Tuesday 11 December 2018

The First Sunday in September: Glory of carrying the ash hurley

Fiction: The First Sunday in September, Tadhg Coakley, Mercier Press €14.99

The First Sunday in September
The First Sunday in September

Margaret Madden

This year was the first year since 1903 that the All-Ireland hurling final was not played on the first Sunday of September. The game has shifted to August for a three-year trial period.

However, #hurlingtothecore fans will always have fond memories of the trip to Croke Park and the end of the summer months. Tadhg Coakley has used this iconic day as the basis for his debut novel (aptly titled) The First Sunday in September. Nineteen chapters - reading like inter-linked short stories - reveal the pride, tension and glory of playing for your county whilst also addressing the added responsibilities, expectations and rivalries which go along with county hurling. Individual stories come alive with a deeper probing of hidden demons and the weight of carrying the ash hurley.

Sean and Dinny visit former Cork player, Bill Barrett, in a nursing home. He recounts his memories of 1955 when "we were going for four-in-a-row". Still broken by his poor performance, the elderly man gives the young players some advice: "They'll stand down on yere necks if ye show one bit of weakness, one slip. And ye'll be hard on yereselves too, and that will go on and on for the rest of yere lives… Ye have to be pure ruthless. There's winning and losing and nothing else. Nothing."

Clare player, Cillian McMahon sits on a bench, in the changing rooms after the game. He struggles to get his boots off. The pain is representative of his performance: "He fought off the raw memories: his four wides, dropping that ball in the first half when he was clean through…He pulled down his right sock to the heel.

"He tried to pick the cloth near the toes and yank it free but it wouldn't budge. Instead, he unpeeled the top of the sock with his left hand, wincing at the last, as some of the skin came away with it." His temper builds as he listens to the opposing team coach's 'gracious' after-game speech and he drips fluid from his burst blisters "down on the Cork jersey at his feet".

Coakley writes with supreme confidence and with authentic darkness. Players, past and present, are brought to life - and their families are afforded a run-out. The large host of characters made it difficult to follow, at times, but perhaps I was distracted by the beauty of the writing.

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