Entertainment Books

Saturday 17 November 2018

OSCAR WILDE: MY GAA YEARS

'GAA Confidential', by DARRAGH MCMANUS, is perhaps the funniest, most cultured book ever written about our national sports.Here's a taste of it . . .

What do Oscar Wilde and the GAA have in common? Both are Irish, and the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded around the time (1884) that Oscar was in his epigram-spouting, society-scandalising, paradigm-shattering pomp.

But what other links could possibly exist between a foppish literary genius - more given to wearing velvet hats and dallying with beautiful boys than clattering into his opposite marker - and a sporting body long stereotyped as gauche, provincial, the polar opposite of Wildean sophistication?

Well, as revealed in my book GAA Confidential, Oscar turned his hand to capturing the essence of the national games in a heretofore unseen version of The Importance of Being Earnest. I discovered this dusty, lavender-scented manuscript during my exhaustive research into the history, personalities, culture and popular expression of Gaelic games. And as one would expect, it is a beguiling coalescence of bons mots, richly drawn characters and unbridled love of the jersey (see panel for excerpt).

But this is only the tip of an artistic iceberg. Indeed, one of the reasons I wrote GAA Confidential (apart from obvious ones like fortune and glory) was the skin-crawling irritation suffered whenever ill-informed blockheads would disparage GAA people as uncouth, backward and insular. Which, needless to say, didn't tally with my experience at all.

For example: in 1991 Tipperary won the All-Ireland hurling title. One of the best days of my life, standing on the terrace, bedecked in blue and gold, roaring on our lads like a demented hyena.

Meanwhile, the same person was studying for an Arts degree in UCC. I dressed like Nirvana's bass player, watched the artiest of art-house cinema, listened to avant-garde music, and spent my days drinking coffee and trying to engage my fellows in philosophical discussion.

For me, there was absolutely no contradiction. When one classmate commented, "You don't seem like someone who'd be into GAA", I replied, "Sorry - why not?" I loved Gaelic games; I loved lots of things, from pop culture to high art. So did thousands of other people.

Therefore, besides looking at the competitions, sports, history and curiosities of GAA in my book, I wanted to emphasise its rich, diverse - and surprisingly erudite - cultural heritage. Here's a little taster:

Literature Hurling was eulogised in Charles Kickham's Victorian-era novel Knocknagow, but the first written mentions of Gaelic games are much earlier. Ancient annals recorded that a game of hurling was played before a battle in 1272 BC, and noted how the Tailteann Games (a prototype Olympics) dated back another 12 centuries.

Stalwart junior football goalie, Patrick Kavanagh, dotted his poetic canon with GAA references, while The Gallant John Joe, by playwright and former Cavan player, Tom MacIntyre, concerns the reminiscences of an ex-player. Paul Durcan based one poem around Clare and Tipp's epic 1997 All-Ireland final, and I myself crafted a tender haiku about putting on a brave face in disappointment: "Sullen though I was at our defeat I lied to keep up a facade".

Ah, le mot juste.

James Joyce is said to have based The Citizen in Ulysses on Michael Cusack, founder of the GAA.

And Anthony Burgess was surely inspired to create his 'nadsat' slang, in A Clockwork Orange, by 1920s Kilkenny legend Jim 'Droog' Walsh, a bolshy great malchick who fillied real horrorshow.

Music The apex of GAA's connection to popular music was reached when Croke Park topped the Billboard magazine charts for 2005's top-grossing gig worldwide, after U2 hopped and lepped around the hallowed turf. But in the late eighties, when major gigs in Ireland were as common as decent haircuts in the Eastern Bloc, Semple Stadium in Thurles led the way in bringing international acts to these shores, for the three-day Feile.

One of Louth's 1957 All-Ireland winning side, Dermot O'Brien, was a bona fide showband star; while the mighty Shane McGowan - poet, visionary, great Tipp man - namechecks hurling in The Broad Majestic Shannon.

The Sawdoctors proudly declare themselves Galway football's biggest fans. Meanwhile, Ireland's hippest alternative DJ, Today FM's Donal Dineen, is a keen junior footballer with his club in Kerry. Bet the soundtrack to their Christmas disco is bitchin'.

Cinema How many other sports can boast a Cannes Palme d'Or-winning connection? Ken Loach's The Wind That Shook the Barley opens on a hurling match, before moving on to lesser matters, like the formation of the State, etc. A pivotal moment in Neil Jordan's Oscar-nominated The Crying Game involves discussion of the relative merits of hurling and cricket. In the 1950s, consummate smooth customer, John Gregson, played a star hurler in Rooney, while mini-feature Clash of the Ash was a tremendously authentic portrayal of GAA and provincial life in recession-era Cork.

And if that ain't enough for you, the current extremely cool Guinness ads for the hurling championship are like The Departed crossed with The Sunday Game.

"He's an old man, Seanie. There's nothing I can do."

'Do something, ya f**kin' mook, or you're dropped for Sunday's match!"!

'GAA Confidential' is published by Hodder Headline Ireland

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