Belfast, Northern Ireland—My Irish cousins and I got a chance to watch the practice rounds at the Irish Open, played recently at Royal Portrush to the north of Belfast. Not only was it the first time in nearly six decades that the Irish Open was held in Northern Ireland, it was the first time that any European tour event has sold out. There are many reasons for the record crowds at this year's championship along the spectacular Antrim coast, not least of which is that this beautiful spot has produced three of the best golfers in the world—Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke, and Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy's family is Catholic, and his uncle, Joe McIlroy, was killed in 1972 by a unionist gunman in his East Belfast home one night as he was fixing the washing machine. Rory's cousins were asleep upstairs when their dad was shot. The murder was meant as a warning to stop Catholics from moving into Protestant neighborhoods in Belfast, as Joe McIlroy had done. During "the Troubles," many Catholics living in the "wrong" neighborhoods found themselves burned out of their homes or shot. After the murder, though, the McIlroys never moved out of their house. Young Rory was sent to a Catholic primary school, and then to a religiously mixed grammar school whose Irish motto is translated as "with the gentle hand foremost."
Among the Irish, golf is not seen as a Protestant or Catholic sport, the way that mostly Catholic Gaelic football is, or predominantly Protestant rugby and soccer are. That may explain why you see so many children here riding a bike with a golf club across the handlebars, or heading to the tee box with a bag of clubs nearly as tall as they are. It's a "neutral" sport in a war-torn land.
After Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open and became the top golfer in the world, the London Daily Mail wrote that he had become "the shining beacon of hope that proves the North has a future beyond guns and sectarian riots: a future where people don't want to know 'whose side are you on?' but how well you played. And if his win was a huge moment for him, it was a giant moment for peace."
There was another giant moment for peace recently: Queen Elizabeth II, for the first time ever, met with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a leader of the nationalist Sinn Fein party. McGuinness was a commander of the Irish Republican Army when the queen's cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was killed by an IRA bomb in 1979. The queen and McGuinness were on opposite sides during "the Troubles," the decades of sectarian violence between unionist Protestants and nationalist Catholics, which started to come to a close with the Good Friday peace accord in 1998.
McGuinness had refused to meet with her in the past, but this time the two shook hands in what was seen by many as a symbol of mutual respect aimed directly at the next generation. Former President Bill Clinton, whose involvement in the Good Friday talks will never be forgotten by the Irish, told the Irish Independent that the historic handshake reinforced everything the peace accord symbolizes. "It is what I hoped would happen when all this [the peace process] started—that it would come around to that," he said.
In Northern Ireland, both sports and schools have been segregated for years: Catholic kids go to Catholic schools, Protestant children go to predominantly Protestant schools. Essentially there are two publicly funded education systems, something that I can't imagine the Irish can afford much longer. Even though many of the children live and play at similar schools within yards of each other, polls show the vast majority of Catholic kids have never had a meaningful conversation with a Protestant.
That's starting to change. Recently I helped coach a fifth-grade basketball team near Joe McIlroy's East Belfast neighborhood, where PeacePlayers International is bringing children together to play the "neutral" sport of basketball together on integrated teams from Catholic and Protestant schools. The American sport of basketball is a curiosity to the kids; instead of "Simon Says," they play "Michael Jordan Says."
Children who can play together can learn to live together, the coaches believe. It's hard to disagree when you see 10-year-olds of different religions with their arms around each other cheering at the top of their lungs for their new friends. They know that, as with golf, it's not about whose side you are on. It's about how well you played.