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8 February 2022

From the NS archive: Talking about rugby

28 February 1959: Many British intellectuals still look down on the sport.

By Louis MacNeice

In this article from 1959, the poet and playwright Louis MacNeice reflects upon his home country during the journey back to Northern Ireland. Since the Irish partition in 1921, MacNeice viewed rugby as one of the few fields in which the border is “completely ignored” when they play together as one Ireland. Players come to realise they “have much more in common with each other… than either has with the Englishman.” MacNeice uses the sport to examine the differences between the home nations. In England it still “remains largely a snob game”. Across the border in Wales, where the “the goalposts are rooted in the coalface”, rugby is a very different game. And in Ireland, players come together “ready to back each other up to the neck in the next match against ‘the ould enemy’ – England”.


Ireland begins at Euston Station, whether you are travelling to Dún Laoghaire, Dublin, Belfast or Larne. For myself Euston was the first patch of English soil (if soil is the word) that I set foot on. But it does not seem to me now what it was in 1917. The Great Hall has long since lost its model trains and engines that did things at the drop of a penny; nor does it now look so great; I cannot agree with Auden that its staircase would fill out any modern “dictator’s dream”. Still, platforms 12 to 15, grimy and malodorous as ever, retain at least the glamour of Irish voices alight with the thought of homegoing. And for me, who feels at home either side of the anomalous border, it makes no odds whether those voices are northern or southern. The ‘dour’ Ulsterman and the ‘free-and-easy’ Southerner (both epithets need qualification) have much more in common with each other, I realise now, than either has with the Englishman. I wonder if English visitors to Ulster are not sometimes embarrassed by the ubiquity of the Union Jack which, in symbolism if not in colour, has suffered such a sea-change in its passage up Belfast Lough.

The border, of course, is all very well for politicians (some of the Anti-Partitionists would be lost without it); but the ordinary Irishman on both sides, being a magnificent hypocrite and also basically practical, manages largely to ignore it. In two fields at least it is completely ignored – in the churches and in Rugby football. A “good hater” of an Orangeman will serve most devotedly in an Irish XV under a “papish” captain. And vice versa. A South African friend of mine told me that the day after a “British” touring XV had won their last test match in Cape Town, two of the Irishmen who had contributed to the victory took a taxi into the veldt, where, having started on politics, they got out and fought each other to a standstill. After which they had a very good lunch together. After which they returned to Ireland, ready to back each other up to the neck in the next match against “the ould enemy” – England. Not that Rugby football is approved of by all the people in Ireland; Mr De Valera, once a keen player and still a great fan, may not attend any Rugby match and has to content himself with radio commentaries. To the Gaelic League, of which he is president, “Saxon” sports are supposed to be anathema. Yet any Gaelic Leaguer is sorry when the Irish XV is defeated. One reason for this is that four times out of five in this as in many other games (golf perhaps is an exception) Ireland is billed as the underdog.

[From the NS archive: The great football racket]

All underdogs together then, the London Irish shake off the banana skins of Euston and start on the golden and liquid journey to Lansdowne Road. As on Flecker’s road to Samarkand, women are hardly encouraged to accompany them (though, many more women do go to Lansdowne Road than to Cardiff Arms Park, perhaps because the Welsh, while much more sexy, are also by nature more restrictive). Anyhow both the playing and the watching of Rugby are largely a matter of male ritual; it stands to some other sports as Mithraism stood to Christianity, and its emblem too might be the Bull. Both the physical violence involved and the endless chewing over of statistics, records and anecdotes appeal, of course, to adolescents. All the same the adolescent, like the child, has a right to survive in the adult; we don’t all want to grow up into Shaw’s horrible old sages.

If the Ancient Greeks had made our unnatural dichotomy between brain and brawn – or, as Oxford used to put it, between “aesthetes” and “hearties” – the fifth century BC would have been the poorer both in literature and sculpture. While many British intellectuals still look down on Rugby (association football seems to have more appeal, for instance, to logical positivists), I am glad to have met at least one poet who had once played full back for Scotland – “when the other full back”, he modestly explained, “was crocked”. This highly sensitive young man held forth at length on the mystique of it all. But naturally our code, with its oval ball and consequent unpredictability, must appeal more to the poet than to the scientist. Another obvious reason why many poets like it is its sheer animality. An Irishman once said to me of a famous Irish forward: “If he came in here now you’d think him a harmless big slob of a fellow – but put him on the field and he’ll kick his grandmother to bits.” That is the language of Homer.

In the four home countries the game varies in status. In England, at least in the south, it still remains largely a snob game smelling of the public schools (remember The Loom of Youth?). It is very different in Wales, where the goalposts are rooted in the coalface. In Ireland it is something in between; there are grounds in Munster where visiting sides have faced stoning. One notable fact about modern Irish international teams, as compared with ancient ones, can be proved by looking at the names on the programmes. The “Ascendancy” names have gone out and “native Irish” names come in. As for the international grounds, each has a very distinctive character. Lansdowne Road has the prehistoric charm of the Irish pipes, and the unique hazard of a level crossing just outside it. Still the whistle of the railway engines is just as much a part of its persona as the strains of Let Erin Remember.

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As for this year’s England match, Erin will only remember it with sorrow; she had all the chances and threw them away. But this did not affect the ritual of the Bull. For the rest of that day, in the Shelbourne and the Dolphin and Jammet’s and innumerable bars and “bonafides”, the Bull stood chewing the cud, up to his withers in porter. “If only the selectors had a titter of wit” … “If only that drop-kick had gone one foot to the left”… “If only they’d tried a Garryowen when”… “If only Jackie Kyle had been playing!” And so, but very late, to bed to dream of Europa – which means to say, of the next match.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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