When I did a review of a few books last week, John pointed me in the direction of The Best of the West by John Scally (The Collins Press, €24.95) and I’m glad he did as it’s a book I’d heartily recommend. It’s a big, generous hardback title (almost of the coffee table variety) containing loads of photos. That gets me on its side straight away – all non-fiction books, whatever the topic, should, I think, be full of snaps – but there’s plenty more to like about the book too.
It’s basically a set of pen-pictures of the many stars of Gaelic games produced by counties in Connacht down the years. Needless to say, any such list is hugely subjective, a point conceded by the author in the book’s introduction but it’s a difficulty that he resolves in quite an elegant way, as he decided to concentrate mainly (though not exclusively) on those players whom he had interviewed himself. And, as will become obvious when you thumb through the book, he’s done an impressive amount of interviewing in preparation for writing the book. In a number of cases, for example the great Enda Colleran, the player involved is no longer with us. In a number of instances where this is the case, he makes clever use of one player’s memory of a deceased teammate or rival, with Dermot Earley’s poignant memories of the late, great John Morley being a good example of this, to flesh out the character of the departed player.
From a Mayo perspective, the chapters on Henry Kenny, Sean and Dermot Flanagan, Peter Ford, my own great hero Willie Joe Padden, Willie McGee, Martin Carney, Kevin McStay, Liam McHale, Kevin O’Neill, John Morley, TJ Kilgallon and last, but certainly by no means least, John Maughan, will be of especial interest. In truth, however, I was as interested in reading about the exploits of those other sons of Connacht – such as Packy McGarty, Bill Carlos and The Master himself, Sean Purcell – as I was hearing again about our own lads. All of the players’ tales that are recounted in this book are well worthy of the telling.
There’s some wonderful detail in there too, such as the original typed letter written in New York by the Gaelic games journalist John D Hickey, where his enthusiasm about having witnessed a virtuoso performance by Sean Purcell, who was playing for Galway against New York in Gaelic Park, comes across as fresh as it must have done when first written over sixty years ago. Further back in time, in the chapter on Henry Kenny, a copy of the letter sent by the county board to each member of the Mayo team prior to their championship meeting with Galway in 1937 shows that the world of the inter-county footballer then was one that was aeons away from iced baths, cyrotherapy and pay-for-play.
The book contains some wonderful anecdotes, the details of which I won’t go into as it would spoil the fun somewhat. All I will say is watch out for Liam McHale’s story about PJ Loftus, the priest and the death of Princess Diana, which is truly priceless.
The one slight criticism I’d have about the book is the way it tails off towards the end. The author decided, incorrectly in my view, to include hurling within his scope and so there’s thirty pages or so devoted to the very different world of Galway’s hurling exploits. I’ve nothing per se against the Galway hurlers – having twice made it my business, after all, to get to Croke Park to shout for them in All-Ireland finals back in the 1980s – but I felt that their story didn’t really belong here. I’d’ve been as happy to see the space used for a few more footballers’ reminiscences. Likewise, the final two chapters which concentrate on two potential future heroes was a bit odd and should really have ended up on the editor’s floor as well.
But these are only very minor quibbles with what is a hugely enjoyable book, one that you’d be proud to have on your bookshelves and which, if you do end up with a copy, is a title that you’ll find yourself consulting again and again in the years to come. This one’s a definite buy for Christmas.