Hair-raising cry of anthems fills Croker with pride and joy

 

The music swelled in Croke Park, and somehow, we swallowed the lump in our throat. We sang. Misty-eyed, we sang our hearts out, writes Miriam Lord.

The message, not the words, mattered: Here we are. All of us. Happy. Proud. This is Ireland. We are Ireland. Live with it.

Before this rugby game, there was too much talk of sell-outs and patriots spinning in their republican plots. The good humoured maturity of the Irish fans settled that question before an English boot touched the ball.

On this significant Saturday, with the Cross of St George flying alongside the Ulster flag and Irish Tricolour, England came to Croke Park to play a non-Gaelic game. There was tension in the air.

This journey to the crucible of the GAA had been a long one. Fourteen people shot dead by British forces during a match in 1920. The Hogan stand, named in memory of the young Tipperary footballer killed in that massacre. Hill 16, built on the rubble taken from O'Connell Street after the Easter Rising.

And now, here we were, minutes away from a rendition of God Save the Queen. Oh, passions were high alright. But only about the game.

Outside, the riot police, on standby, stood by. A few streets away, the pursed lip brigade of stubborn old men rehashed their desiccated rhetoric for the media. Then they lodged a protest letter with the GAA.

Back inside the stadium, back in step with time, the English sportsmen got a generous welcome. But when Brian O'Driscoll led out his Irish squad, the noise was deafening.

The players lined up to meet President Mary McAleese. It seemed like an age before she returned to her seat, heightening the sense of anticipation before the national anthems.

The teams waited. The crowd hushed. Finally, but not before she was grabbed and kissed twice by Bertie Ahern, the President sat down. The Garda Band and the Army Number One Band struck up. The English were in good voice. They made themselves heard.

At last, our turn. The Irish may need two anthems, but those who wear the green share a singular passion. Amhrán na bhFiannand Ireland's Callwere belted out with such hair-raising intensity that men and women were crying as they sang. No dishonour in that. On the field, the players battled with their emotions too. Hooker Jerry Flannery, in floods. John Hayes, a scary looking prop forward with a shaven head and greased up cauliflower ears, blubbered.

How could England have touched these men, imbued with such an unshakeable sense of destiny on this historic day? They couldn't. In their play, O'Driscoll's men reflected the maturity, confidence, spirit and passion of the fans who cheered them. Marvellous. Ireland 43 - England 13. Cry God for Croker, Ireland and the oval ball!