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After a slow start, this collection of GAA stories roars into life

Short stories: The First Sunday in September, Tadhg Coakley, Mercier Press, paperback, 240 pages, €14.99

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Rebel yell: In one story Cork and Clare do battle

Rebel yell: In one story Cork and Clare do battle

Rebel yell: In one story Cork and Clare do battle

There hasn't been much GAA literature, which is surprising in a way, given the inherent drama, excitement and poetry of Gaelic games, especially hurling. Watching the epic 2014 All-Ireland final may have felt as though you were consuming a great work of art - something suitably Homeric and heroic - and some non-fiction GAA books are artful enough. But in terms of fiction, pickings are thin.

The First Sunday in September, debut of writer Tadhg Coakley, redresses that lack with a style and confidence befitting a Corkman. Just like how his county's hurlers currently play, Coakley's book is fast-moving, highly skilled and a pleasure to behold.

Structurally, it inhabits an interesting space between the short story and longer novel form. The First Sunday in September is broken into 19 tales which, while working perfectly as standalone pieces, are also interlinked.

Characters and incidents reappear throughout, being namechecked, cursed or fondly recalled across different narratives. (Sometimes in wonderfully surprising ways: I had to double-check, for instance, that cool, self-possessed Emma in one story is the same damaged, horribly abused girl from five chapters back. She is, and her self-willed redemption is wonderful.) Then there are the recurrent themes and subject. The latter, of course, is the titular first Sunday in September: long an iconic date in the national sporting and cultural calendar, home of the All-Ireland hurling final. (Ironically, next weekend the decider will be held in August for the first time since 1903. The gods laugh when men, and authors, make plans…)

Coakley's book revolves around this day of days, beginning a few evenings beforehand as Cork and defending champions Clare prepare to do battle. We move to Sunday itself, following players, family, friends, followers and fanatics as they make the sacred pilgrimage to Croke Park, endure/enjoy the game itself (these things are indivisible if you have a dog in the fight), and endure/enjoy the keen edge of winning or losing (no longer indivisible, in fact starkly divided), before a handful of codas - some well into the future - shine a deeper light of perspective on events.

If this was a GAA match, I'd be reporting that it took a few minutes to get going: opener 'The Traitor' was okay, but its theme of loss and regrets felt a bit "literary Irish". And the Cork slang, while lovely to re-encounter many years after leaving the 'Real Capital', felt a little overdone.

We'll blame that on big-day nerves, because once Coakley finds his feet and lands his first metaphorical point from way out the pitch, The First Sunday in September roars into life. This is one of the few story collections that's better read straight through, surging onwards at speed like a marauding forward line bang on form.

Each individual piece is very good, and some are truly superb. 'Passion' is a droll, subtle exploration of family dynamics and unspoken resentments as boy-done-good-in-London Conor comes home for the match with his beautiful English girlfriend. 'Áine Laughs' is a sweet, funny tale of a smart-arsed lesbian and former camogie All-Ireland winner, battling heartache as she cheers on the Rebels.

'Her Mother Evelyn' is painfully sad, almost to the point of tears; 'The Pride of Kilbrittain', a related story, is moving for other reasons. 'Losing' delves into the abyss of, well, losing a big match; while 'His Frank O'Connor Moments' cheerfully celebrates the flipside.

My personal favourite is 'Five Seconds', a forensic disintegration of one moment which changes the course of the game. Time slows nearly to a stop, everything reduced to its essence - capturing, you imagine, how it must feel to be a player in those instants - before spiralling into a sort of rhapsody of imagination and speculation. It's strange, oblique and electrifying.

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What I liked most about The First Sunday in September is how Coakley captures Gaelic games, and All-Ireland final day, in all its symphonic glory and craziness and mystery and magic. If you're one of those odd people who "don't get" GAA, read this and you'll understand why it means so much, to so many, and always will. It's a cliché, yes, but true nonetheless: GAA is beyond sport.

And this is a brilliant first-shot from a very talented writer. As they'd say in Cork: dowtcha, Coakley, boy.


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