The Greatest Moment in (Irish) Sports History

Daniel McCarthyContributor IApril 30, 2010

              The most memorable moments in sport come when a game isn’t so much a game as it is a moment in time. These come when something unexpected happens, like an underdog rising to the occasion, or when something historical is achieved, i.e. four Stanley cups in a row for the NYI.

                For America, the pinnacle of all sporting moments in the existence of the country came in 1980, when in the midst of a cold war a group of amateur college players were assembled by the late great Herb Brooks and beat the greatest hockey team in the world against all odds. The game gave America something to take pride in, something to relish during one of the coldest times in our history.

For the city of NY, particularly Met fans, one such moment came when Mike Piazza homered off of Steve Karsay of the Atlanta Braves on September 21st, 2001 – ten days after the most infamous attack on our country. The image of firemen and police officers smiling in the crowd overshadowed any thoughts of a pennant race; it brought the city together no matter who you rooted for.

One of the most underrated moments in the history of sport came in the small island off of the English coast. Ireland, for those of you who are unaware, has a long history of repression under English rule. After the Easter Rising in 1916, a war of independence ensued that eventually led to the creation of an Irish Republic.

The heart of Irish Sport, and the country’s crowning jewel, is Croke Park; an 80,000 plus capacity stadium created by the Gaelic Athletic Association for the playing of Irish games (hurling and Gaelic football). Croke Park’s history dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, and thousands upon thousands of Irish have flocked to the center of the city to see their countrymen play for their counties.

Even though the main use of the stadium is sport, the stadium has a definite and absolute place in the history of the Irish republic. Rubble from the Easter Rising in 1916 was used to construct a grassy hill on the railway end of Croke Park to afford patrons a better view of the pitch, now known as Hill 16. During the ensuing Easter Rising, British troops and tanks entered the ground, during a Gaelic Football match between Dublin and Tipperary, and recklessly fired into the crowd killing eleven spectators and Tipperary’s captain, Michael Hogan (a day that became known as Bloody Sunday). Hogan’s name now titles one of the stands in Croke Park as a solemn and sure reminder of what the stadium means to Ireland.

For the longest time the GAA, with some exceptions of boxing and American football, disallowed any use of Croke Park for foreign games. Rule 42, which prohibited the playing of non-Gaelic games in GAA stadiums, was the roadblock for any thoughts of playing rugby (a sport that Ireland excels in) or soccer on the field. It was Ireland’s field, the GAA’s field, the people’s field and there was no way after the massacre that occurred on that Sunday that the GAA would let a foreign game, in particular an English game, on the field.

Well in 2006 the Irish sporting union had a problem. Lansdowne Road, which served as the home for the soccer and rugby national teams, was set to be closed for extreme renovations. Irish Rugby had a problem: the ensuing Six Nations Championship couldn’t be played in Lansdowne. The heads of Irish Rugby had two choices: One, to play the match on foreign grounds, probably England. Or Two, to beg and plead with the GAA for the temporary relaxation of Rule 42. They took the second choice and after a bitter struggle marked by protests and controversy the GAA okayed the temporary relaxation of rule 42.

The firs t rugby match to be played at Croke Park pitted Ireland against England. It was seemingly perfect for the home crowd as the world got to see a stadium that should rank as one of the most beautiful ones in the world, except for the fact that France took the game 20-17.

This is now an afterthought because what happened next is something that is Irish Sports’ greatest achievement. It didn’t occur on the field, it wasn’t an act by the players. When England came up for the next Six Nations match, it was the first time since Bloody Sunday that English found themselves inside Croke Park. The nervousness and apprehension about what would happen when “God Save the Queen” plays prior the game was enormous but when the music started the 75,000 Irish in the stands did something extraordinary: nothing. No boos, no hisses, no fights. A respectful silence for an enemy that had persecuted and tormented them for years. And when the Irish got their chance to belt out their national anthem, the sounds could be heard all throughout the Emerald Isle. The rendition made players of perhaps the meanest, toughest sport in the world cry. There are no words to describe what happened during that anthem; it brought together a country divided by a decision to invite an old enemy into the nation’s cathedral to play a game.

Ireland beat England that day. There was no way they were losing that game, not after what just happened. England perhaps were looking for those boos as a rallying cry for them to go out and defeat their neighbors, but when nothing came they must have not known what hit them.

It’s moments like these that bring chills to your arms and tears to your eyes, it’s the reason we all love sports, and it’s moments like these that we’ll never forget.