Croke Park: Irish Pride's Mecca
Every time I schedule a trans-Atlantic flight I have the same brilliant idea. I book the flight for the late evening so that when I land on the other side of the ocean, the magic of time zones will place me in a bright and beautiful tomorrow morning. All I’ll need to do is get a few hours of sleep on the plane and the possibility of jet lag can go straight to hell.
This plan never works. At the end of every flight, I stagger out of the airport, blinking profusely as the light of that bright and beautiful tomorrow assaults my face. There was no sleeping. There never is. On this occasion, my body still swore it was four in the morning. The magic of time zones begged to differ. This chain of events does not, and did not make me a charming or particularly engaging human being on the first day of a trip. As our taxi wound its way from the airport toward my hotel in Dublin’s city center, I stared out the window, trying desperately to stay awake and deflect the attempts at conversation coming from our genial driver. Looking eastward, I glimpsed something in the distance, a tall white structure peeking out from the gaps of the townhomes we drove past. After only getting glimpses of it for blocks, the structure finally revealed itself at the end of a lane. I shot up and tried to point down the alley, ramming my finger hard into the taxi’s window. “Ow! Is that Croke Park?” I asked the driver excitedly, rubbing my finger. The taxi driver glanced to his left and jabbed a meaty finger towards the glass, dodging it with more success than I. “Over there? Yes, it is… a beautiful place, hallowed ground. Have ya been?” “No,” I said shifting in my seat to try to get a second look at the park before it slid behind a new block of homes.
“But I’m going on Sunday.” There was silence and as I turned to look at the Taxi driver, I saw his eyes peering at me in his rear-view mirror. “Drink in every last drop while you’re there.” He said, his eyes lingered on me before flicking back to the road. "Hallowed ground." That turned out to be excellent advice from our driver for just about every aspect of Dublin. A more enchanting city I have yet to encounter. The people were gracious and excited to share their home. The architecture embraced the past while projecting the future. And every one of Dublin’s winding lanes seemed to lead to a gem of a public house, restaurant, or inn. Dublin is the perfect city to “get lost” in because the more you explore, the more at home you feel. Of all the great things that I saw (Trinity Library) and barstools that I sank into (J. McNeil’s Pub), the highpoint was my Sunday visit to Croke Park. It was always going to be Croke Park. For being such a small nation (about 5 million people), Ireland has a fierce sporting culture. They always seem to be within reach of European and World Cup appearances (unless Thierry Henry is on the pitch) and they are routinely ranked in the top five of the world rugby standings. But Ireland is also the home of two of the most unique sports in the world, each with enough lore to rival the Book of Kells. The oldest is hurling, a sport that probably predates the birth of Christ. Hurling has a pretty simple premise. Men swing clubs (called a hurly) with a blunted paddle at the end like a baseball bat. They swing it at each other. And also sometimes at a ball. On offense, players are trying to knock the ball, called a sliotar (about the size of a baseball) towards one of three destinations: their teammates, rugby-style uprights stationed at each end of the field for one point, or into a goal guarded by a keeper under those uprights for three points. Opposing players attempt to block these whacks with their sticks or often their bodies, wearing only a helmet for protection. In the long history of the game, the helmet is a very recent addition. Hurling is a frenetic sport to watch and it’s honestly a little terrifying. Watching hurling feels a little like watching Harvey Dent flip his scarred coin. Something very good or something very bad is an instant away with every swing of the hurly. Did I mention hurling includes hockey-style checking and soccer-style set pieces complete with human walls? How everyone doesn’t get maimed before the final whistle of a match beats me. The second sport native to Ireland (and my personal favorite) is Gaelic football, or simply Gaelic to the locals. Gaelic is less terrifying but no less exciting. Played on the same field as hurling and following the same rules and scoring structure, no
weapons are involved in Gaelic football unless you count the human body. After watching a match, you’ll probably conclude that it is one. Gaelic football players can advance the ball by kicking or punching it and they are allowed to run with the ball as long as it is dribbled off the ground or off their foot every four steps. The looseness in which this dribbling rule is enforced makes the NBA’s traveling policy look totalitarian. four steps or fourteen steps, it is all relative in the eye of the lone official policing play. The mecca for both of these ‘Gaelic Games’ is Croke Park. The massive stadium has played host to the spectacles that are hurling and Gaelic football for over a century. The park is home to the Dublin County teams as well as the finals for all levels of hurling and Gaelic football, in which more than 2,000 amateur club teams and 31 other Irish counties compete each year. Those of you who are well versed in Irish history might be saying, hold up Mason, you mentioned 32 counties. The Republic of Ireland only has 26. What gives? The GAA, or Gaelic Athletic Association, invites the 6 counties of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, to play in their tournaments. When they say All-Ireland, the GAA means it. And they have meant it since the Republic of Ireland was a twinkle in the eye of some revolutionaries, many of whom helped form the GAA in the first place to preserve Ireland’s athletic traditions. Ireland was one of the first places England tested out their playbook that would later allow them to become the world’s largest colonizer. The thing that made England particularly successful in their endeavor to take over the world was how they could imprint parts of their culture, large and small into the lives of their subjects. While under British rule, Ireland’s native language almost went extinct, due to the prevalence of English. Their rich culture, already influenced by the arrival of Catholicism was largely erased, and Protestantism was heavily favored by the Brits. Their sports were pushed to the brink, sidelined in favor of soccer and rugby. After centuries of having to watch these facets of Irish identity erode, The GAA took exception to their rulers. To be honest, the GAA and many of their countrymen took exception to just about everything that the British crown was doing to Ireland. Founded in 1884, decades before outright war would take place for Irish independence, the GAA was formed as a type of cultural preservation initiative. People were starting to organize, to not only preserve the scant remnants of Irish culture but to make a serious push for taking the nation’s future back from Great Britain. The founders of the GAA aimed to preserve the sports and the cultural aspects of Ireland that made it unique. It’s all laid out in Article 4 of their official guide.
"The Association shall actively support the Irish language, traditional Irish dancing, music, song, and other aspects of Irish culture. It shall foster an awareness and love of the national ideals in the people of Ireland, and assist in promoting a community spirit through its clubs" In 1908, GAA member Frank Dineen bought the Jones’ Road Sports Ground on the northeast of Dublin to use as a sanctuary for the Gaelic games from the invasion of rugby and soccer. Those sports were not allowed to be played in what would become Croke Park (named after GAA member Archbishop Thomas Croke) by 1913. Many members of the GAA were active in the Irish Revolutionary Army, which by this time (as the Irish Volunteers), had actively begun resisting English rule. The GAA, by design, had become a symbol of Irish pride. As revolution brewed, Croke Park became a symbol for those thirsting for independence. And as legend has it, it was literally built from the ruins of revolution. In April of 1916, pro-independence forces took over the general post office of Dublin and several other sites around the city. This was intended to be a nation-wide uprising, but after the British learned of plans for armed action, most factions of the uprising stood down, leaving those in Dublin alone in their defiance. The rebels declared Ireland’s right of independence legitimate and refused to give up the seized buildings until their declaration was recognized by Great Britain. The British responded by pummeling much of Dublin with long-range artillery fire from their Navy. After five days of severe bloodshed, the rebels surrendered and sixteen of their rank were soon executed. The independence movement was reeling as Dublin started to pick up the pieces.
According to the GAA, some of those fractured pieces were used to make the concrete which would be poured in the northern stands of Croke Park, an area now known now as Hill 16. In a time when those killed in what would be called the Easter Uprising could not be properly memorialized because of British occupation, the GAA erected a shadow memorial in the form of the stands. Four years later, another event would solidify the independence movement and forever change the role Croke Park played in Irish history. In the fall of 1920, the IRA obtained information on the identities of several British intelligence agents working within Dublin. IRA leader and GAA booster Michael Collins green-lit assassination attempts on dozens of suspected spies on November 20th. The morning after, IRA members throughout the city killed 15 people suspected of working for British intelligence. This streak of violence sent a shock through a city that had become used to acts of political violence. As people made their way to and from church that Sunday, word spread quickly about the brazen acts. As people entered Croke Park that afternoon to watch a Gaelic match between Dublin and Tipperary, some wondered what the response would be from Great Britain. The answer would prove to be swift and brutal. Troops, police, and paramilitary personal known as the Black & Tans arrived at the park shortly after kickoff, surrounding the stadium. Though their stated mission was to encircle the park and search the crowd for IRA members, the British forces almost immediately began firing on people within the grounds. At the sound of gunfire, the 5,000 people inside the stadium understandably started to panic. Many spilled onto the field of play. As the chaos grew, the British forces began firing at anyone attempting to flee the park and then started shooting into the crowds of people seeking shelter. Scores were wounded. By the end of the shooting, 14 people would end up dying, either from being trampled by the crowd or by being shot by the British. Among the dead was Michael Hogan, a player for the Tipperary Gaelic squad. His death, and the deaths of the others on what would become known as Bloody Sunday (sadly, not the last Bloody Sunday Ireland suffered), shook the world. The violence displayed throughout the day (three Irish prisoners unrelated to the events earlier in the day were killed in retaliation for the morning assassinations, capping the violence) alerted the world to the larger struggle for Irish independence and turned the tide of public option permanently towards the natives. Hogan would become a martyr to the movement. In 1922, modern Ireland would be born. Two years later, the west stand of Croke Park was named after Hogan. I sat in the Hogan Stand on another Sunday afternoon, a few months short of the 100th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. My Sunday was a brisk one, and Dublin was painfully beautiful in the fading sunlight. As I entered the stand during the second half of a hurling match with my wife, it was hard to imagine that scene a century ago. Today’s Croke Park rivals the best sports venues in all of Europe. State of the art lights, jumbo screens, and advanced irrigation systems have been added, while the soaring second level puts capacity at major college football levels while maintaining a world-class experience. Make no mistake, this is a cathedral strictly built to honor Gaelic sports. Apart from the odd concert or American football game, nothing else is allowed to touch Croke Park’s turf, least of all soccer and rugby. These sports weren’t played at Croke Park until 2007 after the GAA (very reluctantly) permitted Ireland’s national teams to use their facility while their home on the southeast of Dublin was renovated. Neither sport has been played in Croke Park since the renovation was completed.
Further proof of the GAA’s mission to protect Irish culture can be found in the way language is used at the park. Messages over the public address system are read in Gaelic before English. The video boards display both languages. Even post-game interviews are often carried out at least partially in Gaelic. The official GAA museum, which covers not just the history of Gaelic games, but the history of a free Ireland, is housed within the stadium. Every display has a Gaelic translation. The current percentage of Irish citizens who speak the language daily currently hovers around two percent. These are measures that aren't just for show. As the crowd for the hurling final started to disperse, a group of gentlemen who, like us, had just found spare seats to park in, made their way to their proper seats for the Gaelic football final. They chatted and laughed as they filed into the seats in front of and next to us. Pleasant smiles were exchanged between us as they sat down. The youngest of them was probably pushing 60, and the oldest might have been around when St. Patrick chased all the snakes away. The youngest, a man with dark hair who had the kind of crow’s feet that make a person look like they’ve heard a very puzzling riddle, tapped me on the shoulder. He spoke to me in Gaelic and smiled expectantly. I must have passed the eye test. Maybe my wife had, who looks like a carbon copy of her Irish grandmother. I smiled and apologized for being American. “Are you for Corofin?” he repeated in English. I shook my head. His eyes narrowed. “Kilcoo then?” His friends a row ahead of us turned to look at him and then quickly to me, awaiting my answer. The pressure was on. “I’m rooting for whoever doesn’t get me in trouble,” I said, smiling at the oldest of the men. He grinned. “Well you’re for Corofin then it appears!” He said as he reached out to shake my hand. He then turned with great effort in his seat and winked at my wife. We had fallen in with a very good crowd. As the two sides warmed up, we got to know our new friends. They were all originally from County Galway, which explained their alliance to Corofin, although none of them were actually from the town. Most of them had lived in Dublin for years, but lobbied hard to get us to go to Galway for the remainder of the trip. “Oh, it’s so beautiful there, you know that’s the real Ireland, not Dublin.” said a man in his seventies wearing a blue cap, cleaning his glasses on his coat. “You should take her to Galway," pointing his glasses towards my wife. "Leave after the game!”
His seatmate couldn’t contain his laughter.
We affectionately named this older pair Statler and Waldorf. They were a tremendous pairing, and better hecklers, you couldn’t find. Once the game began, it took nearly 15 minutes for the first points to be scored, which is very much out of the ordinary for Gaelic football.
“We’ve got guests from Chicago!” yelled Waldorf towards the pitch, “you’re making a mockery of us, boys!” Statler turned to us, a bag of caramels extended, Take some of these, it’ll make this less painful to watch.”
The sides went into halftime with Kilcoo leading 0-3 to 0-2. (Keeping with tradition, the points are separated between goals past the keeper and points between the uprights. For example, if Corofin would have scored a goal to bring their point total to five, the scoreline would have read Kilcoo 0-3 Corofin 1-02)
The caramels must have worked because the second half of the game was much more exciting. The sides went back and forth over the next thirty minutes, flying up and down the pitch, often flying into each other. With about ten minutes left in regulation, Corofin held a
three-point advantage of 0-7 to 0-4 over Kilcoo. Making matters worse, a Kilcoo player was shown a red card and tossed from the game after a particularly nasty collision. A man down for the remainder of the match, it looked like it was all over for the side from Northern Ireland. It was at this point that a funny thing happened to the men around us, cheering for Corofin. They started cheering against them. To be fair, I had done the same, purely out of a yearning for a thrilling conclusion to the game. But there in front of me sat Statler & Waldorf, standing whenever Kilcoo looked to advance the ball down the field, pointing to the open men streaking towards the goal, asking for them to be fed the ball. The crowd, which had been lulled to sleep by the first half had come roaring to life in the second and were peaking in the last ten minutes of regulation. Gaelic is a beautiful game to watch live for many reasons, but high on the list is the impact play has on a crowd. There is always the chance for a big play and the game never stops, except for grievous injury (trainers weave their through live play to tend to players with smaller knocks) giving a match propulsive energy that builds and builds in a way that similarly paced sports like soccer can rarely achieve. With two minutes left, Kilcoo was just a point away from sending the game to extra time. Things had gotten very chippy. Five minutes of stoppage time were added due to the carnage of the second half and that time was nearly doubled after an altercation just seconds into penalty time that involved shoves, tackles, and few thrown punches. With an extra man on the field, Corofin was able to keep possession for long stretches of the stoppage time, calmly marching the ball back and forth, forcing Kilcoo to work tirelessly at a chance for the ball. “Ya cowards, play the game!” yelled the dark-haired man standing next to me as Corofin played keep away. Suddenly Kilcoo got their chance. A turnover led to Kilcoo’s black and white kits streaking down the pitch, nearly nine minutes after the scheduled five minutes of extra time had begun. This had to be their last chance. Panicked by the idea of giving up a goal for a loss, Corofin tore after them and drew a foul about 40 meters away from uprights. Killcoo would be awarded a penalty try. Killcoo's Paul Devlin sized up the goalposts standing in front of Hill 16. The crowd drew silent. I heard the wind gently whispering through Hogan Stand. Devlin took two steps and punted the ball as hard as he could, sending it high into the night sky. He kicked it so high in fact, that it disappeared behind the deck above us, causing some confusion as to if he had scored. An apprehensive chatter rose from the crowd, waiting for the judges to call the outcome of the kick. Their flags went up. It had counted. The game would go on. It was pandemonium at Croke Park. A game that 20 minutes ago seemed over was now headed to overtime. The two teams raced towards the tunnel that they shared on their way to the locker rooms. Opposing players bounced off each other and more punches being were exchanged. A fan even fell over the railing into the tunnel as he yelled at the players below. “Waldorf looked at me with a big smile, his eyes glowing. “You’re getting your money’s worth now, aren’t ya!” A lesser team than the defending back-to-back champs Corofin would have withered and died after giving the game away at the final whistle. Wither they did not. Corofin put four quick points on the board right out of the gate in the first half of the overtime. The killer came in when Corofin scored the first goal of the game. They now led 1-11 to 0-7 (14-7 in terms that make sense) which all but iced the game. As the second half of overtime began, the Corofin supporters finally felt assured that yet another championship was coming home with them. Our friends could feel it too. They were back on the side of their home county, marveling at the precision of their keep-away passing, that minutes ago had been to their annoyance. As the final whistle blew, those wearing green & yellow bounded up and down, waving flags and screaming into the brisk night. We all stayed to listen to the post-game interviews, which were mostly in Gaelic, and to see the trophy, clad with Corofin-colored streamers being lifted high into the air. Our new friends turned to us almost in unison. “It was great meeting you both.” Said the dark-haired man. “Enjoy the rest of your trip and go easy on the drink tonight.” Said Waldorf. Statler clapped me on the shoulder. Leaning in close he whispered, “Did you enjoy it?” “It was amazing, it was all amazing,” I responded, with complete sincerity. Waldorf looked at me, his weathered face in a half-smile, his eyes locked onto mine. “Take in every last drop. It’s a special place. It’s a special place for all of us.” As I walked away from Croke Park, I drug my feet. This wasn't the direction I wanted to be traveling. My wife was a good ten feet ahead of me when I called her name. She turned around, a bit of concern on her face. I told her I needed a second. I took Waldorf’s advice. I turned back towards the park illuminated in the night and I drank in every last bit that I could manage. As we resumed walking back towards central Dublin, my heart felt full to bursting.