Recently, rather belatedly, I saw Brian O’Driscoll’s documentary, Shoulder to Shoulder. The film is superb. It tells the story of Irish rugby’s paradoxical, unique ability to unite Irish people of all backgrounds, including during the darkest days of the Troubles, with the intense hatred and division that reigned in those times.
If you haven’t seen it, Shoulder to Shoulder is essential viewing. And its relevance extends way beyond rugby. The documentary has many highlights, but the interviews with rugby heroes, from very different backgrounds, confirming how their differences were set aside for the common cause, are both inspiring and thought provoking.
This is surely Irish rugby’s greatest strength: the ability to unite in a society that’s historically been divided and polarised along sectarian lines. Many organisations purport to unite Irish people, but how many actually do it in a genuinely inclusive, unifying way? What else unites men and women of the island, from all traditions, on the same terms? I can’t think of any other organisation or sector of society that does it in quite the same way as rugby.
Catholics, Protestants, Unionists, Nationalists, Loyalists and Republicans all buying into the idea of a 32-county Irish team and prepared to support that team on an equal basis. It’s a truly fantastic thing. Rugby leads the way. That’s before we even get to the unique concept of the Lions, an international sporting team whose fans wave tricolours and Union Jacks in unison. Honestly, where else do you see anything like that?
Now, I’m not one that idealises rugby. The sport has a legion flaws and is far from perfect. We all know the historical problems with social exclusion and the perception that the sport exemplifies a certain type of snobbery. Although, even that idea has always been somewhat of a myth. Try going to Limerick, for example, and claiming rugby as a purely middle-class preoccupation.
Furthermore, we can talk all day about the dangers and risks associated with a contact sport increasingly obsessed with size and violent collisions. Yes, rugby is far from ideal. We know that. But it’s important to acknowledge and celebrate rugby’s unique ability to bring people together. That trumps everything else.
Shoulder to Shoulder tells how members of northern security services played together with those from Nationalist and Republican backgrounds during the height of the Troubles. If that sounds remarkable, it’s fair to say this fact was never the issue it could have been within Irish rugby. In the oval ball game, there was always a keen sense that what unites us is much more important than what divides. They were all Irishmen, united in common cause. The politics was left at the door.
Brothers spilling blood, sweat and tears for the green shirt. The IRFU has made provision for the diversity of identities within the sport in Ireland with the introduction of Ireland’s Call. While the song itself is far from great, it symbolises something much more: the ability of Irish men (and women) from different community backgrounds to come together for the good of Irish rugby.
However, long before the introduction of the unity anthem (brought in for the 1995 Rugby World Cup), many unionists and Protestants from Ulster played under the tricolour and stood respectfully for Amhran na bhfiann. It happens to this day. One of the proudest facts about Irish rugby is that many of its key men throughout history have been from the northern, unionist tradition. Think of Willie John McBride, Mike Gibson, Syd Millar and Jack Kyle. True giants of Irish rugby.
But the truth is (and Shoulder to Shoulder shows this perfectly) that none of that actually mattered. Religion, political beliefs, allegiances, community backgrounds. These labels were wholly irrelevant. Because, in Irish rugby, we’re all in it together. From all corners of the country. North, south, east, west and everywhere else in between.
It’s a weird phenomenon: this predominantly middle-class sport that unites Catholic, Protestant and dissenter. As we move forward, many desire to unite the people of Ireland, from all backgrounds, peacefully and are looking for novel and workable ways to achieve this aspiration. Those in need in inspiration should look no further than Lansdowne Road. Because the IRFU did it years ago.
P.S. So, the inevitable has happened and Boris Johnson has acceded to his lifelong dream and become British prime minister. Comparisons are, of course, being made with Trump but Bojo is different; a much more complex and nuanced character. I don’t buy his buffoonish persona for a second. Johnson is clearly an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable man. A driven operator, whose ambition is matched only by this opportunism. A master orator who will compel many to his cause.
However, it’s hard to see much in his colourful past that remotely qualifies Boris for the job at hand. Indeed, Johnson’s elevation tells you all you need to know about his relentless ambition. Surely there has never been a worse time to be British PM? Just ask Theresa. The gloves are off. The most febrile and ugly of debates has begun. Stand by for a frenzy of virtue signalling, faux indignation and extreme polarisation. I’m bored already!