We’re as close as makes no difference to the mid-point of this long, frozen (and it froze fairly seriously in these parts last night) inter-county closed season (why does it have to be so long, by the way?) so almost the only thing left to talk about is this year’s crop of GAA books. Even that doesn’t look to be a vintage one, though there’s time yet between now and Christmas for this to change.
The one I’ve been through already isn’t a new one but it is a new updated edition of a book first published almost twenty years ago. Out of Our Skins first hit the streets in the early Nineties, when Liam Hayes was approaching the end of his playing days with Meath. It broke new ground at the time, in that it was the first time that a player had published a book like this while still plying his trade at inter-county level. The fact that Hayes wrote it himself does, I reckon, mean that he retains a unique selling point in this area as invariably pretty much every other Gaelic player’s memoir since has been the work of one ghostwriter or another.
While I have vivid memories of Liam Hayes as a combative and stylish midfielder on the Meath side that emerged in the mid-to-late 1980s as the country’s top footballing force in the aftermath of the Kingdom’s collapse and would, like most others, know him as the often quite potty GAA analyst and opinion writer, I can’t say that I had ever seen Out of Our Skins until I picked it up in a bookshop the other week. That’s not as surprising as it may seem, as the book was published while I was living in London and so it’s little wonder that I missed it during those snatched trips home during that time.
I was still living in Dublin in 1987 when that Meath team claimed their first All-Ireland but was gone by the time they secured their second one twelve months later. As a result, the book became more interesting to me as the story progressed into that personal blind spot period, in particular where he covers the famous four-match joust with Dublin in 1991, which I saw nothing of at first-hand.
When I returned to the country in 1996, it was a very different place to that which I’d left eight years previously and one of the changes I immediately noticed was that the whole style of writing about Gaelic games had altered enormously too. Out had gone the largely matter-of-fact reportage I was used to, replaced by a tonnage of moody, personalised and – let’s be honest – rather pretentious stuff that was centred on individual players rather than the games they were playing.
I can now see, having read Out of Our Skins, that Hayes’ book must have been a significant driver in the development of this new genre. His account of his time as a Meath player is searingly honest and when he’s doling it out – which he spends most of the book doing – he doesn’t let anybody, least of all himself, off the hook. The sombre, present-tense, first-person narrative now forms a core part of every GAA ghostwriter’s kitbag, as does the background theme of this-is-all-one-massive-pain-in-the-hole-but-one-that-I’m-driven-to-continue-with, but it’s clear to me now that this template must surely owe the bulk of its origins to Liam Hayes.
As such, even though the style does grate a bit, it’s an engaging read and his unsparing account of his brother’s tragic suicide adds considerable depth and feeling to the story. Likewise, the new chapter at the end of the book – where he talks about the end of his inter-county career and how his life, and with it his attitude to the Meath team, has changed in the years since – is nicely juxtaposed with the earlier material. When they’re in full flow, we often make the mistake that sporting battles matter more than they really do (I’m first with my hands up in this respect) but, by speaking the way he does about life as an ex-player, Hayes puts these old struggles into their more proper context. At the end of the day, it’s simply fatuous to claim that football (whatever the code) is more important than life, regardless of how fired up we may be when the action is in full flow.
Indeed, recent events in Liam Hayes’ own life bear this out. On a Late, Late Show appearance a few weeks back, he announced that he’s currently battling cancer – a development which has occurred since the updated book went to press – and anyone who saw him on TV that night could not be but impressed at his fortitude and positive demeanour in the face of what can only be a hugely frightening and all-consuming personal crisis.
Liam Hayes is a big man with big opinions and, with the country driven into the state it’s in by a bunch of small-minded clowns, we need more of his type in Ireland right now. While, to my mind, Out of Our Skins has its faults and the style of writing isn’t entirely my cup of tea, I’d still say that it’s well worth a read. I also hope Liam makes a full and speedy recovery and that he has many more years to come regaling all and sundry with his often quixotic but always entertaining opinions on Gaelic football.