The GAA Book of the Year isn’t a tell-all book yet, and thank the gods it’s not another autobiography.
It’s light on every identifiable scandal, at least beyond the mundane woes of intercounty life. It also has an odd structure, with the story folding in and around and through itself like braided puff pastry. You can’t skim it and you can’t dive in halfway. Above all, you can’t put it down, at least not for very long.
The book is Limerick: A Biography in Nine Lives. Arthur James O’Dea is a researcher for Newstalks Off The Ball and a native of Sligo but Limerick Hurling grabbed his lapel as a little boy and has been shaking him ever since.
His father left Limerick 50 years ago this week, but Limerick never left him. The heirloom is inherited – inheritance tax has hurt for a while, but the last few years have put the books in order.
“It’s the one thing in my life that I’m constantly incredibly emotional about,” says O’Dea, for whom this is his first book.
“That’s the only constant. Channeling that made it very, very natural for me to do a book about it. Aside from the real stuff like family and whatnot, limerick hurling is the thing I can never be indifferent to.
“I come and go with football – you grow up watching Man United but you can get in and out of it, take it or leave it at times. But with Limerick this has only increased. It has become increasingly important over the years.
“My dad turned 67 midweek and we got him a Limerick jersey. And he was happy about it. He’s 67 and that just makes him an ordinary Limerick shirt. He left Limerick at 17 but we still got the Limerick Leaders every week. He’s a very calm, steady type, but nothing excites or annoys him quite like limerick slingshots.
“I was very lucky to have that and to have been attached to it from a young age. That means limerick hurling. We have a very close family, we are very lucky. Limerick’s success over the past few years has been great because we’ve wished that for him so much.”
The book is the story of Limerick rising from the ashes, but it’s not that story either. O’Dea’s storytelling is both imaginative and extremely clever – a series of vignettes are woven together right from the opening chapter, reporting the 2018 All-Ireland Final from a variety of different perspectives. He credits his publisher, Liam Hayes of Hero Books, with the idea for the structure, but the execution is entirely up to him.
The nine lives that O’Dea uses to tell the story span the guts of a century. From Mick Mackey (born 1912) to Shane Dowling (born 1993) starring Eamonn Cregan, Tommy Quaid, Joe McGrath, Ger Hegarty, Tom Ryan, Shane Fitzgibbon and Stephen Lucey. The academic at O’Dea – he has a PhD in English literature – most enjoyed researching Mackey’s story. But he has no doubt who the key character in the book is.
“Cregan is just the most intriguing character,” he says. “Everything really runs through him. Go all the way back and his dad hurled Mackey. He himself played in the team that won in 1973, and then they didn’t win a final again until 2018. During this period he played in the 74 team which were beaten by Kilkenny and again in the 1980 team which was beaten by Galway. Then he was above the Offaly team that defeated them in 1994.
“The negative impact he’s had over the years goes so deep. He can’t bring himself to watch the games now. It’s fascinating to talk to him about how much ’94 still affects him. It hurt his sensibilities to be the one leading the team that defeated Limerick in such a gruesome way. It couldn’t have been worse. He can talk about it, but part of him just can’t bring himself to look at her right now.
“I can also identify with that, because before 2018 it was not far away for my father and me. It got to the point where it wasn’t fun anymore. That scared us more than anything else.
“And there are two sides to this GAA dedication, because the worst part is that you can’t stop it. you can’t forget it It is there. It’s always there. And for someone like Eamonn, it’s so deep inside him that even now he can’t sit down and watch an All-Ireland final.”
Because it doesn’t focus on one character, team, or era, the book has a rare richness. It’s like a video game where you keep unlocking new doors and searching new rooms and filing cabinets to pick up morsels for the journey.
Nickie Quaid’s mother Breda is a rioter, Stephen Lucey’s serious exploits ring as clear today as they did in the 2000s. The making of Limerick’s academy is in here, the strike and bad mood of 2009-2010 is in there too. All leads to Valhalla, the safe and sure knowledge for O’Dea that he’s living through the good old days.
“Following Limerick now is a relief,” he says. “Keep worrying – that’s still the case after all the success. When the All-Ireland is over each year you say, ‘Well, at least I can put that worry aside for a few weeks or months now. But then you see the All-Star nominations come out and you start wondering, ‘How many is Limerick going to get? Is that something I need to worry about?’
“I never wanted the book to be final. I didn’t intend to write THE Limerick book. I wanted it to be something I could dip in and out of – I’m not a big fan of books that follow this chronological format. It’s great to have done it now and to have it out there and see how much it means to the people I know.”
Limerick: A Biography In Nine Lives by Arthur James O’Dea is available now from Hero Books.