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French invasion of Croker mirrors our historical past

'O the French are on the sea Says the Sean Bhean Bhocht, O the French are on the sea Says the Sean Bhean Bhocht, They'll be here without delay And the Orange will decay Says the Sean Bhean Bhocht' THAT perennial commentator on Irish affairs throughout the last few centuries Sean Bhean Bhocht obviously had a hearty welcome for the French when they came over to give us a hand out with the 1798 rebellion in places like Castlebar, Wexford and Ballinamuck in Co Longford in all of which places there are monuments commemorating the visiting army.

I mention this by way of introduction to the arrival of the latest French army which will descend on that fountain of Irish nationalism, Croke Park, tomorrow.

It may also alleviate the concerns of that hardy rump of GAA activists who still object to the French or anybody else other than 'fíor Gaels' treading on the soil at Jones Road.

Lads, we were damn glad to have General Humbert and the French boys in 1798 when we were stuck so what's wrong with welcoming them back now for a few hours to the sacred sod of Croke Park?

Any of you GAA people in Croke Park on Sunday need not be in any way embarrassed about the French National Anthem either, not like that wishy-washy 'Ireland's Call'. 'La Marseillaise' outdoes even Amhrán na bhFiann with its recall of bloody battles and calls for French citizens to take up arms. It was written in 1792 and was used as the marching song of the French soldiers who came to Ireland in 1798. Sure these French lads are like a bunch of our own!

Which is all just as well because the playing of a rugby international in Croke Park tomorrow will still be a huge culture shock for many people and not just in the GAA. I have no doubt many rugby die-hards will make their way to Jones Road in Dublin 3 with a heavy heart. "How have we come to this," they will say.

"That we have to borrow the use of somebody else's stadium to play an international. And borrow from the Gah crowd to make matters worse."

But sport has a wonderful facility for binding up old wounds and focusing minds on what really matters in life such as the winning of football games in whatever code. Once the formalities have been got out of the way tomorrow and the kickoff takes place sport will take over and all the arguments, fighting, and bitching about making Croke Park available for rugby and soccer will effectively be rendered redundant. Over 80,000 people, the largest crowd ever to watch a rugby game in Ireland, made up of Catholics, Protestants and Dissenters in true Wolfe Tone style will be able to watch their heroes in comfort and safety no matter what part of the stadium they are in.

And all over the world millions via television will admire one of the great sports grounds in the world.

For those Irish people living in various parts of the planet there is bound to be a special sense of pride that this magnificent stadium is in Ireland and they can start explaining to their foreign neighbours how it was built by the amateur sports body, the GAA, who are helping out the professionals of rugby and soccer while they attempt to build a stadium of their own.

A strange concept to outsiders but perfectly understandable to we natives who understand the intricacies of Irish sporting history.

There could be between 30,000 and 50,000 people in Croke Park tomorrow for the first time which will come as a shock to some GAA people who believe that everybody in Ireland is mad about football and hurling. Not so, and hundreds of thousands of Irish people have never been at a GAA match or in a GAA ground in their lives.

Historical connotations, pride and prejudice and even specific exclusion laws all combined to polarise the three big sporting bodies, GAA, IRFU and FAI, and the sports they promote for 100 years or more.

It was the powerful influence of the games themselves that brought about a thaw in relations which has now mellowed to the level of mutual respect and even admiration.

Rugby became a less elitist game and spread throughout rural Ireland culminating in the powerful impact of many heroic Heineken Cup performances. Soccer was transformed into a national passion in the Jack Charlton years and the 1970s in Gaelic football and the 1990s in hurling brought a whole army of new followers from other sports to these games.

The result of all this cross-fertilisation of the four big team sports has been amazing as huge numbers of people now attend big games in the four separate codes which is very much at variance with 30 or 40 years ago. And all the sports have gained as a result.

This transformation will be given living expression tomorrow when thousands of GAA and soccer followers, along with the majority rugby contingent, will cheer on Ireland in Croke Park in a marvellous expression of sporting ecumenism laced with the adrenalin of sporting nationalism.

'Without Sean Kelly's personal courage and political astuteness Croke Park would be lying idle tomorrow

I hope recent GAA President Seán Kelly will be there. Without his personal courage and political astuteness Croke Park would be lying idle tomorrow while thousands of Irish fans would be heading for Cardiff or somewhere else in the UK.

Kelly has been disgracefully bad-mouthed by some leading GAA officers in the past 12 months in a manner that is a sad reflection on the GAA but tomorrow's great occasion is testimony to the Kerryman's position as one of the greatest leaders of the GAA.

The same applies to Liam Mulvihill whose role in the whole Croke Park development, culminating tomorrow and in subsequent international exposure, has been the most important of all the GAA involvement but because it was carried out in his usual reserved manner, which never seemed as obvious as the work of others.

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