Play Up! Play Up! And play the game! Sport and Identity in a new Ireland

Katie Liston, Joseph Maguire

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

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Building on our previous discussions of the role of sport in a new/shared Ireland and the socio-historical context of Irish-British political and sportive relations in the twentieth century, this chapter focuses on the function and position of sport in bolstering the place and sustaining the identity of Northern Ireland (NI): as a statelet and ‘country’, real and imagined. In it we consider three illustrative examples: rugby union, governed on a 32-county basis and with provincial councils; football, directed by two separate associations, north and south; and, track and field athletics, also regulated independently, in the north via a British-affiliated association, having a NI team in the Commonwealth Games (CG), but with one all-island Irish Olympic team. We demonstrate that the essentialising of sport, and the belief that it is seemingly untouched by politics and other social and ideological considerations, is both unrealistic and self-serving to those who wield this view. If there is a genuine desire for mutual understanding and reconciliation on the island then the role of sport in wider social-cultural affairs, and vice versa, needs to be carefully unpacked and done so with a critical sensitivity. Yet the prevailing mythical-magical view of sport as somehow immune from the tensions and strains within society also denies the dynamics of power, culture and control involved in people’s attempts to orientate themselves better to the complex social world of Irish-British relations. Sport is especially significant to those groups for whom NI is culturally and politically salient and perceived to be under ontological threat, some 100 years after its formation. Sport functions as both social glue and toxin and is especially likely to give expression to the diverse character of the relationships of Protestant-Unionist-Loyalists (PUL) to ideas of ‘nation’; political and sportive. In conclusion, we point to potential issues and challenges that would have to be addressed in any (re)new(ed) Ireland under a new constitutional arrangement.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBeyond Border: Northern Ireland at 100
EditorsDes Bell, Liam O'Dowd
PublisherCork University Press
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 28 Jun 2022


  • sport
  • identity
  • Northern Ireland
  • rugby
  • athletics
  • football
  • soccer
  • Commonwealth Games
  • Olympics


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