From the book Help, My Horse is Drowning! By Ray Hamill
14 – A narrow escape
“Make tea, not war,”
– Monty Python
They say hurling is a dangerous sport.
It’s true. I once nearly got decapitated attending a game at Croke Park.
But that’s nothing. I lose my head at lots of sporting events.
My grandfather, however, had an even more harrowing experience within the hallowed Irish sports ground. He was shot at in the middle of the field by the occupying British forces back during the Irish War of Independence. (And you thought Oakland Raiders fans were tough on opposing fans.)
But despite these notably unfortunate incidents along the way, Croke Park has usually been kind to my family, serving as a sort of shrine to the sports gods, at least the Irish ones, and handed down from generation to generation.
It is the largest stadium in Ireland – the fourth largest in all of Europe – packed to capacity with screaming fans every September for the All-Ireland hurling and Gaelic football finals, the “Irish Super Bowls,” the two biggest days on the Irish sporting calendar.
But Croke Park is more than just a stadium. It is an Irish sporting cathedral in the heart of the north side of Dublin City, and an iconic arena that transcends the world of sports.
I grew up less than two miles from Croker, as it is fondly called, and spent countless Sunday afternoons there during my childhood, either working alongside my father and brothers as a steward in Section L of the Hogan Stand, or standing alongside my friends on the famed Hill 16 terrace, wishfully willing our beloved Dubs to victory.
The first game I ever remember attending was the 1978 All-Ireland Hurling Final, when Cork, led by the legendary Jimmy Barry Murphy, claimed a third consecutive title by defeating Kilkenny and Brian Cody, who would go on to become the sport’s most legendary manager.
I had no idea who these people were at the time, but I do remember thinking the field looked very green when I walked up the steps into the Hogan Stand for the first time ever that day.
That moment is a pivotal one for sports fans all over the world, that first game, that rite of passage, that initiation when you see the grand stage up close for the first time.
And I remember the atmosphere. How could I forget it? The deafening excitement when the game got under way. The cold grey stands coming to life and shaking in unison with the fans of both sides, dancing to the beat of the game, the drama, the only thing that mattered at that moment.
It was electrifying.
It was also the first of numerous All-Ireland finals I have been lucky enough to attend.
Two weeks later, I was back for my first ever All-Ireland Football Final. It was a disaster, and would become my first harsh lesson in the timing aspect of sports.
Dublin had won three of the previous four championships and were favorites to beat their old rivals Kerry again that year. They were the talk of the schoolyard in those days, rock stars in the city ringing in a new era for the sport, and we were confident of adding to our tally of titles for the decade.
But after getting off to a fast start, the Dubs fell apart and suffered a heavy, heavy defeat.
Including that game, Dublin would lose four finals in an eight-year span, while winning just once in that time.
But win or lose, Dublin or not, rain or sun, I was at every major hurling and football championship game played at Croker for the following decade, working alongside my father as a steward.
They paid us with a sandwich, a cup of tea and free admission to the game, and it was easy work on non-ticket games.
The bigger games, the finals and semifinals, were all-ticket affairs, and we suffered a constant flow of abuse from drunken patrons who showed up late and couldn’t find their seats, or from people already in their seats who were annoyed at us for having to deal with the late drunken patrons standing in their way.
By the start of the game, I’d usually hide my steward ID as if it magically got lost and slip quietly into an empty seat to enjoy the action. Sometimes I’d even join in the chorus of complaining toward the other stewards, just to make sure no one doubted me.
This was the old Croker, before the completely refurbished and modern version we know today, one of the largest and grandest stadiums in all of Europe.
Back then it was just a 100-year-old stadium and it showed.
One glorious afternoon, we were lounging in the stands a couple of hours before the main game, enjoying the sunshine (and lack of rain) when part of an advertising board came crashing down from the upper tier and landed a few rows behind us.
The piece that fell was about 20 feet long and a couple of feet wide, and if it had happened two hours later when the place was packed (or if we had been sitting a few rows back at that moment), it probably would have decapitated an entire row of people. But in typical Irish fashion, no one seemed to worry too much about it.
“Sure, it’ll be grand.”
There was also plenty of history to Croke Park, and a history that goes way beyond that of sports and struck close to home.
Over the years, I’ve seen the Dubs pull off a few narrow escapes at Croker, but none of them compare to my grandfather’s experience there.
This was back in 1920, during the Irish War of Independence, when he was a young buck, and long before my mother was a twinkle in his eye, back when the stadium served as the backdrop to one of the most pivotal moments in the Irish fight for freedom.
It was the sort of moment that transcended sports for all the wrong reasons. The sort of moment that history would not forget. The sort of moment that puts sports in perspective.
Because sometimes politics, religion, hateful intolerance, or good old-fashioned stupidity, spill over into the world of sports. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the sometimes incredibly imbecilic world we live in.
Those are the sobering moments. The Munich Olympics of ’72. Hillsborough in ’89. Ghana in ’01.
One such moment occurred at Croker in 1920, on a day known as Bloody Sunday, when British forces stormed the ground during a game and began shooting into the crowd in retaliation for the assassination of 11 British undercover agents early that morning.
A total of 14 people were killed that afternoon, including a woman and two children, while 60 more were injured.
Among the casualties was Tipperary footballer Michael Hogan, who was playing that day and for whom the Hogan stand was later named.
When Hogan was shot, it was my grandfather, who was a pharmacist and seated nearby, and his companion, a man named Tom Ryan, who ran out onto the field to attend to him.
In the mayhem, however, the British forces were refusing to allow medical attention to the wounded until the entire crowd had been searched for guns, an inane decision which reportedly led to even more casualties.
So when they saw my grandfather and Ryan on their knees out on the field trying to help Hogan, they began shooting at the two of them, killing Ryan as he whispered an act of contrition to the dying player.
All because he was trying to save an innocent football player’s life.
My grandfather narrowly escaped the same fate, fleeing the bullets and the stadium and hiding out in the kitchen of a local house that night while they searched for him.
They never found him.
And so two generations later, here I am, in large part because some British bastard was a lousy shot back in 1920.
It’s in their genes. They can’t shoot.
They were missing Irish heroes like my grandfather long before they were missing in penalty shootouts in the World Cup Finals.
And it’s just as well they were too. I can’t imagine what the world of sports would have done without me.