As we work through 20 years of Irish Ultimate History, much like the rich, multilayered Rashomon by Kurosawa (an insane 100% rating on Rotten tomatoes), so too with Irish Ultimate it’s interesting to hear from different people’s perspectives on how they saw things progress and develop. These interviews, rather than just writing a ‘history’ of Irish ultimate, are an evolving attempt to build up, through an overlapping tapestry of stories, a multifaceted view of the Irish Ultimate scene.
For this interview we are privileged to have the insights of Gareth McFeely. A successful writer / blogger in his own right, having published articles in the Irish Times about attending film festivals in Benin and Togo, and a very active film blog that, impressively, goes all the way back to 2005. A graduate of Trinity and the Irish Foreign Office, now happily settled in Boston, he tells his story of how Irish Ultimate unfolded from where he was standing.
Yes, that’s Trinity,(looking much the same 2 decades later)
When did you start playing?
I started playing in early 1996 in Dublin. That summer I left for a year to go to university in England and played with a mixed university/town team (Strange Blue, in Cambridge). I came back to Dublin in 1997 for two years and then was back and forth over the following two years leading up to EUCC in Prague in 2001, when I finally left the Irish scene permanently for the US. Since then, I’ve played hat and club ultimate in Boston; in recent years, though, I’ve mostly played club only, and with the same team since 2006.
How did you hear about it?
I first started playing after you (Simon) recruited me. I remember going on some kind of volunteer weekend up in north Dublin doing work near Mosney renovating woodland paths or something to that general effect. You were in full-on recruitment mode and had a disc with you at all times. At some point over the weekend, you corralled everyone who was willing to listen to you, and probably a few who weren’t, and gave them a crash course in the most basic rules. After that, you had us run around and play some version of ultimate for an hour and at the end of the weekend, you made sure everyone knew exactly where practice was; you did everything short of hand out cards. Practice happened to be around the corner from my parents’ house, plus I thought the game seemed like fun so I showed up, and kept showing up.
Ha ha, that’s lucky, that enthusiasm sounds like a completely different person to me now!
Why did playing ultimate appeal to you?
I’m not really sure why it appealed to me. I had never been especially good at field sports even though I’d tried football and hurling but I had always enjoyed running, and I was pretty fast. I’d say the novelty was a big part of it, and the opportunity to meet some new people a year after I finished college. I wasn’t happy at all in my day job so ultimate was a real social refuge.
Oh dear. I did used to think that we should get a grant from the department of social welfare or somewhere for all the non-traditional athletes that we took under our wings. Thankfully you seemed pretty normal and socially non-inept, I guess that’s why we kept speaking to you.
Playing on Westmoreland Street, St Patrick’s Day
What was the early scene like?
The early crowd was, as I think you or Eoghan said, a real group of waifs and strays.
I think I often thought that, but tried not to say it, we had so few players we were hardly in a position to be choosy …
I mean, as far as I could tell at the time Mike O’Meara had ended up in Ireland more or less by accident, or perhaps because it just wasn’t New Zealand, and other people seemed equally uncertain of themselves. I think I’ve often sought out people not from Ireland so the expat element appealed to me a lot, too, in the early days — as did the fact that it was a bunch of mostly articulate people who loved the repartee in the pub afterwards. It was very easy to go from knowing no-one to spending many weeknights and weekends together, almost from one day to the next. That was quite different once we added in a bunch of students who either had other commitments or no money! That first year, I got a summer job through Jimmy, too — shite work but a good deal better paid than where I had been. I had my work cut out for me there dealing with the banter from half a dozen middle-aged Dublin women who took great pleasure in teasing the college boy. I wasn’t sure what to make of you: I first thought you were Australian, and as cocky as they come (I didn’t know your last name for at least a year, incidentally), but I probably somewhat idolized your easy manner with people since I was still pretty shy and not incredibly outgoing with new people at that time. Indeed, the fact that we seemed to get on so well still kind of amazes me. As much as you were a source of energy, we had some seriously grumpy people too: I remember associating Mike, Chris and Eoghan with the grey Dublin weather and thinking they fit right in. Jimmy and Conor were the opposite — exuberant hams, but a bit too wrapped up in playacting to ever really improve the team, and kind of always juggling different commitments.
Whew! All water under the bridge now though …
Would you have played if there had been a team at TCD when you were there?
I’m not sure I would have played at TCD: I think that the way I encountered ultimate had a lot to do with how I stuck with it, although if it had been a mixed team I’m certain I would have stuck around for that reason alone. That was certainly an attraction later on with the Pookas scene even if you seemed to have everyone’s number, literally and figuratively, first.
So, the difficult question, but it would be remiss of me not to ask it, why, were you called ‘crash’? Wasn’t there one time when you collided with another member of our own team in the endzone, spilling the disc?
Crash was one of those very literal nicknames acquired because of my propensity for stupid accidents, liking laying out across the path in Herbert Park (I didn’t get the disc, which still irritates me). I sometimes just see the disc and not the danger, always to my own detriment. I think it was Eoghan who coined the nickname, and who usually called me Crash thereafter. I loved that, because it gave me a sense of belonging that I think I always looked for, although everyone was probably making fun of me. It’s still the name on the back of my shirt in Boston — one year the team all got shirts with nicknames and I insisted on reviving that one. And yes, I think it was an entirely fair nickname, at least then. I went to the hospital for x-rays three times in my first two years of ultimate, though not once since then (only once was this down to my own foolishness, though). I can’t remember the incident where I collided with someone and spilled the disc, but that sounds fair enough — I can certainly imagine that happening circa 1997… But I balanced it out; I remember catching a score between my knees at Ross-on-Wye the first year, and making one of my favourite catches ever in those early days, a sliding layout on the wet grass down in Glendalough. I slid halfway through the endzone, the ground was that slick.
Gareth back row, far right
How did you find Heilbronn, playing for the first Ireland team?
Heilbronn was an incredible experience for me as an ultimate player, in every sense. While I was playing a lot of ultimate in those years, that summer I did a lot of extra training and also told the Berlin teams I trained with that I really wanted to work as hard as I could. We had three teams that trained together and I was on the weakest of the three so they included me in some of the higher-level drills and so forth. It didn’t transform me as a player, but it did make me a lot fitter, which was a big deal for a weeklong tournament. I know some people didn’t like it but I knew full well I was sometimes used to fill time to conserve our best players. By staying fit I also got more playing time as long tournaments went on since I was still ready to run and the better players were subbing out more frequently. I even stopped drinking for a few weeks before Heilbronn — which is probably why the end-of-tournament party is a blur that mostly makes me remember a very cute member of the Italian women’s team. We were obviously one of the weakest teams there but we got to learn an enormous amount about the game in real time and there’s no doubt that we were better by the end of the week — the baseline might have been low but you do have to start somewhere.
Speaking of which, in reading through some of the interviews I think that some people have kind of mixed feelings about the early years, partly because we were pretty crap a fair bit of the time. But we continually showed up, spent plenty of our own money in the process, and started to make it normal for an Irish team to participate in the English tour or even the international events, and in that sense, more than perhaps any other, I think we laid important foundations. I also think that your own involvement was key: you were a cheerleader and more or less impervious to setbacks. I think most organizations need someone like that early on, and frankly it’s often someone who is sort of driven on the logistical side but socially clueless so Irish ultimate was pretty lucky to have someone a good deal more gregarious. Since the sport as a whole got started by some kids in a New Jersey car park, I think the Irish origins story is pretty good.
Yeah, you’re too kind. I saw it more as an opportunity to meet foreign transient women who thought my accent was kinda cute.
Gareth back row, far left
Ok, what about 2000 vs Prague 2001. To me things began to change, the team had more structure, more cohesion, how did you find the change? It think it was the end of the first era, and the beginning of tighter, tougher more competitive Irish teams.
The difference between 2000 and 2001 wasn’t quite night and day, but it was a remarkable step up in just a single year. I remember running serious drills in the months before the tournament, with Dec Moore throwing the disc back and forth to me as I ran twenty sprints or more in a row, and nearly vomiting at the side of Herbert Park. The thing that was amazing about him wasn’t just that he was completely crazy, it’s that we mostly bought into it — without entirely abandoning here-for-the-party aspect of things that was important to many of the college lads although honestly I thought that got old pretty fast. I mean, there’s only so many times you want to hear a story that begins “I was so pissed I…” I also played less at the actual tournament that year because we had such a significant contingent of young Irish players who were really very good, so it was kind of bittersweet — you always want to play, but you kind of know your own limitations, too. Still, since some of those players were strong handlers/middles there wasn’t quite as much competition on “my” part of the field.
Who were your favourite players to play with?
My favourite players to play with? That list could get long quickly: I kind of felt spoiled for the years I played in Dublin. I hated playing scrimmages against you, just as I’ve always hated covering squirrelly players because they seem to keep getting the disc even though they are never more than a few feet away. But I loved when you used the same technique against other teams. Heather was one of the most committed players, male or female, I encountered, and certainly someone whose on-field behaviour made me push myself. Jamie was someone who I always found to be key to the idea of spirit in ultimate, in that he was competitive and certainly capable of calling a foul, but also didn’t get outraged like some of us do. Plus I think there’s always pleasure in watching someone get underestimated by the other team and then surprising them. I feel like that happened a lot with him. I don’t think I ever came across an Irish player who more embodied the spirit/competitive combo than Brian MacDevitt.
You, like so many before and after, met you future (American) wife on the pitch – when will I ever get my finders fee. I think we’ve hatched more matches on the pitch than elsewhere – especially those Middlebury girls too …
I never remember finding it very difficult to be on the same team as someone I was dating: neither Sarah nor myself is a very confrontational person, so it’s not like we were ever going to critique a particular play or decision very vocally, although I’m sure from time to time one of us was thinking, man, I was so open and he never threw that or whatever. But that’s not all that different from any other teammate; I really like being on the field at the same time as Sarah and cutting for her since she handles a lot. I also think I enjoy when she has a good game at least as much as she does herself, and if she has a good game on a day when I’m dropping the disc I can kind of use that to balance things out in my head. On our current team we’re kind of known as the diplomats/peacemakers, but I have played with couples who bicker on the field and it can be a bit awkward. Speaking of such things, though, one of my personal highlights has to be the time that Jo came over to you midgame — I think because you looked her off but maybe she was annoyed about something else — and gave you a good knee to the nuts. The rest of us were sort of mortified but also deeply amused because we secretly all wanted to do that at one time or another 😉
Knee Jo in the nuts, but she was a woman? Oh, you mean me… I was wondering when someone was going to bring that one up. I’m going to ignore that one.
Gareth almost exactly dead centre
You’ve been playing in the states for a while, how would you compare and contrast US ultimate with Irish ? Higher standard, but maybe losing something with it? You played more mixed now? Do you prefer it?
I have basically only played mixed since I came to the US; the local leagues here are overwhelmingly mixed and I think it works just fine once everyone is on the same page about using all of the resources you have. Our handler line always has at least one woman, often two, for instance. You still come across — usually young — teams where the guys act like jackasses and only pass to each other, but they rarely thrive for very long for obvious reasons. I do think that, at least in the US context, it moderates the jockish instincts of many of the guys: whenever I watch male-only teams at tournaments I’m pretty much always glad I’m not playing open, with the spiking and higher incidence of stupid calls.
I highly doubt I would be attracted to ultimate if I encountered it now. It’s slicker and more corporate in many ways, and certainly doesn’t have much room for the waifs and strays in the Boston scene — it’s a college sport, and increasingly the college playing ethos, which lays far less emphasis on spirit and far more on the use of observers and so forth, is creeping in. So you get situations like people deliberately double-teaming or creating obstructions and hoping that they won’t get called on it, kind of like football players who breach the rules and let the ref mop up. That’s fine, but it’s a different sport to the one I like. The funny thing is if you reverse the strategy and bump into the same players, they don’t like it at all! So I would agree with your assessment that the standard is higher, partly because of the sheer number of players, but there is definitely something being lost, and even at a relatively low league level; that’s clear over my dozen years here. I mean, when you’re playing summer league and some young guy starts to showboat in a blowout win we’re really not showing up with the same mindset.
But the thing is, I still love to play — the pleasure of beating my marker and scoring is absolutely undiminished and sometimes I wonder if it is getting stronger with age. I made a catch this past summer that I’d put up there in the top four or five I’ve made, and honestly I felt like I was on a cloud for days. The memories of those special moments can be very acute, like time has slowed down for you. I once won a game with a flying layout score — usually my layouts are kind of lopsided — and if ever I’m having a bad day, I can just re-run that memory and very little bothers me.
Gareth, far right (looks like we’re missing another player in the line too)
What was your career Irish highlight?
I know it might sound corny, but winning Spirit at Heilbronn was amazing. I think I wouldn’t have taken the award all that seriously if it had just been the three or four weakest teams that got votes, but we beat out DoG (Death or Glory, multiple US and World Champions) and, I’m pretty sure, another strong team. That was a rare moment where we all felt genuine surprise, but it was merited, too — we weren’t great, but we knew the rules, we resolved disputes quickly, and even though we had some very close games in the end we took the losses and moved on. The whole Heilbronn experience was so exhilarating and so draining that normal life in the weeks afterwards was really pretty mundane. Those few years really do feel like a time capsule, and the whole experience of reading these interviews and writing my own responses has put me in a very nostalgic mood over the past few months: I was reading one of the interviews in the downtime of a bye game during our summer tournament and thinking I really wouldn’t mind being in Herbert Park, with the promise of a pint afterwards, instead of where I was! I suppose it’s nostalgia for youth as much as ultimate specifically, of course. My Irish lowlight was definitely letting some English women convince me it would be a good idea to snort tequila through my nose at the legendary where’s-the-music Dublin tournament party, and then having to bike to the Northside next morning in the early morning hours to help set up the fields. That’s one morning I could do with forgetting — but it was livened up no end by the astonishing sight of Brian Goode’s mid-layout naked arse later on. That seems an appropriate note on which to conclude.
Thanks very much Gareth, as thoughtful and entertaining as ever. Far busier now with two small wee ones too!