A children's novel about football rivalry in Glasgow is helping to heal wounds across the sectarian divide in Ireland. Geraldine Brennan reports
Forget The Da Vinci Code. In the north-west of Ireland the big read of this World Cup summer is a novel about football rivalries which, rather than promoting conspiracy theories about the origins of Christianity, is fostering friendship among young people from opposing religious traditions.
Theresa Breslin's children's novel Divided City is a tale of friendship and sectarianism set in Glasgow and told through the city's football teams: Rangers (the traditionally Protestant team) and Celtic (the Catholic team). At St Joseph's RC boys school in Derry's Creggan estate - a predominantly republican area in Northern Ireland - local playwright Eddie Kerr is helping a class dramatise a scene which casts them on the other side of the religious divide. "Those Fenians always want to fight; it's the only thing they're good at," says a young Catholic boy, playing a Rangers fan caught in a battle with Celtic supporters. "We're just here supporting our team; why can't they leave us alone?"
Across the border in the republic at Raphoe Royal and Prior school, Co Donegal, a Protestant girl finds herself playing a Celtic fan, enraged by the sight of an Orange march. "See them with their bowler hats and their sashes marching through our streets; they think they're so much better than us."
North West Reads The One Book is a scheme run by public libraries and funded by the European Union's programme for peace and reconciliation; it has brought together 1,000 readers, including classes from five schools which have formed cross-border partnerships. A four-month programme started and finished with Theresa Breslin leading readings and discussions in Derry, Omagh and Enniskillen - all names familiar from news reports of sectarian violence.
"I was convinced Divided City was a Belfast story when I first heard about it," says Trisha Ward, assistant chief librarian for Northern Ireland's Western education and library board, which has worked with Donegal libraries on One Book. "It's similar to the situation we know about - you can't get away from the religious issue - but different enough to make it safe to discuss.
"Among children it has been a fantastic success. Among adults, there is sometimes a sense of, 'It's telling us something we already know, and we don't want to discuss it'. But I think it's got the tone right; it's not preaching. People who aren't keen fiction readers are picking it up for the football content and absorbing the rest."
City-wide reading projects are well established in the UK (see box), but One Book involves two countries and a population that is partly urban and polarised, and partly rural and scattered. The Celtic-Rangers divide runs deep in the north-west of Ireland, where many families have connections with Scotland. "It is almost obligatory in the west of Scotland to have a granny from Donegal, as I have," says Theresa Breslin.
Divided City, for readers aged 11 and above, explores the cultural chasm between Rangers and Celtic supporters and the unlikely alliance between Graham (Rangers) and Joe (Celtic), schoolboys drawn together by football and by their encounter with a Muslim teenager called Kyoul, a refugee who has fled torture in his home country.
Classes at St Joseph's and Royal and Prior chose to work on the first incident in the book in which Kyoul is beaten up by a gang, and all met at Derry Central Library to perform their scenes. "It makes you realise how scary it is for asylum seekers to come to your country," says one of the performers at Royal and Prior. Fionnuala King, an English teacher at the school, says: "It was an eye-opener for our students. The main focus of our work was the racism. We are a fairly rural school although we do have a mixture of cultures with children from Russia, Greece and Pakistan."
Sean O'Kane, an English teacher at St Joseph's, chose a quote from Divided City -"we all bleed red" - as a theme for work with Year 9 (equivalent to Year 7). "They had all read Whispers in the Graveyard (an earlier Theresa Breslin novel) and were keen on this one and very vocal about it. We did relatively little on the Catholic-Protestant issue but a lot on diversity in general, and this informed the scenes about the marches and football matches."
Marches by the Protestant Orange Lodges - led through predominantly Catholic areas - are being held throughout the west of Scotland and Northern Ireland in the weeks leading up to the biggest march on July 12.
Sean Gallagher, a 12-year-old boy in Mr O'Kane's class, stays at home while the marches are on, "but I see them on TV. The book was realistic and all.
It reminds you of the racism that's going on, though in Glasgow everything seems more chaotic than here."
Theresa Breslin's return visit to Derry library took place in May on the same day as the funeral of 15-year-old Michael McIlveen, a Catholic killed in a suspected sectarian incident in Ballymena. The murdered boy's family asked his friends to wear their Celtic and Rangers shirts as an expression of cross-community solidarity. Eddie Kerr, rehearsing with the St Joseph's boys at school, draws parallels with Kyoul's beating in the book.
"Take away the racism and what you have is a story like that of Michael McIlveen; it's about sectarianism," says Eddie Kerr.
Divided City was inspired by the arrival of school-age asylum seekers in Scotland. "I couldn't write about the tension that the huge influx of young people with so many backgrounds would create without looking at the tension that was already there and the attachment young people feel to territory,"
says Theresa Breslin. "People told me not to do it, that I would be accused of backing one side or the other, but I am siding with young people and their capacity for friendship."
It was soon clear that she had a lot of research to do. She collected harrowing testimonies from young asylum seekers and interviewed a senior Orange Lodge official about the marching tradition and its roots in free speech. But the steepest learning curve came at her first football match.
"I went to Ibrox with a red-hot Rangers fan. He said he would have to call me Lesley in case anyone overheard; Theresa was too Catholic." She joined the Celtic crowd, too, and listened to their fury as Rangers fans threw potatoes on to the pitch (an insulting reference to the Irish famine of the 1840s). She learned to read the turbulent emotions as the fans made their way home. "People are so hyped up, whether they've won or lost. It's a real flashpoint."
A public librarian until five years ago, she has been moved by the tales she has heard from adult readers at One Book sessions. "They come up at the end and quietly tell you a story about their lives. It's very humbling."
But, for some, the football is the best bit. In early May, An Phobail Na Rossan, a 98 per cent Catholic school in Dunloe, Co Donegal, welcomed the under-16s from Derry Institute, the Irish League club with a mainly Protestant following, for a discussion about Divided City followed by football and tea. The Institute hosted a return match, which coincided with Theresa Breslin's second visit to Derry.
"We have a lot of pupils who travel to Glasgow every fortnight for matches - families in this area have spent time working in Glasgow, then settled back here," says John Gorman, an English teacher at An Phobail Na Rossan.
"The kids are very aware of the issues in the book."
Mr Gorman is organising a joint visit to Glasgow with the Institute next term, including tours of both Celtic and Rangers grounds. As Theresa Breslin says: "This project is about more than the book, it's got a life of its own."
Divided City by Theresa Breslin is published in paperback by Corgi. For teaching notes see the resources section of www.booktrusted.co.uk
A LONG WAY FROM LEEDS
Leeds was the first UK city to follow the US's city-wide reading trend, with Patrick Suskind's Perfume in 2002. Bristol started with Treasure Island in 2003 and this year has been reading Around the World in Eighty Days. Brighton and Hove read Alice in Wonderland last year; this year's book is Hotel World by Ali Smith. Kent organised a county-wide focus on Great Expectations last year. Liverpool read Holes by Louis Sachar in 2004-05 and Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce in 2005-06.