It's coming up on a week now. One week. One week that shook the very foundations of Irish... European... worldwide society.
A Garrison game was played in the HQ, the Ground, Croker, Croke Park against the old enemy England... and it was about Goddamn time as well! I was one of the few people able to get a ticket (I won't tell you how... suffice to say it involved a dog, three men and a favour, with hilarious consequences) and it was special. The minute you walked up and into Croker's shadow, you know something incredible was happening. Up until one week ago, I would have sworn on A Brief History Of Time that no other atmosphere in any stadium in the world compared to All-Ireland Day in Croke Park. It is raw emotion. It is brutal. It is shivers down the spine. It is goosebumps all over. It is crossing your legs for 35 minutes because you're afraid of what you're going to miss if you go to the toilet. Nothing, I thought, compared to the roar of The Hill. It rises like a wave of noise before crashing into the Canal end. Fans from all teams mix together in the stands... there is no home and away in Croke Park; it is home. It is a Church of the Gael. You don't feel Irish until you step into Croke Park. That's my opinion, though. I'm sure soccer and rugby fans said the same thing about Lansdowne Road. Lansdowne Road was special as well. It was a fortress. Magnificent rugby and soccer has been played there, but, again in my opinion, it doesn't have the history of Croke Park.
However, last Saturday... it was certainly a snapshot of history. Personally, I was worried heading up to the game. How would 'God Save The Queen' go down with the largely Irish crowd, in a ground that was famous in the anti-British movement as one of the sites for Bloody Sunday, when the British shot into the spectators and players, killing 12 and wounding many others? Would those tensions over-boil? Would there be war?
As I got closer to the stadium, I noticed some protesters outside. They had signs such as 'British Out!' and 'Take Your Games Home!'. One of the protesters, I noticed, was wearing a Celtic soccer jersey. I pointed this out and was told '...'
If there was a token protest outside, there was absolutely none in the stadium. It was a tremendous and bizarre sight seeing rugby posts at either end. It was, however, quiet — until the teams ran on, with a massive roar for the Irish and less of a roar for the English. The president made her handshakes. Still I felt tension. The national anthems were getting closer.
Then a wonderful thing happened: an absolutely, unbelievably childish thing, but no less wonderful. No national anthem could be played until the president returned to her seat. Her seat was next to Bertie Ahern's seat. The Taoiseach, always the politician, rose and offered her his cheek. Just then it came up on the big screen, Bertie leaning in to give Mary a peck on the cheek, and 80,000 people, Irish, English, Scottish, Welsh, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Presbyterian and everything else went 'Whhooooooooooo'. No tension could have with stood such a barrage of foolishness.
The rest was like a dream. I felt proud, the proudest I've ever been. I felt pride for 'Amhrán na bhFiann' (a song I don't like). I felt pride for 'Ireland's Call' (a song I hate!). I felt pride for that magnificent stadium being on the world stage; I felt pride for the crowd at the round of applause at the end of 'God Save The Queen' and I felt pride for the GAA.
One moment I will always remember. I was sitting next to a man wearing an Irish jersey and when 'God Save the Queen' came on, he belted it out with the thickest Belfast accent I have ever heard. He was as tone-deaf as a post, but still he belted it out.
I am a member of the Change Generation of Ireland. I have grown up in an Ireland of prosperity. Ireland has stopped being an isle of emigrants and had started to have immigrants of its own. I'm going to tell you something: I never saw a man of a different race until I was 16; his name was Patrick and he worked (still works) at the local garage.
But rugby and soccer in Croke Park... could I have imagined this even five years ago? No.