The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Football and the Fifth Commandment


Eamon Sweeney • Football Comment-Sunday Observance, Sentinel Sport,
22 July 2006

THE Irish Football Association held a specially convened meeting in Belfast recently to debate the issue of Sunday football in the Irish League. It turned out that the ban on soccer on a Sunday will remain in place as the motion fell narrowly short of the 75% required to revoke the rule.

The rule was introduced over 60 years ago in the hey-day of single party rule in Northern Ireland, backed as it was by its official church and the 'scripture strictures' that it enforced. Not that the ban applied only to soccer and Protestant people. The 'Special Powers' act ensured that the GAA in Northern Ireland were also not permitted to play their games on a Sunday, and the law also ensured that playing football on the street at anytime could result in a court appearance given the requisite number of offences. Rugby and cricket, hockey and whatever else passed as legitimate sporting pursuits doubtlessly also suffered at the hands of the zealots.

Charming as it is, the BBC Northern Ireland programme that shows old 8 millimetre footage of the bygone days of the 1940's and 1950's does not quite capture the whole truth of that era. Firstly those who submit that footage to the BBC are invariably middle class; otherwise they would not have been able to afford those jaunty trips around the country, let alone the cars to get them there or the cine-cameras to record their antics.

Tales recounted to me by family members tell of abject dullness and boredom on Sundays, cooped up at home in a grey flannel world wishing that Monday would hurry up and come so school or work would bring respite from mental self-implosion.

It is for this reason that football has always been the entertainment of the working classes. Historical parallels between ancient Rome and our backward looking state are not as silly as you might think. Take the example of the film 'Gladiator' where the new Emperor Commodus, having just murdered his father Julius Cesar announces 150 continuous days of games at the Coliseum to placate the plebeians. The film was accurate in that respect. In the same way for the past 150 years professional football, on a global scale, has been the entertainment outlet for we modern day serfs and vassals.

In the build up to this World Cup, the BBC for several Sunday evenings showed 'World Cup Stories', a series that documented the rise of the World Cup as the ultimate manifestation of working class aspirations. It told the stories of children who came from grinding poverty, blessed with grace, skill and athleticism that escaped their ghettos to reach the heights of stardom and wealth. However, there is irony in the fact that a game that has it's origins in one of England's elite public schools is now the sporting opium of the masses.

Amongst others, the series charted the lives of Brazil's Garincha and Argentina's Maradona, hardly men of diamond coated moral fibre, but who for brief snatches of time thrilled and entertained the 'plebs' and more often than not on a Sunday. Brazil and Argentina are amongst the most rigidly devout Catholic nations on earth, so why then do elements of our clergical class frown upon anything more energetic than dogmatic introspection on a Sunday?

No one told Garincha or Maradona that they were supposed to eke out their days playing football with oranges in the dusty playing fields of their homes, or if someone did tell them, they did not listen. No one could now imagine George Best had he stayed playing local football on the Cregagh Estate either! Geordie was hardly the epitome of the dour but virtuous East-Belfast church-goer, but how many Ministers secretly travelled to see him on a Sunday. Now tell the truth, God is watching you!

Since the end of the Second World War, Christianity in all its doggedly organised forms has been steadily declining. Respect for organised religion has drifted largely because of problems created by the insistence of sticking to hopelessly outdated dogma and the hypocritical abhorrence of the sexual scandals that has engulfed it. It's true that religion is still preferable to the new God's of commerce and materialist gadgetry but not to the point where it bemoans sport as the root of Sabbath day blasphemy.

Religion undoubtedly has a place, and a high-ranking one, in our society, but quite rightly it has slipped a few notches in the societal league table. The fact that the Priest or Ministers word was accepted as final was a blight on our society. They are no longer the all-seeing moral guardians of our lives. The unquestioned respect once commanded by religion in Ireland, north and South has largely evaporated, and I for one am glad about that.

Both official churches in Ireland, and at least one other I can think of, have always proved to be ideological handcuffs to more politically charitable thinking. Eamonn DeValera used Archbishop John Charles McQuaid to give the 1937 Irish Constitution a horribly right wing Catholic outlook that imprisoned social expression, on some occasions literally sentencing women to death because of the ban on divorce and allowed Unionists to rightly contend that it was the Church that ruled in the Irish Republic and not the Dail. As a result Protestant Churches recoiled from official co-operation with its Catholic counterpart and entrenched views hardened many hearts.

Biblical literalism has a lot to answer for in Northern Ireland. It has been used for excusing murder and mayhem on our streets for the best part of 40 years. The underpinning dictates that controls Christianity were supposedly brought down from a mountain in the Middle-East almost 3,000 years ago, by a man who apparently looked a lot like Charlton Heston. Inscribed in stone were ten rules that apparently govern our moral lives.

One of the commandments, the fifth I think, says 'Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath Day'. It did not say what we should do in order to achieve that. It did not say for example that those of us lucky enough to have jobs, should kneel in back aching contemplation of our sorry existence on the one day that we have off. No, that particular thinking is a human rule, not a divine one. Another 'religious' standard that I can remember is that the 'Devil makes work for idle hands to do'. Is it not better that I occupy my mind than flagellate myself with barbed wire, felling guilty if I have a happy thought? If I go to a football game on a Sunday, soccer or GAA, am I condemned to an eternal backside burning in the big sulphur pit? I hope not, I've been to at least hundreds of games !

Besides, the point is that Northern Irish society has changed irrevocably for the good in the past decade in ways that we all can see. Even in my childhood, in the 1970's and early 80's there actually were no shops, cinemas, local playing parks to utilise because they were either bombed out of existence or vandalised to the point of extinction, never mind them being open for use on a Sunday. In my experience Sundays consisted of going to Church to be told how bad I was by a man in a dress, home for dinner and then what seemed like countless hours of inane boredom until Monday came.

There is also the point that it is rare these days that you will meet people who have Monday-Friday 9 to 5 jobs. Therefore as the Church is so keen on family values, what harm will taking your children to a football game really do? Sunday maybe the only chance that working people can spend with their families. Is it their choice and their choice alone how that time should be spent. Socially and economically we have moved light years beyond the previous stultifying decades. If anything northerners used to laugh up their sleeves at the backward attitudes of the south, the lack of jobs and transport infrastructure and parochial thinking laid down by the parish priest. Who is laughing now.? Whilst we quibble over the site for building a 'national' stadium, in Dublin, Croke Park is the envy of FAI, the IRFU, the IFA and most other sporting organisations in Europe including UEFA.

As with all organisations Christian churches know the value of a £1 coin. Are they just scared that other organisations will benefit from spare cash , whilst collection plates go hungry? Is there not a case to suggest that the domino effect economic benefit of encouraging people to commune together no matter what the sporting event may actually make people think they have something to be grateful for and encourage them back to church.?

Catholicism always pilloried Communism not because it was 'evil', but because it was an ideology predicated on collective thinking. Is it not usually the case that things that are very similar in nature do not like each other. It was for precisely that same reason that Communist states suppressed organised religion.

Sport, and in particular football is one of the main unifying factors that we have here. The Foyle Cup and The Milk Cup prove that year after year. Each Sunday this summer through every parish and dioceses in Northern Ireland church fetes and community festivals will be held. An integral part of each of these events will be sporting endeavours including football tournaments.

Are those taking part and raising funds, from which all churches Catholic and Protestant will benefit breaking the fifth commandment, or is there special dispensation from the Almighty on these days, only?




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

3 August 2006

Other Articles From This Issue:

A United Ireland or Nothing
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Federal Unionism—Early Sinn Fein: Article 1
Michael Gillespie

High Noon
John Kennedy

Fest or Flop
Dr John Coulter

Irish and Republican Music
Ray McAreavey

Qana Massacre again: Foreign and Domestic Enemies of our Constitution
Mazin Qumsiyeh

Israel Murders UN Observers
Anthony McIntyre

Managing Debate
Mick Hall

4 Horsemen
John Kennedy

The Evil That Men Do
Anthony McIntyre

Chris Petit's Secret History: The Psalm Killer
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Soldier of the Legion of the Rearguard
Liam O Ruairc

Football and the Fifth Commandment
Eamon Sweeney

Don't Let Us Down
Dr John Coulter

Human Rights Forum
Meeting Announcement

Billy Mitchell
Anthony McIntyre

25 July 2006

Religious Rednecks of Doom
Dr John Coulter

Cut-Throat Politics
John Kennedy

A Poem About Our Children
Mary La Rosa

Israeli Blitzkrieg
Anthony McIntyre

When Leaders Serve Foreign Interests, Everyone Loses
Mazin Qumsiyeh

By Their Friends You Shall Know Them
Mick Hall

Mission Impossible
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Lit Crit Well Writ
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Revisiting A Literary Genius
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'The Film That Shakes A Lot More Than the Barley'
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The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Conclusion
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Additional Information
Marcella Sands

The Framing of Michael McKevitt: Letter of Thanks
Michael McKevitt

Pull the Other One
John Kennedy

Ex-Noraid Boss Still Gloomy on Peace Process
Jim Dee

An Honour to Have Been Part of the Blanket Protest
Anthony McIntyre

The Letters page has been updated.



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