The boys in red and white

This blog first appeared as a column in the Andersonstown News

We who live in Ireland should be grateful to the English. They taught us – insisted that we use – the language in which I’m communicating with you at this very minute. Without the English monarch to be loyal to, the late Dr Ian Paisley’s life might well have been relatively pointless. And wouldn’t we all be musically poorer, if we had never listened to the Beatles?

But there’s another reason we should be grateful to our nearest neighbours.  Not all of them, of course. I’m thinking in particular of the English Prince (later King ) John, and work he did in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century.  Because Prince John kick-started the process of ‘shiring’ in Ireland when in the 1190s he created County Dublin.

It took a long time for the rest of Ireland to follow Prince John’s lead. In fact it wasn’t until around four hundred years –1606 – that Wicklow, the last of Ireland’s counties, was created.

The sense of belonging to one county as distinct from another was developed by the Protestant settler community, who twice every year would hold meetings of grand juries, which in turn led to the growth of ‘county towns’. From that came parliamentary constituencies which grew from the counties, with the MPs elected from neighbouring counties working together in the Irish parliament for common goals. After the Act of Union in 1801, grand juries were gradually replaced by county councils.

But it was the formation of the Gaelic Athletic Association that really developed county loyalty (Yes, yes, Virginia, I know you can see where I’m going with this). Think about it: each county has its own county flag and county colours, its own county anthem. It’s a sort of mini-nationalism. And if you’re living in the US you’ll be aware that many of the Irish diaspora form county associations to to protect and reinforce their sense of identity.  

But as with so much else the English have given us, we’ve put our own twist on it. English soccer is organised on a regional basis, but  the organisers of big games must make sure that fans of opposing teams are kept well apart. With Gaelic games,  there is rarely such separation. Fans of one club or county may group together (Covid-19 permitting) but that’s a loose grouping. The sight on TV of different county colours sitting side-by-side is common. County loyalties are fierce, but we’ve never allowed the importation of football hooliganism as practised in England and elsewhere.

Which leads me, of course, to a few weeks ago at Croke Park. In body I wasn’t there, but those with eyes to see might have spotted my spirit floating above every ball kicked and caught, every score registered, every anxious signal from management teams on the sidelines. As a Tyrone spirit, I identified completely with the boys in red and white.

As perhaps you know, the present Mrs C is a Mayo woman, and so last Saturday a form of domestic apartheid had to be observed throughout the course of the game. If I were to judge my own conduct, I’d say I acted throughout the 70+ minutes with commendable restraint. Where in other circumstances my yell of delight at a Tyrone goal could have been heard in Co Wicklow (indeed, Virginia – the last created Irish county), last Saturday I confined myself to silent fist-in-the-air pumping and discreet knee-slides across the living room.

The game, of course, was set up perfectly for Tyrone. As someone said, the Catholic Church’s influence may have dwindled in Ireland but its curses retain their power. Before the game, pundits lined up to tell us the contest was too close to call, but that Mayo would in the end have the edge.This underdog status is meat and drink to Tyrone teams: revenge, in their books,  is best served piping hot following the ref’s final whistle.

As Richard Nixon said: “I’ve won and I’ve lost, but winning is the most fun”. Needless to add, the present Mrs C is not a Nixon fan.

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