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Fintan O’Toole: Jack Charlton allowed us to accept the English part of our Irishness

The two countries’ hybrid urban culture was a truth universally unacknowledged

Jack Charlton of Leeds United goes through before scoring past Arsenal’s Bob Wilson at Elland Road, 1971. Photograph: PA Wire

In the 1966 World Cup, I supported the Soviet Union. I did this on humanitarian grounds. A Christian Brother told me that the Russian players would be sent to the salt mines of Siberia and worked to death if they did not win. My grandmother had applied the same logic in 1953 when she shocked the priest in City Quay church by asking him to say Mass for the repose of the soul of Josef Stalin, pleading “But sure, he needs it more than anyone else.”

Besides, I liked the names: Lev Yashin, Igor Chislenko – better than Nobby Stiles anyhow. They reminded me of my hero, Ilya Kuryakin from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a man so cool he could carry off a white polo neck without looking like a dork. And I suppose I was already then what I have always been: a perverse little git. Because every other boy, on the road and in school, was cheering for England.

It is true that nobody in our games wanted to be Jackie Charlton (always Jackie then, never Jack). The big giraffe-necked galoot was the awkward appendage to the brother everyone loved, the imperiously graceful Bobby. But all those England players were familiar because everyone followed an English club.

What was interesting about this was that we had all been through a full-body immersion in heroic Irish nationalism just a few months earlier: the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Inspired by the gripping RTÉ series Insurrection, we stopped playing Cowboys and Indians and started playing Irish and English. But shooting imaginary English soldiers from behind imaginary barricades was, it seemed, perfectly compatible with having a picture of Jimmy Greaves or Geoff Hurst on the bedroom wall.


English cousins

This double-mindedness sprang from a truth universally unacknowledged. Supporting English football teams was the one and only way in which the affiliation – dare one say the affection? – between urban Ireland and urban England could be expressed. It was rooted in the great paradox of independent Ireland: we freed ourselves from English rule only so that half of us could go and live under it. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but it was. My cousins were in Birmingham, Manchester, Maidstone, Hammersmith. So were everyone’s.

The deep affection he inspired was inextricable from the fact that we liked in ourselves the discovery of our capacity to like him

There's a reason so many English actors – Steve Coogan, Julie Walters, Judi Dench, Kathy Burke – can do note-perfect Irish accents: they just imitate their emigrant Irish parents. There's a reason why English popular culture, from The Beatles to The Smiths, from The Goons (Spike Milligan) to The Royle Family (Caroline Aherne) has such a deep seam of Irishness just beneath its surface. In that unofficial world, Englishness and Irishness have never been solo performances, always a kind of double act.

But we didn’t (and still don’t) have a name for this hybrid, shared urban culture. The obvious one, Anglo-Irish, is taken. It meant, in Brendan Behan’s definition, a Protestant on a horse. Hiberno-English is taken too, for the form of English spoken in Ireland. So it all remained nameless. It was another of the unknown knowns, the things we recognise but can’t quite acknowledge.

Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton after his side’s defeat to Italy at the 1990 World Cup. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The delight of Jack Charlton for Irish people was that he released us from this double bind. He was by no means the first English man to become an Irish icon. In the GAA's pageant for the 1966 celebrations, staged in Croke Park, while English stadiums were preparing to stage the World Cup, the voice of Irish history was Micheál MacLiammóir, by then entirely accepted as the quintessential Celtic romantic. MacLiammóir was the brilliant invention of an English man, Michael Wilton.

One of us

But Charlton was not playing these games of identity. He was bluntly, gruffly, cloth-capped English. There was – whatever the sentimental reminiscences might say – no whiff of the “adopted son” about him, no “more Irish than the Irish” guff. He had the tough centre-half’s absolute assurance about himself, and that very much included the utter certainty about who he was and where he came from. He was an English hero, and if the Football Association had not rejected him with contempt when he applied for the job, he would have loved to manage England.

He actually didn't give a toss about Irishness, even in the footballing sense – this was the man who marvellously called the great Liam Brady by the name of the Moors murderer, Ian Brady. And that was not just okay. It was splendid. Just by being the way he was, Charlton forced us to acknowledge that his Englishness was part of our world too. The mental universe most of us inhabited included all those cities where Charlton had plied his trade. He allowed us, for the first time, to accept that long-established reality.

Of course there would have been no affection for him without success. If he had failed, his Englishness would have been turned against him – carpetbagger, mercenary. But the pleasure of his team’s achievements opened the door for the pleasure of his presence in Irish life. The deep affection he inspired was inextricable from the fact that we liked in ourselves the discovery of our capacity to like him. If he was “one of us”,  that “us” had to be a little more capacious and a lot more truthful.