Most poetry fans will be aware of Ian McMillan as Barnsley FC's famous poet. Fewer might be aware of Paul Cookson, poet-in-residence at the National Football Museum in Manchester. But In February of this year, Bohemians FC appointed Irish football’s first ever poet-in-residence, Lewis Kenny. A student from Cabra, Dublin, Lewis's poems about the club, Dalymount Park, football and the local community are published in the club’s match-day programmes.
Similarly, performance poet Attila the Stockbroker is in residence at Brighton & Hove FC, Forward Poetry Prize short-listee Sarah Wardle was with Tottenham Hotspur. Her second collection, SCORE! (Bloodaxe Books, 2005), includes some of the poems she broadcast while in residence for the club.
Historically within Irish literature, there is an undercurrent of sporting poems. Louis MacNeice has the poem 'Rugby Football Excursion', first published in The Earth Compels. Although, arguably only eight of its forty-four lines are devoted to the match. The rest are concerned with what happens before and afterwards. (This may be because the match in question was an Ireland-England interational that England won by 22 points. One could imagine the poet being a bit lengthier if Ireland had been the victors.
"Landsdowne Road - the swirl of faces, flags,
Gilbert and Sullivan music, emerald jerseys;"
Brendan Kane's popular poem 'The Beautiful Game' is from time to time reprinted in GAA programmes. it deals with a player trying to score three much needed points with only a minute left on the clock.
I step up to the ball and look towards the posts,
Is that the crowd I hear, or is it the ghosts
Of men who before me have faced the same test,
And never once failed to give of their best.
Rudyard Kipling's 'If' was originally inspired by the military actions of Leander Starr Jameson, although it's often been adopted and appropriated into a sporting context. Reading it alongside 'The Beautiful Game', it is easy to see why.
Gaelic games seem to attract more romanticism than soccer, with poems such as '1907 Hurlers of Turloughmore', Gabriel Fitzmaurice's poems 'A Footballer', 'A Giant Never Dies' and 'Munster Football Final, 1924’, and Seamus Redmond's 'The Hurler's Prayer' (see below Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh's reading of it from RTÉ, oddly set to the tune of Lana Del Ray's 'Video Games'). In Alternative Ulsters: Conversations on Identity, Mark Carruthers' series of interviews with prominent Ulster people, Seamus Heaney speaks of being awareness of his 'Irishness' through family, church, and interestingly, through Gaelic football. The first part of his poem 'Markings' from Seeing Things (1991), probably best captures his childhood experience:
We marked the pitch: four jackets for four goalposts,
That was all. The corners and the squares
Were there like longitude and latitude
Under the bumpy ground, to be
Agreed about or disagreed about
When the time came. And then we picked the teams
And crossed the line our called names drew between us.
In the early years of the GGA, founded in 1884, the games were often centres political and patriotic displays, as well as other cultural activities, such as Irish dancing and poetry recitals. There's probably too much politics in sports already, but it's a glorious thought to imagine poetry returning to the fields of our sporting arenas, giving verse to the masses. With Paul Cookson, the National Football Museum and the Premier League working with the National Literary Trust to promote Football Poetry Days and Premier League Reading Stars, it may happen again sooner than we think.