THERE was a strange moment during the last 10 minutes of the Ireland-England rugby match last weekend. England were attacking the Irish line. It was a situation for phrases that evoke warfare: ‘battering’, ‘pummelling’, ‘last-ditch effort’, ‘holding on grimly’ and ‘Paul O’Connell’.
It was a familiar sight for Irish sports fans: Ireland initially doing well against an opponent from a larger country. In the past, we bit our nails in fear of the moment that the opponent from the larger country realised what was going on, flicked a switch, and then we got what was coming to us.
Except this time it was different. Watching it, I felt — and I think I wasn’t the only one — calm. Like when you’re on a plane and it drops tens of feet in preparation for landing, there’s an unpleasant ‘bottomish’ feeling, but the rational part of your brain knows that, on the balance of probabilities, the pilot’s preparation and experience, in tandem with the technology at their disposal, mean you’re not going to die.
So it was that as England tried to come back, I felt they wouldn’t succeed. There was a dull certainty in our superiority. This is not only unusual in the context of Irish sport, but unusual in the context of the history of Ireland.
We revel in the shelter of underdog status, managing expectations downwards: heroic effort, inevitable defeat, being caught just on the finish line, inferior arms, moral-victory parade, commemorative stamps, a 1,000-page book talking about legacy. When we fought the English it was by hiding behind hedges in ambushes or in the dead of night with pikes hidden in thatches. We were Robin Hood (the Michael Praed one) and Friar Tuck, never Sir Guy of Gisbourne and Prince John. We were never the sneering masters — except when we were slave owners in other countries (but we don’t like to talk about that).
But a worrying trend has emerged, of Ireland being near the top at something: the rugby, Katie Taylor, Rory McIlroy, the smoking ban, making Viagra, selling baby milk to the Chinese, fellas who are ‘good with computers’ out there in Silicon Valley without a bother on them.
How is this going to affect our psyche? We can no longer excuse things like Irish Water, the Garth Brooks thing, FAS, an empty Cork Airport terminal, as being ‘so Irish’. There’ll be standards expected.
It won’t suit us. As sports fans, when we’re favourites or in front we get nervous. There is still a remnant of the line from Alone It Stands, the play about Munster’s victory over the All-Blacks. When Munster score, a fan remarks pessimistically: “Scorin’ against them....it’ll only annoy them”
But now, being the best at stuff, we will be the ones who clamp down on others’ dreams. We probably do it already, you know, with the tax-haven chicanery that robs Third World governments (but we don’t like to talk about that). It’ll be a challenge for the arts industry. Comedians will no longer be able to use the phrase “that’s so Irish”, as it will mean something different. Crap Hollywood films will one day have Irish villains and, get this, they won’t be anything to do with the IRA. It’ll just be a totally evil pharma-computer genius who wants to take over the world and can only be stopped by a plucky, wisecracking English guy.
The underdog will become top-dog. And the rest of the world will be itching to ruck us out of it.
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