Northern Ireland must recover its 'Celtic' roots

Interesting reflection from Andersonstown News editor Robin Livingstone on last weekend’s Northern Ireland Wales match. He notes that all sports codes are in competition for new players and that, as things stand, few Catholics are making their way to Windsor Park.

He argues that making Windsor Park a warm place for Catholics should be an important objective for Northern Ireland matches, for the most pragmatic of reasons:

With the largest percentage of young people in Europe and a population that’s 98% Catholic, the harsh fact of the matter is that Rip-Off Rovers will continue to pull the crowds and the money in, whether the game’s played at the cattle mart masquerading as a football ground that is Lansdowne Road, or in the theatre of very expensive dreams that is Croker. The Ulster soccer team, though, can’t survive without the very Fenians that are so regularly reviled on the South Belfast terraces for the very simple reason that the population of the North is nearing 50-50.

Fair enough, THP are regularly pulling in ten to twelve thousand for games at Windsor, a ground which makes Lansdowne look like the Stade de France. But even as they’re patting themselves on the back, the IFA shouldn’t forget that GAA club finals involving parish teams from the back of beyond pull in crowds of that size and larger. The four- or fivefold increase required to fill a new sports stadium for THP matches ain’t gonna happen with just Prods fella, and the green-wigged faithful are going to have to spread out a fair bit if they don’t want international soccer nights at the new stadium to resemble Royal Avenue on a Sunday evening.

Here’s the bottom line. The part of the city I live in has a huge population, but I don’t know anybody, not a single person, who goes to Windsor Park to support This Here Province. I expect you might find one or two if you looked hard enough, just as you might find a Grimsby Town supporter or a beekeeper. But that degree of apathy – hostility, even – among half of the population is ultimately unsustainable. It terrifies potential sponsors, advertisers and broadcasters and means that every match will be followed not by analysis of performance or tactics, but by a debilitating post-mortem of the kind we’ve seen this week and so many times before.

The point is neither trivial nor new. The Catholics of West Belfast fell out of love with Windsor Park many years ago. Charlie Tully, a former Belfast Celtic player, is quoted in Padraig Coyle’s excellent history of the West Belfast club which unilaterally left the Irish League (and football) at the end of the 1947/48 season. Tully wrote in 1958:

I know how much Celtic means to Ulster. The game needs them badly. Even Linfield supporters will tell you that. And the fans of every other club will tell you that with nobs on. My old club gave some star material to the English club football and to Ireland’s international side. But where are those players that Celtic used to discover and develop?

I say that because Belfast Celtic no longer operate, many young local lads are lost to football. For many of them it’s a case of if they cannot join the green and whites they would rather not play for anyone. And they just drift out of football.

145 thoughts on “Northern Ireland must recover its 'Celtic' roots”

  1. George
    “The best promotion is to speak it.”

    One of the great pities is the lack of Irish spoken when accepting the All-Ireland cups. It’s only once in a blue moon now that you hear a good acceptance speech in Irish.

    “I can’t believe you would be thrown out of the GAA for not being able to speak Irish.”

    Not a chance in hell.

  2. ‘One of the great pities is the lack of Irish spoken when accepting the All-Ireland cups. It’s only once in a blue moon now that you hear a good acceptance speech in Irish.’

    And it took a Cork Fijian!

  3. “On a related note I also noticed that the main UUP website had an item calling for people to get behind the Tyrone team in the all Ireland.”

    Good for them.

  4. Here is an interesting sectrion from the UUP page:

    The GAA have reached out to the Unionist community in recent years by lifting its ban on police and army officers from being GAA members and in allowing rugby and football to be played at Croke Park. Everyone should rally behind Tyrone and show solidarity with our fellow Ulstermen. The red hand of Ulster is Tyrone’s symbol and should be a symbol of pride capable of uniting Ulster people of all traditions.

    “On Sunday stand up for the Ulstermen and stand up for Tyrone. Whatever the result we should all be proud of our Province’s sporting men and women.”

  5. Sport should not be political or exclusive. The GAA should get rid of it’s political/exclusitivity; the Northern Ireland team is apolitical and has as many prod players as catholic – this is something to be promoted.

  6. Sport should not be political or exclusive. The GAA should get rid of it’s political/exclusitivity; the Northern Ireland team is apolitical and has as many prod players as catholic – this is something to be promoted.

  7. Ron, this has nothing to do with the NI team. But I’ll try and second-guess what you mean:

    – The anthem is the anthem of our country (we are still in the UK didn’t you know?). There is currently a debate internally to change the anthem to reflect more of ‘NI’ rather than a UK-generic anthem. God save the queen is not offensive unless you are a republican and you don’t want God to save the queen. Yes as a Nationalist you may not have GSTQ on your Mp3 playlist – but it should not be offensive.

    – Ok the other emblem I recon you mean is the union flag. Again this should not be offensive. The vast majority of Nationalists support Man U and other premership teams which you will see far more union flags – but these don’t offend??? That would be like me saying I find the tricolour and soldier song offensive at the ROI matches.

    Instead of supporting a cross-community NI team many Nationalists support the ‘exclusive’ ROI and find no irony in their blindness to the exclusive items on display there (inc celtic tops etc)

  8. AS
    “Instead of supporting a cross-community NI team many Nationalists support the ‘exclusive’ ROI and find no irony in their blindness”

    Funny you mention blindness.
    Nationalists (they can speak for themselves I know) probably wouldn’t call the NI team cross community specifically because of the flag & anthem. ROI exclusive? That’s a joke.

    p.s. what is “soldier song”?

  9. More of the usual ‘whataboutery’ and utter cultural blindness… really at times you feel it’s a matter of where you should emigrate to, not whether you should emigrate…

    The debate usually comes down to something like this:
    – ‘We’re excluded’
    – ‘No, you just think you are’
    – ‘No, we actually are’

    If people say they’re excluded, why do people not stop to wonder why they feel that way? Why, for example, are Protestants more than happy to support an all-Ireland team at Lansdowne Road, but not at Croke Park?

    It’s all very comforting to ‘blame themmuns’, but people need to take far longer to look at their own role in such things. For example, the very same people who argue that GSTQ is a reason not to go to Windsor Park are arguing that the Soldier Song is not a reason not to go to Casement Park – sorry, but this is blatant hypocrisy.

    Btw, Beano made the best point right at the start – it wasn’t just Catholics who felt alienated from NI matches.

    A few queries:

    IFA: Would Catholics/Nationalists support NI if three things happened: a) the anthem was changed; b) the flag was changed; c) the new stadium was built?

    GAA: Is it not the case quite simply that the GAA is a sectarian organization and that’s the way it’s going to stay? Is there actually a major problem with that?

  10. IJP
    “Is it not the case quite simply that the GAA is a sectarian organization and that’s the way it’s going to stay?”

    Using the more common meaning of “sectarian” this would indicate that protestants are banned/not-wanted which is utter shite. The organisation might be somewhat nationalist (too nationalist for me), promote only Gaelic culture (nothing wrong with that) but it does not ban anyone because of their religion.
    p.s. unionist does not equal protestant.

    “Is there actually a major problem with that?”

    Yes.

  11. “the anthem and emblems at Windsor are pretty exclusive to one section of our community”

    ron,

    There is a lot of validity in what you say, however change (if there is to be change) will come from with within. I presume by “emblems”, you mean the representative flag, recognised by UEFA & FIFA?

    But, there has to be a degree of honesty here – Northern Ireland fans will not be fooled by republican agitation on these issues.

    Regardless of anthem, regardless of flags and regardless of stadium location, republicans will never support a team representing the six counties, called Northern Ireland.

    This notion that they might support Northern Ireland if these changes took place is, frankly, absurd.

    It is they who appear to bleat loudest on “the changes required”…required for what?

    Those of us trying to influence change on issues like the Anthem, must be mindful that many would view it as a sop to republicanism.

    They must be, and will be, reassured that no changes will be brought about to matters pertaining to the Northern Ireland team in consequence of republican propoganda and agitation.

    Only those who have the best interests of the Northern Ireland team and supporters at heart will steer change.

    There are many, many good reasons for the anthem to change…none of them to do with the fact that republicans don’t like it.

  12. Realist
    “Regardless of … republicans will never …”

    But is it about attracting Republicans or just catholics? If it attracts even just a handful of Catholics to the games then isn’t it worth considering?

    Change must come from within, I agree, but with input from the outside, IMHO.

    (i’m a tad bored today so I have to bug someone, sorry Stewart)

  13. “If it attracts even just a handful of Catholics to the games then isn’t it worth considering?”

    maca,

    There is considerably more than a handful of Catholics who already attend games, but in answer to your question, I repeat, only those who have the best interests of the Northern Ireland team and supporters at heart will steer change.

    That includes:

    Protestants/Catholics/Atheists/others.

    Republicans will gain nothing by playing political football with the NI team…that is a fact!

    PS: You never “bug” me – your views I may disagree with, bit I respect your always honest opinion.

  14. So Livingstone doesn’t use the term Northern Ireland? Could it be anything to do with it being an illegitimate country imposed against the will of the majority of Irish people and held subsequently by force of arms?

  15. IJP
    “Is it not the case quite simply that the GAA is a sectarian organization and that’s the way it’s going to stay?”

    Using the more common meaning of “sectarian” this would indicate that protestants are banned/not-wanted which is utter shite. The organisation might be somewhat nationalist (too nationalist for me), promote only Gaelic culture (nothing wrong with that) but it does not ban anyone because of their religion.
    p.s. unionist does not equal protestant.

    “Is there actually a major problem with that?”

    Yes.

  16. Maca

    Whether or not people are officially ‘banned’ is a technicality. I’m afraid this is again a case of communal blind spot.

    The fact is the GAA welcomes Protestants, so long as they’re Nationalist. It excludes non-Nationalists (deliberately) by symbolism, political comment, and promotional practice.

    For example, I have never heard a county or national representative in any sport in Ireland make an openly and covertly political remark prior to retirement, yet prominent GAA players and managers do so quite often (by backing parties, discussing the political aspects of security, or simply coming out and saying that the GAA is basically a Republican organization).

    It is therefore fundamentally sectarian – with the ‘sect’ being Irish Nationalism (itself fundamentally and instinctively anti-British).

    I don’t really have a problem with it being sectarian, in fact, although it does open up issues to do with cultural integration, state funding and such like.

  17. ‘Could it be anything to do with it being an illegitimate country imposed against the will of the majority of Irish people and held subsequently by force of arms?’

    Lunch time already? I suppose the above is the price we must pay for being wealthy enough to have computers in schools.

  18. “Er, the GAA is organised along Roman Catholic parish boundaries and its clubs are organised within Roman Catholic parishes and churches.”

    IIRC the parish boundaries that are referred to if there is a query over eligibility for under-age players are those of the Church of Ireland in the 1830s as this was the most detailed map available until the early part of the twentieth century.

  19. IJP,
    There’s no blind spot Ian, I know what symbols, rules & practices may exclude Unionists, but I believe your statement that the GAA only welcomes nationalist protestants is false. Do you believe every GAA member, catholic, protestant or otherwise, is a nationalist? Even those in Britain and around Europe? Are they all “anti-British”?

    I also don’t agree with your use of the term sectarian. It’s a loaded term and should be used more carefully.

  20. The majority (not all) of nationalists refuse to support Northern Ireland because it is a 6 county organisation, and is therefore inherently unionist.

    The majority (not all) of unionists will refuse to support the GAA because it is a 32 county organisation, and is therefore inherently nationalist.

    Get over it, and please stop whining about it just to try and score political points, or to somehow justify to yourselves the reason for your own in-bred hostility.

    While I may be accused of oversimplifying the whole painfully boring situation, it seems quite clear that the people posting in support of the GAA and criticising the Northern Ireland football team are evidently nationalist, and the people posting in support of NI and criticising the GAA are obviously unionist.

    Having politics spill over into sport is the price we pay for creating a politically intolerant society. Because we have all been socialised into our respective tribes there really is no point to debating the issue.

    Has even ONE person who has followed this blog been persuaded to abandon their point of view based on someone else’s opinion from ‘the other side’?

  21. B
    “Because we have all been socialised into our respective tribes there really is no point to debating the issue.”

    Not true. Communication is essential, you need to be able to discuss problems if you want to solve them.

    “Has even ONE person who has followed this blog been persuaded to abandon their point of view based on someone else’s opinion from ‘the other side’?”

    My views on a number of issues have changed due to discussions with some of the decent people here.

  22. “the anthem and emblems at Windsor are pretty exclusive to one section of our community”

    ron,

    There is a lot of validity in what you say, however change (if there is to be change) will come from with within. I presume by “emblems”, you mean the representative flag, recognised by UEFA & FIFA?

    But, there has to be a degree of honesty here – Northern Ireland fans will not be fooled by republican agitation on these issues.

    Regardless of anthem, regardless of flags and regardless of stadium location, republicans will never support a team representing the six counties, called Northern Ireland.

    This notion that they might support Northern Ireland if these changes took place is, frankly, absurd.

    It is they who appear to bleat loudest on “the changes required”…required for what?

    Those of us trying to influence change on issues like the Anthem, must be mindful that many would view it as a sop to republicanism.

    They must be, and will be, reassured that no changes will be brought about to matters pertaining to the Northern Ireland team in consequence of republican propoganda and agitation.

    Only those who have the best interests of the Northern Ireland team and supporters at heart will steer change.

    There are many, many good reasons for the anthem to change…none of them to do with the fact that republicans don’t like it.

  23. How about this for a cross-community sports initiative? Tyrone GAA should enter a reciprocal arrangement with Ulster Rugby, so that if either side runs out of jerseys they could borrow from the other? You’ d hardly notice the difference.

  24. Realist
    “Regardless of … republicans will never …”

    But is it about attracting Republicans or just catholics? If it attracts even just a handful of Catholics to the games then isn’t it worth considering?

    Change must come from within, I agree, but with input from the outside, IMHO.

    (i’m a tad bored today so I have to bug someone, sorry Stewart)

  25. “The majority (not all) of unionists will refuse to support the GAA because it is a 32 county organisation, and is therefore inherently nationalist. “

    Disproved by contradiction:

    Presbyterian Church, Rugby, Cricket, C of I, etc all organized at 32 country level.

  26. “I also don’t agree with your use of the term sectarian. It’s a loaded term and should be used more carefully.”

    Cardinal O Fiaich was the first to identify what he saw as the different sectarian attitudes of the communities, and even though he got it wrong, the differences on this thread are noticable.

    Sectarianism to nationalists ( I presume Roman Catholics too) is only religious- thus Ian paisley is sectarian because he is “anti-catholic” (sic) But political preference cannot be sectarian, thus the GAA having a quasi-political ethos is not sectarian , even though it excludes non-nationalists by its ethos- thus they blame the cause but excuse the effect

    Sectarianism to Unionists/Protestants is anything that does what it says on the tin. If it excludes someone by definition it’s sectarian. But if there is an indirect discrimination- the so-called “chill factor” because that doesn’t explicitly exclude they tend to the view that it shouldn’t count as sectarianism- hence the outrage about the removal of British symbols which obviously cannot of themselves exclude.

    Nationalism’as view is widely accepted, but until they also buy into the Unionist concept of sectarianism then we’ll always talk at cross purposes. For the record I don’t distinguish between the effect both notions have on those who sincerely perceive themselves to be victims of sectarianism, though naturally I am more taken by the Unionist definition.

  27. “I also don’t agree with your use of the term sectarian. It’s a loaded term and should be used more carefully.”

    Cardinal O Fiaich was the first to identify what he saw as the different sectarian attitudes of the communities, and even though he got it wrong, the differences on this thread are noticable.

    Sectarianism to nationalists ( I presume Roman Catholics too) is only religious- thus Ian paisley is sectarian because he is “anti-catholic” (sic) But political preference cannot be sectarian, thus the GAA having a quasi-political ethos is not sectarian , even though it excludes non-nationalists by its ethos- thus they blame the cause but excuse the effect

    Sectarianism to Unionists/Protestants is anything that does what it says on the tin. If it excludes someone by definition it’s sectarian. But if there is an indirect discrimination- the so-called “chill factor” because that doesn’t explicitly exclude they tend to the view that it shouldn’t count as sectarianism- hence the outrage about the removal of British symbols which obviously cannot of themselves exclude.

    Nationalism’as view is widely accepted, but until they also buy into the Unionist concept of sectarianism then we’ll always talk at cross purposes. For the record I don’t distinguish between the effect both notions have on those who sincerely perceive themselves to be victims of sectarianism, though naturally I am more taken by the Unionist definition.

  28. I’m so sure Darthrumsfeld.
    Many unionists I have discussed with here use the religious meaning of sectarianism.

    “even though it excludes non-nationalists by its ethos”

    You seem to have the same “problem” as Ian, thinking that all GAA members must be nationalist. They’re not. Or do you consider anyone who is non-unionist to be nationalist? 🙂

    Can I ask though, seriously, how non-nationalists are excluded. I know how (U)(u)nionists are excluded, but how about non-nationalists? And what’s your definition of nationalist/non-nationalist?

  29. Nationalists excluded from Orange Order
    Tories Excluded from Labour Party
    Liverpool players excluded from Manu Utd Dressing room.
    Students excluded from Examiner’s office
    Nun excluded from Priesthood
    Elvis excluded from greatest living rockstar contest (He’s ALIVE and pumping gas in UTAH!)
    George W Bush excluded from Greenpeace
    smcgiff excluded from KeithM’s fanclub

    Can ye see a pattern?

  30. Maca. I’ve read your postings, and my impression is that you are a level headed guy (or gal!), but I think you have taken what I have said much to literally.

    My comment was the result of my intense frustration when reading through blogs such as these from our beloved country/province/region/state/statelet/district/occupied territory. It really makes me want to bang my head against the nearest wall.

    “Not true. Communication is essential, you need to be able to discuss problems if you want to solve them.”

    People seem to equate the whole “whataboutus?” “whataboutthem?” drivel as communication. When are people going to start discussing the actual “problems” rather than focusing on tripe such as who supports what team.

    Most people are quite happy with their chosen sport/team and are only using this debate to “enlighten” us with their political ideology.

    If you have changed your opinion on some matters after reading these blogs then fair play, but as recent elections show, green still votes green, and orange still votes orange (by and large).

    Here’s hoping our kids might be a little more open minded…

  31. Slug,

    The GAA flies the tricolour at Casement Park in Belfast and other Northern stadiums. This is testament to its 32-county ideology.

    The same could not be said of the organisations you mentioned because the reason for their 32-county set-up is simply to do with them having been formed before partition.

    They decided not to go their separate ways as was the case with the IFA and the FAI.

    While I therefore apologise for the use of the word “inherently” I feel it hardly disproves my point.

  32. ‘Could it be anything to do with it being an illegitimate country imposed against the will of the majority of Irish people and held subsequently by force of arms?’

    Lunch time already? I suppose the above is the price we must pay for being wealthy enough to have computers in schools.

  33. IJP,
    There’s no blind spot Ian, I know what symbols, rules & practices may exclude Unionists, but I believe your statement that the GAA only welcomes nationalist protestants is false. Do you believe every GAA member, catholic, protestant or otherwise, is a nationalist? Even those in Britain and around Europe? Are they all “anti-British”?

    I also don’t agree with your use of the term sectarian. It’s a loaded term and should be used more carefully.

  34. How about this for a cross-community sports initiative? Tyrone GAA should enter a reciprocal arrangement with Ulster Rugby, so that if either side runs out of jerseys they could borrow from the other? You’ d hardly notice the difference.

  35. “The majority (not all) of unionists will refuse to support the GAA because it is a 32 county organisation, and is therefore inherently nationalist. “

    Disproved by contradiction:

    Presbyterian Church, Rugby, Cricket, C of I, etc all organized at 32 country level.

  36. Buckfasthero
    “the reason for their 32-county set-up is simply to do with them having been formed before partition”

    Though the GAA was also “formed before partition”

  37. buckfastero

    First you said:

    “The majority (not all) of unionists will refuse to support the GAA because it is a 32 county organisation, and is therefore inherently nationalist. “

    Now you say you will remove the term inherently from the above. However its still wrong without the word inherently, because unionists have no problems with lots of other ’32 county’ or Irish-level organizations such as ICU, PCI, COI, IRFU, and the like. Thus, unionist ‘refusal to support’ it is not BECAUSE the GAA is 32 county.

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