Saturday 21 September 2019

'It wasn't the same tricolour as the one wrapped around the IRA which was trying to kill people like my father'

Trevor Ringland in action for Ireland in a Five Nations Rugby Championship clash with Wales at Cardiff Arms Park on March 1983. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Trevor Ringland in action for Ireland in a Five Nations Rugby Championship clash with Wales at Cardiff Arms Park on March 1983. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

A couple of days after Trevor Ringland had made his Ireland debut, his mother Rhoda was walking through Larne, going about her start-of-the-week routine.

Stopped by a local there, he told her that she must be proud of her son and that he "didn't stand too straight for that song of theirs".

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On she went a few hundred yards and was again called over by a well-wisher. But this one had a complicated addendum to his compliment. "You must be very proud after Saturday, but tell him from me that he stood far too straight for that song of theirs."

Belfast, 1981.

Tread softly for you tread on someone’s dreams.

"You quickly learned that you couldn't win," laughs Ringland. "But doing and showing what can be done on this island is the best way to answer those who carry any sort of prejudice."

Trevor Ringland, left, in action for Ireland against England during the Five Nations Rugby Championship at Twickenham, London back in February 1982. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Trevor Ringland, left, in action for Ireland against England during the Five Nations Rugby Championship at Twickenham, London back in February 1982. Photo: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

The game had been a four-point defeat to Australia down in Dublin and, with it being late November, the valley was hushed and white with snow. But that whole year had been all about shadow rather than sunshine.

In the months leading up to it, from Sands to Doherty and McDonnell to Divine, the hunger strikers had wasted away to the grave and on into martyrdom. All-out war loomed over those left behind.

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Yet here was Ringland in Lansdowne at a time when symbols meant so much. From a unionist background standing for their anthem and their flag.

Standing for Ireland.   

"But for me, it was an environment where you wanted to be there representing everyone on the island and rugby allowed that. And there and then it was a different way to use those symbols. It wasn't the same Soldier's Song and tricolour as the one wrapped around the IRA which was trying to kill people like my father every day.

"I always maintain too the Union Flag for me is also very different to the one wrapped around Ian Paisley or Loyalist paramilitaries. Difficult times, sure.

"I was at Queen's at that stage and there was so much going on that was divisive, but things like sport - and you'd the Northern Ireland football team too - all of those were acting as a counter-dynamic to the sense of despair coming out of the conflict that was growing so fast."

In such circumstances hate is easier than compassion; wrong comes more naturally than right; violence is the reflex as opposed to tolerance; loathing creates fear rather than shards of hope.

Yet simply listen to his words and consider his reaction for it's what makes Ringland so special.

Sure, we could talk about the 1982 and 1985 Triple Crowns, the latter where he finished off one of the greatest Irish tries of any era in Murrayfield. That would be a waste though. 

Trevor Ringland, Ireland, scores his side's winning try, despite the tackle of Iwan Tukalo of Scotland during the Five Nations Rugby Championship at Murrayfield, Scotland in February 1985 Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Trevor Ringland, Ireland, scores his side's winning try, despite the tackle of Iwan Tukalo of Scotland during the Five Nations Rugby Championship at Murrayfield, Scotland in February 1985 Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

After all, the guy talking about so such unity and friendship was once the kid who’d watch his father each morning check under the car for bombs, as Dad was a policeman and this was part of existing.

* * *

Adrian Ringland was a rock in a hard place.

Years later, Trevor worked out that he'd had at least five direct attempts on his life, never mind all the indirect efforts to turn his son into a resentful bastard. In his house there'd be none of that.

"But he was not the exception, he was the rule," recalls Trevor. "People today say that must be terrible but it had no impact on me as such. The real answer as to why it did keep us neutral in our home and the thing that did impact was my father's experiences of scenes he had to visit."

From there he goes on to talk about specific instances like how Adrian had to try work out which family member might be strong enough to identify a victim, seeing a severed head via the IRA, combing through evidence around a body that had had a full Kalashnikov magazine emptied into the flesh, and working on Bloody Friday as Belfast exploded and people came running for help.  

"I think what shaped us was that his stories weren't of one side doing things, it was all sides doing things to the people in our society," Ringland continues.

"In a strange way it kept a sense of balance. There was one night where my father was leaving the police station in north Belfast when it was attacked by the IRA and he spent two hours in a gun battle. That same night my mother got a call from the local police station where we lived to say that Loyalists were burning policemen out of their houses. You occupied a position as if a third section of our society.

"It's one of the major problems I had with the likes of Ian Paisley, he put my father in a position where his life was in danger, never mind him using the futility of violence to try to unite the people of Ireland. It was never going to work.

"There were examples of using relationships to grow and you wonder why people don't follow those. Even to this day you listen to some of the language and think to yourself, 'Have you guys really not learned your lessons over the years?'"

It may seem trite and forced, but for Ringland he maintains sport was a sanctuary for himself and a salvation for the place he holds dear.

He clings to the little moments of caring it provided. In Queen's once, a young player on the rugby team got badly injured and next thing a call came from the most unlikely of phones.

Ballygalget GAA club had heard about the poor guy and wanted to help raise some money so they went to the Ards Peninsula and played a half of rugby and a half of GAA and spent the night in each other's company learning they'd more in common than extremists ever wanted them to realise.

"The fact we don't know each other is a failure of history and of how we've done relationships on this island. We showed we can do it differently."

Even in the darkest hours he found light through sport. Take 1987 and the very first World Cup and compare and contrast with the trivial complexity and complications around the build up to this edition.

Nigel Carr pictured in Five Nations action for Ireland against Wales at Lansdowne Road in February 1986. Injuries sustained in an explosion a year later meant he would never play again. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Nigel Carr pictured in Five Nations action for Ireland against Wales at Lansdowne Road in February 1986. Injuries sustained in an explosion a year later meant he would never play again. Picture credit: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

Less than a month before the opener against Wales in Wellington, two cars made their way to the Republic for training.

He was in one with Syd Miller, Keith Crossan and Hugo MacNeill who'd been speaking at a dinner in Larne Rugby Club the night before.

They got near the border and were diverted but how little they knew. Ahead in the other vehicle were Nigel Carr, Philip Rainey and Davey Irwin who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The IRA had decided to blow up Lord Chief Justice Maurice Gibson and his wife with the blast catching the Irish internationals too.

The damage to Carr's body meant he'd never play again.

"It comes back to how can you go on to play for Ireland in those circumstances," says Ringland.

"These people who claim they were promoting a united view of Ireland said that's why they did what they did. But we were about really uniting, of wanting to be together and doing us all proud.

"That acts as a counter to the hatred. That counter doesn't get the profile it should but it's one of the reasons we didn't descend into civil war. We teetered on the edge of that on occasion but we never stepped over that edge into an absolute disaster because of people like Gordon Wilson, Mairead Corrigan and so on.

"For me rugby and sport also helped avert that catastrophe.

"In rugby, the key thing was an Irishness that could be inclusive of the British dimension on the island and a Britishness that could be respectful of the Irishness. We represented inclusion."

* * *

When Ireland played away from home in rugby back then, they didn't have an anthem.

On 25 May, 1987, when Ireland played Wales in that World Cup opener, they needed one.

The powerful and beautiful Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau first rang out. Then came the dirge of The Rose of Tralee. As Con Houlihan wrote, next time they should play God Save The Rose of Tralee.

That tournament itself holds plenty of regrets for Ringland as they were better than a tame quarter-final exit, although the loss of the likes of Carr hurt them physically as well as scarred them mentally.

But a rugby career in general held few regrets. He smiles as he recalls how he has it on good authority a try of his against England once caused both wings of the Maze to cheer.

Rugby for him was a teaching tool also. It taught him not to judge people without knowing them.

It wasn't just about religion and borders but all sorts of human perception. Take his recollection of Willie Duggan who many saw from the outside as gruff. He tells a story of how the two were called up in his early years for the Barbarians only to see snow cancel the match and all flights as well.

Stuck in the Tower Hotel in London, he tried to get his expenses cheque cashed with the receptionist calling up her boss and referring to him as "Mr Duggan's son".

It became a running joke and years later in an RTÉ studio they met again.

"I was with my son and told him this is the grandfather that hasn't remembered any of your birthdays, missed every Christmas since you were born and has taken no interest in your life. A month on was my son’s birthday and through the post came this card and a present from Willie Duggan. That was the nature of the man."

Never judge.

If only more would listen.

Given Ringland's outlook perhaps politics can seem a natural calling. In Northern Ireland given how centrists and progressives have been forced out, maybe not.

But he's given it a go. It’s been frustrating. On holidays recently he got stuck into Seamus Mallon's book 'A Shared Home Place' and what he took from it was the extent to which the British and Irish governments wanted to keep the two extremes happy while undermining the middle, and how they mistakenly saw a pact between Sinn Féin and the DUP as being able to deliver both stability and calm.

"It delivered something but it’s probably a cold peace and we’re better than that. What we need is a politics that comes through and starts to generate more constructive peace. Look at what can be done. We can hold the British Open, we can hold the Irish Open. We can have 32-county teams. Sport is one area to follow but instead people often follow what they really shouldn’t."

* * *

Trevor Ringland had always promised his old college buddy Seamus Leonard that if the GAA ever dropped the ban on security forces playing, he'd take him up on his offer of going to a game.

With Rule 21 gone in 2001 he found himself at an All Ireland final and realised the pride people in Croke Park had and how much they wanted him to enjoy what they enjoyed.

"That’s the tragedy where you’ve conflict, you keep people apart. It takes effort to overcome that."

When others refused to give that same effort he refused to waver. In the UUP, with party leader Tom Elliott saying he'd refuse to go and see an Ulster team in an All Ireland final, Ringland quit and joined the Northern Ireland Conservatives. Sport was to break bread, not to throw food.

With GAA, he mentions the great sense of community and how he hopes they can extend that to those who feel alienated for whatever reason, and the work already done from Maurice Hayes through to Danny Murphy to Joe Brolly.

He stresses the example of the Northern Ireland football for all programme where, with sectarianism on the terraces tearing down rather than building, they challenged themselves to look in the mirror, asked what was wrong, changed and are now reaping the rewards. He talks about how all can take pride in the rugby team at the World Cup.

"I've seen it. I’m involved when every summer we have Belfast Interface Games. It’s three halves with one of rugby, one football and one of Gaelic. It’s community relations using sport.

"We've the kids from the interfaces playing on a team so, for instance, the north Belfast interface kids play together against the west Belfast interface kids. It’s an inclusive scheme and they work together. The parents are allowing it to happen so they are prepared to support it and get better.

"Now I'm not stupid, I've no illusions about problems we face. You have to make Northern Ireland work socially and economically.

The last thing you want in a united Ireland is a social and economic basket-case landing on your lap, and the same if remaining in the UK. If our politicians can get their heads around that, they could make this place work.

"As an example, after watching Brian O’Driscoll’s show Shoulder To Shoulder you felt like shouting from the rooftops. When it comes to relations on the island look at the examples of good practice there are and which we haven’t followed.

"When I made my debut with Ireland we were building relationships while others were destroying them. It showed you can bring the people together in common cause.

“At one point O'Driscoll asked this group of young Orangemen who they’d shout for when England play Ireland and they said Ireland.

"He couldn’t quite understand it but it’s quite a common position. I talk about us in Northern Ireland, we’ve a feast of identities we can move between comfortably.

"We've plenty of all-Ireland institutions be it in economics or medicine or sport. Learn from that. Ultimately my view I guess is that at this moment let’s focus on building relationships, make Northern Ireland work socially and economically, and then let our children and grandchildren decide what they want but let them do that as friends."

Plenty are still stuck in the past, but even amid the fury of that past he was striving for a better future.

Today Trevor Ringland still is.

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