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Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Ireland's Identity Crisis

Updated on July 16, 2011

(I invite and welcome debate and external perspectives on the issues discussed in this hub as it is very sensitive and therefore is rarely discussed in the public domain).

Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy claimed his first PGA Tour win in some style on May 2 and in doing so he elevated himself into the status of sporting icon in his homeland. Even before his victory at Quail Hollow it seemed like his destiny to become the world’s best golfer, and now even more so. However, many experts were saying exactly the same thing about Sergio Garcia over a decade ago. Despite this win, Rory still has many mental challenges ahead before we start labelling him as heir to Tiger’s throne.

Of course being from Northern Ireland will be a challenge in itself. As yet Rory has remained quiet in terms of where his allegiance lies, whether he considers himself British or Irish, unionist or nationalist. These are decisions he will have to think carefully about because like it or not, the Irish on both sides of the border are obsessed with the subject. His identity will doubtless be a talking point, perhaps not in America and perhaps not publicly either, but people from Northern Ireland, Britain and the Republic of Ireland are already talking about it and will speculate over it until his identity is revealed. McIlroy has been very discreet surrounding his affiliations, if he has any, and it is virtually impossible to find information on this matter.

Flag of Rep. of Ireland
Flag of Rep. of Ireland

Irish Sporting Mess

In 2009 Rory McIlroy and newly crowned US Open champion Graeme McDowell participated in the Golf World Cup where they represented Ireland under the Republic's tricolour flag despite both players being from Northern Ireland.


Unofficial Flag of Northern Ireland
Unofficial Flag of Northern Ireland

This is in contrast to sports like Rugby and Cricket where Ireland is also represented by players from both the south and the north. However, in rugby and cricket a separate flag is used.

Irish Rugby Union Flag
Irish Rugby Union Flag

When one Irish team represents the whole island there is much sensitivity surrounding how the team is seen and how it portrays itself in competition. In rugby and cricket the Irish teams use their own unique politically compromised Irish flags. These flags bare little relation to the Republic’s tricolour, the North’s Ulster banner or Britain’s Union Jack.

Flag of the Irish Cricket
Flag of the Irish Cricket

A similar compromise is made during the playing of the national anthems before these sporting events. When the Irish rugby team plays a test match in the Republic, Amhrain na bhFiann(the national anthem of the Republic of Ireland) is followed by Ireland’s Call in order to respect the Northern Irishmen who are in the team. When Ireland play on foreign soil, Ireland’s Call is the only song played to represent the team.This is a song simply made up to act as a compromise and it is widely mocked by the fans of the team as having no value to supporters from the North or from the South. However, it achieved its initial goal which was to defuse the tension that threatened to split the team.

Rory and McDowell at a World Cup press conference - no Irish colours in sight
Rory and McDowell at a World Cup press conference - no Irish colours in sight

Whether McIlroy and McDowell knew they were playing for the tricolour I can't be sure but they were in contention to win the golf world cup until they were pipped at the post by the Italian Molinari brothers. The winners celebrated by adorning themselves in their national flag. How interesting it would have been to see how our Northern Irish duo would have celebrated. Would they have wrapped themselves in the green white and gold of the Republic? Would they have contradicted the scoreboard and held aloft the Ulster Banner? More likely, it would have been a careful colourless delight because the two players themselves were unsure who they were playing for.

Dennis Taylor - Former Snooker World Champion from Northern Ireland
Dennis Taylor - Former Snooker World Champion from Northern Ireland

Rory follows a line of sports people who have been confronted by similar issues. Dennis Taylor and Barry McGuigan both became world champions in 1985 when times were much more difficult. At that time the tension and hostility in Northern Ireland regularly resulted in violence. Taylor won the World Snooker Championship and like boxing champ McGuigan, he sat on the fence, wearing neutral colours, hoping to be a source of pride to both communities, and also hoping to bring those communities together. In essence Rory can do the same. He can remain quiet like his predecessors. However the pressure is not on McIlroy to the same extent. He is younger for a start and the violence in Northern Ireland has subsided. Golf is also not typically a working class sport. However he does live in a world of information. Rory’s website is decorated in the Ulster Banner, surely not by accident. This is a flag with an unofficial status in the North, despite regularly acting as official even though it is rejected by nationalists in the North. In days gone by this would symbolize Rory's acceptance of and loyalty to the British throne, and perhaps it is his way of publicizing his identity. But if, as his website suggests, he is British at heart, why would he agree to play for Ireland under the tricoulour?

Irish or British Identity

The issue I am most concerned about is Irish sporting identity. That is the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in sports that these grey areas still remain without clarification. It is my belief that two separate states should not be combining their sporting talent in some sports and stealing each other's talents in others. Of course here I am referring to the soccer players from the North who have opted in recent years to play for the Republic. There is genuine hostility between the respective fans as a result, and yet these same fans are obliged to unite together for a 'whole' Ireland in a different sport under some mickey mouse flag with a mickey mouse anthem. This is a problem that will be hugely difficult to navigate. The fact is that Rory will never be afforded the same warmth in the Republic that he gets in the North until he nails his colours to the mast.

The problem of identity is not Rory McIlroy's problem. He know's who he is. The problem of identity lies deep in the hearts of the Irish people, both North and South of the border. As a natural consequence of history, Republicans will find it difficult if not impossible to support a sports person from Northern Ireland who pledges allegiance to the British Monarch. Similarly Unionists will not go out of there way to support Republicans. When a sporting icon withdraws this piece of their identity, support of that sports person will become delicate.

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