Celtic connections: Dunedinites happy to show their colours

Irish rugby fans show their support during the 2011 Rugby World Cup match in Dunedin. PHOTO: ODT...
Irish rugby fans show their support during the 2011 Rugby World Cup match in Dunedin. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The Irish are coming to town this week for the second test, hopefully fresh and recovered from their bruising encounter with the All Blacks at a sell-out Eden Park last Saturday.

It’s 11 years since their last visit to Dunedin during New Zealand’s hosting of the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

A standout memory for Dunedin was that first weekend in October when the city experienced for the first time in its history a green tsunami of Irish rugby supporters that inundated the inner city streets in the build-up to the Ireland and Italy pool match at Forsyth Barr Stadium, temporarily renamed Otago Stadium for the Rugby World Cup event.

I must admit, with a painted shamrock on my cheek and an Irish flag draped around my shoulders, I was part of that Blarney Army that snaked its way from the Octagon to the railway station and left-turned into Anzac Ave to begin the short march to the inaugural Sunday service at what some may see as Dunedin’s new cathedral of worship.

I was left to ponder why Dunedin overwhelmingly embraced its Irish rugby visitors on such a scale; why the 28,027 crowd at the new $224million stadium turned up almost completely in green for the Ireland-Italy game, compared with the more evenly distributed colours that graced the England-Argentina pool match three weeks earlier. It was an electric atmosphere that Irish captain Brian O'Driscoll described as "exactly like Lansdowne Road" in Dublin.

Undoubtedly, Ireland’s earlier shock 15-6 win over New Zealand’s great rival Australia helped make them the crowd darlings. But I suspect there is more to it than that.

In the absence of survey research on the subject, I have come to my own conclusions. The first is about identity. Like me, many New Zealanders whose ancestors migrated to these shores have mixed English, Irish and Scottish heritage. An Irish surname is the first giveaway sign and failing that, it is not too difficult to dredge up an Irish great-grandmother to lay claim to a little piece of the old sod. And even if your Dunedin roots are solidly Scottish, surely a soft spot for your Celtic cousins was good enough reason to don the emerald green during that weekend of their visit to the city.

But maybe we don’t have to look for deep meaning to explain the green phenomenon that saturated the city in October that year. Some sceptics may suggest that these days it is fashionable to indulge in a bit of Irishness popularised by the proliferation of Irish pubs around the country, most of them of a formulaic variety. Fashionable or not, it was hard not to delight in the wit, the fun and the lyrical charm of our Irish guests that weekend. And that brings me back to identity. Visitors to our southern city often remark about our friendliness and hospitality and that’s something we have in common with the Irish. Anybody who has been to Ireland will no doubt have experienced the warmth of their welcome to visitors, captured in that saying, "there is no such thing as strangers, only friends we haven’t met yet."

It was not only the green that struck me about that unique weekend, it was the orange and the green — an Irish rugby team representing both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The team was competing under an Irish Rugby Union flag, but also led on to the field by both the Irish tricolour and the flag of Ulster. A specially composed anthem, Ireland’s Call, had been sung by the Irish rugby team since 1995. When it was introduced, inevitably there was some opposition by team supporters on both sides of the two Irelands over the adoption of the non-partisan flag and neutral anthem. Given Ireland’s troubled past, I took some consolation (and shed a wee tear) from that affirming show of unity as the team in green passionately sang their anthem’s chorus, "Ireland, Ireland, together standing tall, shoulder to shoulder, we’ll answer Ireland’s call."

Tuned in to Mediawatch on Chris Laidlaw’s Sunday Morning programme at the time, I heard visiting Irish rugby writer Simon Hick remark that he found New Zealanders had "a real connection with Irish people and it’s very easy to fall into a conversation with your average New Zealand person".

This connection was certainly brought home to me when, at the Empire Hotel’s Blarney Bar, I fell into conversation with Marie Sweeney from the little village of Ramelton in County Donegal. Ramelton was the birthplace of Dave Gallaher, captain of the 1905 Originals All Blacks. Here was Sweeney in Dunedin, with a great bundle of glossy brochures, passionately promoting her hometown’s unique rugby link with New Zealand. In 2005, when Tana Umaga and a handful of All Blacks made an emotional visit to Ramelton to honour the memory of Dave Gallaher, the whole town came out to meet them. And when the Irish rugby team played their last pool match here in Dunedin, such was the enthusiasm, it felt as if the whole town had turned out to welcome them too.

On the Monday morning after the match, there were still convoys of campervans in the city, full of Irish supporters sleeping off the previous night’s celebrations. In the Exchange area, I noticed a DCC traffic warden pull up to a campervan in a metered parking space, many hours over the time limit. Peering in at its sleeping inhabitants, he paused and then drove on. That made my day; after all, the Irish had been our guests.

And yes, the men in green will be our guests again this weekend. For many Dunedinites, divided loyalties will kick in, but I suspect a sea of black will replace any possibility of another green tsunami.

--  Tony Eyre is a Dunedin writer.



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