A United Irishman, a long way from Tipperary

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A couple of years back, the head of department at the university where I teach suggested I should meet a man called Pat Hanrahan for lunch. Pat was about to start his first semester on campus, and I’m guessing the thinking was our shared nationality might prove mutually beneficial. My boss is a very knowledgeable man but his grasp of Irish geo-political reality is weak. “This guy Hanrahan is from Tipperary,” I tried to explain. “I’m from Cork. We are like the Hatfields and the McCoys with more primitive weapons and a better ability to hold grudges.”

As I drove to meet him that first August day, I could only think of one thing, that “Tipperary – The Home of Hurling” sign that greets you when drive over the border from Kilkenny. A simple sign that captures a county’s innate arrogance (who better to talk about arrogance than a Corkman etc…) Within minutes of sitting down to eat, Pat confessed his truest and most enduring sporting passion was not the Tipperary hurlers but Manchester United. This, I thought to myself, is a Tipp man I can work with.

“I’ve been to Old Trafford for at least one game every season for the last 40 years,” he said.

There are glory hunters and there are fair weather fans and then there are men who travel from New York to the north-west of England every year to support their team – and, remember, there were some bad United teams in that time. This man was not a product of the Alex Ferguson era, of all those trophies. No, he traced his devotion back through darker days in the club’s history. He enjoyed all the success because he had witnessed so much failure.

People tell you that the older you get the less friends you make. Well, once he told me about his long-distance love affair with United, we instantly became friends. Good friends. How could we not be? Never mind that I’m not a United fan, Irish men speak the language of sports. It’s easy and it’s familiar. The sporting world is always our most convenient bond.

Suddenly, there was somebody at work with whom I could discuss the failure of Moyes, the appointment of Van Gaal, and the horrible way Chelsea play and behave under Mourinho. During televised matches my phone would ping and there’d be a text from Pat, offering an opinion or, when my beloved Aston Villa were, almost inevitably, losing, extending his sympathies.

Pat was the kind of fella that no sooner had you met him you felt that you’d known him all your life. He was wonderful, entertaining and gossipy company. He had a terrific sense of mischief and, to use a very Irish word, a bit of divilment about him too.

“I heard that the place you are from is like the Texas of Ireland,” said an American colleague one day.

It took me a moment to figure out where he’d have come up with that line from.

“Oh yeah, and Pat is from Tipperary, the West Virginia of Ireland,” I replied.

He was quite a remarkable character when it came to work. In his early 70s, retired after decades in Aer Lingus (How do you think he funded all those trips from Long Island to Manchester?), he’d graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing. At a time when so many are winding down the clock, his brain was going up a gear. From there, he’d been invited to teach writing at Stony Brook University and that was when we met, as he threw himself into teaching as an adjunct.

This was just the latest chapter in a diverse career into which he seemed to have packed several different lives. There was a stint in Cork, a sojourn in England and then a lifetime in New York.

Unfortunately, two months ago, Pat had to walk away from the classroom when he was diagnosed with cancer. Suddenly, those texts that brightened up so many matches, praising United, hating on others (especially Liverpool!), were soon replaced by updates from his chemotherapy sessions.

Last Saturday morning, I received one such medical bulletin where he gave the latest report on what the treatment was doing to his body. I didn’t respond right away because my son was making his first communion. Hours later, Pat died.

As I write this, I can see stuff on my shelves that he loaned me the last time we met. An anthology of new Irish short stories, an Irish film called “When Brendan met Trudy”, and a Manchester United match programme from his last visit to Old Trafford that he gave to my son. A typically eclectic Pat parcel, items that will stay there forever now as constant reminders of his generosity and his friendship.

See, in the all too brief time I knew him, he was my own personal library. No sooner had I read a review of something by an Irish writer than he had it in my mail slot for me to borrow. He was a prodigious reader, and like all the best readers, somebody determined to share the joy with those around him, constantly loaning out treasures to friends and family.

A while back, one of the books he left in the main office for me went missing. In the classic Irish way, we denounced every colleague who ever had access to the office, traducing reputations, and, even wondering, for a spell, whether it was a light-fingered student who made off with Joseph O’Connor’s “The Thrill of it All.”

Turned out the book had simply been taken in error by the boss who quickly returned it. All our thoroughly enjoyable slandering had been in vain. When I think back on it now though, I smile. Our boss, unwittingly, had managed again to bring the Tippman and the Corkonian together in a common cause.

Pat Hanrahan is survived by his wife Siobhan, his daughters Fiona and Sinead, five grandchildren, and a Corkman who wishes he’d have been lucky enough to known him longer.

(this article first appeared in The Irish Echo, May 13th)

When New York banned Brendan Behan from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade

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On March 13th 1961, a beaming Brendan Behan and his somewhat less enthusiastic wife Beatrice arrived in New York on the Cunard Liner Queen Elizabeth. As the ship docked at Pier 90 near West 50th Street on the North River, a photographer from the Daily News captured him, calmly sipping tea and smoking a cigar. “I’m off the drink for Lent,” he told reporters, “and for breadth too!”

That the paparazzo felt him worthy of this attention at all speaks volumes about the type of celebrity he had become during his previous sojourn in the city. If the shot is very much a portrait of the artist in repose, it was to be at odds with so much of what happened to him for the rest of his stay.

Once they heard he was coming back to town, the Gaelic Society of Fordham University had invited him to march in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Manhattan that Friday. Just like tens of thousands of Irish and Irish-Americans were due to do. Except, there was one slight problem. Behan was regarded as radioactive by the organisers of the event. They’d seen the havoc he’d wreaked across the city over the previous autumn, endured the constant negative headlines, and moved quickly to ban him from marching. The Gaelic Society of Fordham was disinvited too.

“We have a semi-religious, almost sacred feeling about this parade,” said James J. Comerford, a Justice of the Court of Special Sessions, a member of the parade organising committee, and a Fordham alumnus. “We don’t want a personality who has been advertised so extensively as a common drunk.”

Those who knew him would have expected nothing less from Comerford. A judge who used to denounce critics of his draconian sentencing as “liberal liberals”, New York magazine once described him as “a stern and sour arbiter of morals, given to tough sentences (30 years and 30 Hail Marys!) – a no-nonsense man whose vision of right and wrong is as clear as Waterford glass.”

The irony is that Behan and Comerford had a lot in common. Both had enjoyed paramilitary careers with the Irish Republican Army as young men before going on to achieve greater renown without weapons in their hands. Born on the family farm in Coolraheen, County Kilkenny in 1901, Comerford joined the F Company Third Battalion of the Kilkenny Brigade of the IRA at the age of 16, reaching the rank of captain before his 21st birthday.

“We heard through the grapevine that all Behan wanted to do was get in the parade and then break out of it at the reviewing stand to shake hands with Cardinal Spellman,” said Comerford. “He thought this was a way to get his book sanctified.”

Well, if Behan did want publicity for his book (which hardly needed it given the American edition of “Borstal Boy” had sold 20,000 copies in just one month), he got plenty of it via the decision to stop him from marching. During the one time of year when all things Irish are in vogue in the American media, the New York papers suddenly had a good old-fashioned ruckus, some ethnic infighting punctuated by colourful intervals of public name-calling.

“By Jaysus,” said Behan of the parade organisers, “they’d put years on you with their plastic shamrocks and their green socks,”

Willy Brandt, the Mayor of West Berlin, was the esteemed guest of honour for the parade but his presence was reduced to the status of a sideshow by the Behan row.

“While the parade committee was beckoning Herr Brandt with one hand,” wrote the New York Times, “it was barring Brendan Behan the Irish playwright with the other.”

Once news broke of his expulsion, the invitations started to come in from parade organisers in other cities. Boston was quick off the mark, so too Holyoke, a town in Western Massachusetts initially settled by emigrants from Dingle and once known as Ireland Parish. London, Ontario made an attempt to bring him north of the border. In the end, he opted for somewhere closer to his temporary home.

“We’re not running a high-brow silk stocking Irish event,” said Edward Casey, chairman of the Jersey City St. Patrick’s Day festivities when Behan accepted their offer to receive the key to the city on March 17th. “We have a quart of milk ready for him. If he doesn’t want to drink it straight, he can use it in his tea.”

Of course, Behan wasn’t done with the crowd in New York yet. He threatened to march anyway, regardless of the ban, joking that he’d opt out before the reviewing stand in case Comerford spotted him and gave him “six months”. It says much for his standing in the country that Newsweek magazine offered him a platform to address the controversy. He didn’t hold back with his retaliation. The polemic included an attack on Irish-Americans for their attitude to March 17th

“…I suppose there are some prudish people in America, just like everywhere. They want to look like Queen Victoria’s husband. If someone drank a glass of Irish whiskey or stout, it would do a lot of good for the old country, rather than hanging shamrocks around your ears…”

Then, there was his trademark gag laced with bitterness…..

“…I now have a new theory on what happened to the snakes when St Patrick drove them out of Ireland. They came to New York and became judges…”

And the inevitable show of erudition…

“…I recommend the judge to read the Confessions of St Patrick, in which he said, ‘the honest man must walk as warily as a deer, not so much for fear of the enemies of Christianity as for fear of those who pretend to be better Christians than the Apostles’. I do not set myself up as an Apostle but I think that I can afford to be more open with my sinfulness than Judge Comerford…”

The press loved the whole brouhaha. Well, most of them did. In a sign that perhaps the city, or at least some of its most prominent residents, was tiring of the Behan show, the New York Daily News took the side of the parade organisers in an editorial on March 16th.

“For our part, we’re glad Justice Comerford thumbed Behan to the sidelines,” went the piece. “Tomorrow’s parade should be much the better for the absence of a show-off whose antics, frankly, are threatening to become as boring as Lady Loverley’s chatter…Jersey City can have him.”

An estimated 125,000 marched up Fifth Avenue on St. Patrick’s Day. The sky overhead was pristine blue but a cold breeze whipped along the city streets, ensuring the parade before a reviewing party of Mayor Brandt, Cardinal Spellman and New York’s own Mayor Robert F. Wagner moved at pace. The crowds gathered to watch could often be seen marching on the spot to try to keep warm. Behan was not among them. He was on his way to Jersey, travelling in a Cadillac that he felt “befits my station”. Of his journey across the river, he later remarked: ”At one end of the Holland Tunnel lies freedom. I choose it.”

On the steps of Jersey City Hall, a large group had gathered, mostly men in suits and fedoras, some holding up “Welcome Behan” signs like groupies at an election rally as Behan posed somewhat sheepishly for photographers as he collected his prize, the key to the city, from Mayor Charles Witkowski. Beatrice stood between them, a fur stole draped over her shoulders, her handbag in front of her, as the cameras flashed.

“This has moved me more than I can say. This is the best St. Patrick’s Day ever for me,” said Behan to reporters covering his appearance. “Maybe I should send a note of thanks to those in New York for not letting me wear myself out marching so I could be over here enjoying myself. The people of New Jersey made up for it. New Jersey is the Latin Quarter of New York. New York is the duller part.”

In some of the photographs taken that day, Behan, wearing a garish green tie under his suit, is captured waving a 100-year old Blackthorn shillelagh stick in the air. Indeed, at one juncture, he posed near the Jersey docks, pointing across the river, cocking a snoot at New York in the background. Following the key-giving ceremony, the party moved on for luncheon at Casino-in-the-Park where Behan gave his audience the type of performance they expected. After the food, the singing started and, despite drinking nothing stronger than Club Soda, he delivered several of his party-pieces, including “Molly Malone”, much to the delight of all present.

“His cousin, Paul Bourke, who lived in New Jersey, drove us across for the ceremony and Brendan entered into the celebrations as though he were at the White House,” wrote Beatrice Behan much later. “He could count Irish-Americans among his friends, but I knew by now that the attitude of some of them annoyed him.”

They knew that too.

  • excerpt from Behan in the USA: The Rise and Fall of the Most Famous Irishman in New York.

Very proud of my perfect cousin

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Eight days ago, I was in the middle of a lecture when my mobile phone buzzed that sound it makes when somebody sends you a message. Given how often I berate students for texting in class, I was loath to even acknowledge it was going off. Then it went again. And again. So, assuming it might be some sort of emergency, I discretely flipped it out of my bag and onto the desk. The urgent message was from my 14 year old son Abe. Nobody was in hospital. Nobody was in danger. No, it was much more important than that.

The message was a video he’d taken from the television while watching Manchester United taking on Cambridge United in an FA Cup fourth round replay. It showed my first cousin Gearoid Morrissey coming on as a substitute for Cambridge in the second half. With the number 23 on his back, he was making his professional debut for the English club at Old Trafford. What a moment for him. What a moment for his family. A boy from Mahon, one of the most put-upon suburbs in Cork city, taking the first step in the next phase of his sporting life at one of the great cathedrals of the world game.

I was standing at a lectern on a campus in Long Island as I played and replayed the video but my thoughts were three thousand miles away with Gearoid’s parents, my Uncle Ger and his wife Marian. Given how proud and moved I was by the sight of a first cousin taking the field, I couldn’t imagine what it was like for his mother and father to be watching on telly. To be looking on as the little kid they first saw kick a ball with Ringmahon Rangers, his local club, ran out there to compete with some of the best players in the world in a game being watched all over the planet.

Then I thought about all my other relatives and what they must have been feeling at that moment. My mother’s family are steeped in soccer. Her father Tommy played for Cork United in the 1940s – indeed I was long ago given a heavy woollen jersey of his as an heirloom. Between then and now, we’ve togged out for clubs all over the city and county, generations of us. And when we did, some of us even dreamed that maybe we were talented enough to go all the way. Of course, we weren’t.

Still, watching Gearoid strut his stuff, I started to list off all the clubs his relatives have played for. It’s a long list. Casement Celtic, Ballincollig, Kilreen Celtic, Western Rovers, Crofton Celtic, Glasheen, Wilton United, Courtown United, Dominic Rovers, Bishopstown United, UCC Academicals, Leeds United, Passage, Douglas Hall, Grange Vale. Some of those clubs don’t even exist anymore but reeling off the names brought home to me for just how many decades members of the extended Morrissey family have played the game. And, now, here, finally, one of us was out there on the biggest stage of all.

Gearoid has made us all feel this pride before. I remember watching on a laptop as he played for an Irish youths team in a European championship some years back. And, this past few seasons, our interest in Cork City, even from afar, went up a serious notch due to his presence in the middle of the club’s midfield. He has work to do now to establish himself in the Cambridge first team but for one glorious night last week, his Morrissey kin all over Cork and, indeed the world, were walking with their chests puffed out. Dowtcha boy!

The Gaa Club Player’s Manifesto

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In a few weeks, in fields all over the island of Ireland, groups of men will pull up in their cars, struggle to lift their heavy legs out the doors, and then they will trudge across towards dressing-rooms. Their backs will creak as they walk, and their bellies will suddenly feel a lot rounder than at any time since the previous September. The cold air will invade their nostrils and the smell of the dark will send a shiver up their spines.

They know there will be rough nights ahead, long evenings where a bad choice of food at lunch hours earlier might come back to haunt them and end up sprayed all over the grass. These are the club hurlers and Gaelic footballers of Ireland and their imminent return to training is as good a time as any to recite their manifesto.

I am the GAA club player. I am the low man on the totem pole. I am the bottom of the food chain. I am the fella who must organise his whole life around the fixtures involving an inter-county team I will never play for. I am constantly patted on the head by the authorities and the media but nobody really wants to do anything to improve my station. I’m the lifeblood of the association, so they say. Most of the time I feel like its whipping boy.

I am the man who must tell the people at work that I’m not sure when I want to take my summer holidays. It could be June or July or August. But I won’t know until they are almost upon us. It depends on whether we get knocked out of the first round of the county championship and have to go through the back-door. And it depends on how the county team does. If my team-mate Mickey Joe is still hugging the bench with the hurlers as they make their way through the All-Ireland qualifiers, our next championship game might have to wait until September. But, here’s the best bit, I won’t know that until the day it happens.

I am the man constantly telling his wife to rearrange the plans for the weekend away. What else am I supposed to do? I don’t have a clue from week to week when our next match is. She knew that when we got married. Back then, she had the ludicrous idea of booking a wedding venue two years in advance. That was her soccer background coming through, thinking all the fixtures were planned in advance. I had to remind her then that I played Gaelic football, a wonderful sport where those in charge make the calendar up as they go along. At least that’s what it looks like where I’m standing. We call it the view from below.

I am the man who doesn’t know how many matches I will get to play in any calendar year. In the next few weeks, I will head back out to training with the club. The nights will be gloomy, often wet, and there’ll be evenings I wish heat came off the floodlights around the field. But, I’ll get into it eventually. There’s nothing better than the feeling of the body hardening up and the fitness returning. I’ll be raring to go soon enough. And then I’ll wait and wait and wait until we find out when we get to play meaningful games. Could be this week, next week, next month. That’s the manager’s mantra. I’m so sick of hearing it at this stage but what are you gonna do? I love the game. It just doesn’t seem to love me back so much anymore.

I am the man who has to maintain form for 14 weeks at a stretch. Yup, last summer, I was flying in our championship opener. Hopping off the ground. The eye was in. The touch was there. One of my best games for the club ever, if I say so myself. Of course, the problem was we won and then the county team started winning and their manager banned all club matches for the foreseeable future. When we ran out for the next round of the championship, the leaves were falling from the trees and my razor sharpness was gone. I blamed our fitness trainer. He blamed the calendar and I knew he was right.

I am the man who often sits outside in the back garden on a fine summer’s evening and wishes we could play matches in that kind of weather. Last year I counted a dozen beautiful, warm, dry nights when we had neither training or a game at the height of the season. I tortured myself doing this because with the passing of each one I knew that our next outing would inevitably be in the driving rain of a chillier than usual September evening. One of those nights when you wouldn’t put a cat out. How weird is it to play a game where the majority of players, the club stalwarts, hardly ever get to play in whatever passes for an Irish summer?

I am the man who once watched 112 days pass between championship matches (that was back in 2012) and was then expected to play twice in six days. Where else would you get it? What other sporting body would tolerate a situation in which 99 per cent of the adult playing population must sit around twiddling their thumbs or playing challenge matches as it’s sometimes called, waiting to get on a field where something is at stake. Then getting told to go out and do it three or four weekends in a row.

I am the man who watches his inter-county team play with mixed feelings. I want them to win because some of my clubmates are involved but I know if they lose my own career will be much easier to manage over the ensuing months. Call it the GAA club player’s strange dilemma. I call it my life.

 

Bringing it all back home

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The scene was a train trundling from Dublin to Cork on a Friday morning last March. My seven year old son Charlie was sitting in the window seat. At one point, I noticed that his iPod Touch was lying idle on the table and the book I was making him read on his vacation lay unopened. He had his head turned, his nose pressed almost to the glass. Suddenly, it hit me. He was transfixed by the scenery flashing before his eyes, by the green fields, by the trees in the distance, by the sight of livestock chewing the cud. He was, in fact, transfixed by Ireland.

I sat there watching him for a few minutes without saying a word. It was kind of wondrous to behold. A child staring out the window, taking in the country of his father and being fascinated by it. The last time Charlie had set foot in Ireland he was still in diapers and mostly travelling in a buggy. Now, he was old enough and aware enough to see and appreciate that this place was different. Very different. This wasn’t his native Long Island. This was not New York. Finally, I had to interrupt his daydream with a question.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“It’s very green,” he said. “And it looks windy.”

When I first left Ireland fourteen years ago, I made all sorts of promises to myself. I would come back to Cork at least twice a year and whenever possible I’d bring my son Abe with me (we had only one child then). And he’d grow up more Irish than the Irish themselves. But, life plays havoc with these types of idealistic notions. People get sick. More children get born. Work gets a little complicated. Disposable income becomes less disposable and flights start to look more expensive. Not to mention the prohibitive costs of flying home at short notice for funerals and sudden illnesses and the like.

All of the above explains or at least justifies to me why Charlie hadn’t been back to Ireland since he was two. That’s why when I came back for the publication of my book on Brendan Behan earlier this year, I was determined to bring him, and just him, with me. Never mind that he’s so cripplingly shy he refused to attend the book launch in Dublin. It was just important to me that he got to see the country properly. That’s why the little cameo on the train meant so much. It was touching to witness a child discovering and being captivated by somewhere you are so proud of. It felt like we were making a memory.

There’s always something magical about the train too. It makes you nostalgic and gets you thinking. Watching Charlie brought me back to all the times I made that journey as a child and as a young man too. I couldn’t help wondering if a few years from now he’ll be back on that train as a college student making a trip around Ireland, the type of journey his mother once made and which culminated in her marrying a Corkman! Maybe he’ll travel with one of his brothers and he’ll talk about the journey he made with me when he was a kid, back in the day.

On the third day of our stay at my niece Kadie’s pied a terre in Barrack Street, Charlie caught me sitting on a ledge at the top of the house staring across the river and the rooftops.

“What are you doing Dad?” he asked.

I answered by taking him into my arms, lifting him up to the glass and pointing, “I’m trying to see if I can see all the way across the northside to where my Dad grew up.”

He looked at the rooftops in the distance, looked back at me and shook his head, as if worrying I was starting to lose it. And maybe I was. The returned emigrant is the prisoner of his own poignancy during each trip home. Every landmark is a remnant of so long ago, every street corner a cameo from a previous life.

Of course, the problem with having a seven year old as your travelling companion is they don’t appreciate anything beyond toys, chocolate and the money that relatives (especially when we visited his grandma in the CUH) kept pressing into his hands. Driving past UCC, I proudly pointed out where I went to college. He didn’t even raise his head from the back seat to take a look. Truly, history is wasted on the young.

When we pulled up outside a rainy and windswept Charles Fort in Kinsale, he was momentarily impressed. He posed for a few photographs, listened to me offer some half-remembered details about the Williamites and war, and then he told me what was really on his mind. “Are there any toyshops in this town? I have my own money!”

Five months after our glorious nine days together in Ireland, we were out for a walk on a balmy summer’s evening. Strolling through a Long Island park that goes by and lives up to the name of Avalon, Charlie suddenly detoured on to a wooden deck overlooking a lake. “Look, Dad, look!” he shouted. “This is like that place by the water that we visited in Cork. What was it called again?”

Before I could even answer, it came to him.

“King-sale! Remember when we went to King-Sale?”

Remember King-Sale. I hope I never forget.

Codebreaker, Chess Grandmaster and Corkman

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In September 1939, Hugh Alexander was in Buenos Aires attending the Chess Olympiad when World War II broke out. Six rounds into the tournament, the reigning British champion immediately withdrew from competition and returned to London by boat. A mathematics teacher by profession, he volunteered for national service, and was quickly assigned to the elite code-breaking unit at Bletchley Park. At the conclusion of the war in 1945, Winston Churchill would credit four cryptographers there with shortening the duration of the conflict by two whole years. Alexander was one of that quartet.

Conel Hugh O’Donnell Alexander, to give him his rather distinctive full name, was born in Cork on April 19th, 1909. His father was a professor of engineering at UCC, and the family lived on Connaught Avenue across from the college. They moved to England when he was eight years old but Alexander would always tell people he regarded himself first and foremost as an Irishman. Even if his decision to embark on a career in the higher echelons of British intelligence meant he could never hope to properly fulfill his talent on the chess board, there seems little enough argument he was the finest player to whom Ireland could ever lay claim.

While his name has always resonated within the Irish chess community, it’s about to be recognised on a far wider scale. The release of “The Imitation Game”, a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, the code-breaker and pioneer of modern computing, sees Matthew Goode portraying Alexander. When Turing was on trial for homosexuality in 1952, a lot of his friends and colleagues deserted him. Not Alexander. He went to court to testify as a character witness. A measure of the man he was.

“I have many times had the pleasure of meeting Alexander over the chess board,” wrote Mikhail Botvinnik, whose reign as world champion lasted 14 years. “On one occasion (in 1946) I suffered a crushing defeat. He was a real paladin, sans peur et sans reproche…With his urge for overcoming and taming opposition, with his enthusiasm for uncompromising struggle, Alexander pioneered the way for British players to modern, complicated and daring chess; chess players will never forget him.”

Although he attained the level of international master in 1950, Alexander’s peculiar choice of job precluded him from competing with enough regularity against the greats like Botvinnik. In the decades after World War II, the British government would never allow him travel anywhere behind the Iron Curtain to compete against his most illustrious contemporaries. London was riddled with Russian spies at the time, and it was feared that if Moscow got wind of the presence of such an important Cold War code-breaker on their territory, he would be either killed or imprisoned.

Befitting somebody who followed up a prodigious schoolboy career by winning the prestigious Cambridge University chess championships four years running, Alexander still found enough opportunities to leave an indelible mark on the sport. In 1953, he defeated the Russian grandmaster David Bornstein in an epic contest at Hastings that lasted 13 hours and took three days to complete. Alexander’s dogged triumph over the higher-rated opponent garnered front-page headlines in the English papers, made him a household name, and led to his taking on the job of chess columnist at The Sunday Times in London.

“Alexander could well be described as the greater Irish player of all time,” wrote Enda Rohan in a contribution to Mark Orr’s excellent Irish chess archive. “He wrote to me in 1957 saying: ‘I do think of myself as an Irishman, not an Englishman, in spite of my long time here.’ We had many friendly arguments during the 1957 Dublin Zonal (a world championship qualifying event) where there was great local interest in his performance, though officially he was representing England.”

In many ways, Alexander was a man with a foot in both camps. For the duration of the war, he billeted his Australian wife Enid and their kids in Donegal while he got on with the job of cracking German code for the Allies. Given an OBE in 1945 for his success in that regard, he was promoted to CBE ten years later. More honours were to follow. Shortly before his retirement from the intelligence corps, he was made a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George – an individual award conferred by the Queen in recognition of his unique contribution to the nation.

“I think the best way for the player to begin to understand and enjoy problems is through using the chess skill he already possesses to solve them simply as chess puzzles,” wrote Alexander once, explaining his philosophical approach to the game. “While it is the struggle in a game of chess that is the central element, most players get pleasure from the ideas that occur in a game and not just from winning; so, although at first some may find problems rather bloodless ,there are few who will not grow to enjoy them.”

When he retired, the American government tried desperately to lure Alexander across the Atlantic to bring his vast experience of code-breaking to bear in the Pentagon. A lucrative offer was turned down in favour of devoting more time to writing books about chess and promoting the sport. Unfortunately, he became seriously ill just a few months into this new vocation and died on February 15th, 1974.

“I am not going to recite his triumphs at chess or try to describe his immense services to British chess over forty years,” wrote Stuart Milner-Barry, a close friend of his, in the book, “The Best Games of CHO’D Alexander”. “Nor would I be the right person to describe his work at GCHQ since the War. But I would like to say something about him as a colleague and a friend. He had a fully, happy and successful life, left behind a famous name, and memories that will always be treasured by his friends of all ages.”

Quite a name. Quite a life too.

Pele, Jimmy Conway and that old time Rock and Roll soccer

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When Noel Lemon died a couple of years back, obituaries on both sides of the Atlantic mentioned the sterling work the Irishman did as a promoter of international soccer in America in the 1980s and 1990s. In many ways, his company laid the foundation for all the big European club tours that seem to happen here every summer now.  That his good friend Pele called him “The Chief” says something about the contribution Lemon made. Not bad going for a fellow from East Belfast who originally came to the US to play semi-professional soccer and ended up as general manger of the Tulsa Roughnecks in the old North American Soccer League.

That Oklahoma outfit lived up to their name so often they very quickly developed a reputation, one that their boss was quite proud of.

“We’ve only been in the league two and a half years and already half the teams hate us,” said Lemon. “Give me another two years and we’ll have them all.”

Lemon’s story and a whole host of other fascinating yarns are contained in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League”, a brilliant, new book by Ian Plenderleith. An Englishman long since exiled near Washington DC, Plenderleith has pieced together a hugely entertaining narrative tracing the brief, action-packed and star-studded history of this extraordinary league.

That it was a subject long overdue the book treatment can be deduced by the quality of the anecdotes and the marquee names in the dramatis personae. As a for instance, take the day the Tampa Bay Rowdies trounced the New York Cosmos in 1976. The Cosmos had Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia, an Italian icon by way of Wales, but they were led a merry dance by Rodney Marsh. In the middle of a virtuouso performance when the ball often appeared glued to his feet , Marsh offered the type of cameo that the sport, then and now, needs more of. Plenderleith takes up the story.

“Eventually, Dave Clements (another Northern Irelander) half-tackled him, but Marsh still managed to retain the ball as he ran back towards his own goal, now inside his own half,” he writes. “He turned, Clements was now ten yards away, so this was the moment when Marsh knelt down and gestured, inviting Clements to come and fetch the object he desired but had no chance of obtaining. Then Marsh stood up again and made another back-heel pass without even glancing to check if it had reached his own player. It had.”

For all the (mostly) English snobbery towards it, the NASL was a league that expressly tried to bring entertainers in, and more importantly, encouraged them to entertain. Where else would you get Eusebio playing against Pele on a field in Las Vegas? Never mind that the two of them were past their prime, they still cared enough about the game to get into a fight that day. In a photograph that became a wonderful memento of his own career, Eusebio’s team-mate Hilary Carlyle, a native of Derry and a one-time Finn Harp, is caught trying to broker peace between the two legends

NASL was the kind of unique place where the biggest names ever to play the game rubbed shoulders with journeymen and with youngsters gaining vital experience on the way to greater things. For every Pele, Beckenbauer and Cruyff and, indeed, our own John Giles, there was a Peter Beardsley playing for Vancouver at 20 or Graeme Souness with Montreal at just 19.  Of course, in the middle of it all was George Best, way past his best but still capable of being the best when the mood suited. It did on the day in 1981 when he scored the best goal in NASL history for San Jose Earthquakes against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

Aside from providing forensic accounts of goals like that and collating an important part of the archive of the game in America, Plenderleith makes a very good case that the NASL deserves more coverage because it was, in many ways, a forerunner of the future direction of the sport in other countries.

“If you were designing a prototype for a brand new, modern soccer league, you would place the most image-conscious, most skillful, most brand-friendly players with the clubs in the biggest, most glamorous cities,” writes Plenderleith. “The ensuing media coverage would guarantee the crowds, and so sponsorship revenue and a fat television deal would automatically follow. Celebrities and politicians would start to show their faces in the stands as sure as ticks on a stray dog. Your league might look like the Premier League or the periodically mooted European Super League. It would look something like the top half of North America’s first division in the late 1970s, a league that got too much right to ignore.”

Jimmy Conway doesn’t crop in Plenderleith’s excellent book but he was part of the NASL story too. A career that began at Bohemians on the northside of Dublin, blossomed at Fulham in west London and culminated in a move to the Portland Timbers in the American north-west in 1978. After he retired from playing, he turned to coaching and played a huge part in the growth of the sport in that part of the country. Now that he’s suffering from dementia, the soccer community in the region hasn’t forgotten their man.

At the Timbers’ Major League Soccer clash with the San Jose Earthquakes on September 7th next, Conway’s name will be on everybody’s lips. In the 8th minute (chosen because that was the Dubliner’s old number), “Timber Jim” Serrill, the team’s first mascot, will lead the stadium in a 60-second round of applause in his honour. A fitting tribute because Conway, like the league he once graced, left an indelible mark.

 

* Rock ‘n’ Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League” by Ian Plenderleith is available at all good booksellers now.