Hockey and Habitus: Sport and National Identity in Northern Ireland

Katie/K Liston, Elizabeth/E Moreland

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the official program of the 2005 European Hockey Nations' Championship held in Dublin, Lynsey McVicker, the captain of the Irish women's hockey team noted that, "When you are from Northern Ireland, sometimes you experience a confusion of identity—we're not quite the same as those from the Republic of Ireland. British or Irish? In a sense we [are] outsiders looking in." 1 Her comment highlights one dimension of a more complex social phenomenon: the question of national habitus, or what the pioneering sociologist Norbert Elias called those "traits of national group identity—what we call the 'national character'—[that] are a layer of social habitus built very deeply and firmly into the personality structure of the individual."
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)127-140
JournalNew Hibernia Review
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 2009

Bibliographical note

Reference text: Flack, European Hockey Federation (7th European Hockey Nations Championships ,2005), p.29.
Norbert Elias, The Society of Individuals (Edited by Michael Schröter and Translated by Edmund Jephcott, London: Continuum, 2001), p.209.

See, for example, John Sugden and Alan Bairner, Sport, Sectarianism, and Society in a Divided Ireland (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993); Alan Bairner (ed.), Sport and the Irish: Histories, Identities, Issues (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2005); Joseph Maguire and Jason Tuck, ‘A world in union’?: rugby, globalisation and Irish identity’, Power and Global Sport: Zones of Prestige, Emulation and Resistance (London: Routledge, 2005), p.109-130; Jonathan Magee, ‘Football Supporters, rivalry and Protestant fragmentation in Northern Ireland’, Sport and the Irish (Bairner, Dublin: University College Dublin Press), p.172-190.

See, for example, Rosemary Sales, Women Divided: Gender, Religion and Politics in Northern Ireland (London: Routledge, 1997); Pat O’Connor, Emerging Voices: Women in Contemporary Irish Society (Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 1998); Anne Byrne and Madeline Leonard (eds.) Women and Irish Society: A Sociological Reader (Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications, 1997).
David Hassan, ‘Sport, Identity and the People of the Irish Borderlands’, New Hibernia Review (2006), 10 (2), p.27.

Alan Bairner, ‘Political Unionism and Sporting Nationalism: An examination of the relationship between sport and national identity within the Ulster Unionist tradition’, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. (2003), 10: 517-535.
Hilary Tovey and Perry Share, A Sociology of Ireland, (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2003), p.330.
There have been some high profile cases in which Northern Irish players have chosen one jurisdiction above another. The recent Darron Gibson is a case in point in soccer. Northern Irish hockey players have competed for Great Britain in the Olympics, see for example, Jimmy Kirkwood and Stephen Martin in Seoul 1988, while female hockey players have represented Ireland in European competition and, controversially, Great Britain in the Olympics, see for example, Violet McBride and Jenny Redpath.
See, for example, Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism: New Perspectives on the Past (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London, Verso, 1991).
Stephen Mennell, ‘The Formation of We-Images: A Process Theory’, Social Theory and the Politics of Identity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), p.175-197.
Norbert Elias, The Germans: Power Struggles and the Development of Habitus in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
Norbert Elias, The Society of Individuals (London: Continuum, 2001), p.183.
Norbert Elias, The Society of Individuals, p.182.
Norbert Elias, The Society of Individuals, p.183.
Semi-structured interviews were utilised as the sole research method because they permitted a level of flexibility that corresponds with the complexity of social life. They also permitted some flexibility in collecting data as the semi-structured form of interviewing is designed to enable a flexible structure and the opportunity to probe unexpected or serendipitous themes which can, and usually do, arise using this method. Interviews were conducted in a pre-booked room where possible, or, if not, at a mutually agreed location. All ten interviews lasted between 45 and 75 minutes and these were recorded and transcribed. Pseudonyms have been used throughout this discussion to protect participants’ anonymity because some interviewees requested this expressly due to their ambivalence about Irish nationalism and its expression in sport. Indeed, for most of the interviewees, the position of the ‘outsider looking in’ was fraught with complexities by virtue of their participation in the Irish national team and the ambivalence of the English in general towards Northern Ireland. The timescale of the research is also withheld to enforce anonymity as much as is possible.

At the University of Iowa in the 1960s, the Iowa School also developed interesting studies of this question using the ‘Who am I?’questionnaire. They studied what happened to people's self-conceptions when they went to university, got jailed, lost their virginity, or underwent other life-enhancing experiences.
See, for example, Eric Dunning and Ken Sheard, ‘The Rugby Football Club as a Type of Male Preserve’, International Review of Sport Sociology (1973), 5: p.5-24; Elizabeth Wheatley, ‘Subcultural Subversions: Comparing Discourses on Sexuality in Men’s and Women’s Rugby Songs’, Women, Sport and Culture (Champaign, Il.: Human Kinetics, 1993), p.193-212.
In Northern Ireland, the forceful imposition of a peace process on the two communities has resulted in a balance of power between the two groups that is not necessarily moving towards harmonious equality as politicians would wish the public to believe. Rather, there is evidence to suggest that the double bind spiral in which Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists find themselves is becoming more tightly bound. In other words, coming closer together has brought about a differing kind of resistance and relations between these groups could be said to be moving from harmonious inequality towards one of inharmonious equality. Thus, the harmonious inequality forced upon the two segregated communities in Northern Ireland appears to have compounded this habitus problem further because of, or equally as a result of, attempts to bring about peace and a devolved government.
Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd, p.59.
Joseph Maguire and Jason Tuck, p.119; Alan Bairner, ‘Political Unionism and Sporting Nationalism’, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power (2003) 10: 517-535.
Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: The History of Manners and State Formation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), p.xliii.
Norbert Elias, The Society of Individuals, p.182.


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