FOR AN ORGANISATION as bound up with history and tradition as the GAA is, the decision to revise one of the most contentious rules on the statute books was nothing short of revolutionary.
On 16 April 2005, 336 delegates gathered in a room and voted to amend Rule 42, the law which stipulated that GAA grounds and facilities could only be used for gaelic games.
Rule 42 was – as many of those involved in the decision-making process realised – a relic of a bygone era, a time when the founding members of the organisation saw the development of indigenous sports as a key element of their blueprint for maintaining Ireland’s national identity.
That noble aim has always remained a central aspect of the GAA’s ethos. Yet, as the country’s political circumstances changed and evolved so did conceptions of nationalism and the manner in which it was defined.
By the early stages of the new millennium, it had become quite clear that 21st-century Ireland would be a markedly different place to that which had gone before.
The “us against the world” mentality which had become part and parcel of some definitions of Irishness was on the wane, replaced by a more inclusive engagement. Mindsets had changed throughout the country and the GAA was not exempt from this.
Apart from all the philosophical discussions of the reasons which underpinned the GAA’s existence, the move to revise Rule 42 was prompted by a much more practical need. With the IRFU and FAI deciding to shut down Lansdowne Road for redevelopment, it became apparent that Irish national representative teams could be forced to play their home internationals outside the country.
There was only one stadium fit for the purpose in the country – the redeveloped Croke Park, an 80,000-seater beacon of modernity, a powerful statement of the GAA’s power and presence in Ireland.
It made sense for the GAA to open the doors to their most prized asset, if not to show off their pride and joy to the world then to prove that they too had moved into the 21st century – that they were not still mired in the battles of the past, “anti-English” and “anti-foreigners” as so many accused them of being.
Of course, it was not an easy decision to make and the implications of the relaxation were enough to give even the most devoted reformer pause. On 21 November 1920, at the height of the country’s independence struggle, British forces had entered Croke Park and killed fourteen civilians, many of whom were ancestors of the organisation’s present members.
With the English rugby team scheduled to come to Ireland for a Six Nations game, the spectre of Bloody Sunday loomed large over the decision. Could the GAA stand by and take a decision which would ultimately allow “God Save The Queen” to be played on the same turf that British soldiers had killed Irish people?
The answer came as loudly on the 24 February 2007 as it did on the day that Rule 42 was amended by 227 votes to 97 – a decision taken for the good of the GAA, the good of sport in Ireland, and the good of the country.
As the Irish army band struck up the opening chords of the British national anthem, 75,000 Irish fans stood in silence, respectfully.
Ireland’s past will never be forgotten but this was a day when the GAA – and the country as whole – proudly showed the watching world just how far we had come.
This week in sports history
- Jackie Robinson becomes the first black baseball player in the modern professional era (11 April 1947)
- 96 football fans die at the Hillsborough Stadium disaster in Sheffield, England (15 April 1989)
- Brian Lara hits 375 runs on one day vs England in Antigua and Barbuda (18 April 1994)
- Tiger Woods becomes the third golfer to win back-to-back US Masters championships (14 April 2002)