Opinion: how a Yiddish word became a term for on-the-pitch melees, brawls and fights in hurling and Gaelic football

A shemozzle is a state of confusion, chaos and uproar. It might simply be a muddle, or it could be a ruckus, row, quarrel or loud commotion. The word is thought to be of Yiddish origin, a dialect of High German used by Jews in central and eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

In GAA terms, though, it means something else. A shemozzle could range from anything to a hefty one-on-one shoulder to a mass brawl involving 30 players, an entire backroom team, 57 supporters, 19 stewarts, four ball boys and 30 entrants from the WWE royal rumble.

One man was responsible for its widespread use in Gaelic games vocabulary. Michael O'Hehir was a remarkable broadcaster who commentated on every All-Ireland final on either radio or television from 1938 until 1984. "And it looks like there's a bit of a schemozzle in the parallelogram" was O'Hehir's ubiquitous euphemism for a fight.

From RTÉ Archives, a RTÉ News interview with legendary GAA commentator Michael O'Hehir

The use of the term can be used to both exaggerate and downplay actual events. As players become more competitive, and as the pressure to succeed becomes stronger, the possibility of a shemozzle breaking out during a game increases.

Most people in the GAA establishment agree that some degree of violent contact is a necessary part of any contact sport. However, the issue becomes of concern when excessive violence is viewed as an appropriate, necessary, even encouraged part of the game. The perception that violence is tolerated and necessary is coupled with the justification that the speed, the body contact, and the very nature of the game creates aggressive impulses and frustrations that players must release. 

As contact sports, Gaelic football and hurling have inherently violent aspects. For example, blocking and especially tackling are often done aggressively, sometimes to intimidate or "send a message" to opponents. Certain actions that take place within the framework of the rules of the game are an assumed risk that competitors accept when they agree to compete.

But shemozzles often occur before a ball has even been thrown in. The 1996 All-Ireland football final replay between Meath and Mayo is infamous for its brawl that broke out involving the majority of players after just seven minutes of play. The end result saw one player from each side sent to the line and kept the disciplinary committees busy for months afterwards.

From RTÉ Archives, highlights from the 1996 All Ireland Football Final replay between Meath and Mayo

Thurles was the location for a row which erupted as the Cork and Clare hurlers raced from the tunnel onto the field before a Munster quarter-final in 2007 in what become known as "Semplegate". In the aftermath, Cork county board were handed a €7,500 fine and three player suspended, with Clare penalised to the tune of €5,000 and four players. Following deliberations by the Central Hearing's Committee, Clare threatened to pull out of that year’s championship, which would have made little difference given that they nor Cork went on to won a championship match that season after the fracas. 

The cause of Semplegate was due to an error in timing, which led to both teams taking to the field at the same time. History repeated itself ahead of the 2016 All-Ireland football final when Dublin’s intentional delayed entry onto the pitch meant both teams emerged from the tunnel at the same time. Thankfully, this shemozzle was confined to a few "getting to know you" pushes and shoves from the players. It is unknown if the official mascots awaiting the players coming onto the field suffered any injuries from the additional six minutes waving their flags.

The emergence of video footage from untelevised games ensures that shemozzles are spread from beyond the parallelogram to Instagram

Shemozzles are not confined to high-profile finals. It could be argued that they occur at their most intense at club level where rivalries are especially deep-rooted. Quite often, these hostilities remain restricted to those in attendance and therefore go unregulated. However, the emergence of video footage taken by spectators at untelevised games ensures that shemozzles are spread from beyond the parallelogram to Instagram.

Media portrayal of shemozzles in an attractive manner reinforces the assumption that such behaviour within the GAA is not criminal. There is a level of unwittingly glorifying violent behaviour within the media that is worrying. For example, the introduction on Newstalk's Off the Ball features former Offaly hurler Daithi Regan delighting in his premeditated argument with an opponent: "I knew I was going to do the minute the ball was thrown in, I was going to strike Ollie Baker and I knew where I was going to hit him. And I did. I opened him.Likewise, spectators cheering as a brawl breaks out is an unwitting demonstration of supporting violent behaviour.

When coaches, teammates, the media and spectators condone shemozzles, such behaviour is more likely to occur. So how can shemozzles be avoided? Perhaps Dermot Bannon can to be called upon to restructure the width of stadium tunnels to avoid such conflicts in future.

READ: GAA curses: myth, magic or excuse?

On the other hand, should shemozzles be encouraged given that they add a bit of 'bite' to games? Referees penning lengthy reports rivaling James Joyce’s 790-page Ulysses would certainly disagree. Like all competitive sport, Gaelic games understandably involve a certain amount of aggressive play. Whether an incident is deemed a shemozzle, melee or brawl lays with the storyteller.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ