McIlroy helps tee up yet another border conflict
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.