Croke Park a good place to start for the queen


SEÁN MORAN On Gaelic Games:The GAA’s centrality to Ireland and its cultural importance have been emphasised by a few recent events

THE HYSTERIA that attended the FIRST Ireland-England rugby match at Croke Park is more than four years past. Amidst the quirky revelations that washed around at the time was the identification of the spot where Girvan Dempsey scored Ireland’s first try as the general area where Michael Hogan had been shot on Bloody Sunday.

It wasn’t clear what to make of this information. Did it mean that the Irish nation had avenged the death of the Tipperary football captain; that we’d showed them; that revenge was a dish best eaten cold; that a try in a rugby international after 87 years was too little, too late for the death of 14 people?

After all the exhortations to the GAA not to live in the past and to allow rugby and soccer be played while they had no stadium of their own, it seemed that the non-GAA world was even more inclined to make clumsy connections between an international sports event and the complicated history between these islands.

Would the British anthem be booed (gasp)? Why would it; was it ever booed before at an Ireland-England rugby match in Lansdowne Road? Did soccer supporters at the same venue ever boo the German anthem because of the Great War fallen, commemorated on a plaque out behind the West Stand?

All of this was testament to the status of Croke Park in Irish life. Contrary to the fears of those who opposed the opening of the stadium, rugby and soccer didn’t invade the consciousness of the stadium; rather the opposite happened.

The days of the Grand Slam, a record crowd watching Munster lose to Leinster and 80,000 attendances all became part of a rugby Shangri La once the sport moved back to Ballsbridge and the struggle to fill a smaller ground. This was equally illusory – Ireland actually had a better Six Nations record in the four years before going to Croke Park than in the four spent there.

The win over England has newly consecrated Lansdowne Road and everything’s normal again. You’d hardly know rugby had ever crossed the river, whereas soccer will have it first Uefa final there next month.

But the same month also emphasises that these are extraordinary times for the GAA.

In the space of a couple of weeks the association’s centrality to Ireland and its cultural importance have been emphasised by a few events, culminating in the expected announcement of a visit to Croke Park by Queen Elizabeth.

The queen’s presence at the stadium used to be the centrepiece of a joke about unsuccessful counties winning All-Irelands, but now it appears that it will be a reality in May 2011. This visit is loaded with significance, as it can only be intended to address in some way what happened in 1920, not on the basis that it was the worst outrage in the bloody entanglements of our shared history, but as recognition of the GAA as the immensely significant social and community presence it has been and continues to be in modern Ireland. Reflecting this, the association through the symbolism of Croke Park and its past, will presumably receive on behalf of the nation an acknowledgement – however overt or understated – of the pain and difficulty caused by a peculiar and long-running colonisation as well as hope for a better future.

There would, on the face of it, be no other reason to visit the stadium. This comes just weeks after Dublin’s Bernard Brogan and Tipperary’s Eoin Kelly were invited to the White House for St Patrick’s Day, another clear recognition of the role played by Gaelic games in contemporary Ireland.

Just as overseas commentators refer wonderingly to the remarkable access that Ireland’s representatives have to the leader of the Western world in the middle of March every year it is by extension a striking tribute to the GAA that it was placed in the midst of this interaction.

On a far bleaker level there was the murder in Omagh at the weekend of policeman Ronan Kerr, who is to be laid to rest today. He was a member of the Beragh GAA club whose chair Gearóid Ó Treasaigh said yesterday: “Ronan Kerr was a Catholic, an Irishman and a Gael, who joined the PSNI because he wanted to play his part in making our society a better place. Many members of our club were aware of Ronan’s career path and supported him on his choice.”

There was a terrible irony in the words of tribute. GAA members in Northern Ireland have known in the not so distant past the dangers of what elsewhere on the island is considered recreational and community-based activity.

In a few weeks it will be the 14th anniversary of the murder of another club chair, Seán Brown of Bellaghy, who had been abducted from the club premises when locking up at night. He was one of many members fatally targeted by loyalist terrorists during The Troubles because of his connection to the GAA. It is, accordingly, hard to come to terms with exactly the same targeting from the other extreme of sectarian violence.

It is unlikely that Ronan Kerr was chosen for murder because of his religion, language or even nationality. What distinguishes him as a modern policeman in the PSNI is his membership of the GAA.

The association realised at the turn of the century that it could no longer sustain the membership prohibition on Northern Ireland security forces if the new cross-community police force was to have a future. Consequently, Rule 21 was repealed in 2001.

The creatures who carried out Saturday’s murder – and last year’s attack in which Peadar Heffron, captain of the PSNI Gaelic football team, lost a leg – are equally aware of that situation and with the 50-50 recruitment stipulation for the force about to expire they have tried to terrorise GAA members into refusing to play a role in non-sectarian policing.

Attempting to intimidate the Ulster GAA doesn’t look like the most rewarding of projects. It also overlooks the determined efforts of the association in the province to reach out across the community divide and, even if unionists aren’t going to throng the football and hurling fields of Northern Ireland in the short term, they will know that there exists a genuine desire to engage with them.

History can produce many examples of British intransigence and inability to understand Ireland – and to be fair vice versa – but if there is now a desire on the part of our neighbours to come to terms with a fraught common history in pursuit of a shared future on these islands the queen and her advisers have shrewdly chosen an appropriate place to start.