John McGahern – the GAA’s only literary All-Star

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The short story is entitled “Love of the World”. In it, a Mayo centre-fielder and garda named Harkin gets embroiled in a vicious career-stunting brawl with travellers, indulges in a spot of wife-swapping with German tourists, and tastes more pain than glory on the football field. Unable to recover his equilibrium after the cheering has stopped, he descends into a kind of madness and ends up murdering his wife in a small town in Leitrim. A beautifully-wrought and disturbing yarn, what lingers is John McGahern’s incredibly accurate portrayal of the fleeting fame of the inter-county player.

“He had been deeply shaken by the way people turned away from him once he ceased to be a star, the same people who had crowded around him on pitches and in hotel lobbies, had stopped him in the street to ask for autographs,” wrote McGahern. “This constant attention had been so long a part of his everyday life that he had come to take it as much for granted as air or health. When suddenly it disappeared, he was baffled: he was the same person now as when he had dominated centre-fields, and it gnawed at the whole structure of his self-esteem, forcing in on him the feeling that he no longer amounted to anything, he who had meant the world to cheering, milling crowds.”

March 30thmarks the seventh anniversary of the death of arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett, a writer who also just happened to capture the essence of the national games with greater clarity and authenticity than any of his contemporaries. When Harkin ends up remanded in a psychiatric institution awaiting trial for the shooting of his wife, he receives a visit from his former beat partner. The two gardai sit down in rather awkward circumstances and then start dissecting the forthcoming All-Ireland football championship. Bizarre, yet note perfect.

“No man” said Patrick Kavanagh, “can adequately describe Irish life who ignores the Gaelic Athletic Association.”

For all the efforts of the sometime Inniskeen goalkeeper, hurling and Gaelic football remain massively under-represented in the highest echelons of Irish literature. Notwithstanding Michael Cusack figuring as a character in Ulysses, Paul Durcan’s timeless paean to Jamesie O’Connor, and the Whitbread prize-winning poet Bernard O’Donoghue’s lyrical tribute to the late Cork footballer Tom Creedon, the games are largely ignored by the heavyweights. Even if the magnificent Kevin Barry has made a few promising GAA references in his stories, it is somehow never regarded as suitable material for novels in the way various American writers have utilised baseball and grid-iron to such great effect.

“She’d witnessed men and boys look long and deep into his face, lost in the circle and dream of his fame,” wrote McGahern of Harkin’s wife watching him play. “She’d held her breath as she’d seen him ride the shoulders of running mobs bearing him in triumph from the pitches.”

The dearth of GAA literature then is what makes dipping into McGahern’s work such a treat. Sometimes Gaelic football just lurks in the background of a story, cropping up in the minutiae of a character’s existence. On other occasions, it’s central to the denouement. In every case, the rendering of its special place in Irish society is evocative, telling and candid. Anybody who’s ever witnessed the fickle nature of supporters would appreciate “Eddie Mac”, the story of a forward whose star wanes following an injury.

“As soon as it was plain that the cup was about to be lost, Eddie was taunted and jeered every time he went near the ball by the same people that had cheered him shoulder high from the field the year before,” wrote McGahern.

“On the surface he showed no feeling and walked stone-faced from the field; but on the following Wednesday, the evening every week he walked to the village to collect his copy of the Herald and to buy in a few groceries, he put his studded boots, football socks, togs, bandages in his green and red jersey, and by drawing the sleeves round and knotting them tightly made it a secure bundle, which he dropped in the deepest arch as he crossed the bridge into the village, only waiting long enough after the splash to be certain it had sunk.”

There can’t be a town in Ireland where some hurler or footballer hasn’t contemplated replicating the actions of Eddie Mac following the often toxic fall-out from an embarrassing defeat. And that’s the beauty of this stuff. The minor details of McGahern’s sporting portraits are always eerily familiar.

In “The Creamery Manager”, Jimmy McCarron is driving two gardai to the Ulster final in Clones and en route they begin discussing the Sergeant’s own brief inter-county career with Cavan. The man himself plays it down, claiming to have been given a couple of trial runs during which his deficiencies were duly exposed. His fellow travellers declare he was hard done by because a clique dominated the selection process. A conversation that has been had a million times yet only here is conferred with literary merit.

A few weeks after the match, the same two men are sent to arrest McCarron for unspecified financial shenanigans with creamery funds. Remorseful at how their Clones excursion might now be viewed by the authorities, he apologises for any possible guilt by association. One of the cops doesn’t see any need for that.

“You gave us a great day out,” says Garda Casey. “A day out of all our lives.”

What better summation of a championship afternoon than that?
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