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Gaelic Football Rules

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A Gaelic footballer kicking a football behind a shamrock

It is a misconception, usually arrived at after studying the game intently, that Gaelic football has no rules. In fact, it has two sets; the original rules set down by the GAA in 1887, and the current rules. Confusion stems from the fact that the new rules are the same set of rules for both Gaelic football and hurling. The former is as described below, but the latter is similar to Gaelic football but it is played with a hurl1 and a sliotar2.

The Original Rules

  1. There shall not be less than 15 or more than 21 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 and 80 yards in breadth and properly marked by boundary lines. Boundary lines are to be at least five yards from the fences.

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

  5. The captains of each team shall toss for choice of sides before commencing play. The players shall stand in two ranks opposite each other, until the ball is thrown up, with 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 a foul. Players so offending shall be asked to stand aside and may not afterwards take any part in the match, nor can his side substitute another man.

  7. The time of actual play shall be one hour. The sides are to be changed 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 scored when the ball is kicked through the goal-posts and under the cross-bar.

  9. When the ball is kicked over the side-line 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 on the other side is to approach nearer than 25 yards of him till the ball is kicked.

  10. The umpires and referee shall have, during the match, full power 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 six.

The Current Rules

Technical Fouls

This section deals with fouls 'against the ball', that is to say, fouls committed by a player which do not infringe on another player.

  1. Players may not lift the ball directly from the ground. The toe or the hurl may be used to lift the ball from the ground, into the hands. If a player illegally lifts the ball from the ground, the opposing team regains possession, and a free is taken from the point where the foul occurred.

  2. When in possession of the ball, a player may take no more than four steps while holding the ball. He may, however, start on a 'solo-run', dropping the ball from hand to foot, and playing it back to the hand 'toe-tap' in football, or soloing on the hurley in hurling. If a player takes more than four steps with the ball in his hand, a free is awarded to the opposing team.

  3. A player may pass the ball using either the hand ('hand pass') or by kicking the ball to a teammate ('foot pass'), or in hurling by striking the ball with the hurl. A legal 'hand pass' is committed by a player who makes it apparent to the referee that a clean striking action has occurred (to clearly show that the ball was not thrown).

  4. If an attacking player is within his opponent's small parallelogram before the ball enters, it is deemed a 'square ball', and a free is given out to the defending team. However, if the ball enters before him, or enters, is cleared and played back into the small parallelogram before he has time to exit, a foul is not called.

Personal Fouls

This section deals with fouls committed by a player on another player.

A defending player may try to dispossess or tackle an attacking player by one of two methods:

  • Tackling 'shoulder-to-shoulder' is making fair contact with your shoulder to the other player's shoulder to try and unbalance him. The defender may not use his hip or elbow in the tackle, and one foot has to be on the ground during the whole tackling procedure. A player may use the shoulder to push a player away from the ball whilst both of them are chasing a 'fifty-fifty' ball which is when neither team is in proper possession of the ball.

  • In Gaelic football, the player may attempt to knock the ball from the attacker's hands with the open palm. Only one hand can be used, and the defender cannot try to pull it from the attacker, he must knock it cleanly from his possession.

If either of these rules is breached, the referee awards a free to the attacking player. Consistent personal fouling by a player may warrant a booking from the referee, and if he is booked a second time, he must leave the field of play, and suffer an immediate two-week suspension. This suspension may be lengthened by the appropriate disciplinary board.

No player may pull the jersey of an opposing player during the game, whether it is while running for the ball, tackling an attacking player, or during quiet periods of play. Consistent pulling of an opposing player's jersey may warrant a booking, and if the foul is committed at a later time and noted by the referee, this mandates a sending off.

A free is awarded if one player pushes an opposing player, while chasing him, tackling him, or if one player is in front of another for a catch and the payer behind pushes his opponent to get a better chance of catching the ball.

If a player strikes any other player on the pitch, with either the fist or the boot, whether an opponent or on the same team, he is to be immediately put off. A minimum two-week suspension is imposed, and this may be extended by the appropriate disciplinary board.

If the referee deems a player to be a danger to other players, he has the right to caution the player about his conduct. If this conduct is not changed, the referee may book the player. If again this makes no difference, the referee has the right to put the player off. A two-week suspension is imposed upon the player.

Frees and Penalties

If a foul is committed outside the 14-yard line, the free is to be taken by a player on the attacking side, from the ground. In Gaelic football, the free may now be taken from the hands. If he is taking the free kick from the hand, he is not allowed bounce the ball, throw it from hand-to-hand, etc before the free is taken.

Fouls committed inside the 14-yard line, but outside the large parallelogram, are brought out to the 14-yard line, perpendicular to the end line. The free may be taken from the ground or hand, and the same rules apply to the free taker if the free is being taken from the hand.

If a personal foul to an attacking player is committed within his opponents' large parallelogram, a penalty to the attacking team is awarded. Penalties are one-on-one frees taken from the 14-yard line, directly in front of the centre of the goal. In Gaelic football only the defending goalkeeper may stand in the goal, but in hurling the goalkeeper and two other players may line the goal. All players (except the player taking the penalty and those on the line) must be 14 yards away from the ball and outside the 14-yard line, and may not encroach on these boundaries until the ball has been played. Recently, new markings to the pitch showing these boundaries have been introduced.

If a technical foul is committed by a defending player within his own large rectangle, but outside the small parallelogram, a 14-yard free is awarded to the attacking team.

If a technical foul is committed by a defending player inside his own small parallelogram, a penalty is awarded to the attacking team. A special free called a '45', in football 3 is awarded to an attacking team if a defender plays the ball last before it crosses the defenders' end line. This free is so called because it is taken from the defenders' 45 metre line. This free must be taken from the ground. It is taken perpendicular to where the ball crossed the line.

Sidelines and Kick Outs

A player who touches the ball last before it crosses out of play is penalised by possession returning to the other team and a free awarded depending on where the ball leaves the field of play. If the ball crosses the sideline, a sideline is taken. This free may be taken in a similar fashion to any other free awarded, and is taken from where the ball left the field of play.

If an attacking player is the last to touch the ball before it crosses the end line, a kick out/puck out is awarded to the defending team. Kick outs in Gaelic football are taken from the ground. Puck outs, in hurling, are where the goalkeeper has a free strike of the ball from his goal area. Where they are taken depends on where they crossed the end line.

If the ball crosses the end line but does not go between the defenders' goalposts, a wide ball is declared and the free kick is taken from the six yard line (ie the front of the small parallelogram).

In football, if the ball crosses the end line, and goes between the defenders' goalposts, either above or below the crossbar, a score is given to the attacking team and the kick out is taken from the 21-yard line.


In Gaelic football there are two types of score, a goal or a point.

A point is scored by playing the ball over your opponents' end line, between their goalposts, and over the crossbar.

A goal is scored by playing the ball over your opponents' end line, between the goalposts, and under the crossbar. A goal is worth three points.

Players may score from either the hand or the foot. A goal cannot be scored using the hand pass method, although points can be scored this way. A goal scored by hand will count if the referee deems it not to have been by the hand pass method, eg if a player is in possession of the ball, drops it, and punches the ball into the goal this will count.

A set of goals in Gaelic football/hurling are similar to those of rugby. The two vertical posts (goalposts) are placed 14 yards apart, with a horizontal bar (crossbar) between them, eight feet from the ground.

If a defender plays the ball through his own goalposts, whether by foot or by hand, the appropriate score is awarded to the attacking team. A defending player may score an own goal with a hand pass.

1A long piece of wood, like a hockey stick but wider at the bottom.2Pronounced 'slither', this is a small hard ball, much like a baseball.3A '65' in hurling.

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