Liam Toland: Why CJ Stander is a better flag-bearer than Conor McGregor

Munster player is a wonderful ambassador of whatever Irishness means

Conor McGregor has been fined €400 in Blanchardstown District Court for driving at 158kph on the Naas road near Dublin. Video: Jack Power


We saw a vision and “we lit the light of hope”.

Sitting at home is a framed photo of 26 members of the 68th Cadet Class standing to attention, presenting arms, above Liam Mac Uistín’s words. That it’s taken in the Garden of Remembrance is one thing but that we’re atop the wall is especially significant to me.

The memories of that crazy time as a cadet constantly come flooding back especially when I see the Irish tricolour unfurled in the wind; be it Croke Park, the Aviva, Government Buildings, the many barracks throughout the country or indeed the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Christmas day particularly invokes memories because it’s the giant flag that’s raised up the pole.

I’m often asked about the purpose or indeed value of the Irish Defence Forces but that flag flying throughout the world or on my trips to Kosovo encapsulate who we are and where we’ve come from. Thirteen years ago I spent Christmas in Camp Clarke, Kosovo with many colleagues who stood under the flag toasting Ireland and the families waking up back home without us.

That Christmas day, and the memories of getting up at some ungodly hour in the Cadet School, Curragh Camp, the multiple inspections of us cadets in our number one uniforms, the hurried breakfast and the bus journey into the city as another head of state or new ambassador was being escorted to the Garden of Remembrance are very much alive today.

The wooden railing at the back of the wall was erected after an exhausted cadet fell mid ceremony. The 68th never fell! But standing to attention on the wall, flag at half mast, with the army bugles sounding the Last Post, has always filled my chest with sombre pride.

Maybe this is why John Hayes was crying in Croke Park in 2009 as he joined in the anthem. Then the flag is raised proudly flying at full mast for the sounding of Reveille followed immediately by “Amhrán na bhFiann”.  

Oft times missed by the cameras is the Cadets Presenting Arms, to various arrivals, but chief amongst them is rendering honours to the flag as it arrives. This is why when an Irish sports star drapes himself/herself in the flag that it’s a particularly significant statement of Irishness. I’ve always been torn by the role our sports stars should play in society.

Like many of my 68th cadet classmates on top of the wall, our sports stars are human too but so much is expected of them. That they err is human but that they strive to fill the role they never really asked for is superhuman.

That is why I’m torn by the juxtaposition between CJ Stander, Irishness and Conor McGregor. I admire them both immensely but I have huge reservations about the latter. Both have strong links to the Irish tricolour but both treat it very differently. With globalisation an omnipresent fixture many cultures and peoples traverse the world at will.

For many their homeland has rejected them, thus creating refugees. For others it is simply the lure of opportunity. But it does question our sense of personal identity. In time, hopefully, a Syrian refugee will represent Ireland and stand by that flag pole as our anthem is played. But what is his anthem; Syrian or Irish? That his homeland delivered untold harm to him and his family must influence his understanding of nation and nationality.

South African Stander came to our shores seeking opportunity and boy, has he excelled. That he’s not Irish confuses many especially when a reported €840,000 a year French salary was in the offing. It must have confused the hell out of him before he decided to commit to Ireland for three more years.

If he went to France it would have made a mockery of the residency rule in that his Irish opportunity would have been the very catalyst to lure him to France. That said, since his arrival he has been a most wonderful ambassador for the Irish flag; he has been a leader and an example that shines brightly in the many streets of his adopted Limerick City.

Many of these streets value sport above all else and, by extension, sporting heroes above anything else. Stander gets this and strives to deliver in any way he can. He is a wonderful ambassador of whatever Irishness means and long may he commit to his adopted country.

As soon as McGregor wraps our national flag around his shoulders, as he’s done countless times in the various rings he’s dominated, he then assumes another role, my representative; our representative. I get that it’s unfair to compare one sport’s culture to another and that McGregor clearly occupies a world of banter, brashness and bling but with the Irish flag draped over his shoulders he needs a deeper understanding of Irishness.

Many of our citizens will be in uniform this Christmas day; nurses, paramedics, firefighters, gardai, soldiers at home and abroad under the flag.

And as McGregor exited Blanchardstown District Court recently I wonder who spotted the irony that in every court in Ireland our national flag flies; the very flag he drapes over himself in victory. 

Our courts and our national flag are two pillars of what Irishness epitomises and treating one with disdain treats the other likewise.

As much as €840,000 appeared to be on offer before Stander turned it down; it’s nothing compared to McGregor’s fortune yet the example Stander demands of himself as he resides here in Limerick is priceless.

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