McIlroy helps tee up yet another border conflict

Sat, Sep 15, 2012, 01:00

Admitting that he felt more British than Irish may have hurt some people, but the world Rory McIlroy hails from is a place created by partition and defined by the Troubles

IF ONLY RORY MCILROY had the consolation of poetry. Had McIlroy or one of his minders been familiar with the work of the Belfast poet WR Rodgers he would have been able to use Rodgers’s wry line about the hazards of dual nationality on this island, about how he felt he had “a foot in both graves”.

The sad, funny reality of that sharp remark might have stilled the wave of questions that swamped the 23-year-old golfer, or might have created a pause long enough for McIlroy to collect his thoughts and discuss with those close to him the likely reaction to his decision. His choice may have been the same, but it would have come with a thorough explanation attached, one sensitive to differing views. People would have understood, or understood more.

What instead came forth last Monday morning was unexpectedly blunt. The line that made ears prick up was: “Maybe it was the way I was brought up, I don’t know, but I have always felt more of a connection with the UK than with Ireland.”

As of September 10 2012 this is McIlroy’s truth and in a sporting week that has taken in the shocking Hillsborough report, no-one can complain about receiving the truth.

Those cherishing the idea that McIlroy would declare himself Irish by opting to play for Ireland’s Olympic team in 2016 were stung. They pointed to McIlroy’s sporting education and funding by the Golfing Union of Ireland. It is a 32-county body, and McIlroy never chose not to represent it during his adolescence. In fact he wore the Irish colours with pride and, of course, success. He was an Irish golfer.

The GUI did not claim him – it is not golf’s style – and that is perhaps why you could sense the anxiety in McIlroy’s words when he said: “What makes it such an awful position to be in is I have grown up my whole life playing for Ireland under the Golfing Union of Ireland umbrella. But the fact is, I’ve always felt more British than Irish.”

The resulting anger didn’t have its roots in sport. It wasn’t the possible loss of a gold medal opportunity in Brazil four years from now that got people worked up. It hurt many people inside and outside Northern Ireland to learn that this was the honest, gut feeling of a Co Down Catholic.

At the personal level McIlroy has a lifestyle that whisks him from New York to Abu Dhabi to Beijing. When he won his first significant trophy it was in Miami, Florida. He was nine years old. With a bag over his shoulder, he has been on the road ever since, and he is now a superstar citizen of the world.

There is a photograph of Miami – along with many others – on the walls of Holywood Golf Club. That is the cosy, welcoming clubhouse to which McIlroy will forever return. But his life is elsewhere.

Travel may have given McIlroy a particular sense of himself and of, as he phrased it in the open letter on his website, “my cultural identity”.

The culture to which McIlroy returns is east Belfast, north Down and both Unionist and unionist. The local MP is always a shade of Unionist; Stormont and Carson are down the road.

Materially there is little in the area that speaks of Irish nationalism: 2.7 per cent was the combined vote for the SDLP and Sinn Féin at the last election. It is on the island of Ireland but it is British.

McIlroy comes from a place created by partition and defined and hardened by the Troubles. It is almost strange that it has taken a comment from McIlroy for people to look anew at the profound impact of the Border.

Decades of differences have been allowed to grow. Holywood feels a long way from, say, south Tyrone, and in more than one way. It feels a long way from Ardoyne.

That McIlroy has absorbed Britishness may be a result of the era in which he grew up (he was born in May 1989), of his education at a mixed grammar school, and of his family experience.

More than a decade before he was born, McIlroy had a great-uncle murdered by loyalist paramilitaries in the area of east Belfast where he lived. It is called Orangefield. Joseph McIlroy was killed because he was a Catholic man in a Protestant street. But if the horror of that event inspired furious nationalism within Rory’s parents, Gerry and Rosaleen, it does not seem to have been passed on. Rory McIlroy has an MBE.

For another young (northern) sportsman born in 1989 — just 12 days before McIlroy — it is different. The soccer player James McClean comes from Derry (not Londonderry), and, unlike McIlroy, McClean gives the impression of being brought up in an environment where “the six counties” was part of everyday vocabulary and the news came from Dublin, not London.

An obvious difference between the two men is that McClean has a working-class Derry background as opposed to the suburban life of McIlroy. Yet McClean represented Northern Ireland at schoolboy level and then sparked furore and hatred by choosing to play for “Ireland” at senior level — or “the Republic of Ireland” as the team is known where McIlroy comes from, where soccer is called football. McClean’s vision of himself is of an Irishman, not a Northern Irishman.

Sport occasionally reminds us that there is more than one shade of Irishman.

But even if McIlroy does join Team GB at the 2016 Olympics, at some point he’ll be called Paddy or Spud. He’ll realise then that, in the eyes of the British, he’s Irish.

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