There was generally bonny acclamation as the French rugby team ran out to play Ireland at Dublin’s Croke Park stadium last Sunday. I forecast a significantly tauter edge to proceedings next Saturday when the English XV takes to the Republic’s hallowed sports field and lines up in front of the Irish Army Band to belt out ‘God Save the Queen’. For the French match on Sunday, you imagined a few daydreamy old-hand historians indulging in a smug two-centuries-old reverie concerning that untimely storm off Bantry Bay which scuppered the chances over Christmas 1796 of Wolfe Tone’s planned and bloody clear-out of the English from Ireland with the help of the French fleet of 43-sail and 2,500 men at arms. On Saturday, England’s rugby visit inspires altogether more nitty-gritty ruminations at old Croke Park — as well as a fair few revolutions in graveyards up and down the island, too, as the Anglo-Irish sporting world turns on its axis. Owners of the handsome north Dublin stadium, the Gaelic Athletic Association, have repealed its most sternly held commandment, Rule 42, which banned GAA members from even watching ‘foreign’ sports — i.e., the soccer and rugby of the English.
Most fretfully turning in his Tipperary vault, I daresay, will be the Rt. Rev. late eminence Dr Tom Croke, Archbishop of Cashel and fidei defensor himself of the two great games of the Gaels. The GAA was born on All Saints’ Day 1884 when two Fenian patriots called the famous meeting in the shuttered billiards room of Miss Hayes’s Commercial Hotel in Thurles, Tipperary, but the truth is that only three other fellows turned up. A month later, however, the Archbishop picked up the banner to swirl episcopal blessings from his pulpit as he evocatively railed against ‘the grievous import of English fashions, accents, vicious literature, music, dances, manifold mannerisms, and particularly her games and pastimes which utterly discredit our own grand national sports to the sore humiliation of every genuine son and daughter of the old land’. Thus fired by a holy father’s faith, the GAA began to prosper mightily all over and when, in 1913, it was wealthy enough to buy as its national HQ the freehold of a Dublin sports field (the City & Suburban athletic ground in Jones Road), who better to name it after than yer man, good Archbishop Tom himself?
A true Republican shrine — ‘Hill 16’ and the Easter Rising, the Black & Tans and 1920’s ‘Bloody Sunday’ and all that — Croke is bestowed with added lustre by the coverage of the rugby ‘conversion’ this month. Mind you, the GAA never banned the ‘English’ sport of fighting, as in Queensberry Rules prizefighting. Well, imagine banning fighting in Ireland. ‘The Kiwi Rock’ Tom Heeney (Gene Tunney’s last opponent) fought in the ring at Croke in 1925; so, of course, did Muhammad Ali in his prime, against Al ‘Blue’ Lewis, in 1972. After it, Ali’s compat-riot and co-promoter, Harold Conrad, complained: ‘Last night I was in a downtown Dublin pub and a guy says he was going to the fight. I asked to see his ticket. “Ticket?” he said. “It’s an insult for an Irishman to pay to see a fight.”’ He was right — on fight night more than 7,000 merrily gatecrashed Croke and saw the fight for free.
Might it be just as eventful an occasion off the pitch next Saturday? On it, the XVs in white and green will chivalrously wage a battle-royal all right — but a battle soaked in bloody history.