Wednesday 13 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: 'Croker belongs to the Irish people -- we're off our knees'

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

IN the week before England's rugby team came to play at Croke Park four years ago, Oliver Hughes said their visit would make him proud.

Out of the great, rattling din of opinion, his voice followed a beautifully simple moral compass. Oliver's brother, Francis, died in 1981 after 59 days on hunger strike at the Maze prison and the Troubles had taken a good number of his Bellaghy friends and neighbours too.

He was vice-chairman of the GAA club now, a committed republican and, frankly, the kind of man you could easily imagine bitterness would have in a clinch.

As Francis's life ebbed away, it was Oliver who had to refuse the authorities permission to force-feed his brother. Though it broke his heart, he knew that to do otherwise would have been betrayal.

Now, over a quarter of a century later, England would be coming to Croker and 'God Save the Queen' was going to be sung.

What was Oliver feeling?

He admitted that, to begin with he'd been dead set against the idea. But then, as he watched the growing commotion over the GAA's remarkable home, as he witnessed the international media's palpable awe at this story of an amateur organisation (his organisation) that built a world-class stadium, his attitude changed.

"God, I feel good about it," he admitted. "It's like you have a grand home, you want to invite people around. This is the fourth-biggest stadium in Europe and it is one of the finest. Not bad for an amateur organisation. Some GAA people will find it hard, but not me.

"Croke Park belongs to the Irish people. We're now off our knees, a risen people who don't need to look over our shoulders any more."

So Hughes found himself oddly sanguine about the whole thing. He even said that he hoped respect would be shown for the British anthem.

"It is customary to play the anthems of the competing teams," he said. "So that's what should happen."

On the day itself, images of people protesting at the opening of Croker to 'foreign games' would be broadcast worldwide, some of them young men wearing Celtic jerseys.

And you couldn't help but wonder if any of those with the placards and loud voices had even a fraction of Hughes's understanding of what the day really signified.

There has been a tendency to frame everything about yesterday's visit of Queen Elizabeth in the context of Bloody Sunday.

Croke Park became martyred ground when British forces fired indiscriminately at players and spectators during a football game between Tipperary and Dublin on November 21, 1920.

But from the outset, the very raison d'etre of the association was an expression of separation from British rule. Within three years of its creation, the GAA was almost totally controlled by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a reality that brought it into spectacular conflict with the Catholic Church.

It was, as such, almost left stillborn by its own politics.

The association survived, but always as an unequivocal force for nationalism. At the time, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom and Dublin Castle fretted over what it termed the "dangerous political character" of the association.

Five of the 15 men executed after the 1916 Rising had a GAA connection and two years before that event, the association's president -- James Nowlan -- had urged members to join the Irish Volunteers and "learn to shoot straight".

Is it not also sobering to think of far more recent history and how the infamous ban, precluding GAA members from even attending 'foreign games' -- and which was policed by Stasi-like "vigilance committees" -- only slipped formally from the rule book in 1971

Essentially, the GAA was -- and remains today -- an expression of difference.

In the North, the need to sustain that difference caught fresh urgency through the Troubles as GAA clubs gave the nationalist community a place to gather and a vehicle through which to express their identity.

This made members 'legitimate targets' in the eyes of loyalist paramilitary groups. Lives were lost and clubhouses burnt down.

The risks that GAA members took in the North simply to remain a part of the association were unimaginable to members in the South and -- worse -- often largely unrecognised. Instead, they often found themselves being lectured to and sometimes even demonised by southern commentators for "living in the past".

MANY GAA clubs, grounds and tournaments are named after hunger strikers today.

In his time, Oliver Hughes walked behind too many hearses bearing men like Sean Browne, the Bellaghy chairman, who was shot dead as he locked up the club grounds in 1997.

But four years ago, he came to the conclusion that opening Croke Park to the world would stand as a gesture of self-confidence, not historical amnesia.

Not everybody invited to the stadium yesterday took up the invitation and that was fair enough. As Christy Cooney averred in his speech, there has been a lot of sadness and hurt in the GAA's story.

But pointedly, the GAA president spoke too of that moment last month when, along with Tyrone's Mickey Harte and Brian Dooher beside him, he carried the coffin of murdered PSNI officer Ronan Kerr.

Cooney told the queen yesterday that her presence honoured GAA people. And it did -- even those who chose to look the other way.

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