The tragedy, hopes and fears behind 'The Beautiful Game'

'The picture of the Holy Cross Boys was one of the saddest photos I'd seen of the Troubles'

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In the team photograph it will always be the summer of 1968. A bright day in Belfast, with the lads dressed in new jerseys. The Vietnam war is escalating; there are riots in Paris; the Prague Spring is reaching its climax. But the boys of Holy Cross Primary school are untouched by the storms raging beyond the streets of Ardoyne. In the photograph they look confident, serious, a band of brothers from a poor neighbourhood who have become local heroes. The team is the pride of Holy Cross School. They have triumphed in a Gaelic football championship. They are a team of winners.

In the team photograph it will always be the summer of 1968. A bright day in Belfast, with the lads dressed in new jerseys. The Vietnam war is escalating; there are riots in Paris; the Prague Spring is reaching its climax. But the boys of Holy Cross Primary school are untouched by the storms raging beyond the streets of Ardoyne. In the photograph they look confident, serious, a band of brothers from a poor neighbourhood who have become local heroes. The team is the pride of Holy Cross School. They have triumphed in a Gaelic football championship. They are a team of winners.

They are unaware of the stirrings elsewhere in Ulster. This is 1968, and the Catholic population is beginning to assert itself. A movement demanding civil rights for nationalists is getting under way. Soon the marches will begin and they will be followed by a violent Orange counterattack. There will be riots and street-fighting and soldiers and Provos and UVF and UDA men. Within a few years Ardoyne will be an embattled nationalist enclave. Whatever happened to the boys in the photograph?

Three years ago, I was heading to Belfast, researching a television series I was making on the Troubles. On the road from the South, I heard a wonderful radio documentary by an old colleague and friend, Colm Keane (no relation), about a team of footballers from Ardoyne. Keane had had the bright idea of finding out what had happened to the the Ardoyne Kickhams side of 1969. The Belfast Game was a haunting piece of radio, the story of the Ulster nightmare compressed into the experiences of a group of young footballers. Murder, imprisonment and exile, the history of a ravaged community. It was an inspired vehicle to describe the effects of the long war on one community. I rang Colm the same day, and he gave me the number of one of the surviving team members.

Pat Murphy was a big-hearted character who was still involved in training young footballers in the area. When I met him, he showed me a photograph from the North Belfast News, for which he wrote occasional pieces. The photograph was of another team, younger than the side that had featured in the radio documentary. They were the Holy Cross Boys who had won football glory in 1968. Pat's brother Ciaran had been on the side. It was one of the saddest photographs I'd seen of the Troubles. Sad because the boys looked so young and hopeful, unaware of the disaster that was bearing down on them.

With Pat's help I set about finding out what had happened to the team. Just as Colm Keane had discovered with his team, the boys of Holy Cross had been devastated by the eruption of sectarian violence in Belfast in 1969. They had gone from being star footballers, the toast of their neighbourhood, to victims of war in the space of a few months. Over the next three decades a player and a coach would be murdered by loyalist extremists, another boy accused of betraying his comrades would be shot by the IRA, numerous others lost relatives or friends to the violence, others emigrated or moved away from the district.

I made a film about the Holy Cross side and called it The Boys of Summer, taken from a line spoken by one of the players, Joe Skelly: "Aye, we were the boys that summer, we were the boys alright." One of those killed was Pat Murphy's brother Ciaran, dragged into a car by a loyalist murder gang and beaten and shot to death. His body was dumped at a quarry in the hills overlooking Belfast. Another victim of the Troubles was Maurice Gilvarry, a heavily short-sighted young man who joined the IRA but was later shot by the organisation after being accused of providing information to the security forces.

What fascinated me in the making of the film was how the political atmosphere of Ardoyne had changed; the move from the politics of protest and the IRA's long war, to the tactic of peace and negotiation was central to the narrative. Pat Murphy's son Niall was one of those who made a deep impression on me. Though his uncle had been murdered by loyalists, and his father harassed by the Army on more occasions than he could remember, Niall would argue passionately for the case being made by Adams and McGuinness: the armed struggle was over, Republicans should take the road of negotiation.

The film was broadcast on Saturday night when most people were on their way to the pub or the cinema. It had a modest audience and friends and colleagues said some nice things. But it didn't get a lot of notice. Films about Northern Ireland are rarely big ratings grabbers and The Boys of Summer was no exception. The only comment from beyond my own circle of acquaintances was, unusually, from the composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who telephoned the producer of the film and asked her to tea. They met and he told her he was thinking of writing a musical based on the story of the team. She rang me with this unlikely news. I was amazed. The idea of a story from the Troubles making it onto the West End stage as a musical? I somehow couldn't see it.

But both I and the producer moved on to other things. I heard nothing more until I read a newspaper article saying that Andrew Lloyd Webber was writing a musical with Ben Elton based on a Belfast football team destroyed by the Troubles. Pat Murphy called up and asked if I'd heard anything from the two writers. I hadn't. Still haven't. I note that the newspapers talked about the play being inspired by The Boys of Summer, but quote the writers as saying it was inspired by a number of documentaries. (There was a Channel 4 documentary on the Ardoyne Kickhams side some time ago and a film on the "Star of the Sea" boy's soccer team was shown in Britain in the early Eighties. The hunger striker Bobby Sands was a member of the "Star of the Sea" side.)

I was invited to the first night of the show last week. I will leave judgement on its' merits to the theatre critics. But two of the characters in The Beautiful Game seemed to me to be based on the late Ciaran Murphy (a big red-headed player is murdered by loyalists) and Maurice Gilvarry (a short sighted player is killed for betraying a colleague to the security forces). Much of the dialogue centres around the supposed irrationality of the conflict; at one point the female lead sings: "We just love to kill and we always will."

The truth is that nobody on the Holy Cross team would have been a killer or a victim of killing had the poison of the Troubles not exploded over them in 1969. I certainly never met anybody in Ardoyne, or indeed in any protestant neighbourhood, who loved killing. The people of Ardoyne were no more predisposed to violence than the people of any depressed working class area in these islands.

The boys and their families were simply overwhelmed by the violence; the miracle of it all is that people in Ardoyne did not become cold hearted, and when peace was offered, they were ready to take the risk. "Too long a sacrifice," wrote Yeats "can make a stone of the heart." Not so in Ardoyne. This is a story with a happy ending. Pat Murphy is still training the boys of Holy Cross School. They do not live in fear of bombs and bullets. And every time I hear somebody whining about the peace process, I only need to imagine that photograph from 1968 and I know just how much has been lost and how much achieved.

* The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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