The two sides of Irish tribalism

It is often the case that an event teaches us less about ourselves, and the country, than our reaction to it does. Last week, we learned very little of use from the facts of the awful event in Creeslough. Perhaps, in time, we will have new safety protocols around fuel stations, or an investigation will reveal the root cause of the explosion. In the aftermath of the tragedy, though, we learned, or re-learned, some of the things that are best about our country, and our people: The national outpouring of sympathy, and support, and mourning, and community reminded us that we are, in the best sense of the phrase, a tribal people. We stand together, in bad times. We saw some of that during the pandemic, too, for better or for ill.

We saw it again, to some extent, yesterday.

I think that on balance, those who said that the Irish women’s soccer team meant no harm to anybody when they chanted “ooh ah, up the ra” are correct. These women are young. The very oldest of them would not yet have attended primary school when the final IRA ceasefire was announced. Some of them had yet to be born when the IRA finally gave up its guns. They have grown up in a period when the IRA have been slowly transformed from real, living, murderers in our midst into just another “side” in the “conflict” in Northern Ireland.

Identifying with the IRA is now, for some, no more controversial than siding with Julius Caesar over Pompey Magnus in the Roman civil war. A bit of fun: historic tribalism. Nobody feels the need these days, when talking about Genghis Khan, to mention all his victims. That’s what the IRA are becoming for the generation who have grown up without them: Romantic, historic, figures. That the IRA accomplished nothing, and that its ex-members now serve as Ministers of the Crown, is also helpful in taking the perceived sting out of it: Sure doesn’t everyone recognise Martin McGuinness as a statesman now, and he loved the ‘Ra.

But there’s more to it, of course, than just that. There’s the other element, which is class-based. Those Irish people who do object to “ooh ah up the ra” are plentiful, but they are not entirely united. Some of us are legitimate west brit bootlicking shoneens, like your correspondent. But then there are those who would never stoop so low as to invoke the name of republican killers, but who are no less fanatical -indeed probably more fanatical – in their disdain for anything British and Unionist. For the IRA, after all, hitting the Brits was just business. For Fintan O’Toole, it’s personal. I joked yesterday that if the soccer team had wanted respectability in the eyes of the Irish Times, they should have chanted about England’s Brexit-based descent into delusions of imperial grandeur, and perhaps mentioned “The Tories”.

There’s respectable Brit-Bashing, and then there’s “up the ra”. They come from the same place, but some of us know how to be polite about it. It’s like knowing which knife and fork to pick up first at a fancy dinner. We all know whose side we are on; it’s just about how classily we express it.

And there you see the other side of our tribal national character: Because these ladies did not express, in their chant, anything that we genuinely, as a nation, believe it unacceptable to feel. From the ground up, through various degrees of politeness and refinement, Anglophobia is Ireland’s tribal national religion. Nothing we do, nothing we say, nothing we believe, can compare to eight hundred years of oppression. That story is drummed into us from our first day at school, to our last. It is repeated through the respectable media outlets. It is expressed in sporting rivalry, and not voting for England in the Eurovision, and the outbursts of maniacal national outrage any time an Irish person we’re proud of is mistakenly described as “British” by the villainous UK media.

And it’s getting worse.

The broad media response to yesterday’s events might well be summed up in the words “unfortunate” and “shame”. The misfortune, and the shame, being that the chanting took the sheen off a magnificent achievement by the team. One correspondent noted, sagely, that phones, and dressing room celebrations, should not mix. True in so far as it goes, but reflective of a general view that the chanting itself was not so unfortunate as that it became public.

This brings me back to the opening paragraph: In Creeslough, we saw the best of our tribalism – complete and total empathy with each other, and a collective feeling of the hurt inflicted on individuals. Yesterday, by contrast, we saw the worst of it: A vague understanding that the chants were bad, but no real sense of empathy, or feeling, at all, for those who were the IRA’s victims. They are not of our tribe, after all. Their pain matters not to us, or at least not so much as the notion that we may be mildly embarrassed by the chanting does. We don’t feel anything approaching empathy, so much as we feel a slight cringe that this makes us look bad. The fading photos on Protestant walls of dead sons and murdered mothers don’t cross our minds.

Sorry if you were offended, as the FAI’s statement said.

And indeed, helpfully for the tribal impulse, Sky Sports provided an out: Interviewing a player yesterday, a British host asked whether the team needed to be “educated”. This was, of course, the agreed upon Irish consensus five minutes earlier – that the players are young and needed a spot of education. But as soon as a British person said the exact same thing, social media had the chance it needed to flip the script: How dare he? Bloody Brits, at it again, lecturing the Irish. All was right with the world, and we were back in our comfortable place.

When some dunderheaded disgraces of Orangemen took it upon themselves, over the summer, to sing about Micheala McAreevey, they lost their jobs, their name, and their employment. Nobody was in any doubt about the cruelty of their song, or their actions. That they may have been thoughtless buffoons full of drink and joy was irrelevant to their defence. We all recognised the character of their crime, and what the crime said about their characters. We demanded justice.

“But that was different, John”.

Yeah. Sure it was.

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