Travelling North

A headline in the Irish Times recently caught my eye. It said " Large numbers of Southerner visitors continuing to boost business in North". I know many people from the 26 counties who have never travelled North, never crossed the border.

In recent, more peaceful times Southern tourists have finally taken the M1 and pointed their motor North for the party town that Belfast has become, the stunning Antrim, Game of Thrones sites and such like. But not all, not by a long way. I

t was never an issue for me and for my 57 years, I have been a regular visitor to Northern Ireland. It helps that I had family connections. My grandmother was born there and her Belfast roots stayed strong with her throughout her life. She had many cousins in East Belfast and during the 1960s my family would visit the relatives. In fact, one of the earliest personal photos that I possess is a photo taken on the steps of Stormont Castle with a Belfast aunt taken on a family visit in 1967.

Stormont would also be the location for my first sporting visit North when the Dublin Cub Scouts took on their Belfast counterparts in 1975 in what was an annual football match. A glance at Google maps suggests that the game took place on what is now the second cricket ground in Stormont. I have few memories of a game that I think we probably lost, other than taking a ball in the face early in the game. Sadly it would not be the only time such a fate befell me in a sporting contest though at least in the football match it didn't involve my losing any teeth, something that happened to me in a later cricket game.

Dublin cub scouts football team 1975

I found the team photo from the day and back right resplendent in his Sandford College colours stands Heatley Tector. I only discovered very recently that it was himself since in those days we had yet to cross paths on a cricket field. Before you think that maybe this was not the greatest football side you have ever seen with the pair of us performing, well standing beside Heatley is a lad who played for Liverpool, Leeds, Hull and oh yes, Republic of Ireland.

Strange the moments that stay with you but one of the highlights, that I do remember,of the trip for me, was the ice cream stop on the way home. The shop overlooked Ravenhill which was a big deal in my rugby playing family. Perhaps I daydreamed of it then, I certainly daydreamed a lot, but 9 years later I would find myself on the Ravenhill turf and this time on the winning side.

Aside from those early family visits, the vast majority of my travels North throughout my life have been for sporting reasons. The dates coincide with the period of turmoil in the area but rarely, actually never, was that a factor in our thoughts. Despite the problems that we saw, seemingly, every night on BBC NI News Scene around Six, plus the UTV Reports news programme, travelling North for a sporting outlet was a regular occurrence throughout the times of the Troubles.

While researching the history of youth and schools cricket in Leinster for Cricket Leinster's centenary book, 100 not out, I discovered that the Leinster Schools and Ulster Schools game, which began in 1906 failed to be played only in 1910/11, 1917-22, and in 1970. While I cannot say why the games at the start 20th Century did not take place without any definitive written evidence, it would seem reasonable that 1916 Rising and the resultant political unrest, would be a valid reasoning for some, but only the 1970 version is explained officially as due to the "security situation".

A fixture had indeed been made for the 6th and 7th of July 1970 to be played in Belfast but June had seen serious rioting in the major cities and the curfew introduced in July in certain areas had ramped up tensions. Note how I deliberately avoided the Londonderry/Derry conundrum which along with the North/Northern Ireland was a constant question mark for those of us South of the border, one we have never quite got to grips with. Indeed there were tensions on both sides of the border in 1970 as the extraordinary events surrounding the 'Arms Crisis' were unfolding and causing major political upheavals in the Dail.

Peter Prendergast batting at The Meadow, Strangford Road, Downpatrick

However, 1971 saw an immediate return of the fixture when Ulster Schools gave their Leinster visitors a right hiding in the Castle Grounds. This fixture continued on a home and away basis until a worldwide pandemic brought about another, hopefully temporary, cessation. Indeed in 1981, the game evolved from a 2 day to a 3 day game lengthening the overnight stays wherever the game took place. I know this as I spent 3 days doing 12th man in the 1981 version albeit in the pleasing setting of Wallace Park and Lisburn CC. This was a handy ground for the game as it meant not travelling into the city with the train station just a short walk from the ground.

My school, The High School, would head up for rugby games, being beaten from Campbell College is still a strong and painful memory, emotionally and physically. In cricket terms we joined with Sandford College for a trip to play Coleraine Academical Institute and Ballymena Academy and certainly for the Ballymena leg, we were billeted with members of the opposing team. The trip was arranged by Bill Tector, father of Heatley, himself one of the Sandford representatives. In the Coleraine game I was fielding beside Bill who was the square leg umpire and noticed him whistling after Heatley bowled. Curious, I raised this with one of the Sandford lads at a break in play. It turns out that when Bill thought that the ball needed to be pitched up, he would whistle to make sure that his views were known by his son. Whether his son compiled or even took any notice is a matter of conjecture.

These days games between the respective unions take place for boys and girls for players as young as 11, some are Cricket Ireland competitions, other development games between unions, but the point is that from a young age modern youth players travelling North is a normal occurrence. Pre pandemic there might be weekend sessions in Bready CC where instructions to find the ground certainly used to include noting the colours of the kerbstones. If you are fortunate enough to be on a youth cup winning team in your province, then you might head up for a semi final or final in the underage Cricket Ireland club competitions which run at under 11,13 and 15 age groups, pre pandemic times again.

These competitions are relatively new, in my youth the only reason for travelling beyond Balbriggan was for the Under 19 competition organised by the Irish Cricket Union, as Cricket Ireland used to be called. This began in 1969 as the Jeyes Cup and was later known as the Woolmark Tait Trophy and the Esso Cup. It was a junior version of the Senior Interprovincial tournament involving Munster, North Leinster, South Leinster, North West, Ulster Country and Ulster Town. Games were played mid week and away games involved an overnight stay (other than the South Leinster game of course, no Northsider could be reasonably expected to spend a night south of the Liffey). In Belfast, games were played in various grounds including the grand old Ormeau and a particularly memorable one was the Ulster Town and North Leinster game played at NewForge, the ground of RUC cricket club which had its own very strict security precautions, an eye opener to many callow Southerners.

The North Leinster u18 sides of my era were managed by Rush’s Michael Marsh. Michael was a Dublin University academic with a calm and easy going demeanor, the ideal man to take charge of such a team and in remembering these times, his contribution to the enjoyment of the tournament is still acknowledged by the side’s members.

Alan Lewis and Jimmy Boyce at Saintfield

This summer I had cause to take a number of trips up to Carrickfergus, Lisburn and CIYMS, a trip door to door which took just less than 2 hours. Why then, you might wonder, was an overnighter called for in days of old. Well in those days the trip on this side of the border meant passing through the towns of Balbriggan, Julianstown, Drogheda, Dunleer, Castlebellingham, Dundalk. Dundalk had what was termed a bypass, which was only marginally quicker than the direct route. Yes, all those exits that you see on the nice motorway that the European Union built for us, are towns and villages along the old Belfast Road. And then there was a nice hello to the Customs men and the Border Patrol before passing through Newry and onto the dual carriageway. Oh how we envied our Northern brethren and their dual carriageway (essentially the same road on which you now pass).

As one stage of its history, the black flags that hung from lampposts, houses or any suitable host, let you know exactly where you were, if not physically then politically.There were other landmarks to clock off, Casement Park and Windsor Park were clearly visible then as was Milltown Cemetery, another point of interest but one which generally resulted in a quieting of the car passengers. Hockey players might have noted the presence of Lisnagarvey Hockey Club, one of the first astro pitches on the island which is now a Sainsburys, as the dual carriageway joins the motorway, after the club moved to Hillsborough. What I am trying to say is that the car journey took a good bit longer and certainly on this side of the border timing was very unpredictable.

The road to Belfast however was the easy route. If you were playing in the North West, well that meant another couple of hours onto the journey without the benefit of an improved road after the Aughnacloy checkpoint. The checkpoint itself was an intimidating spot. It was always dark by the time we reached the border, which added to an uneasy feeling. But to be fair, we rarely had any issues at the respective border points, perhaps the sight of cricket bags brought what always seemed to be exceptionally young soldiers back to simpler, less stressful times of their lives.

It seems remarkable to think that, despite these regular trips until an Irish senior cup game in Brigade, I had never actually made it as far as the Maiden City. Every game either at youth or senior seemed to be played in Strabane or Sion Mills. Not that I was complaining, I have always had a thing about the old Strabane ground and Sion possessed a history that us youngsters could only dream of. And do not be misled into thinking this was due to a good record there, far from it, I do not remember ever scoring runs or even winning there but the quirky Strabane ground has always been a favourite venue and indeed The Fir Trees Hotel which was the hotel of choice in the area. So we got to stay the night before. Even that was a bit different. While the hotels were essentially the same as anywhere in the world, before one passed through the hotel doors, there was a security hut that every guest had to navigate.

There was a certain black humour at play also if you were billeted at The Europa Hotel which was widely known as the most bombed hotel in the world (33 times between 1970 and 1994 if you are interested). In 1977 an under 15 version of this competition appeared, the Smurfit Cup but until 1984 this ran as a multi day festival based in Dublin. Thereafter it rotated around the island. 1982 saw the introduction of the Irish Senior Cup competition. Now clubs sides could look forward to trips North and South.

The ICU were a very conservative organisation but this competition is probably the best innovation into the cricket calendar in a very long time. Clubs who might never have visited each other developed rivalries and more important friendships. An earlier competition the Beckett Cup which had been for winners of midweek 20 overs competitions and other competitions such as the Irish Junior Cup were the only previous possible occasions for such games, other than the odd early season friendly, mainly Northern teams travelled for those however.

My club, Clontarf made their debut in this competition with a fixture away to Bangor. A good travelling support went along though some really did not know what was in store, they were only there for the day out. One group decided some shopping was in order before the game. Having parked in the town they went off to spend their Sterling in the local shops. They returned to find police had roped off the street in which they were parked and when they enquired as to what was happening they were told that there was a suspect, ROI registered, vehicle illegally parked and a controlled explosion was being considered. Panicked, they managed to retrieve their vehicle and learned a lesson on the way while also receiving an understandably stern rebuke from the RUC.

Throughout my career, there were good days and bad in grounds such as Sion Mills, Downpatrick, Lurgan, Brigade in this competition and in particular one epic day in Woodvale. That day we did not have a large travelling support but one of the great clubmen, Hoppy Ellis opted to drive. Unfortunately he got lost after turning off the Shankill Road. It took some time for poor Hoppy to recover his composure when he did finally arrive. The bus journey home that night was a raucous affair, the team members plus a few extras embarked on a sing song early on in the journey which distracted the driver so much (we like to think it was the quality of the singing) that he missed the turn off for the Dublin road and as a result we took a very long and cross country route home.

Before an Irish Senior Cup game at Sion Mills

My first job having left school, when jobs could still be had straight after school, was in the insurance world. Sport was a large part of the social aspect of the business and the DIAS (Dublin Insurance Athletic Society) would compete in many sports against other such organisations, locally and further afield. Cricket was a strong part of this sporting outlet and we regularly played against the Belfast equivalent. The first away game that I played was in Saintfield in 1984. Dublin had a decent side, a good mix of youth and experience as did our Northern rivals, great cricket men like Jimmy Boyce and Michael Rea Senior being amongst their side. In that Saintfield game, one of the DIAS players would just a week later make his international debut against the mighty West Indians, as Alan Lewis began his Irish career. I am sure Jimmy had something to say to Alan that day.

On another occasion, returning from a DIAS game in the old Instonians ground the two others in the car decided to avail of a special offer running in a Newry electrical store, whereby portable black and white TVs could be bought for STG£49. Yes, for the younger readers, this was something you could actually buy and might even have been considered desirable. This price meant that no custom's duty would need to be paid at the border. The driver that day was Paddy Murphy, a PMPA Insurance and Clontarf CC bowler and the other traveller was Paddy Murphy also of PMPA but this one was the Man o' War cricketer. Two of the best you could wish to meet. The TVs were stowed on the back seat of the car in full view of the customs man who stopped the car, clearly interested in the electrical goods on show. He was less than impressed however when he enquired from the two front seat passengers as to their names. Despite recounting their names honestly, Clontarf Paddy Murphy was immediately frog marched to the customs hut to explain what the customs man clearly thought was a joke and the TVs. He returned 5 minutes later, arm around the official and the pair having a good laugh. We were sent on our way with a smile. Paddy knew everyone and had made some connection with the man on duty, it was very hard to be angry with Paddy for long.

Senior interprovincial cricket continued throughout the times of the Troubles. As with the under 18 version, these games meant an overnight stay, with the teams travelling after the conclusion of the local league games and the logistics of rounding up the team from the various grounds, on occasions it meant finding a new player after an original selection was crooked in their club game. It meant that it was already quite late before we even hit the road. There might be a stop at a chipper in Drogheda, we were such athletes, for sustenance and a late check in to the hotel. Winning the toss the following morning, took on even more importance after such nights, but even that sometimes wasn't enough.

In one game in North Down, we duly batted after one such long evening, an evening that may just have been extended willingly in the late night hotel bar. Brian Gilmore and Enda McDermott found their way back to the pavilion without scoring during John Elder's first over. Watching slightly aghast from the non striker's end I duly joined them after Herbie Parkhill's initial ball of the second over. Nought for 3 after 7 balls, safe to say we were back on the road home early that day, although Michael Rea Junior might remember that game more fondly as he scored his first interprovincial 50 in the chase.

While it is true to say that the competition continued throughout the times of The Troubles, there was one year when the security situation dictated a change of format. The 1974 version was changed at short notice to a regionalised tournament when strikes in the power stations throughout Northern Ireland caused huge difficulties. It was not until late May that a decision was made to avoid travel to the North, indeed fixtures were made and teams ready to travel before the ICU made a definitive decision. The competition ran and for the record resulted in a win for Ulster Country who beat North Leinster in the final played in Castle Avenue. At one stage, the competition included a series of games played over a Bank Holiday. It was a long arduous weekend for players who perhaps a little cynically felt that the attraction of a sponsor's dinner for the alicadoos outweighed the cricketing benefit of 3 full days play which regularly exceeded 120 overs.

It was tough and as an example in the 1992 competition played in the North West area, Ian Carser of Ulster Town bowled 38.3 overs of his side's 92 - on the third day of the festival of cricket as the weekend was termed, having bowled 27 the previous day. Three days of tough cricket and as soon as it was finished, we were back in the car and on the road home, after all we would all be back at work, whether that was in an office, on a building site or once again driving the highways by 9am the following day. We were only travellers, of course.

Day to day life continued throughout the time of the Troubles and sport was a major part of that life for many. Woodvale's Ian Johnston tells me that he never lost a day's cricket to the Troubles during his career. Given that Woodvale CC can be found on the Ballygomartin Road which itself is a continuation of the, at times infamous, Shankill Road, is noteworthy.

In the dying weeks of the season, I have been around many grounds in a capacity of photographing finals for Cricket Leinster, something that allowed me to catch up with more than the usual amount of cricket folk.

As this topic was floating around my head I introduced it to people such as Joe Murphy, Matt and Willie Dwyer, people with whom I had played in games North of the border on various teams over a long period. In the course of the conversations, it was immediately clear just how much us Southerners enjoyed travelling North, how political and social instability had no effect whatsoever on our thoughts or actions.

Sport, sports people and sporting interactions on and off the pitch were what raised a smile and many happy recollections.