‘Blame alcohol, not rugby.’ What’s behind the Kiely’s fights?

Are the recent Dublin 4 brawls the result of drinking, elite schooling, or rugby itself?

Gardai were called to the scene of a street brawl between two rival Dublin schools in Donnybrook, Co Dublin, after a secondary school rugby match.

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On Monday evening of this week a number of videos showing a group of young men breaking into a fight outside a pub in Donnybrook, Dublin 4, began to appear across WhatsApp.

One video, titled “Gotta love cup season”, showed punches being thrown in the smoking area of the popular Kiely’s pub down the road from Donnybrook Stadium, where a Leinster Schools Senior Cup match had taken place earlier that day between south Dublin secondary schools, St Michael’s College and Terenure College. Gardaí arrived at the scene at around 5.40pm to break up the brawl, but no arrests were made.

Two days later, a similar altercation between a group of teenagers and men in their early 20s broke out following a Newbridge College versus Presentation College Bray match in Donnybrook. This time four men aged 18 and 19 were arrested and brought to Irishtown Garda station, where one was charged with a public order offence.

We respect our opponents and their past pupils both on and off the pitch

Blackrock College Past Pupil’s Union was the first rugby school to respond to the violence, releasing a statement on Tuesday calling for “respect” among former students attending these games. Later that day St Michael’s College Past Pupil Union condemned the behaviour “of a few recent past pupils who got involved in a fracas” following Monday’s match.

“We respect our opponents and their past pupils both on and off the pitch,” wrote St Michael’s Union. It is understood that a former pupil from St Michael’s College who was identified in one of the videos was later contacted by the school for disciplinary measures.

On Thursday morning, Terenure College became the third school to release a statement criticising the actions of a small number of rugby supporters whose behaviour had “marred what was, and always is a wonderful occasion in schools rugby”. The school said it was taking “appropriate action” and would do its “utmost to ensure that this behaviour does not reoccur”.

“As a school we strive to educate our students to uphold the key values of our society; respect for self and for others, tolerance and personal responsibility for our actions,” continued the statement.

Among the questions put to them was one about how schools can teach students about not carrying the physicality of the sports field into everyday life.

Newbridge College and Presentation College Bray were contacted for comment but failed to respond.

Media fascination

There is undoubtedly a media fascination with violent incidents between current and past pupils of these predominantly fee-paying rugby schools. Last year, Gonzaga College in Ranelagh made headlines after the school’s past pupils union hit out at former students for showing “totally unacceptable behaviour” during a Leinster Senior Cup match which included “extreme drunkenness”.

It is thought that many of these brawls, which are not a new phenomenon but have been occurring after school matches for years, are the result of past pupils drinking before a match, drinking cans during a game and then going on to one of the nearby pubs afterwards. This week, it is understood past pupils were able to continue drinking alcohol at the Old Wesley club members bar which remained open during the matches on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It is also believed that some current, as well as past pupils, were identified in the videos of this week’s brawls.

Are such brawls another aspect of our nation’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol?

Aidan McCullen, former Leinster, Toulouse and London Irish rugby player, says: “Schools are supposed to produce holistic people and these guys are supposed to be ambassadors for their schools. They’re doing their schools a massive disservice by acting this way, even if they’ve left.”

Is this violent behaviour specific to the graduates of Ireland’s elite boys’ schools or are such brawls another aspect of our nation’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol?

Former headmaster of St Andrew’s College in Blackrock Arthur Godsil is adamant that the behaviour this week is unconnected to the ethos of rugby-playing schools. He argues that as a sport, rugby has no tolerance for violence among supporters and that drawing a connection between a rugby school education and the violence among recent graduates is wrong.

“Alcohol is the cause, not rugby schools,” says Godsil. “Rugby is a fantastic game that automatically assumes respect among the players and spectators. It requires very controlled aggression on the pitch. But if you look at the activities of these 19- and 20-year-old men and put them together with a lot of alcohol in their systems, it’s not going to take much to get the action going.

“These are young lads who don’t have the maturity to handle alcohol. This is about our love affair with alcohol which is a much bigger problem within Irish society.”

Godsil also says that – far from fostering a culture of violence – schools offer guidance in good behaviour. “Those schools spend a huge amount of time trying to educate these boys in the right way. They take this very seriously and I can’t imagine for one moment that anything in those schools would encourage those young boys to be violent.”

Mark Doyle, a PhD researcher at UCD who has investigated masculinity in sport, says former students’ desire to appear muscular and powerful could also be a driving factor in post-match violence.

There is also contagious excitement when fights like this happen

Growing up in this age of social media, Doyle argues, young men increasingly feel the need to bulk up and prove their manliness through physical strength. What’s more, when these young men finish secondary school most are no longer actively involved in sport and lose that automatic outlet for exerting pent up energy.

“Maybe these fights are a way to express masculinity through the brute force of the body,” says Doyle, adding that rugby is “particularly gladiatorial” when compared to football or even GAA.

“There is also contagious excitement when fights like this happen – one punch or slap is usually enough, especially in a context where there are pretty binary tribal lines like jerseys and alcohol.”

Struggle to comprehend

Former professional footballer and now psychotherapist Richie Sadlier says young men who were heavily involved in sport at school may struggle to comprehend the importance of leaving their strength and ability to exert themselves physically on the sports field.

“Some lads may take that behaviour into non-sporting arenas, whether it’s in a pub or domestically with a partner, and that becomes problematic,” warns Sadlier. “There is a huge responsibility for coaches and anyone working with these lads to promote the idea that there are other ways of demonstrating your manhood or value as a man than physically imposing yourself on other people.”

Another long-term observer of schools rugby blames the media

“If you introduce alcohol into the situation and the group dynamic takes over, that can be problematic for anyone, whether they’re from a fee-paying school or not. You will always get lads, and girls too, who look at violence and aggressions as a way of resolving conflict.”

A former Gonzaga student, who witnessed the violence at the school match last March, attributes the recent behaviour among past pupils in part to what he describes as the “Trump/Conor McGregor factor”.

“The way men like Trump and McGregor behave, no rules apply to them, and I think these types of leaders in society are genuinely making a difference.”

Another long-term observer of schools rugby blames the media for blowing these incidents out of proportion. “If this involved a school soccer match in Sallynoggin, there wouldn’t be any interest in it. But this was a case of privileged kids behaving badly – all captured on YouTube.

“The media puts the words ‘fee-paying’ in the headline, and they come at it with an agenda. Listen, lots of boys or young men misbehave. Middle-class ones too. Yes, it shouldn’t have happened, and they should be punished, but let’s not lose the run of ourselves.”

Former pupils

A recent graduate of Blackrock College who is in his early 20s agrees that fighting among past pupils from rival schools has been a problem for years. He remembers watching former pupils gather in the terraces opposite the main stand in Donnybrook Stadium where he would be sitting with his school peers to watch the game.

The former Blackrock student, who never played rugby but attended matches, says pupils were unable to drink before a match as they were brought straight from the school to the stadium and that most of those getting into fights would be former students aged 18-22.

Does he see it as a particular problem among graduates from rugby schools?

“I do think this problem is more prominent in students from rugby schools; they act out more aggressively. I have friends from these schools that are more timid but lots of these lads know how to get rowdy.

“I’m not sure why they keep going to matches after they finish school but they’re ex-rugby players who I guess are going to support their friends. They’re coming out of school with this strong lad culture.”

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