Sometimes it would appear that nothing has the power to divide like sport. How many of us have been asked ‘what team do you support?’ and instantly depending on the response you give, you are greeted by either a nod of approval or a comment from the other person that demonstrates loyalty on their part to some other team.
Or think how sport also divides us in terms of socio-economic backgrounds. Rugby and fencing, the preserve of the Grammar School with football more associated with the secondary school (a generalisation to be fair, but sometimes the generalisation proves quite accurate).
All those divisions before one even begins to think about how communities here have divided along sport lines, with certain activities being seen to belong to ‘our side’ or the ‘other side’.
On Saturday evening I attended for the first time a match which would have definitely been labelled the sport of ‘the other side’ growing up. But what I witnessed on Saturday evening was not the ability of sport to divide but in reality the ability of sport to unite. What I found and discovered was a community of acceptance and belonging and a space where my ignorance wasn’t seen as a point of division but rather an opportunity for those around me to educate me in what was happening so I could enter into what was unfolding on the pitch in a way that transcended the superficial.
Along with 6000 others that evening I found myself at Ravenhill to watch the ‘game for Anto’ which was held to highlight and raise awareness around Motor Neurones Disease given the fact that Anto Finnegan was diagnosed with the terminal condition two years ago. The match itself pitied an All Star Ulster squad against the Dublin team, which ultimately saw the home team clinch victory.
For me what was so fascinating about the evening was not only what was happening on the pitch, but also what was happening off the pitch and among the crowd. As we settled into our seats I was quickly aware that I was in a venue that I was familiar with from many outings to watch the final of The School’s Cup Rugby but tonight I was watching a game I hadn’t a cue about. How does a team win? What’s with this running with the ball and then being able to kick it? What is more important goals in the net or the moments when team members managed to lob the ball over the net and between the posts? As I asked the person who had invited me these questions I discovered that while she and I had managed to grab a quick cursory glance of the rules online during the week we were both in the darkness when it came to watching the game play out before us.
As we vocalised more questions to one another we quickly discovered that while we were novices when it came to this sport the people around us weren’t and step by step they began to educate us in what was happening. They enabled us to grasp what was happening, allowing us to observe while they educated us whilst laughing with us in our naivety. By second half I was slowly beginning to ‘get it’, found myself cheering, finding my mind working through what all the different moves mean’t and then the experience was over far to quickly for my liking.
I left Ravenhill walking into the crisp November air to realise that really life is to short for there not to be a first time for everything and I was so glad I had taken the step to go and see my first GAA match (an experience I can not wait to replicate). Though I also left with the challenge of asking myself ‘what’s the next first experience?’
Team & Anto Photos by Dan Turley