ONE of the most fascinating elements of the play, Hamlet, is the fact that his presence on stage marks the very first appearance of the modern man, proper. Not only does this play give us some of the most profound and philosophical explorations into the nature of human existence but more importantly the presence of the young prince is the first time we see ourselves represented in literature.
Hamlet is all of us; complicated, brilliant and flawed. And Saturday’s defeat of the All Blacks, like the character of Hamlet, not merely signifies our arrival on the world sporting stage but more importantly; that 16 – 9 score line marks the beginning of modern Ireland, proper — an Ireland that now, believes.
For years, like everyone else, I’ve watched Ireland compete at the highest level in international rugby. And I’ve watched with one eye closed, breath held, waiting for the whistle in case the victory would be snatched away in the last minute, like so many times before. Each defeat punctuated with the same old impecunious logic, ‘Ah, well. We gave them a good game.’ But what was so remarkably different about the victory last Saturday is that I watched that game as a different person. My eyes were wide open and I never believed for a moment they were going to lose. In fact, I believed they could win. Over the years I’ve watched the Irish football supporters being portrayed by the media as the best part of our football team. And over the years I’ve often wondered was our irreverent and friendly demeanour a way of deflecting from the fact that we fundamentally held the belief that we hadn’t a hope when it came to winning the game.
There was something very psychological about the manner in which we conducted ourselves publicly. We were collectively so eager to be genial and submissive, not to be taken seriously. I have wondered over the years has it something to do with our national consciousness, having being under the yoke of foreign dominance for over 800 years, had that impacted our national self-esteem and how we viewed ourselves? ‘Sure, we’re only a bit of craic, don’t take us seriously at all.’ When Roy Keane told us we deserved more, did we believe him? I don’t think so.
When he told us that we should demand to be taken seriously as a sporting nation and not merely the court jesters providing half-time entertainment, we didn’t listen. We couldn’t hear him, because we didn’t believe we could be taken seriously. If we’re not the jokers, what is our role? In short, we didn’t believe. I grew up in the Eighties. I remember watching so many of my brother’s friends reluctantly leaving our shores in search of a better life. Twenty years later I felt a sense of pride as those same people came back to Ireland lured by the promises of the Celtic Tiger. Only to watch, once again, those dreams dashed as our politicians betrayed us in deepest consequences. And again our national self-esteem took a hammering. Our boom was a joke, like everything else another thing to laugh at. But we are resilient. And we dragged ourselves out of those dark days. And here we are now, a nation reborn.
What was so exhilarating about that win over the All Blacks was the manner in which we achieved it. We didn’t get the rub of the green or we weren’t desperately hanging onto the rope like a punch-drunk boxer. In fact it was the All Blacks that were out on their feet. New Zealand’s coach Steve Hansen captured the event perfectly when he said: ‘We just got beaten by a better team, they deserved the win.’ I watched the game with my daughter, of course she didn’t understand the significance of it all. But I couldn’t help think how lucky she is to grow up in an Ireland where we expect to win, in an Ireland that has firmly shaken off the psychic scars of the past.
We are not merely good natured and self-deprecating, we have value and should be taken seriously. It is about time we stepped out of the shadow of our collective insecurities and embraced who we are now. WE are a small nation, there is no denying that, but we have always dreamed big. The victory last Saturday has signalled one of the most significant shifts in our collective consciousness as a people. We can now dare to dream of winning. We can now shake off the shackles of those previously held vulnerabilities; we are more than just participants making up the numbers. Those 15 players on the field did more for us in that 80 minutes than they can ever know. And like a pebble tossed into the water of a still lake, the reverberation of what they did will go unfathomably on, into our great future.