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

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?

Sectarian nonsense
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.”

Flag dispute
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.

“Our games are indigenous to Ireland and have been on this island for 2000 years, we have a responsibility as an organisation to bring them outside of their normal boundaries. From my point of view, GAA and politics, they are completely separate, we are concerned with expanded sport in the community.”

Feeney has a difficult role, a proud Gael who cherishes his country’s games, he balances this against engaging with a community that finds his organisation anything but apolitical.

Kevin Lynch GAA club in Dungiven, County Derry, is named after a former player who died as a hunger striker in the Troubles and is constantly used as an example by the unionist community as to intransigent ways. The conflict in Northern Ireland is one where every argument and hypothesis has a counter response waiting, depending on who you are talking to in the bar. Feeney firmly believes this club’s name is irrelevant and has no bearing on the unionist community feeling they are entering a cold house in the GAA.

“Our rules are clear, we have closed down political talks in our clubs in Ulster, we don’t want that. I don’t want the GAA to be used as a political tool, we’re a broad church. With the club you are referring to, there are legacy issues there; if the GAA tried to change the name that would cause more hurt than would be necessary.

“Every person has a different narrative on the conflict, people forget Kevin Lynch captained his county and he also starved himself to death and it’s my job to make sure this never happens again and we engage with each other as different communities.”

Feeney has become a respected ambassador for his organisation within the unionist community. Trevor Ringland, a former Ireland rugby player and Ulster Unionist Party candidate, has worked with him to provide options to young people who seek to play sport away from the political baggage of their parents’ generation.

“A game of three halves has been a particularly successful scheme between the GAA, Ulster rugby and the Irish Football Association where children from badly affected interface zones play a half of each game, most for the first time. Young children from west Belfast find out that they are good out halves and from the east of the city they discover how to solo the football,” said Ringland.

“For me sport has always been a way to try to grow in this country, it can represent every single tradition on this island. I think that from the unionist community, we have to accept the GAA is reaching out to us and they are challenging themselves to think differently. It’s a genuine gesture, and we have to take it as such.”

Badly injured
Ringland remembers playing for CIYMS rugby club many years before in the largely unionist area of Belmont in east Belfast. A player from the club had been extremely badly injured when he got a call from Ballygalet GAC in Portaferry. They had heard the news and wanted to help. At a time when bombs were going off with a frequency we can’t appreciate now, Ringland’s men went down to the Ards Peninsula and played a half of Gaelic football and a half of rugby, raising money for the man’s care.

“In sport, generally, it attracts good people who care about sport and the people involved. I’ve seen in the community work we do with the GAA and Ulster Rugby, there can be riots in the streets around us, but our kids playing the sports don’t care. In terms of breaking down barriers, the GAA know they can do more, and we in our community know we can do more, but there’s a lot to be positive about and things are changing for the better.”

Jerome Quinn presented Gaelic games on the BBC in Northern Ireland for 17 years.

For most of those years he felt a solitary voice in a noisy corridor filled with dissonance. In terms of media coverage, sport in the north is split according to community. Newspapers covering the unionist community will focus on hockey, cricket and rugby, whereas elsewhere there will be a focus on Gaelic games. Quinn felt that by working with the BBC he would have the chance to foster a greater understanding of the game he loved.

“Growing up, there’s just a difference there. The Protestants where I come from in Omagh went to church on Sunday, whereas we went to play our games. It’s a lack of knowledge of each other at times which doesn’t help things. When I was at the BBC, I honestly felt that colleagues didn’t want to know (about GAA).”

Quinn brought up his children to go to Casement Park to watch Antrim, Ravenhill to watch Ulster and Windsor Park to watch Northern Ireland, in his wish for them to grow up rounded. His children sadly would remain in a distinct minority. Northern dominance in Gaelic football by Armagh and Tyrone in latter years would be vaguely acknowledged, but seldom cared about or understood and shifted from the back pages of the papers that were meant to represent both communities.

Yet, when it is broken down at a basic level, sport is about winning and losing a game. In the North there is a huge untapped community of sporting talent that could potentially lead the clubs in their local areas to silverware. Under the radar in south Belfast, Joe Brolly’s club St Bridget’s in Malone have had a successful ground share arrangement with Belfast Harlequins for many years, sharing knowledge of their sports as well as pitch time. But admirable as these arrangements are, they are in the minority. In each case of people I have interviewed, and conversed with, nobody was able to name a current active GAA player from a unionist background.

Jamie O’Reilly is a former Down and Queen’s University centre half forward, he grew up playing for his club in Loughinisland, not knowing anything outside of Gaelic games and the community that surrounded it.

Very insulated
“The thing is, the GAA can be very insulated from the wider world. Growing up, the Catholics played Gaelic, the Protestants played rugby, that’s what you grow up with, and isn’t that just an awful waste? I see guys who played Gaelic and hurling and I know they would have been great rugby players, but that’s the way it was growing up.”

The education system in Northern Ireland can be a further enabler of sporting segregation, and it’s only in university where some young people are educated together for the first time. O’Reilly was conscious about wearing Queen’s GAA training kit in lectures. “It sounds stupid to you and I, and it is, but if you wear a certain type of tracksuit in Northern Ireland for your sport, that’s making a statement, whether you want to or not. If you go south of the border and we said that at UCD or Trinity, we’d be laughed at and rightly.”

The GAA is an all-Ireland sporting body, this shouldn’t be a deterrent to unionists as hockey and rugby, two popular sports within that community, exist on this basis also. O’Reilly is passionate about all sport, and wants the GAA to become a welcoming place for everyone from Northern Ireland. He wonders can small changes be factored in.

“A lot of things can come down to symbolism, should we get rid of an anthem, or play Ireland’s Call to make it more inclusive? There are some people who wouldn’t mind and there’s others who are archaic and in that sector those people will never change. The GAA are trying to engage at grassroots level, but I think unfortunately that it’s going to a case of slowly making progress. The GAA is an incredible community organisation, we need to try to open those doors, but it’s a two-way street ultimately.”

Springbok jersey
Two months ago, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Peter Robinson praised the GAA for its efforts in trying to build peace in the Six Counties.

This was not Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok jersey in terms of sporting political gestures in reaching out to former adversaries, yet the gesture was genuine and pointed to brighter times. The GAA and the unionist community exist together at last, but they are still acquaintances rather than friends after years of stony silence. There are some admirable people on both sides who are passing the salt and pepper between them, and now it’s finally time for them to sit down and break bread together.