Golf, Rory McIlroy and Northern Irish Identity: Glenn Patterson

June 22 (Bloomberg) -- Last weekend was a pretty good weekend to be young in Belfast. On Saturday, the city’s new Lord Mayor, Niall O Donnghaile of Sinn Fein, hosted his first Lord Mayor’s parade. O Donnghaile is 26, the youngest person to hold the office in Belfast’s 400-year history.

On Sunday, Rory McIlroy, four years the Lord Mayor’s junior, became the youngest winner of the U.S. Open since 1923.

I have no interest in golf. The victory of another Northern Irishman, Graeme McDowell, in last year’s U.S. Open more or less passed me by. I have, though, an interest in narrative, and McIlroy’s progress to the first of his majors (for there will be many more) has, in simple story terms, been compelling. His father, who worked long hours as a barman at the Holywood Golf Club where Rory started to play, placed a bet seven years ago that his teenage son would win the British Open by 2014. (He got odds of 500-1, odds that after events at the Congressional Country Club no sane bookmaker on Earth would offer.)

Then there was that dramatic collapse on the final day of the Masters Tournament back in April. McIlroy sounded utterly convincing when he said he would learn from the experience. He did not sound as though it was the end of his world. But that’s being young for you: There will be other opportunities.

Niall O Donnghaile has already seized the opportunity of his first days as Lord Mayor to visit the Protestant Shankill Road, a significant gesture for a Sinn Fein politician. His appointment (the Lord Mayor here isn’t directly elected but rather is nominated by the victorious party in local elections) was criticized by some who complained that he wouldn’t know how things worked in our City Hall.

No Excess Baggage

“Brilliant,” wrote one commentator not renowned for her sympathy with Sinn Fein. Finally we might have a leader who wasn’t weighed down by the “excess baggage” of the past.

O Donnghaile’s electoral ward is Pottinger on the east bank of the River Lagan across from Belfast City Centre and at the start of the road that arrives five miles further on in Holywood. I am, geographically speaking, somewhere in between. Chronologically, I am O Donnghaile’s age and McIlroy’s combined, and then a few.

I didn’t go so far as to watch the Open -- it is still golf, a game played by men in slacks -- but I did follow Sunday’s final round online, shot by shot, until it seemed mathematically impossible for an implosion of Masters proportions to recur.

Lead Story

The overnight victory was the lead story on every news bulletin here on Monday morning. It was the lead story on every lunchtime bulletin and all the talk radio programs in between. The tourism minister was interviewed about the possible effects on “golf tourism” -- what with our previous staple, “Troubles tourism,” apparently in decline, and with the Titanic centenary extravaganza another year away.

I had stopped listening to the news by the time, in the late evening, the story changed to the more familiar one of rioters on the streets of east Belfast, specifically around that part of the Pottinger ward where the Protestant Newtownards Road runs up against the Catholic Short Strand. (We still, alas, refer to districts as Protestant and Catholic.) The first I knew of the trouble was when I woke in the early hours to the sound of police helicopters. In my confusion I thought it might be a U.S. Open winner being escorted home. It was my wife who reminded me that we had seen people bolting metal grilles to the windows of houses along the Short Strand “interface” as we drove from town the previous evening.

‘Community Tensions’

The implication that the violence wasn’t the spontaneous outburst of what are usually referred to as “community tensions” was borne out by the police, who laid the blame at the door of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UVF came into existence around the time that the Titanic was being launched and re-emerged in the 1960s as the most deadly of the several Protestant terrorist organizations. Like all the others, the UVF was supposed to have left the stage some time ago.

A mural celebrating the building of the Titanic can be seen in the background of many of the photographs of the rioting that began on Monday night and continued into Tuesday: East Belfast is home to the famous Harland & Wolff shipyard that built the doomed vessel. The rioters in the foreground are mostly masked, but many appear to be considerably younger than even Rory McIlroy -- younger, some of them, than our 17-year-old peace process. Although, as I never tire of saying, anything that processed can’t have a lot of good left in it.

Rory McIlroy Appears

On Tuesday evening, Rory McIlroy himself finally flew into George Best Belfast City Airport. (The airport is named for another of the city’s -- and the east’s -- sporting greats, the prodigiously talented but fatally flawed star of Manchester United and several Major League Soccer clubs.) In the photographs of McIlroy standing on the tarmac with the Open trophy you can glimpse the Harland & Wolff cranes.

As so often in Northern Ireland, it all depends on how you look at it.

To McIlroy this is the “best place in the world,” which a cynic might say is the kind of thing you can afford to think when you spend half your life away. A recent survey, however, seemed to suggest that increasing numbers share his fondness for it, with more than 50 percent of Catholics now in favor of a Northern Ireland within the U.K. over political reunification with the rest of Ireland.

Sinn Fein disputes the findings, but for what it’s worth, and even after this week’s riots, my money is on the further development of a shared sense of Northern Irishness, symbolized by the likes of McIlroy and by Niall O Donnghaile’s visit to the Shankill. And on Rory winning the British Open, of course. Just not, sadly, at 500-1.

(Glenn Patterson, a novelist, is the author, most recently, of “Once Upon a Hill: Love in Troubled Times.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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