Monday, March 01, 2010

The Best GAA Books

Croke Park is all well and good, but this is the real heartland of the GAAAn Spailpín is flicking through The GAA: A People’s History these evenings, while listening to the spring rain fall outside. It really is a beautiful book. It’s put together in the same style as Diarmuid Ferriter’s Judging Dev – facsimiles of contemporary documents woven in through the main narrative. A lovely addition to the canon.

The canon of GAA books is not as rich as a 125 year history would suggest it might be. There are lots of reasons for that, and we could spend ages talking about them, but one of the biggest problems has to be that Irish people hate, hate, hate going on the record.

The Béaloideas, or oral tradition, is one that suits Irish post-colonial psyche well. And this is why the bubbling brew of the Championship becomes the thin gruel of Official GAA Prose. We like telling stories until the notebook comes out, and then it’s strictly a case of name, rank and serial number, and not one damn thing else.

As such, when a really good GAA book comes along it’s doubly notable. Firstly, because it’s there at all, and adds to a very slim canon, and secondly, like all great literature, it takes on a life of its own to place a sport in its wider context as regards the great world around it.

One of the best GAA books is Breandán Ó hEithir’s Over the Bar, which was published twenty-six years ago, to coincide with the GAA’s centenary. It is extremely doubtful if the book received an imprimatur from Croke Park as the curmudgeonly Ó hEithir was nobody’s insider and called things like he saw them, a sure fire way to make enemies at any time in Ireland. But Ó hEithir’s great love for the games shines through and the book is an essential testament to what the GAA was like in its formative years and what the people were like to built it, before the days of corporate sponsorship, games development officers or celebrity management who don’t get paid at all, oh no, love of the game, that’s what it’s all about, love of the game. Just cover me petrol, like.

Three of the best books on the GAA were published in the past ten years. Firstly, Denis Walsh expertly chronicled the most exciting decade in Championship hurling ever in Hurling: The Revolution Years. Secondly, Keith Duggan wrote his great threnody of Mayo football, House of Pain. And finally, Michael Foley published what is the best of all three, Kings of September, about how Offaly denied Kerry five All-Ireland football titles in a row in 1982.

Walsh’s Hurling was revolutionary in itself in its breadth of research. GAA people are not comfortable going on the record, and for Walsh to conduct the amount of research he conducted and get so many people to tell him inside stories was phenomenal. When students of the games in one hundred years time want to know what hurling was like in the 1990s Walsh’s book will be the definitive text.

Keith Duggan is the best sportswriter in Ireland right now, but he was bitterly unlucky to hitch his star to Mayo. House of Pain is essential for Mayo football fans, and required reading for GAA people, but for Duggan’s book to have really taken off he needed Mayo to deliver. The narrative needed Mayo to make a prison break. We’re still waiting for the sound of the file on the bars.

Michael Foley had the most raw materials. He had one of the most famous All-Ireland finals of them all, charismatic men on both sides, and his story was set in the Ireland of the 1980s, when running a GAA team was a lot less sophisticated than it is now. Kings of September isn’t just a history of one of the great moments in Ireland’s sporting life. It’s also a history of a time in Irish life that is now gone. An innocent time when, when Eugene McGee needed a player not to emigrate, the player did not find a job as a games development officer but had to feed McGee’s cattle at night while McGee himself was off sorting out other fellas. Should be running the country, that man.

Finally, in the light of all the GAA autobiographies that are written purely to cash in on the Christmas market, when daughters buy gifts for their fathers because they recognise the name irrespective of the worth of the book, it’s only right and fitting that one autobiography be singled out as having a nobler calling. A book that was not written for cash-in, but because a man wanted to be true to his place, people and heritage.

Lá an Phaoraigh isn’t the best book ever written and it could have done with a little more editing and shortening, but Seán Óg de Paor wrote his book in Irish to be true to who he is an Irishman and deserves all praise for that. The Irish is good, without too much to throw the tyro, and for those who feel like brushing up on the first language with Seachtain na Gaeilge nearly here, you could certainly do an awful lot worse than Lá an Phaoraigh.

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