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That is the beginning of the last sentence spoken to me by a pubgoer in Dublin recently, on the eve of a greatly anticipated visit by the English rugby team to play Ireland’s. The last half of the sentence was: “…they had tanks.” I have to say that it wasn’t spoken in malice, but more in a proud history lesson kind of way. The speaker was perfectly clear with his words, even after three or four Guinnesses.
You see, my family was just winding up a week in Ireland’s capital over the public school winter break. Truth be told, we would’ve preferred a warmer clime, but the Caribbean sold out back in October and we hadn’t planned ahead. I found cheap airfares to Dublin and we said why not. My wife had been and loves the country and the people, and from all I read, it seemed like a fine walking city, even if we had to carry umbrellas at all times. The weather forecast said it would at least be warmer than the frigid snap here. From the taxi ride in from the airport, conversation turned to the impending arrival by the British. Our cab driver pointed towards the new Croke Park Stadium on the way in and explained what was happening in a fortnight. Having seen the movie Michael Collins, I knew about the English killing of a dozen Irishmen that dark day back in 1920 at the old stadium on the same spot, but it seems like a long time ago. I think it’s fair to say that the Irish hold their grudges, but then they have spent almost their entire history fending off invaders. (As for how well we Americans deal with that, we all know about the prejudice shown to anyone even remotely looking mid-Eastern after 9/11.)
The athletic field is a tangible and physical stage for settling old scores by way of a new one. As Franklin Foer points out in his brilliant book, How Soccer Explains the World, that sport is full of historical conflict, from Franco’s old Real Madrid team vs. the rebel Barcelona to Scotland’s Catholic Celtic vs. Protestant Rangers, we are doomed to repeat history on patches of green sod. Hell, look to the most provincial football rivalries of Texas v. Oklahoma or Georgia v. Florida, or basketball’s Duke v. NC. On some level, it’s just good fun; on others, it rends families apart. I grew up in rural Long Island, NY, where we sometimes hated the next town over. Why?! Is it just in our genetic makeup that we need others to define our goodness, heroism, manliness? Because it does come down to boys, yes? Men in boys games, in shorts or helmets, with muddy cleats and festooned in symbolic colors, beating the other side senseless.
Now let me confess that I buy into some of this competitive verve, up to a point, and I have actually spent much of my adult life purging myself of these tendencies. I have enough on my mood plate without letting the outcome of a Giants or Mets game darken my day. I have pulled back, unaligning myself, looking for just good play and sportsmanship. Silly me.
Back to Dublin. What a wonderful city, with almost no high rises, an unexpected sun hitting the street most days, and a variety of food that pleased us greatly. Does Irish milk really make that cappuccino sweeter and foamier? Also the butter on my toast as I read the paper each morning, every single day full of more editorials on the meaning of the English rugby team visit. It really all came down as to whether Ireland was mature enough – the op-ed’s word, not mine – to let “God Save the Queen” be played on that sullied soil or not. Most op-ed voices said yes; the mooks said it was a disgrace. The kind of mooks that inhabit pubs. Hence my concern that last night of our visit.
But I was wrong. My host, author Declan Hughes, and I were actually watching the UEFA soccer matches after some wine (for me; sorry) and local non-Guinness brew for him. My wife and daughter had retired for the eve and we stayed on to watch Celtic v. Milan, a wonderful game. The bar crowd was pro-Celtic, it being the Catholic team (not being judgmental, just factual), as well as anti-Manchester United, the Yankees of English soccer, who were playing Bayern Munich on the other big screen.
The generous people I had met all week offset some of the sadness I saw in the graffiti at the subway stations and the news of an increasing crime rate. The Irish are so clearly proud to be part of the European Union, proud to be enjoying an economic boom, proud to be part of a modern world while still holding on to their traditions, and maybe a few grudges. (The cabbie said the most profound thing I heard all week: As countries join the EU, there is a desire to strengthen or revive one’s own unique cultures and heritage. In Ireland that includes great participation in all the old Gaelic sports as well as continuing to teach the old language in schools.)
How did the game go? The Irish trounced the English, 43-13. I actually wish I was still there now, joining in the revelry of a small but strong country enjoying a symbolic defeat of its former master. It means nothing, and everything.