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It took a working-class lad from Wigan to make me like rugby

Perhaps we should contemplate the terrifying idea that Andy Farrell has achieved what he has for Ireland not in spite of being English but precisely because he’s English

I like to think of myself as unprejudiced and I hope I sloughed off in my early teens the hatreds I imbibed as a child of Catholic Ireland: of Protestants, “queers” (yes we did use that word as a term of abuse) and communists (meaning anyone to the left of General Franco).

But there’s one bias I found very hard to get over: a shameful aversion to rugby. I’m not proud of it but I think I can at least explain it.

It was partly about social class: the battle for Irish privilege was won on the playing fields of Blackrock College and Castleknock. I can’t deny an allergy to all that.

The other part of it was political. I can’t forget the sickening way the rugger buggers sucked up to the white supremacist junta in apartheid South Africa.


One of the first demos I went on was a protest outside Lansdowne Road against the staging of a “friendly” game against the Boers. I still feel the shock of a red-faced Ireland fan screaming at me that I was a “N – ger lover!”

Almost all of that puss has been drained off long ago, but our attitudes are formed by our early years. It takes therapy to get over them and my therapist is called Andy Farrell.

I am, like most of the country, mesmerised by this Irish rugby team – but also enraptured by how unIrish it is, how it shuns all the Irish melodramas of gallant efforts, brave attempts and almost greatness. And – to say the unsayable – intrigued by how much this transformation depends on an injection of just the right dose of Englishness.

The greatest managers of Irish national sports teams have been the no-nonsense Northumbrian Jack Charlton and the wonderful Wiganer Andy Farrell.

(I emphasise “national” here – we produce superb GAA managers at county level. But this surely makes the absence of comparable achievements by Irish-born managers in international sports all the more notable.)

There’s a long history of people of Irish birth or descent – from Edmund Burke to The Beatles and from Judi Dench to Ant and Dec – shaping English culture. We’re comfortable with that. It’s some kind of psychic recompense for the pain of colonial oppression and mass emigration: England fecked us up but in revenge we fecked with Englishness.

But we’re less comfortable with the two-way traffic. For good historical reasons, the idea of positive English influence on Ireland hits the buffers of insecurity and defensiveness.

Yet maybe the afterglow of a Grand Slam is the time to get over it. Maybe we can look at what Farrell has done for Ireland and contemplate the terrifying idea that he has achieved it not in spite of being English but precisely because he’s English.

I am fascinated by Farrell in part because he has created perhaps the first Irish institution that expects to succeed. But also because of his brilliant handling of the whole business of being the English boss of a team that represents the fragile concept of an all-island Irish nation.

Talk about a hospital pass. This is our very own mental minefield. Letting a big bloke from Wigan wander into it, giving orders, should guarantee an almighty explosion.

But Farrell defused it all brilliantly by reminding us that Irish and working-class English is not so neatly binary an opposition as history suggests.

In 2016, when he came into the Irish rugby coaching team, he told Gerry Thornley in The Irish Times that “Everyone from the northwest of England is from Ireland anyway. You go from Liverpool straight across the east Lancs to Manchester and it’s full of Irish. I’ve got [Dublin] ancestry that goes back three or four generations, and so has my wife ... Coming to Ireland and living in Dublin is almost like going home for me.”

Well, it is and it isn’t. Maybe the reason Farrell – and so many English people before him – have been able to add something special to Ireland is that they are close enough to understand us but distant enough to contribute something different.

What’s that difference? A non-tragic mentality.

Charlton was quite upset at the way Irish people became ecstatic about his team that had, in his piercing North-of-England eyes, failed to actually win anything.

We loved the narrative of “nearly”, were addicted to the masochistic pleasure – in the classic phrase about the 1916 Rising – of “the triumph of failure”. We wallowed in the thrill of “almost”: pipped at the post, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, the infinite melancholy of the final fumble.

English upper-class culture has a virulent strain of the same virus that went rampant with Brexit’s embrace of heroic failure. But, especially in its Northern working-class exposures, it also has a rich seam of intolerance for this self-indulgent bullshit.

It is not interested in excuses. It has a bracing literalism – you either get things done or you don’t.

Farrell’s team has been hypnotic in its enactment of a version of 32-county Irishness that gets things done. It is immune to the narcotic allure of “if only”.

But it conjures another “if only” – if only more things about the way Ireland organises itself could inhabit this excuse-free zone.