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History of American Football in Ireland

The first game of American football in Ireland was first in Belfast in 1942 by two teams of U.S. servicemen to raise funds for the Red Cross. In 1947, a similar game was played in Croke Park between U.S servicemen returning from World War II – this is believed to be the first time a foreign sport was played in this historic stadium.

However American football kicked off in Ireland in the 1980’s when many TV networks started broadcasting NFL and college football games. This gave Irish fans more access to the sport than ever before, so much so that in 1984, a group of Irish American football fans were motivated to advertise for players in the local press – 65 people attended the first training session in the Phoenix Park in Dublin and Ireland’s first kitted football team, the Dublin Celts, was formed.

The Irish American Football League (IAFL) was formed in 1986 and 11 teams joined to play the first full season. At that time, the Shamrock Bowl champions earned a spot in the EuroBowl, the European Championships. The Dublin Celts won the Shamrock Bowl three years in a row and represented Ireland in the Eurobowl.

The sport went through various ups and downs during the 1990s before being re-launched in 2001. The IAFA is the NGB for the sport in Ireland and represents and manages the domestic leagues, officiating and coaching. IAFA also works on developing the scope of American football in Ireland and have both hosted US and European teams and competitions as well as working with other NGBs on major events such as the Croke Park Classic.

Growth of the sport

In 2003, the IAFA affiliated to the European Federation of American Football (EFAF) and gained ISC recognition in 2004. The noughties marked the start of a huge growth period for the sport. As recently as 2002 there were only 4 clubs and 120 participants active in the sport – now there are 20 senior clubs, 15 flag football teams and 6 junior teams. Active participation rates have increased to over 2,000 people.

As a result of our Development and Strategic plans, we have established programs to enable younger players to get involved in the sport. We have run a School Flag Football program for a number of years, for both male and female players, and we are in the process of starting a junior league for players aged 16-19.

American football is played in 64 countries worldwide including almost every country in Europe, where there are currently in excess of 120,000 registered participants in over 30 countries. As part of the development of the sport, we strive to make Ireland a major contender on the European and International scene, and as such have started to build a National team. We have also hosted a number of US and European clubs and competitions, including two European Championships and recurring fixtures with US and Canadian clubs. We also actively partner with other NGBs to bring other major fixtures to Ireland, such as with the GAA to host the past two Croke Park Classics.

About the game

American football is a physical and intense sport that on the face of it can be complex. However once the basics are understood it is a simple game to follow.

An American football team is divided into three sections – the Offense, Defense and Special Teams. The Offense’s objective is to move the ball down the field to score points. The Defense’s objective is to stop this happening, by either stealing possession or preventing the Offense from making at least 10 yards in 4 attempts. The Special Teams take the field when the ball is to be kicked, e.g. kick off, punts or field goals.

Scoring in American football has similarities to rugby. By a team’s offense getting the ball into the Endzone, they 6 points. The offense can then convert this by either kicking it through the posts to score one point, or attempting to run/pass it into the Endzone again for 2 points. At any time, and when close enough, an offense can also kick a field goal for three points.

While most fans of the sport are familiar with the NFL rules, throughout Europe, the NCAA rules are followed. These are the rules that are used in US College football.

Contact Football

There are 20 clubs competing in the full-contact Irish league across three divisions:

  • The premier division, the SBC, has 10 teams over two Conferences, North and South. These teams compete for the Shamrock Bowl
  • The IAFL1 division has 6 clubs and is for smaller or less experienced teams. The IAFL1 champion is promoted to the SBC
  • The IAFL2 division has 4 clubs taking part and is designed for new teams to get experience before moving into a higher league. SBC clubs may also field 2nd teams in this league for their new players

Junior Football

The Junior Football league is a full-contact league for players age 16-19 and follows slightly modified NCAA rules . Junior Football is taking off throughout Europe and a lot of younger players are eager to get involved in the sport.

Flag Football

Flag Football is a non-contact version of American football and is similar in concept to Tag Rugby. Players wear a belt with two flags which the opposing team pulls to tackle them. In Ireland, 5-v-5 rules are used so teams would have one Quarterback, one Lineman and a combination of players to either run the football or receive a pass. Flag football is a fantastic way to get into the sport and enables both male and female players to take part – this is why we use it in schools. Last year we also introduced the first adult flag football league.


IAFA have hosted the Western European Championships, the Atlantic Cup, in 2010 and again in 2013 as part of The Gathering Dublin. The Atlantic Cup brings clubs from Ireland, France, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxemburg.

IAFA worked with the GAA, who hosted last year’s Croke Park Classic between Penn State and UCF. Over 53,000 spectators packed Croke Park to watch these two titans of US college football play one of the opening fixtures of the NCAA league, which is believed to be a record for the most spectators at an NCAA game outside of the US.

2015 – What lies in store?

2015 is expected to be a huge year for IAFA. As well as the inaugural Junior Football and Flag Football leagues, we also have the highest number of teams ever playing full contact senior football. On top of this, IAFA has established a National programme with a view to taking on an International side later this year.

Are you up for the Challenge?

Our clubs are always looking for new players, so if you want to play a sport that is different and exciting, please check out our website or Facebook page or contact us at info@americanfootball.ie

Email:  info@americanfootball.ie

Website: www.americanfootball.ie

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