The Calvinball of the Emerald Isle

Around this time last year,I wrote a more compact version of this tale for MSN Sports Filter. But since that site has passed into the Interweb Graveyard, I hope you’ll indulge me in recycling seasonal material.

My grandfather–my father’s father–died when I was 8 years old. So my memories of him are vague and littered with the weird, stupid things that little kids think are important. It takes a lot of mental power to pull out what I actually remember of him after I sift through all the Transformers and Thundercats and Mad Magazines.

I remember that I thought my grandfather had a funny voice, which I now realize was an Irish accent lathered with tar from decades of smoking Winstons. I remember that he always smiled, a smile with his teeth half-parted, as if he was about ready to laugh, though I don’t remember ever hearing him laugh. I remember that he had glasses with thick, gauzy lenses that made it hard to see even the faintest traces of his eyes. I probably couldn’t have seen his eyes anyway, because he seemed about 10 feet tall to me.

I remember that his fridge was always stocked with this strange slightly carbonated red lemonade that he brought back with him from his frequent trips to Ireland. I searched in vain for it both times I was in Dublin, but I couldn’t find it because I didn’t quite know what I was looking for. No one else in my family remembers it, leading me to believe it
was just some weird beverage my mind concocted while I was puzzling out adventures for Optimus Prime.

He was born just before Ireland gained its independence, became an adult just as the Depression hit, and fled to America on his own after World War II. So he didn’t have the good fortune of living in easy times. Post-war Ireland was a pretty brutal time and place, even by the low standards that Ireland had for an acceptable economy. He left his wife
and children behind and worked in New York for three years before he had enough money to send for them. He was a baggage handler at JFK’s TWA terminal for almost thirty years. My mom still has his retirement gift in our basement: a wooden plaque with a barometer and thermometer mounted on it, neither of which ever worked.

He died before I could even begin to understand him, so my only real glimpses of him come from stories my father told. My father didn’t tell stories to illuminate or edify. He told stories for entertainment, and their BS-to-truth ratio is pretty high. Most of the tales involve him disciplining my father, swiftly and violently, for some smart-ass thing he did. I know of only one story about him that suggests a life before family and children, a life before The Rest Of His Life intervened.

As a young man, my grandfather played Gaelic football, which is one of the four Gaelic
games. The Fenians of the 19th century promoted these sports as much as they tried to revive the Gaelic language. Sports were considered an important component of Irish culture, something that would help an oppressed nation build confidence and pride after centuries of being colonized. So they created a game so violent and batshit insane that it
could only come from the Emerald Isle, the land of James Joyce and the Meaningless Lifelong Grudge.


To the untrained eye, Gaelic football looks like a mix of soccer, rugby, and American football. Except someone took the mix out of the oven too soon and it hasn’t quite gelled yet. Even the ball looks like an ill-fated mating, a volleyball crossbred with a soccer ball. Said ball is passed from player to player by kicking it. Unless they throw it. Or unless a player just grabs the ball and runs with it. The object is to
get the ball in a netted goal about three-quarters the size of a soccer goal. Unless you decide to kick the ball between the goal posts, which is worth fewer points. Your team’s final score is actually two different numbers: goals scored and total points. Essentially, Gaelic football is Celtic Calvinball.

And did I mention that this sport is insanely violent? It makes Aussie rules football look like Teletubbies. Apparently, it’s perfectly okay to try to get the ball by any means
necessary–the official rules say certain moves aren’t kosher, but the visual evidence suggests a more laissez faire attitude towards brutality. There are more nuanced defenses, of course. You can try to strip the ball away, the way a linebacker might do to running back. Or you can simply elbow someone in the throat, or slide knee-first into their nutsack. Wanna send five guys on the one man with the ball? Go for it! Cluster around him and maybe the ref won’t see you deliver a few choice shots to the kidneys.

But don’t just take my word for it. In this clip, a player runs into about eighteen full-on flying elbows and is finally knocked unconcious. And as he lays on the pitch in a crumpled heap, nobody on the field, in the stands, or in the announcer’s booth sounds overly concerned.

Hopefully this will help you appreciate Gaelic football’s intriguing amalgam of grace, athleticism, and punching.

My grandfather was very good at the sport. That doesn’t quite jive with my memories of him as a peaceful, cheerful old man. But if you see pictures of him in his youth, he looks brawny and large, kinda like John Wayne in “The Quiet Man”. His team won championships in County Louth (an hour’s drive north of Dublin) and they were remembered well enough that he traveled back to Ireland for a 50th anniversary celebration in their honor in the early 1980s, when they were inducted into the local GAA’s Hall of Fame.

My grandfather was good enough to be scouted by a few league clubs in England, according to my father. I highly doubt this story, because I don’t know how well Gaelic football skills would have translated into The Beautiful Game; my guess is poorly, unless they just wanted him to be a Hanson Brother-type goon. Regardless, it would have been a political impossibility for an Irishman in the 1930s to play football in England.

And in any case, an athletic career was not fated for my grandfather. Especially not after what happened one spring afternoon.

My grandfather traveled out of town via train that morning to play in his team’s match. He was supposed to meet my grandmother, who he’d recently married, at the train station later in the afternoon. So she went there at the appointed time, but despite seeing some of his teammates leaving the station, she didn’t spot her husband. No matter, she thought, he
must have missed the earlier train and he’d be on the next one. So she sat and waited patiently for the following train, but that one arrived and left, and my grandfather wasn’t on that one either.

Maybe he got hung up after the match, she thought. Maybe he got a pint or two after the match (although, amazingly, my grandfather was not much of a drinker). So she waited for the next train. But that one came and went, too, and he was nowhere to be found.

Not knowing what else to do, she went back home. Maybe he’d gone home on his own and I’d just missed him on the road. I’ve seen these roads, and even now in the 21st century it would be impossible to miss anyone while walking along them. Still, she had to do something to reassure herself. But when she got home, no one was there.

Frantically, she ran back to the train station. She was sure something was wrong. She went to the man in the ticket booth and asked him if anyone had left a message for her. Maybe he’d phoned to let her know that he was running late. But no, the ticket man had no messages for her.

So she asked the ticket man if he’d seen my grandfather. It was a small town, everybody knew everybody. Maybe he’d seen him though my grandmother had missed him.

The ticket man looked at her funny. “Yeah, I seen him,” he said. “I’m seein’ him right now. He’s sitting right over there.”

The ticket man motioned to a heap slumped in a far corner of the train station, muddy and miserable, an old jacket draped across his chest. His face was swollen, the obvious souvenir of a recent pummeling. He was passed out, presumably from exhaustion.

My grandmother squinted, and through the mud and the bruises, she could barely tell this was her husband. In fact, he’d been sitting there, passed out, throughout her entire ordeal, oblivious to everything but his own pain.

“I’ve been here all afternoon,” my grandmother yelled, “and you couldn’t tell me my husband was sitting right over there?!”

“I don’t pry into other people’s business,” the ticket man said. “I didn’t know if youse two were fightin’ or what.”

My grandmother roused my grandfather, slowly, and helped him hobble his way back home.

And that was the last game of Gaelic football my grandfather ever played