From the Irish half it starts. Denis Irwin hoofs a long ball over the heads of the Irish midfield and straight into the Italian box. It’s deep into the summer of 1994 and since Jack Charlton took over as Irish manager, hundreds of the exact same long balls have been kicked by his Irish side.
But this one will live forever. The Italian defenders can’t handle the uncultured hoof and as the ball clumsily bounces around on the edge of the Italian box, Ray Houghton scrambles in to define an era.
Across the Atlantic a nation erupts in collective euphoria. The country’s main streets are thronged with tri-colour-clad crowds. Always in these moments of collective joy some rules are relaxed, Gardai have their hats robbed while other revellers dance in fountains.
There is no internet, there is no instant news in your pocket.
Before the final whistle blew in New York, in one rural pub in County Down, a Loyalist Death Squad, clutching assault rifles, rush in and spray a bar with bullets, resulting in the deaths of six men. The dead ranged in age from 34 to 87.
Later that night news of the massacre will filter through to those partying in Dublin and New York.
“The new Ireland, mid-wifed by Jack Charlton and now lamented by pseudo-economists, wasn’t going to come easily or because we could now win big football matches”
The mid 90’s are far enough away to mythologise and get misty eyed over.
But what version of the story to tell?
The official narrative has elevated the Jack Charlton years to that of a quasi-Colour Revolution. Irish people, we’re told, ‘‘took back the flag”. We’re left in no doubt that those it was taken back from were the Nationalist people of the North.
A flag born from separatism, birthed in violence, and gazed upon while singing ‘A Soldier’s Song’ was finally re-claimed from the men of violence. Square pegs and round holes.
A few months after the euphoria of Giants Stadium and the tragedy of Loughinisland, the English football team came to Lansdowne Road for a friendly. The game ends after 27 minutes with English Neo-Nazi groups behaving as Neo-Nazis behave.
Ireland had tried desperately to use its international football team as a panacea. A sport once denounced by the Bishops and unsuccessfully hunted by the uber-Gaels was now to be the saviour of a debt riddled, war-torn island. But other people’s realities kept meeting this narrative head on.
As Jack’s Army followed the team through qualifier matches around Europe, the Old Continent was again pressing the reset button and re-drawing its borders. But the 20th Century wasn’t our quarrel so we paid no heed.
A week before the trip of English Neo-Nazis to Dublin, an attempt in the Seanad to discuss the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was interrupted by a Senator who insisted he was disappointed to be discussing Concentration Camps when the West of Ireland was flooded.
The amplification of the early to mid 90’s as a latter day Gaelic Revival has in the intervening years become something of a cottage industry. Some want to see this period of time as the real birth of the nation.
“But the crowds flooding O’Connell Street after big matches weren’t the same as those taking to squares across Eastern Europe and the Baltic States“
They weren’t fighting for democracy or for Ireland to be freed from the grip of the Catholic Church. They were just on the lash.
To use a tired analogy, the Charlton Years were boozy, the hangover from them for Irish football and society was long and complicated.
The economy of the period was built on quick-sand. Gombeen politicians joined in the celebrations and the next day sold off more of Ireland. The children of those who had celebrated Ray Houghton’s goal could re-watch it to their heart’s content on YouTube on homesick nights in Sydney or Berlin.
In these uncertain times let’s surround ourselves with whatever makes us feel good. But let us not re-write the 90’s and sweep Loughinisland and all the other parts of the jigsaw which do not fit the official narrative away.