Saturday 23 September 2017

Reeling in the Charlton years

From alcoholism to abortion, rented TVs to IRA terrorism, Declan Lynch's new book brings an unforgettable era alive again, says Eamon Gibson

Get one thing straight from the outset: this is not a book about football. Rather, it is a social and cultural history combined with social commentary, a study of how the era we now call 'The Charlton Years' fits into our history and our memories, a study of a great sporting era placed in its social, economic and political context. A bit like Reeling in the Years, but with critical analysis of the people and events.

The author takes us through his recollections of the highs and lows of the Irish soccer team and liberally sprinkles them with observations on a veritable mishmash of subjects, ranging from alcoholism to abortion, rented TVs to IRA terrorism, and even whether it mattered a jot if we (at the time) didn't know the difference between Romania and Bulgaria (sure aren't they all the same behind that Iron Curtain).

It is full of anecdotes that stir up wonderful images of the joy Jack Charlton brought to so many people in this island, yet is at the same time derisive of the Ole, Ole brigade, or bullshit supporters as the author calls them.

Declan Lynch, an experienced journalist, music writer and highly praised columnist, clearly classes himself and his associates as "real soccer fans" and so sets himself up as an authority on the subject. He claims "to have put in the hours" to prove his pedigree but leaves this reader unconvinced.

How can anyone so immersed in music be a genuine soccer supporter? You must choose one over the other at some stage and I get the distinct impression that if forced to choose between an Ireland soccer international and a Pogues concert, Shane MacGowan would win hands down with Lynch.

But back to the book. On the plus side, the tales of how Big Jack changed Ireland from being an unlucky side with nought but moral victories in our portfolio, to a lucky team who could actually beat other countries and, more importantly, could beat England, are really heart-warming and will bring back smiley memories. Yes, there was no doubt we had come a long way.

Lynch points out: "If Ireland in the 1980s was a person, it would be described as 'dysfunctional', self-destructive, tormented by these incompatible ideas (regarding the cultural split between the old Ireland and the emerging one) about how we should live. And the only thing which apparently make it better was this sense of belonging to the alternative Republic of Ireland, a better place, ruled by the benign dictator, Jack."

Days of Heaven does capture the mood of the people on those heady days of Italia '90. And none more so than the memories evoked by the chapter which describes our eventual demise, the night we were knocked out by Italy. "That night in the Stadio Olimpico, we wound it all up with something akin to an open-air episode of the 'Late Late Show' -- a bit of Jack and the Boys in Green, a bit of Chris de Burgh, a bit of Haughey, even a bit of Dunphy. And with the best wishes of the Pope still with us, a little bit of religion. And the entire country -- and for once we literally meant the entire country, every man, woman and child -- watching it."

Lynch is a great colour writer and he uses his gift to bring those emotional days and nights to life once again. But for me, there is just too much going on in this book and you find yourself screaming 'just get to the point' on several occasions, especially when you know there is a good piece coming eventually, like the penalty shoot-out victory over Romania during the 1990 World Cup finals. But no, you just can't hurry Mr Lynch, who feels it necessary to educate the casual reader with more unnecessary trivia about some Hot Press crony or pauses to drop another name from his long list of music industry heroes.

That criticism aside, Days of Heaven is a valuable addition to anyone's collection of social history, especially anyone who prefers their social history written with real literary flair instead of the lifeless prose most social historians employ. And as well as its literary value, this book certainly merits a listing in any library as a book of reference to Ireland in the '80s and early '90s.

On Haughey, Lynch has some damning words, summing up the former Taoiseach thus: "It was probably the size of the lies that entertained so many of us, that made us recognise in Haughey some essential characteristic of our tribe, some inexhaustible and ineradicable strain of bullshit."

The Catholic Church, divorce, Christy Moore, Knock Airport, Dermot Morgan, The Snapper and The Van, Paul McGrath, Questions and Answers, Chernobyl, U2, the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, the Kerry Babies, the aforementioned Haughey, they're all there. All that's missing, as Bill Cullen might say, is a little drop of TK red lemonade.

Eamon Gibson is Sports Editor of the Sunday World

Buy 'Days of Heaven' from Eason

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