Kylemore Book Club: Rugby and the Political Landscape

Wednesday, August 11, 2021 1:00 pm EST

This second week dove into the political context surrounding rugby in Ireland, including the growth of the sport despite the ban on foreign games, the link between Connacht and the diaspora, and the sport as an All-Ireland one–fielding a united team of players from north and south, catholic and protestant through the height of the troubles, peace process, and beyond.  View the discussion recorded on Wednesday, August 11 with Lisa Caulfield, Director of the Global Centre at Kylemore, Eamonn Molloy of Connacht Rugby, and Justin Hickey of Notre Dame Rugby with special guests Willie Anderson and Phil Coulter.

The second virtual event of To Hell or to Connacht: Stories of Irish Resilience featured former Irish rugby international player Willie Anderson and musician and composer of “Ireland’s Call”, Phil Coulter. This event was moderated by Lisa Caulfield, Director of the Global Centre at Kylemore, and featured Eamonn Molloy (Coach Development Manager at Connacht Rugby) and Justin Hickey (Director of Rugby – Head Coach at Notre Dame). The goal of this session was to explore the political landscape during the Troubles and the development of rugby as the only All-Ireland sport. Personal stories from both Anderson and Coulter helped to bring discussions surrounding tensions and acceptance from both sides of the border as well as the development of the Irish Rugby anthem “Ireland’s Call” to life, and the admiration Anderson and Coulter have for one another was apparent. The background information explained through the pre-recorded videos and the live session will help build a foundation for the remaining weeks of the series. 

Using pre-submitted questions and a flowing interview style, the hour consisted of questions asked by each of the moderators which were answered by both guest speakers whose experiences complimented each other. The questions focused on Anderson and Coulter’s personal experiences growing up in Derry. Coulter was from Derry City while Anderson was from outside the city and grew up on a farm. Coulter states that in terms of a career in music, his “first smart move was being born in Derry, because Derry was then, and continues to be, a city of song and music” (5:45). Music to Coulter, and many others at the time, provided an outlet and a way to “keep themselves entertained” and Coulter states that it was “inevitable” that he would find himself in the music business years later. Anderson then gave a glimpse into growing up on the farm and the hard work that prepared him for the sport of rugby years later. Anderson didn’t know what rugby was until he joined the academy for school and fell in love with the game. In their individual stories, both Anderson and Coulter mentioned their proudness of coming from Derry/Sixmilecross and how it has influenced their lives since.

The moderators went on to ask questions about both of their careers and how they grew. Both Anderson and Coulter’s travels abroad and connections they made during their times touring hugely impacted them, with Anderson saying that his time abroad showed him “a different perspective of life”, especially his time in Argentina and then Romania. Anderson states that he came back to Northern Ireland and thought, “what are we fighting for? Why are we like this? Because these people in these countries, some people have absolutely nothing” (14:34). Building off of this, Coulter discusses the impact the troubles had on the city of Derry and that a previously musical city with a “spring in its step” had a “cloud of gloom” descend on it (16:26). Coulter discusses the love song he wrote for Derry called “The Town I Loved So Well” and the ways in which the city was changing, and Anderson commented how much the song meant to him and that he used to sing it while on tour with the Irish rugby team.

Anderson and Coulter went on to discuss rugby’s growth as an All-Ireland sport and the creation of a new flag and the Irish rugby anthem by Coulter and what it meant to them both as Derry natives. Anderson describes being supported and surrounded in a scrum during a game by a man from Ulster on one side, a guy from Munster on the other, a Connacht guy behind him, and a Leinster guy as a wing back. To Anderson “that was Ireland” (25:23). It was this inclusion and confusion by the IRFU about what anthem to play at games that was likely a catalyst for the commission of “Ireland’s Call”. Coulter then talked about his thought-process of writing “Ireland’s Call” and how he knew before he wrote it that there were certain words or phrases that could be potential triggers, and that he knew there would be scrutiny and it wouldn’t be immediately accepted. He and Anderson went on to discuss the shift in the younger generation today and the growing acceptance of the anthem. The discussion ended with what the sport of rugby and music have meant for both Anderson and Coulter and how much it has brought people together over the years.

This event concluded with a short breakout session for viewers to meet and further discuss the content with fellow book club participants.

  • “Even in those dark days with rationing and austerity everywhere, music was the thing that was the one bright light” (Coulter, 6:34)
  • “Growing up, it was a really hard time, a really hard life, but it really stuck to me and I enjoyed every minute of it because certainly for my rugby career it helped me toughen up” (Anderson, 11:34)
  • “From that time in 1975, literally for 25 years I had the passport of rugby to see the world” (Anderson, 14:06)
  • “We are very fortunate that we’ve been lucky to be in the middle of the road; we’ve gone away and we’ve seen what music and sport can do for people[…] and that’s why I love rugby because it brings everybody together, no matter what culture they are” (Anderson, 23:06)
  • “So the IRFU’s brief to me was, ‘we need a sporting anthem that can be sung comfortably by players and supporters alike be they from the North or the South’” (Coulter, 28:30)
  • “I was impressed that the IRFU picked somebody from the North to write this song because that was addressing what the problem area was” (Coulter, 28:44)
  • “[Ireland’s Call] finally earned its spurs and its respect in that historic occasion when we played England in Croke Park” (Coulter, 33:56)
  • “On the back of that, people think ‘jeepers, music does motivate people’, and when you get a crowd in unison, there’s no doubt that there’s nothing [else] as powerful as that” (Anderson, 34:45)
  • “I think sport like rugby and music transcend all these things, they rise above it and I’m delighted that rugby rose above the troubles” (Anderson, 53:17)
  • “Everywhere we went, through airports and all, we’d be singing—we always sang” (Anderson, 57:26) 
  • “Singing was one of our unifying things” (Anderson, 58:28)