Af­ter a slow start, this col­lec­tion of GAA sto­ries roars into life

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS - DAR­RAGH McMANUS

Mercier Press, pa­per­back, 240 pages, €14.99

There hasn’t been much GAA lit­er­a­ture, which is sur­pris­ing in a way, given the in­her­ent drama, ex­cite­ment and po­etry of Gaelic games, es­pe­cially hurl­ing. Watch­ing the epic 2014 All-Ire­land fi­nal may have felt as though you were con­sum­ing a great work of art — some­thing suit­ably Homeric and heroic — and some non-fic­tion GAA books are art­ful enough. But in terms of fic­tion, pick­ings are thin.

The First Sun­day in Septem­ber, de­but of writer Tadhg Coak­ley, re­dresses that lack with a style and con­fi­dence be­fit­ting a Corkman. Just like how his county’s hurlers cur­rently play, Coak­ley’s book is fast-mov­ing, highly skilled and a plea­sure to be­hold.

Struc­turally, it in­hab­its an in­ter­est­ing space be­tween the short story and longer novel form. The First Sun­day in Septem­ber is bro­ken into 19 tales which, while work­ing per­fectly as stand­alone pieces, are also in­ter­linked.

Char­ac­ters and in­ci­dents reap­pear through­out, be­ing namechecked, cursed or fondly re­called across dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives. (Some­times in won­der­fully sur­pris­ing ways: I had to dou­ble-check, for in­stance, that cool, self-possessed Emma in one story is the same dam­aged, hor­ri­bly abused girl from five chap­ters back. She is, and her self-willed re­demp­tion is won­der­ful.) Then there are the re­cur­rent themes and sub­ject. The lat­ter, of course, is the tit­u­lar first Sun­day in Septem­ber: long an iconic date in the na­tional sport­ing and cul­tural cal­en­dar, home of the All-Ire­land hurl­ing fi­nal. (Iron­i­cally, next week­end the de­cider will be held in Au­gust for the first time since 1903. The gods laugh when men, and au­thors, make plans…)

Coak­ley’s book re­volves around this day of days, be­gin­ning a few evenings be­fore­hand as Cork and de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons Clare pre­pare to do bat­tle. We move to Sun­day it­self, fol­low­ing play­ers, fam­ily, friends, fol­low­ers and fa­nat­ics as they make the sacred pil­grim­age to Croke Park, en­dure/ en­joy the game it­self (th­ese things are in­di­vis­i­ble if you have a dog in the fight), and en­dure/en­joy the keen edge of win­ning or los­ing (no longer in­di­vis­i­ble, in fact starkly di­vided), be­fore a hand­ful of co­das — some well into the fu­ture — shine a deeper light of per­spec­tive on events.

If this was a GAA match, I’d be re­port­ing that it took a few min­utes to get go­ing: opener ‘The Traitor’ was okay, but its theme of loss and re­grets felt a bit “lit­er­ary Ir­ish”. And the Cork slang, while lovely to re-en­counter many years af­ter leav­ing the ‘Real Cap­i­tal’, felt a lit­tle over­done.

We’ll blame that on big-day nerves, be­cause once Coak­ley finds his feet and lands his first metaphor­i­cal point from way out the pitch, The First Sun­day in Septem­ber roars into life. This is one of the few story col­lec­tions that’s bet­ter read straight through, surg­ing on­wards at speed like a ma­raud­ing for­ward line bang on form.

Each in­di­vid­ual piece is very good, and some are truly su­perb. ‘Pas­sion’ is a droll, sub­tle ex­plo­ration of fam­ily dy­nam­ics and un­spo­ken re­sent­ments as boy-done-good-in-London Conor comes home for the match with his beau­ti­ful English girl­friend. ‘Áine Laughs’ is a sweet, funny tale of a smart-ar­sed les­bian and for­mer camo­gie All-Ire­land win­ner, bat­tling heartache as she cheers on the Rebels.

‘Her Mother Eve­lyn’ is painfully sad, al­most to the point of tears; ‘The Pride of Kilbrit­tain’, a re­lated story, is mov­ing for other rea­sons. ‘Los­ing’ delves into the abyss of, well, los­ing a big match; while ‘His Frank O’Con­nor Mo­ments’ cheer­fully cel­e­brates the flip­side.

My per­sonal favourite is ‘Five Sec­onds’, a foren­sic dis­in­te­gra­tion of one mo­ment which changes the course of the game. Time slows nearly to a stop, ev­ery­thing re­duced to its essence — cap­tur­ing, you imag­ine, how it must feel to be a player in those in­stants — be­fore spi­ralling into a sort of rhap­sody of imag­i­na­tion and spec­u­la­tion. It’s strange, oblique and elec­tri­fy­ing.

What I liked most about The First Sun­day in Septem­ber is how Coak­ley cap­tures Gaelic games, and All-Ire­land fi­nal day, in all its sym­phonic glory and crazi­ness and mys­tery and magic. If you’re one of those odd peo­ple who “don’t get” GAA, read this and you’ll un­der­stand why it means so much, to so many, and al­ways will. It’s a cliché, yes, but true nonethe­less: GAA is be­yond sport.

And this is a bril­liant first­shot from a very tal­ented writer. As they’d say in Cork: dowtcha, Coak­ley, boy.

Rebel yell: In one story, Cork and Clare do bat­tle

SHORT STO­RIES The First Sun­day in Septem­ber Tadhg Coak­ley

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