Here’s to a united Ireland on the morrow (though not necessarily the day after)…

There’s something deeply gratifying about the way Ireland coach Declan Kidney has melded an unexpectedly powerful sporting force from three of Ireland’s historic provinces.

There’s always one missing!

We may have Eddie O’Sullivan to thank for drawing the provincial successes of Munster and Leinster upwards into the Ireland squad, but tomorrow’s team performance will (win or lose) be wrought from more than a touch of Ulster genius from Best, Ferris, Bowe and Trimble.

International Rugby is one of the few occasions when what it means to be Irish is as deeply felt in the north as in the south of our island. Although deeply felt, it’s often separately consumed. And, for the most part, it is the British Irish who carry ‘the flag’ for Ulster.

The IRFU’s latest attempt to find a solution to marrying the two traditions is to fly the tricolour and the historic standard of Ulster (ie, the nine counties representing the Ulster Branch of the IRFU). It is at least a nod in the direction of a problem Kidney has diminished by the mere act of drawing on the native talent of northern players. But it is, to say the least, a very poor and politically incontinent expression of who we are.

To return again to the novelist Martina Devlin’s question:

…debate about the North should have taken place at the time of the Good Friday Agreement more than 13 years ago, but was sidelined amid euphoria about peace in our time.

John Waters in yesterday’s Irish Times notes that international Rugby matches (let alone, a quarter final of the World CUP) represent awkward moments when some weird form of patriotic fellowship breaks out and, counter intuitively outweighs the exclusive burden of nationalist identity:

The “national” rugby team, by virtue of being an all-Ireland phenomenon, raises questions we normally succeed in avoiding. Not least among these is the rather bracing question: what is Ireland anyway? The rugby team, like the Republic’s soccer team, plays in green jerseys and is followed by hordes of green-swaddled supporters, but this, though seemingly coherent from the outside, is rather less so from within. Though headquartered in Dublin, the “national” rugby team emanates from an entity without any political or nationalistic existence.

He continues:

For us “down here”, the anthem problem is like the problem with virtually all elements of our national iconography and symbolism. The continuing geographical division, with all its consequences, has closed off from us any possibility of a shared remembering of our historical journey. In the Republic, questions relating to our struggle for national self-realisation have become deeply problematic as a result of the “Troubles”, and we lack the will or imagination to tease them out in public. Less than five years from the centenary of our founding revolution, we haven’t the faintest idea how to mark the occasion. Even the broaching of such issues is widely regarded as a reactionary activity.

And concludes:

Had we travelled uninterrupted from our baptismal conflicts to the present, we might today be able to utter the words of Amhrán na bhFiann without difficulty or even undue thought. But there is now far too much self-awareness and discomfort for its rousing lyrics to be uttered in the way equivalent words can be belted out by other peoples.

When I was growing up, Amhrán na bhFiann was the exclamation mark at the end of virtually every notable public fixture but, nowadays, events tend to peter out in a haze of uncertainty. For all intents and purposes, we no longer have a functional national anthem, one that can be sung on all occasions, and joined in on the basis of Irishness rather than allegiance to a particular version of history.

This may not have manifested itself as a significant issue until now. But one of the byproducts of a victory tomorrow is that we may not be able to avoid it for much longer.

A little self-knowledge can be a miserable thing… But for me, I cannot wait till the morning comes…