On Mary Peters’ Elevation to Companion of Honour

Mary PEven 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 has published an extensive feature detailing Peters’ athletics career and – more importantly for her elevation to this honour – her service to sport since retirement from athletics.

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.

That’s quite a contrast to what was doing through Peters’ mind as she lined up for her final, crucial event in the pentathlon, the 200 metres. In her 1974 autobiography Mary P, she writes (p. 91-92):

“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.”


  • Bryan Magee

    For all her success Mary Peters comes across as an incredibly nice person. And not in a goody-two-shoes way either: on a TV quiz show she was on she flirted rather outrageously with the comedian Adam Hills. Do you know which school she went to in Ballymena?

  • Her book says the Model School and then Ballymena Academy before the family moved to Portadown (Portadown College).

  • Redstar


    Don’t really reckon Mary would have been well up the Provos hit list.

    Still makes good reading for the gullible esp those over in Britain

  • More significantly for her elevation to this honour is that, since becoming Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2000 Birthday Honours for services to sport and to the community in Northern Ireland – after her 1973 MBE and the 1990 CBE – Peters has been the Lord Lieutenant of the City of Belfast, the monarch’s personal representative, since 2009.

  • Dec

    She stepped down from the Lord Lieutenant role back in July. We’re now seeing the royal equivalent of the carriage clock.

  • aber1991

    Was she ever on the IRA hit list – even near the bottom of it?

  • Turgon

    That is a very interesting and astute observation John. I think sport has many different facets here. Support for individual sports persons is probably tribal: I suspect support for team sports even more so. Clearly few unionists have any time for GAA sports and nationalists may be suspicious of unionists’ sports. It is more complex than that however.

    In some unionist circles (certainly where I was brought up) the Irish rugby team were not supported: it was often everyone they played who was cheered on.

    In addition to politics there was a social class dimension to sport: Rugby was also seen as a social climbers sport. Indeed I have heard anecdotal evidence that attending Ulster rugby matches is the way to get on in certain professions.

    Furthermore there was a section of evangelical Christians who were highly suspicious of sport due to playing on the sabbath and also the drinking culture surrounding many team sports. I remember one church event where five a side football was denounced as keeping people from studying the Bible (that said that was really only one pretty mad occurrence). The isolated nature of such a view is maybe demonstrated by the fact that the Ulster rugby team seems to have a large number of practising Christians so some of whatever religious opposition there was may well have dissipated as it was unfair.

    I suspect some of your suggestion of Letsgetalongerists being interested in sport also applies to the increasing popularity of sport amongst the middle classes and maybe the “networking” (aka social climbing) opportunities offered especially by rugby.

  • Bryan Magee

    Interesting to hear your views Turgon and John.

    As an Ulster Rugby fan. I enjoy the games and I like that the team as a nice mix of locals and international players. The atmosphere at the games at the Kingspan (new name) is quite chilled out and family oriented, almost a little too chilled out some might say. Reminds me of going to the Boston Red Sox when I had a spell in Boston.

    As for “individual” sport people like Rory McIlroy or Paddy Barnes or Darren Clarke or AP McCoy or Mickey Conlon or Brendan Rogers (as a manager) or other athletes I would support them because they’re local – and seem all like nice people – and when they do well it makes me proud because they come from the same place, talk the same way etc.

    On a related note: I suspect that if you were to look at the religious composition of most sports you would find a surprising number of Catholics and Protestants playing together in the same clubs.

  • True, she is no longer the Lord Lieutenant of the City of Belfast. But that’s not an accurate analogy, Dec.

    These are, as Gladys has indicated, infrequent, and restricted in number, appointments. There are only 47 current Companions of Honour out of a maximum of 65. They include Stephen Hawking, Peter Higgs, David Hockney, James Lovelock, Bridget Riley, David Attenborough, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and John de Chastelain among the many politicians.

    Mary Peters time as the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast
    probably highlighted her personal qualities. But it’s not a natural progression.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Very interesting, Gladys, thanks. Who was the last Northern Ireland person to become a Companion of Honour before Mary Peters?

  • Nevin

    “Companions of Honour have in the past included Professor Stephen Hawking and Sebastian Coe, and the last Northern Ireland-based recipient of the award was John Gregg, Anglican Archbishop of Armagh, who received his in 1957. He died four years later.

    Before him it was John Andrews in 1943 (ex-Prime Minister of Northern Ireland) and Hugh Pollock in 1936 (a UUP politician).” .. Newsletter

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Thanks. Nevin. I must say Gregg barely counts – apart from three years as a young curate in Ballymena, he did not move to Armagh until he was 66! So Mary Peters is actually the first person from Northern Ireland appointed as a CH by the current Queen, and the first in over 70 years, since J.M. Andrews!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    any regrets now about cheering on the German girl? Something you’re still happy about or a mistake born of the sectarian passions of the times?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Must admit, my own feelings about the Irish rugby teams can vary widely depending on who’s playing. But always wish the best for the local NI contingent. My experience though growing up surrounded by ‘small u’ unionists though is that even people more DUP-sympathising than me strongly supported the Ireland rugby team (more so than me), on a kind of ‘we don’t want any politics involved in this’ basis. I must admit I find the logic weak – there is politics in it regardless of whether people want there to be or not. The thing is to manage the symbolism the right way.

    Mary Peters has done that brilliantly with her career and legacy – not a sectarian or petty nationalistic bone in her body, but at the same time proud of representing Northern Ireland and the UK.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    may I ask, are you from Northern Ireland?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    and you’re quite sure your antagonism to all things Northern Irish or British has no hint of sectarianism about it? Does seem strange to support anyone but the local sportsperson, purely because they come from the other tribe – then insist you’re not being sectarian. Can you explain?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    But why oppose someone from Northern Ireland representing Northern Ireland?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    You despise Northern Ireland? I might ask what you get out of living there. It seems pretty unhealthy to so dislike the place you choose to live in. But I don’t totally love where I live either.

    I have mixed feelings these days about Northern Ireland. It’s my home and I feel a very passionate connection with it still; I’m back every couple of months and I’ve never stayed away for long, but I don’t live there any more. I moved over for university and then stayed for work. I grew up very proud of being an Ulsterman and still am but I must say these days it’s tempered by embarrassment at some of the attitudes more prevalent there than elsewhere in the UK. The DUP and SF being the two most popular parties since the early 2000s has had a real distancing effect for me. The values I grew up with seem to be absent from a lot of politics in NI these days.

    I used to be quite anti-English as a kid but grew out of it and especially after spending 5 minutes in this part of the country. I could never love the England rugby team for example. But living here now I do feel it would be a bit rich of me to support anyone England are playing, even though I’m not from here. I have to say I do struggle to see how someone born and living in NI can take against NI sportspeople just because they’re from NI, other than out of some anti-UK animus and I’m not sure there’s a place in a healthy society for that kind of negative nationalistic feeling any more. But each to their own – it is your choice. I tend to not support Republic teams; but then I don’t live there either.