The perfect symbol – Italia 90 and Irish Identity

Jack Charlton at Ireland’s homecoming reception in Dublin in 1990.

A personal view on how international football and Irish identity collided in the 1990 World Cup. By John Dorney.

The Republic of Ireland’s qualification for Euro 2012, before repeated hammerings on the field at least, had many of us misty eyed in nostalgia for another football tournament 22 years previously.

In Italy in 1990, the Irish team, which had never qualified for a World Cup before, reached the quarter finals. Admittedly they did this without actually winning a game – they drew the three group games and scraped by Romania on penalties in the second round – and played a form of football that was euphemistically described as ‘agricultural’.

Nobody cared in the least about that at the time though. For three weeks the nation experienced something close to mass hysteria.  I can recall, as a nine-year-old, people literally weeping with emotion after the penalty shootout against Romania. All that night car horns blared out from tricolour-laden cars. Eamon Dunphy, who had dared to criticize the team was all but burned in effigy. Half a million people came out onto the streets of Dublin to welcome the team home after the defeat against Italy – my main memory of which is actually a drunken brawl between fans on College Green.

People, speaking seriously, have suggested that the feel-good factor of the world cup lifted Ireland out of recession and kick started the so-called Celtic Tiger. Others have argued that it signaled the birth of a new, post-conflict Irish identity. Whether or not you give any credence to that, there is no doubt that it was an event of mass collective excitement and joy – hardly ever experienced by a country outside of wartime or revolution.

And this was in a sport, which though always popular in parts of the country, had often been denigrated by nationalists as a ‘garrison game’, with an English manager and with a team most of whom were born in England. Culturally, as much as ,say, the commemorations of the 1916 Rising in 1966 or the 1932 Eucharistic Congress, it was an event that cannot be ignored.

Why was there such an intense outpouring of emotion in Ireland at reaching the quarter finals of the 1990 world cup?

That mass sporting events can generate mass emotion is hardly news. George Orwell famously devoted an essay to calling sport, ‘war without shooting’. But Ireland’s case was special. The team was relatively unsuccessful but the intensity of emotion was enormous. Proportionately more people came out to celebrate Ireland’s defeat in 1990 in the quarter finals than celebrate most teams winning the tournament.

From the perspective of history, a few questions present themselves. Why was the emotion so intense? Why was it association football, or soccer, in particular that provoked it? And what was it about that team and manager that made them almost above criticism? Most important, what does it tell us about Irish identity at the end of the 20th century?

A contested identity

‘Ireland’ and ‘Irish’ were concepts throughout the 20th century that were contested in a way only a former colony’s identity could be.

There were of course, two states in Ireland after 1922, one in the northern 6 counties and another in the remaining 26. So even calling the southern state ‘Ireland’, as its 1937 constitution dictates, was anathema for many nationalists.

Northern Protestant unionists had been happy throughout the 19th century to call themselves ‘Irish’ and to be at the same time fiercely hostile to Home Rule. This all changed after partition, when ‘Irish’ became a synonym for ‘nationalist’ or even ‘Catholic’ and most unionists preferred to call themselves Northern Irish or ‘Ulster people’.

Irish identity was contested as only that of a colonised country can be. For some, Irishness was earned, not inherited.

So when people talked about ‘Ireland’ and ‘Irish’, in the 20th century, it was not all clear whether they were referring to a simple geographical fact, or a state, or an unfulfilled aspiration.

If it was the latter, nationalist or republican definition, then to be ‘Irish’ was a status that was earned as well as being born into.

For separatists at the start of the century, it meant subscribing to a world view that Ireland was a conquered and occupied nation. Only by revolution, armed but also cultural, could Ireland somehow become what it should be. ‘A Nation’, one of them wrote, cannot exist if it will not respect and insist on its integrity. We are not faced with a situation on which compromise is possible’. (Irish Freedom, January 1911).

What did this have to do with sport? Quite a lot. The Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in 1884, precisely with the aim of promoting indigenous games Gaelic football and hurling (in fact codified and introduced at the same time as ‘English’ sports such as soccer and rugby into Ireland) and banned its members from playing or even watching ‘foreign games’.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood Newspaper, Irish Freedom, wrote in February 1911, ‘the nationalist who will fight tomorrow and play rugby today is absurd’. ‘Nationalism requires a sacrifice for a soul of his own’.

‘The Ban’, remained until 1972. The other GAA ban, on members of British armed forces and the RIC or later RUC police joining it, was not revoked until the 2000s.

Someone playing ‘foreign games’ and especially soccer, the game of despised ordinary British Tommy, was somehow not properly Irish. Soccer was also the only sport whose national teams reflected partition, the Irish Football Association (northern) and Football Association of Ireland (southern) acrimoniously split in 1921, mirroring the political partition. In fact the split was not explicitly nationalist in nature as both Belfast and Dublin-based associations claimed to represent the whole island until the 1950s, but the imagery was clear for true Gaels – soccer was the game of the ‘West Briton’.

The irony of this cultural and sporting hard line was that ‘the enemy’, was by and large invented. Most players of both soccer and rugby outside of north east Ulster were also nationalists. Republicans such as Oscar Traynor went on to be chief of the Football Association of Ireland. Legendary Shamrock Rovers player Jimmy Dunne, for instance, was interned for his republican sympathies in the civil war. Indeed Todd Andrews, with whom he may have shared a camp, remarked that soccer was the most popular sport among anti-Treaty internees.

And yet, for the independent state it was the notions of a lost Gaelic past revived that it wanted to project. At the Tailtean Games, for instance, which were like an Olympic games for the Irish state in 1924-36, ‘Foreign games’ were specifically excluded.

Many Irish people rankled at this form of cultural authoritarianism in independent Ireland. Men especially, of a certain generation, have bitter stories of getting beatings as children from their Christian Brother teachers because they were seen playing soccer. And it went far beyond sport.

The Irish language, for instance was not only compulsory in schools but also for civil servants, regardless of whether they would need it in their work. And again there was an element of fantasy at work. The actual Gaeltachts shrunk further and further in independent Ireland, while at the same time it was proclaimed, mostly in English, that one who did not speak the language was not ‘truly’ Irish.

All of which might have found greater acceptance if the performance of the southern Irish state had been more inspiring. But in fact, Ireland, in relative terms, went backwards compared to its European neighbours. At independence Ireland was the 9th richest country in Europe while by the 1980s, with emigration and unemployment soaring, it was described by at least one commentator as, ‘the poorest of the rich countries’. (See here).

And just to complicate things even further, one of the means of opposing the southern state was to assert that it was not nationalist enough – that it had betrayed the goals of a united Ireland, restoring the Irish language and to some, the social goals of the revolutionary period.

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the Provisional IRA argued just such a case while they waged what they termed ‘armed struggle’ in Northern Ireland. Every week brought news of a new shooting or bombing in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

It is difficult to recall at this point (2012) with support for Sinn Fein growing in the Republic, but during the Troubles, the predominant sentiment in the south was that by an un-mandated and murderous campaign, the modern IRA had dishonoured the traditions of Irish republicanism. Symbols like the Irish tricolour were internationally associated not with the Irish state but with the funerals of dead IRA men and volleys of shots fired over coffins in northern church yards.

For all of these reasons, by 1990 a pervasive sense of shame and failure hung over the Republic. People wanted to feel like they could leave the past behind entirely and that Irish people could be winners and associated with something positive on the world stage. At this point, the Republic of Ireland, under Jack Charlton, qualified first for Euro 88 in West Germany and then Italia 90.

The power of symbols

A symbol has been usefully defined as something ambiguous that stands for a multiplicity of meanings, evoking emotions and impelling people to action.

The 1990 team represented international success where before there had been only failure. And beyond that could be interpreted however one wished the future in Ireland to be.

The first reason for the tremendous outpouring of popular joy in 1990 was that it represented international success where before there was only failure and shame. The GAA, with its Irish-only games could not of course do this. Rugby could to some degree but soccer was and is truly the world game.

But also, the Irish team of 1990 was the perfect symbol in that it could be interpreted almost as one liked. Its English manager Jack Charlton neither knew nor cared about the multiple divisions in Irish society. Many of the players, born in England of Irish ancestry, were likewise a clean slate.

They could represent the Republic only if one preferred, or be an all-Ireland symbol, as many northern nationalists adopted them. Those who rejected traditional nationalist and Catholic identities could see in them a new, ‘mature’ Ireland, willing to embrace diversity. GAA traditionalists affected to like the earthy physical style of play, which was apparently truly Irish. The pious were thrilled by the players’ (all Catholics as it happened) visit to the Pope in Rome. For the southern Irish Protestant community it was chance to be patriotic without any baggage of armed struggle or nationalist revolution.

The behaviour of the travelling Irish fans, good humoured and boisterous but never (supposedly) in trouble, again was taken to represent a new, modern version of Irishness, subtly superior to the English and their supposedly hooligan followers.

In short, the joy was not only collective euphoria it was also an exhilarating release from deep seated feelings of failure frustration paralysis that had dogged Ireland in the 20th century.

Much has changed in Ireland since that time. The peace process mercifully ended the protracted conflict in Northern Ireland. The Republic became a much richer place, which, despite the recession is still true today. The hold of somewhat authoritarian vision of Irishness has been greatly weakened. Likewise Catholicism is now much less of a social power than it was even in the mid 1990s.

Of course the exploits of 11 men on the football fields of Italy did nothing much to effect these changes, but what it did represent was a joyous shedding, consciously or otherwise, of much that had gone before.