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Italia 90: Ireland's summer of love

Italia 90 was the best thing that ever happened in this country. Which seems like a bold statement, until you try to name something better that happened in this country, something that was enjoyed for the best part of a month, in fine weather, by almost every man, woman and child, of all religions and none, and in which nobody died.

The more you think about it, the more you are inclined to form the view that not only was Italia 90 the best thing that ever happened in this country, but it was obviously so much better than anything else that ever happened that it is not even a matter for discussion.

So when the publisher Fergal Tobin of Gill and Macmillan had the idea of a book about what one would loosely call the Charlton years, to mark the 20th anniversary of Italia 90, my first reaction, of course, was that I wouldn't do it.

Maybe it was the fact that other books I had written had started in my own head, and I was simply unaccustomed to taking on someone else's bright ideas. Or maybe I just felt that enough had been written already . . . yet, as I thought about it a bit more, I couldn't quite recall anything of note which had been written on these matters for, say, the past 19 years.

And now there is perspective.

You could look back at ltalia 90 and at a lot of the other things that happened in this country before, during, and after Italia 90, and you could try to figure out how everything was connected to everything else.

After all, if we know anything about the story of the Republic at Euro 88 and the 1990 World Cup, we know that it wasn't just about football. In fact, at times, it had nothing whatsoever to do with football.

So within a few minutes of thinking that I wouldn't write that book, I realised that there were probably several books that could be written about that period, and that I would like to have a crack at writing at least one of them.

It was so pivotal, in so many ways, this time from the late Eighties through to the early Nineties -- I imposed a personal end to the era with the election of Mary Robinson at the end of 1990, because it would devalue the memory of Italia 90 and all belonging to it to pretend that the Charlton years were still the same after that.

Enough with the pretending, and the official blather, there is no need for it.

There has been much of that official blather about Italia 90 giving us the confidence that gave us the Celtic Tiger. But if that is the case, what gave us the confidence that gave us Italia 90 in the first place? Surely not the events of the Eighties, widely remembered as a time of almost uninterrupted wretchedness?

So did success breed success or did failure breed success? Or was it a bit of both or was there any connection at all? Yes, there would have to be a book in all that.

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And since there were also fantastic amounts of drinking involved before, during, and after Italia 90, I felt that I would be needing to revisit another subject dear to my heart.

It was, indeed, the story of my life, or near enough to it. Because one of the odd things I rediscovered during this journey back into my own delirium, and the delirium of this nation in general, was that I actually stopped drinking for good in 1995, about a month after Jack Charlton resigned as manager of the Republic.

Strangely, I had never made this connection before. I knew that I had not consciously decided to give up the drink because the Charlton years were over, yet the peculiar timing of this life-changing event was perhaps based on some deeper pattern that I didn't see at the time, a sense that with great reluctance I would have to start growing up -- sadly, we would all have to start growing up -- now that all the fine madness was over. The days of heaven.

The title suggested itself to me almost immediately -- Days of Heaven, directed by Terrence Malick, was one of the best movies of my youth -- and I never went off it.

Italia 90 was our Summer of Love, with drinking rather than dope smoking.

And maybe there was a bit of hate thrown in, too. Because let us not forget that the nil-nil draw with Egypt in Palermo was one of the worst football matches ever played by trained professionals, and that the post-match performance by Eamon Dunphy led to his car being surrounded at the airport by extremely angry men.

So, even at this supremely happy time for Paddy, there was grief.

Part of the fascination of doing this was trying to recollect things as they actually were, rather than as we think they were. And realising that we actually know more than we think we know.

For example, I was in New York on an assignment for this paper on the Sunday that Ireland beat England in Stuttgart at Euro 88. Christy Moore was playing the Carnegie Hall on the Saturday night and I was doing a large feature on Christy.

The Gate was also on Broadway at that time with its production of Juno and the Paycock. U2 had already sold about 40 billion copies of The Joshua Tree, and Sinead O'Connor was at that stage of her career when, as they say, she could be anything.

Which would appear to contradict some of the official wisdom that Paddy only started to make his way in the world some time in the mid-Nineties. Indeed, My Left Foot would be released in 1989, nominated for five Oscars and winning two. Fairytale of New York had come out at Christmas 1987, at least six months before Euro 88, let alone Italia 90. And the Pogues' wonderful album Rum, Sodomy and the Lash had been out since the mid-Eighties, around the time that Bruce Springsteen blew in to Slane to brighten up our lives for a few merciful hours.

Stephen Roche had won the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, and the Road World Championships, all in 1987, just before Scotland miraculously beat Bulgaria in Sofia to put Jack's lads through to Euro 88. And he had been greeted on the podium by Charles J Haughey, who had just given his enthusiastic blessing to the International Financial Services Centre and whose Artists Exemption scheme was luring all sorts of exotic creatures to Ireland at that time.

Yes, indeed, a long, long time before Riverdance began its long, triumphal march, you could be rambling unsteadily through the Dublin night encountering various members of Def Leppard, or Frankie Goes to Hollywood, or Spandau Ballet, or UB40, or Sting or Elvis Costello or Mike Scott and The Waterboys.

You would hear of people being employed as housesitters for the beautiful people when they were off on tour. So in the Eighties, supposedly a time of permanent darkness, there were men and women in Ireland whose job it was to live in the houses of rock 'n' roll stars. There had never been such people in Ireland before.

So even then, it was clear that a new spirit of gracious living was being cultivated on Killiney Hill and its environs.

As I rolled back through these years, it was abundantly clear that the football wasn't the only good thing that was happening in Ireland at that time; that a lot of other things were also contributing to a growing awareness that we were not necessarily doomed to follow the vision of Fr Michael Cleary.

But the football was probably the best thing, not just because it was vastly enjoyable in its own right, but because it involved everyone.

Perhaps most strikingly, it involved women.

Italia 90 came at the end of a decade in which Paddy's struggles towards the light, his desire to be always on his way to a Bruce Springsteen concert on a glorious June day, or to be on Broadway itself, were leading him away from the darkness of a dying religion.

Not that most of us actually knew it was dying. Looking back, the decline and fall of the church may be seen as some sort of inevitable historical process, but it didn't feel like that at the time.

Only now can we see that this was the tipping point, that it would all fall down as quickly as the Berlin Wall, which was being battered into smithereens by souvenir hunters in 1989.

But for much of the Eighties, it seemed that the war for Paddy's soul could go either way.

Still cock-a-hoop after the visit of the Pope, the stormtroopers of Irish Catholicism were determined to press home their advantage, draining all the best energies of the nation in a series of appalling referendums which tended to draw unseemly attention towards the inner organs of women.

Most days, the Irish Times letters page would feature a debate about the moment when human life begins, about every sperm being sacred and about things called zygotes, about divorce and contraception and abortion and all that.

An inordinate amount of the articles I would be writing at that time were about this moral civil war. In fact, one of the strands which emerged in the writing of Days Of Heaven was the fact that so many of the young journalists of the time were fully signed up for this civil war, invariably on the anti-clerical side.

An article I wrote led to an accusation of blasphemy by the then Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, which was actually quite a big deal at the time -- it wasn't long since such an accusation might leave you seeking alternative employment, preferably in another country.

We may laugh at such things now, but they were still vaguely possible during these years when Ireland was not yet free, or at least didn't know how close to freedom it was.

Anyone who started out in a magazine such as Hot Press or Magill or In Dublin would have been fully engaged in this struggle as a matter of course, and part of the fun of this book was recalling that time in Irish journalism -- again we ponder the mystery of how we could have three good magazines out there at a time of destitution, and nothing of comparable quality during the times of plenty.

Success will always breed a certain level of success, but when we go all the way back, is failure perhaps the ultimate motivator?

Certainly for most of the Eighties, Ireland had all the appearances of a failed State, economically and morally.

At some level we were all in a bad place, but women were probably in the worst place of all.

At least men, even if they were unemployed or generally unhappy, did not feel such an intimate connection to radio discussions about their ovaries, about the availability of the morning-after pill, about their right to control their own fertility, and all that -- if you'll pardon the inappropriateness -- all that bollocks.

And the men had the football too, creating that lovely wave of optimism that started on the mad, mad day we qualified for Euro 88, and continued all the way to the homecoming from Italia 90.

But at some point -- probably during the World Cup itself -- the women joined in too. After all the ugliness of the civil war, they said to hell with it and armed themselves with huge inflatable hammers and headed down to the pub with everyone else to see Kevin Sheedy's sweet strike, and Packie gritting his teeth, and O'Leary making it five-out-of-five in the penalty shoot-out, and Paul McGrath entering the realm of the immortals, on the big screen.

Not only did they join in the drinking and all the other fine madness, but crucially, by their indulgence, they facilitated the drinking of the men; they 'enabled' it, as we now put it.

It was as if they recognised that here was something that unified the whole country for once, maybe the only thing that could bring us all under the one flag -- lest we forget, the IRA was still brandishing that flag as its members blasted away, disgracing themselves and by extension disgracing the rest of us, again and again.

In so many ways, Italia 90 allowed us to reclaim a sense of unity, the idea that we were all indeed on the one road, and that it wasn't the road to God knows where beloved of the Wolfe Tones; it was the road to Cagliari and to Palermo and to Genoa and to Rome itself.

So I knew more than I thought I knew, and a few things that I didn't want to know.

On the upside, I knew and worked with men such as Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan when the idea of Father Ted was just starting to form in their heads. And through interviewing him at a dark time in his career, I had come to know Fr Ted himself, Dermot Morgan. On the downside I also 'knew' Fr Michael Cleary to the extent that I lived virtually across the road from him in Rathmines for about two years, at a time when I now realise he was living with his 'wife' and son behind the very door from which I would see him emerging, smoking his cigarette.

At the time, though I also 'knew' that Cleary must have had a few children stashed away somewhere, it never for a moment occurred to me that one of them was actually living across the road from me.

I had also largely forgotten that I had interviewed Jack not long after he took the job in 1986. I met him out at a hotel out by the airport, with physio Mick Byrne scurrying around doing what Mick does.

And for the first time I noticed that Jack would get names wrong -- names of players, names of countries.

He said Romania instead of Bulgaria, and instinctively I was about to correct him, but I held back -- in truth, back then none of us could see much difference between Bulgaria and Romania.

He also spoke angrily about fish-kills, which were very popular in Ireland in the Eighties -- a week would not go by without some pristine fishing ground being massively polluted with slurry, usually pumped in by farmers who, according to Jack, should have had the land taken away from them.

I had also happily forgotten that I and a few other journalists had had a night's drinking with Paul McGrath, during which it was generally agreed that I would write Paul's biography.

This was just before Euro 88, on the day that Paul and Packie Bonner and various other members of the squad had recorded The Boys in Green at Windmill Lane Studios. Paul never did interviews, so when the controversial rock journalist George Byrne and Eamon Carr (ex-Horslips) and I found ourselves in the Dockers pub near Windmill Lane Studios, talking to this articulate fellow who was describing some of the terrible things he had seen in his life, the feeling grew after loads of pints that Paul's story needed a wider audience. I never wrote that book. In fact, I never phoned Paul at the number in Manchester that he gave me.

A lifetime later I would write this other book altogether. And I think that both for myself and for Paul, given all that we know now, it is a better thing all round.

'Days of Heaven', €16.99, is in shops later this week

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