Monday 18 February 2019

Exile odyssey highlights need to welcome back all those in our extended green family

Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Topsy Ojo carried the ball through the Toulouse security in an untouchable diplomatic bag. The Irish emigrant beside me at Twickenham remarked by way of the ancient Celtic art of tracing: 'Now which Ojos would he be?'.

Later the other Irish winger Tagicakibau turned Twickenham into a world dance studio with a higher step per second than Flatley.

The reckless Irish daring, the inherent passion and the massive support are a clear indication that the men who wear the green across the Irish Sea have widened our definition of the diaspora.

There are of course plenty of Irish names in the squad, but only a few play for Ireland. Geraghty, Kennedy and Danagher declared for England. It seems many more of the second generation will follow suit. Eddie O' Sullivan didn't pick too many English-based players during his tenure. There was no malice or racism; the IRFU just wanted all the players to play here for the benefit, as they saw it, of our national team. I think it was a serious error.

Rugby has become the chosen sport of many of the second generation. We need to tap in to that, but some of our own over in England look down on their own.

I abhor the term Plastic Paddy, a reference to the emigrants born in England with English accents who strive to find a balance between their Englishness and Irishness.

It's ironic that the second generation have to put up with discrimination in the way my Dad did back in the fifties when the Irish were banned from the lodging houses of Northampton. Yet even the most bigoted little Irelanders accept Irish Americans as Irish even though most are American citizens. What's the difference?

History and county of origin have developed different forms of Irishness.

I was in Glasgow the day Celtic won the 2000 Scottish title. Our ticketless troupe finished up watching the game in The Huddle Club in Royston Road. It's a rough enough area, but the majority of the people are decent and friendly. There were murals depicting the famine and most of the residents considered themselves Irish. John Gallagher's family left Donegal in 1910 to pick taties. "We are Celtic and Irish," he told us, "and that will never change."

The welcome was almost overwhelming. One man offered us "a wee line of coke on the hoose", but most present were out to cheer Celtic on and have a nice time. There was an open-air platform and the band played The Dubliners and Christy Moore. The street rocked and we were given food and drink.

Mad young lads were demolishing the bus shelters which were painted Rangers blue by the Corpo and on which a moratorium was placed until Celtic won the league. The IRA were strong in the area, mainly in response to the malevolent UDA factions not too far down the road. We could have been in Belfast.

So was it right for the Royston Roaders to retain their Irishness and form and independent republic in Glasgow? Would they not have been better off had they mixed, or mixed and matched? My view is simple. You are you and if you want to cheer for England or Scotland or Ireland, it is your God-given right to do so, provided you allow the same rights to those on the other side of the pitch.

The London Irish kids have spent holidays back home and believe me the Irish in England are as Irish as any of us. And more so because their limited access to our culture makes the yearning and respect all the greater.

And before we move on let us praise the GAA, who do a marvellous job in nurturing and networking our emigrants and their offspring.

London Irish is the ideal medium for the second generation who choose England as their home country to express their Irishness. It's a form of compromise. We would prefer if they declared for us. Many do and the dynamic Adrian Flavin from Ballylongford stock moved from Irish to Connacht. Boxer William Byrne of Duagh origin sacrificed so much to wear the green singlet. Every Irish townland has sporting heroes in every borough in Britain.

Martin Corry chose England. Corry was overwhelmed when we shut up for his anthem. His thank you clap has become iconic. Later on that historic night Corry said he was proud to be Irish. And Irish he is.

Blair and Major had strong Irish connections. Their insider access gave the PMs an understanding of both sides and from the fusion of that dual identity came the realisation our different societies had more in common than the opposite. It is no accident the second run of salmon have done so well in the race up the weir.

So let us follow on from President Robinson and light a candle tonight and every night for all of our people, whatever the jersey's colour.

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