On a crisp, bright morning in Dublin worshippers sit on prayer mats spaced across a sport pitch


 
On a crisp, bright morning in Dublin, worshippers sit on prayer mats spaced across a sport pitch, listening to a woman dressed head-to-toe in white recite the.

From over the looming, concrete walls of the stadium, Catholic prayers barked into a microphone can be heard from the "rosary rally" protest outside.

Ireland's hallowed sporting grounds, Croke Park, opened its doors to Muslims this Eid al-Adha so that they could gather in large numbers for the first time since the country's coronavirus lockdown put strict limits on all indoor religious services.

Initially, the organisers had hoped 500 worshippers could attend Friday's event, but a surge in new COVID-19 cases delayed an expected easing of restrictions.

Instead, only 200 people were allowed on the field, suitably spaced apart, aside from some children who stayed close to their parents, running around the prayer mats in circles or waving miniature Irish flags.

For many of the worshippers, Friday's event was also a cherished opportunity to celebrate their dual identities - they are Muslim and Irish, and proud to be both.

"The Kaaba is the pulse and heart of the Muslim world," said Karen Kirwan, the ceremony's MC. "Well, Croke Park is the heartbeat of all the Irish people here in Ireland. It's where we are drawn to."

More than a stadium, Croke Park dominates a central position in Ireland's psyche.

"Croke Park has been a physical expression of a nationalist, cultural, sporting organisation. And it's freighted with history," historian Tim Carey said.

The stands are named for historical figures or insurrections, such as Hill 16, said - falsely - to be built on rubble from the 1916 Rising, a failed rebellion that reignited the Irish independence struggle (the stand was built the previous year).

The arena is also the site of the most notorious atrocity of the Irish War of Independence, the Bloody Sunday massacre, in which 14 people were shot dead by police who swarmed the field during a match.

"To have a sporting venue attacked in such a manner by the state really put Croke Park in a different league in terms of symbolism," Carey says.

After independence, the stadium was seen as a reflection of the new, often insular and deeply Catholic nation.

"The bishops threw the ball in at every major match in Croke Park until the 1970s," Carey says.

But on Friday, as protesters - some carrying prayer beads or anti-Islam signs - screamed through a line of police officers at an anti-racism counterprotest outside the stadium walls, the highest-ranking Catholic in Ireland, Diarmuid Martin, spoke along with Anglican and Jewish representatives to the hundreds of Muslims gathered on the field, expressing support for the Eid celebration.

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