Author’s bleak future no match for old love

KEVIN BARRY’S new novel about a futuristic west of Ireland ruled by violence and fear, ‘City of Bohane’, is drawing superlatives like a magnet attracts iron filings, and the genial Limerick native doesn’t hold back when it comes to his own interest in sport.

Barry’s father was active in the local soccer scene as a referee, and the beautiful game of the mid-’70s is where his love of sport began.

“The 1977 FA Cup final,” he says.

“I remember deciding, while watching, that Manchester United had to win and that Liverpool had to lose. I don’t know what it is that makes a young lad follow a particular team, but I followed United.

“Another memory from that time was of United losing 4-0 to Nottingham Forest. I remember just being on the couch, weeping, after that.”

He played sport as a kid, but characterises his youthful self as “an odd young fella”.

“I wasn’t much for team sports, I’d have liked kicking a ball against a wall, if you like.

“I went to Sexton Street CBS in Limerick, which was pure GAA, and the Harty Cup was the big deal: the Harty players — who tended to be from the country, so we regarded them as bog-trotters — would be taken out at the ‘sos’ at 11am and been fed on soup and sandwiches for the Harty.

“And being from Limerick, there’d have been an interest in rugby. I’m from Young Munster territory, and there’d be family connections there going way back.”

As a teenager books and music intruded. In Barry’s words: “You get poetic and start listening to Morrissey,” and the sports faded for a while. When Alex Ferguson came on the scene at United, though, Barry rediscovered his faith: “I thought about Lee Sharpe, ‘a jinky winger is what we need’, and then I was trapped in it completely again.”

Snooker also vies for Barry’s attention.

“I watch everything. Classic snooker from the ‘80s on satellite at three in the morning, that kind of thing.

“I find myself thinking, ‘I should really go to bed now... but didn’t Cliff Thorburn have some safety game?’ Kirk Stevens — before the fall — all of them.

“Actually, the only thing I was ever handy at playing-wise was snooker, but like a lot of lads my snooker was ruined by playing on pool tables.”

The parallels between artists and sportspeople when it comes to commitment are obvious, he says.

“It sounds corny but I find good sportspeople incredibly inspiring. Someone like Ryan Giggs proves all those cliches about 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration. There has to be more than talent, there has to be application and workrate and that’s applicable to what I do as well.

“I often get emotional when I see the intensity.

“What’s interesting is that I’m always looking for really good sportswriting. That’s hard to do, describing sport. I just read Norman Mailer’s The Fight, about the Rumble in the Jungle. It’s rare, he’ll give 20 or 30 pages on a round — unbelievable.”

Why aren’t there more sporting references in Irish fiction, then?

“I don’t know. I’ve often wondered myself where the great GAA novel is. It’s surely out there.

“I’ve only one mention of sport in my own new book — there’s a cafe in one scene and on the wall there’s pictures of football teams, and just one line, ‘long gone in Bohane the days of the All-Irelands’.

“All we know about sport in Bohane is that there’s a classic All-Ireland drought!”

No drought with quality fiction, mind you.

* City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (Jonathan Cape, £10.99 (€12.50) is in the shops now.

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