A Famous Win for the All-Browns – An Irishman’s Diary about superstition and sportswear

Robbie Henshaw. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Robbie Henshaw. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

In common with many otherwise sane sports fans, I am haunted by a suspicion that the outcome of certain events can be influenced, however slightly, by things I do.

It’s not a power to be welcomed, because it sometimes involves missing key moments, thanks to the sacrificial visit-to-the-toilet routine, without which several of the Irish soccer team’s most famous equalisers might never have happened. But often, it just means feeling obliged to wear the same clothes you wore on certain previous occasions, if they’re associated with good luck. This being so, Ireland’s historic victory over the All-Blacks has set me a worrying precedent.

I had to watch the game in Kinnity Castle, while attending a fancy-dress party. Worse still, it was medieval-themed fancy dress, a challenge in itself. Luckily my wardrobe department had found me a Franciscan friar outfit, complete with fake-bald-spot-wig. Accessorised by old sandals, it was almost convincing.

Yes, the monk act was undermined somewhat by the two hours I spent lurking in the castle’s wifi hotspots, trying to watch the game by the only means possible, an iPhone live-stream. Also, as events in Chicago progressed, they provoked me into language increasingly unbecoming of a friar, up to and including the moment Robbie Henshaw scored, when I roared something along the lines of “Bless you my son”, although not in those words.

But now, under the normal rules, I feel obliged to wear the special All-Brown costume for future games against the All-Blacks, starting next week – at least until they beat us again while I’m so attired, at which time, the onus will be lifted.

Or is it possible that, since the hoodoo-breaking game was in Chicago, a special circumstance we can’t replicate, this trumps all other superstitions arising from the result? It’s a big dilemma. Maybe those of you similarly afflicted, but with mere lucky underpants, etc, can advise.

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As readers may know, medieval Franciscans were “discalced”. Which meant they had something in common with a famous Chicago sportsman, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson – although apparently his nickname derived from a single occasion once when, troubled by blisters, he played a game in his socks.

Some of the socks he wore were immortalised too, for different reasons. Jackson spent several years with the Chicago White Sox, a team that for a time became the “Black Sox”, partly because of the notorious 1919 World Series, which he and others conspired to throw. Disgraced as well as discalced, he was exposed by a grand jury, which in turn gave rise to a phrase summing up the injured innocence of those let down by heroes: “Say it ain’t so, Joe?”

This originated with a Chicago columnist, speaking only for himself. But in a later newspaper story, a similar question was placed in the mouth of a child said to have confronted his idol outside the court. That was the version preferred by popular history, although as Jackson revealed years later, it never happened.

As befits the city of Hemingway, there is a rich tradition in Chicago of news reporters branching into fiction. Hence an even more infamous example decades earlier, after the great fire of 1871.

This had been a disaster waiting to happen, due to wooden buildings, a drought, and industrial pollution that coated the city in fire-friendly oil and grease. A scapegoat was nonetheless needed. So a newspaper story blaming the fire on an Irish immigrant and her cow (at least one of whom was drunk, naturally), proved popular. But as the story’s author – one Michael Ahern – admitted 20 years later, that hadn’t happened either. Alas, his retraction was too late for Catherine O’Leary, who spent the rest of her life a hounded recluse.

Getting back to the “Black Sox”, that nickname had another explanation too – one that sheds light on the 1919 scandal. In general, sports stars were poorly paid then, with straitjacket contracts that prevent them leveraging their worth. And although the White Sox were among the better-off, the club’s owner Charles Comiskey had a reputation for stinginess. Among other things, he required his players to pay their own laundry bills. When they refused, they became the Black Sox, even before the name took a moral twist.

Most historians think Comiskey was no more frugal than other team owners. So maybe, like Mrs O’Leary, he was a victim of the truism about giving a dog a bad name. In his case, the reputation may have been inherited. His father, John Comiskey, was an immigrant from Cavan.