Mutton Island at dawn

Mutton Island at dawn

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Our divided tribal loyalties

The Basque woman five seats down from me was in awe.                
Is there a better game on the planet than a championship
battle between two top hurling teams? 

The stadium was packed. Over 50,000 souls had taken over the place and turned it red.

It was only a ‘friendly’, but the supporters of the ‘home’ team cheered every pass and move with a gusto which was totally out of kilter with the importance of the occasion.

"Why does everyone in Ireland support Liverpool?” she asked me at half-time. “Do you not support your own teams?”

In the city of Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians, and St Patrick’s Athletic, she was shocked to see so many Dubliners come out to support a team from the old colonial power.

In the Basque Country, they have grown up on tales of the Irish fight for independence from the British Empire. Now she was shocked to be in Ireland and to find that all the locals were roaring on a British team.

Her team is a total anomaly in modern professional football. They have a Basque-only recruitment policy, even today, and have finished in the top seven of La Liga for each of the past four years despite this restriction.

In Dublin, she was shocked to see that so many people had paid a minimum of €60 a head to support a team from the other side of the Irish Sea, in a contest which would have absolutely no bearing on the outcome of their season.

She wondered why Irish people didn’t support their own local clubs and how much stronger the League of Ireland would be if they weren’t so obsessed by the world-famous players who line out each weekend in the English Premier League.

Thousands of Irish fans turned up on Saturday to support
Liverpool FC in a friendly game against Athletic Bilbao
I didn’t know where to begin.

My own association with Liverpool FC dates back well over 40 years, before the days when my own city even had a team in the national league.

I ‘picked’ Liverpool as a five year old and my brother chose Arsenal, because younger siblings were not allowed follow in the footsteps of their siblings in 1970s Ireland. He has long since forgotten his boyhood preference for the North London club.

He has completely lost interest, and I'm losing mine, when the players no longer seem to have anything in common with the fans, no loyalty, no passion. And match day tickets are now beyond the budget of many Scousers.

As a squatter in 1980s London, I was lucky enough to see the best Liverpool team in history play on numerous occasions. They were probably the best team on the planet at the time and had a good sprinkling of Irish players, including Mark Lawrenson and Ronnie Whelan.

When, 15 years later, a childhood friend moved to Merseyside, trips to Anfield became regular occurrences. Memorably, between 2001 and 2007, a group of us followed Liverpool FC all around Europe. We had legendary nights in exotic cities which would never have been possible for fans of Galway United FC.

The average home attendance at Eamonn Deacy Park, the home of Galway United, is about 1,400 this season. There are thousands of soccer ‘fans’ in my city and county who have never seen their local team, even though United are producing some sparkling football as they battle against relegation in 2017.

Every Saturday or Sunday during the winter months, a group of them sit in a pub roaring on Chelsea FC. I've heard one of them say he'd rather be tortured than pop down the road to watch live football at Galway United FC.

When people ask me why I support Liverpool, I talk about the Hillsborough disaster, the close friendships I made following the team all around Europe, and the city’s long-established links with Ireland. But, ultimately, Liverpool FC are not “my” team. How could they be? I’m not from Merseyside and I don’t live there.

There was a magical atmosphere at the All-Ireland semi-final
between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park
I felt a bit guilty about taking up a ticket when the opportunity arose to purchase one 24 hours before the game on Saturday.

But, as I was in Dublin for the weekend anyway, I still felt a desire to attend, to check out the new players who currently line out for my boyhood club.

Liverpool beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1, but the whole experience left me cold. I felt duped to have spent €60 for a game which had no meaning and slightly embarrassed as I tried to explain to the Basque fans why so many Irish people have such an affinity with a club from another land.

Especially while our own clubs are struggling to survive, including Bray Wanderers, who almost went out of business a few weeks ago.

It was hard to care too much about a game featuring players whose pay-packets mean they are totally out of touch with working-class fans, who can no longer afford to attend league games.

Watching 50,000 mostly Irish fans roar on an English club made me squirm a little, as though this was a triumph of hype and marketing over the reality of our lives on the Emerald Isle.

Of course, this is not just an Irish - or post-colonial - thing. I have met taxi-drivers in Bangkok and fishermen from Norway who describe themselves as passionate Liverpool fans. I have met fans from Hong Kong and Malaysia who have spent small fortunes to attend Liverpool games.

I could see that some parents were delighted to give their youngsters a first ever taste of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the Liverpool anthem which is now famous all across the globe. Dare I say it, though, the game was boring and definitely not worth the €60 admission fee.

I couldn’t help wondering why so many Dubs had turned up to support a team from England on an evening when their own GAA team was in action in front of 80,000 fans just up the road at Croke Park. I felt slightly embarrassed after talking to the Basque woman and slipped away before the end.

Less than 24 hours later, I found myself among my own Tribe.            
Celebrating Galway's victory minutes after the
All-Ireland semi-final in Dublin

Galway were playing Tipperary in front of 68,000 people and the skill levels, the passion, and the speed of the game seemed to belong to another world.

My ticket for a superb seat in the Upper Hogan Stand boasted a fantastic view and actually cost €15 less than my stub for a poor seat in the Aviva Stadium the night before.

As the crowd roared around me, I had to pinch myself to remind myself that these were amateurs, playing for the pride of the county, not professional athletes who kiss a club badge one month before moving on to join deadly rivals the next.

There was a huge tension in the air as two groups of young men battled bravely for a place in the All-Ireland final.

When Joe Canning produced a wonder strike in the very last minute, to decide the issue by the narrowest of margins, we all lost the run of ourselves, hugging strangers and jumping up and down with our fists in the air.

When it all died down, three different Tipp fans approached me to shake hands in the top of the Hogan Stand and wish us well for the final.

Gone was the poisonous atmosphere which marked games between our two counties in the late 1980s and 1990s, and I couldn’t help thinking that fans of Chelsea, Liverpool, or Man United could never sit beside each other in stadia and share our love of a beautiful game.

Neither would they ever imagine being so gracious in defeat as the wonderful Tipp fans I had the pleasure of meeting on Sunday.

The Liverpool game almost put me to sleep, while the hurling match demonstrated so much about what is brilliant about being Irish … touches of genius, passion, skill, and just enough lunacy to keep us all enthralled right to the end.

On a high after the hurling semi-final
Instead of being so obsessed by global superstars, we should learn to appreciate the wonders and home grown heroes who live and work among us.

Such as the two teachers from a Loughrea school who are now preparing for one of the biggest sporting occasions in Ireland. It’s hard to imagine the excitement among the town’s youngsters as they prepare to return to school to see home grown heroes Johnny Coen and David Burke come September.

And it might be easier to explain the pure joy of hurling, surely one of the best games on the planet,  to a Basque woman than to explain why so many Irish people are in thrall to Sky Sports and the major English soccer clubs.


Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find his Facebook page at http://facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Healing the wounds on all sides

When I last visited Belfast, the Good Friday Agreement was still a pipe dream.
Honouring hunger striker Bobby Sands MP on the Falls Road

There was an uneasy tension in the air.

The Troubles had ended, the guns were silent, but nobody knew what was coming next and three decades of conflict had left very visible physical and psychological scars.

Nobody ventured into the city centre late at night and it was quite shocking to contrast the eerie silence on the streets around City Hall with the vibrancy of my native Galway, a much smaller city, at the time.

The military bases, barbed wire fences, and ugly lookout posts still scarred the landscape across West Belfast and it would not be an exaggeration to say that parts of the Falls Road looked like towns in Palestine today.

The locals told me they were a people living under siege and they were weary after so many years of turmoil. At night, they stuck to their own area.

Those who did want to go into town had to face body searches at military checkpoints. "Going to town" for  few drinks was not part of the culture as it was in Galway on a Friday or Saturday night.

Naively, after a few late drinks in a city centre pub, I flagged down a taxi on a street two blocks away from City Hall.

It was 1am on a Friday morning and the only other person on the street, apart from my brother and I, was a much older man who hurled a pint glass, successfully, at a passing “paddy wagon”. The Royal Ulster Constabulary officers inside the vehicle just drove on, making me feel that this must have been a pretty regular occurrence in the city.

In Galway, if you tried the same thing outside Supermac’s in the early hours, you would have been chased down by the Gardai and hauled before the District Court for committing the same offence.

My brother reprimanded me gently for being naïve enough to think it was ok to flag down a cab on neutral ground.

This, after all, was the city in which ordinary people were picked up in black cabs, tortured, and killed, just because of their religious backgrounds.

An entire wall in West Belfast is dedicated to those
who were murdered with the collusion of security forces
My brother was considered a “legitimate target” by loyalist killers at the time, given that he was working for the Irish Government in a bunker near Stormont. He used to escape to a completely different world less than two hours away in Dublin at weekends.

Loyalists and Unionists were enraged that civil servants from Dublin were in their midst, negotiating frantically with their counterparts from London and Belfast in a bid to iron out a peace agreement which would somehow appease two bitterly divided communities.

He was only allowed to use one taxi firm, staffed by relatives of security forces, if he dared to venture into the city centre at night at the time.

I remember being taken aback when the driver asked us if we were Gardai as he carried my brother to his bunker outside the city. The only people from the Republic he carried in those days tended to be civil servants or members of the security forces.

Over 20 years later, I thought about that taxi ride to Co Down last week when I spent four hours on a fascinating walking tour of the Falls Road with a former IRA prisoner.

As he brought me on a tour of the area’s murals, with visitors from Germany and Italy, telling us an admittedly biased history of The Troubles, I was struck by how much the psychological barriers remain in place even though so many of the security barriers have been taken down.

Paul Mac An Airchinningh works as a taxi-driver most of the time, when he’s not telling tourists about the Republican conflict and his memories of far more troubled times.

Tour guide Paul Mac An Airchinningh
at a memorial to remember Easter 1916
As we walked towards the ‘Peace Wall’, Paul gestured towards the loyalist community just a few hundred metres away.

The people down there would never dream of coming to the shops nearest to their houses for a pint of milk, because they were on the Falls, he told me.

And he would never dream of drinking in a pub on the Shankill Road, even if it was just a five minute walk from where he starts his tours in the mornings.

In his mind, he has a map of Belfast. The people who take his cab from the depot in West Belfast never, ever ask him to bring them to loyalist areas to the north and east of the city.

Paul himself would not dream of staying in my accommodation across the river for the week, surrounded as it was by Union Jack flags on lamp-posts at the height of the marching season.

For all he knew about the place where I was staying, across the divide, it might as well be Beirut, he told me with a wry smile.

He was 60 years old and didn’t have Protestant friends. He thought it was sad, but didn’t think that was unusual, given his status as a former Republican prisoner who had associated or shared cells with men who died on hunger strike during one of the worst years of the conflict.

In the Sunflower Bar, once the scene of a terrible sectarian gun attack, I found Protestants and Catholics, gays, straights, and tourists, mixing to celebrate their shared love of traditional Irish music.

I even met people from Chile who had come to Belfast for the Irish music and the spectacular scenery along the coastline.

They had no awareness of the fact that the pub had once been sprayed with bullets, and three people died, just because they happened to be from the nationalist community.

Belfast has changed so much for the better.                                    
The Titanic Experience is hugely popular with visitors
from all over the world

The Titanic Quarter attracts tourists from all over the world, the pubs and restaurants of South Belfast are thriving, and people are no longer afraid to venture into the city centre after 7pm.

The horrible security barriers and checkpoints have disappeared and wonderful new hotels have popped up through much of the city centre. Visitors are no longer told that the city’s only hotel is “the most bombed hotel in Europe”.

The barriers have gone, but less visible barriers remain in place.

It still seems striking that in a city of 300,000 people there are still whole neighbourhoods where taxi drivers feel reluctant to venture. In Paul’s mind, his map of his native city is full of grey areas where he has rarely or never driven his cab.

On both sides of the ‘Peace Wall’, wonderful tour guides tell the tourists about the injustices which were inflicted upon them by terrorists or State forces.

Without realising that they have so much in common with those on the other side.

The good people of Belfast have always had
a brilliant sense of humour through troubled times
Belfast is a great place to visit for a few days and it’s brilliant that most of the barriers have disappeared.

It’s going to take some time, though, for the invisible barriers to disappear and for both communities to heal.

Because it’s far harder to hate people when you attend the same schools, work in the same places, support the same teams, and socialise in the same pubs and clubs.

Hopefully someday, in the not too distant future, taxi-drivers like Paul will have a map of the entire city in their heads. Only then can we say that the peace process has succeeded in healing the wounds on all sides.

For excellent guided walking tours of the murals of West Belfast, you can find details at http://coiste.ie/

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. To hire Ciaran for content writing or indepedendent journalism, see http://ciarantierney.com/