The night Bob Dylan met Brendan Behan


The news Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature brought to mind the night the great man tried to meet the Irish playwright Brendan Behan. It was 1962 and Perry Bruskin’s revival of Behan’s “The Hostage” was showing at One Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. A typical off-Broadway theatre space, it was located underneath an Italian restaurant in one of the hippest parts of the city. Patrons who paid $4.50 for tickets were warned to beware of the 17 treacherous steps leading down to the lobby and not to be frightened if Behan himself turned up to interrupt the show.

Carla Rotolo handled the lights for the production and her younger sister Suze was working the concession stand that opened before the play and during the intermission. At the time, 18 year old Suze was dating a young folk singer called Bob Dylan who’d moved to New York from Minnesota just a year earlier. The couple were living together in an apartment at 161 West Fourth Street, just around the corner from the theatre, and the pair of them were immersed in the music, arts and protest politics of Greenwich Village at that time.

“I was standing in the back of the theatre watching the play one evening when Behan himself wandered in,” wrote Rotolo. “If Behan happened to be in the city where one of his plays was being put on, he had a habit of showing up and joining the performance. It made for interesting theatre at times, especially when he engaged the actors in some improvisation. But he was a bit of a drinker and could completely disrupt the play if he was in his cups. I ran to the phone and called Bobby at home to tell him Brendan Behan was at the theatre and he should come by.”

Dylan was 20 years old that night and weeks away from releasing his eponymous first album. He already had a minor reputation in the folk scene around the city but there was no hint yet he had the talent and the wherewithal to become an icon for the ages, a future Nobel Prize winner .Back at the apartment, the singer knew enough of Behan’s writing and reputation to jump up and run down the street, excited by the opportunity to see the man, the legend, live and in living colour. And he was certainly all of those three that evening.

“Behan was very drunk,” wrote Rotolo. “Listing left and right, he wandered onto the stage, and waving his hands about, made an incoherent speech to the actors. Then he abruptly teetered off the stage and out the door. He staggered up the stairs of the theatre with Bob right behind him. Bob followed him to The White Horse, hoping for a conversation, but Behan was in no shape for anything remotely resembling talk and eventually passed out.”

The tableau painted by Rotolo is equal parts sad and revealing. Here was Behan being pursued along Hudson Street by a young fan who was trying to find a voice for his own talent, an obvious fan desperate to touch the hem of the famous writer’s garment. If it’s an encounter that demonstrates how recognised the Dubliner had become in America, it also offered a graphic illustration of something else. As was by that point in his life all too regularly the case, Behan was too ridiculously drunk to even engage the stranger with the nasal twang to his voice. Perhaps it was just as well.

“Folk-singers, I personally detest,” wrote Behan later. “I would shoot every one of them…”


The loneliness of a long distance Villain


I recently received a giant box of photographs and paraphernalia from Ireland. As my brother has been sifting through the family home following my mother’s death last summer, he’s been collating keepsakes that he thinks might mean something to me. Of course, the arrival of such a parcel is a mixed blessing. There is joy at having such wonderful mementoes of people now gone but there are tears too at communion and confirmation pictures where parents look young and vital and indestructible. Leafing through the stuff is emotionally draining enough that you have to do it in shifts.

My most recent excavation yielded, amongst other gems, a pair of Aston Villa scarves. One of them is a dreadfully thick machine-knit claret and blue number with the club name running through it at an angle. The moment I saw it, the second I felt it in my fingers for the first time in decades, I remembered a January morning in Matthews’ sports shop behind the Opera House when my mother bought it for me. I might have been 10 that day and certainly believed I had just taken possession of the coolest item any supporter could have. Now, I regard the same item with the reverence of an antiquarian fingering a long-forgotten relic.

The second scarf is more glamorous and flimsy number. It’s designed not to keep out the winter cold on the terraces in a football ground in the English midlands but to commemorate a triumph. The words “League Champions 1980/81” are emblazoned across a white background. My father sourced that one from some Villa fan who drank in Flannery’s, our neighborhood pub, and, for much of my teen years, it was tacked on the bedroom wall, a monument to the first team not representing Cork that I ever fell in love with.

I can still recite the first XI from Rimmer to Withe though my favourite players on that title-winning side were Tony Morley, the dashing winger, and Gary Shaw, the starlet so talented that he won both the PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards in one season. Injury would ensure he never turned into the star he was supposed to become but when I was introduced to him in the Villa Park press box decades later, I still felt a frisson of excitement. He wasn’t Jimmy Barry Murphy or anything but he was definitely a minor deity in my childhood world.

My passion for Villa was born of bitterness. My brother Tom was three years older and, like almost everybody else where we lived, a Liverpool fan. Liverpool were a logical choice for kids of our generation. They were exciting. They won things. I recently researched the exact date I chose Villa over Liverpool. It was December 17th, 1976. I was a month shy of my sixth birthday and my father had just broke the news to Tom that Villa had trounced Liverpool 5-1, a result that also yielded what devout fans claim was the best half of football in the club’s history.

When I witnessed my brother’s anger and dismay at Liverpool’s loss, I tried to compound it by declaring I was a Villa fan. I just wanted to be able to rub it in that little bit more. Never mind how pathetic I must have sounded. Any way of scoring points against him was legitimate. So, I was a Villa man, or boy at least. It was the most ridiculous and costly decision I could have made. For one hour of glory, I opened myself up to a lifetime of hurt, punctuated by brief and fleeting occasions of glory.

I was too young and too naïve to know that the victory over Liverpool was an anomaly. A once in a lifetime result. I grew up witnessing every single one of the myriad triumphs my brother enjoyed with his Anfield heroes. Even when Villa emerged from nowhere to win the title in 1981 and then, even more improbably, the European Cup the following May, my brother and all the Liverpool fans knew these were mere blips. Normal service would eventually resume and Villa would be removed from the top table. So it proved.

Yet, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Anybody can support Liverpool or, in more recent years, perennial winners like Manchester United and Chelsea and Manchester City. Following Villa demands commitment to suffering and an acceptance that glory, when it comes, will almost certainly be followed soon after by anguish. It wasn’t that long after Villa humbled Bayern Munich that the club slid out of the top flight altogether.

Still, we’ve had some good times. The first ever game I saw in England was Villa versus QPR at Loftus Road and I still get chills when I remember the away fans kumbayahing his name and bowing when Paul McGrath sidled up for a corner. I was at the old Wembley twice in the mid-90s to see a very Irish-themed Villa side triumph in League Cup finals. Even the last Premier League game I attended five years ago was at Villa Park when the mighty Manchester City were put to the sword/narrowly defeated 1-0 thanks to much good fortune.

Now, Villa have departed the top flight again after many years of neglect by the owner and a series of terrible managerial appointments. The worry is not that they will spend time out of the Premier League, it’s that they may never come back. I will be able to watch Villa next season on BEINsports who show Championship matches each week but this club is so riddled with mismanagement that the concern is they may keep dropping down the divisions over the coming years.

Still, it won’t affect my allegiance. Supporting a club is like marriage. In sickness and in health, in good times and bad. Some day soon, with a wry grin on my face, I may be ordering a new Villa scarf commemorating promotion from the Championship or winning the League Two title. We live in hope.

Ultimate fighting, ultimate victory of style over substance


It is always an occasion of immense pride for an Irish person in America when one of our own graces the cover of Sports Illustrated. Even if magazines are now regarded as relics by the young and are very much the preserve of those of us on the wrong side of 35, we know that having an Irishman looking down from the newsstands on the front of the country’s sports bible is quite an achievement. So it was when Conor McGregor’s rippled body and bearded visage earned that accolade last week.

Of course, being McGregor, he had to try to make more of it than it was, immediately tweeting what a great honor it was to be the first Irishman in history to be so recognized. It was very quickly pointed out to him that Ronnie Delaney and Eamonn Coghlan had been there before him many moons ago. And, just in the past couple of years, Rory Mcllroy had been on the cover three times. Ignoring history, pretending to be achieving more than he is, these are, unfortunately, the hallmarks of the McGregor and the UFC way. It’s almost Trumpian. Always exaggerate (usually in the most foul-mouthed way possible), never explain.

How fitting then that this embarrassing cameo came just as news broke that McGregor’s proposed superfight (they are all super apparently) against lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos on March 5th had been postponed. Dos Anjos broke his foot in training so can’t get in the octagon. Now, that can happen to anybody but you may notice a pattern here. This is the sixth time in McGregor’s last 12 fights that his opponent has had to pull out just before the bout. A more suspicious person might even believe that this sport is not quite on the up and up. That’s an awful lot of last minute withdrawals.

Even if McGregor’s apologists and he has a growing legion of them in the Irish media, a group that is apparently mistaking his outsize celebrity for genuine achievement, will joke that he can’t help it if so many fighters run scared as the battle nears, there’s serious stuff to consider here. The 11th hour withdrawal means that an opponent has to be found at short notice which means that whoever gets in there with McGregor does so at a distinct disadvantage. The Dubliner has the benefits of a three-month long training camp, the other guy has to try to make weight and get sharp in 11 or 12 days. That’s some imbalance.

These significant details are not part of the ensuing narrative once McGregor wins. Then, all that matters is that the legend grows. Never mind that the odds were stacked in his favor to a ridiculous extent, the only thing concerning UFC and all those with a stake in the phenomenon is that he keeps winning and keeps boasting and keeps burnishing his own myth. Imagine our shock then when it turned out that dos Anjos is to be replaced by Nate Diaz. Even by UFC’s standards of loading the dice in Vegas to assist its most marketable commodity, this is ridiculous.

Diaz has fought twice in two years, a win over a journeyman named Michael Johnson last December, a defeat by dos Anjos back in December, 2014. With a pro record of 18 victories and 10 losses, he’s fought just five times in the past three years and hasn’t won back to back fights since 2012. He’s a 30 year old card-filler whose career trajectory is heading definitely downwards. Even those of us who only dip in and out of the combat arena know that the statistics here show a man with no business taking on McGregor, except to facilitate more hot air and braggadocio.

That is if McGregor is as good as he and the UFC’s impossibly slick marketing team tell us he is. Maybe he’s not and that’s why they have put what boxing fans might call a glorified tomato can in against him in a headline contest at the MGM Grand. Indeed, this reeks of the type of mismatching and overhyping of mediocre bouts that has turned so many people off the sweet science over the years. Amazingly, the UFC fans don’t seem to care, they are too invested in what they are being sold to notice it’s rather obviously a bill of goods.

Why is this the case? Well, the people who worship at the tattooed altar of McGregor are young (for the most part) and they have no sense of history or no appreciation that Irishmen and women (Sonia) have been holding their own on the world stage in various sports for a long time. Witness how many of the fans were happy to retweet McGregor’s lie about the Sports Illustrated cover. They know no better. They know a John Delaney from the FAI but Ronnie Delaney? Never heard of the guy. Eamonn Coghlan? The politician? He used to be a runner? When?

A friend has a theory about how UFC is the perfect sport for the social media generation who have seemingly no attention span. These are kids reared on YouTube and on Vines, where the beauty of technology means you just have to watch the highlights of any activity. No need to watch 90 minutes of a soccer match when you can see the goals. They choose UFC over boxing because one requires, at most, 15 minutes of concentration and some rudimentary knowledge of street fighting, the other demands nearly an hour and some knowledge of actual rules. They don’t have the mental stamina for the latter.

Their inability to concentrate and their refusal to try to put things in context is why they will celebrate McGregor’s victory on March 5th like it was a serious athletic achievement. Not just another well-run marketing ploy, not just another victory of style over substance.

The Quiet Man Excellence of Denis Irwin


One morning last April, shortly after the Premiership title had been secured, Alex Ferguson sat down to talk about Denis Irwin. For close to half an hour, he waxed as lyrical as one would expect about the player he regards as the best fullback he’s worked with. When the cameras were finally turned off, Ferguson lingered in his chair.

“What exactly is this for again?” the Manchester United manager asked.

“It’s a documentary about Denis’s career for RTE,” we said.

“It’s about bloody time ye did one,” he replied.

There was a pause, and to fill the silence somebody blurted out that the latest league medal made Irwin the most decorated Irishman ever in English football.

That was the only prompting Ferguson needed. A fuse had been lit. Using the fingers on both hands, he began counting out the trophies with the passion of a schoolboy leafing through a deck of old Top Trumps’ cards in search of comforting stats. Listening to him reel off all those league and cup victories he had enjoyed with Irwin brought home the magnitude of the achievement.

“He is a role model to all the players in that dressing room of ours,” he said. “They can see him and see how a person can lead his life perfectly. There is a consistent nature about Denis that has allowed him to play to 35 years of age at the highest level. It’s very important to stress the point about a person being consistent in their nature. Denis is one of those types who leads his life at the same level all the time.

“One of his main attributes was playing [on] a very, very good team over the last decade and not needing any publicity for it. He was happy to play his role and be in the shadow of these high-profile players, That’s not the say he’s any less than these players; he’s up there with them all. The nature of the man allows him to live with that, and not everyone can do that you know? But Denis has never been the type to ask for recognition or look for it.”

The manner in which Irwin conducted his football life has yielded its own rewards. In an era when his teammates are some of the most recognizable faces in these islands, men who have willingly or not sacrificed so much normality on the altar of their fame, he is one of the fortunate ones. He can watch his son Liam play football, stroll to the local for a drink with his wife, Jackie, still enjoy the things they used to do when he was at Leeds United all those years ago. His salary has a few more zeroes on the end of it now but little else has changed.

“I’ve just been able to get on with my life,” Irwin said. ” You always get people coming up to you, but you never get the hassle that the likes of Becksie [David Beckham], or Giggsie [Ryan Giggs] or even Keaney [Roy Keane] can get. I’m just happy to be able to get on with my life. I’m forever grateful for that.”

Jackie Irwin was sitting in the living room of their home in Hale outside Manchester, answering questions about the complexity of trying to rear children properly when their father is lavishly paid to play football for one of the most glamorous teams in the world. Suddenly, there was a thunderclap outside, a flash of lightning and the first few drops of heavy rain started clanging off the windows.

“You’ll have to stop this for a minute,” she said, before shouting to her husband in the kitchen. “Denis, bring the washing in from the line?”

From the kitchen, one of the production crew shouted back: “You’re OK. He’s already out there looking after it.”

Amid the laughter, you realized how much substance there is to Ferguson’s psychoanalysis of his player. Denis Irwin the man is exactly like Denis Irwin the fullback. Consistent. Steady. Reliable. Quiet.

“I could never imagine Denis Irwin and Roy Keane sharing a room like they did for all those years,” said Jack Charlton, with a suitably unorthodox interpretation of those virtues. “Roy never said nothing, neither did Denis.

“They both waited until you spoke to them to speak to you. They listened but never spoke. Can you imagine two more boring people sharing a room? It’s probably just as well that they were both from Cork, because at least they understand each other.”

The presence of two Corkmen in the United dressing room has taught Ferguson a lot about the rivalries that pockmark the city, more than once he’s told the story of how each of his players claim the other comes from the rougher part of the town.

“When I first got into the Irish squad, they put me rooming with Denis,” Keane said. “They knew it would be a help to me and undoubtedly it was. Throughout our lives, throughout our careers, though, me and Denis have been friends, but I would never say we’ve been that close. He is one of the lads. When the team go for a drink and all that, Denis will be first there and last to leave. But I think Denis knows when to stop, whereas most of us don’t, which is a problem. He stays in the background a lot with Jackie and the kids and he deserves a lot of credit for that. There must have been opportunities over the years to make a few bob and exploit himself, but he hasn’t done that.”

Twenty years after swapping the Cork suburb of Togher for Elland Road, the only mystery is how somebody so reserved could stay at the top of such a competitive sport for so long. Undoubtedly, the genes promised the chance of future success. His father, Justin, was a good junior soccer player, and his grand-uncle Tom remains the only man to win an All-Ireland hurling medal and referee an All-Ireland hurling final. From the beginning, one quality marked this Irwin out from his peers.

“Denis hated losing,” said John Keane, a colleague on the Everton schoolboys’ team who was also scouted by several English clubs. “Like most good players, I suppose, he hated losing. He’d get cranky and have to be left alone for a while.”

Whether with Everton, or playing hurling and Gaelic football for St. Finnbarr’s and later, Colaiste Chriost Ri, success presented only one problem. It wasn’t unusual for him to bring home silverware and fling it under the stairs with his gearbag. The first his parents knew about it would be when Maura Irwin discovered some glistening trophy clinging to the dirty jersey. Modesty on that scale is not an affectation.

Having received permission to leave class early one afternoon at Colaiste Chriost Ri, Brother Theodore asked the rest of the students to give the departing Irwin a round of applause and their best wishes as he was off to play an international soccer match for Ireland. To that point, his classmates didn’t even know he was on the squad.

“I remember when Denis had decided he was heading off to Leeds, I thought this was a big mistake,” said Mick Carey, a teacher and coach at Chriost Ri and winner of three All-Ireland club football medals with St Finnbarr’s in the 1980s. “Here was a very intelligent young man, an extremely good Gaelic footballer, an extremely good hurler. I was trying to explain to him that if he stayed in Cork, he’d play senior hurling for Cork and he’d go to university instead of going to a club in the old second division. How wrong was I?”

Carey discovered earlier than most that beneath the veneer of humility, there beats a heart pulsing with ambition. Joining up with his first Irish schoolboy squad, Irwin was fascinated to hear the Dublin-based players talk about the various English clubs they had visited for trials. Immediately envious, he wanted some of that for himself. An apprenticeship at Elland Road represented an opportunity to see how he’d measure up at a time when there were still no more than 20 full-time Irish professionals in England.

In hindsight, this innate desire to constantly stretch himself may be the key to his success.

“I was in his house in England when the club rang him to tell him he was included in the Irish senior squad for the first time,” said Irwin’s oldest friend, Ray Duffy. “So I asked him, ‘Aren’t you excited?’ And he just said, ‘I have to go and play now, I have to prove myself.’ He was totally calm. It was just a case of him deciding he’d have to go and face a different challenge.”

That is the way of it with Irwin. Outwardly cool and unruffled yet privately driven. When Eddie Gray managed Leeds, he had a promising quartet of youngsters on his hands. From a group containing Tommy Wright, John Sheridan, Scott Sellars and Irwin, he worried most about the Corkman’s chances of enduring in the game. After Billy Bremner eventually released Irwin, Gray felt certain that his easygoing demeanor would militate against him ever recovering from the blow. Four years later, he found himself acting as the player’s agent in negotiations with Ferguson at Old Trafford and marveling at the manner in which he had battled back.

Never known for speaking too loudly outside the dressing room, perhaps the only public manifestation of Irwin’s extraordinary self-belief came when Mick McCarthy started him on the bench for a friendly against Argentina in 1998. More than three years later, he contends that it was the Irish manager asking him to prove himself when being introduced as a halftime substitute that rankled most. McCarthy argues that he merely asked Irwin to “prove me wrong.”

A crucial difference in semantics, he hung around for one more qualifying campaign after that, determined not to end his international career on so discordant a note.

“I felt that it taught them how to think and plan,” Ted Garvey said when asked why he once supplemented the curriculum at Togher national school with chess. “It was a great mental discipline for them because it taught them how to lose, which I felt was very important, and to be sporting about the losing.”

In learning the taste of defeat, none of his pupils developed as magnificent an obsession with winning as Irwin.

(first published in The Irish Echo, October, 2001)

Requiem for an Irish mother


One night last week, I tried to figure out how many matches my mother saw me play as a child. I know it was less than ten. It may even have been fewer than five. There were a couple of street league finals I forced her to turn up to. There was definitely a county juvenile hurling final with St. Finbarr’s where I was, rather embarrassingly, called ashore 20 minutes into the first half (“It just wasn’t your day, love”). There was also an FAI Youths Cup semi-final defeat with Casement Celtic at a drenched Turners Cross (“How did they expect ye to play in that?”)

Beyond those, I struggled to recall any other appearances by her on the sidelines. As might anybody of mine or older generations. Those were different times in the Cork where I grew up. A lot of parents didn’t attend the games their kids played. Most who did were fathers. That was the way of it. Nobody thought it odd. Nobody complained. It only seems strange now that we live in a more involved era, where moms and dads seem to be present for every training session and scrimmage.

Of course, that’s not to say the mothers we had were not supportive of our putative careers. Oh they were.

I don’t think I ever once opened a gear bag in a dressing-room, be it hurling, Gaelic football or soccer, that didn’t have everything I needed perfectly packed inside. I don’t mean that the required socks and shorts and shirt were tucked in there. I mean every item of clothing had not only been washed but ironed and folded and made ready with great care. Not by me. For me. By my mother.

Team-mates might unfurl jerseys that reeked of battle and unleashed sweat clouds of toxic ammonia. My mam’s devotion ensured I never took the field appearing anything less than pristine and smelling fresh. Indeed, if looking the part had been any measure of true athletic ability, I would have hurled for Cork and played soccer for Ireland. The problem was I could never play as well as I togged out.

In Heathrow Airport last month, I ate porridge for the first time in decades. The texture, the taste, the burning on my tongue, it transported me back to my childhood, to my mother shoveling steaming bowls of Flahavan’s Progress Oatlets into me on weekend mornings before sending me out the gate with a gear bag in my hand, and sporting dreams in my head. A smile on her face as she waved me off, a smile and a comforting word if we lost when I came back.

Everybody tells you that you only appreciate your parents, the work they did, the sacrifices they made, when you become a parent yourself. So, so true. We buried my mother in Cork last week and on the soul-destroying plane journeys over and back (a trip you make in a kind of slow-motion that truly is the emigrant’s curse), there was a lot of time to recall all she did for me. Again and again, it hit home how much of her work was unseen and often, to my shame, under-appreciated.

See, my father brought me to nearly every game I ever played. My mother was scarcely present in those fields at all. Yet, when I look back I see now she contributed just as much. If not more. She emptied every gear bag the moment it came in the door (Yes I was as spoiled as the youngest child always is!), placing the mucky boots on the back step – those were a bridge too far even for her.

In the admittedly unreliable highlight reel of my memory, we seemed to be constantly playing matches in driving rain. Each one of those savage Saturday mornings culminated in me returning to a toasty kitchen where scalding oxtail soup and ramparts of buttered Cuthbert’s bread were waiting to, as she described it, “get a bit of heat back into you”.

If the timing of a game meant I missed Sunday dinner with the family, an overburdened plate was heated up and handed to me, to be eaten on my lap. In front of the telly. In front of a coal fire blazing. A flagrant relaxation of the dining rules. A special treat. It says much about the quality of my athletic exploits that some of my fondest memories revolve around watching matches on the television while belatedly wolfing down a roast and wondering whether mam had kept some of the trifle for me too. She did. Of course she did.

My mother was part of a resourceful generation of working-class women who grew up with so little that they were magnificent at making something out of nothing. The older I get, the older my kids get, the more I marvel at how she kept the show on the road. Despite rearing four children on a bank porter’s wage, she always found money for new soccer boots when they were needed. Not just any boots either but the ones you wanted. Hansi Muller’s. Beckenbauer’s. Littbarski’s. Even once, a Patrick pair endorsed by Kevin Keegan during his sojourn at Southampton.

My mother was not unique. She was, like tens of thousands of other remarkable Irish mothers of that time, simply doing what she perceived to be her job. And she was magnificent at it. Raising kids. Fostering their dreams. Filling their bellies. Our fathers may have basked in whatever slivers of reflected glory were available on the sidelines when things went well. It was our unsung mothers who underpinned the whole operation by keeping the home fires burning regardless of the results.

For my mam, there was no sulking in defeat and, even more adamantly, no boasting in victory. Always, there was a simple post-match interrogation to remind you of what sport was supposed to be about.

“Did you try your best and did you enjoy it?” she asked every time.

“I did,” I replied.

“And that’s all that matters really.”

If I close my eyes, I can see her standing in the hallway of a house in Togher saying those words.


Charlie and the football factory


I’m writing this at 8 o’clock on a balmy June evening. The sun is drifting down over Long Island, casting long tree shadows across the road in front of our house. When I look out the window, I can see my 8 year old Charlie moving from the light into the dark. He’s wearing the famous Blaugrana shirt of Barcelona, the name Messi emblazoned above the number 10 on his back, and he has a ball at his feet. He will remain out there until the gloaming turns to dusk and I call him in. It’s a sight that lifts my spirts mostly because it’s something I never thought I’d see.

Eight months ago, that same child was out in the garden lying with a rifle in his hand playing war and disturbing the young couple who just moved in across the road. He was obsessed with military matters. His Santa letter last Christmas was like a terrorist’s to-do list. And when it wasn’t guns and ammo that tickled his fancy it was cars and trucks and all types of motorized vehicles. One frigid Saturday a couple of Januarys ago, I spent an afternoon at a Monster Truck rally in Nassau Coliseum, watching oversized pick-ups mercilessly crushing sedans and saloons, and I wondered where it all went wrong.

And, like a good Irish Catholic, I blamed myself. See, when Charlie was a baby, I coached his older brother’s soccer team, and he spent his formative years being dragged to every match and training session. He sat on the bench. He listened to his father shout a little more than he should have. Very, very occasionally, he’d participate in a pre-game kickabout. All along I figured this was only going to cause him to fall in love with the sport.

Imagine my shock then when it finally came time for him to play and he expressed no interest in the beautiful game or any other code. Until last winter. He spent a few weeks playing basketball and somewhere in the middle of that failed experiment, he started kicking a soccer ball out on the street.

At first I said nothing, almost afraid to jinx it. But, it went on and on. What started as a flirtation became a full-blown love affair. The kid who was only interested in things that went vroom-vroom or bang-bang was suddenly raiding his older brother’s wardrobe and wearing vintage (six years old) soccer shirts to school. One day, he was Cork City, the next Liverpool. Every afternoon, he suddenly was outside firing goal after goal into his big brother’s net while commentating in a faux English accent he picked up playing FIFA.

The morning after his first communion last month I drove halfway across Long Island to Upper 90 soccer shop so he could blow a good portion of his money on a Portugal shirt with Ronaldo and the number 7 on it. It went immediately into the rotation of jerseys that he wears to school, a fashion choice he takes so seriously that he devotes way too much time to picking from his selection each morning.

It’s not just that he’s fallen in love with playing the game. He’s become besotted with the entire culture. All he does is watch soccer on television. It can be month-old games on DVR or old World Cup matches or Mexican League encounters en Espanol. He’s not fussy. He will sit glued to it for hours. If the television is not available, he’ll go on the computer and trawl YouTube. If that’s taken he’ll borrow his older brother’s iPhone and find the footage there. Witness this sample conversation from the other morning.

“Why are you laughing so hard?” I asked.

“I’m watching this thing called ‘Ten Angry Goalkeepers’,” he replied. “Did you ever know of this guy called Oliver Kahn?”

This is how he spends his days. When he’s not outside kicking a ball, he’s watching people kicking a ball or reading about them doing so. It’s the most wonderful voyage of discovery, a boy finding his way through a sport, absorbing the history, a history that is oh so magnificently accessible due to the technology of the age. A kid whose entire sporting interest to this point revolved around cars and rifles is now badgering me with questions like, “Maradona or Pele?” and “Zidane or Messi?”

It’s fantastic because it’s so belated, so unexpected and so very, very different. When I opened the google page on my cell phone at work last week, “Pictures of Neymar haircuts” was the last item searched. Not what you’d expect to find a bald, middle-aged man to be looking up. The hair like the shirts and the cleats, they are all part of the new obsession.

A couple of Sundays back, Charlie’s U-9 intramural team were getting a bit of a tonking from another outfit. At one point, the coach signaled for him to go back and take the kick-out because he has, already, quite the shot off a ball. I could see by his face he was delighted with this responsibility. He placed the ball down with great care, embarked on what must have been a 15 yard run-up, and then tried the most audacious Rabona.

It didn’t quite come off but the idea told me more about Charlie than the execution. The other players were so stunned they didn’t notice the ball trickling past. The coach had his head in his hands. And as for the child himself, well, after the danger had eventually been averted, he looked over to where I was standing and smiled. The kind of smile that reminds us all that children’s sport should be about fun and trying outrageous tricks in the white heat of battle.

Later that night, when I was tucking him into bed, he called me close and whispered in the most perfect English accent; “The gaffer’s going to be well-chuffed with that Rabona.”

He was spot-on. The gaffer is well-chuffed with that and a whole lot more.

The past is not a foreign country


Scenes from a sort of homecoming. One day last week, I trudged along Cork’s under-appreciated North Mall up to Sunday’s Well and started to climb the steps of Blair’s Hill. Halfway up I stopped, to catch my out of shape breath and to turn and take in the epic vista of the city below. Suddenly, I was transported back to the times as a teenage boy I would push a 10-speed Viking racer up to this altitude. Every Friday I would cycle from Colaiste an Spioraid Naoimh in Bishopstown to visit my father’s family on Blarney Street.

The emigrant’s curse is that every place you visit when you are home is a window into your own past.

On a Sunday evening, I went to Coffey’s Field in Togher to watch my nephew Cian play for Blarney United against Greenwood, and to marvel at how much more advanced these young footballers were than their American counterparts. A car journey through the area where I grew up and a lot of wondering about what might have been if I stayed.

Standing on the side of the field my brother asked me when was the last time I’d been on this particular patch of grass. It took a while but then I remembered. A long-ago Sunday afternoon in summer being drafted in to play on the wing in an inter-pub game for Cissie Young’s. I was 17 and I didn’t even drink there (honest Mam!) but I knew a few miscreants who did and they were shorthanded.

One of the many glorious weather afternoons of my trip I met an old friend for coffee in town. We ended up sitting outside a pub on Carey’s Lane, marvelling at how, on a sunny day in that pedestrianised quarter around Paul Street, you could be in any of the great cities of Europe. At one point, I nipped inside to go to the bathroom. As I climbed the steps, I thought they looked kind of familiar.

Then I saw the doors to a nightclub on my left and I realised, for the first time in over two decades, I was in The Pav. I stopped and, for a moment, I thought I heard the awful strains of “Rhythm is a dancer!” the soundtrack to so many nights we enjoyed in that venue in the early 1990s. Yes, the music was terrible (“I’m as serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer”) but, in our defence, we weren’t there for the dancing.

Saturday afternoon, myself and an old college buddy ambled through UCC. Coming up via the lower grounds, we were wondering if student couples still go courting there. In the archway leading to the beautiful quad, we stopped to read the noticeboard and remembered a summer’s afternoon 23 years ago when we stood in that very spot. Then we were frantically reading the just-published results of our finals, imagining they would be the most important factors in where our lives went from then on.

Of course, they weren’t and they were never going to be. So we could laugh about them now as we poked our heads into the Aula Max, the once-feared exam venue. We didn’t see the ghosts of our student selves, just some people contorting themselves in a dance rehearsal. Throwing shapes, we concluded, was what we did most of and probably did best during our time in that magnificent institution too.

This is the way of it then when you come back to Ireland. You can’t turn right or left without colliding with geographical landmarks that evoke your past life. Some of the memories are more cherished than others but they are all part of you who you were and, crucially, who you’ve become.