Unionist blogger: Enjoyable Croke Park experience but GAA could go a bit further to get more Protestants involved

Sarah Arnold with her boyfriend Declan Doyle

In the wake of DUP leader Arlene Foster's historic visit to the Ulster Final at Clones, writer and blogger Sarah Arnold, who is also a Fermanagh unionist, tells how she recently attended her first GAA match. Here she shares her Croke Park experience.


IT wasn’t my first visit to Croke Park. It was actually my third but I don’t think they count seeing they were visits to watch Take That and Westlife.

But on Sunday July 1, I saw my first match at Croke – the Leinster hurling final between Kilkenny and Galway.

The week before I’d watched Arlene Foster arrive in Clones for the Ulster football final to cheers and saw her pose for selfies with Michelle O’Neill. Like Arlene, I’m a Fermanagh girl from a unionist background (with an opinion on everything).

This means that when I got myself a nationalist boyfriend, there were always going to be issues we’d disagree on. The GAA was one of them.

I like to think I have an open mind and I thought that if Arlene can go to Clones, I can sit in the Hogan Stand at Croke Park.

I’d suggested going to Clones to see my native Fermanagh play only to be told it wouldn’t be an ideal game for someone supporting them. Anyway, apparently hurling is the superior Gaelic sport.

I won’t lie, I was slightly apprehensive about my visit. Partly because I know that some factions of the GAA (I’m looking at you Ulster) haven’t been known for being openly welcome to Protestants/unionists. I was also irrationally worried I’d say or do something daft and inappropriate like belting out God Save The Queen when Amhrán na bhFiann started to play.

In reality, the biggest thing I had to worry about was the abuse I’d get for the shirt on my back.

I had barely stepped out of my car when I told I was at the wrong match. He had a point; we were both sporting shirts that looked remarkably like an old Waterford one. They were actually club jerseys for St. Jude’s Bournemouth.

DUP Leader Arlene Foster at the Ulster final between Fermanagh and Donegal in Clones, Co Monaghan, Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire.

There’s always something special about a big match day regardless of the sport. I don’t miss a Northern Ireland match at Windsor and love nothing more than standing up for the Ulster men at Ravenhill and the buzz around Croke Park was no different.

It’s beautiful to see children sitting on the lap of a parent, each sporting their county colours.

Or the young couple walk hand in hand along the river to get to the stadium. I especially loved seeing older people, often with a walking aid, led by younger relatives to their seats.

There’s something special about that togetherness. The sense of community, even the county pride. I noticed this before the game had even started.

I should note that I did not blurt out God Save The Queen as the Irish national anthem played. I stood but what I did find unusual was that many fans began to start cheering in the last few lines. Or that many around me simply didn’t seem to know the words (I was surprised to see them on the big screen as well).

The game started and it didn’t take me long to be absorbed in it. I didn’t even notice when a group of fans on ‘the hill’ started to sing the more interesting version of The Fields of Athenry (with the Sinn Fein/IRA mentions).

I loved the physicalness of the game; no player was backing away from tight balls and I was seriously impressed with how well they were able to catch the ball so well from such a distance.

I’d been advised before the game to watch the man, not the ball and this tip was spot on.

The game was quick, action was end to end and although at halftime it was a low scoring game, I was fascinated.

It picked up speed in the second half. For most of it, you could see both teams wanted a win badly. The 40,000 spectators were in full voice.

I won’t lie, in the few minutes when the scores were tied, I could see both teams go in defence mode. No team seemed to want to take the risk for the win. I couldn’t fathom why until I found out that tied finals are replayed; I found this a somewhat disappointing way to end a game that meant so much.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day in Dublin and I’d love to go back. Like Arlene, I still have my apprehensions. I feel that those in GAA leadership need to proactively get those from unionist and Protestant backgrounds involved.

The Gaelic games are great; I hope to get back for more, but I want to see the organisation make big steps to make it more inclusive.

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