Raymond McCartney still has a vivid recollection of a mobile phone exchange he had with the late Martin McGuinness in the summer of 2015.
The Derry Sinn Fein man had made an impromptu visit to Lord’s with a friend for the last session of England’s Test match against New Zealand and he texted McGuinness to let him know where he was.
“I had been at Wembley with a friend for a football play-off between Bradford and Northampton, we came out of it in the afternoon and we went round to Lord’s,” McCartney recalled.
“You could buy a ticket off someone who was leaving the ground at tea time, it was £15 in, so we went in at 4pm. It was England v New Zealand and I sent Martin a text photo, and I remember the text coming back and him asking, ‘You’re not at a match?’ I remember phoning him and having a bit of banter about it.”
Unlikely as it might seem for two leading figures in the republican movement, McCartney and McGuinness shared a love for cricket. Their passion for a game steeped in English tradition raised many eyebrows but it was born many years ago on the streets of Derry.
McCartney said: “In Derry there’s that strange, quirky thing that there are people here who are into cricket. But when you say you are into cricket, people almost look back at you,”
Lawrence Moore, the North West cricket journalist, had several conversations with McGuinness during Derry City football matches at the Brandywell that shed light on how his love for the game was born.
“Martin told me it was just after the end of the Second World War and there were retired army generals in the area who came back with their grandchildren and brought cricket with them,” Lawrence explained. “Martin said he remembered playing some cricket during summer evenings at Moore Street, close to the Brandywell, and on Dunree Beach in Donegal. He seemed very knowledgeable about the game.”
McCartney recalled that in republican circles, he was ribbed about his love for cricket. But he had an immediate retort at the ready.
“I was often asked about being a cricket fan, But Sean Keenan, who was a very famous republican in Derry, was also a cricket fan. His son was a Sinn Fein councillor, who was also very close to Martin, When I got teased about how a republican could be a cricket fan, I would always say, ‘If it’s good enough for Sean Keenan and Martin McGuinness it is good enough for me’.”
The extent of the unlikely republican interest in cricket can perhaps best be summed up by how England’s Test and one-day exploits were followed avidly by some prisoners on television in the Maze during the Troubles. McCartney was one of those who jokingly became known as the ‘Long Kesh MCC’.
He explained: “It wasn’t just me. Ned Flynn from Belfast was a cricket man himself and others took an interest. When I was in the Kesh, and I was watching the TV, people would have said, how can you watch that, it’s five days long. You gave a bit of an explanation.
“During the day people went out to the yard and played football and the TV was sitting idle so it was easy to go in and watch it. We always found someone from the countries England were playing who we knew or supported. I have cousins in Australia and I remember being interviewed on Radio Foyle and Paul McFadden was the interviewer me and he asked me would I be cheering England. I said my cousin from Australia rang the previous night telling me to support Australia, and on that basis I was supporting them! If there was an ‘anyone but United’ in football there was an ‘anyone but England’ in cricket. Sometimes England sets itself up to get knocked down and that was part of the attraction.”
While McCartney and McGuinness’ interest in cricket was mostly limited to watching on television, the latter attended games at Stormont and in Dublin as Ireland started to find their international feet.
“I couldn’t say exactly how Martin got into it, but in my home international cricket was always on the TV,” McCartney said.
“My two aunts married two brothers from England, who were big into cricket. While Martin lived in the Bog, I grew up in a mixed area, and some of the boys I grew up with went to a Protestant school in inverted commas. One day we could be playing with a rugby ball, one day it could be a football and another day a cricket ball.
“There are strange pockets in the North West where people play cricket, Ardmore, in the Waterside, and in Strabane, and people say it was due to the history of the mills. There was a mill set up and people came across from Engand, maybe the mangers or engineers, and they brought cricket with them. We had Matt Dennison, who was an umpire in the North West, living beside us and we used to play wearing massive big pads in the street, with a tennis ball.”
McCartney’s cricketing highlight? Ireland’s 2011 win over England. “Ireland beating England.. It could be tiddlywinks and you would get people watching it.”