Made of write stuff on and off the field

 

SPORTS BOOKS 2010: MARK DUNCAN and PAUL ROUSE plot their way through the plethora of works that in different ways tell the story of a national obsession

MORE BOOKS were published on the GAA in the last 12 months than were published in the entirety of the first 75 years of the association’s existence. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On a positive note, it emphasises the extent to which the GAA continues to thrive; against that, quite a few books do not rise above the mundane.

One definitely worth reading is Christy O’Connor’s The Club: Hunger, Conflict and Heartbreak – An Extraordinary Year in the Life of a GAA Club (€17.99). Original and unflinchingly honest, this is unquestionably the GAA book of the year.

The club of the title is St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield of Clare, best known for winning the 1999 All-Ireland club championship and for giving us players like Seánie McMahon and Jamesie O’Connor, two of the principal drivers of Clare’s hurling revolution which harvested two All-Irelands.

A decade on and the club is a different place. The lustre of yesteryear has been lost. No longer contesting provincial or All-Ireland club finals, St Joseph’s are struggling just to remain competitive within Clare.

As O’Connor, the club’s senior goalkeeper for 20 years, explains it, the reasons for decline are many: a failure to introduce a proper coaching structure, competition from Gaelic football and a loss of identity which has come from the relocation of the club grounds and the absorption of its catchment area into the urban sprawl of nearby Ennis.

The 2009 season was about arresting this decline, but it was also about honouring lost lives – in one terrible week at the start of the year, the author buried his infant daughter and shouldered the coffin of his friend, Ger Hoey, a club stalwart and team-mate on the 1999 All-Ireland winning side.

In the aftermath of these tragedies, the club provided refuge and purpose. Everything was invested in the campaign to reclaim the county championship and this provides the central narrative of the book. It may not have worked out as planned, but what O’Connor has left his club and neighbours may prove a more lasting memorial.

The Club is an excellent book, going way beyond sport to say as much about family, friendship, community and society in Ireland as a raft of academic theses. This is GAA club life laid bare – the GAA as most of us know it and live it.

O’Connor’s fellow Clare hurler Tony Griffin has also written a fine book, Screaming at the Sky: My Journey (with TJ Flynn) (€17.67). Griffin’s book is a charming, engaging, sometimes moving account of his life.

Griffin is no ordinary man. His book documents his hurling career, the wanderlust that drew him to Canada to study, his discovery of cycling, trying to cope with the loss of his father and much more. There is a brilliant portrait of the fragility of the mind of top-class athletes and it eloquently illustrates the battle with self-doubt that is so much a part of sport. If it sometimes seems a little overdone, it always bears the stamp of honesty.

It was a tumultuous clash with Clare which marked the arrival of the Waterford hurling team to centrestage at the end of the 1990s. The throw-in to the replayed Munster hurling final of 1998 between Clare and Waterford has passed into legend.

The bottom line, though, is Clare set out to impose themselves physically on Waterford, and nothing demonstrated that more than the timber being swung by Colin Lynch as the ball was being thrown in. He hit the other three midfielders – including his team-mate Ollie Baker – and the tone was set for a match in which Clare blew Waterford off the field.

This is captured vividly in the autobiography, Dan Shanahan: If You Don’t Know Me, Don’t Judge Me (€17.99). To his credit, Shanahan does not shy from what happened. He says clearly that, while he would never wish a heavy suspension on any hurler, he believes Lynch was well over the top and deserved to be banned.

He also accepts Clare fully deserved to win the replay, something which was no doubt facilitated by the fact Shanahan and several other players not only drank on the Sunday after the draw, but carried their socialising over into the Monday evening.

Shanahan comes across as a decent, fair-minded man, who loves hurling and loved playing for Waterford. You can tell from the pages that making the transition to the other side of the fence will not be straightforward. As the last line of the book reads, “Where did the time go?”

From Shanahan’s book – and Damien Tiernan’s The Ecstasy and the Agony: The Real Story Behind Waterford Hurling (€16.99) – you get a clear insight into why Waterford have not won an All-Ireland lately. For all their brilliance, the rough truth is that when it came down to it, Waterford were simply not good enough to win a senior hurling championship.

That a team as fine as Waterford’s could not win an All-Ireland demonstrates just how difficult it is to win one, but the question that remains: why have they repeatedly come up short?

Losing seven All-Ireland semi-finals out of eight is a pattern which cannot simply be waved away as the result of bad luck, or as the consequence of playing in an era dominated by Kilkenny, arguably the greatest team in history.

After all, as well as losing to Kilkenny, and to their great rivals Cork, Waterford also lost semi-finals to Clare and Limerick, and a qualifier match against Wexford. And then there was the traumatic loss to Kilkenny in the 2008 All-Ireland final. They met Kilkenny on their greatest day, but failed to perform.

Did the managements get the absolute maximum out of the resources at their disposal? The evidence would suggest they didn’t, although Tiernan’s book is dominated by the views of players rather than those of management.

The failure to succeed, though, rests with the players, too. Did they really pursue success with the obsession of their rivals in Kilkenny and Waterford? Again, the evidence suggests they didn’t – or, at least, not all of them did.

Overall, there are some good stories in Tiernan’s book and you come away with an understanding of the mentality of Waterford hurling. The great pity is that it feels like a rushed job, not least because of the number of typos.

If the defining aspect of Waterford hurling is their status as nearly-men, Kerry are storied for their ability to win and win again. Joe O’Mahony’s The Kingdom. Kerry Football: The Stuff of Champions (€16.99) records each of Kerry’s 36 All-Ireland football championship victories in some detail, often using the recollections of the men who played in them.

One of those was Darragh Ó Sé, whose autobiography, Darragh, My Story (€17.99), contains a few good yarns and provides an insight into how the greatest midfielder of his generation prepared for games.

Ó Sé comes across as knowledgeable about football and footballers and makes revealing observations about both. There is also a moving chapter about the loss of his father. Overall, though, the book is a disappointment, reading too much like a “And then we won this/lost that”.

Therein lies the dilemma for players who produce autobiographies: how much to reveal? Ó Sé is too decent and too shrewd to reveal much. There is honour in this, but the book definitely suffers as a result.

One of the great things about the GAA is watching the dynamics of teams on which brothers play. This is captured by Donal Keenan in his oddly-titled Brothers in Sport, GAA (€16.99).

The stories of the Ó Sé brothers playing with Kerry is relatively well-known, but the best thing about this work is that it records not just the success stories, but also the disappointments of failure. You see, once again, the lingering impact defeat can have on men who loved the games for what they are but are left with the lingering regret of not winning the medal they wished for.

A quick glance at the contents page of John Scally’s 100 GAA Greats: From Christy Ring to Joe Canning (€16.99) is a gentle reminder that an All-Ireland medal is not the only way to ensure sporting immortality.

The author acknowledges he could easily have filled the book with Kerry footballers and Kilkenny hurlers, but the approach he takes is far more democratic. This is right and proper.

Scally gives parity of esteem to the likes of Tyrone’s Iggy Jones and Leitrim’s Packie McGarty – and by including Sue Ramsbottom of Laois, Angela Downey of Kilkenny and Ciara Gaynor of Tipperary. He has done more than most to acknowledge the vast contribution of women to the GAA’s sporting legacy.

Books of this sort are more about kick-starting arguments than ending them, but this one ultimately suffers from the scale of Scally’s ambition. In setting out to cover 100 GAA greats, there simply isn’t enough space to do any more than tread the surface of these players’ lives and careers.

In contrast, Conor McMorrow’s Dáil Stars: From Croke Park to Leinster House (€16.99) goes deeper into the lives of those GAA men – they are all men – who have made the transition from player to politician.

The relationship between the GAA and Irish politics runs deep and, with an election pending, this book appears particularly well-timed. Pitched at the general reader, McMorrow has produced a readable book which offers substantial profiles of those who turned their sporting celebrity to electoral gain and slighter profiles of those who didn’t.

Among the former are obvious examples such as Jack Lynch and Jimmy Deenihan, but the most interesting chapters concern those whose political careers followed less conventional trajectories, among them people like Michael Donnellan, the Galway footballer of the 1920s and ’30s who founded Clann na Talmhan, the agrarian movement which burned brightly in the 1940s before eventually fading away in the 1960s with much of its west of Ireland support base transferring to Fine Gael.

The stories of Donnellan and others are well told, but the book would have benefited from a slightly more analytical edge.

For instance, it would have been nice to know how, if at all, the GAA’s ethos and politics helped inform the social and political outlook of those politicians featured. Or whether GAA-nurtured localism, allied to our multi-seat electoral system, bears any responsibility for the current malaise in our political culture.

Politics of a different type intrude on Michael Moynihan’s Rebels: Cork GAA Since 1950 (€24.99), an attractive book decorated with some lovely photographs from the Irish Examiner’s impressive archive. Moynihan, a journalist with that newspaper, has produced a lively narrative, which is driven by interviews with ex-players and which takes the story up to and through the divisive strikes of recent years.

If the book is, for the most part, a celebration of Cork GAA, that is because there is much to celebrate. As a dual county, Cork is without comparison. And they know it.

Recalling a moment in September 1990 when, in the aftermath of the completion of an extraordinary All-Ireland double, the captains of hurling and football teams exchanged the Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire trophies, Tomás Mulcahy comments: “In other parts of the country they mightn’t get one of those cups more than once every 50 years. But we’re lucky in Cork. We can do that.”

The quote sums up neatly the allegiances of the book – it is the story of modern Cork GAA as told by those who helped shape it.

Moynihan’s book finishes before this year’s All-Ireland football final victory, so Cork people wishing to indulge themselves a little more can turn to The Sunday Game 2010, which carries reports on every game in this year’s football and hurling championships. It is a handsome publication, but the problem with making a book of a highly-popular television series is that it is always going to look pale by comparison.

Voices from Croke Park: The Stories of 12 GAA Heroes , edited by Seán Potts, is a completely different offering. Conceived as a fund-raiser for the Gaelic Players Association’s past players benevolent fund, this is an impressive and well-produced collection of essays which explores the playing careers and after-lives of some of the modern greats. The GPA is prone to over-emphasising the hardships of the intercounty player, yet this book mercifully avoids a self-pitying tone.

A number of the former players featured do indeed express frustration and annoyance at their treatment by GAA officialdom (sometimes with legitimate reason, other times less so), but for the most part they reveal themselves to be grateful for the experiences they have had, the opportunities they have been given and the friendships they have made.

The key to this book’s success is ultimately the choice of interviewees and the quality of writing.

The pick of the chapters is that by Brian Jaffray on Offaly’s Michael Duignan, one of the shrewdest observers of hurling.

The story of Duignan’s life is beautifully told and demonstrates once again that the very best of writing on the GAA focuses as much on what happens off the field as what happens on it.

Mark Duncan and Paul Rouse are GAA historians 

From Irish Times

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