Analysis: Why Ireland’s women footballers are under fire for singing after their historic win

After qualifying for the world cup, the Irish Women’s football team sparked controversy for singing a supposedly pro-IRA song. Dr Paul Breen (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education & Society) explores the controversy in The Conversation, and explains why it matters.

The Irish women’s football team has qualified for their first Fifa World Cup, beating Scotland 1-0. In the aftermath of the match, the team celebrated by cheering and chanting in the locker room, including the line "Ooh, ah, up the ’Ra", from The Celtic Symphony. Originally performed by The Wolfe Tones in a tribute to Glasgow Celtic Football Club, the song repeats the allegedly pro-IRA line throughout.

The response to the controversial chant has sadly overshadowed the team’s historic win. Manager Vera Pauw has apologised, and Uefa is now investigating "potential inappropriate behaviour".

In my view, as a researcher of language and identity in Irish culture and politics, the words as a celebratory football chant are not meant to be taken literally. Those who repeat them are probably not consciously glorifying such inexcusable atrocities as the Enniskillen bombing, attacks on civilians out shopping and countless other horrors that occurred at the hands of the IRA.

In this instance, "Ooh, ah, up the ’Ra" may well represent nothing more than a statement of counterculture. For better or worse, it has become a slogan of resistance against authority. But the words mean different things to different people, including the song’s composers, who say the words are simply quoted from graffiti that appeared on a wall near Celtic’s Parkhead stadium.

But many of Northern Ireland’s unionists have reacted negatively - and opinion has been mixed in the Republic of Ireland as well. To some, it represents glorification of the modern IRA whose actions have had lingering consequences for many victims of violence and their families, not just in Ireland but in Great Britain too.

But to many on the Irish side, the outcry represents much of the hypocrisy at the heart of sport’s relationship to politics. This includes, for example, wearing the poppy, a symbol that to some celebrates and even venerates the militarism that colonised lands have endured for centuries. Most British people do not see it the same way.

From the Belfast "Good Friday" Agreement in 1998 up to the point of Brexit, there was also a sense that the Irish question had become something of a dormant volcano - quiet, but likely to erupt at any time. Unfortunately though, that agreement was but a sticking plaster on a very deep wound. Many of the issues around language, culture and identity remained largely unresolved. This locker room controversy has caused the volcano of (Northern) Irish politics to erupt afresh.

The idea that these girls were voicing support for a decades-old campaign of violence is a bit far fetched, in my view. More likely, they were chanting a catchphrase detached from context, a throwaway line commonly found in pub singalongs or graffiti.

It is a two-fingered salute to authority, as feasibly popping up in Plumstead as Parkhead or Portadown. I have even seen an instance of the word "IRA" appearing in anti-monarchy graffiti in Woolwich, where the IRA once bombed a pub, the type of incident most younger people today probably know very little about.

That though, is not to say the chanting should have happened. It shouldn’t, but not necessarily for many of the reasons being espoused. Social media lends itself to loss of context. In this age of soundbites and snapshots, there’s often a disconnect between surface features of language and deeper meanings beneath.

Jean Paul Sartre, the French writer and philosopher, suggested that words are like loaded weapons. We should use them wisely and use them well. This was a bad case of firing off at the wrong time. The team has genuinely offended some, while possibly giving others a perceived opportunity for political point-scoring.

Situations like this detract from serious debate on Irish unity, which has been reenergised since Brexit. The use of language is crucial and even definitive in a time when closer conversation is needed across divides. Personally, I would have no interest in chanting such lyrics in any sporting context, even if at a Celtic match. They are too loaded and alternatives are plentiful.

One of the greatest games I ever saw an Irish team play was the 1988 European Championship win over England when Ray Houghton, a Scotsman, scored the winning goal. Then, the only words I felt like chanting were "C’mon you boys in green."

Maybe what’s needed is a song for their female counterparts. The girls in green may have accidentally blotted their copybook, but it shouldn’t distract from their achievements.

It also shouldn’t diminish the right that the Irish have to remember their history of colonisation and resistance. All sides suffered in the conflict of past decades. But maybe the time has come to make songs and chants more inclusive, so that everyone can join in the chorus of a new Ireland.

This article was originally published in  The Conversation  on 21 October, 2022. 


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