Historic occasion is no mere field of dreams
Famous ground bears witness to a new beginning
THE pitch was pristine. Velvety-green and immaculate, lit with a slight sheen from the afternoon sunshine that slanted through the stadium roof.
But the seats were empty and silent for this special, one-off fixture in Croke Park. Hill 16, which rose from the rubble of the Rising, was devoid of humanity. Though perhaps a few ghosts hovered to bear witness to a remarkable sight.
And out of the famous tunnel and into the beating heartland of Irish nationalism walked Queen Elizabeth, with President Mary McAleese by her side.
Sometimes it seems that the most heart-stopping events happen amid silence in Croker.
First there was the graceful hush that descended as 'God Save the Queen' rose from thousands of English throats in 2007. And yesterday afternoon there was nothing but the rustle of a breeze as the British monarch stepped on to the pitch.
The Hogan Stand, of course, is named after Michael Hogan, the former Tipperary football captain who was killed at the stadium in 1920 after British troops opened fire on players and fans, killing 14 in total.
The original Hill was partly-constructed from the rubble on O'Connell Street following the 1916 Easter Rising.
Indeed, the GAA itself was founded with the stated aim of rolling back English influence in Ireland.
Historic symbolism heaped upon nationalist, but the queen's dignity, respect and poise was once again obvious, even from a distance.
She was helped, of course, by being obviously made welcome, although the gleaming stadium was largely empty in the sunshine.
It was a comprehensive tour. The royal party was met at the entrance by GAA president Christy Cooney; managing director Paraic Duffy; and Minister for Arts, Gaeltacht and Heritage Jimmy Deenihan -- along with 34 children dressed in the GAA jerseys of each county (including the colours of New York and London) -- before being taken on a tour of the dressing-rooms to meet four inter-county players, where the finer points of hurling were explained to the queen and Prince Philip. "She was talking to me and Paudie (Maher), asking about the hurley we had in our hands," current Tipperary star Lar Corbett revealed. "She also asked about the hurley and how they're made.
"She has such a busy schedule with visits to different places in Dublin but she is a fair lady for 85 years of age, showing an interest in everybody she meets here," he added.
"Is it like what they use in shinty?" she asked of the hurley, referring to a hockey-like game associated with the Scottish highlands.
Mr Cooney told her there was an annual representative match between hurlers and shinty players each year as the codes are similar.
And then the party was taken on to the sidelines of the pitch, before moving inside. As the queen emerged from the lift into the room, she was greeted by a troupe of young set dancers in full swing, and lingered to watch them, being fond of a bit of a Scottish jig herself.
There was a round of applause from the gathering of guests as the party crossed into the room. And once again the queen and Prince Philip were plunged into another marathon round of handshakes and small talk as they slowly, very slowly made their way through the crowd.
In fact, it seemed as if the poor queen was moving at too leisurely a pace for former GAA president Nickey Brennan, who briefly took over from Christy as the royal guide. Naughty Nickey quite forgot himself and had the temerity to breach the golden rule of Do Not Touch Her Majesty by taking a firm hold of the royal arm and towing the diminutive monarch on to the next group.
But this being a visit of peace and reconciliation, Touchy-Feely Nickey wasn't clapped in irons. And before the queen could transfix him with one of her special frosty stares, he was tapped smartly on the shoulder by one of the eagle-eyed entourage and hastily took his mitt off her majesty.
Crisis averted, the queen was then taken to a table where presided gleaming Irish treasures more valuable than anything locked away in the royal jewellery horde in the Tower of London -- the Sam Maguire and Liam McCarthy cups.
"It brings a tear of joy to people's eyes," explained Mrs McAleese as the queen inspected Sam. "And frustration," added the pragmatic Christy.
The GAA president then addressed the queen. His speech was short but his words were eloquent.
"We all know that in our shared history there have been many tragic events which have inflicted hurt on us all. While acknowledging the significance of the past and honouring all those who have lost their lives, including those that died in this place, the Gaelic Athletic Association has constantly supported the peace process in Northern Ireland," Mr Cooney said, adding he believed the peace process was "irreversible".
However, some preferred to look to the future rather than dwell on the past. Not for the first time at Croke Park, Micheal O Muircheartaigh called it perfectly, poetically.
"You cannot deny history -- terrible things happen in all wars on both sides," he said yesterday. "You can never forget them, but maybe you can learn from them, and look to a future that will not have disputes."
And then the royal couple were presented with gifts. For the queen there was a green-bound copy of a history of the GAA, but there was much giggling from the guests when Prince Philip was handed a hurley and sliotar.
"The only place to use it is the field not here," joked Christy, but Philip seemed quite taken with it, giving it a few experimental swings.
But maybe we're not quite ready to see the Duke of Edinburgh unleashing a puck-out on the sacred turf of Croker. One thing at a time.
As Mrs McAleese escorted the queen out of the stadium she seemed anxious to try and convey to her just how precious a shrine she had just visited.
"I'm very glad you came to this place, it's the heart and soul of Ireland," she told her.
Out of sight a few houses down Jonses Road, four teenagers happily waved a placard.
It read, "Welcome to Ireland, queen".
And maybe, just maybe, the faint but ever-present stain of red faded from the velvety-green carpet of our bloody past.