Limerick obsession runs deep in GAA book of the year so far – The Irish Times

The GAA book of the year so far isn’t a tell-all and it isn’t – thank the gods – another autobiography.

It’s light on any identifiable scandal, at least beyond the workaday woes of intercounty life. It has a weird structure too, with the story folding in and around and through itself like plaited puff pastry. You can’t skim it and you can’t dive 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 on Newstalk’s Off The Ball and a Sligo man by birth but Limerick hurling grabbed him by the lapel as a young boy and has been shaking him ever since.

His father left Limerick 50 years ago this week but Limerick never left him. The heirloom has been passed down – the inheritance tax stung for a while but recent years have squared the books.

“It’s the one thing in my life that I just get incredibly emotional about, all the time,” says O’Dea, for whom this is his first book.

“It’s the one constant. Channeling that in some way made it seem very, very obvious for me to do a book on it. Apart from the real stuff, like family and so on, Limerick hurling is the thing that I can never be blasé about.

“I come and go with football – you grow up supporting Man United but you can be in and out with it, take or leave it sometimes. But with Limerick, this has just intensified. It has become more and more important over the years.

“My father turned 67 during the week and we got him a Limerick jersey. And he was delighted with it. Like, he’s 67 and just an ordinary Limerick jersey does that to him. I left Limerick at 17 but we still always got the Limerick Leader, every week. He’s a very calm, steady type of fella but nothing excites him or laughs him up like Limerick hurling.

“I was very lucky to have that and be plugged into that from a very young age. That’s what Limerick hurling means. We have a very close family, we’re very lucky. Limerick’s success over the past few years has been great because we wanted that so badly for him.”

The book is the story of Limerick’s rise from the ashes but it’s not that story either. O’Dea’s storytelling is both inventive and wildly clever – a series of vignettes are woven through each other right from the opening chapter, an account of the 2018 All-Ireland final from a host of different perspectives. He credits his publisher, Liam Hayes of Hero Books, with coming up with the idea on the structure but the execution is all his.

The nine lives O’Dea uses to carry the tale span the guts of a century. From Mick Mackey (born 1912) to Shane Dowling (born 1993), taking in Eamonn Cregan, Tommy Quaid, Joe McGrath, Ger Hegarty, Tom Ryan, Shane Fitzgibbon and Stephen Lucey along the way. The academic in O’Dea – he has a PhD in English literature – enjoyed researching Mackey’s story the most. But he is in no doubt about who the key figure in the book is.

“Cregan is just the most captivating figure,” he says. “Everything goes through him really. Go all the way back and his father hurled with Mackey. He himself played on the team that won in ’73 and then they didn’t win a final again until 2018. At that time, he played on the ’74 team that was beaten by Kilkenny and again on the 1980 team beaten by Galway. Then he was over the Offaly team that beat them in 1994.

“The negative impact that had on him over the years goes so deep. He can’t bring himself to watch the games now. It’s fascinating talking to him, just how much ’94 still impacts on him. It hurts his sensibilities to be the one presiding over the team that beat Limerick in such a cruel way. It couldn’t have happened in a worse way. He can talk about it but there’s part of him that just can’t bring himself to watch them now.

“I can relate to that too because before 2018, that’s not far off where it had gotten to with my father and me. It was getting to the point where this was not fun. This was causing us more anguish than anything else.

“And there’s the two sides of the coin with that GAA devotion because the worst thing about it is that you can’t leave it. You can’t forget about it. It’s there. It’s always there. And for someone like Eamonn, it goes so deep in him that even now, he can’t sit down and watch an All-Ireland final.”

Because it doesn’t focus on one character or one team or one era, there’s a rare richness to the book. It’s like a video game where you’re constantly unlocking new doors and rifling through new rooms and filing cabinets to pick up morsels for the journey.

Nickie Quaid’s mam Breda is a riot, Stephen Lucey’s earnest heroics ring out as clearly now as they did in the 2000s. The making of Limerick’s academy is in here, the strike and bad temper of the 2009-2010 period is in it too. All leading to Valhalla, the safe and sure knowledge for O’Dea that he is living through the good old days.

“Following Limerick now is achieving relief,” he says. “Worry is permanent – that’s still the way of it even after all the success. Once the All-Ireland is over each year, you go, ‘Well at least I can put that worry to one side now for a few weeks or months. But then you see the All Star nominations come out and you start to go, ‘How many will Limerick get? Is that something I have to worry about?’

“I never wanted the book to be definitive. I didn’t set out to write THE Limerick book. I wanted it to be something that I could dip in and out of – I’m not a big fan of books following that chronological format. It’s great to have it done now and to have it out there and to see how much it means to people I know.”

Limerick: A Biography In Nine Lives by Arthur James O’Dea is out now, published by Hero Books.

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