Genius is a word that’s been thrown around so much it looks like a waterlogged ball that no one wants to kick - I think that’s a Tim Rogers line, I can’t take the credit.
But Roddy Doyle is, he’s a very clever man. He’s won the Booker Prize already (for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha). Humble and gifted though, gloriously gifted – if you need proof, he’s written a big shelf full of brilliant books to have a look at. They’re mostly about the Irish or people in Ireland, well that’s where he’s from, and all of them, for want of a better expression, are a gas crack. Stunningly funny and searingly emotive. Laughing and crying and thinking. That’s what Roddy Doyle books are good for, looking at his people to help you think about your own. It’s, well, it’s genius.
Now football fiction? You’d be fair to ask. He’s written a piece, well actually it’s part of a piece, I mean he’s written books about lots of things. He’s even written a couple of plays and a couple of kids books – one of the reasons why I’ll be looking at his work in my PhD. His latest collection The Deportees is excellent and garnered some fame as it contains a little sequelette to his first book The Commitments. The resourceful Jimmy Rabbitte Jnr strikes again you might say. And it’s brilliant as well.
He’s also written a piece of football non-fiction called Republic is a Beautiful Word for Nick Hornby’s collection My Favourite Year. It’s fantastic, it’s about Ireland’s qualification and subsequent run in the 1990 World Cup in Italy with Paul McGrath and manager, Jack Charlton – I met him once in a train station in Edinburgh. Smashin’ bloke, became something of a cult figure in Ireland after his run of success.
Well coincidentally, The Van (Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991), Mr Doyle's football fiction, is about that self same World Cup ‘triumph’. When Jimmy Rabbitte Snr goes in with his mate Bimbo in his chip van and they look like their goin’ down the shitter before the winning of World Cup games has them selling burgers and chips to fellas ‘on the lash’ outside the pub. They watch the important games in the pub themselves, of course. There are many moments of incredible humour, the battered nappy, the Eamon Dunphy – he’s the eedjit TV pundit they name the battered sausage after; the book incorporates a great deal more of Dublin’s experience of the World Cup success and the events of Jimmy Snr’s life, it’s a heart breaker and a heart warmer rolled into one. It’s a beautiful, beautiful book.
To appreciate it fully though, you’d have to go back to the beginning of The Barrytown Trilogy and start with The Commitments and follow it with The Snapper.
Republic... is a report of the World Cup campaign, It provides evidence of where he got his inspiration. (Ireland got to the Quarter Finals!) Doyle had been to the Hungary Qualifier (McGrath scored) before he’d gone to the pub to watch the highlights. “I clutched my pint into my shoulder – where babies fit when they’re being winded or walked – and watched” (pg1). It’s where his football story starts, that and the Khomeini dying on the same day, but that’s a different thing altogether.
Nelson Mandela happened to be in Dublin the same day the Irish National team did an open top bus tour of the City to celebrate their unprecedented success, as Doyle reports it, this was the reason the half million strong crowded streets burst into chants of Ooh Ah Paul McGrath’s Da, Ooh Ah Paul McGrath’s Da…” It’s funny but I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to mention Mandela and football fiction in the same place again…you never know, right enough.