Saturday 10 December 2016

Cronin weighs in with epic hat-trick

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 16/10/2011 | 05:00

When it came out two years ago The GAA -- A People's History by Mike Cronin, Mark Duncan and Paul Rouse was a revelation. A kind of thematic history of the Association which used plenty of material from the GAA's Oral History Project which Cronin and his colleagues at Boston College's Irish branch have been carrying out, it came as close as humanly possible to achieving the impossible task of capturing the spirit of the GAA on paper.

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The academic nature of the book gave it a welcome seriousness which was perfectly counterpointed by the great charm of the writing and the obvious affection for the games evident in every line.

Mike Cronin is obviously a busy lad because he's now got not one but two more books out, both of them so good that they give him three entries in the top ten of Best Irish Sports Books Ever. The GAA -- County By County, again written with Duncan and Rouse, is to some extent A People's History approached from another angle. This time there's more of a focus on what happened on the field and on what gives the GAA its own distinctive stamp in every county.

It's perhaps the finest illustration I've seen of that strange and wonderful situation whereby Irish counties, relatively small places surrounded by similar entities, nevertheless preserve their own deeply cherished distinct identity.

The fantastic eye for a telling photograph, which was one of the most striking features of the first book, is once more evident. You could mount a magnificent exhibition of the photos within the covers. There's one, for example, of a motorcade entering Edgeworthstown after the local club won the 1974 Longford senior final which seems to perfectly encapsulate the joy a victory like this can bring to a small community. It is the kind of scene I hope to be witnessing this evening after the Cork football final. Come on The Haven.

Places We Play, the book written by Cronin with Róisín Higgins, may not be as immediately and obviously appealing as its GAA colleagues yet it's actually a small masterpiece and perhaps my favourite of the three because it told me so much I didn't know and told it so elegantly and intelligently. It's a history of Ireland's sporting venues which manages to become a de facto history of Irish sport in all its manifestations, bringing us from the Aviva, Croke Park and the National Stadium to the bowling roads of Cork and Armagh, Ireland's only real tennis court, hunting lodges, swimming baths and handball courts.

It is chock full of revelation. It tells the story of the Gordon Bennett Motor Race which was the world's first closed circuit race when it was run from Athy through Kildare, Carlow and Laois in 1903. It reveals that the North West 200 motorbike race in Antrim and Derry is not just the biggest sporting event in Ireland, with up to 150,000 spectators attending, but the most popular motorbike road race in the world, something which made me think I should check it out. I was also surprised to learn that in 1970 the Rás Tailteann lured the Russian team to compete by telling them that the race would be dedicated to Lenin. And, sure enough, there's the poster, "Rás Tailteann honours James Connolly and Vladimir Lenin."

Mike Cronin and his colleagues are doing a marvellous service for Irish sport with these books and long may they continue to do so. They're fortunate in their choice of publishers as Collins Press of Cork have produced absolutely beautiful volumes which show there are some things a Kindle will never be able to reproduce. And if, because they're hardbacks, the books seem slightly pricey, well Christmas is coming. You might drop a hint that there's no need for the gansey this year.

You know what would be wonderful? If RTE commissioned Cronin to write and present a comprehensive TV history of Irish sport, something which has been sorely lacking up to now. You know what we'll probably get instead? Hector soloing a ball from Malin Head to Mizen Head with George Hook behind him pushing Lucy Kennedy in a wheelbarrow.

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