SATURDAY, February 24, 2007 was an historic day in the history of Croke Park and this country. Two weeks earlier, on Sunday, Februray 11 the French rugby team and their supporters descended on GAA headquarters for the first rugby international ever in the grounds.
The decision to allow rugby and soccer into Croke Park was made almost two years earlier. In the intervening period the logistics of staging international sports events at GAA HQ would occupy the minds of many.
Having the French as the first visitors suited everyone, and the opening game was a huge success. The result, though, was an all together different matter. France won.
However, despite the historic nature of that opening encounter, it paled into insignificance when compared to the next rugby game two weeks later on Februry 24 when England came to Croker. That clash had tension and raw emotion written all over it from the moment the fixture was made.
But on reflection it was the minute before the kick-off at 3.30pm which was always going to be the centre of attention. No one could ever have envisaged ‘God Save the Queen’ being played and sung in Croke Park. Not ever!
True, relations between Ireland and England were steadily improving, but playing the national anthem of the United Kingdom, well, that would have been a step too far for many.
Once the decision was made to allow rugby into Croke Park the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ was going to be part of the formalities. The atmosphere in Croke Park that day was surreal. The air was tense as an expectant crowd waited for the kick-off.
We now know that the national anthem received due respect from a packed stadium. By any measure it was a defining moment in Anglo Irish relations. The fact that Ireland went on to trounce the English almost became irrelevant.
A little over four years later, on Wednesday, May 18, 2011 at 3.15pm the Queen of England walked out through the Hogan Stand tunnel, accompanied by the GAA President and Director General. At that moment the sun shone on the lush pitch as if to give the royal visitors a royal welcome.
This time the stadium was almost empty, apart from a few GAA guests who were out-numbered by hoards of media personnel from every corner of the globe. Every move and gesture during the visit was recorded for posterity.
This was another defining day in the history of the GAA and the Croke Park stadium. But it was a lot more also. The Queen’s presence at GAA headquarters was formal recognition of the ’Association’s role in Irish society and the part it has played in the evolution of the country.
In her address at the gala dinner in Dublin Castle, the Queen spoke of her regrets at happenings in Ireland over the years. Specific incidents were not mentioned, but we can assume that the sad happenings in Croke Park in November 1920 were one of those incident.
The on-pitch ceremony was short, consisting of a clip of games on the big screen and music by the Artane School of Music. Some moments earlier the Queen and her entourage met flag-waving children and four inter-county players.
The final part of the Queen’s visit took place on Level 4 in the Hogan Stand where she met GAA guests. The room was filled with an equal measure of tension and excitement as the Monarch exited the lift.
After viewing a short Irish dancing presentation from a group of children the formal greetings commenced. An individual in each group would initially be introduced by GAA President Christy Cooney to the Queen and that person would then introduce the other members of his group to Her Majesty.
I was chosen to introduce a group which consisted of a number of former Presidents and their guests. The Queen was talkative, friendly and she seemed very much at home. As she moved from individual to individual I conveyed snippets of information regarding each past President. She was willing to engage on each individual.
Forgetting myself for a moment, I didn’t observing royal protocol as we moved through the group. An aide to the Queen politely indicated that it was inappropriate to be touching her elbow as I made the introductions.
I immediately realised my mistake. The room was filled with media representatives and TV cameras followed every move. I knew there and then that my innocent actions would create headlines.
I was mortified and embarrassed.
I barely remember the subsequent presentations by Christy Cooney to the Queen and Prince Phillip or indeed Christy’s address which was superb (I read it later on the GAA web site). That address will be an important addition to the country’s historical artefacts and will forever be a reminder of the role played by the GAA in developing harmonious relations between all factions on this island.
The Queen’s historic visit to Croke Park was a hugely significant and successful event.
The instigator of the visit was President McAleese and she, more than anyone, knew the importance of bringing closure to difficult events of the past. She also knew that by visiting Croke Park, Queen Elizabeth was acknowledging the importance of the Gaelic Athletic Association in the lives of the majority of the people who live on this island.
The closing paragraph from a brilliantly written article by Fintan O’Toole in a recent English Sunday newspaper is worth noting: “Not only is the GAA a classic Victorian organisation, it has been much more faithful to its origins in late-19th-century sporting culture than the English sports that influenced it. If you want to get some sense of the ethos of English sport before the rise of professionalism, without the snobbery that went with it, the best place to look is probably the GAA. The Queen will find many of the notions that characterised the old Corinthian spirit – character, community, playing for the sake of it – alive and well and living in Croke Park”.
I have no doubt that Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Phillip left Croke Park feeling just as Fintan O’Toole had suggested they might.