Commonwealth Games does not float Vinny’s boat
Charlie Vernon unwittingly hits a teatime raw nerve in Foley’s bar
Northern Ireland’s Paddy Barnes (left) on his way to gold against India’s Devendro Laishram during the light flyweight bout at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Just as every long journey starts with a small step, the unseemly row in Foley’s hostelry on Saturday teatime broke out as a consequence of several steps. Thousands of them, in fact.
It followed the news Rob Heffernan was to be awarded a back-dated bronze medal for the 20-kilometre walk at the 2010 European Championships after a Russian who finished ahead of him was exposed as a doper.
“We’ll take a medal, any medal, even one that’s four years old,” observed Vinny Fitzpatrick as he raised his pint to the plucky Cork stroller. As glasses were clinked, Charlie St John Vernon went a step further as he nodded at the telly. “If it’s medals you want chaps, then the Commonwealth Games is the place to be.”
There was an awkward silence, and a quizzical eyebrow or two, before Vinny caught Charlie’s attention.
Opening the palm of an outstretched mitt, in friendship, he said quietly. “Go on, Charlie, you have the floor.”
Charlie Vernon shot a glance around the circular table where four sets of eyes were fixed upon him, each a mixture of curiosity and a hint of defiance. He cleared his throat and made his pitch. “I was just thinking at how well the lads, and lassies, from the North were doing in the boxing in Glasgow. They bagged nine medals, two of them gold. That’s some return.
‘Fought for Ireland’“We were all cheering on Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon today, just as we did when they fought for Ireland in London two years ago.
“Well, it got me thinking that maybe every Irish boxer, and sportsperson, might be better off having a crack at a medal in the Commonwealth Games. If the North can win nine boxing medals, sure we’d have to win nine as well. Katie Taylor is guaranteed a gold for starters. I say we should start lobbying for support. What do you think chaps?”
There was a silence as the implications of Charlie’s theory landed. For Vinny it was like a rabbit punch in the kidneys, one he didn’t see coming but left a sting.
“Are you seriously saying Charlie that Ireland should have a team of athletes competing in the Commonwealth Games?” he said in a clipped tone.
Charlie wriggled on his stool, caught Dial-A-Smile’s eyes, ordered a round, and continued down the road he had taken. “I’ll be honest. I wouldn’t have a great problem with that idea,” he said.
“In these enlightened political times, I think we’ve all moved on. It’s 100 years since Irishman and Englishman marched beside each other in the Great War. Why can’t we march together in sporting combat in the Commonwealth Games, rather than wait for the Olympics every four years?
“I’d love to be here in 2017 cheering on Katie Taylor in New Zealand when she knocks the stuffing out of her opponent in the final.”
With that, the bar girl arrived with a tray of five perfectly formed pints which were placed in the centre of the circular table. The intervention was opportune as tempers were bubbling, none more so than Vinny’s.
As he lowered the drawbridge for a capacious swallow, Vinny gave himself a standing count of eight.
Breathing deeply, he then placed his glass carefully back on its beer mat. Aware the lads, Fran, Macker and Brennie, were looking at him for a response, he spoke in a tone intended to be light.
“If I may offer a counter argument to my learned friend,’ he said.
“By all means,” said Charlie Vernon.
“I have a suspicion Charlie you may not entirely grasp the implications of your, er, novel suggestion,” said Vinny softly.
“While your family background has deep connections with the Empire, my own upbringing would make it impossible to entertain the notion that the tricolour might fly in Hamilton, or wherever the Commonwealth Games are held.
‘Great grandfathers’“While many of our great grandfathers did fight in the Great War, many also fought in the War of Independence.
“My father’s father, Frankie Fitzpatrick, was one of them, and took a bullet from the Black and Tans. My old man was raised in a nationalist household, and he passed on his sense of Irish self-rule to me. I’m grateful he did, for it has shaped my beliefs.
“Don’t get me wrong about England. They have given us the Grand National, Cheltenham, Everton and Speckled Hen beer. But there are 60 miles of water between Holyhead and Dún Laoghaire for a reason.”
His voice rising, Vinny continued: “Now Charlie, if you want to start a movement for Ireland to join the Commonwealth, then I suggest you sling your hook and do it somewhere else.”
At that point, the two middle-aged men were on their feet, jabbing each other with points of principle.
Charlie insisted there was a bigger picture which Vinny was missing, particularly the sporting benefits which, he was adamant, would assuage any political discomfort.
He impishly suggested Vinny could even drive the open-topped bus for Ireland’s returning heroes down O’Connell Street. At that, Vinny burst into a tirade in ancient gaelic which sounded like a poem he’d learnt off for the Leaving Cert.
He jabbed a finger at Charlie and said he was fiercely proud of “the fighting sons of Erin” and what they stood for “from Emmet and Tone, to Devoy and De Rossa.
“To brave hearts,” he shouted aloud, “nothing is impossible” before laying it on the table. “Right Charlie outside now, let’s sort this out.”
At that, Fran and Macker weighed in as peacekeepers but Vinny’s mood remained feisty for the remainder of the evening – at closing time he declined to accept Charlie’s hand.
Later, at home on Mount Prospect Avenue, all was quiet as Vinny flicked through the channels. His attention was caught by the boxing highlights from Glasgow, which involved the pint-sized Paddy Barnes.
“Go on Paddy, my son,” he shouted as the Belfast light-fly weighed in with a few ferocious digs on his way to gold.
As he shoved a handful of cheese puffs into his gob, it struck Vinny that he probably shared more common ground with the Commonwealth Games than he had been prepared to admit.