“nothing could be more distinctively Irish in the 21st century”

Ahead of tomorrow’s historic game, of rugby, between Ireland and France at Croke Park several papers comment and/or editorialise on its significance, but probably the most astute analysis is by Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, where he comments on the evolution of a complex and sophisticated system of sporting allegiances.. and identity [subs req]

The truth is that nothing could be more distinctively Irish in the 21st century than rugby and soccer at Croke Park, with all the conflicting and complementary resonances, memories, and emotions that this will trigger.

From the Irish Times

Sporting allegiances have been read as codes for where you stand on the Protestant/Catholic, urban/rural and nob/yob fault-lines.

In typical Irish fashion, however, we tended to insist on these identities, not because they were clear-cut but precisely because they were not. Munster’s working-class rugby traditions, the transition from GAA to professional soccer of Kevin Moran, Niall Quinn or Shane Long, the rich seam of soccer fandom within Irish political nationalism (Todd Andrews, Brian Lenihan, Bertie Ahern), the significant, if often submerged, Protestant presence in the GAA, the fact that last year’s big GAA star, Kieran Donaghy of Kerry, is a basketball player, all hint at an underlying promiscuity of allegiance. But when the borders are so porous, it becomes all the more important to police them. For the GAA, which defined itself explicitly as a national and amateur alternative to “foreign” and increasingly professional games, the need to maintain the distinction is particularly acute.

Big forces – media globalisation, the death of the old rural Ireland, the transcending of nationalism, the waning of religion as a marker of national identity in the Republic – have all changed the nature of the game. Identity has become more complex, and though we still use sport to mark it, we use it in different ways. Instead of the old either/or sense of belonging, we have become a both/and people. Instead of belonging to the rugger tribe or the GAA tribe or the soccer tribe, we have evolved a sophisticated system in which we use different sports to express different levels of identity.

Irish sports fans have worked out a system of allegiances that is more complex, and more honest, than the old apartheid. At the level of the parish and of the county, the GAA teams are the standard-bearers. But rugby teams represent their provinces best, and the national soccer and rugby teams do battle in the international arena. And for the weekly fix of televised glamour, Manchester United, Liverpool and Glasgow Celtic provide both a globalised cosmopolitanism and (the darkest secret of all) a sense of belonging to what used to be called the British Isles. A single red jersey can cover the Cork hurlers, the Munster rugby team and Manchester United.

This system evolved spontaneously, but it is remarkably robust and relatively fixed. At its own level, the position of the dominant sport is formidable. Local rugby teams and League of Ireland soccer clubs are in decline because the local is now the GAA’s patch. Conversely, the provinces used to belong to the GAA. The Railway Cup, in which provincial football and hurling teams played against each other, was once a prestigious second to the All-Ireland, and the final drew huge crowds. Now, interest is so minimal that the final has to be played as far away as Boston or Paris to engender some exotic interest. Instead, provincial allegiance is owned by rugby. And for all the hype about Croke Park as foreign territory for non-GAA fans, it’s a fair bet that a good proportion of the Irish fans at the rugby game tomorrow and a majority of those at the Ireland v Wales soccer match next month will already have been there to support their GAA club or county.

Croke Park itself, after all, is an embodiment of globalisation. It was co-designed by HOK Sports, which has worked on stadiums from Bolton to Nanjing. The surface of the pitch is based on the turf at Anfield and Villa Park. The money to build it – both public and private – came from the new, ultra-globalised Irish economy. Its scale, its sleekness and its efficiency all mark it out as the most outstanding piece of international infrastructure in Ireland. The GAA itself sees the stadium in both an international and a modernist context, declaring it on its website to be “one of the most modern and spectator-friendly stadiums in Europe”. There was always an obvious contradiction between wanting to show Croke Park off to the world and declaring that the only sports that can be played in it are ones that are of exclusively Irish interest.

The truth is that nothing could be more distinctively Irish in the 21st century than rugby and soccer at Croke Park, with all the conflicting and complementary resonances, memories, and emotions that this will trigger.

The ultimate triumph of the GAA is that it owns the field on which this new and utterly contemporary spectacle will play itself out.

  • I think I agree with bits of this, certainly about Croke Park. There was some windbag on BBC Newsline last night giving it stacks about foreign sports.

    But far from diluting the purity of hallowed Croker, surely it’ll do the GAA some good for it’s crown jewel, as it were, to be exhibited to an international audience!

  • willis

    And indeed the fact that tomorrow’s opposition is France, another Republic, has its own resonance.

    To hear ‘La Marseillaise’ at Croke Park!

  • Greenflag

    ‘In typical Irish fashion, however, we tended to insist on these identities, not because they were clear-cut but precisely because they were not.’

    Very true as the Tooler says . As a kid we were supposed to play Gaelic Football and hurling but we played soccer in the school yard which the headmaster conveniently ‘ignored’ . I’m a keen fan of hurling , rugby and not so keen on Gaelic football unless Dublin are on a good run ) also soccer fan of the Irish team and Chelsea (I don’t want to talk about San Marino 🙂

    I suspect there are more of us ‘mixed up’ supporters than true blues of any denomination.

    Well done the GAA anyway for getting over the obvious contradictions . Ireland and I’m sure all Ireland will view the GAA somewhat differently from now on.

  • Nevin

    No mention of the financial leverage that ‘facilitated’ the change of heart?

  • lib2016

    Fintan hasn’t emphasised how big a gesture this is. Croke Park is the Irish equivalent of Amritsar or Sharpeville and this is much more important psychologically than any nonsensical Royal visit.

    It’s a welcome move coming at the right time. Let’s hope that this is only the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

  • George

    the GAA have assets estimated at 6 billion. I think they could survive without the odd 2 million in gate receipts if they wanted to.

  • Henry94
  • Pete Baker


    The wiki entry for the FAI appears to under attack by trolls.

    The version you’ve linked has already been re-edited several times.

    Here’s the currently displayed version.. which has been locked

  • Greenflag

    The GAA should now look beyond tomorrow’s breakthrough . Lansdowne Road will still only be able be able to seat 50,000 after renovation . I’m sure that for some international games both the GAA and the IRFU and the FAI could increase their ‘take’ by using Croke Park for those games which could can attract 83,000 spectators . That’s 30,000 more than Lansdowne Road will ever be able to provide. Multiply 30,000 by the average ticket price and divvy up the excess above 50,000 between the codes involved and hey presto GAA assets take another leap skyward 🙂

    For some and I say some soccer and rugby internationals using Croke Park would make a lot of financial sense . And as the GAA would benefit financially and in publicity terms why not?

  • Dublin Exile

    Lib2016 – What are you on about? I’ve been going to croke park for nearly 25 years and the only massacres I ever thought about were the ones that unfolded in front of my eyes! (Often committed by ye northern buggers on me own jewel an darlin dubs)
    As a GAA member I felt great pride the first time I sat in the new stadium and i’ll feel great pride tommorrow watching an Ireland team playing there. Thoughts of Amritsar or Sharpville? I dont think so.

  • Sderry

    Dublin Exile,
    Im all for the Croker being opened up to all sports but how dare you minimise the murder of 14 civilian lives at Croke. Their relatives and descendants could be standing/sitting beside you at the match. Think on that and think of what went before

  • Greenflag


    Croke Park is in Drumcondra and not in the Punjab or South Africa . It’s a sporting occassion and the crowd will be hoping for an Irish win (not guaranteed). I can agree with you that the GAA gesture is much more important for Ireland as a whole than any putative ‘royal’ visit . Shure yer man Prince Andrew was traipsing around Tesco’s in Dublin the other day and hardly anybody paid any attention . Well not 83,000 anyway 🙂

    I’ve no objection to any of the Royals
    visiting Croke Park to cheer on their national team . Still no time for monarchy in general but that’s for non sporting occassions .

  • lib2016


    The British Royal Family have a history of putting their foot in it and we’re preparing for an important election in NI. This is not the time for any of their nonsense.

    I don’t want to overestimate the importance of one sporting event but the very name ‘Hogan Stand’ has a certain reverberation and I thought that reverberation was worth a mention.

    No doubt there are many millions in India and South Africa who have got over armed repression by the British Army, as will we in the North in time. That may happen all the quicker after the occupation is over as many in the South have already been fortunate enough to experience.

  • Lafcadio

    George – you don’t pay your bills with assets. The couple of million that the GAA get will come in very handy, thank you very much, and the smart money is on Croke continuing to be venue for the big rugby games even after the completion of LR – nobody’s saying it but a very obvious win-win is quietly being put in place (80k capacity stadium for big games, 50k capacity stadium for small games in a city which doesn’t need two huge stadia) so that in due course, when rugby and soccer at Croker is no longer news, inevitability and common sense will have its way

  • George

    that would seem the sensible option alright if all things were equal but they are not.

    The GAA is an amateur organisation and doesn’t work to the same rules as a PLC or a professional sporting body.

    The players aren’t paid and much of its strength comes from its army of volunteers.

    True the cash would come in useful but it doesn’t “need” the money in the same sense as a professional body does. It is in a position to make decisions of the heart.

    I don’t put it past them to maintain the integrity of Croke Park as a temple for amateur sportsmen and women going into the future.

    It depends how the next year pans out.

  • BP1078

    I don’t put it past them to maintain the integrity of Croke Park as a temple for amateur sportsmen and women going into the future

    Dear God, that sounds like a press release direct from GAA HQ. You’ve gone a bit OTT with the flowery metaphors there George!!!
    Slightly more regard for the GAA hierarchy than the FAI by any chance?!!

  • Nevin

    George, I wasn’t referring to the gate receipts ….

  • George

    I do and pretty well always have had utter disdain for the FAI and the current situation certainly isn’t helping matters.

    As for the GAA, I don’t come from that background. They played no part in my youth as I grew up in a rugby and football environment but they have really impressed me in recent years.

    The best example I could give of why the GAA have endeared themeselves to me of late would be Seán Óg Ó’Hailpín.

    I work on the same street as the man and there are evenings when I see him trudge out of his workplace after a hard days work as I do likewise.

    Then I see him perform as a great athlete in his other guise, the captain of a great Cork hurling team. I’m not from Cork.

    I also saw what he did for the mourning family following the death of 11-year-old Robert Holohan.

    The GAA has many more people of his calibre than the FAI or football in general.

    Sometimes the OTT is deserved.

  • George

    I might also add three daggers to my footballing heart:

    Glenmalure Park soon to be followed by Dalymount and Tolka. All for the filthy lucre. Keep the faith? They are making it bloody difficult, especially when I drive by the shell of a “stadium” in Tallaght.

  • Greenflag


    ‘The British Royal Family have a history of putting their foot in it ‘

    True enough but on his visit to Dublin to a recent award/prize giving event for young people from both North and South the Duck of Edinburgh ‘behaved ‘ himself and dropped not a single inadvertent or deliberate hammer. Bit of a disappointment to the local journos but there you have it.

    Don’t know what impact this game or whoever attends it could possibly have on the NI election ? Still on reflection I think that the GAA have crossed one Rubicon for now so perhaps that’s enough to be going on with !

    Tipperary captain’s legacy is safe enough . The Hogan Stand will be there for as long as there is a Croke Park and a GAA and an Ireland so I would have no worries on that score.

  • Pete Baker


    The topic isn’t the individual merits of any single sporting code.. rather it’s the interaction of a variety of sporting allegiances.. and the inherent national identity which follows from that.

  • George

    Fintan pretty well sums it up. He is writing as southerner where the national identity is 100% settled. There is no constitutional question.

    It’s not a case of the national identity reflecting sporting allegiances, it’s sporting allegiances reflecting the national identity.

    The sporting allegiances he discusses shine a light into one area of the Irish Republic’s national identity.

    They are used to show the simpler nuances of Irish society – Protestant/Catholic, urban/rural and nob/yob as Fintan puts it.

    Quite accurate faultlines if somewhat simplistic and dated.

    Many of these faultlines have been broken down by economic growth, social change and by the successes of the sporting codes.

    We can talk about why we now have Sherry Fitzgerald sponsoring GAA clubs in Dalkey.

    We can talk about how nobody gives a toss about whether you are Protestant or Catholic.

    We can talk about why rugby has become so big in places like Munster.

    But we can also talk about the merits of each sporting code as to why these faultlines are breaking down.

    For example:

    What if your sporting identity is Shamrock Rovers and Milltown and your ground is sold by a group of sheisters and you are moved around Dublin with a promise of a crap stadium at the foot of the Dublin mountains?

    What if your identity is Bohemians and your ground is to be sold and you are to be moved to the outskirts of north Dublin?

    What if you didn’t really grow up with rugby and find now that it accurately reflects the professionalism and dedication your country and perhaps you yourself wish to aspire to?

    What if you love watching Premiership football but are turned off by your “heroes” indulging in roasting sessions and the like while at the same time you look at the GAA and see their stars work 9-5 Monday to Friday just like you except they can then go out and excel as citizens and athletes?

    You can’t ignore the merits of the individual codes.

  • lapsedmethodist

    Fintan O’Toole presents a vision of a sophisticated and complex Ireland in his Times piece, but Sean Kelly in the Examiner talked about ” French Quakers and English Presbtyerians ” being welcome to Croke Park. Gotta read up on this stuff after the match.