Ireland April 2003

Paddy Solemn and the Desperate Chancer

The conflict between two eternal Irish types

As farewell parties go, it was certainly merry, not to say a little exhausting. Eamon Dunphy was leaving The Last Word, a two-hour radio show he hosted in Dublin each weekday evening for more than five years, and three dozen colleagues, family members, and friends had assembled to mark his departure. It was a true Dublin gathering—good craic, much fine food eaten, plenty of wine drunk, many speeches made (including one by me not long before midnight, I'm told; as the program's London correspondent, I had been flown over for the occasion), until we drifted home in the small hours.

The morning after the morning after I still felt rather queasy when I glanced at the papers, which made me queasier still. A huge headline on the front page of the Irish Sunday Mirror screamed, "DUNPHY'S 8-HOUR BENDER," and our little festivity was described inside over two lurid pages. On one of them, under the headline "ANGRIEST MAN TURNS INTO THIRSTIEST," an unflattering paparazzo shot showed Dunphy "supported by Last Word contributor Jeffrey [sic] Wheatcroft" outside the restaurant. I felt like telling the paper not to be so sure of who was supporting whom, and that anyway it had been more like eleven hours from when the first champagne was opened in the Today FM studio until the last hurrahs.

But if that tabloid said something about the local obsession with our guest of honor, it was nothing compared with what appeared in The Irish Times. In his column "An Irishman's Diary," Kevin Myers said that he would never again appear on a certain discussion program shown by RTE, the national television network, because Dunphy had been on it a couple of weeks earlier. In any proper society "with civilised standards, a serial drunk-driver such as Eamon Dunphy simply would not be brought on to a television programme to be consulted for his opinions on any matters of importance," Myers wrote. "But we behave differently in this wretched, sleaze-filled country"—and much more of the same.

Reading this diatribe, I thought of what was said about the Irish by Samuel Johnson, and also W. B. Yeats; I'll come back to that. But another bell rang in my mind. In an essay forty years ago Conor Cruise O'Brien mentioned those of his countrymen "who have attained the condition diagnosed by Myles na gCopaleen as 'Paddy Solemn.'" There are plenty of divisions in Ireland, but none is more fascinating than the one between the two types personified by Dunphy's enemies and Dunphy himself.

Most readers of this magazine will wonder who Eamon Dunphy is. It's an amusing question, because it illustrates yet again that huge cultural gulf—far greater than thousands of miles of ocean—separating New World from Old, even when Americans make a parade of their ancestral heritage. How many ardent Italian-Americans have heard of Alessandro Nesta and Giorgio Bocca (an Italian soccer player and a newspaper columnist)? How many proud Jewish Americans of Eyal Berkovich and Meir Shalev (an Israeli soccer player and a columnist)? And how many strident Irish-Americans of Eamon Dunphy (soccer player and columnist)? Even in the shamrock-infested bars of Third Avenue, in New York, and of South Boston, few are aware that Dunphy is just about the most famous, or infamous, man in Ireland.

Now in his late fifties, Dunphy is a Dubliner who left school early to play soccer. He joined Manchester United but soon moved to the less exalted Millwall, in South London, where he stayed until, in his early thirties, his club career dwindled away. Then he wrote a memoir. Only a Game? is one of the best books ever written about any sport, or, more exactly, about the grandeurs et misères (more of the latter than the former) of the professional sportsman—not the Shaq or Tiger with his mega-millions but the average-Joe pro for whom sport is a route out of poverty, a way of making a modest living, and better than the factory bench, but still likely to leave him bruised and broke.

That book was written with the help of a journalist, but Dunphy quickly found that he could write on his own, and made a new career. For years he wrote for the Sunday Independent, where he played the Desperate Chancer, as the Irish say: pugnacious, full of bravado, unpredictable to the point of recklessness. He is, to put it mildly, a man of flamboyant character and conduct: he was finally given a ten-year ban from the roads last year, after his ninth conviction for drunk driving, and he was suspended by RTE from his regular place on a soccer-discussion show after he turned up one Sunday lunchtime in a condition suggesting that, as the racetrack officials might say, he had not yet completed the excretion period for non-normal nutrients. There may be an element of poetic justice in the brutality of the attacks on Dunphy, who was once called the most scurrilous journalist in Ireland by O'Brien. A brilliant natural writer and broadcaster, as even Myers admits, he has himself over the years gored one by one the sacred cows of Official Ireland (his own happy coining)—the Ulster nationalist leader John Hume, the former President Mary Robinson, and even the poet Seamus Heaney, who is way beyond criticism in Dublin.

Presented by

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is a regular contributor to The Atlantic. He has just finished writing a history of the Tour de France.

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