When sport registered on the Irish psyche

Diarmaid Ferriter’s new book on Ireland in the Seventies highlights the sporting influence on the nation’s culture, writes Michael Moynihan

DIARMAID Ferriter’s newest book is Ambiguous Republic: Ireland in the 1970s.

It’s a good title for any number of reasons. There was a raw edge to the politics of the day, hardly surprising with a bloody war raging 100 miles to the north of the capital. Running in parallel with the headline events, however, was the sporting life of the nation. Ferriter’s credentials as a serious historian are not in doubt, so his evaluation of the importance of sport as a prism which filtered attitudes of the time carries plenty of weight.

“One point about the decade is that coming towards the end of the seventies, fitness generally became important.

“There were more people running, eating properly, doing yoga — there was a sense that looking after yourself was important.

“There were health campaigns and the government began to accept that it had to lay a role, to create a sports infrastructure and so on, which was something governments didn’t prioritise.

“What they did have to prioritise was health, for instance. When Charlie Haughey came back from the political wilderness he had to deal with smoking, for instance. He was a former smoker and had to take on the cigarette companies, who were quick to say that anti-smoking measures would lead to job losses, to people getting into Marxism and the IRA and all of this. They were shameless.

“That was the culture. Jack Lynch was never photographed without a pipe, for instance, and people smoked everywhere and anywhere. But the point was made also that cabinet ministers could no longer be photographed or filmed at an Árd Fheis through a cloud of cigarette smoke.

“There were attempts made as well to define what acceptable levels of drinking were — they were fairly generous in the seventies — but there was a Health Education Bureau set up to try to drive an anti-smoking, anti-drinking message because so many Irish people were dying of heart attacks.

“It’s part of a wider lifestyle issue. Not to mention road safety, incidentally — breathalysers and compulsory front passenger seat belts came in at the end of the decade.”

No harm: at the start of the decade, 1972, more than 700 people were killed on the roads so clearly it was necessary to do something.

That sense of urgency wasn’t a factor in sports funding generally.

“Interestingly, younger politicians like John Bruton, who was a junior minister of state in the 1973 government, would have been arguing for sports funding because it was the right thing to do — and because it could prove politically popular.

“They’d relied on voluntary organisations to do that, the likes of the GAA with Bórd na bPáirc, so the government didn’t have to engage in that.

“And Bruton found himself banging his head off the wall to an extent trying to get Liam Cosgrave and the rest interested in sports funding.”

The big sports rolled along, though they found themselves having to fend for themselves in terms of funding: “Johnny Giles was organising Shamrock Rovers, Ireland were knocking on the door of qualification for major tournaments.

“You had Munster versus the All Blacks, of course, which became an iconic moment. Rugby was obviously very important in certain parts of the country and the fortunes of the national team were discussed more widely, and so were tactics.

“In the GAA the great Dublin-Kerry rivalry brought the GAA rivalry into an urban environment — and some people in government began to think it’d be important to start stitching the State into the sports infrastructure but — as we’ve seen — they found it difficult to get funding: alongside that you had the likes of Eamon Dunphy who was coming back from England and saying ‘there’s no votes in sport so the government doesn’t take it seriously’.”

What was taken seriously then — as now — was the revenue sport generated. One prime example was the sport of kings.

“I was struck by how often the success of Irish racehorse breeding came up during the decade, and the success of the jockeys,” says Ferriter. “The huge interest in Cheltenham and so on.

“And it’s a huge business. It doesn’t often appear in the history books but it was hugely important. Sport broke into political life elsewhere early on in the seventies, when the GAA finally got rid of the ban on foreign games.

“Getting rid of ‘The Ban’ was a huge moment, but the GAA itself was fascinating at this point in its history,” says Ferriter. “It wanted to hang on to its traditional identity but it couldn’t avoid the politics of the period either.

“Regarding The Ban, senior politicians intervened and pointed out the shape of the ball was irrelevant and that the GAA had to disassociate itself from the politics of the past. It’s interesting to see how the leadership of the GAA began to recognise it was falling behind public opinion in the GAA and maybe in Irish society itself.

“It was well known that Jack Lynch — and de Valera before him — didn’t approve of The Ban. What’s interesting about the intersection of sports and politics is that the question is often asked in the seventies, ‘how can we make the Republic less sectarian and less offensive to those who don’t share our traditions?’. And the debate about The Ban was part of that.”

As Ferriter says, jogging became a significant pastime as the decade wore on, and he traces an interesting parallel between the marathon craze of the late seventies and the current ultra-marathon fad.

“My own sport would be running. I remember being hauled out of bed to watch John Treacy in 1984 at the Olympics, but his career goes back to the seventies and those back-to-back World Cross-Country wins, a tiny, resilient, wiry athlete. And Eamonn Coghlan began to make waves back in the seventies.

“For a small country, Ireland produced serious middle-distance athletes, and the question for them was this: realistically, can we base ourselves in Ireland for training and development? And the answer was no.

“Athletics remains a minority sport, but my parents would have been part of that initial marathon craze in the late seventies, early eighties — remember the first Dublin City Marathon was 1980.

“That’s fascinating to look at now, because at the moment you have a huge fascination with ultra-marathons and triathlons and other extreme events like that — you can’t seem to walk out the door without bumping into some runner or other — because you can just look at the economic times at which this emerges.

“The late seventies and early eighties were a difficult time economically, much as it is now, and running is very popular now, just as it was then. I think that’s a mixture of being a very cheap sport, a very cheap way to keep fit mentally as well as physically.”

IN political life, the decade was book-ended by a Taoiseach who was one of the greatest sports icons of the century. Ferriter says Jack Lynch’s fame as a dual GAA star was both help and hindrance to him within his own party.

“There would have been that sense within Fianna Fáil, ‘who’s this baby-faced sports star to lead this illustrious party’ kind of thing.

“Obviously he was a phenomenal sportsman and had huge popularity on the back of it, and he was hugely important to Fianna Fáil because he was able to win elections — but there was also a sense that he mightn’t have been of the Fianna Fáil soil, that he didn’t have the family background and so on — that he didn’t come from a dynasty and wasn’t one of the lads, part of the macho culture of the time.

“He was a solitary enough figure, not someone who socialised with the lads, and certainly not someone who plotted and manoeuvred like the young turks of the time.

“A lot of his energy would have been expended with dealing with the Arms Trial and the fallout from that — the suspicion that he wasn’t as ‘green’ as he could have been — but for all that, he was canny in how he operated.”

The seventies ended with a telling vignette that blended sport and politics: Jack Lynch giving the eulogy at Christy Ring’s funeral. It was one of his less important speeches politically but for Lynch personally one of the most significant.

“Certainly that’s a striking image,” says Ferriter.

“There were a number of factors feeding into that — Christy’s young death, the real bond between them, and the importance to Lynch of getting that (speech) right, that all adds up.

“The image of Lynch writing the speech on a piece of paper on his knee on the way to the cemetery. It was very different to the usual political speech, obviously.

“If you’re interested in social history generally, sport is often a very interesting way to view that.”

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