John Dolan: Northern light Jackie, a star who united us in dark times

The late, great Englishman, who was laid to rest this week, was a vital unifying force in Ireland during the divisive days of the 1980s and 90s, says JOHN DOLAN 
John Dolan: Northern light Jackie, a star who united us in dark times
Jack Charlton during the 1990 World Cup

THAT inimitable Cork raconteur Niall Toibin told a story about delivering one of his hilarious monologues at Kevin Moran’s testimonial dinner in Dublin’s Burlington Hotel.

“After I had done my stint,” recalled Toibin, “I went to our table, at the head of which was one Jack Charlton.”

Also seated nearby was Dublin GAA legend Paddy Cullen, who whacked Toibin on the back.

“I never laughed so much, Cullen told the Corkman. “I was in stitches. I never took my eyes off Jack Charlton. He didn’t understand one bloody word you said.”

The irony is that had Geordie Charlton delivered a speech, then Toibin would probably have been equally baffled!

The other week, Charlton, like Toibin, went to his eternal reward, mourned as much in Ireland as he was in his native England.

Nobody could deny that the great man spoke our language here on this island, even if the swift patter of a Cork comic might have passed him by...


It’s hard to imagine now — and almost impossible to convey to someone under the age of 25 — how bad relations were between the UK and Ireland when Charlton was appointed Ireland manager in 1986. Think of the antagonism over Brexit and times it by 10.

The surprise isn’t that Irish people protested at the appointment of Big Jack, it was that the protests weren’t much larger.

True, after years of hostility between Charles Haughey and Margaret Thatcher, the latter had signed up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, with Garret Fitzgerald, a few months before Charlton took over the boys in green.

But the Agreement did not last and the murders, terror attacks and collusions continued all the way through Charlton’s reign.

A few days after he resigned, early in 1996, the IRA bombed London Docklands, marking the end of a 17-month ceasefire.

Despite this background of constant animosity between the country of his birth and the country of the soccer team he managed, Charlton achieved something remarkable — completely aside from all his towering on-the-field glories.

Off it, he embodied something that English people badly needed at that time — he proved to those Irish who needed convincing that the old enemy indeed had some sound-out people; that we weren’t all that different after all; there was always more that united us than divided us.

As a young man growing up in an Irish second-generation family in north-west England at that time, I witnessed the joy that Charlton gave to the Irish diaspora — as well as to the Irish here — which at times bordered on the euphoric and it made the heart glow.

Big Jack would have scoffed at the thought, being a humble sportsman without a political bone in his body, but he became a symbol of healing unity between the two nations at a time of great division.

Irish and English flags outside houses in Ashington, Northumberland, ahead of Jack Charlton's funeral procession through his hometown this week. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Irish and English flags outside houses in Ashington, Northumberland, ahead of Jack Charlton's funeral procession through his hometown this week. Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

The Irish had plenty of prominent people living and working in England in the 1980s who were doing a great job selling a concept of Irishness away from the bombs and deaths — the likes of Terry Wogan, Dave Allen and Eamon Andrews — but England had nobody doing the same here.

Charlton, in that unassuming, unknowing way of his, filled that gap.

In the wake of his death, many people drew similarities between the man and the Irish people.

Yes, there were some shared traits — a fondness for a jar, a hard exterior that belied a misty-eyed, emotive, sentimental interior, an anti-establishment ethos that came with a deep disdain for authority.

Charlton was a grafter, too, hands like shovels, with the build of a farmer.

It’s also true that the north-east of England and Ireland share working class roots and traditions — but they assuredly don’t have sole rights to them.

I felt many of these comparisons were strained. Big Jack was no more Irish than any English tourist.

Besides, it would be doing him and the unity he achieved a disservice if we tried to put all his success down to the fact he was one of ‘us’, an honorary Irishman, after all.

Why try to shoe-horn the man — and the Geordie people — into an Irish straitjacket?

In many ways, Charlton was as quintessentially English as he was quintessentially Geordie. Better for his legacy to celebrate that, than to celebrate him as an adopted Irishman, pretending that ‘Sure, he was one of us all along’.

To do that would not be fair on England, taking one of its favourite sons and anointing him as Irish, just to avoid praising to the hilt one of the ‘enemy’.

All that said, it’s true that folk from the north-east of England are a tribe apart — a trait exacerbated by their remoteness.

Not for nothing do their people call themselves the Geordie Nation. My home town lies between Liverpool and Manchester in what I call north-west England.

But when I tell a Geordie I am from ‘the north’, they heap scorn on me and tell me I am actually from the midlands, which, to my knowledge, is 100 miles away in Birmingham!

No true northerner in England wants to be dismissed as a fakir from the Midlands — worst of all would be to be tainted as a ‘southern softie’!

But the Geordies don’t go seeking allies — they are an independent bunch. Perhaps that is down to their Viking breeding.

Studies have shown the Norse gene is prevalent in the north-east of England while the rest of the country’s genes owe more to Anglo-Saxon invaders.

Maybe that is why Geordies are so liked across England’s regions — even if their thick accent makes them hard to understand!

Any Englishman will tell you that Geordies are, by and large, salt of the earth, straight-talking people. Jack Charlton was typical of his tribe.

A man of the people, of both England and Ireland, who achieved so much. May he rest easy.

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