Growing up I could count the number of Protestants I knew on my two hands. And most of those I didn’t consider ‘proper’ Protestants either. Most were either married to a Catholic or the child of a Catholic. I didn’t know anyone who was truly steeped in the traditions of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland.
Sport, like the education system, was essentially segregated when I was growing up. At Catholic schools the focus was more likely to be on Gaelic games: Gaelic football, hurling and camogie. Protestant schools were much more likely to focus on cricket, rugby and hockey. Soccer was the greatest exception – everybody played it. But not necessarily together.
When it came to international football the lines were clearly drawn. The Catholic community by and large supported the Republic of Ireland and the Protestant community by and large supported Northern Ireland. For a Catholic kid the only thing better than seeing the Republic beating Northern Ireland was seeing them beat England.
The first time I met a true Northern Ireland football fan I was almost 20. Some of my friends went to uni in Belfast and now had a bunch of Protestant friends. There was a house party at one of these guys’ house one summer and there in his bedroom was some NI football memorabilia. It was the first thing I noticed when I entered the room.
Northern Ireland hadn’t qualified for a major tournament since 1986 so there wasn’t much opportunity to watch them play on TV and they weren’t on my radar much. Then in 2016 they qualified for the Euros. If you’re not familiar, this was a big deal – the Euros are a bit like the World Cup but only for European countries.
Even more surprising to me than news of their qualification was the fact that they had a home grown Catholic manager, Michael O’Neill. When asked if he thought he got the job because he was Catholic O’Neill replied, “I’m not here to say Mass, I’m here to pick a team.” All this might not sound like a big deal but the last time I’d heard anything in the news about the Northern Ireland football team was in 2002 when their Catholic captain had to retire from International football because he was receiving death threats.
The Republic of Ireland had also qualified for Euro 2016, managed by another O’Neill – a County Derry man, Martin O’Neill. So Martin and Michael and the boys were all off to France and the entire country was brimming over with excitement. Good will abounded and surveys were done; 71% of people in Northern Ireland believed the entire country would be behind the NI team in Euro 2016.
Qualification alone is a major win for both teams so the fans hit the streets of France in high spirits from the word go. The internet was soon awash with videos of Irish and Northern Irish fans singing their way through Paris, Lille and Bordeaux. There was a video of a hoard of Irish fans fixing a dent in a car (that one of them had caused by standing on it) while singing, “Fix the car for the boys in green!” Another showed Irish fans picking up empty beer bottles and cans on the streets singing “Clean up for the boys in green!” One group of fans were filmed singing lullabies to a baby on the metro, and another bunch of Irish fans sang the Our Father to a nun on a train. Meanwhile videos abounded of Northern Ireland fans joyously filling the stadium with song long after the game was lost and the players had left the pitch.
Spirits remained high as both teams made it out of the group stage and into the final 16. I have never been more happy for a flight delay than I was on the day of Northern Ireland’s knock out match in the Round of 16. As I gathered around the screen in Belfast International airport with a bunch of people wearing Northern Ireland shirts the place felt culturally united for one glorious moment.
Neither team made it to the quarter finals but after the tournament was over the mayor of Paris awarded the medal of the city to the fans of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.