Migration, Masculinity and the Fugitive State of Mind in the Irish Emigrant Footballer Autobiography: The Case of Paul McGrath

By Free, Marcus | Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Migration, Masculinity and the Fugitive State of Mind in the Irish Emigrant Footballer Autobiography: The Case of Paul McGrath


Free, Marcus, Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies


In recent years the 'confessional' autobiography has varied the hitherto notoriously banal professional football biography in Britain (Whannel 2002). Co- or 'ghost-written' 'autobiographies' of such former emigrant Irish or Irish descended international footballers as Roy Keane, Tony Cascarino, Niall Quinn, Paul McGrath and George Best have featured in this sub-genre. Their 'confessions' of alcoholism, gambling, infidelity, irresponsibility towards partners or dependents, or of underlying ontological insecurity might be seen as insightful engagements with their lives as male Irish footballers in Britain. However, this paper argues that the combination of narratives organised around the rhythmic cycles of football seasons and almost exclusive focus on men's football's 'homosocial' (Sedgwick 1985) world (repeatedly distanced from the feminine and domestic) has celebrated a unique variation of Irish emigrant masculinity. Indeed the confessional discourse and popularised psychological terminology frequently licence 'colourful' anecdotes which legitimate the footballer's extended male adolescent lifestyle.

And yet, with some variety, they highlight and reflexively comment on these footballers' embodiment of contradictory migrant masculinities, sharing with generations of manual labouring Irish emigrants their self-validation and identity formation through bodily labour, along with the concomitant physical risks and enduring damage resulting from the commodification of labour power through physically demanding work, while also gaining fame and (though often temporary) wealth as celebrities. Reading these biographical accounts using psychoanalytic perspectives on sport, masculinity and migration, it is argued that they are contradictory texts embodying a peculiar variation on the emigrant "fugitive state of mind" (Davar, 1996), both approximating and deferring mature, reflexive engagement with the social and cultural construction of identity, allowing them to occupy a liminal but discontent imaginary space where adolescent masculinity can be indefinitely extended.

The paper focuses on two co-written 'autobiographies' of Paul McGrath. McGrath was among the most popular international Irish soccer players ever, his career lasting from 1985 to 1997. A renowned centre back at Manchester United and Aston Villa, he also frequently played in midfield internationally under Ireland manager Jack Charlton (1986-1995). Although he successfully played with severely damaged and painful knees which notoriously prevented proper training, but without apparently impeding performances, McGrath's famously excessive, unrepentant drinking precipitated his 'sale' by Alex Ferguson to Aston Villa in 1989, and despite a career renaissance (McGrath was voted Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year in 1993), he failed to appear for several international matches due to drinking binges, and either missed many club games due to alcohol consumption, or played while under its influence. McGrath's popularity in Ireland undoubtedly owed something to his success at a time when the national team was becoming a symbol of postcolonial renaissance in Ireland. He was reassuringly 'Irish' despite his mother's migration and his inter-'racial' mix, while his broken biography and body became emblematic, in journalistic commentaries, of an historically, geographically fractured nation reassembled and able to function as a unit (Free 2005). For supporters he symbolically 'contained' anxieties concerning national identity's constructedness and selectiveness. Accepting and celebrating "the black pearl of Inchicore", his nickname and subtitle to this book, became a mark of national "maturity" (Doyle 1998).

The first 'autobiography' (with Cathal Dervan, 1994) celebrates McGrath's supposed embodiment of the Irish 'diaspora' but glosses over his well known alcoholism and serial infidelity, while the second (with Vincent Hogan, 2006) is a 'confessional' volume written post-career and following two failed marriages. …

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