The emigrant’s lament

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The night before I left Ireland for good in the summer of 2000, I took a taxi from the Cork suburb of Togher to the city centre bar where I was meeting friends for my American wake. I had taken this route a thousand times before but on this occasion everything seemed different. Nearly a decade had passed since I moved to Dublin but each landmark from my childhood and adolescence suddenly appeared freighted with significance and emotion.

There was the church where I made my first communion. The park bench by The Lough where I got my first kiss. The wall on Bandon Road where we’d sit waiting for the team bus before going to Gaelic football matches with St. Finbarr’s. By the time the driver reached Washington Street, I had a lump in my throat, a tear in my eye, and couldn’t speak without my voice cracking.

I’d been mentally preparing to emigrate since I’d first met the New Yorker who became my wife six years earlier. We’d planned it and talked about it and, in many ways, as Ireland descended deeper and deeper into Celtic Tiger mania, I’d been heartily looking forward to the change of scenery. Yet, here I was, 12 hours before hitting the road to Shannon suddenly overcome with so many conflicting feelings and quarrelling emotions. It says something about what emigration does to you that walking past the nightclub where you first snagged an underage pint makes you come over all wistful and poignant. You don’t expect it to but it does.

The lesson here is that no matter how blasé or cocky we get about leaving the homeland, and the latest college graduates are among the most self-confident bunch we’ve ever produced, it still exacts an enormous human toll. For some, this week’s news that emigration has reached the highest level since the Great Famine will register merely as one more depressing statistical indicator of the tough economic times. The thing is it’s much, much more than that. When 6000 or so people fly off to seek their fortunes abroad every month, they leave behind heartbroken families, decimated towns and villages, and a country being thieved of its greatest natural resource.

It’s been said before but is worth reiterating under the present circumstances. Those who leave are traditionally those with most to contribute to a country battling to survive. Our best and our brightest left in the great generational exoduses which blighted the nation in the fifties and eighties, and they will do so again now. The type of go-getters who might have helped Ireland navigate its way out of the current morass will fetch up in London or New York or Sydney, and will thrive in meritocratic jobs markets less afflicted by the nepotism and cronyism still so prevalent in Dublin.

Some of those promising to go for only a few years will only ever return to Ireland as tourists, dragging reluctant children with strange accents around historic landmarks they never visited themselves during their own childhoods. As they do so, they will suffer the age-old emigrant dilemma of simultaneously loving and hating the place that spawned them. They will miss so much about their old lives yet will also quickly realise how fortunate they were to get out and enjoy an opportunity to experience a different lifestyle. Imagine living in a country where pubs don’t have bizarre signs asking for children to be off the premises by 8pm.

The truly galling aspect of all this is the impact this new wave of departures will have on future elections. The tens of thousands heading out the door are the very ones who would have been most inclined to punish the present crop of politicians at the ballot box next time out. In waving goodbye to its most vehement critics, the government is safeguarding its own future. Everything will be easier for them now that the demographic most likely to actually do something drastic like start a new political party or refuse to vote along Civil War lines like their parents and grandparents before them is gone.

Any furore about giving emigrants the vote, a briefly popular cause back in the 1980s, will very quickly come to naught because that would be the Leinster House equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas. So, those who might have made a crucial, political difference are going to be weeping into their drinks thousands of miles from home as Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee battle it out for the keys to the bankrupt country.

And, for every emigrant, there will, unfortunately, be some weeping into the drinks to be done. Exile has a strange effect on you. I was warned before I left about the tendency for absence to make the heart grow fonder and to drive some into the arms of traditional Irish music. So it proved. I never liked or took much notice of the song “Spancil Hill” until it turned up on a CD in the car a few years back. I love it and I hate it. There are days even now when it still makes me tearful to hear the line: “The old ones were all dead and gone, and the young ones turning grey.”

That’s the emigrant experience summed up. For all the professional and personal happiness you may accrue in a far-off field, every trip home brings a reminder that you are missing out on so much. One day your parents are hale and hearty, greeting your homecoming for the holidays at the airport. Next time out, you are taking a taxi from that airport to the hospital to say goodbye and, en route, you are ruing every one of the days in between that you lived so far from home. Time you can’t get back. Memories you’ll never have. The human face of the statistics being bandied about this week.

For those heading for the airport over the coming days, weeks and months, they can at least take heart from the fact there has never been an easier time to live abroad. Phoning home has never been cheaper, the wonders of Skype make it possible to see the loved ones you’ve left behind anytime you want, and the globalization of television and media mean there are very few shocks in store no matter where on the planet you end up plying your trade. How different it all used to be was brought home to me a couple of years back in a conversation with a Clare man who arrived in New York in 1929.

At the age of 17, he’d never been off the family farm until he set off to catch an ocean liner out of Cobh. On that first day aboard, he was served fresh milk with his tea, and this was enough to send him off investigating. He spent the next 48 hours at sea searching high and low to see exactly where on the vessel they kept the cows. He knew so little of the outside world that he reckoned if there was fresh milk, there had to be cattle some place too. Those leaving today are a little more informed and that bit better prepared for the journey. Something to be thankful for.
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A long kick from Tullamore to Yankee Stadium

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The walls of his pub bear eloquent testimony to the sporting passions of Tom Furlong’s life. Here, a fresh-faced 17-year-old stares down from a sepia print of the Offaly minor team that won the 1960 Leinster football championship. There, an animated shot of him six years later, in the uniform of the Atlanta Falcons, his right leg fully extended having sent an oval ball spiraling skyward. Everywhere, in this little corner of the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, the paraphernalia of four decades steeped in the games of two countries compete for prominence.

A smiling picture of Babe Ruth jostles for space with a photograph of the Cavan and Kerry footballers on the steps of New York City Hall in 1947. A football that burst during the 1971 All-Ireland final nestles on a shelf, deflated and faded brown, the signature of Willie Bryan just about still legible. The classic portrait of Rocky Marciano’s fist distorting Jersey Joe Walcott’s face in their fight for the heavyweight title hangs inside the door of a’ place where every weekend the wonder of satellite technology beams in Gaelic football and hurling from across the ocean. From home.

As he begins sifting through the minutiae of his past, the outline of Furlong’s own career only hints at its richness. Between Furlong, his older brother, Mickey, and his younger brother, Martin, one of the Furlong siblings played for Offaly in five successive decades stretching from the 1940s to ’80s A minor prodigy himself, he was dropped by the seniors for the 1961 All-Ireland final loss to Down at 18, and effectively retired from inter-county football not long after turning 21. A couple of years later, he strolled into Yankee Stadium one Tuesday morning in late October to audition for the job of place kicker with the New York Giants of the National Football League.

“A fella called Eddie McDwyer from Daingean got me the trial,” Furlong recalled. “He was working in Jim Downey’s Bar on 44th Street and Eight Avenue. A few of the Giants used to go in there and he heard them talking about the trouble they were having with their kickers. He told them he knew a fella who could solve all their problems, so that’s how I ended up down at Yankee Stadium at eight o’clock in the morning, watching them take the tarpaulin off the field just so I could take a few kicks. I had a good workout. I converted 24 out of 28 between the 20 and the 50 yard-lines, but they didn’t know what to make of me.

“The head coach, Allie Sherman, brought out the kicking coach, Ken Strong, and asked him what he thought. ‘I haven’t a clue,’ said Strong. See, they had never seen a soccer-style kicker before.
All their kickers used a square toe and kicked with the head down in those days. Taking one of my kicks from 40 yards, I slipped and ended up on my knee when I was kicking it and it still sailed over. The Giants had only four games left in the season and were in a bit of turmoil. Half of them wanted to sign me, half didn’t. In the end, I ended up being put in the taxi squad, which was what they called players who trained with the team all week but didn’t play.”

Members of the taxi squad took home a handsome $200 a week. Nice work if you could get it. But when the season ended, the Giants spent money on a big-name kicker from the college gridiron scene and Furlong realized his future lay elsewhere. Having secured a leave of absence from his job with the New York Transit Authority, he wrote letters to 14 clubs. Nine responded and after two try outs with the Atlanta Falcons, he was invited into a room for contract negotiations. Guiding an oval ball between two posts was a lot easier than swimming with the management sharks.

“There were no agents back then,” Furlong said. “They brought me in and said: ‘We’re going to sign you for ten thousand.’ I knew that was the minimum wage, so I told them I wouldn’t settle for that. ‘We’ll give you twelve thousand so,’ they said. I thought to myself at that point that I’d better not argue any more in case they tell me to feck off. I settled for that and it turned out to be $800 per game. Micheal O’Hehir had been out here doing a couple of games and he asked me to keep him informed of developments. I rang him and told him that I was one of the lowest-paid players in the league and he says to me: ‘You’re getting $800 a game, Denis Law is the highest-paid player in England and he’s only on £200 a game.’

“But nobody in Ireland really understood American Football or what it was I did. They couldn’t understand that I was being paid to sit on the sideline, then come on to effectively take a free before going off again. They couldn’t grasp that I could he sitting there in Green Bay for two hours, freezing my arse off in 20 degree cold before getting called in for 10 seconds with the game on the line. When the guy snaps the ball back, you’ve only 1.4 seconds to hit the ball and basically with the opposition coming at you, you have to raise it eight feet in the air by the time it travels the first six yards or else it gets blocked.”

Ah, 1.4 seconds. The amount of time it took for Furlong’s NFL career to be shunted into the sidings just when he was building up steam. His first pre-season with the Falcons had gone especially well. Five kickers arrived competing for one place that year and at the finish, the Tullamore man won out. After several exhibition games, he was counting down the days to the first NFL match of the campaign when a colleague fumbled a routine snap in training. Furlong ended up kicking fresh air with such ferocity that he blew his knee out. Even in America, surgery wasn’t advanced enough at the time to repair all the damage and the Falcons’ lack of sympathy for his plight caused reality to bite.

“I wasn’t out here that long and in many ways, I felt like I was the only Irish person in the city of Atlanta,” Furlong said. “If I knew then what I know now, I’d have been better equipped for it. I felt that I wasn’t accepted on the team, either, because I was foreign. I’ll give you an example. All these guys I played with had gone to college and in the match programme, it would list your height and your weight and your school. Mine was down as six foot 1, 175 pounds, but for college in my slot, they had written ‘none.


“I went to the public relations guy and I complained that the programme was making me look like I knew nothing, that I’d never been to school. I told him I’d been to school in Ireland with the Christian Brothers, so the next home game, he puts in the program ‘College: Christian Brothers.’ Christ, I said that looks like a brandy or a wine, there’s a drink over here called Christian Brothers’ wine or brandy. Anyway, I decided I couldn’t win one way or the other.”

His rehabilitation wasn’t helped by the fact that he had to fight hard to get money he was owed by the Falcons, his standard contract not figuring for such complexities as career-threatening injuries. He recovered well enough to find work kicking for a couple of semi-pro teams, the Akron Vulcans and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The wages were a quarter of what he earned with the Falcons and the injury had taken about seven yards off his average kick. When he realized he was treading water, he rang Danny Gilmartin, the Sligo-born union organizer who was holding his job for him at the Transit Authority and gave up on the dream.

“My only real regret is that I chose Atlanta when I could have gone to the Patriots in Boston,” Furlong said. “With the Irish thing, I reckon I’d have a better chance up there; down in Atlanta, I felt they were anti-foreigners in many ways. They didn’t want to see non-Americans playing the game. I wanted to be a wide receiver and I told the coach in Atlanta that I played Gaelic football not soccer and that I could use my hands. I had good speed and I wanted to go out and catch balls. I really wanted to play the game, but I suppose our attitude might be the same if we had an American trying to play Gaelic football.”

Furlong spent a couple of years toiling with the Offaly exiles team in New York, but the debilitating effect of the injury began to frustrate him. He played for New York in a couple of National League finals, and his wife, Yvonne, still wears his winner’s medal from the 1967 victory over Galway around her neck. Eventually, his inability to perform at the standard he’d set himself all his life caused him to pack it in, his premature retirement at 27 not diminishing the quantity of memories he took from the game.


“I remember meeting Sean O’Neill one time in San Francisco,” Furlong said. “We were sitting in the hotel and I was asking him if Down had a game plan going into the ’61 All-lreland against Offaly. So, he starts telling me about their elaborate tactics with the halfbacks overlapping centerfield, centerfield overlapping the half-forward line. I’m listening to him and I’m thinking back to that day in the Offaly dressing room. Just before the team went out, Mick McIntyre, a selector from Cloghan opens the door of the dressing room and he shouts, ‘Leap into them boys, they can’t beat ye.’ I said to Sean, ‘How in the hell did we run ye to one point?’ “

Not all his reminisces come tinged with such good humor. In the spring of 1964, Tom Furlong Sr. read about his son’s plans to emigrate when a line in the Evening Herald mentioned how Offaly would miss Tom’s influence from their forward line in the forthcoming championship. After more than one run-in with the county board chairman, Father Vaughan, he’d become disillusioned with football and decided to go to America to seek his fortune. The decision came easier than the courage to tell his father. Thirty-eight years later, Furlong opens his bar in East Durham, N.Y., from May to November, spends his winters in the warmer climes of Florida, and does a neat line in tales from another era. Life in exile has been good, but the history of his family’s dealings with Fr. Vaughan is the story of the GAA ban in microcosm.


“This priest just seemed to have it in for us,” Furlong said. “He suspended my brother Mickey for being at a rugby dance and he missed the ’52 Leinster semi-final against Dublin. He suspended Martin from the Offaly minors in ’63 for playing a soccer match. Martin missed a championship match against Westmeath and they had Turlough O’Connor, a youth soccer international, playing center-forward for them. Offaly were beat and Westmeath reached the All-Ireland final that year.

“He suspended me from an Offaly county final the same year for being in the soccer field in the town. The soccer field was right behind our house and the GAA field was a mile away from us, so myself and Martin used to go into the soccer field to kick around and play the game three goals gets in. I appealed the suspension to the county board. I went in and said to Fr. Vaughan: ‘I’m a practicing Roman Catholic and you’re a Roman Catholic priest and I will swear on the Bible that I didn’t play any soccer match.’ ‘No,’ he says, ‘we take the word of the Vigilante Committee.’ ‘Fine,’ says I. ‘You’re some priest’.

The after taste of those rows didn’t stop him traveling back several times during the successful All-Ireland-winning years of 1971 and ’72 to watch Martin beget his own goalkeeping legend. He laughs aloud when he remembers the day in Croke Park in 1982 when his mother was one of the first people on to the pitch to celebrate her baby’s part in that famous victory over Kerry. Margaret Furlong was a spritely 74 at the time and had been watching her boys play for Offaly since Mickey’s debut in 1948. Every yarn Furlong spins seems to reek of history.

This fella brought me out a seat from the old Cusack Stand, so I got steel supports built to mount it, and I’ve another seat from Ebbets Field where the Brooklyn Dodgers played baseball years ago,” Furlong said. “All I have to do now is get the two of them bolted to the floor in front of the bar. The lads that come in here will get a great kick out of sitting in them.”

And the juxtaposition of the relics from the different sporting meccas will be somehow fitting.

 

(first published in The Irish Echo in September, 2003)

 

 

When Muhammad Ali came to Dublin

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ONCE inside his dressing-room at Croke Park on the evening of July 19, 1972, Muhammad Ali stretched out for a massage from Luis Sarria. As the Cuban worked his magic, Ali was coughing and sneezing repeatedly, the sound effects of a cold that had been bothering him for days. His personal physician, Dr Ferdie Pacheco then injected cortisone and Xylacene in between the webbing of the fingers on both of Ali’s hands. Since the comeback, he had been doing this to numb the fists and allow him to punch at full force without feeling the pain. While all this was going on, Pat McCormack, a Dublin welterweight, was sitting in an annex outside, preparing himself ahead of his bout with French champion David Pesenti.

Son of the legendary Spike, McCormack had his older brother John with him to work his corner that night.

“Angelo Dundee comes out and we told him we’d love to meet Ali,” remembers John McCormack. “Angelo goes back in and Ali came out then to shake hands with us. That was my first time seeing him up close and I said to Pat: ‘I don’t know whether to shake hands with him or kiss him, he’s bleeding gorgeous.’ Ali looks at me and says: ‘Are you a faggot?’ I thought he was calling me a maggot because I’d never really heard the word faggot before then. ‘What kind of talk is that, ‘ said I, ‘calling me a maggot?’ “‘I said faggot, ‘ says Ali. Anyway, Angelo Dundee butts in then and says: ‘Tell him your name.’ When I told him McCormack, Ali says: ‘Are you a Pole?’ Whatever way the name sounded to him, he thought I was Polish. ‘No I’m not, I’m Irish, I’m from Dublin here.’ ‘Oh!’ says Ali, ‘lovely to meet you.'”

Upon returning to the dressing-room, Ali had joined his brother Rahaman and manager Herbert Muhammad in a prefight prayer to Allah when a knock on the door was followed by a voice saying: ‘Whenever you’re ready, Muhammad.’ What he encountered upon walking through the door must have been quite a surprise.

“The set-up was that you got your bandages wrapped in the dressing-rooms then you went to get them signed and approved and finally, you put your gloves on when you got in the ring, ” says Paddy Maguire, a Belfast bantamweight who decisioned another Frenchman Guy Caudron at the end of an eight rounder that was the best contest of the evening in Croke Park. “This wee Corkman says to Ali outside the dressing-rooms: ‘You’ve to go and get the bandages on your hands stamped by the officials.’ Muhammad didn’t understand him because this wee Cork man had an accent that made him sound like he was singing. Muhammad just starts to dance around him and says: ‘What do you say Dad?  What was that Dad?’ And he just keeps on at him like that. The poor Corkman didn’t know what to say and then Ali just danced away.”

The rest of his journey to the ring was uneventful. Apart from Ali’s personal coterie of Dundee, Pacheco, Sarria and his friend, Fermanagh-born Paddy Monaghan, co-promoter Butty Sugrue had augmented the security presence around his headline act with Joe and Sean Brereton. Having supplied and built the ring for the fight, this pair of brothers from Edenderry were given the honour of delivering Ali to it.

“All I could hear as we walked along was the crowd shouting: ‘Go on Muhammad, Up ya boy Muhammad, ‘” says Joe Brereton. “They were going on like that the whole way in. We brought him to the corner and then we had to find seats near as we could to the corner. I ended up next to Peter O’Toole. He had a bottle of gin, and believe it or believe it not, I drank half it with him. He was a decent man, he passed it over to me every time he took it out of his coat. I wouldn’t normally drink gin neat but sure when you’re getting it for nothing, why wouldn’t you?”

Wearing a white robe with just his name emblazoned across the shoulders, Ali climbed into the ring and the crowd erupted. Just three months before, the prospect of the former heavyweight champion fighting in Dublin was dismissed as the stuff of fantasy.  Now, everybody felt they were on first name terms with him. ‘Up ya boy Muhammad!’ They had seen that face so often on their black and white televisions, pored over newspaper and magazine articles about his various antics but this was different. Yards from their seats, he strode towards his appointed corner with a determined look on his face, his eyes purposefully avoiding the best attempts of Al ‘Blue’ Lewis to stare him down.

A 29 year old ex-con from Detroit, Lewis’ passage to Croke Park had been quite a story in itself. At 17, he was sentenced to 25 years in Jackson State Prison for killing a man while mugging him for $97. For saving the lives of a prison inspector and a doctor during a subsequent siege, the five-time boxing champion of the facility received an early release after five and a half years.

He had parlayed his second chance into a decent pro career as a rough and ready heavyweight, and was never in trouble with the police again. Dublin was to be the biggest pay-day of his life.

“You go and tell your boss that I will knock the bum out in the fifth, ” said Ali, at a press conference the day before the fight, in response to journalist Raymond Smith informing him the editor of the Irish Independent wanted to know when the fight might end so they could plan the different editions of the paper. “Because he can only bring in enough money in advertising on television for that many rounds, I won’t carry him any longer than that.” For good measure, he then demonstrated the sort of punch that would end the contest.

Without quite replicating the exact punch, he did all he could to make good on the prediction.

After four inauspicious rounds, he spent much of the fifth seemingly content to work his opponent’s body until being winded by a right cross that was really the only major Lewis offensive in the round. With 30 seconds to go, Lewis extricated himself from a corner and appeared out of danger. He was right in the centre of the ring when Ali measured him up with a left and dropped him with a right.

“When Ali knocked Al down, my Dad could see I was upset, ” says Arlynne Eisner, daughter of one of Lewis’ co-managers, Steve Eisner. “So he leaned over and shouted to me: ‘Don’t worry, he’s just put his legs up and that’s a signal, he’s getting back up, that’s our code. Don’t worry, he’s going to be okay.’ And he did, he got back up from that one.”

His recovery was assisted by a long count that later drew criticism from Ali’s camp. The bell soon after gave Lewis an immediate chance to catch his breath and rehabilitate further. He looked in poor shape though as Ali scored with left after left in the opening minute of the sixth. As soon as Ali began to employ his right too, it appeared only a matter of time before Lewis went down for good. The seventh was similar in style and content to the previous round. In between long periods of inertia, Ali punished Lewis whenever he caught him on the ropes or in a corner without ever exerting himself unduly. Before the start of the eighth, co-promoter Harold Conrad made a circuit of the ring, stopped by the commentators’ seats and whispered to Bob Arum, then working the fight for US television: “He just won’t fall! He just won’t fall!”

The leisurely pace of the eighth must have worked wonders for the stamina of both fighters because the ninth was action-packed. A round that began to the soundtrack of slow handclapping from a belligerent pocket of the Hogan Stand exploded into life. Ali upped the tempo and launched an all-out attack, spending 30 seconds working Lewis to the head and body without having to take a single jab in reply. The crowd was enthused by this but there was never any indication that Lewis was going down under this barrage.

Even when battered against the ropes, his legs appeared steadier than before. Then, he shocked everybody by going on the counter explosively. Using the ropes almost as a springboard, he went right back at Ali. After succeeding with three stinging rights to the head, the crowd raucously voiced their approval of his efforts. If staying in there with Ali was a genuine achievement, offering such robust resistance with almost nine rounds in the books was worthy of their highest praise. In his corner, they watched his revitalisation and for a moment, just one fleeting moment, fostered real hope that he could yet do something extraordinary.

“‘Blue’ hit Ali with one really terrific punch, ” says Steve Eisner. “And I was screaming: ”Blue’ hit him with one more, for chrissakes one more’. And ‘Blue’ looked back at us and shouted: ‘I ain’t got one more. I ain’t got one more.’ Luther Burgess (Lewis’ trainer) says to me: ‘Shit, we got to put more brandy in the water.’ If you look at the tapes of the fight, Luther and I put brandy in his water to help ‘Blue’ and he doesn’t spit it out after the third round. We had him swallowing it from then on just to try to get him through.” Ali exacted quick revenge for the embarrassing cameo he’d endured at the end of the ninth.

He opened the 10th with a couple of swift lefts to the head and soon Lewis’ right eye was nearly swollen shut. Sensing his opponent had nothing left, Ali picked him off at will, wobbling his legs more than once as Lewis, his mouth agape desperate for oxygen, struggled to land a solitary punch in reply. It had become only a matter of time. In Ali’s corner, however, there was some concern. When he sat on the stool at the end of the round he emitted a loud groan that worried his trainer.

‘Did he catch you in the balls?’ asked Dundee. ‘No, no my nuts are okay but I sure am bursting.’ Now that Ali had finally subdued the menace of Lewis, nature was calling. ‘What’s the next round?’ asked Ali. ‘It’s the eleventh, ‘ said Dundee. ‘I’m gonna have to open up on him in this round because I’m just bursting.’ At the start of the 11th, Lewis lingered just a few moments longer on his stool, the body language of a beaten fighter. In contrast Ali was already up and waiting, anxious to make good on his promise.

He danced around his shattered opponent, scoring as he pleased and Lewis, his hands down by his sides, managed just two feeble jabs in the course of a minute and 15 seconds before referee Lew Eskin stepped in.

The concerned way the official embraced him suggested he knew better than anybody that this fighter had earned every penny of his $35,000 purse the hard way. Ali raised his hands in the familiar pose of triumph, the crowd roared its approval and in a fitting end to the proceedings, Lewis walked across to Ali’s corner and lifted him in the air to the delight of the fans.

“I watched the fight the other day and I can appreciate it more now, ” says Lewis. “For a long time, I was ashamed of that fight.  People would say: ‘You did well Blue’, but to me I didn’t. Now I look at it and I can relate to it better. I can understand where I came from and how I got to be in the ring with Ali. I lost but I didn’t look like no punk in losing.”

Within 30 seconds, the ring had filled up with bodies. Some were televison people there for a reason, others were just people chancing their arms. With nobody to stop them, dozens of fans seized a unique opportunity to get close to their idol. As the crowd around Ali’s corner grew out of control, the only person battling to keep the ring clear was Harold Conrad. Waving what looked like a rolled-up poster, he personally shoved and manhandled several interlopers back out through the ropes from whence they came. His efforts took on a comic appearance in the face of the relentless tide. No sooner did he send one fan on his way than a 10 year old came sidling through the ropes, shadow-boxed his way across the apron for the benefit of the cameras and was then subsumed by the throng.

“As I’m towelling ‘Blue’ off, this Irish guy is climbing up the ladder and is trying to muscle me out of the way, ” says Eisner. “I turn to him and say: ‘Will you let me towel the fighter off please? Give me a moment I’m working with my fighter.’ He mumbles something back at me, it could have been in Gaelic because I didn’t understand it in all the noise.

I turned around and said: ‘Fuck it.’ I hit him with a hell of a right hand and he landed right at the feet of an Irish cop who looked up at me. I’m thinking that I might as well put the manacles on because I’m going to the big house. Suddenly the cop looks up at me and yells: ‘That was a fine punch!'”

An announcement came over the tannoy requesting more Gardai and stewards to the ring area but reaching the centre of the crowd became an impossible task. Nobody could get in or out as every passageway was blocked by people. In the ensuing crush, four children were injured.

“We couldn’t believe they rushed the ring,” says Angelo Dundee. “I suppose it was better that they wanted to see him rather than not wanting to see him. In the midst of it all, Muhammad turned to me and said: ‘Hey, there sure is a lot of nice people here, they all want to shake my hand.’ We didn’t mind that too much and he certainly didn’t, he enjoyed that kind of stuff. Ireland gave a different feeling to other places we’d been, there was a legitimate warmth that we encountered everywhere we went in Ireland and that was just one more manifestation of it.”

Even after a semblance of order was restored and enough uniformed Gardai were on hand to begin escorting Ali out of the ring, the crowd were reluctant to let him go. Twenty-five minutes after Eskin’s intervention, Ali finally made it to the dressingroom. After he relieved himself in the toilet, he lay down on a couch and asked to be given a few moment’s respite before meeting reporters. Suitably rested, he was effusive in his praise of Lewis.

“I am delighted that we now have shown how good Lewis is,” said Ali. “That guy has some real guts man, and I am not sure if the public here realise just how tough and how strong he was. I hit him with some of my best shots at different stages of the fight and still, he just stood there. Cold or no cold, a couple of times, he hit me very hard and I’m glad I proved that he is worthy of a crack at the best.”

There were close to 50 journalists crowded in there and when one of them mentioned the presence of the Taoiseach Jack Lynch in the stadium, Ali slipped smoothly from gracious victor to gentle braggart. “If I had known Mister Lynch was here,” he said with the usual sly grin, “I would have finished the contest in the third round.”

 

 “I am very honoured indeed to have the head of the government come along to enjoy seeing me win. I have fallen in love with this country and the first real break I get from the boxing game, I intend to accept the invitation of Mister Terry Rogers of the Boxing Commission to bring my family over to holiday. After Floyd Patterson, I hope Joe Frazier will fight me and then I will relax in Galway.”

 So much happened in the years immediately after Croke Park that he never did make it back to Ireland. Apart from the tape of the fight itself, he bequeathed the country another unique memento of his visit. For Bord Failte, he recorded a promotional video that was shown to American audiences before the fight. Over a montage of picture-postcard images like whiskey-making, flyfishing and thatched cottages, Ali delivered the following script.

“Here I am in Ireland where every visitor gets 1,000 welcomes.

They even gave me the Irish shillelagh to help me win my fight but I don’t need it. They told me this was the Emerald Isle. Believe me, they’re right. I’ve never seen such a green country in all my life, not even Kentucky. The Irish people I have found are very proud of their ancient history and culture just like I am, and they preserve a lot of their old customs. They have kept up ancient skills here that have disappeared in most nations and countries. One thing especially about the Irish people that they kept boasting to me about was how good they are at making whiskey of all things.

“They say that their whiskey takes a long, long time to make but the funny thing is it don’t take long to drink. Whiskey is such a big thing here in Ireland that they even go as far as to call it the water of life. And that’s crazy. Ireland is also famous for its horses and the Irish people are crazy about all kinds of sports. That’s why I’m the greatest also here in Ireland. They even have their own special games called Irish football and Irish hurling. They look pretty rough to me these football and hurling players, I think I’ll stick to boxing. I’ve been training for my fight so I didn’t get to see all of the beautiful country of Ireland this time but I promise you, as soon as I destroy ugly Joe Frazier, I’m coming back to Ireland with my family and I’m going to have a real rest and a true holiday.”

(excerpt from “The Big Fight”, a book about an extraordinary week in Ireland’s sporting and social history, published by Yellow Jersey Press, available on Amazon etc)

 

Hurling questions I find hard to answer

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Not long after the start of the Munster final between Cork and Waterford last Sunday morning, I received a tap on the shoulder and a question.
“Who are the guys in the lab coats?”
The speaker was a 47 year old American whom I had brought along to the Ancient Order of Hibernians to watch his first-ever hurling match. Almost immediately, the men in white hugging the goalposts caught his eye.
“Those are the umpires.”
“Do they have powers to make decisions?”
“Eh no, they can just tell the ref stuff.”
“And then he acts on it?”
“Sometimes, not always.”
“But they are refs too right? I mean they must ref games when they are not umpiring?”
“No, usually they are just friends of the ref who’ve come along to help him out.”
At this he was scratching his head and I was quickly realising there are certain things about the GAA that are difficult, nay impossible, to explain to foreigners. The idea behind bringing my pal Cosimo to the game had been simple enough. With the World Cup coming to an end, I promised him a sporting experience to rival anything on show in Africa. He had seen hurling before, recalling snatches of it from ABC’s Wide World of Sport back in the 1970s, and the early points from Cathal Naughton and John Mullane had him purring at the stickwork and the accuracy.
The more impressed he grew though the more the questions proliferated, and the more obvious the culture gap became.
“You tell me all of these guys are amateurs?”
“Yeah.”
“But how come they are so fit?”
“They train 150 times a year and have been working all their lives to reach this level.”
He paused to exhale at the wondrous sight of Shane Walsh putting a sideline cut directly over the bar. Then the interrogation resumed.
“How much are tickets for this?”
“Not sure, I think around 40 euros for a Munster final.”
“And these guys (he was pointing at the screen as Sean Og split the posts for a score) aren’t getting any of that.”
“No. But they do get a free holiday at the end of the year.” I figured this might placate him on the pay for play issue. It actually made him laugh uproariously. He thought this was so derisory an attempt at compensation as to be worse than not paying them at all.
“They’ve never gone on strike in order to get paid for this.”
“No, not to get paid. But some of them have gone on strike.”
“For what reason?”
“For the right to pick their own coach (Americanese for manager).”
“Hang on a second, they’ve downed tools for the right to pick their coach but they have never gone on strike to demand cash.”
“That would be correct.”
After I gave a long and involved explanation of how the money generated percolates through the association to local clubs, my buddy settled down for a while. It might not have been a vintage first half for most viewers but if it was your first live hurling match, it was a spectacle to be savoured. As the players trooped off at half-time though, he noticed something and was off again.
“On the front of their shirts there, are those logos?”
“Yeah, both teams are sponsored by cell phone companies.”
He shook his head and smiled in disbelief, a not unexpected reaction given that in American sport, sponsors’ logos on jerseys are somehow considered a commercial step too far.
“They advertise corporations on their chests but they don’t get any wage for that?”
“I told you no, but I think they get free phones.” My tone betrayed my increasing exasperation at having to repeatedly justify the Corinthian ethos of these hurlers.
“What about the coaches? Do any of those guys get paid?”
“Well, now that you mention it. Some do and some don’t.”
“How does that work? Some coaches are pros and others do it for fun?” This he was struggling to comprehend.
“Eh that’s just the way it is.”
“How much do the coaches get?”
“Nobody knows for sure but it wouldn’t unknown for one at this level to be getting 30 to 50 grand a year.”
“And the players don’t mind that? They get nothing and the coach makes money off them.”
“They don’t usually complain.”
“Maybe he secretly shares some of the cash with them?”
“I’m not sure about that. I’ve never heard of that.”
More shaking of the head, more struggling to understand certain aspects of the fastest field game in the world. Fortunately, the increased tempo in the second half meant he was too preoccupied with the action to focus on the contradictions at the heart of the GAA. Most of his comments from that point on tended to be of the more easily answered “How did he do that?” variety. Needless to say, he was impressed by the dramatic denouement.
“This is an incredible game. It must be great to live in a country where everybody plays this.”
“Well that would be overstating it a bit.”
“I thought you told me it was one of your two national sports.”
“It’s just more popular in some places than in others.”
“After a game like this though, surely every kid in Ireland gets out those sticks and starts playing.”
“To tell you the truth, huge numbers of kids won’t even have known the match was on.”
“But you said it was the national sport.”
“Let’s just say it’s not as national as it should be.”
(first published in The Sunday Tribune, July, 2010)

Black Dan never walked alone

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In March, 1914, a 71 year old named Dan O’Leary was given a letter from the Mayor of Portland, Oregon to deliver to his counterpart at City Hall, San Francisco. O’Leary took the mail, put it in his jacket and then walked the 650 miles that separate the two places.  By the time he’d reached California, newspaper reporters had got wind of his exploits and when they sat him down, he dismissed the fuss about his latest jaunt, pointing out he’d walked an estimated 101,874 miles since 1874. Nobody quibbled with the number because they knew that in his younger days, O’Leary was known as “the champion walker of the world”.

“I always keep my feet in first class condition,” said O’Leary, explaining the secret of his success. “I don’t let any callouses grow on the bottom. By using a little sandpaper, I file off any growth and the result is my feet are soft and smooth as glass. I never use one pair of shoes two days running. In fact, I used up six pairs coming down from Portland.”

Born in Carrigroe, County Cork on June 28th, 1842, O’Leary left the family farm in Ireland to find a new life in Chicago, where things seemed to go well enough for him until the day in October, 1871 when the city caught fire. Hundreds died, tens of thousands more lost their homes and their livelihoods. Perhaps alone of those suddenly  unemployed, O’Leary decided to try his hand at competitive walking, then an enormously popular professional sport.

“O’Leary was a small, tough Irishman who had lost his job and savings in the great Chicago fire and had decided there might be a living in the pedestrian game,” wrote Walter Bernstein in the Virginia Quarterly Review. “He started off by doing a hundred miles in 23 hours. The following month, he did 105 miles in the same time and challenged Edward Weston (the most famous name in the sport) on the strength of it. Weston refused, saying O’Leary did not have a big enough reputation.”

Like any West Corkman, that was motivation enough for O’Leary. Using his own money, he rented a venue and duly smashed Weston’s record of 200 miles walked in 40 hours. That caught Weston’s attention and the two eventually squared off in Chicago in a six-day event in 1875 where O’Leary prevailed by clocking 501 miles in 143 hours. Weston later claimed the result had been unfair because his opponent had benefitted from the “home” crowd in his adopted city. He alleged the locals had been threatening to shoot him and hurled rolled up balls of paper in his face during the race.

 

The billboard for the return six-day match, which started on Easter Monday, 1877 at the Agricultural Hall in Islington in London (Weston was a big star in England), put the prize money at 1000 pounds and declared it, “The Largest Amount Ever Walked for in the World”. The size of the cash on offer demonstrates how big walking was at that time. Gamblers bet huge sums on the races, newspapers ran coverage on the front pages and the biggest events were held at storied venues like the old Madison Square Garden in New York.

“Races were brutal endurance events, lasting many days; one of the central tactical questions the competitors had to face was when, and for how long, to pause for sleep,” wrote Brian Phillips on Grantland.com. “Walkers would push themselves to cover 400 miles in five days, or 500 miles in six days, often suffering bloody feet — think about doing 3,000 laps in mid-Victorian footwear — swollen joints, and nastier injuries. There were deaths on the track. Because of the influence of gambling, top competitors faced a constant danger of attacks intended to stop them from spoiling a bet; big matches often involved heavy police protection. Most hauntingly of all, to my mind: The crowds were kicked out at night, but the races kept going, hours and hours of exhausted men passing in silence around enormous, empty halls, judges noting their progress as they went.”

This was the world then conquered by O’Leary. Having put Weston in his place in London where 70,000 people paid to watch over the six days and Westminster adjourned to watch the closing stages, he became what some headline writers dubbed “the champion pedestrian”.  When Sir John Dugdale Astley, an English politician and promoter, tried to make the sport more structured by creating an official championship of the world for “The Astley Belt”, O’Leary won the first two editions of that before runners started to infiltrate the sport. He continued to compete though and went all over the world to race.

After his own best days had passed, O’Leary remained involved. He sponsored an event at which the world’s best competed for “The O’Leary Belt”, also designated the official “Championship of America”. In perhaps the bravest move of his career, he also financed and coached Frank Hart, a Haitian immigrant who went from working in a Boston grocery store to earning $17,000 for winning a single race. Hart’s success was all the more remarkable because the colour of his skin meant many of those walking against him refused to speak with him or to shake his hand before events. The relationship between the protégé and O’Leary was such that the Haitian’s nickname in the sport was “Black Dan”.

Later in life, O’Leary was still renowned. At 80, he reportedly hatched a plan to walk to every state capital in the United States. No official results were available for that quest but when he died shortly before his 92nd birthday while wintering in Los Angeles, most of the obituaries mentioned he failed to reach but a handful of those cities.  Six thousand miles from California, in Rathbarry near his native Carrigroe, the townspeople got together a while back and built a stone monument to the man who went away and found a strange kind of fame so far from home. “Dan O’Leary – World Champion Walker” reads the inscription. What else is there to say?

(First published in the 2012 Holly Bough)

If the Uruguayans can do it, why can’t we?

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It would be easy to write a column this week asking why the FAI’s head honcho is the only chief executive from the competing nations at the European Championships to have his enthusiastic socialising so readily available on YouTube. It would be even easier to ask why the FAI’s head honcho seems to be more famous for being famous than for talking about his views on how kids should learn how to play the game in Ireland, especially now that it’s become apparent we are producing players so deficient in basic technique. But, that would be like shooting fish in a barrel.

It’s much more instructive to consider what just happened to Ireland and then to look at Uruguay.  At the 2002 World Cup, that faraway tournament when Mick McCarthy’s team gave Spain all they could handle, Uruguay exited in the first round, finishing third in Group A behind Denmark and Senegal. Not a distinguished showing by any means, it caused much hand-wringing and introspection in the South American country. When they subsequently failed to even reach the 2006 finals, following a play-off defeat to Australia, there was plenty more debate about how the national team had started to underachieve so badly.

As anybody who’s been paying attention knows, the Uruguayans reached the semi-finals in South Africa two years ago. Last summer, they defeated Lionel Messi and Argentina (the host nation) on the way to winning the Copa America. At this point then, a decade along from Japan and South Korea, the Uruguayans will be expected to seriously contend when the planet’s best teams gather in Brazil 24 months from now. John Delaney and the FAI should be investigating exactly how the Uruguayans went from doing so badly in 2002 to being among the world’s best ten years later.

Uruguay is a perfect model for Ireland because it has a smaller population (3.3m people) and a tiny playing pool to choose from. Not to mention either that almost all of its international players earn their living outside their home country. When the Scottish FA recently began to examine the reasons why that nation was no longer producing top quality players (they were recently trounced 5-1 by the USA in Florida), they sent a deputation to Montevideo to research the work being done there. Why? Because, in the past decade or so, the Uruguayans have produced, amongst others, Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani, and Luis Suarez (moral considerations aside). They must be doing something right. So what is it?

 

With the help of FIFA money (we did mention the Uruguayans are cash-strapped just like the FAI), they established something called the Goal Projects, an initiative designed to revamp the way young players were developed and coaches were taught. A high-tech national centre of excellence was established in Montevideo and from there the new way of thinking and approaching the game was brought all over the country. The results in just over a decade have been spectacular. The current run of success being enjoyed by the senior team is only the most obvious example of that.

Last summer, Uruguay’s U-17s trounced Brazil 3-0 in the semi-finals of the World Cup before eventually losing the decider to what Mexico considers to be its greatest generation of young players. A good omen for the future. This year, Uruguay’s Under-20s have reached the Olympics for the first time since 1928. Unlike idiots like Great Britain, countries like Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina treat the five-ringed circus soccer tournament as a serious chance to give young players invaluable international competitive experience, not a potential pre-retirement party for has-beens like David Beckham. They reap what they sow.

The Uruguayan revolution has been helped too by the input of Oscar Tabarez, the senior team manager.

Tabárez personally oversees the Uruguayan youth team set-up, appointing coaches himself and assuring the continuity in players’ development, in the philosophy, and in the planning,” wrote Joel Richards on FoxSoccer.com. “The group comes first, and this is exactly what is translated onto the pitch and in their performances at the highest level.”

In his second stint in charge, Tabarez is keenly involved in educating and promoting coaches at youth level because he wants to ensure that, long after he’s retired, there is a conveyor belt of coaches and players of the quality required.

“Since 2006 we have been developing a project which is an integrated plan which includes studying, playing, competing and learning about football,” said Tabárez, explaining his approach last summer. “The foundation of that is what we are enjoying now. Suárez, Cavani, Cáceres, Lodeiro, Coates, Hernández and other players all emerged from this project. They weren’t thrown into the full national team too early, they were moved up to the team at the right time.”

Imagine. Here we have a national team manager with long and medium-term plans and ideas about improving the type of players being produced. This is the type of visionary Ireland need to get involved, somebody who is thinking beyond just trying to bore our way through the qualification process of the next tournament, an individual with notions about how to make sure the next generation of players are technically better than the last.

There is something else to consider here. John O’Shea, Richard Dunne, Damien Duff, and Robbie Keane, four of the ten outfielders who started for Ireland last Monday night, all starred for Brian Kerr’s magnificent underage sides back in 1997 and 1998. Aside from when Dunne’s off-field problems made him a sub on Mick McCarthy’s side, this quartet has been the bulwark of the senior team for a decade now.

How ironic then that Kerr has no role in the future direction of Irish football. Our most successful under-age manager ever, a fellow who groomed nearly half the starters against Italy at the European Championships and the man who worked miracles for the Faroes, he is judged to have nothing to contribute to the grass-roots in Ireland. In Uruguay, they’d make good use of somebody like him because they know they couldn’t afford not to. Therein lies the difference.
 
(First appeared in Evening Echo, June 22nd, 2012)

An emigrant’s ode to the Cadbury’s Selection Box

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Next Tuesday morning, after the three Hannigan boys have pulled and dragged each other all over the living room in the quest for presents, I will go rooting beneath the tree. There, I will (hopefully) find a long, thin rectangular-shaped box with my name on it, just like I have on every one of the last 12 Christmases since we moved to New York. I will pick it up and shake it gently just to be sure it is what I think it is. Then, while the children are otherwise occupied, I will stealthily carry it to a safe corner of the house, tear off the paper, rip open the box, inhale the scent of chocolate, and start salivating.

This is what a Cadbury’s Selection Box can do to a grown man in exile. It forces him to regress to childhood. The responsible father of three is transformed into a starving bear who has happened upon an abandoned picnic hamper after three days without food. Before Christmas breakfast, sometimes before dawn, and definitely before any of my greedy cubs can ask me to share, I will scarf down some Buttons or carefully pick apart a Flake. I will close my eyes as I do so and, for a few precious moments, I will suddenly be three thousand miles away, in the Cork home of my childhood. A little boy once more.

This is what food can do when you live away from home. This is the power it retains even after more than a decade. It has the ability to dredge up memories and to transport. The mere sight of the Selection Box my wife sources each year, never mind the taste of the delightful contents within, inevitably brings to mind my own father and mother. I can still see them bleary-eyed on the couch, embers smouldering in last night’s fire, as they watch their sons and daughters tear into Santa’s bounty every one of those magical Christmas mornings that now seem so, so long ago. Some of the people from that room have died. The rest of us have changed. In many ways, only the Selection Box endures, a link to a time past.

The news earlier this week that Toronto’s first Irish food store is doing a roaring trade would have come as no surprise to the longer-serving members of the diaspora. Absence and distance make the heart and the palate grow fonder. Especially at this time of year when, no matter how much you’ve put down roots in another place, the very mention of a Cork Yuletide delicacy like spiced beef can start you waxing nostalgic and wondering about home. Not just about Christmas either but, by extension, about what life might have been like if you’d have never left.

Like so many emigrants, I was warned before my departure that exile can have strange effects on people. One person assured me that the moment I got on the plane I would start to develop a curious affection for maudlin Irish folk songs. I laughed in his face. Of course, today I have several CDs in the car and an inexplicable fondness for the poignancy of “Spancil Hill” that prove my friend right. The same lesson applies to food as it does to music.

The newly-arrived Irish in Canada will wander into that shop in Toronto and find themselves undergoing the oddest experiences. The very presence of familiar brand names on the shelves will be enough to spur them into emotional rather than rational purchases. They will end up going back to houses and apartments they do not yet call home, laden with foodstuffs they never even touched when they lived in Ireland. There is no scientific reason why they will do this. They just will.

I know this to be true because, over the years, I’ve developed a bizarre taste for Erin Potato Soup. Never ate it when I was in Ireland. Never would have thought of making it when I was in Ireland. But, I saw it in the international food aisle of a supermarket here one day and I found myself drawn to the packaging that somehow reminded me of accompanying my mother to Dunnes Stores in Bishopstown every Thursday night until I was old enough to refuse to go. Now, a steaming bowl of this soup is a beloved staple on refrigerated Long Island winter days when the snow is piled up outside.

Over the years I have found myself going through customs on the way back from Ireland carrying all manner of produce: sausages, rashers, salmon, Taytos, a loaf of Brennan’s Bread, Mikado Biscuits, Cadbury’s Roses, and, of course, boxes and boxes of Barry’s Tea bags. Indeed, I’ve also been known to pay $8 for a small box of Barry’s Tea if I spot it in a supermarket around here. Even in a recession, there are occasions when you just have to splurge. You aren’t buying food. You are buying a piece of who you used to be.

One time I brought my wife some Hunky Dory Sour Cream and Onion crisps from Dublin. Aside from the fact they were a lot cheaper than perfume, I knew they would take her back. And they did. The second she opened the first packet, she was reminded of a time in the early years of our marriage when hangover-beating crisp sandwiches were considered the perfect Sunday brunch, when home was a childless, carefree, rented basement flat off the main drag in Dun Laoghaire. She devoured them, surrounded by noisy children, wondering why Mommy and Daddy were sitting in the kitchen with such faraway looks in their eyes. Processed food as sense memory.

As we were leaving the eastern Long Island seaside town of Montauk after a day out last summer, I was getting ready for the long drive home when I spotted that a shop on the main street had a sign advertising Irish produce. I pulled over and nipped in but the shelves were kind of bare, save for a box of Crunchies. The holy grail. I grabbed it and came back to the car where the natives were growing restless. Until I handed out these bars of gold.

There followed half an hour of contented oohing and aahing. Where normally there would be fighting and arguing and name-calling, there was just the pleasant sounds of children savouring the chocolate honey-combed magnificence in their hands. That the 18-month old was painting his face a fast-melting brown didn’t bother me in the slightest. It was such a wonder to hear them all being quiet.

“Why are you guys being so good?” I asked.

“We love Irish candy,” they chorused in their 100 per cent proof American accents. “We just love it.”

As they’ll discover if they catch me secretly wolfing down the Crunchie from my Selection Box on Christmas morning, so do I. So do I.

 

 

(This piece first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail on December 21st)