i have only ever been to three rugby matches. The first was in the winter of 1970-1971 at Maynard Sinclair Pavillionat Stormont. Civil Service “Fourths” or “Fifths” were playing. They were an unlikely sports team, drawn from civil service departments like Agriculture, Health and Home Affairs.
An unlikely mix of ages…youngsters just out of school and men in their late forties. I can never really forget one of the prop forwards….do you notice how prop forwards LOOK like prop forwards. Physically with their bullet, balding heads and strange shoulders, they just look like prop forwards….and the Civil Service loose head prop that frosty Saturday morning was straight out of “central casting” huffing and puffing as he chased the ball and resisting a heart attack….as he had done every Saturday morning for thirty years. No doubt he had played at schoolboy level and maybe even had made the Civil Service “Firsts” and here he was doing his bit for the club as he approached his fiftieth birthday.
And an unlikely mix of civil servants….across the range of newbies starting a career as a Clerical Ssistant in the mail room or Principals at thetop of their careers advising Stormont ministers.
So what took me …a 18 year old from Ballymurphy to the other end of the city to see an unlikelyrugby match. Well my best friend, a year older was playing on the left wing “Come On Service”. Even more unlikely as he had never played rugby at school and joined the civil service and ots rugby team. He was a year older than me. Same Catholic Grammar school…and heres the thing, he came from Divis Flats…even lower on the social ladder than me.
But he had joined the Civil Service…and unlike me….he did his bestto distance himself from his roots. It started in 1970-1971. It seemed amusing then but in later years , it would grate on me….he joined the Alliance Party and never missed a day at Stormont, even on the mornings after the worst violence, casually stepping around fully deployed British Paras on the Divis balconies. Other people of his age, with long shaggy hair and denim would have been harassed by the Brits…but he just casually glided by with his suit and rolled up umbrella.
I digress. That morning was my first rugby match. And that afternoon was my second match. For I went with my friend and his girlfriend (a Protestant girl from Belmont) to Ravenhill Road to see Ukster play Munster in an inter-provincial game.
I actually felt more empathy with Munster…good Catholic boys than the Ulster team. GOD, it was bloody cold that day…and I was freezing in my cheap working class anorak and the real rugby supporters were fully dressed in their sheepskin coats and those club scarves from CIYMS, Queens University, Malone and the rest. They were oddly patronising to the Munster team, who despite international Fightin’ Phil O’Callaghan were well beaten by Ulster.
My third and final rugby match was at Lansdowne Road (mid 1970s) watching Ireland and New Zealand and my first close up experience of West Britons…not all that different from their Ravenhill counterparts. Rugby was a game that united the middle class professionals of Belfast, Dublin and Cork….with a nod to a more egalitarian attitude in Limerick.
For Ireland in the 1970s, Rugby was still a “garrison” sport, an attitude going back to the mid 19th century…the sport of the British officers and played at the best fee-paying schools (including Catholic ones in Dublin, Cork and Limerick). But it had no link to northern nationalists. So a curious mix of West Briton, “Ulster” and middle class professionals.
But it is a sport that has changed. First of all the Gaelic Athletic Association dropped its ban on foreign games (rugby, football, cricket and hockey) and this opened up a new demographic into rugby teams and rugby supporters.
BBC Norn Iron dropped its snubbing of the Irish National Anthem. It was a pre-match routine that a stage managed studio discussion in Belfast would take place in front of a big screen showing pictures of international pre- match ritual before the Presenter would say “….and now we can go over to Lansdowne Road in Dublin. It was petty and it was irritating.
The dilemna of Ulster unionists playing for “Ireland” was resolved…albeit by clumsy choreography. In Dublin, the Irish national anthem is played but it is followed by “Irelands Call” a specifically sporting and apolitical piece of music. At away matches in London, Paris, Cardiff etc, only “Irelands Call” is played and the Irish National Flag and Ulster (nine county) Flag is displayed.
And of course the big change in Rugby in the last twenty-five years is professionalism. Every ethos has given way to money and merchandising. And Rugby has necessarily expanded from four international matches, some inter-pros and low key club games….to World Cups, a minimum of ten internationals in a year, tours from and to the southern hemisphere….and a European leagues made up of highly professional teams from France, Italy, Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland (represented by Leinster, Connacht, Munster and ….Ulster) and the success of Irish teams plays in to the success of the national team.
indeed a decade ago, Ulster won the European Final in Dublin….a packed stadium of happy Ulster folks waving the Norn Iron Flag. Despite the fact that Ulster Rugby is organised on a nine county basis, it is of course dominated by Belfast clubs but the victory celebrations in Dublin took on the feel of a victory for Norn Iron (six Ulster counties) rather than Ulster (nine counties).
In fairness, the Ulster Rugby authorities seem to have addressed the issue. The TV coverage of European games, high quality competition, a growing Catholic professional and middle class as well as no conflict between “garrison games” and Gaelic sports has made going to Ulster matches good craic on a Friday night. Much more inclusive than my only experience forty five years ago.
Indeed the outreach is genuine. Rugby coaches visit my grandson’s Catholic school. Indeed limited integrated education and Catholic attendance at traditional “Protestant” schools like Methodist College, Belfast has produced a new demographic of future player.
It is still uncomfortable for an old dinosaur like me. This is a very pragmatic form of LetsGetLongerism…..and LetsGetAlongerism is always worrying.
But what can possibly go wrong? The …..Poppy Fascists!!!!
Last weekend English Premiership Football clubs wore a poppy emblem on their shirts….part of the annual creeping Poppyism.
And in European Rugby clubs did not…..and that seems reasonable. There can be no directive to be patriotic to Britain….why should this interest French, Italian or Irish clubs. No English or Scottish club wore such an emblem. But one Welsh club did ….and they had the misfortune to be playing Ulster and the Norn Iron Poppy Fetishists want an explanation of this insult.
To be fair Ulster Rugby is unapologetic.
The Branch represents nine counties, not six counties. It is Ulster NOT Norn Iron. There was no insult as only one European club did this last weekend. And perhaps more tellingly, the very gates at Ulster Rugby Stadium is a war memorial with its own service every year.
A defeat for the Poppy Fascists? I am not so sure. Despite outreach by Norn Iron Football and Ulster Rugby, these sports remain the only platform (with the four yearly Commonwealth Games) which gives the impression of a “national” sports team for the benefit of Unionists. To be more inclusive weakens the traditional identity of unionists.
With the Poppy Fascists on their case, there is every likelihood that Ulster Rugby will work on a way to placate them. Especially next year ….Somme Year.
Whatever happened Parity of Esteem?….a fundamental part of the Peace Process, which recognised the validity of both unionist and nationalist traditions. Has Parity of Esteem actually failed? For like FAUX LetsGetAlongerism, there is a bottom line ….we are all equal until it comes to the crunch and then Britishness will take precedence over Irishness.