Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Tiny minds leave McIlroy without a sporting chance

Rory McIlroy

There is no neutral corner, Rory ... just go and ask Barry the Brit." Thus the back-page headline in last weekend's Irish Mail on Sunday above a typically sprightly piece by Joe Brolly.

Joe was offering friendly advice to Rory McIlroy to be mindful of the fate of Barry McGuigan, who claimed British citizenship so as to qualify for a tilt at the British title and, according to Joe, "was quickly named 'Barry the Brit', a moniker that has stuck with him to this day."

I have reason to be grateful for Joe's brilliance as a courtroom advocate. And he's by far the best gaelic football analyst in the land.

But he's lost me on this one. We must move in different circles. (He's from Dungiven.)

The problem people around me had with the way Barry branded himself had less to do with the Clones man doing what was necessary to advance his career than with those asinine images of doves and made-up-for-TV slogans - "Leave the fighting to McGuigan" - that no one in real life ever uttered.

The best fight I ever saw was between Johnnie Caldwell from the Falls and Freddie Gilroy from Short Strand, who knocked seven bells out of one another in a bantamweight bout at the King's Hall in the early-1960s.

Gilroy won on a stoppage after nine. Caldwell fought the last three rounds through a veil of blood. The fight was for the British and British Empire titles.

But there was no sourness in the arena on that account: only passionate hostility, as it seemed, between west and north Belfast.

Both men had won Olympic medals for Ireland at Melbourne. But I cannot recall it suggested that either had shamefully discarded his identity, or been somehow diminished by opting to fight as a pro for the British crown.

The same had been true in the Bogside a decade earlier, when Ireland's greatest-ever boxer, Young Spider Kelly, emulated his father, Jimmy, by claiming the Empire and then the British featherweight titles.

In the interim, in the course of the conflict, the assertion of separate identities within the north appears to have come to matter more than nationality. The crudest expression of this drift of opinion is to be found in the less-developed regions of Irish America.

One New York-based zealot wrote last week that, "The Northern Ireland flag, flown by a Protestant like Graeme McDowell, will never bother me in the slightest, flown by a Catholic like Rory, however, will never seem quite right to me."

If McIlroy opts for Britain at Rio, it will not be the Northern Ireland flag, but the Union flag that he will play under. But finicky detail of that sort does nothing to disturb the New York-Irish state of mind.

"Up until the 1970s and the civil rights movement," we are told, "there was not even one man, one vote. People with property, always Protestants, were entitled to extra votes ..."

No well-to-do Catholics at all, then. No Protestants living in poverty. No connection between property, the franchise and class.

I do not believe there was a single teenager, choking on gas on the barricades in Rossville Street in 1969, with as ignorant a view as that.

The narrowing of attitudes was brought home to me on September 7, 2005, when Northern Ireland beat England in a World Cup qualifier at Windsor Park; David Healy firing home the only goal after 73 minutes. Watching alone, I leapt up from the sofa to punch the air, then felt vaguely bereft, having no one to share the excitement with. So I phoned a fellow football fanatic who I knew would be watching in our usual pub: "How's about that, then?"

"I'm the one person here supporting the north," she told me. "There's only a couple of us watching the match." The pub's other television was tuned to Dublin, where the Republic was gallantly going down 0-1 to France. "I took dog's abuse when I cheered the goal."

I felt a surge of nostalgia for the days when the default position of football fans here - and not entirely from one community - was 'Anybody but England'.

Now there was an addendum - 'Except when they are playing Northern Ireland, in which case Come on Engerland.' Tells us what some were really fighting for.

Joe concludes his Mail article with the thought that, "McIlroy's only crime was to believe that either his global status, or the fact that he is a thoroughly decent and likeable young man, would make a blind bit of difference to tiny-minded people in this tiny part of the world."

Quite so, Joe. We must think this one through together some time.

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