Tuesday 26 September 2017

Sports: Reality the new imagination

Eamonn Sweeney

Nick Hornby once argued that the problem with sports fiction is its unreality. It's hard to feel moved by the fortunes of a non-existent team or performer when the real thing is so inherently dramatic. Hence the utterly unsatisfactory nature of most films, novels and TV series about sport.

But it may be that movie-makers have finally found a way round this fundamental flaw. In recent times we've had the likes of Invictus, The Damned United and Moneyball, based on the real-life fortunes of the South African rugby team in the 1995 World Cup, Brian Clough's time as manager of Leeds United and the Oakland As baseball club. And we'll shortly be treated to a film by director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13) on the rivalry between Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

This trend towards recreations of the factual mirrors broader cultural trends. There's been a growing tendency in recent years to rewrite real lives whether in novels (Wolf Hall, The Master, Girl With A Pearl Earring), theatre (Frost/Nixon, 2010 Tony Award winner Red, 2012 Laurence Oliver Award winner The Collaborators), film (The King's Speech, The Queen, Milk), or television (Appropriate Adult, all those BBC4 dramas about the likes of Kenneth Williams, Tony Hancock, David Bailey et al). Reality is the new imagination.

This reliance on real people to be the stuff of drama is something of a mixed blessing but it's a godsend for anyone wishing to overcome the problem of depicting sport in the cinema or even on stage where a play on the rivalry between basketball legends Larry Bird and Magic Johnson has been running on Broadway. And it's made me wonder about which Irish sporting stories might be suitable for dramatic treatment.

Because it's striking that while sport plays an enormous part in Irish life, it has, by and large, been almost totally ignored by writers, playwrights and film-makers. Sport is something which has far more to do with our lives than the drugs trade yet we're coming down with movies, plays and programmes peopled by not-very-realistic Dubbalin gangsters.

It's as though sport is somehow seen as not being the stuff of cinema, TV drama or fiction. Yet there is rich untapped territory out there, full of material which could resonate powerfully with an Irish audience. Wouldn't it be something to see a TV drama about the rivalry between Christy Ring, John Doyle and Nicky Rackard for example?

There's a scene in Val Dorgan's biography of Ring, the great Irish sporting biography, which always strikes me as cinematic in the extreme. Ring, just before one of the big Munster finals against Tipp, is lying on his bed in the Railway Hotel in Limerick, hitting the brass knob he's unscrewed off the bedpost against the ceiling and trapping it again and again on his hurl. It's the kind of telling detail which captures the driven, almost fanatical outlook of the GAA's greatest star, a man who lit candles in his local church before departing for a big match, who would hop out of the lorry he drove to use roadside signposts for target practice, an aesthetic genius who was also no stranger to the dark side. What material he'd provide for the enterprising writer.

As would Doyle, a man whose fate it was to be regarded outside his own county as a kind of villain, the hard man to Ring's stylist, and who would always carry the hurt of being caricatured in this way. Then you have Rackard who, with his brothers, brought Wexford from nowhere to become the best supported team the country has ever seen, struggling all the time with his alcoholism before he eventually found peace through Alcoholics Anonymous which saved his life and enabled him to save the lives of others.

There are great scenes to be conjured up, the Great Bicycle Final, that Munster decider of 1944 when the square in Thurles was filled with people sleeping there the night before the game, people having walked huge distances because wartime fuel restrictions had severely curtailed public transport, the Mickey Burke affair where the Galway players attacked Ring in the Cork team hotel the day after the All-Ireland final of 1953 and copies of The Cork Examiner were burned on an Eyre Square bonfire, the Art Foley save which denied Ring his ninth All-Ireland medal in 1956 and the handshake which followed it.

The great Cork writer Daniel Corkery famously bemoaned the fact that the people who attended a Munster hurling final were more or less unrepresented in Irish literature. Perhaps things have picked up a bit since then but it remains true that there has never really been a convincing imaginative portrayal of the GAA. The Man From Clare was about the best stab at it and even that isn't one of John B Keane's finest plays. On Home Ground? Let's be kind and not go there.

You'd wonder why so many film and programme makers are so keen on producing what are basically American thrillers set in Ireland while ignoring such an integral part of our national experience, one which has provided so much human drama.

And it's not just the GAA which might provide rich pickings for a daring writer and commissioning editor. What about the exploits of The Irish Whales, the emigre athletes who ruled the roost in the early Olympics? A man like Martin Sheridan, who left Mayo to become a New York cop and the finest athlete in the world during his day, winning five Olympic gold medals, and who refused to dip the flag in front of King George VI at the 1908 London Olympics is a writer's dream. As is James Connolly, son of parents from the Aran Islands, who quit Harvard and travelled all the way to Greece under his own steam, surviving a robbery attempt in Naples, to, in 1896, win the first Olympic gold of modern times. Or Peter O'Connor, the Waterford long jumper who at the 1906 intercalated games in Athens, pulled down the Union Jack which had been raised at his medal ceremony, shinning up the flagpole to replace it with a green flag. The whole link between the independence movement and Irish athletic achievements is a fascinating one. We could have our own Chariots Of Fire.

There are so many stories out there. The exploits of hellraisers like John Joe Barry and Jack Doyle; the story of Jimmy Langan, businessman, top poker player and world-class table tennis star; the rise, fall and rise again of Derry City; the return to Dublin of Giles, Dunphy and Treacy, their aim to make Shamrock Rovers a major European club and their eventual failure; Down becoming the first All-Ireland champions from the North at the time of the IRA border campaign; the relationship between Barry McGuigan and Barney Eastwood; the Yellow Sam betting coup of Barney Curley; the story of Joey Dunlop and the incredible popularity of motorcycling in the North at a time when a war was raging there; the demise of Belfast Celtic and the rise of Heffo's Heroes. But nothing on Saipan. Please, nothing on Saipan.

I suspect that RTE and the Film Board might think that sport as a subject is somehow infra dig and that we're doomed to many more movies where Trinity graduates stand around pretending to be hard chaws.

On the other hand, I did hear a rumour that one of our best playwrights is currently working on a drama about Seamus Darby. I really hope it's true.

If the Yanks have Magic/Bird we're surely entitled to Ring/Rackard.

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