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 place has always had another agenda – one that’s intimately connected with the birth and evolution of a 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.
Take Hill 16, the famous terrace that’s the spiritual home of the Dubs’ supporters. Until the 1930s it was called Hill 60. Why the name change, you might wonder? What happened to the missing 44? 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. The 5th Battalion had been raised in Dublin the previous year. Reports of its progress and eventual retreat were carried in the Dublin newspapers on a daily basis. In one week, The Connaughts 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 to call this new ‘hill’ after the famous one in Gallipoli. It stayed Hill 60 until the 1930s. At this stage it was decided that the number 16, date of the Easter rebellion, would be a more appropriate name for a terrace in a stadium that had become so involved in the forging of the national identity.
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 the sort of story that’s born of the rivalry between a newly emergent nation and an old empire. It’s a rivalry that’s embedded in the Irish psyche. But that same psyche has got plenty of room for inter-county rivalries too.
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. But step through the turnstiles into Croke Park and all bets are off. There are the great rivalries, of course: Cork and Kerry, Kilkenny and Tipperary, Donegal and Tyrone. But this weekend Croke Park will bear witness to a final replay that pushes a quieter rivalry back into the spot light: Dublin versus Mayo.
I’ll never forget standing on Hill 16 on the day of the All-Ireland Semi-Final 2006. Mayo ran out first and warmed up in front of The Hill. This seemed innocent enough on the face of it. But it flouted an unwritten rule: that it’s The Dubs who warm-up in front of The Hill.