Saturday 17 March 2018

Historians have changed landscape of Irish sporting literature

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane speaking to reporters. Castleknock Hotel & Country Club, Castleknock, Co. Dublin.
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane speaking to reporters. Castleknock Hotel & Country Club, Castleknock, Co. Dublin.
John Greene

John Greene

This time last year, the Irish Examiner produced a list of the best 40 Irish sports books of all time. Paul Kimmage's seminal work on life as a professional cyclist, A Rough Ride, topped the list. It was written 25 years ago.

The rest of the top 10 was: Back From The Brink, Paul McGrath's autobiography, written by Vincent Hogan; Only A Game by Eamon Dunphy; Kings Of September: The Day Offaly Denied Kerry Five In A Row by Michael Foley; Full Time: The Secret Life Of Tony Cascarino, written by Cascarino with Paul Kimmage; The Club by Christy O'Connor; Seven Deadly Sins by David Walsh; The Big Fight by Dave Hannigan; Green Fields: Gaelic Sport In Ireland by Tom Humphries; Come What May: The Autobiography, Dónal óg Cusack with Tom Humphries.

There are a lot of things which stand out about that collection of books, but surely the most instructive is that David Walsh's Seven Deadly Sins, published in 2012, is the most recent book to make the top 10. Only three of last year's crop of books made it into the 40, Roy Keane's second autobiography, Anthony Daly's autobiography, and Michael Foley's important work on the Croke Park massacre, The Bloodied Field. How many of this year's sports books would break into that list now?

It is the age of the individual - no matter how vacuous that individual is. And the world of sport has proven to be a happy hunting ground for those in pursuit of a quick buck at the expense of a short-changed audience.

It just so happens that some people who have made it to the top of their sport also have interesting back stories. Sometimes these stories can make great books - think of Paul McGrath's raw, confessional account of his troubled life. It is often the stories of those individuals who didn't quite make it to the headlines which are more appealing, a fact acknowledged last week when Dub Sub Confidential, John Leonard's quirky account of his life as Stephen Cluxton's understudy and his battle with alcohol and drug addiction, won the Setanta Sports Book of the Year.

Take a look at that top 10 again: only three are ghost-written autobiographies, all as it happens excellent, and far superior to much of what we have become accustomed to in recent years. At their core is a disarming honesty which would send most modern-day stars scurrying for cover. Then there are the great stories, like Offaly's 1982 victory over Kerry, and Christy O'Connor's unfettered narrative about life in a GAA club.

Thankfully, as quantity, not quality, has taken hold of the popular sports book market, one niche area in the genre has gone from strength to strength. The proliferation in books which have sought to pull together the story of Irish sport and how we can use this new-found greater understanding to build a better sporting future has been a welcome development. They are incredibly more valuable to the genre than a lot of what populates book stores.

Into this category comes Sport & Ireland: A History, the latest offering from historian Paul Rouse.

The author is part of a group of academics and historians who, over the last decade, have enriched the landscape of sports literature with colourful, beautifully written works which put our current sporting ways into a wider context. "The modern sporting world," he writes in a compelling introduction, "is the product of not simply a single era, but of the accretion of change and the deepening of traditions over time."

Rouse tells the story of Irish sport from 1500 to the present day in a way which, despite being an arduous undertaking, he has made very accessible. This he has accomplished through his easy storytelling style. The book examines the path of sport over those 600 years, locally and nationally, and also puts some international context on how it developed, not least of course in terms of the relationship between Ireland and the British Empire. Of course, there are elements of the story which are uniquely Irish - and the GAA is just part of that- but Rouse also demonstrates how Ireland has a shared sporting history with other countries.

He has trawled through an extensive catalogue of material to put together what can be fairly described as the first definitive history of sport in Ireland.

As you might expect, there are surprises along the way, like hurling matches in London in the 18th century and long-forgotten bullrings in towns like Drogheda and Wexford.

He writes: "What we in a new millennium consider to be 'sport' is different from that of past generations of Irish people. This is not merely a historical matter, however; even today, defining what constitutes a sport, and what does not, is complicated. Is hunting a sport? Or chess? Or darts? Or synchronised swimming? Or gaming? Valid arguments can be made either way. My approach has been to be as flexible as possible. I have sought to investigate how Irish people play in as broad a manner as possible, but in doing so I have made choices that are not easily explained." But explained they are.

Others, such as Mike Cronin, Diarmaid Ferriter and Eoghan Corry, have added to this field with their work and, interestingly, all have essays in another publication currently on the shelves, The GAA & Revolution in Ireland, 1913-1923, edited by Gearóid ó Tuathaigh. Rouse, too, features with a piece titled 'The Triumph of Play', looking at how the GAA came through such an unsettled period in Irish history by retaining a singular focus on its primary purpose, the organising of football and hurling matches.

Books like these will endure. They are contributing to our knowledge and understanding of what we are, not just as a sporting nation, but as a society. There's nothing cheap about that.

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