For First Time, Croke Park Is Ireland's Common Ground
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
DUBLIN -- When the British army wanted to strike back at those fighting for Ireland's independence in 1920, there was one obvious target: Croke Park, a ramshackle sports venue on the north side of Dublin and focus for the national sports of Gaelic football and hurling. On what became known as Bloody Sunday, soldiers fired on the crowd watching a Gaelic football game, killing several spectators and one player.
Visit Croke Park now and it's a superb stadium that seats 82,000 people, a sleek emblem of Ireland's economic growth with luxurious corporate boxes and convention facilities. But one of its towering stands is still named after Michael Hogan, the young footballer killed on the field in 1920.
Croke Park always has been more than just a sporting arena. That fact will be underlined once again in the coming weeks, when rugby and soccer matches are played there for the first time.
The constitution of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which owns Croke Park and administers the indigenous games of Gaelic football and hurling, had forbidden rugby and soccer at its facilities since its founding in 1884. But when it was announced in 2000 that the home of Ireland's national rugby and soccer teams, Dublin's Lansdowne Road, would have to be closed for refurbishment, some suggested Croke Park bend its rules.
The debate that ensued soon became a touchstone of Irish cultural life: You were either for or against, and your values could be extrapolated from your position.
The debate focused initially on whether the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) should open its biggest stadium to the Football Association of Ireland and the Irish Rugby Football Union, the governing bodies for soccer and rugby, while Lansdowne Road was being rebuilt. Those who wanted Croke Park opened pointed out that the Irish government had funded its development to the tune of 60 million euros ($77.6 million). Since the stadium had been funded publicly, they said, it should be open to all.
Those who opposed the opening of Croke Park maintained that the GAA was an amateur sporting organization confined to one small island, while rugby and soccer in Ireland were outposts of international professional sport.
Croke Park had hosted other sports since the 1970s, including boxing and American football, but some viewed soccer and rugby as direct competition to the native sports that called the grounds home. They also asked why the GAA was being pressured after having the foresight to develop its own facilities.
The rugby and soccer associations said that if Croke Park would not host their teams, they would have to go to England to find stadiums large enough to host their international contests. On and on it went. You were a narrow-minded backwoodsman if you were opposed to opening Croke Park; if you were in favor, you were sabotaging Irish culture.
The debate raged until April 2005, when the GAA, to the surprise of many, decided to allow international rugby and soccer matches to be played in Croke Park while Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped. The first rugby match -- a Six Nations contest against France -- is scheduled for Sunday, and the first soccer game -- a Euro 2008 qualifier vs. Wales -- will be played on March 24.
One man played a large role in the resolution of the issue. When Sean Kelly was appointed GAA president in 2003, there had already been two years of squabbling on the topic within the GAA and without.
"Inclusivity was the key word," Kelly said. "In modern Ireland every organization has to be inclusive, and the GAA is no exception. It's a form of maturity, of advancement, that you can see people not by their differences but by what you have in common. Welcoming people is the way to sum it up."