Wednesday 6 June 2012

Mixing sport and geography

Omagh schoolchildren greet the Olympic flame on its passage through Ireland.
It was probably no more than a slip of the tongue but it spoiled my breakfast… and it has been niggling since. The fact that it was a ‘good news story’ on RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland hardly alleviated the inexplicable feeling of being slighted once more.
Brother boxers keep her lit on the Border.
I didn’t even catch the name of the reporter who informed listeners that the Olympic flame was ‘now in Ireland, if only for a few hours’ after the symbolic handover between fellow Irish Olympians Wayne McCollough and Michael Carruth at the Border on the Newry to Dundalk road.
It jarred because, by no coincidence, I was actually in Ireland yesterday morning to witness the same Olympic flame making its passage through Omagh, having come from Derry City via Strabane before heading off out the Dromore Road towards Enniskillen and a string of other Irish towns and villages.
The feeling of euphoria I had felt since about the passage of the Olympic flame on a symbolic course that included both parts of Ireland was dissipated by the carelessness of yet another ‘professional’ news reporter who can’t even be bothered to look at a map and know the difference between a country and a state.
Jack Kennedy, 15, carries the flame through Omagh.
‘A few hours’ indeed, I thought, my mind tracing the earlier path of the flame from Belfast through Antrim, along the north coast and through each of these six Irish counties in Northern Ireland before its brief interlude in the Republic of Ireland.
Yet such geographical dismissal should be like water off a duck’s back by now, one would think.
For all of my life, I have listened to unionist politicians talk of ‘Ulster’ and the ‘Ulster people’ in a way that pointedly excluded me and all those in Northern Ireland who espoused Irish reunification, not to mention one-third of the actual province of Ulster. Such geographical and social selectivity was always deliberate, however, a contrived formula to bestow historical pedigree and political legitimacy on the partition of Ireland.
It was anathema to news reporting in most of Ireland, of course. Reporters were reminded forcibly by editors, who were sticklers for ‘House Style’ back then, that there were very precise rules on these matters.
Standards appear have slipped since the Good Friday Agreement (or ‘Belfast Agreement’ in Irish Times house style). And I blame soccer for that.
For just as we prepare to root for the Irish Olympians at the London games, the hype is reaching a crescendo for the European Football Championships. Notwithstanding that the Irish team taking part includes (controversially for some) players from throughout the island, it travels to Poland under the auspices of the breakaway Football Association of Ireland, one of the two bodies that persisted in fielding teams under the name ‘Ireland’ until the 1950s.
Representing Ireland against Brazil at Landesdowne Road in July 1973 were the Shamrock Rovers XI (from back left) Miah Dennehy, Tommy Criag, Paddy Mulligan, Martin O'Neill, Derek Dougan, Alan Hunter, Liam O'Kane and (front from left) Bryan Hamilton, Pat Jennings, Tommy Carroll, Johnny Giles, Don Givens, Terry Conroy and Mick Martin.
Fab Four – Don Givens. Johnny Giles,
Martin O'Neill and Pat Jennings .
It hardly mattered so much at a time when there was little prospect of playing on the world stage, but then the 1970s came along with the Troubles and possibly the best crop of home-grown soccer talent we ever produced. From this, a team was put together in 1973 by the two serving captains of Northern Ireland and the Republic – Derek Dougan and Johnny Giles. With no official backing from the ‘representative’ bodies, they engineered a match with the mighty Brazil in Dublin and, with no official sanction, they had to field as the Shamrock Rovers XI. That didn’t stop them racking up three goals against the world champions’ four.
Despite the continuous efforts of the great Dougan to unite the Irish soccer teams, the divide continues, bolstered by marginal success for Northern Ireland in 1982 and for the Republic on occasions since then. It has become firmly institutionalised with many professional reporters persisting in the belief that rugby’s adherence to an all-Ireland selection is the exception, rather than the rule. Indeed, soccer is the exception.
So as the FAI side heads off for the European finals with a team of varied pedigree, the Irish Football Association and its supporters resort to irony and self-derision. Their favourite chant in recent years is the refrain, ‘We’re not Brazil, we’re Norn Iron’.
As if we need to be reminded.
So as credit union accounts are raided for the road to Poznan, I’ll be looking forward to the Olympics and lamenting that the last outing for the Ireland soccer team was in July 1973 – a glorious sporting occasion ‘if only for a few hours’.

No comments:

Post a Comment