meEver since Oliver Cromwell gave no quarter to his troops at the Siege of Drogheda in 1649, and perhaps even before that massacre, it has been almost impossible for an Englishman to be a hero in Ireland. So when in 1986 Jack Charlton, a veteran of the England team that won the 1966 World Cup, was appointed manager of the Republic’s underperforming soccer squad, more than a few eyebrows were raised. “Go home Union Jack,” read a banner upon arrival in Dublin.
But it did not. Charlton stuck around and made the team a force to be reckoned with, beating England and performing credibly at Euro 1988 in Germany, even in the shorts of that era. Back in Dublin, the defeated team was greeted like 11 potatoes. The Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, named Charlton an honorary Irish citizen and suggested, only half jokingly, that he might eventually become Saint Jack. “It worries me,” Charlton told the crowd, “what the reception would have been like if we had won something.”
The Gabriel Clarke and Pete Thomas documentary Finding Jack Charlton (BBC Two) was filmed in the last 18 months of the footballer-turned-coach’s life and tells the story of his sports career. Ireland takes center stage, like a bloody villain redeemed by a foolish hero like Siegfried. So economically weak was the nation that 210,000 people had emigrated since 1981; the Problems seemed incurable; the Republic seemed as wrapped up in priests and conservatism as it had been since the De Valera era. “I was ready for something to happen,” said Larry Mullen Jr, drummer for Ireland’s leading cultural export U2. And that something was the cool thug from the coal country of England. Roddy Doyle, whose 1991 novel The Van described the welfare factor catalyzed by Charlton in Ireland during the 1990 World Cup, argued that Jack snatched the Irish tricolor from his capture by Republican terrorists. An Englishman catalyzed Irish patriotism.
The movie went too far with this thought, implying that everything happy and glorious in Irish self-reinvention between the mid-1980s and today, from the legalization of abortion to the Good Friday deal, was made possible by Big Jack. . However, he made it very clear that Jack Charlton was adored in Ireland because he was not at home. In Dublin, he received the adulation that England gave to his more accomplished footballer brother, Bobby. How did Jack feel about being celebrated in Ireland? Sue lawley asked on Desert Island Discs? “Grateful.”
In truth, not all of Ireland fell in love with him. The novelist John Banville told me that he was at a party where everyone was raving about the latest football game in Ireland. “Wouldn’t that be great,” he whispered to a friend, “that I care?” Journalist and former footballer Eamon Dunphy had the temerity to suggest that Charlton’s tactics, imagined here as foreshadowing Jürgen Klopp’s high-pressure technique in Dortmund and Liverpool, turned the virtuosos into hindrances. To be fair, Charlton’s team never lost to the Luxembourg Euro minnows, as the Republic did last week.
But Banville and Dunphy were in the minority. Ireland became a land of devoted football fans. Ardal O’Hanlon as Father Dougal in the sitcom Father Ted typified how the Republic found a new religion. He wore the Irish shirt as pajamas. Heavens, Father Dougal probably wore it under his cassock.
Clarke and Thomas could have made three poignant documentaries from the material they elegantly combined. One on the recent history of Ireland. Another about Jack and Bobby’s sibling rivalry. A third on Paul “ooh aah” McGrath, a black orphan who, despite his alcoholism, became an adored staunch advocate thanks to Charlton’s faith in him.
However, during filming, the directors learned that Charlton was battling dementia. He died in July 2020. Jack’s suffering, possibly due to decades of directing heavy soccer balls (his brother Bobby now suffers from the same syndrome), became a tragic counterpoint to the sweetness of the rest of the film. The documentary celebrated what Jack, more and more, could no longer remember. “They think of you a lot in Ireland, don’t they?” said his wife Pat in her Northumberland kitchen. On the wall was framed his honorary Irish citizenship; Fan mail came in daily from across the Irish Sea. After a long silence, Jack replied, “I have no idea.” There was anger in that response, for the ruthless denial of what should remain in our age: the power to summon the memory of things past.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism