September 28, 2023 - 7:00am

Irish rugby union teams are habitually overhyped but underperforming at World Cups. So the partying crowds in Paris will have felt relief as much as joy after Ireland, the world number one, edged defending world champions, South Africa, in a tight group stage battle on Saturday.  

After the final whistle, with the encouragement of the Stade de France’s sound system, tens of thousands of Irish fans belted out The Cranberries’ 1994 hit ‘Zombie’, a banging victory anthem. 

Many of those singing along will not even have known that The Cranberries’ lead singer, Dolores O’Riordan from Limerick, wrote Zombie in protest after the IRA’s 1993 bombing of Warrington, when two children were murdered and 56 people injured after devices were left in litter bins in one of the Cheshire town’s main shopping streets. 

Some Sinn Féin supporters, however, seem to have known the song’s provenance only too well and reacted with fury to its adoption as a national rugby anthem. Tadhg Hickey, a Cork-based comedian whose snarky Republican videos are regularly shared on Gerry Adams’ social media accounts, blasted the song as “the perfect partitionist anthem” exemplifying southern ignorance of “the lived experience of Northern nationalists”. 

Social media on both sides of the Irish border has been less interested in celebrating the win than dissecting the post-match chanting. Dublin-based Republican historian Kerron Ó Luain bewailed the song as representing the Dublin 4 press, the Irish Rugby Football Union, and the Irish Times who had “foisted rugby on the whole country as the national sport”. All of those institutions are associated with the upper-bourgeoisie in general and the small southern Protestant minority in particular. 

The spat reveals much about Irish class and party cleavages. Outside a few pockets of blue-collar strength like Limerick, rugby in Ireland has historically been an upper-middle-class sport with huge overrepresentation of Protestants. Football is favoured by the urban working-classes, and Gaelic sports in the countryside. 

Although this has changed in recent decades with clever marketing as well as Irish national and provincial teams’ on-pitch success, the cyber-spat has exposed the Republic’s deep class divisions, easily missed by outsiders. Nor is the Protestant minority, now dwarfed by the ‘new Irish’ from eastern Europe and the Global South, universally accepted as being assimilated. Sinn Féin, still as much a revolutionary movement as a party, can tend to see supporters of other political parties, even other Republicans, as traitors to the national cause.  

The row also shows even Sinn Féin, a party famed for iron internal discipline, sometimes struggles with the crazier effluences of its online supporters — its leadership has wisely stayed away from this spat. Should the hype about Irish rugby teams at World Cups prove warranted for once, there is little doubt that Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill will be in Paris for the final and will belt out whatever the fans are singing.  

The irony is that Ireland’s team of imported Maoris, Afrikaners, Australians of Scandinavian heritage — and the occasional Irishman — reflects the Republic’s successful embrace of a liquid globalisation that is washing away the old Ireland at the fringes. It’s unlikely these players will care much either way about what song is sung, and perhaps one day that will be the same for fans too.

Gerry Lynch was Executive Director of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland from 2007-10 and is now a country parson in Wiltshire.