Opinion: how we consume football in all its codes shows that Irish sports fans are becoming a class of omnivores with various competing loyalties
Following the success of the Irish rugby team, there was much debate about the question of what constitutes Ireland’s national sport. Factors such as scale, participation, attendance and viewing figures, international success and authenticity were all mentioned as criteria for identifying the one true sport of the nation.
From a 21st century fan’s perspective, such a search is a fool’s errand. The current way we consume football in all of its various codes reveals that the Irish sports fan is more of a collecting magpie than a loyal swan. This national eclecticism was perhaps best illustrated last November when Ireland played South Africa in Rugby Union Football, Denmark in Association Football (soccer), Australia in International Rules and Wales in the Rugby League Football World Cup over a single weekend.
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From RTÉ2's Against the Head, Brent Pope, Eddie O’Sullivan and Bernard Jackman discuss the place of rugby in the Irish sporting landscape
Broadcasting the first three of these matches in 24 hours, RTÉ promoted the event as "the Irish triathlon". The prominence of this variety of footballing flavours is testament to both the nature of Ireland’s cultivated sporting palette and the insatiable appetite for sport and sporting marathons in Ireland. It is difficult to imagine another nation so occupied with the diversity of football.
Western philosophy has long debated what it means to have good taste. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle saw it as a key feature of moral virtue. To have good taste was seen as condition for being a good person. Later in the Enlightenment tradition and epitomised in philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, one’s ability to judge the beautiful was seen as emblematic of an ability to be rational.
The class distinctions between codes, particularly in football, are increasingly less rigorous and fans are routinely presented with a wide variety of choice.
Against this rationalisation of taste and judgement, the Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued in the late 1730s that "reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them". For Hume, this emphasis on sentiments was a way of foregrounding the role of sensory experience in our account of what it means to be human. Passions here include our sensations, feelings and tastes, or in a post-digital world, our likes.
In the 20th century, theorists have come to understand a third way that our tastes and cultural consumption have instrumentalised for greater purposes, namely class. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his seminal 1979 work Distinction argued that social position is created, recreated and demonstrated through consumption.
Though Bourdieu focused primarily on the cultural capital associated with music consumption, it is clear that to have an opinion on what happened in the latest sporting event (whatever that maybe) in Ireland today is a loaded power that reveals social class. The apocryphal Churchill line that "soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, and rugby is a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen" relied on an equation and class consciousness that is fading. Where in the past, one's class may have been mapped quite easily to a specific sporting code, the class distinctions between codes, particularly in football, are increasingly less rigorous and fans are routinely presented with a wide variety of choice.
In this consumerist era of ubiquitous choice, what then does it mean to have good taste? On the face of it, we often think that it means liking the right things for the right reasons and in the right ways. Of course, taste is a common sense concept. Save for ironic and knowing occasions, often called guilty pleasures, most people think that they know what good taste is and that it is something worth having, cultivating and demonstrating. There is no doubt that we are creatures of passion and hunger. Worth considering however, is the shape of that hunger to which Hume sees us enslaved. Are we creatures with an all devouring and singular passion like Cookie Monster? Or, on the other hand, are our tastes more diverse? And if so what does that reveal?
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Building on Bourdieu’s class analysis, the concept of the cultural omnivore, coined by Richard A. Peterson and Albert Simkus in the context of music, has become the prevailing thesis in the contemporary understanding of taste. Omnivorousness seeks to answer the question of what constitutes good taste by recognising that an elite class now distinguish themselves by paradoxically engaging the entire spectrum of culture.
See for example, John Heilemann's account of his musical taste in Lizzy Goodman’s Meet me in the Bathroom: "I like Guns N’ Roses and I like Tribe Called Quest and I like the Cure and the Smiths. It used to always make me crazy that somehow if you said you like this, you couldn’t like that. In the aughts, everything stopped being quite so Bloods and Crips, Jets and Sharks. You could like Nas and LCD Soundsystem and the Strokes and people wouldn’t look at you funny. No one would that somehow that was unduly promiscuous. It’s mashup culture."
From a fan’s perspective, the national sport may not be a single field sport, but rather the omnivorous consumption of football in both volume and composition
Furthermore, the figure of the omnivore exemplifies a class of western societies with a wider and more tolerant scope of cultural appreciation than existed previously. This is a taste often performed live, online through likes and captured and monetised in the synchronisation of the calendars of different sporting codes.
As events such as "the Irish Triathlon" and the decision to change the rugby Pro14 final kick off time to facilitate fans who wanted to watch the Champions League final reveal, Irish football fans are increasingly becoming a class of omnivores with various competing loyalties. As such, the question of the cultural omnivore can perhaps illuminate the recent debate concerning the national sport as it points to an endurance of football in many of its varieties difficult to imagine elsewhere. From a fan’s perspective, the national sport may not be a single field sport, but rather the omnivorous consumption of football in both volume and composition.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ