Some months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks I was driving three Muslim lads through the outskirts of New York City when my battered Honda Accord shuddered to a halt. We had happened upon a police checkpoint. In a country still riven with fear and paranoia, the car fell suddenly silent. We all looked nervously at each other.
I didn’t really know them and they didn’t know me. These were just fellas I used to pick up on Sunday mornings at petrol stations along the Long Island Expressway en route to junior soccer matches. I’m not sure what they were thinking but I had just read about the recently opened Guantanamo Bay and was definitely getting an apocalyptic vibe.
At the time, I was playing centre-half for New York Besiktas, a team of Turkish immigrants who wore the black and white stripes of the storied Istanbul outfit. Our starting XI usually consisted of 10 technically gifted boys from the Bosphorus and a Corkman over-fond of industrial strength clearances, forever grateful the rancorous half-time recriminations were conducted in their native tongue.
Which is how I came to be wearing a crest of the Islamic star and crescent over my now beating-way-too-fast heart as I rolled down the window and a burly cop loomed into view. There was a collective intake of breath. I felt seconds away from hearing, “You have the right to remain . . .”
The badge on his arm and the gun on his hip said NYPD but the big, jowly head on this officer and the casual manner of his lean in the window betrayed the fact Templemore lurked somewhere in his DNA.
“Coming from a game lads?” he asked, the accent still reeking of west of the Shannon as he eyed our matching jerseys and no doubt inhaled the stench of sweat mingled with eau de fear emanating from the vehicle.
"Sure where else would we be going?" I said, adding an extra layer of Cork to my delivery for effect.
“Did ye win?”
He waved us through and my team-mates spent the rest of the journey home explaining to me, in case I was wondering, that they were the “good Muslims not the fundamentals”.
A memory was prompted by a pair of old black shorts with the number 16 on them tumbling from a wardrobe as I helped my eldest son Abe move out of the house last week. Sifting through the detritus and debris of his bedroom, running a finger along the back catalogue of days long ago when our lives were intertwined. All the bric-a-brac of shared experience. A wooden plaque with a photograph of an under-8 soccer team, him a towheaded imp grinning in the middle row, me a dome-headed character at the back in a shirt that helpfully said “coach”.
“Remember this?” I asked.
“The field behind the church,” he replied.
Passage of time
On a different July morning in the summer of 2000, I wheeled Abe as a four -month-old onto a plane at Dublin Airport as we took our leave of Ireland. For who knows how long.
That oblivious toddler is off to seek fame and fortune as a stand-up comic now (every parent’s dream), his two younger brothers, Charlie (13) and Finn (9), are arguing about the rights to his room, and I’m left reflecting on the inexorable passage of time.
Twenty years in America. Fiche bliain ag fas? Certainly, an anniversary to make you pause and take inventory of where you are and where you have been. A lot of ruminating about roads less travelled. Paths not taken. Trying to figure out the moment when you decided to become a lifer over here. There wasn’t really one. That just happened. Like life.
One minute I was standing in the EBS on Baggot Street with my New York-born wife Cathy opening an account to try to buy a house in Celtic Tiger Dublin, the next I was standing behind home plate of a baseball diamond on Long Island, coaching bemused kids and wondering why their parents in the bleachers behind me were suddenly laughing uproariously.
Was it the accent as I bellowed instructions? Was it my refusal to wear a webbed glove to catch the ball during warm-ups? Turns out it was the actor/comedian Ray Romano had come along to watch his nephew play and the presence of Hollywood pinged every Americans' in-built celebrity radar.
In the beginning, I made the traditional emigrant’s effort to force-feed my kids excessive Irishness but that faded with time and they forged their own identities, morphing into peculiarly 21st century products of globalisation. They live for their annual fortnight in Cork, call out teachers for twee carry on around St Patrick’s Day, and walk out of the room if the Super Bowl comes on.
None of them has ever donned a Yankees cap or a Giants' jersey or any of the traditional livery of the New York teams. Instead, these curious Europhiles wear Barcelona or Bayern Munich or Juventus shirts and their main boast about dual heritage is telling friends their cousin Gearóid Morrissey plays for Cork City and has an avatar in Fifa 20. No greater accolade in their world.
I made my home far from the usual Irish enclaves where I was always deathly afraid of turning into one of the dreaded Tayto cheese and onion nationalists closing bars at night with rebel dirges. In the early days, I did have regular contact with the diaspora through pilgrimages to an AOH Hall in East Islip. There, on summer Sunday mornings, I ate hot buttered scones, lived and died with the Cork hurlers and footballers on the enormous screen, and listened to ould lads spinning epic yarns about the Ireland they'd left in the 50s and the unlikely paths they had forged in the new world. Big men. Tall tales. Grand times.
That singular privilege was revoked by my children eventually hijacking my schedule and making me an accomplice in their own sporting misadventures. After an umpire insisted he wear his cap the right way around, Charlie stomped off the field and promptly retired from baseball. At six.
Eschewing organised games altogether for a time thereafter, he forced me down some strange byroads. I watched school bus demolition derbies on Saturday evenings at Riverhead Raceway and went to Monster Truck rallies where I witnessed overexcited grown men queue to touch a behemoth with 6ft tall tyres called Grave Digger.
Another time, Abe came home and said that thing no Irish father ever wants to hear: “Dad, I want to play lacrosse”. The start-up equipment cost the guts of $500 and forking out that money was still far less painful than having to stand and watch a native American sport hijacked by the suburban middle-class.
They take perverse pride in dressing kids up like stormtroopers so they can hit each other with aluminium sticks. It’s basically hurling, with shoulder pads and without any of the skill, daring or lyricism. He only lasted a month but the helmet still hangs in the garage with all the other sporting relics of two decades.
Soccer has been the one constant. The so-called beautiful game that at youth level here is pockmarked, defaced and commercialised by demented coaches and lunatic parents. Occasionally, I got caught up in the madness myself. I once turned up to coach a “must-win” under-12 game with 10-month-old Finn in a stroller.
While the fella running the other team roared abuse at the ref and his own players throughout, I concerned myself with trying to get the baby to nap. I missed one big argument about a bad tackle because I had turned the bench into a changing table and was on my knees groping for wipes. An absurd piece of sporting theatre. As my opposite number grew angrier and angrier that morning, my only regret is that I didn’t stand up and shout, “Hit me now with my child in my arms.”
I coached basketball too even though at that time I didn’t know a pick and roll from a pick ’n’ mix. I brought the lads to a torrid night of amateur boxing in a fire station just to disabuse them of the notion they might be able to cut it in the ring. I showed them the great Raul toiling for the New York Cosmos on a college astroturf field latticed with grid-iron and lacrosse markings, and couldn’t find a reasonable answer when they asked what the hell he was doing there.
I had some escapades of my own too. I drove a rental car into the infield of the Texas Motor Speedway and nearly ran over the great Mario Andretti when he stepped into my path. I came upon a chain gang of African-American prisoners in jumpsuits cleaning up the approach road to Augusta National the week before the Masters and learned the meaning of systemic racism.
I witnessed Joe Frazier's dismay when he turned up to watch his daughter Jacqui get beaten up by Laila Ali only to learn her father, his great rival, was getting paid six figures to attend a Nascar race elsewhere that night.
My time here has coincided with a most tumultuous period in American history. The disputed presidential election of 2000. The twin towers. The hunt for Bin Laden. Endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were subsequently made very real for me when grizzled veterans of those conflicts ended up in my classroom. The false dawn of the Obama presidency followed now, of course, by civil society's death by a thousand Trumpian cuts.
I fought other battles closer to home. Aside from the time an Oscar-nominated producer bought the film rights to a book I wrote about Brendan Behan and threatened to shower me with cash, mine was mostly the financially precarious life of the freelance writer. One month rich (well, solvent), the next trying to figure out whether the electricity or the cable television company cut you off quicker. Every noble attempt to garner fresh income was a reminder that an arts graduate with a knowledge of sport didn't possess the most in-demand skill-set.
I was once hired by a design company in Portland, Oregon to assist them with creating a brand book about Umbro which had just been purchased by Nike. A lucrative and fascinating week on the west coast. The only low point was when a head honcho from Swoosh headquarters decided to amble around the office one day to check on our progress and caught me knee-deep in John Allen's hurling column in this paper.
When I should have been writing a pithy paragraph about how Umbro kitted out 15 of the 16 teams at the 1966 World Cup, I was reading the bearded Cork guru explaining why intercounty players monitor the colour of their pee. No word on whether that ever got back to Phil Knight.
There was a soul-destroying stint in a shirt and tie as a researcher for a corporate investigations outfit. At the interview, they neglected to mention the CEO’s incontinent pooch sidled around the office leaving runny deposits on the floor or that departing work on time was frowned upon. The suits were appalled to see me racing out the door at 5pm every Tuesday and Thursday to get to a soccer field to coach kids. Three weeks in, after a bizarre morning spent translating an errant executive’s erotic text messages from French to English (don’t even ask), I handed back my lanyard and resisted the urge to kick the stricken mutt on the way out.
Notwithstanding economic reality, the one regret now is not making more of an effort to get back for weddings, graduations and All-Ireland finals. Somehow, money was always sourced for funerals and there were too many red-eye flights to graveyards. My sister, my father, my mother. The grim tally of every emigrant life. Always trudging back to Shannon afterwards in inevitable rain, haunted by the line from Spancil Hill, “The old ones are all dead and gone, the young ones turning grey”.
Over time, your own ledger balances out, as many victories as defeats. Lost a house to foreclosure in the great recession then went back to school at night and found a new career as a college history professor.
Lost a marriage to mutual neglect then discovered a fresh vocation as a permanently harried, single father of three. A frazzled existence, mostly a sitcom, sometimes a horror movie, the car runs on caffeine and fast food and is nearly always pointed in the direction of a soccer field.
My only recreation these days is helping my neighbour sail his yacht in races around Long Island Sound on Tuesday evenings in summer. An unlikely turn of events.
My only previous experience of the ocean wave consisted of guiding a stolen bathtub down the Glasheen Stream in 1970s Togher with a hurley as a paddle, and repeated teenage viewings of Duran Duran's "Rio" video. Turns out it's a very pleasant way to pass a balmy night apart from that time we were nearly killed in a pop-up electrical storm.
As we hunkered down below, water sloshing at our feet, and one of our number spewing into a plastic bag, all I could think of was how hard my friends back home would laugh when they heard about the location of my demise. On a yacht? In a race? As my life flashed before me with each fresh lightning strike, I considered texting a journalist friend in Dublin to ask him to clarify in my obit that I didn’t actually own the boat. On the verge of death, the last thing I wanted was people thinking I had developed notions.
Take the boy out of Ireland. Still can’t take Ireland out of the boy.