When Irish players lined up for a World Cup debut in 1987 — chests puffed out, ready to make history — they were played into battle by... ‘The Rose of Tralee’. Peter Jackson reports
WHEN they lined up for their first World Cup match on a manic May Monday in Wellington against Wales 28 years ago, the Irish pioneers stood to attention for the anthems.
They paid due respect as their opponents belted out ‘Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadua’, a familiar tune which hadn’t done Wales much good when virtually the same Irish team had beaten them at Cardiff Arms Park the previous month in the Five Nations.
The applause from a thin crowd of fewer than 20,000 having died down, the Ireland XV had not the foggiest idea of what they were about to hear. Only then, when the sound began crackling over the tannoy, did they realise what had set them apart at that inaugural World Cup.
They were the only team there without an anthem to call their own. The Irish management, headed by the inestimable Syd Millar, had ticked every box except one. The organisers wanted a piece of music, a requirement which sounded simpler than it was for an all-Ireland team drawn from both sides of the border.
The story goes that at the 11th hour someone was sent to find a record shop in downtown Wellington and come back with a song which would be a reasonable substitute.
The real thing, ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’, was not played in deference to the players from the North brought up on ‘God Save The Queen’. Someone had found, or thought he had found, the solution on a James Last CD. And so, on the day when they were suitably fired up to make history by having gone where no Irish team had gone before, they puffed their chests out and listened to a 19th century ballad, ‘The Rose of Tralee’.
Trevor Ringland, Ireland’s right wing and a Lion in his own right, remembers it only too well. “We’d just listened to the Welsh anthem and I was thinking: ‘What are we going to get?’ “And then when it came over the loudspeakers, we all went: ‘What!?’
“There are many songs for which you would think about laying down your life but ‘The Rose of Tralee’ is not one of them. Whether there was something wrong with the public address system I don’t know, but it was just about the worst recording I’d heard. I’m not sure I’d want to attribute it to James Last.
“I loved what the late Con Houlihan had to say about it in the paper the next day — that for the next match the song should be renamed ‘God Save The Rose of Tralee’.”
Another Irish player, Neil Francis, called it, with typical hyperbole, “the worst compromise of all time”. According to Francis, he and his teammates “stood there in stony-faced silence” in reaction to a song he said he had never heard of.
What happened on the field effectively condemned Ireland to an early exit. Unable to muster anything more than two Michael Kiernan penalties, they lost the match, 13-6, and with it the chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals.
‘The Rose of Tralee’ survived for as long as Ireland lasted at that first global jamboree — which meant three more matches. However much the song has been derided for its sudden elevation to anthem status, it did prove the catalyst for something rather more appropriate.
Ringland, a solicitor in Larne, is better qualified than any other international to speak on the subject and rugby as a unifying force in a divided country. His work across the sectarian divide in promoting all kind of initiatives earned him the Arthur Ashe award for courage, an honour shared with the Belfast basketballer David Cullen for their work with PeacePlayers International.
“‘The Rose of Tralee’ experience made everyone, north and south, realise we needed something,” Ringland said. “Nobody appreciated that more than Syd Millar who had been team manager in 1987. For me, he is the world’s all-time great rugby person, not just because of what he’s done for Ireland rugby, Ulster rugby, Lions rugby, and world rugby. He’s always played such a positive role.
“It was probably the likes of Syd and a few others at the IRFU who went to see the musician Phil Coulter and he came up with ‘Ireland’s Call’. People attack it from time to time but no matter what they say, it works for me. It really does.
“It captures the essence of rugby in this island of ours. Rugby succeeds in building relationships when others are trying to destroy them. When Wales and Scotland declined to come to Dublin back in 1972 because of the Troubles, England came and what an occasion that was.
“None of us will forget that day, just as none of us will forget that powerful moment when England played Ireland at Croke Park. It was the first time I sang all three anthems, including ‘The Soldier’s Song’.
“I did it out of respect, to underline the sense of inclusion we felt that day. ‘Ireland’s Call’ shows we can create symbols embraced by all of Ireland. It goes to show that something really positive came out of ‘The Rose of Tralee.”
In reaching out across the divide to “break down the old barriers”, Ringland has not been afraid to make a stand.
Five years ago, for example, he asked Ulster Unionist Party member Tom Elliott if he was prepared to support an Ulster county in the All-Ireland GAA final by going to Croke Park. When Elliott refused, the Irish Lion resigned from the party.
Ringland is now playing a key role in uniting long-divided communities in Belfast in a project called, ‘A Game of Four Halves’ — Gaelic, soccer, rugby, and community relations wrapped into one.
“It’s been devised by Paul Brown, the youth co-ordinator at Knock Presbyterian church in Belfast,” Ringland says. “Kids get a chance to play all three. They come from both sides of the peace wall and they play as one. The brilliant thing is that they take part with their parents’ approval and the full support of the Ulster GAA, the Irish FA, and Ulster Rugby.”
And they don’t line up for The Rose of Tralee…
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