A couple of years after the Troubles started up again in 1969, the British government decided that children in Belfast needed somewhere to go besides paramilitary rallies. Instead of constructing natatoriums or high-tech training facilities to spawn world champions, the Sports Council, the government agency in charge of sports administration, began to build recreation centers. The idea was that everyone could participate in something at the centers, and the more time they spent there, the less time they would spend killing each other. "With high unemployment it was easy to see how kids would be tempted into something exciting like stone-throwing, and the paramilitary," Miller says. "We thought we'd try to give them something else—in sports. Maybe they could dream through sports."
Northern Ireland now has the best recreational facilities in the United Kingdom, and there are 14 centers in Belfast alone, a city of 295,100 people. Armstrong says, "In a roundabout way, the Troubles helped improve facilities. Kids are benefiting from the Troubles."
But the centers, like everything else in Belfast, are subject to the city's sectarian geography. Although open to anyone, they are tainted with the affiliation of the neighborhood where they stand. Protestants go to the centers in their neighborhoods, Catholics go to the ones in theirs.
The Sports Council is planning to build a 50-meter pool. But where? "We'll have to put it in a neutral area," Miller says. "We want people to be able to come up from Dublin and get off the train and walk to the pool. You don't want them to have to think about what area they're in." The Sports Council is also planning to build a center for field sports. Representatives of the soccer and rugby federations and officers of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which oversees Gaelic football and other Gaelic sports, are all for the project, and have finally agreed on the "preferred" location at Queen's University, in the middle-class, mixed neighborhood of South Belfast.
Most organized sports in Belfast take place in the schools, which like everything else in the parallel universes of Northern Ireland, come in two types: Protestant and Catholic. Technically, the Protestant schools are public—anyone can attend them for free. And while there are a few Catholic students (mostly in middle-class areas) in state schools, there are no Protestant children in the Catholic schools.
That's why the program at Beechfield and St. Matthew's is so revolutionary, though you would never know it by looking at McKee, a 51-year-old grandmother. "At first, the parents were afraid that their children would be indoctrinated into another religion," says McKee, who started the program eight years ago. "We couldn't even get the children to work together. They were very wary of each other. It was six months before they would play together."
Still, the Beechfield and St. Matthew's students play together only on Wednesday afternoons. Even on Wednesdays, the children retreat to their own schoolyards after school to play soccer.
"You stay in your area, and you play your area's games," says Deborah Morrison, 18, a college student who is from Ballysillan, a Protestant enclave in north Belfast. The games taught in state schools are those played in Protestant neighborhoods: English ones like rugby, cricket and field hockey. The games taught in Catholic schools are those played in Catholic neighborhoods: Irish ones like Gaelic football (a cross between rugby and Australian-rules football), hurling (a combination of lacrosse and field hockey) and camogie (women's hurling).
Of the 60 schools in Northern Ireland that play rugby, none are Catholic. Ken Reid, manager of Ireland's national rugby team, says, "I can't get Catholic schools to play. It's considered a British game." And in the state schools, dance is part of the physical education curriculum, but Irish dances are rarely taught and when they are, it's as part of a unit about dances of "foreign" countries.
Irish games are as inseparable from Irish culture as Irish literature and the Gaelic language. They are governed, in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, by the GAA, which was founded in 1884 by Michael Cusack (the model for the Citizen in James Joyce's Ulysses) because he felt that the English were subjugating Irish culture. The GAA makes no excuses for its Nationalist origins. During the Boer War, Gaelic teams adopted Boer names to taunt the British. Its rules call for the tricolor, the flag of the Republic of Ireland, to be flown over all GAA matches.