/Melanie Verwoerd: A priest, the potato famine and an emotional rugby match

Melanie Verwoerd: A priest, the potato famine and an emotional rugby match

2019-10-02 08:29

It was a day the Irish would never forget – much like the match in 1978 when Munster beat the All Blacks (there is a play that still runs today about that match), writes Melanie Verwoerd.

On Saturday
morning just before 11:00, my phone beeped. “Japan is beating Ireland!”
read the text message. “Eh, these guys have too much time for jokes,”
I thought to myself.

I rang my
son, who is in Ireland. “I can’t talk now, Japan is beating Ireland!”
he shouted into the phone. In the background, I could hear exasperated swearing
by Irish supporters in a pub. At this point I decided to find a TV. And there
it was… Japan 19, Ireland 12.

For those
of you who don’t know much about rugby, this was like me beating Serena
Williams at a game of tennis. OK, not quite the same – but you get the picture.

Needless to
say, the fairly reserved Japanese nation went ballistic – and I mean ballistic!
The Irish, not so much. Although typical of the Irish sense of humour, within five
minutes I received a meme: “What do Irish rugby and the Titanic have in
common? They both went down 1912.”

I’m not
massively into sport. To be honest, I mostly watch it so that I am not excluded
when the men in my working environment discuss the intricacy of every move
during the week (or month) after a big match. Sigh!

Having said
that, I have been to a few significant international sporting events – many
involving Irish teams.  

One in
particular stands out. In February 2007, I went to a match between Ireland and
England at Croke Park Stadium in Dublin. This was extremely emotional for the
Irish for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Croke
Park is the headquarters of the Gaelic Athletics Association or, as the Irish
fondly call it, the GAA (or “gaa”). The GAA was founded as a
nationalist organisation to promote Gaelic football and hurling (two hugely
popular indigenous Irish sports). Until 1971, if anyone was caught playing rugby
or cricket (deemed to be English sports), they were banned from hurling or
Gaelic football and their membership to the GAA was revoked (so intense was the
anti-English sentiment!)

However, in
2005 a landmark decision was taken when the GAA agreed that during the
renovation of Landsdowne Road rugby stadium, international rugby matches could
be played at Croke Park Stadium. It was a BIG deal in Ireland.

The match
on February 24, 2007 was also particularly emotional for political reasons. In
1920 during the Irish War of Independence, the British military entered the
stadium during a Gaelic football match. They shot indiscriminately at the crowd
and players, killing 13 spectators and one player, Michael Hogan. To this day
the Hogan Stand is named after him and serves as a memory of the event, which
remains deeply ingrained into Irish memory.

So as match
day in 2007 drew closer, many people were worried. It was the first time
Ireland and England would face each other at Croke Park. 

I was part
of a group of Irish rugby supporters. On our way to the stadium, we picked up a
lovely, retired Catholic priest. As we drove up to his retirement home, we saw
him waiting for us on the steps in an Irish rugby jersey over his “dog
collar” – rearing to go. He was talking to some British supporters who
were passing by and then pointed them in the direction of Landsdowne Road

When he got
into the car, we reminded him that the match was on the opposite side of the
city at Croke Park, to which he responded with a devious chuckle: “I’m
well aware of that, lads.”

The stadium
was packed to its full capacity of 82 300. When it was time for the national
anthems, tension intensified dramatically. The week before the match there were
numerous appeals to the Irish spectators not to boo or disrupt the singing of “God
save the Queen”, but everyone knew it was likely to happen.

A deadly
silence fell over the stadium as an Irish military band struck up the first notes
of the English anthem. The tension was palpable, but no one whistled, no one
booed; at the end there was even polite applause. Then it was time for the
Irish anthem. I had never heard it sung with such emotion. People teared up and
the TV screens showed players sobbing. As “Ireland’s Call” ended, our friend the
priest suddenly shouted at the top of his voice: “OK, enough of this
politeness. Now fuck them up, lads!”

And that is
exactly what the Irish team did.

At half-time,
the score was 23-3. With a few minutes left on the clock, the score was 43-13.
I looked over to my friend the priest. “That is revenge for the potato
famine, Bloody Sunday and the Battle of the Boyne,” he exclaimed while
wiping tears away.

On that
freezing cold day in February the English conceded the most points in 124 years
of championship rugby. A journalist for The Guardian newspaper wrote the
following day: “As the rented shamrock cathedral shook from cellar to dome,
England looked about as comfortable as choir boys at a thrash metal convention.”

It was a
day the Irish would never forget – much like the match in 1978 when Munster
beat the All Blacks (there is a play that still runs today about that match).

I’m sure
the same goes for the Japanese after Saturday’s victory. Let’s hope the
Springboks can do something similar at the World Cup because as the Irish would
put it: “God knows, we sure could do with a bit of a pick me up!”

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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