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For First Time, Croke Park Is Ireland's Common Ground

By Michael Moynihan
Special to The Washington Post
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."

He was guided by the changes in Irish society as a whole. Prosperity has transformed the country's demographics: When Muhammad Ali came to Dublin to fight in 1972 (in Croke Park, coincidentally), he asked where the black people hung out. "There aren't any," was the reply.

Today's Ireland has a significant black presence in all the major towns. The number of Polish immigrants in Ireland is greater than the population of the country's third-largest city. Kelly felt the GAA would have to reflect the new realities of modern Ireland, although he also was conscious not to abandon older values.

"Helping your neighbors is an old Irish custom, after all," Kelly said. "I remember at one meeting about Croke Park a man said, 'If your neighbor's house burned down and you had a spare room, wouldn't you give him the room while he was having his house rebuilt?' "

Kelly worked hard to get the GAA to combine old hospitality with an awareness of the new realities. The idea that Ireland's rugby and soccer fans would have to go to England to follow their teams was intrinsically unpalatable, Kelly said, but he was also motivated by common sense: "That would have been an immense cost to the economy, it would have been a major drain on the fans, but the prestige and image of the country would also have been affected badly."

His pragmatic patriotism paid off. When Kelly finally won the vote to open Croke Park at the GAA's National Congress almost two years ago, the decision led every news broadcast and newspaper front page.

"At the end of the day the GAA would have suffered a backlash" if Croke Park had not been opened, Kelly said. "The situation wasn't our fault, but we were the only people who could help."

The aid offered by the GAA impressed many, particularly those from the Unionist tradition in Northern Ireland, who identify culturally with rugby and soccer rather than the GAA and its sports.

"I think there's been a transformation in attitudes towards the GAA because of the decision, though," Kelly said. "In Northern Ireland, I've met many people from the Unionist tradition who've thanked me for it, saying it was a major step forward. When we did that, it gave a lot of people in the North the courage to cross over themselves and shake hands."

Even with the historic games in view, there may be choppy waters ahead. The Irish rugby team trained in Croke Park last week, and Michael Greenan, chairman of the Ulster Council of the GAA, weighed in with a final broadside: "We have not been sold a pup but a whole litter. [The national rugby team] will have five training sessions before a match. Would any county get five sessions in Croke Park before a match? Not a chance. They are training more often in Croke Park than any of our counties would get to play there in a year."

For his part, Irish rugby team captain Brian O'Driscoll -- a self-confessed GAA fan -- was gracious about the venue.

"The passion and the history behind [Croke Park], it might not be so well known by the countries who come and play, but there is so much of it at Croke Park," O'Driscoll said last week. "A lot of the boys will have gone there and seen the fanaticism of the hurling and Gaelic football for sure. There is an aura about the place and we just feel we are incredibly fortunate to be allowed to play there.

"It's an honor and we just feel, hopefully, it will give us that little extra element, and we don't want to let the GAA down for granting us the opportunity to play in one of the best stadiums in the world."

There are legitimate worries. The GAA fears Lansdowne's zoning difficulties may keep rugby and soccer in Croke Park for longer than anticipated; the IRFU and FAI are keen to get back to their own stadium as soon as possible. However, on Feb. 24, Ireland's rugby team will play England at Croke Park. The fact that the two teams will listen to "God Save the Queen" on the same field where Mick Hogan was shot by British soldiers will serve as a reminder of how far Ireland has come.

Michael Moynihan is a staff writer for the Irish Examiner.

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