Football's Cultural Conquest of Ireland ; When England Take the Field in Dublin Tomorrow, the Republic of Ireland Will Again Grind to a Standstill. Yet Irish Fervour for Football Comes after a Century of Organised Hostility to the Sport. Eddie Wiley Traces a Turbulent History
Wiley, Eddie, The Independent (London, England)
As the Republic of Ireland run on to the pitch to face England at Lansdowne Road tomorrow evening, every town and village in Ireland will once more become a ghost town. All that a deserted O'Connell Street in Dublin will lack to complete the image is some tumbleweed blowing past the GPO and the sound of a creaking saloon door. Significantly, the creaking door will be caused by the tumult of humanity packed into every hostelry in the country. This is the new Ireland and this is an international football match. From Cork to Chicago and Ballyporeen to Birmingham, the Irish will be glued to the screen.
Anyone who believes that television viewing is a matter of private consumption has not been following the Republic's football team. An uninterrupted view of the television from the couch is eschewed for an uninterrupted view of the back of someone's neck, while a pint of Guinness is expertly poured down the back of your own.
The demand for tickets for tomorrow's game was 10 times over- subscribed. In recent years, when it comes to the boys in green taking the field, there is no such thing as a friendly.
The level of support that the national team attracts is all the more remarkable when one considers the Irish domestic league. The play is of Vauxhall Conference standard and attendances, except for traditionally well-supported Shamrock Rovers, rarely rise above 800.
Contrast that figure with the 1,000 fans who cross the Irish Sea each weekend to attend matches in Britain. When the results come in on a Saturday afternoon, it is the fortunes of Blackburn Rovers, rather than Sligo Rovers, that elicit more interest.
Below international level, football in Ireland is still very much the poor relation. Outside Dublin, it is hardly ever played in schools and in terms of crowds and facilities the Gaelic Athletic Association, by a considerable distance the country's largest sporting organisation, holds sway with hurling and Gaelic football. Association football comes a poor fourth behind rugby.
In a historical context, the growth of football in the Republic was severely restricted by its most obvious propagator - the occupying British soldier, who for centuries has been a symbol of national subjugation. As the sociologists Sultan and Bairner noted in 1986: "For more than a century the symbolic power of sport in both arousing and tempering deep and powerful partisan emotions amongst the Irish has been recognised."
The GAA was formed in the 1880s with the express intention of resisting what was viewed as the onslaught of English cultural domination. The GAA became the arbiters of Irishness. Its aim, then as now, was to pursue a policy of sporting national self- determination through the promotion of indigenous sports. Its targets were "games of the British garrison" such as football, rugby and cricket. The association decreed that playing or even watching "foreign" games was incompatible with participation in Gaelic sports.
This ban lasted until the 1970s and was ruthlessly enforced. At football and rugby matches, GAA invigilators would scrutinise the crowd as they entered and left the stadiums, and in newspaper photographs. Any GAA player found in attendance was banned from playing Gaelic sports. Liam Brady, for instance, was suspended from school in Dublin for playing in a football match.
Despite the harshness of its regime, the GAA has enjoyed widespread support. The confidence that this engenders brings financial muscle, and it is the only organisation in the country, including the Government, capable of undertaking a venture such as the construction of the new pounds 110m, 80,000 all-seater stadium in Dublin. There can be no disputing Sultan and Bairner's claim that the GAA is "one of the most important structures of institutional support for the. . . Irish Republic, outside of the Catholic Church."
But association football did grow -although the history of the game BC (before Charlton) is one of near misses interspersed with rare highs. …