Both the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland will travel to France for the UEFA European Championships which start in June 2016. Both parts of this island situated in the northern Atlantic will cross the Irish Sea then the English Channel to reach the shores of France for Operation Euro 2016.  Both the O’Neill’s, Martin and Michael (both born in the north) will hope to put modern Irish football on the map.

Separated from the British mainland by the Irish Sea the island of Ireland is dominated by the Republic of Ireland. The north east corner today comprises of six counties that form Northern Ireland, an area which remains part of the United Kingdom.

Tradition has it that St.Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland in 432 AD and to this day Catholicism remains the dominant religion.  The vikings were repulsed in 1014 and during the 12th century Pope Adrian IV ceded the entire island to the English crown.  Religion and national identity has played a huge part in forming the cultural make up of the whole island.  Another five centuries were to pass before local opposition to rulers was finally subjugated.

More telling milestones in modern Irish history came in the 19th century when disease destroyed the staple crops and led to the famine where more than a million people died.  Roughly half the population then emigrated overseas chiefly to the USA.

The 20th century also saw the Irish question come to the fore once again in Britain.  Although a degree of autonomy was granted opposition to British rule festered eventually leading to the granting of home rule for most of the southern part of the island as the Irish Free State in 1921.

Northern Ireland

Battles lines had been drawn in Ireland long before 1921 but it was after the establishment of the Irish Free State and the severing of ties to the British commonwealth in 1949 that deeper nationalist resentments set in.  The IRA which had used guerrilla tactics against the British during Ireland’s struggle for independence became, alongside its political wing and loyalist terrorist groups, a threat to the stability of the protestant north.  By the 1970’s Northern Ireland’s towns and cities were divided into Catholic and Protestant zones and an atmosphere of fear and mistrust prevailed.

The Good Friday Accord reached in 1998 brought a semblance of peace to the people of the north as politicians then sought ways of reconciling the past towards a peaceful future.  Belfast today is a smart modern city with a polished and attractive centre where peace thankfully is the dominant feature.

Widespread violence has gone but the murals that line the walls of many Belfast streets live on and tell the tale of a not so distant sporting, cultural and political past.

Irish Football – North to South

The most famous face of Northern Irish football was George Best but football in this part of Europe enjoyed success long before the days of George Best.  The IFA is the fourth oldest football association in the world and its league is one of the longest running organised set ups.

Naturally the political status of the island has influenced the shape of football.  The IFA, not to be confused with the FAI which rules football in the south, controlled football throughout the whole island of Ireland until 1923. Until that time football was predominantly a northern sport with the organisation of the game centred on Belfast. Only on six occasions in 40 years did the Irish team play a fixture in Dublin.  Club sides from the south such as Shelbourne and Bohemian FC did enjoy some cup success but the real football base was the north.

As with many areas of leisure, sport and culture the civil war in the 1920’s and the subsequent partition of the country led to bitter disputes between the north and south.  The FAI formed in 1921 and started running its own league and cup competitions. By 1923 the FAI was affiliated to FIFA.

The first official game of a team from the south was against the Bulgarians in Paris during 1924.

The IFA since the split have strived to remain neutral with the most recent hostilities being purely diplomatic (the IFA are unsteady with constant poaching by the FAI of young promising players born in the north). That aside the most important landmarks in northern Irish football came in 1958, 1982 and 1986 when the team played at FIFA World Cup Finals tournaments.

Domestically matches between the protestant club Linfield and the catholic Belfast Celtic told a tale of wider sectarian violence visible in society.  With the withdrawal of Derry City (who now play in the south) and the folding of Belfast Celtic the Northern Irish league remains a predominantly protestant set up.

Republic of Ireland – Soccer

Until qualification for the European Championships of 1988 football in the southern part of Ireland struggled along only coming to wider attention thanks to occasional wins by the national team in international European football.  In many ways football centred on Dublin lived in the shadow of the north.  ‘Soccer’ was a poor cousin to other sports such as Gaelic football and hurling.

Since those days under Jack Charlton soccer has enjoyed a prominence that it never previously enjoyed.

Like the north football in the Irish Republic has been characterised by the departure of all the best players to England and Scotland. Intermittent financial crisis as well as the closure and reformation of certain clubs has been a common theme even to this day.  Most players still play under the ‘semi-professional’ banner and anyone very good at football will end up at an English or Scottish league side.

Some efforts have been made at making the Irish league a more attractive affair especially since its main competition in terms of attracting fans has come from the English leagues.  A movement to summer football was made and the most popular club Shamrock Rovers did manage to qualify for the UEFA Europa League group stages.

With political and social tensions no longer directly harming the domestic game either side of the land border this has not stopped the flow of players across the Irish Sea to the much stronger professional leagues.  Very few, if any, playing squad members from either the Northern Irish or Republic teams will play for clubs based in Ireland’s leagues by the time Euro 2016 starts.

You can see some images from Northern Ireland here.

Images from Dublin here.