Friday 18 October 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Sometimes you feel that Ireland needs men like Roy Keane to keep us honest'

The Cork curmudgeon's departure marks the end of an era - and not just in a footballing sense, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Force of nature: Roy Keane at the friendly against Turkey last March. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Force of nature: Roy Keane at the friendly against Turkey last March. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

The departure of Martin O'Neill as Ireland football manager is, I'm reliably informed, quite a big deal; but the resignation of his deputy, Roy Keane, is arguably even bigger.

It feels like the end of an era. Probably because it is, though not merely in a footballing sense. With apologies to fans, football ultimately matters very little. Keane's significance has been instead as a cultural signifier, if not an actual force of nature. He's been at the centre of Irish life for more than two decades. He's a fault line across which different visions of Ireland have stared one another down. Saipan divided the country nearly as sharply as Brexit has Britain.

Back then, there were those who were firmly on Roy Keane's side - and then there were those who were wrong. It wouldn't be going too far to say that Keane's departure symbolically draws a line once and for all underneath the 1990s and noughties.

Not only that, it presents a sharper challenge, which is whether to keep trying to revive that period or else finally move on.

That Mick McCarthy - the man with whom Keane clashed at the 2002 World Cup in Japan - has now been confirmed as the next manager suggests there are still people who want to slide back under that comfort blanket.

If Mick really does represent some supposed 'dream team', then that dream is one of nostalgia. It suggests that the past can somehow be both fixed and replicated.

Ireland seems to have forgotten why it parted company with McCarthy all those years ago. Like a couple who break up, only for them to keep drunk texting one another when weakness takes hold, we've decided to remember only the good times and forget the far more frequent times when things got messy, frustrating, sad. It would surely have been better to put it behind us and move on. Even if it works for a while, bad memories will soon bubble back to the surface.

It's incredible how reluctant we are to move on from that period, though, and it's because what we remember is the good things about it, not the way that it ended. That was the era of the two Marys, Robinson and McAleese. Of the Celtic Tiger, when Ireland had money for what felt like the first time and was enjoying the novelty. Of the early days of the peace process, when it seemed that Northern Ireland would magically heal, rather than carry on being dysfunctional, angry, broken. Promise was in the air.

It's become customary to belittle that time, because it came to a traumatic end with the financial crash, after which nothing was the same again; but the naysayers are wrong. Just because it ended badly doesn't mean that the period which preceded it wasn't great.

But we can no more recreate it in the present than we can go back to it. It's as doomed as the short-lived revival of Dallas.

The same goes for politics. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin is one of the few politicians in senior positions who was in office around the time of Saipan, and, good public servant though he has been, his tenure at the heart of political life may be nearing its end too. Most of his contemporaries are now footnotes in history - Bertie Ahern, Mary Harney, Charlie McCreevy, Seamus Brennan, Noel Dempsey, Brian Cowen. They're characters in an episode of Reeling in the Years.

The trick for us, and indeed for Roy Keane, is to imagine a different future. As such, his future trajectory could be interesting.

The satirical website Waterford Whispers News had the best take. "The FAI has taken Roy Keane out to the wilderness of rural Cork and released him back into the wild after five years in captivity," ran its story last wee,k, quoting one expert opinion to the effect that "all we can do now is hope that he can live his life without mauling anyone to death". That captures something essential about the Corkman. His existential savagery. His unpredictability. His refusal to play by the rules. His restless need for affirmation. Nor is he likely to change. The failure to transform Ireland into the world-beating team that it could have been lies most heavily on Martin O'Neill's shoulders, as it will lie heavily on McCarthy's if he melts into mediocrity once more. Keane remains untainted, in a sense, because he was never given full control over Ireland's destiny, so his admirers can always argue it would have worked had it been tried in its unadulterated form.

That's how socialists get away with peddling similar nonsense. They can always claim true socialism, real socialism, pure socialism, has never been implemented, so it can't be judged to have failed.

Keane's best bet either way is indeed to head back out into the wild, where his legend can only grow. It could be that he's more useful as a myth than he ever was in real life. Again, that has nothing to do with football, a not very interesting subject in itself - though there was an insightful article in the sports pages last week which summed up Keane's role in the Irish team as a "tone setter in the camp".

That's the role he's also played in Irish society, barking back into line those traitors who were prepared to settle for less, for second best; who were content to manage decline; who were just glad to be there among the big boys, rather than taking them on, taking them down. Keane's worth is as an exemplar of no compromise. In a world increasingly run by centrist appeasers, he's the original 'take it or leave it' merchant. He's a one-man war against the insidious encroachment of sentimentality.

The world would be hell if it was left entirely in the hands of such people, but they're necessary as a counterbalance to the wishy-washy brigade - because the world can be fairly awful when the simpering milksops take sole charge of it too.

Those people have no bottom line. There's no ditch on which they're prepared to make a final stand. Such people have many admirable qualities, but a preparedness to go to the wall for what they believe isn't one of them.

They also have a tendency to lapse into magical thinking, dreaming of a world in which everything is made of rainbows and unicorns and the burbling laughter of small children. At their most glib and superficial, these shiny, happy optimists need a boot up the rear end that only someone like Roy Keane can provide.

It may be asking too much to expect him to do that forever. More likely is that he will now get another job in football, in England or Europe, where doors will still open for him, or else settle down into life as a full-time pundit, one of those he has spent a life despising - the ones who talk rather than do.

But Roy Keane knows that the only question which ever matters is this: was he justified to speak out when he did, and on the matters about which he spoke up? On most issues, Keane has been on the right side of the argument. That he's now fading from the scene in the same week that Newstalk broadcaster George Hook, another curmudgeon above and beyond the call of duty, announced his retirement feels significant and worth mourning.

The country's conversation will be far duller and less challenging in their absence. Public life in this country needs such people, who are no respecters of reputation, because, underneath all the rebel rhetoric, Ireland has a tendency toward deference to authority.

If the Irish no longer have space for a man who can bear a grudge where grudges are thoroughly deserved, then something essential has been lost from the national soul. McCarthy won't replace it.

Sunday Independent

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