The Tour de France has inspired writers and social critics as well as sportsmen for almost a century. It was to celebrate this great race and its wider sporting literature that Dr. Stacey organized a conference on French and Irish sporting greatness to give the Tour a more cerebral send-off than is usual for a sporting event. It is no small feat to have brought together so varied a range of contributors to tackle the thorny question of French and Irish sporting contacts and the idea of the heroic in sport. The Tour de France has inspired writers and social critics as well as sportsmen for almost a century. It was to celebrate this great race and its wider sporting literature that Sarah Alyn Stacey organized a conference on French and Irish sporting greatness to give the Tour a more cerebral send-off than is usual for a sporting event. For the Tour, in one of its occasional foreign escapades, had slipped the bounds of the Hexagon, and, in recognition of the great contribution Irish riders like Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche had made to the race, began the 1998 Tour de France in Trinity College, Dublin.
It is no small feat to have brought together so varied a range of contributors to tackle the thorny question of French and Irish sporting contacts and the idea of the heroic in sport. Historians, literary critics, sporting administrators and enthusiasts as well as a prominent cyclist and sports writer were asked to reflect on different sporting links between the two countries and the idea of the hero in each. This fits in with a renewed critical interest in the idea of the hero. For the study of heroism has re-emerged from the shadow of Carlyle and the nineteenth-century concept of the genius touched by the divine. A new generation is seeking a less omnipotent kind of hero, the common man - or woman - who does uncommon things. Central to these concerns has been the creation and the reception of the hero by not only the sporting public but also by the wider national community. This collection is a testimony to the variety of heroism. It is not simply about great sporting champions.
Rather it looks at how sports intersect more widely with a whole range of individuals who, through their commitment to excellence, their sheer integrity, or their simple self-sacrifice, could be called 'heroic'. One of the virtues of this collection is that it accepts the ambiguity of the hero. It confronts the problem of how the professional can be a hero when he is paid to do what he does. Neal Garnham tackles this head on in the case of professional footballers in Ireland. The Gaelic Athletic Association created its own heroic tradition steeped in ideals of nationalism and amateurism. Footballers were diminished as heroes in a world where fame was contingent on political and national allegiance. Bill McCracken, the inventor of the off-side trap and one of the greatest full backs in professional football, was never forgiven for going to play for Newcastle United and demanding the same international fee that was paid to England internationals. Real heroism in sport, as Paul Kimmage so powerfully underlines in his moving portrait of Shay Elliot - an exceptional piece of sports writing - is to stay true to yourself even when others betray you. Is courage the supreme heroic virtue?
Courage is called for not only on the field of play but most spectacularly in the strict classical sense of the hero: on the field of battle. Bravery and friendship are unfashionable male virtues nowadays. Hence those 'old pals', whose cheerful patriotism and naive bravery led them tumbling out of their Trinity staircases to play rugby and to volunteer in 1914, have not received the recognition they deserve. Gerald Morgan, who so clearly admires these men and brings them back from their graves in Gallipoli so that we also may admire them, links the ideal of the sacrificial hero to the everyday world of competitive sport. No one made these men go to their deaths. They went for fun and without calculation in the same way they played their rugby. France and Ireland have much in common as uneasy neighbours of Great Britain. They both share an awkward - though very different - relationship to the nation that invented modern sport.
In the case of Ireland this led to a division in Irish sport between those like Michael Cusack who chose the path of a separate national sporting culture and those who chose to play English rugby in a distinctively Irish way as both Trevor West and Jean-Pierre Bodis explain in their different ways. Odd interconnections abound between France and Ireland, whether it be Samuel Beckett's life-long attachment to Irish cricket or the hitherto unknown role played by a prominent Irish sportsman, Daniel Bulger, in the creation of the modern Olympic Games by a French nobleman. Greatness in sport may be a deceptively simple thing - as Aidan Moran says: the ability to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs. Sporting heroes perform in a continuous present, banishing any thoughts of what has gone before or what might be to come. But we live differently. We weave our myths around those who excel at things we cannot do but would like to do. The French and the Irish alike assign all kinds of meanings to what has been done by their citizens and in their name. This collection shows just how multifarious the idea of the sporting hero can be.
It shows, too, how Ireland and France have a distinctive relationship through sport, especially in rugby and cycling. These are well-written pieces - not so common in academic collections these days - and are sensitively and lucidly introduced by the Editor, whose job in bringing together such an unusual mixture of contributors on so innovative a theme seems almost heroic in its own right.