Whenever visitors are able to return to Ulster Rugby’s Kingspan Stadium, where they can also enjoy the self-guided tour of the highly popular interactive museum in the Nevin Spence Centre, they will be delving into a century and a half of the sport’s history in the province.
However, in the context of all that has happened in the game since the Ulster Branch’s formation in 1879, it can only be a cursory glance.
This is not a criticism of the educational centre’s content, but reflective of a recent realisation that there are large gaps in our collective knowledge.
However, if a unique pilot project, that ran last year, gets the green light of approval from the Lottery History Fund for a further three-year programme, then all might not be lost.
The genesis of the idea for what has become the Your Club Your History initiative grew from one man’s early arrival at a meeting a couple of years ago.
“I had a bit of time to spare and was looking at photographs on a wall at Ballymena Rugby Club,” remembers Chris Shields, Rugby Projects Manager at the Ulster Branch.
“Having assumed this wonderful material was archived, I discovered that it wasn’t. I had the immediate thought, what would happen if there was a fire? This would all be destroyed.”
Preserving the past
In that moment Shields also wondered if, and how, other clubs under the Ulster Branch’s umbrella were keeping their own histories safe. “While I’m a rugby development guy, not a historian, I figured out quickly that there must be loads of material elsewhere that is not being properly cared for.”
Shields also realised that help was needed from someone who had the expertise and brought in Les McLean as Heritage Development Manager to work on the 12-month pilot scheme encouraging clubs to seek out and secure their own histories.
One of the first things that McLean, the former Operations Manager at the Ulster Museum, did was to organise a family day at Ravenhill that tested everybody’s knowledge including his own.
“One of the things I did was to show people a long list of place names and ask them to guess which of those places used to have a rugby club. The list included Albion, Bessbrook, Sydenham, Kilrea, Cootehill, Carrickmacross, Andersonstown and Sirocco Works. When told the answer was all of them, there was astonishment,” says McLean.
“Albion was an early club based around the Albion Mill in South Belfast. Bessbrook had Irish internationals playing for them until the club folded after their captain was killed in a Towns Cup match in Derry. Many clubs stopped playing at the outbreak of war in 1939 and never reformed.”
As McLean engaged Ards, Armagh, Malone and Letterkenny in the pilot project he discovered countless other tales of how rugby is woven and fast tied into both our rural and urban fabric.
“The oral history is fascinating. To be honest we only scratched the surface. At some of our story telling events you could see the enthusiasm from people who were responding to old photographs and artefacts,” says McLean.
“At Letterkenny there’s the huge connection with Dave Gallagher, the first All-Blacks captain, who came from Ramelton. At Malone, there was the story of the Catholic priest and Church of Ireland minister, playing on the same team, who officiated at the mixed marriage ceremony for another team-mate.”
“This project is about rugby in Ulster not Ulster Rugby,” says Ian Wallace, the honorary secretary at Ards. “The clubs are the bedrock of the sport. They provide the players for the schools and for the professional teams to feed off. Sometimes they are forgotten by the greater rugby family.”
However, the sessions run by Les McLean have brought memories to the surface and engaged the generations at rugby clubs.
“Younger members of clubs have no idea about the histories of their clubs or who some of the people who’ve played there are,” says Chris Shields. “This project is not only about what was achieved by the First XV and the well-known players. It’s about what was going on with the Fourths and Fifths and further down. Those stories and memories are just as important.”
And while Les McLean has opened the door into that world of memories, Shields acknowledges that it is too big a task for one man. “If the Your Club You History project is able to move into a three-year delivery phase, we want to teach volunteers in clubs how to collect this priceless material themselves so that it is saved for posterity.”
While clearing out his father’s house, Ian Wallace has made his own discoveries.
“My dad Craig is almost 92. While he is probably best known for his contributions to the Northern Ireland Rose Society, the BBC’s Gardening Programme and four decades of columns for the Belfast Telegraph, he was also a pretty good rugby player in his day.”
“We’ve found old cuttings and photographs from his time at Ballymena Academy and then Malone, Civil Service and lastly Ballymena. He retired from as a player when he was only 28 years old.”
“In 1956 at Ballymena, he was on one side of the front row. On the other side was a young man, recently returned from the Merchant Navy, called Syd Millar. Whatever happened to him?,” laughs Wallace.