Monday 11 December 2017

Poll: Vote for Ireland's greatest sports star between 1985-1994

Packie Bonner with the save that launched a thousand parties
Packie Bonner with the save that launched a thousand parties
Captain Ciaran Fitzgerald’s 1985 Ireland Triple Crown-winning side
Tony Boyle and Tommy Ryan celebrate Donegal’s first All-Ireland in 1992

Samuel Beckett was once asked by an American academic how it was that a small place like Ireland had produced so many great writers. "When you are in the last ditch there is nothing left but to sing," Beckett replied.

Perhaps there's a similar explanation for what happened in Irish sport from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s. Because if a single golden era can be selected in our sporting history, this is probably the one. The national soccer team, which had never before qualified for the finals of a major tournament, suddenly achieved the feat three times in six years. We also acquitted ourselves very well on getting there, notably in 1990 when Jack Charlton's team reached the World Cup quarter-finals and gave rise to celebrations of South American fervour and intensity.

That would have been enough to be going on, but this was also the period when Barry McGuigan won the world featherweight title on another immensely emotional night, when Stephen Roche won the Tour de France and the World Championship and Seán Kelly topped the world rankings for five years and won a slew of classics, when the romanticism of Mick Doyle steered Ireland to perhaps the most emotionally satisfying Triple Crown victory of all, when Christy O'Connor Junior and Eamonn Darcy struck the killer blows in the Ryder Cup, when the Dubs and Meath went toe to toe four times in a row and Cork did the only All-Ireland double in GAA history, Michael Carruth won a first Irish Olympic gold medal in 36 years, Joey Dunlop ruled the roads and Dennis Taylor became world champion by winning not just the most famous, but the best snooker match in history, which was watched by 18.5 million people in the UK.

It was also a period when the only place Ireland could do anything right was in the sporting arena. This was a dog of a time.

Between 1984 and 1989 unemployment in the Republic stayed over 15 per cent, reaching a record high of 17 per cent in 1986. Emigration came back with a bang, peaking in 1989 when two per cent of the population left the country. These were the years of the factory closure and the farewell at the airport.

Life was dominated by an ever present sense of national malaise. The feeling that things would be like this forever, or perhaps even get worse, engendered a general bitterness and a belief that there was something irredeemably second rate about the country, that to have been born Irish was to have been landed with the booby prize in the lottery of life. The assertion that Ireland was a Third World Country, which you often heard in those days, might not have been correct but it had a certain psychological truth to it.

Captain Ciaran Fitzgerald’s 1985 Ireland Triple Crown winning side
Captain Ciaran Fitzgerald’s 1985 Ireland Triple Crown winning side

It's pushing it considerably to suggest, as some have done, that the deeds of Jack Charlton's teams contributed to the economic recovery some years in the future, but what they, and our other sporting heroes, did was to show that Irish failure was not an inevitability. They also gave the huge number of emigrants a renewed pride in their home country.

And there was a delicious irony about this because Charlton's team owed a great deal to the efforts of players descended from earlier generations of emigrants driven abroad by economic failure. The official tendency had been to ignore the emigrants but there was no ignoring these men with Irish names, Galvin, McCarthy, Sheedy, Phelan, Cascarino (ahem), and English accents.

The one hopeful political development in all those years took place in 1994 when the IRA called a ceasefire and what had seemed for so long an intractable conflict ground to a halt and never really resumed.

The war had begun in 1969. Down had won the All-Ireland football title the year before but for the next two decades no Ulster team even looked able to repeat that feat.

Packie Bonner with the save that launched a thousand parties
Packie Bonner with the save that launched a thousand parties

It is, considering the stresses and strains of life in the North during those years, hardly surprising. But, as the conflict moved towards the end game (1988 was the last year when more than 100 people died) Down lifted the Sam Maguire again in 1991 to begin a run of four wins on the trot by Ulster teams. When they won in 1994 Sam crossed the border to a land at peace.

It was a cheerful end to a miserable era. Future generations will probably look at the Italia 90 celebrations and wonder if people weren't perhaps a little OTT about things.

But, you see, in those years sport was all we had.

Sunday Independent

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