Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kings of September, by Michael Foley

Na Fíréin i 1982Keith Duggan remarks in his masterful study of Mayo football, House of Pain, that it is a pity John Maughan and John O’Mahony were born in the same generation. It is just as much a pity that Duggan’s book and Michael Foley’s Kings of September were published in the same autumn, and for Foley’s book to pip Duggan to the coveted Boyle Sports Sports Book of the Year title. Foley’s is the rightful winner; in craft and skill the writers are equal, but Duggan’s canvas is the Dadaist struggle of Mayo to once more win the Sam McGuire Cup, while Foley’s art comes from the classics of the long-haired Greeks themselves, and the deathless struggle of men to become gods and claim the very field of heaven. Foley calls the Muse to sing, and then stands well back as the day is recalled when some gods fell, some gods were born and some gods were destined to rise again.

In telling the story of how Kerry and Offaly came to contest the 1982 All-Ireland Final, how the game was played and what its aftermath was, Foley has all the ingredients of classical epic, not least in his cast of characters. The greatest of all these characters is Eugene McGee himself, a remarkable man without whom Offaly could never have risen to the heights of glory they achieved. Nowadays, McGee is simply the straight-shooting pundit of the Irish Independent and Setanta Sports, the last man in Ireland with sufficient credibility to be able to damn a player in so rich a phrase as a “fancy Dan.” Foley’s book is an important reminder to the nation that McGee is not just another talking head, but one of the greatest Gaelic Football coaches of all time. Like all men touched with genius, McGee can be prickly – many of the Offaly players remark on how they never really knew him, and still don’t – but McGee took those men from the bottom of the Leinster Championship barrel to Ardán Uí hÓgáin itself, and the retelling of how he did that is fascinating in the extreme.

Not least when we consider against whom it was done. Much has been said and written about Kerry of the 1970s and 80s, but it’s remarkable to note, reading Michael Foley’s book, how much they suffered by losing that 1982 final. Even now, complete strangers abuse Mikey Sheehy in the street about missing the penalty in the 1982 final, twenty-five years ago. Mikey Sheehy has eight All-Ireland senior medals – how much more does he have to prove?

It’s fascinating also to consider that the defeat to Offaly in 1982 may have done more for the lustre of that Kerry team, looking back, than winning a five-in-a-row would have done. Had they won the five-in-a-row, they would have done something that had never been done before, certainly. Had they won the five-in-a-row, Kerry would have been gods, but the loss in 1982 and Kerry’s subsequent return showed us that gods can fall to, but falling does mean that you never get up again. To come back from Séamus Darby and 1982 and, nearly worse again, Tadhgie Murphy and 1983, gives the Kerry team of the 1970s and 80s a lustre greater than the five-in-a-row would have bestowed.

No talk of gods in a football sense is complete without mention of Offaly’s own peerless Matt Connor, and what happened to Connor in 1983, crippled on Christmas Day in a car accident, is one of the most moving passages in the book. Connor’s accident deeply affected the entire Offaly team – Eugene McGee’s horror at Connor’s accident was plain when he was interviewed about it twenty years later on Laochra Gael, and Offaly players in the book mention how very upsetting and unsettling they found Connor’s accident. It was brave of Foley to take on the subject when so many people find it so distressing, but without bravery this book could not have been so honestly written.

Kings of September’s final gift is Foley’s ability to contextualise the game in its place and time, the grim Ireland of the 1980s. If there is one single vignette that shows how much the country has changed, it’s when Seán Lowry talks of the people back home, watching on TV or listening to the radio. Modern GAA commentary never talks of the people back home, because it’s now taken for granted that you have enough money to bring kids and caboodle to Dublin for long and expensive match weekends; in Ireland of the 1980s, that was a luxury that was not easy to afford. Conspicuous spending is what it’s all about in our times; if it’s Saturday it must be Electric Picnic, and if Sunday, it must be Croker. Anybody sitting at home low on bobs is now some sort of louse or bum. Are we a richer or poorer people for it, I wonder?

Denis Walsh’s Hurling: The Revolution Years revolutionised the way books on Irish sports are written, and now Foley has taken it a step further. The prospect of further books of this ilk, the great events of Irish sports placed in their place and time, John Pullin’s England arriving at Lansdowne Road in 1973, the summer of 1987, when Stephen and Lydia Roche were King and Queen of Ireland, even Saipan itself. It’s a thrilling prospect, and Kings of September has led the way. It’s essential reading.

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