Sporting guide to eight wonders of Ulster

 

For some unfathomable reason there is still a group of hardy souls determined to market Belfast and its hinterland as an attractive tourist destination for the 21st century. Never mind that their valiant efforts appear to fly in the face of all available logic and at times seem to border on the insane. The internecine riots and squabbles that blight life here from summer's start to summer's end have done nothing to dull their enthusiasm.

A big part of the current sales push and general touting for tourist business is a focus on the cultural and sporting side to Northern life. Never comfortable about leaving poor innocents completely in the dark, Out of the North is here to guide you through the rag-bag of enmities and suspicion that make up our, ahem, rich sporting tapestry. All recommendations and warnings off have been thoroughly road-tested. This is not a subject to be taken lightly.

1. Avoid at all costs any apparently friendly offer of a Saturday night out at one of the All-Ireland football championship qualifiers. So far the only function of this euphemistically titled "loser's competition" seems to be to punish those diehard GAA fools among who feel as if they would be missing out if they didn't trundle along. We have laboured too long and too hard to be treated as shabbily as this and there is no reason why you should suffer too.

Things reached a new low point last Saturday evening at Casement Park when Antrim and Derry served up a dog's dinner of a spectacle that made all those weekend morning under-12 free-for-alls appear like pinnacles of GAA excellence. The announcement of three minutes of additional time at the end was greeted by a groan that could be heard all the way down the Andersonstown Road.

2. If you are a summer visitor you may be disappointed that Northern Ireland do not have another international home game until the autumn. A grim attraction now surrounds these occasions as fans ghoulishly look on as the team's descent down the FIFA rankings continue apace.

Last week they were placed at 105th and the Northern Ireland footballing public is waiting with baited breath for an IFA announcement that they have that superpower of world football, Kazahkstan, currently ranked 104th, set firmly in their sights.

Incidentally, do not be tempted by any off-season stadium tours of Windsor Park. Unlike countless other centres of international sport, Windsor is not a place known for its architectural grandeur or aesthetic beauty. The "colourful" graffiti can be a bit of an eye-opener though.

3. On a similar theme try to take in an Irish League game if you are someone who is usually put off by the large, heaving crowds familiar in other European countries. Overwhelming feelings of claustrophobia are unlikely to be a problem here. On the downside the largely decrepit grounds are not a great place to meet new people. And as for those who have paid good money to get in, well, you have to wonder.

4. The tourist is likely to bemused to the point of distraction by a disturbing new phenomenon on Belfast's streets. Ordinary men, women and children who appear otherwise to be in possession of all their faculties can be seen bedecked in garish, oversized shirts proclaiming their undying love for an ice-hockey team called the Belfast Giants.

Buoyed and promoted by a local media that appears hell-bent on making a success of this rather bizarre venture, the Giants (as people in the know like to call them) are this city's current sporting version of the Rubick's cube or the skateboard. Passing fads, every one of them. Some day we will look back on this and laugh but for now just politely decline any invitation to a game. You might also mutter something under your breath about the nine-day wonder that was American football in the middle part of the 1980s.

Do not, however, miss the opportunity to take in a trip to the Odyssey where the Giants play their home games. We have the state of the art arena, all we need now is some credible sporting action.

5. One of the big selling points made on behalf of the ice hockey is the certainty of a good old-fashioned free for all at some stage in proceedings. The switched on traveller who has taken the time to do a little research will realise that you can experience the same level of brawling at countless GAA club games on any given Sunday afternoon. Most counties should be able to oblige you but Antrim, Derry and Tyrone have particularly fine track records for this type of thing.

One word of warning. Don't bring your camcorder because you never know into whose unscrupulous hands the incriminating pictures might fall. The widespread and highly organised media bias against the GAA is well known among aficionados of football and hurling and you don't want to go upsetting your hosts, do you?

6. Most of the guide books will tell that this is a place too consumed with sectarianism to worry about anything as trivial as social class. Just to reassure yourself that those class divisions are alive and well here in much the same way as any other society, make sure not to miss out on game of rugby at Ulster's home Ravenhill.

You may have to struggle to make yourself heard above the clinking of hip flasks and discussions about the best prep school in the greater Belfast area but as an eye opener to how the other half live this is an experience which takes some beating. A trip to any of the more prestigious golf clubs around the city should do the same trick although you should not automatically expect to be allowed into the clubhouse without a blazer and slacks. Be prepared.

7. For those of you of a more sedentary disposition there are the undoubted pleasures of crown green bowls. The best place in Belfast to catch a game is on the immaculate green just beside Botanic Gardens. Every Saturday afternoon and most weekday evenings collections of men dressed in immaculate whites gather here for battle.

But do not be fooled by the apparently calm outward show. These are contests laced with a gamesmanship and a fervour that make games between Derry and Tyrone or Linfield and Cliftonville look like examples of Corinthian endeavour.

8. Staying on a bowling theme, there is of course road bowls, the posh version's slightly rougher-round-the-edges country cousin. The rules are impenetrable and the game seems to exist to prove that there are no lengths to which Irishmen and women will not go to gamble huge sums of money for no apparent reason.

Everyone should see a game of road bowls once in their life. The only snag here for the tourist is that he or she will have to travel to Armagh for the privilege. Road bowls is not played anywhere else around here. Make of that what you will.

Finally, it is appropriate to strike one final note of caution. While efforts may be ongoing to secure full Olympic status for marching, that most idiosyncratic of Northern pursuits, for the moment it is probably best to stay well clear. There are no apparent rules and when it is all over it is difficult to figure out just who has won.