There’s just nine days left now until the day itself and Santie is already heading for the runway so the pre-Christmas chaos is about to become, well, a bit more chaotic, certainly in these parts. Which means that I’ve only got time to talk about two more books I’ve read – an old one and a new one. Or, putting it another way, a red one and a blue one.
I was in two minds about whether or not I would bother buying Donal Óg Cusack’s Come What May but the other week I finally picked up Dessie Farrell’s Tangled Up in Blue, which had been languishing on my shelves after I’d bought it second-hand sometime last year and so the Corkman’s effort seemed an appropriate kind of bolshie companion piece to Dessie’s tome. Seeing as it had won that Sports Book of the Year prize, I also felt it was maybe worth a look so, on the last book splurge I was on, into the trolley it went.
It’s a bit of an obvious statement to say that Donal Óg and Dessie are controversial figures within the GAA; indeed, it’s not stretching things to say that they have become figures of hate for many within the organisation in recent years due to their high-profile fronting of the GPA. While it’s always easy to portray certain individuals in any dispute as cartoon baddies – especially in situations where the shit starts to fly, as has occurred between the GAA and the nascent players’ organisation over the last few years – it’s always equally worth bearing in mind that very few things in life can justifiably be painted in black and white. In this respect, both books were illuminating in helping to understand both men’s perspective on the players’ rights issue and their motivations in pursuing so relentlessly this controversial agenda with GAA officialdom.
From my reading of both titles a few points leap out. First, there is no disputing that both Farrell and Cusack are committed GAA men who have given much down the years, not just to their respective counties but also within their local clubs. Both have excelled at the highest level within their respective codes and they’ve both given much in pursuit of success, both at club and county level, with this effort reaping rewards at All-Ireland level for both of them. As a result, both men are entitled to look any other GAA person squarely in the eye in terms of effort expended and achievements fulfilled on the organisation’s playing fields.
It would appear, then (at least this is my reading of it) that what propelled Dessie and Donal Óg (and others, such as Kieran McGeeney) to take to the barricades was their pursuit of higher standards, as well as a deeply-held sense of frustration about how players were being treated within the GAA and, in particular, by County Board officials. They became convinced that the GAA world needed to change and that they were the lads who would make that change happen. Both books – Dessie’s focusing on the establishment and development of the GPA as an organisation and Donal Óg’s in his recounting of the pivotal Cork disputes – fill in a fair bit of detail from their side of the story on that stormy period in the GAA’s recent history.
What’s striking (pardon the pun) is the way in which that red-rag-to-a-bull issue of pay-for-play never really comes to the fore in either book. In Dessie’s case, though, this is surely just a case of timing, as the players’ grants issue only came to the boil after his book was already out but it is still noteworthy that he hasn’t all that much to say in the book about financial payments to players. Donal Óg hardly mentions it at all.
I’ve always felt – and have argued here in the past – that the pay-for-play issue has been well overcooked by the GPA’s detractors and while you could argue that it’s not surprising that both Dessie and Donal Óg would want to downplay the grubby issue of money in telling their side of the story, I’m not convinced that financial payments has been the driving issue behind the GPA’s growth at all. (This is aside from the practicalities and the economics of establishing a semi-professional inter-county scene, which wouldn’t have flown in the boom years never mind now).
Any fair-minded assessment of the players’ agenda should, I think, look at what the two lads have said they were after and what was included in the recent deal between the GAA and the GPA. Both Farrell and Cusack state squarely that their agenda was focused primarily on securing better facilities and support systems for players and that, ultimately, the GPA should become an integral part of the GAA. To my mind at least, that sounds awfully like the deal recently concluded with HQ and so it’s hard to understand the often rather shrill criticisms that have been levelled at the GPA concerning their bona fides.
But, of course, neither of the two books are solely about the players’ rights issue and the coverage that both got when they were published focused instead on the deeply personal details contained inside the titles’ respective covers. In Dessie’s case, it’s the collapse of his marriage and the struggles he has had in keeping his personal life on track at a time when he was rarely out of the limelight. Donal Óg talks frankly about his sexuality and the difficulties he faced when it came to the point where he felt compelled to tell those around him about the situation. His recounting of the strong support he received from those close to him is uplifting, though this is counterbalanced when he talks about the vitriolic, personal abuse hurled at him one day by a guy with a megaphone standing behind the goalposts at Semple Stadium. Eugene McGee would, I think, have done well to take that particular vignette into account in his rather naïve piece the other day where he contrasted the chummy banter one encounters on the terraces with the hate-filled bile he claims exists on the internet. See what I mean? Life is rarely black and white.
As I noted last month when reviewing Mickey Harte’s book, the way in which any GAA individual’s story gets told depends entirely on that individual’s choice of ghostwriter and this fact is illustrated emphatically when Farrell and Cusack’s books are compared. Dessie used Sean Potts for his and what he got was a fairly straightforward narrative which largely hangs together, though it could, I thought, have done with slightly tighter editing. Donal Óg’s book is a different matter entirely. Unlike Dessie, he doesn’t provide his ghost with any co-author credits but his fulsome praise for one T Humphries in the introduction makes it clear who was at the typewriter for this one, as does the extremely annoying writing style.
I know Tom Humphries is a well-regarded sports journalist (and good luck to him for that) but I’ve never warmed to his style of writing and all that’s irritating about his technique leaks into the book’s narrative in the most transparent way. The net result is that one is painfully aware throughout that although the voice is ostensibly that of a lithe hurler from Cloyne, its cadence is unmistakably that of a fat bloke from Marino.
What really irks me about this writing style – of which Tom isn’t, it must be said, the sole culprit though he is the most high-profile one – is the way that the language is peppered through with all manner of country colloquialisms which, I suppose, are meant to add local colour to the piece in question. In other words, if it’s a piece on Kerry, stand back and let all those ‘yerras’ through. Tom doesn’t stint in ladling this stuff on in Donal Óg’s book, with the result that what you’re reading is caricature Corkman stuff, replete with the frequent deployment of ‘fierce’ as an adverb, wall-to-wall ‘fellas’ and the like, like.
Had Sean Potts taken this approach, then Dessie’s tale would have been recounted in the vernacular of Dubbelin in de rere oul’ toimes. It would, in other words, have looked and sounded stupid, which is exactly how Donal Óg’s Humphried voice does. This is a pity, as his story is an interesting one and it didn’t need the stage-Corkman cladding given to it. How it got to be awarded Sports Book of the Year is beyond me.
This large caveat aside, I still thought it was worthwhile reading Donal Óg’s book and would recommend that anyone who does so should also try and root out Dessie’s earlier title at the same time. Anyone who takes a dim view of the pair – and there are plenty of GAA folk in this bracket – would, I think, benefit from at least hearing the other side of the story. You may not end up agreeing with everything they have to say but it will still provide some perspective on where these two intensely driven GAA men have been coming from in recent years and where, as a result of the change that they’ve helped to engineer, the association could well be heading into the future.