On the day of the 5th of May, 1981, Bobby Sands died in the Maze prison after spending 66 days on hunger strike. His body and bones had become so brittle that during the final few days of his life, his body rested on a waterbed. He was the first of 10 republican prisoners to die in that tragic manner, and more than 60 policemen, soldiers and civilians died in the violence that was directly linked to the hunger strikes alone.
Exactly 4 months later i was granted the privilege of entering this world and these islands. Who could have predicted, or even hoped back then how far we would come as a nation and a people, and how much change would occur. After much violence, death, bombs, heartache, movements and years, on the 10th of April 1998, 2 years of talks and 30 years of conflict were brought to a close when the Northern Irish Peace talks ended in an historic agreement, known as the Good Friday Agreement.
This agreement was endorsed by the people of these islands, both north and south or the border, when a resounding yes vote was passed in a referendum on the Agreement.
The people of these islands had spoken with strenght, clarity, intelligence and togetherness.
On Saturday the 24th of February 2007, the GAA passed a motion for Croke Park to be opened up for what was know as ” foreign sports “, and as soon as they did, the second team to come riding into town was again The English…. to play on the Sacred grounds, the hollow turf of Croker. The build up was immense. Why?
For those not in the know, Croke Park was the scene of one of the most infamous events in the History of our country, ” the troubles “, and became the line in the sand for what was to become the long, hard, hurtful, sometimes lonely battle of the Irish fighting to become an independent nation. The event was the reprisal of the killing by British soldiers of 13 innocent spectators and one football player at a match in November, 1920.
Since that day Croke Park has become a symbol of Irish Nationalism, with only Gaelic Sports being granted the privilege of playing there. Ninty years on and the English were back.
At its worst sporting rivalries can intensify rather then reduce enmity between different nations or regions or groups. When the English players stepped out onto the hollow turf…. silence. A deafening silence… one that remained through out the playing of God Save The Queen, only to be shattered into oblivion with the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann. We had found our voice. The new Ireland had found its identity.
What the people in that stadium did that day, was an education to the entire nation watching in, for the millions of ex pats abroad, and for whoever else was looking in. It was thoughtful, intelligent, and brave. Their voices were added to the healing process that have been underway for some time on this island. I was so proud to call myself Irish. Proud to be Irish.
On the 17th of May 2011, The Queen of England visited these beautiful shores, in what was a first state visit of a British Monarck in 100 years. A journey of an hour across the Irish sea took nearly 100 years. But this was a remarkable moment in our History. What was even more remarkable was that her first gesture was to lay a wreath at the Republics Garden of Remembrance, one of which is dedicated to those who fought for Irish Independence against British Rule.
How symbolic to hear the anthems of the two nations side by side, with the Irish flag at full mast, blowing proudly in the wind. The President of Ireland, side by side with the Queen of England, head bowed in respect for those who gave their lives. Truly remarkable. The Queen was then greeted with the privilege herself to walk the hollow turf of Croke Park. Nothing but pride ran through my veins. The one thousand welcomes was multiplied. Economically we may have fallen, collectively and personally we have grown.
If as a nation we can move beyond the past, without ever forgetting it, and more forward towards a brighter future for all, we can also do it as a city, a community, a family, and an individual. Lets shake off the shackles of the past and move forward to a better tomorrow.