The world of politics and the world of sport have been known to collide from time to time in Ireland. In 1952 for example, Archbishop John Charles MacQuaid urged the football loving people of the capital not to attend an international friendly in Dalymount Park which saw Ireland take on communist Yugoslavia. Sporting stadiums have been used as venues in which to stage political protests too, with political banners appearing on the terraces of Croke Park during the Troubles. One particularly interesting moment in the history of controversial sporting clashes in Dublin concerns the sport of rugby, and the visit of the Springbok team to Dublin in 1970. All all-white team from South Africa, the team were seen by some to be the embodiment of Apartheid South Africa, and their tour of Britain and Ireland in 1969/1970 attracted huge protest. While the Springbok team did play in Lansdowne Road in January 1970, the game occurred behind barbed wire fencing and in front of a small attendance.
The Boks arrived in Ireland in January 1970 having completed a two month tour of Britain, a tour which had witnessed considerable scenes of protest. Opposition to their tour of Britain extended beyond anti-apartheid campaigners however, many sporting bodies and figures opposed the visit because of what was then a recent bitter memory. Two years prior to the visit of South Africa to Britain and Ireland to play rugby, in 1967, there had been shock in British sporting circles when the Apartheid government announced that they would not allow Basil D’Oliveria, a South African cricketer who played for England, to take part in England’s cricket tour of South Africa. The potential inclusion of a non-white cricketer in the team caused something of a diplomatic incident, with some senior South African figures suggesting it was a move designed to cause political embarrassment, and in the end the tour was actually cancelled. In Britain, questions around the relationship between sport and apartheid were being asked even before this rugby tour.
When the Springbok rugby team arrived in Britain in the winter of 1969, they faced very real protests in a number of cities. Brian Hanley has written that during December 1969 “there were 98 arrests when the Springbok side played in Aberdeen, 69 during their visit to Manchester, 26 at Murrayfield and more serious disturbances in which several policemen were injured during their game against England at Twickinham.” A young Gordon Brown, future Prime Minister of Britain, was one of the Edinburgh organisers of the opposition to the visit.
A particular cause of concern for the authorities was the North of Ireland, where the Civil Rights Association was gaining considerable ground and you had young and charismatic leaders like Bernadette Devlin, and where the side were due to play. One statement from People’s Democracy, with which Devlin was involved, stated that it was “no surprise that the corrupt and vicious Unionist clique admires racist South Africans.” This was a time of real heightened tensions in the North, and the authorities there were very fearful of just what could happen with the games becoming the focus of political disagreement. It was unsurprising that any visit by the team to the North was cancelled in the winter of 69, when The Joint Security Committee moved to cancel the planned match. One effect of that was turning up the pressure on the IRFU in Dublin – and there were demonstrations outside their headquarters demanding that the team not play in Dublin or Limerick as planned.
The IRFU found itself in a tough position. The organisation made its view clear, which was essentially that “cultural and sporting relations were the last links that should be broken with a country whose laws and policies incurred condemnation.” The Springbok team had actually visited Ireland only a few short years prior to 1970, and while many on the left and in the trade union movement had condemned their visit on that occasion,it had failed to spark the same level of public outcry as witnessed in 1970.
Even before the arrival of the team in Ireland, it was clear they would face organised opposition from the labour movement. In The Irish Times, an official from Post Office Official’s Association said “that if the Springboks’ headquarters hotel was known, all telephone and mail services to it would be withdrawn.” The official was quoted as saying “When we find out the hotel, we will give the telephone number to all exchanges and see that it is not serviced….Similiarly no mail will be delivered to the hotel. All other guests will be affected. The ban will last for the Springboks’ stay.” In addition to this, trade unionists in RTE were eager that the national broadcaster would not screen the match, and were adament they would not work on any transmission of the game.
When the team did arrive at Dublin Airport on 7 January 1970, they were greeted by dozens of anti-Apartheid activists in the airport itself, headed by Kader Asmal of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, clutching tricolours and the flag of the ANC. The Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement had been founded in 1964, and as Diarmaid Ferriter has noted “by the early 1970s it had branches in almost all parts of Ireland. Its first chairman was Dublin barrister Ernest Wood, the honorary secretary was trade unionist and future Labour TD Barry Desmond, and its vice-chairman was Asmal, who had also been a founder member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London and had joined the staff of the Faculty of Law at Trinity College Dublin in 1963.” There had been protests against Apartheid in the city prior to the foundation of the IAAM, but it provided organisation and structure to the movement. Some of the earlier opposition to Apartheid here was led by members of the small South African community in Ireland, including those who were studying here. This helped in forging links with the student movement, who were to the fore in opposing the 1970 visit.
An egg splattered against the team bus before it left Dublin Airport, and when they eventually made it to the hotel in Bray they were confronted again by protest, this time led by Seamus Costello, who was then a Sinn Féin member of Wicklow County Council. In addition to Costello however, there were young rugby fans, described as “over 100 children…lined up shouting support for the Springboks'”.
The issue of the visit was discussed inside of the Dáil during heated debates, and Fine Gael T.D Patrick Donegan made his views clear on the matter:
We have heard a great deal about the Springboks’ tour. We all deplore the fact that there is discrimination in South Africa, but I have come to the conclusion that 15 men on one side and 15 men on the other, all young, rolling around in the mud, have nothing on their minds but where they are going to get the prettiest girl and take her out for a meal as soon as the match is over, and I am afraid that is not political. If I am not at the Springboks match I shall be out hunting and anyone who wants to protest about either can protest away.
The game in Landsdowne Road went ahead – a 8-8 draw in front of a small attendance, played behind barbed wire, erected to prevent protesters from disturbing the game. There were demonstrations in the city, with a crowd of between eight and ten thousand marching in opposition to the clash. Among those who marched was Charlie Byrne, later a successful broadcaster with RTE, and he remembered in his memoirs that this was an exciting time in radical politics in the city:
My spare time was increasingly taken up with political involvement. There was an upsurge in left-wing activism in Dublin. It was the same all over Western Europe. I got involved in the Labour Party and with the Young Socialists. These were exciting times….In January 1970, the al-white South African rugby team arrived in Dublin. The Springboks’ were touring Britain and Ireland and the opening match of the tour was scheduled for Lansdowne Road. I was one of those on the picket outside the Royal Starlight Hotel in Bray where the Springboks were staying. There was a huge march outside the stadium on the afternoon of the match: 10,000 protestors marched from the city centre to Lansdowne Road. I helped to carry a Labour Party banner. Despite the size of the crowd, the demonstration passed off without any serious incidents.
While Bird’s account suggests a lack of confrontation on the day between protestors and authorities, one protestor who was there that day recalled that “the Gardaí baton charged protestors at Lansdowne Road and set dogs on us.”
In Limerick, where they were to play Munster, the South African team must have been baffled by the welcome they got from one unlikely source. In Brian Hanley’s entertaining article on the Springboks visit for the Old Limerick Journal (available to read in full here), he notes that a small organisation known as the ‘National Movement’ marched to the hotel where the team were staying and handed them a letter of welcome. Members of this small band had placards proclaiming ‘We Support White Christian South Africa’ and ‘Boks Yes, Reds No’. The Boks enjoyed a good day out on the field in Limerick, defeating Munster 25-9. Protests in the city were small, and Hanley has noted that “only about 350 people, of whom only 30 were thought to be local, including three Jesuit priests, took part in the Anti-Apartheid protest.”
To mark the 45th anniversary of these protests, the RTE Archives have uploaded some great archival footage of protestors outside the Dáil on the day before the match at Lansdowne Road. You can check it out here.