'It's the children's excitement that makes it. They love it'
A visit to Croke Park's hallowed turf brings back memories of a childhood outing for Dermot Crowe
MANY moons ago I visited Croke Park for the first time on a national school tour. In our eyes the ground looked majestic and enormous, if lacking the grandeur which awaits the young visitor in 2015. We were kindly met by a GAA official from our school parish, Seán ó Laoire, who fielded testing questions about capacity and such like with patience and civility.
We were allowed to run on to the field and someone had, if memory serves, a plastic ball so you could take a punt at the goals and marvel at the experience of setting foot in this magical place where the stars of Gaelic football and hurling paraded their gifts. As someone from Clare it was all the more exotic and not someplace you expected to return to anytime soon.
There were others like us who came from all parishes and schools across the country, no doubt on similar excursions. You didn't make a day out of Croke Park then, nor half a day. There was no museum, no corporate facilities, no panoramic views from the skyline. Everyone had some connection to this place though and for us it was emphasised by ó Laoire, then on the Croke Park staff, that Michael Cusack, a son of Clare, had been a colossal figure in the creation of the GAA. Without him there would have been no Croke Park, this richly evocative field of dreams and folklore.
A friend of mine would in later years recall a similar visit to the hallowed ground. This was something of an alien experience for him as he never took to the GAA in spite of his father being a prominent club man. Instead he gravitated towards photography. At the time such an interest, as a substitute for Gaelic games, would have a father like his deeply concerned. Pleas to 'go up to the field and play a bit of hurling' mostly fell on deaf ears.
In adulthood my friend brought me to his house one Sunday - and there was the old man sitting in a trance on his chair watching an Ulster football championship match on the telly between Donegal and Tyrone.
At some point I asked the mother had her son played Gaelic games, already knowing the answer, which led to an unconvincing claim that he had. 'Sure didn't he score a goal once in Croke Park!' she announced, reprising the school tour. At which point her husband suddenly revealed, derisively, that he had 'kicked it into an empty net.'
On Tuesday last I returned to Croke Park, with a group of under-8s from the St Maur's club in north county Dublin who took part in a couple of hugely enjoyable 10-minute games with Raheny. Part of a Go Games initiative started by the Leinster Council seven years ago this promotional exercise gives thousands of others across the province the same opportunity each year. They get to play on the sacred ground, they get to pass through the dressing rooms and, at the end of it all, they climb the famous steps and lift a cup.
Each province has two full days in the summer to allow children the chance to play in Croke Park. To some extent it is a reward for juvenile volunteers, but primarily the purpose is to give the kids a chance to sample the wonder of the place. The Leinster Council has chosen under-8 as an ideal age bracket to achieve the goal of maximising circulation. At least 120 kids are involved in games each hour, with six matches running simultaneously, starting at 9.0am and finishing at 5.0pm. That's 194 teams, 126 clubs. Camogie and ladies football also have a day to themselves.
Clubs are chosen on a rotational basis by county boards so that every club eventually has a team playing there. In the past week the children of former players like Michael Kavanagh, Trevor Giles, Adrian Fenlon and Johnny Pilkington took part. But the great majority of parents don't have that level of acquaintance with Jones Road. Some may be there for the first time. That does not mean it will be the last time.
The former GAA president, Liam O'Neill remembers a phone call around 12 years back from a development officer on Leinster Council, the former Laois hurler Noel Delaney. "Noel phoned me one day, and he said, 'do you get on well with Peter McKenna (Croke Park stadium director)? I would love to take kids to Croke Park on days when it does no harm to the pitch'. McKenna hasn't always had the reputation of being in touch with grassroots, but he got it, the minute I put it to him.
"I have only one godchild, a camogie player, she was one of the first kids to go in there. So I got a first-hand feeling of what it's like to have a family member play in Croke Park. And just the excitement it generated in that family and that club.
"We get blamed for corporate use of the stadium, but here was a guy (McKenna) who got the idea when it was put to him - Peter's answer was, 'yes, of course, we will make it happen'. We have a couple of things that work for us in the GAA almost in spite of ourselves. I don't think any other sport has such a connection with a stadium like we have.
"A percentage, I know it's small, are certain to go back and play there as minors or as seniors or with clubs. That is a huge big deal. The trip to Croke Park is up there with Santa Claus and the tooth fairy in terms of what it means. A child brings a father, a mother, a brother, grandparents get dragged along. If you add up the reach of those days it is absolutely enormous."
The current President, Aogán Ó Fearghail, says Croke Park is the most used sports stadium in Europe. "We have taken a policy decision that we would give it to youth development. This is in addition to hosting the Dublin Cumann na mBunscol finals. It is the children's excitement that makes it, they just absolutely love being in that place.
"I get a lot of correspondence, and a lot of that is because people want to complain, but the one thing that is positive is the correspondence I get after these children's days. That is very heartening. The big thing is that they feel valued and that they have an Association that does value them."
The praise is well-merited. This is the GAA doing what it does best.
Sunday Indo Sport