I’VE long believed that a lot of us Irish are uncomfortable with the idea of being a success. Many of our countrymen and women have a certain antipathy towards high achievers so, perhaps subconsciously, we are more content than we should be as also-rans. Stories of Irish triumph on the world stage are exceptional, rather than the result of a winning culture.
That’s not to say the Irish don’t like to win in certain circumstances. There’s one particular set of motivators that almost guarantees we perform to near-optimum level: defiance, vengeance or plain old spite. We can do well if we’ve got something to prove.
Without a slight — perceived or real — to rail against, we are a sailboat without a breeze, becalmed and beatable.
In team sports, we can summon our inner grudge easier. The Irish rugby side are capable of world-conquering performances — when they have been almost universally written off — like against Australia in the 2011 World Cup and the middle test against the All Blacks in June.
Once that display has been praised and digested, they will revert to a more slothful version of themselves and disappoint — until the day when they are next expected to offer mere token resistance to a mightier foe. Then the old defiance will resurface.
Defiance is the thread that runs through the one line of Irish soccer fans’ second favourite song. “You’ll never beat the Irish.” It’s not a case of ‘we’re going to excel’. The message is ‘We’ll resist you’.
The Boys In Green’s first favourite song ‘The Fields of Athenry’ gets its most lusty rendition when we are four goals down and in the throes of humiliation. We are happy when lamenting ill-fortune and wallowing in defeat. So long as our betters are inflicting their lesson with a touch of class and humility, we’re content to play the role of loser.
If, however, they glory in their supremacy then we will fight to the last breath to gain revenge next time around.
Our national games are built on the solid ground of wiping the smirk off your neighbour’s face. Parish-against-parish, county-against-county, all carried out under the banner of being Gaelic athletes (i.e. not English) … it’s a work of genius, and shows that the founders of the Association knew a thing or three about the Irish psyche.
Why are 99% of interviews with GAA players dog-boring? Because they are scared rigid of giving the opposition what they crave themselves: an insult that will fire a training regime and a match-day effort.
A GAA player would sooner admit to cross-dressing than say something as innocuous as “Yeah, we’ve had a decent season so far and probably deserve to be favourites.”
Spite is rocket fuel to Irish teams. Just a quick roll call of sides that were driven by a desire to soften a few coughs: We’re-no-longer-the-whipping-boys, Clare hurlers; We’re-the-unfashionable-outsiders Munster of the late 90s and early 2000; “Not-Ladyboys-and-three Heinos-to-prove-it-baby, Leinster; Have-that-England, Ireland Euro 88; Armagh of 2002, free from helicopters; Lord-mayor of-Galway-what-do-you-make-of-this? Cork hurlers in 1990; Donkeys-win-derbies, Cork hurlers 1990; Sheep-emerge-from-a-heap, Offaly 1998; We-are-the-greatest-don’t-mind-last-year Kilkenny in 2011… This list could fill the rest of the page, and the two after that.
You’d be quicker identifying Irish teams who achieved what they did through pure desire to be the best that they can be.
Of course, lots of successful Irish teams have engendered a genuine culture of excellence where spite is no longer the fuel, but it almost always seems to have been at least the spark.
Which brings us to the Olympics. Boxers aside — who do have a genuine culture of excellence — chances are the Irish team won’t take too long going through the security scanners on the way home for all the precious metals. We never fare well at the Olympics. The whole event just doesn’t suit our defiant culture.
“Those arrogant Kenyans are laughing at us.” Doesn’t really work, does it?
“Go out and show those Koreans that you’ll never beat the Irish, in the monkey bars.”
“The Americans think we’re woeful sprinters.” We wish. The sad truth is Ireland has never crossed the mind of an American sprinter.
The Olympics is just too vast, too individual in nature to appeal to anybody but a few Irish exceptions such as Sonia O’Sullivan and Ronnie Delany.
A colleague reckons our lack of track and field success is down to a paucity of facilities and structure; other countries are so far ahead of us in this regard that our brightest prospects have no chance.
I reckon you have to ask why they’re so far ahead. Ireland is not short of sporting facilities; nearly every parish has a thriving club run from private grounds. It’s a GAA club.
People were running in Ireland long before they were playing Gaelic football, but an organisation built on local rivalry, on defiance of the odds, on representing the streets and fields that you call home, on sewing it into anybody who does not show your locale the requisite respect … well, that was more appealing than jumping as far as you could.
The demand for GAA clubs was there before the clubs, even the sports, existed. Demand for organisations that facilitate individual endeavours has never been there in the same way.
Though if somebody with as much foresight as the GAA founders had asserted that, for example, Mountmellick men were intrinsically better jumpers than those from Portarlington, who in turn had a mightier leap than they from over the county border in Monasterevin — then they could have been onto something.
Because being the best you can be, just for the sake of it, has rarely been enough in Irish sport. That’s why we have rarely reached the gold standard.