Students use myth and legend to create stunning Croke Park mosaic
Big business and the local community make art with imagination and teamwork, says Carol Hunt
The children are running up the steps, down the aisle ways, yelling, shouting and generally behaving like kids who are wonderfully comfortable in their environment.
And certainly, they've been here so often that it feels like their local playground to them. They nonchalantly pass the security guys at the entrance as if they are VIPs inspecting their domain.
They take it as their natural right that they should be met and treated like very important visitors.
And why shouldn't they? They belong here. This is their space. On a large, beautiful, bright mosaic opposite us, they have set their names and their handprints in historic memory - there for generations to see in future decades.
They have stamped their ownership, their sense of belonging, quite literally, onto the wall in front of us. This is despite the fact that the place where they are cavorting is currently the third largest stadium in Europe, after Barcelona's Nou Camp and London's Wembley. Bluntly?
It's massive. We like to say that we live in "the shadow of the Colosseum". To the rest of the country, that means we are the community who live beside the behemoth that is Croke Park Stadium.
We regularly see thousands of people from all over Ireland parade through our streets, the vast majority of whom are well mannered and good humoured, but there's always the odd messer who gives the rest a bad name.
As with many neighbourly relationships, there have been ups and downs, agreements and disagreements. (We're all trying to forget the shenanigans that surrounded the Garth Brooks concerts).
But the bottom line is that Croke Park is here to stay and so is the local community, therefore, we all need to get along and work together.
In order to help relations, Croke Park has set up a Community Fund which, since 2009, has allocated over €500,000 to local community groups, schools, clubs and associations. So when the local school, St Columba's of North Strand, needed funding for a new soft-surface playground, parent and artist, Fionnuala Halpin, decided to ask Croke Park for help.
"I approached Croke Park Community Fund for some funding for the playground surface and a mosaic to decorate the walls," she told me.
"They came back to us to say that they were definitely interested in the mosaic, so I contacted the City Art Squad and the ceramic artist Claire Turley came out to the school and did workshops and we ended up with a lovely mosaic designed and made by the kids."
Halpin, believing in give-and-take between the local community, thought "it would be a nice idea for the kids to return the favour to Croke Park by creating a mosaic in the stadium, based around the myth of Cuchulainn".
All Irish schoolchildren are taught the heroic story of how Setanta - a warrior in the service of Conchobar, King of Ulster - received his name, Cuchulainn, the hound of Culain (at age 12, he accidentally killed the dog in self defence with a sliotar).
Halpin met with the ceramic artist Ulrika Holmquist and asked her if she would be interested in approaching Croke Park with the idea.
Croke Park were definitely interested, she said, but with large organisations being what they are, it took over three years to get funding for the project approved.
And then what happened? How does one get inner-city primary school children - many from different traditions - to create a project of such magnitude?
Halpin said that they started off by telling the story of Setanta to the children and then getting them to make drawings of the story, which Holmquist then formed into clay tiles.
The principal of St Columba's, Ann Creaner, tells me: "It was a great project to set upon because it integrated so many different subjects for the children: myth, history, art, social responsibility and an understanding of public art, as well as giving the children a great sense of community and belonging. It was also a great way for them to express themselves."
Halpin and Holmquist "got the handprints in clay of all the kids and teachers in the school and some of the GAA members (including Joe Canning, the Galway player and Peter McCanny, the head of the stadium).
"So we all literally 'had a hand' in the project," joked Ms Creaner.
"The kids then made their own shields and animals and flowers from clay," explains Halpin.
I can't help staring at the mosaic, set inside the Cusack Stand concourse. It is truly gorgeous - the colours, the designs, the sheer exuberance of it transfixes the casual viewer.
"Yes, it blew the kids away when they saw it hanging there," says Creaner.
It is, indeed, quite an achievement - the concentrated attention to detail that its completion demanded, is obvious, and even more amazing when one remembers that it was done by the children currently running around Croke Park with uninhibited abandon.
When I ask the children, they tell me that the decorations on the shields represent their own history and background, as well as that of the ancient Celtic Myth of Cuchulainn.
They were allowed to give their imagination free range when they designed the project. Ayesha, who is from Sicily, has the volcanic Mt Etna on her shield. Evie chose to put Newgrange on hers, as "it's where Setanta was born" (him being lucky enough to be the son of the God Lugh).
Eliot decorated his shield with myriad Celtic symbols. He tells me solemnly that the mosaic "is inspirational for children everywhere" and that the best part of taking part in this project was "the teamwork", "the hanging out with friends" and "sliding down poles in Croke Park".
After the children had designed their shields, Holmquist spent many long nights in the studio firing all the pieces and bringing them back to be glazed before firing them again.
"It's an unbelievably long process," says Halpin. And then, the real work began!
"With the help of some artists from the City Art Squad (Bridget Corcoran, Yvonne Furlong and Lara Pittman), we spent a week underneath the Hogan Stand piecing it together on sheets of metal that were then to be hung on the wall," Halpin continues.
"It was quite a feat of engineering, but when it was finally launched by the new head of the GAA, everyone was really pleased and Ulrika and I couldn't have been prouder."
"Just think," says Ms Creaner, "in 40 years' time, these children (who are still raucously running all over 'their' stadium) will be able to bring their grandchildren into Croke park, point to this mosaic and say, 'that's my name up there, that's my handprint, this is our stadium'."
GAA president, Aogán Ó Fearghail, said: "When you give children the opportunity to express themselves, extraordinary things can happen… The children's eye-view and perspective of Irish heritage and myth has fused effortlessly with their modern-day influences from social media and video games.
"It is our hope that this wonderful piece will hang in Croke Park for years to come and that many of the children here today will, one day, bring their own children to the stadium to see the mosaic their parents created".
Hear, hear to that!
Halpin is now working with Swan Youth Services on a mural for the North Strand that will incorporate the 1916 Rising, the North Strand bombings and other, more positive aspects of our local area. She says: "As an artist, it's great to bring the ideas and vision of local people to works of art in their own area - they are the people who know their locality best and will be living with it.
"Local initiatives like the Five Lamps Festival, the North Strand Community Garden, the monthly House Presents and, of course, the latest project of the Croke Park/St Columba's mosaic, show what a wonderfully vibrant community we are."
As President O'Fearghail said: "The mosaic has been all about partnerships with staff from Croke Park working with the pupils and teachers, volunteers and the artists to bring the mosaic to life."
Halpin jokes (I think) that the Cuchulainn myth is a "very long saga" and she is now looking forward to putting another "Celtic mosaic - also designed by the children, now that they have a taste for it - under the Hogan Stand", so more GAA fans can enjoy the talents of the local kids.
We certainly look forward to seeing it!