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Hockey and Habitus: Sport and National Identity in Northern Ireland

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 13, Number 4, Geimhreadh/Winter 2009
pp. 127-140 | 10.1353/nhr.0.0115

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In the official program of the 2005 European Hockey Nations' Championship held in Dublin, Lynsey McVicker, the captain of the Irish women's hockey team noted that, "When you are from Northern Ireland, sometimes you experience a confusion of identity—we're not quite the same as those from the Republic of Ireland. British or Irish? In a sense we [are] outsiders looking in."1 Her comment highlights one dimension of a more complex social phenomenon: the question of national habitus, or what the pioneering sociologist Norbert Elias called those "traits of national group identity—what we call the 'national character'—[that] are a layer of social habitus built very deeply and firmly into the personality structure of the individual."2

Questions relating to national identity have a particular resonance for people living in Northern Ireland, given the current sociopolitical situation and the highly politicized relationship between sport and politics in that region. Such questions as "What nationality am I?"; "What does this sport mean tome?"; "Am I any less Irish or British if I play for, or support the 'other' team?"; and "Where does being Northern Irish or from Ulster fit into this?" find social expression both on and off the playing field. The difficult questions of "Who am I both as a social and individual being?" lie at the very heart of this tension balance.3

Sport is thus inevitably implicated in questions of identity, and athletes from Northern Ireland who are eligible to represent the Republic of Ireland (sometimes described loosely as Ireland) or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland experience this particular tension in differing ways. Research on sport and national identity on the island of Ireland has focused almost exclusively on male variants of such team sports as rugby union, soccer, and Gaelic football.4 The sporting experiences of female athletes on the island of Ireland have been relatively neglected. In addition, research on women in Ireland, and Northern Ireland in particular, tends to ignore those for whom sport is an important aspect of their lives.5 Though much of this existing literature has addressed the intricacies associated with the formation, expression, and reproduction of national identity, David Hassan has acknowledged that "the complexities of identity construction" need "to be more fully elucidated."6 Elsewhere, Alan Bairner has argued that some Northern Irish Unionists live relatively comfortably with their "Irishness" through their support for such team sports as soccer and rugby union. To understand fully the sorts of negotiations of loyalty and identity that such support requires it is essential that each particular sporting context be explored.7

Our opening hypothesis is that female hockey players represent a focal and vibrant link between sport and "the nation."We focused on the experiences of ten female athletes, eight of whom were Protestant and two of whom were Catholic. All were from Northern Ireland and had represented Ireland at the elite level. We examine the sport-national identity nexus within the sporting context of what is an under researched team sport, that of hockey. The province of Ulster has attained a measurable degree of success in women's interprovincial hockey competitions over the past eight years and Northern Irish players are consistently well represented on the Irish national team. This leads players like Judith to articulate some identity tensions—she states, "I really don't see myself as being Irish, however I really don't see myself as being British either"—while Laura feels that playing for Ulster in interprovincial competition is akin to "playing against the Irish."8 In her words, "I suppose when you play for Ulster you are not Irish, you are playing against the Irish."

How are we to begin to describe the apparent malleability of identity and explain these tensions? Norbert Elias's notion of social habitus as it applies to the national character provides a possible theoretical and conceptual framework. Using the Eliasian conceptual apparatus, we might describe the complexities of national identity in Northern Ireland as a habitus problem par excellence. Elias concerned himself with the level of embodied social learning, and for him, it is the dynamic figurations or social networks that people form that enable...

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