Noisy neigbours: Battle for Garth Brooks rumbles on
Dublin City Council's refusal to grant licences for two of Garth Brooks' five gigs is a victory for residents and the latest spat in the fraught relationship between the GAA and those who live in the shadow of Croke Park, writes John Meagher
Aidan Fitzsimons is a GAA man through and through. He used to play club hurling for many years, he was a keen Gaelic footballer at school and today, at 61, he is still refereeing matches in both codes.
He is a dyed-in-the-wool Dub and loves nothing more than standing on Hill 16 on a summer Sunday cheering on his beloved blues.
But the Dublin City Council employee has fallen out of love with Croke Park – the stadium that looms up from the streets next to his home in Clonliffe Gardens.
"It is a nightmare for anyone who lives in the lockdown area on match day or whenever any concert is on," he says. "You feel like a prisoner in your own home and spontaneity just goes out the window."
When it was announced in February that Garth Brooks would play five consecutive nights at the stadium (starting July 25), Fitzsimons decided enough was enough. "It was the straw that broke the camel's back," he says, "and is typical of the contempt that the GAA has when it comes to people in the vicinity."
It says something about the wave of anger among those residents in the streets around the stadium – and their ability to argue their case – that Dublin City Council took the unprecedented step on Thursday to refrain from issuing a licence for two of the five Brooks shows. It's a decision that will ensure that 160,000 ticket-holders will be left to either seek refunds or hope that some other venue can step into the breach.
"It is a victory, in a way," Fitzsimons says. "But there shouldn't have been any Garth Brooks shows in Croke Park in the first place. We have already had three One Direction concerts and there will be an American football match there in August."
He claims Croke Park officials had an agreement with local residents that there would be no more than three non-sport events in the stadium on any given year, but the GAA denies this.
"They keep talking about an agreement they have with us," says a Croke Park executive who does not wish to be named, "but they can't produce evidence of it. If you're to look at the average number of concerts held in the stadium over the past 10 years, the figure wouldn't exceed three per annum. There just aren't enough music acts out there big enough to command 80,000 people.
"We want to have good relations with our neighbours, but it doesn't help when there isn't one unified voice for them. We have had to deal with 11 different groups. That said, the Garth Brooks situation was completely unexpected. Nobody could have foreseen that sort of demand, but it could have been handled better. Paraic Duffy [GAA director general] said as much on radio the other day."
Aidan Fitzsimons, who has lived next to Croke Park since 1986, says that problems experienced by local residents started in earnest from 1993 when work began on rebuilding the stadium.
"People had to put up with an awful lot in the years that it took to complete the ground," he adds. "It was very disruptive. And now there are so many major events there every year that mean you become a prisoner in your own home and you can't have your family around.
"My son was detained in Fitzgibbon Street garda station after he had tried to come to our house during match day. He was locked up in a cell there and only let out when the match was at half-time."
Eamonn O'Brien has been at the forefront of residents' battles with Croke Park. Although he lives in Castleknock – some 9km west of GAA HQ – he is on the committee of a community handball centre next to the Cusack Stand and has resisted attempts by Croke Park to take over the facility.
"Our dispute with Croke Park over the Garth Brooks shows is nothing to do with the handball centre," he says. "It's about the GAA riding roughshod over local people in the area. For too long they have had their way about everything they've wanted – irrespective of how it might affect residents.
"You don't get this sort of behaviour across the city at the Aviva Stadium. There's no way that the IRFU would try it on with the judges and barristers that live in Dublin 4."
It's a view shared by Aiden Fitzsimons. "There isn't a single concert happening at the Aviva this year – and there was supposed to be eight in Croke Park," he says. "Where's the fairness? Could you imagine if they had planned to hold five Brooks concerts at the Aviva? Nobody there would have stood for it. In fact, the promoters wouldn't even dare try it. It's a different story for us, though."
Such sentiments don't wash with a high-profile marketer who has worked with both stadia over the years. "I'm not denying that living next to a large stadium brings its challenges – of course it does," he says.
"But to say that the residents around the Aviva don't experience the sort of difficulties that people living near Croke Park do is rubbish.
"Don't forget that there was no concert in Croke Park last year, but there were two at the Aviva in 2013 (Robbie Williams and Rihanna). And this idea that's bandied about that there can only be three concerts at the Aviva in any one year is not true either – licences can be sought for further shows."
It is believed that Aiken Promotions, which is facing a headache in trying to come up with a solution for the two axed Brooks dates, has been in conversation with the Aviva in the hope that some of his shows can be staged there, so there is every chance that the inhabitants of Dublin 4 will have the 'Friends in Low Places' singer in their back yard too.
Irrespective of whether Brooks does pitch up at the Aviva, Croke Park stages far more lockdown events than it does. Even with two Brooks shows gone, Croke Park will have staged 32 events by the end of 2014. That figure will rise in the event of replays, and there have been no shortage of those in recent years: the All-Ireland hurling finals of both 2012 and 2013 required them. By contrast, the Aviva will host between 14 and 16 events this year between football and rugby fixtures. For most of this summer, the 52,000-seater stadium, which rose from the ashes of the old Lansdowne Road in 2010, will remain idle.
Historian Tim Carey, author of Croke Park: A History, says the stadium has had a tradition of hosting non-sporting events since the very earliest days of its inception.
"There was a rodeo meet held there in 1924 and you had 100th anniversary celebrations for Catholic Emancipation in 1929," he adds.
"There was an American football match in the 1950s – an era preceding Super Bowl – and there was a 50th anniversary pageant to mark the Rising in 1966. Muhammad Ali fought there in 1972 and U2 headlined in both 1985 and 1987.
"Since the stadium was rebuilt, its use has increased significantly, and it's now seen as the place to play for the world's biggest acts. U2 have been there in both 2005 and 2009. The GAA has been well able to maximise its commercial potential."
Last year, the organisation announced that Croke Park had become debt-free, and it has insisted that revenue made from Garth Brooks would be pumped into the redevelopment of other stadia, including Casement Park in Belfast and Pairc Ui Chaoimh in Cork.
Meanwhile, Aidan Fitzsimons hopes fans of the country singer will have sympathy for his case and those of his neighbours. "I don't have a problem with Garth Brooks at all," he says. "I like his music. I think he'd put on a great show."