Finding the right pitch

For visitors to Ireland, the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) is an intriguing phenomenon. The tourist brought to a Sunday morning game of hurling or gaelic football at a small club’s grounds or in a public park sees passion and pride among those playing for parish, town or village. Woven into the spectacle of these most skilful of outdoor sports are the numerous coaches, linesmen, umpires and referees, sometimes nonchalant looking, but rarely less passionate. Those brought to the association’s premium stadia for a national competition on a summer Sunday will see athleticism, competitiveness and professionalism. Yet both strands operate under the egalitarian banner of amateur sport.

The stadium tour of Croke Park, the GAA’s main stadium, captures these two contrasting strands superbly. It is the third largest stadium in Europe. It has the largest bar in Ireland. The 82,300-seater hosts high profile concerts, conferences and a range of corporate events (also State exams) to bolster the coffers of the 131-year old organisation. Yet its staple diet remains the top flight hurling and gaelic football games played during the summer by young men who, when not excelling on the field, are studying or working like many others.

During this hour and a half stadium tour, participants are given a detailed insight into the stadium’s ways and means. It begins with a powerful 12 minute video of its activities on a big match day. The tour guide then brings visitors around the stadium, showing them the main dressing rooms, the pitch entrance for players, the media centre, the bar where players relax after games, and the view from one of the 93 corporate boxes. The GAA’s history is wonderfully woven into details of the stadium’s development and modern features. On a summer’s day, you’re likely to get the view of ‘Croker’s’ grounds men working on the pristine pitch beneath a skyline of its three-tier horseshoe structure, a railway line tucked beneath one goal end and a canal beneath the other, the city centre in the distance. Always check (online) the availability of tours on match days, which are at weekends.

Also included in the ticket is a visit to the Croke Park museum. Here you’ll get more details on the evolution of the sports (including its lesser known non-pitch ones) and the organisation, presented audio-visually and with many exhibits. A sense of the cultural nationalism underpinning the association is evident.

For some members of this unique organisation, the twin track approach of amateur games and corporate outlook is a leap too far from the GAA’s roots. For others, it represents modernising and sourcing revenue to support its players and bring the game to a global audience. Regardless of a member’s viewpoint, or whether his or her own county gets there for an All-Ireland final in September, all take pride in Croke Park. The tour of the stadium should too.

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