The new Star of County Down is without question 22-year-old Rory McIlroy, whose stunning victory at the U.S. Open Golf Championships at Bethesda was duly celebrated when he returned triumphantly to his home town, called appropriately enough, Holywood (only one L, but pronounced the same). The second youngest winner in history, McIlroy is only a year older than Bobby Jones, the legendary amateur who won in 1923. And he follows last year’s winner, also from Northern Ireland, Graeme McDowell.
In all the hullabaloo, little was said about McIlroy’s religion. A Catholic boy reared in a largely Protestant area of Ireland, McIlroy is about as far as one can get from the rock-throwing, clenched-fist, angry young Catholics of East Belfast. Those were in evidence just two days after the US Open, following a surprising outburst of Unionist violence at the beginning of what is traditionally known as “the marching season,” several weeks in late June and July during which the Orange Order repeats to the extent allowed by law (and then some) the Protestant victory over the Catholic supporters of James II and the Battle of the Boyne. That was in 1690, but from the force of feeling still evidence in bonfires and the banging of giant drums as marchers parade through Catholic neighborhoods, it could have been last year.
After several years of relative peace, the violence caught most people by surprise as Catholic homes were targeted with paint bombs and bricks. When the police moved in, their vehicles were set alight and the riot commenced. Nationalist “dissidents” were quick to respond. Eventually shots were fired, but although a reporter was wounded in the leg, no one was killed –this time.
Talks between Unionist and Nationalist leaders restored a measure of calm to East Belfast. But the marching season has barely begun. The weeks’ unsettling disturbances obscured for a time the joy and rightful pride of County Down, but McIlroy’s achievement will far outlast the sad images of sectarian conflict in the north. Please God, his will be the face of a new Northern Ireland.