The pride in his eyes told the story in full. The eyes belonged to a man whom I had just met at fabled Croke Park in Dublin. Home to decades of Irish history, much of it of the sporting nature, but sadly not all. Here this man and I were randomly introduced at halftime of the All Ireland Gaelic Athletic Association Hurling Club Championships.
The pride in his eyes became a personal highlight reel. This all came about when I asked if he had ever competed at Croke Park. The accompanying smile and voice quickly told me the story of how he and his mates captured two All Ireland medals in years gone by. Two Gaelic Athletic Association championships that mean more to an Irish sportsman than I could ever have imagined. Triumphs that were years in the making and many more years in the retelling. He remarked to his adult daughter that these wins came before her time on earth. A reminder that his telling of the story wasn’t just for this Canadian stranger.
The pride in his eyes provided a tour through a unique sporting history. The Gaelic Athletic Association administers two sports – Gaelic Football and Hurling. The games are played and coached exclusively by amateurs, players even at the highest of levels are not compensated for their playing. Founded in 1884 by a group of Irishmen who realized the importance of making organized sports more accessible to the masses, the GAA brought a revival of traditional and indigenous sports to Ireland. Today there are over 2,200 clubs in 32 counties in Ireland. With the GAA being deep-rooted in Irish tradition and pride, it’s not unusual to witness a sold-out crowd of 82,300 at Croke Park for the All Ireland Finals.
The pride in his eyes grew during the course of the day. It was the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, a religious holiday in which Irish people come together and commemorate the death of the patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick. In Rugby, the Irish team had just trounced England at Twickenham to win the Grand Slam 24-15. Now that the professionals had made their country proud, the focus was squarely on the amateurs playing for national titles. The hurling featured a back and forth game between Cuala and Na Piarsaigh. With absolutely no time on the clock, the man’s side (Cuala) was down by three. But a foul from Colm Cronin, put Sean Moran on the line to attempt a goal, his success sent the game into overtime. In overtime, David Treacy scored a long point from a free, which tied the game again. In a tradition I have never seen before, the game wasn’t sent to penalty shots but rather a second game was scheduled to break the deadlock.
The pride in his eyes was pure Ireland. A country that has overcome oppression, famine, terrorism, and civil war. A country that is cautiously recovering from economic disasters. A country that today, is as welcoming as you could imagine and as optimistic as any. A country that cheers on its amateurs with the same voracity as its pros.
The pride in his eyes will always be remembered by mine.