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Hallowed ground: Queen Elizabeth II visits Croke Park on historic day for GAA

Royal party learn about the history and culture of the GAA during 50-minute visit to Headquarters.

Image: ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

AN IMPORTANT CHAPTER in the history of the GAA was written on Jones’ Road this afternoon as Queen Elizabeth II and the royal party were welcomed to Croke Park on the second day of their state visit to Ireland.

On the ground where 14 civilians were killed by British forces on Bloody Sunday in November 1920, the reigning British monarch enjoyed a 50-minute tour of the Association’s headquarters, a visit which for many years would have been unthinkable.

Accompanied by her husband the Duke of Edinburgh, President Mary McAleese and her husband Dr Martin McAleese, the Queen arrived at GAA headquarters at shortly after 3pm where she was greeted by Uachtarán Cumann Luthchleas Gael Christy Cooney as well the Director-General of the Association, Paraic Duffy.

Thirty-four children waving flags and dressed in county colours, representing each of Ireland’s 32 counties as well as the GAA communities in London and in New York, lined the Hogan Stand entrance to the stadium as the dignitaries’ motorcade arrived.

The royal party was then introduced to the Minster for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht – and former All-Ireland winning Kerry footballer – Jimmy Deenihan, and junior sports minister Michael Ring.

Before stepping out onto the hallowed Croke Park turf, Queen Elizabeth was given a tour of the Hogan Stand dressing rooms where she was also introduced to footballers Joe Sheridan (Meath) and Kevin Nolan (Dublin) as well as hurlers Padraic Maher and Lar Corbett (both Tipperary).

With the county colours of the Association’s respective members proudly hanging from the dressing rooms pegs, Her Majesty enjoyed a brief conversation with the four athletes, once again displaying the warmth which has already been remarked upon over the last two days.

With Cooney and President McAleese explaining the finer points of hurling and drawing comparisons with the sport of shinty, the Queen examined a hurl and sliotar before engaging Corbett in conversation, asking what age he had started playing the sport at.

“Some players wear a glove to protect their hand when they’re catching the ball,” explained President McAleese. “It’s better to catch it with your hand rather than your teeth – though it does bring Martin plenty of work,” she added, the reference to her husband’s dentistry bringing a smile to the Queen’s face.

The British monarch then proceeded through the Hogan Stand tunnel and onto the Croke Park sideline where she sat at pitchside and watched a short film explaining the history of the GAA, narrated by Lisa Clancy, the Association’s Director of Communications.

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Lest the significance of the occasion be lost on Her Majesty, the film proudly reminded her that “for over a century, gaelic games have remained the keenest expression of our Irishness,” explaining the importance of the local club to the sport’s development as well as the worldwide reach which the game now possesses.

“It was,” as legendary gaelic games commentator Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh remarked, “a sight I thought I would never see; the Queen of England sitting comfortably on the sideline at Croke Park.”

Another institution with strong ties to the GAA, the Artane Band, performed “Play Away”, composed by Wim Laseroms, before the royal party returned to the Hogan Stand’s mezzanine to meet the invited guests from throughout the GAA community.

Addressing the crowd, the Association’s President Christy Cooney remarked that “today above all, it is in a positive spirit that we welcome your Majesty and Your Royal Highness to Croke Park.

“Your presence does honour to our Association, to its special place in Irish life, and to its hundreds of thousands of members. Today will go down in the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association.”

Making reference to the “tragic events” which have historically defined the relationship between the two nations, Cooney highlighted the role of the GAA in fostering reconciliation on the island of Ireland, expressing his hope that this healing process would be further facilitated by the royal visit.

We also know that in our shared history there have been many tragic events which have inflicted hurt on us all.

While acknowledging the significance of the past and honouring all those that have lost their lives, including those that died in this place, the Gaelic Athletic Association has consistently supported and helped advance the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“In particular, we have encouraged the reconciliation and mutual understanding which have so successfully flowed from the Good Friday Agreement and its endorsement in referenda by the people of Ireland, North and South.

“Your Majesty’s State Visit, at the invitation of President McAleese, will result in a further important underpinning and advancement of this process, which I firmly believe is now irreversible.”

There was no official response from the Queen, who will make the only speech of her visit following dinner at Dublin Castle this evening.

Before the dignataries’ departure, Cooney made an official presentation on behalf of the GAA, giving Her Majesty a limited edition copy of The GAA – A People’s History, the book commissioned to celebrate the Association’s 125th Anniversary in 2009, while the Duke of Edinburgh was presented a hurley and a sliotar.

In pictures: The second day of the Queen’s historic visit >

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Niall Kelly

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