February 13, 2016

The remarkability of Irish Rugby

The tricolour and provincial Ulster flag fly as Ireland play Canada at the 2015 Rugby World Cup
In 1986 The New York Times wrote:
"From a social and political perspective, every game the Irish team plays is remarkable indeed.
Arlene Foster said on the Nolan Show, November 5 2015:
"Yes [I consider myself Irish when watching Irish Rugby,] because we have some fantastic Ulster Rugby players playing for them."
The Irish Rugby Football Union was formed in its present form in 1879, so it pre-dates partition by 41 years. Edmund van Esbeck is the veteran and highly respected rugby correspondent of the Dublin-based Irish Times. Speaking in 1997 he shed some light on the great healing and congealing force that the game of rugby has exerted on Ireland: 

"In the years before partition, there were the Irish Football Union in Dublin and the Northern Football union in Belfast. However, right from the start in 1895 the players who represented Ireland were chosen from men who played under the auspices of both Unions. 
Almost immediately there were moves to form one governing body for the whole of Ireland, and in 1879 the Irish Rugby Football Union was formed with its HQ in Dublin. 
Rugby has had an all-Ireland dimension right from the start, and it would not be overstating the case to say that rugby in Ireland has succeeded where generations of politicians from the north and south and Britain have failed. 
Rugby is the only game where you will have the hard-case Unionist, maybe from the Shankhill, coming down to Lansdowne Road and roaring on the team shoulder to shoulder with the most rabid Nationalist."
Van Esbeck said to the New York Times in 1986:
"Rugby is a unifying force in Ireland. It has succeeded totally where political initiatives have failed.”
He also said:
"Fortunately the friendship and good fellowship of Irish rugby men were not affected by differing loyalties and political sympathies, and this great sporting bond continues to be a bright feature in the most gloomy times."
Keith Wood said to Reuters:
"When I started, I remember we had Special Branch (police) guys with guns standing on the side of the training sessions. 
Things have thankfully moved on an awful lot. There is still a long way for that to go but if rugby can be of any additional benefit to that process, isn’t that a great side effect to having a Rugby World Cup bid."

More on ulster rugby and flags here.
If you watch the Irish rugby team take to the pitch and stand for the anthems you will notice that the provincial Ulster flag flies alongside the tricolour, the national flag for Ireland. This irks the patriots on both sides but for the majority is a pragmatic accommodation. I repeatedly say to myself that Irish rugby is the model for reconciliation and the future of this island. Ciaran Kearney at @an_phoblact explained how it works here.

In 1986 The New York Times did a feature on Irish rugby, remarking that the IRFU "has vigorously guarded the sport's apolitical purity. The players are instructed never to discuss their political views with the press." Steve Lohr wrote:
"From a social and political perspective, every game the Irish team plays is remarkable indeed. As it has for decades, the Irish Rugby Football Union selects for the national team the 15 best players it can find on the whole island - some from the Republic of Ireland, a predominantly Roman Catholic nation, and others from Northern Ireland, a mainly Protestant region that remains a British province. 
In Northern Ireland the Irish Republican Army is waging guerrilla warfare, trying to get the British out and make the island a single nation. And the British-Irish agreement signed last November, which gives the Republic a say in the affairs of the British province, has brought violent demonstrations from Protestants in Northern Ireland. 
But for a few weekends a year, thousands of fans from the North, mostly Protestants, stream into Dublin and stand shoulder to shoulder with Catholics from the South - all cheering themselves hoarse for Ireland."
He continued, explaining that "Politics a Taboo Subject":
"Team members spend endless hours together in practice, matches and on road trips. But the subject of politics is avoided, they say, as members of a family would ignore some longstanding and intractable internal disagreement. 
“Politics are never discussed,” said Ciaran Fitzgerald, the team captain. “We just concentrate on what we are there for - rugby. And as long as you keep it that way, you’re all right.” 
The rugby union has vigorously guarded the sport’s apolitical purity. The players are instructed never to discuss their political views with the press. “We have always done everything we could to keep politics out of rugby,” explained Desmond McKibbin, president of the Irish Rugby Football Union. “And, touch wood, we have never had any problem so far"."
Mick Doyle, coach of the Irish team in 1986, said to The New York Times:
"Rugby is apolitical. It doesn't tolerate politics or religion. People may have different views, but we're all Irish when it comes to rugby."
Moss Keane said:
"That was the thing about playing with the northern boys we transcended politics. It didn’t take too long for me to reconcile my Republican heritage with the diverse political and religious backgrounds of my team mates. There was no border in the dressing room."
Sean Diffley said:
"Rugby playing Irishmen are just as nationalist or unionist, or protestant or Catholic as their non-rugby neighbours, but they eschew all sectarian labels when it comes to pulling on a rugby jersey... Rugby football has worked to widen friendships and unite... [and] what rugby football has done to Ireland is to provide a different definition of Irishman from the acrimonious, sterile political one."
Terry Wogan said in his 2007 interview with the Times:
"Rugby at Croke Park, that to me is the end of it, we mustn’t keep thinking we’re the only people with history, the only people oppressed."
In my previous post I noted that Wogan also said about the occasion:
"Notwithstanding the history that’s between us, the friendship is greater and that again epitomises the spirit of rugby."
Liam Becket gives us an insight into the omertà, code of silence in irish rugby, 
"Knowing fine well that whatever they say [Northern Ireland footballers] is not going to be met with universal approval generally means that difficult subjects are taboo to many of them."
Trevor Ringland said:
"While the rest of Ireland was tearing itself apart, rugby was doing it right. It’s a different way to do politics, in which nobody dies."
He also said:
"As an Ulster player travelling down to play for Ireland from a unionist and British background, Irish rugby was always an example of the way Irishness could accommodate Britishness and Britishness accommodate its Irishness."

Trevor Ringland said in an interview with Tom English: 
"That day against Wales - and all other days - I stood for the soldier's song and I looked up at the tricolour, which the people who were trying to kill my father wrapped themselves in. Fortunately they missed him, but he had to deal with the fall-out of some terrible incidents. You had to work with him as he dealt with some of the thing he had no experience. 
Years later, when I got into politics, I spoke to Ian Paisley. He wasn’t a bad man, he worked well for his constituents and he was very personable. But I said to him once, "You know you’ve really blighted my life.” And he did. As did Gerry Adams. They blighted it because of what they were representing and what they inspired, the hatred they inspired. As a police family you had to deal with the consequences of that."
Ringland also said:
"A month later [After the 1987 IRA bomb that killed Lord Justice Maurice Gibson, and caught up in the blast were Nigel Carr, Philip Rainey and David Irwin, on their way back from Dublin after pre-World Cup training. Carr never played rugby again.] we were standing in line in Wellington waiting to play in a World Cup but we were without one of our best players because Nigel had had his career ended by an IRA bomb. So you can see why The Soldier’s Song wouldn’t have felt very appropriate to some of us."
He also said:
"When I played rugby for Ireland, the tricolour flew in Lansdowne Road and it wanted me to be there, it wanted to include me. The Soldier’s Song was played and I stood out of respect for it. I think it’s time ordinary people reclaimed our symbols from the extremists who seek to use them in exclusive and divisive ways."
He continued:
"Myself and others, during the worst of the Troubles, we played for Ireland and we were very happy to play for Ireland. What we need is acceptance that Northern Ireland exists. That’s what we voted for in 1998, and the key to the future is full recognition of that."
Ringland spoke at length in 2007 with the Irish Times on the question of Irish rugby. He said to Keith Duggan:
"It is based on creating a relationship of understanding between the communities. A few weekends ago, we organised a cycle which went up through the Shankill and down the Falls Road. It's a modest enough pursuit but would not have been possible a few years back. 
Coming from a rugby background probably helped me to form friendships throughout Ireland. 
My upbringing was traditionally Ulster. My father was a policeman and prior to 1969 we regularly went to Arklow in the summer so we had a broad knowledge and appreciation of Ireland. My father served in the RUC until 1983, through some of the worst of the Troubles. 
Sport was affected by sectarianism in the same way as almost every other aspect of life and society. That is one of the reasons the Irish rugby team was so important. 
When I was playing, we didn't really discuss the Troubles very much. It was just a team. These were our team-mates and our friends. We went to play rugby. But I don't think people realised at the time there was a gesture involved in us standing for The Soldier's Song in those years. 
When my Ulster and Ireland team-mates David Irwin, Nigel Carr and Philip Rainey got caught in the bomb blast that killed Lord Justice Maurice Gibson and his wife, Cecily, it received a lot of attention - 20 years ago this April. 
I knew Lord Gibson, a man I had a lot of respect for. But the boys were just in the wrong place at the wrong time and Nigel's rugby career was ended. I often thought whoever pressed that button simply didn't care about who was in proximity. 
Things have improved considerably. Ulster winning the European Cup in 1999 was a very emotional day. I will never forget the "good luck" signs through Drogheda and Dundalk. For me, that was really strong evidence people were moving on. 
There are examples of co-operation between sports across the North now. In Belfast, St Bridget's GAA club share their ground with rugby. The same is happening in Ballymena, and Jarlath Burns introduced rugby to his school, which would have been traditionally Gaelic. 
Rugby was probably regarded as the unionist or Protestant sport but I think all clubs would give a kid from any background an equal welcome now. 
I will be going to Croke Park. I was always curious but didn't feel it was right to go until there was an indication the ban...would be removed. 
So a friend got me a ticket for the 2002 All-Ireland football final when Armagh played Kerry. It was a great day out in an absolutely fantastic stadium. I think this weekend is going to be very special for everyone."

The IRFU policy on the national anthem here. Ringland on the anthem question here. Hugo MacNeill on the issue here.

Keith Wood writing in the Telegraph explained the context and magnitude of Ireland playing England in rugby at Croke Park in 2007, he said:
"I am from a very special place in Ireland. Killaloe, a small village with dreams of being a town, is a colossus in terms of history. The place is drenched in it. 
Even though most of it is local, its influence has been national and its history is a microcosm of Ireland’s own. It was even, at one time, capital of Ireland as Brian Boru became High-King of Ireland and built his royal palace of Kincora there. It is a village with a cathedral built in 1160 by Boru’s descendents and has one of the largest dioceses in Ireland. It is a nationalist town that was a Victorian holiday destination. It is a hotbed of the Gaelic Athletic Association. 
Killaloe, in Co Clare, is where I spent my formative years with a hurley in hand and dreamt of playing for my county. It was where I played every sport imaginable. But hurling was my first love. It is my favourite game to both play and watch. But, in fairness, there are not too many 17-stone hurlers around. 
We wouldn’t really be talking of the GAA, or Killaloe for that matter, but for tomorrow’s game in Croke Park. There is a general lack of knowledge in Britain of how ground-breaking, emotive and important this game is. This is about so much more than sport. It is part of a legacy of Britain’s rule over Ireland. 
As children we are brought up on this history, to feel it keenly, and it is very relevant to us. Irish history is inextricably linked with Britain. Whatever Britain did in the past had an effect on us, so we know that history. But I don’t think it works the other way round. Brendan Gallagher’s excellent piece in these pages on Wednesday redressed some of that inequity in knowledge by offering a look at the darkest day in Croke Park’s history. That is not what the GAA are about, but it is a very painful chapter. 
The GAA, or to give them their original full title ‘the Gaelic Athletic Association for the Preservation and Cultivation of our national Pastimes’ were set up in 1884. In the face of ongoing subjugation and an anglicising of our culture, both the GAA, in sport, and subsequently the Irish Literary Revival, in literature, were set up to preserve and promote our inherently Irish games and culture. This was an absolute necessity as our culture was being heavily eroded by Britain’s presence in Ireland. This process gave us an identity that we could latch on to; one we are very proud of to this day. 
For 123 years the GAA have stood as a bastion for Irishness. They are an amateur organisation and Croke Park is the embodiment of what Ireland and Irishness can achieve. The ground was always special but this new stadium is magnificent. 
There are still plenty who oppose the opening of the stadium for 'foreign games’. But Ireland’s identity will not be diminished by tomorrow’s match or the game against England in a fortnight. Quite the opposite in fact. As Irish business has blossomed in the last 10 years, the idea of the 'downtrodden Irish’ has become something of the past. Times have moved on. We should never forget our history nor should it hang as a millstone around our necks. The GAA have grasped the opportunity to promote Ireland and Irishness on to the world stage. Without outside intervention and with an amateur game, this is an image of what Ireland can do. Surely this is in line with the founding principles on which the association were built. 
Gaelic Football is Ireland’s largest sport and is an amalgamation of elements of many sports common at the end of the 19th century. There are vestiges of soccer and rugby in it. There is a misconception that this game emerged from the depths of time but it is of a reasonably modern vintage. Not so hurling, however. It has similarities to hockey and shinty but the stories of hurling stretch back over a thousand years. This is a game of legend where the Irish heroes and warriors strutted their stuff. Setanta, the sports channel, take their name from the most famous of old-age hurling warriors before he changed his name to Cu Culainn. 
I always considered myself a GAA man first and a rugby man second. Thankfully now they are not mutually exclusive, though prior to 1971, no GAA player could attend, never mind play, a 'foreign sport’ such as rugby or soccer without being hit with a lifetime ban. If there are rules there are always people to break them. My father, Gordon, a British and Irish Lion, often played under a pseudonym to get his fix of football. 
Edicts change but the feelings last a long time. Killaloe, a mad hurling town, was ablaze with Munster flags on their march to the European title last year. I don’t doubt for a second that there will be a load of GAA from Killaloe there tomorrow. It will be a joy to behold. 
France tomorrow is of huge import but because of our history I think most thoughts will drift to Saturday, Feb 24. There will be a huge up-welling of emotion and the only wish I have is that the Irish team sup of it but don’t yield to it. They need to play the game in the moment. There is time in the future for these players to look back on how honoured and fortunate they are to have that experience. One that a lot of us will watch with envy."

Ken Maginnis, or Baron of Drumglass as he is known by his formal title, was a rugby player in his youth and a committed fan his whole life. He was schooled in Dungannon Royal and played for the first XV. After school he was in the front row at Stranmillis College. He finished his amateur rugby career by captaining Dungannon Fourths at the age of 28. After university he was a schoolmaster. He entered politics in 1981. 
Although he finished playing at 28 his allegiance to Dungannon RFC continued, from frontrow enforcer he was later club president. This role took him on interminable bus journeys to Garryowen or Sunday's Well, or wherever, and regrets the decline of the All-Ireland League. He spoke with Keith Duggan of the Irish Times at the Ulster Unionist Party headquarters, with their interview published February 10 2007. He said:
"My first game in the front row I hated. In the second match, I found there were ways I could hurt the fellow opposite me. And let's just say I made up for my lack of mobility in other ways." 
Maginnis loved the Ireland team of Noel Henderson and Jack Kyle. He recalled the day Big Jimmy Nelson stepped on to the stage in the auditorium at the Royal, fresh off a jet plane and the Lions tour. He explained his support for Irish rugby:
"Because I grew up within a rugby ethos that predated the Troubles, I never felt disloyal to Northern Ireland to go down and stand in Lansdowne Road when they were playing The Soldier's Song. 
I never felt it was disloyal to talk to Charlie Haughey, or whoever the Taoiseach might be. I saw those weekends in Dublin as a sort of an escape. And it meant that you talked with people - the Garda, politicians and business people and you got a sense of what they were. That sort of contact was great when you were surviving in a very difficult political world. Rugby provided that."
On his visits to Dublin he said:
"I drove my own car to Dublin but they escorted me. I always tell the Garda that they never had a decent car until they had to keep up with me in a Sierra or an Audi Quattro. I'd always say, 'Remember, ye were driving Ladas until I arrived'. And the people in the Garda, I must say, were very attentive. They even came to my rescue once when I left a batch of tickets sitting at home in Dungannon."
On playing England at Croke Park he said:
"Oh Lord, aye. I don't think that is a North-South thing. Anyone who is Irish wants to beat England. There is not much pleasure in it now because everyone does it. See, the pleasure is in beating them when they expect to win. Aye, it's not as much fun now that we always expect Ireland to win."
He added:
"The only pleasure left now for an Ulster man is to swear at the Munster Mafia."
On witnessing a rugby fatality he said:
"He [Eric Allen] died (after buckling in a scrum). He died a week later. It was desperately sad, just one of those terrible, unforgettable sporting accidents. But it never made me think twice about wanting to play the game. In that sense, it is like saying that when a comrade got shot or blown up, you thought twice about being a soldier. You just had a sense and a belief that it won't be you. Rugby is akin to soldiering in that way."
"It taught me how to rough it, to be part of a team and to believe in a cause. It was a game where what you saw you got... Rugby is character forming. 
It taught me how to rough it, to be part of a team and to believe in a cause. It was a game where what you saw you got. I watched the football World Cup and I could not believe that these skilful players were so egocentric, with their diving and squealing and preening and kissing. You don't get that in rugby. It is not that I am suggesting that rugby men are harder than in other sports. But they are more acclimatised to life."
Former Irish rugby international Jeremy Davidson, a "middle-class lad from Belfast", was educated at Methodist College were he played rugby. The Chief rugby writer for the Herald Derek Douglas wrote in 1997:
"As an Ulsterman, Davidson is, of course, British. Yet he plays his international rugby for Ireland - the all-Ireland XV. And therein rests a lesson for the learning. A lesson for all those charged with the task of bringing peace to the blighted Emerald Isle."
Jeremy Davidson said in 1997: 
"Sectarianism just doesn't come into it with rugby in Ireland. It's unique. Rugby crosses all the divides. Ulster teams go down to Limerick week in and week out and never experience any trouble whatsoever and Limerick would be one of the strongest Republican areas in Ireland. 
Some of my best friends are rugby players from the south. We always joke about sectarianism, but that's as far as it goes. There are no problems whatsoever."
He also said:
"There are an awful lot of people in the north who wouldn't go near those areas that we play rugby in. You are really going into the depths of republican areas. You go to clubs like Young Munster, Shannon, which are in real republican areas. Young Munster are in the middle of a staunch housing estate - a real working-class club. They treat you like shit when you play against them, but afterwards in the clubhouse you are treated like a lord."
Ulster protestants Willie Anderson, Nigel Carr, Gary Longwell and Jeremy Davidson explained how it was to play for Ireland when coming from a unionist background. Willie Anderson said:
"For me, coming from a unionist, orange background, I didn't have any problems at all. When I hear the Soldier's Song it reminds me of my first cap, one of the greatest days of my life."
Nigel Carr said:
"In playing for Ireland I never felt that I compromised my British citizenship." 
Gary Longwell said:
"I have played for Ireland at Schools, under 21, universities and senior levels. Rugby is played nationally. It gets support both North and south. I have grown up supporting Ireland. It's just natural."
Jeremy Davidson said:
"Even though most rugby players in Ulster come from a protestant background it's your main goal to play for Ireland because of the tradition. It's the only sport to unify the whole country. I am British. I have a British passport but at the same time I am Irish. It's a strange situation."
Read my previous post in the series, Irish Rugby Unites Ireland, here.

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