Mrs. McKee's students can wear their soccer jerseys to class on any day but Wednesday. On Wednesday afternoons the 10- and 11-year-olds in her class, from Beechfield primary school, get together with the boys in Miss McKenna's class, from St. Matthew's primary school across the street. Beryl McKee came up with the rule last year after she and Maria McKenna took their two classes on a field trip together. "People jeered them from both sides," says McKee. "The only way they knew we were a mixed group was from the boys' jerseys." The group was mixed: All of McKee's students were Protestant, and all of McKenna's were Catholic. And they were jeered because Beechfield and St. Matthew's are in the Ballymacarrett section of Belfast, Northern Ireland.
In Belfast, the soccer jersey a person chooses brands the wearer as Protestant or Catholic, because rooting interests are linked to religious affiliations. A jersey from Glasgow Rangers, in the Scottish League, is a declaration of Protestant or Unionist sympathies; a jersey from Glasgow Celtic is the uniform of a Catholic or a Nationalist. When McKee's and McKenna's students dress alike, they're camouflaged—two anonymous classes on a field trip. When they wear soccer jerseys, their allegiances become obvious, inciting the hostilities of other Protestants and Catholics. McKee thought her program of combined classes was provocative enough without the children wearing their tribes on their backs.
Belfast is a place where every gesture is a symbol and neutrality does not exist. Children attend either Catholic schools or state (Protestant) schools; street addresses are either on Catholic blocks or Protestant ones; pubs are either allied with Unionist organizations or Nationalist ones. Even curbs and lampposts have affiliations: In the Catholic ghettos they're painted the green, gold and white of the Republic of Ireland; in the Protestant ghettos they're painted the red, white and blue of the Union Jack.
Since it's more complicated to determine the sensibilities of a person than it is of a lamppost, the residents of Belfast have developed codes to distinguish friend from foe. Jonathan Smyth, one of the Protestant boys from Beechfield, says, "Someone will walk by you in a Catholic neighborhood and say, 'Hail Mary full of grace'—it's a Catholic prayer. And then if you don't know how to finish it, he'll beat your head in."
November 25, 1991
Sports—rife with gestures and symbols and pitting one side against another—have naturally been tugged at by both camps in Northern Ireland. Yet while some sports have been commandeered by Unionists or Nationalists, whenever an athlete or team has been able to escape appropriation by one side or the other, it has flourished. Protestants and Catholics, who agreed on nothing else, have supported the same athlete or team. Not only have soccer fields and boxing arenas been places for people in Northern Ireland to let off steam, but they have also been a home for those who wanted to go someplace where every word they uttered wasn't heard as a war cry.
To much of the world the battles in Northern Ireland appear to be between Protestants and Catholics, or between British security forces and the Irish Republican Army. But to the people of Northern Ireland, the Troubles (as the natives understatedly call them) are a war between poor people from one neighborhood and poor people from another neighborhood.
For those people in Belfast's middle class, Protestant and Catholic alike, the Troubles are an inconvenience. They mean having to plan a route that bypasses Ballymacarrett or West Belfast when invited to dinner across town. "Professional people and the middle class at the end of the day give no thought to this," says Dusty Miller, president of the Sports Council for Northern Ireland, who lives in middle-class South Belfast. "The Troubles are at the working class, where people are manipulated by interest groups. When your everyday life has been led trying to keep your sanity, and body and soul together, it's easy to see how you could be manipulated."
Ballymacarrett is a working-class community in which many of the residents are not working—unemployment is 30%. Most of the students at Beechfield and St. Matthew's are from single-parent families, and 90% of the children at both schools receive free meals through government assistance.
Paramilitary organizations, such as the IRA and the militant branches of the Ulster Defence Association or the Ulster Volunteer Force, have found fertile ground for their recruiting campaign in the poverty and unemployment in Ballymacarrett. When you tour the neighborhood, any of the children in McKee's class or McKenna's class can guide you to the local paramilitary headquarters as though it were the Kiwanis or Rotary. According to community leaders, one quarter of the children at Beechfield and St. Matthew's have family members involved in paramilitary groups.
Gerry Armstrong, a member of the 1982 and '86 Northern Ireland World Cup soccer teams, remembers what it was like when he grew up in West Belfast during the '60s and '70s. "There were no youth clubs, no facilities, nowhere to go," Armstrong says. "You were bound to be lured into the political terrorist side of things."
A couple of years after the Troubles started up again in 1969, the British government decided that children in Belfast needed somewhere to go besides paramilitary rallies. Instead of constructing natatoriums or high-tech training facilities to spawn world champions, the Sports Council, the government agency in charge of sports administration, began to build recreation centers. The idea was that everyone could participate in something at the centers, and the more time they spent there, the less time they would spend killing each other. "With high unemployment it was easy to see how kids would be tempted into something exciting like stone-throwing, and the paramilitary," Miller says. "We thought we'd try to give them something else—in sports. Maybe they could dream through sports."
Northern Ireland now has the best recreational facilities in the United Kingdom, and there are 14 centers in Belfast alone, a city of 295,100 people. Armstrong says, "In a roundabout way, the Troubles helped improve facilities. Kids are benefiting from the Troubles."
But the centers, like everything else in Belfast, are subject to the city's sectarian geography. Although open to anyone, they are tainted with the affiliation of the neighborhood where they stand. Protestants go to the centers in their neighborhoods, Catholics go to the ones in theirs.
The Sports Council is planning to build a 50-meter pool. But where? "We'll have to put it in a neutral area," Miller says. "We want people to be able to come up from Dublin and get off the train and walk to the pool. You don't want them to have to think about what area they're in." The Sports Council is also planning to build a center for field sports. Representatives of the soccer and rugby federations and officers of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which oversees Gaelic football and other Gaelic sports, are all for the project, and have finally agreed on the "preferred" location at Queen's University, in the middle-class, mixed neighborhood of South Belfast.
Most organized sports in Belfast take place in the schools, which like everything else in the parallel universes of Northern Ireland, come in two types: Protestant and Catholic. Technically, the Protestant schools are public—anyone can attend them for free. And while there are a few Catholic students (mostly in middle-class areas) in state schools, there are no Protestant children in the Catholic schools.
That's why the program at Beechfield and St. Matthew's is so revolutionary, though you would never know it by looking at McKee, a 51-year-old grandmother. "At first, the parents were afraid that their children would be indoctrinated into another religion," says McKee, who started the program eight years ago. "We couldn't even get the children to work together. They were very wary of each other. It was six months before they would play together."
Still, the Beechfield and St. Matthew's students play together only on Wednesday afternoons. Even on Wednesdays, the children retreat to their own schoolyards after school to play soccer.
"You stay in your area, and you play your area's games," says Deborah Morrison, 18, a college student who is from Ballysillan, a Protestant enclave in north Belfast. The games taught in state schools are those played in Protestant neighborhoods: English ones like rugby, cricket and field hockey. The games taught in Catholic schools are those played in Catholic neighborhoods: Irish ones like Gaelic football (a cross between rugby and Australian-rules football), hurling (a combination of lacrosse and field hockey) and camogie (women's hurling).
Of the 60 schools in Northern Ireland that play rugby, none are Catholic. Ken Reid, manager of Ireland's national rugby team, says, "I can't get Catholic schools to play. It's considered a British game." And in the state schools, dance is part of the physical education curriculum, but Irish dances are rarely taught and when they are, it's as part of a unit about dances of "foreign" countries.
Irish games are as inseparable from Irish culture as Irish literature and the Gaelic language. They are governed, in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, by the GAA, which was founded in 1884 by Michael Cusack (the model for the Citizen in James Joyce's Ulysses) because he felt that the English were subjugating Irish culture. The GAA makes no excuses for its Nationalist origins. During the Boer War, Gaelic teams adopted Boer names to taunt the British. Its rules call for the tricolor, the flag of the Republic of Ireland, to be flown over all GAA matches.
Because of its support for Irish culture and a platform that calls for a 32-county Ireland (including the six counties that currently form Northern Ireland), the GAA has often been a target for Unionist rhetoric. "They use us to criticize Nationalist groups," says Peter Quinn, the president of the GAA. "You can be nonpolitical and nonsectarian without losing your support for national identity." But Quinn is wrong: In Northern Ireland, everything is political and sectarian, especially support for national identity.
To keep its games purely Irish, in 1885 the GAA adopted Rule 27. The rule came to be known as "the Ban," and it prohibited anyone who had ever "played, attended or helped to promote rugby, soccer, hockey or cricket" from playing Gaelic games. The Ban was violated frequently: Armstrong often played soccer on Saturdays and Gaelic football on Sundays. Still the rule remained on the books until 1971. "The Ban was brought in for ideological reasons," says Michael Feeney, secretary of the Ulster GAA. "Gaelic football had peasant origins, and when it went to the upper classes it was looked down upon. We saw that what was more democratic was more accepted."
The lifting of the Ban didn't exactly unleash a stampede of Protestants wanting to play Gaelic football. The Protestants who do play Gaelic sports in the North do so primarily in the rural areas, where, as Feeney says, "they don't have to look over their shoulder all the time." But the end of the Ban meant that Gaelic football players could play soccer, too. Three members of last year's Ireland World Cup team were once Gaelic football players. None of the three, however, is from the North, which has its own World Cup team.
The GAA still forbids members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army from playing in Gaelic games. "They have political associations, and we do not," Quinn says.
There are no rules about who may watch a Gaelic football match, but there might as well be. Protestants, by and large, do not go to Gaelic football matches. Jonathan Smyth, one of the Protestant boys in Ballymacarrett, says, "We'd get our heads bashed if we went to a Gaelic game."
The GAA thought that when it lifted the Ban and allowed everyone to play both Gaelic and "foreign" games, state schools would begin to teach Gaelic games, but that hasn't happened. Quinn says, "It would be wasted effort to go to Protestant schools now; the Protestant community has been subjected to a sustained anti-GAA feeling by politicians. We need gradual exposure."
So to expose people to Gaelic games, the GAA has turned to television. In 1990 the association started a two-year, $50,000 deal with the British Broadcasting Corporation to televise the Gaelic football championship. For years the BBC showed mostly English sports to its viewers in Northern Ireland. Now the Gaelic football championship is televised along with the rugby championship. The contract expires at the end of this year, and there is competition between the BBC and Ulster TV for the new contract.
The religion of the next GAA president may do more for the popularity of Gaelic games than any TV program. There has been a pattern in the GAA that the runner-up in the race for president wins the next election three years later. Jack Boothman, whom Quinn defeated last April, is a member of the Church of England. If pattern holds, the next president of the GAA, that guardian of Irish culture, will be a Protestant.
So far, foreign team sports seem to have escaped sectarianism. Basketball and American football are played by Protestants and Catholics alike, often on the same teams. "A lot of kids are interested in American football for the very reason that it has no previous identification," says John Herron, who grew up in a Protestant area of East Belfast and has worked to integrate Belfast schools for the last four years.
That doesn't mean that Nationalists and Unionists don't pick sides. A physical education teacher at a Belfast school was playing in a basketball game at a recreation center in a Protestant area when a group of Unionist thugs piled into the stands. The five players on the floor for the teacher's team happened to be Catholic, but they were wearing orange uniforms. Their opponents, Protestants from Queen's University, were wearing green jerseys. The hecklers in the crowd began yelling for the orange-clad Catholics to "beat the green bastards." They were a little mixed up, but at least their hearts were in the wrong place.
Obnoxious spectators in Northern Ireland are no more obnoxious than they are anywhere else, but in the North their misbehavior is cast in a sectarian light. Anywhere else in Britain or Europe, they would be called hooligans, but since they are inevitably either Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist, their vandalism and rioting become political statements.
After all-Protestant Linfield—winners of the Irish League soccer championship 10 of the last 14 years—plays an away game in a Catholic section of Belfast, the team's fans meet in the middle of town and wait for a police battalion that escorts them from the area to avoid trouble.
According to the draw for last year's Irish Football Association Cup, Linfield was scheduled to play Donegal Celtic, a team supported primarily by Catholics, at Suffolk Road, Donegal's home field, on Feb. 17. But citing the need for public order (Suffolk Road holds only about 400 people), the Irish Football Association switched the match to Windsor Park, Linfield's home field, with a capacity of 25,000. Officials of the IFA said that the Royal Ulster Constabulary had advised them that allowing Linfield fans to march through the Catholic area around Suffolk Road waving the Union Jack and singing Unionist songs could provoke violence.
So the game was played at Windsor Park, in a Unionist section near the border between West and South Belfast. There were about 3,000 Donegal Celtic fans and 8,000 Linfield supporters in the stands. Donegal fans wore green and white and waved tricolors; Linfield's were dressed in blue and brandished Union Jacks. Sectarian chants started before the game. "Dirty orange bastards," yelled the Donegal section. "Away, away, away with the Pope and the IRA," shouted the Linfield fans. They then began throwing rocks and bottles at each other, and the police fired plastic bullets into the crowd. Sixty-three people were injured in the fighting. Outside the stadium, buses and cars were hijacked and burned. John Hall, the Donegal Celtic's secretary, later vowed that his club, which is in the inter-meditate league, would never play senior league soccer in Northern Ireland again.
But in those occasional cases when a soccer team represented more than one neighborhood, the 1982 and '86 Northern Ireland World Cup teams, for example, it has been supported by both Protestants and Catholics. "After we beat Spain to qualify for the World Cup finals in 1982,1 remember the telegrams," says Armstrong, who scored the winning goal in that match. "We got one from Ian Paisley [the Protestant evangelist and Unionist] and Cardinal O'Fiach [the Catholic archbishop of Ireland]. I think that's when it dawned on the players. That's when I realized that we crossed the divide. We were Northern Irish and proud of it. We were playing for Northern Ireland."
In the early '70s, at the height of the Troubles, foreign athletes, especially those from England, Scotland and Wales, would not compete in Northern Ireland. They were afraid they would become targets of the violence they had read about in newspapers and seen on television. Cycling races, field hockey matches and tennis tournaments were cancelled. From 1970 until 1973, Northern Ireland teams played all international soccer and rugby matches at away sites.
For all of the athletes' fears and all the aborted matches, sports events have been relatively safe in Northern Ireland over the last 20 years. Bombs have exploded before soccer matches (usually after warnings) and at empty rugby pitches, and for a while the IRA bombed one golf course every month, but usually in the middle of the night. The IRA claimed that it wasn't after golfers but the courses themselves—symbols of privilege.
It would be naive to think that terrorists in Northern Ireland have a respect for sports. But during the Irish Civil War in 1922, a full schedule of Gaelic football matches was played. Players would fire guns at each other before the game, play the match without incident, then resume shooting after the game. And in a more sublime example of cooperation, in those rare cases when Protestants and Catholics have played Gaelic football on the same team on Sunday, kickoff times have been delayed so that players of both faiths could go to church. Reid, the Irish rugby manager, says, "The rugby union was formed in 1874 when there was no partition. If politicians want to partition the country in the meantime, it has nothing to do with us. If we let politics bother sports, we couldn't play anywhere."
If nothing has brought people together in Northern Ireland like sports, nothing in sports has brought them together like success. When Barry McGuigan won the WBA featherweight title in June 1985, bonfires were set in both the North and the Republic. Some in Belfast called McGuigan the new messiah. He was a Catholic from the Republic, from Clones in County Monaghan, married to a Protestant, wore blue trunks, not orange or green, and carried a flag with a dove on it into the ring. Danny Boy was played before his fights instead of God Save the Queen or the Irish national anthem. And although one of those celebratory bonfires touched off a blaze at the Clones house in which McGuigan was born, at least the flames were from bipartisan fires.
The success of the '82 and '86 World Cup teams is still having unifying effects. Pat Jennings, the goalkeeper on those teams and a Catholic, often speaks to mixed groups in Ballymacarrett. Armstrong returns to Belfast every summer to coach soccer clinics in depressed areas—Catholic depressed areas and Protestant depressed areas. "That never happened 10 years ago," Armstrong says. "Protestant coaches are now welcomed in Catholic areas and Catholic coaches are welcomed in Protestant areas. We're all heroes to the boys."
Beechfield and St. Matthew's are only about 100 yards apart. For the last eight years a brick wall, 12 feet high and 600 feet long, has stood along Bryson Street, separating the schools and the neighborhoods. From the second floor of Beechfield, students can look out the windows, through the coils of barbed wire along the top of the wall, and see students across the street sitting at their desks in their classrooms on the second floor of St. Matthew's.
There are about half a dozen walls around Belfast like the one along Bryson Street. They're called peace lines. The walls are designed to keep Protestants and Catholics from each other, but it is history that keeps them apart. Everyone mourns for a father or son, brother or cousin who was killed in the Troubles. When the children at Beechfield are asked why there is a wall in their neighborhood, they say it's because the Catholics refused to fight for William of Orange in 1690. They think of the wall as being 300 years old, and for them it might as well be. Gareth McCabe, now 12 and one of McKee's students last year, describes his feelings this way: "They're Catholic, we're Protestant. They hate us, we hate them. They kill us, we kill them."