Northern Ireland Attempts to Bridge Religious Rifts Through Youth Soccer

Little by little, Protestants and Catholics are coming together to form integrated teams, although tensions in their communities still run high.
belfast wall banner.jpg
Children play beside a section of the "peace wall" that divides Catholic and Protestant communities along Glenbryn Park, north Belfast on October 27, 2012. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

BELFAST -- Fair-skinned and wiry, Grace Ritchie looks no different than the dozen other boys staying dry in the locker room on this rainy Tuesday night. But the 13-year-old is in fact an oddity on his youth soccer team.

Ritchie's a Protestant on the nearly exclusive Catholic squad Cliftonville. As he finished suiting up in white shorts and a red jersey, Ritchie explained that the mostly Protestant team he had been playing for wasn't very good. He wanted to play for a better team, even if some here might consider him an outsider.

"You just have to get on with it," he said.

While that's the case for Ritchie, the perception remains, even among the most optimistic observers, that some of the Catholics and Protestants in this city's working-class neighborhoods aren't ready to get on with it.

"You never would dream of asking," league manager Robert Johnston said of religion. "But you could surmise. What you wear -- that'll tell a story in Northern Ireland."

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and many Protestants align closely with fellow British passport holders. Catholics hold more allegiance to the Republic of Ireland, a separate country to the south. The two sociopolitical groups have long been in a violent struggle over what shape the nation's culture should take. Only recently have they worked cooperatively in government. There's arguably more people like Ritchie than ever, but there are still tensions beneath Belfast's chilly air.

The Protestant population of Belfast fell below 50 percent for the first time in December. With higher birth rates and a younger population, the Catholic population is rising and on pace to become the new majority. For Protestants already feeling left behind in a weak economy, the future looks even bleaker.

A decision by the Catholic-leaning Belfast City Council to cut the number of days that the United Kingdom's flag would fly atop city hall's copper-coated dome set off several weeks of demonstrations by Protestants who felt their symbol was becoming less significant. The protests rattled the nerves of many Belfastians.

"What we have is an uneasy peace," said Michael Cockroft, whose son was taking on Ritchie and Cliftonville. "This is the only way to move on -- to have this generation removed from the troubles."

Cockroft's son, Jonathan, is on the under-13 all-star team from the South Belfast Youth Football League. For the multi-cultural squad, the most vexing debates are over whether the team's bonding activity should be bowling, going to movies, or playing paintball. Just six of the 20 players on the team come from single-religion communities.

Still, Cockroft, a Protestant, told his son to be mindful of what professional jerseys he wore to practice because members of each religious group tend to support only a particular team.

On youth soccer pitches, the desire to stamp out religion brings about a policy of "don't ask, don't tell" even though names, addresses, and choice of clothing provide silent signs of affiliation.

"You never would dream of asking," league manager Robert Johnston said of religion. "But you could surmise. What you wear -- that'll tell a story in Northern Ireland."

However, many parents try to keep religion in the background of their children's lives.

One of South Belfast's players, Ryan Woods, earned a couple of looks when he sported a Northern Ireland jersey. Coming from a Protestant area, he was surprised to find Catholics preferred the Irish national team over the Northern Irish one.

His mom said he's been asking more and more questions about religion in light of both the flag protests and his new experiences on this team.

"You try your best to answer them, but sometimes it's hard for even me to understand what's happening," Gillian Woods said. "They find it all strange."

Fellow parent, James McAleenan, said the children are on this team to play soccer and nothing else.

"If kids are talking about religion at 13 years old, it's not them that's really talking," he said.

Paul Macguire's son, Matthew, is on the South Belfast squad, too. They live in a mixed-religion area, which has exposed his son to name-calling. Macguire said children have called his son a Taig, a derogatory term for a Catholic.

Presented by

Paresh Dave is a journalist based in Los Angeles.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

Just In