For Ireland, Croke Park Is More Than Just A Stadium
DUBLIN, IRELAND (Friday, Aug. 29) -- "I have worked here for three years, but I've never stepped on the grass."
Those were the words of my tour guide inside Croke Park on Thursday. After saying that he paused and simply looked at the surroundings, he and I the only two people inside the stadium. There was no sound of the city surrounding us or many signs that a game would be played only a few days later.
But if the grass could talk.
In America there are no fields that represent anything other than a rich history of sport. There are no places where anything helped shape the course of the country's history. The Miracle On Ice is the closest thing to a political victory on a sporting surface. What we remember about Madison Square Garden are the games. What Ireland remembers about Croke Park is November 21, 1920 when 14 people were shot and killed inside the stadium.
To understand what is now called Bloody Sunday is to understand the history of Ireland. A long emotional, violent, and political battle with Great Britain to become its own free and independent country.
Michael Hogan, a Gaelic footballer was a part of this resistance and effort to build an independent Ireland. On November 20 he and a few friends would allegedly beat up two British soldiers before tossing them from a train. The next day two British agents were shot by men other than Hogan and his friends but it was too late to undo what had become a tipping point.
Only hours later, British police would enter Croke Park and fire on the crowd killing 14 people and injuring several more. Hogan was shot and killed as well as 13 others in the stadium as police fired off rounds in every direction. A young boy named Tom Ryan would also be killed by the gunfire, apparently while praying next to a dying Hogan on the field.
The deaths would become a historic and tragic moment in the Irish War of Independence and a moment that would help shape the history of Croke Park. In 1924 the newly-renovated west side of the stadium was named "Hogan's Stand" in honor of Hogan's life and tragic death in Croke Park that day. It's a symbol of the struggles and the history of Ireland.
"Players here are amateurs," JJ my tour guide said. "You play for the county that you were born in, so some athletes play their entire lives trying to make it to the semi-finals or finals here at Croke Park. No matter where you're from, Croke Park is that special place you're trying to make it to. It's such a huge part of our culture not only in sport but as a people."
For JJ, even seeing Penn State players and UCF players walking on the field is an odd sight. It's a display of how far Ireland has come as well as a reminder to visitors that they walk on hallowed ground.
"Obviously with so many events here there is a certain need for people to walk on the grass," He said laughing. "But during a normal week only the players and the grounds crew are on the pitch. In a way though it shows how much they've rolled out the red carpet for these teams. They may not fully appreciate it because they don't have the same history lessons that we do, but it's a very special things they're getting to do."
It was not too long ago that this game may have never happened in Ireland. The Gaelic Athletic Association was created to preserve the Gaelic games like Gaelic football and hurling. The stadium gives Irish athletes a chance to play sports on their own terms without the interference of outside powers. They're keeping Croke Park as a symbol of culture only to be used and celebrated by the people who built that culture.
But in 2006 the GAA would take a controversial vote -- one that would open the doors to teams and sports that were not controlled by the GAA. It was a chance to show the world their passion and a chance to continue to move forward as a people by their own choosing.
"At the time there was a lot of controversy," JJ said as we stood atop Hogan's Stand. "Even so, I haven't met anyone in the past few years who is mad they modified the rule. It has given us so much exposure in Ireland at Croke Park and a chance for people to see our culture and what it has to offer."
The first game under the newly modified Rule 42 would be a rugby match between Ireland and France which Ireland would lose. The next, a moment of truth was a game between Ireland and England.
"When England was set to play here in that rugby game there was a lot of controversy," JJ said. "The fact that they would come into the heart and soul of Irish sporting culture and at the site of the Bloody Sunday shootings and play "God Save The Queen" before the game was a huge moment. That game is like Woodstock, everyone says they were there."
"But the stadium only holds so many people." He said with a smile.
Ireland would win its match against England in convincing fashion with both anthems being played without issue. Even so, the victory and the modification of the rule would start a new era in Ireland's sporting world as they continued to move forward as a nation.
For JJ, simply working at the stadium never gets old.
"I was never big into history as a kid growing up. I hated it. But as I got older and began to learn about Irish history and the struggles and the move towards where we are today, you can't help but stand here and appreciate it. I'm not a super nationalistic person, but I can't help but feel the importance every time I come here. I have friends who love rock and music and aren't into sport who even they were excited when I started working here. It's something that everyone feels a certain connection to."
"Sometimes our traditions here feel old and you might feel like they don't make sense, but when you learn Gaelic in school and most of us can't speak it, you realize that you can't speak your own language, the language of your culture and history and it makes you appreciate all the things that we do still do."
Sports are often over dramatized. Made larger than life and given more meaning than they truly deserve. Penn State and UCF will play a game on Saturday in a special place. A place where people were killed, a place where a country continues to find its identity and a place where some people still treat it as sacred ground.
And that's a game and a moment worth remembering no matter the outcome.
Keep track of Ben Jones as he navigates Dublin by reading his Penn State Football/Ireland Travel Blog.