Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Why did these Yanks care what religion Rory is?

Rory McIlroy pictured with the US Open trophy at George Best Belfast City Airport last night
Local shops congradulate US Open Champion Rory McIlroy in Holywood ahead of his return home
BETHESDA, MD - JUNE 19: Fans watch the play of Rory McIlroy during the final round of the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club on June 19, 2011 in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

We are standing in an American bar with the usual myriad television screens beaming sports channels at us from every corner. Except that today they all appear to be showing golf - and young Rory McIlroy powering to glory in the US Open.

We're talking about what an amazing result it is, not just for the lad himself but for the small place we come from. Especially as every so often the various sports shows do a flashback to last year's winner and there's Graeme McDowell with his trophy.

Just along the bar a trio of customers (from Boston, we later learn) are obviously catching snatches of what we're saying. The woman among them suddenly cries out: "Gee, you're from Ireland. What a lovely brogue (!). Where in Ireland are you folks from? Dublin? Cork?"

The other end, we tell her. We're from up north.

Her ancestors also came from Ireland, she tells us enthusiastically. So she's Irish too. And her husband standing beside her, his several times great-grandfather came over after the famine. He's extremely Irish.

We mention the golf and young McIlroy and say again how proud and impressed we are by his success. And Graeme McDowell, we point out, he too, comes from Northern Ireland ...

"Ireland," the husband corrects us.

Whatever. We're not looking for a debate on the occupied six counties. The point is, we explain, that Northern Ireland - or the North if he prefers - has a very small population to have produced two consecutive winners of such a major championship.

"We don't like them," he suddenly says.

Um, don't like who?

"We don't like McIlroy and McDowell. We don't like them because they're Protestants."

His wife nods in solemn agreement. The other man with them says nothing. But he doesn't look particularly shocked by what's been said.

Now even coming, as we do, from a place where it's not unheard of for religious affiliation to play a role in allegiance to specific sports and teams, I have to admit I was gobsmacked by this.

It's the way they just came out with it.

These were two educated professional people (she's a teacher, she told me.) It's hard to imagine such people citing, say, another religion, race or sexual orientation as a reason for distaste and not assuming listeners might find it a tad offensive.

I point out to them that what they've said is inaccurate and that anyway who gives a toss what religion they are. It certainly isn't an issue in Ireland. Among real Irish people.

But he is not letting up. And she wants to stress that she is not a bigoted person.

"Our son is even getting married," she says - and she drops her voice a little here - "to a non-Roman Catholic."

It would be wrong to suggest that one daft couple represent Irish America in its entirety but afterwards when I was thinking it over - why would anybody come out with such a mad thing to a pair of strangers - it struck me that maybe they thought it would be what we'd want to hear.

As we were Irish they may have assumed we'd be Catholic. And may also have assumed this is what Irish Catholics might want to hear. Not for the first time it occurs that Irish Americans still have an awful lot of catching up to do on Ireland.

But back to the big picture and on screen the ESPN channel is showing the back page of the Belfast Telegraph.

Next day he is all over the back pages of every US paper. "The smiling baby-faced assassin," one calls him. For once, for us, an assassin to be proud of.

And the front page of the New York Post is filled with a pic of the new star of the Co Down holding aloft his trophy. 'Eire Apparent' the headline calls him.

At least that bit should please yer man from Boston.

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