All to play for

A recent conversation between my Dad and his brother-in-law turned to the GAA, as conversations involving my Dad often do.  

My uncle had come to our house for one or two beers before he headed off to the UK for work. 

And Dad, who has been spending the early part of lockdown mostly in the company of me, Mum, and his cattle, unleashed GAA anecdote after GAA anecdote on his brother in law who, in fairness, seemed interested. 

Dad has such an encyclopaedic knowledge of the GAA that he will tailor his anecdotes depending on where the person he’s talking to is from. Throw any random local club name at him and he’ll talk the hind legs off you about some local lad who used to play for them and then made it to county before doing his hamstring in an All-Ireland semi-final in 1989.  

Not for my Dad the tragedies of Shakespeare; to him, a tragedy is the scenario I just described. A talent wasted. “He almost made it.”  

On the night my uncle, who is from Charlestown in Co. Mayo called over, Dad was on fine form talking about Mayo GAA. Sometimes when he got too bogged down in sundry detail, my Mum would half-heartedly tell him to give us all a break, but he was unstoppable.  

Names of players who hadn’t seen the inside of a club hall in donkey’s years were mentioned. Webb brothers from Charlestown. So-and-so did his cruciate and Dad had advised him not to play county but he did and Dad received a phone call from him the next day to say he would be out for six months due to injury.  

There was more, and a lot more, but I must admit I rarely listen to my Dad when he talks about GAA, or his other love, farming. Some details in the above hastily related anecdotes might be incorrect. So-and-so might have been off for six weeks instead of six months and the Webb brothers might have been from Corofin, or Killererin, or some other GAA stronghold. 

How am I supposed to know; I can’t stand the bloody GAA.  

The reason I endured it at all was that I am old enough to appreciate it when somebody speaks passionately about something that interests them. And my Dad is passionate about GAA. One might even say he’s cracked for it.  

All of my Dad’s teachable moments were communicated to his children via GAA metaphors. This used to make my brother and me roll our eyes and my Mum to say “Ah for god’s sake…” like an editor willing Dad to reconsider his audience.  

But while we rolled our eyes at his mawkish metaphors Dad always got his point across. I might not have liked it but the GAA is quite conducive to teaching teenagers values. (Please, nobody tell him I said that; like all sports fans he has a tendency to gloat).  

The most thing I learned from Dad’s GAA sermons over the years is that you can love and respect somebody even if you don’t have any interests in common with them.  

When I was a teenager, I used to say to Dad, “Why can’t you be a musician or something; if you were any good, we might have money and connections.” 

He only laughed at me and I deserved it. Another thing I learned from my Dad is to be yourself and don’t change for anyone – especially not a snotty teenager.  

In my defence, this outburst was probably a response to him telling me I should be more disciplined in my studies like whatever star mid-fielder he was training at the time.  

I was never going to be disciplined any more than he was going to suddenly join The Rolling Stones. It has taken a few years and a few rows but we have both come around to the idea that neither of us will change.  

He has, of course, missed the GAA terribly this Summer and he is delighted at the news it will resume in July sometime. I’m bracing myself for the Sunday afternoon I’ll walk into the kitchen for my breakfast and a quiet read of the papers only to find Dad stretched out in front of the TV blaring The Sunday Game. He always has it on optimum volume partly because he’s a bit deaf and partly because he loves subjecting everyone else in the house to the not-so-dulcet tones of Joe Brolly.  

I have PTSD-like flashbacks every time I hear the now-retired Kerry man Micheal O Muircheartaigh on the airwaves. (Then again, I’ve never been good with Munster’s more, shall we say, regional accents…)  

Over the years we’ve learned to filter the noise out. We’re happy to see him sitting down for longer than it takes him to eat a few sandwiches; the amount of farming he does – even on the weekends – would make one feel quite slovenly for spending Sunday mostly on the sofa with the papers and coffee. 

A few years ago, after he had his heart attack, or cardiac arrest, as he pompously – okay, accurately – calls it, he got a defibrillator fitted to minimise the effect of any future “arrests” should they happen. Dad put the thing to the test one day at a particularly exciting hurling match in Pearce Stadium. Galway was playing Kilkenny or Tipp or one of those teams and it might have been the Connaught final or something. Dad came home with a big, red head on him and told us his defibrillator was activated at a crucial moment in the game. He felt like he’d been “kicked in the chest by a horse.” We were concerned. Mum said he might have to give the matches a miss for a while. “Ah, but it was an exhibition of hurling,” he said, eyes glowing like two hot coals. 

He isn’t just a spectator; he’s a trainer as well – an All-Ireland winning trainer, as he might like me to point out here. In 2008 he brought his parish’s intermediate team to victory in Croke Park, where they beat Dublin’s Fingal Ravens team. Don’t ask me what the score was; I was 13 and habitually mortified at being from Moycullen. I played on my Nintendo DS for the whole match, although I do remember bursting with pride and love when Dad ran out on to the pitch after the final whistle was blown. He was leaping like a child. Perhaps he was crying tears of joy. (Mario wasn’t jumping on mushrooms anymore.) 

And of course, I didn’t fully comprehend what this victory meant to him then but I think I get it now. He loves the game and he cared about the lads who played the game. They won the final, not him or any of the selectors or the physio. Dad cared about the lads who played for him, even if it didn’t sound like he did when he’d ring them up in the evenings and give out to them. I used to hear him sometimes almost roaring down the phone at lads who let him down on the training pitch. Beer, laziness, and college lifestyles were usually to blame for lads missing training sessions or not being match-fit. Dad’s policy was he wouldn’t play them if they didn’t put the hours in at training, no matter how good they were. He’d do anything for the “good lads” – the sound lads who worked hard, had a bit of respect and were honest both on the field and off it. He is a fair man. 

He doesn’t train teams anymore because it’s too time-consuming to do on top of the farming he does. There are no more hour-long gossip sessions with his selectors or notebooks with formation diagrams scribbled inside them lying around the house. But the Sunday Game is still a ritual and all the many, many friends he has made over the years through football still remember him. I used to hate going into the village with him when he was training the parish team because he’d be forever getting stopped by people talking football at him. “That was so and so’s mother”, he might say when she eventually left him alone after talking about her sons for twenty minutes in the middle of SuperValu. He knows everyone and everyone knows him.  

He still measures time in the most abstract way. Every major event in his life is recalled alongside a parallel universe where only GAA exists. His wedding, the births of his children, the time he had the flu in 2014 – all can be traced back to whatever was going on in the GAA at the time. You’d wonder if he would forget everything that ever happened to him without it. It’s pathetic but somehow remarkable. He is indeed blessed and obsessed to paraphrase the title of an autobiography one Christmas. He doesn’t read fiction but he did read Mick O’Dwyer’s autobiography. 

To an outsider, the GAA is a brotherhood of bad shorts, a sisterhood of bruised shins. It is its own unique kind of theatre, featuring the kinds of “characters” Spike Milligan himself couldn’t dream up. It has its own decades of iconography; the flask of tea and the sandwiches eaten in the stand, the bottle of Lucozade sport, the proud matriarch screaming dog’s abuse at an oblivious referee. All these things we associate with the GAA.  

It’s a part of our country and a part of our country’s people just as Ulysses and Guinness and rain are. You can’t call yourself an Irish nerd until you’ve been whacked in the skull with one of those distinctive white footballs. I’ll never forget the first time I was hit in the face with a ball by Dad when he’d taken my brother and me out to the garden for a kickabout. I don’t think he meant the ball to hit my face; he was never a very skilful player. Once, I asked him if he was disappointed that I gave up training when I was eleven. “Ah, no,” he said without looking up from the sports section of the paper, “Sure, you were shite anyway.” 

Ah, ref. 

Running Bores

Every hoor and his mother is out running these days. I don’t know whether it’s a passing lockdown fad or the continuation of the extremist health culture that has waged a fruitless – for fructose is the devil – war on slobs like the rest of us for years. It is a global war, hastened by capitalism, although its origins in Ireland can be traced back to the introduction of the smoking ban in 2004 that set a precedent for the health obsession which has since gripped our nation.

Like most people with big appetites and guilty consciences, I’ve dabbled in healthy stuff. I’ve modified my diet to include less junk, coffee, and alcohol (sometimes) – but I draw the line at veganism. To me, that is as extreme as heroin, which is on the opposite end of the spectrum entirely. Both would ruin your life, but at least you’d get a thrill with one. No, I couldn’t be a vegan.

Recently it occurred to me that I might start running. Do you ever get these kinds of notions? I saw everyone talking about how amazing running is for their mental and physical health, particularly since we went into lockdown – and I thought to myself, I want a piece of that.

I tried it – the running – one day when I was out for my daily walk. I just did it – as the good people at Nike say. But I wasn’t very good at it. So I stopped, and I walked instead. I tried it again once or twice, but it was too hard and not one bit enjoyable, so I gave up. I have since come to terms with the fact that I am not, nor will I ever be, a runner.

I have to blame someone for this – it’s a pattern I’ve fallen into over the years, which helps me sleep at night and late into the following afternoon. So, I blame my Dad. More specifically, his genes. If I hadn’t inherited his broad shoulders and height, I could be a wonderful runner.

Running hurts 😦

I’m too tall to run. My legs are long and skinny and not very muscular; they can’t possibly support the top half of me, which is quite burly by comparison. I don’t have the ‘under-standing’ that running requires, and I’m always concerned I’ll injure my knees or my hips if I run more than a few hundred yards. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Sure, I could do a load of squats and get strong legs and a dump-truck backside, as is the fashion nowadays thanks to Kim Kardashian and other Fat-Bottomed Girls, but I am not convinced that would make me any better at running. It also sounds like an awful lot of hard work to do in order to do even more hard work, and I can’t be arsed – literally. I’ll only squat for a barstool.

I maintain those born runners are either wiry, bottom-heavy, or small. The closer to the ground, the better the under-standing is my thinking. I’m none of those things. Then again, neither is the fastest man alive, Usain Bolt – an anomaly so irritating I wish he would just retire or come out as what we all know him to be: 150 super-fast hamsters in a man-shaped trench coat.

Hamsters theory aside, Bolt’s phenomenal success as a very tall, muscular runner is probably his sex. It certainly couldn’t have anything to do with perseverance or hard work. I might as well just say this plainly; it is difficult to run when you have boobs – and I mean anything over an ungenerous B-cup. Alas, I cannot blame my poor Dad’s genes for my own two appendages, which are just big enough to be an inconvenience – or an excuse, depending on how you look at it. Usain Bolt does not have boobs, but if he did, he would be a lot slower. I guarantee it. If he does have boobs, we all need to know what sports bra he wears…

There is still something in me that would like to be able to run, despite both my loathing for it and my lack of physical suitability. So much so that whenever I see someone out running, I am often overcome by jealousy, which I disguise by making scornful remarks like “Would they not be as fast walking?” I’m filled with envy whenever some young wan has the audacity to overtake me. I have that very human desire to exact revenge on anyone younger, fitter, and better looking than me – a considerable portion of the population; feel free to disagree – and I am not afraid to admit it.

I hate runners. And I shouldn’t say it because I know lovely people who run. But for the hour or so that they are running, I hate them. What I hate most of all are the people like myself, the non-runners, who praise them as though they are little sweaty gods and goddesses. “Oh, fair play to you, I don’t know how you do it!” and “You’re so fit, I wish I could do that.” The runners love to hear that kind of thing; their smug, sweat-stained faces just light up. I’d never praise a runner; I just couldn’t give them the satisfaction.

For as long as the pursuit of running evades me, I will always maintain that nobody, in truth, actually enjoys it. Its disciples say things like, “It’s so good for your mental health.” To which I say, ever heard of Prozac? Seeing runners is actually bad for my mental health, as they inspire such raging feelings of inadequacy in me. Others talk gush about endorphins and how good exercise makes them feel. They do actual marathons for fun.

Marathons? For fun? I do not understand it. That’s the definition of mental illness. The time I tried running, I did not have fun at all; there was no endorphin buzz or feeling of euphoria or any of the other reasons runners give for their bizarre behaviour. Instead, I got sweaty, breathless, and dizzy. Black spots appeared in front of my eyes as I walked home, slower than I normally would.

If golf is a good walk interrupted, then running is a good walk forfeited for the sake of vanity. While not a fan of running, and that’s putting it mildly, I do love walking. A fast walk is a tonic for both body and soul; it’s a rare day I don’t go for a walk these days, and I feel wonderful when I’m outside looking around me. There are exceptions, I’m sure, but the runners I see on my walks never look as if they are enjoying the fresh air, or indeed the exercise. Some go so fast they see nothing of their surroundings; others labour so much they look like they’re re-creating the Passion of Christ – only they’ve got sweatbands instead of a crown of thorns.

This cultural obsession with running only appeared relatively recently. Did anyone run in Ireland in the 1990s? Sonia O’Sullivan, the sole Irish runner of the pre-smartphone era, has a lot to answer for. She made it look easy, and she won stuff – like medals and international acclaim. Thirty years later, Ireland is full of runners who seem to be chasing a variation of O’Sullivan’s dream. They may say they’re doing it for their “mental health,” but then they go and post their run times on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – i.e “Today’s run: I did 10 miles in 90 minutes. Managed to successfully outrun my self-loathing, fear of death, and fear of putting on weight! Until tomorrow…” You get the idea.

I will try not to be led astray by such ostentatious lycra-clad displays of rude health in the future. My resolve was shaken during lockdown, sure, but I know now that running is never a trend I’ll embrace – and not just because I’m embarrassingly terrible at it – but because it’s just so bloody boring.

The kids are alright in Carlow, but what about the rest of us?

It’s not often you see Carlow in the news, so when I saw it trending on Twitter the other day, I raised an eyebrow and thought to myself, hmm, either they’re after getting electricity there, or someone’s after creating a terrible scandal. Then I thought about Saoirse Ronan, Carlow’s most famous export; maybe it’s something she’s done. Has she rowed back on her preference for Tayto crisps over the superior Walkers? (Somebody has to say it, and if Saoirse doesn’t, I will. Tayto are shite.)

As it turns out, the reason folks were carping about Carlow was actually far more interesting. And it had nothing to do with Hollywood, Mr. Tayto, or the ESB. No, it was quite the opposite; a small-town scandal – the type that gets everybody’s knickers in a twist. But let’s not talk about knickers, as to do so would be unseemly according to the good people of Carlow. The focus of all the attention has been a school whose staff allegedly warned its female students not to wear tight clothing to PE (Physical Education) as it might distract the male staff members. (Distract being a euphemism for sexually arouse). Anyway, relax, please, there are no pedophile teachers in this case. The journalists who broke the story were misinformed thanks to Facebook – not a reliable source – and one has since deleted tweets she made relating to the incident. But the damage was done.

The resulting outcry produced enough steam to power a small train. The hot takes included: “Those teachers are body-shaming young girls,” “Those male teachers are pedos if they’re aroused by the bodies of teenage girls,” “Those girls shouldn’t be wearing tight clothes anyway,” “Why are we sexualising children?”, “What about the women teachers and the boys?” “Boys don’t wear tight clothes”, “What about the lesbian teachers and the gay teachers?” “Is it any wonder girls feel discouraged from playing sport if their bodies are policed in this manner?” “We are promoting shame in young women and their perception of their bodies,” and “THOSE TEACHERS ARE PEDOS!!”

On and on it went; millions of opinions squeaking into the void like the tired axles of a locomotive. And most of them were expressed as dodgily as that metaphor I’ve just used. Some have expressed concern that the teachers’ side of the story was not told, but I’m more interested in the drama and how it was created – because it was created. A storm in a tea cup, that was all about making everyone feel good about themselves for loudly denouncing some (innocent) teachers in Carlow, who, as it turns out, probably didn’t even say the girls’ clothes were making them uncomfortable, as pedophiles.

Ever since all that business with the Catholic Church and Jimmy Savile & co., pedophilia has become the standard allegation for one group to smear another with. Extremists love calling people they disagree with “pedo scum.” It could be argued that the allegation has lost its meaning. But not only is pedophilia a very serious crime, it is also one of modern society’s few taboo subjects. Sexual attraction to children is taboo, and acting on this is a crime, which is precisely why it is such a powerfully insidious accusation to falsely throw at someone. The Carlow controversy has nothing to do with pedophilia and everything to do with moral panic and people jumping to conclusions based on social media reporting. Twitter is not a court, and our instinctive responses to taboo subjects are not judge, jury, and executioner.

One could definitely accuse the school of being clumsy with their messaging, but to be fair, they never imagined this would be all over the news. All they did was hold an assembly telling students to wear their uniform instead of leggings. When I was a teenage girl, I got rebuked for wearing a scarf that was not part of my uniform by my secondary school principal. If she had asked me why I was wearing the scarf, I might have told her that the school was so fucking cold I could hardly feel my fingers most days. But she didn’t ask because she didn’t care, just like the teachers in Carlow probably don’t care that, for a lot of girls, leggings are more comfortable than big, flappy tracksuit pants.

I wear leggings almost every day of my life; they are comfortable, elasticated, and they look “respectable” (enough for your Ma, like) if you cover the arse of them. The problem is that lots of people don’t cover their arse when they wear leggings, and, because leggings are very tight, everything you have can be seen. That doesn’t mean that people have to look, however. If you’ve got an arse like Kim Kardashian, you’re going to want to show it off – of course you are. Without going into too much detail – this is a family blog – my arse is actually concave, so it looks pathetic if I don’t cover it when I wear leggings, and that’s why I cover it. It has to with self-expression and personal choice, and whether a person likes tight clothes or loose clothes is none of anybody’s business.

The thing is, however, nobody really cares when boys and men wear tight clothes. There’s no moral panic at inches of flesh on display or semi-exposed appendages peeping out innocently from behind strategically designed pieces of fabric. What men wear is not policed as strictly as what women wear. Ironically, a woman in a revealing outfit – one in which you see more than her elbows and knees – is seen as a threat or a trap to men. Some people think that men are incapable of seeing someone they’re attracted to and having a normal, non-savage-caveman response. That’s an oversimplification that’s insulting to everyone.

The best way to avoid confusion, miscommunications, storms in teacups involving schools, moral panics involving social media, and, most importantly of all, stupid controversies over what teenage girls wear or don’t wear is to talk to your kids. If a child reaches double figures and doesn’t know the basics about sex, there’s something amiss somewhere. Most kids have to figure out for themselves that although we are an advanced intelligent society, we are still descended from apes, and we have primal urges which we have to be taught to manage or ignore in order to fit into “polite” society. Social media complicates things further – there are all breeds lurking there. I feel very sorry for teenagers growing up nowadays. I managed to escape all social media until I was eighteen, but these days it is a constant Orwellian presence in the lives of children who partake in it – often while not fully understanding its power. Teenage girls behave like legal, grown women because nobody has told them in terms they understand that they don’t have to – but you can bet the people selling tight leggings have told them they do. Who can blame girls for getting confused when their appearance suddenly causes Mammy and Múinteoir to get a dose of the vapours? Why are we shocked when it is revealed that naked pictures of underage girls have been circulated on the internet by leakers? That’s how girls think relationships work; a boy asks for a picture and they strip, snap, and send. And there’s no point blaming teenage boys – they aren’t taught properly either. Nobody says “Don’t watch pornography because you’re an eleven-year-old child, and it’s unwise for you to freak yourself out learning theory when you haven’t done the practical”.

Some people are happy enough to let teenagers do whatever they want sexually, as long as they’re “safe.” And that’s all very well, and nice and liberal if everybody respects each other, but adults need protecting too. In a society in which pedophilia is the ultimate taboo, even looking at someone under eighteen can be enough to get you “cancelled.” Of course, the problem is that a fourteen-year-old can easily pass for nineteen or twenty if she wears enough make-up and dresses strategically. You don’t need a brilliant imagination to realise that in that scenario, the girls actually are a trap – for themselves and others – because it’s impossible to know what age they are. I’m always reading about women my age who earnestly claim they were taken advantage of by “men” when they were teenagers – ie. They had consensual sex with somebody around their age when they were too young, and now they wonder why “all men are trash.” All men aren’t trash, your parents are cowards who didn’t sit you down and teach you how this stuff works, and it’s a minefield. A minefield that no teenager should be expected to negotiate without guidance. Calling people who are often barely over eighteen themselves “pedos” for having sex with supposedly advanced sixteen-year-olds does not help rectify the situation. It just reinforces the moral panic and ensures that nobody will ever be brave enough to tackle these anxieties our so-called liberal society has around teenagers and sex.

As the daughter of a teacher, it is no surprise to me that it was the parents who were responsible for creating this hullabaloo in the first place. Parents are idiots, and they will do anything to blame teachers and schools for trying to do what they as parents are neglecting. Perhaps instead of posting angry diatribes on Facebook, parents could actually try talking seriously to their children about this stuff. Whatever discomfort they may feel about talking to their son or daughter about sex is nothing compared to the horror of being falsely accused of pedophilia.