Local and universal truths to the fore in gritty memoirs

Sat, Dec 15, 2012, 00:00

GAELIC GAMES:The GAA literary offering is not what it used to be.

Blame publisher burnout, reader fatigue or just the dismal, all-pervasive effects of recession, but the annual flood of GAA books onto the market has, this year, been replaced by a mere trickle.

But if output has reduced, its focus remains the same. Memoir continues to dominate, and where once big-name hurlers and footballers waited for the mud to encrust on their boots before casting a backward glance on their sporting days, many opt now to do it in the full stride of the playing careers, when their public profiles are still riding high.

Where the likes of Oisín McConville and Donal Óg Cusack have in recent years gone, Tipperary hurler Lar Corbett has this year followed. Lar Corbett: All in My Head(Transworld Ireland) is undoubtedly the box-office title in a slow season for GAA publishing.

It is, after all, only a few short months since Corbett found himself the focus of a media frenzy – and often bilious online ridicule – over the doomed tactics deployed by his Tipperary team to derail Kilkenny’s defence in this year’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final. The memory of Corbett pursuing Tommy Walsh across Croke Park as the game continued about them will linger long and the explanation he provides as to why he did it is unlikely to convince many as to whether it could ever have been considered wise.

Even so, in his recall of this and other events, Corbett emerges as nothing other than open, honest and sincere. At times refreshingly self-aware, he is as prepared to pan himself as others.

In telling his story, Corbett has been well served by fellow Tipperary-man and ghost-writer Damian Lawlor, who ensures an unflagging momentum throughout, even during moments of low drama. And there have been many: despite being a youthful member of Nicky English’s triumphant Tipperary outfit in 2001, Corbett’s early inter-county career was blighted by hamstring troubles and less than healthy relationships with a succession of Tipperary managers – he would play under six in five years.

What changed was the appointment of Liam Sheedy and his new management team in 2007.

Where previously he played in fear of sideline censure, Corbett was suddenly encouraged to trust his instincts and play with abandon.

Indeed, the new management’s hurling philosophy was, he suggests, almost elegant in its simplicity – “There’s the field, there’s the posts and here’s your hurley. Now go out and play.”

If Sheedy commanded total loyalty and respect, it is the relationship between Corbett and Eamon O’Shea, a selector with Sheedy and the incoming Tipperary boss, that leaves the lasting impression.

Corbett extols O’Shea’s role – as trainer, tactician, psychologist and motivator – and ends the book by signalling an ambition to stay involved with OShea and Tipperary in the coming year, albeit without the kind of the distractions to which, he concedes, he has contributed in the past.

The very title of True Grit: the Making of Sylvie Linnane(Irish Sports Publishing) will be enough to arouse the curiosity of anyone with a penchant for 1980s sporting nostalgia – and they won’t be disappointed.

Written in co-operation with Liam Hayes and referred to in the third person throughout, Linnane picks his way through the games, the rivalries and people that shaped what might justifiably be regarded as hurling’s original revolution years.

The rise of Galway and Offaly in the early 1980s, soon followed by the re-emergence of Tipperary, shook the established hierarchical order and brought a novelty and drama to a game that was in danger of becoming drearily predictable.

Linnane, his obvious unease with his hard-man image notwithstanding, was an implacable presence in a defence that would springboard Galway to three All-Ireland titles across the decade.

There is regret that they didn’t win more and the finger is pointed at possible reasons why. Not that this is a bitter exercise in score-settling. Far from it: the Linnane we meet is decent and unassuming and what he has produced with this book is both a surprise and a delight.

That’s because he doesn’t confine himself simply to hurling. Instead, in the opening chapters, we are provided with a vivid social history of small, family farm experience in the west of Ireland of the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. Indeed, the depiction of the harsh realities that faced large families on small land-holdings, where poverty and emigration were rife, carries echoes of John Healy’s classic family memoir, Nineteen Acres. The sporting life is never hermetically sealed and what Linnane and Hayes have done is point up the value of placing it in the broader social and cultural context.

Another writer who has dug deep into his own past and that of his county is Weeshie Fogarty. His book, My Beautiful Obsession: Chasing the Kerry Dream (The Collins Press), is part autobiography and part meditation on Kerry’s extraordinary love affair with Gaelic football.

Weeshie – his first name is enough to warrant recognition in the Kingdom – brings to the book a rich and varied life: as a former county footballer and referee, a popular sports broadcaster with Radio Kerry and newspaper columnist with the Kerryman, he has played with, met, interviewed and researched many of the iconic figures who have contributed to the county’s sporting development.

You will find many of them featured between the covers of this book, among them Gus Cremin who captained the Kerry team in the drawn All-Ireland final of 1946 only to lose his place for the replay.

Cremin suggested that the decision to drop him was class related and, when interviewed by Weeshie in his eighties, he laid the blame at the door of the legendary Kerry trainer Dr Eamon O’Sullivan: “I was just a hard-working farmer and he always favoured the student or the man with the white-collared work.”

It was the same Dr Eamon O’Sullivan who interviewed the 21 year-old Weeshie for a job as a psychiatric nurse in St Finan’s Hospital in Killarney, a Victorian institution known originally as the “District Lunatic Asylum”. And it was here that Weeshie would spend 38 working years, an experience he writes about with sensitivity and, at times, indignation.

He describes the old mental hospitals in which he worked as “dumping grounds” for society’s problems and poignantly recalls the stories of a number of St Finan’s inmates, who died unmourned within its walls. The personal file of one of those inmates, he remembers, had a note attached on which was written a message from his own family: “When John dies we are not to be contacted . . . ”

The few vignettes like this are alone sufficient to justify a wide readership for this book, but there is no doubting the audience at which it is primarily aimed.

Weeshie is consumed by sport and sportspeople of all kinds and he devotes his final chapter to a series of profiles of Kerry men and women who have excelled in sports other than Gaelic football. Tadhg Kennelly, the Listowel and Kerry footballer turned Australian Rules star is one of them.

The sporting trajectory followed by Kennelly was undoubtedly eased by the trailblazing example set by the late Jim Stynes, whose book Jim Stynes: My Journey (Penguin Ireland) is perhaps the saddest and most inspiring of any published in recent years.

Winner of an All-Ireland minor medal with Dublin in 1984 before departing for Australia and a remarkable career that would see him end up a Brownlow medal winner, an AFL Hall of Famer and Victorian of the Year, Stynes died in March this year after a herculean three year battle with cancer.

He was just 45, a married father of two young children.

That Stynes ranks among Ireland greatest ever sporting exports is undeniable, yet it may have taken his untimely death – and the extraordinary, heartfelt Australian reaction to it – to underline for many Irish people the full scale of his achievements Down Under.

And they are achievements not limited to sport: in 1994, influenced by his teenage experiences of attending the Gaeltacht, the Ballyboden man helped set up the Reach Foundation to promote life skills and mental health among young people.

His pride in Reach is palpable and justified. Sport permeates this book as opposed to dominating it.

Ostensibly, it is a book born of Stynes’s fight with cancer and the writing, on which he collaborated with Warwick Green, is shot through with a clarity and perspective that perhaps only comes from being compelled to confront your own mortality.

The struggle to overcome his illness led Stynes to embrace all manner of alternative remedies, though his efforts to retain a positive outlook took him in a direction that was as much spiritual as it was medicinal or curative.

Stynes was clearly an impressive and complex individual, capable of being simultaneously difficult, stubborn, self-absorbed, open, warm and generous.

All sides of his big personality are revealed in this book, which, after all the treatments and drugs have run their course, ends with a peaceful acceptance of death.

Finally, and for something very different, there is Emmet Ryan’s Tactics not Passion(Original Writing), which runs a cool, analytical eye over the past year in Gaelic football - from county club finals to inter-county championships – mapping out the manner in which teams and their sideline strategists have applied themselves to the more cerebral challenges that opponents and match day situations throw up.

With this book, Ryan, who writes prolifically on sport for the Action81 website, eschews simple reportage of games for a close analysis of the tactics and decision-making that helped determine their outcome. He aspires not only to tell us what happened in Gaelic football in 2012, but how and why it happened. Even if it’s hard to accept Ryan’s assessment of the present as a “golden age”, The breadth and inclusiveness of this book render it a unique work of reference on how modern Gaelic football is coached, played and thought about.

Mark Duncan is a founder of the InQuest Research Group and author (Mike Cronin and Paul Rouse) of The GAA: A Peoples History (2009)

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