Plucky Little People on Tour: Depictions of Irish Football Fans at Euro 2016

Neil O'Boyle

Abstract


I called your producer on the way here in the car because I was very excited. I found out … I did one of those genetic testing things and I found out that I'm 63 percent Irish … I had no idea. I had no idea! I thought I was Scottish and Welsh. It turns out my parents are just full of shit, I guess. But now I’m Irish and it just makes so much sense! I'm a really good drinker. I love St. Patrick's Day. Potatoes are delicious. I'm looking forward to meeting all my cousins … [to Conan O’Brien] You and I are probably related! … Now I get to say things like, “It’s in me genes! I love that Conan O’Brien; he’s such a nice fella.” You’re kinda like a giant leprechaun. (Reese Witherspoon, Tuesday 21 March 2017)

Introduction

As an Irishman and a football fan, I watched the unfolding 2016 UEFA European Championship in France (hereafter ‘Euro 2016’) with a mixture of trepidation and delight. Although the Republic of Ireland team was eventually knocked out of the competition in defeat to the host nation, the players performed extremely well – most notably in defeating Italy 1:0. It is not the on-field performance of the Irish team that interests me in this short article, however, but rather how Irish fans travelling to the competition were depicted in the surrounding international news coverage. In particular, I focus on the centrality of fan footage – shot on smart phones and uploaded to YouTube (in most cases by fans themselves) – in this news coverage. In doing so, I reflect on how sports fans contribute to wider understandings of nationness in the global imagination and how their behaviour is often interpreted (as in the case here) through long-established tropes about people and places. 

The Media Manifold

To “depict” something is to represent it in words and pictures. As the contemporary world is largely shaped by and dependent on mass media – and different forms of media have merged (or “converged”) through digital media platforms – mediated forms of depiction have become increasingly important in our lives. On one hand, the constant connectivity made possible in the digital age has made the representation of people and places less controllable, insofar as the information and knowledge about our world circulating through media devices are partly created by ordinary people. On the other hand, traditional broadcast media arguably remain the dominant narrators of people and places worldwide, and their stories, Gerbner reminds us, are largely formula-driven and dramatically charged, and work to “retribalize” modern society. However, a more important point, I suggest, is that so-called new and old media can no longer be thought of as separate and discrete; rather, our attention should focus on the complex interrelations made possible by deep mediatisation (Couldry and Hepp).

As an example, consider that the Youtube video of Reese Witherspoon’s recent appearance on the Conan O’Brien chat show – from which the passage at the start of this article is taken – had already been viewed 54,669 times when I first viewed it, a mere 16 hours after it was originally posted. At that point, the televised interview had already been reported on in a variety of international digital news outlets, including rte.ie, independent.ie., nydailynews.com, msn.com, huffingtonpost.com, cote-ivoire.com – and myriad entertainment news sites. In other words, this short interview was consumed synchronously and asynchronously, over a number of different media platforms; it was viewed and reviewed, and critiqued and commented upon, and in turn found itself the subject of news commentary, which fed the ongoing cycle. And yet, it is important to also note that a multiplicity of media interactions does not automatically give rise to oppositional discourse and ideological contestation, as is sometimes assumed. In fact, how ostensibly ‘different’ kinds of media can work to produce a broadly shared construction of a people and place is particularly relevant here. Just as Reese Witherspoon’s interview on the Conan O’Brien show perpetuates a highly stereotypical version of Irishness across a number of platforms, news coverage of Irish fans at Euro 2016 largely conformed to established tropes about Irish people, but this was also fed – to some extent – by Irish fans themselves.

Irish Identity, Sport, and the Global Imagination

There is insufficient space here to describe in any detail the evolving representation of Irish identity, about which a vast literature has developed (nationally and internationally) over the past several decades. As with other varieties of nationness, Irishness has been constructed across a variety of cultural forms, including advertising, art, film, novels, travel brochures, plays and documentaries. Importantly, Irishness has also to a great extent been constructed outside of Ireland (Arrowsmith; Negra).

As is well known, the Irish were historically constructed by their colonial masters as a small uncivilised race – as primitive wayward children, prone to “sentimentality, ineffectuality, nervous excitability and unworldliness” (Fanning 33). When pondering the “Celtic nature,” the renowned English poet and cultural critic Mathew Arnold concluded that “sentimental” was the best single term to use (100). This perception pervaded internationally, with early depictions of Irish-Americans in US cinema centring on varieties of negative excess, such as lawlessness, drunkenness and violence (Rains). Against this prevailing image of negative excess, the intellectuals and artists associated with what became known as the Celtic Revival began a conscious effort to “rebrand” Ireland from the nineteenth century onwards, reversing the negatives of the colonial project and celebrating Irish tradition, language and culture (Fanning).

At first, only distinctly Irish sports associated with the amateur Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) were co-opted in this very particular nation-building project. Since then, however, sport more generally has acted as a site for the negotiation of a variety of overlapping Irish identities. Cronin, for example, describes how the GAA successfully repackaged itself in the 1990s to reflect the confidence of Celtic Tiger Irishness while also remaining rooted in the counties and parishes across Ireland. Studies of Irish football and rugby have similarly examined how these sports have functioned as representatives of changed or evolving Irish identities (Arrowsmith; Free). And yet, throughout Ireland’s changing economic fortunes – from boom to bust, to the gradual renewal of late – a touristic image of Irishness has remained hegemonic in the global imagination. In popular culture, and especially American popular culture, Ireland is often depicted as a kind of pre-industrial theme park – a place where the effects of modernity are felt less, or are erased altogether (Negra). The Irish are known for their charm and sociability; in Clancy’s words, they are seen internationally as “simple, clever and friendly folk” (98). We can identify a number of representational tropes within this dominant image, but two in particular are apposite here: ‘smallness’ and ‘happy-go-luckiness’.

Sporting News

Before we consider Euro 2016, it is worth briefly considering how the news industry approaches such events. “News”, Dahlgren reminds us, is not so much “information” as it is a specific kind of cultural discourse. News, in other words, is a particular kind of discursive composition that constructs and narrates stories in particular ways. Approaching sports coverage from this vantage point, Poulton and Roderick (xviii) suggest that “sport offers everything a good story should have: heroes and villains, triumph and disaster, achievement and despair, tension and drama.” Similarly, Jason Tuck observes that the media have long had a tendency to employ the “vocabulary of war” to “hype up sporting events,” a discursive tactic which, he argues, links “the two areas of life where the nation is a primary signifier” (190-191).

In short, sport is abundant in news values, and media professionals strive to produce coverage that is attractive, interesting and exciting for audiences. Stead (340) suggests that there are three key characteristics governing the production of “media sports packages”: spectacularisation, dramatisation, and personalisation. These production characteristics ensure that sports coverage is exciting and interesting for viewers, but that it also in some respects conforms to their expectations. “This ‘emergent’ quality of sport in the media helps meet the perpetual audience need for something new and different alongside what is familiar and known” (Rowe 32). The disproportionate attention to Irish fans at Euro 2016 was perhaps new, but the overall depiction of the Irish was rather old, I would argue. The news discourse surrounding Euro 2016 worked to suggest, in the Irish case at least, that the nation was embodied not only in its on-field athletic representatives but more so, perhaps, in its travelling fans.

Euro 2016

In June 2016 the Euros kicked off in France, with the home team beating Romania 2-1. Despite widespread fears of potential terrorist attacks and disruption, the event passed successfully, with Portugal eventually lifting the Henri Delaunay Trophy. As the competition progressed, the behaviour of Irish fans quickly became a central news story, fuelled in large part by smart phone footage uploaded to the internet by Irish fans themselves. Amongst the many videos uploaded to the internet, several became the focus of news reports, especially those in which the goodwill and childlike playfulness of the Irish were on show. In one such video, Irish fans are seen singing lullabies to a baby on a Bordeaux train. In another video, Irish fans appear to help a French couple change a flat tire. In yet another video, Irish fans sing cheerfully as they clean up beer cans and bottles. (It is noteworthy that as of July 2017, some of these videos have been viewed several million times.)

News providers quickly turned their attention to Irish fans, sometimes using these to draw stark contrasts with the behaviour of other fans, notably English and Russian fans. Buzzfeed, followed by ESPN, followed by Sky News, Le Monde, Fox News, the Washington Post and numerous other providers celebrated the exploits of Irish fans, with some such as Sky News and Aljazeera going so far as to produce video montages of the most “memorable moments” involving “the boys in green.” In an article titled ‘Irish fans win admirers at Euro 2016,’ Fox News reported that “social media is full of examples of Irish kindness” and that “that Irish wit has been a fixture at the tournament.” Aljazeera’s AJ+ news channel produced a video montage titled ‘Are Irish fans the champions of Euro 2016?’ which included spliced footage from some of the aforementioned videos. The Daily Mirror (UK edition) praised their “fun loving approach to watching football.” Similarly, a headline for NPR declared, “And as if they could not be adorable enough, in a quiet moment, Irish fans sang on a French train to help lull a baby to sleep.” It is important to note that viewer comments under many of these articles and videos were also generally effusive in their praise. For example, under the video ‘Irish Fans help French couple change flat tire,’ one viewer (Amsterdam 410) commented, ‘Irish people nicest people in world by far. they always happy just amazing people.’ Another (Juan Ardilla) commented, ‘Irish fans restored my faith in humanity.’

As the final stages of the tournament approached, the Mayor of Paris announced that she was awarding the Medal of the City of Paris to Irish fans for their sporting goodwill. Back home in Ireland, the behaviour of Irish fans in France was also celebrated, with President Michael D. Higgins commenting that “Ireland could not wish for better ambassadors abroad.” In all of this news coverage, the humble kindness, helpfulness and friendliness of the Irish are depicted as native qualities and crystallise as a kind of ideal national character. Though laudatory, the tropes of smallness and happy-go-luckiness are again evident here, as is the recurrent depiction of Irishness as an ‘innocent identity’ (Negra). The “boys” in green are spirited in a non-threatening way, as children generally are. Notably, Stephan Reich, journalist with German sports magazine 11Freunde wrote: “the qualification of the Irish is a godsend. The Boys in Green can celebrate like no other nation, always peaceful, always sympathetic and emphatic, with an infectious, childlike joy.” 

Irishness as Antidote?

The centrality of the Irish fan footage in the international news coverage of Euro 2016 is significant, I suggest, but interpreting its meaning is not a simple or straightforward task. Fans (like everyone) make choices about how to present themselves, and these choices are partly conscious and partly unconscious, partly spontaneous and partly conditioned. Pope (2008), for example, draws on Emile Durkheim to explain the behaviour of sports fans sociologically. “Sporting events,” Pope tells us, “exemplify the conditions of religious ritual: high rates of group interaction, focus on sacred symbols, and collective ritual behaviour symbolising group membership and strengthening shared beliefs, values, aspirations and emotions” (Pope 85). Pope reminds us, in other words, that what fans do and say, and wear and sing – in short, how they perform – is partly spontaneous and situated, and partly governed by a long-established fandom pedagogy that implies familiarity with a whole range of international football fan styles and embodied performances (Rowe). To this, we must add that fans of a national sports team generally uphold shared understandings of what constitutes desirable and appropriate patriotic behaviour. Finally, in the case reported here, we must also consider that the behaviour of Irish fans was also partly shaped by their awareness of participating in the developing media sport spectacle and, indeed, of their own position as ‘suppliers’ of news content. In effect, Irish fans at Euro 2016 occupied an interesting hybrid position between passive consumption and active production – ‘produser’ fans, as it were.

On one hand, therefore, we can consider fan footage as evidence of spontaneous displays of affective unity, captured by fellow participants. The realism or ‘authenticity’ of these supposedly natural and unscripted performances is conveyed by the grainy images, and amateur, shaky camerawork, which ironically work to create an impression of unmediated reality (see Goldman and Papson). On the other hand, Mike Cronin considers them contrived, staged, and knowingly performative, and suggestive of “hyper-aware” Irish fans playing up to the camera.

However, regardless of how we might explain or interpret these fan performances, it is the fact that they play a role in making Irishness public that most interests me here. For my purposes, the most important consideration is how the patriotic performances of Irish fans both fed and harmonized with the developing news coverage; the resulting depiction of the Irish was partly an outcome of journalistic conventions and partly a consequence of the self-essentialising performances of Irish fans. In a sense, these fan-centred videos were ready-made or ‘packaged’ for an international news audience: they are short, dramatic and entertaining, and their ideological content is in keeping with established tropes about Irishness. As a consequence, the media-sport discourse surrounding Euro 2016 itself a mixture of international news values and home-grown essentialism – valorised a largely touristic understanding of Irishness, albeit one that many Irish people wilfully celebrate.

Why such a construction of Irishness is internationally appealing is unclear, but it is certainly not new. John Fanning (26) cites a number of writers in highlighting that Ireland has long nurtured a romantic self-image that presents the country as a kind of balm for the complexities of the modern world. For example, he cites New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who observed in 2001 that “people all over the world are looking to Ireland for its reservoir of spirituality hoping to siphon off what they can feed to their souls which have become hungry for something other than consumption and computers.” Similarly, Diane Negra writes that “virtually every form of popular culture has in one way or another, presented Irishness as a moral antidote to contemporary ills ranging from globalisation to post-modern alienation, from crises over the meaning and practice of family values to environmental destruction” (3). Earlier, I described the Arnoldian image of the Irish as a race governed by ‘negative excess’. Arguably, in a time of profound ideological division and resurgent cultural nationalism – a time of polarisation and populism, of Trumpism and Euroscepticism – this ‘excess’ has once again been positively recoded, and now it is the ‘sentimental excess’ of the Irish that is imagined as a salve for the cultural schisms of our time.

Conclusion

Much has been made of new media powers to contest official discourses. Sports fans, too, are now considered much less ‘controllable’ on account of their ability to disrupt official messages online (as well as offline). The case of Irish fans at Euro 2016, however, offers a reminder that we must avoid routine assumptions that the “uses” made of “new” and “old” media are necessarily divergent (Rowe, Ruddock and Hutchins). My interest here was less in what any single news item or fan-produced video tells us, but rather in the aggregate construction of Irishness that emerges in the media-sport discourse surrounding this event. Relatedly, in writing about the London Olympics, Wardle observed that most of what appeared on social media concerning the Games did not depart significantly from the celebratory tone of mainstream news media organisations. “In fact the absence of any story that threatened the hegemonic vision of the Games as nation-builder, shows that while social media provided an additional and new form of newsgathering, it had to fit within the traditional news structures, routines and agenda” (Wardle 12).

Obviously, it is important to acknowledge the contestability of all media texts, including the news items and fan footage mentioned here, and to recognise that such texts are open to multiple interpretations based on diverse reading positions. And yet, here I have suggested that there is something of a ‘preferred’ reading in the depiction of Irish fans at Euro 2016. The news coverage, and the footage on which it draws, are important because of what they collectively suggest about Irish national identity: here we witness a shift from identity performance to identity writ large, and one means of analysing their international (and intertextual significance), I have suggested, is to view them through the prism of established tropes about Irishness.

Travelling sports fans – for better or worse – are ‘carriers’ of places and cultures, and they remind us that “there is also a cultural economy of sport, where information, images, ideas and rhetorics are exchanged, where symbolic value is added, where metaphorical (and sometimes literal, in the case of publicly listed sports clubs) stocks rise and fall” (Rowe 24). There is no question, to borrow Rowe’s term, that Ireland’s ‘stocks’ rose considerably on account of Euro 2016. In news terms, Irish fans provided entertainment value; they were the ‘human interest’ story of the tournament; they were the ‘feel-good’ factor of the event – and importantly, they were the suppliers of much of this content (albeit unofficially). Ultimately, I suggest that we think of the overall depiction of the Irish at Euro 2016 as a co-construction of international news media practices and the self-presentational practices of Irish fans themselves. The result was not simply a depiction of idealised fandom, but more importantly, an idealisation of a people and a place, in which the plucky little people on tour became the global standard bearers of Irish identity.

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Keywords


Ireland, Sport, Football, Fans



Copyright (c) 2017 Neil O'Boyle

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