By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
It was always going to be a match second to none. When Ireland plays England in any sport the clash and the outcome take on a significance beyond the actual game itself.
And so it proved to be last Saturday in Croke Park. The tears streaming down the faces of some of Ireland’s titans of rugby said it all as they sang Amhran na bhFian, in unison with the packed stadium.
The emotion of the moment had been building for weeks in the sporting and general media in Ireland and Britain. When the Irish squad emerged onto the hallowed ground of Croke Park for the first time ever against England the 80,000-plus crowd produced a roar, the likes of which is rare and limited to very special occasions at Croke Park - and what a special occasion it was.
It was a roar rooted in a communal experience, political and sporting; a roar prompted by instincts in people whose lives and those of their forebears were forged in Ireland’s troubled history, distant and near, and in particular Ireland’s history of colonisation by Britain.
Last Saturday Croke Park, the citadel and well-spring of Irish cultural and sporting nationalism, opened its doors for only the second time in its 100-year history to another sport.
And not just any sport. A sport which many of the regular occupants of Croke Park perceive as foreign.
Rugby, once the preserve of the English establishment who tried to colonise all of Ireland and now cling to its north-eastern shores, no longer carries that tag.
The last time English feet trod Croke Park’s turf they belonged to men in khaki carrying guns. It was 1920 at the height of Ireland’s War of Independence. From that turf they killed 14 people causing Ireland’s first Bloody Sunday.
The Hogan Stand in Croke Park is named after a player shot dead that day. The famous Hill 16 is a permanent memorial to the 1916 Rising. Its foundations were taken from the rubble left behind after the Rising.
It was a splendid game of rugby, not just because England was consummately thrashed by an outstanding Irish pack, but because Irish nationalism as expressed on the terraces of Croke Park by tens of thousands representing the people of this country, nationalist and unionist, generously embraced the English.
An occasion when sport and politics mixed and were the better for it.
A few hours earlier and 100 miles away on Belfast’s Falls Road another notable first occurred. Belfast’s first ever march by Gaelgoire to the city centre took place from an Culturlann, the citadel and well-spring of the Irish language movement in the north.
It was a fun occasion for the thousands of people who turned out demanding from the British government an effective Irish Language Act to underpin the strength of the language and to pave the way for its future development.
The decision by the British government to introduce the act was secured by Sinn Féin in last year’s negotiations at St Andrews.
The vibrancy, vitality and security of the language were there to be seen and heard in the huge turnout of young people.
The determination that this should be so was also there in the faces of older Gaels and Sinn Féin leaders like Gerry Adams MP, Bairbre de Brun MEP and Aengus O’Snodaigh TD who speak and promote the language.
Determination and commitment deliver results. They did it for Ireland’s rugby team on Saturday and for Irish speakers over many decades.
These same qualities have long been associated with Sinn Féin and not surprisingly they are a central plank of Sinn Féin’s election appeal.
They are the qualities driving Sinn Féin politicians seeking to consolidate and expand Sinn Féin’s project across the six counties.
A good election result for Sinn Féin will spur party activists on in their efforts to achieve the long-worked-for breakthrough in the elections in the south in a few months time.
There will then be an opportunity for republicans to assist the realignment of politics on this island on a broad republican-labour programme.
The product of determination and commitment to change.