Monday 18 November 2019

No ghosts in spirited volume

Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

At St Paul's, they have 120 lads training for Gaelic football every week. Their players have won titles at under 12, 14 and 16 and have been visited by Tyrone manager Mickey Harte.

So what's the big deal? Well, St Paul's Academy is in Abbeywood, a hardy part of South London near Charlton Athletic's ground without much of an Irish population. Yet thanks to the efforts of the first- and second-generation Irish teachers at the school, eight of whom coach football, and the talent of the boys themselves, it has become the mightiest footballing nursery in the capital.

Players from St Paul's have been British champions at under 12 and under 14 level with the Dulwich Harps club and last October won their first London under 16 title. "There's a great picture of the two sides together," says teacher, and former Fermanagh player, Niall McCann. "The North London team, they're all white players. Then you have the Dulwich Harps team standing beside them, and all bar three or four of the team are black."

Harps captain in that under 16 final was Ayrton Tansiri, son of a Brazilian mother and a Thai father. Former St Paul's stars include Daniel Uchechi who has played in the under 21 World Cup for Nigeria, Nkenjika Eka, who's currently on a four-year contract with Charlton and Patrick Okugwo Junior, who under his stage name of Tinie Tempah is the biggest star in British hip-hop. Every May, St Paul's tour Fermanagh and Tyrone, which is where they came to the attention of Mickey Harte.

The story of St Paul's is just one of the fascinating tales in the best GAA book I've read for a long time, A Very Different County by Robert Mulhern. Too many GAA books are ghost-written cash-ins which arrive in a haze of publicity before you realise that the latest one has been written according to the same template as all the others. A Very Different County, on the other hand, genuinely breaks new ground. It's a book which feels as though it had to be written, a look at the Association in London through the eyes of those involved.

Mulhern, who I've never met so there's no log-rolling going on here, is a 32-year-old journalist from Naas currently working with that venerable London Irish institution, the Irish Post.

He writes well and intelligently about not just St Paul's but the great London hurling team of 1973 which beat Galway in the All-Ireland quarter-final and ran eventual champions Limerick close in the semi, exile Gerry Rea holding his brother Ned scoreless; about London hurling manager and publican Ambrose Gordon who RTE took to court to stop him supplying pubs with the pirated copies of The Sunday Game which were a lifeline for the likes of myself in eighties London; of Paul Hehir, the London-born star who made the reverse journey and brought Doonbeg to within a seconds of a Munster title and of many other stories worth telling.

Not the least of the author's achievements is his ability to capture the rackety, off-the-cuff, big-hearted flavour of London GAA, something which anyone who ever spent an afternoon at a game in Ruislip will remember with affection.

He's an excellent interviewer and has the confidence to let his protagonists speak for themselves a good deal of the time. My only complaint is that the book, at 164 pages, is too short.

A Very Different County is a great book with a great soul about some great people. Buy it if you get a chance at all.

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