Martin O'Neill on what it means to be Irish

The new international manager-in-waiting talks playing Gaelic football, captaining Northern Ireland and managing Celtic.

O'Neill feels a strong sense of Irishness.
O'Neill feels a strong sense of Irishness.
Image: INPHO/Andrew Paton

IN DECEMBER 2008, Martin O’Neill visited Áras an Uachtaráin to speak to then President Mary McAleese and a group of students on the subject of Irish identity.

Here is an edited transcript of his speech, in which he talks about growing up in a Catholic family in Derry, captaining Northern Ireland and managing Celtic:

His childhood

I have these images in my mind. As a six-year-old, I used to sneak into my front room where we had two pictures hung on the wall. Not a Rembrandt, which we couldn’t afford in a council house, but a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a smaller picture of Padraig Pearse.

I find it amazing that 50 years on in my own house, not so very long ago, a group of English men from the Football Association came in to interview me for the possibility of being manager of the English national football team.

How did I end up there? I was brought into an Irish nationalist working class family. Big family – Four brothers, four sisters. I was sixth in line. They gave me a wonderful culture even though they weren’t particularly well-educated themselves.


My primary school did not involve Protestants or girls. It was a boarding school – St Colm’s in Derry. I  regret to say I only spent three years learning Irish. I was reasonably bright and reasonably academic, and yet, I couldn’t seem to master Irish. Maybe it was the teacher who used to pull my earlobe like you wouldn’t believe. History, the history of Ireland in particular, and Geography seemed to be more appealing at that time.

Playing Gaelic football

I was brought into a very strong GAA background, where soccer was frowned upon. It was our definition of Irishness. We paraded this GAA almost like a banner. In my particular life, I’m full of anomalies, ironies, paradoxes and downright contradictions to be perfectly honest. I think I might have got all of those off my father.

It was interesting because he was a founding member of the club in Kilrea, Co Derry, where I was born and brought up. And yet he was a barber and felt absolutely no discernment about parading a wonderful picture of the Manchester United football team in his shop.

It was the Busby Babes just before the air crash in 1958. I’m sure that there were one or two of his fellow Catholics that may have thought that this could be displeasing. My father may have had an ulterior motive for it as most of his customers were Protestants.

But I believe that he had a greater tolerance of things and a great common sense. Unfortunately he didn’t pass it on.  I felt that this tolerance of the other side of the community did stand me in good stead throughout the rest of my career.

I loved Gaelic football. My older brothers ended up playing for County Derry. I spent a lot of time with my father going to the matches to support them.

Being introduced to football

It was around about the the early 60s, through TV I saw a new world. A soccer world that I wanted to be a part of. And yet this dilemma that the GAA were having enormous battles with soccer. I deliberated greatly.

I wanted to think about playing those games in the English league in front of massive grounds – in Anfield and Old Trafford. And yet at the same time I loved Gaelic football, everything about it and I loved my Irishness. I was in the process of figuring things out.

Divisions in sport

My family moved to Belfast and I changed colleges from St Colm’s to St Malachy’s and when I was there, I participated in Gaelic football against other colleges. One match in particular was against St Mary’s, also of Belfast. Because I was playing soccer for Distillery, I was prevented by the GAA from playing at Casement Park where they were holding this game between two Belfast colleges.

I couldn’t believe it. I thought it was extremely short-sighted by the GAA. I thought for the first time ever, they were questioning, certainly challenging, my Irishness. My father, who had been a major supporter of the GAA, was desperately disappointed in it all. I think he felt let down.

The irony of it all was that the colleges themselves still wanted me to play the game. They wanted me to involved and contrived to have it moved to a different venue outside Belfast in Tyrone. I did play the match and I found it perturbing.

At the time, it left a real foul taste in our family and my father.Perhaps then I started to reflect and think about my own identity. About where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do.

All-Ireland final day

In the late 1950s, other than the occasional skirmish with the IRA and the RUC, I never felt threatened. I had a fantastic upbringing and lived reasonably peacefully with the Protestant community alongside us.

In 1958, Derry got to the All-Ireland (football) final (against Dublin). My brother (Leo) was 18 and playing and my mother decided to take me to the game. We headed off from Kilrea on a six hour journey to Croke Park.

I’ve never forgotten it, I was six years of age at the time. Within 15 or 20 miles we had picked up these two women. They were magnificent singers and each county that we passed they would sing the appropriate song. We also stopped off for mass.

This journey was everything I had hoped it to be. It was a definite extension of my Irishness. It’s what I wanted to be, it’s what I felt I was. However, Derry lost the final and we had a disappointing journey back.

Returning to Croke Park

A few years ago, two Ulster teams – Tyrone and Armagh, contested an All-Ireland final. Although my own county didn’t make it, I thought it warranted my two daughters coming to the final. I brought them along to a new Croke Park, which I think is a sensational stadium.

The atmosphere was incredible and I must admit that when national anthem was being sung I looked across to the girls and they had tears in their eyes. These are two girls who were both born in Northern Ireland but spent less than a week of their lives in Ireland before being shipped over to England again.

I thought it was a great moment. I didn’t want to force it on them but I wanted them to see for themselves what it meant to people. The whole Croke Park experience, which was a Holy Grail back in 1958 and still is now, is fantastic.

The GAA today

I think that the GAA have embraced the changes and great credit to them for doing that. I believe that it is a great game now, a better game to the one that I played. My particular argument with them in the 70s was a big issue for my family at the time but in the scheme of things was really nothing.

I believe they have changed this short-sightedness. This protectionism that they viewed the sport with. Irishness itself, all tied up with it, has attempted to change with the times. All organisations have their faults but I see great positive things coming from them now. Things I honestly did not think I would see in my lifetime… certainly not 40 years ago.

Professional football and the political climate in England in the 70s

An opportunity came along to go and play professional football with Nottingham Forest in the early 70s. The political climate in England was changing. Within months, the IRA bombings were taken to the mainland. I don’t think the troubles in Belfast really bothered the everyday Englishman. Now suddenly, when the bombings were taking place in London and other cities, it was on their back door. They came more frightened and hostile.

Being Irish in those days was a worrying time. I felt that sport in general and football in particular could transcend politics. In 74/75, there were a couple of comments made in the dressing room that suggested you would have an empathy if not a downright collusion in the events. Irish centres were being firebombed in retaliation and I must admit it was a difficult time.

Perhaps I’m making too much of it but I felt there was a kind of shadow hanging over events and it would be terrific if the situation could be resolved peacefully.


O’Neill playing in the 1982 World Cup for Northern Ireland. Credit: Peter Robinson/EMPICS Sport

Playing for Northern Ireland

I was the first Irish Catholic to be captain and it was a great honour. While we had a wonderful camaraderie in 1982, I used to joke with Sammy McIlroy about games played at Windsor Park.  I’d say that I didn’t mind being booed off the pitch, it was when you were booed onto it that you might have a concern.

That  passed and the 1982 team, which was made up of Catholics and Protestants, had a wonderful camaraderie and spirit. I don’t think we could have reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Spain had we not had that. I felt it was a very strong bond among a group of players that I was delighted to captain.

Managing Celtic

I went from player to manager and became manager of Celtic, which is deep-rooted in Irishness. Suddenly I felt it was like a spiritual home. I had five wonderful years of my life managing Celtic Football Club. I loved every minute of it. I knew what to expect in Glasgow. In many aspects, it mirrored Belfast.

I felt a contentment and an Irishness within the football club which, despite being based in Scotland, has its roots in Ireland. When the Fields of Athenry were sung by 60,000 people on European evenings, it was a hair-raising experience. Something I loved it dearly and will never forget.

Reflecting on his career

I’ve had a wonderful life and the irony of it all is that I’ve spent almost 40 years out of the country but feel as Irish as the day I left and as proud as the day I left. And that will never change.

Listen to full audio of the speech on YouTube

About the author:

Ben Blake

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