A Neutral Sport in Northern Ireland

by Natalie Ball '16
August 31, 2015

Natalie is a 2015 Royce Sport and Society Fellow. She traveled to Northern Ireland this summer to coach mixed teams of Protestant and Catholic children in a summer basketball league with PeacePlayers.

When you think of Ireland, the first thing that comes to mind might be beautiful rolling hills on the countryside, the Blarney Castle, the myth of Leprechauns, the various pubs that consume the city streets, the unique accents, or the famous Irish beer Guinness. Today, you probably don’t think of “The Troubles” between the Catholic Republicans and Protestant Loyalists.

Most people fail to recognize that since 1922, Northern Ireland is an entirely separate country from the Republic of Ireland. I didn’t even realize that the conflict between these two religious groups is still very much alive. Although peace efforts have alleviated much of the violence, there still remains a great deal of riots, protests, and disputes in Belfast.

Some staff members of PeacePlayers recommended that I go on a formalized program called the Black Taxi Tour, which explores not only the city of Belfast but also the history of “The Troubles.”

I had no idea what I was in for, but by the end, I could not believe what my tour guide had to say.

He took me around the Protestant side of town and showed me a range of large outdoor murals that symbolized the Protestant cause to remain loyal to Britain and memorialized victims in all the violence. As we made our way to the Catholic side of town, we passed through very large, prison-like gates that I later figured out segregated the Catholic and the Protestant neighborhoods.

What surprised me most as we traveled to the Catholic neighborhoods was how many houses were built with metal cages and barbed wire in the backyards that faced the Protestant neighborhoods. I asked my guide, “So, these cages have been on these houses since the beginning of ‘The Troubles’ and have remained to this day?” He responded, “Yes, and just over there you can see the stains on a house in which the cages were removed only about two weeks ago.” I could not believe how Catholics today still felt it necessary to keep the cages up to protect themselves. 

My tour guide even revealed that the Catholics only choose to support Palestine just to get a rise out of the Protestants who support Israel’s right to exist.

It wasn’t until after this tour that I realized how the vastly different cultures and political beliefs have led to deep-rooted stereotypes and hatred. This is where PeacePlayers comes in.

PeacePlayers, where I’ve been working, uses sports as a means to unify local Protestant and Catholic children, teaching them to look past their differences and work together toward a common goal. One of the staff members told me, “Most of the kids don’t even know why they disassociate from the opposing religious group, they were just told to do so by their families.”

Sports brings out the competitor in everyone, and even if the kids were on a team with players they disliked, they were willing to set that aside to win the game. Before coming to Ireland, I had never even heard of Gaelic football and knew absolutely nothing about rugby. It was interesting to discover that Gaelic football is predominately a Catholic sport, while rugby is a predominately Protestant sport. To help settle any further disputes, PeacePlayers strategically uses basketball as a neutral sport in their camps.

During camps, PeacePlayers also engages the kids in activities and games that teach them about the importance of communication, the effects of rumors, the difference between facts and opinions, stereotypes, and much more.  

Gradually, the kids broke away from their own cliques. Toward the end of camp, I watched them come together and develop new friendships.

PeacePlayers is truly a unique organization that seeks to liberate young kids from the history of violence, so that they can become part of a new—more peaceful—generation.