Dineen's foresight helped Croke Park become jewel in GAA crown
ON GAELIC GAMES:The century project was launched by this newspaper last year to commemorate the centenaries of the 10-year period that shaped modern Ireland.
Those commemorations began last year marking in April the sinking of the Titanic and will extend up until 2022. For many the centenary of Bloody Sunday in 2020 will be the most powerful marker in the context of the GAA’s past but this year is the 100th anniversary of arguably the most influential year for the GAA of the period in question.
What symbolises the modern GAA? For many Croke Park is the association’s most iconic image. It’s been synonymous with Gaelic games for decades and has come to represent shorthand for the GAA’s national administration. In more recent times the reconstructed venue had become a metaphor for the association’s modernisation and in its ambitious sweep, even for the giddy national sense of possibility that shimmered like a mirage during the past decade.
The sight of young people playing football and hurling in fields around the country symbolises the GAA in its success at nurturing an unique indigenous games culture in the face of increasing competition from competing sports.
This year is the centenary of both the establishment of Croke Park and the final tweaking of the games into the format we still recognise today.
The stadium was acquired 100 years ago and the numbers playing in any given match were reduced – for the last time – from 17 to 15.
There was a sports ground on Jones’s Road long before 1913 and the GAA had staged its first All-Ireland finals there a year previously. The venue went up for sale in 1908 and because the GAA wasn’t in a financial position to acquire, it was regularly leased by the association as the City and Suburban Racecourse.
There might be no Croke Park in its current location but for the intervention of Frank Dineen. A Limerick journalist and GAA activist (he held the positions of president and general secretary at different stages) he bought the ground with his own money and maintained it for the best part of five years. This had the critical effect of effectively holding the Jones’s Road venue in trust for the GAA. The idea of acquiring the property from Dineen emerged from discussions about how best to commemorate Archbishop Thomas Croke, the first patron of the association, who had died in 1902.
Initially the sums raised weren’t vast and the desire of Croke’s successor, Archbishop Fennelly, was to erect a statue in Thurles but by 1912 the idea of honouring the first patron in a grander fashion was taking hold.
Given that the land purchase was an expensive undertaking, a fund-raising initiative in the form of the Croke Memorial Tournament was organised.
The success of the tournament was partly fortuitous. Louth and Kerry were the biggest rivals in the game at the time but the latter had refused to travel to play Louth in the 1910 All-Ireland final and then had been surprised by Antrim in the 1912 All-Ireland semi-final. So despite their rivalry the counties never met on the highest stage.
The Croke tournament, which marks its centenary in four weeks’ time, provided that opportunity when the counties reached the final in May and better still – it ended in a draw. The replay attendance of 32,000 – impressed by the popularity of the games John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party turned up for his first GAA match – contributed to an overall profit which quintupled the size of the memorial fund to £2,500 and taking it close to the likely cost of a Dublin stadium.
Even then the purchase of the Jones’s Road venue wasn’t guaranteed and Dineen had to drop his asking price to £3,500, as some within Central Council began to show an interest in a southside property, near the site of the modern St Vincent’s hospital in Merrion. The vote for the current location was carried at Central Council by just eight votes to seven.
The reduction of teams to 15-a-side completed a series of evolving reforms, which had taken playing numbers down from 21 and also modified the value of goals as well as dispensing with the outer posts, as still used in international rules and the AFL.
The match programme for that year’s All-Ireland final, between Croke Memorial winners Kerry and the team that would become their new rivals, Wexford, alludes approvingly to the amended rule: “This year another important change was made when the number comprising a team was reduced to 15 players. This arrangement has worked admirably, the game being opened up and made much faster.”
Asked at the outset of the GAA’s 125 celebrations four years ago what he thought the founders would make of the modern association, director general Páraic Duffy replied: “They wanted to establish a national identity through the games and a sense of community. I think they would be very pleased that in a world of globalised interests we have maintained that. They might feel that more might have been done in relation to culture and language but overall they’d have to say given the challenges of the modern world that we’ve done a decent job.”
The most visible features of that success were set in place 100 years ago.