Excerpt from The World is a Ball

I’M STUDYING A JAPANESE police officer who’s doing his very best to look menacing. In addition to his uniform, his heavy boots and a cap, he’s wearing a sourpuss look on his face. His eyes are fixed in a permanent, hostile glare…. Nobody has prepared him for what he actually faces on this sunny afternoon. Elderly women with their grey hair dyed green. Entire multi-generational families with the children dressed as leprechauns. As the line of limousines slowly turn, a couple and their young child stand at the front of the pedestrian group. All three are dressed entirely in green. The father is carrying his daughter on his shoulders. While he waits to cross, he smiles at the police officer. There is no response. He smiles again and I can see the light of mischief in his face. He says, “Hello. A grand day for it.” Nothing doing. Then he says to the child on his shoulders, “Say hello to man, Nora.” Nora, aged about eight, pushes her giant, green top-hat out of her eyes, smiles a wide smile and waves her little hand. “Hiya,” she screeches. The police officer looks mortified. The façade of toughness evaporates. He looks awkward and unsure. He can’t wave back, can’t smile. He wasn’t trained for that. The limousines stop coming and he waves the pedestrians across, but there is no assuredness in his gesture. “Thanks boss,” the father says as he passes the officer. Nora perks up. “You’ll never beat the Irish!” she says emphatically, looking down at the officer. The officer looks at the long approach to the stadium from the nearby city and all he can see, as far as the horizon stretches, is green. He’s looking at the Green Army on the march, and I can tell that it perplexes him…. It looks like the entire population of Ireland, every man, woman and child, had descended on this small Japanese city to irritate him with their smiles, their laughter and their songs…

…In the few minutes before the game begins the massed Irish supporters start their communal singing. They sing what they always sing when Ireland appears on the world stage in soccer tournaments, a ballad called “The Fields of Athenry.” It’s a beautiful and simple, powerful statement about the Irish Famine. It tells the story of a man who was jailed and is being deported to Australia for the crime of stealing corn, “So the young might see the morn.” Then it paints a picture of the desolate fields where the famine had devastated the population. It is a song of commemoration and defiance. I hadn’t expected it, the unearthly sound of the communal rendition of a sung story about death and desolation. I knew all about the great Famine of the 1840’s and the million dead, Ireland brought to its knees by the devastation. It was a long, long time ago yet something compels these thousands of Irish people to sing of it, together.