Sunday 17 December 2017

Eoghan Corry: Why we will always forgive our tortured genius Paul

It was the amazing Mexican painter Frida Kahlo who once complained "I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim."

Paul McGrath, another artistic genius whose sorrows are swimming vigorously and whose life is as surreal as any of Kahlo's paintings, would concur.

It is a cruel and undeserved burden for the man who brought beauty and brightness into the dark of 1980s Ireland at the time we most needed cheering up. As we climbed out of our melancholy, he descended deeper into darkness.


The help that was at hand wasn't always helpful. Fans and admirers liked his company and rejected his shyness.

Declan Lynch's account of Italia '90 was an indictment of how central drink was to the entire experience, for the fans and for everyone around the team. Even if he was teetotal, Paul will forever be associated with some of those most free-drinking periods in all our lives.

That was bad enough. But anybody's sanity would be tested by the array of positive-psychology quick fix experts, mantra monks, new-age therapists, several-stepped recovery programmes, anti-depressants and high-tech gadgets that were offered. It usually takes something really creative to move a genius off the bottom rung.

And Paul is not far off the bottom rung at the moment, judging by his latest interview.

The interview was conducted by journalist Vincent Hogan who also wrote McGrath's award-winning biography, which conveys the extent to which he struggled with alcoholism and depression at the height of his career.

Many players cope with melancholia after they hang up their boots. Paul was already deep in the pit before he quit playing. It made the post-career trauma all the more difficult.


There were not many places to turn in the circumstances. Paul turned back to the sunny south east, where he found affection in his childhood summers with the Latta family. The stories from there in recent months have not always happy but the people of Wexford were prepared to shrug their shoulders and say, with genuine affection: "That's Paul McGrath."

That attitude, particularly on the part of his neighbour Noel Pepper, kept him out of jail.

The bizarre drink-fuelled incident in which he made off with Pepper's vehicle might even be a turning point.

The Wexford people understand that sportsmen live a life of extremes. On the field, victory is total. Defeat is total. The brevity and transience of the elation of victory is total. The greatest artists in every discipline have had difficulty coping with a set of rules and playing field as tight and unforgiving as that.

Creativity and melancholy go hand in hand. Writers often speculate, with self-serving ease, that the greater the genius, the greater the burden. Ireland knows our own genius victims only too well, the despair of writers like Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh, the despair of sportsmen like George Best, Alex Higgins and Jack Doyle, the despair of many of our greatest musicians and balladeers.

"In art, there are tears that lie too deep for thought," American theatre critic Louis Kronenberger once pondered after watching another angst-written and traumatic on-stage drama.

Few dramas come as great as those played out in a World Cup soccer stadium. Few dramas are as traumatic. Few tears are deeper and beyond redemption than those of the defeated sportsperson.


And through the formative years of our generation Paul McGrath was playing his heart out in the midst of all those dramas. He still is. Just as you could never overestimate the affection of the Irish supporters for Paul McGrath, we cannot underestimate the height of the genius, or of the depth of his despair.

Sportsmen perform to a high level by using techniques such as visualisation, by reciting the mantras of success over and over in their heads so they can be re-enacted in the drama of the sportsfield.

All we can hope for now is that Paul can visualise the moment of victory, and keep it in his mind until he re-emerges and walks over the monsters he has slain. His sorrows are still swimming all too strongly.

It is Paul McGrath who needs the lifejacket.

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