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GAA's cathedral still lifts the soul

Croker's theatre of dreams has power to enchant

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WHAT DREAMS MAY COME: Croke Park Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile.

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME: Croke Park Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile.

SPORTSFILE

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME: Croke Park Stadium. Pic: Sportsfile.

On the best of days, Croke Park can assume the dimensions of a sun providing light for an entire galaxy.

A storehouse of heartsoar, the palace where so many of us, at some blessed time, have felt like kings; the university of life where we came to vividly understand the power of place. And, in those moments, felt most vibrantly alive.

Here is the dream factory of the long days, the foundry where enchanted, imperishable stories are forged; so much of the best of an Irish summer, our tribal essence, unspools within those towering, history-flecked walls.

It is the feasting hall where the Celtic clans dine on the protein-rich diet of shared hope, camaraderie and escapism; the nation's meeting place. That the gateways to Ireland's playground are bolted closed on St Patrick's Day might be taken as further dispiriting evidence that the world is toppling off its axis.

But, on March 17, of all dates, can we not reach down into the national psyche to locate a more uplifting narrative?

And, in so doing, summon an urgently required tumbler of inspiration from the darkness.

Like the Italians finding solidarity in song, their haunting and beautiful arias pouring out from their balconies onto deserted, Covid-19 ravished streets, we too can ladle defiance from the well of the human spirit.

And even in these most unsettling times evict a little of the trepidation and say: We will beat this.

Undeniably, the journey will be testing, with frequent interrogations of the will. Disquiet and pain will visit many of us along the road, but, however the pillars of society's temple are buffeted, they will endure.

We will not be broken. Croke Park's doors may be closed, but memory can pick any lock, imagination can soar above the highest blockade.

So, let's go inside. What is to stop us mining nuggets of solace from the best of our days at the Drumcondra treasure house?

Magical

Those magical expeditions that carried Wexford or Clare or Donegal or Galway to the edge of heaven; the flash of steel as the aristocratic houses went to war; days of thunder when Dublin versus Kerry or Tipp taking on Kilkenny seemed like the only things in the world that truly mattered.

Or, as John Kiely suggests, let us anticipate the first feed after the famine, relish the thrill of pulse-quickening days in the future when the games return and the cheeks of the sporting calendar are no longer sunk into concavity.

What a fiesta of joy that will be.

"Sport will be a huge player in lifting the spirits of the nation when it does come back on the agenda, when this is all over," is the Limerick manager's timely antidote against despair.

Indulge me in offering a snapshot of my own. It is not one that summons the masterworks of laureates like Maurice Fitzgerald or Diarmuid Connolly or John Mullane or JBM, even if their greatest works, the forever moments when they rose up and seized immortality, have found lodging in the soul.

No, this is a story about a man who never played at Croke Park. His name was Aidan. My late father, the Da.

Typical of his generation, a man's man, hard-working, strong and silent, not given to overt displays of emotion.

I met him, truly met him, for the first time in the summer of 1976 when he enlisted his eldest son, a seven-year-old, as an infantryman of a force sweeping the city of Dublin: Heffo's Army.

It is 44 years ago. It is yesterday. Walking through the warren of narrow streets off the Clonliffe Road, the red-bricked arteries carrying us to Croke Park's massive heart, next to the man who made me, I felt a surge of emotion I was too young to articulate.

But looking back through the telescope of the years, it is easy to identify now - it is called love.

I could see in the eyes of my father, one of tens of thousands forced to take the emigrants' boat in the 1950s, but home now from the hardships of his young life in London, what it meant to be walking that road.

I think it about as I write this. I am laughing. I am crying.

Dad bought me a crepe-hat in two-toned blue and I was a prince; he told me about Anton O'Toole and Paddy Cullen, giants who would later become fast friends, but who at that stage were caped comic strip superheroes. Roy of the Rovers in too tight O'Neill's shorts. My jaw was wedged agape.

The Da held my hand as he led me toward paradise, father and son, but brothers, too. Fellow conscripts in this blue force that handed a ravaged city a much-needed badge of identity.

Wonder

I felt wonder and I felt grown-up. A surge of pride invaded every atom of my being and I knew what it was to belong.

Dad died in 2009, his funeral fell the day after Pat Gilroy's startled earwigs were scattered across Croke Park by Kerry on an August Bank Holiday.

He never got to witness Dublin's subsequent age of imperium.

How deeply from that cup of joy he would have drank.

But on our national feast day, I imagine his spirit soaring over the shuttered doors to Croke Park, taking in the story of the last decade, joy flowing into his marrow and a great smile creasing his handsome face.

I imagine sunshine. I hear the roar. And I know Ireland won't be broken.