Italia '90: An unforgettable summer that still leaves us smiling

The outpouring of emotion during the Republic of Ireland's 1990 World Cup campaign showed the country at its best 
Italia '90: An unforgettable summer that still leaves us smiling
Jack Charlton was stunned by the crowds which welcomed the Republic of Ireland home after Italia 90. He said:  “If I live to be a hundred, I don’t think I’ll forget what I’ve just seen out there.”©INPHO

“Now there are a host of memories to be cherished for years to come.” 

So proclaimed an editorial in the Irish Press on July 2, 1990. It was the day after the Irish soccer team had arrived in Dublin to extraordinary scenes. An estimated 500,000 people had taken to the streets of the capital, with 50,000 people at the airport alone, reacting in ecstasy even as the plane (the ‘St. Jack’, as Aer Lingus renamed it) landed.

It was, said the Irish Press, “like the Ayatollah’s funeral”.

And it is in this idea of popular frenzy that the legacy of Italia ’90 is best understood.

The scale of this secular celebration on the streets of Dublin drew comparisons with the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. But this was much different in nature. 

There was a wildness to the emotional outpouring that was unprecedented.

The word repeatedly used in broadcast and in print to describe how people felt was “pride”. 

And this pride produced a general euphoria which surged exponentially when Ireland defeated Romania in a penalty shootout in Genoa to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.

“If I live to be a hundred, I don’t think I’ll forget what I’ve just seen out there,” said Jack Charlton.

The delirium of 15,000 Irish fans inside the stadium was echoed in pubs, hotels and homes across Ireland – and in Irish communities across the world. This was a team in which the children and grandchildren of emigrants played beside each other in a powerful expression of Irishness.

Streets of country towns were filled with people who danced and sang; this was much more than just a celebration of victory in a soccer match.

Ireland then held the Presidency of the EU and a summit of European leaders at Dublin Castle was ended early to allow the Irish organisers to watch the closing stages of the Romanian match.

Asked whether she had congratulated Mr. Haughey on Ireland’s success, a spokesperson for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded: "They haven't won the World Cup yet. Let's keep this thing in proportion."

But keeping it in proportion was not something that was on any Irish mind. 

For the novelist, Colm Toibín, who was in Italy writing for the ‘Sunday Independent’, there was a beautiful picture of how Irish supporters were feeling and living: “And where to sleep? That night in Genoa many simply lay down on the and fell asleep where they were. There would be enough time for sleeping in beds, a whole lifetime. And in the morning they would set off for Rome, the Irish supporters.” 

And at home, the soundtrack to the summer was the loop-feed of World Cup songs that blared from shops during the days and bars at night. There was ‘Give it a lash Jack’, a fundraiser for the charity, GOAL. There was ‘The Game’ by The Memories.

But most of all, there was the official team anthem, ‘Put ‘Em under Pressure’, whose distinctive intro drew from The Horslips song ‘Dearg Doom’, itself a re-imagining of a traditional Irish tune, O’Neill’s March.

Produced by U2 drummer Larry Mullen and featuring Clannad’s Moya Brennan. ‘Put ‘Em Under Pressure’ spent 13 weeks at number 1.

And running through that song – the keywords of that glorious summer – was Jack Charlton saying in his distinctive north of England accent: 

Put ‘em under pressure.

As a rallying call, it was pitch-perfect.

It was the sound of that summer and it echoes now across three decades as an evocation of something special.

And, ultimately, the music, the words, the pictures, the memories that endure of communal celebration and of public displays of unbridled joy, demonstrate the transcendent power of sport.

It says something for what happened that summer, that the loss to Italy in Rome in the World Cup quarter-final still carries a little sting. 

It was a day that Ireland played their best football of the tournament, but lost narrowly in a match that could have been won.

It is one of the great things about sport that pride in achievement can sit beside regret that there could have been more – each emotion giving greater depth to the other.

In time, Italia ’90 would be presented as a watershed moment in Ireland’s recent history. The reality is, of course, much more complicated than this. The glorious month of the tournament had indeed been a celebratory escape, but the country soon reacquainted itself with dismal realities.

While many of the building blocks of Ireland’s future social and economic recovery had already been put in place, unemployment remained stubbornly high and the economy showed little sign of the steady, then spectacular, growth that would later come to define the 1990s.

And in Troubles-afflicted Northern Ireland, there were further displays of extreme violence before ceasefires were called and a political settlement pursued.

But that is not to suggest that Italia ’90 had just been an escape from reality. It was more than that. The experiences created too deep an impact on too many people to dismiss it as being a mere passing exercise in mass escapism.

For the writer Nuala Ó Faoláin, the World Cup had been the “most liberating” she had ever experienced in Ireland. 

She expressed dismay at the notion that, after the tournament, Irish people might retreat to being “our limited selves.” 

Her fervent wish was that “the joyful Irishness of the last while” would find enduring expression “in the national life and fertilising at least some part of its deadly sterility.” And this was a wish that was made real in the iconic place that it holds in the popular mind and in the expressions of popular culture that flowed from it.

As Roddy Doyle wrote in his brilliant book ‘The Van’, shortlisted for the Booker Prize and later made into a film. Set against the backdrop of that World Cup summer, the book followed the fortunes of Jimmy Rabbitte Sr and his friend Bimbo as they attempted to escape unemployment by restoring an old fish and chip van and feeding the football crowds as they emerged drunk, but hungry, from the local pubs.

And Doyle captured the legacy of Italia ’90 wonderfully: “They started laughing, and grabbed each other and hugged till their arms hurt. They wiped their eyes and laughed and hugged again.” 

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin. Along with Mark Duncan he has curated an exhibition on Italia ‘90 which will open at the Little Museum of Dublin in the first week of August.

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