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Dare to win: a reflection on Irish women’s hockey achievement

by Archbishop Michael Jackson

On Monday afternoon, August 6 2018, Dame Street in Dublin was awash with people who had made the journey to rejoice for and to rejoice with the Irish Women’s Hockey Squad. Only the day before, they had written themselves into sporting history by being the first and, therefore to date, the only Irish team to play in a World Cup Final in any field team sport at competitive international level. It is hardly surprising that superlatives were the order of the day: outstanding, unprecedented, incredible. And they rightly came from all quarters in celebration and recognition.

A long time ago, I was told a story of the election of a Head of House in a distinguished university. The name of an internationally renowned theologian was raised at a meeting discussing this issue and the quip came from the back of the room: Could he be described as the Pele of theology? Loud laughter ensued and his name sank beyond trace. I realise the time–bound antiquity of my story along with its gender bias but it does set the scene for what unfolded on Sunday of this week. On that day, we saw the triumph of women’s sport in Ireland internationally for all Irish people. It was women who shattered the glass ceiling. To me, this is hugely significant because it brings to the fore in Irish life a parity of esteem that has been waiting to happen, that has been simmering on or just below the surface in team sports and in civic life. In no way am I suggesting that this team achievement diminishes any individual international sporting prowess and attainment by woman or man in any way. Of that please be assured.

Having had the privilege to be in Dame Street on Monday afternoon, I witnessed something unique. I am very glad that I was able to be there. Each player was an individual and each individual was committed to the team. The hour they spent with us was devoted graciously to sharing both their individual and their corporate personality and giftings. It was the richness of extraordinary people being entirely normal human beings – and they actively involved those who came to be with them in singing and in swaying to the music of happiness for all. In the days of the trench warfare of Brexit, it was a young woman from Northern Ireland who was crowned the goalkeeper of the Tournament and who spoke with total ease on the streets of Dublin.

It was not a religious occasion. It was not Pentecost – the colour was green and not red, after all. Yet the church can and should learn from this outpouring of pleasure. The first thing is that we need to set aside our instinct for the inward gaze and for the narrative of negativity. The second thing is that we need to raise our eyes to unprecedented human achievement that comes about through gifts and through homework and through the human spirit. The third thing is that we need to stop using the word: amateur as a put–down in any and in every context. The fourth thing is that we need to ask: What might churches be like if we dared to win? Might we perhaps begin, as of now, to learn to rejoice with those who are what we are not and who do what we can not do – and might we make this a rule of life rather than a once off? I say this with feeling on the day when Father Tony Coote, who has Motor Neurone Disease, has completed with dignity and with joy and with selflessness the journey from Donegal to Cork in the service of others with the same diagnosis. Society and churches need to honour the individual work and the team work. Might we too dare to win with those who have dared and won wherever and everywhere?