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.

Last year Dunphy ghostwrote the memoirs of the national soccer captain Roy Keane, a book said to have been more successful in Ireland than any other since the Book of Kells. He was widely held to have encouraged Keane's abrupt walkout from the team during last summer's World Cup, and was bitterly denounced for it. Altogether, both what Dunphy has written about others and what others have written about him might have been designed to illustrate Johnson's saying that "the Irish are a fair people;—they never speak well of one another," and Yeats's phrase about Ireland with its "great hatred, little room."

If the Desperate Chancer is one eternal Irish type, Dunphy's critics represent another: Paddy Solemn, the character perceived and labeled by the brilliant (and unsolemn) Brian O Nolan, otherwise known as the novelist Flann O'Brien and the satirist Myles na gCopaleen. You can find Paddy Solemn in J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World as Shaneen—dutiful, teetotal, priggish (and rejected by Pegeen Mike in favor of his brutal but glamorous rival). In his academic guise the type was wittily pinned down by Conor Cruise O'Brien: "Paddy Solemn likes to use precise-sounding terminology in a vague way, and derives from this a bracing sense of intellectual rigour"; in his clerical form he can be seen on either side of the Atlantic, the kind of Hibernian prelate who tries to dismiss child-abuse scandals by invoking theology.

And yet Paddy Solemn isn't merely risible or contemptible. At a time when the Catholic Church is imploding almost as fast in Ireland as in that Irish colony the Archdiocese of Boston, maybe it takes an English Protestant to see how much the Irish owe to their church and to priests who—often quite literally—gave their lives for those whose abject poverty they shared, and who taught them self-respect under the worst destitution and injustice. One might say that Father Mathew was solemn for devoting his life early in the nineteenth century to the cause of temperance, and his successor Father Cullen for founding the Pioneers, whose pin proclaimed total abstinence, but drink was as much a corrosive misery in the Dublin slums then as crack is in American cities today.

If Kevin Myers was playing Paddy Solemn, it wasn't entirely without reason. I count myself a friend as well as a colleague of Eamon Dunphy's, but no friend can regard him as a role model for the young or regret that he is off the roads for ten years. (He might think of making it permanent.) What's more, Myers is a consistent and courageous foe of the fascist movement known as "Irish republicanism," and he may just have a point when he links the indolent Irish tolerance for roaring boys who like a jar with the way that "terrorist chieftains dripping with blood of innocents are transformed into amiable, grinning grandfathers on the front pages of our newspapers."

Of course, it's never easy to be serious without being pompous. O'Brien wrote that "Paddy Solemn shudders at the thought, and cringes at the sight or sound, of Brendan Behan"—for whom read Eamon Dunphy—and that the poor fellow is haunted by a secret fear "that Ireland Will Let Him Down." He continued, "Of what avail his personal respectability if he is dragged down by a national entity which refuses to be respectable?" A graver problem still is that "republicanism" itself is a manifestation of Paddy Solemn. Nearly a hundred years ago the original Sinn Fein party said that "Ireland sober is Ireland free." More recently, while Sinn Fein's "armed wing" spent years blowing women and children to pieces, the IRA was widely admired in Ireland for at least being disciplined, honest, and abstemious (just like al Qaeda, you might say).

It would be too easy to invoke those other lines of Yeats's, which condemn Paddy Solemn under another name as

A levelling, rancorous, rational
    sort of mind
That never looked out of the
    eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard's eye.

To call dissipation a form of genius looks like an excuse; and although I enjoyed our valedictory evening, it isn't one I would want to repeat in a hurry. All the same, if solemnity has sometimes been a necessary virtue for the Irish, it would be a pity if they became so suffocatingly respectable and self-righteous—so horrified by the sight and sound of Brendan Behan, or of Eamon Dunphy—that they couldn't see that the Chancer is part of the native genius too.

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