below were denoted through the original article but lost here due to formatting issues.


1  Australian Football has had national bodies such as the Australian National Football Council (ANFC) during the 1960s, the National Football League (NFL), during the 1980s, the National Australian Football Council (late 1980s) and finally the Australian Football Foundation (AFF).  In practice these bodies, which have been oriented to the development and co-ordination of the game, were less powerful than the major state leagues, particularly the VFL; the AFF is now a department of the AFL.
2  P.O’Farrell, The Irish in Australia (Kensington, NSW, 1986), pp. 186-7.  The evidence gathered so far on the forms of folk ‘football’ played in Melbourne in the 1840s and 1850s, before the 1858-9 codification of ‘Victorian Rules’ football or ‘Australian Rules’ football (as it was once known), is unclear.  G.Blainey, A Game of Our Own: The Origins of Australian Football (Melbourne, 1990), has only skimpy reports and lacks adequate notation.
3  P.Puirséal, The GAA in Its Time (Dublin, 1984), pp. 129-30, 138, 362-3; see also W.F. Mandle, The Gaelic Athletic Association and Irish Nationalist Politics 1884-1924 (London and Dublin, 1987).
4  In the 1990s film Michael Collins, the Collins character uses this metaphor after the defeat of the Easter Rising.  It may be only convenient imagery, however.  The armoured personnel carrier, which is shown shooting at the crowd on Bloody Sunday at Croke Park, is a ‘Hollywood’ addition to history; the ‘Black and Tans’ fired from behind the railway parapet at one end of the ground.
5  Ireland, and Gaelic sports, had always had a kind of quasi-international aspect, through links with exile communities overseas which also formed Gaelic associations, from London to Australia; for example an ‘Invasion of America’ Gaelic football and hurling tour in 1888. Puirséal, The GAA, pp. 86-7, 96.
6  Footy Week, 13 May 1968, 10 June 1968, 17 June 1968, 4 August 1969.  Although it could be argued that rural Ireland was still a monoculture (even with a Celtic base and a Catholic overlay), in international sport Ireland was already becoming multicultural by the late 1960s.
7  See P.McFarline, ‘AFL Football Could Be Dead within 20-50 Years’, Age, 10 February 1996.
8  Footy Week, 11 September 1967, pp. 1-2; Royce Hart, The Royce Hart Story (Melbourne, 1970), p. 37.  The seeds of the idea were sown, according to Beitzel above, by a New York Gaelic team visiting Geelong in 1964.  He has also said, in radio interviews, that he first saw Gaelic football on a television set in his shed, during a break from mowing the lawn, and realised then how close it is to the Australian game.
9  Footy Week, 11 September 1967.
10  Hart, Royce Hart, p. 43. Interviews, Harry Beitzel, 14 March 1997, Jack Cannon, 22 March 1997, Ron Barassi, 19 March 1997.
11  Cannon, 22 March 1997; Ron Barassi and Peter McFarline, Barassi (Sydney, 1995), pp. 150-1.
12  Hart, Royce Hart, pp. 38-9.
13  Ibid.
14  Age, 18 March 1968 
15  Footy Week, 18 March 1968
16  Ibid.
17  Ibid., p. 11; Peter McDermott, Gaels in the Sun: A Detailed Account of Meath’s Historic Trip to Australia (Drogheda, 1968[?]).
18  Footy Week, 18 March 1968, p. 1.
19  Ibid., 18 March 1968.
20  Ibid., 29 April 1968.
21  Ibid.
22 . Ibid., 4 August 1968, p. 8.
23  Irish Times, 17 October 1978.
24  Ibid., 21 October 1978, 26 October 1978.
25  Allen Aylett, My Game (Melbourne, 1986), pp. 5, 172; Herald-Sun, 18 October 1990; Australian, 10 November 1984. Terry Daniher also talked about his pride in playing for Australia, both in 1984 and later when the Australian coat of arms was made part of the guernsey, Australian, 10 November 1984, Herald-Sun, 1 November 1990, West Australian, 16 November 1990.
26  Seán Kilfeather, ‘Conservatism Takes a Back Seat’, undated press clipping [Irish Times, 5.11.1984?];Irish tours files, AFL archives, MCG, Melbourne. 
27  Age, 23 October 1984.
28  Ibid., 24 October 1984.
29  During the 1980s the televised European and World Cup success of the Irish national soccer team, under the management of the ‘adopted Irishman’, the English man Jack Charlton, intensified the challenge to Irish traditional sports. See the very British account, ‘We Are the Boys in Green’ in N.Blain, R.Boyle and H.O’Donnell, Sport and National Identity in the European Media (Leicester, 1993).
30  The Irish Independent reported the Australian critique under the heading ‘Jack O’Shea “Better B-actor than Reagan”’, 2 November 1984.
31  Sun, 20 October 1986.
32  Sun, 9 October 1986.
33  Irish Times, 13 October 1986.
34  Reported by the Irish Times, 16 October 1986.
35  Ibid., 30 October 1986.
36  Australian, 10 November 1984.
37  Clipping files, AFL archives, MCG, Melbourne.
38  Irish Times, 14 October 1986, Sun, 13 October 1986.
39  Irish Times, 23 October 1986.
40  Janet Saunders, ‘VFL Plans to Make Its Mark High and Wide’, Australian Financial Review, 29 August 1986; G.Linnell, Football Limited: The Inside Story of the AFL ( Sydney, 1995).
41  See Barassi and McFarline, Barassi, chapter 12, ‘The Irish Experiment’.
42  Irish Times, 17 November 1990.
43  A question raised by Mary Kenny in her Goodbye to Catholic Ireland (London, 1977), pp. 388-9.
44  ‘From the AFL’, AFL Football Record, 21 March 1997, p. 35.
45  Liam Mulvihill to Stephen Alomes, fax, 11 April 1997.
46  Scot Palmer, ‘Clubs’ Global Quest’ ( Herald-Sun, 25 May 1997) and ‘Entry Appeal for Foreign Recruits’ (Herald-Sun, 25 May 1997).
47  While the AFL is worried about the Olympic sports, the major impact so far has been on the battle for sponsorship rather than on competition for participants.  The threat of Rugby League on a national and regional-international basis remains unclear while the Rupert Murdoch Super League- Australian Rugby League civil war is still being waged.  The short-term impact has been to improve the prospects for Australian Football in Sydney and Brisbane.
48  Mulvihill to Alomes, 11 April 1997.
49  See: Jim Stynes (with Jim Main), Jim Stynes: Whatever It Takes (Melbourne, 1995).
50  Tony de Bolfo, ‘Sheedy Wants London Home-and-Away Game/World Footy Dream’, Herald-Sun, 6 February 1997.
51  Irish Times, 17 October 1987.