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Masculinity and Irish Popular Culture

Tiger’s Tales
Conn Holohan and Tony Tracy (eds)


From "Clubs, Closets and Catwalks: GAA Stars and the Politics of Contemporary Irish Masculinity" by Michael G. Cronin

In October 2009 Donal Óg Cusack published his autobiography, Come What May. In the following weeks this event received exponentially greater coverage in the Irish media than would usually be accorded to a sports memoir. There were several salient reasons for this. Since 1999 Cusack had been goalkeeper with the Cork hurling team, one of the few teams considered capable of challenging the dominance of Kilkenny in the national championship; they had won the All-Ireland Final in Cusack's inaugural year and again in 2004 and 2005. But along with their success his team had also become noteworthy for their disputes with the governing board of the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) in Cork. The team had twice gone on strike to demand better conditions for players and to protest at what they saw as ineffective management. The second of these strikes, in the winter of 2008-9, had been particularly protracted and bitter, and Cusack, along with his colleague Sean Óg Ó hAilpin, emerged as the chief spokesperson for the players. This role augmented his ongoing advocacy for GAA players on a national level through the Gaelic Players Association (GPA), of which he is Chair. Hence Cusack had an unusually high profile, not only as a leading player, but also for his engagement in GAA politics. Nevertheless the publication of his book mainly generated such widespread interest, far beyond the usual confines of sports coverage, because he spoke publicly for the first time about being gay.

In December 2010 RTE broadcast an hour-long documentary charting a year in the life of Paul Galvin. Like Cusack, Galvin was a long-standing member of a highly successful GAA team; he made his first appearance as a county footballer with Kerry in 2003 and when the documentary was broadcast he had played in six successive All-Ireland Finals, of which Kerry had won four. Nevertheless his reputation was mixed.

Generally considered one of the outstanding footballers of his generation, his performances were integral to the success of this Kerry team; that was acknowledged by his elevation to captain for the 2008 season. However, Galvin was unable to actually lead his team onto the field of play for most of the championship that year as he was suspended for three months by the GAA disciplinary authorities following an incident where he knocked a notebook out of a referee's hand. These extremes of virtuosity and ignominy were captured by the documentary, Galvinised, which begins with Galvin being named Player of the Year in October 2009 and then receiving two lengthy suspensions for violently attacking opposing players during the 2010 season. His aggression and volatility on the football field, along with the subsequent disruptions to his playing career, partly explain why the interest of the Irish media in Galvin exceeds that accorded to most other GAA players. Strikingly, Galvinised takes this excessive media interest in Galvin as one of its main themes, while also being yet another instance of the same phenomenon. Likewise, in the documentary Galvin expressed his dismay at the media intrusion into his life while simultaneously demonstrating that he was actively expanding his media profile, modelling in fashion shoots and presenting a music programme on local radio. He also spoke at length about his interest in men's fashion, and about leaving his job as a schoolteacher to return to college as a student of fashion. In January 2011 Galvin began writing a weekly column on men's fashion for the Irish Independent newspaper.

There are clear similarities here: two works of life narrative by virtuoso but controversial GAA stars. However, the media response varied sharply in tone – heroic for Cusack, comic for Galvin – and offered quite different interpretations. For commentators, the meaning of Galvin's story resided solely in what it told us, or failed to tell us, about his life and was not seen to have any broader significance beyond that. This was an entirely individual drama, in which Galvin was either a flawed tragic hero struggling to control those psychic forces constantly threatening to undermine his talent, or a vain and foolish dandy, distracted from the real business of football by the vacuous glamour of media and fashion. By contrast, Cusack's story was seen to have powerful reverberations beyond his own life. He was an exemplary figure, whose honesty and courage offered inspiration to other sportspeople and encouragement to queer youth. His coming-out raised challenges for institutions like the GAA, while encouraging reflection on the condition of con-temporary Ireland. Journalists repeatedly cited two incidents from the book to illustrate the persistence of homophobic attitudes: the response of Donal Cusack senior to hearing his son was gay and a quite shocking incident where a spectator had used a megaphone to hurl abuse at Cusack during a game. The reiterated use of these two figures identified homophobia with minorities (older people struggling with new cultural norms; dysfunctional and disturbed individuals) and as a problem that needed to be managed - while also helpfully locating homophobia elsewhere, far from the worldview of the writer. Moreover, in this view, while Cusack's story demonstrated the challenges that confronted lesbians and gay men in Ireland and in sport, the publication of his story demonstrated the degree to which questions of gender and sexual identity had been progressively sorted out in Irish society over the last few decades. Thus, for Terry Prone, writing in the Evening Herald, the generally positive response to Cusack's coming-out demonstrated the successful transformation in attitudes towards sexuality that had taken place in Ireland in the last decades of the twentieth century. Prone implies that this was a process entirely driven by the media and she makes no mention of social movements - unsurprising perhaps given her profession as a PR consultant. She concludes that the proof of this progressive transformation is that Irish people are now 'unshockable' by such revelations and are focused instead on economic matters. This progressive narrative also took on a geo-temporal dimension, in which Ireland was moving from a position of backwardness closer to the norm; in a further variant on this, rural Ireland, and the cultural complex for which 'GAA' stands as a metonym, was also slowly moving closer to a metropolitan norm of civility.