Sunday 22 October 2017

From royalty to Hollywood stars, this cultural showpiece makes a mark on all walks of life

Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco at Croke Park from the 1963 All-Ireland hurling final between Kilkenny and Waterford, in the company of Taoiseach Sean Lemass and his wife Kathleen;
Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco at Croke Park from the 1963 All-Ireland hurling final between Kilkenny and Waterford, in the company of Taoiseach Sean Lemass and his wife Kathleen;

Dermot Crowe

Proof that All-Ireland final day is different hit Danny Lynch while GAA PRO on the eve of the 1990 hurling meeting of Cork and Galway. Some time on Saturday evening he had a phone call from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gerry Collins, who was relaying a request from Brian Keenan. "Any chance of him getting a ticket for tomorrow's game?"

Keenan's release from more than four years in captivity in Beirut only shortly before then was a well-publicised news event, having been kidnapped along with British journalist John McCarthy. The Belfast teacher had been asked on his return if he had any special wishes. He cited the All-Ireland hurling final. Collins dialled Lynch. "We had to facilitate him," says Lynch, nearly 30 years later. "And we did."

At that stage even the tickets you'd normally turn to for emergencies had been doled out. So Lynch sacrificed his own and repaired to the press box. Keenan watched Cork defeat Galway in a high-scoring thriller. From Lynch's recall, Keenan experienced difficulty adjusting to a drastically changed environment from what he had become accustomed to in the preceding years.

"My memory was that he appeared to spend the time in a bit of daze. He reacted a bit negatively to the vast open space, the crowds and the noise. He seemed to have been a bit overwhelmed. I remember he had to come back inside and compose himself."

At that time it wasn't the Croke Park of today, in all its splendid modernity. When special guests came they had to be charmed in more basic surroundings. "It was the old Hogan Stand," recalls Lynch, who served as PRO from 1988 until 2008. "You didn't have the same facilities or razzmatazz as now and he (Keenan) was asked if he would like a cup of tea. He said, 'I would prefer a couple of bottles of Guinness' - so someone was sent out to get a carry-pack."

Whether in times of spartan or lavish facilities the All-Ireland football and hurling finals have been recognised as important and prestigious dates on the Irish cultural and sporting calendar. There are various guidelines in place to deal with VIP requests which are usually channelled through the GAA director general's office. Others are conveyed more informally. Lynch previously worked in government departments, leading to a wide network of contacts which followed him into his time as PRO of the GAA.

Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane enjoying a hurling semi-final between Kilkenny and Galway in 2015. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane enjoying a hurling semi-final between Kilkenny and Galway in 2015. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

"I remember Dick Spring (former Labour party leader) brought over Neil Kinnock (leader of the Labour party in the UK). But he was a bit peeved because they could not get Ard Comhairle seats. Both were in opposition at the time. There were protocols we had to follow."

In this case the government ministers in power at the time had the best seats. All serving ministers get tickets and the TDs from competing counties are also accommodated if possible. There were frequent requests from foreign ambassadors and dignitaries. "You often got requests from ambassadors from other countries," says Lynch. "They didn't really pose that much of a problem except that they were taking valuable seats. They had to be facilitated.

"There used to be requests from British ambassadors to attend and that used to cause almighty headaches. The Troubles were pretty much ongoing in the North. It wasn't a question of just facilitating the British ambassador; there was an army of security and all sorts of other attachments to cater for as well."

Some were "genuinely hooked" - not there purely out of a sense of duty. "Like, there was Michael Wadsworth (former Canadian ambassador to Ireland) who was an ex-professional American footballer, he was a barrister by profession," explains Lynch. "That guy really had an interest in and knowledge of the games, but particularly Gaelic football. Every government minister applied and in many cases - well in some cases - they certainly would not be for themselves."

Frustrating? "Your hands are tied by practice and procedures and protocols."

There was much jostling and jockeying for position. This surfaced last year when a Mayo senator, Michelle Mulherin, criticised the GAA for not granting her a request for two All-Ireland final tickets. She accused the GAA of discrimination and argued there should be no distinction made in ticket application decisions between TDs and senators. The GAA said it had to draw the line due to huge ticket demand. The case provoked a strong reaction with many people critical of what they perceived as a misplaced sense of entitlement on the senator's part.

Lynch had extensive first-hand experience of the impossibility of pleasing everyone. "One long-standing minister who was out of power, then serving as an ordinary TD, thought that it applied in perpetuity. And noses got out of joint pretty quickly. You also got new TDs who would have been told at some stage that Mr X had got a ticket and they could not work out why they did not get one as well. Then you had a situation where for sake of argument a small tiny fraction of Mayo went into the Galway (electoral) constituency and straight away they would apply for tickets on that basis."

In Sean Kelly's time as GAA president, from 2003-'06, he remembers Michael Flatley being a special guest for a hurling final. "He expressed an interest in going because he had an interest in Irish music and culture and hurling was related to that. He was extremely grateful and enjoyed it, took a great interest in it."

Another year they had a delegation of government ministers and officials from China there to observe a major sports event ahead of staging the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. "These people would be ambassadors for you," says Kelly, "because they would have huge influence globally. It wouldn't have surprised me that the hosting of them that day might have led to the Chinese president coming to Ireland and to Clare later (in 2012), the only place in Europe he came to, and opened up trade links and so forth. You make that connection through sport that's non-conflict and non-commercial."

Kevin Costner at the 1992 football semi-final between Dublin and Clare
Kevin Costner at the 1992 football semi-final between Dublin and Clare

In the photo of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier of Monaco at Croke Park from the 1963 All-Ireland hurling final between Kilkenny and Waterford, in the company of Taoiseach Sean Lemass and his wife Kathleen, Prince Rainier and Lemass appear caught in a moment of earnest reflection. Whether it had anything to do with the merits of Tom Cheasty or Ollie Walsh we'll never know. The ladies looked more relaxed.

Every few years a photo appears of some celebrity in Croke Park, stoking varying levels of curiosity about how we might look to them through our games and the home they've been made feel welcome in. "Gareth Edwards, the Welsh rugby player, was at one hurling final," says Lynch. "I was asked to bring him down the sideline after as RTÉ wanted to do an interview. I said on the way down, 'would you like to be out there with a hurley?' And he said, 'I certainly wouldn't like to be out there without one.' A hurling final for fellas who haven't seen it before, whatever about football, was something absolutely mind-boggling."

Another Saturday before a big match in Croke Park, though not a final but rather the 1992 All-Ireland football semi-final between Dublin and Clare, he had a call on behalf of the American actor Kevin Costner. The request came so late that they had to accommodate him near the sideline. It wasn't the best vantage point but he got in and was able to soak up the atmosphere. Costner had visited Ireland for talks about a movie about Michael Collins which never materialised.

"He had a genuine interest in the thing," says Lynch. "I think he played sport at a high level in college. By and large most go for two reasons. One, they have heard of it or seen some of it before and want to see the real thing, and the other reason is that it is obviously one of the biggest occasions in the Irish calendar. They want to sample the atmosphere and be part of it."

Costner was box office at the time. Lynch admits he wasn't aware of who he was when he took the phone call the previous evening. "I remember putting my hand over the phone and saying to one of my kids who was walking past, 'who the hell is Kevin Costner?' 'You don't know who Kevin Costner is?' they said back. I must admit I did not.'"

But never one to miss an opportunity, Lynch put the visit to good use. Around that time, the residents around Croke Park were kicking up a storm and planning a picket. With the looming threat of adverse publicity, Lynch arranged that Costner be available for interview with some of the writers dispatched to pen colour pieces for the morning newspapers. The tactic worked and the protest got hardly any attention from the media. Costner had that bit more colour appeal than residents complaining about Croke Park restrictions on their day-to-day living.

Before the redevelopment of Croke Park began in the 1990s, the stadium had none of the frills on offer today to esteemed guests. "There was a small bit of a room on the first level where VIPS used be taken care of at half-time," recalls Lynch. "Central Council used to meet there but it was basically a cup of tea and a few sandwiches. Then after the match, there was this free-for-all in a big hall downstairs, which was like a cattle mart. Like, there was no point in going in there.

"When you think about it in (former GAA director general) Seán Ó Siocháin's time, when it came to hospitality for VIPs they had one of the girls come in on their spare time on the Saturday before the final and make the sandwiches. That would be one of the girls working in Croke Park, in the 1960s and '70s (Ó Síocháin served from 1964-'79). Seán O Síocháin would go out and arrive in with a bottle of whiskey under his coat. There would be six glasses and that would be it."

There would be some criticism about tickets being wasted on celebrities. "This crack with the shortage of tickets," as Lynch says, "and this crowd getting tickets. In a general context it is well understood that it is absolutely positive. But like everything else in life, you will always get a small minority who will look at it from the narrowest of perspectives."

Whenever a Northern unionist politician or the secretary of state for Northern Ireland attended, additional security measures needed to be in place. "What used to happen was," says Lynch, "the Gardaí at senior level would have taken appropriate security measures. I think in the environment I am talking about there was at least one bomb scare at every match but nobody (in the crowd) would be aware of it. We used to use codes - 'would the car-owner of etc' - that was an alert that there was a bomb scare. Otherwise (by telling the truth), you could have had a stampede."

But Croke Park on All-Ireland final day is indiscriminate in its choice of guest. "Not all GAA supporters are flat-cap merchants with the arse out through their trousers," says Lynch. "Many of our best fans are successful business people."

They are no less genuine, being his point. It follows that they are no less welcome. Everyone fortunate to have a ticket is part of this unique day.

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