It’s easy to forget how long Ireland has gone about the sporting world without the least sign of serious success. When Padraig Harrington became the first Irish man since Fred Daly to win the Open it was only 2007. Rory McIlroy won a silver medal as top amateur in the same year.
With Harrington joined by GMac, Darren Clarke and the boy from Holywood, modern Irish golfers have redefined what success looks like… Christy O’Connor Snr was in or near the top of the class for ten years, yet never won a Major golf championship. In fact, he only ever played in one of them (The Open)…
Well, in the old days you were just Irish in golf if you felt it. Indeed, you were still availably Irish to your fans, even if you didn’t actually feel it. It’s hardly surprising. In one of the oldest team competitions in senior gold, the Ryder Cup, British and Irish golfers have been joined at the hip ever since it began.
But with Rio 2016 coming up, Golf is to be an Olympic sport. The gordian knot that’s bound golfers on these islands (at senior level at least) is now to be cut. Rory McIlroy is preparing his local fans for the decision that feels the more natural to him, ie to play for Team GB.
Somewhere, maybe ten or fifteen years back, Edna Longley wrote of Northern Ireland as a cultural corridor with access to both ‘Ireland’ as a place and an idea, and ‘Britain’ in the same regard.
But even southern Irish voices are commonplace on the modern British media. And British media has been common fare in Dublin ever since television was launched there fifty years ago this year. London has been a influential cultural and economic annex for Irish born migrants for generations.
It may be that the very closeness of these ties that has led from time to time to such huge outbursts of strident unreason.
Representative sport at international level, such ambiguities are harder to express. Darran Gibson’s departure for the Republic of Ireland’s soccer team brought similar howls of derision as now being heard on the virtual pages of the Irish Times and the Daily Mail about where McIlroy’s sentiments lie.
The Belfast Agreement changed matters. If has not changed the actual names of places, it has super charged the politics these names invoke.
The Republic of Ireland – with its constitution now shorn of any pretended ownership of the whole island – is now widely referenced as ‘Ireland'; rendering the geographical island itself ‘an idea without a name’. Americans routinely refer to Ireland and Northern Ireland as though they were mutually exclusive zones.
One reason cited for why nationalist youngsters are so keen to play for the Republic is that they see it as a legitimate expression of their Irishness; matching their right to carry an Irish passport. But as the McIlroy case ably demonstrates that door swings both ways into and out of Northern Ireland.
So what may have been ambiguous before, is now concrete. The next Irish fan contemplating throwing a tricolour at a victorious Northern Irish golfer may not be quite so careless of the private sentiments of such individuals in future.
Northern Ireland may not quite be as British as Finchley, but then again nor is it as Irish as the Mayfield estate in Cork City that gave birth and shape to one of the Republic of Ireland’s (and Manchester United’s) finest captains in the modern soccer era, Roy Keane.
Post Belfast (or if you insist, Good Friday) Agreement individual choices matter more than they ever did before. Not only in sport, but in politics too.
Those keen to excoriate McIlroy for this ‘wrong’ decision might do well to consider that the long term future of Northern Ireland will depend on thousands of such gut decisions.