Television review: The mystical, and the mystery
The Game (RTE1)
Searching For Shergar (RTE1)
When I was a boy, I lived near Pairc Chiarain, the GAA ground in Athlone. I played pitch and putt on a course adjacent to the ground itself, and on summer evenings I would see two men there playing hurling. One would be standing around the halfway line, the other would be near the goal, and they would puck the ball back and forth, devoted to their lonely craft.
It seemed lonely to me anyway, just the two of them practising some of the basic skills of the game, as if training for some match in which they would never play - hurling was stronger in other parts of Westmeath, so I guess their main reward was just the raw satisfaction of striking the ball, and catching it.
It never occurred to me, or to anyone I knew, to join them, to actually play this game. Which is one of the interesting things about hurling, the fact that in large parts of the country, it effectively does not exist.
So when we see a couple of great matches like the semi-finals last weekend, we tend to say that this must look astonishing to foreigners who are unfamiliar with our ways, neatly swerving the fact that the ones who are most astonished are probably ourselves - or at least that large part of the population which seems to get along contentedly on a few games of hurling a year, on television.
So the documentary series, The Game, which started last Monday, may have the feel of a beautifully produced introduction to hurling for those who are unfamiliar with it, for outsiders, when in fact many of the "outsiders" are ourselves.
And stranger still, what we are looking at may be idealised as the purest expression of our Irishness, when in fact it is also an expression of what can only be described as Englishness - it was the voice of Micheal O Muircheartaigh himself, unimpeachable in its imparting of the deepest truths, explaining that "the greatest, if you like, sponsors of the game of hurling were the landlords…they were in the good territory, Cork, Tipperary, Kilkenny, stretching up to Laois, maybe down to Wexford, that was the hurling area…"
Donal O'Grady, of Cork, likened the landlords to the owners of NFL franchises or Premier League teams, competing against one another, harnessing the skills of the Irish for their amusement and indeed for the amusement of all.
We were told that Michael Cusack, the founder of the GAA, was essentially a cricket man. Indeed, looking at this fine programme, you'd wonder at times why the Union Jack isn't flying at Croke Park along with the tricolour, for the hurling at least - the football seems to be all our own work, no surprises there.
And, oddly enough, this lavish celebration of our sporting traditions is being screened in the year in which the GAA abandoned the tradition of playing the All-Ireland hurling final on the first Sunday in September. But I'm sure they know what they're doing.
The Game gave us a sense of the mystical dimension to these things, an achievement which was matched by Searching for Shergar, made by Alison Millar, who also gave us the legendary At Home With The Clearys - that intimate portrait of the domestic life of Fr Michael Cleary, his housekeeper and their son.
While the two subjects may seem unconnected, with the stories of Cleary and of Shergar, we are going back essentially to the 1980s in Ireland, remembering that when it got dark back then, it got very dark.
The Shergar piece could have been a kind of extended current affairs programme, with too many Provos in it, telling lies about their whereabouts on the night in question.
But, instead, Millar made something more akin to a work of art, trying to find the emotional resonance of the events - to connect with the mystery of this superior creature who came here for a while, only to vanish into the darkness of the Irish night. And into that other darkness…
Sunday Indo Living