How sporting a beard can give you a warrior's edge


Wild beards may strike fear on the sports field, but don't try it at home, gentlemen, writes Shane Hegarty 

AS THE ALL-IRELAND football final plays out on the pub TV, Tyrone's Joe McMahon appears on the screen. "Will you look at the beard," observes someone from their barstool. "He looks like he should be chasing mammoths rather than Kerrymen!"

McMahon's beard - Bomber Liston meets Teen Wolf - is mesmerising. This is not because it is sculpted, shaped or defined (it is clearly none of these things). And it is not a fashion statement, although by last Sunday's big match even Tyrone's toddlers were sporting fake beards in homage to McMahon and his six team-mates who had refused to shave until they were beaten.

Instead, his is an aggressive beard, beginning just below his eyes and ending God knows where. You wouldn't turn up for a job interview sporting such a thing but on the field of play it looks like a warrior's beard.

In fact, the country's fascination with Tyrone's beards may have something to do with a cultural collective memory of the hirsute and snarling Celtic warriors described by quivering Roman legionnaires. Or perhaps they just remind us of watching Braveheart.

Either way, you wouldn't want to be the player who had to mark McMahon. The beard has been a source of perpetual fascination, reverence, disgust and curiosity across many cultures. Psychoanalysts say that no man grows a beard unconsciously, and that changing the look of the face is layered with meaning.

Evolutionists, though, suggest that the beard makes the jaw bigger, and emphasises the teeth as weapons. It's also quite handy in hiding a man's reactions during face-to-face negotiations. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer suggested that men grow beards because they do not have the knack for dissimulation that women have (before continuing the insults by observing how few of the men of Andalusia seem to require beards).

Some religions demand a beard, although there is debate within Islam as to what length and style, and how the Koran doesn't actually mention it as a requirement. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, wear their beards because Leviticus commands that "ye shall not round the corners of your heads neither shall thou mar the corners of thy beard". And the Amish grow theirs either with marriage or once they pass 40, although they keep the upper-lip clean, a practice often credited to their associating moustaches with military traditions they want no part of.

A century ago, few sovereigns or politicians were seen without a beard, but today's politicians are usually advised to get rid of the facial hair. Labour's Ruairi Quinn (sculpted) and Fine Gael's James Reilly (rampant) refuse to bow to convention.

The decline of the beard in the modern era is sometimes attributed to the first World War, and the requirement that gas masks seal properly around soldiers' faces, while the problem of lice led to the close shave, which became the stereotypical look of new army recruits. Its re-emergence in the 1960s began with the counter-culture, a legacy that still causes some angst in the US military, which frowned on its Special Forces' penchant for them in Afghanistan partly because it reminded them of the indiscipline of the Vietnam war.

The Tyrone team's beards are in keeping with the wildman look that has returned to the sporting field, most notably in rugby where France's Sébastian Chabal always looks as if he's been sprung from a cage. It asserts his masculinity in even the most masculine of sports. In rugby, though, front-row forwards have a tradition of not shaving for a couple of days before a match so as to give their opponent something to rub against as they nuzzle in the scrum.

Such sporting beards, then, are clearly not as much of a hindrance as they were to Alexander the Great's soldiers who ordered his men to shave them off lest they be grabbed by the enemy.

The beard is actually something of a fashion on the street at the moment. A city stroll confirms this, although it's clear that the trend is towards a barely beard, only a couple of days' growth ahead of a George Michael. They are trimmed, neat, tight to the face. They do not look as if you could lose your lunch in there.

This is part of the problem for beards: there is fine line between being avuncular and looking a little like a hobo. Hair colour may have something to do with it. Grey, or white, makes a beard attractive - think the late Ronnie Drew or Santa Claus. Perhaps, then, it was a bad move for Osama bin Laden to film a recent video threat having spruced up his look with a bottle of Just For Men. It revealed vanity in a beard that was supposed to be about something else entirely.

The divergent responses were clear in an unscientific survey of female colleagues. "Disgusting. Can't stand them," says one. "It's the thought of the milk and the cornflakes getting caught in it."

"Generally, I'm quite attracted to beards," admits another. "But, hygiene is very important. Because where the beard has been tends to retain memories."

This week, though, it's only the population of Kerry that wants to forget all about beards for a while.