BY KEVIN NOLAN

Irish myth and folklore has it that thousands of years ago, Gaelic hero Setanta was running late to a feast in honour of King Conchobhar. Assuming that the King was the last to arrive, host Culann locked the doors and released his guard dog, a fearsome and savage beast.

Not too long after the meal had begun Setanta arrived playing with his Hurley and Sliotar. On seeing the young man, Culann’s beast attacked. Within, the guests heard the cries of the beast coming from outside. It was only then that King Conchobhar remembered that he never told his host that Setanta was to follow after him to the feast.

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Outside, however, reacting quickly to the danger, Setanta rose his Hurley and drove the Sliotar down the throat of the advancing hound, killing it instantly. Venturing outside the guests expected to see the mangled remains of the young Setanta, yet the sight that greeted them was of a young boy standing above the slain hound.

Saddened by his beast’s death but mesmerised by Setanta’s skill, Culann praised the boy’s quick thinking that helped him survive. However, Culann was now left with no hound to protect his lands. Immediately stepping forward, Setanta told Culann that he would guard his estate until a new hound could be raised to maturity.

Satisfied with this new arrangement, Culann bestowed a new name upon Setanta, Cú Chulainn (The Hound of Culan).

The thing with myth and folklore is that it’s all make believe, but parts of it do have basis in reality. The Hurley and the Sliotar combine to form the ancient Irish sport of Hurling, a game as old as Ireland’s green fields and one that still thrives to this very day.

Hurling along with Gaelic Football are unique Irish sports that are deeply embedded in the Irish psyche. They are forever intrinsically linked with rebellion and Ireland’s fight for freedom. As such they are games that have always been at war with football/soccer, the sport of the Auld Enemy – Britain.

Even today you would not have to travel far around the country to find someone refer to soccer as a foreign game. The hatred was embedded deep, which makes the events of April 16th 2005 all the more historic.

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On that day the Gaelic Athletic Association (Overseers of Hurling and Gaelic Football, equivalent of the FA) voted to open up Croke Park for use by the Irish International rugby and soccer teams. The reason behind the vote being that the traditional home of Irish soccer – Lansdowne Road – was set to undergo renovation and no other stadium in Ireland was suitable to fulfil international fixtures.

As the hour of the vote drew near, tensions reached fever pitch. A ‘no’ vote by the GAA congress would mean that the Irish national team would have to play there matches in Britain for the foreseeable future, a scarcely believable thought.

In the end, the motion (Rule 42) passed with 227 votes for to 97 against. A landmark day in the history of Irish sport, a day that would change sport in the country forever more. As one national paper had put it, the GAA had put the national interests ahead of any personal preferences.

For any non-Irish person reading this it may be near incomprehensible to understand why the opening up of a stadium to other sports should be so much of a big deal. It is common sense, you might say, but by saying this you are failing to understand the complex history of the GAA and its links to Irish nationalism.

Founded back in 1884 in the Hayes Hotel in Thurles, County Tipperary, the GAA has always been closely linked with Irish revolutionary movements, with the opposite being true as well. In 1902, a rule was cemented in the association’s annals that showcased its nationalistic leanings.

Rule 27, as it became known, read “Any member of the association who plays or encourages in anyway Rugby, Football, Hockey or any imported game which is calculated or injuriously affect our national pastimes, is suspended from the association.”

Amazingly, this ban remained in place up until 1971 when it was eventually repealed. Not, however, before claiming some high profile victims, none more so than the first President of Ireland Douglas Hyde, who was banned after attending an international soccer match as a guest of the FAI.

Another who fell victim was Waterford hurler Tom Cheasty, who was banned for six months for attending a dance that had been organised by a local soccer club. To the GAA the purpose of the ban was to assert the dominance of Irish sports throughout the land and lessen the influence of so called English games.

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As mentioned before, the ban was lifted in 1971 after relentless campaigning, by none more so than Tom Woulfe, who first called for it to be lifted in the 1950s. Woulfe himself only passed away in early May 2015 at the age of 99.

It may be somewhat repetitive to harp back to the links between the GAA and Irish nationalism, but it is only through these links can we show how much of a momentous decision it was by the GAA to open their stadium up to soccer.

The stadium in question, Croke Park, itself is tied deeply to the narrative. The terrace end of Hill 16 is known as this because the stand was originally built from the rubble unearthed during the 1916 Easter Rising. A defining moment in Ireland’s quest for Independence.

It was from the steps of the G.P.O (General Post Office) that Easter morning that the Proclamation of Irish Independence was read aloud for the first time. Over the next number of days the surrounding streets of Dublin would be turned to rubble before the rebellion was put down.

At the time of the event the rising had little public support, but Britain’s actions soon afterwards quickly saw that shift. The executions of the seven signatories to the proclamation being the chief reason.

Soon after, the rising became known as the Sinn Féin Rebellion. This lead to a massive surge in support for the party across the south of Ireland. The results of the Easter Rising would change the history of Ireland forever, ushering in nearly 100 years of partition between north and south.

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However, the most momentous events in the history of this great stadium occurred on the 21st of November 1920, a day that would be forever known as Bloody Sunday. The night before the terrible events of that Sunday morning, Michael Collins – a leading figure in the Irish revolution – sent his crack assassins “The Squad” to eliminate the Cairo Gang, a group of British agents working in Ireland. The events of that night would leave 14 members of the British forces dead.

Knowing that the British forces were mobilising and that reprisals were more than likely, officials decided to go ahead with the Gaelic football match scheduled for 2:45pm (throw in did not occur till 3:15pm) that Sunday in Croke Park between Tipperary and Dublin.

The events of the night before and news of what Collins’ men had carried out was no secret and as such, the atmosphere around the ground was tense. Eyewitness accounts of the day suggest that within five minutes of the match starting, British soldiers stormed the stadium at what is known as the Canal End.

Gunfire quickly erupted as fans surged to get away from the soldiers wanting blood to avenge their comrades from the night before. In the end 14 people would die that day in Croke Park. One was Michael Hogan, a player on the Tipperary team; the Hogan stand is still named in his honour. Another who was shot was Thomas Ryan who had kneeled beside Hogan to pray with him in his final moments.

Others who suffered a terrible fate were Jane Boyle, due to get married in five days, and 14-year-old William Scott who was found badly mutilated.

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87 years later some 72,000 people would turn up to watch the first soccer match in Croke Park, as the Irish team went up against neighbours Wales. Ireland won 1-0 on the day thanks to a Stephen Ireland goal. In total, 13 matches would be played at the stadium over a two year period before the redeveloped Lansdowne Road, now the Aviva stadium, was re-opened.

13 matches in two years may seem pretty minimal, but it was the significance of each one of those matches that rang home with the Irish public. It may not be football, but the playing of God Save the Queen during a six nations Rugby match was a watershed moment in Irish history.

For many outside Ireland, Rule 42 holds no significance whatsoever, but for the land of Saints and Scholars it has ushered in a new age of sport in the country.

Thousands of years after Cú Chulainn and the hound, soccer is no longer a foreign game and we’ve got the GAA, the most Irish of institutions, to thank for that.

YOU CAN FOLLOW KEVIN ON TWITTER @KevinNolan11

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