Excerpt from "The Songman: A Journey in Irish Music"

Chapter 5: Religious Persuasion
     There were no Protestants at Mayobridge school except Harry McGarry. We knew he was different, for he didn’t come into the catechism class when the rest of us were learning about who made the world and who God is. “God is our father in heaven, Creator and Lord of all things. “ Instead, Harry kicked a ball about the schoolyard on his own. While we were becoming good Christians, he was becoming a good footballer.
     But he told me that he also believed in God, and that he even believed that it was God who made the world. I said I liked football and we became good friends.
I noticed that he never touched the ball with his hands when he played.
     “We’re not allowed to,” he said.
     “Is it a sin?” I asked.
     “I suppose so, “ He said.
     What a strict religion, I thought.
     Later that evening my father explained that it wasn’t really football he was playing, it was a game called soccer and it came from England. Our football game was called Gaelic and it was Irish.
     “Is it a sin for a Catholic to play soccer?” I asked.
     “If you play for a Gaelic team, then you’re not allowed to play for a soccer team,” he said. “That’s rule 32 in the official GAA guide.”
     “Would you go to hell if you did?” I asked.
     “Not necessarily.” He smiled. “But you might be told to.”
     He explained that all down the years England wanted Ireland to become English, but by playing their own games and singing their own songs, the people here were saying, “We’re Irish.” England didn’t want Protestant people here playing Irish games either, in case they would become Irish, for then Ireland would not become English after all.
     It all sounded very complicated to me, but I passed it on to Harry as best I could. And we played a mixture of Gaelic and soccer in the schoolyard.
     The next day, Harry told me that his da had told him to tell me to tell my da that even if good Protestant policeman wanted to play Gaelic, which they didn’t anyway, but even if they did, the narrow Gaelic rules would not allow it, and to ‘put that in his pipe and smoke it.’
     That night my father told me to tell Harry to tell his da that the rule only came about because the police force had made an earlier rule banning their own policeman from playing Gaelic games, and to put that in his pipe and do what he liked with it.
     I don’t think either of them even smoked pipes, but I know they liked whiskey and I wondered why they didn’t tell each other all those complicated things while they were drinking together in Hale’s pub in Newry on a Saturday night.
     Still, some of the messages rubbed off on the messengers and we learned a lot, Harry and me, in that playground of knowledge at the Bridge of Mayo. I imagine Davy McGarry sent his son to a Catholic school because he felt two and half miles was long enough for a child to walk on a winter’s morning. The state school, geared for Protestants and rarely attended by Catholics, was almost five miles away.
     Sometimes Harry and I wondered why Catholics and Protestants didn’t go to the same school in the first place.
     “Tell young Sands to tell his da that Catholics won’t go to state schools because the Church of Rome wants to keep control over them, and while he’s at it, would he ask him if he could lend me the loan of the stirrup pump for a few days’ whitewashing.”
     “Tell young McGarry to tell Big Davy that for years England made it illegal for Catholic to receive any education at all and hounded and hanged their teachers and holy priests during the Penal days and was it any wonder Catholics built their own schools, and what the hell stirrup pump is he talking about?”
     Tell that wee skitter’s get to tell his oul’ Fenian da that the Penal days were years ago and there are now lovely schools and dinners and warm fires in every room for everybody to learn in, and there would be on in Mayobridge too, but the Catholics wouldn’t go to it, and the stirrup pump is the one he said was great for whitewashing with last Saturday night in Hale’s pub.”
     “Tell that black-mouthed son of a Presbyterian Orangeman that they can stick their soup, their pot-bellied stoves and their sate schools where the monkey stuck the bananas, for those schools tell only an English view of Irish history and well he knows it, and that I can’t lend him the stirrup pump because I lent it to him last summer and he never gave it back, but if I had it, he would get it, for he’s a decent man, and if he isn’t doing anything next Monday, would he give me a day at the threshing.”
     And so it went on until the seemingly insoluble conflicts would be shelved for the time being, for friendships were just as deep as differences and life went on from sowing to mowing and from worming to threshing.