There's a morbid old joke in Northern Ireland about a Protestant man who on his deathbed summons a priest and announces his conversion to Catholicism. When his shocked family members demand to know why he is forsaking his faith at the end, the old man announces: "It's better one of theirs die than one of ours."
From cradle to grave, religion has long been the defining identity trait in Northern Ireland, a reality that has metastasized into every aspect of cultural and political existence. And that's what this week's Rory McIlroy story is really about.
On Monday McIlroy issued an open letter rejecting a newspaper report claiming that he has decided to play for Great Britain when golf returns to the Olympics in 2016. This is no small matter in Northern Ireland, where Catholics are presumed to be nationalists and supporters of reunification with the Republic of Ireland and Protestants are assumed to be loyal to the existing union with Britain.
(Related Photos: McIlroy's Career In Pictures)
McIlroy is Catholic by birth, but is neither religious nor political by disposition. It's safe to say he remembers nothing of the most violent phase of the Northern Irish conflict over this issue, which mostly ended with ceasefires when McIlroy was 5 years old. But almost two decades on, he finds himself still having to dance through this tedious political and religious minefield. Declaring for Ireland or Britain in the Olympics is about much more than the colors on his shirt, and he knows it. Competing for a gold medal is a dream for most athletes, but Rory McIlroy must look to Rio with at least a little dread.
This open letter was McIlroy's effort to shake off those parochial shackles, a claim to be all things to all men, a declaration that he won't neatly fit into any of the narrow boxes favored in a society that seems incapable of thinking outside of them.
"Having just won three out of my last four tournaments, including a second Major Championship, I was hoping that my success on the golf course would be the more popular topic of golfing conversation today," he wrote in his letter. "However the issue of my cultural identity has reemerged and with it the matter of my national allegiance ahead of the Rio Olympics."
After acknowledging the "extremely sensitive and difficult position" he is in, McIlroy went on to point out that he is a product of the Golfing Union of Ireland, which administers the game in both Ireland and Northern Ireland without regard to borders or religious and political identity. He then affirmed his pride in being from Northern Ireland, and emphasized his love of America and his role as an international sportsman and role model.
Ah yes, but is he an Irish sportsman and role model or a British sportsman and role model? Like all stupid questions, it has no answer. But that doesn't stop stupid people from asking it.
The reality is that McIlroy is hostage to this peculiarly Northern Irish dilemma, expected to choose between two abusive custodians who want to brandish him as a spoil of a war he isn't fighting.
Even in his greatest moment, he couldn't avoid it. As he walked off the 18th green at Congressional last year after a dominating win in the U.S. Open, someone in the crowd threw an Irish tricolor flag around his shoulders. Within seconds it was gone. Almost immediately a Facebook group sprung up in which pro-British loyalists gleefully celebrated McIlroy's apparent rejection of a symbol of Ireland. It got 7,000 "likes."
Of course, the only thing McIlroy was rejecting were attempts by others to define him on their terms. In this Sisyphean task he is aided by his ever-watchful team at Horizon Sports. He was pointedly refusing to become another pawn in Northern Ireland's tiresome game of sanctimonious sectarianism. Just last week there were more riots between rival religious factions in Belfast over who can or can't parade their ignorance down certain streets. And therein lies the crux of Rory's world: he aspires to be a positive symbol of post-conflict Northern Ireland, yet he is fought over by people for whom the conflict is still very much extant.
If only his identity could be encapsulated as easily as Tiger Woods did his multicultural heritage with that "Cablinasian" label.
Rory McIlroy and I grew up about 50 miles and 17 years apart, but the similarities between us really end with our Northern Irish provenance. He probably doesn't remember much at all of our country's violent conflict, whereas it was the defining event in my formative years. His inclination seems to be to accommodate differing faiths, mine is opposition to all. He loves Caroline Wozniacki, I think her brother is kind of cute. He can hit a towering 5-iron… well, you get the picture.
But perhaps there is one thing we both understand, though McIlroy can't ever say so publicly. The island of Ireland — Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — has spent much of the past 200 years exporting three things: Guinness, its people and cheap nationalism. Guinness has ruined many an Irish sportsman, but it is the latter that causes most headaches for McIlroy.
The Olympics is still four years away but already some commentators have suggested that McIlroy not compete in Rio as a means of defusing the more unpleasant aspects of this Irish-British identity row. Nonsense. He shouldn't seek to defuse this choice but to disown it entirely. So do us a favor, Rory: marry Caroline and announce that you're playing for Denmark.