A New Season
My first training session with the East Belfast ladies Gaelic football team was on July 13th, 2020. In the north of Ireland, the 12th of July is a day of celebration in loyalist communities; it’s a day to commemorate the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, history being everywhere present, everywhere alive in the north. The holiday having fallen on a Sunday this year, the celebrations were—for religious reasons—taking place on Monday 13th instead. And so that morning I was awoken by the sound of drums beyond the boundary of my district, as Orangemen marched along the roads, and when I left the district to cycle to training, the shops and houses that lined my route were festooned with Union flags and Loyal Orange Lodge flags and window signs reading ‘Loyalists Under Lockdown’. The kerbstones had been freshly painted: red, white, and blue.
Each year before the 12th, in some loyalist areas, huge, towering bonfires are constructed from wooden pallets and set on fire; and so the smell of smoke was still hanging in the air, some detritus still smouldering, as I peddled for miles, away from the centre of town and out south towards the suburbs, past Chinese restaurants and hairdressers and the furniture superstore, past the derelict pub with three red hands of Ulster nailed to its façade, rust bleeding from them, stigmata. I was headed towards the Henry Jones Memorial Playing Fields, the temporary, adopted home of the East Belfast Gaelic Athletic Club. My legs protested as I began the final climb to the grounds, up a narrow road with no footpath. I reached the top of the hill, stood before the fields, and looked back towards the basin of the city. From up there, you can see most all of it: the rows of tower blocks; the bright yellow pop of the shipyard cranes; the glinting dome of the Victoria Square shopping centre; the SSE arena; the whole sweep of Belfast Lough; the wind turbines on the faraway hills; our grand-looking assembly building. The threshold of the playing fields: a democratic vista.
The last Gaelic Athletic Association Club in East Belfast closed down fifty years ago. I heard a documentary about it once on the car radio: ‘The Death of a Dream Team’. I didn’t remember much of it: just that there had been a Gaelic football club in the area once, a ‘nationalist sport’ in a predominantly unionist part of the city, and that it had been forced to disband as sectarian conflict escalated in the early 1970s. In July 2020, I went looking for it online, found it on the BBC website, played it back. I lay down on my bed in a house in the east of the city with my laptop on my stomach and listened as the sky turned navy against the row of terraced houses outside. The producer and presenter, Kevin Magee, spoke about how St. Colmcille’s Ballyhackamore had started life, in its first incarnation, in the 1940s, before it really took off in the 1960s. (What must the area have been like then, I wondered, straight after the war, with the city still reeling from the Blitz? Before Van Morrison was singing about ‘Cyprus Avenue’, before the Sunday Times was calling it the ‘Brunch Capital of Belfast’, before the area was even subsumed into the city proper?)
The St. Colmcille’s team, at that time, didn’t have their own pitch. They moved around. The goalposts on a Gaelic pitch are closer in design to those used for rugby than those used for soccer, but soccer goalposts being all that were available, the team travelled with their own wooden lathes to attach to these posts before every match. Because only a few players had cars, they all had to club together for lifts to matches every Sunday. Eventually, in the late-1960s, the team scored their own pitch—their own posts—at Dundonald, and their own sky-blue kit. Things looked promising. Yet, at the same moment, the political situation in Belfast, and in the north of Ireland in general, was deteriorating. It was the beginning of the Troubles. Charlie O’Donnell, a former St. Colmcille’s player, talked on the radio programme about the absurdity of the situation: ‘I remember us assembling for a match on a Monday night, just a couple of nights after the Troubles had broken out, in August 1969. There was smoke in the background. Bombay Street was burning down, and we were gathering up to go to a football match.’ You could hear the disbelief in his voice. A flashpoint in a city that was lighting up with flashpoints, the riots just beginning.
The presenter recounted how, as the violence escalated, the map of Belfast was redrawn along sectarian lines. People moved out of their homes; more people were burnt out of their homes. St. Colmcille’s became a target. The goalposts were cut down with an electric saw, ‘a real professional job’. Armed men started arriving at the pitch, an intimidation tactic. The pub the team drank in was blown up. Players were shot at, their homes petrol-bombed. O’Donnell’s father was killed. A former player was killed. Most team members left for other parts of the city, and the club disintegrated. The Troubles, as we now know, would drag on for another thirty years, ending with a protracted peace process that culminated, in the late 1990s, with major paramilitary groups agreeing to ceasefires, and in 1998 (five years after I was born) with the Good Friday Agreement, often invoked as the ‘endpoint’ of the conflict. But the conflict has shaped today’s society in ways large and small, its legacy everywhere apparent: from the ‘peace walls’ that stay standing, dividing communities, to continued segregation in housing, schooling, and sport.
By the time I arrived at Henry Jones that Monday evening to meet the other new recruits, the club had been running for two weeks already, set up by Dave McGreevy. He was a long-time GAA player who had recently moved home after spending years working and playing football in London, and wanted to set up a cross-community club in his new area, where there had not been one for decades. He tweeted about it, and it took off. I had surprised myself by emailing to ask if I could join. The nationwide lockdown in response to Coronavirus trundled on: I had all but finished my studies for the year, I was furloughed from my part-time ushering job, I was living alone for the first time—I guess I was bored. Curious, too. But it wasn’t necessarily surprising that someone from my background would play Gaelic football. I had grown up just outside a predominantly nationalist town; the area of East Belfast where I now lived was widely known as a nationalist enclave.
Plenty of the people I grew up with were involved with the GAA; along with the Catholic Church, the association had offered a cultural backdrop to my early life. The all-girls convent school I attended fielded league teams in ladies’ football and camogie, while in our brother-school men’s football and hurling were valorised. Nonetheless, my instinctive response to the sport had always been cultural cringe. It is also true, indeed something of an understatement, to say that I had never been particularly athletic. I thought rarely of the GAA, and when I did, I thought of it defensively and dumbly and condescendingly as a place for girls more popular than me, and casual sexism, and unreconstructed nationalism. Gaelic football belonged to a world that also included parish hall discos and pre-formals in dingy small-town bars, the trappings of early 2000s rural life in the north of Ireland. The sport aroused in me only heavy boredom. My spirit of inquiry was, I suppose, lacking.
All throughout those years, I dreamed about moving away for university, living someplace where the people had never even heard of the GAA. In the event, I moved to Belfast, an hour’s drive away from the place I grew up. It grew on me. And something about this new East Belfast club appealed. At twenty-six, with next to no experience and a fitness level unlikely to inspire fear in the heart of anyone marking me, it would be practically impossible to join an established club—any club, really, apart from a fledgling endeavour like this one. At East Belfast GAC, inexperience would almost be an asset: the whole point of the club, after all, was to introduce the Gaelic games to a new audience. A return email told me to come along, and so I went to the O’Neill’s store in City Centre, bought a Down county jersey in a bid to fit in, and anticipated my first training session. When I told a friend I had joined the club, they laughed: to do what?
By mid-July 2020, East Belfast GAC had become one of the biggest clubs in Ireland, or so I heard. The response had exceeded Dave McGreevy’s expectations, and then some. Linda Ervine, a prominent unionist Irish-language activist and cross-community worker, had come onboard as club president. Hundreds of people had come from around the county, and from outside it, to play football, hurling, and camogie. That first night at training, around thirty women were there. The youngest were teenagers, the oldest might have been in their mid-forties. Some had played for school teams and town teams and even county teams. Some had never played at all, just as I had never played the sports they had grown up with. And these women came from all over: some, like me, were from the country and had moved to the city for university or work, some drove to training from other towns, just glad of the chance to try out for a new team, some had moved to Belfast from other countries. Many were wearing their county jerseys: Armagh, Tyrone, Dublin, Wexford, Antrim, and so the line-up was a rainbow of affiliations.
I was five minutes early, through the gates and through the car park and onto the vast expanse of the playing fields: as big a clear open space as I’d ever seen in Belfast. It sprawled out for acres. Small groups of people had already started to form around the edge of the field when the coach came bounding onto the pitch and instructed everyone to come together, and so I followed a few paces behind the rest, loitering on the edge of the huddle. Companionable chatter filled the circle: whose football boots had just arrived, how the day’s work had been, what had happened over the weekend. I didn’t recognise anyone, a rarity in any random group in which you might find yourself in Belfast. I thought about chipping in, asking how the first few weeks of training had gone, but instead I just looked around and smiled awkwardly when I made eye contact with anyone and mostly studied my trainers. Then the coach began to speak. I estimated he was in his late forties or maybe early fifties, a slim man in tracksuit bottoms and a fleece wearing square-framed glasses. He spoke about how great it was to see so many new faces, made the seven new attendees introduce ourselves—I forgot everyone else’s names as soon as they had been uttered—and then spoke about the club’s first fixtures, how everyone should be looking forward to our first match that Saturday, when we would all get a go on a real pitch. Our first match that Saturday was news to me.
The coach was from up the country; he had a good way with him, and there was something oddly comforting about the lilt of his speech. The register, too. It was as if he was performing lines from a script that I had once been familiar with but hadn’t read in several years. He’d been a commentator on the television some time ago, someone later told me, and retrospectively that made a good deal of sense. He had a knack for the dramatic, and I recall him ending that first huddle by marvelling that East Belfast finally had its own Gaelic Athletic Club, that we were all here training together ‘on today of all days’. We broke up for some drills then, high knees and star jumps and that kind of thing, raising the heart rate before we got ‘a hand on the ball’. When the allocated time came for getting a hand on the ball, I merely ran around a small patch of the field that had been marked off with plastic cones, playing piggy-in-the-middle as two others louchely passed the ball between themselves; jumping with my arms splayed and failing to get a hand on anything other than the grass as I came crashing down again. Gaspingly, I tried to engage in conversation as they asked me my name, where I was from, if I’d ever played before. And so it went on: cycling through drills, rotating our groups. A host of new faces, new names to learn.
At some point I was handed a blue bib, reminiscent of school games classes, and everyone there was split into two teams for a practice match, fifteen aside. I wracked my memory for the basics, too embarrassed to ask anyone what the rules were. What I remembered: once you’ve caught the ball, you’re allowed four steps (‘God’s gift to the Gaelic footballer is four free steps’ was the coach’s favoured refrain in later sessions). You can pass it on, then, kick it or handpass it or take a try at the net if you’re close enough, one point if you knock it over the crossbar and three if you can get it into the goal. The only other options you have are to bounce it or solo it—an on-the-go toe tap—and keep running, weaving between members of the opposing side, finding help. There are finer points, and I would learn them in the weeks that followed, but for now this was it: catch the ball and keep it moving.
The coach stood in the middle of the ‘pitch’, a rectangular area in the middle of the field demarcated by cones, and threw the ball into the air. We’d been milling about, chatting, but as the ball rose from the coach’s hands, up into the clean, bright sky, everything shifted. Players broke loose from their markers and sprinted in every direction, some towards the ball, some to the outer wings of the pitch, thinking a move ahead, poised to intercept a pass. I froze, my mind racing, my marker’s arm thrust across my chest in case I tried to run, a blockade. My contribution was negligible; I focused my attention on making sure I wasn’t a hindrance, avoiding anyone who looked like they knew what they were doing, jogging backwards as they approached. I just had to stay out of everyone’s way until the whistle blew. One kick of the ball I managed to catch, beginner’s luck, hand-passing it on—getting rid of it—before taking a single step. But mostly, I hung back, making little effort to involve myself in actual gameplay, watching the match from my vantage point on the pitch as though I were on the side-lines; watching my teammates get to know each other, warm up to each other, figure out who they could rely on to catch the ball. I was a block of ice, rigid, but some of these players moved like water. When enough of them came together on the pitch, it was like tributaries joining to form a river: unstoppable.
Two days after my first training session I went back to Henry Jones, and three days after that I played for East Belfast Ladies in the team’s first match, against Saval’s ladies’ team at their home pitch, just outside Newry. Later, with attendance increasing, players would be divided into A and B teams, siphoned off according to who already had a good grasp of the game and who needed to hash out the basics. But for that first match, the coach wanted everyone to ‘get some game time’. He spent the preceding days hyping it up; the phrase ‘making history’ was used more than once. He wasn’t concerned with the result. The true measure of success for this club, he said, would be how many of us were still coming to training in a year’s time. I’d nearly pulled out of the match, citing my continued lack of football boots as an excuse, but a teammate with whom I’d exchanged only a few sentences at training volunteered to lend me a spare pair.
I got a lift to Saval with two women from the team who’d offered it in the WhatsApp group into which I’d recently been added, hurrying out of my house in shorts and my county shirt. The two already knew each other, had met at Henry Jones, and they were chatting away as we drove out of the city, red brick terraces and tower blocks replaced by estates with big gardens and, finally, wide open fields. They asked me a few questions. I found out I’d gone to the same school as the driver, we knew some of the same people. Small world, I said, at a loss for much else to say. We pulled up to what would be the first in a series of small club houses that I encountered that season, a blur of mobile huts and pebble-dash walls and corrugated iron roofs, club house bars that doubled as drinking spots for everyone within a five-mile radius, places where everyone knew everyone.
The Saval team were already congregating, sipping from their water bottles and eyeing us up as we stepped out of our cars, sat on our car hoods to kick off our trainers and put on our boots. They were all kitted up. Not a single one of them looked a day over eighteen. And they all looked like they’d been bred to run the length of a pitch, to put a football into the back of a net. Our coach arrived and began his pep talk, speaking about ‘using the space’, ‘playing clever’, ‘getting out ahead’, and other concepts I nodded along to seriously and pretended to understand. He threw out jerseys for us to change into. These were the jerseys for the men’s team. They’d arrived only a few days before, for the men to play in the previous night, and were the only jerseys the club had, so they’d been repurposed. Someone beside me murmured, ‘I hope these have been through a washing machine’, and was met with no clarification.
I caught one and examined the crest, printed on in black and yellow: a shamrock, a thistle, and the red hand of Ulster along the top, a wave along the bottom. And behind the wave, the sun rising, and framing the sun Belfast’s famous shipyard cranes, visible pretty much anywhere in the east. (The symbol of these cranes, Sansom and Goliath, is an ambivalent one. They are a fixture of the Harland and Wolff shipyard the company perhaps best known for building the Titanic, although the cranes postdate the ship by some decades, erected in 1969 [Goliath] and 1974 [Sansom] a shipyard well-known for its long-standing exclusion of Catholic workers. In the twenty-first century, shipbuilding has ceased in Belfast, but the iconic cranes still stand; they have been recognised by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency as structures of ‘architectural or historic interest’ and have become a tourist attraction, their image reproduced liberally on novelty gear in the city’s souvenir shops. They represent, then, a city in transition: the decline of industry, and the recent push from those in power to present Belfast as a tourist destination.) East Belfast GAA, the jersey read, and then, in English, Irish, and Ulster Scots, ‘Together. Le Chéile. Thegither.’ A friend the coach had brought along snapped a photo of the huddle: some thirty of us standing in a circle, the captain in the middle, and behind us the looming goal, and beyond it the drumlins of Saval stretching out to the horizon.
I’d be playing the second half, corner forward position, the coach called over to me. Kicking the ball, I’d discovered at my second training session, was about all I was good for, so long as the ball was pretty much hand-delivered to me. When it came to it, the ball came shuttling in my direction only once, and when it did, I dropped it. We were outpaced, outmatched. The point was not to be competitive, not yet, but to learn through doing. There was only so much you could learn at training sessions, the coach had told us. You had to be out there playing matches to really get it, to start picking it up. We lost badly: I don’t remember the score. I do remember that someone affiliated with the opposition had the good grace to turn off the L.E.D. board that was broadcasting our impressive defeat to everyone in the vicinity. No one cared about the score though, or if they did, they didn’t convey that sense. It was enough to have been on a real pitch, to have had an opposing team to play against. The first of many matches, the first of many defeats—the start of something.
I knew I wanted to write about East Belfast GAC before I attended that first session. It was, in part, that desire that made me go in the first place; helped me to overcome my reluctance to embarrass myself in front of a large group of perfect strangers. I was going in service of some greater purpose. It didn’t matter how terrible I was at playing; my participation was merely the condition on which the story was predicated. It kept me going back, at least at first. But then something changed. I persisted in being a laughably poor player, but I started getting annoyed with myself when I dropped the ball or missed a training session; started going back to the newly reopened gym. Just as the shock of lockdown had given way to routine, so too did the novelty of football wear off until it became simply a fixture in the week, even when I went back to work in the cinema and had to try and organise my shifts around training.
The route to Henry Jones became a familiar one. I’d leave home and peddle down the Castlereagh Road as fast as I could, trying to beat the Metro buses going in the same direction, usually empty save for one or two passengers wearing facemasks. I started training for the B team, started to learn some elements of technique: how to lean low over the ball when picking it up off the ground, so no one could swoop in; how to make a triangle with my index fingers and thumbs when jumping to catch the ball, so I didn’t drop it; how to solo by aiming the ball at the laces of my shoes, so it didn’t go spinning off; how to hand-pass with the heel of the palm, keeping the fingers open to aid direction. These instructions became a constant, internal commentary as we ran drill after drill, at practice after practice. I bought a size four ball and took it home, hand-passing it off the wall and letting it bounce back into my chest, alone in the house, gently toe-tapping it while I watched TV or waited for something cooking in the oven. And as I brushed my teeth or brewed tea or watered the plants, I’d count under my breath: 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4, a quiet new metronome, a new tick.
The whole group was getting better, more confident. The players got faster, sharper, learnt how to move. We met up, a couple of times, at bars in the south and east of the city. We met other players, other members of the club. Other teams, too, at matches in Magheralin, Warrenpoint, Carryduff, driving through a string of little towns, navigating unfamiliar roads, discovering the geographies of County Down. We got to recognise their different approaches, met referees and managers and eager parents. At our own club, the first coach left; new coaches joined. I looked forward to seeing the other players, those former strangers, on Mondays and Wednesdays and sometimes Saturdays and Sundays, to their easy talk and sharp wit. I suppose I had become part of a team, or at least was suddenly interested in being part of one. The realisation startled me, but I also wondered if that wasn’t the reason why I had signed up in the first place.
The summer rolled on, close and slow, and the news was always bad, and there was no reprieve in sight. The threat of illness loomed, ever present, and the club’s activities could be suspended at any moment. Before every training session, every player had to update their online health record through the GAA’s official site: Do you believe that you may currently have Covid-19? Have you had any of the following symptoms of Covid-19 in the past 14 days: high temperature? A new continuous cough? New unexplained shortness of breath? Loss of sense of smell, of taste or distortion of taste? After every training session the cones and balls were wiped down with disinfectant. Most of us, I believe, felt a heightened sense of our own fragility, in those days. But paradoxically, at a time when public health messaging placed an emphasis on keeping a distance from others, Gaelic football helped me to feel that fragility less acutely. It wasn’t that I was ignoring my own body, its weaknesses. In fact, I was paying more attention to it than I had ever paid to it before. And I was coming to realise its strengths as well. Amazing, that you could practice running and actually get better at it, that you could learn a new technique through repetition. Amazing, what a body could do.
We were fragile and other things were fragile too. There was a world outside the club, and not everyone in East Belfast supported the endeavour. In the background, on the news, arguments about Britain’s exit from the EU rumbled on. The possible ramifications of the Ireland protocol, a trade border in the Irish sea, were discussed at length. Was the United Kingdom on the brink? Was a United Ireland an inevitability? In August, one evening as the ladies’ team was packing up and heading home after training, the men’s team still on the pitch, the PSNI received a call letting them know that explosive devices had been left at Henry Jones. The men’s team were sent home. No one was hurt. The police got involved, did a sweep. The club announced the venue would be changed for all subsequent training sessions. A 54-year-old man was later arrested on suspicion of making and possessing explosives. The Irish News reported that he had been ‘posting on numerous social media platforms appealing for loyalists to show up in numbers to prevent the team from training at the Henry Jones playing fields’. But these protests never got off the ground, and so he had taken matters into his own hands. What is there to say about this without sounding either overly dramatic or overly flippant? We’d spoken about it as we warmed up for our next training session—could you credit it, and didn’t he have anything better to be at—and then that was that, training started.
What did I think I would write about the club, before I went? Did I think it would be, God forbid, emblematic of something? Some bright new moment of optimism, the grievances of the past forgotten, all things on the up? Did I think we would spend our warmups talking about the Good Friday Agreement or what it felt like to be part of the ‘post-peace process generation’? Even at the beginning, I don’t think this is quite what I’d anticipated (that might have been, as a friend put it, all a bit kumbaya). Nonetheless, it was true that something drew me there. I could, after all, have taken up a different sport, written about a different team, but this one also constituted a burgeoning social experiment. Yet, as I soon learned, if the club was intended to be like East Belfast in microcosm, like any attempt to explain that place—to find one convenient narrative cut to fit it—attempts to generalise about the club would be doomed to failure. In the end, we spoke about what anyone would speak about: what we were studying or working at, what we were doing after training, what was for dinner, what was on TV, the friends we shared. It is true, I suppose, that the simple fact of our being there made clear that we had bought into the club’s shining ideal, to some extent: that pluralistic vision of a society unencumbered by the old divisions, people from different backgrounds brought together by a common purpose, working towards a common goal. But really, in the end, at the heart of it all, the main thing was the game. The main thing was the moment, the ball suspended in the air, that was given over to the choreography of bone and muscle and sinew, all working toward one deliberate end—a desperate, impossible, reaching out—a moment that itself seemed suspended, somehow, a moment caught in amber.
They must have had this feeling too, that last East Belfast team, St Colmcille’s. Perhaps that feeling is the only reason people play sports at all. Few photographs of the team exist, or exist online at least. The only one I can find is a grainy black and white image from the 1970s, the beginning of the end. They’re all lined out on the pitch—their pitch, maybe—seventeen players, and a few men in suits on the edges. They’re wearing white shorts and uniform collared jerseys. The jerseys are a light colour. It’s hard to tell, the image being black and white, of course, but I’d wager they’re St. Colmcille’s sky-blue. What happens when the amber shatters? Where did those men go, when they left? They leave and then the club dies, is that it? Or does a club continue to mean something, to live on in some way, in those people who once made it up?
When our coach’s anticipated milestone, the one-year mark, rolled around, I wasn’t there to see it. I had left as well: the team, the city, the country. I was using the newly downloaded City Mapper app on my phone to navigate my way from Holborn to London Bridge, going to meet a friend for a drink after work. I had moved to London three days beforehand, to discover what people have been discovering since long before I was born: that longed-for site of liberation from whatever-it-is (from your country’s dismal politics, from no jobs, from some rut you’ve worked yourself into, from some version of yourself) can be its own grind. When the leaving came, it came with excitement, but it came with sadness too, a heartbreak of a kind. On the bed in my new room lay my suitcase, it and a rucksack all I’d brought over, and a bubble-wrapped framed print a friend had gifted me: Song Waltz: Along the Shores of County Down.
It had been the weekend of the Euros Final, soccer—England v. Italy—and that Sunday evening it seemed to be playing on every screen in the city. It was, as several people told me, England’s first appearance in a European championship final, in fact their first appearance at a major international tournament final since the 1966 World Cup. All day as I’d walked around, trying to get my bearings, I’d been met with throngs of fans, faces painted, draped in flags, sporting novelty hats¾it was not as if I’d never seen such symbols in Belfast, but here they seemed transformed by context. Things were opening up again. Spirits were high. In a moment I would not have believed if I’d read a tweet about it, a kid of maybe ten or eleven, walking down the street with his friend (both in full kit), stopped me to ask: ‘Is it coming home tonight?’ It was like something you might see on a Hovis advert. ‘Yes’, I said, stunned. And then the streets started to empty. I’d strayed far from my flat; I hailed a cab. It was quiet, the driver told me, because everyone was moving indoors to watch the match.
I would watch with my new flatmate and her friend, the living room windows open onto the balmy July night, and in the tower blocks across the road it would be playing on hundreds of TVs—outside everything was still—and in the pub below our flat it was playing too; every time a goal was scored or missed there would be an eruption of cheers or boos from the patrons. When the penalty shoot-out was being lined up, there was no sound at all. The pubs would be playing it in Belfast too, I knew, and some of my teammates would go and watch it, maybe, and tomorrow they would have training. My friends would be in the bars, or possibly in each other’s living rooms, watching it as well. But to watch this match in Belfast would be a different experience altogether. For one thing, it would have an edge that it did not have here. Among those who were watching, there would be no neutrality. Those who weren’t supporting England would be doing so vocally; those who were supporting England would be just as vocal. Ambivalence would be read as a stance in itself.
There was something else as well, though, something deeper. People might disagree, but they had things in common too, a kind of sensibility. When I thought of Belfast, I thought of community. Not that buzzword of reporters, the two communities, the other community, but community as I had experienced it. I thought of watching the Euro semi-final with friends on my last night in Belfast, in the alley out the back of Lavery’s, crowded around a picnic table and ordering Guinness and espresso martinis and chips, all the people out there shouting and laughing and booing and cheering themselves, and how I’d stayed out half the night, then, even though there was still all that packing to be done in the morning, and a house to be cleaned; how I hadn’t wanted that night to end. The things that I loved about home, the things that were fucked up about it: I found myself incapable of talking about them, in London. I didn’t know how to translate things, had never before found myself needing to translate. I had never lived in a place where I wasn’t just understood, on some level. To live in such a place can be freeing, but it can be jarring too. I felt that I had been on the inside of something, in Belfast. And in my last year there, in East Belfast, I had seen how a club could bind people together: players and coaches and supporters; families; and yes, communities, even. My attendance had fallen off as I’d prepared for the move, I’d never said a proper goodbye to my teammates. My memories of those sessions would fade, in time, but I would remember the feeling of them: something like belonging.
Here, in London, it was the inverse. I was on the outside, looking in. Surrounded by and excluded by some apparent display of unity, of patriotic fervour. The Euro final would be played, and England would lose. The mood would turn from elation to defeat. Posters would be peeled off windows, pavements would be swept down, everyone would go back to work. I would buy a bike off Facebook marketplace, and start to learn my way around the city, or some of it anyway: High Holborn and Theobald’s Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, Stoke Newington High Street and the Kingsland Road and Hackney Road, Bloomsbury Square Gardens and Russell Square and Postman’s Park. The suitcase would get unpacked, eventually, and stowed under my bed. From it, I would take clothes to hang in my new wardrobe: the office wear I’d bought in Belfast for my new job; some band t-shirts that I’d picked up over the years, from gigs in the Menagerie or the Empire or the Ulster Sports Club; my Dad’s old scarf, from when he’d graduated; and a black and yellow Gaelic football jersey, that I hung up where it is hanging still.
Tara McEvoy is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Trinity College Dublin, and in 2022 was a Ciaran Carson Writing and the City Fellow at the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen’s University Belfast. She co-founded and edits The Tangerine, a Belfast-based magazine of new writing, and her work has been published in Vogue, the Observer, Guardian, TLS, Frieze, Irish Times, Stinging Fly and Winter Papers, and is forthcoming on RTE (online). In 2019 she won the Vogue Talent Contest for Young Writers.
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