On the 10th of April, 1998, the Northern Irish peace agreement was signed, bringing an end to a conflict that had spanned over thirty years, and which had brought untold grief, hardship, and sheer terror to thousands of people. This agreement heralded a new beginning for the divided communities of the war-torn region.
Twenty years later, it’s easy to forget just how horrendous the events of that period were. However, in the last week or so, I watched two completely different documentaries which shed some light on the importance of both music and rugby in helping to keep some degree of normality alive for the suffering population during those dark days.
The first one was a documentary by Ardal O’Hanlon about the extraordinary era of the Irish showbands. The film covered a lot of the different aspects of the showband story, also showing how the massacre of the Miami Showband in 1975 as they returned from a gig in Banbridge, Co. Down, changed the social landscape in the North for ever. Up until then, the showbands were playing week in, week out in dancehalls north of the border, despite the Troubles. The prevailing feeling was that, as entertainment providers, they were pretty much guaranteed safe passage. However, in the words of our Country Queen Margo, and perhaps echoing the lyrics of Don McLean’s huge hit, ‘American Pie’ – that was the ‘day the music died’. Immediately after the terrible Miami massacre, the bands all stopped going to the north. In the act of killing three members of that showband and injuring two others, the murdering gang also killed the entire live music industry.
Up until this, rugby clubs from the south had continued to play up north. However, this incomprehensible atrocity brought that to an end as well. Yet remarkably, to this day – as Brian O’Driscoll’s riveting documentary showed – even the most Orange of Northern people support the Irish rugby team. Brian himself struggled to understand how Orangemen – who told him they were British citizens – could also say they would love Ireland to beat England, but that’s the way it is.
Rugby alone (of all the major sports) seems to bridge the six-county divide. I suppose it’s because there is only the one team on the entire island, while soccer has both a Northern and Southern team, and of course Gaelic games are seen as a nationalist sport.
Anyway, it all brought me back to my playing days in the late 1960s and early ‘70s when I was lining out with Dundalk. At least half our fixtures were up north, with a good lot in Belfast, and some in Portadown – the latter at that time was regarded as possibly the most anti-Irish place in the whole province.
However, while they were aware that we were mostly from the south, the welcome we would receive in those clubs was unbelievable. You would never be allowed to put your hand in your pocket; food and drink was all on the house – which, for a young lad in his 20s, was very much appreciated. For at least a few hours every Saturday, sectarian hatred was put to one side, and peace reigned in those highly-charged areas.
Sometimes when we played in Belfast, and had to go through known loyalist areas, a fleet of cars would pick us up from the train and we would be told to lie down on the back seat, covered with coats and blankets, so that nobody could see us. Looking back on it now, it should have been scary enough. I suppose we were young and carefree, and all we thought about was playing rugby, and eating and drinking as much as we could for free before ducking back in under the blankets and hoping for no drama on the way back to the train.
I have to say that both programmes were absolutely riveting, and, while Ardal’s end product was much more fact-based, I found it no less interesting. Brian made a serious effort at trying to understand rugby’s place in Northern Ireland society, a difficult job indeed. If and when they are both shown again, try to have a look and I promise you will find both of them to be compulsive viewing.
On Sunday, while there was an absolute bumper GAA programme in both hurling and football, it was the epic, amazing men’s singles final in the tennis at Wimbledon that provided drama the likes of which we are privileged to see only very few times in a lifetime.
For more than five hours, two of the greatest players we have ever seen went head to head in this enthralling final, and at the end of it, Novak Djokovic had pipped 37-year-old Roger Federer to the title. In truth, both of them contributed equally to one of, if not the, greatest tennis matches of all time.
As someone who was physically and emotionally drained after spending most of those five hours on the couch, hopping on the remote from one station to another, it is just mind-boggling to contemplate the physical and mental conditioning of those two warriors. I can only take off my hat to both of them – especially Federer, who, as he approaches 38 years of age, still remains at the top of his sport, and is an example and inspiration to so many. There is no doubt he will take a while to recover from Sunday’s massive disappointment, but he will be back, and as an avid sports lover (except maybe cricket), I look forward to more epic matches between the best players in the world.
Rafa Nadal is the third member of the Super 3, who between them have claimed 51 of the last 59 Grand Slam titles. As of now, there seems to be no-one else about to challenge their dominance.
Anyway, it was sport at its absolute best, and a pleasure to watch. I have no doubt that Sunday’s final will be talked about for many years to come.
Back home to our local village, Creggs, and as I told you last week, we are full steam ahead for the Pride of Place competition. Nothing I have ever seen before has sparked such a response from the local community, and if nothing else comes of it, the improvement in the village and its immediate surrounds is just remarkable.
Last Wednesday night and the previous one, there were upwards of 60 locals out doing their bit to clean and tidy up the place, and if you had left Creggs on Wednesday morning and didn’t get back ‘till Thursday you would think you were in a different village, such was the transformation!
It will be all over in a couple of weeks, but at a time when we are told rural Ireland is dying on its feet, the people of Creggs are showing that with the right leadership and community spirit, anything is possible. Creggs is certainly not showing any sign of a visit to the mortuary.
Finally for this week, just a reminder that the 25th Annual Donamon Open Day takes place on Sunday, July 28th, with Mass at 12 midday followed by an entertainment line-up that would do justice to a major festival.
My good friends Annette Griffin and John Staunton are performing at the festival Mass, and I don’t have to tell you how talented they are. Among the impressive line-up of musical entertainers you have Jake Carter and his band, Mick Flavin, Carmel McLoughlin, the Ryan Turner Band, along with a number of top local talents.
All the usual attractions will be there, including the bouncy castle, pony rides, book stall, the big raffle for great cash prizes, an auction, craft village and much, much more. It will all take place under the watchful eye of your MC, the one and only Danny Burke.
All will be revealed in next week’s Roscommon People, but for now just pencil it into your diary, if you have one, and be in Donamon (where there’s also free parking!) on Sunday, July 28th for a wonderful day’s fun!
Till next week, Bye for now!