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Croker's majesty is a cut above the rest

The grass runs the show in Croke Park. Firstly, it's so perfect that it doesn't look real. It has its own sunbeds – system ground lights – which encourage it to grow. At one stage it had its own flock of sheep to keep it down.

While the rest of the country was covered in snow, the grass in Croke Park was warm and green due to its own heating system. In case of a flood there are water pipes beneath it so that the water can be pumped out and into the canal.

It has three full-time groundsmen to look after it and they lovingly mow it every day with push lawnmowers, alternating the direction to get the lovely chequered pattern.

Pitch invasions used to be common at the end of a match. However, they're not allowed now, mainly for the sake of the grass.

Of course, the grass is where all the action happens in Croke Park so it's not surprising that it's so cosseted.


Our guide Ailbhe ("Louth 'til I die") is friendly, enthusiastic and informative and not surprisingly, loves her job.

To kick off the tour, there's a 15-minute video – A Sunday in September – a slick presentation that captures very well all the build-up to a GAA final.

We're a large group, a mixture of Irish, English and Germans (apparently many French people come on the tour).

After the film, we're brought straight into a giant, chilly, concrete tunnel. This is the service tunnel and it goes around the whole stadium, running partly alongside one of the railway lines that run either side of Croke Park. Empty now, except for some pieces of equipment and two giant hurleys on the wall, apparently it's a hive of activity during match days – full of stewards, gardai and players' buses all jostling for space.

From the vast tunnel we enter another world – a bar with recessed lighting, leather banquettes and large mirrors. This is the players' lounge where both teams come after the match.

The centrepiece here is a huge blue-baubled chandelier, made of Waterford crystal. The 32 large balls represent the 32 counties of Ireland, while the 70 smaller ones, represent the 70 minutes in a hurling match.

A really nice touch is that the colour of the lights change to reflect the colours of the winning team. The chandelier doesn't do black so hard luck to Sligo, whose county colours are black and white.

Then it's straight into the players' dressing rooms (there are six in Croke Park) with its green linoleum floor and grey tiles. Jerseys from all the counties of Ireland are hung around the walls and there's a special sink where the players can wash their boots.

Dressing rooms 1 and 2 are for the senior players and dressing room No 2 is known as the lucky one. Dressing rooms are allocated to the teams alphabetically but in a nice twist, according to their names in Irish, thus Waterford doesn't come under W but comes under P, as it's Port Lairge in Irish.

The warm-up room with its Astro Turf floor and netting to protect the lights is next and this is where the players prepare to go on to the hallowed grass. Each team has its own way of doing this. Apparently, Meath meditate, whereas Tyrone bring in punchbags and cover them with their opponents' jerseys.

Ailbhe flicks a switch and a soundclip plays – it's the noise of a packed Croke Park on a final day. This is goosebumps-up-the-spine stuff. We go down the players' tunnel and are greeted by an empty stadium bathed in sun with only the hum of lawnmowers breaking the silence.

Ailbhe talks about the various stands in the stadium. Cusack Stand, is named after Michael Cusack, founder of the GAA (there's an impressive statue of him outside the museum). Davin Stand, is named after Maurice Davin, the first president of the GAA. He wrote down the rules of the games; until he did that, each county had its own rules.

And of course, the Dubs' favourite, Hill 16 (proper name Dineen Hill 16), supposedly built from the rubble of the 1916 Rising.

At the back of the Hogan Stand, there's a plaque commemorating Bloody Sunday in 1920 when British security forces opened fire during a match between Tipperary and Dublin. One of the people killed was Michael Hogan, a player on the Tipperary team.

High up on Level Six are the VIP boxes (there are 87 in all) and it costs half a million euro to rent one for 10 years. No problem for the likes of Coca Cola, AIB or Vodafone.

The infamous Croke Park Agreement was signed in one of these boxes.

After the tour, we hit the museum. One million euro has been spent on it and it shows.

The original Sam Maguire cup is on display here. It's modelled on the Ardagh Chalice and named after Cork man, Sam Maguire, who was instrumental in the GAA scene in London at the turn of the 20th century.

An excellent display shows how much of a global phenomenon the GAA is – there are 2,718 clubs throughout the world, including Asia, South and North America and the Middle East and 367 clubs in Ireland (check out the fascinating club wall outside the museum).


Upstairs, you really get a sense of how the GAA works on a local level, with much of the memorabilia on display here highly personal and either donated or lent – boots worn in various matches, programmes, signed footballs and my favourite – a watch with Man of the Match engraved on the back.

The interactive area takes things to another level. Here you can try to do a fingertip save, a high catch or test your reaction levels and skills at passing. It's great fun and an excellent way to let off some steam. There's also a hurling and football lane where you can test your skills.

On the ground floor, it's all about the history of the games with sections devoted to the history of the GAA, the birth of camogie (how did women play in those long skirts and high-neck blouses?), hurley making through the years, the Tailteann Games (the Irish Olympics) and the Hall of Fame, where you can select a player on a touch screen and see footage of them.

There's no doubt about it, Croke Park is an impressive and slick operation, all the more so when you think that these are amateur sports with none of the players receiving a salary.

Remember though, unless you're playing for your county, you're unlikely ever to stand on the grass.

An adult ticket for the stadium tour and museum costs €12