Irishness in life and football

If you look deep within not only Irish football but also the Irish psyche, you’ll find not divisions of religion, class or culture but instead a division far more fundamental and primitive, that of nature and nurture.

Globalisation of the early millennium led to some beliefs that Trump and Brexit have proven untrue. The homogeneity of the western world was evidently a fraud.

While Joey in Friends or Joshua Lyman in the West Wing might have made us think that Americans were people just like us, the rise of the Trump right has betrayed the notion that America is a homogenous western nation.

America is divided, as is the case demonstrated by Brexit in Britain. Europe appears larger than ever with its key players more insular and spread further afield than ever before.

It was timely that Northern Ireland would visit the Aviva Stadium on Thursday night to play the Republic of Ireland and allow a true examination our society and the fundamental building blocks of what constitutes Irishness in life and football.

While the Irish may indeed differ north and south in terms politics and religion, we can concede that the Irish are a people united in genetics if nothing else.

The international friendly was the perfect opportunity to assess the parochial nature of the Irish mere months away from Britain’s exit from the European Union. Jingoism, nationalism and divine patriotism have starkly risen in recent years.

We are generations removed from the Good Friday Agreement and even longer from the troubles which preceded it. Would the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland supporters see one another as natural allies in 2018?

Many in the Republic of Ireland felt a great sense of pride watching the successes of Northern Ireland in the 2016 European Championships, and this goodwill might have been expected to continue. As it turned out, it never had a chance.

For all our similarities north and south, there are few more divisive sounds in the island of Ireland than the sound of God Save the Queen. A chorus of boos erupted that could be heard across the north side of Dublin.

It is difficult to compare the event to the impeccable observation of the English anthem at Croke Park in 2007 without cynical considerations about class, but it should be remembered that 2007 was preceded by a great deal of anticipation and pleas from rugby authorities for respect.

The Northern Ireland supporters responded in kind during the playing of Amhran na bhFiann, and in some ways, the crowd protestations at the anthems was to be the highlight of an otherwise dour night. It was a great shame on a night otherwise full of great disappointments.

The timing of the fixture was pertinent given the increased attention on Derry born Republic of Ireland international James McClean and his opposition to the poppy wearing that has become popular in English football.

McClean grew up on the Creggan estate, home to six of the people killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972. McClean has drawn ire over his refusal to wear the poppy, while others, such as Nemanja Matic of Manchester United have not been targeted in the same vein.

Matic’s village Vrelo was bombed in 1999 by British led NATO forces during the Kosovo War. It has been argued that Matic’s direct experience of the conflict differentiates his situation from that of McClean.

In footballing terms, the gulf in class between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland could scarcely have been more stark. No hard Brexit division could have highlighted more evidently the difference in tactical setup.

Michael O’Neill’s well drilled Northern Irish team were a triumph of nurture, a team knowledgeable in their roles and emboldened with a game plan designed to win.

Alternately, Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland side appeared an abject failure of nurture. It was a performance devoid of know-how and preparation.

While Michael O’Neill drills and prepares his players with a method of play, O’Neill’s apathy to the modern methods of the game is indicative of a manager long past his best. In an era where marginal gains are being targeted in every aspect of the game, the notion that the FAI would back a man so lax in team building and preparation is frightening.

It is reductive to consider the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland teams in purely Piagetian terms, yet the Northern Irish team is one to aspire to. They do not rely on the old Irish adages of determination and physicality, but have been developed to play like an intelligent football side.

Martin O’Neill might lament the lack of a natural goal scorer, but his team failed to make chances for any of their players and a natural goal scorer would still have been completed starved.

It is likely that nobody in attendance was even alive for the Anglo-Irish Treaty which divided the nation in 1921 and as the years progress, fewer and fewer will have been affected directly by troubles of the 1970s and 1980s.

Those in attendance on Thursday however, those that booed the anthems, were far more likely to have had their prejudices fostered because of the environments they were raised, rather than because of their own experiences and this is not acceptable in the modern age.

As we gain distance in time from the Troubles, we must aspire to place prejudices, those which originated in religion, well behind us; especially given that the religion which once divided this nation is playing a smaller role than ever before.

Author Details

Aidan Boland
Aidan Boland

Irish Primary School Teacher living in Tipperary with a big interest in sports. Contributor to United We Stand. Main interests include Premier League and Bundesliga along with Golf and NFL (specifically New England Patriots).

Leave a Reply