Sports | Politics in the pool

A Daily writer talks with his father about water polo, the Troubles, and solidarity through sports

When Brian Murphy’s water polo team booked practice time in the Grove Leisure Centre, they needed IRA protection. This is not a typical amateur sporting experience, and Belfast is not a typical city. But this was reality for Murphy, my father – or “Da” to me – a lifelong amateur water polo player and coach in Belfast.

“Water polo was very popular in Belfast in the sixties,” my dad recalled, “partly because there were a lot of [public pools] in working class areas, and people used them. But when the Troubles started, there was basically nothing.”

The Troubles are what the people of the north of Ireland call the 40 year violent conflict involving Catholic and Protestant communities in the province, the British Army, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). At the height of the conflict, the British Army had as many as 25,000 troops stationed in Northern Ireland, Britain’s largest troop deployment since World War II (major hostilities have since ended after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement).

Like most other sports in the city, water polo is organized on a club basis. Belfast sporting clubs draw their players and supporters from either the Catholic community or the Protestant community, but rarely both. As with almost every facet of seventies and eighties Belfast society, sports were (and still are to some extent) heavily divided. Da told me “Soccer would have allowed for that type of [community] interaction, but the leagues were kept separate at the time. It was peculiarly divided, but water polo was the one game that wasn’t.”

Cathal Brugha (CAH-hull BROO-uh), my father’s club, is based in the Lower Falls Road district in the heart of Republican west Belfast, a centre of the IRA’s support base. In the seventies Belfast was one of the most lawless places in Western Europe, with sustained urban guerrilla warfare and a state structure with little to no control over its population. “In [the early seventies], there were no street lights – the street lights were all shot out. After dark there was nobody about. This was around the time of ‘no-go’ areas,” Da told me. No-go areas were entire sections of Belfast and especially the Falls Road that were under the complete control of Provisional IRA militants.

“There were no buses running on the Falls Road at this time, so you had to walk [downtown] and get a bus back to North Belfast from there.”

The violence that surrounded people living in the city was never far from their minds. “Everybody was a news junkie. In that early period of the Troubles, everybody had short wave or long wave radio and you tuned the radio in to the [British] Army frequencies, just to hear what was going on, and everybody did that. You informed yourself from various sources so that you could form an opinion about what was the actual truth behind what was happening in the papers.”

Because of the nature of the Troubles, when you were on the Falls Road you were never far from someone directly involved in the conflict in one way or another. During one period of particularly heightened tension and violence, Brugha had scheduled a practice in a heavily Protestant working class area. Da recalls having IRA protection at the pool: “I can remember him patrolling up and down the pool, and I can remember organizing all our exercises to be facing towards the door, because we really were sitting ducks in the water, and if somebody had’ve burst in through the doors, you would’ve been caught.”

At an earlier period in the seventies, Da even lost some game time to IRA fugitives hiding out south of the border. “The first time I went down to the Falls Road for the drive to Dundalk [a town in the Irish Republic, south of Belfast]…I was working out the numbers and figuring ‘I’ll get playing time.’ And then when we arrived in Dundalk these two boys appeared and played the match instead of me. I didn’t know who they were, nothing was said about it. The next week we went down, there was a massive police presence at the pool and I got my chance to play.”

This close connection to the politics and the violence allowed for a peculiar Belfast-style respect and credibility to develop for my father, who came from a middle class area of North Belfast. “[Water polo] allowed me to be part of the real life on the Falls Road. For a middle class kid, that would have been extremely unusual…it allowed me to be closely connected with people based [on the Falls], and who were in the midst of the Troubles…I was lucky in that my father was prepared to take a chance. He promoted my involvement, because he himself was from the Falls.”

When Da stopped playing in the nineties, he moved into coaching the club. After a number of successful seasons, he was asked to coach the Northern Ireland water polo team at the Commonwealth Games. The Games’ participants are member nations of the British Commonwealth, essentially the skeleton of the former British Empire. Acknowledging the existence of the Northern Irish state or admitting subjugation under the British crown staunchly conflicts with typical Republican ideology. Sarcastically referred to as the “Empire Games” by members of the Brugha community, Da received some playful slagging (“teasing,” in Belfast) over the decision to coach the team. “I did agonize about it, I had difficulties with the concept.”

A big break, however, came a few years ago when Da was asked to coach the Irish national squad, made up of players from both north and south of the border. One particularly important experience for Da was coaching against the Basque autonomous region of northern Spain. The political situation in the Basque Country, having gone through a history of violence and guerrilla warfare of its own, has quite a few parallels with that of Northern Ireland. These parallels are so strong that Father Alec Reid, a Belfast priest who facilitated many of the talks leading to the North’s current peace, traveled to the Basque country to assist in their negotiations. “I had previously gone into the Sinn Fein centre and gotten Basque and Irish pins to bring over” my dad told me. “I knew Alec Reid was over there working on their peace process to try and replicate what we had here. A veteran referee told me that the hospitality given to us by the Basques was the best he had ever seen. The feeling of solidarity was very strong.”

Another high point for my Dad’s water polo career came after the nation of Montenegro passed a referendum to split from Serbia. Montenegro, “an epicentre of water polo,” was relegated to the lower leagues and again had to climb the ladder of international competition. The Irish team was invited out to the newly formed country to compete against one of the best squads in the world.

Montenegro, too, stirred up memories of the seventies for my father. The Balkan wars of the nineties had left the whole region devastated. “There were definitely echoes of 1970s Belfast. When you walked into a café, everybody stopped talking and looked at you.”

For my father, coaching players from West Belfast and from around Ireland in one of water polo’s capitals was the ultimate honour – Montenegro represented a long way, geographically and emotionally, from his start on the Falls Road. My father reflected on his time in the seventies: “Kids today don’t have the same freedom that we had, even in the seventies in Belfast [laughs]. We were outside all of the other mainstream structures; there were just ad-hoc structures that you made up as you went along. [Cathal Brugha] was quite a strong community of freedom-loving people in Belfast. And it is still extremely important in looking after kids here.”

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