I have only one memory of my father kissing me. I was eighteen years old. It happened on the long curved platform of Kent Station, Cork, the night after the All-Ireland Hurling Final of 1979, when my teammates and I had brought the minor cup home.
I can recall almost nothing about the match, but I clearly remember the railway station being packed with giddy people when the train eked itself out of the tunnel and braked to a stop. A pipe and drum band was playing full blast. From the door of the train I saw my father approaching through the crowd. I felt the pull of his arms as I stepped down on the platform. I saw the liquid joy in his eyes. The startling bristle of his stubble on my cheek and the scent of whiskey from his breath are as vivid to me today as if it all happened yesterday.
I’m sure my father kissed me as a child; he was a loving and tactile man. I remember his bedtime stories about last-minute rescues in helicopters, but I can’t remember any of those kisses. I’m sure he was proud of me on the day I graduated (eventually) from university, and on the day I got married, and the times I looked after him and my mother when they were elderly. But what I saw and felt that September evening as a young man transcended pride. My father was lifted. He was radiant. Because of me.
In August 1998, my father lived in a nursing home in Mallow. He was eighty and he had become very frail since my mother died the previous summer. My wife and I were on our way to a wedding in Galway and, as we approached Mallow, she asked if I wanted to call in to see him. I said no, we’d keep going, and he died the following night while I was drinking and dancing at the wedding.
When my family and I carried his body to his grave, I held that kiss on the train platform close.
It is 1971 and I am ten years old. I am watching the Cork hurler Con Roche take a sideline cut on a hot day in a heaving Semple Stadium, in Thurles. I am with my father and the Walshs—family friends—and my older brother Dermot has just played with the Cork minors, winning the Munster Hurling Final.
We are beside the sideline and I have a good view of Roche as he bends down in front of us and places the sliotar on the grass. He stands back and lowers his torso in his approach to the ball, as hurlers do. The hurley is swung hard, at an acute angle, into the sliotar. We are so close that I can hear the sound of the hurley’s heel slashing into the earth—a dull, meaty thud. The other sound of the hurley’s bas striking the ball: a gravid pock. The ball rising towards the Tipperary goal, the pitch of the crowd’s anticipation rising too— it’s a great cut. The ball falling towards the goal, the sound of the crowd deepening and mounting, expectant.
There’s a slight shimmer in the distant net and a different roar detonates itself. A concussive wave booms and rolls through the stadium as though it is a living thing, sentient of what is happening.
I sometimes wonder if I’m seeking the sound of that crowd at every game I attend. If it is the cause of my desperate exultation as I sit in the stand and the match approaches. I’m like an addict craving that very first high.
Experiencing that sideline cut compels me, as a boy, to incessantly hone skills and devote myself to playing. Which, in turn, leads to my presence on that same pitch in Thurles, eight years later, playing for Cork in a Munster Minor Final against Limerick. In the closing moments of that game the ball breaks for me, hopping nicely, about twenty-five yards out, and I meet it perfectly, first-time, and it tears into the top left corner of the goal. When the sound of the crowd strikes me—literally strikes me—I have a sensation of being both inside and outside my body, and the blood in my head churns and casts me into a dizzying trance, and I can’t hear what people are saying to me until after we return to the calm of the dressing room.
Two games after that, I have my father’s kiss.
I was at the Munster Hurling Final in 2010. A child was sitting beside me with his father. The boy was eight or nine. Not long after the beginning of the match, the father and son changed places and I realised that it was because of me. Something I’d said, or maybe shouted or sworn, the look in my eyes, my rigid body language or the tone of my voice, had frightened the child. I might have been roaring my head off and I didn’t even notice.
They didn’t return to their seats after half-time—the father must have found a safer place in the stadium for his boy to watch the game—and the empty seats were an admonishment all second half. I felt ashamed.
I’m generally a fairly mild-mannered person. I’m not given to hate or violence. But there is anger inside me. I am angry about Trump and climate change denial and all sorts of issues. I’m also probably angry about aspects of my own life. For the most part, I am well able to keep my anger in check, but sport is one of the few areas in my life where the anger can be pried loose.
The usual macho social stigma that prevents men from expressing their emotions is absent within the catalytic invocation of sport. And these emotions are heightened when you add the cocktail of alcohol and gambling and the mob mentality that men use to amplify their passion during games. I was bringing anger to the game when the father moved his child away, but others bring racism, sectarianism, nationalism, violence, homophobia and sexism— all manner of toxic masculine behaviour.
There is so much to dislike in sport. How my love of Manchester United is also manifested through a hatred of Liverpool and how sport facilitates such nastiness and irrationality. How sport discriminates against women: the Irish women’s hockey team brought about a wonderful sense of national pride and togetherness in 2018 by reaching the World Cup Final, but had to pay for some of their own costs in London (something their male counterparts would never have to do). Women’s teams like Mourneabbey and Slaughtneil and Milford and Johnstownbridge can bring about a deep sense of community spirit—creating social capital and collective identity, inspiring countless girls who have to face barriers their brothers don’t need to worry about—but they get almost no press coverage.
These are the two extremes of sport. The yin and yang. Do I adore one and deplore the other? I do. At the same time—like most men—I watch very little women’s sport, but I have no problem occupying myself with the billionaire fiefdoms of The Premier League; the machismo and greed-fuelled franchises of the NFL; and the FIFA men’s World Cup, which is saturated by corruption. Does that make me culpable, by association? Perhaps.
In her essay, ‘Why I Write’, Joan Didion says that she began the writing of her book Play It As It Lays with two pictures in her mind. The first was of white or empty space. And anything that happened in the book would happen off the page. The book was a ‘white’ book to which the reader would have to bring his or her own bad dreams.
I think this is also the way we approach every game we experience, be it as a supporter or a player. We bring our own lives and dreams (bad and good, we won’t know how much of each until the final whistle), and we are colouring in the white space with them, before, during, and after the game.
When I’m walking in the crowd up St Joseph’s Road to Semple Stadium, or down Jones Road to Croke Park, this is what electrifies me most. I’m looking at all these people around me and I’m thinking about that white empty space. A story will unfurl itself in the stadium we’re approaching. I know that. But the real story, all the real stories—mine and those of the forty or eighty thousand people with me—have already happened off the page. And what we see and experience in the game is done through the prism of those stories.
The Limerick people at the All-Ireland Hurling Final of 2018 brought with them the hurt of forty-five years of losing—of not being good enough, and the personal failings of their own lives, and the loss of all the people who had not lived long enough to experience that day. The shattering ecstasy that came out of the win wasn’t so much because of what happened on the pitch during the game—it’s only a game after all—but what had happened over the previous forty-five years, colouring in the white space.
In a way, both sets of stories merge—what happens during the game and what happened in our lives before it. And both are completed in that merging, like in a sexual mating. And we want this merging—it’s why we go to games. We want to pour all the emotions of our lives out onto the white space.
On the night after my last hurling match, when I was thirty years old, I cried in a pub in Cork and the woman I was about to marry had to console me. I cried because we lost and I knew I’d never win a county championship with my club, that I had let them down again. Maybe I cried because I knew I’d never play on a hurling team again and I’d never have that particular type of safety again.
Because there is a them in sport—an opponent or other—there is an us and this us is the collective. Being safe in the collective is one of the main comforts of sport: Tom McIntyre, the playwright and Gaelic footballer, called it a ‘taking refuge in the collective’.
I joined such collectives or teams as soon as I could—my first would have been around the time I was eleven. My own lack of self-confidence was somehow masked in the teams within which I played. Strangely, I hid there in full view—sometimes, later, in the full view of thousands.
I loved having a ball at my feet, playing football on teams—which I did for many years, to a high level. The rightness of being joined to the ball, that sense of being at home on the pitch never deserted me. I was never afraid on a pitch, or unsure what to do. When I was part of a team, I had a purpose, I was useful, I was valued. I belonged there and I knew I belonged there. I felt safe.
Because I was good at sport, I quickly realised that I could get affirmation from it—the affirmation that insecure people crave. The affirmation I now seek from my writing—writing having become my substitute for sport (and I often conflate the two).
The bond that teammates feel is very hard to describe. It’s a kind of love—a false and short-lived love to be sure, but the connection is intense and full of shared purpose in those moments. And when I played sport it wasn’t the need to win or compete that drove me on or allowed me to achieve, it was the dread of letting my teammates down—of betraying their trust and losing their esteem. When I played well and received their admiration I didn’t feel so bad about myself. If others—coaches, teammates and supporters—believed in me, perhaps I could believe in myself. But loss is utterly integral to sport and the final loss is when you can’t play any more.
A couple of years after my final game as a sportsman—when I was in my early fifties—I read Helen McDonald’s magnificent evocation of grief and healing: H is for Hawk. It contains a sentence that impaled me: ‘We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.’ I knew the moment I read those lines that I had to write—I’d put it off for too long and who knew how much time I had left. At first, I didn’t know how I’d manage to write or what about, but I figured it out soon enough. I’d given up sport as a player—or rather it had spat me out—but, before long, I was trying to find it again as a writer.
My father’s kiss and Con Roche’s sideline cut turned up in my first novel, The First Sunday in September, albeit fictionalised and from different perspectives. When the book came out, I was asked by journalists if I wrote it because of unfinished business as a player. I think the answer is yes—I needed to process what sport means to me, what it does to me, and what it has been doing to me since I saw that goal and heard that sound when I was ten. I also needed to validate that moment and all such moments.
Albert Camus said: ‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligations, I owe to football’, and he was right—I have felt this morality and these obligations. Noam Chomsky described sport as the opiate of the people and he was right—I’ve lost count of how many times I have found myself watching a meaningless game I couldn’t care less about when I could be reading or doing something useful. Sport is admirable and sport is deplorable. It promotes volunteerism and greed. It is an innocent pastime and a pernicious addiction. It is the simplest and the most complicated of activities. It means nothing and it means everything. It is motivated by the best of intentions and the worst. It invokes love and hate. It is the cause of ecstasy and agony. It is fleeting and lasting. It can be a force for good and for evil. These contradictions and the cognitive dissonance they evoke compel me to write about sport.
At the first round of the Munster Championship in 2017, when Cork had beaten the All-Ireland champions, Tipperary, I found myself with tears in my eyes. It was only a first-round match, in May, hardly critical. I berated myself and then looked at my friend Martin two seats down and his eyes were wet, too. We’re two middle-aged men, toughened by lifetimes. We should know better.
In the moment of those games, the emotions are real and intense. But afterwards, do they hold? And how do such emotions compare to what you feel, say, in relation to your family, your boyfriend, your job, or climate change?
Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about the emotion he heard in a Norwegian football crowd in Oslo, shortly after the massacre of sixty-nine young people by Anders Breivik on Utøya Island in 2011, and the collective grief of a whole people in that sound, in its intensity. But, he says, ‘The feelings football arouse are an imitation, that is the feelings are genuine enough, but they are not binding, they are not tied to any reality but one which is artificially constructed for us, twice forty-five minutes.’
I think that Knausgaard is wrong.
This Oslo stadium, this sound, is Joan Didion’s white empty book and the fans there are filling in the pages with dark colours, as they weep during the national anthems and cheer as the game is about to begin.
Perhaps there is a thread of steel will in the roar of that crowd too. A determination to ensure that the slaughter on Utøya is not Norway, is not those people. A resolve that Anders Breivik and all the Anders Breiviks will not beat them, nor define their country. The sound urges on the Norwegian team to win, to overcome an other. And in that winning, the people at the game are not so much yearning for a victory in a mere football match, but a different, allegorical victory over the other—one that is much more important and meaningful and lasting.
This is the significance of Knausgaard’s sound. And I believe that the emotions drawn out in that sound—drawn out by football—are not an imitation, but are binding and tied to reality. Yes, sport is an artificial construct and a banal type of play—but the emotions we bring to it, that it draws from us, are real and they do continue on.
In the moment of that sound and those emotions, sport is packed with meaning; it is vital, intense, joyful, heart-breaking, complex, wonderful and lasting. It is motivated by the best of intentions: love. It is a force for good, not evil. And sometimes (not often, I’ll admit, but sometimes) we are not the same people after a game that we were before it. I was not the same after my father’s kiss.
Maybe I write about sport because of that kiss. And because of all the other kisses, by all the other fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and friends and wives and girlfriends and husbands and boyfriends and coaches and teammates and delirious fans. I wrote about such a kiss and built a story around it, and built a book around that story.
I know I can never have that kiss again, so I was compelled to write one. I wanted to give thanks for it and to mourn it. My book was published on the twentieth anniversary of my father’s death and I allowed myself to confer some significance on that.
I wrote a story where a man kisses his son, who has captained his county to an All-Ireland championship. The kiss is witnessed by the hurler’s birth father, who gave him up for adoption as a baby and realises his loss: that he will never bestow such a kiss to his son. I know this sense of loss. I don’t have a daughter or a son and so I will never pass on my father’s kiss. In reality, that kiss dies with me. My writing of it is an attempt to pass it on. A pale shadow of the real thing, but in that writing I don’t feel so alone, or so lost without him.