Book Review: The boys drinking the black stuff

Passion in exile - 100 years of London Irish By PETER BILLS
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The Independent Online
London Irish is as famous for the social side of life as it is for having produced so many great players and so many marvellous matches. One can only be impressed at the sight of regiments of glasses of the black stuff, standing to attention on the bar, rank after rank, the creamy head an inch or so below the rim of the glass waiting for the ritual topping up when the hordes descend on the bar before, during and, assuredly, after the match.

If anything the level of entertainment and socialising has been upped of late. A resident band plays standards, folk-rock and diddle-dee-dee music after every home match. The club teams who have been playing away get back as quickly as they can, so as not miss the craic. And who can blame them.

These days, there is a more exotic sound to the names of players turning out for the first XV. And the team strip is different. There is every likelihood that the ancestors of many of the present crop of London Irish players had set up new lives for themselves in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa by the time the London club was formed just over a 100 years ago as a sanctuary for exiled Irish rugby players.

But as Peter Bills says (Mainstream Publishing, pounds 20), this celebrated centre of social excellence stands for much more than a game: "Throughout its history it has introduced strangers and made them friends, nurtured the injured and offered comfort and concern, shown life as a sparkling, smiling affair, a cause for joy ... and it has spawned a multitude of characters..."

This wonderful book, superbly researched, well written and illustrated with an abundance of contemporary photographs is littered with witty and amusing anecdotes and does as much to document life off the pitch at the various grounds the originally nomadic London Irish adopted as it does to record the playing history of a proud and prominent club.

Humour abounds. There is a famous tale of the time when, in the 1960s, the bar was packed with members who were there to watch an Ireland international from Lansdowne Road live on television.

The story goes that Ireland were awarded a penalty. But such was the noise and hubbub in the bar that the Kerryman Michael O'Connor, a London- based solicitor and president of the club from 1976 to 1981, was moved to yell out: "Would yer be kind enough to be quiet and give yer man a chance with his kick!"

London Irish has always been a club of character, which by its very nature was filled with characters. And they are all here: Louis Magee, S J "Cags" Cagney, and George Beamish. And Brendan Quirke, player and public address announcer, who was deported for not having a work permit shortly after the Second World War; Bill Morgan, described by Quirke as being "a tyrant, a benevolent despot". There was Bish Gallagher, a millionaire who died of alcohol-related illness in the Bahamas and any number of show business personalities.

The Exiles played on eight grounds before finally settling at Sunbury. Now there is talk of another move. But wherever they convene you can be assured that the essence of the game, its very soul, will be carefully nurtured at this marvellous club. Bills has compiled more than a sympathetic history of one of rugby's greatest establishments. Here is chronicled all that is best in rugby union. This book is to be treasured.

DAVID LLEWELLYN

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