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Forget about your big rugby and soccer internationals. If you really want to see sport at its rawest and most intense, you can’t beat an under 5’s hurling match.

The ball gets hit out, and immediately 20 pairs of legs are chasing it around like a swarm of bees attacking a mischevious teddy bear. There’s always one though, idling in the centre of the pitch, completely oblivious to the game, imagining that he is a dinosaur: arms outstretched, a big T Rex lollop as he strides through his jungle. Another group in the corner are pretending they are pop stars, holding their hurleys in a way that would have made Rory Gallagher proud. It’s a goal, and suddenly a budding David Beckham travels the entire length of the pitch, completing his victory run with an authentic knee slide on the timber surface.

The game continues. Rarely does the ball come to rest, as it is harried by a score of hurleys, hitting at it from all directions. It’s a kind of social Brownian Motion, as the red team hit the ball towards the blue team and the blue team counter by scoring a masterfully planned own goal. One player rushes over to me with an important message: “Can I have an ice cream afterwards?”.

It’s getting ugly out there. A kid is knocked down, not by one opponent, but by ten of them simultaneously. Now the ball is stuck in a corner of the hall. Light itself is finding it difficult to escape from the huddle. I pity the coaches as they attempt to disentangle players from the melée.

It’s all over and my boys line up against the wall. Inexplicably, they are unbloodied and unbruised. They have only one thing on their minds: the ice creams they believed I had promised them earlier.

Make no mistake, Ireland’s future hurlers are a formidable lot.

Croke Park

Some of you may know that Ireland has two unique field games – hurling and gaelic football. Both games have massive followings and they draw a fanatical attendance from all over the country during the summertime each year. The two games are by far the biggest sports in Ireland. The games are strictly amateur, and much of the attendance money gained has gone into developing the games and the sporting infrastructure around the island. The greatest achievement from decades of investment is a huge stadium in Dublin called Croke Park. It’s truly enormous. It’s the fourth largest stadium in Europe and it has a capacity of over 80,000.

For decades however, Croke Park has been strictly off-limits to the “foreign” games of rugby and soccer. No major international sporting event featuring these two games has ever happened there. The reason for this is wrapped up with the history of modern Ireland and the foundation of the Irish state.

The Gaelic Athletic Association, or GAA, is the ruling body for hurling and gaelic football. They have always been passionately devoted to promoting all things Irish (particularly Catholic Irish), and this view was hardened during the the War of Independence when in 1920, British Auxiliaries opened fire on a crowd of supporters during a match in Croke Park, killing 13 people. For a long time afterwards, no foreign games were permitted in any GAA ground in the country including, of course, Croke Park*. What’s more, members of the GAA were not even allowed to attend any games of rugby, cricket or soccer. Even though this particular restriction was repealed in the 1970’s, the ban on the use of Croke Park for “foreign games” persisted into the 21st century. Although there has always been a lingering sense of anti-Britishness within the GAA, the prevailing view among supporters of the ban was that the other sporting organisations (i.e. the FAI and the IRFU) had done nothing to deserve access to it – that they were riding on the GAA’s coat-tails, in effect.

All this changed in 2005, after a very passionate and drawn out public debate. The GAA finally agreed to open Croke Park temporarily while Landsdowne Road, the home of rugby and football on Dublin’s south-side, was being refurbished.

Tomorrow, Croke Park hosts its first ever international rugby game – Ireland versus France. It’s a sell-out (and some GAA supporters think it’s a sell-out in another way too), with an attendance that will be more than double that of any home rugby international ever played in the country.

A week or so from now, Ireland will play England in Croke Park. The Union Jack will be hoisted there, and God Save the Queen will ring out from within the stadium grounds.

It’s a bit of history alright.

* with the exception of American Football, Athletics and Australian Rules. Go figure.

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