Last week on Wednesday 10th June, friends, family and colleagues gathered with me to launch my book Soccer in Munster: A Social History, 1877-1937 now out from Cork University Press. It was a brilliant night and as good a launch for the book as I could have hoped for. I wanted to share with people who weren’t there the few words I got up to say on the night, as it was important to me that I got a chance to say these things. So find below an edited extract of the speech. To one and all who came on the night, my sincerest thanks!
Anyone who knows me, knows how these things usually go when it’s my turn to say a few words. Usually, I downplay things with self-deprecating humour. Usually I underplay the significance of an event, or an achievement. But tonight, I’m not going to do that – though it’d put me more at ease. I’m not going to do the usual routine tonight because tonight is not just about, or even just for, me.
To be self-deprecating tonight, to downplay this achievement, would I think be a great insult to each and every person who helped to make tonight a possibility; to every person stood in this room to support me and this publication. Yet, I also don’t want simply to rehash the acknowledgements page in the book, because that would be trite. And lazy. This occasion demands an awful lot more than triteness or my laziness. Tonight indeed occasions something both more reflective and celebratory.
Sport matters. It matters hugely to me. It matters hugely to millions of people. Soccer matters. To me and to millions. Yes it’s a commercial behemoth that appears to have overtaken and sullied much that is good about sport. Yes it means FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and the deaths of thousands in Qatar. But soccer is so much more than FIFA and the Premier League. Like Nye Bevan, born into the British Labour party that he was, I was born into soccer. My earliest memories are intimately tied up with it. My family memories, my family folklore – everywhere within those, soccer is somewhere present.
Ever since I was young then, soccer has been a part of culture as I understood it. But this didn’t seem to always be the case in Ireland. And soccer’s place in Irish society in my lifetime is vastly different to its place in Irish society in the lifetime of people I knew, I know, have never and will never know. Nonetheless, as I think my book shows, it was present for them – central, in fact – it was a mark of outsiderdom in the greater story of Ireland. That never seemed right to me though. It never rang true. My family memories and family folklore were long testament to that. No sporting organisation, as far as I could ever see growing up, had a monopoly on being at the centre of community life, of community bonding and building in Ireland. In my world, soccer did just as good a job of making communities where none existed as any game played in Ireland. Sometimes it even did it better.
But I don’t want you to think this is some uncritical celebration of a sport I love. On the contrary, it is important to take a clear-eyed view of any historical subject matter. A huge portion of the problems that beset domestic soccer in Ireland today can trace their roots back to the period my book covers. The period from 1922-1937 was perhaps a golden age for senior soccer in Ireland. Through a mix of mismanagement, avarice and a lack of forward thinking, the success of those years were not a foundational basis for the continued growth and success of the game. Instead, as it has been in the past decade with clubs folding thanks to declining gates, crumbling infrastructure, and speculative ownership, so too was it in the 1930s – a missed opportunity in other words. Yet, the success of the supporter’s trust movement in recent times in Ireland, so brilliantly exemplified in this city by Cork City FC’s FORAS Trust, suggests that the future may well be brighter in this regard.
So, since I was a teenager developing my interest in history academically – my interest in the gap between the breadth and variety of lived experiences of ordinary, working-class people in the past and national narratives that rarely accounted for those – I have wanted to write this book. Finally now I have written it. I hope you here tonight and people who come across it on the shelves of bookshops and libraries will, by reading it, take from it the message that people create their own world, their own culture, their own amusement, their own lives and histories, and by reading it affirm that I’ve done a good thing in writing it. That I’ve added to our knowledge of this country; of its people and their lives. That it was not, in the words of JB Priestley saying that ‘these men paid their shillings to watch twenty-two hirelings kick a ball is merely to say that a violin is wood and catgut, that Hamlet is so much paper and ink.’ Soccer is much more than twenty-two men on a field kicking an inflated pig bladder. It is, and was, a central part of the lives of many Irish people. I hope my book, arguing why that is the case will, in your hands and in your minds, account to much more than the paper and ink it is printed on but will help you see our past a little differently – with a little more colour and a little more community.
If you’d like to buy a copy of the book, you can do so directly here from Cork University Press.