Exclusive extract from Donal Lenihan's autobiography: From ‘The Sash’ to ‘The Fields of Athenry’

Different times, different rules. In this exclusive extract from My Life in Rugby, Donal Lenihan explains the complexity of playing rugby for Ireland in the 1980’s...

“LADS, there’s been a bomb blast outside Newry. David Irwin, Nigel Carr and Philip Rainey were caught up in it.’ It was a bright, sunny Saturday morning in April 1987 and we were gathered for a pre-World Cup training session at the Wanderers ground on Merrion Road in Dublin. Irwin, Carr and Rainey hadn’t shown up. We’d had no idea where they were, and continued with our training.

Rugby’s first ever World Cup was only a few weeks away and we were, belatedly, focused on getting ourselves ready. But thoughts of rugby disappeared when we were told the horrific news.

Three of your team-mates with whom you’re preparing to go to a World Cup caught in the crossfire of a car bomb targeting Lord Justice Gibson who was passing by at the time. Bad timing and bad luck, but thankfully they weren’t

seriously injured. Tragically, Lord Gibson and his wife were killed instantly.

For your team-mates, players you have played with and against down through the years, to be caught up in a bomb blast came as a massive shock. ‘Chipper’, as Philip was affectionately known by everyone in the squad, Davie and Nigel had all played together on a very good Queen’s University team when there was a massive rivalry between them and UCC. We were rivals at college, club and provincial level, but we came together for Ireland as a 32-county team. Despite differences of politics or religion, it was rugby, and playing together for Ireland that overcame all that.

The element of luck in these things – or bad luck, whichever way you want to look at it – is incredible. The lads were driving down from Belfast and the Gibsons were travelling in the opposite direction, and they passed each other as the bomb went off. Part of the blown-up vehicle landed on top of David Irwin’s car. Two seconds earlier they wouldn’t have been hit; two seconds later it could have been fatal. Such are the fine lines. How they weren’t killed is a miracle. Davie was only slightly injured, Chipper was knocked unconscious but recovered, but Nigel suffered extensive injuries that meant he missed the World Cup and eventually had to retire aged just 27.

The mood was very sombre that day, and the days after. It definitely had an effect on us. From a playing point of view, Nigel was a massive loss. I know he tried everything to get back playing. A year later I invited him down for a CBC centenary game and it was the first time he had played since the incident, but he never made it back. I knew Nigel well and was a huge admirer of him, not only as a player but as a person. We played schools rugby at the same time and eventually we both made our way on to the senior Irish team. And as I mentioned before, the night I was selected for my first cap, I was rooming with Nigel at the Shelbourne Hotel.

For guys like Irwin, Rainey and Carr, they sacrificed so much to play for Ireland. We in the Republic could never truly grasp it, although we began to get some sense of it that day in 1987.

Of the Irish matchday squad that won the Five Nations Championship and Triple Crown in 1985, tight-head prop Jimmy McCoy was a police officer with the RUC, Nigel Carr was a forensic scientist whose job description required him to examine the aftermath of a bomb scene, and my former Irish Schools second-row colleague Brian McCall was now a high-ranking officer in the British army. Someone once asked the dynamic Carr if he was ever frightened on a rugby field. He replied that when you spend your week examining a bomb scene wearing a high-vis jacket, knowing paramilitary snipers are in the vicinity, there isn’t much to be worried about on a rugby pitch.

By virtue of their chosen professions they were seen as legitimate targets for nationalist paramilitaries, and the fact they played international rugby for Ireland not only gave them a profile but also unwanted attention.

Brian McCall grew up on a farm in Armagh playing for Queen’s and Ulster before making the decision in his early 20s to join the British army. When he made his Ireland debut in 1985 there were issues over his security flying in to Dublin from England but, he says, the British army were nothing but supportive of him playing for Ireland.

We were rooming together for the match in Twickenham in 1986 when the phone rang in the bedroom. I answered, and a posh English voice on the other end asked, ‘Hello, is Captain McCall there?’ My first thought was ‘Ciaran Fitzgerald is the captain of this team’, but I just said, ‘No, I’m sorry, he’s out at the moment. Who’s this?’ ‘Oh, this is Brigadier General so-and-so [some double-barrelled name I didn’t quite catch]. I’m just ringing to tell Captain McCall that all the boys in the regiment are rooting for him. Can you tell him?’ I said I would, of course, and remember putting down the phone, looking up at the ceiling and thinking, ‘Jesus, what would my grandfather Jacko have made of this?’ I caught up with Brian during my research for this book. It was his first time back in Dublin since we played together against Scotland 30 years earlier.

‘The British army were very proud to have me playing for Ireland,’ he told me. ‘And they gave me every support to fulfil my rugby ambitions. The only issue was around security when I was in Dublin but then I’d have the lads from Special Branch with me and they enjoyed the craic just as much, I reckon! There would be security detailed for me even when I went back home to the family farm in Armagh, but you just lived with it and got used to it.’ Although from the Unionist tradition and fighting in the British army, McCall is an Irishman who was proud to represent Ireland and stand for the tricolour and ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’.

“I was conscious of the nationalist tradition absolutely,” says McCall. “Although one day Des Fitzgerald had to put me right when it came to the issue of the swimming trunks I wore for rugby games. These were my lucky trunks that I had bought when I was 18 and on holiday. The only thing was, they had the Union Jack on them, though it never occurred to me that it might ruffle a few feathers wearing them underneath my Ireland gear. One Sunday training session, however, Des Fitzgerald asked me, “Did you ever fucking think about those swimming trunks? You’re playing for Ireland and you’re wearing those?” I wouldn’t mind but Dessie was entirely right in pointing out my flawed judgement and the next day I went out and bought a new pair of trunks.’

In the few days building up to an international, you had to contend with fully armed Special Branch from An Garda Síochána outside your door at night, guarding the players who worked for the RUC and British army in case of any threats. For the Special Branch lads it was the gig to have, being with the Irish rugby team on the weekend of an international. I remember a few of them, with guns in their holsters, coming up to me at about 1.30am after one international, slightly panicked, asking, ‘Have you seen McCoy or McCall anywhere?’

The Troubles were never far away, though. On the Sunday before the Wales game in ’85 we had a squad session in Dublin and were told that Jimmy McCoy had the flu and wasn’t train- ing. We subsequently found out a threat had been made against him by the IRA. There was even a suggestion that had the game been scheduled for Dublin that Saturday he might not have been able to play.

How raw things were for some of our Ulster team-mates. Only two weeks earlier, on the Thursday night before playing France at Lansdowne Road, we came back from the cinema and had a sandwich and a cup of tea as usual before going to bed. I was rooming with Willie Anderson, and Jimmy McCoy came in looking devastated. The RUC barracks in Newry had been attacked. In the early evening, nine shells had been launched from a Mark 10 mortar bolted on to the back of a Ford lorry that had been hijacked in Crossmaglen. Eight of them overshot the RUC station in Corry Square, but one 50lb shell landed directly on a portable building containing a temporary canteen. Nine police officers were killed and 37 people were injured, including 25 civilian police employees. The death toll was the highest inflicted on the RUC in its history.

Word filtered through of the Newry atrocity. Trevor Ringland, whose father was a chief superintendent in the RUC, was also in our room and was visibly shaken. It was a long night.

I went to Mick Doyle the following morning. ‘We’re going to have to address this, Mick, the whole thing is a mess. We have been up half the night.’ In fairness to Doyle, he called a team meeting and expressed his sincere condolences to Jimmy, who had lost a number of his colleagues. I always got on well with Jimmy. We had roomed together in Hilversum in Holland when we played on an Irish U23 side in 1979, when I was 19 and studying in UCC. I got to know him well and respected him hugely.

A few years ago, in 2012, I caught up with Jimmy for the purposes of an Irish Examiner column to ask him about his work career-versus-rugby allegiances.

‘I always thought my job was my career,’ he told me. ‘I went into the RUC straight out of school. I had great pride in playing for Ireland and had no problem whatsoever standing for “Amhrán na bhFiann”. People in the police were proud that I was playing for Ireland. They knew that we got on well with everyone in the Irish squad, that there were no political issues between the players. I never met anyone who gave me grief or said that you shouldn’t be doing that. I loved playing for Ireland.

‘People knew me from both sides of the community. I would go into the nationalist estates and of course they wouldn’t be long telling me I played shite for Ireland the last day. It was a bit of craic.

‘It worked the other way in that people got to know you, but the week after that mortar attack in Newry, I’m not sure what would have happened, but a chap came in when I was on the beat and said, “Stay there.” They came down and picked me up by car and I was told, “You’re finished here,” as there was an IRA threat.’

You could see the dilemma for those guys. When you lived through the Troubles and saw the effect of it, it made you appreciate even more what they had to do to come through it all. I never had an issue with the Ulster players not singing the national anthem, for example, as they would be castigated for doing so when they went home. It didn’t stop thousands travelling down from the North’s rugby communities to support their players.

We’re hypocritical in many ways as we expected them to stand for ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ in Dublin, to respect home jurisdiction, but when there was an international to be played in Belfast, that was another matter. They had to stop playing international rugby in Ravenhill because of the southern players jogging on the spot during ‘God Save The Queen’ in the late 1940s. When Ireland returned to Belfast to play Italy before the 2007 World Cup in Ravenhill there was a massive furore because ‘God Save The Queen’ wasn’t played. If you want to be a professional player now you accept everything that comes with it, but when you were an amateur you had to go home to your job and community and it was totally different.

There was an incredible bond amongst that group of players in the mid-1980s, built up through schools and university, so the North-South thing was never an issue for us. We respected their culture, they respected ours. We sang songs, including songs that were part of their culture – ‘The Sash My Father Wore’ being one of the main ones. I’ll never forget the day in 1985 when it got a right airing as we celebrated beating England for the Triple Crown and the Championship.

Making our way back to the Shelbourne Hotel, the whole of Ireland it seemed was waiting for us, though ironically, coming around Stephen’s Green, the song we were all singing on the team bus was ‘The Sash’. I was sitting at a window seat and you could see the RTÉ cameras amongst the crowds waiting at the entrance of the hotel for us. I had this image of the main RTÉ news report showing the Irish team arriving back from the game singing ‘The Sash’, which I thought might ruffle a few feathers. I kept looking at the driver of the bus who seemed to be slowing down with the cadence of the song. He had the cop-on to wait until the song was finished before opening the door of the bus. There was a huge reception and all’s well that ends well – but it might have been a different story!

We always had a sing-song in our team room. As I said, there was a great bond between us, and whether it was ‘The Fields of Athenry’ or ‘The Sash’, we all sang together as a team, which was a great unifier.

I used to sing ‘The Fields of Athenry’, and pretty soon it was adopted by the squad as our team song, long before it was sung at sporting events anywhere else. It was a regular occurrence when, as captain, I was required to speak at the post-match dinner. The team would burst into the chorus before I could even utter a word.

Sing-songs were very much part of the dressing-room culture back then. We’d stay behind after matches on tour, have a few drinks and sing songs before heading out for the night. If we came together for a reunion and were asked to sing I have no doubt what would be sung, even if the gloss has gone off it a bit now after hearing it so many times over the last 30 years.

Unfortunately, ‘The Fields’ has been flogged to death. Every now and again, especially when drink was involved, things might flare up and the dynamics could change. Sometimes after singing ‘The Sash’ I might have countered it with ‘Only Our Rivers Run Free’, a song written by Michael McConnell about the constitutional issues in the North. I was a big fan of Planxty, and it was a great song on one of their albums. I just liked it. I recall giving it an airing in our team room while on tour in Japan in 1985 when Trevor Ringland took umbrage. Myself and Trevor go back a long way. We both won our first caps together on the same day, against Australia in ’81, and that formed a special bond between us. But Trevor took the hump that night, ripped off his Irish tie and left the team room, which didn’t sit well with some players, especially as we had all just participated in a rousing rendition of ‘The Sash’.

It was just one of those things unfortunately. There was tension sometimes, but it was healthy tension and you moved on.

In later years Trevor made a massive contribution to the peace process and helped to foster and develop healthy relationships between the Catholic and Protestant communities in the North. Indeed he is still active on that front.

Then you had players like Des Fitzgerald, whose father was a Republican and fought in the War of Independence, who grew up in a strongly nationalist household in Dublin. ‘There was a section of the island in Northern Ireland that was oppressed in terms of voting and civil rights and these were issues that I grew up with and was very much aware of,’ he explained to me when I met him for this book. ‘When I was picked to play for an Ireland B team against England in 1982 in Ravenhill and then realised that because of the protocols around home jurisdiction “God Save The Queen” was going to be played against the very team whose anthem it was too, I said to myself, “I’m not playing in that match.” You have to remember, this was the Thatcher era – the Falklands War, not long after the civil rights marches, gerrymandering of votes, and we were also in the midst of the hunger strikes. It was a very heightened time for the North and I was going to have to stand for “God Save The Queen” and what it represented to Catholics in the North?

“Luckily I got injured and wasn’t able to play anyway . . .’ ‘Thankfully, as a country, and for me personally, we’ve come on a long journey from those days of the Troubles and there is now peace in the North and we can accept and understand both viewpoints on the island nowadays. When you’ve two distinct traditions you need to find the best of both, find the middle ground that we can both come together on.”

The Troubles were ever-present right through the 1970s and 1980s, though, and it’s easy to forget how explosive the whole thing was. There were never any threats made against us or anything like that. At least not as players. The only time I was exposed to issues of that nature stemmed from Ulster’s landmark European Cup success in 1999, when they beat Colomiers on a memorable day at Lansdowne Road. It appeared as if the whole of Ulster decamped to Dublin that day. Ulster’s successful run to that European final attracted a following from a wider community than normal. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon, while it also offered sections of the Loyalist community the opportunity to travel to Dublin – many for the first time.

After that success, Warren Gatland, Philip Danaher and I selected an Irish squad for the upcoming tour of Australia, and some north of the border felt aggrieved that it didn’t, in their eyes, include a sufficient number of Ulster players to acknowledge their achievement on the European stage. Philip Browne, the IRFU CEO, contacted me to say that a Loyalist paramilitary group had sent a threatening letter targeting Gatland, Danaher and myself. I didn’t take any heed of it at first, but when Philip confirmed that the threat had been authenticated by the Garda Síochána, we had to sit up and take notice.

The problem was, I was due to travel to Cardiff on a three-day pre-World Cup conference and was reluctant to do so in the circumstances. In the end it was agreed that I would go on a shortened visit and that the local Garda would keep an eye on my house.

I never told my wife Mary about it, though, as I felt there was no need to worry her unduly. In any event nothing happened, but the letter was treated seriously enough by the authorities.

Going back to my playing days, you knew that for the Ulster players, the inter-pros were that bit bigger for them. Don’t get me wrong, playing for Munster was a big thing, but the club rivalries in the province were such that we never really pulled together with the same level of intensity as those Ulster players did. For them it was different, but we understood that and respected them for it. All the more so when we got news that day in 1987 about Chipper Rainey, David Irwin and Nigel Carr being caught up in the bomb blast.

We still had a World Cup to prepare for, though, and little did I realise the storm I was about to walk into from Irish nationalists, and even my fellow Corkonians ...

Adapted from Donal Lenihan: My Life in Rugby, published by Transworld and available from next week at all good bookstores, price €24.99


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