Britishness, Irishness, Patriotism and Cycling

With Team Sky set to deliver a one-two at the top of the general classification via Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome as well as nabbing four stages so far with four different riders, this is undoubtedly the best year ever for Great Britain at the Tour de France.

After today’s stage in the Pyreneés, it seems clear that all of Wiggins’s potential rivals are either unwilling or unable to attack him. The only threat that could conceivably see Wiggins not reaching Paris with the yellow jersey seems to be from within his own team.

Previously, in terms of performances by a number of riders, the best any British riders had managed were stage wins by Michael Wright and Barry Hoban in 1967. The pair repeated the feat in 1973, with Hoban also adding a third stage win for Britain that year. And in 1994, Chris Boardman won the prologue and both Boardman and Sean Yates had stints in the yellow jersey.

Barry Hoban – Rode 12 Tours de France

This year they have doubled their best ever number of riders who have taken a stage. Mark Cavendish, Froome, Wiggins and David Millar have all won a stage of this year’s Tour de France. What’s more, respectively, the victories came in a sprint, in the mountains, in a time trial and in a breakaway.

But it hasn’t escaped the attention of many, that actually, none of these riders were born in England, Scotland or Wales. Cavendish was born and bred on the Isle of Man. Froome was born in Kenya and didn’t ride with a British license until 2008. Wiggins was born in Ghent in Belgium and finally Millar was born in Malta and spent his formative years in Hong Kong.

A motley crew indeed, but the top Irish cyclists are no different.

Matt Brammeier – Only cyclist to win the Irish road race thee years in a row

There are two Irish cyclists currently riding the Tour de France, cousins Nicolas Roche and Daniel Martin. Although Roche is the son of an Irish Tour de France winner, he was born in France and has a French mother. Martin was born in Birmingham and is the son of former British cyclist Neil Martin. The only other World Tour level cyclist representing Ireland is Matt Brammeier who was born in Liverpool and only declared for Ireland as recently as 2009.

The English author Samuel Johnson once famously declared that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. So should British cycling fans be supporting Team Sky, a team of nine riders of which only three are British, none of whom born in Britain? And should Irish fans be cheering on Roche, Martin and Brammeier whenever they throw their leg over a saddle, despite the fact that none were born in Ireland?

Of course they should.

The simple reasoning is that this is what we always do. When the Irish football team qualify for a major tournament the country comes to a standstill because everybody is either at home or in the pub cheering them on. We may not enjoy watching the team on a sporting aesthetic level (especially not in recent years) and we may not even like some of the players. But this doesn’t matter because they are Irish. To a slightly lesser extent, the same goes for the Irish rugby team when the World Cup rolls around.

The major question is here is what exactly do we mean when we say ‘Irish’? Is somebody who was born in Kerry, has a Dad from Galway and a mother from London any less Irish than someone who themselves, their parents and their four grandparents were all born in Offaly? What about a Polish guy who becomes a naturalised citizen and gains an Irish passport? Is he any less Irish than Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh?

Jack Charlton – Irish hero

Well, when it comes to representing Ireland on a sporting level, they are all as Irish as each other. When Jack Charlton was in charge of the Irish football team in the eighties and early nineties, he made use of the ‘Granny rule’ which saw many players claim Irishness in order to play for Big Jack. This was the best thing that ever happened to the Irish football team. Any athlete that declares to play for Ireland, no matter what their heritage or background, should be absolutely celebrated for their Irishness and their willingness to participate in international sporting events for this country.

So we should support Irish athletes whether they’re Irish or not, right?

Yes, and here’s why.

Supporting quasi-Irishness simply because this is what we always do, is the simple reasoning but it’s certainly not the important reasoning. Although sharing a nationality with someone doesn’t even necessarily mean you were born in the same country, the world is organised into countries. Some people scoff at the idea of national pride, especially amongst cycling fans, but what the division of countries means most importantly, is that television coverage and sports development funding is also organised on a country by country basis.

There has never been more cycling coverage in Great Britain than there is right now. ITV have added live coverage to their usual daily evening highlights package. They also covered the Vuelta for the first time ever last year. British cycing writer William Fotheringham said this on his Twitter page last week:

A cyclist on the front of a national paper – No longer uncommon

The back five pages in the Guardian all cycling. Not something I’ve seen in 18 years covering it for them. Says something about where my sport is…

Our Irish cyclists are taking part in some of the biggest bike races in the world and it doesn’t get a mention in the evening news, it doesn’t get a mention in the national newspapers and if it wasn’t for Shane Stokes’s presence at the forefront of cycling news, the sport may not even get the scant coverage it currently does get. Supporting our Irish cyclists can change this scenario for the better so that the cycling stories we read about in the paper are no longer just the doping stories.

Furthermore, British cyclists harbour some of their best hopes for medals at the forthcoming Olympics. Chris Hoy, Wiggins, Cavendish, Victoria Pendleton and Geraint Thomas are all expected to get on the medal table. Britain’s cyclists benefit from massive amounts of funding and the success they have seen on the track and are now seeing on the road is phenomenal.

In contrast, in a recent interview, Stephen Roche commented wryly on the state of the governing body of cycling in Ireland:

Clean the office first. That’s a beautiful office but it’s badly maintained. The first thing you see when you go into Cycling Ireland’s headquarters is the state of the office. You don’t have to ask yourself any questions about the state of the federation when you see that.

I have the Roche-Kelly House, or the Kelly-Roche House or whatever you call it, in my heart. It was a major helping hand to the federation, to any federation, and I think it’s not been respected as it should be. If any young kids are looking for a licence and they go into Kelly-Roche House and they look at the state of the place, and the state of the equipment which people don’t maintain, they won’t be encouraged to stay.

Cycling Ireland needs funding and cycling in Ireland in general is in constant need of sponsorship. The more success that our Irish cyclists Roche, Martin and Brammeier achieve on the big stage, the more young kids are going to want to get up on their bikes and the more people will realise that investing in this sport in Ireland can reap rewards.

So no matter how Irish the Irish are, cheering them on and getting behind them is good for the sport, in terms of media coverage, sponsorship and growing the sport. In the long term it will benefit our children and our children’s children, one of whom may be the next Sean Kelly or Stephen Roche, whether they are born in Gort, Geelong or Gdansk.

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  1. benny n - July 15, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

    I agree- and I take the point of view of someone whose family migrated to Australia in the early 20th century. If it wasn’t for poverty, hunger, oppression, etc., my family, and myself, would probably still be in Ireland today. Same would go for most who would qualify under the grandparent rule. So if someone declares themself a nationality, and is willing to work and sacrifice themselves for that nationality, more power to them.

  2. John E Dunn - July 16, 2012 @ 1:45 am

    I’ve always interpreted the ‘foreign’ birth of the current generation of British riders as a symptom of cycling’s esoteric, unusual fan base. Odd people take it up, or used to, and those with a foreign connection were more likely to take to it for lack of anything else. Perhaps it’s the expat sort.

    Make sense or total bollocks? It’s more mainstream now, or so the theory goes.

  3. John E Dunn - July 16, 2012 @ 1:49 am

    Expat *sport* I meant, not sort.

  4. Irish Peloton - July 16, 2012 @ 5:54 pm

    Maybe you’re on to something. It is certainly a sport for ‘loners’ and may attract some strange (and usually these days, especially in Ireland and Britain, rich) people.

  5. patrick o - July 19, 2012 @ 10:02 pm

    dont forget, dan martins mother is irish -stephen roches sister!

  6. John Pierce - March 29, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

    There is an unauthorised photo of mine on this page, please either remove it of put a credit on it. This is subject to copyright and also subject to a fee for its use by law.

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