Can Rugby Resolve Our Sectarian Woes?

Can Rugby Resolve Our Sectarian Woes?

Spoiler alert – of course it can’t, don’t be daft. But indulge me for a few short minutes please….

I went to Methody which of course has been hugely successful on the rugby field over the decades, but given I was a skinny runt for most of my teens, I was never going to trouble the selection panel of the first 15. I always enjoyed watching it however and when I discovered bad drink and kept the company of guys who played AND actually understood the rules, I happily assumed the role of a social member of the rugger bugger fraternity.

I’d always been struck by the unifying nature of rugger on the island of Ireland. Generally speaking, sport unites and is mostly a positive thing right across the world, so it would be bullshit of the highest order to try and set rugby apart from the rest. Then again, I have been known to make such bold claims in the past.

As a retired 50-something I’m fortunate to be able to afford a season ticket for Ravenhill (I refuse to call it anything else) as well as travelling to see Ireland during the Six Nations each year. My rugby watching chums are mostly from my school and we’ve always been a mixed group in terms of religion, occupation and social background and that’s a feature I’ve noticed right across all sections’ fans.

OK, so there’s still pockets of the stereotypical Ulster/Ireland rugby fan, the “Alec Ados”, well-heeled barristers and private surgeon types with accompanying North Down accent, Canadian Goose jackets and perhaps a cowboy hat. Not bad people by any stretch, but feckin’ hard to listen to.

The flag of Ulster that is flown at matches is the yellow one, not the “Ulster fleg” white one. In other words, it’s the 9 county provincial flag that dates back to the heraldic shield of Edward de Burgh, the Earl of Uladh in the 13th century. Therefore when “Stand Up for the Ulster Men” is sung, the counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal are all included.

I’ve never found religion or politics to be an issue on the stands and terraces of Ravenhill. My pal heard the Sash being sung once in the bogs about 5 years ago and eyebrows were raised accordingly, but other than that, such blatant partisanship is very rare indeed.

We at DC Tours are often asked by confused tourists as to why some sports in Ireland are organised on an all island basis and others aren’t. Simple answer is that when partition divided Ireland in 1921 some sporting associations followed suit and also split in two, while others such as the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) stuck with their original all Ireland organisation. Personally I think they just couldn’t be arsed changing anything!

In the summer of 2019, my secret* man-crush, former Irish Captain Brian O’Driscoll, fronted an exceptional documentary for BT Sport where he examined this very issue. Aptly called ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’, it outlined the history of Irish rugby and how it has transcended the national question and religion, even in the darkest of times.

The programme particularly focused on how the IRFU has successfully resolved many awkward issues betwixt Ulster and the rest of Ireland. Flag an issue? IRFU “union flag” takes precedent. Anthem an issue? Sure we’ll write a new one; Ireland’s Call…the Ulster players don’t know the words anyway! Well, apart from Tommy Bowe back in the day.

British soldiers and RUC men played for Ireland alongside avowed Irish republicans and do you know what….it wasn’t an issue. They looked out for each other on and off the pitch, simple as that. Playing God Save the Queen before an England match at Croke Park…. Ulster players standing under the Irish tricolour whilst Amhrán na bhFiann is playing? Not a problem. To quote the lovely Brian “While neighbours went to war, this extraordinary team played as one island, one Ireland”

I found it a searingly honest, incisive and genuinely emotional account and the interviews with former players Davy Irwin and Nigel Carr, who were almost killed in an IRA landmine attack in 1987, had me in tears.

The words that continually stood out in the programme were “respect” and compromise”. Surely THAT is the answer? If Brits, peelers and rebels can do it in the Ireland team, why can’t we?

Anyway, enough of my yakking, I’m away to watch some of Brian O’Driscoll’s greatest moments on Youtube and start a campaign to make him President of Ireland….

*not so secret anymore

 

By | 2020-12-16T16:05:51+00:00 December 16th, 2020|History, Ireland|0 Comments

About the Author:

James was born in Belfast and grew up in the Holylands area of the city during the worst of the ‘Troubles’. When he's not guiding tours you will find him either with a pint in hand or hiking up a mountain, occasionally even at the same time.