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  • Diaspora and Rootedness, Amateurism and Professionalism in Media Discourses of Irish Soccer and Rugby in the 1990s and 2000s
  • Marcus Free (bio)

This article explores the tensions between conceptualizations of the nation in terms of diaspora and rootedness, and between amateurism and professionalism, in Irish media discourses of Irish soccer and rugby in the 1990s and 2000s. Given the article’s broad scope and limited space, detailed theoretical elaboration and extensive examination of discursive data will not be possible.1 Rather, the article offers a tentative overview of how these tensions have been manifested in Irish print and broadcast media, and of how they have evinced fantasies and anxieties about sporting achievement as indicative of collective national achievement.

The popularized notion of diaspora in Irish society in the 1990s facilitated the transformation of Ireland’s history of emigration into a narrative of emigrant success in the global economy. Emigrant professional [End Page 211] footballers were seen as exemplars, their success indicative of “native” qualities rooted in national community. A peculiarity of Irish sport is the overwhelming popularity of the amateur Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), whose games are not played internationally.2 Although soccer and rugby lag behind GAA games in levels of domestic participation and spectatorship, their international contests attract considerable media and popular attention in Ireland.3 The Republic of Ireland soccer team’s participation in the 1988 European championships and the 1990, 1994, and 2002 World Cup tournaments with teams composed exclusively of emigrant or emigrant-descended players coincided with the popularization (and was cited as exemplary) of the concept of diaspora at this time and with a reimagining of Irish emigrant history as a narrative of success rather than economic and cultural failure.4

However, paid sportsmen make unstable heroic objects of investment. Extensively publicized refusals of national selection by high-profile players have highlighted the fragility of projections of national heroism and shown how the economic power and cultural significance of clubs as employers conflict with those of international competition. By contrast, Irish success in international club-rugby in the 2000s has generated sporting heroes whose success is traced to amateur commitment to place and community despite rugby’s professionalization in 1995. This attribution offered a vision of a nationally sustainable professional game where player professionalism was driven by local rootedness, despite the provinces’ regional rather than traditional club status. Journalists and other commentators in the Irish media depicted rugby’s crossing of amateur/professional, middle/working-class, urban/rural, and North/South divides as the successful national integration of multiple masculinities, a narrative that contrasts with predominantly working-class emigration to British professional football. Hence there arose an ideologically loaded [End Page 212] parable of “native” masculine achievement despite the catastrophic decline of Ireland’s economy beginning in late 2007.

“Cherishing the Diaspora”?

Greeting the Irish soccer team on their “homecoming” from the USA ’94 World Cup, President Mary Robinson showed them the candle in a window of Áras an Uachtaráin, placed there on her inauguration in 1990 to represent the Irish diaspora. In acknowledging their emigrant and emigrant-descended status,5 she compounded her inaugural speech’s recognition of the self-identified 70 million people worldwide claiming Irish descent, and prefigured her 1995 “Cherishing the Diaspora” speech to the Oireachtas.6 In Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ) television news bulletins (7 July 1994), as the players shuffled uneasily behind Robinson, reporter Charlie Bird enthused that “never have a nation’s scattered children and grandchildren provoked so much pride at home.” Fintan O’Toole similarly claimed that the team’s composition symbolized a nation “capable of turning its most painful wound, emigration, into an asset.”7 However, as the paradox of the team’s “homecoming” as a staged event en route to their actual homes in Britain suggests, though ostensibly accepting of “hybridized, deterritorialized identities,”8 the concept of diaspora as employed in Ireland coexisted with an enduring definition of the nation-state as a geographically bounded entity. Embedded within this apparent progressivism there was in evidence a degree of anxiety concerning the boundedness of national identity and ambivalence toward professional soccer players [End Page 213] as emblematic of Irish identity. After all...