July is always a very contentious time of year in Northern Ireland with the annual celebrations of ‘The Twelfth’ more often than not highlighting the division between the states two communities.
Ulster has made headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons and one area that’s name is constantly dragged through the mud is Lurgan. Known very much for its segregation between Catholic and Protestant communities it is often believed that the two communities walk on opposite sides of the road. While that isn’t exactly true, the town is split into two distinct halves. A unionist half and a nationalist half were neither community feels safe in the other.
The legacy of the Troubles has left Lurgan tarnished with being known as part of the ‘Killing/Murder Triangle’ due to the high number of sectarian murders that took place during the height of the conflict.
While the Troubles may be over the conflict still remains in Lurgan. Dissident republican activity is rife in the town while contentious parades stoke the fires on a yearly basis. Every part of the town is labelled to this day, whether it’s through flags, murals, or painted kerbstones which gives off a perception of tribal communities unaccepting of any ‘rival’ with Mourneview (Protestant) and Kilwilke (Catholic) being the biggest representation of this.
All of this makes for a town divided.
However, there is significant work going on within the community to try and bridge the gap to peace and it’s being done through the one medium that has the ability to unite all of mankind. Sport.
From Neil Lennon to Diarmuid Marsden to Jacob Stockdale, the town has plenty of famous sons.
Although, quite often a person’s chances of playing a particular sport depend on what side of the divide they were born into.
It’s commonly known that rugby is a sport predominately played within Protestant communities while GAA is generally saved for those in Catholic areas.
That needle is starting to move, however, and the town is proving to be the standard bearer in opening its doors to one another.
Lurgan Rugby & Cricket Club have made huge strides by reaching out to the GAA club’s in the area (four in Lurgan, one in Craigavon, seven in total including village teams). They realised that the town’s division had created a landscape where rugby was unable to tap fully into the resources Lurgan offers in terms of bodies.
“We’ve been looking at the figures and the stats. We are situated at the edge of Mourneview and we know by our numbers that it’s not representative of the population or the make-up of the town or surrounding areas,” Chairman, Raymond Acheson told Pundit Arena.
“So we’ve been doing our best to get people to the club and I think it all started with myself meeting Jimmy Magee of St. Peters going down to their club where I met Ciaran McCavigan.
“We agreed that there’s great synergy between rugby and GAA. GAA for fitness and hand-eye coordination and I guess rugby for strength and conditioning and it started like that.
“The two sports compliment one another even in their seasons there isn’t much crossover and they all agreed with that.
“We now have about six Unionist families taking their kids to play Gaelic football which might not seem like a big deal but if you look at Lurgan and where the town has been in the past, we’re probably setting the bar in terms of cross-community relations and we’re very proud of that at both clubs.”
Ciaran McCavigan is a youth development officer at St. Peter’s as well as club captain.
McCavigan remembers vividly Acheson’s initial approach two years ago and how that small act led to the creation of what is now known as the Peace IV project.
“The first time I met Raymond, he came down to our U10 tournament and we had a brief conversation.” McCavigan told Pundit Arena.
“He told me his plans for Lurgan Rugby Club and how he wanted to include the whole community and that was the initial contact between Lurgan Rugby and ourselves (St. Peter’s).
“So, myself and Jimmy Magee met with their committee and we sat down and had a chat about making sure everybody was in it for the right reasons. To bring the communities together, not just for financial gain or to tick a few boxes.
“We then went to a Lurgan Rugby event two years ago and took all our underage players down and they took their minis down and we had a fun day where the children got to try out both sports and that’s where the relationship all started really.”
The two clubs have been working together now for two years with Craigavon GAA club, Eire Og, also getting on board.
The relationship between St. Peter’s and Lurgan Rugby, however, has gone from strength to strength showing communities across the UK and Ireland that you don’t have to be defined by what history may tell you.
“Lurgan is your typical (Northern Ireland) town split down the middle but unless you do things like this it’s going to continue to be split down the middle,” McCavigan said.
“Our last project there, the fun run. We had, between both clubs around 150 children plus parents. They all came down on a Friday night to go on a massive fun run. 10 years ago, I’m not sure if that would have even been possible.”
The event two weeks ago marked an iconic and symbolic moment for not just the two clubs but the town as a whole with a couple of hundred people from all corners of the town coming together in what is known as the ‘black hole’, the centre of town where an invisible border exists.
“We had a sponsored run between the two clubs, we called it ‘Run 4 Lurgan’. The two clubs met at the centre of town and went for a run around Lurgan Park, we took a load of Gaelic balls and a load of rugby balls with us and the kids played both sports,” Acheson said.
“The underage and mini sections raised about £4,000 in sponsorship which all goes back into the kids and again that was hugely symbolic, they met in the centre of town at the war memorial with the council officials all there, ran around the park and had the evening’s craic together and there’s already firm friendships being built at both junior and senior level.”
The Peace IV project started by Lurgan Rugby has grown exponentially and they are going big for their next event on August 9, as the seven GAA clubs encompassing the Lurgan/Craigavon area put together an All-Stars select to take on Lurgan’s 1st XV in a ‘game of two halves’.
It’s set to be a huge event with Ulster Rugby and GAA set to attend as well as various figures from the sporting world, media world and local politics.
One person that will be in attendance is perhaps Lurgan’s most famous son. A man who, despite his young age, has thrown himself into the Peace IV project and helped Lurgan become a driving force for community relations in Northern Ireland, Jacob Stockdale.
“We’re certainly winning the hearts and minds. Between Jacob and Louis Ludik they’ve been to about 16 schools in the area. It was like something the Beatles experienced in the 1960s when Jacob walked into Tannaghmore (a Catholic primary school located on the edge of Kilwilke) the kids and teachers were so excited and it’s brilliant.
“He’s only 22 Jacob but he’s the head of a 40-year-old. When we were filling out our peace project application form he came up and sat with us between 10am and 3.30pm that day and set out all the problems there was in the town and the big black hole there was in the town and we all come to the conclusion that the first thing we need to do is fill that whole in and make sure there’s as much shared space in the town for everybody.”
What was once a hugely divided town is slowly becoming the gold standard for bridging the gap to peace and it’s being done through the one medium that crosses all barriers. Sport.
Interview originally published in July 2019.