How rugby became a major part of Irish identity


On September 9, 2023, Ireland began its Rugby World Cup with a match against Romania in Bordeaux. In the stands, the Ambassador of Ireland and the Ambassador of the United Kingdom were present. Both had come to encourage “their” Ireland. Indeed, the Irish team represents the whole island, therefore also the Republic of Ireland, which is independent since 1922, than Northern Ireland, which remained within the fold of the United Kingdom.

This simple image of the two ambassadors illustrates the complexity of the relationship between sport and politics in Ireland. The Irish national teams – and especially that of rugby – are, more than elsewhere, at the center of the identity construction of the inhabitants of the island, whether they are citizens of the Republic of Ireland (5 million people) or that they are among the approximately 2 million residents of Northern Ireland, which is an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Stadiums, flags, anthems… Irish puzzles

Despite the partition of 1922, Ireland is represented by a single national team in many sports. This situation did not go without creating some problems.

In football, until the 1950s, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland both claimed to represent "Ireland". Some players took the opportunity to play for the North team on Saturday in Belfast, before taking the train to Dublin and wearing the colors of the South team on Sunday. In 1953, FIFA ordered this to cease and decreed that henceforth the two teams would be called the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

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In field hockey, a single Irish team competes in the World Cup and the European Championship; but the rules of the Olympic Games do not allow the presence of several teams from the same country: at the Olympics, there is therefore a single team representing the whole of the United Kingdom, and another representing the Republic of Ireland. Several hockey players have played for Ireland during the World Cup and the European Championships, but for the United Kingdom team during the Olympic Games.

As far as rugby is concerned, there were also numerous problems during the selection matches. First of all, where should she play her home matches? Ireland plays mainly in Dublin, and occasionally in Belfast, Northern Ireland (therefore in the United Kingdom).

During this match at the Millenium Stadium, Wales, Irish supporters waved the national flag and the green flag of the IRFU. Irish Rugby

So, which flag to display? To avoid disputes on this point, the IRFU (the federation responsible for rugby union in Ireland) designed its own flag in 1925. During matches taking place in Dublin, this flag is associated with the tricolor of the Republic. And during the rare matches held in Belfast, it is the flag of Ulster (historic region located in the north of the island of Ireland, which covers the entire entity of the United Kingdom which is Northern Ireland and three counties within the Republic of Ireland) which is used in conjunction with that of the IRFU.

Another important symbol of identity: the anthem. During rugby matches in Dublin, the national anthem of the Republic of Ireland ("Amhràn na bhFiann") is played, while in Belfast it is "God Save The Queen" (or now God Save The King ) which is used, and no anthems are played during away matches. In 1954 this problem came to a head when some Republic players protested against the use of "God Save The Queen" before a match against Scotland in Belfast. There followed a long period during which the IRFU avoided staging matches in Belfast.

The lack of a generally acceptable Irish anthem was a problem during the first Rugby World Cup in 1987. Every team except Ireland had an anthem. As an emergency measure, the team therefore used the recording, on an audio cassette, of an Irish ballad, "The Rose of Tralee". This recording was mocked due to the poor audio quality of the cassette and the fact that the piece had been recorded by a German musician, James Last.

Eventually the IRFU commissioned an anthem for the rugby team, "Ireland's Call". It was written by one of Ireland's best songwriters, Phil Coulter. Although it was initially critical, it came to be adopted as a politically neutral anthem, not only by the Irish rugby team, but also by the Irish cricket and hockey teams.

The practice now is to play "Ireland's Call" and "Amhràn na bhFiann" in Dublin, but only "Ireland's Call" in away matches.

During the 2023 Rugby World Cup, an unofficial supporters' anthem was created. Irish fans began singing the Cranberries' song "Zombie", written some 30 years earlier in response to an IRA bombing. The adoption of this song by rugby fans sparked debate, with some feeling that it insulted Irish nationalism and calling rugby fans "West Brits" (a derogatory term for Irish people who are too pro-British). However, the current Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, insisted that it was a "anti-terrorism song; this is not a nationalist or unionist song". 

The weight of the years of Troubles

Discussions about 'Zombie' show how rugby has been affected by Unrest, the violent conflict over the status of Northern Ireland that lasted from the late 1960s until the 1998 peace agreement.

The serious violence which broke out in Northern Ireland has indeed had consequences on rugby. In 1972, Scotland and Wales refused to travel to Dublin to participate in the Five Nations Tournament. The following year England were expected to do the same, but instead they came to play in Dublin, a gesture of support which was warmly received in Ireland.

After these two particularly tense years, there were no further cancellations of rugby matches. However, in April 1987, three North players – Nigel Carr, David Irwin and Philip Rainey – were injured when the car they were traveling in to a training session was caught in a bomb attack by the IRA crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The target of the attack was Maurice Gibson, a senior magistrate in Northern Ireland; he and his wife were killed in the explosion.

The car that was taking the three rugby players south was passing just at that moment. The players did not suffer life-threatening injuries – all three were part of the Ireland squad at the World Cup later that year – but one of them , Carr, retired prematurely from rugby following the injuries he suffered.

Let's briefly return to the question of stadiums hosting matches. In 2007, the old Lansdowne Road stadium in Dublin was closed for three years for reconstruction. During these years, international rugby (and football) matches were moved to Croke Park. This stadium is owned by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which aims to promote typically Irish sports such as Gaelic football and hurling.

The GAA originally specifically banned "foreign sports" such as football and rugby – members of GAA clubs were not allowed to participate in, or even watch, these sports. While this deep-seated hostility eased in the early 2000s, the reluctance to help a rival sport remains considerable. A senior member of the GAA, for example, declared in 2017 that rugby “threatened to turn promising young players away from Gaelic sports".

Furthermore, Croke Park is steeped in nationalist symbolism. One end of the field is known as "Hill 16", in memory of the 1916 nationalist uprising against British rule in Ireland. Another part is called Hogan Stand, in honor of a Gaelic football player who was one of 14 people killed in Croke Park on November 21, 1920 when British security forces opened fire on a crowd attending a Gaelic football match. The decision to host a "foreign match" in Croke Park therefore caused controversy. However, when Ireland played there against England in 2007, "God Save The Queen" was treated with respect, making the day "a proud day for modern Ireland".

A sport that has become unifying

We see it: in Ireland, rugby is surrounded by significant political symbolism. Despite everything, the island continues to field a unique national team.

Over the last few decades, it is also the identity alignment linked to rugby that has changed. Previously the sport was seen as strongly Protestant and therefore in the eyes of much of the Republic of Ireland it "didn't really represent Ireland".

But gradually the number of Catholics enjoying and practicing the game increased and a more balanced position emerged. This process was reinforced by the class identity linked to the practice and appreciation of rugby in Ireland. Rugby is strongly anchored in the middle class and "the practice of rugby and social participation in rugby (membership in a club, participation in matches, etc.) are strongly linked to socio-economic status"This belonging to the same social class has helped to maintain the unity of rugby in Ireland.

Finally, the professionalization of rugby in 1995 had a major impact on its place in Ireland. His popularity has increased significantly, both at club and national team level. The era of professionalism also saw many Australian, New Zealand and South African players settle in Ireland and even play for the Irish national team. This has contributed to the weakening of the most dogmatic and entrenched nationalist and unionist identities, which are being replaced by new, more globalized identities.

While the Irish team may have once been "a temporary union of two politically distinct nations through sport", it "now transcends barriers and differences of race, gender, religion and sexual orientation", according to the IRFU formula.

Michael holmes, Lecturer in political science, Catholic Institute of Lille (ICL)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of InfoChrétienne.

Image credit: Shutterstock / Marco Iacobucci Epp

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