Our Euro 2016 trip began in Holland, and although we weren’t yet in France, the atmosphere of the tournament was instantly all around us. In an Irish Pub in Amsterdam, a stopping point for hundreds of fans travelling from Ireland to Paris, everyone was talking about the upcoming match with Sweden. The tone for the week was set as we felt the sheer number of fans that had made the journey, and were introduced to songs and football chants that would become a soundtrack to the summer.
The atmosphere continued to build the next day. On the train to Paris, I sat in the first class carriage and watched as those around us, used to travelling in luxury, looked on in mild shock at the sight of the Irish fans on board. The train staff too might have been taken aback: rarely will their complimentary drinks trolley have been met with such enthusiasm. The songs continued. I was sat next to a European opera singer. He explained he was based in Amsterdam and travelling to Paris for an audition, but didn’t join in with the chants of Come On You boys In Green that echoed around the train. I can only assume he was saving his voice.
There were glorified predictions of what would come; of Shane Long producing a moment of magic, of Robbie Keane having one more goal, one more cartwheel, left in him.In Paris, we were told the majority of Irish fans were meeting outside the famous cabaret theatre, Moulin Rouge. The advice told us where to go, but couldn’t have prepared us for the sight when we got there. Thousands of fans had gathered up and down the street. Dozens of men stood on podiums, flags held up around them, flickering like fire in the glow of the streetlights. The sight raised the excitement, and it was impossible not to feel optimistic ahead of Ireland’s first match the next day. There were glorified predictions of what would come; of Shane Long producing a moment of magic, of Robbie Keane having one more goal, one more cartwheel, left in him.
The next day was a culmination of the build-up that had came before it. On the train out to the match a middle age man introduced himself and told stories of how he’s been following the Ireland team since as far back as Italia 90. On the walk to the ground we breathed in the atmosphere of comradery between the Irish and Swedish fans. At a small, public, tarmac football pitch, not far from the stadium, five Irish fans were playing a match against five Swedish fans. We watched and eventually joined in, and as time passed the crowd around the small pitch got bigger and the noise got louder.
The carnival like atmosphere continued outside the stadium, where the official tournament band were playing. The Irish fans sang back to them, and it was hard to know who was entertaining who.When the match itself came, the result was something of an anti-climax. Wes Hoolahan’s goal gave the fans the moment they had been dreaming about, but at full time it felt like a missed opportunity. Regardless, as the Irish fans dispersed, going separate ways to reconvene in Bordeaux a few days later, hopes were still alive.
For us, the next few days were spent in the more relaxed setting of La Rochelle, a coastal city in southwest France; but even here, the atmosphere of the tournament, and the Irish fans themselves, were ever present. There are two large towers by the port in La Rochelle, and as we arrived one of them was adorned with the usual French flag, while the other showcased the Irish flag; a welcoming sight for those coming in, and one that reflected the pleasant hospitality shown across all of France. Again there were thousands of Irish fans everywhere. A boat trip took us out to a remote island off the coast, and it was only here that the constant buzz of Euro 2016 was ever left behind.
A few days later, Bordeaux brought a new atmosphere. Whereas Paris welcomed fans from all around Europe, Bordeaux felt like the scene for only one match - Ireland versus Belgium – and seemed to house only two sets of fans.
A week into the tournament, it felt like the Irish fans had become an attraction in themselves. We spotted the receptionist from our hotel in an Irish bar one night, eager to see what all the fuss was about; and as we crammed into the tram on the way to the Bordeaux Fan Zone, locals at each stop, waiting on a different line, pointed like we were zoo animals in a cage. An elderly woman, every right to be horrified at the inconvenience, smiled as she squeezed passed us on the tram, a playful look of shock on her face; there was a novelty to seeing a French man look over, and ask with a cautious, well attempted impression: ‘what’s the craic?’Unfortunately the match in Bordeaux ended in disappointment, a three nil defeat to Belgium meant that even the Irish fans struggled for optimism. But since then Ireland managed to beat Italy, qualify for the round of sixteen and extend their journey and the journey of their fans by another few days. Incredibly, Northern Ireland, whose fans have experienced a similar dream in others parts of France, managed to do the same; both sets of players putting in performances on the pitch which matched the fans performance off it. Unfortunately for both sides, the last sixteen is where the tournament ended, but it is a journey which won’t be forgotten anytime soon, after a fortnight where not only did thousands of Irish fans see some of the best parts of Europe, but Europe saw some of the very best of Ireland.