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brian o'driscoll Image Name: brian o'driscoll

Rugby is one of few sports on the island of Ireland where both north and south play under the same banner. Despite a long history of political and religious division, when it comes to rugby Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are one – Ireland. It is a fine example of how communities on either side of an ideological divide can come together in a common cause. That cause is sport.  

It may seem so simple now (although post-Brexit may be another matter!), but there was a time when the notion of the two nations competing under the same banner was anathema to the vast majority on either side of the divide. The fact that they did so – and with such success – is truly remarkable.

Now, fifty years on from the start of The Troubles, a conflict which claimed more than 3,500 lives, O’Driscoll relives those dark times. He speaks to many of those who were there and discovers how rugby played a redemptive role in the midst of all the horror, violence and suffering. Interviewees include such legendary names as Willie John McBride, Rory Best, Trevor Ringland, Hugo MacNeill, Nigel Carr, Donal Lenihan and David Irwin.K

O’Driscoll focuses on several key events that have shaped our political and cultural landscape over the past 30 years. His first stop in 1972 where, in the wake of Bloody Sunday and a heightened paramilitary campaign, international teams were cancelling trips to Dublin which left the future of the then Five Nations Championship under threat.

Former Ireland and Lions captain Willie John McBride, himself a protestant from the North, recalls how he decided to take matters into his own hands. He rang his old friend David Duckham, the English winger, and implored him to come to Ireland to see the situation for himself. The move paid off and the following year the Lansdowne Road afforded the visitors one of the most emotional standing ovations ever seen in what is the world’s oldest international rugby venue.K

The next event is the Killeen ambush which occurred on April 1st 1987 when the IRA detonated a roadside bomb close to the border. They killed their intended victim, Lord Justice Maurice Gibson and his wife Cecily, on their short journey between Garda and RUC escorts, but Ulster and Ireland stars Nigel Carr, David Irwin and Phillip Rainey happened to be driving in the opposite direction on their way to an Ireland training camp in Dublin ahead of the inaugural Rugby World Cup and their car sustained massive damage.

This event was touched upon in another documentary ‘Where’s Your Pride?’ which was shown on eir sport last year where members Ireland of Ireland’s 1982 and 1985 Triple Crown-winning teams reminisced about their triumphs amid the uncertain political climate that prevailed at the time. In ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ O’Driscoll joins Irwin at the scene of the ambush. Even though 30 years have passed it is clear that the emotional scars will never heal as the 1982 Triple Crown-winning centre recalls that terrible day. He remembers checking his limbs, then looking to see if Carr was still alive before dragging him from the wreckage. “I pulled him so hard I actually pulled him out of his trainers ….. I thought he was going to miss the World Cup,” he explains. Carr would never play rugby again.C

The piece finishes with a look back to Croke Park in 2007 as Ireland hosted England in the Six Nations Championship at the home of the GAA. It was an emotional and historic moment as ‘foreign sports’ were allowed for the first time on GAA property as the Association waived its controversial Rule 42 for the first time ever.

It was a day that many thought would never come in the wake of the first Bloody Sunday on November 21st 1920 where, in response to the IRA execution of 12 British intelligence agents, Crown forces opened fire on the Croke Park crowd who were attending a hurling match between Dublin and Tipperary. Fourteen civilians and Tipperary captain Michael Hogan (after whom the Hogan Stand is named) were killed. The Irish public were horrified and bloody tit-for-tat reprisals followed from both sides.

The 2007 encounter was a watershed (no pun intended!) moment in the relationship between the two countries after centuries of bitterness. The whole of Ireland held its breath as ‘God Save The Queen’ rang out across the rooftops of the north Dublin skyline, but the anthem was treated with the utmost respect by the hushed crowd. Next came Amhran na bFhiann and any doubts about how much it all meant to those involved only had to look at the tears streaming down hard man Munster prop John Hayes’ face as the TV cameras panned across the Irish players as they sang along.

It is an image that will live long in the memory of all Irish people. The English….well, not so much, as Ireland ran in four tries in a 43-13 victory, the most points England had ever conceded in a championship match.