Joyce's career an amalgam of style, substance and commitment


SIDELINE CUT:They pronounce the name with a scything flatness and to all Galwegians, Pádraic Joyce was always either “Jiyce” or “PJ”.

Ever since his star-bursting summer of 1998, Joyce has eclipsed West of Ireland politicians, singers and television stars in terms of instant recognition and importance. The significance you attach to the news this week that he is to retire from Galway football depends on how well you understand Ireland.

The late lamented John McGahern remarked in a radio interview during the height of the silliness that Ireland had changed more in the last 15 years than in the previous 200. He may have been a bit previous in that pronouncement but there is no question that in a bewilderingly fast and false period it was difficult to be certain of what had substance and what was mere illusion. Through it all, Gaelic games remained one of the most trustworthy prisms through which to interpret the country. And within that framework, Joyce possessed a brightness that was impossible to ignore.

It was pure serendipity that Galway happened to have a talented filmmaker in its squad and that John O’Mahony was sufficiently liberal to allow Pat Comer to capture the 1998 season as it unfolded, from the unspeakably black nights which characterise the west of Ireland winters to the hallucinatory days which followed their September All-Ireland victory. That victory, of course, bridged the gap to Galway’s eternally Brylcreemed bunch of 1964, ’65,’66.

The three-in-a-row side conferred on Galway a permanent place in football’s hierarchy. They were, as the Italians say, made men. It didn’t matter that they could go through moribund years where they scarcely caused a ripple on the football summer. Deep down, there was a sense that a latent greatness lurked within those flickering maroon teams. And they rushed from nowhere in 1998.

Joyce was the kid on that team, the black-haired full forward with the deceptively quick step and an uncanny knack for making space and kicking these heartbreakingly perfect scores. He scored the goal that tilted the All-Ireland final against Kildare in Galway’s favour and celebrated it with the slightly furtive gesture that would become emblematic: head bowed and arm held aloft.

Joyce was from the football heartland of east Galway; the family was a football family and he had schooled at St Jarlath’s. He followed the same path as Seán Purcell had done in the 1940s. He won two All-Irelands in three seasons and when the arc of Galway’s football team began to decline – and it was a slow curve – he could have taken a quick look around and decided that it was time for him to skip town. One by one, his former team-mates began to fall away and when Michael Donnellan, the undisputed football genius of the era, walked away, Galway’s chances of winning another All-Ireland greatly diminished.

It was in the years after that, when Galway slipped back into the pack and Armagh and Tyrone engineered a football revolution, that Joyce’s real brilliance became apparent. On good days and bad days for Galway, he never failed to do something that was so brilliantly quick-witted and unexpected that it made everyone in the stadium kind of gasp.

I remember taking my son to a Connacht final when he was four. The whole kick for him was the press box because of the fact that it was an improvised lorry. Of the game, he said only: “The number 11 did everything.” Depressingly, he had summed up in five words what I intended taking a 1,000 to explain – there was no more scathing indictment of the futility of this job. Joyce was the No 11 that day.

I interviewed him just once, on the occasion of his captaincy of the Irish International Rules team. He was dead pleasant and just as moderate; like many GAA players, he has made a career out of saying very little in public because if he said what he actually thought about things, he would undoubtedly come across as too caustic and sharp.

On summer days of Galway disappointment, we watched him walk quickly out of dressing rooms in Roscommon or Salthill, bag thrown over his shoulder and head bowed and figured that that would be his exit from Galway football. But for 16 seasons, he showed up for more. He couldn’t not.

In recent seasons, he has become a totemic figure in Galway football. The frame thickened a little and the black hair was silver dusted at the temples but the mind and eye were as quick as ever and he manufactured space and scores from nothing. You could see what he meant to younger players from across the country when they shook hands after games.

Much has changed over Pádraic Joyce’s playing career.The country became loud, tipsy and grotesque and inevitably it all fell apart. Pat Comer’s film caught a moment of Irish life at a very delicate, complex period when everything and everyone was on the verge: things were about to take off.

Watching Joyce play football on a dewy spring day in Tuam or during the height of the championship was for Galway people a vivid connection to that 1998 season but more generally, his presence was a truly eloquent example of grace and commitment and poise and belief in something real – values that were badly in want in this country. He played his heart out for as long as he could.

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