IN BOD WE TRUST. This is the slogan that will be very prominent today; a tribute to Brian O'Driscoll as he plays his last home rugby international at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.
These words will adorn flags, posters and T-shirts along with standing ovations and a sense of pride and nostalgia. The slogan is a reflection, not only of O'Driscoll's status, popularity and longevity as a giant of Irish sport, but also of modern irreverence and marketing; a reminder that in recent decades we have had new secular icons and heroes to adore and celebrate and they have come to prominence in an era of commercialisation, mass media and communications.
Our ancestors might be turning in their graves at the idea that we would replace an affirmation of the power of prayer and religious belief with a cocky assertion of our worship of and faith in a sporting hero. In times past, reverence was more associated with political and religious heroes – usually patriots, presidents and popes – whose images adorned domestic walls and shrines. In certain homes by the 1960s, photos of Eamon de Valera, Pope John XXIII and US President John F Kennedy were placed in close proximity and images of the 1916 Rising leaders were also popular.
Irish nationalism and religious faith needed the oxygen of the worship of heroes and 1916 leader Patrick Pearse and others who followed him constantly referred to the importance of the continuity of the struggle for independence and the invoking of historic heroes– such as Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet – to underline the heroic narrative of Irish history.
Depending on civil war sides, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera also became heroes, while, during politically divisive times, religious icons were the glue that bound the faithful Irish. The rapturous reception afforded to Pope John Paul II when he came to Ireland in 1979 was a final blast of Irish devotion to the papacy and the extraordinary Irish attachment to and association with Catholicism. It was something that distinguished us – a desire to be the Irish jewel in the crown of international Catholicism – and was seen as inextricably linked to Irish identity.
But even at that stage, it was also clear Ireland was changing and becoming more secular, urban and preoccupied with materialism, and new heroes were required. An exposure to outside influences and a growing confidence in Irish cultural identity found expression in the celebration of modern heroes outside of the political arena, in music, film and literature and in the midst of this social, cultural and economic change, sporting heroes achieved a new status.
This was also about building on an old tradition of celebrating Irish sporting success. There is no doubt that historically, the achievements of Irish athletes generated much pride. The rise and fall of the Irish boxer Jack Doyle captivated many in Ireland in the 1930s as he beat a string of heavyweights, earned and squandered a fortune and succumbed to alcoholism: as Con Houlihan recalled, "people hungered for heroes, for a sign that there were some on whom the gods had not turned their backs . . . in this country we had our own heroes on the playing fields but we needed an icon of international status".
Ronnie Delany also achieved that status by winning an Olympic gold medal for the 1,500 metres race in 1956 in Melbourne. At home, local and county devotion to the GAA made heroes of hurlers and Gaelic footballers and still does, while as the Irish soccer team began to qualify for major international tournaments under Jack Charlton and his successors, there was an expanded devotion to following the soccer team.
The elevation of sporting heroes in this country was an Irish version of what was happening internationally; enthusiasm for sport was part of a largely male popular culture as sport became more important than art, music or literature. Italians embraced their cyclists, the English celebrated their cricket batsmen and soccer players.
The British sports historian Richard Holt has highlighted the extent to which individuals and teams came to dominate the sporting landscapes of their countries; in his words they became "vessels into which were poured all manner of gender, class and patriotic expectation". They also provided relief from daily humdrum existence and were regarded as epitomising the qualities a society esteemed.
This has been taken to a new level in Ireland in recent times, a reflection of social change and disillusionment with the politics and religion that produced faith in the heroes of old. Now we look to heroes like Katie Taylor and Brian O'Driscoll, not just to admire their skills, endurance and discipline, but also to find relief from bleak times.
A significant change has been the increasing professionalisation and broadening of the appeal of sport and its heroes and it now involves women, both as participants and spectators, on a scale that was not apparent in the past.
Before television, sporting triumphs were read about or, if it was an option, listened to on radio, but now, because of marketing, blanket television coverage and a new variety of social media, we are constantly surrounded by the images, words and thoughts of our sporting heroes as they tweet, do interviews, grace our screens and share their sporting and sometimes personal diaries. The profile and attention they receive creates huge pressures, particularity in a small country that badly desires something to cheer for, as runner Sonia O'Sullivan was to discover. As she put it "so many athletes aren't the focus of attention in their country".
Brian O'Driscoll will be the focus of attention today; an athlete who has embraced and managed with great skill the pressures and pleasures of being a modern sporting hero while epitomising the traditional discipline, commitment and hard work that is required to translate talent into results.
He is a modern icon who over the last 15 years has generated passion and trust and provided the moments of magic that we need and crave to generate unity and pride. Despite the processes of modernisation and globalisation, and the evolution of a broader sense of what constitutes national identity, that basic need has not changed.
DIARMAID FERRITER IS PROFESSOR OF MODERN IRISH HISTORY AT UCD