Monday 19 March 2018

Poll: Vote for Ireland's greatest sports star between 1965-1974

There was a new spirit in the air. The poet John Montague wrote, ‘Puritan Ireland’s dead and gone, a myth of O’Connor and O’Faolain’

A scene from the 1965 semi-final clash between Kerry and Dublin
A scene from the 1965 semi-final clash between Kerry and Dublin

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The best because after decades of stagnation, the Seán Lemass Government's Programmes for Economic Expansion helped the Republic of Ireland move out of the doldrums.

The average industrial wage doubled between 1966 and 1973 and the average agricultural wage did likewise in an even shorter period of time.

Between 1969 and 1973 the number of cars on the road jumped from 315,000 to 477,000 and in 1971 the Census registered the first rise in population since independence. The number of TV sets in the country quintupled in 10 years, the number of university graduates doubled after free secondary education was introduced.

Vincent O'Brien's Classic triumphs with horses bearing the colours of a string of American millionaires, Raymond Guest, Robert Sangster, John Galbreath, Alice du Pont Mills and Ogden Phipps, seemed thoroughly in tune with the times. It was no coincidence that the politician who sometimes seemed the very embodiment of the zeitgeist, Lemass's Minister for Finance and son-in-law Charles Haughey, was also a racehorse owner.

The new bullish confidence of a business community liberated from the dead hand of economic protectionism was symbolised in sporting terms by the corporate sponsorship which enabled the luring of top class fields to the Carrolls International golf tournament. It ran from 1963 to 1974 before morphing into the Irish Open and local hero Christy O'Connor won it four times, his eagle-birdie-eagle finish to snatch victory at Royal Dublin in 1966 one of the moments of the decade.

There was a new spirit in the air. The poet John Montague wrote: "Puritan Ireland's dead and gone, a myth of O'Connor and O'Faolain."

George Best pictured in 1968
George Best pictured in 1968

It was this very optimistic 60s spirit which prompted the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland to protest against the second class status accorded to Catholics. The violent reaction of a segment of Unionism followed by the armed campaigns of Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries saw horror upon horror perpetrated in the North, while the Republic did not escape unscathed either. During its first few years the conflict overshadowed everything else on the island.

There were repercussions for sport. When George Best had starred in the 1968 European Cup Final for Manchester United, everyone had rejoiced. But a mere four years later he withdrew from the Northern Ireland team to face Spain at Windsor Park because of IRA death threats. There is perhaps too little account taken of how badly affected a psychologically fragile character like Best must have been by the disintegration of his native land.

It (1972) was also the year that Scotland and Wales refused to travel to Dublin in the Five Nations championship for security reasons. Ireland beat both France and England away and had beaten both Scotland and Wales on their previous two visits to Lansdowne Road so they were probably denied a Grand Slam. It hardly seemed to matter.

What did matter was that, in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, England came over to play the following year.

Jockey Pat Glennon & trainer Vincent O'Brien
Jockey Pat Glennon & trainer Vincent O'Brien

"We might not be very good but at least we turn up," said their captain John Pullin after the Irish victory.

And it was the year of the Munich Olympics. When Belfast's Mary Peters won a remarkable gold in the pentathlon, she too was threatened with death should she return to her native city. Her response was, "Bollocks, I'm going straight to Belfast," and she went through the streets in an open-backed lorry with crowds celebrating in the streets.

Even at the worst of times sport could still bring out the best in people.

Sunday Independent

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