Liam Hayes keeping on moving in a world which has seized up
Hero Books - telling stories that deserve to be told to communities who want to hear them
Liam Hayes with Mike Ross on the launch of the former Ireland prop’s autobiography, published by Hero Books. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Well, this feels weird. We’re sitting in the lobby of a posh hotel in west Dublin. Or what used to pass for a posh hotel in west Dublin. Outside, the lawns are immaculate, the driveway spectacular, the setting every bit the real deal. Inside, Liam Hayes comes back from the reception desk with a puzzled head on him and says they’re only serving tea and coffee on the weekends. “We can sit here no problem but the kitchen isn’t open and they’ve no serving staff on.” he says. “Mad.”
Such are the times. In the outside world, there are 3,500 pubs that haven’t opened for six months. Dublin city centre is barren, with empty offices everywhere and downstream businesses starving for footfall. Every street is pimpled with shuttered coffee shops, with Spars and Centras that close at teatime, with bookstores that mightn’t see any more than a few dozen customers in an afternoon anymore.
By any measure, this feels like a precarious time to be bringing out a book. So Liam Hayes isn’t doing that. Instead, his publishing company Hero Books is bringing out 36 of them across the next 12 months. The majority of them here but a growing number in England too.
With the odd exception, they are sports books. Some are biographies, some are collections of interviews but most are memoirs. Larry Tompkins is probably the biggest name among them, co-authored with Denis Hurley and on the shelves this week. But mostly, they are local books, small print-run tales of lives that have been passed over.
“If you identify a local hero, a legend in that county or club who has never had their story told, you can bring his memoir to his community and there, straight away, you have an audience,” says Hayes. “Not every book has to have a national profile and sell 15,000 or 20,000 copies. That’s not what we’re about. Our local books will sell three, four five thousand copies, max. That’s all we need.
“It’s about local communities and having a business model that works on a local basis. Any city or two in England that has 100,000 to 200,000 people in it is a target for us. So we have books coming from places like Barnsley, Exeter, Blackburn, Stoke, Sheffield. These places are just the same as somewhere like Kerry or Cork or Tipperary.
“You go down to Kerry and you know that you have a couple of hundred thousand people who are Kerry People. They live for Kerry. They are passionate. This is important in their lives. You go over to Stoke and it’s no different. These are people for whom Stoke City FC are important in their lives. It was important in their fathers’ lives and their grandfathers’ lives. They’ve lived that club.
“So we have a book coming out on Eric Skeels, who I had never heard 12 months ago. Eric Skeels played almost 600 times for Stoke, he’s their record appearance holder, played for Stoke for 17 years. People in Stoke absolutely love this man. He’s 85 now and when I spoke to him first, he had no idea of doing a memoir.”
There are so many great life stories that have been untold
Alongside Tompkins, they have books coming from Len Gaynor of Tipperary, Paddy Doherty of Down, Michael Ryan of Waterford, Denis Coughlan of Cork. Coughlan is a classic of the genre Hayes talks about - a clubmate of Christy Ring and Jack Lynch at Glen Rovers, he played in eight All-Ireland finals in hurling and football between 1967 and 1978. The brilliant Cork writer Tadhg Coakley has collaborated with Coughlan for a book that Hayes had to convince the five-time All-Ireland winner was a good idea.
“I met him and told him this could be great. And he’s this totally modest man who comes from the Glen and for whom Ring and Lynch are the kind of heroes that he shared a space with. He was going, ‘Ah no, they’d only laugh at me down at the club if I brought out a book.’ And the reality couldn’t be further from that. The reaction to him down in Cork is one of pure love.
“There are so many great life stories that have been untold. And they haven’t been told because people would question whether there’s the market for it. Will it be worth everyone’s time? And the way we work it is we make it worth our time as a publisher, we make it worth the subject’s time and we make it worth the writer’s time. I say it to every writer who gets involved - if you’re doing this for money, you should probably walk away now. But if you can come back to me with three or four good reasons to do this that aren’t money-related, then you should do it.
“The toughest part is getting the writer involved. That’s the key component. There’s maybe three, four, five grand in it for them, which isn’t a massive amount, even if it’s tax free. So the key is that they have to be doing the book for reasons other than money. In Stoke, I had three local journalists bidding to do Eric Skeels’s book. In Barnsley, two journalists were vying over Barry Murphy’s book and the guy that didn’t get it was seriously pissed off.”
Hayes set up Hero Books 25 years ago. His first subject was Nick Poppelwell, who Hayes cold called when he was working as a stock-broker in London. Poppelwell became the first Irish rugby player to turn professional, although the fact that they turned out to have a book to put out at the same time was no more than a happy accident.
“I went over to London to Tower Bridge to meet him and I sat down with him in the pub. He didn’t know me from Adam. Within two hours, he’d agreed to do his autobiography. That was the first book we did.
“Midway through writing it, I picked up the Irish Times one day to find out that he had turned pro. In those days, if you didn’t give the story to Ned Van Esbeck, there’d be war! You’d nearly be jeopardising your place on the Irish team. So he told the Irish Times before he told his biographer. That was how I found out he was turned pro.”
In the years that followed, Hayes turned his hand to a slew of other businesses, some successful, some not. He started The Title, which became Ireland on Sunday, which was taken over by The Irish Mail. He started The Dublin Daily, which lasted four months. Along the way, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and had two bad scares, in 2010 and 2015. Hero Books was in cold storage for most of it, to be reached for occasionally when the mood took him.
“When I had cancer both times - and look, I don’t want to dramatise anything or get the music playing - you get through it quite easily in the end. You’re worried, you think you might die, the prospects are 50/50 or 70/30 or whatever and you get through it and you come out the other side. I was lucky both times, I was able to come away with a positive mindset.
“But afterwards, when you look back in retrospect, you realise, ‘Yeah, I was in a bit of trouble there alright.’ So I looked back about two or three years ago at the previous seven years. I had spent three and a half of those seven years in and out of intense cancer treatment or half-treatment.
Again, not too get over-dramatic about it, I should have had therapy after Gerard died
“That’s going to whack you across the head a fair bit, you know what I mean? At the time looking back now, I can see that I was well defeated in my own brain at that stage. I was in my 50s, I had had three or four shots at running companies and starting businesses in my life and as far as I could see, it was all over. You’re not going to do it again. That was my firm belief for two or three years.
“The first two or three years of setting up a company are always tough. Eight out of every 10 bits of news you get will be bad. Or if they’re not bad, they’re not as good as you would look. There are kicks in the shin and kicks in the arse every day.”
That sounds awful. Why would you bring that on yourself?
“I enjoy it because you’re achieving something. You’re building something. There’s a bit of the unknown about it, a bit of intrigue, a bit of adventure. Again, not too get over-dramatic about it, I should have had therapy after Gerard died. (Hayes’s brother took his own life at their local GAA pitch a couple of days before Liam’s 21st birthday).
“I didn’t do that and I should have. I know that. I do know that after he died, I needed something every month. I needed a hit of something. I needed something new to do. A holiday, a new girlfriend, some sort of adventure, something. If there wasn’t something there a month or two down the road, I wasn’t in a good place.
“So I think that was a big part of the development of my personality - without going too far up my own arse with analysis of myself. I always wanted to be doing something. And then I got into the habit of not wanting to work for other people. So when I came out the other side of the last bout of cancer and got enough distance that I could think clearly again, I thought of Hero Books and the possibilities that it held.”
And so he goes again. And again. And again (x36). Dozens of books, dozens of lives, sent out into the ether to see what the ether will make of them. In a world that feels like it has seized up, he has to keep moving.