It was November 21st, 1921 and Tipperary took the field to play Dublin at Gaelic Football at Croke Park in the capital, and 10,000 fans were present. The night before, Michael Collins had ordered the assassination of THE CAIRO GANG, 14 British Intelligence Officers, and the Brits had caught wind of the plot.
They had tossed a coin to decide whether to go on a killing spree at Croke Park or go looting in O'Connell Street. They chose the former course of action and after a plane had flown over the field and a flare shot into the sky, a British Officer, standing on a wall had ordered his BLACK & TANS (named after their uniform color) to start shooting. Still in their team uniforms Michael Hogan and Jim Egan were murdered in cold blood as other players ran for safety, and 12 others were shot that afternoon. Hill 16 was behind one goal and had been built up with rubble from downtown buildings after the Easter Rising and troubles of 1916. Forward to Saturday 24th March, 2007 and Wales were the visitors to Croke Park to play Ireland in the first soccer match allowed at the historic stadium by the GAA(Gaelic Athletic Association). They opposed 'foreign' sports such as rugby union and soccer, and in fact any of their members seen either playing or attending such games would be banned for life. I was on Hill 16 with about 5,000 Welsh fans at this open end, while the other three sides are 4 tiers of covered seats. Neither UEFA or FIFA allow standing so new seats were hastily drilled into the concrete on the Hill, and for Gaelic Football and Hurling the seats are tipped back to add 10,000 more standing fans, similar to the arrangements in German Bundesliga stadiums.
The attendance was 72,000, 10,00 less than capacity with standing allowed, but almost twice as many as could go to games at Lansdowne Road. Gaelic Games have 15 players on a team, the same as rugby union, with the field being 40 meters longer and 20 meters wider, so the atmosphere is not as intense at the old Landsdowne Road where the rugby and soccer international were played. 'Fortress Landsdowne' was the term used during the coaching era of Jack Charlton who took the team to a couple of World Cup Finals. Now it will be torn down and replaced by a 50,000 seat National Stadium for the two 'foreign' sports. Ireland actually fields an All Ireland rugby team, while the Republic and Northern Ireland field separate soccer teams. Despite a rousing rendition of the Welsh National Anthem, 'Land of Our Fathers' and choruses of 'Men of Harlech' and the waving of red dragon banners and blow-up yellow plastic daffodils, Ryan Giggs and Co. could only muster 2 shots all afternoon on Shay Given the Newcastle United and Ireland goalkeeper. The only goal of the match was scored by the appropriately named Stephen Ireland, a Man of Cork, like the retired Roy Keane, and Wales have no chance of qualifying for Austria/Switzerland 2008. A lot of political pressure had to be put on the GAA to allow the use of the magnificent stadium during the 3 years or so that soccer and rugby need a 'temporary' home. A few weeks ago the England rugby team had visited Croke Park to play Ireland, and the English national anthem.'God Save the Queen' was played. All Ireland patted themselves on the back when nobody booed or protested, and the visiting team, supporters and anthem were welcomed graciously, even though the horror of 1921 would never be forgotten by all decent men.
In the middle of Dublin is Trinity College, for hundreds of years the center of learning for Ireland's elite scholars-if they were protestant. I looked at the college sports notice boards in the entrance way, and one board featured the Trinity Football team-the oldest in Ireland, but they really meant rugby union. There are superb playing fields at the back of the college still used to this day. On a nearby street corner is a statue of 'a tart and a cart', Molly Malone and her wheelbarrow, on bronze and a photo opp. for tourists. There are hundreds of statues all over this charming city and on O'Connell Street, the main drag, there is a very different kind of one. Its 400 feet high and called 'THE SPIKE', aluminum and only 1 meter wide at the base, and a few millimeters at the point, and built in 2000. It is on the site of a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson, blown up one night in 1966 not long after England won the soccer World Cup.
The F.A. of Ireland have a charming headquarters at 80 Merrion Square, one of my favorite squares in all the world. Its a very Georgian Square with each entrance door in yellow, blue, green, white, black etc. with brass door knockers. In the middle of the square is a beautiful and tranquil park with lots of trees, flowers, lawns and lots of sweet song birds. A few years ago I had visited the office which had Joe McGrath and 1 assistant in a garage at the back as the Technical Division. Now they have 70 technical officers to coach and spread the beautiful game all over Ireland. Steve Staunton the present coach has his job on the line after recent embarrassing matches including a 5-2 defeat at lowly Cyrus and a 2-1 win at tiny San Marino, so the win over Wales was important to him, but Slovakia arrive for a Wednesday night clash and they are tougher opposition. More later... from 'the land of a thousand shades of green'.