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’.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Ansbacher - Time to Publish, and Be Damned

Mary Lou McDonald may have impugned the august dignity of Dáil Éireann yesterday, but she has done the plain people of Ireland some service in doing it.

The entire political establishment has known the names on this infamous Ansbacher list for some time; now, thanks to Deputy McDonald, so do we. The plain people of Ireland, for one brief moment, are in with the In Crowd, and now know what the In Crowd knows. Or at least, some of it.

Will anything come of yesterday’s events? Who knows? If the Ansbacher list is just a list of unfounded allegations, then nothing will come of it, and all this will be quickly forgotten by history.

If the Ansbacher list is the goods on the most base corruption at the heart of Irish politics, the question then arises why Mary Lou didn’t drive the blade home and quote chapter and verse on the hows and whys of the thing?

The most likely scenario is that Mary Lou does not have the goods on these allegations, and is simply lobbing a high ball into the square, on the odds-against chance of it falling her way before being swallowed up by the full-back.

This would certainly make Mary Lou guilty of an abuse of Dáil privilege, and question her standing as a parliamentarian. But then, as the current Government cares not one whit for the Dáil, as demonstrated by its eagerness to guillotine debate and to run the country by the four-person junta that is the Economic Management Council, parliamentarian isn’t the title it once was.

It is interesting that, in this moment in history where we worship “whistle-blowers” – reader, do you remember one article that ever doubted Garda McCabe or ex-Garda Wilson, that ever wondered if these guys were just doing a dog even a biteen? No; me neither – isn’t it remarkable that nobody has sat down with Mr Ryan, the current whistle-blower, with a microphone, notebook and ballpoint pen?

The Irish libel laws are incorrectly balanced in the way they favour the establishment over the right to speak out and to question, so this makes the press a little more cautious than it ought to be. The fact that the journalism industry is currently falling apart like a three-dollar suit bought in Bangkok doesn’t help either.

But in abusing the privilege of that august chamber, Dáil Éireann, Deputy McDonald has opened a window for the journalists of Ireland to earn their corn. David Davin-Power reported on the Nine O’Clock News last night that Gerard Ryan’s report to Mary Harney is seven-hundred-pages long. So now it’s time to go through that report, and start seeing if things add up or if they don’t.

Why not publish it on-line, so we all can read it? Maybe it will be some enterprising Citizen Journalist who finally cracks the case.

Either result is fine, funnily enough. If Mr Ryan is simply an obsessive or a fantasist who can’t let this thing go, we ought to know. We ought to know for the good names of those who are currently under suspicion, and we ought to know so people aren’t completely gullible about conspiracy theories.

And if Mr Ryan is correct in his allegations, then we know that biggest lie of all throughout the 2011 election campaign was that not all politicians are the same. We will know they are exactly the same, and that we must find a new way of selecting politicians, the old one being clearly exposed as not fit for purpose.

The plain people of Ireland are in the slips, straining at the start. Time to turn finally open those closets, and see what comes tumbling out.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bígí ar Bhur Suaimhneas – Níl Tada Buaite Fós ag na Gaeil

Sa ndeireadh, bhí an cheart ag an gConnallach. Iarraidh air an deá-fhógra don bhliain seo chugainn torraí cluiche an Fómhair. Bhí na torraí ceanán céanna againne i 2006, a dúirt sé, agus níor thugadar aon chabhair linn i 2007.

Tá cuimhneamh teipe sa gCorn Domhanda i 2007 go láidir i meoin Uí Chonnaill, mar atá i meoin gach duine rugbaí na tíre. Ní raibh mórán ag tnúth go n-insíodh an Drisceollach an scéal go léir ina dhírbheathaisnéis agus d'fhán sé ina thost, mar is gnáth. Leanann scéal na bliana rugbaí sin go léir ina rún os comhair an phobail.

Agus anois, tá Corn Domhanda eile ag teacht agus pobal na hÉireann ag smaoineamh anois go n-éireodh linn an Corrán féin a ghabháil, agus sinne gan bua dá laghad i ndiaidh na gcluichí ghasra fós.

Ach seo foireann eile, a deirtear. Is é Joe Schmidt an saineolaí rugbaí is fearr sa ndomhan mór. Níl an glas ann nárbh fhéidir leis a oscailt. B'fhéidir. An uair deireanach a chuireas súil ar an scéal, ba iad na h-imreoirí amháin a bhí ar an bpáirc agus na traenálaithe go léir suas istigh 'sna ardáin, ach tá an cluiche chomh athraithe chomh tapa le déanaí tá seans ann go bhfuil dúl amú orm.

Ag smaoineamh ar na buanna in aghaidh na hAstráile agus na hAfraice Theas, cén fáth gur éirigh leis na Gaeil? An bhfuil siad chomh maith sin i ndáiríre?

Is deacair é a thuiscint ón meáin Éireannach, a chuireann na geansaithe uaithne orthu níos tapa maidir leis an rugbaí ná nuair a bhí Jack Charlton ann sa sacar. Bíonn an meáin Breataine réidh i gcónaí cnámh a chaitheamh chun na Gaeil fiáine, agus tá mo laethanta scoile chomh fada thiar liom anois níl fios agam cad a scríobhtar fúinn sa bhFrainc. Tá a bhfadhbanna féin acu ar ndóigh, na créatúir.

Agus an rugbaí éirithe chomh casta mar atá, breathnaím ar cluichí anois agus espnscrum.co.uk oscailte agam ar mo thablet, ag breathnú ar staitisticí an chluiche. D'éirigh linne an méid seo clibirte a bhuaigh, d'éirigh leosan an méid sin síneadh amach. Ní fhéidir na staitisticí go léir a chreideamh – bhí sé ghreamú aimsithe ag Ian Madigan acu, mar shampla, ach is ait é an greamú nuair a leanann an imreoir greamaithe ar aghaidh mar a bhí sé, ach go bhfuil Madigan anois aige mar phaisinéir chomh maith – ach cabhraíonn na staitisticí an cluiche gairmiúla a thuiscint.

Níor chabhair na staitisticí liom aréir, mar bhí an lámh in uachtar ag na hAstraláisigh ón chuid is mó imeartha. Níos mó seilbhe, níos mó talaimh, níos mó gach rud ag an Astráil ach cúlaithe ar an mbord, an t-aon staitistic amháin atá ina rí ar gach uile ceann acu. Bhí an t-ádh ag na Gaeil nuair a d'aimsigh Zebo agus Bowe a n-úid, agus ba é sin scéal an chluiche. Bhí an bearna ró-mhór do na hAstraláisigh.

Ní hea sin drochmheas ar cliathánaithe na hÉireann. Thógadar a seasanna, agus sin é an fáth go bhfuil siad ann, chun na seasanna sin a thógáil, in ionad an liathróid a ligeadh chun tosaigh nó praiseach éigin eile a dhéanamh as na seansanna.

Ach ar chonaiceamar fianaise i rith an Fómhair gurbh fhéidir leis na Gaeil an Corrán Domhanda féin a bhuaigh? Caithfear níos mó na an dhá úd sin a bheith ann. Tá an paca láidir go leor agus cróga a ndóthain, ach bhíodar faoi bhrú sa gclibirt agus agus ní hé an Astráil an fhoireann is fearr san obair sin sa domhain.

Tá Robbie Henshaw ag dul go maith i mbróga móra Uí Dhrisceoill chomh fada seo, ach tá D'Arcy sean go leor agus ní fheictear mórán luais idir an bheirt acu. Bhí an luas caillte ag BOD féin sa ndeireadh ach bheadh BOD ina imreoir agus é ar leathchos – fios ag gach éinne faoi sin.

Tá daoine ag súil go bhfillfidh Seán O'Brien agus Cian Healy agus níorbh aon íobairt é ceachtar acu a chur istigh sa bhfoireann, ach ag an am céanna tá imní orm maidir leis an bhfoireann seo.

Agus an bliain ina h-uimhir chorr, beidh Sasana agus an Fhrainc againn sa mbaile, ach tá an Albain tar éis feabhsú faoi Vern Cotter agus ní bhog an turas é ríomh dul chomh fada le Caerdydd agus an lámh in uachtar a fháil.

I mblianta roimhe seo, beidh buntáiste mór ag aon fhoireann agus leath-chúlaí amach na Leoin acu, ach tá dualgas agus stíl imeartha an leath-chúlaí athraithe. Níl an chumhacht céanna a bhí acu mar a bhíodh san seanshaol, agus leithid Barry John nó Phil Bennett nó Hugo Porta nó Jackie Kyle ina sheasamh taobh amuigh na clibirte.

Anois, tá níos mó dualgas ar an leath-chúlaí clibirte an imirt a chur i bhfeidhm. Is ar seisean atá an rogha idir cic, pas nó aimsiú a dhéanamh. Tráth, ba é mar dara geansaí a 10 é an 12; anois, a mhalairt a scéal atá ann. Tá seans ann go dtiocfaidh an lá agus, in ionad an chéad líne aimsithe é an leath-chúlaí amach, beidh sé ina chéad líne cosaint. Is fada an titim ar péacóg breá bródúil an rugbaí é.

Monday, November 17, 2014

That Troublesome Thing, Democracy

It is the nature of being a member of an elite to quickly forget what it’s like to be part of the hoi-polloi. Marie Antoinette, for instance, couldn’t conceive of a situation where people were starving. All she ever knew were sumptuous riches. She had no conception of people not having cake to eat.

Sinn Féin’s inexorable rise in the polls has the Irish political elite just as baffled as the last Queen of France. But how could the elite understand it, when they only ever talk to themselves? If they were to talk to real people living real lives in the real world, the secret of Sinn Féin’s success would be all too clear. It comes about – if you will pardon the infelicitous phrase – through process of elimination.

The current government swept to power on a manifesto of change. But all they changed were the chairs. The music remained exactly the same.

The current government did not stand up to Brussels. They did exactly what Fianna Fáil had laid out for them. The current government did not end cronyism. If anything, they brought it to newer and towering heights. And God only knows what the ongoing disaster of Irish Water will do before that debate calms down.

In the light of all this, you can see how people might be a little bit tetchy. Nobody likes being sold a pup. As for the Government’s greatest victory, the Promissory Note deal and the exit of the Troika – well, what does that mean, really?

The people were told that thirty years of hardship lay in store, thanks to perfidious Fianna Fáil and their crooked builder pals. And now everything’s grand after three years? Either the Government was lying while in opposition, or else it’s lying now. Both statements cannot be true.

So, having tried the strawberry flavour and then tried the banana flavour, the public are going to try another flavour again. And the only flavour left in the shop is Sinn Féin.

The Independents can’t form a Government. If anything, “Independent” doesn’t quite describe that eclectic group, as they nearly all have mother parties from which they are currently estranged.

Lucinda Creighton had the potential to create a new party that would, finally, end the civil war era of Irish politics. She had the moral authority that comes from giving up all she had, politically, on a point of principle, and she had a constituency desperate for change and reform.

But, perhaps through lack of vision on her own part, and certainly through extraordinary cowardice on others’ parts, Creighton could never rally people to her flag. Stephen Donnelly could have brought the Reform Alliance into life, cementing their status as fiscally responsible while take the right-wing Catholic edge off them. But he stayed put, and all Lucinda can do now is wait for Enda Kenny’s Night of the Long Knives and rejoin Fine Gael once Kenny’s head is in Mme La Guillotine’s basket.

Sinn Féin are soaking up the votes because there’s nobody else there. Fianna Fáil remain in ribbons after the 2011 election, while neither Fine Gael nor Labour realise just how betrayed so many of the people who voted for them in 2011 feel. They people didn’t get what they wanted at the last election, so now they’ll give the other crowd a try. That’s how it works, isn’t it?

The prospect of Sinn Féin in power horrifies the Irish political Establishment. As such, the media – who are as much part of the Establishment as An Taoiseach himself – have been bending over backwards to demonise Sinn Féin at every opportunity. But all they’re doing is making Sinn Féin stronger, because anybody can see the extraordinary bias in their coverage.

Mary-Lou McDonald’s expulsion from the Dáil last week is the latest case of this. All the coverage – all of it – dismissed McDonald’s expulsion as a stunt. Nobody was interested in teasing out the story a bit further.

For instance, did anybody ask if Seán Barrett is as even-handed as he ought to be in his role as Ceann Comhairle? Mary Lou McDonald’s isn’t the first name to make his bad books.

Former TD Luke Ming Flanagan has been vocally critical of Seán Barrett too. It’s not Sinn Féin’s imagination. That should make Barrett’s Ceann Comhairle-ship is a legitimate point of debate, but it’s not.

The second point is – does any of this matter? The Dáil’s theoretical purpose is to hold the executive to account, but the country is now run by a four-person junta, comprised of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The junta showed the Dáil exactly how much it mattered during the Irish Water debate. There wasn’t one. Irish Water was set up by fiat, just as things are done in any other totalitarian state.

And that’s why people are willing to give Sinn Féin a go. Because there’s nobody else there and, having been promised reform, the people still seem to kind of want it.

IN order to provide some vague alternative, the extraordinary prospect of a Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael coalition, to “safeguard democracy,” is now being floated. There is no notion that expresses the elitism of the governing classes so much as that idea.

A Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael coalition won’t stop Sinn Féin getting into government. All it will do is delay it, and ensure that Sinn Féin will have even more TDs and therefore more cabinet places in the election after next. If the people vote for Sinn Féin, they have to get them.

There is also the lesson of history in not giving the people what they voted for. Dick Spring’s Labour Party were never forgiven for denying the voice of the people in 1992.

If Sinn Féin get a mandate from the people to govern at the next election that mandate has to be respected, no matter how many stomachs churn at the prospect. That’s what democracy is – the people get to select their government, and not have their government decided by juntas and elites.

If the three establishment parties want to win more votes than Sinn Féin, they would be better off making it clear to the people why they’re worth those votes, rather than briefing against the dirty Shinners and hoping wool will be pulled over people’s eyes. The nation is sick of wool by now.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

We Have Learned Nothing in Irish Politics

First published in the Western People on Monday.

I, for one, welcome our new overlord.
The analysis of the by-election results in Dublin South-West and Roscommon South-Leitrim has focused heavily on how voters are turning away from the major Irish political parties. This was especially obvious in Dublin South-West, where Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour managed just 26% of the vote between them.

To put that in perspective, there has never been a government in the history of the state that hasn’t featured at least one of those parties in its makeup, and now they can only manage one vote in four between the three of them.

Why the public are so disillusioned is certainly due to a combination of reasons, one of which seems under-discussed in the national media. Could the disconnect between the mainstream political parties and the mainstream of Irish political life have arisen because the mainstream political parties have treated the electorate like fools since the crash, if not before?

For instance: during the end of the bailout debate in the Dáil last year, the majority of speakers made a point of commending the Ballyhea Says No Protest.

Ballyhea is a village in County Cork. Every Sunday without fail since March 6th, 2011, a group of locals have held a protest against the bank bailout.

There is a better chance of the GAA stripping Kerry of this year’s All-Ireland title and awarding it to Mayo in apology for events in Limerick than there is of the Ballyhea Says No protest group doing anything other than getting colds now that the weather has got chilly again. The Ballyhea protest is an attempt to get toothpaste back into the tube or water to flow uphill. The world doesn’t work like that. It just doesn’t.

Ballyhea says it’s not our debt. Of course it’s our debt. If it weren’t our debt, we wouldn’t be bloody paying for it, would we? This is how the world works.

Does anybody stand up and say this in the Dáil? No, they don’t. If the people were told that the milk is spilled and is now gone, never to come back, could they deal with it? Of course they could. Milk gets spilled all the time and the world doesn’t end. The world carries on just the same. But the Irish political establishment doesn’t trust the Irish electorate to come to terms with that.

Whether they were right or wrong, whether they were had their arms twisted or they were just thick, the government that signed the bank guarantee were fully mandated by the people to sign that guarantee. That’s what representative government is.

The sovereign people elect representatives to make decisions on the sovereign people’s behalf. If the government screws it up, it’s partly the fault of the sovereign people who elected them in the first place.

This isn’t news. This principle goes back to the Ancient Greeks, before the birth of Christ. There is nothing novel in this.

But representative democracy can do something that toothpaste-back-in-tube movements can’t do. They elect someone else. And that is what the voters in the two by-elections are clearly eager to do.

That is what they did the last time, but they were sold a pup. The people remain eager to get what they voted for, and so we get the voting patterns in the recent by-elections. The sad thing for the country, though, is that the new dispensation is just as likely to be a mutt as the last.

Michael Fitzmaurice, the new TD for Roscommon South Leitrim, seems a good and honest man. The type of man on whom you can rely to help you when you need it and pretend after that he did nothing at all. In the case of Roscommon South-Leitrim, the man’s own decency and likeability may have had as much to do with his victory as anything else.

But the reality is that he’s just one man. One man can’t govern. To govern, you need to form alliances, and how many Michael Fitzmaurices are there in the Dáil? The Independents dream of some sort of we’re-all-Independent-together faction in the next Dáil, but where is the common ground between Shane Ross, Michael Fitzmaurice and Michael Lowry? The gap is too big to bridge.

And then you have the socialists. Paul Murphy, Joe Higgins, Clare Daly and Joan Collins were all in the Socialist Party once. Presuming that the Anti-Austerity Alliance isn’t one and the same with the Socialist Party, the four of them are now in four different parties, even though they all agree with each other on policy.

They all agree, and they can’t get on. They won’t be forming any government, or if they do, it’ll probably have broken down in the time it takes them to go the Phoenix Park to get their seals of office from the President.

Besides. The establishment parties aren’t alone in not being entirely upfront with the electorate. Paul Murphy was elected in Dublin South-West because he is anti-water charge. Most people who voted for him won’t be liable for water charges in the first place. There are places in Dublin South-West that are so deprived, so far removed from mainstream life, that even to drive through them feels like having crossed into another country.

If there were honest politics in this country, the only issue on the doorsteps in areas like Jobstown and Cherry Orchard should be that candidates would move Heaven and Earth to keep children in school and on the straight and narrow. Dysfunctional though the adults’ lives may be, if it can be brought through to them that it may be possible to save the children from perpetuating the cycle, that would a treble victory for the people, the community and the nation.

What did we get instead? Extraordinary placards that beseeched us to stick our water meters up our bottoms. Not quite Meagher’s speech from the dock.

So here we are. Faith is lost in the establishment parties. The only people to rally to Lucinda Creighton’s flag were those who had nowhere else to go. The alternative parties hope to get their chance but, if their slogans are a guide, it’s hard not to think of the men to whom WB Yeats referred in The Fisherman one hundred and one years ago – “no knave brought to book / Who has won a drunker cheer.”

There are no leaders here. The country continues to go around and around in pointless, hopeless circles.

Forgive us, Frau Merkel. Come back to Erin, Mr Chopra. We promise to be nicer to you than those beastly Scots, Mr Cameron. Please. Somebody take us in. We just can’t make it on our own.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Margaret Burke Sheridan - Visse d'Arte

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The birthday of the greatest female singer Ireland has ever produced falls on this Wednesday. She is not a national figure because she was an opera singer, and opera has never been popular in Ireland. It’s a pity though – opera is one of the great achievements in human art, and Margaret Burke Sheridan was one of our own.

Very much one of our own, in fact. Margaret Sheridan was born in a house on the Mall in Castlebar on October 15th, 1889, the fifth child of the postmaster in Castlebar at the time, John Burke Sheridan.

Margaret’s mother died when Margaret was five, and her father died when she was eleven. Effectively orphaned – the Sheridan family don’t seem to have been that close - Margaret was raised to adulthood in the Dominican convent at 19 Eccles Street, Dublin 7, now part of the Mater Hospital. And it was while a student with the Dominicans that Margaret Burke Sheridan discovered that she had a gift.

At the age of nineteen, Sheridan left Ireland to study music at the Royal Academy in London. She was a success, but there was a war on and the opera scene in London was something of a backwater. If you wanted to be a star, you had to go to Italy, where opera is all.

Sheridan went to Rome, and started training again under a teacher called Alfredo Martini. And it was while training that she made the decision that set her path for the rest of her life.

A singer in a production of La Bohème in the Constanzi Opera House (now the Teatro dell’Opera) fell ill while Margaret Sheridan was staying in the Quirinale Hotel. The Quirinale is on the other side of the block from the opera house, and the manager of the opera house had heard Margaret practicing - Sheridan was in the habit of practicing her singing at her open window in the hotel. The manager took a notion, and sent a cable to find out if the nobody wanted to become a star in four days, filling as Mimì in Giancomo Puccini’s beloved opera about young love.

Fantastic, you would think. But it wasn’t that simple. Martini, Margaret’s teacher, was dead set against the idea, and for reasons that are do with what makes opera such a challenging art form.

The singing that we do in the shower or when loaded with porter is a natural ability. Sometimes the singing isn’t too bad, sometimes it’s wretched – it’s down to accidents of birth.

But the singing done by opera singers isn’t at all natural. Yes, there are natural voices, but they have to be meticulously trained, not only to make sweeter, richer sounds, but to be able to make those sounds on demand, consistently, for show after show, for performance after performance.

Margaret Burke Sheridan had a natural gift. But she wasn’t yet fully in control of her voice. She could sing, but she couldn’t sing in such a way that she could guarantee her singing wouldn’t impair her ability to sing in future. That’s how severe operatic singing is – if you don’t know what you’re doing, you are in danger of destroying your voice every time you open your mouth.

On the other hand, Sheridan had been living off the kindness of strangers since her father died. Different benefactors had invested in her talent, but it’s not the same as making your own money. And opportunities to sing a major role in a major theatre don’t come along every day. What use was there in completing her training if she were to have a perfect instrument but nowhere to sing? Besides; she could always go back and finish up her training, couldn’t she?

Sheridan made her choice. She sang Mimì in Rome on February 3rd, 1918, and instantly became a star. Even today, Italians don’t always take to foreigners singing Italy’s national art form, but they couldn’t resist Sheridan.

For twelve years she ruled the operatic stage, something John McCormack could never do. Margaret Sheridan sang in London, Naples, Monte Carlo and Milan, and was acclaimed by all. And then, after a performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello at Covent Garden in June, 1930, she never sang again.

She tried to, of course. At first, she would claim a cold or a chest infection and pull out of performances, in the fashion of primas donnas. But as the years went by it became clearer that she would never return to the stage. Alfredo Martini had been right. Without the proper grounding and technique, Margaret’s talent was a castle built on sand. It would last for so long but it was always doomed. And when the doom arrived, there would be no way to rescue it.

Sheridan was still a star. She was offered concert recitals – the form that made McCormack a household name and a very wealthy man - but she turned them down. As far as Sheridan was concerned, it was opera or nothing. Opera isn’t just the singing – it’s the acting, the music, the performance, the whole. To just sing without the rest of opera’s heady mix would be like drinking black tea. It just wasn’t the same.

Sheridan turned a brave face to the world, but the remaining thirty-odd years of her life were tough on her. She came back to live in Ireland but we are not a great nation for accepting our countrymen and countrywomen who have had success abroad.

But Margaret Sheridan was generous to the next generation, and did what she could for them. In her definitive biography of Sheridan, Anne Chambers writes of a Feis Ceoil winner, Phyllis Sullivan, who was tutored for a time by Margaret Sheridan.

Sullivan recalled Sheridan as being temperamental, but never mean. If Sullivan made a mistake, Sheridan would sing the line properly herself (while always avoiding high notes). Sullivan asked Sheridan why she didn’t sing in public anymore.

“My voice is finished,” replied Sheridan. “It’s all right singing for you, darling, but I would break on my top notes and I am nervous.”

Margaret Burke Sheridan died on April 16th, 1958, and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. The back of her headstone reads “Margherita Sheridan, Prima Donna. La Scala, Milan. Covent Garden, London.” Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam uasal.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Bias in the Media

First published in the Western People on Monday.


Although his politics are shared by very few people in the country, Joe Higgins, TD, has always been lauded for being a “diverse” voice in the Irish political landscape. Political correspondents often remark in their end-of-term parliamentary reviews how good it is to have Joe Higgins in the Dáil to provide “balance” to debates.

Well. We all must be careful what we wish for, and the national media discovered this the hard way when the terms of reference to the long-awaited Banking Inquiry were announced recently.

The Banking Inquiry was conceived, originally, as a fine instrument for dipping the previous government into a vat of boiling oil. However, that methodology would probably give some busybody in the UN another reason to give out to us, so the current government had to adjust the terms of reference.

The Banking Inquiry is now set to investigate all banking practice in Ireland from 1992 until the crash, some sixteen years. And just as everybody was about to sign off on this, Joe Higgins put his hand up and made a last-minute suggestion.

Higgins proposed that the inquiry examine “the development of a prevailing consensus, including the role of mass media and advertising and mortgage brokers, financial consultants and property development and sales companies.”

Since the crash, we’ve all heard a lot about “groupthink” in Irish political life. But Joe Higgins’s amendment to the Banking Inquiry is the first effort to discover what exactly this groupthink is, where does it come from, what does it do and is it a good or a bad thing.

Not everyone is happy about this. Ciarán Lynch, TD, chairman of the Banking Inquiry, was on Morning Ireland the week before last to discuss the Inquiry, and he seemed a little shocked to be hauled over the coals about the media angle.

“The media has no legislative power,” the Morning Ireland presenter kept repeating. Mr Lynch may have considered replying that a government backbencher doesn’t have all that much power either, but probably thought he’d only get into more trouble.

It is unlikely the nation wll be any the wiser after the Banking Inquiry. Anyone who expects anything other that stonewalling from witnesses and grandstanding from committee members hasn’t been following these Oireachtas Committee very closely.

People can be compelled to appear but they are under no obligation to say anything of any interest whatever once they’re there. So it’s all for show, really, a lot like the Houses of the Oireachtas themselves.

What makes this twist about the media interesting though is that it gives us an opportunity to consider the question of bias. All news reporting has to deal with bias, from the very start of a news cycle. By reporting one thing and not reporting another, any media organisation has already taken a step that may be affected by bias, either intentionally or unintentionally. It’s how the media organisation deals with that bias inherent in the news-gathering process itself that’s interesting. And there are two schools of thought here.

The current fashion is for admitting bias from the start. More and more media organisations don’t even try to be fair, but simply tell their audiences what they want to hear. The right-wing Fox News in the USA is (in)famous for its partisan reporting, but there are plenty of channels in the US who shout for the Democrats too. The problem is that people don’t get to see both points of view at once, and this causes a democratic deficit.

The classical model of good reporting in journalism is to acknowledge bias but to strive to overcome it at every opportunity. This is the model practiced here in Ireland – in theory, anyway – but it seems Joe Higgins is inclined to double-check that idea, just in case.

Does Higgins have a point? Well. It certainly is a remarkable thing that the entire country was convinced that the housing market could provide infinite wealth for so long. It also a remarkable thing that when the crash came, the country was equally convinced there was only one reason behind it. How much of these twin illusions was due to the way the boom, the bust and the repercussions were reported in the media?

The media is all-pervasive in our lives. When you get up, you know if the shower was hot or cold, you know if you could find your socks, you know if there’s milk in the fridge when you open the door. You could look out the window to see what the weather is like, but you know that could change in fifteen minutes or less.

For everything else that impacts on your life, you need the media. Do you need a new car for the morning commute? Can you afford one? Are car prices going up or down? Are petrol prices going up or down? What will it cost to tax and insure the thing? Should you forget the family saloon and buy some sort of jeep, because the road is all potholes and it costs money to repair broken axles?

You don’t have time to study economics to see overall market trends. You can’t keep up with the geopolitics of the oil-producing countries, or the physics of all the new ways of getting oil out of the ground. And you certainly can’t pop in to Leinster House and find out what future taxation and infrastructure policy will be. There are plenty in there who have no idea no more than ourselves.

So you rely on the media for this information. You watch the news and listen to it on the radio and buy a daily paper along with your weekly Western and you take a sneaky glance at the web at work too.

But reader – can you fully believe what you read in the papers, hear on the radio or see on the TV? Is everybody trying really hard to maintain objectivity, or do they go on the occasional crusade every now again? Or not even that – could it be that one side of the argument is presented, and a balancing counter-argument just doesn’t make an appearance? Who exactly is telling us what to do?