I HAVE complicated feelings about England’s recent success and near-win in the UEFA European Championships.
And before anyone says anything, they were successful. Coming second in a competition at this level is no mean feat.
In so many ways, Ireland’s old enemies have become our friends.
We support English football clubs in our droves. I am no soccer fan, but I have two brothers who are. One of them started supporting Liverpool when he was a child.
The other, determined to go his own way and not follow his brother’s example, decided to follow Chelsea. Both are still loyal to those clubs.
With players from those clubs and others playing for England, it’s no wonder so many Irish people found themselves in the strange position of shouting for our former colonial overlords.
They may not have been willing to admit it. Rightly so if the examples of our Taoiseach Mícheál Martin and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney are anything to go by.
They openly wished England well and received harsh criticism from some quarters. But the fact that they stood their ground shows just how far we have come as regards the relationship between our countries.
My partner is English. He has even less interest in soccer than I do but he did tune in half-heartedly on Sunday evening. I was sitting beside him, me and my mixed feelings.
There’s a lot I don’t like about England. The long and brutal history between these two islands has left a lasting legacy.
There’s still an imbalance between us. We’re obsessed with what happens over there across the Irish Sea while for the most part, the English couldn’t care less about what happens here in Ireland.
They are not even taught the part they played in our history.
I remember a heated argument I once had with a young Englishman who fervently believed that England’s former colonies (Ireland included) should be grateful for the motherland having bestowed democracy upon us. He refused to even countenance the fact that we had to fight long and bloody battles to arrive at that eventual conclusion.
Another example is an evening I spent at my partner’s cousin’s house.
My partner comes from a privileged background and this particular evening, there was a dinner where my place at the table was right beside the Lord Lieutenant of the County.
This man, the Queen’s representative no less, asked me some polite questions about my life and then rather impolitely expressed shock and disbelief that I could be Irish and educated to third level.
Could there really be universities in Ireland? My response to that should have been: could there really be someone as ignorant as him?
But eager not to upset my host, I merely turned away and started talking to the person on my other side.
Mostly though, I like England. I really like London and the big cities. They feel open and full of possibility.
I am glad they were there as an escape route for the hundreds of thousands of Irish who had to flee Ireland for various reasons.
Economic reasons first and foremost but not just economic. There were the gay people who couldn’t live their lives openly and honestly in Ireland and had more of a chance of doing so in England.
There were the unmarried mothers whose children would have been taken from them had they remained in Ireland.
There were so many people who didn’t conform to Ireland’s rigid and often hypocritical moral standards who fled to freedom in England.
They weren’t always welcomed. Many struggled to settle. But many more built lives better than they would have had at home. Many made friends and were happy in England and I’ve always felt a sense of gratitude for that.
I know things have changed politically there in the past decade.
There’s an undercurrent of racism that was fomented during the Brexit campaign and that showed its ugly face in the aftermath of England’s loss against Italy.
It’s a side of England that Irish people have always known was there. It’s something we should call out and condemn.
But is it a reason to stop supporting the English team?
Our history may be fraught but in recent years, we have increasingly stood side by side as equals. At a personal level, there are millions of friendships between the Irish and the English.
I support that England, the open, tolerant, and friendly one where thousands of Irish people made happy homes and continue to do so to this day.