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Something’s happening. The Irish have embraced self-expression and are underdogs no more

Una Mullally: We are witnessing a remarkable surge within Ireland and among the diaspora

Mindset, confidence, belief. In the opening hour of the Six Nations game between Ireland and England, it felt as though these three pillars of our team had emptied out. What was cast in concrete, when the occasion came knocking, began to sound a hollowness. Throughout the first half, three new pillars emerged, ones that were nervous, tentative, sloppy.

As I sat screaming at my screen, I wondered if the old Irish reflex of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory was too embedded in national muscle memory for talent, skill and determination to prevail. I was wrong, obviously. The doubt fell, and the confidence grew.

The reason the various landmarks hit on Saturday – the Six Nations trophy, the fourth Grand Slam, the first Grand Slam won on Irish soil, the Triple Crown, Johnny Sexton’s point-scoring record – are so important, is because there was a stint of play where it looked like they might bottle it. And then they didn’t. Mindset, confidence, belief.

As we all know, when it comes to landmark sporting occasions, the talent and skill is assumed – it’s the mind and the events that unfold within the occasion that play the rest of the part.


For all the commentary about England potentially coming to “spoil the party”, last week, fans had three pillars too: expectation, presumption and, dare I say, cockiness. The lead-up to the match felt new, and not just because it coincided with the outward expression of patriotism that exists around St Patrick’s Day.

While I may have been freaking out during the first hour of the match, I wondered whether my nervousness was not actually about what was unfolding on the pitch in the present, but rather what had in the past. New generations of fans of Irish sport and culture (and sport is culture after all) don’t necessarily have such memories of Irish talent bottling opportunities. They don’t appreciate the legacy of being accustomed to failure. They tend not to understand that being almost-rans is the standard. There is no punishment for “losing”, as there is in British culture, but what is also evaporating is the assumption that losing is the default.

Our traditional underdog narrative has morphed into something else: yes, we’re small, but we’re also talented.

I remember the TD Gary Gannon once saying if he could change one thing about Ireland, it would be for people to have more confidence. This confidence – and we see it everywhere, from talent across music, cinema, visual art, literature and sport, to the vox pop of an average Irish person, previously cowering in front of a camera or microphone, now facing both happily with plenty to say for themselves – has emerged. It’s here.

From what I gather from those who pay closer attention to Irish rugby than I, is that Ireland’s head coach Andy Farrell appears to insist on personal expression within the confines of accuracy, conditioning, skill, fitness, talent and discipline. This used to be radical advice in an Irish context – sporting, social and cultural. It’s a stance that declares: you’re already good, now be you.

Forging national narratives around a single victory – as tempting as that is, rhetorically, emotionally, politically – is generally misguided. But this hasn’t been a single victory

Malachy Clerkin’s excellent article on Andy Farrell’s qualities last week, chimed with what television analysts were saying: that Farrell doesn’t want players to be who they aren’t, and that the diversity of personalities within a squad is a strength, so long as they use their uniqueness in a positive manner. To not restrain one’s difference is a new Irish disposition, and it is a liberating one. What’s also true is that self-belief without self-acceptance is a difficult thing to conjure.

Traditionally in Ireland, we have been plagued by an instruction not to get into trouble, an insistence on uniformity on a social level, and punished or demeaned with the weapon of comparison; to the more high-achieving sibling, to the better-behaved classmate, to the more efficient worker, to the better-resourced country, to the wealthier neighbour, to the more pious community member. But in recent years, it feels as though self-expression has been liberated. There are obviously large social forces instigating this change, in particular the ongoing unpicking of theocratic forces for whom punishment and control was necessary for the maintenance of power through oppression. Even radical tales of revolution and defiance were always packaged within the confines of strict nationalism or religious obedience.

Forging national narratives around a single victory – as tempting as that is, rhetorically, emotionally, politically – is generally misguided. But this hasn’t been a single victory. We are witnessing a remarkable cultural surge coming from both Ireland and the Irish diaspora.

We are taught that self-praise is no praise, but something is happening, generationally, across all aspects of society, that is making people walk taller. When standards rise, so do expectations, and that feeling is permeating in disgruntled and urgent ways politically.

Yet culturally, right now, there is almost a bit of magic to it. What does pride look like when it’s coming from within? It feels as though this new Irish disposition is already reaping rewards.