'To be Irish is to know that, in the end, the world will break your heart'
Published 27/06/2016 | 02:30
'It;s sweat, I swear to God. They're not tears." Pat Dunne from Tallaght in Dublin stood disconsolate in the Lyon fan zone as cheering French fans in a sea of red, blue and white swept by on their way to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
Pat, like the 5,000 other Irish fans in the Lyon city centre viewing area, was left shell-shocked as it took just four minutes to turn the greatest Irish football victory in history into yet another scene of heartache and broken dreams.
Many French fans, seeing his Green Army colours and distraught expression, paused to offer a handshake or a slap on the shoulder.
In Lyon, in fact anywhere in France, it was a very good day to be Irish despite the bitterness of defeat.
Many French fans even arrived to the Lyon fan zone wearing Irish colours as a tribute to the Green Army who had brought a tsunami of music, fun, dancing and partying to the city by the River Rhone. Throughout France, Irish fans have been lauded for bringing a smile to the face of a tournament which opened amid unprecedented security fears.
Outnumbered 10 to one by the French in the Lyon fan zone, Irish fans still proudly belted out their football anthems.
When Ireland went 1-0 up in the second minute, the fan zone was momentarily silenced as shocked French fans paused their deafening chanting of 'Le Marseillaise' and 'Allez Les Bleus'.
The silence was only fleeting as Irish fans immediately roared out 'Stand Up for the Boys in Green' and 'Shane Long's On Fire' in disbelief over what they had just seen on the giant screens.
"I just can't believe it," Robert Kenny from Waterford said as Ireland celebrated their goal and he held his son Conor (2) proudly aloft.
Beneath azure skies and Lyon's imposing hilltop Notre Dame Basilica, the Green Army's Euro 2016 pride surged just as the tears would later flow.
US senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: "To be Irish is to know that, in the end, the world will break your heart". France broke Irish hearts for the second time in seven years but, in the packed fan zone on Place Bellecour, most Green Army members acknowledged that a strong Les Bleus outfit probably deserved to win.
Unlike 2009 when Thierry Henry's infamous handball dashed Irish World Cup hopes, Irish fans watched as a strong French team justified their favourites tag.
"We're so proud of the boys - they gave it absolutely everything. In the end, it could have been 3-1 or even 4-1," Sean Macken from Dun Laoghaire said. "But what can you say?
"It's just such a pity we don't get another crack at England like Euro 88."
An estimated 5,000 Irish fans thronged the fan zone as, just like in Bordeaux, demand vastly outstripped the meagre availability of tickets for the brand new 60,000 capacity Stade Olympique Lyonnaise.
An estimated 15,000 Irish fans were in Lyon stadium while another 10,000 were in pubs, restaurants and campsites scattered around Lyon. Access to the fan zone was painfully slow as supporters had to make their way through airport-style metal detectors. In the end, an estimated 10,000 late-arriving French fans couldn't get in - and mounted police had to direct the large crowds which packed nearby streets.
As in Paris, Bordeaux and Lille before, Irish fans had made Lyon their own.
Across the river in Lyon's old town, French fans flocked to Irish pubs like the James Joyce to share in the party atmosphere with their Irish rivals. Some even joined in good-natured chants of 'Thierry Henry - Hand of God'. Lyon police, more used to preventing the threat of violence from English and Russian fans, were visibly astonished by Irish fans who stood and applauded as they passed with chants of: 'Stand Up for the French Police'. The fan zone was also a haven for supporters who, despite their best efforts, just couldn't find a precious ticket. Fans Michelle Hartnett, from Ballyhooly, Cork, and Marie Walsh, from Ballyhea, Cork, drove from Valencia to Barcelona before catching a flight to Lyon.
"We just wanted to be here because of all we've heard about Ireland's time at the Euros," Michelle said.
Wexford brothers Gearoid and Fearghal Rath flew to Zurich and drove for six hours to reach Lyon.
Sisters Tierna and Nuala McKevitt from Down flew to Lyon via London.
All of the fans had one aim in common. "We wanted to be part of it," Tierna said.
Irish Independent Supplement