independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Eoghan Harris: Chariots of integrity for Katie and Con

Katie Taylor is a Pentecostal Christian who refuses to compromise her principles. Not many people knew that. The late Con Houlihan vowed never to set foot in Kerry again after Martin Ferris was elected for Sinn Fein in 2002. Not many people knew that. Ryan Tubridy says he would love to have Katie Taylor on The Late Late Show. Everybody knows that.

My point? That when the media fulsomely praises famous men and women for their sporting skills alone, it misses other important things. Like the light of faith that shines in Katie Taylor's eyes. Like the pluralism that led the late Con Houlihan to loathe the Provos.

Katie Taylor and Con Houlihan had something in common beyond sport. An integrity of character and conviction. And jumping too noisily on their sports bandwagon may deafen us to other things they can teach us.

* * * * *

Katie Taylor follows in the footsteps of her born-again mother, Bridget. Many of my readers only realised this when she told Marty Morrissey she owed her gold medal to the guidance of Jesus. Although not a believer myself, I think her faith matters mightily for three reasons.

First, because Katie herself says so: "I don't want people to define me by my medals but by how I lead my life."

Second, because when I first came to Dublin in 1966, Frank Duff's Legion of Mary were still picketing the evangelicals of the Irish Church Missions.

Third, because the born-again Christians gunned down by the INLA at Darkley Hall in 1983 came from the same humble background.

The peace process left me with high esteem for the evangelical tradition. But it still took too long for Katie to register on my radar. It was only in April 2011, after reading a powerful profile by Kieran Shannon in the Irish Examiner titled 'In God's Hands' that I began to see the role that religion played in the life of this lissom but lethal boxer.

Reversing the natural media order, my interest in Katie's faith was followed by an interest in her boxing. And I was astonished to find that most of the media seemed blind to the legend that lived among us. Because Katie Taylor had won the European Championship five times and the World Championship four times.

As late as last April, Vincent Hogan in the Irish Independent also noted this neglect. "Katie might be one of the country's highest profile athletes but, to most Irish people, her genius is just a rumour. Newspaper coverage of her major championship victories has been largely terse and functional. And RTE television consistently seems indifferent to her story."

Katie herself found lack of RTE footage frustrating "Especially at awards dinners when all these action clips of people are being shown and they have no clips of me. Or the clip they show might be from years ago."

But what really baffled me in the past few weeks, was how RTE could miss the echoes, both religious and sporting, between Katie and Eric Liddell, the Scottish missionary featured in Chariots of Fire, who famously refused to run on the Sabbath.

Katie made a similar stand at the 2010 World Championship in Barbados. She was getting ready to face Queen Underwood of the USA in the semi-final. But on the eve of her fight, the organisers confronted her with a crisis of conscience.

Anxious to sex up women's boxing, the authorities presented each female fighter with a skirt and a tight vest in place of their traditional outfit. Katie Taylor faced the same conflict between conscience and sport as Eric Liddell at the 1924 games. And she and her father took the same hard line with the official who brought the outfit.

Peter Taylor: "I said, 'Katie's not wearing that'. So he says, 'If you don't wear them, you can't box'. And I said, 'Okay, so she won't box'." This was Peter the tactician too. He believed the world championship needed Katie and he called their bluff.

They folded. The majority of 26 who said no to the skirts stood behind Katie's moral shield. And when officials probed again before the current Olympics, Peter gave the same gritty answer: "She won't box. We've got morals that go above marketing."

Given these comparisons with Chariots of Fire, an alert RTE producer should have spent the past weeks using that film's story and music as part of a documentary about Katie, both as a boxer and believer, for transmission on the night she won or lost.

But today's RTE deals not in creativity but in coverage. So Ryan Tubridy announces he is anxious to scatter Katie's stardust on himself. But he has not earned it by coming up with a fresh angle. He should have had her on his show long ago, talking about her faith as much as her fists.

Miriam O'Callaghan is the only RTE presenter who has earned that right. Two years ago she had Katie and Peter on Miriam Meets.

Cutting to the core of Katie's convictions, Miriam asked her to read Psalm 18:34, which in the old King James Bible contains the prophetic lines: "He teacheth my hands to war"

* * * * *

Con Houlihan's last column saluted Katie. But he was no simple sportswriter. He spent as much moral energy excoriating sectarian fascists as he did on Sam Maguire. As on this typically tough-minded Evening Herald column of 20 July 2010.

"The publication of the Saville Report left a great many people in this island luxuriating in self-righteousness. At last a British government had come out and said: 'We were guilty without any doubt in the world and we are profoundly sorry.'"

Then he got down and dirty. "Will the Provisional IRA (Pira) now also put up their hands and admit that they were guilty of cold-blooded murder in Enniskillen, Hyde Park, Regent's Park, Canary Wharf, Harrods, Warrington and many other places?"

He went on to address Gerry Adams. "Will he now throw away the pretence that he was never in the Pira and admit to being guilty in the context of Jean McConville's death and that of Jerry McCabe, not to mention the many other foul deeds in about 30 years?"

Criticising ambivalence about extraditing IRA killers, he said: "Very few people in the Dail ever complained about this because they were watching their votes, ones they had bought with blood money.

"We in the South in general owe a great apology to our fellow Irish men, the Protestants of Northern Ireland."

Luckily Con reneged on his vow not to return to Kerry. Being fairly flexible myself I did not slag him for this. But I had one good reason for getting my own back.

Back in the days when I was an idealistic Marxist ideologue, Con borrowed a watch from the barman of the White Horse on Burgh Quay at closing time and said: "Harris, I'll give you two minutes to explain Marxism to me, and I'm throwing in the ball now."

Having had a few drinks I stupidly gave it to him full gallop: dialectical materialism, historical materialism, dictatorship of the proletariat, the lot.

Con listened intently, nodded 'time up' as I paused for breath and spoke softly through his screening fingers: "I'll say one thing for you Harris -- you're not dogmatic."

Sunday Independent

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