Dublin stadium echoes with tears and cheers
DUBLIN - Irish eyes are smiling on most days, but they are positively beaming on the two Sundays in September when the All-Ireland Finals in hurling and Gaelic football captivate the nation. Lucky fans clutch coveted tickets to the matches, and the Emerald Isle buzzes all weekend with talk about the games.
Flags bearing the county colors of the finalists fly proudly from houses, and some passionate supporters paint their cars - and even their sheep - in the local hues. The whole country congregates around TV screens in homes, pubs, and local athletic clubs to cheer the action at Dublin's historic Croke Park Stadium.
The indigenous sports of hurling and Gaelic football are as much a part of Ireland's national identity as Guinness, James Joyce, and U2. And if these games are Ireland's soul, then Croke Park is its sporting shrine.
"The Croke Park experience is a national pilgrimage made annually by hundreds of thousands of supporters from the four corners of the island," says Joanne Clarke, manager of the Gaelic Athletic Association Museum. "It is a quintessentially Irish experience to be at a game just before throw-in and to hear the national anthem being sung by a capacity crowd."
"Every young player on the island of Ireland dreams of playing in Croke Park," says Gearóid Devitt, a tour guide at the stadium. "It's hard to describe in words what Croke Park means to Irish people, no matter what county they hail from, but national pride, fond childhood memories, sporting heartbreak, stories heard from parents and grandparents, and legends forged are all rolled into one to give this place a universal aura."
The stadium, which soars above the neighboring row houses of working-class north Dublin, has 82,300 seats and is among the largest in Europe. It is testimony to the continued popularity of Gaelic games. Although the first All-Ireland Finals played at the site was in 1896, the stadium that locals affectionately call "Croker" is a gleaming, state-of-the-art structure since a massive renovation was completed in 2005. It's a blend of modernity and tradition, Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park rolled into one.
While the amenities of Croke Park feel familiar, the national pastimes played on the field are foreign to most Americans. Hurling has been described as a mix of field hockey and lacrosse in which players whack a hard leather ball, called a sliothar, with a long, curved stick, called a hurley. Gaelic football is often described as a combination of soccer and basketball in which players carry and bounce the round ball by hand and pass and shoot with their feet. Both sports are played on fields much bigger than American football gridirons. Players shoot at H-shaped goals, and shots through the uprights and over the crossbar are worth one point, while shots into the goal under the crossbar are worth three points.
Croke Park is the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which was formed in 1884 to preserve and promote Ireland's native sports. The GAA is a community-based organization, and its 2,500 clubs, which are found in most Irish villages and parishes, are among the threads of the nation's social fabric. Besides the intercounty competition that culminates in the September All-Ireland Finals, the GAA hosts an annual club championship in which teams from the smallest hamlets to the largest cities compete for a spot in the finals, held at Croke Park every St. Patrick's Day.
Since its inception, the GAA has played an active role in the country's political life, and Croke Park is also intertwined with seminal moments in the struggle for Irish independence. In the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, rubble from O'Connell Street was used to create a mound on the northern end of the stadium for spectators, which today is a terrace called "Hill 16."
Then, during the Irish War of Independence, on a November day in 1920 that history remembers as "Bloody Sunday," British forces stormed the stadium in retribution for the killings of British intelligence officers earlier in the day. Crown forces opened fire on the crowd attending a Gaelic football match between Tipperary and Dublin, killing 13 spectators and Michael Hogan, a Tipperary player. A plaque outside the main entrance to the stadium commemorates the event in Gaelic.
That such a searing moment in Irish history occurred inside Croke Park made it all the more remarkable when the GAA, which until the 1970s forbade members from playing soccer or rugby, decided in 2005 to permit those distinctly British-influenced sports to be played at the stadium for the first time. When the English rugby team took to the field last year "God Save the Queen" reverberated through Croke Park, it was a reflection of Ireland healing wounds of the past.
If you aren't fortunate enough to see a sporting event at Croke Park, the GAA offers tours that take visitors to the edge of the emerald pitch and through the stadium, including the dressing rooms where the jerseys of the reigning All-Ireland champions hang. When we visited, the jerseys were the distinctive green and gold of Gaelic football powerhouse Kerry - whose 35 championships put even our Celtics to shame - and the striped uniforms of hurling power Kilkenny.
The tour includes the players' lounge, which is dominated by a huge Waterford Crystal chandelier that has over 150 spheres in the shape of sliothars and footballs. Winners and losers mingle in the lounge after hard-fought games, something unimaginable in American professional sports. But that's part of the charm of Gaelic sports. In fact, these players who are cheered on by more than 80,000 frenzied fans aren't professionals at all. They're amateurs playing for the love of the game and the honor of their clubs and counties. However, they do get one perk: an open bar and postgame spread in the players' lounge.
After the tour, visit the GAA Museum, which is interesting even for those uninterested in Gaelic sports. The museum will appeal to anyone curious about Irish history and culture, particularly the exhibits relating to the GAA's role in the independence movement and artifacts from the Bloody Sunday game.
The most surprising museum item is probably the scale model of the long-gone Polo Grounds, home to the Major League Baseball Giants before they left New York for San Francisco in 1958. The old ballpark was the venue for the 1947 All-Ireland Gaelic football final, held in New York to commemorate the centennial of the Great Famine. The sight of footballers on the diamond in the horseshoe-shaped stadium that was demolished in 1964 is certainly an odd one for baseball fans.
After watching game highlights in the museum, visitors can test their skills at hurling and Gaelic football; it's not nearly as easy as it looks. Give it a try, and you'll gain a new appreciation for the pros, er, amateurs.
Christopher Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.