Sunday 21 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Conor McGregor not the only person to suffer from an ignorance of history

Conor McGregor and Eamonn Coghlan have both appeared on the front of Sports Illustrated as has Ronnie Delany and Rory McIlroy
Conor McGregor and Eamonn Coghlan have both appeared on the front of Sports Illustrated as has Ronnie Delany and Rory McIlroy
'In getting the facts wrong like this McGregor was merely showing that he suffers from a modern malaise, an ignorance of history' Photo: Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney

Turns out Conor McGregor wasn't the first Irishman to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. No biggie. We all make mistakes. Despite somewhat desperate efforts to pretend there was a 'spat' between McGregor and Eamonn Coghlan who pointed out that he'd been on the cover three times, all the former 5,000m world champion did was set the record straight.

Coghlan wasn't the first Irishman on the cover. That was Ronnie Delany who made it back in 1959. And he wasn't the last before McGregor either; that was a young golfer, name of McIlroy, who's been there a couple of times in recent years.

Sure what harm. There was an odd buffoon who thought they'd defend McGregor's honour by adopting the 'who's Eamonn Coghlan' line but the truth is that if you're unaware of who Coghlan is and what he did that's no reflection on the magnitude of the man's achievements. It just means you're a very stupid person.

In getting the facts wrong like this McGregor was merely showing that he suffers from a modern malaise, an ignorance of history rooted in the belief that what is happening now is the biggest deal ever and what happened in the past doesn't matter at all.

The stars of the past are only there to be subjected to what the English historian EP Thompson called "the enormous condescension of posterity".

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It's a modern phenomenon but not entirely a contemporary one. A couple of decades back you could hardly venture outside your front door without being assailed by a newly-minted fan of 'Jackie's Army', who was keen to inform you that before the arrival of the Geordie messiah "We were no good at football at all. We were a pure laughing stock." Of course this wasn't true at all.

But there was no use in pointing out to the dude that only goal difference prevented Eoin Hand's team qualifying for the 1982 World Cup finals where the French team who edged us out reached the semi-final.

Or that Johnny Giles' side had come within a point of making the last eight of the 1976 European Championships. Because, as far as these boys were concerned, Charlton's appointment was Year Zero for Irish football. They wouldn't have believed you either if you'd told them that during the qualifying campaign for the 1988 European Championships you could have strolled into a Dublin sports shop or FAI HQ and bought a match ticket a couple of hours before kick-off.

Martin O'Neill. Photo: Conor McCabe

This ignorance of history worked against Charlton too. The critics of Martin O'Neill and Giovanni Trapattoni liked to invoke some kind of platonically ideal era of Irish football when the national team played a brand of sparkling attack-minded football not dissimilar to that of Brazil.

And they informed the TV audience, somehow maintaining a straight face as they did so, that the Charlton era had also fallen short of the expectations of an Irish support who demanded a kind of passing game which, to be honest, no-one could ever remember our national team actually playing.

All this 'The Irish public demands a certain style of play' was proved to be just so much nonsense when after Ireland beat Germany thanks to a sterling defensive-minded display and a classic route-one goal, the delighted fans seemed far more bothered about the result than the aesthetic values displayed. Which shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone who actually knows the history of Irish football.

History can be distorted because people are using the past to attack the present. Hence all that stuff about how Gaelic football has now reached a historical nadir in terms of negativity. True, the game is pretty defensive at the moment but we've been down this road before.

In fact, some of the greatest critics of the modern game played in All-Ireland finals which were just as bereft of the positive virtues as anything you'd see today. In 1981, Kerry beat Roscommon 1-9 to 1-6 in the decider and two years later Dublin got past Galway 1-10 to 1-8 in a game which saw four sendings-off.

After both those games the doom-mongers prophesied the death of football. As they did after the 1988 replay between Meath (0-13) and Cork (0-12) and the 1990 meeting of the two counties which Cork won 0-11 to 0-9.

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Those matches had their virtues but feasts of entertainment for the neutral they were not. Gaelic football has been in its death throes since I was in short trousers. Yet history tells us that somehow it manages to survive.

Sometimes the boot is on the other foot and the present is used to attack the past. Players of previous eras must be fed up hearing that the hurlers and footballers of yore can't hold a candle to the athletic specimens of the present day.

This may be true in terms of fitness but, as a legendary West Cork footballer once said after being berated for his lack of conditioning in comparison to a less talented team-mate, "Just give him the ball and see what he'll do with it."

Those who peddle the line that today's footballer is vastly superior to his predecessors fail to see that according to the logic of their theory of perpetual progress in the GAA, in 20 years' time inter-county stars will be looking back to 2016 and shaking their heads at the backward nature of preparation back then.

I suspect the partisans of today's game think that we've actually reached the limit right now. People with no historical sense never really believe in their hearts that the present will one day be the past.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin enjoys a steak sandwich in Mahon Point in Cork yesterday. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney

Sometimes we get the past wrong because we wish for a better and more creditable history. That's probably why, after Nelson Mandela died, Micheál Martin got up in the Dáil and praised Irish rugby players for withdrawing from a team which was due to tour South Africa in the apartheid era. This, said the Fianna Fáil leader, showed the Irish hatred of racism.

The only problem with that comforting statement was that the team they'd withdrawn from was the Irish national team which was touring South Africa long after other home nations had given up.

Similarly, I can remember writing columns suggesting that Lance Armstrong was obviously guilty as it simply wasn't credible that his many accusers would have banded together in the kind of conspiracy you had to believe in if he was innocent.

Still the focus of media attention, disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong on a charity cycle for cancer in France last week (REUTERS/Fred Lancelot)

But right up to the Oprah confession, the response to this was 50-50. One lad told me that when I'd recovered from life-threatening cancer and won the Tour de France, then I'd be entitled to criticise Lance Armstrong. He was unaware of the fact that I'd done both things the previous week, or obviously I'd never have written the column.

In a few years it'll seem like everyone always knew Lance was guilty just as now it seems that everyone always knew about the East German doping programme. Yet the truth is that when Shirley Babashoff, the American swimmer who was denied five gold medals by the East Germans at the 1976 Olympics, pointed out that there was something not quite kosher about her big-shouldered and deep-voiced nemeses, she was mocked as 'Surly Shirley' and berated for being a sore loser.

As indeed was another American swimmer, Janet Evans, when she expressed surprise at Michelle Smith's achievements at the 1996 Games. The wave of Irish self-righteousness which followed is something no-one likes to remember.

And while today Muhammad Ali's refusal to go to Vietnam and Tommie Smith and John Carlos's Black Power salute at the Mexico Olympics are seen as iconic gestures nobody could disagree with, that wasn't how they were regarded then. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US team while Ali was stripped of his title and wasn't allowed to box for three-and-a-half years. "He seems to have gone beyond the borders of faith," wrote the New York Post. "He has reached the boundaries of fanaticism." In turning such gestures into feel-good mobile phone ad moments we strip them of the political context which made them important. That's another way we get history wrong.

Conor McGregor isn't alone in his myopia about the sporting past. We should all look back more often than we do. As Bob Marley says, "If you know your history, then you would know where you're coming from."

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