Extending appeal of Gaelic games in North still uphill task
Due to effective cultural segregation, games remain almost completely ignored by unionists
Former Derry player Joe Brolly, now a GAA pundit. “A lot of our boys play rugby as well, the thing is there’s no barriers when you play a sport at a young age. My own son plays rugby for Malone, there’s no issues and it’s very normal for him.” Photograph: Andrew Paton/Inpho
To the southern mind it probably seems prehistoric and idiotic and that’s because it is.
If a young child, devoid of bitterness and historical baggage, carried a hurl and a sliotar in a Unionist area in Northern Ireland, they would be inadvertently still making a political statement to some people. That statement would be: I subscribe to the idea of a united Ireland and this sport I play is my vehicle to profess these thoughts.
In Northern Ireland, Gaelic games are ubiquitous, you drive past club and county grounds with the frequency that a midwestern American will pass baseball diamonds on his way to work. They are in the pages of the Irish News and sometimes seen on the BBC when you are finishing your Sunday lunch.
Yet almost uniformly in the unionist community they are completely ignored, whether through fear or ambivalence.
Questions need to be answered on both sides of the divide. Is it purely Unionist reluctance that ensures the GAA in the north is almost exclusively represented by those from the nationalist community? Or are the GAA content to stay within their own comfy shell and refuse to extend an olive branch that may be swatted away?
I grew up in a Unionist community in east Belfast, largely shielded from any potential sectarian nonsense on my part by two open-minded parents.
I grew up a Protestant with a love of all sports. My father is originally from Dublin and on a bimonthly basis we would cross the border to see my grandmother. She was acutely aware of my obsession for sport, and would carefully save my stickers of footballers from Cornflakes packets for me.
The footballers weren’t any I had seen before; they were wiry men in O’Neill’s jerseys representing their counties in Gaelic football who were seen on her black and white television on RTÉ. The game was alien to me, but I had my favourite, as schoolboys are wont to do. My Dad was a barrister with Joe Brolly, a flying forward for Derry. I always made sure I kept my Joe stickers, confident in the knowledge that they weren’t going to be strong currency for swapping in the school playground back in Belfast.
Seventeen years later, after a busy day in court, Brolly is full of enthusiasm about the role the GAA can play in extending the hand of friendship to the unionist community.
“Let me tell you a story which illustrates the work that’s being done. Ryan Feeney, the head of community relations within the Ulster GAA, and Dr Martin McAleese agreed to meet what was essentially the command of the UVF, described as ‘community leaders’. They were extremely keen to see the GAA model of voluntarism and how this model could engage their communities.
“The meeting went very well and someone asked Jackie McDonald (senior loyalist) what would have happened if Martin and Ryan had turned up there 20 years ago talking about the GAA. ‘We’d have killed Ryan and kidnapped Martin,’ he joked. It’s extraordinary, this happened in 2009, a leader of the GAA and the Irish president’s husband at the time being welcomed into the loyalist community.”
The loyalist command not only learned about the GAA that day on the Shankill Road, they were so enthused by the organisation that they attended the All-Ireland hurling final between Kilkenny and Tipperary, travelling from Belfast in their Linfield jerseys.
Brolly coaches children at St Brigid’s GAC in south Belfast three times a week and sees a lot of his players now involved in rugby at schools with traditionally overwhelming Protestant populations. He sees this shared sporting future as a positive thing for the north.
“A lot of our boys play rugby as well, the thing is there’s no barriers when you play a sport at a young age. My own son plays rugby for Malone, there’s no issues and it’s very normal for him. Some Protestants see the GAA as something to be concerned about and that’s where there’s an issue.”
Ryan Feeney excuses himself repeatedly for not finding time to complete the interview. He is a busy man, engaging with the ongoing flag dispute, community work and appearing on BBC Radio amongst other things.
He grew up as a keen Gaelic footballer in Derry and is adamant to prove his organisation can lead the way in building bridges in a divided nation. He has met former loyalist paramilitaries and community leaders in his goal to foster understanding.