WE have only had five such days in all of Irish history, five days on which we have played our first match in a major football tournament. These are the days of most feverish anticipation and yes, of most feverish dread.
On these mornings when we wake up with a tournament stretching gloriously in front of us, we can still be full of hope. Though we know too well the truth of Michael Chabon's line that we are "ruined again and again by hope".
We are Paddy, after all. And for Paddy, life is one long exercise in hope-management. What Paddy usually strives for is an accommodation with the baleful gods in which we are spared some terrible disgrace, in exchange for a dignified release.
Twice, after all, on these fine mornings, we have been looking at the prospect of an opening game against England. We used to believe that England were much better than us, and that if they were in the right mood, they could annihilate us. At Euro 88 and again at Italia 90, we went into those matches tormented by the conflicting voices in our head, by the voice of our large ego, and the voice of our low self-esteem.
We were singing "you'll never beat the Irish" -- that would be the large ego there -- but we were thinking deep down "actually you probably will beat the Irish, beat us out the door" -- that would be the low self-esteem there.
Saipan too brought up one of our many inner conflicts. It is now generally accepted that roughly half of the country was firmly of one opinion about Roy Keane, and the other half of the country felt the opposite. But, of course, in essence it was not a war between two sides, it was a war going on inside each of us, between the two sides of our own personality which could roughly be called the head and the heart.
That is why it was so terrible, so traumatic, so insoluble. It would be far too clear cut for Paddy to be having a fierce debate in which each party was convinced of his own righteousness. That is not really Paddy's way. We are what we are, due to the war within.
As Yeats put it, "we make
out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry". And since most us don't quite have Yeats' facility for the poetry, we make whatever we can, the next best thing, which can turn out to be very, very ugly indeed.
But then Italia 90 was poetry, as beautiful in its construction as Saipan was abysmal. We know that these appearances of Paddy in front of a vast audience will always stir up the most powerful and extreme emotions, we just don't know whether they will elevate us or destroy us. So we don the eejit's costume of the leprechaun and we drink like eejits too, because if everyone is an eejit, then no one is an eejit.
We know that the industry line of "Drink Responsibly" is bullshit, the best we can do in these situations is to binge-drink responsibly.
Now England themselves go into these tournaments with their own self-esteem so completely shattered, it is they who are thanking the baleful gods that this time at least they are not facing the ultimate shame of a possible drubbing by Paddy. Not in the group stage anyway.
Meanwhile, our special relationship has improved to such an extent that many of us can freely admit the truth that their national sport of association football has become our national sport too, giving us the
THE INTELLIGENT WOMAN'S GUIDE TO THE EUROS PAGES 14 & 15
chance to share in these great tournaments.
And in a sense, it has always been thus -- as the fine RTE documentary series Green Is the Colour demonstrated, it was the football men representing the Republic in international matches who helped greatly to establish the identity of this State in the consciousness of the wider world. In more recent times, we have seen something similar going on with young countries such as ... Croatia.
So what is going to happen to us tonight? When we sat there rigid with fear before that first match of Italia 90, we could not have imagined how well it would all turn out, how everything would come together for the next three weeks, how we would have all the luck.
Will the baleful gods take the view that they have given us enough of a pounding for the last few years and look kindly on poor Paddy, who is only trying to do his best
Without being so foolish as to express any hope in that regard, I will put it like this: It is not entirely out of the question.