THE VISITS OF the British Queen Elizabeth this week, and of US President Barack Obama next week, are being welcomed by some, not least Fáilte Ireland.
Inevitably there has been some controversy over the upcoming trips. Republicans are protesting about the visit of the Queen while Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, while Obama’s role as a commander-in-chief of the US armed forces is also under scrutiny.
As Dublin’s streets shut down for the first of two major State visits within the space of a week, we look at other controversial visits from yesteryear…
1. The Springbok tour of Ireland
Even before South Africa had formally enacted apartheid into law in 1948, the country’s sporting teams made it a policy of omitting non-white players from their teams. By the time the national rugby team came to tour Ireland in 1970, the world was beginning to turn its eyes to the country’s widely-condemned segregationism.
The Irish Rugby Football Union insisted that it didn’t want to get involved in a political row and ignored political requests to fulfil the fixture – leading the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement to organise widespread demonstrations at Lansdowne Road on the day of the game.
As a result the 9-9 draw was largely overshadowed with the game played in front of a mediocre attendance, while thousands protested on the other side of the barbed wire that surrounded the stadium.
2. Muhammad Ali ‘hates this ******* place’
RTÉ’s TV broadcasts were barely a decade old when Muhammad Ali came to Croke Park to fight Al ‘Blue’ Lewis in 1972. Interviewer Cathal O’Shannon had realised that securing an interview with The Greatest would do wonders for his broadcaster’s prestige, and managed to borrow some contacts from BBC colleague Michael Parkinson – who had flown Ali to the UK at great expense weeks earlier – to secure a slot.
Awkwardly, though, when Ali came to town he didn’t seem to have been in particularly good form. O’Shannon told the Clare People in 2009 that Ali had spent the pre-interview period whining about manflu, before shocking the assembled RTÉ staff by muttering, ‘I hate this ******* place.’
It seemed that Ali – who was staying in a hotel near Bray – had grown so frustrated with his rural surroundings that he had bailed to the Gresham in Dublin, but was then weary of being mobbed by children wherever he went.
As a result, while his interview still encapsulated some of Ali’s staggering charisma, the legendary boxer was still a touch cranky. (The overall mood wasn’t helped when promoter Harold Conrad learned that thousands had gotten into Croker without paying for the privilege.)
3. The Sun Myung Moon and the stars
The founder of the Unification Church – known more commonly as the Moonies – Sun Myung Moon visited Ireland to spread his message of being the second coming of Jesus Christ, and calling for people to follow him.
Naturally enough, the presence of someone who designates themselves as the Messiah is naturally bound to garner some interest – but particularly so when the church has previously declared to have communicated with the souls of Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin.
As it happened, the visit became relatively low-profile – with only a minor blip when the Church were found to be featuring Ireland striker Robbie Keane in some of its promotional leaflets – though there was one unusual thing in Moon’s speech.
According to one website that keeps tabs on the Reverend Moon’s many worldwide speeches, Moon said Ireland “will be famous now” because having planned to speak for one hours, he spoke for five. He also advised Ireland not to “hate the British, but have your children intermarry with them” – and also called for Ireland and the UK to “unite and restore Germany”.
4. ‘Doctor Death’ brings protesters to life
Philip Nitschke perhaps unfortunate moniker originates from his status as one of the world’s better-known proponents of legalised euthanasia and assisted suicide.
In February of this year he toured the UK and Ireland – attending a debate being held by the UCD Literary and Historical Society – as well as holding a meeting for the Irish members of Exit International, a body that holds similar beliefs.
It turned out, however, that the meeting hadn’t gone as well as Nitschke might have hoped. A spokeswoman for the Life Institute, a Dublin-based body opposing the visit, said the plans to restrict the visit to Exit International members were scrapped when the protect turnout was poor.
Even still, when the event ultimately went ahead, the meeting was picketed by people holdings signs saying “Lock up your grannies, Dr Death is here” – and the spokeswoman said that of the 20 people who showed up to attend, 12 were journalists.
5. The day that England came to town
It’s perhaps unfortunate that our list of controversial visitors seems to be particularly weighty around sport (and, indeed, Croke Park), but such is sport’s ability to captivate the hearts and minds in all kinds of ways that it’s often difficult to look past its massive influences.
In 2007, as Lansdowne Road was being demolished to make way for what is now the Aviva Stadium, the GAA made Croke Park available to the IRFU and the FAI for their use for international rugby and soccer matches. First to adopt the stadium was the IRFU, who needed a home venue for the Six Nations games against France and England.
Though the game against France was an ultimate disappointment as Ireland lost to a last-minute try from Vincent Clerc, it was the visit of England that loomed large: in 1920, English forces had stormed the stadium in the middle of a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary. 14 people – including Tipperary captain Michael Hogan – had been killed, in a reprisal attack for the earlier death of intelligence officers.
And thus – although their anthem had been played in Croke Park in 2003 at the opening ceremony for the Special Olympics – the English rugby team came to the stadium for the first time, with God Save The Queen being given its first major airing.
It was observed immaculately by the home crowd, who then roared Amhrán na bhFiann at a volume rarely heard before – all of which ultimately, thankfully, became a minor prelude to the English humiliation at the hands of a rampant Irish win, 43-13.