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The game they loved so well: How cricket united Hume, McGuinness and McCann

Although they disagreed on many things, the most English of games was common ground

Indefatigable Derryman Eamonn McCann was on radio this week discussing the life and times of the late John Hume, who he knew over the years stretching back to the 1960s. McCann's distinctive voice, always associated with the Bogside, was among those we also heard in March 2017 when Martin McGuinness died.

McGuinness he also knew as a fellow Derry foot soldier from the early days of unrest in the city and civil rights marches that were often met with state violence. McGuinness ultimately decided on a different route to the anti-war Hume and McCann, choosing armed conflict before embracing resolution.

All three Derry men were, and People Before Profit’s McCann still is, deeply involved in the politics of the North. But all three had very different views on how those divisive issues should be addressed.

McGuinness came from the military wing of the IRA, where he was a commander, while McCann, a former MLA for Foyle, was more rooted in community action, access to social housing and the civil rights breakout in 1968.


England's victory over Australia in the Ashes series in 2005 especially enthralled him."

Hume, a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and its leader from 1979 to 2001 was a prominent member of the Derry Citizens' Action Committee and was a founder member of the Derry Credit Union.

McGuinness attended the city's Christian Brothers, leaving school at the age of 15 with McCann and Hume graduates of St Columb's College, the famous Catholic grammar school on the Buncrana Road.

While all were brought up with similar backgrounds of Catholics emerging during great unrest in their city, their politics were entirely different. Activist and journalist McCann acknowledged that he often fell out with Hume, neither of them backing down over serious political differences. McGuinness, obviously, as a former Provisional IRA leader, clearly did too. The three were often in profound disagreement.

But a tweet from McCann a few days ago pointed to an area where they found common ground and where socialist and republican politics were, for a while at least, set aside. That was the improbable interest in the quintessentially English game of cricket that all three shared.

McCann pointed that out, noting that this week of all weeks as Ireland were engaged in beating world champions England in Southampton, Hume's removal to St Eugene's Cathedral in Derry City was taking place.

Hume's interest in the game came from his younger days when he played for both City of Derry and Waterside Cricket Club and was "a very good slow left arm bowler and middle order bat," wrote Derry native Lawrence Moore on the CricketEurope Ireland website this week.

There was, however, a caveat to the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s burgeoning career, with Moore noting; “but he was in and out of the side due to unavailability.”

Had McGuinness played you would expect he’d have had a similar availability problem.

Apparently when Hume left Derry for Maynooth to study for the priesthood, the GAA was having an 'I love you but can't live with you' relationship with the Catholic Church. So it was a choice of rugby or cricket with Hume choosing the willow.

The unexpected romance with the game for McGuinness also came in the 1960s when as a teenager with the Creggan and the Bogside in flames, he used to watch the highlights of county games and Test matches.

“It was a game where discipline was required. An intriguing battle between bowler and batsman. I became very interested in the different techniques and strategies that were deployed around it,” he told the Guardian in 2012.

Sinn Féin's chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process, which led to the Good Friday Agreement, grew up a little more than 50 yards from Celtic Park, the home of Derry GAA's hurling and football teams.

His older brother Tom played football for Derry and won three senior Ulster titles and the All-Ireland Under-21 football championship, while his younger brother Paul and son in law Seán Hargan both played soccer at the Brandywell.

The former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain revealed a little more about the intrigue in his 2012 memoir. "Incredibly for a hard-line Irish republican he was also a big fan of the English cricket team," wrote Haine. "England's victory over Australia in the Ashes series in 2005 especially enthralled him."

It was after the ODI match against England on Tuesday, which Ireland won by seven wickets, that McCann’s tweet went out. “Cricket may have been the only thing John Hume, Martin McGuinness and myself had in common. What an appropriate night to thrash the old enemy!”

You would like to believe that Hume would enjoy the changes in cricket over the years with fielders and circles and restricted bowling and powerplays. There's also an Irishman, Eoin Morgan, captaining England and telling the BBC this week how Ireland outplayed them.

Before Morgan departed the Irish set-up he played under Trent Johnson, the Australian-born Irish captain at the 2007 World Cup. There's a new find in Curtis Campher, South African-born with an Irish grandmother, hitting out in the first match and top-scoring as Ireland's last man standing with an unbeaten 59 then claiming a wicket with just his fourth ball in ODI cricket.

It’s a different landscape to the cricket he once played. But Hume would most probably approve. Change and inclusion, after all, was something for which he had doggedly fought for most of his life.