Today Croke Park is home to, and headquarters of, the GAA. Prior to the Association's purchase of the stadium in 1913, the grounds were in private ownership. By a deed dated 10th December 1829 ‘an orchard, dwelling-house, yard and garden together with the fields adjoining’ amounting to a little over 12 acres was leased to a Mr. John Bradley. By another deed dated 16th April 1864 another plot of land containing over 21 acres was leased to Mr.Maurice Butterley.The two plots of ground in these two leases were adjoining and during the course of time came into the ownership of the GAA. In 1894 a newly formed company, the City and Suburban Racecourse and Amusements Grounds Ltd, purchased over 14 acres from Butterley.The new owners leased the grounds for a variety of sports meetings and whippet racing as well as for gaelic games.
The First Final's
In the early years of the GAA All-Ireland Finals were played at a variety of venues around the country. The first finals played at what is now Croke Park took place in March 1896 with Tipperary successful in both codes, beating Kilkenny in the All-Ireland Hurling Final and Meath in the All-Ireland Football Final. By 1906 the City and Suburban Racecourse and Amusements Grounds Ltd. was in financial difficulty and was put up for auction. In the auctioneer’s advertisement the property was described as then consisting of ‘14 acres and 17 and a half perches’. Frank Brazil Dineen decided to bid for the grounds and by a deed dated 17th December 1908 he paid £3,250 for the grounds.
Dineen intended this purchase to be a short-term matter and that in time the Association would eventually purchase the grounds from him. Once purchased Dineen made substantial improvements to the grounds, the pitch was re-laid and terracing was erected. These improvements placed a massive financial strain on Dineen and by 1910 he was forced to sell off four acres to the Jesuits of Belvedere College for £1,090. This portion remained in Jesuit hands until 1991 when it was repurchased by the GAA as part of the modern redevelopment of Croke Park.
Croke Memorial Tournament
In 1913 Central Council decided to initiate the Croke Memorial Tournament to raise funds for a suitable monument to the GAA’s first patron, Archbishop Thomas Croke. The final of this tournament was played on 4th March 1913 with Kerry facing Louth. The attendance of 26,000 at the final surpassed all expectations and was the highest number to date at the venue. The game ended in a draw and the replay on 29th June was eagerly awaited. Such was the excitement that the three major Irish railway companies ran over 40 special trains to Dublin for the replay, carrying more than 20,000 passengers. Special stands were erected and voluntary stewards controlled the crowds.
The gates were closed after 32,000 spectators had been admitted but thousands more swarmed along or over the railway wall. Louth were noted for passing the ball on the ground and for a “soccer” style of play. Kerry, on the other hand, used a traditional catch, swing and kick style. The two teams were level at half time but the staying power of the Kerrymen proved the deciding factor and they ran out winners 2-4 to 0-5. All records for a GAA fixture were smashed and it is estimated that up to 35,000 spectators were present to witness a magnificent exhibition of gaelic football. So successful was this venture that not alone could the Association afford to finance a monument but could think seriously of acquiring a new central sports ground. When all expenses had been met Central Council had made £2,365. On 27th July 1913 Central Council decided to buy the grounds and re-name it as Croke Memorial Park, a title which was never subsequently used. Dineen sold the grounds to the GAA for £3,500 and Croke Park became the principal grounds of the Association and also its administrative headquarters.
Accommodation for spectators in 1913 was primitive. Two stands existed along the Jones Road side of the grounds – one known as the Long Stand and the other simply called The Stand. The latter was a fragile timber construction which had an office underneath. The GAA’s first effort at modernisation was the construction of a terrace area at the northern end of the ground, in what is now Dineen-Hill 16. This was created in 1917 using the rubble from O’Connell Street in Dublin, which had been destroyed in the 1916 Rising.
In 1924 the GAA built a new stand along the Jones Road side of the stadium and took the historic decision to name it the Hogan Stand, in honour of Michael Hogan of Tipperary who had been shot during Bloody Sunday. The Cusack Stand was finally completed in 1938 and cost £50,000 and was regarded as one of the finest in Europe at the time. It had two tiers – 5,000 seats on the upper deck and terracing underneath. In 1966 this terracing was replaced with seating for 9,000 spectators. At the Canal End new terracing was provided in 1949 and the Nally Stand was built in 1952.
The ‘old’ Hogan Stand was replaced in 1959 when it became a two-tier structure standing 500 feet high and with seating for 16,000. By this time, Croke Park could house 23,000 seated spectators and 62,000 standing. However, 87,768 spectators watched Down beat Kerry in the 1960 All-Ireland Football Final. The following year an all-time record was reached when Down beat Offaly in the All-Ireland Football Final before 90,556 fans. After 1961 development of the grounds slowed.
In the 1980’s a grand plan for the entire redevelopment of Croke Park was set in train. This redevelopment was staged in four phases starting in 1993 with a new Cusack Stand and culminating in 2005 with a new Hill 16. The redevelopment was completed in just over 12 years with no disruptions to any All-Ireland Finals. Today Croke Park is one of the largest stadiums in Europe and is the crowning glory of the Association.