An uneven playing field: The battle scars of Croke Park are deep

The Queen's visit to the intensely Irish sporting arena was intended to atone for the 1920 Bloody Sunday massacre
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The Queen's visit to Croke Park yesterday was in the nature of an exorcism, an occasion designed by governments in London and Dublin to lay to rest the ghosts of the past, to draw the sting of history and to begin anew.

The spectres are those of the Irish revolutionary period, when some years of violence broke the link with Britain and created Ireland as an independent entity.

Specifically, they are the shades of 14 people killed by Crown forces in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday on 21 November, 1920. Yesterday, the Crown, in the shape of the Queen, returned to the scene of the incident for a visit that was intended to convey that the killings are acknowledged as a historic wrong.

Today, the Park, popularly known as Croker, is a modern showpiece, rebuilt in the past decade to hold 82,000 people in one of the largest stadiums in Europe. It is also one of the most admired, often described as magnificent.

Yet although it is the picture of modernity, it holds within its very fabric relics of ancient grievances dating back to what the Irish refer to as the War of Independence.

This is true physically as well as psychologically, for an earlier rebuilding used some of the rubble created by British artillery. That came from the time when, during the Rising of 1916, guns pounded republican strongholds into submission. That year is commemorated in the name of that part of the ground which is known as Hill 16. A more explicit reference to those violent times is the Hogan stand. This was named after Michael Hogan, the captain of the Tipperary Gaelic football team, who was shot on the pitch where the Queen yesterday walked in a mission of reconciliation.

Bloody Sunday was a key event in the birth of modern Ireland but it had a context, some of which has faded from the consciousness of London and, to a lesser extent, Dublin. Croke Park took shape when Irish games blossomed as part of a Gaelic movement which encompassed a new interest in sport, culture, drama and language. In sport this led to the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which aimed at putting an Irish stamp on games as a counterpoint to the popularity of English sports. Its inaugural meeting in 1884 noted "the absurdity of Irishmen permitting Englishmen to organise Irish sport, leading to the decline of native pastimes".

The GAA noted with disapproval: "While there had been an athletic revival of sorts throughout Ireland in the 1860s, the meetings and competitions were 'anglicised' in nature and dominated by the middle and ascended classes, invariably unionist in outlook."

The site of Croke Park, just north of the centre of Dublin, started out as 12 acres of land comprising "an orchard, dwelling house, yard and garden, together with the fields adjoining". Gaelic games were staged there in a small way, as were other activities such as whippet racing, but Irish sports really took off just before the First World War.

In 1913, the GAA – which never had much money – decided to run a tournament to raise funds for a monument to its first patron, Catholic Archbishop Thomas Croke.

Attendance at the final surpassed all expectations, with 26,000 turning up. When the game ended in a draw, the replay drew an even bigger crowd of more than 30,000, providing enough funds not just for a monument to the Archbishop but for the Association to buy Croke Park. It has ever since been the GAA's headquarters.

The early 20th century was a time of political upheavals and the GAA was inevitably drawn into these. After the 1916 Rising, the authorities accused the organisation of having a part in it: the GAA replied that it was non-political, though it added that members were at liberty to join any political organisation they might choose.

Such semblance of neutrality did not last, however, with the GAA helping to form a prisoners' welfare grouping, refusing membership to the Crown's armed forces and prohibiting members from playing "foreign games" such as rugby.

As attitudes hardened, the authorities responded with an "amusement tax" on all forms of games and sports. They also refused permission for railways to run special trains to big Croke Park matches, which meant attendances dropped and gate receipts fell.

In 1918, the authorities stipulated that games would not be permitted unless a permit was obtained from the seat of government, Dublin Castle. The GAA refused to comply, retaliating by expelling civil servants from its ranks on the grounds that they had taken an oath of allegiance to the Crown. By the time of Bloody Sunday in 1920, in other words, the authorities regarded Croke Park as a bastion of defiant Irish rebels and believed the GAA harboured republican activists in its ranks.

When the IRA of the day, led by Michael Collins, killed more than a dozen suspected British intelligence personnel, apparently enraged troops set out for Croke Park where a match was under way. The troops opened fire. Fourteen people were killed.

In an eerie historical echo in Londonderry 52 years later, another 14 were killed in a second Bloody Sunday. In both cases the authorities claimed the IRA had fired first; in both cases this was widely disbelieved. In both cases, Irish nationalists were affronted and radicalised and an increase in violence and polarisation followed.

Were the shootings authorised at a high level? Almost certainly not, though reprisals were common in those days and for a time formed part of security policy. Clementine Churchill, whose husband Winston took a tough line as one of the ministers responsible for Ireland, pleaded with him: "Reprisals fall upon the just and the unjust. It always makes me unhappy and disappointed when I see you inclined to take for granted that the rough, iron-fisted 'Hunnish' way will prevail."

In any event, the deaths of civilians in the Croke Park shootings robbed Britain of much of its moral authority. Within two years, troop ships were carrying soldiers back to Britain across the Irish Sea, leaving behind a virtually independent Ireland.

Croke Park attained the status of a citadel of both nationalism and of sacrifice, acquiring an image of victimhood. British forces, meanwhile, were depicted as callously gunning down civilians. The stadium soon became a holy ground for Irish nationalists: its turf was said to be "drenched in patriot blood". The GAA afterwards became almost synonymous with Irish patriotism.

Gaelic games, it need hardly be said, very much suit the Irish, and over the decades have remained hugely popular. Gaelic football and hurling and the other pastimes, though amateur, hold their own against soccer and rugby, which deal in millions of pounds and can command highly lucrative sponsorship deals.

Croke Park remains a symbol of nationalism, but over the years it has come to reflect the fact that Irish nationalism has gradually grown less defensive and less inward-looking. As far back as 1953, it hosted a charity demonstration of American football, and Muhammad Ali fought (and won) there in 1972.

And a telling step towards yesterday's breakthrough was taken in 2007 when the Irish rugby and soccer teams became temporarily homeless while their stadium at Landsdowne Road was being reconstructed. The GAA allowed them both to use Croke Park, the Irish rugby team duly thrashing England there by 30 points in 2007.

Permission to play rugby and soccer at Croke Park was given after spirited debate within the GAA but, in a telling sign of changing times, that debate featured little or no anti-British sentiment. Instead, it turned on whether the GAA should be helping out rivals in the keenly competitive modern sporting world. But the decision to grant such permission sent a signal that the old days when the GAA would have no truck with anything to do with "foreign games" were long gone.

The importance and centrality of Croke Park and the GAA as pillars of Irish life has actually grown considerably in recent years. Two of the other pillars, the Fianna Fáil party and the Catholic Church, have crumbled, the first because of its economic incompetence, and the second in the wake of its child-abuse scandals.

This has left the GAA in a position – which it has never actually sought – of great importance in society. Sporting organisations are not usually thought of as heralds of change, but in recent years, the GAA has taken a lead in political innovation.

When Ronan Kerr, a 25-year-old Catholic recruit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, was killed by republican dissidents in April in Omagh, Co Tyrone, GAA members joined in a joint honour guard with police officers. This was unprecedented: it demonstrated that the GAA supported the new political dispensation in Northern Ireland, and disapproved of the few dissidents who continue to use violence against it.

The GAA's hosting of the royal visit yesterday showed readiness – indeed enthusiasm – for a new start in Ireland's relationship with Britain. Croke Park, once described as a cathedral of separatism, is about to become a much broader church, and a more welcoming one. Its centrality to the idea of Irishness was sanctified by more than a century of strong tradition, by national feeling, and even by blood. It was seen as historically consecrated territory, the headquarters and heart of an organisation once called "the soul of Ireland".

It will continue to be seen as not just the home of Gaelic games but also, to many, a central repository of the spirit of Ireland. But yesterday it demonstrated that that spirit is now much more inclusive, more outgoing, and more willing to look to the future than it is to dwell on the past.

The long-time cathedral of separatism has just evolved into a symbol of reconciliation.