James McClean will never choose the path of least resistance

Brief history of Creggan for bigots: estate on outskirts of Derry is a byword for resistance

One of the tattoos on James McClean’s leg reads: ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’. File photograph: Inpho

One of the tattoos on James McClean’s leg reads: ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’. File photograph: Inpho

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James McClean has three things that don’t work for some people. He’s Irish, he’s a nationalist and he holds opinions. That in Brexit Britain can ensure certain things. And McClean has been getting it.

“God I hope for everyone’s sake you just f**k off outta this world (three Union Jack emojies). F**k the ira and f**k Ireland you c**t. Answer me you stupid ginger prick. Don’t make me set your house on fire and burn everyone inside it.”

This week McClean revealed he was visited by police the night before facing Fulham in 2012 after a social media user threatened to bring a gun to Craven Cottage. There isn’t a day goes by, said his wife Erin, that either of them don’t get a message of some sort “whether it be a threat or telling us to get the f**k out of England. ” The acid rain has been falling on McClean for over a decade.

He could easily have lived a quieter life, passed on the tattoos (one on his leg saying ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’), agreed with himself that he would not talk about poppies or the place he comes from, a housing estate on a hill on the outskirts of Derry.

McClean could have left Creggan out of football. But then if he did that people would not understand his story, his family’s story. For some that story about McClean’s pride in coming from a troubled part of Ireland rich in history, is triggering, although we have come to understand bigots don’t need reasons. So, a brief history of Creggan for the bigots.

The estate was originally built to provide housing for the growing population of Derry. There was a largely catholic nationalist majority in the city. However, the largely protestant unionist minority of what was called the Londonderry Corporation didn’t want Fenians in elected positions and in a position to run things.

When the Bogside started to become overcrowded from the 1940s onwards, the Corporation agreed to put nationalist families in the same ward as the Bogside to prevent them from breaking out into other wards and upset the carefully calculated head counts that ensured continued unionist control of the Corporation. That process is known as gerrymandering.

Better still, it all tied in with the canny use of ‘restricted franchise’ by the Northern Ireland government, where only rate payers had the right to vote. In local elections in Britain during the 1960s all adults over 21 had a vote. In Northern Ireland only a rate-paying householder and his wife could vote. In addition limited companies were allotted six votes each. Catholics were denied houses and therefore lost voting strength. Bingo.

Civil rights

That is the generation in which McClean’s parents grew up. It is no surprise that the civil rights movement burst, not out of Belfast, but out of Derry. Six of the people subsequently shot dead by the parachute regiment on Bloody Sunday in 1972 were from Creggan. The people lean more towards neighbouring Donegal than to Stormont and that was born out when McClean declared for the Republic of Ireland having played underage with Northern Ireland. He knew what that would bring.

“pal no chance u can fly into Belfast anymore. Ur in for it lol” - Shane Duffy.

“F**king c**t. your nothing but a traitor” - Chris Crowe

“u really are the scum of the earth. F**k off to dublin where u belong ya c**t and stay outta londonderry” - DaveBoy

The former Sunderland, Wigan and West Brom winger is now in his third season with Stoke City. Photograph: Getty Images
The former Sunderland, Wigan and West Brom winger is now in his third season with Stoke City. Photograph: Getty Images

McClean has always stated that he would wear the poppy if it were restricted to honouring only soldiers who died in the World Wars, many of whom, particularly during World War I, were Irish. He has insisted his position is one of peace. He has explained there is no wider political, religious or anti-British point.

He did make one error of judgement last year when he posted an image of himself in a balaclava while speaking to his children with the caption: ‘today’s school lesson - history’. His club Stoke fined him two weeks wages and McClean apologised. A statement said: “The player has expressed contrition and recognises that the post was ill advised and offensive.”

For McClean to deny his history and keep his head down, whether in what he says or his actions in declining to wear a poppy, or what is inked on his body, would be to be unfaithful to what he is and what he represents.

Being submissive and yielding, even grateful, is the way the state in which he grew up wanted his parent’s people to be and it’s how the establishment in Britain would wish him to be. But Creggan is not that. Creggan is a byword for resistance.

What McClean is showing is the cost of saying it is okay to be a nationalist, the cost of pointing the finger at an army that did so much damage and caused so much pain to the area in which he grew up and that in 2021, it is okay to belong to a community as republican as Creggan.

For those things the life of the 31-year-old and his family is being threatened. You wonder if he thinks it is worth it. Then, part of McClean’s ink works are the lyrics of Phil Coulter’s ‘The Town I loved so well.’ A little saccharine but maybe the answer is there.

“Now the music’s gone but they carry on. For their spirit’s been bruised, never broken.”

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