Traditional Irish sports, such as hurling and Gaelic football, established an intimate link with the nationalist movement from the late-nineteenth century onward. Most contemporary sports, such as cricket, rugby, and soccer, were imported from Britain and, as Ireland was under British control, were regarded by Irish nationalists as unwelcome foreign imports. Hurling and Gaelic football, on the other hand, were homegrown and could therefore be held up by nationalists as authentic expressions of traditional Irish culture.
For Irish nationalists it wasn't enough to achieve political independence from the British; the future independent Ireland needed to develop its own distinct culture, free from outside influences. Traditional Irish sports, with their deep roots among the common Irish people, were regarded by nationalists as having a major part to play in the construction of that culture.
Such activities enjoyed mass appeal, and the nationalist movement was keen to tap into that appeal in order to broaden its support among the Irish people. To a large extent, it succeeded, mainly because the GAA, the governing body of Irish sports, was intimately linked with the nationalist movement from the date of its founding in 1884. Indeed, many of the founding members of the GAA were Fenians, radical republicans who often used violence to achieve their political aims.
At the time, Irish nationalism was at something of a low ebb, but the founding of the GAA proved to be a shot in the arm for Irish culture and was a major contributor not only to the Celtic revival, but the growing strength of nationalism in the coming decades as well.