Watching Gaelic and Australian Football, there is little doubt that the games are similar. One theory as to the origin of Australian Football was that it evolved from Gaelic Football, bought to the Victorian Goldfields by Irish immigrants. Research by Professor Blainey and other prominent historians appears to discredit this and feel it is more influenced by Rugby Union. The romantic theory is that the game evolved from the Aboriginal Game Marngrook. Perhaps both games have evolved by coincidence along similar lines. The similarities in skills are striking. This has allowed Irish footballers to make the switch to Australian Football. As well the Irish Game is an amateur sport whereas the Australian Game is professional or semiprofessional. This has led to the “Irish Experiment”
The Irish Experiment
Several young footballers were brought over from Ireland to try out for Australian Football. Of this group, Jim Stynes, has been the most successful.
He was born in Dublin in 1996. Stynes made the ambitious move to Australia at the age of 18 following his side’s win in the 1984 All-Ireland Minor Football Championship. Debuting in the Australian Football League in 1987, he played a league record 244 consecutive games, 264 in total, between 1987 and 1998 as a mobile ruckman. Along with his Brownlow Medal, his Australian Rules achievements included the Leigh Matthews Trophy, two time All-Australian team selection, a Grand Final appearance in 1988 and four club trophies for Melbourne. He also represented Victoria in interstate football matches, and both Australia and Ireland in international rules football, a hybrid of Gaelic football and Australian rules football. Following his football career, Stynes focused on youth work using his profile to launch the Reach Foundation, which he co-founded in 1994. As a result of his work with young people in Victoria he was named Victorian of the Year twice, in 2001 and 2003, and with the expanded profile of Reach nationally, awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2007. Stynes also served as president of the Melbourne Football Club from 2008 and was involved in fundraising efforts which brought the club out of debt. In 2009, Stynes was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma and continued to work during his treatment for brain metastasis. He died in March 2012 and was honoured by a state funeral held at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne on 27 March 2012.
Sean Wight was the original success story of the Irish experiment. He was a Scotsman who played Irish Football for Kerry minor. He played 150 games for Melbourne debuting in 1985. Wight played in two Demons night premiership winning sides, in 1987 and 1989. He was also named in the Melbourne Hall of Fame.
Kennelly grew up playing Gaelic football with Listowel Emmets in Kerry. He also had a stint with soccer. In 1999, he signed a rookie contract with the Sydney Swans. After his debut in 2001 (following elevation from the rookie list), he became a permanent fixture in the Sydney line-up as a dashing rebound defender. Kennelly became the first Irishman to win an AFL Premiership medal in 2005. He played 197 games. Kennelly announced his return to Ireland and Gaelic football in January 2009. He wanted to emulate the success of his father who won an All-Ireland Senior Football Championship medal with his native county’s team, Kerry. Kennelly achieved his dream at Croke Park when Kerry defeated Dublin. Kennelly’s success precipitated further drafting.
Tuohy began his sporting career as a Gaelic footballer at the Portlaoise club. He became a regular in underage Laois county sides. He won a Leinster Minor Football Championship with them in 2007. He became a Carlton player having been drafted in the 2010 rookie Draft. He has played 209 games (till end of 2020) with Carlton and Geelong.
Other successful players (>50 games) were Pearce Hanley, 161 games with Brisbane and Gold Coast, Setanta Ó hAilpín, 88 games with Carlton and GWS, Martin Clarke, 73 with Collingwood and Connor McKenna, 79 with Essendon.
In 2017 the AFL commenced the Women’s Game with a regular competition. This also was a pathway to professionalism with the GAA women’s competition being an amateur sport. Cora Staunton was drafted by the Giants in the 2017 AFL Women’s draft and was the first international player to be signed to an AFL Women’s list. She was also the first Irish Woman to play 30 games.
Ailish Considine was the first Irish Woman to win an AFLW Premiership with Adelaide in 2019. She again played in their unsuccessful 2021 Grand Final. She played with Clare and Kilmihil in Ireland’s mid-west region. Opposing her in the 2021 Grand Final was Brisbane’s Orla O’Dwyer. In Ireland, she played camogie and ladies’ Gaelic football, representing Tipperary in both and captaining in the former, before being signed as an other-sport rookie by Brisbane ahead of the 2020 AFLW season. In 2021 there were 14 Irish Women on AFLW lists. This was a slight reduction from 18 in 2020. The initial year saw 1 and 2018 saw 2.