By Kakuya Ishida / Japan News Staff Writer With the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan starting in September, this is a golden opportunity to feel up-close the charm of the sport. However, there are wonders peculiar to the rugby world that are hard to understand for those unfamiliar with the sport. In this series, The Japan News will explain some of these wonders, which will be helpful in learning the sport’s culture and history. This first installment focuses on national and sports anthems in relation to diversity.
In June 2017, when two rugby test matches were held in Shizuoka Prefecture and Tokyo between the Japanese and Irish national teams, announcements were made requesting spectators to stand up for the national anthems in pregame ceremonies ahead of the international matches. The anthem for visiting Ireland was played first, and the public address announcer introduced “the national anthem of the Republic of Ireland.”
The song actually performed, however, was not the national anthem “The Soldier’s Song” but the sports anthem “Ireland’s Call.” Many in the audience who did not know the difference might have thought that the latter was the national anthem. In addition, the flag hoisted at the venues was the flag of the Ireland Rugby Football Union (IRFU), not the national flag of Ireland. According to the Japan Rugby Football Union, the announcement should have said it was an anthem for sporting events.
Ireland, which is in Pool A with the Japan national team in the Rugby World Cup, in recent years has improved and is considered one of the favorites for the Webb Ellis Cup, especially after beating three-time world champion New Zealand, the All Blacks, in their two test matches in 2016 and 2018.
A national anthem has been a thorny problem for Ireland against its historical background with the separation of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. An additional complicating factor is that the IRFU, founded in 1879, organizes a unified national team by selecting players from both parts of the island. The union covers both parts since it did not split, unlike the soccer associations for which representative teams exist separately in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Birth of a new song
“Ireland’s Call” in English was used for the first time in 1995 when the third World Cup was held in South Africa. Unified teams of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are also organized for sports other than rugby, such as field hockey and cricket, and the sports anthem is performed in their international matches.
For a long time since the early 1970s, when a rugby test match was held in Dublin, only “The Soldier’s Song” in the Irish language had been performed while the Irish national flag was hoisted. The national anthem in the past inspired revolution and glorified the military. At the same time, visiting teams’ national anthems had not been performed. When Ireland held a test match overseas, there were no performances of the Irish national anthem.
Among Irish national team members, there were some from Northern Ireland who kept their mouths closed while “The Soldier’s Song” was performed.
“To be sure, in general, there are players who don’t sing the national anthem as they are concentrating on the match, or others who do not do so because they get too nervous,” said Hitoshi Ebishima, 60, a professor of economics at Seijo University in Tokyo who studied in Ireland for years while playing and coaching rugby for students. Ebishima has also visited the country many times. “But when I saw players not singing ‘The Soldier’s Song,’ I found these players were selected from Northern Ireland. They were in a totally different situation from the general cases.”
Public calls subsequently arose for a new song, without political undertones, to take the place of the national anthem so that national team players and spectators could sing without worrying about their origins. In response, the IRFU prepared the sports anthem in 1995. Currently in Dublin, a visiting team’s national anthem is followed by “The Soldier’s Song” then “Ireland’s Call.” When Ireland faces other countries outside Ireland, only “Ireland’s Call” is performed, with the IRFU flag hoisted, before the host country’s national anthem.
“Ireland, Ireland! together standing tall! Shoulder to shoulder, we’ll answer Ireland’s call!”
These are part of the lyrics to “Ireland’s Call.” Expressions referring to independence or unification, which could evoke past hostilities, were carefully excluded.
Diversity remains key
In February 2007, a historic Ireland-England rugby test match was held in Dublin on high alert at Croke Park, the stadium for Ireland’s traditional Gaelic football. This stadium was also where the “Bloody Sunday” incident took place on Nov. 21, 1920, in which police and British troops shot to death 14 people. It was one of the key events during Ireland’s 1919-21 war for independence.
It was the first time that a team from Britain had ever played at the stadium, which symbolizes Irish nationalism. There were no troubling incidents, even when the United Kingdom’s national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” was performed.
Ebishima, who served as a lecturer on sports sociology for a seminar featuring Irish rugby at the Irish Embassy in Tokyo in April, felt that when he stayed in Ireland in the early 1990s, the strong sentiment toward England based on the past had not wholly disappeared.
“An older women at the house I was staying in, who was well over 60 years old at the time, was always excited about the results of a test match against England while watching TV, despite knowing little about the rules of the sport,” he said. “The younger generations seem to be distancing themselves from this troubled past, but there still remains potential hostility toward England, which runs especially deep among older people.”
For Scotland and Wales, it has been many years since they last sang “God Save the Queen” when playing England, apparently against the background of their mounting national consciousness.
It is said that “Flower of Scotland” replaced “God Save the Queen” in the late 1980s, when the latter began to be greeted by strong whistling and booing from spectators, especially at Scotland’s home ground of Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh. In Wales, “God Save the Queen” was also replaced after it was drowned out by spectators who instead sang “Land of My Fathers” in Welsh in the stadium in Cardiff from the early 1970s.
Meanwhile, New Zealand’s national song “God Defend New Zealand” was elevated to anthem status in 1977, on par with “God Save the Queen.” A relatively new custom since around the late 1990s has been to sing the anthem two times, first in Maori, then English, before test matches and other occasions “to acknowledge its bicultural heritage,” according to New Zealand’s Art, Culture and Heritage Ministry. The Maori version is called “Aotearoa,” the Maori name for New Zealand meaning something similar to “the land of the long white cloud.”
For fellow rugby giant South Africa, which ended apartheid in 1994 with Nelson Mandela becoming president, it has been the custom since 1997 to sing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa) in local Xhosa or Zulu first, then a stanza in Sesotho, before “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” (The Call of South Africa) in Afrikaans and English “to promote racial reconciliation.” The former was the protest song under apartheid, while the latter was the symbol of the country under that policy of racial segregation.
“A national anthem reflects the time and the society of a country and region,” Ebishima said. “Sports anthems indicate that diversity is accepted in sports. It’s interesting to view sports in terms of diversity.”Speech