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Strange Tales from Croke Park

The Dublin Rodeo of 1924, which I have written about here,  was one of several events that one would not normally associate with Croke Park, the hub of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in Dublin City, Ireland. Events such as the opening of the Special Olympics ceremony in 2003, or the U2 concerts in 2005 and 2009, or, who can forget Shane Hogan’s try in the first ever rugby match ever played in Croker in 2007. The showdown between Muhammed Ali and Al ‘Blue’ Lewis, which took place in Croke Park in July 1972, will also remain the stuff of legends for centuries to come.


The ‘American Invasion Tour’ (1888)


Sporting tours in foreign lands have long been considered a useful opportunity for sportsmen to miss the return trip home and start anew. Such was the case with twenty of the fifty-one Irish athletes who sailed to the USA in 1888 as part of a GAA initiative to promote Gaelic games in North America.

The group travelled extensively between Boston, New York and Philadelphia, hoping to instil in Irish emigrants the same sense of excitement that gripped Ireland after the GAA was founded in Thurles in 1884.

However, despite a hearty reception in New York, they were up against dreadful weather conditions and the distraction of a heated Presidential election campaign. The tour ran out of money and had to borrow £400 from Michael Davitt to get home. The tour was deemed a financial failure when officials had to request a grant of £400 from Michael Davitt for the return journey home.

As nearly 40% of the players decided to remain permanently in the USA, the trip became known as the ‘American Invasion Tour’.


The Tailteann Games (1924-1932)


The Tailteann Games, Ireland’s answer to the Olympics, commenced on 3 August 1924, just three weeks before Tex Austin’s rodeo arrived in Dublin. It is claimed, with good reason, that these annual games, dating to the 2nd millennium BC, were the oldest sporting festival in the world, tied in with the ancient celebrations of the feast of Lughnasa. However, the games ground to a halt soon after the Normans arrived and had all but vanished by 1922 when the new Irish Free State government backed a GAA plan to revive them.

I believe the revival was the brainchild of JJ Keane, founder of the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland (NACAI), in conjunction with JJ Walsh, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the new Irish Free State. As a show of its commitment, the government granted the GAA money to build two new stands at Croke Park, including the Hogan Stand.

Tens of thousands duly arrived at Croke Park to enjoy two weeks of sporting events including archery, boxing, cycling, football, hurling, tennis and gymnastics. The Tailteann Games were again hosted at Croke Park in 1928 but interest rapidly dwindled and the 1932 games were utterly upstaged by the Eucharistic Congress. The 1936 games were duly postponed and the festival has yet to recommence.


Thunder and Lightning Final (1939)


One of the most spine-tingling events in the history of Croke Park was the so-called ‘Thunder and Lightning’ hurling final which took place on September 3rd 1939. When fans awoke that morning they were greeted by torrential rain. Undeterred, nearly 40,000 fans proceeded to Croke Park and crowded into the stadium to watch Cork and Kilkenny battle it out for the McCarthy Cup.

By the start of the game the rain had eased. After a first half dominated by Kilkenny the half time score line read Kilkenny 2-4 to Cork 1-1.

Just as the second half got underway, an extraordinarily loud thunder clap stunned the audience. This clap heralded an epic lightning storm which coincided with a Cork comeback. With a few minutes to go the sides were level. The lightningh continued to crackle overhead and the gallant players continued on. Kilkenny’s Terry Leahy scored a vital point which saw Kilkenny emerge as victorious with a final score line of 2-7 to 3-3.

But for anyone wondering what the thunder storm might have signified, they only had to look at the newspapers. That same day, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that the war with Hitler’s Germany had begun.


NB: Among the photographs at the GAA Museum is one of the Trinity College hurling team. It dates to 1879, five years before the GAA itself was founded, and is the earliest in this fine collection.




With thanks to the GAA Museum, and specifically to Selina O’Regan, GAA Museum Education Officer, and Mark Dorman, GAA Museum Director.