‘I don’t see why anyone would find it strange I support Ireland’

Bars in Belfast were packed with Ireland rugby fans from both unionist and nationalist backgrounds

The Irish rugby team arrive at the Shelbourne Hotel after their Six Nations victory in Twickenham. A public homecoming in the Aviva Stadium was cancelled due to snow.

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Rugby under the green Ireland shirt drew support on Saturday from unionists in the North standing shoulder to shoulder with their nationalist friends and family in the pubs of Belfast to cheer on Joe Schmidt’s men.

The bars in the city and beyond were packed with Ireland rugby fans and St Patrick’s Day revellers watching Co Armagh-born captain Rory Best and the team, made up of players from across the island, comfortably win the Grand Slam at Twickenham, beating England 24-15.

At the Cloth Ear in the Cathedral Quarter area of north Belfast doorman David Patterson (51) from Antrim said there is no contradiction with being from a unionist background and supporting the Ireland rugby team.

“I’m Irish first, British second,” he said. “I don’t see why anyone would find it strange I support Ireland.

“I grew up watching rugby and the political influence maybe seen in GAA and football is just not there with rugby.”

He says the suggestion that people from a unionist background are supporting just the Ulster players from Northern Ireland in the Ireland team is “a nonsense”.

“You’re supporting a team not individuals,” he said.

Businessman Ken Blaney (50) describes himself as an “Irish-British person from a working class unionist background” but feels Ireland rugby transcends political controversy often associated with sport in the North because it has a “different kind of following to football”.

“It’s really well integrated,” he said. “Ulster people will follow Ireland and both sides can identify with it.

“I find Ireland’s Call emotional; rugby gets everyone together, it galvanises everyone.”

‘Pragmatic unionist’

At the Errigle Inn in the south of the city sales executive Colin (31) from Newtownards says he is “a pragmatic unionist” and that rugby is “not about colours for me”.

“I was born on the island of Ireland and consider myself British and Irish though post-Brexit vote I have felt more Irish,” he said.

For Ulster Unionists who support/play rugby, and support the Ireland rugby team, their unionism is unaffected by this Irish sporting allegiance

While he does not want a united Ireland – largely because he does not like the idea of paying for healthcare – he concludes “that might change”.

Sporting allegiance like most topics in the North is complex and varied. Colin speaks of his Catholic brother-in-law religiously following GAA but also being a Northern Ireland football fan with “a block booking for Windsor”. On other sporting allegiances he does not follow GAA “but at a push I would want Down to win”. “It’s where I am from,” he said.

Ulster University academic Dr Katie Liston, whose sporting background includes national and international honours in Gaelic football, rugby union and football/soccer, specialises in researching identity. She says those from “an Ulster British tradition represent and support Ireland in sports like rugby union, field hockey and cricket” among other sports.

“There is therefore an awareness of the Irish dimension to their identities, as opposed to a solely British or narrow Ulster expression,” she said.

“Their Irishness is not necessarily a challenge to their Britishness, Northern Irish, Ulster or Irish Protestant identities, but more as an addition.”

Layers of identity

Dr Liston says as a sometimes crude measure of nuance if it is reduced to income alone, socioeconomic status also matters in the sense that, as a general rule, Ulster loyalists, mainly from the working classes favour football/soccer while those categorised in higher socioeconomic groupings enjoy rugby union.

“Sectors of the expanding Catholic middle classes in Ulster have also been attracted to rugby,” she said.

“For Ulster Unionists who support/play rugby, and support the Ireland rugby team, their unionism is unaffected by this Irish sporting allegiance.

“These layers of identity are consistent with playing/supporting rugby for Ireland and being politically aligned to the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.” Former Ireland, Ulster and British and Irish Lions player Trevor Ringland says there is an ability of those from Northern Ireland to “move between different identities”. He supports Ulster Rugby, all nine Ulster GAA counties, Northern Ireland football, Ireland Rugby, British and Irish Lions, and the Europe’s Ryder Cup golf team.

“Key to all those is a sense of inclusion,” he said. “I think of the late Danny Murphy who said he wanted all the people of Down to support Down and I think people respond to that and think, I will.

“We should be looking to include rather than exclude.

“I take issue with any concept of Irishness that doesn’t include Britishness.”

He references the late Belfast poet John Hewitt who dealt with the complexity of the issue at an Irish Times symposium in 1974 on the clash of identities by saying: “I’m an Ulsterman, of planter stock. I was born in the island of Ireland, so secondarily I’m an Irishman. I was born in the British archipelago, and English is my native tongue, so I am British. The British archipelago consists of offshore islands to the continent of Europe, so I’m European.”

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