They talk about a bird’s eye view. Here at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium we’re balanced in the seats at the very top of the highest stand looking down at the 82,000 empty seats so far below us we can barely see the pitch. In all my life I can honestly say that I’ve never been in a sports stadium like this. So what do they play here? They play Gaelic football and hurling.
An Introduction to Ireland
This moment is the moment that I first feel like a true foreigner. Like it or not (I don’t imagine I’ll make many friends here) the history of Ireland is so tightly, if uncomfortably, woven in with that of the rest of the British Isles that much of the country’s capital doesn’t feel like “Abroad.” The Irish drive on the left; everyone speaks English; the beautiful Georgian architecture is just like the buildings you might find across the Irish Sea; and you’ll even find a British post box (even if it is painted green).
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to get to grips with the Gaelic culture.
- You love sport – and sport – and you like to learn about new ones.
- Croke Park isn’t just about sport but about politics and history too.
But Croke Park is different, deliberately (and some might say aggressively) rooted in a Gaelic-speaking culture from which British sports and members of the British armed and police forces have until recently been excluded. Croke Park’s administrators, the Gaelic Athletic Association, are the historic protectors of these two minority sports (Gaelic football is a variant on soccer and hurling is related to field hockey). They’ve succeeded in building a fiefdom in which the huge Croke Park regularly sells out for major sporting events that remain unknown and incomprehensible to most of the rest of the world.
Croke Park’s Bloody Sunday
We haven’t just come here to learn about new things to do with a ball, although both the guided tour and the excellent museum do teach us about that. The museum has a more sobering tale to tell as well, and it’s that story that we are hearing. This place has played its role in both in some of the most painful parts of Ireland’s struggle and, more recently, in a growing reconciliation. Part of its terracing, built from the rubble of Dublin after the 1916 Easter rising, is still known as Hill 16.
Back in 1920, when British activity in Ireland was at its most vicious and a cycle of atrocities followed by reprisals was taking an almost daily toll in blood, several suspected British intelligence officers were killed by Irish republicans. Shortly afterwards British soldiers arrived at the packed Croke Park, where a game was in progress, to search for the perpetrators. Accounts differ about what happened next but what is certain is that by the time they left, one of the players and 13 spectators lay dead, shot by the British troops. It was the first “Bloody Sunday.”
Reconciliation: Croke Park and the Peace Process
Up at the top of the stand we take each other’s photos, some of us with our eyes closed against vertigo, and troop down via the high-quality press facilities, peeking into the corporate hospitality boxes on the way to pitchside.
We aren’t allowed on the precious turf but we do get to sit in the comfy seats (for VIPs) where we hear how the wounds of the past at last began to heal. Our guide, young and enthusiastic, tells us that it was on the pitch just in front of us that the Queen came to visit on her recent State visit to the Republic. And in 2007 the GAA finally allowed rugby and soccer to be played here during the refurbishment of the national stadium dedicated to these hated “British” sports. Healing, indeed.
Later, when I’m back at the hotel watching Gaelic football on the telly in an attempt to make some sense of what I’ve learned, I have to admit to myself that I still don’t quite get the rules of the game. But I do understand something – that you can take Croke Park in many ways. You can see it as a curiosity, an introduction to a pair of minority sports played in a phenomenal stadium. You can take it simply as a historic monument. But I prefer to see it as a window onto a different culture. Perhaps, as a Brit in Ireland, I needed that.
- Croke Park is north of Dublin city centre but is easily accessible by either bus or tram. Or you can do what we did and walk from the end of O’Connell Street: It’ll take about 20 minutes
- Stadium tours take place regularly except on match days (check the website for details) and take you into the dressing rooms, VIP and media suites and to the very top of the stand. There’s lift access most of the way, though you’ll have to climb a few steps
- Tours cost €12 for adults (around $15-16). The admission charge includes the museum: or you can go to the museum only for €6.