Lit memories of All-Ireland Sundays
The real gift of this book is tucked away on a flap at the back: a CD of radio versions of the pieces
Mayo players dejected at the end of the All-Ireland senior championship final, in Croke Park last September. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Ed. Cliodhna Ni Anluain
It is unsurprising but nonetheless miraculous to learn that Sunday Miscellany has been broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 since 1968. It does seem to have been around forever, but to outwit four and a half decades of radio trends is no mean feat.
Sunday Miscellany predated the birth of 2FM by a full decade; it carried on through the Gerry Ryan era, The Gay Byrne Show and many redecorations of the head-of-radio office. It has remained impervious to the schedule revamps that axed everyone from Val Joyce to Barry Lang.
The formula is simple. Week after week, perfect strangers read their often intimate compositions aloud. Reflective music is woven through the readings, and the churchly, conservative tone has always masked the fact that Sunday Miscellany has become, in the most flattering sense, a very strange and radical little radio show.
Nobody shouts. There is no forced zaniness. Sunday Miscellany’s longevity has probably been helped by its transmission time. Sunday at 9am remains a lull hour, and nothing about the decibel level is threatening. The show is a startling example of the reason why radio is so important in Ireland: it offers company to those in need of it.
September Sundays is, as the title suggests, a collection dedicated to contributions based on the annual rituals, traditions and memories evoked by the All-Ireland hurling and football finals. So while, for most of the year, the show is designed for listeners just waking up or making breakfast or mooching around the garden on a fine morning, these pieces are read aloud when listeners from the competing counties are on the move in their thousands.
The power and magic of Sunday Miscellany pieces depend greatly on the voice and the delivery. On the Friday before this year’s football final, for instance, Morning Ireland asked Willie McHugh of the Mayo News to read aloud an open letter he had written to the county team. What was a moving, simple piece of prose became a paean from the heart when McHugh read it out on the airwaves. It was sent to me by a Swinford poet wintering in Iowa who was turning cartwheels at McHugh’s phrasing of the line “From high infants you were there.”
So the real gift of this book is tucked away on a flap at the back: a CD of radio versions of the pieces. Reading Conor O’Callaghan’s ode to Co Down – “Praise be the fish suppers in Portavogie. Praise be Donal McCann’s Ards Peninsula accent in December Bride” – is a pleasure. But listening to it takes you on an audio tour of the country.
The collection opens with “The Hurler’s Seat”, by Cathy Power, whose father, Mattie, one of the great Kilkenny hurlers, reared his family on Gardiner Place in Dublin – a convenient stopping point for retired Kilkenny stickmen on summer Sundays.
“By lunchtime on match day the house would be full of huge countrymen eating plates of cold ham, spuds and mushy peas, followed by jelly and cream and cups of tea to fortify them.” And: “This was before the fans in Croke Park were called ‘patrons’, and no one was telling them not to enter the ‘playing area’. We called it the pitch.”
The pity is that the CD contains only a selection. There is devilment in “How to Score in Hotpants”, Martina Devlin’s account of how her 10- or 11-year-old self was scandalised when her glamorous mother wore hot pants to Clones for the 1973 Ulster final – “I brooded in the back seat. Mortification awaited in Cavan” – but it would have been preferable to hear her recalling that day. The same is true for a reflection by the current Tipperary hurling manager, Eamon O’Shea, called “Hurling Chose Me”.
Clíodhna Ní Anluain, the producer of Sunday Miscellany responsible for introducing the All-Ireland-themed shows, dedicates the book to the memory of her father, “who lifted me up and over the turnstiles”.
The tribute is apt, as most of the 100 essays are concerned with direct or oblique memories of the writers’ parents. The ritual of going to Gaelic matches, particularly the pageantry of big summer games in Munster or Ulster, seems to have remained vivid for the children of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
It is easy to understand why: they were probably the loudest and most crowded occasions they had been exposed to in their young lives. And it was at those matches that they saw their fathers at their most relaxed and unguarded. Theo Dorgan’s “My Father” (recitation not included) recounts how the reserve and self-possession that characterised his father would be transformed whenever his Na Piarsaigh played Glen Rovers. “I would stand there fascinated watching his eyes bulge, his face twist and spasm . . .” Then it drifts into his poem The Match Down the Park.
One could grouse that too many pieces concentrate on the serial All-Ireland contenders and that there aren’t enough voices from the midlands or the borderlands. And the collection leaves itself open to the accusation that it presents a dewy-eyed version of Ireland and the GAA.
But the All-Ireland Sunday is about the repetition of a beloved tradition (although that may change now, after the Saturday-night opera staged by the hurlers of Clare and Cork).
All-Ireland days have always been special, lit days, and this collection basks in them with no apologies.