One of my enduring benign memories of Croke Park, benign because most of the memories from Jones’s Road are anything but, was of going to see Ireland play Australia in what I still think of as the Compromise Rules series in 2000. While Australia won handily enough it was an enjoyable day out, and a real treat to be in a crowd of 57,289 (says Wikipedia) who were all rooting for the same team. Before the game we had the equivalent fixture between Ireland and Scotland in hurling/shinty and when that finished the Jocks, replete with names like Fraser Colqouhoun and Alastair Campbell-McDonald that would have flagged what school they went to, took a lap of honour around the embryonic cathedral. It was impossible not to have a wry chuckle at the contrast with what the equivalent venue in Scotland must be like. You’re not in Kansas anymore.
Impossible, but how wrong-headed was such smugness. Quite apart from being a little bit rude, this weekend we’ll see what has built Croke Park and it has very little to do with hurling. Ian O’Riordan wrote an article in the 2009 Munster hurling final programme on the occasion of the 125th edition of the match where he noted that the GAA had two objectives when it was established: to revive 1) the Irish language, and 2) the ancient game of hurling. In those terms, the GAA has been a failure as both the teanga and the iománaíocht languish in ghettos. So it’s just as well that a lesser objective, that of tearing people away from the pernicious British sports of association football and rugby football that were beginning to put down roots, was so successful.
While researching the results archive, it struck me how the GAA once scrupulously maintained its calendar at inter-county level in such a way as to give everyone the chance to play both sports. Football and hurling never clashed during the League season. That’s no longer the case, and in truth it probably wasn’t ever that big a deal in a practical sense as proper dual stars were a rare beast. Still, the principle was there and an outsider might wonder why such respect was being accorded by the majority sport to that of the minority pursuit. This is especially true considering the scoffing that hurling supporters frequently come out with about the self-evident superiority of hurling in every sense – skill, excitement, drama, history, even skills with foot to ball after Nicky English’s goal in the drawn 1987 Munster final. Much as with the Irish language, it’s probably a reflection of the reluctance to abandon those early aspirations of the GAA that the football 80% (approx) of the association hasn’t told hurling to paddle yer own bloody canoe, you’ve got the equipment with which to do it.
We’ll see it large this weekend. The tsunami that is going to sweep out of the west upon Dublin is going to be epic. You might argue that mere numbers don’t matter, that the excitement will be a question of never mind the quality, feel the width. But this is going to be a truly national experience. Only the most arch of anti-GAA bigots could fail to be intrigued by what is going on, two teams who have cleared multiple difficult hurdles to find themselves 70 minutes away from fulfilling the dreams of generations of their fellow county men and women – or alternately crushing them once again. It’s going to be great, and despite being a hurling man first and foremost, it’s a pleasure to be a part of it.