There’s an uncapturable magic that surrounds Croke Park on All-Ireland day.
As part of my job in the press office at the stadium I get unrivalled access on All-Ireland day.
It all starts from the minute you wake up and pull on your county colours. It all comes to either a triumphant or turbulent end once the referee blows the final whistle after 70 minutes of play; an indescribable feeling comes over you.
It’s a sense of pride and Irishness that – if it could be bottled – would be worth millions. It’s the banter on Jones’ Road, the pint in Quinn’s Pub and the pre-match discussion with your match day companion; it’s all these things, but so much more.
Days like the All-Ireland Final don’t just happen by themselves. It takes a team of 2,200 people to put in weeks of hard work in order for the day to run as smoothly as possible.
Like all good Irish traditions, All-Ireland day for the GAA staff starts with mass at 9am in the GAA museum. The mood for the day is set as either Liam or Sam (the two coveted GAA trophies) join the priest on the alter for the celebration of the Eucharist. As the mass ends and the match day staff “go in peace”, another great Irish tradition is next to be observed: ‘the Full Irish’.
Bellies full from the big breakfast, attention soon turns to the organisation of the 2,000+ staff that help run the event in different capacities. Last minute team meetings take place to make sure everyone is fully aware of their role. From cooks, stewards and media officers to programme sellers, ticket scanners and An Garda Síochána, everyone is expected to put in an error-free performance.
Midday hits. Stiles open. It’s lights, camera, action for the workers. Behind the scenes, Croke Park is being watched from every angle through security and TV cameras in the Garda and Event control rooms located above Hill 16.
As team buses pull in, you can see the focus which surrounds the players. They are zoned in, mentally prepared and are trying to escape into their own little world through their headphones.
With dressing rooms lined out and pre-match rituals beginning, you can stand in the Hogan tunnel and experience the roar of the 82,000 strong crowd. You start to feel the beat of your heart in your ears as nerves and excitement take over.
The Sam Maguire and Liam McCarthy cups are brought to the pitch from their holding place in the GAA museum by two pre-selected school children from the participating counties. Gerry Grogan, who is the match day announcer and principal of Donaghmede National School, then takes the cup up to its resting place in front of the President, Michael D. Higgins and GAA President Liam O’Neill.
The competing teams then take it in turns to run out onto the pitch, with the subs and team management lining the tunnel to hype the players up as they take the famous steps out onto Croke Park.
In what feels like a blink of an eye, the 70 minutes of playing time are over and Kerry or Kilkenny or whoever is lucky enough to have been named All-Ireland Champions ascend the steps of the Hogan Stand to collect their silverware.
At that moment, everyone who has participated in the day’s events feels a sense of pride. You are no longer just a steward, a cook, a member of An Garda Síochána or a ticket-seller; you are a witness to a historical moment in time and you are there to take it all in with the victors.
Following the afternoon’s drama, cameras are switched off and another hectic season comes to a close. The staff of the GAA all tumble out of Croke Park in dribs and drabs, woven into the travelling supporters, back to their everyday lives. The players head to a special reception, where each player is allowed to select one person to join them and the team in a lounge beside the dressing rooms.
This is what is so special about our national game and the GAA. On game day you could play the role of a manager, a player, an official, a spectator or a steward. On the next day, you go back to being a farmer, a teacher, a student or a parent.
It is the sense of pride in the jersey, the commitment of playing unpaid and the fact that all of this is done year after year on a voluntary basis that makes this day so special. That is what makes the GAA.