Maybe it’s because I was in Kilkenny again for the last couple of nights, but Tom Humphries – as he tends to – struck a note with me as I read his Locker Room column from today ‘s Irish Times while on the bus back to Dublin.
Let me start by making it very clear – I am a massive fan of Tom Humphries. Back in 1995 when Santa didn’t have any copies of the Buster annual left, he substituted me his book on The Legend of Jack Charlton, ably filling the void left behind by a nine year old’s intoxication from World Cup USA 1994 and his country’s failure to make the next European Championships. In 2003 the family holiday was supplemented by a copy of Laptop Dancing and the Nanny-Goat Mambo – one of the best examples of sports journalism I’ve ever had the privilege to read, unique in its ability to make me want the lifestyle of a sporting hack, even as bleak as the Irish Times‘ existence was in 2002 – even if the book was my Dad’s. His ghostwriting on Niall Quinn’s autobiography wasn’t bad either. All this, and the man one ran for sabbatical election in UCD Students’ Union. You can’t not like him.
There was something today that unsettled me, though. Tom is a staunch lover of gaelic games – you can tell from his writing that he hails the sports more than any other. His work is dripping with the staunch tribalism of GAA life – he even wrote a book on the Dublin/Kerry rivalry of the late 70’s-early 80’s. Today, though, in writing an otherwise illuminating metacolumn – 1,000 words about writing 1,000 words – on how sport is an escape from the real world (a quality I attest to it more than others; I like the thrill of going to Old Trafford but if United lose, I don’t exactly turn suicidal). In doing so, he consciously trivialised sporting institutions from all codes, including the currently striking Cork hurlers:
What will happen if the current scandalous treatment they are enduring is left unremedied and the Cork hurlers remain on strike indefinitely and become a tourist attraction. Seán Óg is no doubt chillingly aware of the mine workers in Fiji who went on strike in 1991 over low pay and bad conditions. After 13 years the Fijian High Court upheld a previous ruling and the striking miners were officially fired but over 300 of them consider themselves on strike to this day.
Their battle cry is Na Ma’e! Na Ma’e! (We Stand Until We Die!) The words, incidentally, are equally inaudible to Frank Murphy in either language. It’s an appalling vista but there’s great feature material in the Cork strike entering its 13th year and a very elderly Frank, kept alive like old Francisco Franco down in Spain, ceremonially slamming the door once again on a group of irate middle-aged men in retro Cork tracksuits.
That’s a step too far, for plain reason: everything else he mentions in example is a professional game of some sort, but the idea that sport is a getaway from real life is null when it comes to gaelic games. Not even null, it’s completely inverted – people in gaelic games use the other aspects of real life as escapism from the life-gobbling quality of The Gah.
Whatever about the reference to Fijian strikers (I mean, seriously. Funny? Sure. Relevant? Nah. Borderline racist? Definitely.), taking the piss out of people – whether its on either side of the strike; for safety’s sake Tom does both sides – isn’t on when it’s a strike like this one. It’d be one thing to take the piss out of Andy Reid and Giovanni Trapattoni, but Seán Óg Ó hAilpín and Frank Murphy aren’t having a professional dispute, or anything of the sort – they’re fighting over an ideology; something that infects their very being, or something as basically constituent to ones being as their homeloand. It’s not about sport, it’s about life. Whatever players take the field the next time Cork fulfil a fixture, an actual game will be a distraction, more than welcome, to those who are caught up in the current dispute. It’s a getaway – but the disputes ongoing are even more of a sport in Cork than the playing is.
That’s not to say that I think the Cork dispute is right – far from it. For one thing, under the terms of the agreement their footballing counterparts  made last year, the players weren’t to go on strike again. But out of the whole furore that died not even a year ago, the players earned representation on the selection committees that appointed intercounty coaching teams. Indeed, two of them sat on the committee that reappointed Gerald McCarthy (who has been coaching the Cork hurlers on-and-off since before many of his charges were born!) – and said nothing at the meeting that formally reappointed him. It wasn’t until afterwards that they went “Hang on, wait, we didn’t actually want him…” and the whole thing went south.
Regardless. Bill Shankly once famous declared that football wasn’t “a matter of life and death… it’s much more important than that”. When people are fighting for what they truly believe in, for a hobby, for a pastime, for a passion: that’s bigger than life or death. That’s about being. In Ireland of all places, sport isn’t a getaway sometimes. Nobody – not even the magnificent Tom Humphries – should let themselves forget.