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Gdansk, the Fields of Athenry and football; a psychological perspective.

Counselling — admin @ 10:58 am

Here at Counselling Connections this morning much of the discussion has surrounded the football tournament which is taking place in Poland at the moment. Something notable happened there last night which has ignited debate here at home in the media and on social media. The context is a football match where the Ireland team came up against the European and World Champions Spain. Somewhat predictably and despite earlier hope and optimism the Spanish team proved too strong and won the match well. With seven minutes left to play Spain scored a fourth goal and with it any faint hope of a miracle comeback were extinguished. And then the Ireland supporters began to sing.

It is this singing which generated much discussion last night and this morning. Many have been genuinely moved by the off the field performance of the supporters. Some of the debate has been fuelled by the comments of football pundits, many former professional football players who felt that the result was the more important thing. Some were a bit cross about the emphasis on the performance of the fans. We are a group of therapists and have no expertise or knowledge of football formations or tactics but we do understand a little about people and we feel that some commentators may have missed the significance of what was happening before their eyes. It was a people telling themselves stories about themselves. It is about a people defining themselves in a public forum and saying to the world how they would like to be regarded.

For the last seven minutes of the match and for some minutes after the final whistle the Ireland supporters sang the ballad ‘The Fields of Athenry’. This is a song of two young lovers, parents who are parted because the father stole food from the local landlord to feed their starving children. His punishment is deportation to Australia and the couple dolefully reflect on brighter times when their love was blossoming. This song has become something of an anthem; its throaty chorus lends itself well to renditions in football stadia. It has become a staple not only of the Ireland football team but of rugby teams as well as club teams in England and Scotland. It has been heard over and again so many times that it risks losing its meaning. But there seemed to be something special about the circumstances and the way it was sung last night.

It is the context of the current social, political and economic environment that brings a special resonance to the performance of the Ireland supporters last night.  Like a child looking to a parent to give it something to be happy about many Irish people are looking to this football team to give some cause for optimism or celebration. The team clearly came up short in that task last night to the extent that the supporters took it upon themselves to create that hope and feeling of well being that people back home are desperately seeking. A wider context is the memory of what previous football tournaments, notably in 1988 and 1990 allowed us to say about ourselves. In the days before the Peace Process on this island symbolism of the flag of the Republic underwent an evolution. It became associated with celebration and most importantly with non violent behaviour. In the world of international soccer which has had difficulties with different hooligan elements the Ireland fans became associated with nothing other than bonhomie and good times. The tacit understanding which every supporter was aware of was to behave in a way that would only draw positive comment from observers.

The context of these times is that of national shame in the light of the loss of economic sovereignty with the financial bailout that our country has had to avail of. The budgetary austerity which we are told is what is required to pay for this bailout is causing a lot of pain and uncertainty and no little loss of confidence in the future. Many, many people are faced with difficulties meeting mortgage repayments on homes which they feel stuck with because they have fallen into negative equity. Many decent, working people have seen much of their aspirations and the fruits of their hard work depleted because of a financial downturn which has dented the value of their homes, savings and pensions. Indeed some who have travelled to Poland have probably done so in the knowledge that these financial challenges await them when they return home. So when a group of people stand to sing a ballad about past times they are telling a story about themselves. They are telling a story to foreign observers and to Irish people watching at home and around the world. They are writing another few lines in the evolving story of what it means to be from Ireland.

Nobody is deported to Botany Bay in this day and age for stealing food to feed hungry children. But many young people have left our shores to find work in Australia, Canada, America, Europe and further afield. Our economy is in a bad way. Our football team has tried their best but is clearly not up to the standard of the opposition. And we rise and we join together and we sing and in doing so we create something bigger than the result of a football match. We give a nod to the relentless forces of austerity and the unshakable logic of the markets. We pause to say out loud that we are hurting. We are hurting but we are in it together. We are hurting like we have hurt in times past. Much of the story of Ireland is about hunger and poverty and hurt. We will not fall into masochism or self pity. Nor will we simply ignore the problems and throw a party. An opportunity for a great national coming together is created with these football tournaments. We may use this one to find something positive in ourselves which we can identify with and which we can harness and use to transform our situation from despair, through hope and beyond to better times.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk.

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