Irish Examiner Sports Column, 30 January 2009

January 30, 2009

A farewell
to the writer and the Rebel

IT’S BEEN a tough week for the greats. John Updike passed away a few days ago at the age of 76. He might be well known as an unfeasibly prolific essayist and reviewer, to say nothing of a couple of dozen novels, but Updike was also a sports fan and an accomplished sportswriter.

One of his novels, ‘Rabbit, Run’, features the best description of a golf shot this column has ever read (“Very simply he brings the clubhead around his shoulder into it. The sound has a hollowness, a singleness he hasn’t heard before”). The title character, Rabbit, has made perfect contact, and watches the ball ” . . . recede along a line straight as a ruler-edge. Stricken: sphere, star, speck”.

In his half-century writing for the New Yorker, Updike also wrote one of the great sports feature articles of all time, on the retirement of baseball great Ted Williams.

Updike watched Williams’ last game for the Boston Red Sox, during which the player, improbably, hammered out a home run in a real-life Hollywood ending.

As he rounded the bases, Williams was beseeched by supporters to doff his cap, the traditional baseball acknowledgement of praise, but he didn’t, in keeping with a career-long distrust — and sometimes open hostility — towards the Boston media and supporters.

Updike summed up the player’s remoteness perfectly: “Gods do not answer letters.”

A MAN who occupied a role not far distant from Williams’, though not in Boston, died also this week: Connie Buckley, better known as Sonny, of Glen Rovers and Cork, was 92.

He captained Cork to the All-Ireland hurling title of 1941, when he scored the Leesiders’ 11th and last point from centre-forward in a comprehensive defeat of Dublin.

That year he had also picked up his eighth consecutive county senior hurling championship medal with his club, and though his intercounty career ended with that ‘41 triumph, his brother Jack picked up a Celtic cross in 1942, and the third brother, Din Joe, collected four All-Irelands from 1941 to 1944, and added a fifth in 1946.

Before his death he was the oldest surviving All-Ireland senior hurling captain, which was hardly a surprise.

He hardly seemed to age in the 20 or so years in which he was a familiar figure to this column, out strolling with his dog through Ballyvolane and Dublin Hill, a quiet man with a cap, dressed just as formally as you would expect from someone who came of age in the 1930s.

Given the toxicity of the atmosphere these days in Cork, this column was half-inclined to leave this to one side as a topic.

The relentless parsing of comments that have marked the last few months meant we hesitated a little in case anything might be construed in the wrong way.

A comment on Sonny Buckley’s career or achievements might be misinterpreted or twisted to suit an agenda, and the last thing we wanted was to poke open a can of controversy where it wasn’t needed; there’s quite enough of that to go around these days in Cork.

Then we thought it would be unfair not to mark his passing. The GAA is 125 years old this year, and its legend was built on men like Sonny Buckley and thousands like him — men who came from farms and little villages to Croke Park and led their colleagues out of the dressing-room and into immortality.

I only knew him as an elderly gent, but even in his 80s there were traces of the clear-eyed captain looking out over the heads of the photographers in a picture taken before the All-Ireland final 68 years ago: the hair short and tousled, the jaw set, game face on. Ready to score that 11th point, to watch the sliotar change as he strikes it: sphere, star, speck. Then the cup, and the long journey home.

We might even venture to say that a mention of his passing at tomorrow night’s all-singing, all-dancing celebration ahead of Dublin versus Tyrone would strike a chord in a way that, say, half a million euro worth of fireworks wouldn’t.

By the way, Sonny shared a pithiness of expression with John Updike, if not Ted Williams.

Some years ago he was looking down on a club match which featured all the skills of the modern game. Stirred to comment, he simply murmured: “What happened to standing into your man?”

Then he nudged his trusty dog and they headed off down towards Spring Lane and Blackpool.

Well, it wasn’t quite Updike. But it wasn’t bad either.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal dilis.



One Response to “Irish Examiner Sports Column, 30 January 2009”

  1. Monte Hennessy Says:

    Do you know when his brother Jack died and where .Tel o86 2208421

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