Imagine for a moment that you are at a home Irish international test match. The teams come out and line up for the national anthems. The visiting team’s anthem is played first, and you stand in respectful silence. Then it’s time for the Irish anthem, but the band start to play God Save The Queen.
“What the f…”? you might ask, is going on. Why is the British national anthem being played for an Irish representative side? Well this is exactly what used to happen, whenever Ireland played internationals in Belfast up until 1954. From then on, all home internationals have been played in the Republic, mostly at Lansdowne Road.
Unlike its soccer equivalent, the IRFU remained a 32-county organisation after the partition of Ireland in 1920. At the time, rugby was predominately seen as a “Protestant” sport, and the international side was drawn mainly from the Ulster and Dublin clubs. Depending on which side of the border an international was played, the national anthem of the relevant jurisdiction was played, which meant that when the match was in Belfast, it was God Save the King/Queen. However, by the 1950s, the dominance of Ulster was on the wane, and players from the Republic were unwilling to stand for the British anthem. In response, the IRFU stopped playing internationals in Northern Ireland.
Fast forward to the 1990s, and the anthem issue is raised again. Ulster rugby was still mainly a sport played by Protestants, the vast majority of whom held a unionist outlook. They complained that their identity was not represented in the playing of Amhráin na bhFiann as the national anthem, as this was the anthem of the Republic and not of Northern Ireland (though many within NI and elsewhere in Ireland would have disagreed vehemently with that assertion.) It was decided that a compromise had to be reached, and so Phil Coulter was commissioned to write a new rugby anthem for the national team. What he came up with was Ireland’s Call, which was adopted as the official anthem of the team.
This would have been the end of it, except someone, somewhere dropped the ball. It was decided that for away matches, Ireland’s Call would be the only anthem played, and for home matches (those played in Dublin at any rate), Ireland’s Call would be played as well as Amhráin na bhFiann. This was a done as a mark of respect to the jurisdiction within which the game was played.
So why is this relevant now? Well, next Friday night, the Irish team play a pre-World Cup friendly against Italy at Ravenhill, in Belfast. Once the news of this fixture was announced several months ago, unionist commentators pounced on the anthem issue like a cat on a cornered mouse. There will only be one Irish anthem played before this match – Ireland’s Call. If Amhráin na bhFiann was played alongside Ireland’s Call in Dublin, then surely God Save the Queen should be played in Belfast, they contended. In a way, I can see their point. What’s sauce for the goose and all that, even if it made the vast majority of the team’s fans (those who come from the Republic) deeply uncomfortable. I too, would have grave difficulty with the notion. But then, why should a person of British nationality from Northern Ireland have to stand for Amhráin na bhFiann when it is being played for his team in Dublin? Double standards, surely.
The whole anthems issue is a fudge, and will be an unnecessary distraction in the lead up to this game. You can be sure that the issue, already debated ad infinitum on Slugger O’Toole, will have its bones picked clean at least once more before Friday night.
What the IRFU should do is to have just one anthem for all the team. At present, as the camera pans the team line up when Amhráin na bhFiann is being played, the Ulster players (Tommy Bowe excepted) look distinctly uncomfortable as their team mates sing along. Only when Ireland’s Call strikes up do they raise their eyes from the ground and start to sing. It looks awful on TV, as if there is one anthem for the players from the Republic and another for those from the North.
The whole point of a national anthem is to unify the team and its supporters. Many will complain that Ireland’s Call is a dreadful dirge, but it’s no worse than many other national anthems.
One team – one anthem.