Golf shows the way to ‘through-otherness’

Over the past year  three Northern Irish golfers – Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke  – have put our little region firmly on the global sporting map by winning the world’s  two greatest golf tournaments: the US Open (for two years running) and the  British Open. This extraordinary feat is wonderfully cheering for two reasons  that have little to do with golf: firstly because it is great for regional  morale when our sporting, musical and literary heroes make international  headlines for all the right reasons – brilliant skills, huge dedication, sheer  top-of-the-world talent.  During the ‘troubles’  it was such a relief when the likes of Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison, George Best  and Alex Higgins (an unlikely ambassadorial foursome!) made Northern Ireland  known for other reasons than car bombs and hunger strikes and internment and Protestants  and Catholics killing each other.

The second reason I like  this threesome – while having little interest in their game – is that as a  person with (unfortunately) well-developed sectarian antennae, I can’t for the  life of me work out which ‘foot they dig with’. When somebody asked me in the  pub the other night, I got two out of three of them wrong!

This set me thinking  about a notion I have raised more than once in this column: the advantages of  being Northern Irish and thus being able to claim both a British and an Irish identity. It is easy for the Dublin  media to treat McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke as Irish heroes, as indeed they  are. However more than one of them probably carries a British passport, and  they make their (extremely good) livings mainly in Europe and North America. They  live in the best of both worlds.They are the embodiment of the poet John  Hewitt’s plea that he should be treated as an Ulsterman, and as Irish, British  and European – leave out one element and you are doing the man’s identity some  harm.

We lucky people of  Northern Ireland have a choice of two identities and citizenships, and this good  fortune was formally enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. For those of us  who relish our duality, this is messy but rewarding, and we can hop from one to  the other whenever we please. The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey  (a joint project by Queen’s University Belfast and University of Ulster) in  June showed how we do it: just 33% of Northern Catholics told the pollsters  they wanted Irish unity in the long-term (a view shared by only 1% of Northern  Protestants, although 82% said they could accept it with some reluctance if it  came about after a democratic vote). 52% of Catholics, the great majority  certainly Sinn Fein and SDLP voters, said they would prefer to stay in the UK. Talk  about having your cake and eating it – we Ulster folk make ambivalence into an  art form!

In his speech to mark  the restoration of power-sharing in 2007, Deputy First Minister Martin  McGuinness approvingly quoted Seamus Heaney saying that we needed to move  beyond talking about ‘the other side’ and get to a place of ‘through-otherness’  (a peculiarly Northern word meaning untidiness). In a 2001 lecture in Aberdeen  Heaney, talking about the poet and clergyman W.R.Rodgers (who put the term into  literature in a poem about Armagh), said: ‘There is something analogous to the  triple heritage of Irish, Scottish and English traditions that compound and  complicate the cultural and political life of contemporary Ulster’. For Rodgers  it had not been ‘a question of the otherness of any part of his inheritance,  more a recognition of the through-otherness of all of them.’

Like most good things  in Northern Ireland (courtesy of that other great Derry man, John Hume), ‘through-otherness’  has an internal, a North-South and an East-West dimension. Sticking to sport  for the moment, the North-South dimension is rugby supporters having to sing Ireland’s Call before Amhrán na bhFiann and (I would suggest) soccer  supporters having to oppose the FAI’s attempts to poach only northern Catholic players for the Republic of Ireland team. Being  an Irish-British or British-Irish champion – Eoin Morgan captaining the English  cricket team; Barry McGuigan winning a British boxing title; Tony McCoy and  Kieren Fallon becoming Champion Jockey   –  makes for a thoroughly healthy  and normal East-West ‘through-otherness’. The success of Ballyfermot woman Mary  Byrne on the X Factor and of the Queen’s visit to Ireland in May (and  particularly to ‘rebel’ Cork) were other recent triumphs for this trí na chéile – ‘things mixed up among  themselves’ – to use Heaney’s definition.

This close, mutually  dependent cross-border inter-connectedness between North and South, Ireland and  Britain, is there more than ever in the post Good Friday Agreement ‘new  Ireland’. It will be continue to be there as the two countries try to find mutually  beneficial positions vis-a-vis the financial meltdown that the European Union  is currently wrestling with, and looming problems of energy shortages and  climate change. We should welcome and celebrate it.

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.

  • It is a cliché that Seamus Heaney, Van Morrison, George Best and Alex Higgins made Norn Iron famous for reasons other than car bombs. They didnt. Norn Iron is famous for car bombs…..not occasional sporting or cultural success.
    More names could have been added….Dana, Peter Canavan, Liam Neeson “OBE” . But the more names that we add the less rather than more….convincing the case Mr Pollaks case becomes.
    Mr Pollak identifies the golfers’ identities as “ambiguous”. Not so sure the same case can be made for others in his list.
    Mr Pollak bases his case on the ambiguity of the foot with which Mr Clarke, Mr McDowell and Mr McIlroy kick……….I have never been much interested myself. Golf is an extremely boring game but good luck to them.

    I also think that all three are entitled to the Identity that they themselves want. Including if they want……two identities or choose to keep those who are interested guessing……but I dont think they would appreciate having an ambiguous identity chosen for them. Or to have the perceived ambiguity used to make a political point.

    John Hewitt might well have pleaded to be treated as Irish, British and European. Maybe removing one of those three elements would have taken something from HIS identity.
    Taking one of those elements from me may not weaken my sense of identity.
    Indeed take two of them and as long as I am left with the one that I want, Id be an extremely happy bunny.
    I dont think I am a child of a lesser God than John Hewitt.

    Im not a poet. And Seamus Heaneys use of the term “through-otherness” is one I have always liked. My own poetic term “lets get alongerism”….the creation of false and misleading identities and attitudes to paper over the cracks in our three communities… also an untidy phrase but one which an increasing number of people see as a false God to be rejected.

    I am not so sure rugby supporters “have” to sing the National Anthem rather than the lets get alongerist “Irelands Call”. They can sing or not sing. FAI dont “poach” players. Mr Pollak is seemingly denying people the right to choose an identity that he would much prefer to choose for them.

    Yet the Golf, Sporting and Cultural Worlds do indeed have their own rules. Golf men bore each other in the nineteenth hole, regardless of affiliation. So do those involved in (say) Horse Sport. And a friend who was a former barman always said that “pigeon men are never any trouble”.
    Even people with great sectarian antennae couldnt tell the difference. Rightly so.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Sensible as ever.

    I was also interested in the rising figure in the Life and Times Survey of people now preferring to avoid ethnic badging completely. But while these people may offer hope of another variety, I actually prefer your approach – the feeling that we don’t have to throw out the baby of one’s ethnic heritage with the bathwater of sectarianism.

    The quest for a shared identity in a contested region like Northern Ireland is indeed a fool’s errand, as I think you imply. A big part of what has gone wrong with Northern Irish society over the years comes from the very simple failure to accept the self-identification of others. It’s correcting this failure, rather than more attempts to persuade people into identities they don’t want – or criticise existing identities – that is the future. Northern Ireland should be a space where difference is normal, where people are free to be whatever they want to be.

    I always felt that to come from Northern Ireland is to be hugely lucky – and I still do!

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Sorry the FAI do poach players – come on now.
    But I agree, I’m not impressed by the Ireland rugby anthem and flag situation – there seems to be a reluctance to recognise the British and even the Northern Irish element of the Ireland team, which I find very troubling. That needs to be addressed forthwith.

  • Whether within the rules of FIFA (or the broader constitutional position) a lot of people are going to opt to play for Ireland. Some wont of course.
    But one mans Poaching is another Mans Scouting. And no doubt when Norn Iron play their next international, we can have a whole new thread going over the ground again.
    Im not sure why an Irish team needs a “British” dimension.
    Seems clear that there is an element of choice in the hands of Northerners. If they dont like it, the nine county Ulster Branch can become a six county Branch and negotiate a satisfactory arrangement with Ireland……..or form a “Northern Ireland” international team. Or use their Britishness to be “poached” by Scotland, England or Wales.
    Rugby in Ireland has pre-dated Partition and will probably outlive it.

  • I don’t think that you can say that the FAI ‘poach’ players. It just so happens that most Irish people regard the FAI team as more Irish than the IFA one. You hardly need to twist people’s arm to play on a team that represents their national affiliation. If they really felt that Northern Ireland was their nation/country they would hardly be open to the offer in the first place. What would be poaching would be to try to convince people who regard themselves as British (and not Irish) to play for the ROI.
    The most surprising is that no players from NI have pushed to play for England yet. That surely has to happen some time. If you are British then England is the best UK team so it would certainly have an attraction.
    The other examples used here are dubious. Eoin Morgan obviously chose to play for England as it was his chance of test cricket, I don’t think that you should read political motives into it. Equally Barry McGuigan chose a pragmatic route. We have Kenyans running for Denmark, Brazilians playing soccer for several countries and many other assorted sporting migrants. Basically sports people will generally follow the money.

  • “there seems to be a reluctance to recognise the British and even the Northern Irish element of the Ireland team”

    I don’t know how you can say that. Granted, I can conceive that it might not be nice for somebody British to see tricolours being flown by a lot of the crowd but what about the risible “Ireland’s Call”?
    Moreover, many Irish players play for the Lions. Surely that indicates that they are open to a ‘Britain and Ireland’ dimension. If they were being nationalistic they wouldn’t agree to play on joint British/Irish team.

  • Mick Fealty

    Methinks Irish soccer is the obvious falsifier here. But is it possible we could lodge that fact and then move on, rather than rehearse, ad nauseum, all the tedious arguments again?

    It’s possible to argue that sports like Hockey, GAA, Cricket, Rugby etc, avoid Soccer’s problems and organise island wide only because they don’t try to engage both northern tribes simultaneously.

    Golf is a separate matter, because it is played by individuals who make and unmake their careers with little reference to where they come from. It’s certainly true that the GUI is the organising body, but there are few occasions when players are forced to declare for their country.

    As a result, it is the one sport that has the strongest claim to allow individuals to self identify their nationality in their own terms.

    I’m not suggesting that other sports don’t have their own primary virtues. But it is uncertain whether in the unlikely event that Northern Irish Catholics were start playing cricket in very large numbers whether it would signify a ready road to social utopia, or a ruinous road to social hell.

  • Mick Fealty

    One addendum, I would suggest that this kind of freedom is actually not a bad thing. It’s not a panacea, but it has the virtue of being a plus rather than a zero sum proposition, which in current circumstances we need more rather than less of.

  • I think we can indeed bank the “Soccer” problem but as it was raised in Mr Pollaks piece, it invited comment.
    Actually there have been dissertations done on Sport and it is indeed complex……with most sports finding a degree of compromise……the “garrison games” like Hockey, Rugby Cricket among those finding the “Irelands Call”/”Four Provinces flag” acceptable in varying degrees.
    Other all-Ireland sports like (amateur) Boxing have not compromised to any real extent.

    But the main thrust of Mr Fealtys point is correct. Theres no point in rehearsing this sterile debate every time an international is played.

  • HeinzGuderian

    Soccer ? I know of no such game. Is it akin to Football perchance ?
    There is no such golf tournament as the British Open. It is THE Open.

    Why do people who know next to nothing about sport,insist on talking about it ?
    I couldn’t care less what religion or nationality a sportsperson is. Anyone who does,needs to get out more.
    If I think Padraig Harrington will win this week,I will invest my easy earned £’s on him.
    If I think Glasgow Celtic will win a Football Match,I back them.
    If only we could think outside the invisible sky daddy box………………..what a wondeful world this would be,huh ? 😉

  • Soccer is how most people who speak English refer to Association Football. That’s because football means Gaelic Football to most Irish people, Aussie Rules to Aussies and American Football to Americans etc.
    Since most English speakers use the term soccer it is unambiguous and always correct whereas football can have different meanings.

  • It is obviously true that we cannot force identities on other people. It is also obviously true that while we continue to have separate identities our society remains fundamentally broken. The only way that difficult decisions can be made in the name of the people is if the people are willing to make sacrifices in each other’s name. So long as tribal identity is paramount, democratic decision making is hamstrung. We see this every day at the increasingly ineffectual Stormont, where no hard decision is too important to be avoided, lest the fragile consensus be broken.

    Yes, we are lucky to have such a wealth of diverse traditions, and this should rightly be encouraged. But the problem is that these traditions are used as barriers rather than bridges. FJH wonders why an Irish team needs a British dimension. The answer is that there are nearly a million self-identified “British” people in Ireland. You can either a) hate them, b) tolerate them so long as they don’t ask anything of you, or c) man up and embrace them as brothers.

    Does anyone here honestly think b) is a recipe for a stable society?

  • Alanbrooke

    I always find it bizarre that people who can cherry pick from two of the best cultures going feel obliged to be pushed in to one corner.

  • “FJH wonders why an Irish team needs a British dimension. The answer is that there are nearly a million self-identified “British” people in Ireland”
    The fact is that the rugby team represents Ireland and plays against the three teams from Great Britain in their respective national representations. Are you suggesting that Scotland, Wales and England should also be nurturing an explicitly British dimension in rugby? I think that they get that with the Lions as I mentioned earlier, the same team where Irish players join forces with the British, surely that is enough?
    There is no British national rugby team so as FZH mentioned there is always the option of setting up your own national ‘ Ulster’ team without the three southern Ulster counties and without the people in the north who might actually be happy to play for Ireland.
    Either that or convince the rest of the UK to have one rugby team with the NI British but nobody would want that. Ireland is and can remain a normal rugby team like Scotland, England and Wales. There doesn’t have to be a British dimension any more than there has to be a Mayo dimension.

  • Cynic2

    I wonder why anyone gives a damn. People are people – they are individuals with a complex rag bag of desires, beliefs and vies that change over time.

  • Cynic2

    Except in Derry and Fermanagh

  • HeinzGuderian

    Football means football,you know,played with the feet.

    American football
    Ozzy rules football
    Rugby football
    and gaelic football,hardly qualify for that !!

    Please use the correct terminology when referring to The Beautiful Game. 🙂

  • andnowwhat

    Football means football,you know,played with the feet.

    American football
    Ozzy rules football
    Rugby football
    and gaelic football,hardly qualify for that !!

    Please use the correct terminology when referring to The Beautiful Game

    Never saw a throw in, a header or a goal kick in spideball then?

  • ayeYerMa

    oranje, NI football players don’t play for England because to do so requires a parent/grandparent born in England or 2 years living in England. Contrast that to the RoI team which has no such requirement to poach NI players and you should be able to understand the crux of why FAI poaching is unfair.

  • ayeYerMa

    I’d also strongly disagree with FJH’s comments on rugby. Ironic given that was it not only a few decades ago where if you’d been seen walking around Belfast in an Ireland rugby top you’d have been designated as a “middle class prod”?

    Given the IRFU’s recent infamous treatment of Ravenhill as an “away” ground (or so the excuse goes) and refusal to play an anthem in NI, I think it’s truly disgusting that they still have the neck to play the Soldier’s Song in Dublin at all. “Ireland’s Call” is a great tune. A double insult given in the recent flying a 9 county flag alongside the tricolour instead of the NI one.

    I’ve noticed a growing disillusionment with Irish rugby in Unionist circles, though perhaps that could also have a lot to do with poor team selections by Kidney!

  • john

    Back to the all important question of which foot the golfers kick with. One is left footed, one is right and one is both so that should keep everyone happy.

    P.S Mick I think we do need another FAI/IFA eligibilty blog – its pure entertainment!

  • john

    I’ve noticed a growing disillusionment with Irish rugby in Unionist circles, though perhaps that could also have a lot to do with poor team selections by Kidney!

    ?? Are you implying there is not enough Ulster players on the team?

    Andrew Trimble is a cert and the form player at the minute.
    Steven Ferris if fully fit will also play
    If Rory Best can improve his darts then he will also play.
    Tommy Bowe’s form has dipped but is also a cert (if you want to class him as an Ulster player)
    Paddy Walace – great player for Ulster but Im afraid never quite manages to perform in an Ireland shirt and will only play if there are a few injuries or if Dárcys form nose dives further

  • “NI football players don’t play for England because to do so requires a parent/grandparent born in England or 2 years living in England.”
    Those rules could easily be challenged. A British passport should be enough to play for any of the UK teams without restrictions.
    In fact that is the case for Channel Islanders who arguably should have their own teams following the British logic of what constitutes a soccer nation. Either that or have one national team for the UK.

    “Contrast that to the RoI team which has no such requirement to poach NI players and you should be able to understand the crux of why FAI poaching is unfair.”
    You are looking at this through partitionist spectacles. The border is an inconvenient truth for a lot of Irish people. They think of Ireland as the island and the way the GAA is organized is more in tune with that thinking.
    I can see why you want British players to play for NI but I cannot see why you think that an Irish player should be restricted from playing for the team that flies his flag and sings his national anthem.
    When I am cheering for the Irish soccer team I am not cheering for a 26 county team. I am cheering for an Irish team regardless of where the players were born (and many have been born elsewhere historically as is the case with NI funnily enough). It is a team the represents the Irish nation and that is not bounded by the border imposed after the south became independent.
    If Northern Ireland are playing on television I am happy to see them do well. I think it is unfortunate that the Irish Football Association does not abide by its name and just merge with the FAI. However I do see why the British people in Ireland want their own team. I just don’t see why they want to have restrictions in place to force people to play for it.
    Let British people play for any UK team, let Irish people play for the ROI team. What’s the issue?

  • Mike the First


    “Ireland is and can remain a normal rugby team like Scotland, England and Wales. There doesn’t have to be a British dimension any more than there has to be a Mayo dimension”

    Presumably you agree there shouldn’t be a Republic of Ireland dimension either?

  • Mike the First

    “Ozzy rules football”

    This gives me an odd mental image of a code of football invented by Black Sabbath fans.

  • “Presumably you agree there shouldn’t be a Republic of Ireland dimension either?”
    Exactly. The rugby team represents the island of Ireland and the national groupings living on it. Rugby has never been about political affiliations or the state boundaries on the island.
    To be honest I don’t even have a concept of the ‘Republic of Ireland’. For me my home country is Ireland and that would be the same if the island was in one state or split in two or even three.

  • pippakin

    Mike the First (presumptuous much?)

    Whilst I have no problem with the er point you are trying to make to oranje, I would like to just point out that as long as there is an Ireland anything Mayo will be in it!

  • Mike the First


    Thanks – where I’m going with this is that the IRFU has no need to be using ROI symbols (flag and anthem) when it has already adopted more appropriate all-Ireland ones.


    The username is just a reflection of the fact that when registration was introduced here, I found someone had nicked my long-used username of “Mike”!

  • @Mike
    I can see where you are coming from. Your point is that the British players (and fans) might object to the tricolour and the Irish national anthem. In some ways it is the same for (some of) the Irish players on the NI soccer team who might dislike the flags and anthems.
    On this point I agree with you but not because they are ‘ROI’ symbols. The same symbols are also used north of the border, have you ever read the GAA rules? 😉
    I don’t agree with bringing in British dimensions but I do agree with using flags acceptable for all the Irish people (be they British or not). The same should be the case for the IFA’s soccer team and then they might not have to worry about Irish people not wanting to play for the Irish FA’s team.
    Please no Ireland’s call though…….

  • “we can hop from one to the other whenever we please”

    I must admit cultural nationalism doesn’t ring my bell; it smacks of “Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of ticky tacky”. I’m a pic’n’mix man who discards the jingoistic labelling; I sort of resent being pigeon-holed. Why not let Joseph and Josephine wear their multi-coloured dream coats as and when they want to? I do.

  • Stewart Finn

    God same arguements over and over, I might as well rehearse my position 🙂

    I do not have a problem with someone from NI declaring to play football for ROI, I would prefer they didnt but thats the way it is, I am alarmed that a player that has been nurtured by the IFA and has chosen to represented NI numerous times up to under 21 then chooses to leave and play for a different country/team.

    I have no problem with the Irish Rugby team and am a massive fan, I think we should only play Ireland’s call, I think asking someone to stand for a national anthem preporting to represent their team but which is not necessarily their’s is a bit disrespectful (I am primarily talking about the players). I would never dream of asking O’Driscoll to stand for God Save the Queen when playing at Ravenhill but that would be the logic to the current arrangements.

    I go to matches, I stand for the national anthem of ROI but I do feel alienated for those few minutes.

    On the golfers, I am delighted that all three have chosen to label themselves as Northern Irish and that does put us on the map of sporting achievment. I would when at all possible label myself the same (but I dont always have that choice).

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Glad we got back to golf and “through-otherness” eventually. I agree with Mick, we’ve done the football and rugby stuff to death by now.

    Andy’s point was about the privilege of having two or more identities to draw upon – and that, among other things, the South being more relaxed about their own British past and continuing British links can actually help defuse identity issues in NI. When the Queen visited the Republic, I think people on both sides of the divide in Ireland were kind of fascinated to see the old pictures of a union jack-festooned Dublin on the last royal visit in 1911. From the British side, seeing the Queen being treated by many with respect, gave me hope that Irish culture has not always set its face against my own and does not have to in the future (and the other way around). Though I do also want to get rid of the monarchy.

  • Surely a much better example of Norn Irons sporting healthy ambiguity is reflected in World Superbike Riders, John Rea and Eugene Laverty.
    John Rea from Larne, Co Antrim rides as a British rider. His season has been disrupted by injury (an occupational hazard for bikers……and note the deaths of two local riders this week) but he is still about #11 in the Rankings.
    Eugene Laverty from Toome rides as an Irish rider is having a good season and lying fourth in WSBK. A double win at Monza this year.
    Two lads it seems worth getting behind. And neither prepared to hide behind……….their ambiguity.

    And just as worth getting behind

  • Mick Fealty

    Wasn’t Mondelo used as a venue for the British Superbike championship?

  • Im sure it was……and the Salzburgring and A1 Circuits in Austria are still used as venues for the German Superbike Championship.