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From Shane MacGowan to Joe Brolly to Conor McGregor, Irishness is always up for grabs

Untethered nationalism is heady and exciting right up to the point where it gets out of hand – sports fans know this better than anyone

It feels like we talk a lot these days about Ireland. About Irishness. About who we are as a people, as if it were even possible to send a faithful collie up in to the field to round us up in to one amorphous group.

Sometimes we are, broadly. Shane MacGowan dies and we come together to wake him. We do it instinctively, naturally and not in any way self-consciously. His death led every news bulletin on Thursday, filled every front page on Friday. It has whizzed around countless WhatsApp groups and social media posts and coffees and pints and everything else for the past 48 hours.

Equally, we are often anything but one amorphous group. The riots that had Dublin ablaze the week before last had every strand of disagreement and every flavour of disunity you could think of. Even now, as the dust has settled, we’re no nearer to consensus on what drove them, whose fault it all was, what should happen now. It’s far-right troublemakers; it’s inner-city thugs; it’s Government neglect; it’s a broken immigration system; it’s leftie traitors in the media. It’s all of these. It’s everything else.

Irishness is in there, though, right there at the heart of both stories. We mourn Shane MacGowan for his lyrical virtuosity and for his soulful, emotional brittleness. But we mourn him too because there’s a part of Irish people that is forever drawn to the broken genius, to the idea that a great song is enough, that all the flaws and fallibilities within us cease to matter when we bring the world a killer line. I could have been someone. Well, so could anyone.


Whether we want to admit it or not, plenty of us like that idea of Irishness being out in the world. The banjaxed poets from the rainy rock on the edge of nowhere, raddled with hope, tormented with romance, polluted with language. Our eternally dysfunctional little dot on the map just won the Booker Prize again. Sure why wouldn’t we?

But we know that Irishness was at play too on Parnell Street and O’Connell Street and Middle Abbey Street for those feral few hours Thursday week ago. A fair chunk of those who got involved would have you believe that it was Irishness that mattered to them above all else that night. Ireland is full. Ireland for the Irish. Our f**king streets. Go f**king home.

When you’re getting to that end of the Irishness spectrum, nobody is talking about wistful poets any more. Suddenly Irishness becomes an aggressive thing, a weaponised idea. A beachhead to be defended from the marauders, a flag that must be kept clean and pure and safe from being co-opted by covetous outsiders.

Sport’s place in all of this is a tricky one. Sports fans instinctively understand nationality as a point of difference. On the global stage, everything gets broken down into simple classifications – international sport is about the best of ours against the best of yours. Only in sport is Irishness quantified. World rankings, medal tables, spots on the Ryder Cup team.

And because we get to experience sport as an international phenomenon, sports fans know all too well the spillover effects of mindless nationalism. What was Brexit if it wasn’t a natural extension of England football fans singing Two World Wars and One World Cup at bewildered Europeans, tournament after tournament? In whose interest does every Super Bowl only get started once the US military fighter jets complete their flyover? How did we get to the point where Newcastle’s third strip is basically the Saudi Arabia jersey?

Nationalism makes no logical sense. It is literally an accident of birth. So when you stake all your emotion and all your fervour on something that makes no logical sense, you can never know for sure how far you’re willing to go for it. More to the point, you can never be certain how far others are willing to go for it. Maybe they sing songs at a football match. Maybe they chase a garda across O’Connell Bridge.

Sports fans know this stuff all too well. We know that national identity is the engine that drives international sport. We know that it’s what has made the Olympics and the World Cup the greatest shows on Earth. We know too that it’s also what has made them such enormous, grotesque maxed-out versions of themselves and it’s what will destroy them both in the end. Untethered nationalism is a heady, exciting thing right up to the point where it isn’t.

In this context, it’s probably no surprise that one of the battle lines drawn in the past week and a half has been between two high-profile sportsmen: Joe Brolly on one side; Conor McGregor on the other. One highlighting the sensitivity and compassion of Irish people; the other declaring war. Brolly evangelistic in his sense that Irishness means generosity, openness and inclusion; McGregor bellicose and threatening, urging his followers to evaporate properties.

Though both of them are universes apart in their sense of what Irishness means, they both understand the power of identity. They’ve seen enough of it – in sport and in life – to know it can do extraordinary things, for good and for ill. In their own way, both are trying to use that knowledge, to be the collie in the field trying to round the people up.

Shane MacGowan knew the power of identity too and it seems only right we have him play us out.

“Now you’ll sing a song of liberty for blacks and Paks and Jocks/

And they’ll take you from this dump you’re in and stick you in a box ...

“At the sick bed of Cúchulainn, we’ll kneel and say a prayer/

But the ghosts are rattling at the door and the devil’s in the chair.”

No need to ponder which side he was on.

Codladh sámh, Shane.