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 we 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.
THE DIVIDED SOCIETY IN 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.
THE ROLE OF SPORT IN A DIVIDED SOCIETY
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.
THE ROLE OF THE GAA
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.
GROWING UP IN SOUTH DERRY
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.
MY EARLY INTEREST IN SPORT
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.
CROSSING THE CULTURAL BOUNDARIES
In a recent issue of the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Eilis Ni Dhuibne describes her journey of negotiating the boundaries of different worlds. Roy Foster refers to the various themes of Sebastian Barry “of people left at the margins and interstices.” 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."
FOUNDATION OF RAINEY SCHOOL
This 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.
THE ROLE OF HEADMASTERS
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.
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.
LEARNING TO PLAY RUGBY
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.
GOLDEN AGE OF RAINEY RUGBY
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.”
INTER-COUNTY GAA STARS FROM RAINEY
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.
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.
1 A.T.Q. Stewart, The Narrow Ground p. 180.
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