Rugby unites Ireland as no other sport can

In a Word: It is said that Éamon de Valera came close to winning an Irish cap

That sound you can’t hear these days is of the seven million inhabitants on this island holding their collective breath as Ireland progress through World Cup 2023. Yes, nationalist/republican, unionist/monarchist, people of faith and none all over the island are sharing a rare experience of unity as “North men, South men, comrades all” traverse France in pursuit of the Webb Ellis Cup.

Dare we dream?

As no other sport can, rugby unites Ireland. Two international soccer sides represent both jurisdictions on the island and Gaelic football is strongly associated with one tradition.

It will surprise many to know that Éamon de Valera was no mean rugby player and once claimed that: “There is no football game to match rugby. If all our young men played rugby not only would we beat England and Wales, but France and the whole lot of them together.” If only!


He believed rugby suited the Irish psyche and he played for Blackrock College in Dublin, as student and teacher, and was full-back for Munster in 1905 when, it is said, he came close to winning an Irish cap. Who would have thought?

Michael Collins, on the other hand, was a GAA man, described by one historian as an “enthusiastic if not a skilful” player “and generally a bit of a mullocker on the pitch”. His “hair-trigger temperament meant if a row developed on the field he was either its cause or its participant”. Dear, oh dear. The man who swore Collins into the Irish Republican Brotherhood was Sam Maguire, whose GAA significance needs no explanation.

Then there was my fellow Rossie, Douglas Hyde, who – though a patron of the GAA from 1902 – was demoted and banned by it from attending any Gaelic games for – as Ireland’s first president – attending a Poland-Ireland soccer match at Dalymount Park in Dublin in 1938. The ban extended for all of his presidency, until 1945. It meant this most patriotic of Rossies was unable to see his beloved county win its last All Ireland senior football titles in 1943 and 1944. Such cruelty!

It was 1971 – 33 years later – when they named the football pitch in Roscommon town Hyde Park, after him.

Forgiveness comes dropping slow in the GAA.

Rugby, named after English public school in Warwickshire, where the game is claimed to have originated

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times