A sculpture commemorating Ireland's 2007 rugby clash with England in Croke Park was unveiled at Shannon Airport today.
'The day That Changed Ireland', a 20ft-tall piece by artist Paddy Campbell, captures a famous Irish line-out that saw rugby legend Paul O’Connell raised high by teammates John Hayes and Donncha O’Callaghan to claim possession in the second half of the rout over England.
The sculpture is a representation of an Irish Times photograph by Cyril Byrne.
The February 2007 game, which Ireland won by 43-13, stands out as one of the great Irish moments of the new millennium, marking a symbolic new chapter in Anglo-Irish relations as Ireland and England met for the first time at the home of the GAA.
The sculpture was unveiled at an event today attended by 250 people, including O’Connell, Hayes and O’Callaghan, who together had the privilege of unveiling the piece, and their families.
The event is a curtain raiser for a memorable weekend at Shannon, which culminates tomorrow, Saturday, with an Air Display to mark the 70th anniversary this year of the first commercial transatlantic flight to the airport.
“It’s an incredible piece,” said O'Connell.
“I really can’t believe the size of it but the detail in it is incredible. It is a sculpture about a great moment in rugby for Ireland and beyond rugby.
“As a game, it all just clicked for us that day.
“It probably was the most emotionally charged game I ever played in.
“There was such a big battle that went on for us to be able to play there. Historically it was so significant and there were 23 guys picked who had the job of making sure justice was done to everyone’s diplomacy and hard work. Thankfully we got there.
“I remember quite a lot about the game but probably what I remember the most was the national anthem.
"It was the most powerful I can recall. It was a brilliant occasion and great to have it remembered in this statue.”
Prop John Hayes said the day was a remarkable one to be Irish and the statue a great tribute to that. “There was a huge build up but when the game started it went by so quickly. But it was as close to the perfect game as you could have hoped for.
“The statue is amazing but I will just have to walk by quickly every time I come into Shannon in case people think I am looking at myself,” he joked.
Donncha O’Callaghan said that while the game passed by very quickly, it will stay in his mind forever.
“To run out there was unbelievably special,” he said.
“The moment I actually remember the most was the English anthem and how respectful the whole crowd was towards it. It just made for a really special game.”
Among others in attendance at today’s event were Sean Kelly, the GAA President who succeeded in lifting the ban on non-GAA sports being played at Croke Park, rugby legend Keith Wood and MC for the event and RTE commentator on the day Ryle Nugent.
Speaking at the sculpture unveiling, artist Paddy Campbell said he was quite nervous in the run up to it.
“I may not have been as nervous as the guys in the run up to the game but probably not far off it,” he said.
“I remember the particular line-out; it was a perfect catch. It was a moment when we just knew you were going to win the game.
“The score was 23-3 and because we had lost to France in the last minute in the previous game, we were not taking anything for granted but that line-out was almost a statement that we were going to do it.”
Shannon Group Neil Pakey said: “Great airports create and capture their own sense of place, and this piece by Paddy Campbell helps to evoke the passion, culture and interests of this region.
“Sport is one such interest and this game in 2007 was more than just a rugby match; it brought sporting and political traditions together.”
The piece is the first in a sponsored art & culture programme that will encapsulate the heritage and culture of the region.
The centenary in 2017 of the birth of Dr Brendan O’Regan, founder of Shannon Airport and the man behind so many of the great innovations of the region, will be part of the programme.