Northern Ireland

Why all the fuss about the Queen's visit to 'Croker'?

Croke Park
Image caption Croke Park: fourth biggest stadium in Europe

The Irish workers who built the modern Croke Park stadium in Dublin could never have imagined that one of the 82,000 seats would one day be filled by the British Queen.

Known affectionately as 'Croker', the huge arena is the home of Irish sport, and was also the scene of one of the darkest episodes in British-Irish history.

Back in November 1920, on a Sunday afternoon, 14 people were shot dead by British security forces at a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary.

It became known in Ireland as the original Bloody Sunday.

Among the dead was the Tipperary player Michael Hogan. A stand at the stadium was later named after him.

The killings came during Ireland's War of Independence. Before the match, a number of British intelligence officers had been killed by the IRA.

Anyone who has read Irish history books, or seen the movie 'Michael Collins' starring Liam Neeson, will know what a brutal period this was.

Unique design

Croke Park is the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), and is located in inner city north Dublin.

It has a unique design. Three sides of the ground are covered by a multi-tiered stand and the fourth side left open.

Known as Hill 16, the open terrace was built in 1917 using the rubble from O'Connell Street in Dublin, which had been destroyed in the 1916 Easter Rising.

It is the fourth largest stadium in Europe after Barcelona's Nou Camp, Wembley in London, and the San Siro in Milan.

For sports fans, it is a must-see on a visit to Dublin.

However, the Queen's visit will be about symbolism as well as tourism.

Her presence at the stadium will show that in spite of the troubled history between the UK and Ireland, they now have a mature, neighbourly relationship.

Negotiations about a possible visit were initiated by former Irish President Mary Robinson and developed by the current President Mary McAleese.

For the GAA, the invitation to the Queen shows how attitudes have changed within the organisation as a result of the peace process.

History lesson

Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the GAA have lifted their ban on football and rugby being played at Croke Park.

This culminated in an emotional Ireland-England rugby match at the stadium in 2007. The England squad's preparation for the game included a history lesson.

The rendition of God Save the Queen before the game in the iconic home of gaelic games was respectfully observed on all sides of the ground. It was quite a moment.

Until recently, the GAA banned members of the police in Northern Ireland playing gaelic sports. That has all now changed.

A striking picture of this new era came earlier this week when members of the GAA in County Tyrone carried the coffin of murdered policeman Ronan Kerr.

A remarkable win

It is not clear what exactly the Queen will do at Croke Park, but it is likely that she will be given a tour of the facilities, and then watch a demonstration game of gaelic football and hurling by schoolchildren.

It has been a good few weeks for Irish sport. Not only did Ireland thrash England at rugby, but the Irish cricket team pulled off a remarkable win against England at cricket.

Given the new neighbourly relationship, it is probably best that this isn't mentioned. It is not so much a case of don't mention the war, as don't mention the cricket.

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