In light of the booing that could be heard as the anthem of Northern Ireland played ahead of last night's friendly in Dublin, we revisit a piece written during the 2016 European Championships.
- Originally published June 24, 2016
I am from Northern Ireland. I am proud to be from that small region of the world, proud to be a 'Nordie'.
Proud to sound like a train foghorn, to say 'aye' and to constantly amuse people from the south side of the border with my pronunciations of words like 'chicken' and 'situation'. Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan, Rory McIlroy and George Best, Liam Neeson and Seamus Heaney, Michael McLaverty and Stiff Little Fingers - I am proud to be from the same curious, utterly unique part of the world as them.
A place with its own sense of humour, way of being, its own personality.
People from the North have a dark humour, borne of a past that has experienced proper darkness. An admirable stoicism and perseverance; a toughness but yet an incredible level of loyalty and kindness to those around them. A firm sense of reality and yet a twinkle in the eye, a love of parody and irony, a great ability to laugh at oneself and a real, tangible, strong sense of home. And I am fiercely proud of all of these things. Of being from Northern Ireland.
And yet, this weekend, my loyalties lie with the Republic of Ireland.
It is something that confuses friends and colleagues somewhat in the Republic. That I regularly attend Republic games but have never set foot in Windsor Park, where Northern Ireland play; that I grew up five minutes away from Windsor, could hear the cheers of the fans during famous wins over Spain and England ('Healy! Healy!') but never felt any affection towards the team; that my emotions are directed towards players from Dublin rather than Belfast.
The current Northern Ireland team is managed by a Catholic, Michael O'Neill, who played minor Gaelic football for Antrim, my own county. Niall McGinn, a Republic of Ireland fan and Catholic who could easily be playing Gaelic football for Tyrone instead of professional football, scored their second goal against Ukraine in their Group C clash. Not so long ago Paddy McCourt, then of Celtic - a club traditionally supported in Ireland by Irish Catholics - was the toast of Windsor after a virtuoso performance against the Faroe Islands. Things are changing. It is now far easier for someone from the Catholic community of Belfast to support Northern Ireland, to want them to do well.
As I wrote in a piece earlier on in the Euros, a lot has changed since I was growing up in Belfast as a member of the Irish Catholic community. But this does not mean that there will be a sudden orgy of delight and exaltation along the Falls Road in Belfast or in the Creggan Estate in Derry (where James McClean is from) if Northern Ireland score on Saturday.
If one takes a stroll along the Falls Road, or through the Creggan Estate, Irish tri-colours will wave at you from lamp-posts and outside houses. Murals depicting Irish language, Gaelic sports and Republican icons are scattered on the sides of homes and public buildings. There is a deep-rooted sense of pride in being Irish, in representing that Irishness through the playing of Gaelic games, the celebration of Irish occasions and (though the practice is dwindling) the speaking of the Irish language. Men and women tell tales in pubs and living rooms of the dark days, the days when it felt as though they were being suffocated by a great evil; days when it seemed like there was no escape. Days that they say created wounds which will take generations to heal, perpetrated, they will tell you, by an entity that is represented by the anthem of a football team they will never support: 'God Save The Queen'.
If England faces Northern Ireland will we hear the same national anthem twice? Will they all sing it together.. twice? I'm confused. 🤔
— Vincent Kompany (@VincentKompany) June 12, 2016
As long as that anthem is played before Northern Ireland games it will feel wrong for members of the Irish Catholic community to follow the team it represents. For members of that community, to stand and listen to it while supposedly preparing to play for your national side is to let oneself be represented by something so alien, to opposed to what you and those who reared you stand for that by not turning your back on that anthem, you are turning your back on them.
As long as 'God Save The Queen' is played before Northern Ireland games, Irish Catholics born north of the border will stay away from Windsor Park and will choose to play for and support the Republic of Ireland instead of Northern Ireland.
Because as much as you try to convince yourself that everything has changed, that the group traditionally known as Irish Catholics are equal to the group traditionally known as British Protestants (naming the religious group merely denotes the community rather than any actual religious beliefs; young people in the north are as secular as their southern counterparts) in supporting the Northern Ireland football team, the playing of 'God Save The Queen' penetrates your consciousness and reminds you otherwise. It is the last reminder of a dark past, of an unwelcoming environment; a reminder of the days when Windsor Park loomed as a threatening, foreboding presence, fraught with danger and hostility for those who would consider themselves members of the Irish Catholic community.
I don't see any need for exclusivity in terms of who I support. Why should I have to choose? I am proud to be from Northern Ireland. I am a proud Catholic Irishman. I support the Republic of Ireland because it represents the key part of my identity that is entitled 'Irishness'. I do not support Northern Ireland because there remains, with the playing of the anthem, that lingering sense that I don't belong among its hordes of devoted, enthusiastic, brilliant fans. But remove that element and I would happily go along to Windsor Park and cheer on Michael O'Neill's men. I would then have no problem with going down the road and supporting the Republic as well. And if they played each other? I would enjoy the conundrum.
I hope Northern Ireland do well on Saturday, in fact I hope that they win. But I badly, badly want the Republic of Ireland to beat France on Sunday.
Football's power is that it is played and enjoyed by everyone. And the power of international football is that people are represented by their fellow countrymen in something that the whole world practises. When Seamus Coleman screamed into James McCarthy's face against Italy, urging him on, it felt as though he was representing every man, woman and child who considered themselves Irish. His battle cry was the same one being issued by Irish people in living rooms and pubs all across the world. In that act, Seamus Coleman unleashed his pride, his honour, his joy at being Irish. As did I, when Robbie Brady rose into immortality and transported all of us to an alien, ecstatic utopia.
It is just a pity that, at the moment, I am prevented from expressing my Northern Irishness in the same way.