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MacKenna On Monday: In This Ireland, Sport Is Merely For Some

Poor, old Eddie O’Sullivan.

If he thinks he got it bad around the 2007 World Cup – despite three Triple Crowns in the handful of years that preceded it, and a winning record that only Joe Schmidt has ever bettered in the role of Ireland manager – then little did he know what was to follow in recent days.

The country has moved on since those wide-eyed times where we could choose our own path. It’s a different era with different rules now, as the route has become set in stone.

Thursday morning, and he was so foolish as to go on national television and tell the truth. “It’s just a terrible performance lads, let’s call it what it is,” he said of the stuttering effort against a bunch of part-timers from a nation that holds rugby in the same regard as western values. “They may have got the bonus point but there’s nothing else there. Zero. The guys who had a chance to put up their hand and put pressure on the coach to pick them didn’t really put up their hand.”

No one had told poor, old Eddie though. This was a no-go area. It demands a Stepford Wives routine. He’d learn that from the angry reaction to him and to his honesty ever since.

At a tournament that’s so strung out that it amounts to hours of foreplay and then mere moments of action, there’s been the need to find other areas of amusement. Commentary and punditry are useful In this regard. At one point during that game on RTÉ, as Ireland huffed and puffed but couldn’t blow a house of cards over, it was noted that one of the opposition players could actually make a living from this. Meanwhile, back in studio, to watch Jamie Heaslip hold in all that naturally occurring testosterone having heard O’Sullivan’s remarks was quite a sight.

“Get over it,” was the height of his retort. To think there are those who said the thousands spent on Newbridge College were wasted.

There is a serious point here though for remember George Carlin’s 1972 monologue that went through the seven words that you could never say on American television? Well on this side of the pond, we’ve developed the three clear sporting stands you can never insult on our television. Or anywhere else for that matter, from print media to a mere chat over shopping in the car park.

And if you thought Carlin’s list were offensive, then you’d better avert your gaze to the triumvirate we’ve put together.

Irish rugby.

Dublin GAA.

And golfers.

What have they in common? They’re all needy and smug middle-and-upper class days-out where performances cannot be questioned and the deeper issues must remain well buried. There are those that hate the idea of such class-ism being brought into this and anywhere else, but there’s a good reason. It’s because this status quo and such division sees them benefit the most.

Our sport is transforming into one more haughty branch of the arts. Recently home and at a show in the National Concert Hall, well-dressed crowds who consider a beret or a twirly moustache the makings of a character filtered across from the Hilton Hotel bar over the road, and stepped over a homeless woman outside with all the nuisance of and disdain for a dog turd.

On they went past the reality of many, into what has become a country for their recreation. No different to so much around the national rugby team, the Dublin team, or golf in general.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. Sport is the mirror of our society. And we are ugly.

* * *

Sport is for all.

We get that. Whether you’re from Montrose or Montenotte, Athy or Athlone, it should be something we can do together and something that unites us in commonality for a little while.

The problem is that right now in this Ireland, sport is merely for some. The penny dropped heavy and hard one day during the 2016 Olympics.

Naively arriving to watch Annalise Murphy’s push for a podium, and greeted in the press area with a well-to-do sort in Helly Hansen jackets, I asked where we could watch the action. This was met with stunned faces as it turned out this wasn’t a spectator event. By the end of it all, as Murphy got her medal, one other person not used to such salubrious surrounds as the yacht club noted that kids all over Ireland would surely be dragging their sailing boats to water.

It was then a call came through from an editor at home wondering if I could make it across Rio de Janeiro to the dressage. Dancing horses proved to be the utter limit. Absolutely no way.

This may have been the best of the best, but these were the new heroes. What we aspire to.

What ever happened to Francie Barrett waving a flag for an equal Ireland and Sonia bringing everyone together via a discipline that requires no more than runners? What ever happened to characters coming from the dank and smoke of snooker halls and taking on the world with a stick? What ever happened to a request in the pub to put on the Ryder Cup being met with a glass flung at a wall? What ever happened the real boys in blue emerging from the tough parts of the city to say we’re here and we can do us proud? They’ve been lost to snobbery in our sport.

And with it has come a huge hypocrisy that shows the double standards in all of this.

Take Katie Taylor, who may be golden for now but watch the weather vane rightly change direction if she agrees to head to Saudi Arabia to promote their ilk. There have already been grumbles, yet cast your mind back to so much silence when Pádraig Harrington was asked about golf doing the same. “The European Tour, like a lot of people, are trying to build relationships around the world and looking to move forward,” he said after journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been savagely butchered.

“There is no doubt by us being there it opens up society all the more, obviously that’s what the Saudis would like. They are trying to open up tourism, their society and the European Tour and other sporting occasions are part of bringing the world to them.”

That was that. Smug boardroom talk that says nothing and allows the acts and actions that are simply scandalous to go ahead. Yet he got off because he happened to fall into one of the three untouchable stands. As did Rory McIlroy with his early normalisation of Donald Trump.

This is a problem with the passes given out. They are reserved for those who should know better. Boxing associating with the Kinahan cartel and MTK Global is odious and regularly brought to the fore – again exactly as it should be – but these are kids that could have gone down a very different path and are just trying to make a living. They’re castigated. Golf in Riyadh, however, with a regime that tortures homosexuals, takes a bone saw to protesters, and stones adulterous women to death in the streets? It’s all good as that’s the corporate world just doing its thing.

They dress better, talk smoothly and have major PR companies to lie for them. So it’s okay. This Is Ireland 2019.

That golden ticket is all-encompassing far beyond just regime protesting. It drips all the way down to disgusting behaviour at a far more local level too. There’ve been endless incidents.

Can you imagine if an athlete from another sport had taken out his penis in a pub, after long removing his t-shirt, and urinated on a patron there? Can you imagine if his governing body then cleared it up in a statement that didn’t name the player or what he did or what punishment had been handed out? Can you imagine if another national team captain had shown up to a rape trial involving clubmates on the day the complainant – who had said she was terrified of rugby’s power and their intimidation – was in the stand, and this after that captain had seen the low-life WhatsApp messages sent by his buddies? Can you imagine if internationals from other spheres had secretly filmed a sex-act that saw a woman forced to leave her job and then the country?

Of course you can’t.

There’s one law for the rich, one for the poor.

Thus it’s talk of Conor McGregor fathering other women’s babies and strippers at rural hurling clubs and soccer players throwing punches that go from back to front pages for our outrage.

That’s the key in this new Ireland.

Climb high enough and there ought to be no fall.

* * *

There’s an oddity about this.

Despite all of the above, we are told we have to like these people and these teams as that’s the modern way. We’ve no problem with anyone who gets enjoyment from them and wants to spend their time and money and passion getting behind a certain group playing a sport. However, the issue is that anyone who chooses to see it differently gets taunted, bullied and demeaned.

It shows the insecurity but also the entitlement that has replaced their privilege. They must have their way. It’s as if they are above questioning. Above facts. Above criticism. Arseholes in past slang.

Last week, having shown the figures yet again around the private schools culture in our professional rugby, there was an anger that finally reached an enraged Eddie Hobbs. “Go Fcuk Yourself about middle-class sport and elites,” he wrote to me on social media.

Well thanks, Eddie, but if I want advice from you it’ll be about mortgages.

That aside though, he proceeded to complain about the messenger rather than the message, to the point I had to explain this would be like people coming after him rather those overcharging because he’d dared highlight it in his excellent show ‘Rip-Off Republic’ some years back.

But if that mob mentality spreads far and wide, across it all their methodology is similar.

Watch how lately RTÉ and other media rolled out a campaign of famous names talking about how Dublin’s funding makes no difference. It didn’t matter that their claims had been long-debunked and didn’t change the fact this was a semi-professional outfit in an amateur sport, it was about making enough noise to drown out the pesky voices getting in the way of profits.

That might have not been the case back in the 1990s, but remember that this is a county that has turned its fortunes around by letting the games die in many working-class areas where they once thrived. Meanwhile, they’ve taken advantage of burgeoning wealth to the point Kilmacud is an example we should all follow and Dalkey can put together hurling teams to conquer a nation.

If anything is worthy of an all-out defence in sport, it’s seemingly that.

Walking to Erin’s Isle, old boots in hand, has been replaced with a soccer-mom style SUV bringing little Fíonn and Oisín and Tiernach to Páirc de Burca in Stillorgan. Ultimately that’s what so much sport has become about.

Even the government have taken it to new levels thanks to Shane Ross as minister over this sector – a man that presumably thinks backgammon is an Olympic game and, if he had his way, would recreate Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ‘Hard Target’ plot at weekends in St Stephen’s Green. It’s why there’s a grant and a homecoming for the select few that will get his voters onside, such as Wesley College and Loretta High School being given €300,000 between them for hockey pitches refurbishments while clubs in struggling areas were left to fundraise or waste away.

When the recession was here and going nowhere, I did a series looking at sport of the fringes of society, and went to Ballyfermot Basketball Club, Neilstown Boxing Club and Moyross Soccer Club. Between them they were saving lives from the scourge of self-harm and teenage pregnancy, from drink and drugs, from depression and regular suicide, all foisted upon them.

Contacting that lot lately, since we were all partying again, nothing had changed for them. They are all still struggling to do their best with those who need it most. That’s their lot. In sport. And in life.

It’s hardly a wonder as this is a place where Leo Varadkar converses with his audience by being a new-aged man via a designer shirt, designer stubble and hipster socks, and gets his message across to his common people by social media posts taken on board the high-flying government jet. This is a place where those in charge think they can curb alcohol abuse based on an understanding that those drinking themselves numb do it for the club-card points. This is a place that has turned vibrant and vital sport into one more form of entertainment for them.

The Galway tent has been replaced, but now it’s conference rooms in Google, and with tech jobs up for grabs for the best off, there are demands. Perhaps Google want to know about recreation for their employees but we’ve got that one covered. There’s the RDS on a Friday, the Aviva on a Saturday, Croke Park on a Sunday, and maybe some Rory and the PGA to finish the weekend.

This is what we’ve become. Is there anything they can’t and won’t steal away?

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.