On the way down, a call from a mate about matters GAA, but in the course of the conversation a question arose about a particular GAA ballad. The rest of the call drifted into the background as that brought me up short: What has happened to the GAA ballad?
There was a time long before social media when the knight-errantry on show in the playing fields of Ireland was lost to posterity the very second it occurred, of course. This was an Ireland where the one man in the street, or town land, with a car would have to be prevailed upon for a blow-by-blow account of a game if he’d travelled to it, often before he went in for his tea.
But there was one field of endeavour where the feats performed in county finals and provincial championships lived on: The ballad.
These lengthy songs — remember, most participants warranted a mention, as well as significant events in the game itself — were composed locally in celebration of a recent win. Authorship might be collective or individual, and often the song’s melody would be lifted gently from a classic ballad of the past, but most ended up with victory snatched from the jaws of defeat as the honour of the little village was upheld.
(These ballads shouldn’t be confused with county songs such as ‘The Banks’, ‘The Rose of Mooncoin, ‘Slievenamon’, and so forth, all of which have a pedestrian air and Victorian diction in common.)
Occasionally they had an afterlife that took them beyond the parish or county. Consider Bryan McMahon’s ballad about Christy Ring, now regarded as a classic of the genre but — equally significantly — doesn’t go into specifics about particular games apart from Cork’s mid-’50s rivalry with Wexford.
The ballad was often a double-edged sword, with many an academic pointing out that the long tradition of Celtic bards inflicting deep wounds through insulting poetry continued in the middle of the last century as players who hadn’t covered themselves in glory would be omitted from the 20 verses of doggerel composed to celebrate a county title.
Sometimes the attack was even more subtle, with greatness ascribed with tongue firmly in cheek: The Bould Thady Quill, for instance, was supposedly a far more pedestrian performer than the ballad by the same name would have you believe.
Ballad examples? How about ‘The Boys of Newport Town’, composed when the Tipp side collected their local championship (“They conquered all, from Moneygall, right down to Knockmealdown, They are now the champions of the North, the boys of Newport town”).
With the increased sophistication in the country it was only to be expected that these would wither eventually, and we hit a fallow decade or two for the local GAA ballad up until very recently.
Surprisingly, the explosion in technology has made it far easier for local ballads to be communicated far and wide. A quick trawl on the internet throws up a Pete Creighton and the Corrigan Brothers song for Nenagh Éire Óg a few years ago (“Oh it’s great to see Éire Óg are back again, From Tyone to Tullaheady, And on out to Belleen”).
Ironic: The very sophistication that might have smothered the ballad is facilitating its return.
Trading cards point to genuine contenders
News just in. I saw this on the GAA’s Culheroes site during the week: “We’re delighted to announce that our 2017 trading cards are now available in stores across all 32 counties. This year’s collection features a mixture of players including ladies football and camogie players, as well as gold, silver, and bronze special edition cards.”
Progress, in fairness. Seeing names like Brid Stack and Briege Corkery, Anne Dalton, and Aoife Donohue on player trading cards is the kind of move that people will no doubt look back on in a few years and wonder ‘why did it take so long?’ but it’s done now. Progress, as noted above.
On the same site there’s a list of the individuals from each county who are on cards, by the way. I noted that in (male) GAA terms, those lists came in a couple of forms — most counties appeared to have nine players representing them, apart from the big powers bound to end up jostling for All-Ireland honours.
Those particular counties seemed to be represented by their entire panels, down to the lads who fall in the odd night to make up the numbers when the stars are doing a publicity gig up in Dublin.
As a fair indicator of who’ll be playing in Croke Park in August and after, I direct you — once the year turns to early summer — to this website.
Showing my age from Vitas statistics
Yours truly does not claim to be a tennis fan, particularly — a fan of Vladimir Nabokov and David Foster Wallace writing about tennis, maybe, but not the game so much, in particular since Maria Sharapova was waved back into the fold after her drug ban.
Anyway, I do note that later this year there’ll be a movie released, which is either named Borg, Borg/McEnroe, Borg vs McEnroe, depending on what you read, which centres on the legendary Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe rivalry at the 1980 Wimbledon championships.
The movie is Swedish in origin, which you can maybe deduce from the actor playing Borg (Sverrir Gudnason), while Shia Laboeuf plays McEnroe.
When I saw that another actor will portray Vitas Gerulaitis, I was transported back almost four decades to a spot about five feet from our home TV during that summer.
Because while Borg and McEnroe are names that will live as long as rallies swing back and forth across the net, Gerulaitis is a name that immediately says late 70s, early 80s.
More on this at a later date.
Sedaris should be a date for your diary
For the information of those who like a book recommendation, one I can make sight unseen is Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris, the funniest writer alive.
Exhibit A is his short piece, ‘You Can’t Kill The Rooster’, but this man’s a genius. The book is released at the end of the month.