An Ulster rugby fan reflected after the anthems were sung respectfully at Croke Park on that historic evening exactly two years ago when England paid their first visit there — “It doesn’t get much better than that!”.
I remember the occasion well. It was only a rugby game but it was also a symbolic turning point in the long and bloodied history of Anglo-Irish relations. Those of us who stood in the citadel of gaelic Ireland and the millions who watched on television knew we had experienced something extra special.
So there I was again on Saturday night, back in the Cusack Stand, rising to my feet as the Irish army and Garda Siochana band struck up God Save the Queen followed by A Soldier’s Song and Ireland’s Call. Down below, on the magnificent green sward of Croke Park, the English and Irish players stood in line, roses and shamrocks emblazoned on their white and green shirts.
The Union Jack and Tricolour fluttered unhindered high above on the grandstand roof. The past and the present of all of us 82,000 souls, Irish, British or somewhere in between, were encapsulated once more in that scene in the gathering dusk of Dublin.
Croke Park is not just a sports stadium. It embodies in its huge concrete grandstands the legacy of another era. The walls in its corporate corridors are adorned with the black and white and sepia-tinted pictures of an Ireland that is barely recognisable today.
Croke Park is where bygone cardinals and bishops of the Catholic church offered blessings to the crowds at All-Ireland finals. This is where the Republic’s founding father, Eamon de Valera looked out from his presidential box on many an occasion and admired a very different country from that of the 21st century successor to his office, Mary McAleese. It is also the green-tinted epicentre of the Irish gaelic diaspora, a place as steeped in the nationalist sporting traditions of this island as Wembley, Wimbledon, Lords and Twickenham are in England’s. The past is everywhere in the walls of Croke Park, but what of the present?
I’m sure there were more than a few deposed bankers and fallen property developers who still managed a corporate grandstand seat on Saturday night, for all their financial woes. But how life has changed in so short a timespan.
The Dublin of 2009 is a very different place from the Dublin of 2007, when the Celtic Tiger was starting to sleep but, at least, was still alive.
I wondered, for example, what Michael Cusack, who founded the GAA at a meeting in Thurles, Co Tipperary in 1884, would have made of the credit crunch Republic or of Saturday, as we sat in the grandstand named in his honour. And what of His Grace, the Most Rev Dr Thomas Croke, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly, after whom the stadium was named, and who was a fervent supporter of Charles Stuart Parnell’s nationalist party and treated with deep suspicion by the British at that time.
And what, too, of young Michael Hogan, shot dead along with 13 spectators in Croke Park on November 21, 1920, when British auxiliaries entered the ground and opened fire.
On Saturday night, the grandstand first named after him in 1924, echoed to the words ‘God Save our gracious Queen ... send her victorious ... long to reign over us ... God save the Queen.’ I still needed to pinch myself that this was for real, that somehow we, the British and the Irish, had buried the battle axes to the point where we could all stand together and respect one another’s very different cultural and political differences, at least for the few minutes it took to sing the anthems. I wondered what a man from Mars might have made of us all? Could a stranger ever comprehend how God Save the Queen could be sung with such gusto and not just by the English? Whose anthem is it anyway, I asked myself, as the Garda band struck up The Queen on Saturday? Certainly not that of Murrayfield’s kilted army, where even the lips of the Princess Royal, the Queen’s very own daughter, move only to Flower of Scotland. Nor certainly not that of the Welsh in the Millennium stadium in Cardiff. But who would have believed this not to be the case in Croke Park, the bastion of nationalist Ireland?
For example, could the man from Mars comprehend the Ulster fans, down on the Enterprise from Belfast, standing stiffly to attention, wrapped in green Irish scarves, raising the roof of the Cusack and Hogan stands with their rendering of the opposition’s chosen anthem? The Queen sung, it was the turn of the Irish. Was ever A Soldier’s Song rendered with more passionate enthusiasm? I wondered if a little bit of this fervour was reserved as a reminder to the Ulster Brits that they were in Croke Park, Pairc an Chrocaigh, where the voice of gaelic Ireland still reigns supreme.
And finally ... and finally ... there was anthem number three; Ireland’s Call. The words and music of Phil Coulter have become a hybrid message of our modern times.
Though not universally approved of, the words seem acceptable enough for us all to sing from the same hymn sheet ... “Together standing tall the four proud provinces of Ireland.” With that, we took our seats and watched battle commence on the pitch.
Affording the disparate supporters of Ireland’s rugby team, from north and south, the choice of singing not one, or two but three anthems at Croke Park, is maybe the answer to our cultural divide. As Charles Haughey once said: an Irish solution for an Irish problem.
All we need now is to persuade the English to switch to Land of Hope and Glory. Why not leave A Soldier’s Song, Ireland’s Call and the Queen to us Irish, British or whatever we are, to sing as we wish? That way everyone is part of the patriot game.