The Croker conversion

The playing of rugby and soccer in Croke Park is simply proof of the dissolution of the boundaries between Ireland's sporting…

The playing of rugby and soccer in Croke Park is simply proof of the dissolution of the boundaries between Ireland's sporting tribes, writes Fintan O'Toole

In the odd history of Irish sporting tribalism, two memories stand out for me. One is of the All-Ireland football semi-final between Dublin and Cork in Croke Park in 1974. Like many fair-weather fans, I had lost interest in the Dubs through their barren years of the early 1970s. I turned up that day more out of curiosity than expectation, pleased that they had somehow got that far and certain that they were in for a heavy defeat by a fine Cork side. But before the shock of discovering how good Dublin were, there was another, even greater shock. The far side of Hill 16 was now occupied by creatures the likes of which could not be imagined within the GAA's sanctum sanctorum even a year before.

They were young, working-class Dublin males. They sang and chanted and threw shapes, pointing in mocking unison at the culchies in the Hogan Stand. There was not a paper hat or a rosette between them, just scarves draped over their angular shoulders or held aloft in swaying exultation. They were, in short, soccer fans. Anfield and Dalymount Park had come to Croker like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, a physical migration as wondrous as it was unsettling. Around me, in the stands, respectable country people looked at the self-proclaimed Heffo's Army as monks must have looked from the high windows of round towers at the first Viking raiders.

The second memory dates from 14 years later. It was the glorious summer of 1988 and I was in a holiday cottage in Co Clare. The holiday had been booked early, long before there was the glimmer of an unprecedented possibility - that Ireland might qualify for the finals of the European soccer championship. Now, Ireland's first game, against England, was due to kick off, and there was no television in the cottage. I went down to the hotel in the village, expecting to find an expectant crowd. There were, in fact, just two of us, and the other bloke was also from Dublin. We actually had to ask the barman to turn the television on.


Yet this just happened to be exactly the right place to see, not just the match, but the beginnings of a cultural shift. Ray Houghton, famously, scored early for Ireland. And gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, something started to happen.

Middle-aged and elderly men in wellingtons began to filter one by one into the bar. They were GAA people to a man. But the word had gone out that Ireland were beating England - it didn't matter at what. They peered at the screen and could make out enough to know that the fellas in green shirts were Ireland. By the end of the game, the place was jammed with people (or, to be accurate, with men) shouting frantically at the screen. The next morning there was a run on the village's scant supply of English newspapers. The soccer team had provided a historic opportunity to gloat and, in the process, insinuated itself into the affections of GAA Ireland.

THESE MOMENTS ARE no more than snapshots of a slow and complex process that will culminate tomorrow when the first rugby match is played at Croke Park: the dissolution of the borders between Ireland's sporting tribes. No sport is ever only a game, and there is no such thing as unpolitical football. Questions of class, gender, nationality and identity are always at play. But Ireland's sporting culture has carried an especially heavy freight of political connotations. Our boys' schools were, and to some extent still are, either rugby schools or GAA schools. Sporting allegiances have been read as codes for where you stand on the Protestant/Catholic, urban/rural and nob/yob fault-lines.

In typical Irish fashion, however, we tended to insist on these identities, not because they were clear-cut but precisely because they were not. Munster's working-class rugby traditions, the transition from GAA to professional soccer of Kevin Moran, Niall Quinn or Shane Long, the rich seam of soccer fandom within Irish political nationalism (Todd Andrews, Brian Lenihan, Bertie Ahern), the significant, if often submerged, Protestant presence in the GAA, the fact that last year's big GAA star, Kieran Donaghy of Kerry, is a basketball player, all hint at an underlying promiscuity of allegiance. But when the borders are so porous, it becomes all the more important to police them. For the GAA, which defined itself explicitly as a national and amateur alternative to "foreign" and increasingly professional games, the need to maintain the distinction is particularly acute.

Big forces - media globalisation, the death of the old rural Ireland, the transcending of nationalism, the waning of religion as a marker of national identity in the Republic - have all changed the nature of the game. Identity has become more complex, and though we still use sport to mark it, we use it in different ways. Instead of the old either/or sense of belonging, we have become a both/and people. Instead of belonging to the rugger tribe or the GAA tribe or the soccer tribe, we have evolved a sophisticated system in which we use different sports to express different levels of identity.

Irish sports fans have worked out a system of allegiances that is more complex, and more honest, than the old apartheid. At the level of the parish and of the county, the GAA teams are the standard-bearers. But rugby teams represent their provinces best, and the national soccer and rugby teams do battle in the international arena. And for the weekly fix of televised glamour, Manchester United, Liverpool and Glasgow Celtic provide both a globalised cosmopolitanism and (the darkest secret of all) a sense of belonging to what used to be called the British Isles. A single red jersey can cover the Cork hurlers, the Munster rugby team and Manchester United.

This system evolved spontaneously, but it is remarkably robust and relatively fixed. At its own level, the position of the dominant sport is formidable. Local rugby teams and League of Ireland soccer clubs are in decline because the local is now the GAA's patch. Conversely, the provinces used to belong to the GAA. The Railway Cup, in which provincial football and hurling teams played against each other, was once a prestigious second to the All-Ireland, and the final drew huge crowds. Now, interest is so minimal that the final has to be played as far away as Boston or Paris to engender some exotic interest. Instead, provincial allegiance is owned by rugby. And for all the hype about Croke Park as foreign territory for non-GAA fans, it's a fair bet that a good proportion of the Irish fans at the rugby game tomorrow and a majority of those at the Ireland v Wales soccer match next month will already have been there to support their GAA club or county.

Croke Park itself, after all, is an embodiment of globalisation. It was co-designed by HOK Sports, which has worked on stadiums from Bolton to Nanjing. The surface of the pitch is based on the turf at Anfield and Villa Park. The money to build it - both public and private - came from the new, ultra-globalised Irish economy. Its scale, its sleekness and its efficiency all mark it out as the most outstanding piece of international infrastructure in Ireland. The GAA itself sees the stadium in both an international and a modernist context, declaring it on its website to be "one of the most modern and spectator-friendly stadiums in Europe". There was always an obvious contradiction between wanting to show Croke Park off to the world and declaring that the only sports that can be played in it are ones that are of exclusively Irish interest.

The truth is that nothing could be more distinctively Irish in the 21st century than rugby and soccer at Croke Park, with all the conflicting and complementary resonances, memories, and emotions that this will trigger.

The ultimate triumph of the GAA is that it owns the field on which this new and utterly contemporary spectacle will play itself out.