“Two beautiful footballers — it was poetry”

In the heart of the Director of Glucksman Ireland House at New York University beats a love of the GAA. Historian Joe Lee talks hurling and football

JOE LEE was born in Kerry and lived in Castlegregory for the first ten years of his life. No surprise gaelic football was his first love, then.

“The 1953 final with Armagh got me hooked, and then you had 1955, and Dublin-Kerry. It was depicted then — though I didn’t really pick up on that at the time — as a city-rural clash, but as a child I just felt that Kerry should be winning.!

“I was conscious there was a bit more tension than Kerry-Armagh in 1953. There was a sense of continuing competitiveness — Dublin and Kerry would have been quite even in terms of All-Irelands then, though Kerry have pulled away since.”

Lee went to secondary school in Gormanstown College, which had a strong sporting identity, and played hurling and football. He also became interested in soccer, and the Shamrock Rovers-Drumcondra rivalry in particular, as well as Jack Kyle’s rugby displays, but football was still the draw.

“I remember the first time I saw Mick O’Connell play in Croke Park and you knew immediately that something special had come among you. I remember the 1959 semi-final against Dublin and O’Connell marked Des Foley, another beautiful footballer. I treasure in my mind images of them rising for the ball, two beautiful footballers — it was poetry.”

Lee didn’t play much in UCD, focusing on the books, but sport intruded again after college. “I was taken on as a schoolteacher in St Andrew’s, a Protestant school in Clyde Road in Dublin, and the job involved taking on the role of either cricket coach or rugby coach. This was September and I hadn’t seen a cricket game at that stage, though I grew to love the game, but I realised it wouldn’t begin until well after Christmas.

“I bought ‘Teach Yourself Cricket’ and a bat, and I practiced with the bat in front of the mirror. I got a civil service job before the cricket season began, so I never had the chance to show the coaching skills I’d acquired.”

Lee’s subsequent career as one of the most respected historians in the country lends weight to his perspectives on the past. “I’d have been a strong supporter of the ban at the time it came in, though I think it went on too long. Circumstances changed and adaptations have been made, but as a historian I’ve seen justification for things that are often decried nowadays as unintelligible — things which, at the time, made perfect sense in my view.

“Those views didn’t make you sectarian or bigoted, which was not to say there were no bigots among those proposing those views.”

American sport has also appealed to him, and given his first port of call in the US, that’s no surprise.

“I went to America first in 1978, to Pittsburgh — whose Steelers were then the Kerry of American football.

“When I saw the game first I thought it the stupidest thing I’d ever seen, big lunks thumping each other, but I became an avid fan of the sport, keeping an eye on great teams like the San Francisco 49ers of Joe Montana and latterly the New England Patriots of Tom Brady. I cherish the Steelers, though, which may tell you something about my approach to sports and life. Montana was brilliant but played a percentage game for the 49ers — he rarely tried something that mightn’t pay off. Terry Bradshaw of the Steelers in the ’70s was a risk-taker. He could make mistakes that a schoolboy wouldn’t make but then he’d pull off something incredible.

“The 49ers were more mechanical — without being boring — but the Steelers were more enjoyable to watch. Now to me American football, if it’s not good, can be very boring to watch, and while that could be true of every game, American football is very dependent on brilliant surges.

“None of them compare to hurling at its best. I didn’t see much of it growing up in Kerry but I came to live in Cork.”

And discovered the true faith?

“Exactly.”

LEE mixes history and sport easily when it comes to Ireland. “I’d see Micheál Ó Hehir as a moulder of Irish identity. On a Sunday afternoon years ago, if you asked what most men were doing in Ireland, they were listening to the radio. That was an enormous bonding and broadcasters don’t get the credit for that.

“As an academic I began to theorise about sport and society, and mass society began to emerge with the railway, when mass numbers could travel — when crowds could follow counties, for instance.

“It’s interesting that Ireland’s one of the relatively few colonised countries which devised its own sport rather than adopting the conqueror’s — perhaps as a way of challenging the royal conqueror.” Lee offers India and the West Indies as support for his idea: “They decided to take cricket and beat the conqueror at his own game, which they did. Passions of identity revolving around national borders is interesting when you consider African supporters becoming passionate about their countries in the world cup — these are countries constructed from borders planted down by their conquerors, which don’t relate to tribal identities.”

Do we pay too much attention to sport in this country? “Think of the pride in a great horse, an Arkle or a Dawn Run, the way the horse is almost viewed as performing for Ireland. We internalise our sense of competitiveness in a relatively innocent way. Do we put too much emphasis on it? The only way to answer that is to consider what we might put the emphasis on otherwise, and if that means an alternative of less structured ways of expression... go back to before the foundation of the GAA, and the clashes with the Carabhats and the Shanavests, the faction fighting and so on.

“What all sports have done is to provide a focus for skill and self-control. Boxing isn’t as popular now as it was three-quarters of a century ago, for instance, but it was a way for immigrants and other groups to move up the social ladder.

“For all the corruption and exploitation in some sports, if you consider what the alternative might have been, it’s a relatively innocent way of harnessing people’s competitive energies.”

These days Lee is Director of Glucksman Ireland House NYU, as well as Professor of History and Irish Studies, and he can link sport with the Irish experience in America.

“Irish immigrants furthered Irish interests in the US through sport — with baseball, for instance, and in the early Olympic Games, when they often felt they were representing Ireland. At the London Olympics they refused to dip the flag to the King of England. At one level it’s curmudgeonly, while at another it’s making the point.

“I often ask my students, ‘who are the best-known Irishmen in 19th-century America?’. They usually come up with Robert Emmet.

“The other one, which nowadays they don’t come up with, is John L Sullivan the boxer. He was huge. And while James Corbett beat him and was also Irish, he wasn’t as... aboriginal Irish, as it were, as John L.”


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