A very interesting look at GAA life on the local level, notable for the darker aspects of the game that it presents.
This is going to be a very focused review, so I’ll get some of the basics out of the way now. Christy O’Connor has created a very readable account of his association with the St Josephs Doora-Barefield club that is to the point and very accessible to read, even for someone who has little grounding in the sport of hurling. A goalkeeper and member of the team that won the All-Ireland club title in 1999, O’Connor weaves a narrative centred around a club that is slowly dying after its time on the top, culminating in the emotional roller coaster of the 2009 season.
It’s paced well, varying between look backs at the clubs past when appropriate and first person accounts of matches in the present. It has a very rural tone at times, as any GAA based media tends to have, but that is not a negative, not here anyway.
This is a story of a club, not just a team and O’Connor devotes much of his time to discussing the local area and how the club tries to integrate itself the community. Nothing written here will be a surprise to those who live within the vicinity of a GAA club, but it does outline very clearly how the GAA has become an integral part of life in many parts of Ireland, through the simple method of just being a mainstay of social interaction in a community. O’Connor’s club finds itself becoming part of a suburban sprawl and, in a time when the GAA must compete seriously with other sports, does its best to be there for local youth and others, as both a sporting outlet and a place where they can simply be rather than on the streets. At times O’Connor does seem to exaggerate the importance of the club in this respect, but it is an interesting look at the multi-layered approach that some local GAA organisations try to take.
But it is another aspect where O’Connor does his subject no favours, probably unintentionally. In discussing the actual state of the game of hurling in the modern age, O’Connor shines on light on some very negative aspects. In no particular order:
– There is a very large amount of deception practiced by players in relation to officials, by the authors own admission. I don’t mean simulation (though that does happen) but more trying to influence the decisions of referee’s and umpires through verbal bullying and tirades. The book itself opens on an instance of the author, knowing otherwise, telling an umpire that a conceded goal was a “square ball” and there are numerous other examples in the text of trying to get ref’s on one teams side or against another.
– There is a large amount of gamesmanship in the sport, through intimidation, both physical and verbal, of other players both on and off the pitch. Cursing at the opposing team is a part of any sport, but the reported behaviour of one Anthony Daly in a game described goes beyond that and into a totally dishonourable intimidation campaign made against younger players on the opposing side. In a game marked by physicality, the mental battle is also being fought in as rough and unpalatable a way as possible.
– Then there is actual violence, both the spontaneous and premeditated variety. In the first case it comes from teams deliberately going out of their way to antagonize and provoke opposition into starting a physical altercation, the other is the targeting of certain players, whether it is known they are injured or just an important part of the opposition team, as part of an overall game plan. “Putting the fear of God into them” is the poetic way of saying “hit that guy hard so he’s gets injured or scared”.
I suppose I could be accused of some naiveté for being a little shocked about all this. For the record, I knew full well before reading this account that such things happened, but it is surprising to see it laid out in such a fashion and for little to no commentary to be given about it. O’Connor reports such things honestly and as he seems them: an ingrained and crucial part of the game. I suppose I will remember this aspect of The Club the next time someone extols the virtue of GAA sports as “purer” and better than, say, soccer and rugby. Soccer might have a disturbing degree of injury simulation, rugby has its safety issues, but GAA has its own negative aspects, which it seems to have no interest in clamping down in at all. Thuggish behaviour is thuggish behaviour regardless of the sport being played.
Other things of note, from a negative point of view, come from the authors own prejudices and commentary on other matters. O’Connor may not realise just how badly he looks from some parts of the text.
He exhibits a constant complaining attitude towards the youth members of the club and the area in general, for a lack of commitment to the hurling team and the GAA. This goes into strange territory when he criticises young men who choose to focus on college exams rather then make long treks across the country in order to train with the team. When it comes to those who are under 21, O’Connor has no sympathy for those who desire a life to the detriment of their local club, lambasting any young player who fails to turn up to training even in the depths of Spring.
An undercurrent of this is O’Connor’s view of gaelic football, the sport that is on the rise in the club to the detriment of hurling. Many of the young players seem to be erring towards the larger round ball when it comes to GAA, and O’Connor is unjustifiably critical of those who turn their back on hurling in favour of the other game. This results in an extraordinarily biased tirade against that sport in general, comparing it disfavourably to hurling in terms of fitness and general skill requirement. O’Connor’s words on gaelic foot ball are borderline insulting, and indicative of bitter feelings that come from seeing the hurling scene die out in the area.
The core story of the book revolves around the death of a club mainstay and major presence, combined with other losses in the form of the local parish priest and the author’s baby daughter, who dies shortly after birth (the description of which is utterly heart wrenching). This creates an atmosphere in the club of sentimentality, resulting in a commitment from leaders of the team to try and win the Clare county title in their memory.
But it doesn’t go according to plan. O’Connor is a member of an older generation who tries to use the situation to inspire others, especially the younger members of the club. But it doesn’t really work, as they struggle to up their game throughout the season. It moves into genuine “guilting” territory as we near the conclusion, as the memory of the deceased men is brought up again and again.
For the older crowd, it is a necessary medium for focusing grief, a very interesting part of the story, but the message seems to be lost on others. O’Connor and others are guilty of a serious misuse of sentiment when it comes to attempted motivation, especially with the younger members of the club who lack the lifetime connection to really make it work. This is something that O’Connor acknowledges at points, but does paper over elsewhere. His own obsession with title glory guides his hand, and in the absence of anything else working (like training or new players) he tends to revert to melodramatic speeches and invocations of the dead.
The bid to win the title in memory of those passed enters a bit more of a disturbing epoch, when club and county legend Jamsie O’Connor, the authors brother, is convinced to return from an injury enforced retirement to play for the club again. The result is an embarrassing disaster, as the man is clearly unfit and incapable of playing hurling at the level required anymore, leaving the squad shortly after re-joining. The entire episode is damaging to the club and its season. This is a pained moment for the author, who takes his share of the blame for the debacle, letting his mourning and drive mask the reality of the situation in front of him.
As you may guess it is a depressing narrative at times, an inversion of the classic sports story. St Joseph’s face into a crunch knock out game against their biggest rivals, who had beaten them convincingly the previous season. O’Connor spends several chapters building up to this game, the training, the tactics, the attempted healing of squad and managerial fractions, the sentimentally related to the deceased. The club and team build themselves up for what they believe will be an equal contest that they will be capable of winning, focusing on positives and fostering team belief.
They end up being convincingly beaten by double scores, outdone by a team that is fitter, less reliant on old stars, and has a better tactical game. O’Connor himself is brought off injured, learning of the result from a hospital trolley, an image that sums up the book as a whole. A good mental approach to a game is important, but struggles against a team that is simply better.
Overall, it is hard to see what kind of message O’Connor is trying to send out to the world through The Club. I suppose it is that hurling, for all the pain it causes (in many different ways) is an addictive sport, one that the author is, despite entering his 40’s, unable to turn away from (to the detriment of younger players, like the club’s sub keeper, whom O’Connor praises but continually keeps on the sidelines as part of his own obsession). But it is also a message of the pragmatic nature of the modern GAA club, one that tends to have serious disputes about management, tactics and internal politics, and that can easily struggle under the weight of many small flaws. O’Connor ends his narrative on as positive a note as he can, but the future for the hurling side of The Club is up in the air on the final page.
A very good read on an aspect of Irish life that many might not be fully aware of, The Club gives us an insight into the local GAA scene that should prove interesting ton those who love sport and those who don’t.