Croke Park. It’s not just a stadium.

As Tim Carey, author of Croke Park: A History says: “More than perhaps any other sporting venue, Croke Park represents something that is beyond sport”.

The stadium is the home of Gaelic games in Dublin, but it has always had a deeper importance – one that’s intimately connected with the birth and evolution of the Irish nation.

“It is freighted with historical significance,” says Carey. “From the naming of the stands after various figures associated with the GAA to the momentous historical event of Bloody Sunday. Perhaps, no other stadium in the world occupies such a central place in a nation’s psyche.”

And perhaps no other stadium tells stories that are so in tune with the needs of that psyche. One of the most important stories is that of Croke Park’s Hill 16.

The history of Hill 16

Hill 16 is the spiritual home of the Dubs’ supporters and, looking back, it’s easy to understand why.

The terrace was first constructed in 1917 to give spectators a better view of the pitch and, until the 1930s, it was called Hill 60. Why the name change, you might wonder? What happened to the missing 44?

Remembering Irish soldiers in the British army

The original Hill 60 was the site of a bloody encounter between the 5th Battalion of the Connaught Rangers and the Turkish army in Gallipoli in August 1915.

uniformed troops stand at tree in turkish countryside

Officers of the 5th Connaught Rangers outside a house in Tatarli, Turkey, in 1915

The Connaught Rangers was an Irish regiment of the British army and its 5th Battalion had been raised in Dublin the previous year.

Reports of the battalion’s progress and eventual retreat were carried in the Dublin newspapers on a daily basis. In one week, The Connaught Rangers sustained 198 casualties, including 90 deaths.

At the same time, work was underway to raise the level of one of the terraces at Croke Park. Dublin ironists couldn’t resist the temptation of calling this new ‘hill’ after the famous one in Gallipoli. Its name remained Hill 60 until the 1930s.

An assertion of Ireland’s newfound independence

At this stage, the newly independent state decided it was time to rename the terrace. Instead of a name that highlighted Ireland’s time as part of the British Empire, it wanted pay tribute to its own unique history.

So it was decided that the number 16 – the year of the Easter Rising – would be a more appropriate name for a terrace in the stadium which played a role in forging Ireland’s national identity.

skeleton of five story hotel in dublin

Remains of a hotel on Sackville Street, now O’Connell Street, after the 1916 Easter Rising

The renaming of Dublin’s streets was well under way by this time. Even before Irish independence in 1922, Dublin Corporation had begun removing references to colonial rule and replacing them with nods to the country’s nationalist history.

Considering Croke Park was the location of the Bloody Sunday massacre – when British forces opened fire on civilians at a Gaelic football match – many saw the renaming of Hill 60 as an important step. It’s also worth noting that Croke Park’s Hogan Stand, which was built in 1924, is named after Tipperary player Michael Hogan who was one of 14 people who died in the stadium that day.

Interestingly, according to Britain’s National Army Museum, two of the Connaught Rangers’ reserve battalions fought against the rebels of the Easter Rising, which makes the name change even more poignant.

The creation of a enduring myth

It was also around the 1930s that fictional tales of Hill 16 began to circulate.

Disappointingly, the story that Hill 16 was built on the rubble of the Rising – delivered by handcart from O’Connell Street – is another example of myth-making. Work on the Hill was actually already complete by the time of the 1915 All-Ireland finals.

This is just a story born of the rivalry between a newly emergent nation and an old empire. It’s a rivalry that’s embedded in the Irish psyche and one that has cemented Hill 16 into the consciousness of the nation.

But that same psyche has got plenty of room for inter-county rivalries too.

Great GAA rivalries

Sure, we all get along well with each other most of the time. We can share a pint and exchange banter before the match. Or after the match. However, once you step through the turnstiles into Croke Park, all bets are off.

There are the great rivalries, of course: Cork and Kerry, Kilkenny and Tipperary, Donegal and Tyrone. One of the oldest is that of Dublin versus Kerry. The two counties have faced each other in the All-Ireland football finals 13 times since it began in 1888. The two first met in the finals back in 1892 and they both have far more all-Ireland wins than any other counties.

A strong rivalry between Dublin and Mayo is also brewing. Though the two teams have only faced each other in the championship finals five times, four of those meetings have occurred in the past decade.

Hill 16: The home of the Dubs

Over the years, the Dubs have adopted Hill 16 as their own. I’ll never forget standing there on the day of the All-Ireland Semi-Final 2006. Mayo ran out first and warmed up in front of The Hill. This may sound innocent enough on the face of it, but it flouted an unwritten rule: it’s The Dubs who warm-up in front of Hill 16.

All-Ireland Semi-Final 2006

Mayo & Dublin legends talk about their infamous 2006 All-Ireland semi final

The place erupted. Choruses of “Come on you Boys in Blue” rang so loud around the stands that the sound reverberated back at us. The Dublin team formed a line, walking arm-in-arm towards the Mayo players, riling up the crowd of 13,000 on Hill 16 and proceeding to warm-up in front of the same goal.

blue and navy mural of hill 16 and dublin team on wall in ballybough

Hill 16 mural in Ballybough, Dublin. Metro Centric, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

But the damage was done. Mayo were out to rattle cages – and rattle them they did. After an initial Dublin onslaught, Mayo fought their way back from a seven-point deficit to win the day.

Since then, the Dubs achieved an unprecedented six All-Ireland wins in a row. Dublin’s historic win over Mayo in 2020 capped a remarkable period for the capital and its footballers.

However, the team’s victorious run ended in 2021 when it failed to qualify for the championship final. Kerry still holds the most all-Ireland trophies but, thanks to Dublin’s impressive winning streak, the capital is catching up.

Experience Croke Park for yourself

For the past two decades, Hill 16 has been officially named Dineen Hill 16 in honour of Frank Dineen – the man who bought the grounds of Croke Park for the GAA back in 1908. However, every Dubliner still refers to it as Hill 16 or simply The Hill.

History, myth and rivalry all combine here to create a seething cauldron of emotions. To experience them for yourself, visit Croke Park for a match, tour the stadium, spend some time at the GAA Museum or head to the roof for a tour of Dublin’s skyline.

Visit Croke Park’s website to find out more or read our guide to the perfect day out on Dublin’s northside.

Last Updated: 27th July 2023
Amy Sergison works in the advertising industry, creating social and digital content for brands in Ireland and the UK. The child of inner-city parents, Dublin is in her blood. When not writing you can find Amy screaming at a rugby match, Instagramming her dinner, or searching for solace in the quiet spots of the city.

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