Some books to consider for Christmas

It’s normally on this day of the year – 8th December – that shopping for Christmas moves up a few gears. In that spirit, here are a few suggestions on books to consider as gifts this Christmas. The books, eight in all, that I’ve included here relate either to Mayo GAA, the GAA or Mayo more generally.

If considered as a Venn diagram, only one of the books I’m looking at here lies within the intersection of those three topics so it makes sense to start with that one. The book in question is, of course, Mayo – a Biography in Nine Lives by Declan Varley (Hero Books).

The story Declan tells in his book is one familiar to many Mayo supporters, of ultimate success many years ago, so far back now that those triumphs are slipping from living memory, and the more recent succession of All-Ireland final defeats, in matches at Croke Park that so many of us recall all too clearly.

The device Declan uses to weave his story of Mayo’s footballers and those who followed their exploits down the decades is to place within his narrative nine of the most prominent players the county has produced over the last ninety years or so.

Starting with Mayo’s first All-Ireland winning captain, Seamus O’Malley, and ending with Tom Parsons, a fans’ favourite even before he suffered that gut-wrenching injury in 2018, Declan counts down the decades vividly in the company of his chosen nine players, as well as a number of walk-on characters. This is a book that rattles along at a nice clip and it’ll be warmly welcomed as a present by Mayo supporters everywhere.

Having spent time myself rummaging around for facts and figures on Mayo GAA matches for the blog’s results archive, books that involve a significant amount of research are, to my mind, always worthy of the highest respect. Two such titles that concern the GAA are included in this selection, as well as one with a broader Mayo-related theme, which I’ll come onto in a bit.

A Place to Play by Humphrey Kelleher (Merrion Press) is a dazzling triumph. The author previously published an extremely informative book on GAA cups and trophies, GAA Family Silver, and in this one he looks at 101 GAA grounds.

But he doesn’t just look at them. For each playing venue – which are spread across the 32 counties, as well as roaming as far as London and New York – the author includes an aerial photograph, for which he had to master drone photography, as well as a wealth of information about the ground’s history and development, including its vital statistics: i.e. location, when it opened, who it is named for, pitch dimensions, capacity and so forth.

All of these details are enclosed in what really is a beautiful publication, a book that will remain a treasured possession for me in the years ahead and, I’ve no doubt, will be a title that will be used for reference purposes again and again.

Facts, figures and a whole load more relating to the hunt for All-Ireland glory are contained in Chasing Sam Maguire by Dermot Reilly and Colm Keys (The O’Brien Press). The period covered by the book is 1928 – when the Sam Maguire Cup was first contested – to 1977 so it encompasses the first fifty years in which Sam was the reward for All-Ireland glory. (Part 2 to come, perhaps, once the 2027 final is decided?)

There’s a chapter for each year of the fifty covered, with impressive detail on that year’s Championship, with further information on the final itself, including team details, with players and their clubs listed, as well as relevant statistics on the final. This book is also set to be an important reference point for many, myself included, in the years ahead.

GAA history, specifically of the Galway kind, is well documented in Seán Purcell and Frank Stockwell by Jim Carney (KPW Print Management). Tuam’s ‘Terrible Twins’ enjoyed many days of glory together and in this book Jim Carney brings those times back to life, in the process recalling so many other famous names in Galway football circles of that period.

The book also features a wealth of photographs, many of which haven’t been published before, and it’s a publication that will be of interest to many, not just the Galway contingent who are active here on the blog.

Staying on the topic of photographs, In All Kinds of Weather by Henry Wills (Western People) is a veritable treasure trove of pictures capturing slices of life in Mayo and around over several decades. The faces featured are both famous and unknown, the photos too range from highly memorable ones – including THAT one of Willie Joe soaring skywards in Croke Park against Dublin in 1985 and the one of a joyous James Horan (the original one) in his beloved Knock Airport the day of the inaugural flights in October that same year – to scenes of ordinary life.

This is the perfect coffee table book, a title that could be leafed through for a few minutes or a few hours, though, once you get stuck into it, the time you’re likely to have it in your hands will surely be the latter rather than the former.

Another book that falls into that sort of category, while also featuring quite exhaustive research is On This Day in Mayo by Máirtín Ó Maicín (Mayo Books Press). As the author explained at the Dublin launch of the book a few weeks back, this project was conceived during Covid, a time well suited to the kind of digging that needed to be done to unearth the enormous and enormously varied detail it contains.

The hook in this one is that there’s a Mayo-related entry for every day (including 29th April so it’s 366 days) of the year. A few of these, unsurprisingly, involve Mayo GAA but history, politics, religion and culture also feature prominently, with entries that relate to events that occurred back as far as the 12th century to as recently as April this year all finding a place within its pages.

To end, there are two paperbacks that are worth a mention, both of which made waves in different ways this year, and both of which offer fresh new insights into Gaelic games from the playing perspective.

The first of these is This is the Life by Ciarán Murphy (Penguin), which listeners to the podcast will know all about, as we had Ciarán on a while back to chat about the book and some of the major themes in it. Most people will know the author as one of the Second Captains crew and through his writings with the Irish Times but the main topic of the book is Ciaran’s playing career as a GAA club footballer, both in his native Milltown in Galway and in Dublin.

In this respect, it’s a well-timed book. The club scene will always play second fiddle to the inter-county behemoth but the rejigging of the GAA’s calendar and, with it, the introduction of the split season has given the club game room to breathe like it’s never had before, ushering in far greater interest in club matches and the whole club scene more generally.

As Ciaran explains, when you get right into the grassroots level of the GAA you encounter a very different world to the high profile environment at elite level. It’s also a world where most GAA players operate and so this book offers a timely reminder of how the other 99% live and play.

Last but by no means least is The Grass Ceiling by Eimear Ryan (Penguin). This is a fascinating book at so many levels, featuring as it does an account of being a female participant in a male-dominated sporting world, written by an author who played camogie at inter-county level for Tipperary and is a published novelist.

At one level, this is just another player’s story but, while it is that, it’s so much more as well. Eimear doesn’t place too much stress on the gender question where it comes to playing Gaelic games but she doesn’t have to.

The issues facing women in sport are woven in an understated way into the narrative, so skilfully that you often don’t notice them there but they’re there alright. There’s also plenty of humour and much keen observation about the trials and tribulations of being a woman involved in team sport and more than once this male reader was made to stop in his tracks and re-read what he’d just digested.

This really is a book that forces the reader to stop and think – specifically, to think differently – about a topic he or she might feel is a familiar one. Projected through the very different lens that Eimear employs, the familiar becomes both unsettling and, ultimately, uplifting.

At a time when women’s sport is finally going mainstream, this title deserves the widest possible audience. It’s a book that will, in time, be remembered as a landmark publication in Irish sport.

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