Eoghan Barry, Interview, Ultimate Frisbee

The origins of Irish Ultimate, a conversation with Eoghan Barry

Interview with one of the founders of Irish Ultimate

Batch Nine 074

Eoghan Barry, Irish Ultimate player, 1996 – 2007

Next year we reach 20 years of continuous Ultimate played in Ireland. 1995 – 2015. It seems like a good time to consider what it was like in the early days. To do this we turn to one of the earliest and longest lasting Irish players to take up the sport. Eoghen Barry was there when it happened, bought the tee-shirt, played in the mud, and the 3 on 3 hot box games in front of the pav. These are his insights into what it was like, and how far the sport has come since then in Ireland.

What made you decide to play with us? I know your partner, now long time wife Celeste played first. Did she push you to play, or were you interested anyway? I don’t think you played sport prior, though were a big cyclist, what made you want to play? 

Celeste Marin

(Celeste Marin, second from left, flanked by a couple of Dutch pick ups she recruited for Pookas. Part of the first Irish team to win overseas silverware, and possibly a major factor in convincing Eoghan, her future husband, to play ultimate! )

Yes, it was Celeste who first got me to come down. She had played in college, (one of her friends from UVa – Kevin O’Riordan – had even made an unsuccessful effort to get an ultimate team going while he studying at Trinity for a year) and made contact with you through one of the people she worked with at Eddie Rockets. You were scrambling to even get enough people for 3 on 3 at pickup then so she asked me to come down just to make up the numbers. Little did she know where that would lead….

I don’t think we even played ultimate that day, just hot box for a while. Gareth was there, and he remembered me from Trinity, Jimmy and Conor were probably there too. (Some of the other early founders of Irish Ultimate)

At the time I was about as unathletic it’s possible to be. I had managed to bunk off PE and sports from third year onwards in secondary school, actually despised sports and physical effort generally. I was disgusted when people I regarded as fairly hip (i.e. interested only in books, music and cinema) started watching and talking about football in the mid-90s, the Fever Pitch effect. So I’m not sure what kept me coming back. Being in love, probably, but also the fun of running around until you feel like puking, the people who were involved. Maybe the second or third time I was there, Mikey showed up and we bonded over the Black Flag t-shirt I was wearing. At that point I realised that maybe there was a sport for people like me after all.

It’s funny that you remember me as being a big cyclist – that’s actually anachronistic. I just used to ride a bike for transport around Dublin, like a lot of other people who grew up in the suburbs. It wasn’t until a couple of years after we met that I started working as a courier, and I didn’t really start cycling seriously until I quit ultimate.

Looking back it seems like quite a social time, it was small, everyone knew every one, was that an attraction to you ?

Yes, definitely. Going to the pub after every game, heading down to Glendalough for parties in the ranger Ray’s cottage, eating oysters in your kitchen in Clanbrassil Street, drinking martinis at Johan’s farewell. I think the presence of so many ex-pats drove that to some extent. You were fairly well established in Dublin, I think, but for a lot of the other non-Irish players, ultimate offered immediate access to a social scene, a group of people to hang around with.

And it was much the same for me when I moved to DC – even after six years there, virtually everyone I knew, I had met through ultimate. Obviously that kind of relationship doesn’t necessarily endure but I’m still hanging out with you, Chris (Stokes) and Mike (O Meara) nearly twenty years later even though we’re all retired from the game, and if Jamie Crick had exiled himself somewhere closer than Sydney, I’d still make the effort to see him regularly too.

Worlds 99

(Eoghan front row, 3rd from left)

How would you describe the 1990’s Irish Ultimate scene?

The 90s scene was pretty chaotic, I guess, constant change in personnel, always new people arriving, others moving away, and that made it very difficult to build a team. It took a long time for us to develop any half-way decent domestic players – the strongest players were generally imports like Brian Goode or Sam Howard but they weren’t around enough or interested enough to drive development. Still, that was enough to put us in the top end of the B bracket at most UK tournaments which maybe says something about the lack of depth in the UK scene of the time. But pretty much every tournament involved going somewhere new, gradually reaching out towards the continent, getting a sense for the wider culture of ultimate in Europe through Ultilinks. Mostly I remember it being a lot of fun, even wading the swamp in Herbert Park in the middle of winter…the hour changing and the start of midweek pickup felt like a big event, the opening of six months of good times.

Towards the end of the nineties we started trying to build the organisation even though there wasn’t much to organise, and you finally saw people like Dominick and Brian McD emerging, the first young, homegrown talent. I remember going out to UCD one day and teaching Oisin, JD and Al how to throw a flick, which was probably the last point at which I could teach them anything.

Ireland 2000

(Eoghan front row, far right, and a young Brian Mc D back row, second from left)

Tell us about a few characters and / or memorable incidents ? Jamie Crick?

I missed some of the legendary incidents of the early days – I arrived about fifteen minutes after Danny knocked Mike’s teeth out playing Hot Box on the cricket pitch. Billy O’Shea was one person who sticks in my memory, there always seemed to be more going on behind the scenes than he admitted, even before his mysterious disappearance. I remember taking the ferry with him, Ryan, Sean and a couple of others to a tournament at Sheffield. You could get a free Stella Artois t-shirt if you bought three pints so we set out to drink enough to kit the team out for the weekend. On the way back we missed a connecting train and had to spend the night sleeping in Manchester train station. We were just bedding down for the night when suddenly thirty or forty cops in full riot gear marched into the station and lined up by the exit from the platforms. A few minutes later the last train from one of the other northern towns came in, bringing a couple of hundred football fans home from Huddersfield or wherever, all of them absolutely hammered after several hours in the pub after the match, drunk and lairy. But too drunk to get anywhere with the police – a couple of them took swings at the nearest constable and they were so drunk that they practically fell over. Eventually they were hustled out, a few of them arrested, and we were able to get some sleep…I guess that was every Sunday night in Manchester, because there was actually a police station inside the train station.

Billy O Shea was a little peculiar, wandering around Temple Bar in the middle of the night for hours with that Kerry blue terrier he picked up in a pub.

(Yeah and then he disappeared, along with my Billy Bragg CD too. Nice guy, but also perhaps quite representative of the waifs and strays that washed up on the shores of early Irish Ultimate!)

How unsophisticated were we? Do you remember the game against Village People, first round on Sunday at…Southampton? Exeter? At the start of the game they could only put five on the line so they cobbled together some kind of zone and by the time their sixth and seventh men showed up, they already had a 9-4 lead. We were so bad we couldn’t reliably score even if there was no-one else on the pitch at all. We were so bad that we cut from the front of the stack almost exclusively because we had so few handlers who could throw far enough to hit someone coming out of the back. Ultimate really isn’t that interesting or tactical a game until you get to the level where everyone on the team can flick thirty or forty yards and can reliably catch discs that hit them in the hands and we were a long way from that.
The games against Bliss (GB Women’s team) were a good example in that they were playing pretty good ultimate, quite disciplined. I remember one game against them, again first round on Sunday, light drizzle falling, Mikey wearing a bin-liner to try to keep warm. They played a pretty good zone, kept it level for quite a while, but then made the mistake of going man, so you just parked Jimmy in the endzone (the ‘big fella’) and hucked to him repeatedly until he scored; they had no-one tall enough to match up against him. Entertaining for us, pretty galling for them, I imagine. Still, I think the years of graft battling shit men’s teams in the B bracket of the Tour paid off for them in the long run…a couple of years later they were European champions.

Jamie Crick was a legend obviously – he was an escapee from a PG Wodehouse novel. His ability to make a shambles of anything…the time he missed the first couple of games at Ross-on-Wye because he’d chosen to fly into Stanstead, apparently unaware it was on the other side of London entirely. Even when I went to visit him in Sydney a few years ago he managed to first go to the wrong terminal in the airport, and then when we finally met up, he dropped his parking ticket down a crack in the dashboard of his car and had to pay a hundred dollar fine to even get out of the parking lot.

I loved it that he was the DJ for the annual Dublin tournament, all good. Except when the party was about to start he realised he had no cd’s to play. Cue a frantic taxi ride, while we tried to placate the increasingly happy / boisterous English frisbee players, determined to have their Irish experience. It all worked out in the end, but helped to cement his reputation as a very special character in Irish Ultimate.

Oktoberfest in Sauerlach was the first tournament where I took on the task of organising the entry, getting the team together and so on. Chris, Sam and I flew into Frankfurt and drove down from there in a rental car, Sam flooring it to try to get this VW Polo to hit 200km/h on the autobahn and some guy in a Ferrari passing us like we standing still. The first day’s play ended at 1 so you could go the festival and Sam collected the money for the car from me and Chris before we went, 75 marks each, 150 marks total. The festival was pretty sleazy, Cliodhna and Heather needed a bodyguard to get to the toilet without being molested.

After a few hours Chris were thinking about splitting when Sam reappeared, looking to borrow money…he’d blown the entire 150 already. At 15 marks a stein, he had managed to get through 10 litres of beer and he wasn’t stopping. I think someone else hooked him up and we left, Chris insisting that we go on the rollercoaster and the waterslide before we went back to Sauerlach.

The following morning it was raining so we were sitting in Jamie’s car, waiting for the first round of games, and simultaneously everyone in the car turned round to see what was causing this incredible reek. Sam was standing outside, and the hum of stale beer off him was strong enough that you could smell it through the closed windows. It turned out that he had attached himself to a bunch of Italians and followed them back to their hotel, at which point they realised that they really didn’t want to spend the rest of the night with this enormous, shitfaced Australian and gave him the slip. So Sam just wandered around the hotel trying every door he found until one of them opened, and managed to spend the night in a hotel bed while the rest of us were sleeping on the floor of a grotty gym.

Heilbronn

[Eoghen front row, far right, at Heilbronn Worlds 2000, Spirit Winners]

How big a deal was it for you to be part of the Irish team? For some guys it was, others less so, where were you on the scale?

I thought being on the Irish team was kind of hilarious… I knew just how ridiculous it was that I of all people should be representing Ireland at a sporting event. But going to Worlds was a big deal. I actually did some training for the first time in my life, running laps and stairs in Trinity,  for the chance not just to see some amazing games but to actually play some really good teams. Playing Barbarians from Japan was an eye-opener. They were so fast that it was like we were moving in slow motion. We’d lay out and lie on the ground groaning for a while; they just bounced straight back onto their feet. I later found out that they’re the team of a school for PE teachers. You knew we were going to get smashed for the first few days, then maybe have a chance at a win towards the end of the week, probably against South Africa, but it was a great experience, like nothing I’ve done since except maybe Paris-Brest-Paris.

You then played in the US for 5 years, a big contrast I’m sure. I know the Irish scene was small and bad when you left. When you returned was it different, strange?

Things were completely transformed when I came back to Ireland.  The skill level, and the athleticism had gone through the roof, and people were taking training and practice very seriously. And the new generation were tall! Back in the day we had no trouble fielding a line where everyone was 5’9″ or shorter. I played a lot in DC, with some good players – enough to get me to being a mediocre player instead of a downright awful one – so I had some idea of what was required at the top level of the game and I reckon someone like Cian (O Morain) could make it onto the top open team in any city in the US. But the scene was still small enough that there wasn’t really a club system and it was still pretty clique-ish. But I was no longer part of the clique.

St Andrews 99

What were your favourite matches ?

I remember one early game against Mwnci See where you had decided you could afford to rest the strongest players on the team and played me and Pete for something like six or seven straight points. Pete was fuming when he figured out what you were up to… I just thought you were impressed with how well I was performing.

The game against South Africa at Heilbronn…we had a decent lead something like 13-9. and as usually happens they pulled a couple back. One of their guys on the sideline started crowing “Could 15 points be a bridge too far for the Irish?” He ate those words pretty quickly. Trading jerseys afterwards – I hesitated for a moment and the guy who wanted mine thought it was because I didn’t like the SA jersey: “Yes, I know it’s revolting mate, but so is yours”. Fair point…it was those hideous lime green sleeveless ones.

The game against Russia also at Heilbronn where one of them managed to rake Challis in the eye with his cleats and Challis had to be taken to hospital to get it stitched up. Rough, bruising game…losing that one was a heartbreaker.

Winning the DC winter league one year was pretty good – our scoreline for the entire tournament was 90-15, we were so completely in the zone, everyone playing out of their skins. Beating one of the other DC coed teams to take the last spot into Regionals in 2002 or 2003 was the high point – first match of the second day of sectionals, and on the very first pass of the very first point we got an interception in the endzone. When we finished out the win, that was the happiest I’ve ever been on the ultimate field…the team I founded was making it to Regionals.

Cork 07

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XnhPZleMvDA

(Eoghen, far right, member of 4 time winner of Cork Open, Johnny Chimpo)

Then the Indian summer with Johnny Chimpo? You won 3 finals in a year, funny?

Bizarre, really. I actually don’t even remember all three finals – Sligo, Cork and what was the other one? But that was the most successful season I ever had, and the very last one I played. Before that I’d only ever won one final. Chimpo kind of reminded me of Shotgun Wedding back when I started playing – a team that kind of celebrated their own arrogance, while clearly being a lot of fun to actually play for. When they split up there was a full page picture in the BUF newsletter of one of them wearing a t-shirt that read across the back “We thought we were great.” I was never in any doubt that I was something of a passenger on Chimpo though,

You used the word ‘legacy player’ – can you explain it?

I guess at some point I used the term “legacy player”? It means a player who doesn’t really make the grade but nobody is willing to cut because they’ve been around for so long…they’re the legacy from an earlier, weaker version of the team. Or, particularly in coed teams, they’re on the team because their significantly better partner is also on the team…they’re a legacy from the partner. On Chimpo, I was invited to play I guess because I was an old friend of you, Chris and Mike.

It was sort of bittersweet for me because at the same time as winning more games than I ever had before I was realising that I didn’t care enough to keep playing ultimate – I would have to put in so much work to be fit enough to be one of the worst players on the team. And I didn’t feel much connection to the younger guys on the team – what was I doing in my late 30s going to tournaments with a bunch of guys in their early 20s who seemed to mainly be interested in drawing crude pictures of their cocks on everything in reach? It was a good point to retire, and find something else to do with my time.

Batch Nine 082

What did you think of the Irish ultimate scene by the time you called it a day?

On the one hand I was very impressed with the standard of play – when you see the results from the big tournaments, and see that the national teams are matching up against and beating teams from much bigger countries with longer established scenes, you know that the Irish scene is not just producing some very talented players but is strong on tactics and strategy too. On the other hand, it didn’t seem anything like as much fun as it had been when I started. For me a sign was that teams started naming themselves after the place they were from…I know Chris thinks the old team names were kind of asinine and just calling yourself something mundane like Clapham is a sign of maturity in the sport but for me teams with names like Salutami Antonio or Shotgun Wedding made ultimate seem a bit different from other sports.

My all-time favourite team name was Truckstop Gloryhole from southern Virginia but after a season they cut it back to Truckstop and then merged into a combined team called VaULT (Virginia Ultimate)…boring! Now it feels more like any other team sport. Which as I say has clearly upped standards a lot, but I can’t imagine the twenty-four year old me getting into the sport as it is now.

You can follow Eoghan’s latest adventures and musings via his blog

http://www.accessionist.com/2013/08/11/auf-wiedersehen-audax/

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8 thoughts on “The origins of Irish Ultimate, a conversation with Eoghan Barry

  1. You give good interview, Barry. If I may make one small correction, you’ve misremembered my Ross-on-Wye shambles, not that the truth is any less hopeless. My actual brainwave was to take the ferry to Holyhead and then drive through Wales, saving the cost of a plane ticket while seeing the glory of Snowdonia in one stroke. It looked so close on the map…

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  2. Peter Bennison says:

    Ross was extra special for me, as I didn’t realize what happens when you pack two Irishmen, a kiwi and a Canadian (and a case of beer) in a Civic in the middle of the night driving through Wales. I’ll never forget stopping about five times on the side of the road.

    Glad this is all preserved. One thing, though, I think you sell yourself short on the foundation that you and Simon established. The structure that you both put in place set the standard. I have no doubt that the success of Irish Ultimate is based on that.

    Good times

    Liked by 1 person

    • Simon Cocking says:

      Pete, you always very gracious and positive about the good aspects in the middle of the chaos and disorder!

      Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it.

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  3. Good stuff here. I read it the first time around between games at our end-of-club-season tournament and again this morning. Fun to relive some of the legendary events (including that horrible hit-to-the-teeth for Mike: he was d’ing me, successfully but at a rather high price). Ross-on-Wye remains one of the best experiences I’ve had with ultimate even though our skill level was low at the time.

    I think Eoghan makes a great point about how the waifs and strays of the 90s probably wouldn’t be interested in the game as it is now: certainly, the attitude to spirit and physical contact has changed a lot in the dozen years I’ve been playing in Boston, and playing against teams of former college players can be obnoxious in a way that was never true in the UK/Ireland in the late 1990s, or Boston in 2003. All that said, when I beat a player deep I enjoy it at least as much as I did then, especially because he’s probably ten years or more younger than me and annoyed that I burned him (or occasionally her — I play 4/3 co-ed now).

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