Dublin: A grand old Irish occasion

By Pamela Wade

Pamela Wade gets swept up in the magic of a game that unifies a nation.

Dublin's Croke Park comes alive with the thunderous support of 82,000 fans.
Dublin's Croke Park comes alive with the thunderous support of 82,000 fans.

Let's get one thing clear straightaway: the hurling featured in the museum beneath Croke Park has no connection with Dublin's 1000 pubs or the nearby Guinness Storehouse. In Ireland, hurling is a sport, not the result of too many pints of liquid velvet - although the one has doubtless led to the other on the odd occasion during the game's 1500-year history.

What becomes evident as I wander through this absorbing museum is that hurling (a wild variant of hockey with every rule broken), Gaelic football and the other codes administered by the Gaelic Athletic Association are very much more than just sports, and even the NZRU can't measure up to the standing of the GAA. It's all down to Ireland's turbulent history, of course.

No aspect of Irish life, sport included, is unaffected by the country's years of oppression, starvation, emigration and war against Britain and itself.

The north end of the stadium is called Hill 16 because it was formed from the rubble of buildings destroyed by the British after the 1916 Easter Rising; one stand is named after Michael Hogan, a player shot by the British in Croke Park alongside 13 spectators on Bloody Sunday, 1920; and this year there was an outcry whenEnglish turf was used to re-lay the surface after three U2 concerts.

There's film footage of the spectacular "Thunder and Lightning" final in 1939 when torrential rain blotted out play; and of scenes of cannon fire in Dublin streets during the civil war. There are cases of trophies, team photos and hurleys - and the whistle from the Bloody Sunday game, and players' jerseys used in the movie Michael Collins.

You can try hurling, then watch a history of the GAA linking it with the Great Famine and emigration, the Land Wars, Home Rule and the War of Independence. The GAA is a strong thread running through this complicated weave; its aim to preserve Irish sporting culture and promote national pride and unity.

It's been a rough ride, but the unity is certainly there today, making attendance at the park a genuine pleasure free of any animosity between opposing supporters.

"It's because the games are amateur," I'm told over and over. Endlessly repeated too is the reaction to hearing that I have tickets to the All-Ireland Football Final.

"To be sure you're lucky there, they're like gold dust."

Joining the throngs pouring through the streets past vendors selling flags and scarves in green and yellow for Kerry, red for Cork, I begin to recognise the truth of this; and when I get to my seat and look down at the emerald pitch criss-crossed by stripes and surrounded by 82,000 spectators, I understand that this is an Event.

Drummers march on to the pitch and, over the next 20 minutes, wind up the excitement with their infectious rhythms. Fiddles and tin whistles join; there are huge flags paraded, balloons, giant balls, grotesque mascots. The teams run on and the crowd roars before the national anthem is played. Everyone sings, the woman next to me in a beautiful soprano: it's spine tingling but the tremendous shout from 82,000 throats straight afterwards is the real thrill.

The rugby posts have a soccer net below the bar and the game itself combines elements of both sports, plus volleyball and basketball: the ball is kicked, carried, bounced, passed and punched, all at astonishing speed - three points into the net and one for over the bar. The action surges from one end to the other, the ball continuously in motion, the players almost the same. Their fitness is phenomenal.

Wearing red, I root for Cork; but then Kerry begins to dominate and the soprano beside me growls and roars. "Bring it up! Over the bar! That's the play!" The boy with the Kerry-green hooter just in front is getting his money's worth, surrounded by Cork fans shaking their heads ruefully.

In the second half, Kerry builds their lead while Cork gives moments of hope. Then the game finishes - the score 0-16 to 1-09 to Kerry - and the green of the pitch disappears under a flood of people as they surge down to watch the presentation.

Outside, the streets are full again and the vendors have tucked away the red goods and are waving their green and yellow.

Kerry fans tease the Cork supporters, who take it in good part before they disappear into Dublin's pubs. It's been a mighty craic.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers daily connections from Auckland to Dublin, Cork or Belfast via London/Heathrow. Special fares available. For more information call 0800 800 454. Dublin can be reached by air or train and ferry.

Where to stay: The Alexander Hotel is quiet, comfortable and very central.

Croke Park: The hurling and Gaelic football finals take place in September. Book through Tourism Ireland. Click here for more information about the GAA Museum at Croke Park.

Further information: For general information about visiting Ireland, go to discoverireland.co.nz.

Pamela Wade travelled to Dublin courtesy of Cathay Pacific and Tourism Ireland.

- NZ Herald

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