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The History of Irish Sport tells the story of Ireland

It was impossible for anyone who purports to write for a living to read Fintan O’Toole’s We Don’t Know Ourselves over Christmas without being impressed, even amazed, by the sheer scope and achievement. Weaving the personal with the macro with remarkable skill and coherence, he manages to tell the narrative of how this country has evolved and changed since its birth in 1958, in a way that not even the most seasoned historian or Sociologist could, but only a journalist of his caliber. If there’s one book you’d recommend to anyone between the ages of 15 and 95 that tells the story – the story – of post-war Ireland – or should we say post-emergency Ireland – it’s by O’Toole. It’s quite simply a magnum opus, great, a masterpiece – and they’re just words that start with M.

However, it is not absolutely flawless. For those of us who write about sports for a living (at least trying or pretending to write about sports) it’s somewhat disappointing as it’s striking that O’Toole himself makes little attempt to write about sports and the role he plays plays to write – or even to refer to – played in the last 60 years of Irish life. How can we try to get to know ourselves if we don’t know how important sport is and has been in the daily lives of people here?

Paul Kimmage, one of the best sports writers of the time, also pointed this out. As he put it, “Sport matters or it doesn’t.” And for him, the most significant omission is the (incredible, too good to be true) rise and fall of Michelle Smith. “Their story was a turning point in Irish sport and should not be whitewashed from history.”

To be fair to both parties, you can see why Kimmage feels it should have been included and why O’Toole didn’t even mention her.

The Smith story was one of the biggest and most important episodes in the history of Irish sportsjournalism and a turning point in Kimmage’s own career: as he and David Walsh have said on a number of occasions, they would hardly have followed Lance Armstrong the way they would have had it not for her would have first been steely and bloody in their coverage of Smith. And any attempt to tell the history of Irish sport over the past 60 years would have to include a separate chapter on it.

But O’Toole wrote no history of Irish sport. He wrote a history of Ireland. True, it should perhaps at least have been mentioned (particularly, as Kimmage has pointed out, it underscores Ireland’s capacity for self-deception and hope that what is out of sight stays out of mind, such a powerful theme in O’Toole’s book). , but the same could be said of Ann Lovett, who, for all that O’Toole devotes to the depressing 1980s and the church’s unhealthy influence and deadlocks on sexuality, doesn’t make the Index either. But as long as people stayed up to watch her win gold in Atlanta and for so many people calling Joe to defend their honor, it wasn’t quite the Mardi Gras like other events like six years ago or buzzing or anything clearly split like another special episode would six years later. It didn’t fundamentally change our lives like other sporting moments would. If O’Toole or anyone else had a chapter related to a moment or a character in Irish sport, you wouldn’t pick or start with Michelle Smith-de Bruin. Which begs the question: what or who would?

In our eyes it would at least start with Jack Charlton, who was lucky enough to be mentioned once in O’Toole’s book, and Italia 90, who somehow didn’t make it at all. Instead, it deserves just a breezy hint, sandwiched between a lengthy thesis on Riverdance and the songs of Shane McGowan: “They opened up a place in Irish for the diasporas, which in many ways were the truest products of their history”. It’s hard to believe that that’s all he has to say about those years and especially about this summer. Yes, the football was played in Italy, but as Con Houlihan famously reminded us, the tournament and experience took place right here at home. More than the summer of moving statues or hunger strikes or any other, Italia 90 was the most shared national moment of the past 60 years.

Cork folk will be happy to know that a sportsman of his own has made it into O’Toole’s tome; Mention is made of Jack Lynch’s sporting ability as well as his political career, although Fintan seems to have overlooked or forgotten his famous status as a doubles player, referring only to him as a ‘former Cork hurler’. However, no mention is made of the other famous Glen Rovers man, Christy Ring, who brought magic and color to the lives of the desolate land O’Toole describes and those who have not fled it. And somehow there isn’t a word about that other legendary Northsider Roy Keane either, although he played for O’Toole’s favorite team Nottingham Forest and happened to be involved in this saga called Saipan, another place name or episode that doesn’t WDKO’s index do.

We highly doubt that, but perhaps the reason O’Toole has pretty much stayed away from the sport is that he feels he deserves a book of his own: that you could tell the story of Ireland – and who too we really are how we’ve changed – through a series of Irish sporting – and social – milestones.

Just as O’Toole begins his book in the year he was born – 1958 – with TK Whitaker’s groundbreaking blueprint for economic development, a sporting equivalent would be an event that happened to happen in the year I was born: the 1971 Congress when the GAA lifted The Ban. Like Whitaker’s document, it didn’t change everything immediately, but nothing was the same after that.

From this you could make what O’Toole does, with almost every subsequent year producing an event and a chapter. With 1972 and the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, one might recall the Five Nations Rugby Championship that year and how Wales and Scotland chose not to travel to Dublin, but England did a year later. 1974 and the rest of the decade could be described as the sociological and sporting phenomenon that became Heffo’s Army and the rivalry with Kerry that followed. For 1979 you could have the death of Ring and the end of Lynch as Taoiseach. For almost every one of the first five years of the 80’s the amazing duo of Eamon Coghlan and John Treacy, for 1982 to 1986 the North at the World Cup; for 1985 Denis Taylor and the snooker craze; for 1986, Barry McGuigan, the man who fought for peace but ended up falling out with his once-beloved manager, Mr. Eastwood; for ’87 the other dynamic duo, Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly (who were also deemed unworthy of making it into WDK0).

The 1990s would be another source of rich material. 1991 and how the Dublin-Meath saga helped revitalize and inspire the GAA after it felt threatened after Italia 1990. Windsor Park, 1993. Loughnane and Griffin and the Years of the Hurling Revolution. The fleeting phenomenon that was the Formula 1 obsession and how Eddie Irvine and Jordan celebrated in 1999. The misfortune that was Ireland’s Olympic performance in Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. 2003 and Armagh-Tyrone at the new Croke Park. 2005 and the opening of Croke Park. 2008 and the Irish boxers. 2009 and the dominance of Kilkenny and the Cork Hurling Civil War. 2011 and Dublin’s breakthrough and subsequent dominance. 2012 and Kate. 2016 and the fall of Hickey. 2019 and the fall of Delaney. 20×20 and 2021 and the breakthrough was not only for women’s sport but also for Irish sport.

The History of Irish Sport tells the story of Ireland. And gives a better picture of who we really are.

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