In July 1966, one of Ireland’s rugby legends, Jack Kyle – who had been the team’s star player when it won the triple crown in 1948 and was appointed captain in 1953 – wrote a long letter to The Irish Times to denounce the demagoguery of Ian Paisley. He decried “his cause, religious intolerance, which inevitably brings with it hatred of neighbour... just about the lowest for which anyone could suffer”. His letter was framed around the importance of a “spirit of toleration”, and he referred pointedly to “Irishmen of all creeds”.
Kyle’s letter would have raised some eyebrows, as he was not known for expressing political views. It was written from Zambia where he was working as a consultant surgeon. He made no mention of his rugby career – “it was important to me that life was not defined by my rugby career” he later recalled – as his priority at that stage was medicine. But he was surely influenced by his rugby experiences in playing for an Irish team that incorporated the four provinces and the two religious traditions. The team’s all-island composition mattered to him.
During the first World War, those sympathetic to the Allied cause heralded those rugby players who volunteered for service in the British army. This newspaper praised such players who in 1914 “have thrown aside their interest in sport and devoted themselves purely to the affairs of war, in order that Ireland and other parts of the Empire may be kept free from the horrors of war”.
In the decade afterwards, given the scale of the revolutionary upheavals, it was of great significance that Irish rugby survived partition with an all-island team, unlike the situation with soccer. It involved a delicate balancing act when it came to flags, symbols and anthems and these things have always provoked strong emotions.
As was the case with Kyle, those steeped in Irish rugby did not ignore political realities or complications but made their points without generating too much instability
Sports historian Paul Rouse highlights a letter written to the IRFU by the minister for external affairs in 1932, Patrick McGilligan; he wondered “why the international practice of flying the flag of the country in which international matches are played should not be followed by Lansdowne Road”. The IRFU subsequently decided that the Irish Tricolour would fly beside the IRFU flag at all international matches in Dublin but there was consternation about other matters, including a toast to the King of England at IRFU dinners and the appropriateness of Sunday play.
Controversy raged in 1953 about the playing of God Save the Queen before an international match in Belfast; it was played again the following year and 10 players from the Republic agreed to play but only enter the field after the British anthem concluded. After that, competitive internationals were moved to Dublin. As was the case with Kyle, those steeped in Irish rugby did not ignore political realities or complications but made their points without generating too much instability. Overall, concluded Rouse, “there may have been moments of discomfort, but none so great that compromise could not be secured.”
There are still discomforting moments and concern has been expressed about songs sung in the contemporary era at rugby matches and their political overtones or, indeed, their tepidity. We do not need to over-analyse the soundtracks; most of those singing at rugby matches are not in the business of playing politics. What registers is the volubility and enveloping nature of their forceful presence, as acknowledged by the Irish team following its recent victory against South Africa.
What matters most, of course, is what happens on the pitch. Former international Andrew Trimble has been vocal over the years about what it meant to him, as someone from a unionist and Protestant background, to play for an all-island team. “I represented everybody on this island, and I’m very proud of that. That plays a big part in my identity,” he said.
Sport can embody various notions of identity and for Irish rugby, given that is played on the back of a century of surviving partition, that hybridity is even more significant
It is a complex identity, but unlike Kyle’s generation, who in the pre-professional era were also very much defined by their post-playing professions and directions, Trimble saw himself as primarily a rugby player: “I didn’t give a stuff about anything apart from playing the best rugby I could.”
That does not mean silence or indifference when it comes to contemporary divisions or the past or future of the island. Sport can embody various notions of identity and for Irish rugby, given that is played on the back of a century of surviving partition, that hybridity is even more significant.
But what has changed most is mentality and psychology; a team believing that it is world class and matching that belief with suitable performances, providing an antidote to an IRFU archive that is full of reports of matches where the “fiery Irish” ultimately fell short, the “glorious Irish failures”. In rising above that, the contemporary Irish rugby team can define its identity in its own way, regardless of the songs being sung.