11/11/2007

Croke Park – The Irish Dream

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There are few places where the line between Sports and Politics is more blurred than in the republic of Ireland. At the centre of this is the Gaelic Athletic Association. The association was formed in 1884, roughly the same time as the different sports organisations were being organised in the rest of Britain, (all Ireland being under British rule at the time), with the specific purpose of promoting games of Irish origin. The original intention was to re-establish an ancient sports event, the Tailteann Games and if this had stayed the main focus, Gaelic games would have become singular atheltics events, a cross between the common international athletics meetings and the highland games. However, the focus was soon changed to the two major Irish field sports, Football and Hurling, (Gaelic Rounders is also promoted, this is a sport much closer to the American baseball than the British rounders games you may remember from schooldays). As with sports in Britain, prior to organisation, there were a number of variants of any sport, with the rules changing from institution to institution. By laying down a common set of rules, it became possible for the games to move beyond single communities and for competitions to take place between different counties. Naturally, other areas of progress in the last 19th century also helped this progress – the development of transportation (the railways and better roads) to enable the teams to meet, and the changes to working hours bought about by the industrial revolution.

It is worth noting, considering the directions the organisation took within 30 years of being founded, that one of the GAA’s founding fathers was a capped International at Rugby, and a member of the Royal irish Constabulary, while another became the father of a cabinet member in theBritish government. As the question of Irish identity became one of nationalism and independence, so the GAA quickly became an organisation that not only shunned British sports, but actually legislated against them. The organisation was always unashamedly Catholic in nature, but would never prohibit members of other demoniations or religions from participating. Most games, anyway were played on Sundays, which has always ruled out the participation of those protestants who took their religion seriously.

As early as 1886, the rules of the GAA banned members of the British military and the British Police forces in Ireland from taking part in Gaelic sports, a ban that was not lifted until 2001 – and then only with much controversy in Ireland. Another rule banned GAA players from particpating in, or even watching other sports (this was lifted in 1971), while the ban on GAA premises being used for non-Gaelic sports lasted much longer. The words non-Gaelic really meant British, as the headquarters of Gaelic sport, Croke Park was used for a Boxing match in 1972 (Mohamed Ali won) and two American football matches in 1996 and 1997.

The worst of all events at the stadium took place on 21st November 1920. On the morning of that day, a series of attacks by members of the Irish Republican movement, killed 14 British Intelligence Officers around the city of Dublin. That afternoon, a football match was taking place at Croke Park between Dublin and Tipperary. Members of the British Army’s Auxiliary division entered the ground and shot indiscriminately into the crowd. Thirteen spectators, and the captain of the Tipperary team, Michael Hogan were killed.

The Croke Park of today is somewhat different to stadium of 1920. It was essentially rebuilt in the 1990s. The stadium today has three sides of a uniform, three tiered stand. These are everything that you would expect of a modern stadium. The upper and lower tiers present unhindered views of the pitch. Sandwiched between these are the VIP areas, business lounges, and the like.

Sitting uncomfortably against this modern and concrete edifice sits Hill 16. A low slung area, which can still be used as a standing area for the Gaelic games. While most of the stadium sits under arching roofs, Hill 16 is open to the elements. While I was there, this area was converted to seating, and one small section of it was used by the away fans.

Much of the cash for the modernisation of the stadium came from the public purse; so of course is the money for the rebuilding of the Landsdowne Road Stadium, the home of Rugby and more recently football in the Republic. The FA of Ireland has now given up its plans to have a big and expensive stadium of its own, and will go along with sharing Landsdowne Road for the foreseeable future. There is still a considerable volume of opinion that would not rebuild the old ground, currently a heap of rubble on the ground, and move all sports into Croke Park permanently – but that requires the same type of logic as would have been required to make Twickenham into London’s main stadium for all sports. (And do not forget that in addition to Twickenham and Wembley, an improbably expensive Olympic stadium is currently about to be built within five miles of Arsenal’s new Ashburton Grove facility, and yet both Spurs and West Ham are talking of starting fresh ventures of their own).

It has taken a lot of political effort to get other sports into Croke Park. It was only a few years ago that the GAA voted against lifting the ban, and hence put an end to a proposed Celtic bid (Ireland, Scotland and maybe Wales) for a European Championship. Now a mixture of Government money, and a sum of over £1 million per match has persuaded the doors to open for other sports. Still the agreement is only a temporary one – the GAA have only agreed to five Rugby matches (two seasons worth of six nations championship matches), and four Football games (now all completed in the current run of qualification of Euro 2008). In fact, two more six nations series, and most of not all of the qualification for the next World Cup will have to take place before the new Landsdowne Road is ready. Assuming they accept these matches, there is a chance they could be offered the chance to play a major European club final in the city as well.

On arriving at the stadium, a few things surprised me. One is the fact that GAA pitches are significantly larger than those for Soccer and Rugby, so the playing area is marked out on the middle of the green with a very wide expanse of green all around. Secondly the lower tier of seats are arranged not a direct rake, but a gently concave one. The lowest seats are down close to pitch level, but some 20 yards from the action. They also go into the corners, some 20 beyond the goal lines. The front rows of the lower tier are also far forward of the leading edge of the roof, so if it was a wet night, (as it happens, it wasn’t), the spectators here would know about it.

In a stadium like this, where the best views, (apart from the VIPs and corporate areas) were to be had from the upper tier, or at least the upper reaches of the lower tier, I suppose I should not have been surprised to find that only two price ranges existed, and by buying the more expensive tickets, I seemed to have been given the worst view in the house, (two rows back, lower tier and well behind the goal line). Fortunately, the ground was far from full – but this was the only time I have ever ‘sneaked’ into the cheaper seats!

As for the match, it was better than I expected. The opposition, Cyprus may be one of the lesser teams of Europe, but they came to the match to win, and played the ball around in a controlled and confident manner. The Irish on the other hand, played a game of hoof and hope, and rarely held onto possession for more than a couple of kicks. Cyprus really deserved to win, and went ahead with just over ten minutes to go. The Irish did fight until the end, and gained the equaliser in injury time. Even so, the crowd was making their displeasure known, and manager Steve Staunton took the blame for the result (part of a series that left them well short of qualification), and was sacked before the week was out.