WATCHING it on television was amazing, witnessing it at first-hand must have been truly special. Those who were in Croke Park on Sunday last for the most momentous day in the history of the GAA will never forget the spine-tingling experience when Amhrán na bhFiann rang out around the ground (why Ireland’s Call had to be played afterwards is beyond me, but however); those of us who weren’t will harbour regret forever.
While rugby was the spectacle on show, it was the GAA’s day. It was a long time coming, and it took vision and courage on the part of a few to see the rule change permitting other sports to be played at the association’s national headquarters. Their determination, and their conviction that they were doing the right thing, was vindicated on Sunday last.
The GAA regularly gets a bashing for something or other: it is too conservative, it is mean, it abuses the talents of its stellar players, it is unprofessional, small-minded, backward. Last Sunday it was the very antithesis of all of those things. It was liberal and forward-thinking, broad-minded, generous and, above all, utterly professional. It handed over one of the finest stadia in the world to allow international sporting stars showcase it to the world. No small amount of cleverness there either.
It was a dark day for some, for people who cannot – and never will – understand why the GAA should share its fine facilities with other codes, particularly when those codes are professional associations whose players are highly-paid. Their inability to understand it is understandable. Their hurt and their feeling of betrayal will remain, and they are entitled to feel that way. There was never going to be unanimity on the issue of opening up Croke Park to other sports; just because it has now happened does not mean that the assent of all will follow.
But those who rejoiced in the achievement of last Sunday view it in a different way. The fact that the GAA, an amateur organisation based on the fundamentals of parish pride and honour, possesses by a considerable distance the finest stadium in the country, is testament to how far the association has come. The world now sees – insofar as the world really cares – that the GAA is not a backward organisation peopled by country hicks and grounded in staunchly nationalist ideals, with no intention of ever deviating from its narrow focus. No, the GAA rightfully stands among the finest and most progressive sporting organisations in the world.
Aside from the financial benefits that will accrue, allowing rugby and soccer to be played in Croke Park was also a sporting decision, as President Mary McAleese highlighted in a TV interview ahead of the match on Sunday. The GAA is helping soccer and rugby through a difficult period while Landsdowe Road is unavailable.
President McAleese also spoke of the significance of this move ‘at this crucial time in our history’, a reference no doubt to the delicate political state of the North and the make-or-break period that lies ahead in relation to its governance. The association between the two – the peace process in Northern Ireland and the opening up of Croke Park – will come more sharply into focus in two weeks’ time when the English team come to visit the Dublin stadium. Even those who are supportive of the move by the GAA will probably feel some pang of regret on hearing ‘God Save the Queen’ played at the same venue where 14 people were gunned down mercilessly by the British Army on Bloody Sunday. That will be hard to stomach. But it can also be a cathartic moment for Ireland: a moment when we, as a nation, symbolically say that we are no longer full of hatred and bitterness; that we have not forgotten and never will, but we have moved on.
And that gesture may inspire movement from all sides in the North. Sport and politics elicit similar passions; perhaps they can also yield similar results.