Cross-community gaelic games take to the road

[This is taken from A Note from the Next Door Neighbours, the monthly e-bulletin of Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh and Dublin]

Billy Tate is one of the unsung heroes of cross-border and cross-community cooperation in Northern Ireland. This Ulster Unionist Party member and former soldier in the Royal Artillery is the principal of Belvoir Park Primary School, on the edge of an overwhelmingly Protestant working class housing estate in south-east Belfast. After trying hard – and failing – some years ago to attract a local Catholic school to twin with his school, he went south and forged a partnership with Scoil Mhuire National School in Howth, County Dublin, through the ICT-based Dissolving Boundaries project. Both schools have since been to Áras an Uachtaráin together to see President McAleese.

But that was not enough for this extraordinarily outward looking school principal. Belvoir Park has adopted an ‘international policy’, and has moved since 2004 from being a ‘single identity’ school in an estate once perceived as a ‘no go’ area for Catholics to one which boasts children from Nigeria, Poland, Lithuania, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India and South America.

Meanwhile Billy Tate’s outreach to the island of Ireland and its culture has continued. First he introduced Irish traditional music and dancing into the school. Then some of the children asked if they could try their hand at gaelic games. He turned for assistance to two visionary secondary principals, P.J. O’Grady of St Patrick’s College, Bearnageeha in Catholic north Belfast and Andy McMorran of Ashfield Boys High School in Protestant east Belfast, who had come together in a mould-breaking initiative to play hurling and shinty together (see below). GAA coaches from Tyrone and the Bredagh club in south Belfast coached the Belvoir Park children in gaelic football and hurling, and in their first hurling tournament they won one game and drew two.

“We see sport as a bridge-builder”, says Tate. “There is something profound about watching children in Rangers or Linfield shirts playing gaelic games, and it points to a new future in Northern Ireland for everyone.” He is pretty sure this is the first time that gaelic games have been played in a controlled (i.e. largely Protestant) primary school anywhere in Belfast, and probably in Northern Ireland. His hope is that it will begin to make the GAA “more accessible and welcoming to the Protestant community” and that Catholic schools will start to embrace his beloved rugby in the same spirit.

The GAA is already responding. Two years ago the first sporting contacts had been initiated between Ashfield High and St Patrick’s Bearnageeha. Last year this led, under the guidance of the Ulster Council’s community development manager, Ryan Feeney, to five boys from each school, plus five more from Corpus Christi College in Ballymurphy in Catholic west Belfast and the Boys Model School on the Protestant Crumlin Road, forming a squad which went to Inverness in Scotland to play in an under-16 shinty tournament there (for those not in the know, shinty is a close Scottish relation of hurling).

This month marked two more landmarks in this extraordinary experiment in peacebuilding through sport. On 3rd July a Scottish under-16 shinty team played a return match against the new cross-community team, Belfast Cúchullains, in front of an invited audience (including senior officials from the Ulster-Scots Agency and Ulster Unionist Party, SDLP and Sinn Fein politicians) on the playing fields of Stormont. On the 18th the team crossed the Atlantic to play challenge matches in New York and Washington, before going to Philadelphia for the GAA’s Intercontinental Youth Games, which bring teams together from North America, Britain, Europe and Ireland every year.

The Ulster Council has now started to formulate ambitious plans to have a cross-community hurling team in every large town in Northern Ireland and the three Southern border counties. Last autumn saw the then DUP Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Edwin Poots, visiting Newry for a McKenna Cup football match between Down and Donegal, and one of the North’s most senior Orangemen in Croke Park for the all-Ireland hurling final, both as guests of the GAA (I have been asked not to use the second man’s name, since he has been publicly vilified for his attendance – a remnant of the bad old Northern Ireland!). One wonders how long it will be before a courageous young man from the Shankill Road or the Newtownards Road (for the four pioneering schools in this initiative draw most of their pupils from Belfast’s working class heartlands) joins him on the pitch there. Not too long, I hope.

Andy Pollak

Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.