Some eagle eyed chap spotted that the Irish captain Rory Best does not sing Amhrán na bhFiann, the national anthem of the Republic of Ireland. Nor does he apparently sing along with Ireland’s Call, the dreadful ditty composed by Phil Coulter and first aired at the 1995 World Cup. It is played alongside Amhrán na bhFiann for Ireland’s home games at the Aviva, and is the only ‘anthem’ played when Ireland are away.
When asked about the reason Best does not join in the anthem, Coach Joe Schmidt rather implausibly claimed that it was because Best did not want to become too emotional prior to the game starting.
The explanation is actually far simpler. Rory Best is a Protestant from Poyntzpass in County Armagh, and is presumably a unionist of some description in politics. Not that that has anything to do with his rugby, no more than the politics of any other player.
The only Ulster player who lined out for Ireland to openly declare his allegiance was Davy Tweed who was a DUP councillor in Ballymena and one of the leading picketers of the Catholic Church at Harryville. He was later charged with sexual offences against young girls.
The likelihood of Best even knowing the words of The Soldier’s Song, let alone bashing it out with gusto are slim, to say the least. Why would anyone insist that he does? Any more than Northern Ireland soccer manager Michael O’Neill or any Catholic nationalist who plays for the northern team should be expected to join in with God Save the Queen. Indeed can you imagine the uproar if they did. and from some of the same people annoyed with Best.
Why exactly the NI soccer team does not have its own anthem, like Scotland and Wales, is another matter entirely. GSTQ is recognised as the anthem of English international teams and the GB teams that contest at the Olympics and so on.
Some have contrasted the ongoing communal tensions within soccer in Northern Ireland with the amicable manner in which rugby operates on an all Ireland basis. Soccer was partitioned when the island was divided politically, but even before that it had seen bitter disputes between Belfast and Dublin clubs like Linfield and Shelbourne, and violent sectarian conflict in Belfast itself. That led to Belfast Celtic leaving the league in 1949. Derry City followed suit in 1971.
Soccer remains the most popular sport among urban working class males in the north across the sectarian divide, and has an international, if hardly cosmopolitan, dimension with Catholics supporting Glasgow Celtic and Protestants supporting Rangers. Pious hopes for a 32 county international team will remain just that.
Rugby manages to transcend those sort of raw sectarian tensions because it is predominantly the preserve of the Protestant middle class. It barely exists in Catholic or Protestant working class communities. There is also the historical fact that rugby in the southern part of the country began with a similar demographic which was later extended into the Catholic middle class when it was adopted as their main game by Catholic teaching orders, many of whom banned GAA and soccer from their schools.
While GAA players and supporters including prominent county players and officials like Harry Boland from Dublin and Austin Stack from Kerry were also leading figures in the republican movement, the IRFU was clearly on the other side. The then President of the IRFU, Francis Browning, was shot dead at Mount Street Bridge on Easter Monday 1916 when his patrol of Training Corps British army auxiliaries encountered the Volunteer garrison there. I don’t think they did anything to commemorate this in 2016. Lansdowne Road also hosted a soccer international between Irish and Scottish regiments in 1917 and for several years the British army sports days took place there.
So is Dublin Sinn Féin Lord Mayor Micheál Mac Donncha correct in describing the rugby fraternity as “West Brits?” He had claimed that the non playing of Amhrán na bhFiann at the 2015 World Cup in South Africa reflected the “inferiority complex and anti-national attitude of the West Brits who still run Irish rugby.”
While such a depiction of the rugger chaps might have at one time been accurate, it is no longer the case. The sort of people who play rugby are little different from the sort of people who play hurling and football. Indeed, quite a number of professional rugby players have played gaelic games at inter county level.
If rugby remains a mainly middle class sport, especially in Dublin, that has to do with the schools in which it is played and the traditional lack of interest in even the international team among many Dubs for whom the gaelic football team and the international soccer team remain by far the most popular. But there is certainly no view of rugby as being “West Brit.”
Like any other sport, you either like it or you do not. The less anthems and flags have to do with it all, the better.
Matt Treacy’s book A Tunnel to the Moon: The End of the Irish Republican Army is also available @ Amazon.
Follow Matt Treacy on Twitter @MattTreacy2