Two Americans visit Croke Park for first time

Jul. 15, 2019 • Brian Bland

July 14, 2019 at 6:30am: the sounds of banshees screaming were heard in a hotel room in Galway City — or maybe it was just that awful alarm clock waking us up. With the smell of bad decisions and regrets looming in the room after we attended the wedding of a former teammate, we quickly (miraculously) popped out of bed and headed to the train station. 

We were headed on a pilgrimage to the equivalent of Mecca to an American hurler, Croke Park! We were going to watch the quarter-finals with Kilkenny vs. Cork followed by Laios vs. Tipperary. With excitement racing in our hearts we boarded the 8:00am train to Dublin. At first there was nothing that made you think that anything special was going on that day. Normal people on their way to do normal things. There was no excitement in the air. That would change.

We arrived at the Portarlington stop. You didn’t need a master’s degree in Irish geography to know where you were. A sea of blue and white jerseys jumped on the train and the air of the day changed. This was the first Laios has ever gone in the All-Ireland. The entire county was heading for Dublin to support their team. The level of excitement elevated and Chris and I were in the thick of it.

We got to the train station in Dublin at around 10:30am. We decided to walk to Croke Park, because that was the least sensible thing to do at the time since we had zero clue as to where in the heck it was. Already we could see hundreds of jerseys walking around the city. As we made the trek, a 2.5 mile walk which allowed us to see parts of Dublin, we saw numerous jerseys of red and white, of black and yellow stripes, blue and yellow and of course our new friends in blue and white. These fans were everywhere. One couldn’t go 100 feet without seeing a group decked out in their county garb. It was match day and now we found our 13th wind and were ready to go!

We made it to Croke Park at around 11:30am. Things were relatively quiet and the first match did not start til 2:00pm. We decided to look for some lunch before the game. We figured the sensible thing to do was to eat before we started drinking again. Unfortunately, we are not sensible people. We didn’t make it 10 feet before we found ourselves sitting in a pub enjoying a pint — no lunch in sight.

By noon, the pub was packed. As if all of Dublin decided all at once it was time to drink. I can just envision every Irish person with their synchronized watches waiting for the arms to align at 12. It went from a casual conversation to a large group of Laios supporters chanting. Chris at that very moment found his spirit animal and Laios found a new die hard supporter. Their fans were by far the most numerous, loudest, and craziest of the bunch. But don’t let that trick you to believe the others were slackers. The Cork supporters were a close second in their madness. You couldn’t walk 2 minutes without hearing the chant, “Laios, Laios, Laios!!!!” Not until I told Chris to shut up anyways. Then it was more like 10 minutes between chants. 

We went to the next pub by a recommendation from a Tipp fan called Quinn’s. This is a must go to before and after games. It is a large, dark cavern of a place that opens up into a bright outdoor patio area. Not a single thing is impressive in this bar. Nothing. It’s dark. It’s grimy. But it’s perfect. It’s the atmosphere that makes this pub no match to any other around. It’s almost as if the managers promote rowdiness. Everywhere we looked we saw kids in jerseys singing and chanting their county pride against the others. The craziness was deafening igniting our souls more for the matches.

Finally, the hour came to make our final decent onto Mecca. At 1:30pm, all of the synchronized watches told Ireland, “it’s time to go to war.” So the masses then poured into the streets and headed for the sacred grounds of Croke Park. An amazing stadium by itself. Large and imposing and beautiful. 

The stadium was electric. We were filled with energy and were ready for our grand experience. We ran to the beer line, got a few beers and headed to our seats. That is until we realized we couldn’t drink at our seats. For some reason the stadium serves alcohol but no one can drink at their seat. What in holy hell. Who thought this was a good idea? We slammed our beers and went to our seats. This became a theme for the day. Every intermission the entire stadium stood up and went to the beer lines. Only to slam as many as one could before going back to their seat. I felt like I was a pledge again in college. Then the real madness began.

We both play hurling in the states for the mighty Charleston team. But we learned quickly that the sport we play is not the same sport the Irish play. They were so smooth and fluid with the ball. The ease they displayed at picking the ball up, catching it in the air, and striking it on the run was like watching the Mona Lisa get painted in real life. It was an art. Unlike the chaotic crap we display that looks more like a 3 year old doodling with crayons on the kitchen wall. We were both in awe. We watched one of the most impressive games of the year with hated rivals Kilkenny playing Cork. The Cork fans were rabid as their team played great in the first half only to fall apart in the second half and lose. The second game was just as electrifying as the underdog Laios team fought a hard battle against perennial powerhouse Tipperary. The entire stadium, outside of Tipp supporters, were rooting hard for the men of Laios. (One huge culture shock was that all 4 teams supporters were present in the stadium at the same time. It made for a very unique experience.) It was close at the half. Then, just like in the first game, it was proven why the game is played in 2 halves. Laios suffered a damaging, and quite frankly a weak and pathetic, red card which put them down a player. That’s when the wheels fell off. Tipp quickly over matched them and ran away with the game. 

Our pilgrimage was finally over. We both left impressed, awed, and inspired. There’s an auora about Croke Park that one can’t describe. You can only feel it by being there. Four different groups of fans packed into a stadium rooting for not only their team but for their county. This isn’t like rooting for a bunch of overpaid athletes that could care less about anything other than themselves. These athletes are amateurs. They are not paid. They play for pride. For the love of the game. They play for the honor of their county and the people that live in it. They play for something much more than themselves.