The Magnum Opus: ice cream, football and nostalgia in Ireland

‘For a long time I would go to the match early’ – Marcel Proust, In Search of Added Time

In a new poster campaign for HB’s Iceberger ice cream sandwich, the advertisers have invoked Ireland’s quixotic 1990 World Cup campaign rather than the team’s breakthrough international tournament, the 1988 European Championship. ‘Tastes like Italia ’90 all over again’, the advert promises.

Perhaps, given Ireland’s catastrophic economic situation, it’s inevitable that the first appearance at an international tournament in ten years would be greeted with Proustian evocations of halcyon days under Jack Charlton. And maybe it’s not so surprising that an ice cream advert is one of the more notable vehicles for this nostalgia. (There’s a comprehensive post about Irish ice cream here.)

In an excellent blogpost, Miles Link argues that ‘when the Irish reminisce, you can be almost certain that a saleable product will be somewhere close by’ – this mediation of nostalgia enforces ‘the acceptable boundaries of Irish identity, which must be continually reaffirmed’. To Link, vehicles that repackage the past such as RTE’s Reeling In The Years provide a ‘ubiquitous reminder that it is futile to take political action’.

Looking at the Iceberger advert through this lens, you begin to see Italia ’90 nostalgia as part of a larger political process, one that promises a return to the hazily-defined values embodied by a supposedly reassuring era before a single European currency and before the Celtic Tiger. ‘Sure, we knew who we were then.’

The idea that Italia ’90 somehow gave ‘the Irish’ the confidence that led to the Celtic Tiger is frequently credited to opportunist economist David McWilliams. Declan Lynch, in an article published in 2010 to coincide with his book Days of Heaven: Italia ’90 and the Charlton Years,  remained sceptical about such simplistic readings of causation. What Lynch doesn’t contest is the joy of the occasion: he repeatedly refers to Ireland’s participation in the tournament as ‘the best thing that ever happened in this country’ – or, more intriguingly, Ireland’s ‘Summer of Love – with drinking rather than dope smoking’.

Underpinning Lynch’s account is an acknowledgement that Italia ’90 was a collective event that ‘wasn’t just about football’. This in a country where genuinely popular collective events are kept to a minimum, and deadening consensus is only occasionally disrupted by reactionary interruptions – best symbolised for me when the drone of Bill O’Herlihy, Johnny Giles and Liam Brady is violently contradicted by Eamon Dunphy, the poster pensioner of Irish reactionary passivity. This self-neutralising circus of consensus and reaction also occurs, less entertainingly, in Irish politics.

At a point where both consensus and reaction are failing on a political level, can Ireland find alternative models for action by rediscovering a taste for the popular event?

The memory of Italia ’90 is undoubtedly ripe for exploitation by advertisers keen to cash in on the reassembled myths of an event that happened 22 years ago. But it’s also interesting to think about the spontaneous collective activity that made Italia ’90 such a memorable time to be Irish: it wasn’t merely about commemorative coins from Esso garages, or about the ensuing economic booms and busts. Or am I wrong: is it all about the ice cream?

Posted by Karl Whitney

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3 thoughts on “The Magnum Opus: ice cream, football and nostalgia in Ireland

  1. fústar says:

    There’s nothing as suffocatingly fucking dreary as that whole “Italia 90/Riverdance gave us our confidence” narrative. Bleerrggh.

    Euro 88 and Italia 90 (in particular) were clearly contested and manipulated events. There was a clear tension between long-suffering football fans (who were simply overjoyed that a team they’d suffered agonies with for years were finally *there*) and the likes of Charlie Haughey, draping himself in the tricolour, doing laps of honour, welcoming the team home and doing everything possible to insert himself (and his wretched party) into this narrative of confidence and “success”.

    For me it was all about football joy. Plain and simple. Cynical appropriation of that energy can’t (quite) pollute those memories.

    P.S: It wasn’t actually Oliver who wrote the ice-cream piece! It was Paul English (aka – nlgbbbblth).

    • kwhitney says:

      Hi John,
      Thanks for your comment (have corrected the link – apologies, was under the impression it was Oliver).
      I think you’re right – there are clearly very different interpretations of these events, and the most deterministic are often the least plausible. When you look back, the most joyful interpretation is actually closest to the truth – these moments are fleeting, and all the more fantastic and memorable for it.

  2. […] posts have included: Ireland, nostalgia and ice cream; the woeful neglect of Darron Gibson; Punditry and political stasis in Ireland; and the lost art of […]

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