Sporting your identity regardless of the flag

You’d imagine all I’ve been thinking about since Saturday evening is the pending senior football county final between Melvin Gaels and Glencar Manorhamilton. It’s true, it has crossed my mind once or twice……

You’d imagine all I’ve been thinking about since Saturday evening is the pending senior football county final between Melvin Gaels and Glencar Manorhamilton. It’s true, it has crossed my mind once or twice……

It’s a remarkable feat for our neighbours to have reached their fifth consecutive final, never mind the fact they have won the four preceding this year’s. I find it hard to even get my head around going for a fifth consecutive title. They have already written themselves into history as one of the greatest club teams Leitrim has known. More than that, though, they have made the club into one of the greatest Leitrim has known. Writing in the County Final programme last year I praised the club for the way they have brought the entire community with them on their journey to the summit of Leitrim GAA. Their loud and proud supporters bring great noise and colour to all the games they play, even if it’s a league encounter in the Bee Pairc in early Spring. I delighted in seeing their town festooned flags each of the last four Septembers, with the incoming roads adjourned with painted cars, bales, lorries, tractors – you name it. It’s what celebrating your club is about.

Our club got to taste some champion ship celebrations last year with the winning of the Intermediate title. It wasn’t the one we wanted but it allowed us to return to the table, so to speak, to have our say this year. Still and all, it meant a lot to our supporters, and especially to the younger members of our team and panel. Intermediate titles are notoriously hard to win – once you go down the quicksand effect can easily set in. It’s a great credit to all the lads involved that they have maintained their effort and focus and earned their place alongside the reigning champions in this year’s senior final (which, as we now know, has been moved to Sunday, October 7, due to the All Ireland hurling final replay).

But more on the final at a later stage. What I’ve really been thinking about this week is sport and identity. Rory McElroy’s has caused a considerable furore amongst sections of the Irish media and population with his comment that he has always felt more British than Irish. It would appear elements of both know better than this world champion about how he should feel and where his loyalties should lie.

What prompted his statement is the fact that golf will be an Olympic sport in Rio in 2016, forcing leading international golfers from Northern Ireland to declare for either Team GB or Ireland. Golf, like rugby and boxing (and indeed the GAA of course) is an all-island sport with the one governing body covering both jurisdictions of Ireland north and south. As a result, Rory has represented Ireland under the auspices of The Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI) at all grades on the international scene, including the Golf World Cup. That he could even suggest he ‘might’ (he hasn’t made any decision he reminded the media and public on Monday evening) choose Team GB when the Olympics come around caused some people to question his loyalty to the Tricolour. What utter nonsense.

Writing in the Irish Independent on Tuesday, Karl McGinnity said that because Rory played all his golfing life under the GUI…’to offer a victory by any Irish golfer as evidence of British sporting excellence would be a patent falsehood….a shining, golden lie.’ Could he have missed the point any further? Does Mr McGinnity not understand that many of our Olympic heroes – including our own Colin Griffin – receive much of their training at international centres, from international coaches? Does this make them any less Irish? Where you receive your sporting education does not dictate your identity, sporting or otherwise.

McElroy could not choose the place he was born or the fact golf in Northern Ireland was governed by an all-island body. He didn’t choose the school his parents sent him to, or the fact that he used a British passport all his life. He did not choose golf to be the flagpole for his identity. It chose him, and so did all the fans to wanted to bask in his reflected glory when they considered him Irish. McElroy is no different now than when they thought he was representing ‘their country’. As he said himself, he is an international sportsman first and foremost; one that has been left in a most difficult situation.

Ill-judged nationalism is a dangerous thing. It is polemic and causes dangerous ‘us against them’ attitudes that sport often does such great work to overcome. For many families in Northern Ireland Gaelic games offered perhaps their only opportunity to express their nationalism in a jurisdiction they did not feel represented their identity. Sport allowed them that vital expression, through some terribly tough times. McElroy’s upbringing and experience of life in Northern Ireland clearly differed to theirs, and he too needs to be respected in any decision he comes to. It doesn’t detract from him as a golfer, and it certainly doesn’t detract from him as a man.