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Irish golfer Rory McIlroy

Celtic Tiger McIlroy poster boy for peace in Northern Ireland

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Irish golfer Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy, the 19-year-old golfing sensation who played in the U.S. Masters this week, represents the best of post-conflict Northern Ireland.

Raised as a Catholic, he grew up in a mainly Protestant Belfast suburb called Holywood, and attended a non-denominational school.

Non-denominational schools are the exception in Northern Ireland as schools are still highly segregated, even since the 1996 Good Friday peace agreement.

This segregation extends to sports which are often played along sectarian and class lines. To simplify greatly: Catholics follow the Irish sports of hurling and Gaelic football and support the Irish Republic’s soccer team. Working-class Protestants support the Northern Ireland soccer team while middle-class Protestants play rugby and cricket.

But McIlroy, one of the hottest golfers in the world, has achieved that rare feat: everyone in Northern Ireland, both Protestant and Catholic, wants him to succeed.

The young Belfast man has never showed much interest in religion – he once complained how religious studies in school bored him – and even less in politics.

McIlroy, who won his first major tournament in Florida at the age of nine, has always been driven by a passion for golf.

And his parents, who recognized that their son was a golfing prodigy, supported their only child every step of the way.

The story goes that as a youngster, McIlroy used to practice his golf shots by chipping the ball into their washing machine.

At one stage, his Dad Gerry worked three jobs to support his son, including tending bar at the local golf club. Gerry's 90-hour weeks helped pay for a 1,200sq ft floodlit putting green in the back garden . His Mum Rosie worked nights in a factory job and the family didn’t take a proper holiday for seven years to keep Rory’s golfing career on course.

It wasn’t just his parents who saw his potential. His former school principal at Sullivan Upper, John Stevenson, gave McIlroy permission to leave school before he turned 16 even though he was a good student. Stevenson told Sports Illustrated, "It was clear that golf was his path." 

That path has led to the famed Augusta course where McIlroy will show the world a tangible result of peace in Northern Ireland.

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