Southern players paid the price in the interests of hockey unity

As in rugby, the Troubles had a profound effect on the sport within Ireland

Paul Gleghorne of Ireland played against his brother, Mark, who lined out for Great Britain. Photograph: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

'Shoulder to Shoulder,' a new BT Sport documentary fronted by former Ireland rugby captain Brian O'Driscoll, explores rugby's relationship with The Troubles.

It tracks the experiences of players north and south, with many of them similar to what Irish hockey players also experienced during that time.

Rugby survived those decades and hockey did two. Both emerged in different ways scarred but in hockey’s case the sport was almost split in two.

In 1980 a number of countries had boycotted the Moscow Olympics because of the war in Afghanistan. In short the US and their allies pulled out of the Moscow Games following the Soviet invasion. It would be followed four years later by a reprisal boycott of the Los Angeles Games in the Unites States.


Because of the disruption, Moscow was faced with the withdrawal of a number of countries and Ireland was invited to be a standby competitor.

The Irish Hockey Union (IHU), however, declined the invitation, citing financial reasons and a heavy international program (what program could be more important than the Olympic Games).

But the febrile Irish political situation at the time was also a player in the decision. In fact it was the player.

The then Ireland team manager Con Lynch made it known he was unhappy with the decision not to compete believing, as many players did, that everyone deserved in principle to have equal opportunity to aspire to participate in the Olympic Games.

Lynch subsequently resigned over the matter. When the question arose at a special meeting the following year and a proposal was forwarded that Ireland participate in the 1984 Olympic Games in LA ,Ulster strongly opposed the motion. Anthems, loyalties and flags were the order of the day.

Secret ballot

A secret ballot was taken and the proposal to compete in LA was defeated – evidently supported by branches from south of the border. Irish hockey pulled away from the Olympics not to return for many years.

Then in a sequel the IHU gave permission for all eligible players to be considered for Great Britain for the LA Olympics.

In short, players south of the border were denied any possibility of competing in an Olympic Games, while players from the Ulster Branch and those who could obtain a British passport were encouraged to play for GB.

As a result of that action, Jimmy Kirkwood, Stephen Martin and Billy McConnell would go on to win gold and bronze medals with GB in LA and later Seoul in 1988.

The union held together but sacrificed the aspirations of its southern-based players to play in the Olympic Games and lost a team manager in Lynch. It was a costly decision and there was a lot of anger that individual Irish players had been burned in order to keep the sport together.

It took until 2016 for an Ireland team to have another chance to compete in an Olympic Games. Along the way brothers Mark and Paul Gleghorne from Ulster played against each other, Paul for Ireland, Mark for England. That’s how it works now. Choice. Hockey remains intact but not without some speed bumps along the way.


EY Irish Hockey League – C of I v YMCA, Garryduff, 300pm; Lisnagarvey v Banbridge, Hillsborough 3.00pm; Cookstown v Glenanne, Cookstown 4.00pm; Pembroke v Annadale, Serpentine Avenue 4.00pm.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times