Shortly before 5:30 p.m. on Saturday the "unthinkable" will happen in Dublin's historic Croke Park stadium. Eighty-seven years after British troops fired into the crowd here and killed innocent Irish spectators, England's rugby team will sing God Save the Queen before a peaceful international match against their Irish opponents.
The last time the British appeared here – albeit as soldiers, not rugby players – has gone down in history as (the first) Bloody Sunday. That day – Nov. 21, 1920 – began with the assassination of 14 British agents and informers by the Irish Republican Army. In response, British troops surrounded Croke Park stadium during a Gaelic football match to search spectators as they left the ground, but the crowd panicked and in the confusion 14 were killed.
The day's events transformed Croke Park into a shrine of sorts, and hardened the policies of the Gaelic Athletic Association, founded in 1884 to promote Irish culture and sport.
"Bloody Sunday politicized the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) and solidified its relationship with nationalism," says historian Diarmaid Ferriter.
Until 1972, the GAA wouldn't allow its members to play "foreign" games, including soccer and rugby. And up until 2005, it wouldn't allow foreign games to be played in its stadiums. But it agreed to a temporary relaxation of its protectionist rules, allowing soccer and rugby internationals to take place during reconstruction work on Lansdowne Road, the home ground of Ireland's soccer and rugby teams.
Last week, the first of those games took place, with Ireland's rugby team playing France. But the inherent political dimension in Saturday's rugby match with England makes the game hugely symbolic, and is one example of reconciliation taking place outside the formal peace process.
For others, however, the symbolism of an English team and its supporters singing God Save the Queen at the site of the Bloody Sunday attack is more emotive. Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), a political party formed after a split in Sinn Féin which is opposed to the current Northern Ireland peace process, is planning a protest outside the ground.
"This isn't an antirugby protest. We object to the political symbolism of bringing a team representing a country that still occupies part of Ireland to play a game in Croke Park," says RSF Vice President Des Dalton.
Although Dr. Ferriter points out that RSF's political views wouldn't represent the majority, he admits that the anthem is a sensitive issue. "You have a sense, even from people who aren't die-hard republicans, that it will still stick in their throats," he says.
Whatever the political overtones, the game remains a sporting event. Sir Peter Hain, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, will make his first visit to Croke Park, and it was suggested he might mark the occasion by laying a wreath at the commemorative plaque for the victims of Bloody Sunday.
"The match is hugely symbolic, but these kinds of political gestures can create no-win situations," says Prof. Mike Cronin of Boston College's Centre For Irish Programmes in Dublin. "On one hand you are accused of dragging politics into sport and on the other criticized for taking 87 years to make an apology."
Former Irish international Trevor Ringland believes sport can make statements as succinctly as politics. "Rugby always managed to maintain relationships on this island when others were destroying them," he says, referring to the fact that Ireland's national team and competitions include representatives from both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Mr. Ringland chairs the Belfast-based One Small Step Campaign, which uses intercultural soccer tournaments and other programs to address the lack of reconciliation between those in Northern Ireland who feel their identity is British and those who feel it is Irish.
"We know about the history and the conflict, but we're trying to create a different future in this century," Ringland says. "I like what Abraham Lincoln said: 'I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.' "
Although both teams are composed of professional athletes focused on tactics and fitness, the significance of the occasion won't be lost on them. The English management team has invited former Irish captain Conor O'Shea to address the players and outline the significance of Croke Park prior to the game.
On one side of the ground is a grandstand named after Michael Hogan, a Gaelic footballer shot dead on Bloody Sunday, and on another side is Hill 16, originally built with the rubble from British shelling during the 1916 uprising. "Looking around the new stadium they won't see any architectural links with the past," says Professor Cronin. "Instead, it is more of a symbol of Ireland's Celtic Tiger economy."
After the anthems on Saturday, attention will at last turn to sport.
"Whatever divides people about England going to Croke Park, everybody wants to see them beaten," says Ferriter.
Trevor Ringland agrees: "I've got two English brothers-in-law and I constantly remind them that in sport nothing unites the Irish more than the English!"