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'He personifies the national struggle in so many ways' - How Paul McGrath embodies the Irish story

Donal Ryan is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

Image: ©INPHO

ACKNOWLEDGING THAT WE often freight our sportspeople’s lives with too much symbolism and meaning while doing exactly that, we ask: which Irish sportsperson best embodies the national story? 

That weighty question was considered on the latest episode of Behind the Lines with one of Ireland’s best writers, Donal Ryan. 

  • Donal Ryan is the latest guest on our sportswriting podcast, Behind the Lines. To get access to the full interview along with the 89-episode series archive, subscribe at members.the42.ie. And for a limited time, you can get €5 off an annual membership by using the promo code BTL. 

The context was discussion around one of Donal’s picks as his favourite pieces of sportswriting: Paul McGrath’s autobiography, Back from the Brink, which details his story – and his alcoholism – with a remarkable and sad candour. 

“It always stayed with me”, says Donal of the book. “I love Paul McGrath. The things he says in it: he was so raw and so honest. The nadir points he reached are described so viscerally and so completely, and with such absolute honesty. It is a sad book but there’s triumph in it too.

“When you think back, when he describes in the book when they are recording the songs for Italia 90 an USA 94, he looks so happy singing along, but he reveals he needed five pints to get to the point he was comfortable joining in to sing with the lads. 

“It’s necessary for us to know that for Paul McGrath to bring us so much joy and to save our asses so many times, he suffered so much. We all just thought, ‘This is Paul McGrath, he’s ours and he’s part of our team.’ We almost have a sense of ownership of these people. 

“That is the thing about Paul McGrath, it’s part of why he is so loved: he is so shy, quietly-spoken and self-effacing, and the absolute fact that he doesn’t know how good he was. And probably has no idea of how important he is to people. I am sure he has a sense of it, but he means so much to so many people for so many reasons.” 

We then drifted into discussing how many strands of the national story are found in McGrath’s own tale. Most obviously his alcoholism, but in his story you’ll also find the State’s cold and meagre treatment of children and its subsequent demand they then emigrate to find work. 

Donal identifies another trait with the publication of his autobiography. 

“He personifies the national struggle in so many ways. Definitely. And that’s why people cleave to him so much. He also personifies the opening up of Ireland and the shedding of secrets and the lifting of the cloak of secrecy that shrouded everything.” 

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There’s an undeniable validity to that point: McGrath delivered a book of raw honesty about his past at a time that the State was finally willing to begin doing so with its own history.

For instance, to take a wider national scope not at all connected with McGrath’s story, Back from the Brink was published in 2006, an era in which the State was finally beginning to reveal some of the innumerable horrors of clerical abuse: the Ferns Report was published a few months before McGrath’s book was released, and the Murphy Report that detailed the scale of the abuse was commissioned the same year. 

It’s an interesting point that perhaps goes some way to explaining the depth of affection the country holds for McGrath: he embodies the place that loves him more than most.  

“There is almost a prophetic feeling about Paul McGrath, he can do great things just by speaking very quietly”, says Donal. “In short bursts, there is a profound honesty about him.” 

Listen to the full conversation by subscribing at members.the42.ie. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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