I recently got my hands on a super book by a man who, like myself, survived five or more years in St Columb’s College, Derry. It’s called Sporting Greats of the North West, and it’s by Richie Kelly. It does what it says – remembers great sportsmen and women from that part of Ireland (and in his case the North-West is the North-West – Coleraine, Derry, Donegal). There are some superb photographs in it – Billy ‘Spider’ Kelly, Charlie Nash, Jimmy Delaney, Jobby Crossan – faces and names that, like pop songs of the time, take you right back to that time, that place when we were all a lot younger.
When the pleasure of the book had subsided, it started me thinking: the different mentalities that exist east and west of the Bann. Take someone like Richie Kelly himself: in the north-west every sporting enthusiast would know him, from his Radio Foyle work and from his own sporting days; in the north-east even sporting enthusiasts may know little or nothing about him. Let me put it bluntly: there’s an ignorance about and a prejudice against the North-West from those who live east of the Bann. It has historical roots: some of the most bare-faced discrimination and gerry-mander occurred in the north-west. There’s also the lousy infrastructure between the North-West and the rest of the state, whether that be Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Hence the ‘greening of the west’ that’s occurred in recent years, with Sinn Féin and/or the SDLP effectively repartitioning Northern Ireland with a semi-circle of green.
But it’s not just a physical distance or even political opinion that divides the north-west from the north-east: it’s a psychological barrier. The journey to Belfast, for many nationalists, is to uncomfortable unionist territory. They won’t admit it to you, of course – in many instances they won’t even admit it to themselves. But when I hear people talk about how different people in the northern state are from people in the south, I’m surprised they never mention how different people in the North-West are from those in the North-East. And although I’ve lived in the North-East for over thirty years and it saddens me to say it, the people of the north-west have a vigour, a charm, a lightness of being that makes those east of the Bann, by and large, look leaden-footed and dreary.