Caid was a medieval Irish ball sport grouped among the medieval mob football games that led to the development of soccer, rugby, and football. It was played with two variations: a massive, chaotic game with potentially hundreds of players and miles of terrain, and a smaller, isolated game with goals on a field (as detailed under How to Play). The former is typical of mob football games throughout medieval Europe, in which large teams representing their respective villages would compete to bring the ball back to their parish. The latter represents a transition from these chaotic games to the smaller and more structured football games of the present.
Both versions of caid were likely more comparable to rugby and American football than to soccer, though there were some similar elements. Since there were no rules as to how to handle the leather ball, players likely ran it, threw it, and kicked it freely, foreshadowing elements of rugby and football. In the smaller version of caid, players were to pass the ball through the opponents’ goal at the opposite end of the field, foreshadowing elements of soccer.
Of the mob football sports played throughout medieval Europe, caid was likely one of the smallest and safest. Whereas there are records of the Welsh football sport cnapan reaching over 2,000 players in some matches, there are no records to suggest caid games were this large. Cnapan also allowed those who were wealthy enough to afford horses to ride them during the match, making some situations potentially lethal. Similarly, one variation of the French game la soule had players wielding hockey-like sticks, which would have been exceedingly dangerous in sports of this nature.
Origins and History
It is difficult to determine a date of origin for caid, partially because seemingly every reference to any ball sport throughout Europe in the Dark and Middle Ages avoids using specific names. These sources refer to these sports in vague terms, only occasionally clarifying the type of game with a brief description. It may be the case that some of these regional sports didn’t develop formal names or weren’t often differentiated from each other until sometime in the medieval period, a theory which would also explain why these mob football sports bear so many similarities.
Despite these setbacks, we can establish some sort of timeline for caid. The earliest literary reference to football in Ireland lies in a legal case, dated to 1308 AD, in which a man was charged with unintentionally stabbing someone while playing football. In addition, we can make a link between caid and cnapan and ascertain a possible period of origin from the latter. It is likely that there was some cross-influence between caid and cnapan due to the moderate crossover in Welsh and Irish culture, which is further suggested by the similarities between the two games. It is also established that cnapan had been played for some time before the 16th century, perhaps as early as the Dark Ages (5th – 10th century). As such, it would not be unreasonable to assume caid had been played throughout a similar timeframe.
Caid was played among Irish parishes until the 19th century, during which the sport was likely mixed with elements from Irish hurling and then officially codified. As such, the modern sport called caid, or Gaelic football, is not the same as its medieval predecessor.
How to Play
Caid featured two variations that differed in nature tremendously. The objective of one variant was to pass the ball through a triangular goal made with two tree trunks, similar to soccer. The other variant, featuring a vastly larger playing field over miles of variable terrain, had teams attempting to bring the ball into a scoring zone within their own parish. With such a large scale, this version of the game took up most of the day. With regard to ball handling, no sources suggest that players were only allowed to kick the ball. It is more likely that players could kick it in addition to throwing and running it.
Like several other medieval European ball sports, caid was fairly violent in comparison to modern European ball sports. Players were allowed to use wrestling holds to restrain other players, and tackles were likely permitted as well. Due to a lack of descriptive sources, many of the other details of the sport are unknown. This includes how each game was initiated, the maximum number players, and the like.
If you want to play the field version of caid today, you’ll need a vintage-style leather ball first. Since this variant of caid used large triangular goals formed by two tree trunks, you’ll need a pretty unusual setup. If kids are playing this sport, it would probably be easiest to just go with a 6-foot pop-up soccer goal. If you’re more the industrious type, though, you can make custom goals with some netting and some PVC pipe from your local hardware store. (Some 8- to 12-foot pipe would likely do.)
There’s no recorded standard field size for this sport, so you can set up your goals on any sports field. Caid was likely played with a variable number of people, so pick any reasonable number for each team (or stick with 11, like soccer). There were no set positions, so players are allowed to move about the field freely, and no particular players are assigned to be goalies. Players aren’t restricted with regard to ball handling, so they can carry it, throw it, or kick it.
The original sport involved physically wresting the ball from your opponents, so if this sounds too rough for your group, you can try any alternative. It may work well to trade possession of the ball after a two-hand touch by an opposing player. Another option is to disallow holding the ball against the torso in order discourage possessive behavior.
Set a time limit, such as two 30-minute halves, and give the victory to the team with the most goals at the end.
Rowley, C. (2015). The shared origins of football, rugby, and soccer. Rowman & Littlefield.
Harris, E. (2009). The footballer of Loos: A story of the 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles in the First World War. Stroud: History.
Fitzmaurice, G. (2006). Beat the goatskin till the goat cries: Notes from a Kerry village. Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press.