New Catalogue
Site designed and maintained by Novena

Sport and Nationalism in Ireland
Gaelic Games, Soccer and Irish Identity since 1884
Mike Cronin

The Sunday Tribune ( 4 July 1999)
‘If you are still mystified as to how a nation could for so long ignore salient, if inconvenient, truths, about its most successful ever Olympian, this fascinating, intelligent and highly provocative book will leave you much the wiser long before your reach the bibliography. Mike Cronin’s academic treatment of the history of Irish sport and nationalism explores the phenomenon of modern sport and how the Irish have come to see it as defining who they are.

In particular, he examines the links between Ireland’s two major team sports and the role they have played in the country’s notion of nationality and identity. Irish nationalism was forged on the anvil of its post-colonial past and, as a result, has always sought to define itself, not on its own terms, but in terms that are oppositional to Britain. It was belligerent and hostile and locked into a history of grievance and terrorism. But global politics, mass communication and marketing have redefined the concept of nationalism internationally, and in Ireland, as in most countries, he contends, people are increasingly getting their sense of identity from low culture, i.e., sport.

Most of the written sporting history we have in Ireland is incident-based, with snapshots from the past joined together to form a chronology. Cronin’s work is different in that he contextualizes the narrative. It is at its brilliant best when attempting to debunk the popular myths that underpin our understanding of sport in Ireland.

In particular, he challenges the GAA’s nationalist vision of itself and its manipulation of its own past to create an image of a sporting movement steeped in nationalist heritage and myth and to the forefront of the fight for independence. Previous authors of GAA history have tended to transpose the norms of nationalist Irish history onto the history of the association, but Cronin points out that Michael Cusack’s vision was of an organisation that would underpin, not serve, political nationalism. But the infiltration by the IRB of the association’s inaugural meeting in 1884 changed the emphasis from cultural to political. The Croke Park shootings made the GAA martyr to the nationalist cause. The purely incidental internment of many of its members after the 1916 Rising, and its status as the first organisation to place a ban on alien culture and alien uniformed personnel (for promotional, not political, reasons, he says) have allowed the GAA to opportunistically place itself to the forefront of the nationalist cause in Ireland. The GAA’s political agenda has blurred our understanding of the reasons why its games are an integral part of the definition of Irish nationalism.

In their effort to justify their use of gaelic football and hurling in support of their political agenda, the custodians of the GAA have also tried to rewrite history. There is no clear linear history between Cu Chulainn and Michael Cusack, argues Cronin, and while it is clear that some form of stick and ball game existed in pre-Famine times, there is no evidence that this was hurling. Perhaps it was cricket? Or golf? Gaelic football was, to all intents and purposes, the same chaotic, mob-style ball game as the English were playing in the last century until the game was codified in 1884.

While the GAA epitomizes a defensive, 19th century, dogma-ridden form of nationalism, soccer, he argues, represents a more confident, forward-looking Ireland. Soccer symbolizes an Ireland that gaelic games can’t because they are not played internationally. Ireland’s qualification for the World Cup in 1990 and 1994 redefined Irish nationalism, he says. When Jack Charlton assumed control of the national team in 1986, the country was still struggling to find its place in a world in which its name was synonymous with terrorism, hunger strikes, poverty and an all-powerful church. Italia 90 and US 94 represented a profound moment in history which caused the Irish to think differently about nationality and identity, the paradox being that a predominantly British-born team playing an English game was the greatest expression of Ireland’s Irishness since independence.

The argument Cronin makes is convincing, even to this sceptical mind, but he loses it when he lapses into ‘Fintanotoolism’, linking this new sense of what Ireland is about to the election of Mary Robinson as President and Ireland’s supposed conversion to liberal secularism. How, then, does this imagined vision of a new Ireland square with the election of Dana to the European parliament in 1999? And didn’t Robinson receive fewer first preference votes in the election than a man who was exposed on national television as a liar?

Cronin redeems himself with an outstanding chapter on sport and the Northern Ireland troubles, using  the Loughinisland pub massacre on the night Ireland beat Italy in 1994 to highlight the fact that there are two types of nationalism operating on the island. He brilliantly demonstrates how sport has emphasized the polarity between the two communities in Northern Ireland. While in the Republic, it has been a common, unifying theme, in the North it has become an excuse for division and antagonism. Derry City’s withdrawal and later exclusion from the Irish League, the histories over Belfast and Donegal Celtic, the GAA’s failure to jettison Rule 21 in the spirit of the Peace Process and continuing attacks on GAA members and property by loyalists demonstrate that sport is a principal arena in which the island’s two contested views of nationalism are played out.

Cronin sees little hope for the future of sport in Northern Ireland. In fact. as the political situation becomes normalized, sport will increasingly become the focus for those who feel disenfranchised by the peace process.

The increasingly evanescent nature of Irish nationalism is not examined to any great degree here. Cronin’s next work might explain how the recent international between the Republic and North, held to raise money for the Omagh fund, drew the smallest ever attendance for an Irish international in Dublin, while every Saturday morning, Ireland’s air and sea ports are thronged with Irish people travelling to Britain to support football teams with whom they can claim no cultural identification. In a politically and economically integrated Europe, is nationalism going to matter less? Cronin appears to think not. The globalisation of the world will lead to the restatement of the national, he says.

One of the greatest services this book provides is to debunk the myth, expressed by many at the time of Ireland’s aborted soccer game with Yugoslavia, that politics and sport can be divorced. This book, exhaustive, enlightening and entertaining, will educate you about that and a lot more’ Paul Howard, The Sunday Tribune, 4 July 1999.

home  |  contact us  |  information  |  books  | news