Irish Football Association held a specially convened
meeting in Belfast recently to debate the issue
of Sunday football in the Irish League. It turned
out that the ban on soccer on a Sunday will remain
in place as the motion fell narrowly short of the
75% required to revoke the rule.
The rule was introduced over 60 years ago in the
hey-day of single party rule in Northern Ireland,
backed as it was by its official church and the
'scripture strictures' that it enforced. Not that
the ban applied only to soccer and Protestant people.
The 'Special Powers' act ensured that the GAA in
Northern Ireland were also not permitted to play
their games on a Sunday, and the law also ensured
that playing football on the street at anytime could
result in a court appearance given the requisite
number of offences. Rugby and cricket, hockey and
whatever else passed as legitimate sporting pursuits
doubtlessly also suffered at the hands of the zealots.
Charming as it is, the BBC Northern Ireland programme
that shows old 8 millimetre footage of the bygone
days of the 1940's and 1950's does not quite capture
the whole truth of that era. Firstly those who submit
that footage to the BBC are invariably middle class;
otherwise they would not have been able to afford
those jaunty trips around the country, let alone
the cars to get them there or the cine-cameras to
record their antics.
Tales recounted to me by family members tell of
abject dullness and boredom on Sundays, cooped up
at home in a grey flannel world wishing that Monday
would hurry up and come so school or work would
bring respite from mental self-implosion.
It is for this reason that football has always been
the entertainment of the working classes. Historical
parallels between ancient Rome and our backward
looking state are not as silly as you might think.
Take the example of the film 'Gladiator' where the
new Emperor Commodus, having just murdered his father
Julius Cesar announces 150 continuous days of games
at the Coliseum to placate the plebeians. The film
was accurate in that respect. In the same way for
the past 150 years professional football, on a global
scale, has been the entertainment outlet for we
modern day serfs and vassals.
In the build up to this World Cup, the BBC for several
Sunday evenings showed 'World Cup Stories', a series
that documented the rise of the World Cup as the
ultimate manifestation of working class aspirations.
It told the stories of children who came from grinding
poverty, blessed with grace, skill and athleticism
that escaped their ghettos to reach the heights
of stardom and wealth. However, there is irony in
the fact that a game that has it's origins in one
of England's elite public schools is now the sporting
opium of the masses.
Amongst others, the series charted the lives of
Brazil's Garincha and Argentina's Maradona, hardly
men of diamond coated moral fibre, but who for brief
snatches of time thrilled and entertained the 'plebs'
and more often than not on a Sunday. Brazil and
Argentina are amongst the most rigidly devout Catholic
nations on earth, so why then do elements of our
clergical class frown upon anything more energetic
than dogmatic introspection on a Sunday?
No one told Garincha or Maradona that they were
supposed to eke out their days playing football
with oranges in the dusty playing fields of their
homes, or if someone did tell them, they did not
listen. No one could now imagine George Best had
he stayed playing local football on the Cregagh
Estate either! Geordie was hardly the epitome of
the dour but virtuous East-Belfast church-goer,
but how many Ministers secretly travelled to see
him on a Sunday. Now tell the truth, God is watching
Since the end of the Second World War, Christianity
in all its doggedly organised forms has been steadily
declining. Respect for organised religion has drifted
largely because of problems created by the insistence
of sticking to hopelessly outdated dogma and the
hypocritical abhorrence of the sexual scandals that
has engulfed it. It's true that religion is still
preferable to the new God's of commerce and materialist
gadgetry but not to the point where it bemoans sport
as the root of Sabbath day blasphemy.
Religion undoubtedly has a place, and a high-ranking
one, in our society, but quite rightly it has slipped
a few notches in the societal league table. The
fact that the Priest or Ministers word was accepted
as final was a blight on our society. They are no
longer the all-seeing moral guardians of our lives.
The unquestioned respect once commanded by religion
in Ireland, north and South has largely evaporated,
and I for one am glad about that.
Both official churches in Ireland, and at least
one other I can think of, have always proved to
be ideological handcuffs to more politically charitable
thinking. Eamonn DeValera used Archbishop John Charles
McQuaid to give the 1937 Irish Constitution a horribly
right wing Catholic outlook that imprisoned social
expression, on some occasions literally sentencing
women to death because of the ban on divorce and
allowed Unionists to rightly contend that it was
the Church that ruled in the Irish Republic and
not the Dail. As a result Protestant Churches recoiled
from official co-operation with its Catholic counterpart
and entrenched views hardened many hearts.
Biblical literalism has a lot to answer for in Northern
Ireland. It has been used for excusing murder and
mayhem on our streets for the best part of 40 years.
The underpinning dictates that controls Christianity
were supposedly brought down from a mountain in
the Middle-East almost 3,000 years ago, by a man
who apparently looked a lot like Charlton Heston.
Inscribed in stone were ten rules that apparently
govern our moral lives.
One of the commandments, the fifth I think, says
'Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath Day'. It did not
say what we should do in order to achieve that.
It did not say for example that those of us lucky
enough to have jobs, should kneel in back aching
contemplation of our sorry existence on the one
day that we have off. No, that particular thinking
is a human rule, not a divine one. Another 'religious'
standard that I can remember is that the 'Devil
makes work for idle hands to do'. Is it not better
that I occupy my mind than flagellate myself with
barbed wire, felling guilty if I have a happy thought?
If I go to a football game on a Sunday, soccer or
GAA, am I condemned to an eternal backside burning
in the big sulphur pit? I hope not, I've been to
at least hundreds of games !
Besides, the point is that Northern Irish society
has changed irrevocably for the good in the past
decade in ways that we all can see. Even in my childhood,
in the 1970's and early 80's there actually were
no shops, cinemas, local playing parks to utilise
because they were either bombed out of existence
or vandalised to the point of extinction, never
mind them being open for use on a Sunday. In my
experience Sundays consisted of going to Church
to be told how bad I was by a man in a dress, home
for dinner and then what seemed like countless hours
of inane boredom until Monday came.
There is also the point that it is rare these days
that you will meet people who have Monday-Friday
9 to 5 jobs. Therefore as the Church is so keen
on family values, what harm will taking your children
to a football game really do? Sunday maybe the only
chance that working people can spend with their
families. Is it their choice and their choice alone
how that time should be spent. Socially and economically
we have moved light years beyond the previous stultifying
decades. If anything northerners used to laugh up
their sleeves at the backward attitudes of the south,
the lack of jobs and transport infrastructure and
parochial thinking laid down by the parish priest.
Who is laughing now.? Whilst we quibble over the
site for building a 'national' stadium, in Dublin,
Croke Park is the envy of FAI, the IRFU, the IFA
and most other sporting organisations in Europe
As with all organisations Christian churches know
the value of a £1 coin. Are they just scared
that other organisations will benefit from spare
cash , whilst collection plates go hungry? Is there
not a case to suggest that the domino effect economic
benefit of encouraging people to commune together
no matter what the sporting event may actually make
people think they have something to be grateful
for and encourage them back to church.?
Catholicism always pilloried Communism not because
it was 'evil', but because it was an ideology predicated
on collective thinking. Is it not usually the case
that things that are very similar in nature do not
like each other. It was for precisely that same
reason that Communist states suppressed organised
Sport, and in particular football is one of the
main unifying factors that we have here. The Foyle
Cup and The Milk Cup prove that year after year.
Each Sunday this summer through every parish and
dioceses in Northern Ireland church fetes and community
festivals will be held. An integral part of each
of these events will be sporting endeavours including
Are those taking part and raising funds, from which
all churches Catholic and Protestant will benefit
breaking the fifth commandment, or is there special
dispensation from the Almighty on these days, only?