The phenomenon of Gaelic sports seems to evoke two streams of thought in those visiting Ireland from abroad. On one hand, the clash and swoop of hurls, the pounding of the football, and the colour injected into the city streets by county flags present the romantic, exhilarating, and near-mythological appeal of the games to the world’s hibernophiles. Likewise, there are those who are witnessing “weird hockey” for the first time, and aren’t immediately aware of what the big fuss is about.
The folks behind the scenes at Croke Park are, thankfully, aware of these two streams of thought, and have crafted a stadium tour that delights those who are new to one of Ireland’s sacrosanct cultural hallmarks, while lifting the smiles of Irishmen and Irishwomen proud of their heritage.
Entering through the gift shop, the tour starts with a short introductory film that captures all the glamour, grit, and quirk that gives the Gaelic Games their own fascinating culture. The garda briefing on crowd control, the arrival of the players, the billowing flags, the fans piling into the stands, and the Kerry lilt of Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh’s commentary from the booth all couches the tension and exhilaration of “the world’s fastest game” in an outer ambience that combines conviviality, whimsy, and dead-serious passion.
The tour then visits the changing rooms. Unlike in other arenas where home and away sides differ, they are both equal in size and facilities to symbolise how the sport is shared in Ireland and how no one team “owns” the park – a fact the tour guides love to spread.
The pitches are the obvious highlight of the visit. The views are surreal and sensory in any weather conditions. Though the 80,000-seater stadium is all but empty during your visit, even watching the white lines being marked on the pitch foretells of the excitement that is set to occur soon on the grass.
Most important in introducing Gaelic Games to the non-Irish is ensuring an all-rounder experience. Naturally, first-timers will want to get a hands-on, and the tour certainly has this covered. Visitors have the chance to not only pick up a hurl or football and do some target practice, but try out a few fun games that test one’s agility, dexterity and skill to match that of those who play “the world’s fastest sports”.
The tour guides are passionate followers, and often players, of GAA sports, and do a great job of awakening a fascination, even if only fleeting, in the uninitiated. Their county and club allegiances and favourite match moments also dot their engaging and humorous patter. You may even get a tour guide who will tell you they are a proud “Sam Baby” – a term denoting someone who was at one stage placed in the Sam Maguire cup back when they were young enough to fit inside – when standing next to the impressive trophy cabinets. The museum where these trophies are found is a great repository of all things that testify to the rich, almost genealogical history of the games. Facts and tidbits particular to specific matches and parts of the country add to the interest.
If anything, the tour finds itself winding around the stadium quite a bit – keep an eye on your guide and your group, or you might get lost somewhere between the seats and the stairs of Europe’s largest amateur stadium. Walkways for tour groups aren’t marked, and it’s not easy to make one’s own way back down to the stadium entrance alone where the tour reconvenes.
Students can catch the full stadium tour for €9.50, while the museum by itself is accessible for €5. For €18, students can try out the Etihad Skyline tour, which is a trip 44 metres up to the stadium roof from which stellar views of Dublin City – as well as the field below – can be taken in.
In comparison to other stadium tours, Croke Park has a lot to go on. Sure: Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, and Bernabeu all capitalise on the unwavering spirit of their fans and the culture of their brands, but Croke Park encapsulates the passion of an entire country and a pillar of our culture. This richness is embraced by Croke Park to create a fun tour that, while not entirely polished in a logistical sense, allows visitors to experience the “whole” of Ireland through one small facet.