Thursday, 27 September 2012

Almost 365 Days Later ...

It is now almost a year (to the day) since Whose Side Are You On? was published and as I'm in anniversary mode it feels appropriate to look back on what I spent a couple of years of my life putting together and trying to sum things up 12 months on.
The book was an attempt to tell the story of sport in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and to ask how the sporting stories of that time were impacted by the political story that was going on around them. The result isn't perfect. There are mistakes in its pages (all the result of my own stupidity, for which I apologise), but I hope it managed to shine a light on a small corner of Northern Ireland's recent history.
What most intrigued the book's non-Northern Irish readers is the at times tragic story of the GAA during the Troubles. Closer to home Northern Irish readers told me about their own experiences at football games or in snooker halls. Some were merely prompted to recall their own passing brushes with sporting heroes mentioned in the book. Every comment has been welcome.
In some ways I now think I may have intended the book as a sort of exorcism. For the best part of 30 years my Northern Irishness was problematic to me. Since my teens I felt alienated from the politics and culture of my homeland. Sport was always one of the few connecting threads so no wonder it became a part of my identity, something I explore at length in the book.
I suppose in some way when I started writing the book I thought I might be able to write myself out of Northern Ireland, put that bit of me between two covers and leave it there. That's not quite what happened and by the end of the process I felt more connected than before. Even after another miserable summer of marches and riots in the province I still feel that.
But one of the points I try to get across in the book is that no one totally defines him or herself through the culture he or she was born into. We are a product of that, yes, but we're more than that too and one of the recurring sporting narratives is how the desire and hunger for achievement can sometimes remove you from your environment, not just physically but emotionally. And so a proud Ulsterman like Willie John McBride could lead Ireland onto the rugby pitch and stand to attention during the Irish national anthem.
Those were the stories I was keenest to find; stories of transcendence. And there were a few of them - from George Best to Joey Dunlop. But I'd be lying if I said they were typical. Just as common, maybe more common, were those stories where sporting lives were constrained or, worse, ended, by the politics of place.
By the end of the book, though, I was suggesting that it was possible to imagine we were in a different place. That Northern Ireland had moved on and that in someone like Rory McIlroy we could see the first post-Troubles sporting story.
Is that true or was I just trying to convince myself? You could be forgiven for being doubtful given this summer's coverage of McIlroy's upcoming choice over who he will represent in the 2016 Olympics.
Of course, golf shouldn't even be in the Olympics, but it is and McIlroy has a choice to make. Will he play for Ireland or the UK? The frustration about this story is that it's a choice that will narrow McIlroy's story in some ways. What's been thrilling about the young golfer's rise to the top of the game is how many aspects it has encompassed. In the last few years his has been a Northern Irish story, an Irish story, a British story, a European story (as will be shown again over the next few days in the Ryder Cup) and ultimately a world story as he has proven himself as good as anyone in golf.
The pleasure of sport -a  pleasure you can find in art and literature too - is the way it can allow for a sense of fellow feeling; can open us up to people whose backgrounds may be far removed from our own but whose joy - or sorrow - we can recognise. It widens the possibilities of who we might be. All too often, the politics of Northern Ireland doesn't share that openness. That's the pity.