Wednesday, May 14, 2014

North - Sport in Ulster II

Northern Ireland Sport, Ulster Troubles, Football

Some time ago I discussed the historic football match played at Windsor Park Belfast on 16th April 1975 between Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian Football Association had agreed to take part in the first international match to be played in Northern Ireland after four years of sustained terrorist violence and civil disorder had transported the entirity of  such fixtures to England.

The result was a 1-0 victory for the home team who had provided a guard of honour for the visitors at the start and as against a deafening welcome to both sides from the Belfast supporters. Needless to say that in a period of sustained racist abuse of the Eastern European population of Northern Ireland at present it is well to recall this brave 1975 gesture alongside the Polish contribution to the RAF defence of Ulster itself during the Second World War. Seven Polish Air Force graves lie tonight in Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast and three at Ballcranbeg Cemetery in County Down.

The importance of Ulster sport to both a sense of societal normality and providing an albeit qualified framework for communal bonding has been discussed in earlier posts on George Best and Mary Peters. The entire subject was reviewed in depth in Teddie Jamieson's superb Whose Side Are You On? Sport, The Troubles and Me which was published in 2011.

However the apogee of this social phenomena may well have been reached last weekend with the success of the Giro d'Italia races across Greater Belfast, along the Antrim Coast and through County Armagh into the Irish Republic. This was without doubt the biggest sporting event to be held in Northern Ireland since the termination of the RAC Tourist Trophy competitions in 1955 at the Dundrod Circuit.

One especially memorable piece of television footage captured from a helicopter during the Saturday event was that of twenty or so horses galloping along Carnlough beach in tandem with the cyclists - Carnlough being the home village of current Liverpool Football Club manager Brendan Rodgers. The riders accompanied the peloton at various points on the route including at Dunluce Castle - captured within the centrefold of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy album - and the equally beautiful ruins of Kenbane Castle on the Causeway coast. The events were held in honour of the McDonnell clan of Antrim who controlled the area in the 16th Century. It represented "safe passage" to the cyclists through Sonny Boy McDonnell's territory of old. It was a marvellously conceived and executed complement to the atmosphere surrounding the entire proceedings.

The endgame battle of history in Ulster looks set to run a complex course for many more years to come. However the success of the Giro d'Italia - and similar moving events in Northern Ireland last weekend marking the sad passing of the extraordinarily brave young cancer victim Oscar Knox - truly suggests that the majority of the people are now fundamentally running ahead of both Ulster politicians and Northern Irish regional politics alike towards an pragmatically inclusive tomorrow. That race has clearly been won.