By Seán Mullan
Mary follows Armagh – the Gaelic football team. She’s from Armagh and she follows her home team. She lives in Dublin, though. So on wet a February Sunday you’ll find her on the road to Armagh or Galway or Derry to cheer on her team.
I heard her once. On the radio. She was sitting so close to the commentary box that I could hear this voice shouting over the commentary and the noise of the crowd. It was her; “Come on, Armagh,” she pleaded.
For the uninitiated, for those who prefer rugby and hockey, I should explain. The football Mary heads off to watch is not the best football you’ll see. It’s National League, Division 2. Occasional bursts of excitement can be expected but don’t hold your breath. And it’s a long drive to Galway or Derry; the chances are it’s raining there, that the wind blows the rain right in under the roof of the covered stand, into her face as she shouts “Come on, Armagh!”
So far this year, the results haven’t been in Mary’s favour: beaten by Meath, beaten by Laois, beaten by Cavan – you get the picture. At least in Gaelic football you never get a goalless draw! So there are always a few scores to cheer. But in the gloom of a wet February Sunday evening, that drive back to Dublin listening to RTÉ’s experts tell her all of Armagh’s faults, she must now and again consider the possibility that there are better ways to spend your weekend.
But ask her why she does it and she stares at you, lips compressed to a thin straight line. “Why?” It seems the question has never entered her head before. The shoulders shrug but there’s no explanation forthcoming. She has, it seems, no real thought-out explanation for why she does it – it’s just what she does.
I, in case you’re interested, follow Cork – yes, the Gaelic football team. But I think I’ve been to one National League game in my life. Come August, if Cork are still in the running for the all-Ireland, you just might find me in Croke Park, sun blazing, cheering on the boys in red. But ask me who they’re playing in February or how they got on last Sunday and I either won’t have ever known or won’t remember. The Rebels, as they’re known, are a fine side and have been fairly successful through the years – far more successful than Armagh. But for me it’s just not that important.
She’s a follower; I’m what you could call a sympathiser. You’ll never accuse me of being extremist or fanatical over Cork and Gaelic football. But I have to say I envy her that passion, that fire. I love that commitment to the sport in general and to the cause of the men in orange and white in particular. “Come on, Armagh!”
A passion for sport is something that most admire, even if they don’t have it themselves. We love and admire followers. We tell stories of fanatical fans and the things they get up to as they follow their team. Some followers may be a bit over the top at times, but a serious dedicated following of sport is not an issue anyone is worrying about.
Not so with religion. That’s another story. Society, at least in the West, is terrified of serious followers of religion. Sympathisers are much preferred to followers. Religious extremism is always seen as bad – a threat. So if you want to practice your religious beliefs, the West may defend your right to do so but would seriously prefer that you never take it seriously and that you keep it to yourself. After all, terrible things are being done by religious extremists in God’s name.
Religious coercion and religious-based violence are evil. Let’s continue to oppose them. But dedicated, wholehearted and public following of a faith that teaches you to love your enemies, to receive and give forgiveness, to care for those in need and to love a loving God with everything you’ve got? Doesn’t seem to me that even a liberal secular society has got too much to fear from that kind of wholehearted following.
“Come on, JC!”
Seán Mullan has been working in church leadership for many years. He has developed a new project in Dublin City Centre called “Third Space”.