Saturday 20 July 2019

Ciaran Byrne: Sporting chance for Team GB to be Good Buddies

Injured Irish marathon runner Catriona Jennings was overwhelmed by the support of the British crowd,
who willed her home over the final agonising mile of the event. PRESS ASSOCIATION
Injured Irish marathon runner Catriona Jennings was overwhelmed by the support of the British crowd, who willed her home over the final agonising mile of the event. PRESS ASSOCIATION

Ciaran Byrne

FOR me it is a moment right at the beginning of London's almost perfect Olympics that stirs the memory, rather than a medal-winning scene.

As Katie Taylor led Team Ireland into the Olympic Stadium on July 27, the big screen focussed on the Irish flag being held by the boxer and a spontaneous roar went up from the capacity 62,000 crowd.

The TV people seemed pretty happy too. Hazel Irvine, the BBC presenter, said cheerily: "Welcome to all our friends from Ireland."

For others, the moment could be when a British crowd willed Donegal's Catriona Jennings home over the final agonising mile of the marathon.

Crippled with the pain of a foot injury, Jennings finished last in the women's race, a full hour after the winners. She was overcome.

Irish team manager Patsy McGonagle said afterwards that Jennings couldn't have made it without the locals.

"The British crowd have been unbelievable to the Irish, the boxers have told me the same thing," McGonagle said. "We've got an unbelievable welcome here. That was obvious on the course and for this girl in particular."

London 2012 was peppered with such generous, gratifying moments. Goodwill flowed from British crowds and broadcasters whenever an Irish competitor appeared before them.

And something big happened here at home too. A year after the queen's visit to Ireland, we too embraced our neighbours a little more closely.

Sure, we're not ready yet to throw street parties and hang out the Union Jack bunting, but for the first time in a long time, we seemed entirely comfortable wishing Team GB the very best.

It just felt right. Normal. And why wouldn't it? A new generation of Irish emigrants are making London and Britain their home and all evidence suggests at last a weakening in the old game of slagging off the Brits.

Some critics have attacked the BBC for hyping GB medal successes and ignoring other countries; but few could begrudge their exuberance or argue that Ireland's athletes didn't get their share of British hugs this time round.

As an example, the BBC reporting of Katie Taylor's win was heartfelt, genuinely celebratory, even giddy.

In return, the mutual good feeling was evident in the tone of Irish media coverage towards Britain, on TV and radio and in print.

After years of petty putdowns, our nations finally seem at ease with each other. It was evident in exchanges on Twitter and Facebook, with Irish people enjoying the spectacle of London, the victories of Team GB and welcoming British praise of Team Ireland.

It was evident at home where, for the first time in ages, you looked at the TV and wanted that British leg or wheel to get over the line first.

I lost count of how many people said it was great to see cyclist Chris Hoy win his sixth Olympic gold medal, or that they found the heptathlon win of Jessica Ennis so utterly thrilling.

Much of the enjoyment came from the humility of the medal winners themselves, many of them from humble backgrounds and perhaps lacking a sense of haughtiness associated with previous UK teams.

If there is a palpable sense of positive change in Irish-British neighbourliness, then much of the credit lies in the events of May last year when President Mary McAleese welcomed the queen to Ireland.

The visit took all sides by surprise; we were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to welcome her, she was no doubt surprised by how much she enjoyed it. Afterwards, we all thought: "So what was all the fuss about?"

Not so long ago, it was hard to find a public space without the usual Brit-bashing, bar-room snipers wishing ANY country success over the old enemy in ANY event.

One British friend recalls his early years in Ireland when England played Hungary in a football match and Hungary scored first.

"The roof nearly came off, people went wild with delight and I said to my friend, 'wow, there's a lot of Hungarians in Dublin'."

With the political changes over the past two decades, it feels as if much of this ill-feeling has drifted down the plughole of history.

Of course, there is still the faint whiff of colonial arrogance, such as the 'Telegraph' newspaper's error last week in labelling Ms Taylor a Briton. But after 24 hours, the paper's editor -- the Irish-sounding Tony Gallagher -- apologised and we all moved on.

London 2012 will be remembered as a wonderful event. The spectacle was magnificent, the organisation superb. Team GB enjoyed its best medal haul in a century while Team Ireland had its best stint since 1956.

As we sit back and enjoy tomorrow's closing ceremony, we can say thanks Britain, it was a truly great show. But the real success of London is the feeling that in Ireland at least we have made up for some lost time with the neighbours, clinked glasses and buried a few hatchets. Now that's worth celebrating.

Irish Independent

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