Football's cultural conquest of Ireland

When England take the field in Dublin tomorrow, the Republic of Ireland will again grind to a standstill. Yet Irish fervour for football comes after a century of organised hostility to the sport. Eddie Wiley traces a turbulent history
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As the Republic of Ireland run on to the pitch to face England at Lansdowne Road tomorrow evening, every town and village in Ireland will once more become a ghost town. All that a deserted O'Connell Street in Dublin will lack to complete the image is some tumbleweed blowing past the GPO and the sound of a creaking saloon door. Significantly, the creaking door will be caused by the tumult of humanity packed into every hostelry in the country. This is the new Ireland and this is an international football match. From Cork to Chicago and Ballyporeen to Birmingham, the Irish will be glued to the screen.

Anyone who believes that television viewing is a matter of private consumption has not been following the Republic's football team. An uninterrupted view of the television from the couch is eschewed for an uninterrupted view of the back of someone's neck, while a pint of Guinness is expertly poured down the back of your own.

The demand for tickets for tomorrow's game was 10 times over-subscribed. In recent years, when it comes to the boys in green taking the field, there is no such thing as a friendly.

The level of support that the national team attracts is all the more remarkable when one considers the Irish domestic league. The play is of Vauxhall Conference standard and attendances, except for traditionally well-supported Shamrock Rovers, rarely rise above 800.

Contrast that figure with the 1,000 fans who cross the Irish Sea each weekend to attend matches in Britain. When the results come in on a Saturday afternoon, it is the fortunes of Blackburn Rovers, rather than Sligo Rovers, that elicit more interest.

Below international level, football in Ireland is still very much the poor relation. Outside Dublin, it is hardly ever played in schools and in terms of crowds and facilities the Gaelic Athletic Association, by a considerable distance the country's largest sporting organisation, holds sway with hurling and Gaelic football. Association football comes a poor fourth behind rugby.

In a historical context, the growth of football in the Republic was severely restricted by its most obvious propagator - the occupying British soldier, who for centuries has been a symbol of national subjugation. As the sociologists Sultan and Bairner noted in 1986: "For more than a century the symbolic power of sport in both arousing and tempering deep and powerful partisan emotions amongst the Irish has been recognised."

The GAA was formed in the 1880s with the express intention of resisting what was viewed as the onslaught of English cultural domination. The GAA became the arbiters of Irishness. Its aim, then as now, was to pursue a policy of sporting national self-determination through the promotion of indigenous sports. Its targets were "games of the British garrison" such as football, rugby and cricket. The association decreed that playing or even watching "foreign" games was incompatible with participation in Gaelic sports.

This ban lasted until the 1970s and was ruthlessly enforced. At football and rugby matches, GAA invigilators would scrutinise the crowd as they entered and left the stadiums, and in newspaper photographs. Any GAA player found in attendance was banned from playing Gaelic sports. Liam Brady, for instance, was suspended from school in Dublin for playing in a football match.

Despite the harshness of its regime, the GAA has enjoyed widespread support. The confidence that this engenders brings financial muscle, and it is the only organisation in the country, including the Government, capable of undertaking a venture such as the construction of the new £110m, 80,000 all-seater stadium in Dublin. There can be no disputing Sultan and Bairner's claim that the GAA is "one of the most important structures of institutional support for the. . . Irish Republic, outside of the Catholic Church."

But association football did grow -although the history of the game BC (before Charlton) is one of near misses interspersed with rare highs. In 1949 Ireland beat England 2-0 at Goodison Park, thereby becoming the first foreign team to beat England on their home turf, pre-dating the more celebrated Hungarians by four years.

Better and more bitterly remembered is that the Republic went without an away win in any competition between 1967 in Prague and February 1987 in Scotland. The entire decade of the 1970s conjours up a series of images of referees and linesmen with improbable hairstyles and unwise shorts conspiring to deny Ireland. In Sofia, against Bulgaria in 1977, David O'Leary, the victim of an atrocious tackle, attempted to show the referee his broken shin pad and was booked for brandishing an offensive weapon. Most heart-rending of all was losing out to France on goal difference for a place in the 1982 World Cup. For a few moments a golden prospect had beckoned.

Hearts and minds had not yet been won though and support fluctuated with results. Managers came and went too. John Giles was succeeded by Eoin Hand (buried by the formerplayer turned commentator Eamon Dunphy with the epitaph: "A nice guy, doing a tough job, badly"), followed by Liam Tuohy as caretaker.

Then in 1986 came Jack Charlton, and although he was not universally welcomed it is beyond dispute that at the very least he brought good luck. Scotland contrived an unlikely away win against Bulgaria in the qualifying round for the 1988 European Championships, and presented Ireland with a place in an international tournament for the first time.

Beating England in the opening match of the finals in Germany was not so much the stuff of fiction as science fiction. It sent an entire nation - man woman and child - into orbit. In a country where hyperbole could be a competitive sport, even the Irish could not exaggerate enough.

The breakthrough came at a momentous time in the country's history and played a part in changing the nation's perspective. In 1988, Ireland was riven by bitterly-contested referendums over abortion and divorce. The most divisive elements of Irish society were brought to the fore while the only success of expedient government policies was to push emigration levels skywards.

The team represented a "safe area" for the expression of unity. It presented people with an opportunity to step out from the long shadows cast by the North and to celebrate, unencumbered by the problems of a rapidly secularising Ireland.

By the time the Republic had qualified for Italia '90 the entire nation was enthralled. It was the year that an escaped prisoner returned to a Dublin jail to ensure he did not miss the televised matches from Italy, and that a group of mourners who were gathered around the grave, heard of the decisive penalty kick against Romania and burst into a dance of joy even as the recently departed was being laid to rest. "I heard you guys had some good funerals," said a watching American, "but I never thought they were this good".

It would be easy to lapse into the stage Irishness of The Quiet Man, to fall victim not so much to the old sentimental rubbish but the new sentimental rubbish. But the country was presented with an image of itself with which it fell in love. Maybe people are labouring under a collective delusion that the genuine intensity of their support for a team from the Irish emigrants might somehow rescue a country from its divisions and problems. But it is difficult not to be drawn into the vortex when, for the 1994 World Cup, official government warnings were issued asking people not to wear their green wigs and make-up before passing through America's passport control.

But what of the future? Charlton looks likely to retire after the European Championships of 1996 and the nucleus of the team that has served him so well for eight years is almost played out. Obvious replacements are scarce and only the most blissfully nave could be unaware that the Republic is likely to soon experience a fallow period.

The question is whether the fans will drift off if success falls away or whether enough has been done to nourish the game's roots and to encourage young players during the fertile years.

Maurice Price, senior staff coach at the Football Association of Ireland, is bullish. "We're getting things done at ground level, something that wasn't there before," he says. "Now we have a structure."

While he adds that "we're confident of providing players for the future", he also admits that this system will take players only as far as youth level. Whatever talent rises beyond that will still be expected to pursue a career in the British leagues.

Two of the many that have taken that route, Kevin Moran and Niall Quinn, were high-flyers at Gaelic games before turning to professional football. Nevertheless, one of Moran's contemporaries, the GAA folk hero Jimmy Keaveney, believes that his game can withstand football's transitory attractions. "I went to America myself just for the party," he says. "Even if people are following soccer now, when all the hype has died down, people will go back to their roots." The most ardent traditionalist would have to agree, though, with the fan quoted by Sports Illustrated at last year's World Cup. "You can't beat Holland at hurling or Germany at Gaelic football."

Having taken so long to get there, the Irish are not going to easily relinquish their place in the sun.

Eddie Wiley has lectured in culture studies and semiotics at the University of London