Green Tsunami   10 Nov 2011

Tony Eyre

With the heart-stopping climax of the Rugby World Cup final behind us and the Webb Ellis Cup safely back in the trophy cabinet after an embarrassing absence of 24 years, there will be plenty of wonderful memories to keep us pre-occupied for a short time before we have to focus on more mundane events at home, like an upcoming general election.

One such stand-out memory for Dunedin must be 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 v Italy pool match at the temporarily renamed Otago Stadium.

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 am left to ponder why Dunedin overwhelmingly embraced its Irish rugby visitors on such a scale; why the 28,027 crowd at the new $200 million stadium turned up almost completely in green, compared to the more evenly distributed colours that graced the England v 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 the 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 early October. 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 this 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” has been sung by the Irish team since 1995. Inevitably there has been some opposition by team supporters on both sides of the two Irelands over the adoption of the non-partisan flag and neutral anthem.

Given the unhappy history of a divided Ireland, I took some consolation from this attempt at unity on the rugby playing field. Without wanting to sound trivial by comparison, I wonder if there are any lessons to be learnt from this Irish compromise when we look to heal the divisions that the building of our new stadium has reportedly created in the Dunedin community.

Tuned in to Mediawatch on Chris Laidlaw’s Sunday Morning programme, I heard visiting Irish rugby writer, Simon Hick remark that he finds New Zealanders have “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 I fell into conversation with Marie Sweeney from the little village of Ramelton in Co. Donegal. Ramelton was the birth place 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 Dunedin City Council 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 speaking of guests, did I mention the Italians?


Tony Eyre is a Dunedin Chartered Accountant and Writer

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Your Comments:

left by Maggie Eyre 16 Nov 2011

Great to read my brother's story all the way from Dunedin.Thanks bro !

Maggie

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