Danger, dieting and donning women's tights: all in a day's work for a jockey

Sat, Dec 1, 2012, 00:00

Michael O’Leary of Ryanair was nearly right when, at the start of Jump Boys (TG4, Wednesday), he said you’d want to be mad to hurtle around a track at 40mph on a tonne of horse. Horse racing looks savagely dangerous even from a distance, but up close, over the jumps, it’s nearly too hard to watch. But, as we saw in this sharply observed, intimate and entertaining documentary, jockeys aren’t mad, just obsessed.

Its director, Luke McManus, followed the 2011-12 National Hunt season, focusing on the jockeys Ruby Walsh, Barry Geraghty and Davy Russell. For all their talk about dieting and the women’s tights they wear under their racing trousers, they are the hardest of men. The film began with the three nonchalantly listing their injuries: bust spleen, broken hip, rebuilt eye socket, leg broken three times in a year, broken wrist. On it went like an AE log book. Each time they got back on the horse. A doctor talked of their unusually high pain thresholds, saying it’s the only sport in which an ambulance follows the participants.

It’s a long season, from October to April, and the jockeys divide their time between British and Irish tracks, so it’s punishing for their young families at home. Walsh’s wife, Gillian, and Geraghty’s wife, Paula, are as resigned to the absences as they are to the risks.

And only supermodels could be as obsessed with their weight. McManus had rare access to the dressing rooms and the sauna where the jockeys sweat off the last few kilos before weigh-in. They’re not small men, and they need to be about 13kg lighter than their natural weight, so it’s a constant battle, although as they have been professional sportsmen since they were 18 they’ve got it down. They can lose three of four kilos in a day, a kilo or two in the hours before a race, even though it means they work while seriously dehydrated.

The film captured the deep off-track camaraderie between the men, and the fierce competition on it, and rounded out the story with access to their families and to the trainers. All top sportspeople are obsessives – and this film captured that – but jockeys need to be physically brave, too, or maybe a little mad, for the standard fee of €169 per race plus 8 per cent of the purse.

Watching WB Yeats: No Country for Old Men (RTÉ One, Tuesday) was a little like finding out that de Valera ran a speakeasy in the basement of the Áras: it turns out that the distant, patrician-looking bard of the nation was a randy old goat. In his later years Yeats became obsessed with death and sex – he was a virgin until 30 – so in his 60s he had an operation believed at the time to give men a little lead in their pencil. After that he had several affairs. It was all to release “the creative spirit” trapped in his old man’s body – one of his big poetic themes and a line that his wife, the amazing-sounding Georgie, bought into.

Something worked, though, because it’s generally agreed that his later work – and he was writing on his deathbed – was his best. In his 50s, he became enthralled with magic and the occult, and when his astrological chart predicted he’d marry in 1917, he didn’t let a rebuff by Iseult Gonne, daughter of his long-time friend and occasional lover Maud Gonne, put him off. He proposed to Georgie Hyde-Lees, a woman also half his age, whom he hardly knew. Annoyed at discovering he had written to Iseult and Maud on their as yet unconsummated honeymoon, Georgie got out the Ouija board. The spirits apparently told Yeats to get on with it.

It was, said the poet John Montague – an acerbic and amusing contributor – “one of the greatest matrimonial strokes in the history of literature”. The couple lived happily ever after.

I don’t remember hearing all that while learning The Lake Isle of Innisfree, and the documentary made the point that although students are familiar with Yeats, it’s with the early, safe romantic pieces chosen by the Department of Education.

A convincing case was also made that he isn’t even in Drumcliffe graveyard, in Sligo, and that when he died, in France, in 1939, the graveyard where he was interred was dug up and the bodies moved around to accommodate the war dead. The documentary included extraordinary footage, discovered by this film, in the depths of the National Archives of Ireland, of his repatriation, in 1948, for burial, with crowds lining the streets.

Maurice Sweeney makes beautiful-looking, intelligent but accessible documentaries, and this is a prime example of his meticulous and creative style. Having young contemporary poets, including Stephen James Smith, read Yeats’s work gave it a freshness, and serious heft was provided by an impressive roster of contributors, including Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Montague. An arts gem among the glut of political and current affairs programmes this week.

Brave, really, calling it Irish Pictorial Weekly (RTÉ One, Thursday) when Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, RTÉ’s satirical sketch show from the 1970s, is thought to have helped bring down the Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Now that’s setting the bar high.

But maybe back then it was shocking to see ministers satirised for their incompetence. Now it just seems depressing. Irish Pictorial Weekly had Barry Murphy’s absurdist, angry humour – familiar from Après Match – all over it, and it was sharp and clever. Most sketches worked: a Micheál Martin speech revoiced as gobbledegook; an odious “Terry Prone” hauling the unhealthy Minister for Health James Reilly into her office for a lambasting; the digs at Enda Kenny; and the spoof of Gay Byrne’s unctuous Meaning of Life programme, in which the guest was replaced by a beardy, boring Gerry Adams. The Taking, a spoof of the Gathering, showed politicians looking the definition of complacent smugness while a ticker tape showed their huge pay and pensions.

I nearly laughed several times, but it’s hard when everything you’re watching reminds you what a crowd of supplicant gobshites we’ve become. Good satire, then. A big quibble, though: why, for a programme with “weekly” in the title, was it not more topical? There was enough material for it to have used this week – or any week.

Ones to Watch: From room service to church service

Richard E Grant snagged the jammy job of touring the world’s finest hotels for Hotel Secrets (Sky Atlantic, Thursday). Next week he’s giving Ashford Castle, the Clarence, Castle Leslie and the Shelbourne the once-over.

The Other Voices concert series, filmed at St James’s Church in Dingle and now in its 11th year, will be broadcast live on RTÉ Two tomorrow. Aidan Gillen presents; Paul Buchanan and Villagers are among the acts.