Thursday 8 December 2016

Breaking down the barriers

The GAA in Belfast is reaching out to Loyalists in ways few could have foreseen, writes John O'Brien

Published 15/05/2011 | 05:00

F OR the first time in years Gerry McClory can't claim an official GAA title. In his day he has been many things and worn many hats: vice-chairman and chairman of his club St Teresa's in west Belfast, chairman of the south Antrim board, vice-chairman and PRO for the county board, the referees' co-ordinator for Antrim. For a few years he served as a community development officer for the Ulster Council.

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He laughs at the irony of it. In an indirect way that position had only been made possible by the historic decision to open up Croke Park to other sports in 2005. Revenue that flowed in from soccer and rugby matches on the hallowed turf had facilitated a role that was helping the GAA break new ground in the most politically sensitive city on these islands. Even the most ardent supporters of change couldn't have foreseen such a development.

At the time McClory was a virulent member of the No camp. His reasons were only partly ideological. He couldn't see the logic of allowing rival sports to generate revenue which they might use to promote games that were competing with the GAA for the hearts of Irish youths. He recalls one newspaper labelling him as a "19th-century dinosaur." It only made him more resolute.

"I just felt the time wasn't right," he says. "I remember me and Seán Kelly had a serious row in the Burlington the night after. I was sore and called him all sorts of names. I was totally out of order. But I got him the next morning and apologised and we're still good friends. And I'll say one thing. As a GAA man, one of the proudest days of my life was when England played at Croke Park and our stadium was shown to the world. I still get goose pimples thinking about it."

Now he's moved on again. The Croke Park money dried up, the Ulster Council job finished and, quietly, the GAA let him go. Not that it'll ever leave his bloodstream, though. As he talks, the keys to Casement Park sit on the table in front of him. He'll be the last man out today. When it comes to security issues, invariably it is to McClory they turn to to deal with the PSNI. "I've had so much experience I'm an expert," he smiles. "I can fill the forms in blindfolded."

He sits and tells you how times have changed. Little schemes that have made little differences that, added together, make a difference. One of them is the Crossing the Bridges initiative, funded by the International Fund for Ireland, that brings youth clubs together from east and west Belfast, kids from hardline Republican and Loyalist families who might otherwise have gone through a lifetime of non-engagement with each other.

So Catholic kids are taken to Windsor Park or Ravenhill while Protestant groups make reciprocal visits to Casement Park. They are fed and given taster sessions of football and hurling under floodlights when the ground is at its most imposing. On both sides it's about more than the games, of course, an opportunity to showcase a sport and a way of life to kids whose minds were traditionally closed to new ideas and opposing cultures.

Inevitably there will be the odd smart comment. The kid who will stand up and ask why the GAA names its grounds after IRA terrorists is a regular occurrence. "One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter," he will say before explaining how the likes of Casement, Kevin Lynch, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty weren't just republicans but GAA men too who had a cherished place in their clubs and were honoured in death because of those links.

There's the kid too who'll sneer and call him a "Fenian so-and-so" and he'll bite his lip and ask if he can explain what a Fenian is. His favourite was the "wee buck" who asked if it was true that Roger Casement was a homosexual. McClory applauded the kid for his research and wondered if he had read Casement's speech from the dock when he was sentenced to death. When he explains the history, he knows they still might not like it. But at least they will have engaged and can make an informed choice.

Being Belfast, of course, the wheels of progress turn slowly. McClory sees kids willing to engage but who shy away when a camera is produced, wary of seeing images of such a radical venture captured for posterity. He works now on the Cromac Regeneration Initiative in the Donegall Pass and Lower Ormeau area of the city, a socially deprived area, and there were local elements who opposed his appointment because of his GAA background. "The old politics still exists," he says. "It's slowly eroding but it's still there."

They measure progress in inches, small footsteps, but the past is important too. Too important to be forgotten. As part of the west Belfast Festival this August, McClory will help organise a mini-marathon that will snake around the streets of west Belfast in honour of the 30th anniversary of the Hunger Strikes, past the houses and communities in which they lived and the GAA fields on which they played.

When the strikes started McClory was chairman of St Teresa's and plunged into a harrowing and stressful situation. Two St Teresa's men, Joe McDonnell and Kieran Doherty, were among the second wave of Long Kesh prisoners to refuse food. Both men were friends and colleagues. McClory and McDonnell had played under 16 football together for Teresa's. In different circumstances, they would all have shared the glory of winning the club's first county title in 1979.

The moment McDonnell died is etched into his memory. "Ten past six, the eighth of July, 1981." He remembers the pall that descended over west Belfast at the news. And yet what he also remembers is that despite the tragedy and hardship the games always went on. "You think of Ardoyne Kickhams," he says, "and poor Frank Corr. No matter how hard it got they never failed to field a team the whole length of the Troubles. It made us more resolute. Kept us together as a community."

At the time the hunger strikes were a hugely emotive issue across the entire country and the GAA, in particular, was caught in the uncomfortable vice between feeling natural sympathy for the cause and its reluctance to be dragged down such an avowedly political road. For those in the north, however, that dilemma caused less internal strife. The notion of the GAA existing separately to the causes espoused by the prisoners was virtually impossible to sustain.

"The GAA is a non-political, non-sectarian organisation. That's the theory. But theory and reality are not always the same. Ten hunger strikers died. Five of them were GAA members. What were we to do as a community and a club? Two of our members were dying. Were we to say no, we can't get involved in that? They were soldiers fighting a war for what they thought were injustices against our community.

"We all suffered. Grounds were burned down, GAA members shot dead: the likes of Sean Brown and Aidan McEnespie. So were we to sit down and take that? Oh well the book says . . . No, certainly not. From that point of view you could have taken the moral high ground but the reality was it was our community, members of our club on strike, getting beaten up and incarcerated in jail."

As a GAA man, McClory too was saddled with the hardline tag. "A few years ago when I was south Antrim chairman, a man accused me of preaching sedition. I said you should come to our next committee meeting. All we're trying to do is get matches played. Where would I get the time to preach sedition? The perception was that the GAA was the Provos at play. Okay, we had members of the GAA who were members of the IRA. But could you tell me that members of Linfield or Glentoran weren't also members of the UVF? It was part and parcel of it."

The biggest tragedy of the Troubles was the shedding of human blood, of course. But the toll on Antrim football was severe too. In 1969 they'd won the All-Ireland under 21 title and five years later only succumbed to Mayo after a replay. They had the nucleus of a fine senior side until the Troubles ripped it apart. Din Joe McGrogan, a dashing corner-forward in '69, was killed in an explosion across the road from Casement Park. The captain, Liam Boyle, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Mickey Colbert was sent down for 15. Some emigrated. Others just forgot about football.

"In 1970, Antrim contested an Ulster final," says McClory. "Derry beat us. In 2009, we reached our next Ulster final. That's nearly 40 years later. What happened in the meantime? Football didn't become unimportant. Men had jobs to do. They had to protect their families. Houses were being burned down, people intimidated out of jobs. Young fellas were chasing women and starting families. All the focus was taken away.

"Then the conflict ended and things started being built back up again. It was the same in Armagh and Derry. It's not the single reason but it was a contributory factor. I don't think it was a coincidence anyway."

Thirty years have passed now and, from the devastation, they're building something lasting. Small but certain steps. He likes it that they can still honour their past while planning a brighter future for the years ahead. The Antrim team heading off to Ballybofey this afternoon won't have the optimism of a county behind them. But they can put structures in place and lay a solid foundation for the generations to come.

He thinks of words Joe Brolly wrote recently. 'Things you never thought you'd see'. Brolly was writing after the funeral of Ronan Kerr, the PSNI officer murdered by dissident republicans in Omagh last month. Christy Cooney and Mickey Harte had helped carry the coffin and, the following Sunday, 8,000 supporters had given a minute's silence before a Tyrone league match in Dungannon.

Things you thought you'd never see. A short hop from Casement Park, Gort na Mona GAA club sits at the corner of the Monagh bypass and the Upper Springfield Road. Although drugs and poverty are the scourge of the area nowadays, the peace wall that still divides them from the Loyalist Shankill is a reminder of a grim, sectarian reality. Yet Gort na Mona field two Protestants in their underage section and, in the heart of west Belfast, that small statistic is a telling gauge of how far they've come.

McClory talks about the recent elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly. The poor support for éirígí -- a party linked to dissident republicanism -- was interesting but it wasn't the most revealing commentary on the subtle shifting of nationalist attitudes. In East Belfast, the DUP candidate Sammy Douglas scraped home largely on the basis of third-preference Sinn Féin votes, recognition -- it is said -- of his solid community record and the hard work he'd done on behalf of the Peace Process.

Slowly, he sees the old divisions breaking down and the little things that are helping them get there. The Belfast Cuchulainns have been on the go a while now, an underage hurling project targeted at kids from Loyalist areas. Once a week McClory goes to schools in the Shankill and brings hurleys with him. He has taken a group of Protestant kids to an All-Ireland final. "Ten years ago could you have imagined that?" he asks in wonder. "Five years ago even? Kids from the Shankill at an All-Ireland."

If there is money to spare from the Cromac fund, he hopes to run a Cul Camp in the Donegall Pass this summer. His grand vision is to open up the GAA to the Unionist community and to see a club open on the Shankill Road. "We've come so far already," he says, "so why not? We've got rid of the ban. Rule 42 is gone. I referee PSNI matches now. We're open. We're all-embracing. Now it's up to you. You want to join us, go out there and play."

Nor are there just two communities anymore. There are the new Irish too. Every Saturday morning he meets a Filipino community and likes the idea of bringing the games to them, a new dimension to be tested and explored.

And of the Queen's visit this week? He is noticeably sanguine, reflecting the general mood among Ulster GAA people perhaps, one that is quietly reproving but, in the larger scheme of things, of a collective mind that there are more vital things to be worrying about.

"I can see why going to Croke Park is a bit of a problem," he says, "but if you take the significance of what happened, it was nearly 100 years ago. She's a head of state. Let her come and see what we've got. I think it's good that she's going to the Garden of Remembrance. Maybe it will prick her conscience. But we can't live in the past. We can remember it but we can't bring it back. For the sake of our grandchildren we need to move forward."

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