Flame comes South on whistle-stop tour
The torch represents all that is good about sport and the southern relay was another small step towards reconciliation
AMID A persistent drizzle and an excited crowd, a nondescript line in the asphalt on the old Dublin to Belfast road became a symbol of how things have changed on this island.
“The moment”, as the organisers of the London Olympic Games described it, when boxer Wayne McCullough – a Belfast-born Protestant – passed on the Olympic flame to his former team-mate Michael Carruth – a Dublin-born Catholic – on the Louth-Down Border meant a lot to those from the region who had come to see it.
“It was a historic moment for Louth and for everybody else in the country,” said Oliver Tully, chairman of Louth County Council. “To have got the torch across the Border and to see the two communities come together and work together . . . and everybody enjoying themselves was incredible. It shows how far we have come in such a short time.”
The moment took place shortly after 6.30am at a remote spot in Carrickcarnon, against a backdrop of green hills, grey clouds and a road-sign stating “money changed, 200 metres”.
The 1992 Olympic silver medalist McCullough, travelling south from Newry with a group of students from the Mourne area, approached that symbolic line in the road and held his burning torch up to the unlit one in the hand of the waiting Carruth, who took gold at the same Games.
There was a short delay in transferring the flame, understandable given the wet weather, but once the crowd cheered wholeheartedly, it was clear that the Olympic flame had entered the Republic.
The boxers – who became good friends during their Olympic experience but have seldom met since McCullough moved to Las Vegas – exchanged smiles, hugs and even a kiss, planted on the Carruth’s head in the manner of a quick jab.
“To carry the Olympic torch across the Border, I think, is a big step for everybody,” McCullough said. “There’s peace in Northern Ireland at the minute and this is another step forward. I’m from the Shankill Road and in 1988 I carried the Irish Tricolour at the opening ceremony in Seoul, and that was a big step back then.”
Among the spectators was the head of the London Olympic Organising Committee Lord Sebastian Coe, who wore a green tie and is said to have noted his links to Ballyragget, Co Kilkenny, when talks over bringing the relay into the Republic were held.
He watched that handover with Minister for of State for Sport Michael Ring, Northern Ireland Minister of Sport Carál Ní Chuilín, Olympic Council of Ireland president Pat Hickey and scores of men, women and children.
They were also joined by a group dressed as the army of Queen Maeve of Connaught – complete with an Irish wolfhound, shields, swords and spears – who are re-enacting the Táin March.
Carruth, who was pressed for time as he was due to present the flame to President Michael D Higgins in Howth a little over an hour later, said it was a “fantastic occasion for everyone – North and South”.
“The Olympic torch is synonymous with everything that is good about sport in the world,” he said.
And, with that, it was on to the convoy to bring the flame, and all it represented, south for its whistle-stop tour of Dublin.