“Today, Mr Francis, is the 12th of July and I would recommend that you head back through Strabane and go down through Ballyshannon and then Sligo and on home.”
In the circumstances I thought that was good advice, but my satnav couldn’t pick up a signal and I managed to drive myself into a tricky situation, close to the entrance to the largest bonfire I have ever seen. Atop the bonfire was a tricolour and an effigy of either the Pope or the Virgin Mary. The fire had just been lit and there was a loud cheer as the Mother of God went up in flames. The tone, or mood, of the place was somewhere between a giddy nervous energy and primal zeal.
There seemed to be a lot of drink or whatever you want taken and most of the young men heading in for the night were animated almost to the point of frenzy. If the occupant of the southern reg car had made another false move . . . well, you never know what might have happened.
I was stopped a second time and as I presented my licence again I noticed a family getting out of an SUV. Mother, father and four children — two boys and two girls — none of them older than 12. The kids were holding hands as if they were going for a Sunday afternoon picnic in the woods. How on earth could you bring children to this abomination?
I felt like asking the officer if you are allowed to bring children into that field. Then I remembered that although I was on the island of Ireland, I was not in my country. I took instructions from the officer which I could barely hear over the rawkishness and got out of there as quickly as I could.
Afterwards, I relayed my story to a few people and expressed the thought that Omagh was predominantly Catholic and nationalist, only to be told that it was, but the 12th is the 12th.
A few weeks ago Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney had their lives threatened and a poem was written on the walls near the Shankill. We have a noose, We have a tree. Just need a neck, whose will it be. Set foot in Ulster, cross that line. We guarantee you will hang.
It’s not exactly TS Eliot, but the implication is clear. If things don’t go the way they are supposed to then, with the flick of a switch, we can return to the good old days . . . both sides.
The depressingly familiar sight of rioting and petrol bombs on the streets of Belfast told you that April 10, 1998 wasn’t that far away after all. Worse still, the 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds who were encouraged to throw those petrol bombs and were arrested for their efforts, shows that even though a few generations have passed since the Good Friday Agreement, there is still enmity being passed from generation to generation.
All this when Belfast has become a vibrant city with everything to offer in terms of business and tourism. It is a city that could easily catch up with Dublin. Belfast enjoys limitless possibilities, to the point where 13 rugby players from the Republic choose to go to Belfast and play for a team with a red hand for a crest, something that was unimaginable 23 years ago.
Of course, every city has no-go areas. The main shopping area in Dublin was a no-go area last month as violence erupted on Grafton Street. Yet any player from the Republic playing in Belfast would feel relatively safe in the professional surroundings of Ravenhill.
That said, Limestone Road and North Queen Street are no more than three miles from Ravenhill. Tigers Bay and Lanark Way are even closer. I know that most Leinster players live as close as they can to Richview, which in turn is close to the RDS and the Aviva.
Kingspan Stadium, and for those players living in its vicinity, is in harm’s way given recent events. What happens if there is an escalation, or if the violence is sustained in pursuit of a capitulation by the British Government or the EU? It is amazing how persuasive a few burning buses can be when you are trying to get your point across. The most sinister declaration was that ‘no-one was off limits’.
Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora promoted the idea that all quality Irish qualified players should get game time. If that meant having to leave their home province, where they might stagnate through inactivity, then so be it. It was better than shelling out big dough for expensive South African imports who might help Ulster’s cause, but not Ireland’s.
The decision was taken by a New Zealander and an Australian to do the unthinkable. It happened precisely because neither man had any grounding in the politics of the Troubles and that is why it has worked — until now. There had been no major violence until recently. That may change the dynamic. Pre-season in the provinces will be well underway in July, so what happens if there is an escalation around marching season?
A weekly update from Rugby Correspondent Ruaidhri O’Connor and the best writing from our expert team. Issued every Friday.
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Ulster have improved with the large influx from south of the border. There are another 13 players in the squad who were born outside the province. Three English, one Australian, six South Africans and three New Zealanders. I am not sure that is a good blend where 26 out of 43 are non-Ulster. You can lose your identity with too many outside influences.
That identity in this case is very different. It’s hard to fill the Kingspan with a whole load of Dubs playing for you. The Ulster academy has started to produce a few gems recently and hopefully that trend continues.
I am not so sure the theory that quality players can get consistent game time in Ulster has worked well at all. It is true that John Cooney has revived his career there, but he has not made it into the Ireland starting XV. Marty Moore, Jack McGrath and Jordi Murphy have gone backwards. Eric O’Sullivan and Tom O’Toole have put themselves in the frame while the rest of the players are — how can we put it — gainfully employed.
Ulster, though, have progressed. Their victory against Northampton last week was an excellent performance and the graph continues on an upward trend. A win against Leicester in a fortnight would make it a very good season. Dan McFarland has done a pretty good job in the circumstances. The only cloud on the horizon is a sustained return to violence. If that happens, all bets are off.
In 2011 I went to watch the Seattle Seahawks play the Tennessee Titans at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. Phillip Adams was in their squad that day as a reserve cornerback. I am not sure if he even played one down in the game. Adams had a six-year career with six different teams. It seems he did not have the quality to nail down a starting position anywhere and got traded from team to team.
Just over a week ago, Adams went to the house of Dr Robert Lesslie, a prominent physician in Rock Hill in South Carolina and shot him dead. Adams also took the lives of Lesslie’s wife Barbara, his nine-year-old granddaughter Adah and five-year-old grandson Noah — an unspeakable act. Any one who could shoot a nine-year-old girl and five-year-old boy deserves eternal damnation. This he probably got when he turned the gun on himself later that day, not before he disposed of two unfortunate air conditioning engineers who just turned up at the wrong place at the wrong time.
In the wake of this atrocity, race for once is not what is exercising America. Nor is it sadness for the victims, but the actual motive, if any, required for such an act of depravity.
In 2013, Adams had two concussions while playing for the Raiders, but it seems he did not have a sustained history of brain injuries. The theory about Adams having CTE was flown all over the networks in the days after the killings. Adams’ behaviour had become erratic and unstable. Common symptoms, but in most tragic cases of CTE there is rarely this sort of carnage. Are we now seeing a new scenario where CTE sufferers take half a dozen people with them when they can no longer face what is going on in their lives?
It will prove difficult to ascertain whether Adams had CTE or not because you can only determine the disease postmortem and the extent of Adams’ injuries are unknown.
Another possible motive has emerged. Lesslie had been prescribing medication for Adams for a few years and while it was unclear what those drugs were, it has been suggested that the doctor had refused to continue Adams’ medication. The suggestion is that Adams took strong exception to this and arrived at Lesslie’s house with his ideas of retribution.
Was football to blame for this? Was the end of Adams’ career a trigger for his drug regime? Would Lesslie and his family still be alive if he had not tried to take Adams off his medication? What really happens to these footballers when they fall off the carousel? There are over a thousand acts of violence committed by footballers and ex-footballers every year. As the years go by the already-blurred lines between right and wrong go further out of focus. How dangerous can these men become if they don’t get what they want or they don’t get looked after when it is all over?
Adams’ dreadful act has set the bar at a new level. Irrespective of his mood or condition, we can assume he still knew what he was about to do. He made sure he did not have to face the consequences of his actions.