Even readers who are especially interested in the New Year’s honours list may have missed the significance of Mary Peters’ elevation to the Order of the Companions of Honour. Peters and Sebastian Coe are the only athletes ever to have received this award.
Coverage in the Northern Ireland media has been relatively muted, although the News Letter points out that the award is so rare that there are only allowed to be 65 living recipients at one time. And it has been more than 50 years since anyone from Northern Ireland has received this honour.
The Daily Mail recalls how after winning gold in the pentathlon at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Peters received a death threat from the IRA and was warned not to return to Northern Ireland:
Barely had the bauble been placed around her neck than she was receiving a death threat from the IRA at a time when the Troubles were raging at their most disturbing pitch.
‘Mary Peters is a Protestant and has won a medal for Britain. An attempt will be made on her life and it will be blamed on the IRA … her home will going up in the near future,’ a chilling Irish voice told the BBC in a phone call.
“I was aware now that while there was no one on earth who could help me any more at least my tension was being shared. The television cameras were all on this event and I knew that back home in Northern Ireland they would all be looking in: Catholics and Protestants, friends in the gym, fellow athletes and old school colleagues … I couldn’t let them down. I was running for them and for Belfast now, and that was the last thought I had before turning and going to the starting line at the top end of the stadium with the left-hand curve just ahead and the finishing line away down there on the horizon.”
So not only did Peters return to Northern Ireland, she rode in an open-top truck through the centre of Belfast to celebrate her victory with people from all backgrounds.
Peters was born in Liverpool and came to Northern Ireland at age 11, when her father got a job in Ballymena. (In Mary P, she recounts how when she first started school in Ballymena, she could not understand the accent and “I had to have someone sitting beside me in class to interpret the lessons.”, p. 4)
Peters’ Liverpool roots make her devotion to Northern Ireland, and her determination to stay here and help others – despite lucrative opportunities abroad after winning her gold medal – all the more remarkable.
Peters’ work has included fundraising to establish the Mary Peters Track and supporting the development of young athletes through the Mary Peters Trust. She is also a general all-around inspiration: For example, this summer when I was in Glasgow competing in the marathon at the Commonwealth Games, I noticed that my roommate in the Village, steeplechaser Kerry O’Flaherty, had a copy of Mary P on her bedside table. While I knew some of the details of Peters’ career, when I returned home I ordered a copy of the book – a steal at one pence through one of amazon’s partner used-book sellers.
Mary P is a remarkable read, with its embeddedness in the troubled context of the time in Northern Ireland as interesting to me in my job as a lecturer in conflict resolution as the details of her training and competition were to me as an athlete and a sports fan.
The chapter in which she describes the murder of four British soldiers in the flat next door to her house in 1973 (chapter 13), has stayed with me as much as her accounts of her competitions.
I think I was impressed most by Peters’ loyalty to those in her adopted home who had nurtured her athletics career, and her courage in not allowing the violence of the time to derail her training or her everyday life. She also declares she is an atheist, which could not have been especially easy to admit in the religiously, morally and socially conservative Northern Ireland of that time.
Two stories from the book stand out for me: the first is about Peters’ encounter with the Rev Ian Paisley at a reception after winning her Olympic gold (p. 113):
“Towering of figure, commanding of voice, hair, chin and dog-collar gleaming, the Reverend Ian Paisley generously offered his congratulations. But then came the commercial. In that powerful County Antrim accent which must have made sinners quake out in the street he added, ‘Mind you, Miss Peaders, me onlah regret is that you should have seen fit to have dinnat on the Sabbath Day.’
It was later clearly explained to Mr. Paisley, I gather, that Miss Peaders had not been in the position in Munich to rearrange the entire Olympics track and field programme so that the second day of the pentathlon should not fall on a Sunday. But that, I also gather, did not stop Mr Paisley repeating his disapproval of my abuse of the Sabbath when he went to work on his own church congregation the following Sunday. I wasn’t actually there to hear it but that’s how the story went.
I liked Mrs Paisley. She appeared to be the quieter member of the family and was very sweet and asked me for my autograph for her children. Since it was a weekday I happily obliged.”
The second is about a letter Peters received from a fan after the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch. It’s what she chooses to end her book with, and I think the sentiment remains relevant still today (p. 147-148):
“Along the way, through failure and success, great happiness and deep sadness, I have received many thousands of letters. One of them, delivered to the Commonwealth Games Village in New Zealand, was from Mr A.E. Sanders, of … Lyttelton, New Zealand. He enclosed, as a gift to me, a tattered piece of cardboard. ‘I have held this,’ he wrote, ‘for the past fifty-six years and I think it is probably the only one left in existence. It is grubby but that is just some of the mud of Flanders fields.’ It was the official Christmas card of the Ulster Divisions serving in France in 1916.
‘I am Irish,’ Mr Sanders wrote, ‘and I am so proud of it that I wouldn’t be dead for £1000 a week. We live peacefully here. Ecumenicalism is spreading. We have Roman Catholic bishops preaching in Anglican cathedrals and vice versa. When Catholics have a night out, Anglicans do the baby-sitting. When Anglicans go out, Catholics look after their homes. May God bring such a peaceful conclusion to the place where you live.’
Those with a God to pray to may wish to read those words again.”
Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com