Is sport art? Depending on their preference, sports fans would certainly argue that when they watch Patrick Horgan send a sliotar soaring over the bar, Lionel Messi’s dazzling dribbling skills, or Katie Taylor land a punch with precise power, they are equally as transported as someone listening to Mozart or surveying a Picasso.
The role of sport in our lives is one of the many interesting topics explored by Tadhg Coakley in his latest book, a blend of essay and memoir called The Game, A Journey into the Heart of Sport. In it, he discusses how sport shaped his own life and why it is ultimately an expression of ourselves and our humanity, whether we are participants or spectators.
“Sport happens without words, people are in the body, but I think the same yearning for self-expression is happening in sport and in art,” says Coakley.
In writing about sport, the Cork author sees himself as an interpreter of sorts. “I’m taking the art and trying to find the right words to describe it…if I can do it correctly, I will bring the unwritten profundity of sport back from a place beyond words, to a place where we can all hear its story,” he writes.
Moving beyond the realm of match reports and news stories, sportswriting as an art form has long been more appreciated in the United States than on this side of the Atlantic. For a country that very much identifies itself with sport, in Ireland it is also very much under-represented as a subject in fiction.
“A lot of sportswriters that I've spoken to feel that there’s a little bit of intellectual bias or snobbery towards sport and writing about sport, but I think it's mainly that some people are just not interested in sport. And because sport is so ubiquitous — it dominates newspapers, broadcasting — I think people who are not interested in sport can resent it or they don't understand it,” says Coakley.
He points to Irish writers such as Eimear Ryan, Rónán Hession, Adrian Duncan, and Paul Howard who are doing interesting things in the field of sports and fiction. He has also explored the area himself, with his debut The First Sunday in September, a novel about a fictional All-Ireland hurling final day.
While the subtitle of The Game is a journey into sport, Coakley says the book should be of interest to everyone. “It is about sport in some ways, but sport is part of life, objectively. A lot of people engage in it, half the adult population, and about 80% to 90% of the children, so why not explore why that is, what it means to people?”
As a memoir, the book traverses more personal terrain — from how he and his wife came to terms with not having children to his relationship with his parents. While it requires courage to reveal such personal information, Coakley also acknowledges that there is some narcissism involved in the process.
“All writing I think is based on that,” he says. “The most arrogant thing you can do is write.”
Coakley says he realised that he needed to write more from his own experience after attending an event with Elizabeth Strout, author of celebrated novels, including Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton, where the mother-child relationship is a recurring theme.
“She is one of my favourite writers and she was asked when she was going to write a memoir. She said: ‘I’m never going to write a memoir. First of all, my mother would have to die and she's going to live longer than me.’ So at that moment, I realised I was writing about myself in The First Sunday in September as well, but I was hiding behind the characters and I had to come out.”
It has been a less than comfortable process at times, but Coakley has been grateful for the support from family and friends.
“It has been terrifying. I'm not comfortable writing about myself and my family situation, and various other things, like my mother and father but I felt I had to do it,” he says. “My family and Ciara my wife have been incredibly supportive.”
- As part of the West Cork Literary Festival, Tadhg Coakley and Ashley Hickson-Lovence — author of Your Show, which reimagines the life of Uriah Rennie, the Premier League’s first black match official — will be in conversation with Ciarán Murphy of the Second Captains podcast, 8.30pm, Tues, Jul 12, at the Maritime Hotel, Bantry, Co Cork. www.westcorkmusic.ie