Category: Archive

Book Review Exploring the role of sports in Irish identity

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter McDermott

SPORT AND NATIONALISM IN IRELAND, by Michael Cronin. Four Courts Press, c/o ISBS, 5804 Hassalo St., Portland, OR 97213. 214 pp. $55 hardback, $29.50 paper.

Is public enthusiasm for sportsmen and sportswomen competing in national colors a form of nationalism? Author and academic Michael Cronin is sure that it is. More specifically, Cronin, who is based at the International Center for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, argues that Irish soccer "has recently had a profound effect on notions of Irish nationalism and identity," adding that the nationalism that emerges from soccer "represents fundamental shifts within Irish identity."

The author begins his story with an anecdote about Italian Americans enthusiastically supporting Italy in the 1998 World Cup quarterfinal game against the host country France. Curiously, he makes no further reference to France, for if ever there was a case of a football team giving expression to a "new" national identity then it was the winners of World Cup 1998. France officially declared before the world that it was a multicultural and multiracial society. The country’s winning the World Cup was a political blow to the National Front on the far right.

The same sort of fever that gripped the Irish in 1990 and ’94, was seen in France in 1998. This was certainly something different. And so was the British public’s response to the violent death of Princess Diana and New Yorkers’ response to that of John Kennedy Jr. Whatever the reasons, people in western countries are collectively expressing joy and grief in new ways.

In the case of Ireland, did the carnival-like atmosphere experienced during those soccer championships announce a "new" nationalism, as Cronin claims? Many people will grant that it represented a "shift," to use the author’s word, but a shift that has taken place over several decades. Qualifying for a major soccer championship can release an exuberance and intensity of feeling, but in Ireland the new forms of expression didn’t necessarily signify a radical break with the past. In general, Cronin’s rather predictable thesis about Gaelic games and soccer manages to miss important aspects of Irish identity.

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We were taught at school that Robert Emmet wanted only that Ireland stand free among the nations of the earth. We also were also often reminded that we were a small country in terms of population — before the Wall fell, only Iceland and Luxembourg were smaller out of 30 European nations. It was in this context that the Irish savored every sporting and cultural success achieved in an international setting. And "success," up to and during the Jack Charlton era, was always defined generously. This sort of intense pride has long been more important to mainstream national identity than anything overtly political.

The book is useful as a starting point and it brings a lot interesting elements together in one volume. Cronin does some of the difficult things well, such as mapping out typologies of theories of nationalism. In other places, however, he’s careless. Thus after quoting Joseph O’Connor’s description of celebrations in the U.S. after Ireland’s 1994 victory over Italy, Cronin writes: "At home Roddy Doyle was slightly more sober and certainly more profound . . . " This is hardly surprising given that Doyle was writing about Ireland’s loss to Italy in Rome four years earlier.

Cronin exaggerates the extent to which soccer historically played second fiddle to Gaelic games. For example, he fails to mention, or is unaware that, except for brief periods, the "garrison game" has always been more popular among Dubliners than the "national games."

And much of what he writes about international Irish soccer is utter nonsense. Cronin wants the reader to believe that before Charlton, before 1986, the Irish team was "awful" and a "joke." This is rather sloppy work for a respected historian. (Cronin last produced a well-received book on the Blueshirts.) During certain periods in the 1970s and early 1980s, Ireland’s record against top-class opposition was as good as it was under Charlton. But the team was never quite consistent enough. In the late 1970s, under the management of John Giles, the Irish international and Charlton’s teammate at Leeds, Ireland won 14 games, lost 14 and tied seven.

The only pre-Charlton statistic the author cites is manager Eoin Hand’s poor win/loss ratio between 1980 and 1986. That Ireland was adrift in the years immediately prior to Charlton’s appointment was beyond dispute and helped create his legend. Most of Hand’s losses, though, came in friendlies. His record in competition was far better, particularly during the early years of his tenure. Indeed, Ireland almost qualified for the 1982 World Cup. Belgium topped the group by a point; France and Ireland tied for second, but the former qualified by virtue of a better goal differential. What was "awful" and a "joke" to soccer fans at that time was not the national team but the truly dreadful refereeing decisions that deprived Ireland of first place in the group. First among equals, Belgium went on to impress in World Cup 1982; France were even better and was cruelly deprived of a place in the final.

In his excellent 1996 history of the Football Association of Ireland, the Irish Times’ Peter Byrne has written of the 1981 team: "There are those who believe that in terms of individual talent that was the finest of all Irish teams, a gifted collection of players who lacked only the rub of green to have made it to the finals in Spain the following year."

Charlton didn’t lack the rub of the green. An improbable result in Bulgaria in November 1987 epitomized his luck. Bulgaria has often qualified for major championships but has done badly once there — mainly because championships aren’t played in Sofia. More than one fine Irish side had gone there to face 11 Bulgarians and the referee. But a last-minute winning goal by a mediocre Scottish side in that Balkan city sent Ireland to the 1988 European Championships. And the rest is history.

That Ireland would one day achieve some success at the highest level wasn’t "beyond everyone’s wildest expectations," as Cronin would have it. Nor was it surprising, given what we know about Irish identity, that the non-soccer-following public would be swept along in the enthusiasm once that happened. In fact, when the squad came back from that first major championship, the only person who expressed any surprise at Dublin’s magnificent welcome for them was a foreigner — Jack Charlton himself.

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