This weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Cardiff and watch the Irish Rugby Team beat Wales to win the Six Nations Tournament and the Grand Slam. We were thrilled to be labeled as champions of the six nations. For those of you who may not know the six nations are England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France and Italy. These are the countries in the Northern Hemisphere where rugby is played by a significant section of the population.
Have you ever asked why is rugby played in one nation and not in another? Even withing countries, it is even the case that rugby is associated with different social and cultural groups; the Welsh regard rugby as a working class game whereas in parts of Ireland, rugby is considered as an elitist game, associated with mainly private schools.
I grew up in the Phoenix Park in Dublin and went to school in CBS North Brunswick Street. Our inner city school was run by the Christian Brothers and rugby was not encouraged - it was considered a foreign game. In fact, in school we were only allowed to play the games of our 'nation' - these were hurling and Gaelic football - known as gah (after GAA - Gaelic Athletic Association). Of course our game was soccer - this was (and still is) the street game for inner city Dublin. We often played football in the school yard and whenever we broke a window we would try to get back the ball and then start playing gah - we knew we were in trouble but the sanction for breaking a window playing the nationalist game of gah was going to be far less than that for playing a foreign game like soccer.
When I went to university (UCD) I became more aware of how different games were associated with different schools and social backgrounds. I even played a bit of rugby - very badly - but I enjoyed it and have, ever since, had a keen interest in the game.
We often distinguish between the terms of 'nation' and 'country' - a nation is a people and country is a land, a nation signifies a common cultural identity, a country (for example the US) can be made up of many nationalities. One might therefore expect that the Six Nations Tournament is so-titled because it is a competition between six peoples or cultural identities.
This is true to a certain extent, Scotland, England and Wales compete as three nations - in the Olympics they compete as Great Britain (or, more precisely, the UK of GB and NI).
Strangely enough (or perhaps its not strange at all) the situation is more complicated in Ireland. The 'Ireland' that presented itself on the field in Cardiff on Sunday was a united Ireland - representatives of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland play on the same Irish team. We even sing a special song, Ireland's Call, instead of our national anthems.
Actually, the Welsh too wouldn't dream of singing God Save the Queen - the UK National Anthem - they use the awesome Welsh anthem Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. Believe me, when you hear 70, 000 of them singing this in Cardiff before a match its one of the best displays of communial singing one could experience.
So we have two teams, two nations, one in green and one in red - bringing together the working class Welsh with the posh people of South Dublin (fast being challenged by the vibrant rugby playing communities of Navan, Boyne, Naas and Barnhall), the tribes of Munster (definitely not posh!) and the men of Ulster (Ulster not Ireland!). For eighty minutes all these peoples unite for one purpose -to play rugby, to watch rugby. Across the six nations many millions watched on TV - they gathered in pubs and in houses, community halls, sports clubs - they wore their colours, their nation's colours and they participate in the game.
In common with the southern parts of France, the slopes of northern Italy, the lowlands and borders of Scotland the valleys of Wales and the public schools and communities of England - we play rugby. We could say their were no nations - just parts of nations or we could say there were many nations - many more than six. In the end I think the six nations works fine - I am still happy, very happy that we grand slammed the other five.