Wherever Green Is Worn? Multiculturalism in Contemporary Ireland. (Culture & Reviews)

Article excerpt

Multi-Culturalism: The View from the Two Irelands, by Edna Longley and Declan Kiberd, Cork University Press, 78 pages, $9.95

GIVEN THAT THE FIFA World Cup generates only slightly more interest among U.S. sports fans than the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo or the Rugby Union Henineken Cup Final, it's not surprising that most Americans missed what was arguably the most important Irish sports story since the founding of the Free State in 1922.

In May, when the Irish national football team was training on the Pacific island of Saipan, its captain and only bona fide international star, Roy Keane, was summarily dismissed by the team manager, Mick McCarthy. The Irish press described Keane's sacking on the eve of the opening round of the World Cup as nothing less than "a national catastrophe."

Lest one dismiss such rhetoric as mere hyperbole, consider that Bertie Ahern, the newly re-elected Irish prime minister, offered (in vain) to intervene personally in the dispute in an attempt to "salvage his country's World Cup hopes." The wry comments of one Dublin sports fan put things in their proper perspective: "This is far more serious than Partition. That only brought us 80 years of bloodshed, but this could mean that we go out of the World Cup in the first group."

What shocked the Irish public was not so much the bitter nature of the disagreement between the feuding former teammates, but the vehemence and offensiveness of Keane's remarks to McCarthy at a team meeting that led to the sacking. According to the Dublin Evening Herald, Keane told McCarthy in front of the entire squad, "You were a crap player and you are a crap manager. The only reason I have any dealings with you is that, somehow, you are the manager of my country and you're not even Irish. You can stick it up your bollocks" (emphasis added).

What might have remained a "mere" sports story became a raging cultural debate because Keane impugned Mick McCarthy's Irishness! As it happens, McCarthy originally halls from Yorkshire and, like several other team members born to Irish parents, grew up in England. By extension, if McCarthy didn't make the cut as an authentic Irishman, then neither did several of Keane's teammates who also play for the Irish national squad. Keane seemed oblivious to the irony of his own peculiar position. The 30-year midfielder, who calls Cork home, currently captains one of Europe's most storied professional soccer teams, Manchester United, and thus lives for much of the year in England where he represents the British team.

The Keane-McCarthy spat replays lone of the oldest running conflicts in Western Europe, that between the "native" Irish and the "foreign" English. But if the public disagreement necessarily evokes that 700-year-old conflict, it also points up one of the most recent and increasingly pressing issues in the contemporary Republic of Ireland: multiculturalism.

Having emerged in the last decade as "the Celtic Tiger," one of the fastest growing economies in Europe (Dubliners gleefully point out that the growth rate of the Irish Gross Domestic Product has recently outstripped England's), Ireland has for the first time in many centuries seen a rapid influx of new inhabitants. Indeed, the recent liberalization of the Irish economy, coupled with the country's rapid integration into the European Union, has signaled a sharp reversal in emigration patterns that have persisted for a century and a half.

From the mid-1840s, when Ireland suffered the last great famine in Western European history (scholars estimate that I million Irish perished and another 1.5 million emigrated), great numbers of Irish have steadily departed their native land for greener pastures in the United States, Australia, Canada, and England. Ireland today is thus unique among European nations insofar as its population is still below that of 1841 (even when one includes the present population of Northern Ireland, officially still part of the United Kingdom). …