Irish Examiner View: Jack Charlton showed us what

Former Republic of Ireland football manager became a catalyst for huge change in Irish society
Irish Examiner View: Jack Charlton showed us what
Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton celebrates after his side qualified for the  World Cup quarter-finals in Italy in 1990. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton celebrates after his side qualified for the  World Cup quarter-finals in Italy in 1990. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton celebrates after his side qualified for the  World Cup quarter-finals in Italy in 1990. Picture: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

His impact, or at least the sense of self-worth and empowerment he drilled into his players — wherever they came from — cascaded across this society in an unprecedented, rebellion-making way. Though it was hardly intended, he became a catalyst for the huge change, for the spectacular reordering of this society. He, again probably unintentionally proved Bill Shankly's dictum true: "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that." Charlton, by giving that phrase real depth, again unknowingly, showed he was a wolf in a flat cap. 

These claims may, again at first glance, seem like history through rose-tinted glasses but any description of Ireland in 1986 provokes amazement and an amazed question: How have we come so very far in such a short time? Was it really that grim? Unemployment stood at 18%, interest rates were almost as high. Getting a mortgage involved the applicant — more a supplicant — prostrating themselves in front of a minor bank official. The Beef Tribunal, that first unveiling of how Ireland really worked, was five years away. Homosexuality was a crime and divorce would not be legalised for another decade. Even discussing abortion was taboo. The pomp and circumstance of Catholicism were unquestioned, the storms ahead were unimagined and would not have been believed in a country that preferred piety to honesty. By today's standards, the country was in permanent lockdown, repressed, uber-conservative, deeply hypocritical, and despite all that, incomprehensibly smug.

In the months after the Second World War an American general in Paris warned his peers that "once the boys see Gay Paree it'll be hard to get 'em back down to the farm". Charlton led Irish soccer fans to a series of Gay Parees when he took Ireland to our first major finals by qualifying for Euro 1988, and later the 1990 and 1994 World Cups. Even in a country bled pale by emigration this was the kind of pre-internet exposure that made change inevitable. The exuberance, the unrestrained joy shown in particular by older Irish fans during those adventures was more visceral than any sport could provoke. It was a release, an exorcism made possible only by Charlton's leadership.

His plain-speaking, his independence, and his capacity to cut his cloth to his measure, despite the slings and arrows of those who put unachievable style before substance, endeared him to our culture of the underdog. That he was an ardent angler and gunman opened almost as many Irish doors as his football career. Indeed, he lived for a time in Ballina, so he might better enjoy his beloved River Moy. 

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