Paul Rouse: Irish nationalism is evident in our sporting culture — from McGregor to Hill 16

Paul Rouse: Irish nationalism is evident in our sporting culture — from McGregor to Hill 16
Dublin supporters on Croke Park’s Hill 16 in August 1974, for the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Cork. Dan McCarthy, a veteran of the 1916 Rising and former president of the GAA, suggested they call it Hill 16 rather than Hill 60, in homage to the revolution. And that’s the way it has stood to this day. Picture: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile

NATIONALISM allows people to wrap murder in a flag and present it as war in a just cause. And it allows the ideologues of that cause to take history, scrub away the bits that do not fit the new fairytale, and write a version more fitted to their aims.

This is a thing we are well familiar with in Ireland — and yet, although we are good at pointing out the absurdities of those who do it in other lands, we do not want to recognise it in ourselves.

The influence of nationalism in sport is more benign than in politics, but it is real nonetheless.

It is used by individuals and organisations to further their own success — whether measured in popularity or wealth — and in the process the past of a nation and its symbols are routinely subverted to this end.

You can see this in the manner in which Conor McGregor presents himself. From the flying of the Tricolour to the singing of ‘The Rocky Road’, this is a man who rings the bells of his pay-per-view customers.

Paul Rouse: Irish nationalism is evident in our sporting culture — from McGregor to Hill 16

And you can see it, also, every time you walk into Croke Park and look over at Hill 16.

No Irish sporting story better emphasises the manner in which history can be reconstructed to destroy truth.

The GAA had bought the old sportsground at Jones Road in 1913 and renovated large sections of it by 1915. Included in that renovation was the banking behind the Railway End goals.

At precisely that moment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were engaged in a ferocious battle at Gallipoli for possession of a hill between Suvla Bay and Anzac Cove during the First World War; this hill was simply known as Hill 60. The fight for the hill lasted for an intense week in August 1915.

During that week and afterwards, Hill 60 was emblazoned in newspaper headlines and was documented in letters home from the front that were reprinted in the Dublin press.

The redeveloped corner of Croke Park was considered to resemble the description of Hill 60, and soon after, that part of the ground became known as ‘Hill 60’.

There was already precedence for this. Several English soccer grounds used the term Spion Kop (or Kop for short) to describe their terraces; the logic was that their steep nature was evocative of a hill near Ladysmith, South Africa, where the Battle of Spion Kop was fought in January 1900 during the Second Boer War.

This happened at soccer grounds such as Anfield and Hillsborough.

Back in Dublin, newspaper reportage on GAA matches through the 1920s regularly note the great crowds which congregated on Hill 60, with the Irish Independent, for example, noting in September 1925 that it was “a living mountain of human faces”.

It is not just the Dublin papers that referred to it as Hill 60, the same was the case for local papers such as the Munster Express and the Connacht Tribune.

The use of the name Hill 60 was a matter of disquiet to some members of the GAA and surfaced publicly for the first time at a meeting of the Central Council of the association in September 1931.

Dan McCarthy, a veteran of the 1916 Rising and former president of the GAA, said he took exception to the use of the name Hill 60. He said Croke Park was “sacred ground… sanctified by the blood of martyrs”.

Paul Rouse: Irish nationalism is evident in our sporting culture — from McGregor to Hill 16

In this, of course, McCarthy was referring to the events of Bloody Sunday, the centenary of which will take place in November.

The fight for Irish freedom should be commemorated, McCarthy argued, rather than one that “took place in a foreign country”, fought by a foreign army.

In response to McCarthy’s words, the secretary of the GAA told the meeting he had already drawn the attention of newspapers to the matter.

The meeting agreed that whenever the name ‘Hill 60’ was used in the press, the GAA would make plain to editors the association’s disapproval.

Finally, McCarthy said they should call it Hill 16, in obvious homage to the revolution, but that if they couldn’t do that they should find some other appropriate title.

They called it Hill 16.

Advertisements around matches now set out the charges for spectators entering Hill 16.

The pressure on newspapers to change the name was also successful and in that same month of September 1931 of the GAA meeting where McCarthy had raised his objections to the Hill 60 name, The Irish Press was published for the first time.

It always referred to Hill 16; only once did it use the term Hill 60 in connection with Croke Park, and even then the paper apologised the following day.

The mood of the times was clear and was underlined when the Cusack Stand was opened in August 1938 and named in honour of GAA founder Michael Cusack.

Speaking at the official opening, the then GAA president, Pádraig MacNamee said in a speech that Hill 16 was “an ever constant reminder of the gallant band who made the supreme sacrifice that this land of theirs might be Gaelic and free”.

Along with a new name came a myth to go with it: Hill 16 was claimed to have been built from the rubble of the 1916 Rising.

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It appears this myth was first aired in the 1930s; it was certainly mentioned in a letter from ‘Two Gaels’ to the editor of the Meath Chronicle.

These men, in urging Meath to victory in an All-Ireland final in 1939, noted the team will be facing the Tricolor that will fly above Hill 16 during the playing of the national anthem “in respect to Ireland’s fallen heroes, whose blood stain the debris in that immortal hill”.

This invention eventually hardened into fact: Hill 16 had been built from the rubble of the 1916 Rising.

Best of all, a living witness to it all emerged through the thick smoke of a Dublin pub: A man who not only knew for a fact it had happened, but had actually helped make that fact happen.

In the Sunday Independent, journalist Raymond Smith wrote in his weekly column in January 1966 that he had met an old Dubliner in a pub on Middle Abbey St.

As he drank his pint, the man told Smith he had been paid 6d a load for transporting the rubble up from O’Connell St to Croke Park.

History was overwhelmed by the power of men in pubs telling stories. We could all now pretend Hill 16 had only ever been Hill 16 and that no GAA man had ever served in the British Army or in the RIC.

Because, of course, the cause demands that all that is inconvenient must be wished away and a new truth constructed.

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin.

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