Ireland is going through a golden age of sporting success, Martin Healy argues, as the nation is earning plaudits like it never has before.
SPORT is an incredible avenue for nostalgia. When your team or country reach that pinnacle, whatever it may be, and you experience that with your family, friends or community, it can leave behind an unforgettable feeling. A novel like Fever Pitch tries to capture that moment in time – it tries to make sense of the euphoria unique to sport; so it’s no surprise that these past events can build up so much nostalgia.
As a college-age generation who were born in the early-to-mid nineties, it has been impossible to escape this country’s deep love of Italia ’90. Even when the Irish national team went to the 2002 World Cup, there was always that familiar refrain: “ah, this isn’t like how it was back in 1990.” Figures like Packie Bonner, Ray Houghton, and Paul McGrath were described to us in wistful tones that made them seem like green-clad deities.
Despite all this love for sporting days gone by: are we actually living in the golden age of Irish sport?
As students in our late teens/early twenties, we have lived right in the middle of this golden age. While the exact timeline is certainly up for debate, it can definitely be argued that Ireland has been home to a sudden surge of sporting glory over the last decade.
“While rugby is undoubtedly the jewel in the Irish sporting crown, there’s a long list of success elsewhere.”
The watershed moment was certainly Munster winning the Heineken Cup in 2006. Rugby has been at the forefront of our sporting success, and Munster’s win in Cardiff was the start. They won again 2008, following by Leinster’s incredible three European titles in four years between 2009 and 2012 – finishing on an all-Irish final against Ulster.
In amongst all this, Ireland won the Grand Slam in 2009, and picked up two Six Nations titles in 2014 and 2015. On top of that, the national team are just a few weeks removed from finally beating New Zealand for the first time – an All-Blacks side who were eighteen matches into the longest winning streak in test match history.
That same national side has now beaten the All-Backs, Australia, and South Africa in one calendar year: the first team to do so since England in 2003.
While rugby is undoubtedly the jewel in the Irish sporting crown, there’s a long list of success elsewhere. Three Irish golfers have won a combined seven majors since 2007 – there was only one title before this. Conor McGregor is the biggest draw in the history of the UFC, and along with being the most famous Irish sport star in the world, he was the first fighter to hold two world titles in two different weight classes at the same time.
Even with the disappointment of Rio 2016 fresh in our minds; the Irish Olympic medal haul between 2012 and 2016 has been nothing sort of fantastic, especially considering the medal drought the nation when through in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Mick Conlan, Paddy Barnes, and Katie Taylor are all arriving on the professional boxing scene, and titles potentially await. Even, the Irish cricket team are also worth an upset every couple of years, even with miniscule resources.
“Sport has provided an avenue for pride for whatever ‘Irishness’ actually is.”
The national football team appears to have come out of their post-2002 World Cup slump. We’ve qualified for two European Championships in a row, and even with the unmitigated disaster that was Euro 2012, 2016 saw Ireland take the lead for the first time ever in a knockout tournament game.
No longer are the Irish team known for their famous draws, with Germany, Bosnia, Italy, and Austria all having been beaten over the last 12 months.
Sport has provided a great antidote to what Ireland has seen since 2006. From the peak of the financial crash, to the deep lows of the recession, to the current era of uncertainty and emigration, sport’s ability to unify becomes more important than ever.
While older generations saw Irish sporting glory as an inconsistent phenomenon, anyone under the age of 25 today has since a consistent string of titles and trophies wash onto Irish shores. In a post-recession era where questioning the nation has become more prevalent than ever before, sport has provided an avenue for pride in whatever “Irishness” actually is.
“Sport has provided a great antidote to what Ireland has seen since 2006.”
When it comes to the week-to-week support of clubs, we shout amongst ourselves in the on-going soap opera of sport. A moment of glory on the international stage can unite people behind a nation, even if patriotism is rarely celebrated today (and whether patriotism should be celebrated is an another issue entirely).
If nothing else, sporting success in Ireland is proof of what can be done with limited resources. Despite the lack of Irish footballers at the top level of the sport, the Irish team is still finding success. Ireland has a massive number of successful combat sport athletes; and we’ve capitalised on the rugby scene despite the massive money available on English and French shores.
This is a golden age of Irish sport, and we’ve been lucky enough to grow up alongside it. Despite the myriad issues facing young people, whether inside or outside the country, sport still provides a space to be proud – even briefly – of our island.