Although soccer – in its national representative sides and its domestic leagues – could not resist the partition of Ireland, the reaction of the men who controlled rugby in Ireland to the partition of the island was to attempt to ignore it, at least insofar as they sought to place the playing of rugby outside politics.
The organisation of rugby since the 1880s facilitated this in that the provincial structure that had been operational by the end of that decade permitted an independence of action that suited those who controlled rugby in Ulster.
Back in the 1880s, the Northern Branch (as Ulster Rugby was initially known) had toyed with the idea of playing its cup matches under the rules of the Rugby Football Union in London, rather than those of the Irish Rugby Football Union in Dublin. This was quickly dismissed, but there was also periodic disillusion at the number of Ulster players who were selected in the Irish team.
The temptation to leave the IRFU was again resisted by the Northern Branch after the partition of Ireland in the early 1920s. This resistance was surely aided by the approach of those who ran rugby south of the new border.
The basic fact is that the men in Dublin who sat at the heart of Irish rugby had been themselves entirely comfortable with the idea of being part of the British Empire – and this was an idea which did not simply die after partition.
There was some criticism – even within rugby circles themselves – of the apparent failure of the IRFU to respond to the new political dispensation on the island.
At a meeting of the Leinster Branch of the IRFU in October 1922, a delegate from the Bective Rangers Club told the meeting the men who had run the IRFU since its inception were now unrepresentative and were restricting the progress of rugby: ‘Rugby football could be made the national pastime of Ireland, but not until its control had been democratized. It had been deliberately excluded by the organisers of the Tailteann Games.
He, personally, regarded that as a humiliation, but he, and no doubt many others, guessed the reason. It was because the present control was undemocratic, unsympathetic and almost un-Irish.’
Such criticism brought no shift in policy, but this position was challenged by certain practicalities that now accompanied the Irish national team when it competed in international matches.
The team now straddled a state border; this and the fact that a significant constituency of its membership was unionist placed obvious difficulties on the IRFU.
On which side of the border would it play its international matches? What would its emblem be? What flag would fly above the ground? And what anthem would be played? There was no change to the jersey or to the emblem.
In terms of grounds, the response of the IRFU was to purchase a ground at Ravenhill in Belfast. In 1923 £2,300 was paid for the site and a stand was built at the cost of £15,500. From then on Ireland’s home matches would be split between Dublin and Belfast. This was a relatively straightforward solution.
More problematic was the matter of the flag. An attempt was made to solve the problem when the IRFU designed its own flag in 1925. A considerable body of opinion argued, however, that ‘when Ireland played at Lansdowne Road, she should do so under the national flag.’ This was objected to by committee members who noted that the common interest in rugby was not matched by political allegiance and that only the flag of the IRFU should fly at home matches.
There the matter lay until January 1932 when a letter from the University College Galway club complained at the failure to fly the Tricolour at international matches at Lansdowne Road. The letter asked other clubs to assist in ‘ridding rugby of its anti-national bias.’ A public controversy around the matter now emerged and it was debated in the press and in politics.
The Limerick Leader noted how British symbols were flaunted at rugby matches in Belfast so ‘we appeal to our clubs to protest against this unwarranted insult to each and every Irishman.’ The appeal was supported by rugby clubs from across Limerick, Cork and Tipperary.
A letter from the Minister for External Affairs, Patrick McGilligan, to the IRFU noted he could not ‘see why the international practice of flying the flag of the country in which international matches are played should not be followed at Lansdowne Road.’ In response to political pressure, the IRFU now changed tack and it was agreed in February 1932 that the Tricolour would fly beside the IRFU flag at all international matches in Dublin.
The fine balancing act undertaken by the IRFU saw occasional criticism for its decisions. For example, in April 1933 there was criticism from Munster that the principal toast at IRFU dinners was to the King of England, when it should have been to Éire.
Then, in 1936, the IRFU decision to instruct the postponement of a match between Cork Constitution and Sunday’s Well because it fell on the day of the funeral of King George V was condemned by a Cork Constitution delegate as pandering ‘to satisfy a certain section.’ It was a timely reminder that the priorities of Dublin and Belfast were not those of the grassroots in Munster and Connacht.
Regardless, the accommodation that the rugby authorities had made in the years after partition allowed them the flexibility to continue administering rugby in the present just as they had done in the past. There were moments of discomfort, but none so great that compromise could not be secured.
The great example of this came in the 1950s. In 1953 the playing of ‘God Save The Queen’ before Ireland played France in the Five Nations competition in Belfast led to an outcry in the press, sparked by complaints from the Connacht branch of the IRFU.
There the matter lay until the following year as the IRFU again fixed an international match for Belfast and set down ‘God Save The Queen’ as the anthem to be played before the match. Ten players from the Republic of Ireland had been selected on the Irish team but they now said that they would play the match, but would only enter the field after the pre-match formalities were completed. Led by the team captain, Jim McCarthy, they set out their objection at having to stand for ‘God Save the Queen’.
It is claimed the matter was only resolved when the High Court judge, Cahir Davitt, assured the players this would be the last season that Ireland would play international matches at Ravenhill. This proved to be the case.
It is nonetheless the case that finance must also have been a factor in the decision to move all competitive internationals from Belfast to Dublin. An IRFU meeting held in the Shebourne Hotel in October 1953 had noted that the union lost £3,000 every time it staged a match in Belfast as against Dublin.
The union now also committed to a revamp of Lansdowne Road that would cost £100,000 and this either helped influence the decision to move all matches to Dublin, or provided suitable cover for that decision to be made. From 1955 onwards, both of Ireland’s home matches in the Five Nations championship were played at Lansdowne Road in Dublin.
There matters stood through the Troubles, until the emergence of a peace process in Northern Ireland and the need for a certain flexibility on all sides contributed to a new approach to the flags and anthems associated with the island’s international teams.
For unionists, the idea of playing under the Tricolour and standing for Amhrán na bhFiann created obvious difficulties. In 1987, the establishment of the Rugby World Cup created a new question: what anthem would be played as the Irish team stood before matches.
For that first World Cup, the IRFU agreed that Amhrán na bhFiann would not be played, but the pre-match anthems would instead see the Irish team stand to The Rose of Tralee’. At the next World Cup in 1991, ‘The Rose’ had been dumped, with Amhrán na bhFiann back in its stead: Ireland’s matches in that World Cup were played in Dublin, however.
The question stood: what would happen in 1995. The answer was the commissioning from the Irish musician Phil Coulter of a new song, ‘Ireland’s Call’. It would be wrong to suggest that the song was welcomed.
Nonetheless, a new political dispensation (notably the IRA’s cessation of violence and the establishment of a power-sharing executive after the Good Friday Agreement which promised peace on the island) lured those who were less than enamoured with the tune into a grudging acceptance. The song was subsequently adopted by the all-island Irish hockey and cricket teams – though not, of course, by the partitioned soccer teams or by the GAA.
A new tradition was established whereby for Irish home matches Amhrán na bhFiann and Ireland’s Call would both be played in Dublin, but just ‘Ireland’s Call’ would be played at away matches.
In the years that followed, ‘Ireland’s Call’ has gained a certain acceptance, one most likely born of familiarity rather than admiration. Ultimately, the non-partitioned Irish rugby team is a testament to the capacity of people to compromise and a willingness to swallow hard and to agree to things that have not always been palatable.