On Irish Rugby
The 24th February 2017 marks ten years since that most monumental rugby match between England and Ireland.
It was the Six Nations 2007, round three, and Ireland put up a record score against England, of 43-13. This was a glorious victory by any measure, and Ireland went on to claim the Triple Crown, only to lose out on the Championship to France by a narrow points-difference. However, the legacy of the match reaches far beyond sport.
This elevated status was a result of the special location. While the Irish Rugby Football Union was busy redeveloping Lansdowne Road into the shiny new Aviva Stadium, the IRFU was granted the use of country's largest stadium, the Gaelic Athletics Association's Croke Park. Domestically, this was an enormous upheaval. The GAA's Rule 42 had long banned the playing of "non-Gaelic" sports in Gaelic grounds, a shadow of cultural and sectarian divisions of the past, still being played out in sporting culture. It wasn't until a hard-fought special concession was voted through in 2005, that it was permissible to accommodate the national rugby and soccer teams during the reconstruction. Ireland would be able to host their home games in a world-class stadium.
While this may seem like a cordial settlement between sporting administrations, the decision was contentious for other highly emotional, historical reasons. Take yourself back to 1920, to a November day in the heat of the War of Independence. Early that day, the Irish Republican Army, led by Michael Collins, carried out a series of assassinations aimed at taking out members of a unit of Royal Irish Constabulary reported to be targeting IRA operatives. Later in the afternoon, the Auxiliaries and RIC rolled into Croke Park during a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary with an attendance of 5000 people. They fired indiscriminately for 90 seconds. Two players were shot, one dying then and there on the pitch. In all, 14 people died at the grounds, including 3 children, and about 60 were wounded. For some more context, look at this short video which the BBC recorded for its build up to the unprecedented home matches in Croke Park.
Fast forward to February 24th 2007 again. Not only are a group of proud Irish sportsmen preparing to step onto the hallowed turf of Croke Park to compete in a "foreign sport", but the strains of England's national anthem are about to ring out around the stadium. The tension started to brew in the weeks before the match. Pundits skeptically speculated whether or not the whole event would go off without incidence. Once President MacAleese had conducted her greetings and retired to her seat, a combined Garda and Army band launched into a steady rendition of "God Save The Queen". I think for many Irish people watching, in the grounds, at home, or around the world, it was a moment of silent reflection. Whether you knew or had an opinion of the painful history which was very present just then, or even entertained some of the "800 years" emnity which was often so lightly thrown about, I imagined a people having their collective worldview slightly shifted. Irish Rugby showed it could be as good as the best, the Irish players shouldered the people's pride, and in my mind, Ireland herself stood a little taller, as a peaceful, tolerant, and powerful community.
As for me, I saw the match in a sports bar in Berlin, where I happened to be on a field trip with a group of history students, and even at such a remove, the atmosphere was electric. I will never forget the volume, clarity, and passion of Amhrán na bhFiann and Ireland's Call. The television director repeatedly cut to shots of 6 foot 4 inch, 19 stone, John Hayes, his face etched with emotion and shining with tears. Though rugby fans are divided on the merit or relevance of Ireland's Call, I couldn't think of a more appropriate and meaningful context for it, than for Northern Irish players and fans, subjects of the crown, at this match, under the shadow of history. The whole affair seemed to balance a healthy, prideful respect for our neighboring country, as equals, while also showing the best about the peaceful unity and togetherness expressed under the flag of the all-island IRFU.
I had grown up watching rugby as an aftereffect of my dad's interest. He played as a schoolboy, and then with Lansdowne Rugby Club in Dublin. He provided me with in depth knowledge of the rules and nuances of the game uncommon among teenage girls. While I enjoyed watching matches, February 24th 2007 was something of an epiphany. After that, watching matches with my dad became a comfortable habit, though in the ten years after that trip to Berlin, I have watched many fixtures far from my family and home, and at the mercy of eight- or nine-hour time differences.
More than the photographs, memories, and books I carried with me, rugby has been an alive, tangible aspect of my Ireland to engage with here in Japan. I follow the provinces and obsess over the national teams, pencilling fixtures into my schedule with carefully calculated time difference adjustments. All of those late nights, often alone in my apartment, sometimes with a quick discussion with dad at half-time, appear to have paid off like some kind of indulgences, as I look forward to the visit of the Irish national squad to these shores in June this year. I suspect that standing in a stadium in Japan, cheering the Irish team and singing the Ireland's Call or the Fields of Athenry, will be another emotional moment, if not with such historic and cultural energy as Croke Park in 2007, but certainly for me, their number one fan in Japan.