International Centre for Sports History and Culture, Montfort University, Leicester
For a few years either side of the millennium Ireland’s ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy boomed. Emigration had been a defining feature of the Irish national experience since the early- nineteenth century. Suddenly there were more immigrants than emigrants and Irish society struggled to assimilate them, especially after 2008 when the financial crash brought the party to an abrupt conclusion. The ‘New Irish’ – from Poland, Romania and Lithuania, and also from Brazil, China, India, and Nigeria – had supplied much of the unskilled and semi-skilled labour required to service the boom economy but it was increasingly evident that they were ‘here to stay’, making homes and starting families.
Many settled in Blanchardstown, 10 kilometres north of Dublin city centre, where the population doubled to around 100,000 between 1996 and 2006. Max Mauro, once a journalist but by then a social scientist, was drawn to the rapidly-expanding suburb. It offered opportunities to observe the changing face of Ireland from the touchlines of park pitches on Saturday and Sunday mornings. His chosen ‘ethnographic community’ was young adolescent males of immigrant background and he was interested in the role of sport – soccer in particular – as they negotiated and renegotiated their identities in a constantly-evolving social milieu which offered, at best, conditional acceptance.
Mauro’s methodology involved close contact with the teenage footballers on whom his study focused, the practicalities of fieldwork propelling him into a participant-observer role at Mountview, where the under-13s comprised white Irish and black African boys, and at Insaka, playing as under-18s, where the team was composed of Africans and East Europeans. The author gained acceptance by making himself useful as driver, linesman, mentor, occasional coach and, perhaps most successfully, as ‘the man with the camera’, supplying videos of matches which could be uploaded onto club websites or YouTube and providing opportunities for the players to express themselves directly, sometimes through their own music. For teenagers, the camera was ‘something familiar and somehow appealing, less intimidating than … the notebook’ (p. 27).
At Insaka, in the emotionally-charged aftermath of Toyosi’s death, the Nigerian coaches offered similar advice, though non-retaliation was now linked to the idea of maintaining ‘discipline’ as a response to racism.
The camera was critical in facilitating rapport with the boys at Mountview and also with officials anxious to promote positive images of the club via social media. White Irish and African boys playing together sent out an appealing and reassuring message about social integration. In reality, as Mauro came to recognise, the situation was more complex, not least because it was necessary to keep winning in order to maintain social cohesion. Thus ‘the possibility of exclusion was not that far away and could take unexpected forms’ (p. 66). Sometimes class proved a more important factor than race. Hussein, the son of a Sudanese doctor with ambitions to attend an American university, seemed ‘untroubled by his minority condition’ and was thus less likely ‘to conform to the unwritten rules of behaviour that seemed to govern this group of teenagers’ (p. 81). Unable to claim a regular place in a predominantly working-class team, he moved on when Mountview no longer fulfilled his expectations, feeling no need to be accepted as a Blanchardstown boy.
It was at Mountview that the author first observed instances of the ‘micro-aggressions’ to which teams of diverse ethnic composition might be exposed, and noted the reluctance of officials to confront this problem. In 2010 a more serious instance of aggression – the murder in Blanchardstown of 15-year-old, Nigerian-born Toyosi Shitta-bey – prompted Mauro to switch the focus of his research to Insaka, not least because this tragic event ‘somehow altered the condition in which the teenage boys of African background practised their football’ (p.98). Toyosi, it seemed likely, had been the victim of a racially-motivated attack. Though he had moved on, he had played most of his football with Insaka, a club run by Nigerian former professionals to provide opportunities for teenage boys from immigrant families. Insaka’s players often experienced micro-aggressions and emotions were reported to be ‘running high’ after the murder of a former team-mate (p.103).
The strategies which served Mauro well at Mountview proved equally useful at Insaka. There were differences but also striking similarities. When Mountview’s players, incensed by a racist insult, reacted fiercely, their coach (white Irish) had delivered a lecture about retaining the moral high ground when provoked. ‘His words’, according to Mauro, ‘carried a simple message against violent behaviour on and off the pitch’, but ‘were somehow missing the point’ (p. 83). At Insaka, in the emotionally-charged aftermath of Toyosi’s death, the Nigerian coaches offered similar advice, though non-retaliation was now linked to the idea of maintaining ‘discipline’ as a response to racism. ‘We should try to be good ambassadors of Africa’, was the message of one pre-match team talk; ‘We already have the bad name so we have to try to clean it’ (p. 127). ‘Discipline’, Mauro observes in a wry aside, ‘… had much to do with learning to cope with racism’ (p. 130).
Sport has a significant role in the social construction of identity. Asked directly whether he would prefer to represent Ireland or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one Insaka player opted for the country of his birth, but the question seemed of little interest to him. It may have seemed irrelevant to a black teenager making a life for himself in a multi-ethnic urban environment where transcultural forms of belonging often assumed greater significance than those conferred by allegiance to a nation state. Mauro has a journalist’s eye for the vignette that alerts us to a bigger picture. ‘Adrian and Ciprian’, he notes, referring to two of Insaka’s East Europeans, ‘produced rap music in Romanian while coming of age in Ireland’ (p.115). When Insaka win a trophy, the team celebrates by making a gesture with which the author is unfamiliar. ‘It’s a Blanchardstown thing, you know’, a 17-year-old Nigerian boy explains patiently (p.138). The author, with admirable restraint, steps back, allowing Lio to encapsulate the complexities of his everyday transcultural life. Mauro never claims to have all the answers and sometimes admits to being a little confused, but these are strengths, not weaknesses.