Deaf Talkabout: Support growing for all-island sports teams
The International Deaf Bowling Championships taking place in the town of Llandrindod Wells, Wales, is entering its final stages as I write and we eagerly wait to see if the Northern Ireland team (seen here in their new jerseys) can give us something to cheer about in tomorrow's finals.
Bowls and all other sports in the province are under control of the Ulster Deaf Sports Council (UDSC), but we have always felt a warm and close attachment with our friends in the South under the Irish Deaf Sports Association (IDSA), and the feeling is growing that in international events such as the bowls tournament and next year's Deaflympics we should unite under the green jersey of Ireland.
In theory, of course, we are an integral part of the United Kingdom and last winter UK Deaf Sport called a meeting in Belfast in an abortive attempt to get us to sign up with their new organisation.
But the atmosphere here has changed so much over the past six months - helped no doubt by the remarkable reconciliation among our major political parties - that we are all becoming proud of our wee country and want to make the best use of our united talents.
After all, in the hearing world, the Irish rugby team is one of the finest in the world and a good role model to follow. We already field united teams in football, swimming and golf and are now adding bowls to the list of what we hope is a positive image of the best in deaf sport.
For the past 10 years bowlers from Belfast and Dublin have been organising home and away indoor matches in competition for the Weatherup Shield and I was surprised to be told that it's customary in the South to play with much smaller bowls than we use here. I suppose it's partly for this reason that the entire squad playing in Wales is composed of players from the province, as experience with the full-size bowl is paramount in international events. At the farewell party in the Maple Leaf Club there was happy laughter as they posed in their new shirts with Ireland emblazoned proudly on the front.
Captain Robin Beattie and his friend Paul Canning are active members of Bangor Bowling Club, which played Belmont in the final of the Irish Cup a few weeks ago. I know very little about the game, but Robin told me it's vital to hone your skills with regular competition at the highest level. Communication with other members is no problem and he enjoys the weekly cut and thrust with top-flight hearing players. However, deaf sport as we know it is undergoing rapid adjustment and both the UDSC and IDSA say that changes in the way deaf children are educated is making it very difficult for them to monitor the situation and encourage budding talent. Old time schools had large numbers of deaf children living together and team spirit was built up by football and hockey and daily contact. Sports day attracted huge crowds and as we all knew each other the progress into adult sports was natural and regular.
Deaf children, here and in the South, are now scattered all over the country in small hearing-impaired units and sports day crowds are no more. Instead of regular social contact, football and other team games are now organised by fax or text phone and the deaf community as we know it has changed dramatically. We wish the bowls team every success. A medal of any kind in Wales would be an inspiration to all of us.