Sidelines, darts and Lycra: the sporting soul of the Irish male

You mightn’t understand it. You might never have played it. But sport is hard-wired into your system


Florrie McCarthy typified the best of the Irish male’s association with sport. The local publican, who died three years ago, was “a legend of Kilbeacanty hurling”, as the Galway club’s Twitter account noted.

When he was done with wielding a stick on the field, he helped out where he could, working his way through the club’s portfolios, including secretary, chairman and county-board delegate.

He even did stints as a ref. He once refereed a game with a tin whistle. Another day, he parked his car on the hill in Kilbeacanty for an under-12 game and orchestrated proceedings by blowing the car’s horn for a foul, and using its indicators to point the way in which a free was going.

Sport for an Irishman doesn’t always need to involve great exertion. It is as important to stimulate the mind as the body. He might prefer to sit out the action, especially if he has a grá for technicalities and tactics.

He may well marvel at the Germans’ gegenpressing or the wonder of Thomas Müller, Bayern Munich’s raumdeuter, the club’s “interpreter of space”.

When association football began to be played in the late 19th century, it used to be considered unmanly to pass the ball. Now football men delight in talking about tiki taka and the question of whether Spain’s passing game will prevail again at the World Cup in Brazil.


It’s difficult to know where this obsession with the science of a game and punditry, which finds an outlet through TV’s high priests such as Giles, Dunphy and Brady and enlightened podcasts such as the Second Captains, comes from.

It might be a displacement activity for the war games and strategising of the Irish man’s ancestors.

Football is good for your health, argues Dr Paul Gaffney, author of On the Ball? How Football Can Help Your Mental Health. “It’s struck me from 20 years working as a psychologist that football can be a common language. You know: ‘Keep a clean sheet: mind yourself with that person.’ ‘You need to stay on side at work.’ You can end up talking in metaphors about stuff that is quite serious.

“We formalised that in a study at DCU. Our findings confirmed that exercise is good for your mental health. If you take part in five-a-side football, not only do your symptoms of depression decrease but your perception of support being available and of people being interested in you is improved.

“For example, I’m a long-suffering West Ham fan. If you have 20 guys who follow the different teams in the Premiership, most are going to end up disappointed. Yet we persist with our support for our team despite the setbacks.

“Simply being part of the football family, by having the identity of being a football fan, seems to be good for us.”

Sometimes, however, the Irish sports fan can be contrary. He might know little to nothing about the sport he follows avidly.

The actor and comedian Pat Shortt has been a rugby fan since 1986. He has a good friend who is a rugby referee. He’s matey with several Munster legends, including Frankie Sheahan, Des and Peter Clohessy, and Alan Quinlan. But he still can’t fathom the game.

“I’m still asking questions about what’s going on,” he says. “I know the obvious stuff – I know the backs are the forwards and the forwards are the backs – but if a tackle happened and the ref has made a decision, I’d go, ‘What the feck was that about?’ One of the lads would explain, and you’d hear new explanations all the time. But I enjoy the game no end.”


Lack of expertise in a chosen sport isn’t a barrier to mentoring it either. Barry Ryan lives in Delgany, Co Wicklow, with his wife, Tara, and their three children, including Noah, who began playing soccer for Greystones United three years ago, when he was five. Noah’s dad was enlisted as one of his trainers.

“Maybe I went to soccer training twice or three times as a 10 year old,” says Ryan. “I’d no real interest, but a friend of Tara’s who was doing the training for that age group said, ‘If you tie their laces and tell them they’ve nice boots, that’s the level of qualification you need at that stage.’

“I would never have got involved if he hadn’t said that, because I knew nothing about it. It’s great. You get to know all these people in the community. Modern life is fairly busy. People don’t necessarily talk to their neighbours, but this soccer club is an opportunity to connect with the parents and the kids.”

Sightings of bunches of men running or cycling enthusiastically around the Irish countryside, wearing tight, brightly coloured outfits, have increased in recent years.

Alan Murphy is 49; he was a cycling fanatic in his teens, and has returned to the sport with gusto in his middle years, having clocked more than 2,500km already this year. He spends his early weekend mornings cycling on roads with other Mamils (middle aged men in Lycra) .

“At 6.30 or 7am on a Sunday, middle-aged men in garish gear sneak out of their houses in funny shoes and climb on to €10,000 bikes.

“They return, three hours later, all red, sweaty and panting. My wife describes herself as a carbon-fibre widow.”

Sports tourist

Sport is often used by the Irish male to give his poor wife a break from his presence, notably for the sports tourist.

“When you’re married, it’s much easier to get the visa for a trip with the lads if you take in a sporting event,” says Derry Lynch, who is 41.

In December 2010 he went to the World Darts Championships at the Alexandra Palace in London in December 2010 with nine mates, including Graham “Gaffer” Milne, Norbert Grey and David Solan. Their tickets cost €37 each and they togged out in Elvis outfits for it.

“It’s pure sporting theatre, with the entrance music they do for Phil Taylor, van Barneveld and all the heavy hitters. It has a certain cachet. We were 100m from Prince Harry and Freddie Flintoff.

“There’s beer on tap and 3,500 people going ape at the slightest hint of a nine-darter. As one of the lads said, it looked like the Munich Beer Festival with two punters up the front throwing darts.”

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