The hierarchy of the GAA made peace with the British establishment today when the Queen set foot on the hallowed turf of its Dublin headquarters.
Hours after paying solemn tribute to Irish soldiers who died serving the Crown in the First World War, she sat on the sidelines of the iconic Croke Park – the site of the original Bloody Sunday, where 14 civilians were shot dead by British forces in 1920.
GAA president Christy Cooney told the Queen her presence made history and honoured the amateur and voluntary organisation and its hundreds of thousands of grassroots members across the globe.
Inside the stadium he told the Queen the visit would underpin and advance peace in Ireland and he vowed that the GAA would continue to reach out to unionists.
He said: “Your presence does honour to our association, to its special place in Irish life, and to its hundreds of thousands of members.
“Today will go down in the history of the GAA.”
The massively symbolic gesture at Croke was another step out of history towards reconciliation and built on yesterday’s commemoration of rebel dead and the wreath laying at Islandbridge. The war memorial bore witness to the first royal recognition on Irish soil of the death of almost 50,000 soldiers.
Standing beside the President Mary McAleese for a second day, the two heads of state bowed under flags at half mast in a rarely seen reminder of the Irish who fought for Britain.
But the hugely significant commemoration was surpassed only by the royal tour of Croke Park – the world class GAA venue.
An exhibition of its amateur sports, hurling and football, sparked lighter moments as the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh questioned players on the games.
Croke Park was the scene of a massacre by British forces. Inside the ground in November 1920 soldiers killed 14 civilians at a football match – an atrocity which has lingered in the minds of GAA fans ever since, especially on the Hill 16 end terrace and the stand named after a player who died, Tipperary footballer Michael Hogan.
The Queen met senior GAA officials and stars of the sports but a number of invited guests stayed away in protest.
Of the six Northern Ireland counties, just one – Down – was represented, along with the Ulster Council, a branch of the GAA.
It was a similar scenario in Islandbridge where Sinn Féin rejected an invitation to attend the war memorial – the only political party to do so.
Islandbridge gardens contain a War Stone inscribed “Their Name Liveth For Evermore”, and the 30ft Guillemont Ginchy Cross, the wall behind which bears the words in the Irish and English languages: “I ndil-chuimhne are 49,400 Eireannach do thuir sa Chogadh Mhor 1914-1918 – To the memory of 49,400 Irish men who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-18”.
Guests included First Minister Peter Robinson, churchmen the Catholic Archbishop of Ireland Sean Brady, Church of Ireland Archbishop Alan Harper, UDA commander Jackie McDonald, war veterans and a cross section of politicians from Dublin and Northern Ireland.
Mr Robinson said the solemn and historic service had meant another taboo was consigned to history.
“Everyone remembers the past but we have to look to the future, but there are clear indications as a society in the UK and Republic people are moving on,” the DUP leader said.
“They want better relations and we are in a new era.”
Mr Robinson said it was disappointing Sinn Féin were not present.
“It would have been an excellent opportunity to show respect for traditions that have otherwise not been shown that respect in the past,” he said.
UDA chief McDonald, who shook the hand of President McAleese and her husband Dr Martin McAleese, said he was very proud to attend not only for his colleagues but also working class people who supported the peace process.
“Without the support of the working class community the peace process would not be working,” he said.
Islandbridge builds on the first gesture of reconciliation in 1998 when the Queen and President unveiled a tower on the site of the battle of Messines Ridge in memory of the Irish dead of the First World War, and to inaugurate the Island of Ireland Peace Park.
It was the first public event undertaken by an Irish and British head of state.
Security was tight for the Croke visit. A handful of dissident republicans protested less than a mile away, but a heavy police presence kept them away from the stadium, the spiritual home of hundreds of thousands of GAA fans worldwide.
Further diminishing the low-key opposition, Mr Cooney said the Queen’s presence would build on peace.
He also said he was deeply saddened to attend last month, the funeral of a GAA member, PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr, murdered by dissident republicans.
“I was also very heartened by the utter and united determination of people and political leaders across the island, and across the whole community, to stand together against violence and hatred,” the GAA president said.
Day two of the state visit began at the Guinness Storehouse, where the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh received a personal guide to the perfect pint and a windows tour of Dublin city by chat show host Ryan Tubridy.