Thursday, April 09, 2015
A very telling speech was made during the 1926 debate about the location of the memorial, which seems to appropriate to current concerns about how to be “inclusive” in commemorating the Rising.
The speaker objected because he feared that locating the memorial in front of the parliament of an independent Ireland would give the impression, to those unfamiliar with Irish history, that the monuments were connected. That the deaths of Irishmen fighting for the Triple Entente led to Ireland taking her place among the nations of the Earth. He did not see this as being at all the case:
We had our talk of political dismemberment; we had our talk of partition; we had our conference on the less or more of partition; we had the shelving of the whole issue, and the hanging up of the [Home Rule] Bill until after the war, when that whole issue was to be reopened. The horse was to live, and it would get grass after the war.
The horse, not unwisely as I see it, decided it would have a bit for grass before the end of the war. Someone said, or wrote, that somehow, at sometime, and by somebody, revolutions must be begun. A revolution was begun in this country, in Easter 1916. That revolution was endorsed by the people in a general election of 1918 and three years afterwards the representatives of the Irish people negotiated a treaty with the British government. It is on that treaty, won in that way, that this state and its constitution are based, and I submit to deputies it is not wise to suggest that this state has any other origin than those.
Let men think what they will of them. Let men criticise them, and hold their individual viewpoints. But those are the origins of the State.
It would be lacking in a sense of truth, a sense of historical perspective, a sense of symmetry, to suggest that the state had not these origins, but that it is based in some way of the sacrifice of those who followed the advice of parliamentary representatives of the day and recruited in great numbers to the British army to fight in the European war.
Fifty thousand Irishmen died in France. I hope that the memory of those men and their sacrifice and the motives of their sacrifice will always have respect and reverence in Ireland.
Who was the slavering, Brit-hating, báinín-wearing, backwoods-dwelling Republican jihadi who made that speech? It was the then Minister for Justice of the Free State Government, Kevin O’Higgins (the quotation is taken from Terence de Vere White's 1948 biography of O'Higgins, Anvil Press, 1966. p 173).
If O’Higgins’ shade were to return one year from now, and walk down what he knew as Sackville Street, what would he make of the Centenary? Reader, couldn’t you excuse him for wondering why he and his comrades ever bothered?
Wednesday, April 08, 2015
Games evolve as they’re played. Players and managers think of new things, new tactics, new skills all the time. But every now and again whoever is in charge of a particular sport has to look at its development and ask: are these new developments true to the fundamental nature of the sport, or do they take the sport to a place where it really shouldn’t go?
How did the blanket defence come to be? Why didn’t anybody try it before? Joe Brolly’s Arcadian vision last Sunday of a manly, self-policing game is all balls. There was never a time when teams wouldn’t trample their grannies into the muck to win. Why, then, did it take so long for Tyrone to invent the blanket defence and Donegal to perfect it?
The answer is sports science. The modern Gaelic footballer has access to both a wealth of sports science knowledge that was not available to previous generations, and the leisure time to put that science to practical use. We never saw the blanket defence before because no team could come close to achieving the levels of fitness required to make it work.
Has this fitness infusion changed Gaelic football for the better, or for the worse? Advocates of both the system and of sports science say for the better. Players are fitter and faster today, they say, and this can only be a good thing.
They run “classic” games like the 1982 Football Final through software like Dartfish and produce charts to say that football is clearly better today than it was then in terms of possessions, plays, and different other criteria. Besides, they say, who can halt the march of progress?
Nobody can halt the march of progress, of course. But not everybody agrees on what progress is. One person’s evolution may be another’s devolution; one’s progression another’s regression.
To answer whether the blanket era of football is evolution or devolution, let’s take a lesson from Marcus Aurelius: What is Gaelic football in itself? What is its nature?
Gaelic football is a game of catching and kicking. That is its nature. But what price catching and kicking in modern football? Players who can catch and kick the ball are still useful in the game, but some of the greatest exponents of the modern game are noted for neither their catching nor their kicking, but for their unearthly ability to run and run and run and run.
The level of athleticism is what makes the difference in Gaelic football today. Modern levels of training has outpaced the earlier conceptions of what the human body is capable of doing, and an ability to execute the skills of the game has been replaced and, in some places, surpassed, by the ability to keep going, going, going in terms of value to a team.
The key skill now and into the future is workrate. But isn’t workrate something more suited to a factory or an assembly line than a sporting field of dreams? Alexi Stakhanov was named a hero of the Soviet Union for mining over 100 tonnes of coal in under six hours in the 1930s, but I doubt very much if anyone would have paid in to see him to do it.
When sports scientists talk about greater workrate and roll out their tables and charts and measurements they miss an important point. Sport isn’t meant to be empirical. It’s meant to be transcendental. Sport is meant to bring you away from the ordinary, not be just another part of it.
Joe Brolly is wrong in saying it’s the duty of managers to keep games true to themselves. The duty of managers is to win within the rules of the day. The duty of the GAA is to make sure the rules of the day are staying ahead of managers. This is not currently the case, but there’s no reason why it can’t be.
The GAA gave up on the eighty-minute finals after five years, and cracked down on handpassing when some teams were about to turn football into a variant of Olympic handball. There’s no reason for them not to slice up the blankets and let the games breathe again. Perhaps they could start with a proper definition of the tackle? God knows we’ve been a long enough time waiting for that.
Tuesday, April 07, 2015
The GAA published a press release last October blowing their own trumpet – and covering their own back – in the matter of black cards, and how scoring in football had increased in consequence of the card’s introduction. Those figures, unsurprisingly, did not stack up, as discussed here at the time.
Six months on, controversy flares again over the health of Gaelic football, which is either in the full bloom of robust health or anointed and ready for the Next World with no position possible in between. However, we now have two like-for-like datasets to compare – the football league just over, and the football league of last year.
Whether total scores is the best metric to measure the health of the game is open to debate, but as scores are the lingua franca of the current debate, it makes sense to start there. These are the average total scores per game between this year and last year, broken down by Division.
The figures are stark. Scoring is down a total of three and a half points per game across the Divisions. The difference is negligible in Division 3 and 2, while Division 1 and 4’s differences are much more dramatic. Scoring is down by five points per game in Division 4, and by a remarkable eight points per game in Division 1. Here are histograms of total scores between this year and last year (click for a close-up):
Is the scoring drop off county- as well as division-specific? Looking at each individual county (click for a close-up), Tyrone’s is the heaviest loss, followed by Wicklow, Derry and Mayo. Tyrone and Derry have both been relegated, but Wicklow and Mayo remain as they were. Sligo had the best scoring turnaround of all the counties in the League, but Sligo remains in the middle of Division 3. There isn’t a pattern here. The drop-off isn’t a county thing.
The balloon went up on this whole death of Gaelic football debate when Dublin beat Derry in Croke Park by 0-8 to 0-4 two weeks ago and Jarlath Burns tweeted that game as symbolizing “the death of Gaelic football.” How do the head-to-head comparisons work out between last year and this year? Again, click the graph for a proper look:
The Derry and Dublin matchup is there in third place in terms of greatest difference in points scored between this year and last year. Derry and Dublin managed twenty points less between them in 2015 than they managed in 2014. But again, there isn’t a pattern in the matchups per se – it’s all part of the overall pattern that scoring is well down this year compared to last year. It’s impossible to argue otherwise.
So how do these statistics reflect on the health or otherwise of the game? Here, as in so many other issues in Irish life, it all depends on the hobby horse you rode in on.
For instance, the eternally vocal Joe Brolly went in hard on Mickey Harte in over the weekend, accusing Harte of having ruined the game. This is ironic in a number of ways, not least as when “puke football” debuted in the consciousness of the nation in the summer of 2003, Brolly was the blanket’s Number 1 fan.
Has Brolly seen the light, like Paul on his way to Damascus? Or is Brolly eager not to have a black card debate, he himself having passionately argued that the black card would take the cynicism out of the game?
There are two other questions to be answered here, that seem simple but that aren’t, really. What is cynicism? And what is the game? When does doing your utmost to win a game mutate into cynicism, and when does the game you’re playing stop being the game you’re playing, but some other hybrid mutation of it? Come back tomorrow, when we’ll try to figure it out.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Heady days for Ireland, not least for those who spent so many years watching the Golden Generation fall just short, year after year, of winning a Championship. Let’s not even mention the decades before.
Why, then, do the days coming up to what should be a mouth-watering encounter with Wales, recent rivals on so many levels, seem so empty? Why do two lines from Leonard Cohen’s beautiful lament, So Long, Marianne, keep ringing through my head?
“Your letters all say that you’re beside me now
Then why do I feel alone?”
Why doesn’t a dominant Irish team feel like a dominant Irish team? Why is it so hard to squeeze any fun or delight or joy out of this long-awaited dominance? What’s gone wrong?
We all know the answer, of course. Steve Hansen, coach of the All-Blacks themselves, mentioned it only last week. What’s gone wrong isn’t the team. It’s the game itself.
Rugby has always been aware of the need to balance the game between the broadswords of the forwards and the rapiers of the backs. The banning of the direct kick into touch at the end of the ‘sixties gave birth to one of rugby’s golden ages in the ‘seventies. Now, in the professional era, the International Board has to be even more vigilant in its guardianship of the soul of the game.
If this were any other year, the International Board would be swiftly attending to the current devolution of the game where, instead of running to daylight, you are now a crazy man if you don’t find the biggest monster on the other team and run right at his rock-hard tummy.
The International Board aren’t looking at the rules however. The International Board are looking at the calendar, and the calendar tells them that the Rugby World Cup is only six months away. There is no time to do anything more than tweak a rule here or there, and tweaking isn’t what rugby needs right now. It’s full open-heart surgery.
You saw it in one vignette during the first game of this year’s Six Nations, Wales v England. At one point in the game, Dylan Hartley, England’s spirited hooker, squirreled out of a maul with the ball under his oxter and hit the gas for the end line. But Hartley was doomed. He was quickly caught and possession was turned over.
Former Irish captain Phil Matthews was doing commentary for the BBC at that game. Matthews explained that you just can’t do what Hartley did in rugby anymore. You cannot make a break unless you are sure you have support. If you do, you will be choke-tackled, held up and see precious possession turned over.
But what is rugby for if not to run with the ball in hand? Surely that one thing is the sine qua non of the game. And what sort of game is it where grown men, big and strong, cannot go into enemy territory without a chaperone? What happened to the dash and daring of Brian O’Driscoll in Paris fifteen years ago, or rumbling, lumbering glory of Ginger McLoughlin in Twickenham eighteen years before that?
One of Ireland’s greatest-ever international tries against Wales was Noel Mannion’s long spirit from a blocked-down kick at the Arms Park in 1987. Such a run would be gooney-bird rugby now. There’s no longer any room for heroes.
Tony Ward recently suggested in his column in the Indo that the numbers on the field need to be reduced. No. If we wanted rugby league we’d watch rugby league. It’s not like it can’t be found. We want to watch rugby, the game that, at its best, combines the iron fist and the velvet glove like no other.
How, then, to get it back, in this supremely defensive, supremely professional era? Amateurism can never come back. Once your soul is sold it’s gone forever. On the technical side, the lawmakers could look at banning lifting in the lineout, and making it a contest again. Why not? What's so great about lifting?
There is perhaps something they could do about the rucks, but the laws concerning the breakdown in rugby are now so complex that even Professor Ivana Bacik, Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College, Dublin, would be stumped by them.
So here’s another possibility. Why not enforce some drug laws? The sight of a fifteen-stone man picking up another fifteen-stone man and throwing him about the place like a farmer throwing a wellington at the village sports is now commonplace in rugby. That is by no means commonplace in nature.
Everybody says that players are all getting bigger. But they don’t have to. If the International Board wanted to spot who was doing the dog with supplements and yokes and calf-nuts and God only knows what, the International Board could. All it takes is the will.
In the meantime, let’s hope Ireland can win the Slam, starting with giving Wales a trimming on Saturday. Joe Schmidt is a fine coach, but the media’s portrayal of him as rugby’s General Rommel is nonsense.
Ireland are playing the ten-man game better than it’s ever been played before, but it’s still the ten-man game, where the out-half kicks for territory and the backs are just there to make their tackles if the other bunch have the temerity to run the thing back.
The rugby is appalling, but at least it’s appalling rugby that Ireland are winning. We’ve seen the other day often enough to take some bit of a pleasure in this, scant though it may be.
Friday, March 06, 2015
Monday, March 02, 2015
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
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.