Bad sports: what's up with Irish art?
Look at our creative output and you see a country straining under religion, politics, sex, violence, corruption and abuse. Why do we ignore sport, asks MICK HEANEY
IN 1999, WHEN the playwright John Breen premiered the work that married his two passions of theatre and sport, he had no great expectations. The opening night did not even take place in a theatre. The play, Alone It Stands, instead made its debut at Waterpark Rugby Club, in Waterford. As its subject matter was Munster’s famous 1978 victory over the All Blacks, this seemed logical, as did the subsequent tour, which visited another half-dozen or so rugby clubs across the country. “That was the plan,” says Breen. “I didn’t think it would play in many theatres.”
A decade later, after hundreds of performances on the stages of Edinburgh, London, Australia and pretty much every corner of Ireland, Alone It Stands finally stopped touring. The critical and commercial success of the vibrant comedy drama, which saw six actors take on 60 or so roles, was a vindication of Breen’s original impulse to create a play aimed at people who normally shunned the theatre while also “reaching out to theatregoers who weren’t rugby fans”. It was an object lesson in how the imaginative arts could tap into the Irish zeal for sport to triumphant effect.
It is an example few have since emulated: rare indeed are those Irish creative practitioners who have acknowledged the world of sport in their work, much less successfully engaged with it. The feats of Olympians such as Katie Taylor may take centre stage in our public consciousness over the next fortnight, just as the Republic’s misfiring soccer team did during the European championship last month, but such events will scarcely register in the collective imagination of the creative community here, at least judging by past experience.
To view Ireland through the vast bulk of its artistic output is to see a country straining under religion, politics, sex, violence, corruption and abuse, but one in which sport barely exists, never mind exercises popular passions as it does. Nor is this a recent development. Sport has long been an absence across the creative spectrum. Given Ireland’s rich legacy in the field, this seems a perverse oversight.
There have been notable exceptions. Seán O’Casey captured the emotional exhilaration of soccer in The Silver Tassie, even if it pales beside the horror of war; Paul Mercier’s 1986 play Studs explored the dynamics of a small Dublin soccer club, later being adapted for the screen; Roddy Doyle evoked the exuberant ambience surrounding Ireland’s exploits at the 1990 World Cup in his novel The Van; and Jack B Yeats painted remarkable depictions of swimming races and boxing matches.
But the infrequence of these works only underlines how rarely such physical contests otherwise feature in Irish theatre, film, literature and visual art. For all that art and sport both can exercise our emotions, they do not seem to gel easily. “I think what makes sport unique and captivating is the fact that it’s unpredictable,” says Breen. “Art, on the other hand, is predictable. When you listen to music your brain is looking for the patterns that make it attractive. It’s the same in theatre: those cadences attract people. But in sport anything can happen . . . And maybe that’s what makes them uncomfortable bedfellows.”
THE QUESTION OF HOW to represent sport’s air of spontaneity and surprise is an obvious challenge for artists, whose work is generally fixed in time and space. Hurling is probably the closest thing Ireland has to a sporting expression of its soul, with the game featuring in the ancient myth of Setanta and the hound. But for all the efforts of Barabbas in its 2003 production Hurl, and of the director Fergus Tighe in his 1987 film Clash of the Ash, the fast and fluid sport has proved hard to translate on to stage and screen, and it is almost entirely absent from the pages of Irish literature, the odd passing reference by Joyce excepted. Meanwhile, the immense influence of the GAA in everyday Irish society has gone largely unexamined, unless one counts the RTÉ drama On Home Ground, which was more rural soap than anything else.