There’s power, soft power - and then there’s community.
I was over in West Tyrone at a funeral of a cousin of mine - Tom Dolan - yesterday. It was an impressive experience. There was sorrow at the heart of it, in the loss of a man who was my year in St Columb’s College in Derry; but there was support and strength and community spirit that counterbalanced the loss. As the dead man’s brother remarked, when he went to St Columb’s College in 1951, there wasn’t a single football in Aghyaran; now it’s a positive fortress of Gaelic games. The massive GAA hall sits right beside the church and it was there the mourners went after the funeral Mass for something to eat. The spread was impressive - a huge array of main dishes to choose from, dessert arriving the moment you’d finished your main course, cups of tea served and re-served to each table. I’ve been in hotels that weren’t nearly as well stocked or organised.
The church itself was packed with mourners; and there were stewards with hi-viz bibs to direct the heavy traffic to the parking places. And all of this without any sign of the official world of police or other civic authorities. The sense that the community had come together to support the family and each other in the time of loss was almost palpable. Over the meal there was little talk of politics: instead there were anecdotes about the deceased, enquiries about other family members, memories of school days (I re-met two septuagenarians I last saw when they were seventeen), and football games played half a century ago.
People sometimes talk about the greening of the West. This felt more like visiting an independent republic, confident in itself, welcoming to outsiders, steeped in Gaelic culture and games. I remarked to one priest there that the GAA seemed to have replaced the Catholic Church as the hub, the powerhouse of the community. He agreed without hesitation, and if he had a sense of regret he didn’t show it.
It’s a long way to Tipperary. It’s a much, much longer way from Westminster -or Stormont - to Aghyaran. As British as Finchley? You’re joking.