Bad sports: what's up with Irish art?


Look at our creative output and you see a country straining under religion, politics, sex, violence, corruption and abuse. Why do we ignore sport, asks MICK HEANEY

IN 1999, WHEN the playwright John Breen premiered the work that married his two passions of theatre and sport, he had no great expectations. The opening night did not even take place in a theatre. The play, Alone It Stands, instead made its debut at Waterpark Rugby Club, in Waterford. As its subject matter was Munster’s famous 1978 victory over the All Blacks, this seemed logical, as did the subsequent tour, which visited another half-dozen or so rugby clubs across the country. “That was the plan,” says Breen. “I didn’t think it would play in many theatres.”

A decade later, after hundreds of performances on the stages of Edinburgh, London, Australia and pretty much every corner of Ireland, Alone It Stands finally stopped touring. The critical and commercial success of the vibrant comedy drama, which saw six actors take on 60 or so roles, was a vindication of Breen’s original impulse to create a play aimed at people who normally shunned the theatre while also “reaching out to theatregoers who weren’t rugby fans”. It was an object lesson in how the imaginative arts could tap into the Irish zeal for sport to triumphant effect.

It is an example few have since emulated: rare indeed are those Irish creative practitioners who have acknowledged the world of sport in their work, much less successfully engaged with it. The feats of Olympians such as Katie Taylor may take centre stage in our public consciousness over the next fortnight, just as the Republic’s misfiring soccer team did during the European championship last month, but such events will scarcely register in the collective imagination of the creative community here, at least judging by past experience.

To view Ireland through the vast bulk of its artistic output is to see a country straining under religion, politics, sex, violence, corruption and abuse, but one in which sport barely exists, never mind exercises popular passions as it does. Nor is this a recent development. Sport has long been an absence across the creative spectrum. Given Ireland’s rich legacy in the field, this seems a perverse oversight.

There have been notable exceptions. Seán O’Casey captured the emotional exhilaration of soccer in The Silver Tassie, even if it pales beside the horror of war; Paul Mercier’s 1986 play Studs explored the dynamics of a small Dublin soccer club, later being adapted for the screen; Roddy Doyle evoked the exuberant ambience surrounding Ireland’s exploits at the 1990 World Cup in his novel The Van; and Jack B Yeats painted remarkable depictions of swimming races and boxing matches.

But the infrequence of these works only underlines how rarely such physical contests otherwise feature in Irish theatre, film, literature and visual art. For all that art and sport both can exercise our emotions, they do not seem to gel easily. “I think what makes sport unique and captivating is the fact that it’s unpredictable,” says Breen. “Art, on the other hand, is predictable. When you listen to music your brain is looking for the patterns that make it attractive. It’s the same in theatre: those cadences attract people. But in sport anything can happen . . . And maybe that’s what makes them uncomfortable bedfellows.”

THE QUESTION OF HOW to represent sport’s air of spontaneity and surprise is an obvious challenge for artists, whose work is generally fixed in time and space. Hurling is probably the closest thing Ireland has to a sporting expression of its soul, with the game featuring in the ancient myth of Setanta and the hound. But for all the efforts of Barabbas in its 2003 production Hurl, and of the director Fergus Tighe in his 1987 film Clash of the Ash, the fast and fluid sport has proved hard to translate on to stage and screen, and it is almost entirely absent from the pages of Irish literature, the odd passing reference by Joyce excepted. Meanwhile, the immense influence of the GAA in everyday Irish society has gone largely unexamined, unless one counts the RTÉ drama On Home Ground, which was more rural soap than anything else.

The paucity of hurling in Irish creative output encapsulates the conundrum faced by artists who want to engage with sport: how to replicate the thrills of a fleeting spectacle in the realm of the imagination, which thrives on reflection and rumination. But while the two realms can attract different temperaments – the Lipton Village commune around the fledgling U2 was bonded by a shared disregard for soccer as much as by a fervour for music and Christianity – it is not as if all Irish artists have regarded sporting endeavour with effete disdain. Samuel Beckett was a decent cricketer and obsessive golfer while a student at Trinity, as well as being a lifelong rugby fanatic. Patrick Kavanagh played in goal for his local Gaelic football club, in Inniskeen, an experience memorably depicted in his 1950 autobiographical essay Gut Yer Man. Yet sport seems, at best, a dim presence in their work. “Sport is extraordinarily in the moment, which is both its strength and weakness,” says Breen. “Watching sporting events unfold, you become emotionally involved and the stakes seem incredibly high. But it’s an ephemeral experience – in terms of the overall human condition, the stakes are quite low.”

This nagging feeling that mere games are not worthy of aesthetic attention even runs through work unashamedly pitched at sport fans. I, Keano, the 2005 musical about Roy Keane’s acrimonious departure from the Republic’s World Cup squad in Saipan, was unabashedly silly, recasting the spat as a mock-Roman epic. It was a lucrative piece of fluff, but in taking an almost apologetically slapstick approach the musical’s perceptive co-author (and Father Ted co-creator) Arthur Mathews missed the chance to create a more nuanced take on a matter that had gripped the country.

There are artists who take sport as their main milieu, but in producing commissioned portraits of sportspeople they can encounter sniffiness about the authenticity of their output. Paul Ferriter, a sculptor who has cast bronzes of Seve Ballesteros, Jack Nicklaus and Christy O’Connor jnr, among other golfers, admits to meeting “a little snobbery” about his work. “There are those who will take a nude life drawing, look at it and say there’s a beautiful anatomical portrait. But you switch to a statue of Jack Nicklaus, which is a study of anatomy moving in full flow, and they’ll say it’s just a golfer. They’re unable to separate a portrait in movement from the golf.”

Ferriter nonetheless feels art and sport work on different levels, which makes them “a tricky cocktail”. “There’s a saying in golf: ‘It’s not how, it’s how many,’ ” he says. “In art it’s how, where, why. But in sport it’s how many, be it strokes or goals. That’s the fundamental discomfort. If you’re writing a novel you have to fantasise, but in sport you can’t lie or hide.”

Even so, the two realms need not be mutually exclusive. In the US especially, sporting subjects have long featured prominently, both in high art and in popular culture. Hollywood has long immersed itself in sports lore, be it baseball-themed whimsy like Field of Dreams or visceral boxing movies such as Raging Bull. And, lest we forget, John Wayne’s hero in The Quiet Man was a former pugilist.

AMERICAN LITERARY FICTION is similarly replete with sporting themes. One only has to look at the former basketball-playing hero of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, the recurrent wrestling motifs of John Irving’s oeuvre or Chad Harbach’s bestselling baseball novel, The Art of Fielding, to see how sport suffuses US writing. Perhaps most striking is the figure of Frank Bascombe, the unfulfilled protagonist of The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford, whose vocation teaches him that for “your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret”. These works regard sport as neither diversion nor cipher but as a subject with truths of its own.

In Britain, too, sport crops up frequently, though with less epic sheen than in the US. The Damned United, David Peace’s acclaimed novel about the soccer manager Brian Clough, was also adapted for the screen, while Chariots of Fire turned the feats of British athletes at the 1924 Olympics into the stuff of popular national myth. Such an imaginative embrace of the sporting life is lacking in Irish culture.

“Sport somehow informs other cultures and taps into their national psyches. The Rocky movies, for instance, are about hope, indelibly aligned with that American credo of ‘you can be anything you want’,” says Michael Collins, the Limerick-born, American-based novelist. “For us Irish, we seem never to have discovered how sport informs us. We’re too pragmatic to think that anything done on the field can define us. So our poets find no great inspiration from our athletes, no telling myths, no grander truths.”

For Collins, who attended Notre Dame university, in Indiana, on an athletics scholarship, sport was intimately linked to his evolution as a writer. When he realised he would never be a world-beating runner, he transferred the discipline of the track to the classroom. “I would say I used athletics as a way to focus.”

His experience, which he wrote about in his novel Emerald Underground, was not unique. One of his track team-mates, Nicholas Sparks, similarly refocused his energies beyond athletics to become a bestselling author. Collins, who still competes in ultralong-distance races at a top level, contrasts the osmosis between sport and academia on American campuses with Ireland, where the twain rarely meet.

“This intimate entanglement of sport’s heroes with collegiate life has proved a powerful creative alchemy for artists,” says Collins. “Given most American artists go through the college system, sports has always proved a legitimate subject matter for literature. It serves as a metaphor but also a real-life thing that people have observed at first hand, so you can use it in fiction without it being a stretch.”

In Ireland the best creative role sport can generally expect is a metaphorical one. In Marie Jones’s 1994 play A Night in November the poisonous World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and the Republic spurs the Protestant narrator’s rejection of Unionist prejudices. Similarly, in Jim Sheridan’s 1997 film The Boxer the pugilism drives a wider parable about the Troubles. Yet even in these works sport is ultimately a token presence, a trigger for the real story.

Overall, it appears that artists, so often hyped as the standard bearers of the Irish character, have a serious blind spot regarding one of our biggest national obsessions. Yet we should not despair. The two fields may not overtly intermingle, but sport can still leave its indelible mark on our greatest artists, from the intricate rules and labyrinthine games in the work of the cricket-loving Samuel Beckett to the tactile muscularity of the paintings of the boxing fanatic Sean Scully. And, as Breen’s play showed, sporting success can always inspire exciting new work. Let’s hope our Olympians do well.

Hat trick? Three artworks on sport

The Liffey SwimJack B Yeats made some startling sporting works, notably the kinetic boxing vignette The Small Ring, but his 1923 painting The Liffey Swim is arguably his most famous picture. Set around the annual race down the Dublin river, the work puts the viewer amid the crowd, jostling to see the swimmers. The painting was even a medal winner, taking silver at the 1924 Paris Olympic exhibition.

StudsPaul Mercier’s 1986 play followed a small Dublin soccer team whose fortunes are turned around by a new manager, causing the players to look at their lives anew. With its innovative staging and vibrant script, it treated soccer in an unsentimental but refreshing way.

NetherlandIrish-born Joseph O’Neill’s novel is often portrayed as a paean to post-9/11 New York, but its originality lies in the way it captures the intricate rhythms of cricket and, more crucially, how sport provides grounding and companionship to those dislocated by immigration.

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