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The Role of Sport in Northern Ireland

By Michael Boyle, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada - Click Here for Bio

Originally presented June 2007 to The Canadian Association of Irish Studies, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL, Canada.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS - The author is grateful to Phelim Boyle, Eric Kaufman, John Lubar, John Mc Garry and Cormac O’Grada for helpful comments on earlier drafts.

What a year it has been? 2007! Could anyone ever have dreamed that the English rugby team would trot out to the hallowed GAA shrine of Croke Park Dublin and hear “God save the Queen “being played? No more than weMichael Boyle could have predicted Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams agreeing to Power sharing. Who would ever imagined them together sitting down at the same table in Stormont? Can you believe that the Northern Ireland Police Service now have an active Gaelic team? Forty years ago many people, like me, living in rural Northern Ireland believed that these events would never ever happen let alone in our lifetime.

Therefore, it is important to have some understanding of what it was like to live in this kind on environment. I will, in this paper, give a personal view of the divided society in which I grew up in South Derry. Any complex society has multiple layers and some of my nuances and anecdotes will illustrate some of the many subtleties to an outsider. Fundamental to any understanding of Northern Ireland is a knowledge how divisions have been both perpetuated and entrenched. Secondly, I will examine the unique role of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) in rural Irish society and furthermore I will explore how the rules of this association were perceived as being a hindrance or barrier to unity in Irish sport. Finally, I will indicate how my early interest in Gaelic sport helped me when I crossed the cultural divide to play High school rugby for one of the better rugby schools in Northern Ireland. I hope to show through my school experiences and that sport in Northern Ireland society has indeed progressed out of the dark ages.

Take a moment and think about the popular reality TV show Survivor in which the two rival tribes compete with each other. Now you can imagine that in Northern Ireland Unionist and Nationalists have competed on the same small area of land for at least four centuries. One can visualize that over time that this explosive mix of Planter and Gael would solidify into two deeply entrenched encampments.

I propose to examine the role sport has played in trying to bridge the gap between these two factions. You might wonder how some one, like me living in Newfoundland could be interested in the role of sport in a divided society of Northern Ireland?

The short answer is that it is so much of me and what I am today!

I have lived and breathed this topic all my time in Northern Ireland and I see my own sporting experiences as a microcosm. My experiences are somewhat unique and this limits me in making generalizations to the larger community. I will for the most part use the political terms Unionist and Nationalist instead of the more stereotypical religious terms Catholic and Protestant. Furthermore, the constant use of the terms Catholic and Protestant can be offensive to some .There will be a few occasions when I want to identify a specific religious grouping or reality and then these terms Catholic and Protestant will be used in their proper context.

Northern Ireland has explicitly and implicitly been a deeply fractured place for a very long time. In any society, there are usually factors in which inhabitants can share some commonalities .But in a polarized community, there are many boundaries, borders and barriers in which many organizations including governments and Churches have kept people apart.

These two communities have, for several centuries, sought to co-exist. A.T. Stewart suggests that this is the essence of the problem. They share the same homeland and like or not, the two diametrically opposed political wills must co-exist on the same narrow ground. Both communities have preserved and maintained their individual identities.

As a young child, I was very early much aware of the borders between town lands whether this be a ‘sheugh’, river, roadway or even a moss roden. Heaney (2002) sees marching as border. He refers to every season being the marching season because it was the land itself which did the marching.

The verb meant "meeting at a boundary" and "to border upon." It did not mean to walk in military manner! To some extent, our family lived in Heaney’s old Gaelic world of cattle herding and hill forts. However, there were few incentives to change the status quo and since the founding of the Northern Ireland State .These oppressive and static conditions existed for so long because this blinkered society refused to accept change and where history was seen only as reliving of the past. Any suggestion of a European dimension or identity was akin to preaching heresy. Some social researchers like D.H. Akenson (1991) downplays cultural differences saying they are small in number and he continues “but small differences are so important.”

Unionists and Nationalists had little in common with each other because politics and religion codified and hardened people’s beliefs and attitudes to life. Purists will tell you that in Northern Ireland there were no legally designated Catholic or Protestant schools. However, never mind the semantics, the reality is that a separate denominational system is solidly entrenched. Not only were the schools segregated, but many schools had no contact with a school of the opposite religion. Therefore, in formal education school, system students went to different denominational schools and played different school sports and rarely interacted.

Even though rural South Derry was a divided society, this was sometimes not so obvious in certain areas it did not always look divided. Commerce brought both Catholic and Protestant farmers together in a meaningful way as they traded pigs, sheep, cattle in the local fairs and markets. Even though it looked like there was considerable agricultural based commerce, there was always an understanding that Protestants would not be able to sell any land or houses to Catholics and visa versa. However, Protestant and Catholic farmers could rent land from neighboring or adjoining Catholic or Protestant landowners for a year. For example, our family rented land from Protestant town lands for over hundred years with only two isolated incidents of sabotage. (Cattle poisoned and metal posts in a hayseed field) and these were condemned by everyone. At the same time, neighboring farmers constantly borrowed machinery and helped each other at potato gathering, flax pulling and at the thresher. In fact, during 12th of July celebrations, my father and my brothers would go to the farm of Robert Johnson and do the milking and feed the pigs. Yet, another powerful and somewhat comical image was the co-operation occurred that regularly when a cow fell in a bog hole in the moss. This brought Catholic and Protestant neighbors together pulling together on the same rope. Having said that, when farmers chatted together, there was the usual banter but there was mutual respect in that sensitive topics like of religion and politics were always avoided in case any offence was given. One quickly became an expert in safe topics like the weather and on any aspect of farming.

It was a custom for Catholics to go to Catholics pubs and Protestants do go to Protestants pubs. In fact, I have never been in the Village Inn public house in Culnady, even though it less than two miles from our house. My father and my farming brothers have been to this pub but only during daytime hours. It was, definitely, the entrenched custom for each group to have a lawyer and undertaker of their own persuasion. One of the most bizarre situations was that of neighboring Protestant funerals and by Church Law Catholics were forbidden to enter Protestant grounds (venial sin) let alone attend funeral services. However, my father and my farming brothers often attended Church services for our Protestant neighbors and likewise when my father died a number of Protestant neighbors attended the wake and funeral Mass. In earlier days, the local Protestant auctioneer in Maghera would ask my father to pay offerings in his behalf at the local Catholic funerals.

The natural goodness of the ordinary people often transcended the political attitudes and beliefs and there has been tolerance and acceptance of Catholics and Protestants even through out the current conflict. But living in this society brought many anecdotes - for example when members of our family were stopped by B Specials or police we always said we were from Upperlands (Local Unionist village.) Once, my father was stopped and asked for identification by B Specials and he relied to the man “Look Sammy you cut potatoes on our farm less than four hours ago and I haven’t changed since then.” The words even have political significance. Ulster was used by Nationalists to denote the nine counties of the ancient province of Ulster and by Unionists to denote the state of Northern Ireland. The term Ulster became associated with political Unionist groupings like UDA and UVF. Even though Nationalists farmers would not join Young Farmers Club who had meetings in the local Orange Hall, they would join the Ulster Farmers Union to get good insurance rates for their crops and animals.

When Catholic and Protestants students attended Queens University in Belfast, for some of them, this was the first time ever that they interacted with each other. There was a certain amount of contact and this led to the breaking down of the old religious barriers. But when students left University and returned to their home communities, they each were once again assimilated to their own political groups. In Northern Ireland, there was always a sense of everything in place and everyone knew their place. There were few outside forces or influences and so nothing changed or could or would change.

In Northern Ireland, sport has been very much aligned with the political divisions. Sport could not be a meeting place for a community because sports themselves have been beset with myriad problems of identity and politics. The deep divisions of the society have permeated into the sports and this again solidified tribal grouping. This polarization intensified during the Troubles starting in 1968 but a cursory glance of history will show these conflicts had been festering for a very long time.

In Northern Ireland the role of sport has been all too often a problematic one.

Paddy Heaney, sports writer for the Belfast Irish News, gets quickly to the crux of the problem. “Gaelic is seen as a Catholic game while Protestants play rugby and never shall the twain meet. Although, GAA is a cultural organization as much as a sporting one, the Protestant community generally distrusted it as a hotbed of Irish Republicanism.”

Catholics had nationalist aspirations in having a united Ireland and played their games on Sundays in stadiums named after Irish republican heroes and many times flew the Irish tricolor the flag of the Irish Republic The teams in South Derry were often named after Republicans (the Gaelic club in Bellaghy was the Wolfe Tones and Slaughtneil was named after Robert Emment.).As well, members of the police B Specials and the British Army were banned from participating in any manner with Gaelic games. Protestants played soccer and rugby on Saturdays and they in turn pledged loyalty to Great Britain and the Union Jack. Soccer teams based in the Catholic community teams like Belfast Celtic and Derry City did play in the Northern Ireland soccer leagues. However, because of sectarian clashes, both teams resigned from the Irish League.

In a sense, it was not about football but whose side were you on. There is the feeling you have one single unique identity. If you are not with us, you are against us! If you were Irish, then, you must be anti-British and if you had a Northern Ireland identity or Ulster identity, then, you were not truly Irish!

To an outsider, this all might be confusing and add to the mix that back in 1970s Northern Ireland super soccer star George Best (The fifth Beatle) was very well liked by Catholics. However, they would be very uncomfortable in attending games at Windsor Park Belfast because of the sectarian chants of the home supporters (who once invaded the field and attacked the Italian soccer team after a 1957 World cup qualifying game.) In 2002 a former Catholic captain of Northern Ireland and a member of Glasgow Celtic football team Neil Lennon had to quit playing for N. Ireland team because of the sectarian abuse and threats from the so called home fans. Today, many Catholics in the Northern Ireland would be supporters of the Irish Republic team in Dublin despite the fact that a good number of Catholics have represented Northern Ireland teams. Each community with their stadiums, flags and anthems define their territory.

Most all former colonies of Great Britain were quick to adopt English games of cricket, soccer and rugby as their own. For example, cricket flourished in the Caribbean and rugby in Australia and New Zealand. However in Ireland with the advent of the GAA and the Gaelic League the native sports of Gaelic football and hurling were vigorously promoted and these were the hallmarks of a true Gael. The social interaction and cohesiveness of GAA clubs were a focal point of rural Ireland .Catholics both young and old, men and women could identify with the ethos of the local Gaelic Club which often had the local Parish Priest or curate in a leadership role. The GAA was alien ground for many Protestants and indeed some Unionists thought the GAA was “the IRA at play”. In many rural parts on Northern Ireland the Catholic family identity unit merged into the parish, the school and the local GAA club. Both Catholics and Protestants ironically were both very much part of self fulfilling systematic forces which kept people apart.

It is worth noting that long before the GAA got established cricket flourished in the garrison towns and estates in the well known hurling counties of Kilkenny and Tipperary. In a recent book, Michael O’Dwyer (2006) notes that in 1845, there were over 45 cricket teams in the Kilkenny area and he continues: “There was no game held in such high esteem as at the present day as cricket among every class from peasant to nobleman and all love it.” [4]


But, Michael Cusack and his followers saw the role of the GAA as the key part of the cultural and revolutionary part of Irish history. The GAA in Ireland is perhaps one of the largest amateur sporting organizations in the world and its influence is felt in every parish in Ireland. Mark Tierney wrote in the 1984 the centenary year of the GAA that:

For some people, the GAA is like the shamrock, a symbol of Faith, Nationhood and it is difficult to pass any year without a great gathering like the All Ireland Finals in Croke Park.[5]

For many years, before the hurling finals, the defiant Catholic hymn “Faith of our Fathers “ was sung and then, a Bishop or Cardinal would throw in the ball. It was quite clear that Northern Protestants would not feel welcome in this environment. For many Irish youngsters to play at Croke Park on All Ireland Sunday was akin to the “Field of Dreams” and as well this stadium ranks as a national shrine to the Irish struggle during the early 1920s. After the failed Easter Rebellion of 1916 Michael Collins emerged as leader of the Irish resistance to British rule in Ireland.. On the morning of Sunday November 20 1920, Collins masterminded the assassination of 14 British under cover agents .Later that afternoon, the British forces the British forces did a tit-for-tat revenge attack and drove tanks into Croke Park during a game between Tipperary and Dublin and killed 12 spectators and one player, Michael Hogan. The Hogan Stand is in his memory. Some suggest that the Croke Park shootings overshadowed the activities of Collins. The Australian historian, Mandle (1987), states “the Croke Park shootings bestowed a martyrs crown on the GAA that it wore with ostentatious pride.”[6]

The GAA deemed all other sports as foreign games and the officially banned them under Rule 21 until 1971.For a long time this apartheid structure in theory prevented members of this association in playing or attending sports like soccer and rugby. In spite of this ban a number of famous county GAA players like Sean O’Connell (Derry) and Paddy Doherty ( Down ) did in fact play professional soccer. Martin O’Neill the famous soccer player and manager started as a G.A.A. player with Kilrea and St. Columb’s College. In the past well a few Gaelic players have in fact played for a Dungannon and Rainey Old Boys teams rugby teams albeit under assumed names.

The fact that rugby was never played in Catholic schools in the North then as a result very few Catholics in Northern Ireland ever played rugby at any level .Unlike the soccer associations, there is an All Ireland governing body for rugby and the Irish rugby team has always had support from Northern Protestants and Southerners. But, rugby has for a long time in Northern Ireland been perceived as an upper class game for Protestants.

There have been other glimmers of understanding from time to time. The last forty years has seen the phenomenal success of Northern GAA teams like Down, Derry, Armagh and Tyrone. Kevin Mussen, the captain of the Down team in the early 1960’s, tells the story when they beat Kerry in the All Ireland final that his local Protestant postman says to him” I am glad ye beat those buggers.”

Anthems and flags are flash points that demarcate territory for one tribal community over the other. For example, the Northern GAA followers would show intense devotion to Ireland. As well, they would have as a sort of political statement and it would seem that they would show more respect for the singing of the Irish National anthem before football games than their Southern counterparts. Loyal Unionists, in like manner, would sing “God Save the Queen” before and even during and after soccer games in the mainly Loyalist Windsor Park Belfast.

Parts of Northern Ireland seem more British than Britain itself. This, the most determinedly British element of the United Kingdom, is to be found in loyalist strongholds in the North where the pavements are often painted red white and blue. In strongly Nationalist areas, one would see Irish flags and murals depicting the struggle against British rule. Then, to confound everyone, sometimes, the same images and symbols can be used by diverse political and sporting groupings. The famous red hand of Ulster with the red cross of St George has been used by Loyalist political groupings and the Ulster rugby team and even the Tyrone G.A.A. teams. In fact, I am sure few diehard Republicans were aware that Eamon De Valera a former President of Ireland always dreamt of having rugby and hurling as the national games of all of Ireland.

If you draw a diagonal line between Belfast and Derry then at about half way, you will find the town of Maghera near the bottom of the Glenshane Pass. I grew up three miles from Maghera in the town land of Drummuck which was famous for the five ‘P’ priests, poitin, plants, potatoes and pigs.

Four hundred years ago in 1607, the O’Neill’s, the native Irish leaders of Ulster, left in the Flight of the Earls thus setting the stage for the plantations when the native Irish had their lands confiscated. Before the Plantations of the early 17 century, Ulster was the most Gaelic part of Ireland and resisted English colonial ambitions. This was a time of intense religious divisions all over Europe. But in Northern Ireland because of isolation fear, insecurity and stability, these bitter divisions have existed right up to the present time.

During the plantation of Ulster, twelve different London companies took over most of County Londonderry/ Derry. Six miles to the North of our house, there is market town of Kilrea operated by Mercers Company; four miles to the east, Bellaghy (Home of Seamus Heaney) which was founded by the Vinters Company; nine miles to the west, Draperstown (known locally as Ballinascreen) founded by Drapers company; and finally, seven miles to the South Magherafelt established by the Salters Conpany. In fact at one time, the company had a castle in Magherafelt where town center Diamond is located.

When I was growing up family, school church and the local GAA club coalesced as one unity. With all members of my family, I attended the local Dreenan School in old historic parish of Lavey which takes in part of the old Termoneeney Parish and part of Maghera. Our area had, for many years, a very strong Catholic ethos. This was shown by the number of priests and nuns in our area and immediate family. As well, we were steeped in local Irish and Gaelic football traditions. In fact for many years, my aunt taught an adult Irish language class which was attended by Mr. Dickie, who was Protestant foreman from Clarks Linen Mill at Upperlands. I remember this vividly because he came to class in secret. Then, he would bring his bicycle into the kitchen so that no one knew he was attending the local Gaelic League Irish Language class.

Radio and comics were crucial to my early development as a sports fanatic. As I listened to all the soccer commentaries on BBC Home Service and the famous GAA commentaries of Micheal O’Hehir on Radio Athlone. Another radio voice, which I heard often, was that of John Arlott doing cricket commentaries of various Test matches coming live to our house from the exotic places like the Oval, Old Trafford and Lords. It has been pointed out to me recently by a member of my own family that back then I once listened to a cricket radio commentary in the moss when we were supposed to be footing turf.

I have to admit I was spellbound by Arlott’s voice and a whole new vocabulary like rain stopped play, adjourned for tea, silly mid on. I remember the bowling exploits of Laker and Lock and the batting heroics of Colin Cowdrey, Peter May and others. Then at the local library, I could get books on Don Bradman , W.G. Grace and many other cricket heroes.

Another highlight for me was when Gibson’s bread van came to Joe Mooney’s each Thursday with my regular comic order. Then, I could follow quintessential English working class heroes like Roy Race of Melchester and Alf Tupper of the track in the Tiger and Rover comics. My early interest in sport was greatly facilitated by watching the F.A. soccer cup final and Peter Dimmock’s Sportweek on Wednesday on television at the home of the local mill owner James Paul in the nearby predominantly Unionist village of Culnady. I played Gaelic for the nearby Lavey schoolboys and minor footballers. However, I was asked to play Junior football Gaelic football for Tirgarvil who had a shortage of players and their ground was situated in the Unionist community of Upperlands. The team provocatively used the green, white and yellow county colors of Offaly on their jerseys.

Even though soccer was a banned foreign game, I followed the fortunes of Manchester United and their star goal keeper Harry Gregg. Even though he grew up Unionist village of Tobermore when he came back home each year, he was a our local hero to everybody. Another soccer celebrity was Martin O’Neill the famous Northern Ireland footballer and former Glasgow Celtic manager who grew up in the nearby community of Kilrea.

In a recent issue of the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Eilis Ni Dhuibne describes her journey of negotiating the boundaries of different worlds.[7] Roy Foster refers to the various themes of Sebastian Barry “of people left at the margins and interstices.”[8] Foster adds how the connection between allegiance and identity is a common theme in Irish history. Take it closer to my own high school situation when one November night I attended a local Manchester Martyrs torchlight parade organized by the local Gaelic club and then the following morning I would wear a poppy for Remembrance Day at Rainey school. Talk about two persons in one. Seamus Heaney reflects on this in a lecture at Oxford University (1993), "The fact I grew up in a minority in N. Ireland and was educated within the dominant British culture. My identity was emphasized rather than eroded by being maintained in such circumstances."[9]

Back in 1950s, the cultural historical divisions between the two different religious communities made it impossible for any playing of a common sport. So given my strongly identified Nationalist background, it might be of interest to explain how I stepped across the fence. How was it possible that I would attend a ‘planter’ grammar school and play the ‘garrison ‘game of rugby? One life altering event occurred for me at year seven of elementary school in the spring of 1956 when I failed the 11 plus standardized intelligence test prescribed for all schools in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. In point of fact, the 11 plus was used by educational authorities who saw it ‘as a means to determine whether a pupil will be suited to the academic rigors of a grammar school education’. My two elder brothers who passed this exam then had a scholarship to attend a Catholic boarding school in north Antrim.

The failure to pass this qualifying exam meant a huge financial burden on parents if they still wanted their son or daughter to attend boarding school as a fee paying student. At that time when I was growing up, there was no Catholic grammar school for boys in the South Derry until late 1960’s and then St Patrick’s High School was established in the nearby town Maghera. Therefore, in the fall of 1956, my parents had me registered as a fee paying student at the local Rainey Endowed Grammar School in Magherafelt. Prior to attending Rainey, my parents had to get permission (blessing) from our local parish priest and he was very happy to do so.

Castledawson Presbyterian ChurchThis year 2007 will see the three hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the school by Hugh Rainey who was an iron smelter and wealthy merchant in the area, He was an elder in the Castledawson Presbyterian Church and in his will dated April 11 1707 he devoted one half of his estate to a charity school for 24 boys.Rainey Endowed School

Sons of parents of good report and reduced to poverty. After three years instruction, the boys were to be given a suit of clothes and two pounds and five shillings for an apprentice fee.[10]

In December 2005, Mr. R. M. Robinson, the present Headmaster of the school, outlines in a brief to the N. Ireland Affairs committee explains the rationale for the school, "This school was established at the time of the Penal Laws in Ireland on the Hugh Rainey’s principle that it should be 'Open to all who would come after me'.”[11]

Since that time, the school has been a place of education for South Derry Protestants, Catholics and other ethnic groups. Past pupils have gone on to be ministers and priests unionists and nationalist politicians. In fact, I attended school with Willie McCrea of the D.U.P. In 1896, the Anglican Archbishop of Armagh decided Rainey should be an Anglican Church school. However, the Presbyterian Minster and Parish Priest of Magherafelt successfully argued in the Dublin High Court that to become a church school as proposed was contrary to the founding principles of the school. [12]

Thus since 1896, Rainey has a written constitution of being “open to all”. This is very unique in a Northern Ireland situation and apart from the “Royal’ Schools Rainey Endowed is one of the oldest grammar schools in all of Northern Ireland. During Rainey’s long history in the community, the school has demonstrated its mutual respect and tolerance for others.

Special credit for the success of Rainey School is no doubt due to the leadership of all the various headmasters and the very academic and talented teachers who on staff and indeed a number had doctorate degrees in their specialty areas. Mr. John Alexander Calvin a long time headmaster of Rainey went beyond the call of duty to help poor Catholic families attend the school. The Calvin family came from County Monaghan and his father was Church of Ireland Minister. From my own experience at the school, W. R. Todd was a progressive headmaster who showed great compassion and understanding of the local community. He came to Rainey after a very successful teaching career at Methodist College Belfast. It would appear to me that successive headmasters of Rainey always demanded high academic standards and yet at the same time cultivated a spirit of openness and fairness to all.

In late August of 1956, the aging headmaster of the school Dr. Fazackerley met with my mother and myself in his office for my one and only parent teacher conference. My mother remarked that I worked on the farm and played Gaelic football. The Headmaster took off his distinctive dark rimmed spectacles and said in a broad Lancashire accent, "If he can work on the farm he can work here and we always know that Gaelic footballers are good rugby players as well.” Then, he added, "the school has special religious class Catholic students."

On all church holidays, Catholic students were given permission to attend 11 o’clock mass in the local Church of the Assumption. About forty-five Catholic students would walk about through center of the town in full school uniform that include school blazer, tie and cap to attend Mass at the other end of the town.

Every morning, Dr. Gwilliam, an English convert to Catholicism, gave Doctrine lessons for twenty-five minutes in his math department room. His scholarly treatises on the obscure part of church history were irrelevant to us. However, his most severe admonishment was not ever in any circumstances to date anyone but Catholic girls. This was a constant theme to us. It, certainly, was not helpful advice to us as teenage Catholic boys as little encouragement was even given to dating at all. We studied together in a school which only had Protestant boys and girls.

This was a time of Vatican II and a time of confusion. As a Catholic, I regret to say we had little respect or any appreciation for the many bibles I would see stored in the school desks. Up to this point in my development, the Bible was not part of Catholic teaching in any major way. In our parish church, we were asked to help with the responses in English in place of Latin. At the same time, my priest Uncle, who was a priest and thought I would be a priest, contacted the school to arrange for me to start Latin halfway through the year. This meant changing of classes and an extra year to my schooling.

Most of friends were average students and of all persuasions. We always avoided any religious topics. Once a few Protestant friends debated birth control as it was in the news. As Catholics, we were against it even though we didn’t know have a clue of what it was about.

I couldn’t wait for school to start and try out for the Under 13 XV rugby team. Until now, I had never touched a rugby ball in my life. Our first games master was the bushy red haired Mister Blackmore, known to us a Ropey, for his strict discipline. ”Touch your toes” he would say because he accepted no excuse about leaving your rugby gear on the bus or at the bus stop. He always had a slipper to give you a suitable punishment on your rear end .After school practices took place us up to the old pitch out the Draperstown Road. Our training field had a pronounced hollow or dip in the middle of the pitch. If there was any heavy rain, it meant a lake formed. Once a game had to be arranged on another pitch. Drills were intense on learning the basics of the games like catching, kicking and dribbling the ball. Games day was on Wednesday afternoon. A number of school buses brought us to Hatrick’s farm near the village of Desertmartin where the Old Boys Rugby club had two large pitches. Often cattle and sheep had to driven off the playing pitches through a hedge into nearby fields and a shovel was used to pickup and manure droppings.

Most of the Gaelic players had little difficulty in kicking of catching the rugby ball. However, it took sometime to pass the ball correctly and nerve to be able to tackle an oncoming player. I knew I had to develop this skill in order to secure a place on school teams. We were always told the bigger they are then the harder they fall! Really good Gaelic players, who adapted to the oval game, often played in key positions of scrum half ,out half and full back positions. It took sometime to learn all the rules and tactics of playing competitive rugby. In the early days of rugby at Rainey schools, sides had been very weak and could not compete with power house rugby schools in Belfast. At that time the school first XV would play the second XV teams of other schools.

With more Gaelic players at the school in the mid 1950s, Rainey teams now played on par against other schools. (First XV meeting First XV) Even though Rainey was a relatively small school it fielded six teams each week -under 13, under 14 .Medallion, Colts XV, Second XV and the First XV .During the course of a season, each team had about 12 games depending if there had been any severe frost. The school had regular fixtures each year with Dalriada School Ballymoney, Limavady Grammar School. Foyle College Derry, Ballymena Academy, Coleraine A.I. and Omagh Academy.

To play any of the leading Belfast schools was always a challenge and this included games against Belfast Royal Academy, Methodist College, Royal Belfast Academical Institution and Regent House schools. No doubt some individual upper or middle class Catholic boys attended Protestant schools in Northern Ireland and may even have played rugby but what makes the Rainey school situation unique is that a small number of Catholics were such a vital core of all school rugby teams.

The Ulster Schools Rugby trophy is the second oldest rugby trophy in the world. It has been dominated by Belfast urban schools “Methody” and “Inst.” During the 1960s, Rainey School rugby had a golden era of unprecedented success. In 1961, the school lost a close first round to RBAI but in 1962 the school team reached the semi- final for the first time and lost to Belfast Royal Academy. The 1962 yearbook stated, “For those who judge success or failure by the by cold statistics, the Club played 88 matches, won 39 drew 16 and lost 33.Suffice to say all sides played the game with great spirit and everyone enjoyed their rugby.

In 1963, the school reached the final for the first time ever and drew with Belfast Royal Academy. Two years later, Rainey reached the final again and lost to Campbell College Belfast but in 1967 Rainey won the trophy beating beat Methodist College Belfast 9 points to six. Then in 1970, the school reached the final again to lose to old rivals Inst. The 1967 team had an amazing record going unbeaten in 32 games drawing one game and having a total point’s score of 574 with only 76 against. As well, Harry Steele,a member of this team, went on to play for Ireland and the British Lions.

What factors contributed to this Golden Era? There is no doubt that rugby coach Jimmy Cowan helped in the rebuilding process in the late 1950s.The construction of new playing pitches in 1958 gave the Rainey first class playing fields for all teams. In may ways, the greatest factor in developing the sport came in the fall of 1960s when four new teachers joined the staff Dawson McConkey, Wes McKee, Jimmy Boyle and Kenny McIlrath and each of them played senior rugby in Belfast, Ballymena and Dungannon respectively. Their dedication and excellent coaching skills had a huge impact on Rainey’s success in rugby during the 1960s. However, some rugby broadcasters in Northern Ireland have attributed the success of the school in the Ulster School rugby Championship in this era to, in the fact, that Gaelic players formed at least one third of these teams. In fact, the Ulster Cup winning up side of 1967 included seven Gaelic players on the panel. That same year the school captured the Linenhall sevens tournament and the 1967 School year book list five Gaelic players as a part of the wining seven players. ( Adrain McGuckian, J. Scullion, Pat Shaw, Kiernan Hanson and Hugh Donnely (among this group was Adrian McGuckian the famous Ballinderry and Derry county player and later GAA coach of St. Patrick High School team in the nearby town of Maghera). In fact, this school went on to capture five All Ireland Hogan Cup GAA Championships. In the meantime, Rainey did win more Ulster Schools cup in 1982 by defeating close rivals Ballymena Academy by six points to four. Undoubtedly, the key to growth of Rainey school as a rugby was a combination of factors coming together small due to improved facilities, better coaching and as well a nucleus of Gaelic players on all school teams.

In all my time, no overt favoritism was shown to any person because of their religious beliefs. My first term at Rainey marked the start of the short lived IRA bombing campaign caused some tensions and just before Christmas the local Courthouse in Magherafelt was bombed.

(During the Troubles of the 1982 Wilbert Kennedy a popular young Protestant and fellow student of mine was killed by an IRA bombing at the Diamond in Magherafelt. His death was felt greatly as he was a popular member of the Old Boys Rugby Club)

During the Troubles, and especially during the death of two local hunger strikers, there were tensions in the community and the school alike, but that is beyond the scope of this study. Coaches were always anxious to have the best team selected for all games.

Catholics were over represented on all Rainey School rugby teams. This can not be seen as tokenism because many of the Gaelic players who played rugby at the school level went on to play top class county Gaelic football for Tyrone, Derry and Antrim at the minor and senior level. Lawrence Diamond, Frankie O’Loane and Hugh Donnelly from Bellaghy were all members of the Bellaghy Wolfe Tones who won the All Ireland Club Championship in 1972.[13]

Adrain McGuckian (Ballinderry) played for Derry senior GAA teams. The famous Tyrone player Frank McGuigan form Arboe honed his rugby skill at Rainey Endowed and today two of his sons play for Tyrone today. In fact, a large number of Catholic students went on to play rugby for Rainey Old Boys. A few others like Oliver and Kiernan Hanson played senior rugby for Ballymena. Former Raineyite Adrain McGuckian is now a member of the Donegal senior GAA coaching panel and Gerry Donnelly from Newbridge is the PRO for Derry GAA board. Finally, I have shown that the role of sport at Rainey has been an excellent example for the community at large and clearly this school was an institution clearly ahead of its time in the 20th century.

It is dangerous to draw conclusions from personal reminiscences of my own school experiences which are unique .So, on a wider sphere I will make some observations instead. In many divided societies, sport has been a meeting place to breakdown barriers for example in the United States in 1960s and South Africa in the 1990s. In Northern Ireland, there is no doubt in the past that sports have not played any significant role because back then of all the barriers and misunderstandings. But, the past decade in Northern Ireland has been about the Peace Process and community building and there seems to be much good news on the horizon with a number of outside forces coming into play.

The advent of Sky Sports and the internet world means now that local sporting events like the Ulster GAA championships, soccer internationals from Windsor Park can be seen worldwide and, of course, in Northern Ireland. This increased awareness of other sporting associations will in the future foster mutual respect The amount of goodwill generated by the playing of the recent rugby Internationals at Croke Park has been very positive for the GAA. Paradoxically, in a global world local, sporting events will have a new audience both at home and away. I can’t stress enough of that implications of this new awareness are now being felt already in Northern Ireland.

Increased recognition of other sporting groups will foster developments in sharing of facilities, expertise and increased fellowship. This is happening now. For example, the Australian rugby coach at Portora Royal School helping to train Sligo GAA team .

Oran Kearney, a former member of Ballymoney Setanta Gaelic Club, now plays soccer for Linfield in Windsor Park. Today, rugby is now being played at some Catholic schools. The most notable example being at St. Paul’s School in Bessbrook. Such gestures and initiatives are a great start. However, there is, of course, a danger that some efforts are only taken for the novelty effect and may not be long lasting. The playing of some rugby in St. Columbs College in Derry has led to an upwardly mobile middle class Catholics taking up the game in Derry City. F14

The equality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement outlines that local councils must provide playing fields for all sporting associations in their area. In the past, Unionist dominated Councils have failed to provide playing pitches for the GAA community it serves. This new cooperation in the area of sport will pay huge dividends in fostering a more united and cohesive society. The part sport plays in building community is now being realized. Recently, various senior rugby clubs in Northern Ireland have made attempts in introducing rugby to all sections of the community. In fact, the gesture of Ballymena rugby club making their facilities at Eaton Park available to the county Antrim hurling teams. Society must encourage and support this increased awareness which can never be mandated or legislated.

So on many fronts the outlook seems good for the future. I leave you with these words of Seamus Heaney. Religion never mentioned here of course!

“You know them by their eyes” hold your tongue.

“One side‘s as bad as the other” never worse.

Christ, it’s near time that small leak was sprung.
F15


I hope I have sprung a leak!

1 A.T.Q. Stewart, The Narrow Ground p. 180.

2 Heaney S., Finders Keepers p. 55.

3 Buckley A.D and Kenny M.C. Negotiating Identity p.5.

4 O’Dwyer, The history of Cricket in County Kilkenny.

5 Tierney M. G.A.A. Centenary booklet.

6 Mandle, W.F. The Gaelic Athletic Association p.194.

7- Christine St Peter .An interview with Elis O’Dhuibhne.p.68-75.

8 Foster, R.” Something of us all will remain” in Essays of Sebastian Barry p.183.

9 Heaney S, The Crisis of Identity p.32.

10 Rainey School web site.

11 Home Affairs Presentation Belfast Royal Academy .p.

12 The Rainey School Magazine 1962 p.21.

13 Correspondence with Gerry Donnelly Derry GAA Public Relation.

14 Hassan D, Sport Identity and Irish Nationalism. P. 136.

15 Heaney S. North p.53.


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