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Cricket Ireland. Uploaded and modified via a Creative Commons license from headlessness (flickr)

Photo courtesy headlessness. CC licensed.

The country is somewhat “bowled over” by having beaten Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup. Cricket is a seriously minor sport in Ireland: Cork, close to where I live, has just three cricket grounds for a population of ~250,000 people. The Irish Cricket Union has just 1,200 members for the whole island. (Ireland has about 6 million people, north and south).

Contrast this to Pakistan, which has 166 million people. Pakistan didn’t win a single medal in the last Olympic Games and its soccer team has never featured in any World Cup tournament. I’m guessing that cricket is really the only game of significance in the country. According to Wikipedia, they were World Cup winners in 1992 and have a very impressive record in the Australasia Cup.

To a Pakistani, Ireland beating their national team must be a bit like San Marino beating Brazil in soccer. Our national soccer coach was nearly flayed alive (metaphorically) by soccer pundits for nearly drawing against San Marino a few months ago, so I can only imagine what the depth of feeling was in Pakistan when the result came through. That said, our soccer team manager is still alive.. The death of Bob Woolmer in some way underlies the personal emotional turmoil involved when a good team struggles at the top grade.

For Ireland, to have such a success in such an unexpected sport can only be a good thing. It’s quite likely we have a wealth of cricketing talent in the country, as one of our more popular games – hurling – demands very similar skills to cricket. Also, we are beginning to see an easing of the unwritten laws that divided many sports into “Protestant” and “Catholic” games. Such a de-politicisation of sport is very welcome.

Croke Park

Some of you may know that Ireland has two unique field games – hurling and gaelic football. Both games have massive followings and they draw a fanatical attendance from all over the country during the summertime each year. The two games are by far the biggest sports in Ireland. The games are strictly amateur, and much of the attendance money gained has gone into developing the games and the sporting infrastructure around the island. The greatest achievement from decades of investment is a huge stadium in Dublin called Croke Park. It’s truly enormous. It’s the fourth largest stadium in Europe and it has a capacity of over 80,000.

For decades however, Croke Park has been strictly off-limits to the “foreign” games of rugby and soccer. No major international sporting event featuring these two games has ever happened there. The reason for this is wrapped up with the history of modern Ireland and the foundation of the Irish state.

The Gaelic Athletic Association, or GAA, is the ruling body for hurling and gaelic football. They have always been passionately devoted to promoting all things Irish (particularly Catholic Irish), and this view was hardened during the the War of Independence when in 1920, British Auxiliaries opened fire on a crowd of supporters during a match in Croke Park, killing 13 people. For a long time afterwards, no foreign games were permitted in any GAA ground in the country including, of course, Croke Park*. What’s more, members of the GAA were not even allowed to attend any games of rugby, cricket or soccer. Even though this particular restriction was repealed in the 1970’s, the ban on the use of Croke Park for “foreign games” persisted into the 21st century. Although there has always been a lingering sense of anti-Britishness within the GAA, the prevailing view among supporters of the ban was that the other sporting organisations (i.e. the FAI and the IRFU) had done nothing to deserve access to it – that they were riding on the GAA’s coat-tails, in effect.

All this changed in 2005, after a very passionate and drawn out public debate. The GAA finally agreed to open Croke Park temporarily while Landsdowne Road, the home of rugby and football on Dublin’s south-side, was being refurbished.

Tomorrow, Croke Park hosts its first ever international rugby game – Ireland versus France. It’s a sell-out (and some GAA supporters think it’s a sell-out in another way too), with an attendance that will be more than double that of any home rugby international ever played in the country.

A week or so from now, Ireland will play England in Croke Park. The Union Jack will be hoisted there, and God Save the Queen will ring out from within the stadium grounds.

It’s a bit of history alright.

* with the exception of American Football, Athletics and Australian Rules. Go figure.

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