The paradox of sporting Ireland

I WAS pleased to see Tyrone win the All-Ireland football trophy in an exciting game at Croke Park. The battle for the title brought out a sense of pride in Ulster’s sporting prowess and was a reminder of the passion which follows Gaelic sport. I drove across the victorious county as the team was making its way home from Dublin to Healy Park in Omagh. Red and white flags were everywhere and you could sense a hangover as big as the Sperrins. For luckless Mayo the curse struck again. Paddy Prendergast, the last surviving member of the offending 1951 squad, died before the month was out and superstitious fans now pray the county can win the coveted sporting title again after 70 years of heartbreak.

Sport, like everything else in Ireland, is surrounded in curses, myths and legends. It is reflected in the religious and political mirrors which are held up to everyday life. In the north unionists tend to follow, soccer, hockey and cricket as a display of Britishness while nationalists turn out in numbers to support football, hurling and camogie and prove their green credentials. International sports stars like golfer Rory McIlroy and boxer Carl Frampton often have to wrestle with an identity crisis – whether to play for Ireland or Britain – knowing they cannot escape criticism whatever they decide.  Yet the island at play is often a paradox.

There are some clear exceptions to the accepted sporting rules. Though it began as a game for the Protestant middle classes The Irish Rugby Football Union is organised on an all-Ireland basis. The international team has support in both nationalist and unionist communities though the national stadium has been in Dublin since 1954 after a protest about playing the British national anthem and flying the Union flag at matches in Belfast. However, the British and Irish Lions’ squad draws talent and support from both islands and all traditions. There is a healthy rivalry and friendship between the four Irish provincial teams. There are some minor tensions at the top of the game but these are often defused with good humour. Rory Best, considered to be Ireland’s most successful captain, was asked how he reacted to the label ‘wee fat Prod.’ He said: ‘Nobody likes being called fat.’

The Green and White Army, which follows Northern Ireland’s international soccer team, is as well behaved as the supporters who follow the Republic’s squad and both have enjoyed modest success for such small organisations. Northern Ireland and the Republic have competed in three World Cups. Jack Charlton, the Republic’s most successful manager, was held in such a place of honour that it is said he is the only Englishman who could never buy a drink in Ireland. Many soccer fans, on both sides of the border, support leading teams in England often because they have Irish players. However in Northern Ireland assumptions are made about your politics and religion if you wear a Glasgow Rangers or Glasgow Celtic shirt. An Old Firm game brings hundreds of supporters to Glasgow from Belfast. Northern Ireland’s soccer clubs play under the auspices of the Irish Football Association and in the Republic the governing body is the Football Association of Ireland. But if that isn’t confusing enough Derry City, which is in Northern Ireland, has played in the FAI’s League of Ireland competitions since 1985.

Though it lacks a truly international dimension, no sporting organisation can match the success of the Gaelic Athletic Association. There is hardly a village in Ireland without a well organised GAA club and the games are enjoyed by men, women and children of all ages. The fundraising record of the Association and local clubs is second to none and the countryside is dotted with excellent facilities as a result. These play a role as community centres and cultural hubs promoting Irish dancing and the Irish language. Inter-county and inter-club rivalry is so intense that it has been known to result in hot-blooded fisticuffs on the pitch which the Association struggles to contain. The GAA has always been unashamedly nationalist in outlook but was never intended to be a cold house for Protestants. Among its early patrons were Home Rule champion Charles Stewart Parnell and the first President Douglas Hyde. Sam Maguire, who gives his name to the All-Ireland football trophy, was also a Protestant. Tom Mitchell won an Offaly senior hurling championship in 1930 and said no Kinnitty team had won a championship without a Protestant player. It is 50 years since the GAA’s Rule 27 – a ban on watching and playing ‘foreign games’  – was abolished but its legacy remains strong in the north. It is 20 years since Rule 21 was removed – this excluded members of the British security forces – but there is now a Police Service of Northern Ireland GAA club.

The political and religious backdrop to Irish sport is often confusing for outsiders. I failed to get through to English people at the London-based National Council for the Training of Journalists that Gaelic sport had to feature on the curriculum for Northern Ireland. All exams were based on English soccer and cricket matches. I have tried to persuade my Scottish brother-in-law to use the term soccer because in most parts of Ireland football is a different game to the one played by his beloved Glasgow Celtic. In 2018 I watched England lose a World Cup match on the television in Blake’s of the Hollow, one of my favourite watering holes in Enniskillen. I listened to a young man at the bar performing a comedy act by mimicking the frustrated protestations of the partisan English commentators. He was so good, there were tourists in the place who mistakenly believed he actually was an English soccer fan. Our comedian gave away his true feelings when a friend asked: “There must be something that would make you support an English team?”

The Fermanagh man thought for a moment and replied: “Only if they’re playing Tyrone.”

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