PAUL ROUSE: When sporting events become political protests

The use of sport as a place of political protest is not new. For as long as modern organised sport has existed in Ireland, people have sought to use sporting events to make political protests.

In the 1880s, for example, while the Land War rumbled on, the hunting of the elite of Irish society was impeded by tenant farmers seeking to establish their right to land ownership. Dogs were poisoned and the passage of the hunt through various areas were impeded.

Indeed, in the 1880s, the very establishment of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) was, in part, an act of political protest. Some of the motivation of the founders of the Association related to the establishment of an ‘Irish’ sporting body as a reaction against the perceived ‘Englishness’ or ‘Britishness’ of those organisations who controlled the sports of the Empire.

Later still, Irishmen used the Olympic Games to promote the idea of a separate nationality. At the 1906 Games in Athens, for example, the Irish long-jumper Peter O’Connor saw the Union Jack being used to celebrate his silver medal during the flag-raising ceremony.

In protest, he scaled a flagpole in the middle of the field and waved an Irish flag with ‘Erin Go Bragh’ written on it. The bottom of the pole was guarded by his fellow athlete Con Leahy.

During the War of Independence, the greens of golf clubs fraternized by British army officers and sundry members of the Irish gentry were dug up by members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Possibly, most interesting of all was the interruption of a live radio broadcast from Croke Park in 1933. Éamonn de Barra was commentating on the 1933 All-Ireland football final between Cavan and Galway on the national radio station (then known as 2RN, when he was told at the point of a gun to stop speaking.

‘Oh! Stop, boys! Stop, boys; stop!! Don’t take it from me!’, he begged the intruders who sought control of his microphone.

But they didn’t stop: After a brief scuffle an unknown voice condemned ‘this alleged Republican government’ of Fianna Fáil and told listeners to support the Republican prisoners then on hunger strike in Mountjoy jail. When the protestors left the box, De Barra continued his commentary.

And it continued — and continues — decade after decade. The arrival into Ireland this weekend of the South African rugby team offers a reminder of the extensive protests that ran through the 1970s and 1980s.

Those protests were, of course, related to a gathering swell of opposition to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Within an Irish context that opposition was centred on the increasingly vocal Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, a collection of trade unionists, politicians, academics, and interested members of the public.

By the end of the 1960s, that movement had succeeded in raising broader public awareness of the odious nature of South African society. They sought to get government and sporting organisations to isolate South African.

In sporting terms, for the Irish, that sporting relationship focused almost exclusively on rugby.

Although there were minor protests during the South African tour in 1965, the first serious flashpoint came with the Springbok tour of Ireland in January 1970.

Before arriving in Ireland, two months spent touring around Britain had brought some 200 arrests, amid violent protests and significant public disturbances.

A superb article by Brian Hanley in the Old Limerick Journal recounts how the Anti-Apartheid Movement was joined by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Labour Party in protesting against the tour.

Hanley notes how “Red Scare’ tactics were alive and thriving in Ireland, with a recently completed general election seeing the Irish Labour Party derided by Fianna Fáilers as ‘pseudo-intellectual Marxists, Maoists, Trotskyites, and the like who have emerged like carrion birds to pick the flesh of the Irish people”.

The protests planned by the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement were derided by some as being part of that general ‘communist’ drift.

Equally, others simply expressed the view that sport should never be mixed with politics.

Either ways, a smaller than usual crowd attended the Ireland v South Africa rugby match at Lansdowne Road. Among those to stay away in protest was the president of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, while among the 6,000 protestors on the day of the match were Bernadette Devlin and Conor Cruise O’Brien.

The second — and last —match to be played by the South Africans was against Munster on the following Wednesday, January 14, 1970.

As Brian Hanley recalls, around 200 Limerick people — including representatives from Bohemians, Young Munster, Shannon, and Crescent — welcomed the South African players when they arrived by train in the city. A small group of protestors — among whom was Jim Kemmy — had kisses blown at them by the South African players as they passed on through.

On the day of the match, the number of protestors had swelled to around 350, but their number was dwarfed by the 10,000 people who attended the match in Thomond Park — this crowd was reported as being the largest to have attended a rugby game in Munster. They saw Munster hammered 25-9 in a match devoid of excitement.

The only trouble that took place was when an “egg thrown by a Munster supporter at the protestors hit a Garda”.

Later that evening there were also scuffles on O’Connell Street between protestors and Gardaí, but it was altogether a tame affair.

In time, opposition to apartheid in Ireland gathered momentum. By the end of the 1970s, no South African team was able to tour Ireland. A planned tour in 1979 saw the Irish government deny the South Africans entry and that was that.

The Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) saw nothing wrong in its relationship with South Africa, however. It had players who were part of the Lions tour of 1980 and then an Irish international team went to South Africa in 1981.

They did so despite ferocious public condemnation and despite the outright opposition of the government. That South African rugby offered one of the clearest expressions of the racial politics of the country cut no ice with Irish rugby’s administrators.

Some Irish rugby players declined to go on the tours and instead joined the protests against them. In doing this they denied themselves sporting glory — or at least sporting experience.

But their reward — if such it can be called — came when Nelson Mandela visited Dublin after his release. 

When he addressed Dáil Éireann, he made a truly wonderful speech in which he thanked those Irish people who had stood with them in opposition to apartheid — who had stood on the right side of history: “For more than a quarter of a century your country has had one of the most energetic and effective anti-apartheid movements in the world. Irishmen and women have given wholehearted and often sacrificial support for our struggle in the fields of economic, cultural, and sports relations. We, therefore, salute your sportspeople, especially the rugby players, your writers and artists and the Dunnes’ and other workers. They will not be forgotten by the masses of our people.’

Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at University College Dublin.


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