Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cheering Bad Rugby

Ireland are 2/1 on to win the Six Nations Championship, and 5/4 to win their third-ever Grand Slam. Joe Schmidt’s team are fourth favourites to win the Rugby World Cup itself, even though Ireland’s next win in the knock-out stages of that competition will be their first.

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

So. Farewell Then, Jim McCann

Sweet-voiced folk singers are as ladies of Shalott – their gift is their curse. The vogue is for the folk singer to have that bit of grit in the voice, with the late Ronnie Drew being primus inter pares of the species. Sweet-voiced folkies are viewed with suspicion, like opera singers slumming it until they get the call from La Scala.

All nonsense, of course. All musical terms are hard to pin down in prose, and to explain what it is that makes a voice sweet is a task beyond your correspondent. A sweet voice is something that you know when you hear it, and you heard it every time Jim McCann stepped up to the mike.

McCann, the man who replaced the unreplaceable Ronnie Drew in the Dubliners from 1974 to 1979, is the latest of that iconic ballad group on whom time has been called by the Great Barman in the Sky. He will be a footnote in today’s papers, and that’s a pity. His talent and artistry deserve more than that.

All their talent and artistry deserved more than that. John Sheahan’s son is an enthusiastic archiver of the band’s work, and there are a small, devoted gallant band of posters to YouTube who post some of the most glorious clips, many not seen since first broadcast all over the world over twenty-five years, each one a treasure in its own particular way. God bless them in their mission.

Hard-line folkies didn’t believe in recorded music, as such. Frank Harte, the great singer of Chapelizod, believed a song only existed at the moment of its being sung. It’s likely that McCann, and Ronnie, and Luke, and the rest believed that too, or else simply believed that singing was something you did to pace your drinking. It’s hard to imagine Coldplay or some other bunch of Gawd-help-us musos noodling around in the studio if the Dubliners were waiting outside, looking at their watches.

You can hear this disregard for the process on McCann’s version of Spancil Hill on the Fifteen Years On record – he fails to hold the notes on “dreaming” in his gorgeous cover of that gorgeous song. Why didn’t they just record it again? Too close to closing time is the most likely answer.

Is this neglect a bad thing? Is neglect even the correct word? Records by the ’sixties folkies like the Dubliners or the Clancys, or even the obscure records by the Grehan Sisters or the great Anne Byrne, should be thought of more as artefacts than things to stand with Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds. Besides; what does an album mean anymore in the Age of the Download?

In their recordings, we can get a glimpse of what Jim McCann and the rest of the Dubliners were like in their pomp, but it is only that. A glimpse. A fleeting moment.

Katy Perry, God bless her, does her thing for the telly. In real life, she might not make the same impression. With the Dubliners, it’s different. The recordings confine them in a way they were not meant to be a confined. A song is a song when it’s sung. Not before, not after. Katy Perry does the same show in Berlin, in Bali or in Birmingham. With the Dubliners in their prime, anything could happen from the first strum on the guitar.

So what, then, was Jim McCann like? He was a funny man – that’s clear from his appearance on the legendary Late Late Show Tribute to the Dubliners. He was a patriot – he always made a point of telling the story of Grace Gifford and Joseph Mary Plunkett before singing his greatest hit.

McCann had a successful solo career before and after the Dubliners, so his time with the Dubliners never fully defined him. But it is a reasonable argument to make that the five-year match between the Dubliners and Jim McCann brought out the best in each. He slowed them down a little, and let the music breathe. For their part, the Dubliners' artistry and virtuosity added embellishments to McCann’s voice and guitar that session musicians never could.

As a singer, Jim McCann will be remembered for the sweetness of his voice in songs like Carrickfergus, Boulavogue and Four Green Fields. But his Spanish Lady is the definitive recording of that liveliest of songs and McCann also recorded as blood-curdling a rendition of Follow Me Up to Carlow, a very ensanguined song to begin with, as was ever put on record. There was more to him than that soft cooing in the heather.

McCann’s greatest song, in your correspondent’s opinion, was Easy and Slow. It was another considerable hit for him, showcasing the true beauty, subtlety, sweetness and colour of McCann’s extraordinary voice.

I remember him singing it on an RTÉ series of the very early 1980s, strolling down along Thomas Street, down to the Liffey, and the impression it made has stayed with me in the thirty years since. I hope, in honour of his spirit, that clip appears on YouTube soon.

And in that thought, here’s another recently discovered classic, McCann singing Carrickfergus with the Dubliners in their prime from 1977. Ag moladh Dé leis na n-aingil go raibh Jim McCann, seisean agus a ghuth binn galánta.

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.