Few sporting venues are as important to a nation as Croke Park, and visits by Queen Elizabeth, and possibly President Obama, reflect its unique position
IN THE SPACE of a week in May, Croke Park will play host the queen of England and possibly the president of the United States. It’s remarkable that the heads of state of the nations with whom Ireland has the closest ties should visit something as ostensibly prosaic as a sports stadium.
But of course Croke Park is not just a stadium. It has long transcended its rudimentary function as a venue where great matches are played, heroic feats achieved and memorable duels fought between opposing teams. The stadium on Jones’s Road is patently different from, for example, the Bernabeu in Madrid, Wrigley Field in Chicago, Wembley in London or, nearer to home, the Aviva Stadium on Lansdowne Road.
A key difference is the massacre of November 21, 1920, when auxiliary police arrived at Croke Park during a challenge football match between Dublin and Tipperary and opened fire indiscriminately. They killed 13 spectators and one player on that Bloody Sunday. One of the auxiliaries who fired later admitted to a British military inquiry that he saw “young men between 20 and 25 running, stooping among the crowd . . . I pursued and discharged my revolver in their direction”. Some of those killed were shot in the back.
While we pay due reverence to the occasion now, at the time people were not so sensitive. In 1922 a poster advertising a big match at Croke Park read: “Desperate Shooting at Croke Park (for goals and points).” It was not until 1926 that a stand built in 1924 was named after Michael Hogan, the Tipperary player killed that day.
The queen’s visit is intended as a moment of reconciliation with the GAA over Bloody Sunday. But it is also part of the building of a bridge between the British establishment and an organisation that was founded to roll back English influence in Ireland. The queen’s visit will be as significant as the GAA’s 2001 decision to remove the ban on members of the British military and the Northern Ireland security forces from playing Gaelic games.
That this visit will come just a few weeks after members of the GAA carried the coffin of a murdered PSNI officer will add to the poignancy of the occasion. The queen at Croke Park and GAA men carrying the coffin of a northern policeman are scenes that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.
There has been a recent precursor to the British monarch's visit. On February 24th, 2007, prior to the Ireland vs England rugby match, God Save the Queenwas played while the players faced the Hogan stand. The impeccable respect for the English anthem was an event that nearly everyone, whether or not they had an iota of interest in sport, regarded as an important moment in our modern history.
That evening was beyond sport. And in reality it was beyond the GAA because the simple fact is that it was not a GAA event. At the time the association rightly rejected any ideas of having a Bloody Sunday ceremony in the run-up to the match.
However, the visit of the British monarch will truly be the GAA’s moment.
During her visit the queen may sit in the stand named after one of the innocent civilians killed on Bloody Sunday. But it is not the only part of the stadium freighted with nationalist history. She will face the Cusack Stand, named after Michael Cusack (a man driven by the desire to fight against English influence in Ireland). To her left will be the Nally terrace, named after an athlete who was instrumental in the founding of the association but who, because of imprisonment, was never able to become a member of it (he died in 1891 while imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison). Beside that is the iconic Hill 16.
The queen might well be interested in the early history of that part of the ground because it illustrates how the precise history of these two islands’ relationship is sometimes glossed over. Hill 16 was originally named “Hill 60” after the site of a battle fought over the course of a week during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. At that time, the corner of Croke Park was being built up to provide a better viewing point for spectators. Some Dublin wag named it after the battle that was being reported on. It continued to be known as Hill 60 until after the Civil War when, in a new nationalist Ireland, a more suitable name, “Hill 16” was adopted, as was the dubious ex-post facto rationale that rubble created by the 1916 Rising had been used. However, the majority, if not all, of the hill, had been built up in 1915.
While the queen’s visit to Croke Park has political and historical resonance, President Obama, if he does visit Croke Park, would be doing so for different, but related, reasons.
Now well into re-election mode, he will have his eyes firmly set on the Irish constituency in the US. While the capacity of Croke Park is probably a factor in the choice of venue, it would certainly be known that addressing a rally at, say, the Aviva Stadium would not produce the same resonances within the Irish communities of New York, Boston and Chicago as speaking at Croke Park would.
Croke Park has become an expression of an Irish identity in a way that the Aviva Stadium will never be.
You don’t have to be a member of the GAA, or even a supporter, to appreciate the fact that, since independence, Croke Park has arguably been the most important cultural location in the country. Situated at the populist end of our cultural identity, Croke Park on All-Ireland day is a uniquely Irish occasion that sets us apart.
But it has also been the location for landmark cultural events. It was the venue for the Tailteann Games, Tóstal events, the Patrician Year Mass in 1961, celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics in 2003.
The recent redevelopment of Croke Park from a much loved but greatly outdated stadium into one of the best in the world helped redefine our ambitions as a nation.
Stadiums rarely, if ever, occupy a place of such importance in a nation’s psyche as Croke Park does for Ireland. Visits by Queen Elizabeth and President Obama would be seen as recognition of its unique position. And during May another layer will be added to the rich palimpsest of a unique sporting venue.
Croke Park: A timeline:
Jones’s Road sports ground bought by the GAA for £3,641 and renamed Croke Park
Irish Volunteers Convention held
1924First Tailteann Games
1926Hogan Stand opens
1938Cusack Stand opens
1952Nally Stand opens
1956Pageant of Cuchulainn held at Croke Park as part of an Tóstal
1961Patrician Year Mass
1961Record crowd of 90,556 attend Down v Offaly All-Ireland football final
1966Events commemorating 50th anniversary of 1916 Rising
1992Planning application for stadium redevelopment lodged with Dublin City Council
2002New Hogan Stand opens
2003Opening ceremony of Special Olympics
2005GAA Congress votes to open Croke Park to other games
2007First soccer game played between Ireland and Wales
God Save the Queenplayed at Croke Park before Ireland v England rugby game
2011Visits by the queen of England and (possibly) president of the US