AT last, an empire to rival Britain’s.
As Queen Elizabeth toured Croke Park, she viewed jerseys from the London and New York clubs, heard of expanding membership in Australia and saw footage of hurling in Abu Dhabi.
The GAA, that most vibrant expression of Irishness, is proof that Britain is not the only small island to hold dominion far beyond its native shores.
Of all the engagements on the Queen’s itinerary, her visit to the nation’s favourite sporting arena was perhaps the most poignant and, in a secluded way, the most public.
More than monuments and commemorative ceremonies, Croker represents a living history. Away from academia and officialdom, it encapsulates the people’s past.
Every match day, the names that map a nation’s struggle echo around the grounds: the Cusack Stand, named after GAA founder Michael Cusack, who toiled for a positive form of nationalism; Hill 16, built from the rubble of buildings destroyed during the 1916 Easter Rising; the Hogan Stand, named for Michael Hogan, the Tipperary footballer shot dead on Bloody Sunday.
Emerging from the players’ tunnel beneath the Hogan Stand to take her seat pitch-side, Queen Elizabeth knew only too well that 90 years ago as the War of Independence raged, British forces, operating in the name of the crown her grandfather wore, murdered 14 innocent people on this same spot.
GAA president Christy Cooney made reference to the incident in his short speech as one of the “many tragic events” of Britain and Ireland’s shared history. The British media were far more blunt, referring to it repeatedly in reports throughout the day as a “massacre”.
Her presence, in those circumstances, and just four years after the ban on games considered colonial was lifted, was truly historic. The point wasn’t overplayed, however. The features of the visit seemed designed to give the Queen a flavour of the national institution in its modern incarnation, its past shaping but not haunting it.
As she entered Croke Park, she was greeted by children dressed in the GAA jerseys of each county as four bodhrán players provided a rousing musical backdrop.
She was met by GAA president Christy Cooney who made an enthusiastic tour guide, showing her the Sam Maguire and Liam McCarthy cups, and the collection of medals left by former Taoiseach Jack Lynch.
Presentations were made of a leather-bound edition of a history of the GAA and a hurley and sliothar which Prince Philip looked eager to attempt to blast across the room.
He may have been offered tips by Tipperary hurlers, Lar Corbett and Pádraic Maher, who along with footballers Kevin Nolan of Dublin and Joe Sheridan of Meath, greeted the couple in the players’ dressing room.
Then it was on to the pitch with the President and Dr McAleese, Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan and Sports Minister Michael Ring, as members of the Artane Band entertained in formation.
They played not an Irish air but a lively number called Play Away by a Dutch composer. It might at first have seemed a strange choice but the band, like Croke Park with which it is inextricably linked, are confident enough in their heritage not to have to play native tunes.
The GAA’s empire is still thriving, after all, while Britain’s is relegated to history.
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