Monday, March 02, 2015

Why Are Official Translations of Irish So Poor?

Yesterday was the start of Seachtain na Gaeilge, a fortnight – yes, yes, we know, and that isn’t even the worst of it – when two young and good looking people are pictured in zany and exuberant poses that illustrate to a grateful nation what fun it is to speak one’s own language.

However. The biggest obstacle to learning Irish isn’t the absence of youth, or pulchritude, or zaniness. It’s the absence of any consistency in the language. Why does Gaeilge always have to be briste, everywhere you look?

Peig Sayers’ infamous autobiography is no longer on the curriculum, but it remains a stick with which to beat the language. The life of an old woman on the Great Blasket Island is not seen to be relevant to contemporary youth, unlike, say, the adventures of a medieval Danish prince with an Oedipus complex, or something like that.

But the spurious issue of “relevance” isn’t the real problem with Peig for students of Irish. The problem with Peig is that the language of the book is not standard Irish. It’s Munster Irish.

When you’re all grown up and fluent in the language the quirks of the different dialects are small beer. But when you’re trying to learn the thing the inconsistencies are the very stuff of nightmares.

Consider a student trying to get her séimhiús and urús in order. On Monday she reads that Peig is hanging out her washing “sa ghairdín,” and on Tuesday she discovers that Padraig Ó Conaire’s little black donkey is grazing contentedly “sa ngairdín.” Who’s right? Either? Both? Neither?

The Académie française was established in 1635 to preserve standards in the French language. What of Irish, gasping for breath on the edge of the Atlantic? Who are the forty immortals who look after its well-being?

In theory, the well-being of Irish is looked after by a body called Foras na Gaeilge. Foras na Gaeilge was founded in late 1999. Before that, there was nobody, really, in charge of the standard of Irish. Not really. Maybe a few desks in the Department of Education, but nothing serious.

People think the welfare of the language is the responsibility of the Minister for the Gaeltacht, but it’s not. Her job is currently to keep the people of the Gaeltacht sweet and not have them voting for those damned Shinners next time out.

So how, then, is the standard maintained? If you are a commercial entity or a Government department, say, do you get in touch with Foras na Gaeilge and get them to sign off on your translation, or even do the translations themselves?

This is important because contemporary Irish is being destroyed by translations that are unaware of Irish idiom. These translations translate word-for-word with no account being made for idiomatic difference and end up with Béarlachas, English disguised by an Irish overcoat. A good-for-nothing patois, neither one thing nor the other.

For instance: Dublin Bus currently runs a recorded announcement imploring passengers not to do something (stand up upstairs, maybe, but I can never catch the first part) “when the bus is moving.” “While the bus is moving” is translated as “nuair atá an bus ag bogadh.”

That is textbook Béarlachas. It is correct and yet utterly wrong. It’s like pork-flavoured ice cream. There’s nothing technically wrong with it. It’s just not natural. It just doesn’t work.

The Irish word “agus” doesn’t just mean “and.” It also means when or while. “Bog” does mean “move,” but it’s more in the sense of softening or melting or loosening. The word you want here is “gluaiseacht,” moving, which even non-professional you may be vaguely familiar with from the Irish for motor car. Gluaisteán is the third Irish word every Irish child learns, after milseán and leithreas.

That then gives us “agus an bus ina ghluaiseacht.” This literally translates as “when the bus is in its movement,” because to say “ag gluaiseacht” is another slice of Béarlachas. It sounds ridiculous in English, and so it should - its idiom is entirely Irish.

What has all this got to do with anything? Well, thousands of schoolchildren travel in and out to school every day on Dublin Bus. Those thousands of schoolchildren hear this rubbish, and then it’s a big mystery why their own Irish is equally rubbish, or why they can’t get seem to get it into their heads how the language works. But what chance have they when bad examples abound to the extent they can’t tell the good from the bad anymore?

Maybe Foras na Gaeilge would be better off translating that one phrase than sponsoring all the coming two weeks’ gurning for the camera and acting the eejit. It'd be a start, wouldn't it?

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Cricket: Where Taking the Shilling Takes the Biscuit

Consider for a moment a strange parallel universe, where the Leinster Football Final features mighty Dublin against plucky underdogs Wicklow. Wicklow has never been a stronghold of football, but through the dedication of a small minority, they’ve put together a team that has brought the Garden County to the great stage where, as Sir Walter Scott put it, one crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.

Consider furthermore how exactly Wicklow would feel if Dublin’s best player on this Leinster Final Day in front of a packed Croke Park were himself from Wicklow – Aughrim, say – with no connection to Dublin at all, at all.

This Wicklow man had gone to Dublin to hurl some years ago and the good and generous people of Wicklow GAA said: well, fair enough so. It’s an uphill battle to keep football going here, but we haven’t a snowballs of being competitive in hurling. You’re a great footballer but if hurling is your passion you have to follow its flame. So long then son, and good luck to you.

But the prodigy turns out to be no good at hurling. He knows how to hold the thing at the thin bit instead of the thick bit but his wristwork isn’t worth tuppence. However, although a limited hurler, he’s still pretty dang good at football.

Having found out that he’d never make it as a Dublin hurler he is now a very successful Dublin footballer, even though if he was going to play football he could have done that by returning to Wicklow. But he hasn’t returned to Wicklow. Here he is instead, with the three castles of Dublin burning proudly on his breast.

This is precisely the situation facing Ireland at the Cricket World Cup, which starts this weekend. Eoin Morgan, the best Irish player of his generation, is not only playing for England, but he is captaining them.

Morgan is not the first non-Englishman to play for England. England have been very open-minded in this regard, historically. But if you’re trying to build a sport, as Cricket Ireland claim they are, they need their best players playing for Ireland to inspire the youth. And that’s where they have a big problem with Morgan.

Morgan transferred for England because he wanted to play Test cricket. Ireland play one-day cricket, but they do not play Test matches. Hurling is less like football than Test cricket is like the one-day game, but the comparison isn’t that far-fetched either.

In the early years of the one-day game, in the late 1960s, the international teams were the same in both forms of the game. Now, they’ve become more specialised and, while there are still crossover players, they are now also one-day specialists and test specialists and it’s impossible to image one playing the other, anymore than you could send Tommy Walsh playing football or hand a hurl to the Gooch. Fish out of water.

Eoin Morgan is a one-day specialist. So special, in fact, he’s captaining the English team. He will not play Test cricket. England have capped him at Test level, and he wasn’t good enough. He hasn’t got it for Test cricket. But he is plenty good enough for one-dayers, and this is the rub.

If Morgan is good enough to captain England, imagine the difference a player of his ability could make to Ireland? Cricket is one of those games where one man really can make a difference. If Eoin Morgan were still playing for Ireland, Ireland wouldn’t necessarily win the World Cup, but they could certainly put Irish cricket on the map and advance the country’s claim for full Test status.

But he’s not. He’s captaining England instead, and Irish cricket seem entirely ok about that. It’s not done to point this fairly obvious fact out. If Morgan is ever mentioned, it’s in the same obsequious terms last heard on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Free State (without Blessed Mary McAleese’s W-0-W for the Gaeilge, of course).

Expect plenty of yak in the media about brave Ireland flying the flag and all of us rallying around the flag and over-by-over live tweeting of Ireland v the United Arab Emirates live from the storied Brisbane Gabba.

Do not expect any journalism from the fans-with-typewriters. Do not expect inquiries as to why Cricket Ireland thinks it deserves Test status when it can’t hang onto its players. Do not expect any thought-pieces wondering how Eoin Morgan feels about those three lions on his shirt and listening to God Save the Queen booming out over the PA.

In an era where the south sea islands are combed for New Zealand rugby internationals and New Zealand itself is combed for Scottish rugby internationals, don’t expect anyone writing about Ireland at the Cricket World Cup to ask Captain McMorris’s famous question of his fellows in Shakespeare’s Henry V: “What is my nation?”

Just be thankful that the chance of a minnow breaking through in the Cricket World Cup is even lower than the chance of one breaking through in the Rugby World Cup, and that it’ll all be over soon.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Aiséirí an Leath-Chúlaí Amuigh 'Sna Sé Náisiúin?


Tá Comórtas na Sé Náisiún os ár gcomhair arís, agus cluichí le himirt an deireadh seachtaine seo i gCaerdydd, i bPáras agus sa Róimh, Cathair na Seacht gCnoc. Siad na Gaeil a mbeidh sa Róimh, na hAlbanaigh i bParás agus na Sasanaigh a bheidh ag imirt i gcoinne na Breataine Bige.

Chuir Keith Duggan, an scríbhneoir spóirt is fearr in ár linne, ceist spéisiúil smaointeach i ndiaidh cluichí an Fómhair, nuair a thug sé faoi deara an rún spóirt is mó sa lá 'tá inniu ann – tá an rugbaí ag éirí níos leadránaí agus na cóitseálaithe níos cliste. Ní labhraítear os ard é mar tá níos mó airgid sa gcluiche riamh agus, mar is eol leis an domhan mór, labhraíonn an t-airgead, agus ní labhraíonn sé aon bhreag.

Ach ag am céanna feictear nach bhfuil an spioraid sa rugbaí mar a bhíodh riamh. Dúirt Donncha O'Callaghan, sean-fhonadóir na Mumha agus na hÉireann, ní raibh sa gcluiche dósan ach obair. Glan an ruc seo, brúigh sa gcrág sin. An obair céannán céanna mar an “Tote that barge, lift that bale,” a cloiseadh taobh na Mississippi sa 19ú haois.

Tuigtear sa rugbaí le fada go bhfuil deighlt mór idir lucht imirithe an pianó agus lucht iompar an pianó. Ach ag an am céanna, ní raibh ainm an sclábaí ar tosaithe na rugbaí céanna seo, fir cosuil le Colin Meads, Willie John McBride, Moss Keane, Wade Dooley agus a leithéid. Bhain siadsan agus daoine cosuil leo spraoi óna gcuid imirthe – cén fáth nach bhfuil an spraoi céanna d'imreoirí cosúil le O'Callaghan?

Cé go bhfuil rugbaí sraithe faoi bhrú ag an rugbaí, tá tionchar sách láidir ag feallsúnacht an rugbaí sraithe ag an rugbaí. Is í feallsúnacht an rugbaí sraithe an pheist i úll rugbaí, agus feallsúnacht an cluiche thuaidh ag teacht ina ríocht, go mall ach go deimhin. Smaoinigh ar an mbéim atá ar an ngréimiú, ar sealbh na liathróide, ar neart an duine. Cá bhfuil an ealaíon? Cá bhfuil an bua? Cá bhfuil an gliondar?

Bhí áit ar fáil le gach saghas duine i bhfoireann rugbaí tráth, agus cialladh sin ná go raibh gach saghas corrála ann freisin don lucht feachtaint – corráil na mbuachaillí mhóra ag dul in aghaidh a cheile sa gclibirt, nó corráil na mbuachaillí bheaga ag eitilt síos an gcliathán. Agus níos fearr ná tada, bhí an teannas ann i gcónaí idir an té atá láidir agus an té atá glic.

Ba é an leath-chúlaí amuigh an duine is tábhachtaí ar fhoireann rugbaí, tráth. Ba í an Bhreatain Bheag baile na leath-chúlaithe is fearr sa ndomhan, agus is filí iad na Breatnaigh go leir agus an rugbaí á phlé acu. Is é an leath-chúlaí amuigh “an snáthad mhór ar inneoin an scriosadh,” a scríobhadh faoi Barry John i stáir oifigiúil Aontais Rugbaí na Breataine Bige, agus tá an teannas sin, idir an bheilbhit agus an t-iarann, ag croí an cluiche rugbaí.

An fadhb anois ná go bhfuil sé ag éirí i bhfad níos deacra dealaigh idir buachaillí an ráipéir agus buachaillí an chlaímh leathan. Is léir go bhfuil cúlchéimniú chun an mheáin ag tárlú i rugbaí, agus tá an meán ag éirí níos láidre arís agus arís eile leis na bliana.

Scríobh Dónal Lenihan san Examiner, an togha pháipéir spóirt sin, go bhfuil roinnt leath-chúlaithe amuigh tagtha ar an tsaol sa gComórtas seo chugainn, imeoirí dá laghad Lopez na Fraince agus Russell na hAlbáin, dhá thír agus leath-chúlaí amach ag taisteal uathu le fada anois.

Ach an am céanna, is deacair creidiúnt go bhfuil áit fághta sa rugbaí do na draoithe mar a bhíodh, iadsan ag éalú scriosadh ón bpáca le gach liathróid a ghlacaidís agus iadsan ag gáire in aghaidh an bhaoil. Tá súil agam go bhfuil dúl amú orm, ach mo léan ghearr, is dócha go bhfuil spreadsheet éigin ag gach foireann treanála a thaispeann nach bhfuil.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Responsibility v Truth in the Coverage of the Charlie Hebdo Murders

Montage of the victims from the Daily Telegraph.
Truth can suffer collateral damage when the media tries too hard to be responsible. We’ve seen some of this is in the coverage of the murders in Paris last week.

Many media organisations have gone to pains to stress that the murders have “nothing to do with Islam.” But if the murders have nothing to do with Islam, why did the murderers think that they did?

Anjem Choudray, a British Muslim activist, has made a very articulate (and therefore deeply shocking, of course) case that there is indeed a connection, and that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists pretty much had it coming to them. As he wrote in USA Today, “Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires.”

Choudray elaborated on this in a remarkable interview with Miriam O’Callaghan on Prime Time. Choudray made the case that sharia (Islamic) law is the only law and, had the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists been found guilty of insulting the Prophet in a sharia court, they would receive an automatic death sentence. Therefore, what happened to the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists is only what they would have coming to them anyway in a properly-ordered society.

So who’s correct? Is there a connection between Islam and the murders of the cartoonists or isn’t there? Well, that’s not really for anyone who isn’t an Islamic scholar to say.

Islam is different to Catholicism in that there is no pope – there is no one person who can claim to represent all Muslims. The theological tradition of Islam is not like that of Catholicism. Catholicism teaches that scripture is open to interpretation. Islam teaches that the Koran is of divine origin and contains, therefore, the answer to every question that was ever asked or could be asked.

So, there's nobody with whom to discuss and even if there was, it wouldn't matter because as far as an Islamic pope would be concerned, all questions are answered in the Koran.

This makes dialogue over competing values different, and this is the nub of the problem. The west has no business trying to figure out what Islam is or isn’t. What the west has to figure out is how to find common ground between peoples of a different value system.

And this is where we find out whether the idea of multiculturalism is the way to a bright, new world or whether it is a blind alley from which the west has to reverse and re-orient itself.

The hub of multiculturalism is that, while people appear different, they are all actually the same. They share the same values. Contemporary western values hold that nothing is worth killing for. Anjem Choudray disagrees: “Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them.”

Oil, meet Water. Water, this is Mr Oil.

If the central tenet of multiculturalism is that we are all the same, doesn’t this mean that we are monocultural, rather than multicultural? That culture is no more imbedded in us than a hat, something we can take off and put on as we choose? That there are no such things as separate cultures or beliefs or ways of life?

The media are trying to be noble, in their way, in trying to calm raging waters and not make a bad situation worse by inflaming passions that can only lead to pogroms and more pointless slaughter. But they have a responsibility to the truth too, and making sure that we all know exactly what’s at issue here.

The issue isn’t Islam. The issue is multiculturalism, and just how exactly two radically different cultures can conform to one law, before which everyone is equal, regardless of class or creed. The west has believed that this conforming is possible since the end of the Second World War. Events of the past week and, God help us, weeks to come will test that theory to its breaking point.

FOCAL SCOIR: Richard Dawkins should win an award for tweeting the most bien pensant thought of the week. “Ridicule is the best response, never violence,” wrote Dawkins. “Laugh at them, mock their ridiculous beliefs, do what Charlie Hebdo did. Never use violence.”

Very good in theory, of course. But in practice, when a crack squad of Methodist Militia or the Provisional Pentecostal Army break into your office intent on mayhem and getting set to fill you full of lead, you would be best advised not to say something withering about John Wesley, but rather to shoot them before they bloody shoot you.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Owning the News Cycle

Yesterday’s news was dominated by stories about patients on trolleys in Irish hospitals. Why?

Nobody doubts that having patients on trolleys is a bad thing. But that doesn’t make patients-on-trolleys news. For instance, the famed NHS of Great Britain has an A&E overcrowding problem right now and, bad and all as the HSE are, they aren’t responsible for events in Britain.

When asked once about the scandal of patients on trolleys, a medical doctor and Minister for Health once remarked that there is, actually, very little difference between a hospital bed and a hospital trolley, per se. You can lie on both, they both have wheels, and so on. But that doctor and Minister wasn’t Leo Varadkar, the current incumbent at Hawkins House. That was John O’Connell, twenty years ago.

So. Patients on trolleys because of hospital over-crowding isn’t unique to Ireland or unique to this year. Our current over-crowding is mirrored by over-crowding in the British NHS, and the issue of patients on trolleys has been an issue in Irish politics for a quarter of a century.

Why, then, did it get such intensive coverage yesterday?

Sometimes, something makes the news because there’s nothing else going on. It’s like all the foreign news that leads the bulletins over Christmas. An election in Azerbaijan is below the page 2 fold in the Irish Times 51 weeks of the year. Christmas week, hold the front page for the word from Baku.

But that isn’t the case this week, where there are lots of other things happening. Your correspondent's own favourite was Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s extraordinary attack on his fellow Government members as reported in yesterday's Examiner. Ó Ríordáin went on the record to say none of the Government’s mistakes have been Labour’s fault. That buck, thinks Ó Ríordáin, rests with Fine Gael.

You can imagine what the backbenchers in Fine Gael, already plenty jittery, made of them onions. You can equally imagine what sort of repercussions that might have on those same backbenchers' enthusiasm, watery to begin with, for the same-sex marriage referendum – a same-sex marriage referendum for which Ó Ríordáin himself is to lead the Yes side for the Government. Will the backbench Blueshirts forgive and forget? What do you think?

That’s a juicy story. Was it covered by the National Broadcaster? Nope. Not a sausage.

For the four days prior yesterday, Lucinda Creighton's was the only story in town. Fergus Finlay in the Examiner was so sure that #rebootireland amounted to less-than-nothing that he wrote a column about it, as one does about things that aren’t important.

Of course, it hasn’t been easy to figure out just what Lucinda is up to, other than to note that when it comes to media appearances the woman is as sure-footed as a tightrope walker. Your correspondent has long hoped that Creighton would be the leader to finally consign civil war politics to the history books (and, for civil war politics to end, both civil war parties have to go – an important point that is hardly ever mentioned), but unless people rally to her flag and soon, that chance is gone.

But while the chance of ending civil war politics will be gone, Ms Creighton herself will be anything but. Her time is only beginning. For instance, consider the following picture tweeted by Lucinda just before Christmas:


Isn’t it extraordinary? For those who aren’t good at dates, it was December 17th when Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that Ireland’s abortion laws were too restrictive. And then he goes off and has a lovely dinner with his old friend and former party colleague Lucinda Creighton on December 19th, that same L Creighton who happens to be the current face of the anti-abortion movement in Ireland.

So. On Christmas week the Twitterati learned that Lucinda Creighton isn’t such a bigot after all, and is more than willing to dine with those who oppose her beliefs. And they learned that Leo Varadkar isn’t a bigot either, and remains loyal to his old friend. We can gather from this that, were Enda Kenny no longer the leader of Fine Gael, there would be very few bars to Lucinda’s return to Fine Gael should she choose that path.

Then, the first week after Christmas, Lucinda flexed her muscles before the general public by dominating the media with a press conference at which she said the absolute bare minimum to make renting the room worthwhile. Four days’ publicity from an hour-long presser.

As they saw Lucinda at every hands’ turn over the weekend, did Fine Gael backbenchers wonder if it was their own seats that were most vulnerable to the rise of a Creightonista faction?

Not that anybody is talking about Lucinda now. Oh no. On Monday, we had Simon Coveney - a contender to replace Enda Kenny as Fine Gael leader with, funnily enough, Leo Varadkar - announce that the lucrative American market is now open to Irish beef for the first time in fourteen weeks. Then yesterday the trolley scandal broke – just when Leo Varadkar happened to be on holidays and unable to act to defuse the situation.

Man. How unlucky is that for Leo?

Some commentators have said that it’s difficult to see what exactly Lucinda is up to with all this media activity. Reader, there’s a lot of it about.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Year in Sports: Review and Preview

A year when Kerry won the football and Kilkenny the hurling does not sound like a year of revolution in Irish sport. And neither was it, really. Kerry have been béal-bochting all year about how this was their best All-Ireland yet because no-one gave them a chance, but the nation might be well-advised to take that with a pinch of salt. The 1975 team weren’t expected to win that All-Ireland either, and they turned out to be pretty handy in the end.

But the question of how long can this keep going on is getting more and more urgent in football. Ulster is the only competitive provincial Championship now. Connacht may be next year, or it may not. Leinster will be a parade, and Munster the usual two-handed set. This isn’t good for anybody, but how it’s to be remedied is the Gordian Knot of the GAA.

Two solutions get the most media airings. The first is a dual-Championship, for haves and have-nots. The second is a Champions-League style thing, because the Group games in the Champions League are always such heart-stopping affairs.

Neither of these solutions is acceptable, because both work against the very spirit of the GAA. The spirit of the GAA is representation of where you’re from, and competing against your neighbours. The GAA is not a professional sport, and neither are the inter-county competitions the be-all and end-all of the Association. If anything, they are brocade and it will be a bleak day for the Association if that is ever forgotten.

In an interview on the invariably excellent Second Captains podcast, former Roscommon goalkeeper and aspirant All-Ireland-winning Roscommon manager, Shane Curran, reckoned that for Roscommon to win an All-Ireland, one million Euro will have to spent every year for fifteen years to raise standards to that of the elite counties.

Reader, if the Association spent more time wondering how winning All-Irelands costs one million a year for fifteen years than worrying about Rachel Wyse and Sky’s threat to the Purity of the Gael, it might come a lot closer to finding out why the Provincial Championships aren’t competitive any more.

It is an interesting thing that hurling remains free of accusations of creeping professionalism, uncompetitive provincial Championships and cynical play. After fifty years without a drawn All-Ireland hurling final, we’ve now had two-in-a-row and each final since the Tipperary revival of 2009 has been hailed as the greatest-ever.

Would it be monstrous to wonder about this? Is there a case to be made that the hurling Emperor isn’t quite dressed for the weather? The back-door may be a pox on football, further punishing and humiliating the weaker counties for whom it was theoretically introduced, but at least people can understand it. The complex steps of the hurling Championship are like a puzzle escaped from a cryptologists’ laboratory.

For all its faults, there is general consensus that come the August Bank Holiday, the best eight teams in the country are still in competition for Sam. Can the same be said for Liam, or could the best team fall in Munster and then die the death of a thousand cuts in the purgatorial struggles of the hurling back door?

Such complexities are far beyond a Mayoman’s understanding, of course, but is it time hurling people started to wonder aloud?

The other sport about which the nation seems to be labouring under a particular delusion is rugby. The sports page previews this week will speculate about Ireland’s chances as an outside bet to win the Rugby World Cup, which will be held in England’s green and pleasant land next autumn.

Reader, Ireland have never won a World Cup playoff game in the seven times the competition has been held, including two years, 1999 and 2007, when Ireland couldn’t even get out of their group. The Irish rugby public should think about crawling before thinking about walking.

Will the World Cup be worth watching? An unthinkable question once, but getting more and more relevant now. The best sports columnist in Ireland, Keith Duggan of the Irish Times, wondered recently if rugby hasn’t become a brilliantly-coached bore in recent years, and a perusal of the stats solidify that case.

The former Welsh out-half, Barry John, once said that he could tell how a game would go simply by looking at how the out-half handled the ball in warm-ups. In the amateur game, the out-half dictated the game from his regal throne standing-off the scrum. Now, the only thing that separates out-halves is competence. There are thin degrees of difference between them at international level, but they’re like the thousandths of a second that separate cars in Formula One. Too miniscule to take seriously.

Rugby Union is now a game of continual tackling in defense and not turning over possession in offense. Tackling has become the be-all and end-all of the game that sneaky attackers are now making sure they get tackled, in order to turn the laws to their advantage, as Will Greenwood noted in the Telegraph.

Union may dominate League in England since Union turned professional twenty years ago – the RFU’s turnover is four times that of the RFL – but League’s influence over Union has proved so strong that the codes are closer than they have been in over one hundred years. Good news for the stand-up, pay-up moneymen coining it at every turn, but for what the French used to call la gloire? A victim to progress, I’m afraid.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Examiner's Top Forty Irish Sports Books

What marvellous food for thought the Examiner has given us in publishing a list of the top forty Irish sports books. It would be churlish to argue with the ordering of the list, as no two lists will ever have the same order. But there is much to be gleaned from the list about who we are, the sports we watch and how we chronicle them.

The first thing that strikes you about the list is how much it is dominated by the GAA. Eighteen of the forty books listed are GAA-themed. This is astonishing, as Paddy is not a man who has ever liked to go on the record. Paddy felt strongly this way against the Invader, but he feels no less so against the notebook and the Bic biro.

In a culture where omerta rules, how can we get eighteen books about the GAA at all, to say nothing of saying those eighteen are among the best forty of all time?

Well. Firstly, the list betrays a certain bias towards the recent – twenty of the forty books were published in the past nine years, and thirteen of the eighteen GAA books on the list were published after 2005.

This is not to say that some of the books aren’t deserving of their position; of course they are. But is fair to presume that, were the list compiled again in ten years’ time, the position of these books relative to each other will change.

For instance, Michael Foley’s The Bloodied Field, published in the past two months, is 23rd on the list, behind Eamon Sweeney’s The Road to Croker, Dónal Óg Cusack’s Come What May and others. This is the last time Foley’s book will be listed so low, while some of the others ahead of it will be folded back into the mists of time.

The other astonishing thing about the list is relative absence of horse racing and rugby. Horse-racing books can run to a specialist interest, but rugby has traditionally been a well-documented sport – it’s origins in the English public schools make that inevitable. Rugby has also undergone a popularity surge in Ireland as couldn’t have been imagined even as Brian O’Driscoll ran in his three tries in Paris in 2000.

In the light of this, it’s odd that, not only are there so few good books on rugby (as opposed to player autobiographies, say), but the rugby book that is head and shoulders above the other two is about a game that was played in 1978.

The books that top the list are also a bit odd. According to the Examiner list, the five best Irish sportsbooks ever written are Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride, Paul McGrath’s autobiography, Eamon Dunphy’s (first) autobiography, Michael Foley’s Kings of September and Tony Cascarino’s autobiography.

Four out of those five books do not make for jolly reading (all five, if you’re from Kerry). As a matter of fact, you would wonder why anyone would either play or follow sports at all if all that awaits them is what befell Kimmage, McGrath, Dunphy and Cascarino (and Micko, again, only if you live in Kerry).

There is no reason to let sport loom large in your life if the sport itself is the be-all and end-all. We follow sports for what they represent as much, if not more than, the sport itself.

At one level the 1982 All-Ireland football final was thirty grown men chasing a ball in the rain. At another level, it was Greek tragedy brought to life, as those who would think themselves equal to the gods were cut down by Fate. You don’t get much drama like that to the dollar, and that’s one of the reasons why we follow sports as we do.

Breandán Ó hEithir’s GAA memoir, Over the Bar, languishes at number 19 in the Examiner list. On my own list, it’s Number One. Other books show were sport fits in with history. Over the Bar shows where the GAA fits in with the Irish soul. An extraordinary, inspired book and essential reading for students of sport, of Ireland and of writing.

In the print edition of the Examiner list, Over the Bar is compared to a compilation of work by PD Mehigan, published at the same time as Ó hEithir’s book, 1984. Mehigan, who wrote under the pen-name Carbery, was one of the first GAA journalists and a man with a prolific output. But to compare his writing to Ó Eithir’s is to compare water with wine.

FOCAL SCÓR: William Hamilton Maxwell’s Wild Sports of the West, first published in 1832, should be on any list of great Irish sports books. Maxwell was something of a rake, who took a holiday from smokey London to do a bit of huntin', shootin' and fishin' in the West of Ireland. The prose in the book is, like Maxwell himself, rich and exuberant. For instance, Maxwell quotes from a contemporary tourist guide as to what exactly Connaught is like:

It lieth under a dark gray cloud, which is evermore discharging itself on the earth, but, like the widow's curse, is never exhausted. It is bounded on the south and east by Christendom and part of Tipperary, on the north by Donegal, and on the west by the salt say.

Now that’s writin’.