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Confession of a football criminal

Street football IV, Flickr image by fabbioI think I may have a police record, but I'm not sure. Bear with me while I explain.

Where I grew up in Ireland there were plenty of fields; not large enough to qualify as Australian paddocks, just enclosed spaces varying in size from a tennis court to the 17th green at St Andrew's. The grass was a bit long and you rarely saw the cow pat until you stepped in it, and although they often had the rolling undulations of the 17th at St Andrew's, there was always a definite uphill, which is not helpful to football.

That's not the point, of course. Even if we had an MCG to frolic in, we wouldn't have bothered, because playing on the street was more exciting and guaranteed you spectators and occasional encouragement from a tipsy supporter on his way home to his dinner.

So when a new sergeant came to town, determined to clean up the streets, we were first in line. They would call it zero tolerance these days, but in that little town, we were what passed for major crime. There were six of us: my brother, myself, two O'Briens, a Healy and a fellow named 'Babs' Cronin who had a withered arm, the relic of childhood polio, and whom we always put in goal. All six of us were summoned to appear in court on a charge of playing a game, to wit handball, in a public place.

We weren't worried because we knew we were not playing to wit handball but to wit football. 'Babs' thought he had a particularly strong case to show that he could not have played handball even if he tried.

Jack O'Brien, who grew up to be a seriously pious sexton at the local church, assured us we would get off. But the judge was not impressed and said it made no difference what we were playing and fined each of us five shillings. He probably wasn't a judge at all, maybe only a minor magistrate, but five shillings had to be deposited in court.

The case was not reported in the local paper, much to our disappointment, so we never had the distinction of being described as 'local youths'. We didn't mind the fines, which our parents duly paid. In our pre-teen innocence, we were convinced they would appeal, all the way to the High Court if necessary. They had more sense. Times were different then: if you did something wrong, you got a good walloping and were sent to confession and your sister was the pet for a few weeks until it all blew over. Which is what happened to us.

I've often wondered if there is a dusty file somewhere which describes the six of us as 'felons' — or even as 'youths', which would be almost as bad — but I've always been too frightened to find out. I suspect not, because some years later when as a young adult I wanted to go to America, I had to get a letter from the local police to say that I was well behaved. The town sergeant was the same man who had brought us to court many years earlier, but as I was in his football team by then, he may have decided to cover up my criminal past.

Incidentally, my brother also got a US visa and recently retired as a school counsellor in the South Bronx where he would have loved to be able to persuade some of his charges to play street games to wit handball or to wit anything else which did not involve white powders or funny smelling leaves.

America has never been given full credit for keeping law and order in Ireland. It is not easy to get young Irish people, university students in particular, excited enough to become involved in street demonstrations or marches because there is always the danger they would give the police who love picking on smart alecs an excuse to swoop. The result could easily be a police record and the young person would be barred forever from getting to America where the last things they want are young desperadoes.

Australia too does a thorough check on migrants to make sure they don't have a criminal past. However, because I originally came to this country from America, I only had to make sure I behaved myself there and played no games to wit handball on the streets of New York.

Which brings me back to where I started. I still don't know if I have a record. Maybe it would be better to leave it like that.

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a retired teacher. His book Keeping Faith: 40 Years of Marist College Canberra was published in 2008.

Topic tags: Frank O'Shea, handball, football, ireland, police record



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Existing comments

Terrific piece, written with music in it too. I report with pleasure that I was just in the streets of New York, where I saw, I kid you not, four kids playing baseball with a tennis ball and what looked awfully like a cricket bat. Wouldn't you love to track the journey of that cricket bat to East 54th Street?

Brian Doyle | 28 April 2010  

Full of good sense and written with a lovely light touch. Thanks

Joe Castley | 28 April 2010  

A delightful reflection. Thank you.

Jenny Swanbury | 28 April 2010  

so the point is the police sergeant's assumed "cover-up", is it not?

Greig Williams | 28 April 2010  

Delightful story Frank, glad you had an O'Brien in it!

Gavin | 28 April 2010  

What a great piece. I really enjoyed it. What town in Ireland was it?

Catherine | 30 April 2010  

I am always facinated by the term "zero tolerance" Frank.
In Australia, it means gaoling the young window breaker, while a cardboard king can pay a fine of $32m and no gaol term, a Telstra board member, for insider trading, can walk away with a big fine but no gaol term, and the reserve bank board member can pay a reported $80m for agreed taxation misdemeanors and again no gaol term.

Do you need any more examples for comparison?
Hope your sons and daughters have not broken any windows or committed any misdemeanors. They could be so lucky to be able to pay fines in the millions and not be thought of as criminals.

a kavanagh | 01 May 2010  

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