Ireland’s sporting history is filled with beautiful moments that show that sport in Ireland can often be more than just a game; for many households and even for entire villages, it’s a way of life, especially with the GAA or the FAI becoming a huge part of people’s identity. This article hopes that, by examining Ireland’s relationship with sport, we can become more aware of how a simple game can become so important to who we are.
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The first great Irish sporting moment wasn’t an athlete achieving greatness; it was pen on paper. Michael Cusack convened the first meeting of the Gaelic Athletic Association, in Hayes Hotel Thurles, on the 1st of November 1884. It was at this moment that Ireland’s love for its cultural games began to be written into existence.
The GAA’s first goal was to promote and make accessible Ireland’s historic games to the masses. This is not such an easy task as it may seem; Ireland was still very much a part of the British Empire at this time, and with that came British-imported sports to compete against: soccer, cricket, and rugby had a significant following within urban centres of the country.
The GAA’s focus turned towards rural parishes to help it stake its claim in Irish society. With the assistance of local leaders and priests, GAA offered healthy competition amongst neighbouring villages, helping to bestow a deeper local identity, which still permeates in Irish society today. The GAA’s slow development seemed to change overnight with the beginning of the Gaelic revival of the late 19th century. More information can be found here on the GAA’s historical section of their website.
The GAA’s prominence, within the widespread national revival for Irish culture, saw its explosion into what would soon become the identity of all Irish people, both scholars and laymen alike. The formation of the GAA is so hugely important for Irish sports, as it directly assisted in the early rise of Irish nationalism, that would lead to the eventual creation of the independent Irish Republic.
Hurling and Gaelic football may have become known as Irelands’ cultural games, but that doesn’t mean that as a nation we have rejected foreign-born sports. Rugby is more popular in Ireland than it ever has been before, with Ireland’s 4 provinces performing extremely well against other larger nations’ regional clubs. Irish rugby has had many moments in that stand out for their significance in Irish history.
Arguably, the greatest of these moments was Munster rugby beating all odds with their win against the All Blacks in 1978, a tale like that of David versus Goliath. Much like today, especially in New Zealand, All Blacks dominated world rugby; on their European Tour, they deemed Munster no more than a speed bump in their pursuit of dominating Europe’s best rugby teams. But, to the surprise of many, Munster didn’t let that happen. For 80 minutes, the All Blacks experienced something they’ve never seen before, a team with so much ferocity and passion, that they were able to prevent them from completely controlling the game. This documentary gives interviews by the New Zealand team, and what they took from that day.
To make this feat even more impressive, Munster was then just an amateur team, with only being able to train in their spare time. Munster outperformed the All Blacks that day, to a crowd of 12,000 supporters, although hundreds of thousands of fans have claimed to be there in the years since. Munster’s win that day encapsulates Ireland’s place in international sports, for a small nation, we present ourselves to such a high degree, not because we’re so victorious, or that we punch above our weights: it’s because each athlete that represents Ireland knows that they have the whole island behind them, driving them onwards.
These past sporting victories have helped Ireland to create its “Green Army” that follows Irish athletes to the international stage; this international fandom isn’t restricted to 1 sport: it can be seen in soccer games, at major boxing events, or even rugby World Cups on the far side of the world. The Green Army’s promise is that they will cheer on their fellow Irish sons and daughters no matter where they go on the international stage.
This in itself has become a significant moment in Irish sporting history, and it can be witnessed best by viewing the pandemonium that was created following Ireland’s success in the “Italia 90” World Cup. Ireland’s soccer success can be attributed to Jack Charlton who was able to create a patriotic fervour in Irish sports that wasn’t seen before. There was an awkwardness with expressing Irish patriotism in the 20th century, as it became infected by the unfortunate violence that occurred in Northern Ireland; what Jack Charlton offered was the opportunity for the Irish people to free themselves of this awkwardness. As Jack Charlton represented a new age in Ireland, it can be mentioned how Jack was an Englishman, who led many England-born Irish players to victory in Ireland’s name.
Italia 90’s success didn’t come from Ireland reaching the quarter finals, but the Irish people finally being able to see themselves on the world stage, as more than a tragic headline, regarding their economy or the troubles up north. Jack’s “Green Army” instilled in Irish fans a drive to be the best, most fun going supporters out there, with the Green Army’s nature being commended by the mayor of Paris for their “exemplary sportsmanship” during the UEFA 2016 games.
Ireland’s greatest sporting moments can’t always be signalled out to one particular man making one particular play. But, we are able to examine the lesser known, overlooked moments in Ireland’s sporting history that had a deeper impact than most would have realized at the time; it’s these moments that are truly significant for helping Ireland to establish its place and its identity in the world.