A national anthem is a solemn patriotic song officially adopted by a country as an expression of national identity. The anthem of the Republic of Ireland is called the "Soldier's Song," and it is played and sung whenever we have a national event. So far so good.
International sporting events are occasions where anthems are heard and during the Olympics the Irish anthem got a few airings. Last night our soccer team played and beat Austria, in Austria, and before the game, the soldier's song was sung by the Irish present. But we have two soccer teams on the island of Ireland because our country is partitioned. The Northern six counties, (out of 32), wish to live under British rule and we in the South or the other 26 counties, agreed to this in order to help bring peace back to those six counties. Again, so far so good.
The game of rugby though has always been a bit different. We have four provincial teams and the national team is drawn from these. The province of Ulster though is British and yet they don the green jersey and turn out for the island of Ireland on rugby international days. Many Ulster players are protestant and loyalists. That loyalty is to the Queen of England and again I stress, we in the South voted to respect that point of view with its aspirations.
But when I was young, the era when Irish rugby internationals in Ravenhill, Belfast, had come to an end. All the home games I watched were played in Landsowne Road in Dublin. As such then, those Ulster protestant players had to stand shoulder to shoulder with their southern counterparts and stand to attention to the anthem of the Irish Republic. None of them sang along and some even glared straight ahead of them. Mind you, in those days you would have found it difficult to find an Irishman sing, "God save the Queen."
The compromise in 1995 was penned by Phil Coulter and is named, "Ireland's Call." You can listen to it here. It is a modern up to date anthem designed to reflect the two distinct traditions on the island. A line in it reads, "From the mighty Glens of Antrim, From the rugged hills of Galway! From the walls of Limerick, and Dublin Bay, From the four proud provinces of Ireland." North, South, East and West all get a mention. The big game this year was against the All Blacks in Chicago and Ireland's Call was sung gustily by all fifteen warriors in green. It was as if the song united the players from all around the country and the effect was apparent in the crowd as well.
But the carpers are never far away and since that match, the letter's pages of our broadsheets have featured moaners complaining that our true Republican anthem is not performed instead. One even went so far as to suggest that the Unionist boys had better grow up. Some have even hinted that we Irish are too embarrassed to play the right anthem. In response, I can only say that from the perspective of a true rugby person, we respect our brothers North of the border and are quite happy with Ireland's Call.
Recently a famous number eight from the Munster team died unexpectedly. He had gone from player to manger for the club and Anthony Foley was, and is, a true legend of the game. Shortly after his funeral, Munster had to re-group and visit Belfast to play Ulster. The respect shown by both the club and its supporters was heartfelt. They unveiled a plaque to Foley at the grounds and stood in silence before the game in his honour. It was a show of true dignity and respect and a sign of the brotherhood that exists in rugby. It transcended religion, politics or borders and was seen as such by rugby supporters in all of the other three provinces. For me, Ireland's Call is a sign of the end of sectarian thinking.
Certainly a million people in the Northern Six Counties desire to be known as British as far as we down here are concerned. But they will talk to you as well about their Irish identity. Their players do not turn out for England, preferring instead a united Irish team. We have a united cricket team as well and our hockey team is also drawn from the 32 counties. Both use Ireland's Call. The soccer teams differ because we have two instead of one national team. The North sing, "God save the Queen," whereas the South sings a Soldier's Song. Perhaps one day that will change but for now, rugby leads the way in terms of conciliation and fence-mending.
Dare I say, "God save Ireland's Call!"