So, this summer we set off to meet up with family in Sweden and went to see the local football team, Kalmar FF, play a Europa Cup game against none other than Cliftonville FC. It was a two legged with the second game in Sweden on 12th July. We went along to the ticket office and before I knew it my brother in law was volunteering my good self to take part in the pre-match build up to be played on the Kalmar FF football channel – apparently being relayed back to the Cliftonville Supporters club at home. Having checked that complimentary tickets were all part of the package yours truly obliged, and spent the next couple of days refreshing my in-depth, ahem, knowledge of Irish League football. We turned up for the interview and they said what they were really intrigued with was the fact that Cliftonville are a ‘Catholic’ team, and ‘are there Catholic teams and Protestant teams in Ireland’… and I thought, here we go, it’s the 12th of July, and they’re inviting a lad from a Protestant housing estate in Portadown to speak about the religious proclivities of Irish league football, in a program being replayed back to the supporters in North Belfast! Do I want to be able to return to my home in Belfast or do I want to be let back into Portadown… mmm (So, I just made sure the conversation was channelled to the merits of 4-4-2, compact defending and the merits of away goals…)… sport, religion and politics…
24 February 2007. I was there. It was Croke Park and Ireland were playing England at rugby. Ireland absolutely annihilated them. It was wonderful. I was seated between two friends, one from Dublin and the other from England. The national anthems began to get played. My English friend proudly sang the anthem of my enemy for the day, even though I’d been brought up to sing this anthem my whole life. My Irish friend was able to sing the anthem of my team for the day, even though I’d been brought up (culturally at least) to see this as the song of the enemy my whole life. What do you do… apart from standing and waiting for Ireland’s call… sport, religion, nationality, politics..
These past two weeks two icons of the sporting world, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, have found themselves in the eye of a storm. Who do they represent should they play in the Olympics in 2016? Are they Irish or are they British, especially coming from a jurisdiction that allows them to be both at the same time? Two sporting heroes now concerned with alienating one community or the other simply for playing a game in which, up until now, they have simply enthralled and brought delight to both. It is too easy to say that it is all a load of nonsense and who they represent doesn’t matter. The world doesn’t work like that, either positively or negatively. Positively, the Olympics that have just finished were made all the more exhilarating because of the success of Team GB. There was a sense of pride, of supporting ‘your own’, of wanting to get as high as possible on the league table of nations. We cannot simply dismiss the identity that gathered around what it meant to be Team GB. Negatively, who we represent seems to matter in all sorts of incongruous ways. Sticking with football I have memories of being at Irish league games in which those from a catholic background were fully supported by their own supporters, but barracked by the opposing Protestant fans. Weirdly, each saw fit to sing offensive songs directed at those of a different religion who played for the opposition, but to support those of a different religion who played for their own team. It’s not just religious, it can be nationalistic as well. A former work colleague who supported the Tyrone Gaelic football team used to speak of the bile and vitriol that would be chanted at the ‘Northerners’ when they played on Southern turf. Shared religion, but from different parts of the island. Negatively, tribalism spills over into hatred gathered around whatever sub-group happens to be important to us at that precise moment in time.
John Lennon once asked us to imagine a world without any countries, with nothing to live or die for. It seems he simply missed the human capacity to erect walls even when there are none. It is not the existence of boundaries that define us, it is how we live and treat others who are not from our group. In the Revelation of Jesus we are asked to imagine every tribe, tongue, nation and language, standing before the throne of God. We are not given to ridding the world of such differences, but rather to recognise them and rejoice in the diversity of it all.
So what about poor Rory and Graeme.. whatever they decide they should be supported by all. They have brought enormous joy to everyone on this island, North and South, Protestant and Catholic, and like other Olympians who have gone before them to represent Ireland or Team GB, deserve our support and best wishes… and by the way lads, this weekend we’re all Europeans anyway.. so bring the Ryder cup back home!