“Brothers, sisters, comrades, I am here because I believe you have made a decision with insufficient information and foresight. I am aware of your earlier vote. I am aware that it was unanimous. Nonetheless, I believe we should restore the Springboks. Restore their name, their emblem and their colors, immediately. Let me tell you why. On Robben Island, in Pollsmoor Prison, all of my jailers were Afrikaners. For 27 years, I studied them. I learned their language, read their books, their poetry. I had to know my enemy before I could prevail against him. And we did prevail, did we not? All of us here; we prevailed. Our enemy is no longer the Afrikaner. They are our fellow South Africans, our partners in democracy. And they treasure Springbok rugby. If we take that away, we lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be. We have to be better than that. We have to surprise them with compassion, with restraint, and generosity. I know. All of the things they denied us. But this is no time to celebrate petty revenge. This is the time to build our nation using every single brick available to us – even if that brick comes wrapped in green and gold. You elected me your leader. Let me lead you now.”
I don’t have it in for Eamonn Sweeney, honest, but he wrote another piece in the Irish Independent two weekends ago that happened to catch my attention. This one asserted and celebrated the inclusiveness of the Irish rugby team and its ability to capture the imagination of everyone in Ireland, no matter where on the societal spectrum they may find themselves; be they privileged or disadvantaged, or be they north or south.
It was published on the morning of the Irish rugby team’s then-seemingly-impressive 24-9 victory over France at the Rugby World Cup and, in anticipation of the fixture, saluted the purported unifying nature of the team:
Ireland expects. Shoulder to shoulder, North and South, we stand together. This is everyone’s team.
Sweeney dismissed as “faux streetwise nonsense” the “notion that the World Cup has received too much hype and coverage in the national media and that rugby remains a middle-class game to whose charms the Plain People of Ireland remain largely immune”, citing as evidence the average number of viewers in Ireland (956,600) who were tuned in to watch the Irish rugby team take on Italy the previous weekend compared to the average number of viewers who were tuned in to watch the 2015 All-Ireland Gaelic football and hurling finals (875,300 and 739,600 respectively). Actually, he asserted that this notion of rugby as a sport of privilege in Ireland had little to no relevance or currency even as far back as “when Ireland were winning Triple Crowns in 1982 and 1985”.
The opinion that rugby is now “the biggest show in town” in Ireland has been disputed in the recent past by commentators such as George Hook, Declan Lynch, Ken Early and Ewan MacKenna. Hook’s thoughts on the matter were as follows:
Rugby is still primarily the sport of choice of fee paying schools. No matter how hard we try we rugby people can’t actually say this is the game of the people. The game of the people is soccer so therefore [the Ireland football team’s Euro 2016 qualifier against Poland, which was played on the same day as the Ireland-France rugby game] is a bigger deal in that sense.
But because the rugby World Cup is easier to win than the soccer World Cup because less teams enter, there are only four teams who can actually win [the rugby World Cup], we have a better chance of going further so in that sense the French match has more to offer.
Declan Lynch was of the opinion that rugby is really the game of “Official Ireland” and that the current sentiment of positivity is “a faithless and a shallow love”, whilst Ken Early examined an apparent double standard applied by the Irish media; he perceives there to be one standard, a generously optimistic one, applied to the mollycoddled and “brave” Irish rugby team with a separate much more pessimistic and unforgiving one reserved for the “unloved child” of Irish sport, the oft-ridiculed and pilloried Ireland football team. He outlined some examples of this double standard in effect before stating:
If you were inclined to seek sinister explanations for the apparent double standard you might think it was evidence of a media controlled by the sort of people who went to rugby schools. A personal view is that it’s – well, more personal. Journalists covering rugby tend to see a lot more of the international players than soccer ones do. Only one of the current rugby squad lives outside of Ireland, and he’s coming home this summer. All of the soccer players live in big houses in Britain or America and the relative remoteness of their lives establishes immediate critical distance. The cliche says otherwise but in sports journalism, familiarity tends to breed respect, or at least empathy.
But if footballers are sore about being underappreciated in the media, they can console themselves with the knowledge that as far as the rest of the country is concerned, they’re still number one. [Giovanni] Trapattoni’s belief that the Irish prefer rugby isn’t supported by the evidence. The biggest Irish TV audiences for sporting events continue to be football World Cups and Euros, with Italy 1994 still leading the way narrowly from the defeat to Croatia for Euro 2012.
An average audience of 1.235 million people watched the entire two-and-a-half hours of Ireland’s defeat to Croatia. That’s almost double the average of 697,000 that watched [Ireland’s] victory [over Scotland] at Murrayfield [last March], on what the international media dubbed the Six Nations’ greatest day.
But football is not just a TV show. Irish Sports Council figures say that four times as many people play football as rugby. Soccer is by a distance the most popular team sport by participation, while rugby is currently fourth, behind Gaelic football and hurling.
Whilst success naturally breeds popular interest – it’s very easy for the reward-seeker to get behind a winner – it is worth noting that the Irish rugby team, whilst relatively successful in the Six Nations Championship in recent years, ultimately underachieve in a very small pool. In light of Ireland’s elimination from the Rugby World Cup at the hands of Argentina, the team have been described as “the worst chokers in World Cup history”.
Achieving and sustaining even global mediocrity within international football – a much more populous, diverse and competitive field of play – is a significantly more arduous task than reaching the pinnacle “globally” ought to be in a sport played professionally in only eleven countries worldwide, yet the Irish rugby team have never once progressed past the quarter-finals stage of a Rugby World Cup. This is as far as the Ireland football team progressed during football’s 1990 equivalent in Italy after famously beating Romania in a second-round penalty shoot-out. This in itself prompted a collective outpouring of ecstasy and scenes of wild jubilation on Irish streets, the like of which were never seen before and a reproduction of which would be improbable in a rugby context, even perhaps if Ireland were to go as far as winning a Rugby World Cup. The only other countries that play professional rugby to have failed to make it past the quarter-finals stage are Italy and Japan.
Ewan MacKenna disagreed with Early on the motivation behind the alleged double standard applied to rugby and football, seeing it as being rooted in classism – as being a case of wealth looking out for wealth – and wrote the following:
[T]he idea that this is rugby country remains shunted on top of us by marketing. Only it’s not. And it never was. And it never will be as big-bucks promotion doesn’t transfer to passion amongst the masses. Sure enough, a game against England might occupy Irish minds for a few hours but the reality is that it’s a game that has never gotten near most hearts. In a place where sport has been intertwined with struggle and strife, rugby is still in many ways a bastion of continued elitism.
Let’s get to some facts first. Sure enough, Ireland-France was the most watched sporting event last year but rather than highlight rugby’s popularity, it pointed to its fickle, bandwagon nature. Other than that day, only one other rugby match made the top 10 while more people tuned into Cork-Mayo than Ireland-Wales or Ireland-South Africa. Indeed the 891,000 that looked on at celebrations in Paris wouldn’t have had made the top five in previous years. In 2013, Ireland-England was the only rugby in the top-five, only one other rugby match made the top 10 amidst seven GAA encounters, more watched Ireland-Austria than Ireland-France and more watched Ireland-Sweden than Ireland-New Zealand. And in 2012 only Ireland-Wales from a rugby perspective was top 10.
But mainstream games garnering attention doesn’t make a sport mainstream. Indeed it’s away from the big days where it’s best to see the imprint of a sport on the national psyche. In 2013, research amongst over-16s showed that just 2.3 per cent said they’d attended a rugby match in the previous week yet three times more were at a Gaelic football game, two-and-a-half times as many had been at soccer while even hurling with its shrinking strongholds came in at 2.9 per cent. In terms of club membership, while 21 per cent of the country is a member of a GAA club and golf claims nine per cent, rugby lies at around 3.5 per cent, not dissimilar to swimming and athletics. This is not to run down people’s interests or a popularity contest, but it is about reality and disproportionality. And it’s about rugby being taken out of context via hype and hysteria.
Where GAA is engrained in parish building blocks, where John Delaney is still in a job because he can point to the numbers playing soccer at the bottom, rugby’s pyramid is inverted and top-heavy. That makes it misleading in terms of its place in Ireland, and while there’ll be no shortage of fur coats at Lansdowne Road today [for the Six Nations game between Ireland and Engalnd], ask the clubs about undergarments. Where once 10,000 watched Garryowen beat Young Munster in a provincial Senior Cup final, now you can barely get the numbers because no one is there to count. Rugby country? A house of cards more like, held up only by wins.
Today the old enemy shacking up in Dublin 4 will be the predictable talk, but so much of our rugby is representative of the new enemy within. And if the pitch is surrounded by Celtic Tiger classes and others desperate for association with a fad, on it is still the preserve of the chosen few. In fact of the 21 players schooled in the south that have taken to the field for Ireland in this Six Nations, 66 per cent went to fee-paying schools.
Yet still it punches above its weight and the reason is uncomfortable. Back in the 2000s, while working with a now defunct newspaper, key players in the boardroom had attended rugby schools and a combination of their old alma mater and new advertising money forced their sport top of the pile. Pages wouldn’t be held for key Irish soccer games but presses stopped for minor rugby matches. One journalist paid his own way to the World Cup in South Africa yet three plane tickets were reserved for what amounted to a second-string rugby team heading to Argentina. As for reel and ink devoted to schools rugby, everyone in the media knows why as wealth looks out for wealth.
More recently, MacKenna re-iterated his perspective on the bias towards rugby found to be emanating from within the Irish social and media elite:
I think it goes back to people in key positions in newspapers, televisions stations and whatever else. People at a boardroom level often tend to come from private rugby playing schools and I think they set the agenda… I think that’s why [rugby] gets so much coverage. I think it’s overblown as to how popular it is…
I remember working in the Sunday Tribune before it went bust a few years ago, and we could never hold our first edition for a big soccer match, yet the managing director, who was a rugby fan, would always make sure that we’d pay extra money and hold it if there was a rugby match on.
The World Cup in South Africa was on and a colleague of mine, Miguel Delaney, paid his own way to go to the World Cup because we weren’t sending any of our journalists to cover it. Yet, that summer, a kind of an Irish ‘B’ team toured Argentina and we paid for three journalists to go and cover it. Again, because from on high, this is rugby, this is our sport.
And that’s kind of the elephant in the room. A lot of the people who work in the media know that. They’ve seen it…
The Irish Independent the day before the All-Ireland football final had a picture on its front page of Ireland-Canada and nothing on the All-Ireland football final.
Whilst the debate over whether or not rugby has shed the miasma of privilege that has historically pervaded the sport – only in Limerick is it truly established as a pastime of the working-class as well as the middle-class, whilst, in Ulster, its playing was traditionally confined to middle-class Protestant grammar schools – so as to become a game that is now open to all, that can be embraced by all on the Irish socio-economic spectrum and that is treated equally and proportionately by the media, continues with fiery passion in the south of Ireland, little to no attention is ever paid by the southern media to the veracity of the assertion that the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) transcend the great Irish politico-cultural divide of “North and South”. Indeed, the organisation claim to be representative of “one island, one passion, one goal”.
Historically and generally speaking, there have been and are two main ethno-political or cultural traditions on the island of island. There is the minority unionist tradition, which is predominantly made up of the culturally-Protestant or Ulster-Scots community mainly found in the north-east of the island in Ulster. The tradition’s roots in Ireland are found in the British crown’s plantation of Ulster by Scottish and English settlers in the early 1600s and the Irish identity of its adherents is a regional or sub-national one that supplements to their British national identity. As already mentioned, most rugby in the north has been traditionally played by this community’s middle-class.
And then there is the Irish national or nationalist tradition found mainly throughout the rest of the island of Ireland, although it is also found in Ulster. This tradition, the majority one on the island, asserts its Irish identity to be an independent and all-island, national one. It is, very broadly speaking, predominantly culturally-Catholic and is most commonly associated with the native Gaelic culture, although numbers of Ulster-Scots (many also of Scottish Gaelic heritage) in the past and Protestants in the south have also espoused or also espouse the idea of independent Irish nationhood. Indeed, it should be noted, there do exist Catholic unionists in Ireland too.
Naturally, not every Irish person can be neatly pigeon-holed into two distinct or exclusive categories, nor would it be accurate to suggest that either of the identified groups is monolithic or internally homogenous. They are internally diverse and there does not exist a single orthodoxy within either grouping. Indeed, there is a considerable degree of complexity and communal crossover or overlap. I admittedly simplify in order to provide a brief and succinct explanation of background and context.
The island of Ireland was partitioned by Britain along these perceived lines of division in the early 1920s. This was secured under British Prime Minister David Lloyd George‘s unabashed threat to the Irish representatives visiting London to negotiate for full self-government of re-igniting “immediate and terrible war” upon Ireland. The country was split – crudely or pragmatically, depending on one’s perspective – to create two newly-separate jurisdictions with contrasting political, social, cultural and economic interests: the jurisdiction in the north-east was given the name of Northern Ireland and remained part of the UK, housing a two-thirds Protestant or unionist majority (although a very significant Catholic or nationalist minority also found themselves collaterally caught on the “wrong side” of the newly-drawn border and jettisoned from their cultural kinsfolk in the remainder of the island; this was on account of the drawing of the border being motivated by an attempt to accommodate as many Protestants as possible in an area of land large enough to sustain economic viability but not too big so as to threaten their long-term numerical majority); and the southern Irish Free State (which later became the fully-independent Republic of Ireland), with an overwhelming Catholic or nationalist majority (although a small minority of unionists were also included against their will; many in the south assimilated over time into the wider quasi-pluralist culture of the new state, whilst those around the border region, especially those Ulster-Scots of east Donegal’s Laggan district, still in close geographical proximity to their cultural hinterland in spite of the border, retained their British heritage). The political split remains to this day.
Irish rugby, however, never experienced the effect of partition in the same way that, say, Irish football did, in the sense that the rugby team remains playing as a single unit officially representative of the entire island of Ireland; that encompassing the two political jurisdictions. It is these two entities and their respective British-Irish/Northern Irish and Irish cultural traditions to which Sweeney was referring when he used the phrase “North and South”. Is the Irish rugby team truly representative of both the north (along with the British heritage of the majority of its inhabitants) and the south (along with its Irish national heritage), however? There is a haughty presumption in the south that it does, but perhaps, rather than self-satisfaction, some self-reflection is better warranted by the reality.
At this year’s Rugby World Cup, the Irish team played under two flags; the Irish tricolour, which is the official flag of the southern state and national flag of Ireland, as far as nationalists are concerned, and the sub-national provincial flag of Ulster (also the official flag of the Ulster rugby branch, but not of equal national, state or jurisdictional standing to the tricolour). The six counties of the statelet of Northern Ireland are found within the nine-county province of Ulster, although Ulster is also made up of three counties from the Republic.
Thus, there was no explicit or specific recognition for the entity of Northern Ireland nor for the British unionist tradition when the Irish rugby team played; instead, British-identifying unionists had to settle for being represented by a flag that, in also being representative of the Ulster nationalist community and three southern counties, did not effectively emphasise or solely specify their identity or distinguish the political entity with which they identify from the other three Ulster counties (already represented by the tricolour anyway), whilst the tricolour explicitly distinguished and exclusively emphasised the Irish national identity. There was a clear disparity in terms of the prominence accorded to how the respective cultures were represented.
The choice of symbolism displayed was undoubtedly loaded in favour of nationalism and the south or what was deemed tolerable to the majority. Does the majority realise, however, that its cultural symbolism might be just as contentious to the unionist minority as the preferred cultural symbolism of the unionist minority might be for the majority? Yet the minority, if ever they had the temerity to complain, would most certainly be advised to just get over their “prejudices” or “mopery” and “get on with it”. The attitude of “like it or lump it” is conducive to neither enhancing genuine understanding nor engendering mutual communal respect.
‘Ireland’s Call’, a song commissioned by the IRFU, composed by Phil Coulter and intended as a unifying all-island anthem, was played as the team’s anthem before Rugby World Cup games, as is customary for all Ireland away games. It has, since 1995, acted as a cultural umbrella in the form of a ditty that is inclusive and representative of both of the main traditions on the island; it is exclusive to neither nationalists or unionists.
However, at home games in Dublin, ‘Amhrán na bhFiann‘, the anthem of the southern state and Irish nation, is played along with the unifying anthem. Just like the one-sidedness of the flag situation, no anthem is ever played that solely recognises or represents the northern unionist or British tradition.
Indeed, the IRFU have avoided organising full international fixtures north of the border so as to avert incurring the controversy of a situation – or the wrath of nationalists and southerners, even – whereby the Irish rugby team might be politically or logically expected to stand to attention for ‘God Save the Queen’, which is, as far as unionists are concerned, the official anthem of the northern jurisdiction.
An agreement was made in secret in respect of this issue in 1954, the last time Ireland played a full international in Belfast for over half a century, in order to resolve an associated dispute over the anthem. The details of the resolution were outlined by Frank Keating:
On February 27, Ireland played Scotland at Belfast’s Ravenhill. The new Irish captain was Corkman Jim McCarthy, flame-haired flanker and British Lion. On the train from Dublin, the 11-strong southern contingent decided enough was enough. Even New Zealand insisted on the British anthem when Ireland hosted them that season.
McCarthy at once told eminent IRFU president Sarsfield Hogan that they would not be leaving the dressing-room to stand next day alongside the Scottish team in their then routine pre-match homage to a foreign monarch. If the anthem was played, he said, only the four Ulstermen in the side – Gregg, Henderson, Anderson, and Thompson – would be lining up to hear it. “Sleep on it, Jim,” advised wily Leinsterman Hogan, but the defiant McCarthy next morning summoned the committee to a crisis meeting with the 11 southerners at the Grand Central Hotel. All were sworn to lifelong secrecy as a compromise was hammered out over nearly two hours.
It was agreed that only an abbreviated national anthem, known in Ulster as “the Salute”, would be played that afternoon; that the Irish team would never again play at Ravenhill – and nor did they, which nicely suited the IRFU coffers for Dublin’s Lansdowne Road was far bigger and more convenient. It was decided all those at the meeting (already causing suspicion among the press and the four Ulstermen in the XV because kick-off was nearing) should say it had been called to offer prayers for Pope Pius XII who, as it happened, was extremely ill in the Vatican.
Thus did the All-Ireland XV stand for the Ulster “Salute” before going on to beat Scotland 6-0, and in the Grand Central bar that night one of his northern players comforted his captain, saying he too would happily have joined in the prayers for the Pope that morning “if only you’d told me the poor wee fellow was so unwell”.
Conor Neville also wrote similarly of attempts since then to find a unifying anthem along with the perceived problems with ‘God Save the Queen’:
‘God Save the Queen’ obviously wasn’t acceptable and hadn’t been used since Ireland played at Ravenhill in the 1950s. Indeed, a dispute over the anthem seemed to precipitate the IRFU’s decision to avoid Ravenhill for home games. In 1954, Ireland played Scotland in the Five Nations up north.
It was customary for the two teams to stand for one rendition of God Save The Queen before games in Belfast. (It wasn’t until 1988 that Scotland stopped using God Save The Queen as their anthem, switching to Flower of Scotland).
However, the night before the game, Irish captain Jimmy McCarthy told the IRFU chairman that the southern based players would remain in their dressing rooms for God Save The Queen. Only the four Ulster players would stand for it. McCarthy was told to sleep on it, but a night in bed didn’t alter his mood.
Eventually, a compromise was hammered out, whereby an abbreviated version of God Save The Queen, known in Ulster as ‘the Salute’ was played. Ireland won the match 6-0. They would not play at Ravenhill again until a pre-World Cup friendly in 2007.
When Ireland did play that 2007 game in Ravenhill, only ‘Ireland’s Call’ received an airing. The proposition of playing ‘God Save the Queen’ (or any other Northern Ireland-specific anthem) was rejected by the IRFU under the rather peculiar rationale that the game, despite being played in Ireland, was an “away” fixture. I am not a unionist, nor is it often that I agree with insidious and inflammatory provocateurs like David Vance, but I can smell blatant double standards a mile off.
Neville’s casual, presumptuous and probably-unthinking dismissal of the prospect of entertaining ‘God Save the Queen’ as “obviously” being unacceptable, without really considering or explaining why this should be so “obvious” or how this might be interpreted by a minority of the teams supporters, especially in light of it being considered acceptable, if not mandatory, by the majority to have players from the unionist community stand to ‘Amhrán na bhFiann‘ in Dublin, is a common sentiment amongst the non-unionist majority in Ireland.
When rugby-supporting Irish nationals expect the entire Irish rugby team to stand to ‘Amhrán na bhFiann‘, would they, in return, be prepared to stand or have Irish national players stand to ‘God Save the Queen’ as a shared anthem of the team, if only to appreciate the sense of alienation and discomfort that the British-identifying players must feel? Of course, no such discomfort is imposed upon the Irish national players.
Whilst the parity-of-esteem principle has been enshrined into public life and politics north of the border since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (although its implementation has not been complete), it would appear that the IRFU have no such intent to offer explicit, tangible or exclusive recognition to the British identity of a significant number of their members and supporters. Of course, they are under no legal or societal obligation to do so (being head-quartered in the south anyway), except for the fact that their claims of inclusiveness, along with the patronising assertions of their defenders, might logically or morally demand it.
Either way, there is no escaping the fact that unionist rugby fans get short-changed in terms of the lack of explicit or exclusive recognition of their identity. They receive no better than a half-hearted cop-out, if a token gesture at all. It’s simply hollow. There is a complacent presumption in the south that, by “giving them” ‘Ireland’s Call’ and the Ulster provincial flag, “that’s them sorted”. And then southerners and nationalists pat themselves on the back for being so “generous” and “willing to compromise”, except it’s not really compromise at all, is it?
The matter represents a parallel of sorts with the Belfast City Hall flag dispute in that the flying of both national flags or none from Belfast City Hall (rather than the Union flag alone on 13 designated days per year) has been proposed by nationalists, republicans, cross-community advocates and, indeed, liberal or progressive unionists as being the preferable option in terms of ensuring inclusiveness for both communities north of the border and in compliance with the concept of parity of esteem. Should not a similar principle be applied to the cross-community Irish rugby team in respect of its anthems and symbols? In the interests of ensuring consistency, I submit that the IRFU should either explicitly and equally recognise both parts of their make-up or they should just play a single shared anthem and display unifying, cross-representational symbolism only.
I fear the sentiment, as duly demonstrated by Conor Neville, serves to indicate just how ingrained in the majority psyche the subconscious aversion towards the prospect of making actual, self-sacrificial compromise with or extending real gestures of recognition towards the minority unionist community in Ireland truly is. If we want to lead the way into the future, let us take the initiative by leading and not forever waiting to take the second step. If we want a truly united and inclusive Ireland, we must surely try harder and aspire to offering better than superficial inclusion for our fellow Irish men and women. It is the very least we would expect for ourselves if the roles were reversed.
A truly civic Irish republic and its various institutions, including the all-island IRFU based in Dublin, ought to fully respect and recognise our island’s century’s-old and now-settled (or perhaps even quasi or pseudo–indigenous) cultural duality, irrespective of whether or not it is perceived by the majority that those others in the island’s minority would ever do the same in return. It must also find a way to not merely accommodate the British tradition in Ireland but to embrace that tradition as an equal and one that is just as Irish as the majority tradition on the island. Rather than lapsing into hypocritical whataboutery, let us unilaterally develop and apply our own standards to ourselves rather than wait for the second-hand, or second-rate, cues of others to guide us. If others respond positively to that and view it in the spirit it is intended, then all the better.
A condensed version of the above piece also featured here on Slugger O’Toole followed by further discussion and commentary.