Tuesday 26 March 2019

Billy Keane: 'Forget Brexit and what might divide us - there are no borders in an Irish rugby dressing room'

Keane's Kingdom

'Today’s game will be brutal. England will try to batter Ireland into submission but the enduring sporting friendship will ensure the rivalry will not spill over into outright aggression off the field after the game.' (stock photo)
'Today’s game will be brutal. England will try to batter Ireland into submission but the enduring sporting friendship will ensure the rivalry will not spill over into outright aggression off the field after the game.' (stock photo)
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

The English have landed. Never has an invading force from the other side of the Irish Sea been more welcome.

They might be about to divorce us but we remain good friends.

There is a code of ethics which runs right through the game of rugby and the main tenet is to welcome the opposition supporters.

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The English are big spenders, which is important too, even in Dublin, where the tourists are well minded, and well charged too.

There isn't a bed to be had in the city. Tickets are sold out for months. The English supporters will tell you the Dublin trip is their favourite of the Six Nations.

We share a common culture of drinking and carousing over the big rugby weekends. The Tut-Tuts may disapprove but sometimes the benefits of gregariousness can outweigh the damage done to the body by a good night out.

The welcome ends on the field of play, though. Today's game will be brutal. England will try to batter Ireland into submission but the enduring sporting friendship will ensure the rivalry will not spill over into outright aggression off the field after the game. The very worst that will happen is a few ribald roars.

There is never any bother with the English rugby fans.

It was back in 2000 and Munster were playing in the Heineken Cup Final in London. Thousands of Munster supporters travelled over for the game.

The English soccer team were playing on the night before the rugby match. There was a gang of us in the Tube, all dressed up in the red of Munster.

Down the escalator came a platoon of England soccer hooligans. They were well-dressed hooligans. Every man of them wore a good suit. The hooligans marched two by two in a military fashion like the Black and Tans they were.

One of them spat at my friend. It gave us all we could do to stop him from crossing over to the spitter's side of the moving stairs. We would have been wiped out.

The next day, Munster lost to Northampton in Twickenham. Both sets of supporters got on famously. Drinks were sent over and the sing-songs were communal. Munster took their beating and Northampton were the most gracious of winners. Lasting friendship were made on that day.

My dad lived in Northampton for three years, back in the early 1950s. He worked for British Steel, in the foundry. The work was tough and dangerous but the pay was good. The signs outside the boarding houses read "No Irish. No dogs." In some of the lodging houses dogs were allowed but not the Irish.

Dad found a second home for four years with two lovely English people. Henry and Beryl were like a mother and father to the lonely Irish youngster and his cousin Denis Murphy.

Dad and Denis had to pretend to be Welsh but got found out when Henry followed them to Mass on a Sunday morning. They were given the road. Dad and Denis were half-way down the street with bag in hand. They had no place to stay.

Beryl broke down and brought the two youngsters back.

Dad and Denis returned home with a stake. And that's why I am where I am today, in our family pub.

Times have changed but how will Brexit impact on what was unfettered freedom of travel and the rights of residency for the Irish in Britain?

The Brexit issue doesn't necessarily mean England wants to be rid of us. The Irish worked hard and, while many fell through the cracks, so many contributed so much to the building of Britain. Their children and grandchildren have prospered.

There is little doubt but that without the safety value of jobs across the water, we would have a social disaster here.

Beryl and Henry explained they just didn't know the Irish well enough. I'm afraid there are still a good many in the Houses of Parliament who haven't a clue about the centuries of conflict and the surviving resolution of the Good Friday Agreement.

There is a real danger of the conflict spilling over into outright violence in the North. The solution may not be that difficult to find. The problem can be solved by fixing the key areas now.

A hard Border will suit the hard men and the hard women on both sides.

But the rugby people have stayed friends, no matter what.

The English rugby union voted for Ireland's bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup, when Scotland and Wales voted against us.

We can go back further to 1973 when England travelled to Dublin to play us at the height of the Troubles in the North. Seven people were killed in Northern Ireland in the two weeks before the game. A year earlier, the paras murdered 14 civilians who were protesting peacefully in Derry on Bloody Sunday.

Scotland and Wales refused to fulfil the Dublin fixtures in '72. When the English came a year later they were well beaten.

Their captain John Pullen famously said: "We may not be the best team in the world, but at least we turn up."

Like so many, I am the descendant of IRA and Cumann na mBan soldiers.

They fought for our freedom. Every time I hear 'God Save the Queen', part of me boils up inside.

But then the game gets going and the anger subsides into a passion play for the greater glory of an all-Ireland team.

The strange thing about Brexit is our two countries had never been closer. The late Moss Keane said: "There are no borders in an Irish dressing room."

The Brexit debate has been fixed on what separates us. We must strive to find common cause and take leadership from the sporting friendships formed over many years, on and off the field of play.

The ties that bind will never be unfettered. For every drop of blood that has been spilled in the centuries of conflict, there are as many blood brothers and sisters on both islands sharing a common ancestry and a filial fealty to what is right between us.

Irish Independent

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