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Awe and bewilderment

The Irish: deafening at sport but silent on politicsSeanán Kerr 


Sport projected us into the international spotlight this summer. When Katie Taylor boxed in the London Olympics we were held up as an example for other nations to aspire towards. Our people stunned the foreign media with their voice: “If there were a gold for being a crowd, it would go to this crowd”, wrote the Guardian. After Euro 2012, UEFA gave our supporters a “special award”. For the last five apocalyptic minutes in the Spain-Ireland match, being bloodily defeated by the greatest international team didn’t seem to matter. Dutch, French and German TV commentators fell to silence to listen to our crowd pouring ‘The Fields of Athenry’ into the Poznan night. Football was forgotten – in its place, awe. Think about that. So loud we inspired silence.

But do we, beyond sport?

The Irish crowd is peculiar. In small numbers (and with a little alcohol) it can generate a generous, boozy atmosphere that visitors and emigrants say has no equal in the world. In larger numbers, when it comes to sport and music, the same can be said:  our crowds, unlike some others, are joyous, fraternal, good-natured. The same cannot, however, be said when it comes to politics. At a local level, marches do happen: reductions to frontline services – hospital closures, cuts to Community Development Programmes are protested about. Yet when it comes to decisions made on a national level – apart from those concerning farmers and older people – our silence has been noted by the visiting world’s media with bewilderment.

News of our humiliating acquiescence had sailed around Europe. In February 2010 footage taken in Athens by Channel 4 News quoted Greek protestors saying “This is Greece not Ireland, we the workers will resist!” No riots, no petrol-bombs. It can be said then that the Irish are so loud in sport we inspire awe, and so quiet in politics we inspire bewilderment.

In looking at this disparity, not only are we talking about two different fields, but two different crowds – spectators and demonstrators. One is, for the most part, passive, the other active. The point of focus is different. Spectators need a performance, there is an exchange in energy between spectacle and audience, each defines the experience for the other. Demonstrating crowds are different: they require leaders and ideals. It is these we seem to lack.

One figure with experience of both crowds is Irish Examiner sports journalist Diarmuid O’Flynn. For 80 consecutive Sundays O’Flynn has  led a march in Ballyhea in protest against the bondholder bailout.

As O’Flynn explained it, “I’m trying to get a very simple message across – that what’s happening here is an abuse of power by the ECB and the EU and it’s extortion, pure and simple. We’ve been blackmailed into taking on a debt that is not ours, and at the moment it’s €15,000 for every man, woman and child in the Republic to bail out banks: that message hasn’t been delivered to the Irish people and I think if it was you’d have people on the streets”.

Two years ago this month when the IMF came to town, some of the most jaded Irish people talked about a revolution, about doing what the Icelanders did, and pushing a hated government out. But the moment passed, we got an election instead and the stark outrage of the bailout and the Fianna Fáil/Green coalition blurred into the less clearly defined outrages of bondholder  and promissory-note payouts and NAMA. These days cuts and cronyism dominates the coverage. The message about the bond payments hasn’t been communicated through the official channels. While O’Flynn talks about the “stoic humour” of the sporting Irish – “no matter what, we’ll prevail, no matter what, we’ll still be singing, we’ll still be laughing” – he attributes much of our passivity in politics to a failure of the media:

“The media are supposedly the fourth estate, independent of government, looking after the interest of the people, investigating, exposing, protecting, they have abdicated every responsibility that they supposedly have, I think we’ve been betrayed by our media, and I say that as a member of the media.

“At the end of June the Taoiseach came out at five o’clock in the morning from a Eurozone leaders’ summit, buffed up better than anyone else in there, announcing a great triumph for Ireland. The Irish Times spoke of getting back sums of between 30 and 40 billion Euro. But the true message started to sink home over the next week, it was all based on one line from the summit statement, ‘We affirm that it is imperative to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns’.”

I recently joined a march organised by O’Flynn to Croke Park. Big grinning men approached him afterwards, keen to shake his hand, saying what a great job he was doing, but as we marched on the street itself, behind the banner, “Ballyhea Says No To Bondholder Bailout” in amongst thousands of GAA fans, all heading in the same direction, not one person joined us. We were like oil in water, which is odd, because you’d impute a commonality of nationalistic impetus: you’d assume precisely the opposite.

I decided to ask Conor McCabe, author of ‘Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy’, about it.

“One of the funny things about nationalism is that it needs other nations in order to form itself”, McCabe told me. “It doesn’t live of its own energy. Being Irish and Irishness start to emerge in the 1800s, in the post-French Revolution period. Irish identity as religion is really taken on board by Daniel O’Connell. Being Irish is being Catholic, and as well there is a move towards a nation state, so in many ways identity is entirely artificial. But we shouldn’t worry about that too much as human societies are entirely artificial, they’re made by people. Societies aren’t found in woods or trees, they’re made by people and identities are the same”.

I asked McCabe about the GAA, my impression having always been that when the GAA was formed, it was at a rare intersection between sport and politics, but he dismissed this.

“You cannot separate the rise of the GAA from the rise of recreational sport in the UK. Gaelic football is a completely artificial game that was invented in the 1880s as a flanking manoeuvre against what was seen as the English games of rugby and soccer coming into Irish society.

“Ireland is a dysfunctional state – flawed, broken and full of self-hate. No wonder it has become a cliché, because it’s never looked at the dark heart, its deep soul. If you really want to get into Irishness, then the Ryan Commission, why isn’t that Irishness? Why is the GAA Irishness, and covering up intergenerational sexual abuse not?”.

Here McCabe seems to touch upon the notion of “chosen trauma”, a concept developed by Vamik Djemal Volkan, a Professor of Psychiatry with over 30 years’ experience with peace negotiations in the Balkans and Middle East. In essence, a chosen trauma is an agreed point of collective suffering. As Volkan writes, “The chosen trauma functions primarily to link the members of the large group together as if it were an invisible spider’s web”. For Britain it’s the Second World War; for Ireland it’s the Famine. This explains why Churchill is regularly voted the ‘Greatest Briton’, and in the Republic of Ireland ‘The Fields of Athenry’ is sung at soccer and rugby matches and at boxing matches.


In his writings on national identity, Volkan points to the danger of a culture engaged in a never-ending mourning process. When a humiliation has occurred (humiliation and defeat for a nation being the equivalent of bereavement for a person), they must go through a mourning process lest a culture of victimisation and defeatism emerge. For many, our centuries-long enmity with Britain was finally put to rest by the Queen’s visit last year (for others it was just a silly diversion).

Noam Chomsky, in the third chapter of ‘Understanding Power’, notes that when it comes to sport, people are very engaged, very knowledgeable. When people call into phone shows to discuss sport, they show very little deference to the experts, they are confident taking on their points of view. Chomsky thinks that sports are a waste of time, a distraction that takes up a huge amount of society’s intellectual energy.

This may be unpopular, but it’s difficult to argue with. People who really follow sport do think about it constantly.  Sky Sports is a modern-day opiate for the people.

Unseriousness allowed the bank guarantee, and later the Troika, to assert their power. Diarmuid O’Flynn points to the media, others point to failure of leadership. But these things do not exist in isolation from us, they are us. We’re the ones who buy newspapers and watch television. We’re the ones who vote, not just for politicians, but for union leaders and for products.  We’re the ones, dear reader, who continue to bank  with AIB and Bank of Ireland.

Pablo Picasso once said “Never permit a dichotomy to rule your life”, yet this is exactly what we have allowed to happen here. People suffer and suffered, at the hands of the state, at the hands of the Church, and at the hands of the Troika.  Afterwards we drink and dance and make merry.

Becoming the loudest in politics, not after it or in sport, is now the only goal that can save us.