Monday, March 19, 2007

This may be the first and the last time that a rugby game will be featured on this website. I know that in some countries rugby is a religion but that's not what this is about. As BBC News reported, 'When the English squad's preparation includes a history lesson, you know that this is no ordinary rugby international.'

Croke Park in Dublin is the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association which has often been defined less by the sports played there than by its hatred of the British. Before 1971 players of Gaelic football and hurling could be suspended from their organizations not only for playing foreign games like soccer or rugby but also for attending a dance organized by a soccer or rugby club. When the ban was lifted little thought was given to the fact that one day England would play there and its national anthem would be sung.

But Croke Park is much more than a sporting facility. It is also the site of the first Irish 'Bloody Sunday' where British auxiliary police, the 'black and tans' as they were known from their uniforms, fired on the crowd in 1920 killing 12 people with two others trampled to death, in retaliation for the murder that morning of 12 British agents in their beds. One who was shot was Michael Hogan, a Gaelic footballer after whom its main stand is named. Croke Park is a nationalist shrine.

Last month rugby was played for the first time at Croke Park and one match was Ireland (including Northern Ireland) against England. This was because Lansdowne Road Dublin's traditional rugby ground was being rebuilt. 'Every patriotic Irishman should feel ashamed if God save the Queen is sung at the beginning of the match,' said one Irishman, son of one of the most successful Gaelic footballers of earlier times. But, to the surprise, and predictions, of many, the spirit was quite otherwise.

'The Times' of London had a headline the next day, 'The day hatred went missing.' The national anthems of both countries were sung and there were no incidents. Simon Barnes, the paper's chief sports writer wrote that although a million anticipatory words were written about it on both sides of the water, 'it was an occasion that had all the furniture of hate, but hatred itself went missing'. The singing of the British national anthem was 'preceded by a silence that was almost reverent – not in respect of the sentiments of that terse and tuneless ditty but because freeing oneself from the shackles of history is worth a moment's savouring.' Afterwards there was not a whistle or a catcall or a boo… 'Then, extraordinarily, a round of applause that the end of an era was being celebrated.'

The English team played its part convincingly (if involuntarily) by being soundly beaten by a superb Irish team 'and the Irish went away with rather more than victory over England; they also had victory over the past and a celebration of Ireland as a prosperous, effective, forward-looking nation. Freed from Britain, now freed from history'.

John Inverdale wrote in the 'Daily Telegraph', 'It was one of the most joyous sporting occasions it has ever been my privilege to attend, and when all the revellers woke on Sunday morning (or probably afternoon) it was time to put the hangover of history to bed and embrace the future.'

The Irish 'Sunday Independent' called the match 'a milestone in the growth of a nation'.

Holding an Irish passport and with a mother who grew up in Dublin, I rejoice as an Englishman at this dramatic confirmation of the changes that are rapidly overtaking old attitudes.