Every old stadium contains the ghosts of dead fans and players but in Croke Park you feel the ghosts of those actually killed here, writes Simon Kuper. In this north Dublin ground, you are haunted by Michael Hogan, the captain of Tipperary’s Gaelic football team, shot by British irregular officers during a game in 1920 on the original Bloody Sunday; by the young Wexford man killed while tending to the dying Hogan; by the three small boys and the nine other people killed that afternoon.
Bloody Sunday made Croke Park a shrine to Irish nationalism. There is the Hogan Stand, and “Hill 16”, supposedly built on rubble from the Easter Rising of 1916 against the British occupiers. Only amateur Gaelic games were played here. The British “garrison games” of rugby and soccer were banned.
But on Sunday “Croker” will host its first rugby match: Ireland v France in the Six Nations championship. More than just a game, this is the day the wounds of Irish history can be proclaimed more or less healed.
Ireland’s modern history is, in part, the battle of three ball games. Rugby was traditionally a middle-class pursuit; soccer the sport of working-class boys in garrison towns, who learnt it from British soldiers; while Gaelic football, Europe’s last great medieval folk game, thrived in the villages.
Gaelic is like a brilliant mix of rugby and soccer. Played on a huge pitch, it is more fluent than rugby or American football and produces more attacks than soccer. Since you can use both hands and feet, it’s more varied too. If Ireland, not Britain, had colonised the world, we’d all be playing Gaelic now.
Instead, it’s the amateur game of Irish villages on Sunday afternoons. Sean Kelly, former president of the Gaelic Athletic Association, who fought to open Croke Park to rugby and soccer, describes the scene: a muddy green field, many players fresh from mass, the whole village on the sidelines, a game played in soft rain and, afterwards, both sides go to the pub together. It sounds like a Guinness advertisement of an Irish Sunday but this scene is still repeated across the country.
Irish nationalists revived Gaelic in the 1880s to keep their boys away from “foreign games”. The memory of Bloody Sunday helped make it Ireland’s national sport. Gaelic became practically an Irish Catholic rite, like taking communion. Before All-Ireland finals at Croke Park, the team’s captains used to kiss a bishop’s ring and the cleric would throw in the first ball. Gaelic was a cause as much as a sport: even the stars play unpaid for their counties of birth.
And Britain was the traditional enemy. The GAA, Ireland’s biggest organisation after the Catholic Church, banned “foreign games” at its grounds, banned British soldiers and members of Ulster’s security forces from playing Gaelic games, until 1971 banned Gaelic players from playing British games, and stopped them attending dances at rugby or soccer clubs. Vigilance committees – a sort of Irish secret police – used to spy on young men to make sure they weren’t secretly playing soccer.
From 1969, the Troubles in northern Ireland fed this Anglophobia. The British army tended to view northern GAA clubs with suspicion and occupied two big Gaelic grounds in Belfast. In 1979, the GAA congress voted “unequivocally to support the struggle for national liberation” – arguably implying support for the IRA
Then, in the 1990s, Ireland grew rich. In 2002 a renovated Croke Park was unveiled, accommodating 80,000, the third- or fourth-largest stadium in Europe. The stands were later blessed with a reading from the prophet Micah:
Yahweh’s Temple Mountain
Will Tower above the mountains,
Rise higher than the hills.
Then people will stream to it . . .
And people did. You might think Gaelic would fade away in the rich, globalised, new Ireland. It hasn’t. People still like to feel close to their roots. In addition, Gaelic is a fantastic game. It is booming but now as a haven for nostalgic Irishness rather than a refuge from “foreign games”. As a Vodafone advert put it: “It’s not just GAA. It’s DNA.”
It also became clear that most Irish fans liked Gaelic, soccer and rugby, in the image of Kevin Moran, who while playing soccer for Manchester United flew home to play in an All-Ireland Gaelic final. Gradually the GAA dropped its bans. Many of today’s Irish rugby internationals learnt catching and kicking from playing Gaelic as kids.
Underlying this new entente is the peace process in Northern Ireland. Last month Sinn Féin accepted a new northern police force. “Compared to that, the GAA opening up Croke Park is pretty small beans,” says Paul Rouse, a historian at University College Dublin. The Irish increasingly struggle to get worked up about the British, particularly now that they are richer than their old colonial masters.
In this climate, the GAA could open Croke Park to rugby and soccer games while the Lansdowne Road ground is being renovated. Moran notes that northerners opposed the opening most. Gearoid Adams, an excellent northern Gaelic player whose father is Sinn Féin’s leader Gerry Adams, said: “Jesus, even David Beckham could possibly play on the sacred turf before me.” But most Irish seemed unconcerned.
For years people had said Croke Park couldn’t possibly host rugby and soccer because that might mean the Union Jack flying over the ground. Exactly that will happen on February 24 when England’s rugby team visits. Rouse says few in Ireland will mind: “The Union Jack is flying over Croke Park on Irish terms, by invite.” Now that Ireland is no longer paranoid about Britain, and a game is just a game, Hogan’s ghost can be buried. A matching healing could soon begin in Belfast: a national stadium may arise on the site of the Maze prison, where Republican prisoners once starved themselves to death. Ireland’s battles, like most in Europe, are becoming history.