Sunday 23 September 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Empty vessels making toxic noises

It was good to see people sending Cyrus Christie messages of support and assuring him that there’s widespread disgust at what was said. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
It was good to see people sending Cyrus Christie messages of support and assuring him that there’s widespread disgust at what was said. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Hold the Back Page: Eamonn Sweeney

In 1863 George Fordham, one of the greatest jockeys of all time, rode the favourite Lord Clifden in the Derby. Lord Clifden seemed to be in a winning position but slipped in the final strides and lost by a head to the 2000 Guineas winner Macaroni.

That night as the jockey rode to meet his friends for dinner he overheard a stranger say that Fordham had thrown the race. Fordham gave the stranger what Christopher McGrath in his great racing history Mr Darley's Arabian describes as "a righteous thrashing". But it was little consolation and Fordham "spent the evening sobbing on the stairs outside the dining room".

George Fordham was on my mind last week. I thought of his sobs on the stairs when I read about how Cyrus Christie had been reduced to tears by racist social media messages following the Ireland-Denmark match. The fools who gloated over Ruby Walsh's broken leg at Punchestown came to mind too. That Victorian era stranger was their ancestor, a man slandering a jockey because of lost bets.

He also had something in common with the people who've been spreading the rumour that Lee Keegan is suffering from a serious illness, forcing the Mayo star to come out and deny it. Like the guy on Derby night, they probably knew they were telling a lie but told it anyway.

Human nature hasn't changed much in 154 years. But one element of the story is different. Cyrus Christie and Ruby Walsh couldn't give their tormentors a "righteous thrashing" even if they wanted to because the insults were delivered on Twitter, that perfect medium for cheap anonymous abuse.

Years ago I interviewed a young athlete who returned home after a disappointing Olympics. Walking down the town he had to put up with guys sticking their heads out the door of pubs to taunt him from a distance. The young man seemed devastated. I could hardly believe people would behave like this. Twitter is basically one of those pubs on a global scale. The Silicon Valley landlords don't care how you behave as long as you keep coming in.

The abuse of Cyrus Christie and Ruby Walsh is extreme so it's easy to distance yourself from the perpetrators. It was good to see people sending Christie messages of support and assuring him that there's widespread disgust at what was said.

There is. Black players have been donning the Irish jersey for nearly four decades now and in all that time I've never heard anyone question their right to do so. I've never met anyone who exulted over an injury to a jockey either. These views are held by an extremely small minority.

Yet this very fact makes me think, not for the first time, of the Pixar masterpiece Ratatouille and an exchange between Remy, the rat with gourmet ambitions, and his father, who takes a more traditional view of rodent life. "We're thieves dad, and what we're stealing is - let's face it - garbage," Remy exclaims in frustration. "It isn't stealing if no-one wants it," replies his father only for Remy to counter, "If no-one wants it, why are we stealing it?"

The attacks on Christie and Walsh were, let's face it, garbage. And not just garbage but garbage almost no-one agrees with. But if they are garbage which almost no-one agrees with why are papers making a big deal of it? Really, what's the story? 'Random asshole says stupid thing'? This stuff is beneath contempt. It's not made any more important by being tweeted rather than shouted from a pub door.

By making a big story out of this stuff, we actually promote it. Those who read it get the chance to feel all self-righteous and say, "Well, I might say the odd bad thing but I wouldn't say that." It's comforting to condemn extremists. Yet it's a bit more difficult to acknowledge your own contribution to the climate which enables them to operate.

The guys crowing about Ruby's injury over the last week make easy targets. They're easily caricatured as disreputable Jack-the-lad gamblers, the kind all right-thinking people can regard with distaste. Yet a few years back when Ruby suffered an injury at Cheltenham there was far more jubilation. It came not from gamblers but from 'animal lovers' outraged at his eminently sensible comment that the death of a horse was less serious than that of a child.

The 'animal lovers' were all over the comments sections of the English papers yet they largely got a free pass. Their motivations, apparently, rendered the abuse more acceptable. But it was the same kind of abuse, and there was a lot more of it. We're talking about two sides of the same coin.

Too much of this stuff does the rounds and not just on social media. The Lee Keegan story reminds me of another GAA rumour, which I've seen and heard being stated as a fact far too often. It's the one about the well known Player A who would always rile Player B by bringing up a personal tragedy in the man's family. I've been told that not only is this a lie but that it actually caused distress to Player B because he was worried that Player A might think he was the one behind the story.

Abuse does not have to be racist to be hurtful. I'm aware of another GAA star who has been the subject of almost non-stop personal abuse for several years now. Even though he had an outstanding year in 2017, it's continued. Not just on the online forums where this stuff is endemic but as tweets sent to his Twitter page and, worst of all, in messages sent to his mobile phone. Quite a few people seem to think it's OK to behave like this.

When I look at one of those things laughably dignified with the name 'Twitter spats,' the anger, pointlessness and bitterness remind me of nothing more than the right-of-way cases you'd see in the district court. I can remember a particularly fiery one in Longford when one oul lad roared at the judge, "Who rises these rows judge, hah? Who rises these rows in the first place?" 'Who rises these rows?" It could be the motto of the social media disputant, perpetually convinced of his own rightness and his entitlement to say anything to anybody because of the mood he's in.

One of the odd things about the Cyrus Christie case is that the comments might not all have come from an Irish fan. It seems likely that at least some of them emanated from an English racist cashing in on the Denmark defeat. Yet that doesn't let us off the hook. It took me a second's googling to find Neil Taylor being described as a "mixed race prick" by an Irish fan complaining about the Welsh defender injuring Seamus Coleman.

We also have that weird brigade of ultra-nationalists who surface every time Rory McIlroy hits the headlines. There they are, still frothing at the mouth because McIlroy didn't immediately declare for Ireland prior to the Olympics, delivering their accusations of national treachery and cheap personal shots, fighting their own personal Vinegar Hill.

You also have the gang, almost unique to Ireland, who delight in the misfortune of other sports, the GAA men who love to see the rugby team lose, the rugby guys who revel in every GAA row, the soccer men who're too sophisticated for 'stick fighting' and too working class hero for 'rogby'. Any comment section confrontation between these geniuses descends into personal insult before too long. And every Dublin-Mayo clash in recent years has led to the type of online exchanges which are, as Seán Ó Faoláin one described a particularly stupid Seanad debate, "like a long, slow trawl through a sewage bed".

I'm not talking about debate or argument. I'm talking about the kind of mean-spirited viciousness which adds fuel to the moronic inferno, creating an atmosphere which enables comments like those we've seen over the last week.

It would almost make you despair. But it shouldn't. Because the media doesn't just pay too much heed to the assholes on Twitter, it ascribes too much importance to Twitter itself. You know what percentage of Irish people are on Twitter? Twenty-six per cent. You know how many of that percentage use it every day? Thirty-six per cent. You'd swear sometimes that the entire country is glued to social media yet in the end we're just talking about roughly nine per cent of the population. It might be a very loud minority but it's also a supremely unrepresentative one.

Those figures make sense to me. I'm not on Twitter. Almost no-one I know is. If we want to talk about sport, we do it person to person. That doesn't just breed better manners, it breeds better arguments. There will be people talking about sport in pubs and shops and on street corners long after the Silicon Valley boys have consigned Twitter to the dustbin of history and sold its users on something else. Thank God for that.

The Derby was a bit of a bogey race for George Fordham but he eventually won it in 1879. He also won the 1000 Guineas seven times, the Oaks five times, the 2000 Guineas twice and was champion jockey 14 times. He was renowned for his modesty and his honesty. We know all these things about him though he died in 1887. We don't even know the name of the man who lied about him. All we know is that he was the man who annoyed George Fordham.

Who'd want to be remembered like that?

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