ON a Saturday morning a fortnight ago, I was driving into Dingle town when ‘Put ‘em Under Pressure’ was played on the radio.
Many of you are bound to know the words of this song: “…we’re all part of Jackie’s army, we’re all off to Italy, and we’ll really shake them up when we win the World Cup, ‘coz Ireland are the greatest football team. Olé, olé, olé, olé…”
That song was the soundtrack to the summer of 1990 and hearing it brought me straight back to that time.
Me and my two sisters in a pub sitting on a bench right underneath the television, a place nobody but us wanted to sit because everyone else’s eyes were riveted to the soccer game that was being shown on that same television.
Ireland were playing England and us children did not have much interest in the game. The same could not be said of the grown-ups who we watched in astonishment as they hollered and roared any time one of our players got possession of the ball.
All of a sudden, the place exploded. Everyone jumped in the air, screaming at the tops of their voices, and the entire building seemed to shake when they all hit the ground again.
Ireland had scored against England and we instantly understood that was worth celebrating.
I remember leaving the pub that evening and seeing the streets full of people flying Irish flags, singing, and dancing. Everyone was so proud of the Irish team and they wanted to share their joy with those around them.
Just after ‘Put ‘em Under Pressure’ was played on the radio that morning a fortnight ago, the Angelus bells struck at midday. That familiar sound brought other memories to mind.
In 1990, I was twelve years old and all of my grandparents were still alive.
One set lived just across the road from us and we were constantly in and out of their house.
I can still picture them stopping whatever they were doing to sit together and say the Rosary whenever they would hear the Angelus ring at noon and at six o’clock every day.
I did not realise it at the time but looking back, I can see that those days – the late 1980s and early 1990s – were a period of huge change in Ireland.
We were coming out of one era – an era in which the church was all powerful, the economy was weak and work opportunities were few; an era in which the best and most capable of our people would leave the country in search of a better life elsewhere; and an era in which the Troubles of the North cast a dark shadow over the rest of Ireland.
The Irish of that time had a different mindset to the Irish of today. They did not have our sense of self-confidence.
Their life experience had taught them not to take much pride in themselves or in their country.
Ireland was failing in so many ways and most people felt despondent about its future.
But Jack Charlton and his team changed that mentality.
They showed us that we could play on the same level as the big countries of the world and that we might even beat them (or at least finish the game on a draw).
Those soccer games changed Ireland and its people.
They showed us that we could have a presence on the biggest stage in the world and that we could take our place alongside all of the other countries.
We were Irish and that was no longer a cause for shame. We could take pride in who we were.
Jack Charlton and his team lifted the spirits of the Irish people when it was so desperately needed.
They taught us an important lesson: that we could believe in ourselves and in our country.
Now, I know we may have gone a little overboard in that self-belief for a while in the interim (we have not forgotten about you, Celtic Tiger!).
But that had nothing to do with Jack and his soccer team.
When he died, the people of Ireland had nothing but good to say about Jack Charlton.
Everyone shared memories of the happy times they enjoyed with family and friends during Euro ’88, Italia ’90 and the World Cup in 1994.
They were thankful for those bright, shining moments and the light they provided during what was a dark time in Ireland.
Jack Charlton and his team gave the people of Ireland a precious gift.
They made us feel proud of who we were and where we were from.
We will be forever grateful.