We at the O’Brien Press are delighted to be publishing the first two books in the all new Great Irish Sports Stars series: Cora Staunton and Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper. Ivan O’Brien, Eimear Ryan and Donny Mahoney chatted with me about this new series.
Sport is becoming an ever-increasing part of the lives of many children, and it really gets them excited. We have published quite a few novels for young readers with sporting themes (you can see them here: http://www.obrien.ie/childrens/sport-childrens) and seen the way young readers devour them! Fiction is great, but it’s not real life, and role models are hugely important, so we had an idea: why not create a series of books about Ireland’s greatest sporting heroes, written for children? Unlike sports biographies for adults they would focus on the hero’s childhood and the key moments in their lives that made them a success. We approached some writers who we knew would do a great job, and Great Irish Sports Stars was born!
As a young GAA-mad girl growing up in Tipperary, most of my idols were men. When I was pucking out the back, I’d pretend to be Nicky English or DJ Carey – or, if I was playing football for a change, Charlie Redmond or Maurice Fitzgerald. I knew of female GAA players, of course – the Downey sisters of Kilkenny, Laois footballer Sue Ramsbottom, and legendary Tipp camogie forward Deirdre Hughes. But you would only really hear about these players in September, when RTE broadcast the women’s All-Ireland finals. Unlike the men, they didn’t often get featured on The Sunday Game or turned into pull-out posters.
Then along came Cora.
Cora Staunton was one of the first crossover stars of women’s GAA. Crucially, Cora’s breakthrough in the early 2000s coincided with TG4’s sponsorship of the ladies football championship, so her career was televised from early on. Her undeniable prowess was there for everyone to see, and soon enough, she started popping up in Lucozade ads and in in-depth interviews in the sports pages. Not only was she a brilliant female player, she was a highly visible one.
In my research for the book, I took great inspiration from Game Changer, Cora’s aptly-named autobiography written with Mary White. It gives very honest insights not just into Cora’s football career, but into the personal tragedies she has lived through, such as losing her mother when she was sixteen. Later, she lost a teammate and friend, Aisling McGing, when Aisling was just eighteen. Time and time again, when faced with personal loss, Cora turned to football for solace. Her story demonstrates the importance of sport not just as a physical outlet, but as a mental and emotional outlet as well.
Cora is inspiring because of her swagger – her total belief in her own ability and the very high standards she set for herself. She is by no means a ‘safe’ player – she takes risks, and is rewarded more often than not. For most players, scoring an outlandish tally of 2-10 would be a career highlight; for Cora, it’s just another day at the office. At the same time, she’s genuine and down-to-earth off the pitch. Her unapologetic ambition, coupled with her down-to-earth attitude, is what makes her such an exciting player to watch.
What makes a genius? Are they born or made?
Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper was a human highlight reel during his Gaelic football career for Kerry, a magician with the ball in his hand. But unlike many contemporary sporting phenoms who seem anointed for greatness from childhood, Cooper’s success was never a sure thing.
This was what drew me to the story of the Gooch for my book in the Great Irish Sport Stars series. I thought young readers would be drawn to the story of how a good footballer became one of the game’s greats.
From a young age, Cooper loved sport and was incredibly driven. He brought a Gaelic football with him everywhere he went. But in his teenage years, he was doubted and overlooked by coaches and selectors because of his size.
The book tells the story of Cooper’s GAA journey from his estate in Killarney to the steps of the Hogan Stand. It also tries to convey the mystique of Kerry football. For as long as I’ve been watching Gaelic football, I’ve been fascinated by Kerry football, and the Gooch has been central to that.
From researching and writing the book, what I found most striking was the enduring power of the club for Cooper. The Gooch experienced more famous days in Croke Park than the vast majority of GAA players, but what truly mattered most to him were the experiences with his club, Dr Crokes.
In a way, Colm Cooper’s GAA story is bookended by two experiences with his club: acting as a mascot when they won the 1992 club All-Ireland and winning the club All-Ireland with Dr Crokes in 2017. The story of the club is the story of so many Irish communities.
It was a privilege to tell Cooper’s GAA journey for young readers. Books about sport were so important to my own youth. They fostered not just a lifelong love of sport, but of storytelling too. All good sports books – no matter what age group they’re aimed at – touch on universal themes: hope, failure and glory.
These themes run across the great career of Colm Cooper, and hopefully young readers who may have never seen the Gooch in full flight will be fascinated by his story.
Ivan O’Brien, Eimear Ryan and Donny Mahoney August 2019