Shoulder to Shoulder: How Irish rugby survived the Troubles

Craig Doyle and Brian O’Driscoll tell the story of one Irish team crossing the cultural divide

Mick Doyle was going apoplectic. David 'Doc' Irwin, Philip Rainey and Nigel Carr were late for Ireland training.

It’s April 1987.

Des Fitzgerald says it as well as anyone, "It's fine to be an armchair general, 100 miles away from the action, and then all of a sudden that action is brought next to you with friends and people that you depend on.

“That’s a seminal moment,” offers the banker, retired prop and father of Luke, “when you realise the reality of a conflict.”


Brian O’Driscoll narrates. The IRA detonated a road side bomb just over the border, killing their intended victim, lord justice Maurice Gibson and his wife Cecily, on the couple’s short journey between Garda and RUC escorts.

The Ulster trio happened to be driving the other way, easily on time for national camp in Dublin. The explosion was like a thousand flashbulbs – white light, deafening noise, immense heat.

Access is what makes Shoulder to Shoulder, a collection of stories about the island of Ireland being represented by one rugby team despite the War of Independence and The Troubles, such a compelling documentary.


Earlier this summer Irwin is sitting beside O’Driscoll at the scene of the Killeen ambush. He remembers checking his limbs then looking to see if Carr was still alive.

Irwin dragged his friend from the wreckage.

“I pulled him so hard I actually pulled him out of his trainers . . . I thought he was going to miss the World Cup.”

The 27-year-old flanker would never play rugby again.

O’Driscoll, being only seven years old and a “Catholic from Dublin”, seems incredulous to the reality but Irwin’s pained silence provides a sobering dose, showing what such atrocities did to people touched by a 35-year war that claimed over 3,500 lives.

The person who detonated the bomb had to be on a hill looking down.

O’Driscoll visits Carr to discover a man who refused to become bitter about a stolen rugby career that promised so much.

Again, access is what makes this BT Sport film an important historical review.

"Having relationships with the likes of Doc and knowing Willie John [McBride] and even being able to attend an Orange parade, because they are Irish rugby fans, counted when it came to being accepted into their environment," O'Driscoll tells The Irish Times.

Ah, The Twelfth. There was a Lambeg drum and plenty of giggling iPhones to capture the treasonous act if O’Driscoll happened to be Donal Lenihan travelling back to his republican stronghold of 1980s Cork. But Lenihan, another former Ireland captain, developing life long bonds with Jimmy McCoy (former RUC officer) and British soldier Brian McCall emphasises the uniqueness of playing rugby for Ireland.

“Yes, I guess not many people have gone back to the sight of the bomb blast in Killeen and Nigel Carr does very few interviews so we were fortunate to get him to speak to us,” says O’Driscoll of the documentary’s dramatic peak. “When we look back on this, what will be brilliant is I don’t think we will be able to get this group of ex-players together again.”

Cultural divide

3 Rock Productions, Craig Doyle and O’Driscoll, teamed up with TBI Media to make the documentary that will broadcast on BT Sport 2 after the Leinster v Wasps match on October 12th.

O’Driscoll struggles to wrap his brain around the “commonality” of Ireland supporters considering the cultural divide that has always existed between northern unionists and republicans. Orange men repeatedly tell him they are Irish, but British too, yet paradoxically they love stuffing England as much as any inhabitant on this island.

With the help of Tommy Bowe, Monaghan border child turned anchorman, he gets there in the end.

“From a rugby perspective you don’t have to have the same religious or political ideology – you can differ massively – but ultimately what seals it all together is you play and support one team in one jersey.

“As I said at the end of the film it could only be for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon where we are united. That’s the beauty of it, that’s what makes it so special; this film proves if you can survive what we have survived over the last 50 years there is no way that bond within the Irish team will ever be broken.”

The documentary is timely for a UK audience scrambling to understand the relevance of the Good Friday Agreement and border issue at the core of Brexit.

“It was very important to have an English director on it in Isobel Williams and English producer in Mark Sharman,” Doyle explains, “Just to provide fresh eyes on something we have become so familiar with. We spoon feed some of the information but it was very important that people just get it.”

Initially, Shoulder to Shoulder was to be a documentary about Ireland's Call. Thankfully that evolved into the meatier and largely untold story of Irish rugby remaining united as a non-political entity.

"My opinion on Ireland's Call is it's absolutely necessary," O'Driscoll continues. "Amhrán na bhFiann is not an anthem for everyone. If you want to be inclusive and want to think of something for the whole island you need a song everyone is capable of singing and has some meaning to it."


This diplomatic stance by the former Ireland and British Lions captain is disputed by the many, many, many people who believe the Phil Coulter ditty is an anthem for no one.

"What cracks me up about Ireland's Call on match day at the Aviva it is still the loudest song sung," claims Doyle.


“It is.”

Must not carry to the upper deck. Not to worry. Irish people are not meant to agree on this topic and Shoulder to Shoulder remains an admirable attempt at story telling.

"I hope people see the balance to the film," says O'Driscoll. "We've tried to see everyone's perspective. The hot topic of Irish history is going to put some noses out of joint – you saw the reaction to Loughgall on social media but the context was very different from the reality."

Shoulder to Shoulder premieres at 10pm on Oct 12, on BT Sport 2