#DatesWithDublin #7 – Croke Park

As previously indicated, this post, number 7 in the Dates with Dublin series is a piece of pure self-indulgence, being as it is a sort of homage to one of my favourite places in the world, let alone Dublin, to visit. It’s a slight deviation also from the purpose of this project, which was to uncover a few lesser-known gems.

But it’s my blog, so I’m allowed to make the odd executive decision; and to be fair, if you’re a tourist to the fair city, it’s well worth a visit, even you’re not gaga for the GAA like I am. I’ll try to keep it professional, and give you some information about the place, as well as spilling my own emotions and guts all over the floor in as dignified a manner as possible. No, I’m not actually talking about the crisp aisle in Tesco. Rather, that Theatre of Hope, that Mecca of Magic, that Field of Dreams (okay, that’s enough….) that is Dublin 3’s finest, Croke Park.

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Croke Park from the Hogan Stand; Artane Band in situ. Mayo won the match

 

For those of you who may not be familiar with Croke Park, it is the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Ireland, housing a stadium with a capacity of 82,300 (making it the fourth largest in Europe), a museum, a ‘skyline’ tour, and a conference centre among other things. For those of you who may not be not familiar with the Gaelic Athletic Association, it is an Irish – and international – amateur sporting and cultural organisation, focused primarily on promoting Gaelic games – hurling, camogie, Gaelic football, handball and rounders. For those of you who may not be familiar with any of the aforementioned sports, frankly, you’re missing out.

Croke Park, or Croker, as it is often affectionately referred to by GAA fans, dates from the late 1800s, although it has undergone significant development within the last 30 years, and has been used primarily by the GAA to host the above games, with the highlight of the sporting year occurring in September with the annual All-Ireland finals in hurling and football. All games are amateur, meaning that players, who represent their local clubs and their counties, do not get paid for their participation.

Within the confines of this post I can only offer a narrow glimpse into the world of GAA and indeed all that Croke Park has to offer. For those of you on the tourist trail, who might be interested in finding out a bit more about Gaelic Games, the Croke Park Museum is open daily all year round, and traces the history of the games and the biggest amateur sporting organisation and its roots in Irish identity from the very beginning to present day. The exhibition is highly interactive and all-round good fun, and if you’re interested in the history of your own county, there’s plenty of information to chew on. You can even get busy with a hurl or football and try your hand at it yourself, if you didn’t grow up with a sliotar in your hand or football at your feet. It’s just as easy as it looks…. Ahem.

You can combine your visit to the museum with a stroll on the Etihad Skyline tour – a walk around the roof of Croke Park. Despite all the steps you need to climb to get there, the walk is really well executed, feels safe and secure, even for those who are a bit wobbly at a height. (You’re effectively tied to the barrier, so you really can’t do anything silly like fall off, no matter how clumsy you are, Take it from me, I tested this in full.)  The tour guides and fun and engaging and the walk offers a pretty impressive view over the stadium. Being honest, the view over North Dublin is a little less impressive, but that said, you’ll have some fun picking out local landmarks. Sadly, there is no access to the Skyline on match days, for those of you who are hunting for those elusive all-Ireland final tickets and thinking of pulling a fast one. If you’re going up there, do what I didn’t and bring a warm jacket – it’s bloody baltic.

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Taken from the Skywalk as Croke Park was preparing to host the Eucharistic Congress in 2012. On the screen is a notice warning the gluten intolerant to take the wine instead of bread at Holy Communion. Thanks Mark @yearoffestivals for the photo – and the jacket!

Some interesting facts and figures about Croke Park:

There are seven levels within the stadium, and it covers 16 acres of ground. Within its confines there are over 3km of seating, and 10 km of piping has been used in the plumbing (Importantly, the toilets are consistently probably the cleanest and most well-stocked of any sporting or music venue I’ve ever been to. But then, I usually frequent mucky festivals and Junior B games, so that’s hardly surprising). The environmentalists among you may be interested to know that Croke Park claims to be a carbon neutral venue. There are over 400 beer taps in the Davin Bar, the largest bar in Ireland. The big screen on the Hill 16 side of the stadium is the biggest outdoor screen of its kind in Europe and there are 463 floodlights around the stadium, each emitting light equivalent to 2,000 candles.

Outside the museum- and I like this a lot –  stands a wall featuring the crest of every single GAA club, both in Ireland and overseas – symbolising the fact that local clubs lie at the very heart of the organisation.

The real draw of Croke Park however, is the action on the field. While the stadium is a busy hub of activity all year round, with events and activities constantly happening, for sports fans it’s from July and August onwards that activity reaches fever pitch when county teams exit the provincial championships – either by winning or losing their provincial final – and move to the next level of the competition, where all games are played in Croke Park. The GAA is not perfect, nor are the traditional competition structures equitable or entirely fair, but they are deeply rooted in a convention that spans over a century, and as such, they are what they are. Once you reach the last eight, it’s then you allow yourself to dream.

And once you reach those stages, nothing beats waking up on the morning of a match, bedecking yourself in your county colours and embarking on that trip to Dublin (or in my case, the spin across to the Northside on the 16), and meeting similarly bedecked friends and family along Dorset Street for the pre-match analysis.

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Camaraderie on All-Ireland Final day, 2012. Remarkably, we are still friends

Nothing beats the pre-match beer, and the hurried flick through the papers to see who the pundits are tipping, and their instant dismissal (“sure what would that eejit know?” Applicable to most pundits if they plump for the opposition). The walk down long Clonliffe Road, the majesty of the stadium looming in front of you… Very little beats that first breathtaking glimpse of the beautifully manicured ground, bathed in late summer sun; nothing beats the warmth and camaraderie among supporters, even if they’re on the opposite side.

Not much beats the deafening, spine-tingling roar that welcomes your team as they enter the field of play; nothing beats the ecstasy of a sweetly placed goal at a crucial moment, and nothing, but nothing, beats being on the winning side at the final whistle.

I’m from Mayo. Those of you who are familiar with Gaelic Games will understand instantly what that means. For those of you who are not, allow me to briefly explain. Mayo has a fine, proud tradition in Gaelic football. Despite this fine tradition, we have won the ultimate prize – the Sam Maguire trophy, awarded to the All-Ireland senior football champions – just three times, and not since 1951 (before my parents were even born, though of course Mammy and Daddy Flynn were both blessed with youthful good looks). Compare that to the likes of Kerry, for example, who have won it no fewer than 36 times. Greedy feckers.

Since 1989, we have appeared in seven senior all-Ireland finals in Croke Park, and we have failed to win any of them. You may wonder why anyone from Mayo holds the place in any sort of affection at all. We are, quite simply, suckers for punishment loyal and optimistic to the last.

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What Croke Park looks like when Mayo don’t win a final. #7.

This year, on September 22nd, 2013 we will enter our eighth all-Ireland final 24 years, facing Dublin, the mighty Boys in Blue, once again dreaming of bringing Sam west over the Shannon. Despite all that’s happening in the harsh reality that is Ireland at the minute, I can assure you that many with Mayo roots are thinking of little else this fortnight. As I write, the dream is very much alive. It remains to be seen whether this time, it can become a reality.

But one thing is for sure. Nothing beats being there.

Update: We lost.

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