Report: the sporting rivalry between the two nations began with rifle competitions and now extends to every sport imaginable

There has long been a fascinating rivalry between Ireland and England in every sport. UCD historian Paul Rouse joined Marie Crowe and Donncha O'Callaghan on RTÉ 2fm's Game On for a deep dive into the on-field jousts between the two nations. Here are some excerpts from the conversation which have been edited for length and clarity.

Believe it or not, the early days of the rivalry involved rifles. "Before team sports, there were rifle competititons beteen the Irish and English which I suppose could have gone wrong", explained Rouse. "200 years ago, Kildare's Dan Donnelly, one of the great boxers produced by the country, fought against English boxer Tom Hall and it was seen as a battle between Ireland and England.

"In terms of team sports, the very foundation of the Irish Rugby Football Union in 1875 was to get a team to play against England and that happened in 1875. The story of Irish rugby for the next dozen years was dominated by that annual contest with England. And Ireland were hammered, year after year. It was so bad in the 1880s that it was said that there should be a handicapping system where Ireland could play 15 players and England would only have 12 so it could be an even contest.

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From RTÉ Sport, Tom McGurk on the birth of Irish rugby

"Finally, after 12 defeats, Ireland managed to beat England in 1887 in front of 5,000 people in Lansdowne Road. The newspaper reports of that day are brilliant to read. They talk about a fairly demented crowd being around the pitch.

"That team was a real mix. There was a University College Cork, which was then called Queen's College Cork, player on the team, but there was always a guy called Dolway Walkington from Belfast. He'd bad eyesight and he sometimes used to play with a monocle in his eye, which is kind of hard to believe on a rugby field. Their whole ambition was to beat England and when they did, the newspapers said that even people in Timbucktoo would be thrilled by the fact that Ireland had beaten England.

"When that Cork university student went back to Cork on the Monday after the match - it appears that it took him two days to get home, which tells its own story - there were nine rugby clubs in Cork at the time and another one out in Bandon and those rugby players togged out in their gear, 500 rugby players, and lined up four abreast at the railway station and marched behind a band down the South Mall and across towards York Street, where they had a big parade. It was all about the fact that England had been beaten. 

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News' report on Ireland's historic match against England at Croke Park in 2007

So why do we like beating the English so much? "You can ask the same question about why the Scots love beating the English or why the Welsh love beating England", says Rouse.

"Number one, it's a common story of wanting to beat the large neighbour. Number two, there is the political context. You can say that matters or doesn't matter, but it is there in the background. There is a divide there and international sport is full of symbols of nationalism. There is the badge, the emblem, the flag, the anthems. It is shrouded in a political atmosphere even if it doesn't matter to the players who are playing. Number three, there is a contest. You want to win a contest regardless of who it's against.

A journalist with the Daily Express said anyone who thinks Ireland have any chance of beating England should make an appointment with a psychiatrist

"Beating the English really matters because of, and this is the fourth reason, the shared media market. It is one of the things that is massively important. We hear the English commentary on our games in a way that they don't hear our commentary about ours. You can go back through all the times and see that statements that are made by journalists associated with the English team have irritated Irish players and Irish supporters.

"When Ireland beat England for the first time in a soccer match - the first time England are ever beaten at home - a journalist with the Daily Express said before that anyone who thinks Ireland have any chance of beating England should make an appointment with a Harley Street psychiatrist. That tenor of comment irritates people, rightly or wrongly, and their market saturates ours so we feel it more."

You can hear the full discussion below (both recording and photo are from February 2020)

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