Stony Grey Joyce?

An Irishman’s Diary about James Joyce’s secret career as a Monaghan footballer

 “Now, sceptical as I am about this, I won’t go so far as to say that James Joyce definitely didn’t play for Inniskeen, in goal or otherwise.”  Photograph:   C Ruf/Archive Photos/Getty Images

“Now, sceptical as I am about this, I won’t go so far as to say that James Joyce definitely didn’t play for Inniskeen, in goal or otherwise.” Photograph: C Ruf/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Fri, Jul 26, 2013, 01:00

I see James Joyce has joined the increasingly crowded Monaghan GAA bandwagon. Or at least that his Wikipedia entry, to which an alert reader has referred me, now claims he once played in goal for “Inniskeen”.

Usually, faced with such blatant aggrandisement on Wikipedia, you suspect the subject himself has been editing his profile. But if Joyce really was involved in this case, he covered his tracks via a ghost writer. Thus Wikipedia attributes the claim to the Guardian newspaper, via a link to its books blog, which recently featured an item on “Footballing Authors”.

And there, amid the standard line-up of Camus, Nabakov, and Arthur Conan Doyle – all goalkeepers, by the way – is the author of Ulysses. Of whom the Guardian comments: “Joyce was keeper for a small team in rural Inniskeen – Gaelic Football, of course, rather than the Association game more commonly enjoyed here.”

Now, sceptical as I am about this, I won’t go so far as to say that James Joyce definitely didn’t play for Inniskeen, in goal or otherwise. I suppose it’s possible, even though he was born in Dublin and had no connections with the parish. Certainly, you wouldn’t put it beyond Inniskeen to have pulled such a stroke. If he was any good, they could well have brought him in for a big championship match and falsified the paperwork.

But among many grounds for doubt, I suspect Joyce’s well-known eyesight problems might have ruled him out of a goalkeeping role. And so, unless somebody can produce documentary evidence, I fear the Guardian – no doubt inspired by the mischievous genius himself – may be mixing Joyce up with a writer that we do know for a fact played in goal for Inniskeen, Patrick Kavanagh.

Not that Kavanagh was much of a keeper, either. Contemporaneous reports suggest that, during quiet periods of games, his attention was prone to wander. As was the rest of him, sometimes. By his own account, he once nipped out to the shop for an ice-cream during a stoppage, returning to find play resumed and a goal scored in his absence.

Still, with his big frame and farmer’s strength, Kavanagh would have been better equipped than the frail Joyce to deal with the physical demands of GAA during the early 20th century, a period when Monaghan football was not yet the beautiful game it is now.

Speaking of beauty, there was much quoting of Kavanagh’s poetry after last Sunday’s famous win, with RTÉ analyst Joe Brolly, for example, evoking the “wink and elbow language of delight” among players and fans.

But wink-and-elbow was not the only language spoken in Inniskeen, circa 1930. A related dialect – boot-and-elbow – was also widespread (in fact, there remain a few native speakers in the area to this day). Witness the following, in which Antoinette Quinn, from her fine biography of Kavanagh, describes the rigours sometimes inflicted on visiting football teams: “A senior league championship encounter between Castleblayney and Inniskeen in November 1932 was such a dirty game that nine ’Blayney players were injured. The [Dundalk] Democrat listed the injured: Bradley (fractured jaw, detained in county hospital); McElroy (neck injuries); Burns (rib injuries); Fisher (split knee, split lip, cut on face); Roche (kick on hinch); Cunningham (kick on thigh); Loughman (kick on leg); Malone (kick on thigh, still lame); Mason (injuries to side of head).”

Never mind Joyce. Even Kavanagh, with his poetic sensibilities, may have been out of his depth in 1930s Monaghan GAA. His mother probably thought so anyway. When he was expelled from the club for embezzling funds (he was treasurer and, as he admitted under questioning, occasionally dipped into the cash box for the price of cigarettes), Quinn suggests his mother was more relieved than embarrassed.

So no, I can’t really see the author of Ulysses playing for Inniskeen, whatever the Guardian thinks. But if anybody does have an old photograph of him togging out there, I’d love to see it.

In the meantime, I might as well mention an upcoming competition for which Joyce would be arguably better qualified. I refer to the annual Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, the deadline for which has been extended to next Monday week, August 5th. As usual, there is €1,000 and much glory up for grabs (more details at patrickkavanaghcountry.com). But the prize is for a debut collection. So even if he can still edit his own Wikipedia entry, the ghost of James Joyce would appear to be ineligible.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com