West Ham soccer player Declan Rice’s decision to opt for Gareth Southgate’s England side has caused a lot of consternation here in Ireland, especially as he had represented the Republic at underage level and had three caps, albeit non-competitive ones, for the senior team.
Dual citizenship route led to the golden era of Irish football during the Jack Charlton reign as British born players powered the Republic to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Italia ’90.
Since then there has been a presumption that if the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) casts its net quickly enough to catch a young lad of promise born in England, but eligible for Ireland, it will usher in a new cohort of successors to the likes of Mick McCarthy, born in Barnsley, Kevin Kilbane (Preston), Andy Townsend (Maidstone) or Alan McLoughlin (Manchester).
Criticism of Rice has come about because he has recently shown he has the potential to go all the way to the top of the Premiership and end up playing for Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool or one of the top London clubs.
He declared as a youth for the Republic of Ireland and went on to win winning three senior caps during which time he appeared to show a real passion and privilege in representing the land of his forefathers and foremothers.
That is undoubtedly why he prevaricated so long before announcing his decision last week – he knew only too well that the lines had been blurred by his appearances in the Irish shirt.
Those Irish fans who complain England has used its might to prise away an asset would do well to remember the FAI did just that to entice Northern Irish born players to declare for the Republic.
As most Irish people living in England already know, national identity is a more complex issue than being able to make a quick, on the spot decision, about which colour soccer jersey you’d wear.
During the 1960s I witnessed dozens of Irish parents return with their English-born children to our town in the Irish midlands every year.
Back then, they cheered everything Irish like their parents, but they also knew they were different to us who lived in the place 52 weeks a year.
As they grew older, they became more anglicised in their custom, manner and outlook – which was only to be expected.
Were any of them or their offspring of the standard to play for England – in rugby or football – they would have found themselves in a similar dilemma to that of 20-year-old Rice.
I was lucky enough to meet and marry a girl born and raised in London named Rosie O’Grady.
As well as being a champion dancer, she was selected for junior Wimbledon before she and her parents relocated to Ireland when she was 14.
This week my very, very Irish, London-born, wife made it clear to me, when she learned I was writing about this subject, that had she continued to live in London – and had she been good enough to make to the big time in tennis – she would have done so under the GB rather than the Irish banner.
Mark McGaugh is one of those hundreds of thousands of ‘ordinary’ Irish who arrived at Holyhead and journeyed on to London in the early sixties.
British and Irish
England gave him a job, England educated him before and after retirement and now he lives in leafy Surrey with his Irish-born wife, Helen, and his family who also have grown up British and Irish.
Mark made his money around money – by selling cash registers, or tills, to shops.
Last year I persuaded him to write his memoirs called Gold In Them There Tills and the book is due to be launched in London next month.
In it, Mark touches on the Irish in Britain subject several times and, no doubt like many readers, is thankful for the opportunities he got that were not available back home in his beloved Mayo.
His is a story of opportunities seized and a grateful acknowledgement of them to his adopted home. His children have become professionals and live in France, Australia and, in the case of his eldest daughter, barrister Michelle, in the UK.
All were raised, like countless others, as sons and daughters of England from sons and daughters of Ireland.
Mark himself says in the book: “There was a time when I expected to return to live my final years in Ireland.
“But that was before I had developed a very strong bond with the land of my adoption.”
The arrival of children, and then grandchildren, further diluted these thoughts as the years went by.
Mark’s elucidation – and the acknowledgement his own children were never going to live in Ireland – illustrates why young Rice arrived at his decision.
At 20-years-old, Declan is the third generation of his family with roots in and near London.
It can’t be undone that, up to now, he has worn the green jersey. But it would have been less honest and more hypocritical of him not to play for England.
He is, as he now says, “a proud English man” and that is just the unalienable truth of how he feels given his birth and background.
Circumstances have changed dramatically since he was a 16-year-old, obviously flattered to be approached to play for Ireland.
At the end of the day, we should all repeat – with the same magnanimity of spirit – the words of Mick McCarthy and wish him “good luck in his future.”
- Mark McGaugh’s memoir Gold In Them There Tills will have its London launch on Thursday, 14 March at the Irish Cultural Centre, 5 Blacks Road, Hammersmith, London W6 9DT from 7.30 pm. Irish World readers are welcome.