Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Gospel According to Darragh



This column likes to consider itself second-to-none in its admiration of Darragh Ó Sé’s weekly column on Gaelic Football, published every Wednesday by the Irish Times during the Championship.

Yesterday, in his preview of Sunday’s All-Ireland Final, where only Kerry remain standing in the way of a historic five-in-a-row titles for Dublin, Darragh presented his masterpiece.

This may not have been obvious on first reading of the column. Some prophets are born to shoot from the hip. John the Baptist made it quite plain to Israel that the new covenant was at hand. Roy Keane, in those happy times when he annually righted the nation’s wrong as part of his charity work for the Irish Guide Dogs Association, and before the misery of his having to put his money where his mouth is began, was of the same school. Seán Báiste and The Boy Roy both gave it to us straight.

Darragh’s is of a different style. Darragh’s way is more subtle, more gnostic, more allegorical. Darragh’s is the way of parable and imagery. He is more in the tradition of Jeremiah or of that other John, servant of Jesus Christ, to whom was granted the Apocalypse.

To truly read Darragh we must engage in exegesis. We must carefully parse the text in order to lead out its true meaning.

As we consider Darragh’s column of yesterday, we note that it begins with a parable, The Parable of the Bomber. On the face of it, it’s a reminiscence of the two big men exchanging bantz before the 2009 final, and very middling bantz they are. But reader, shun the easy path. Look more closely. Ignore the instruments. Feel the Force.

Darragh decides to have a bit of fun, but the bit of fun he has – “as long as the three Sés are in it” – isn’t actually funny. So why tell the story? Because the prophet is telling his followers, lo, remember, I am Darragh the Trickster. I like to have a bit of fun. My words are not as they seem.

The next section is pure stodge, with a lot of old yak about the Killarney Races and the Rose of Tralee and how training is different from Darragh’s day. This is to scare of the unwary, who will lose the will to go on. The true followers continue, however, knowing the House of Wisdom is only reached after wading through the swamp.

And then, through the mist, we espy the first turret of that same house. “The one thing I’ve noticed this year with Dublin is that Jim Gavin seems to have settled on a team and more or less stuck with it.”

“The one thing I’ve noticed.” It’s straight out of Columbo. Just as the murderer thinks he’s got away with it, the LAPD ragamuffin says “there’s just one thing that’s been bothering me …”

Jim Gavin’s is a settled team, muses Darragh. In other years they chopped and changed. Not this year. The competition for places isn’t the same.

Dublin were training in Cooraclare, but Darragh is not at all sure they were going hammer and tongs at it. They’re well used to this, says Darragh.

Reader, does that sound at all like the Comfort Zone to you? Could Dublin be … complacent? Could Dublin be … stale? If Darragh were as his forebears, a voice clamouring in the desert, his acolytes’ ears would be pricking up big style at this stage.

Then Darragh remarks that, while caution may have got you to an All-Ireland final, an All-Ireland Final itself is a place in which to throw caution to the wind. “A final is a place to be borderline reckless in,” remarks Darragh, almost as an aside.

Reader, think back to the Parable of the Bomber. Of the nine (nine!) All-Ireland Finals in which he played, which one did Darragh discuss with the Bomber? It was 2009. Was anyone “borderline reckless” in 2009, borderline reckless in a way that would lead to the winning of the game? Reader, that sonorous booming noise in the distance is not the ringing of a marriage bell. It is the sound of the Prophet dropping a hint.

Having dropped that hint, the Prophet goes on to disrobe, oil up, and start whacking that great big gong that used to start some British movies in the 1950s, the better for his followers to pay attention.
Mayo caned Dublin in the first half of their semi-final, Darragh points out, but did not make it count on the scoreboard. The boy-king Clifford, Stephen O’Brien or that Geaney fella won’t be missing many from twenty-five yards, and Dublin have been slow starters this season.

His colours nailed to the mast, Darragh re-vests and ladles on the yerra, in case the Empire have sent their spies. He tells a Parable of Jacko, yea, and then he goeth even further unto the praising of the Dubs. He points out that Dublin are so strong that Eoghan O’Gara probably won’t make the 26-man cut. Golly. A team must be good if not even Eoghan O’Gara can make the grade.

Kerry's price had held steady at 9/2 since the semi-finals, but it went out to 5/1 with Paddy Power yesterday. The price went on the board just as Darragh was published, but before he had yet been digested. Reader, I fell it on like a thunderbolt. Adveniat regnum.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

The Hateful Eights

Filleann Rí a'Chnoic
Filleann Rí a'Chnoic
In his match report from the ballroom dancing in Omagh on Sunday, the Irish Times’s Malachy Clerkin enjoins us never to speak of this again. If only, Malachy. If only.

Sadly, it’s all too necessary to speak of it. The match in Omagh was the Super 8s equivalent of Old Shep being taken to the vet and the vet, on completing his examination, saying “I can’t do no more for him Jim.”

The GAA has no option now but to pick up its gun and send the Super 8s to half-witted-ideas heaven, where it may rest easy with the remixed Sunday Game theme tune, hurling gloves and the B-Championship.

How did this mess come about? Money, of course. For some reason, without any resolution being passed by Congress or any of that palaver, the GAA accepted a change to its fundamental identity in the past decade or so.

Instead of being an organisation that would offer an opportunity to play Gaelic Games to as many people as wanted to, the GAA decided it was in the sports entertainment business. Just like the Premier League, or European Championship Rugby, or even the MMA, the supreme sports entertainment product of our times.

There wasn’t a need to put motions before Congress. This sort of an idea is one of those you circulate at social functions, and let it go viral. There was an obvious gateway – the burning desire of the Gael to believe we’re just as good as the soccer/rugby/Brazilian Ju-Jitsu crowd.

Reader, do you know the absolute favourite story of any good Gael? It’s the one where Sir Alex Ferguson, or Bill Belichick, or Richie MacCaw is shown footage of some football or, ideally, hurling game and Sir Alex/Belichick/Richie are suitably impressed. But then, the kicker.

Whoever has provided the footage tells Sir Alex/Belichick/Richie that the players are all amateurs, every one. And Sir Alex faints, or has a heart attack. Belichick goes mad, and has to be taken to a home. Richie has to have a cavity block smashed over his head to calm him down, being driven demented by the news that amateurs could produce such sporting beauty.

Screw you, Team of Us.

Of course, once you get into the sports entertainment game, you find yourself always worrying that you’re a bit short on Product. Content is King. Give the people what they want. So we need to find a way to dig up more matches, somehow.

Lightning strikes in hurling. The provincial championships change from a dead weight to a Philosophers’ Stone, as a round robin format suddenly finds matches bursting out all over. A round robin doesn’t sit so well with the football formats, so what else to do but force it?

Hence, the Super 8s. For the Super 8s to work, there had to be eight teams of about the same level every year, or four in every five years, say; a combination of the provincial Championships and the open-draw qualifier system had to be the best means of identifying those teams, and each of the eight teams had to play one home game, one away game and one game at a neutral venue.

Advocates of the Super 8s may argue that the way things have fallen out are just unlucky. The happenstance of Dublin’s current dominance, how a little tweaking can make all the difference, and so on. It’s all blather.

The idea of the Super 8s is inherently flawed on two levels. On the most superficial level, it’s flawed because a competition can be a league or it can be knockout, but it can’t be both. The backdoor stretches the credibility of the knockout format to its elastic limit, but it doesn’t quite break it.

The Super 8s shatters the knockout idea into dust. Championship means do-or-die. It does not mean Dublin and Tyrone holding a seventy-minute teddy-bears’ picnic on the August Bank Holiday weekend.

The more fundamental problem is the nature of GAA itself, and this redefinition by stealth that it’s up to. The increased number of games was the expeditionary force. The special congress in the winter when they try to introduce a tiered Championship will be the tanks crashing through the walls.

The GAA is not, and should not be, in the product-selling business. Its purpose is to provide the opportunity to play Gaelic games to as many people as want them. Watching Fat Tony hauling his great tub of guts over and back some god-forsaken field on the side of a mountain might not be up there with watching Lionel Messi at the Bernabeu in terms of sports-entertainment-product, but dammit, running around that field means a lot to Fat Tony. And the GAA is made up of thousands and thousands of Fat Tonys.

There is an argument about the amount of training put in by senior inter-county players in the modern era. Firstly, nobody’s making them. It’s not like there’s a GAA-Stasi kicking players’ doors down in the middle of the night and checking their carb intake.

Secondly – and nobody finds this more bizarre than your correspondent – people in Ireland now routinely put in that sort of training because they like it. They like it. People run Ironman and Ironwomen competitions all the time, but there’s no idea that the nation somehow owes them something because of it. It’s quite easy to remain dry-eyed at the more heart-rending tales of woe from the GPA and their acolytes if you grant yourself a little perspective.

For all that, the genie is so long out of the bottle that the situation can’t return to what it was. The GAA was the sport of a poor country, and Ireland isn’t a poor country any more. Money is more important now that it’s plentiful than it was when it was scarce and the GAA can only exist in the real world.

Therefore, a modest proposal. Let the GAA meet its need for more product by expanding the League. Address the current inequality by having more teams in Division 1, broken into two conferences, as the Examiner’s Kieran Shannon has been preaching for so many years. And satisfy the need for more product by doubling or even trebling the number of League games.

Return the Championship to provincially-based single-knockout games, and run it off quickly the summer. The people will quickly choose whether they like the professional league or the amateur championship, and let the cards fall where they may.

It may be the end of the GAA as we know it. It may be that the GAA as we knew it has been gone for some years. But at least we’ll find out, one way or the other.

Monday, May 06, 2019

So. Farewell then, Eugene McGee, Conqueror of the Conqueror of the World

Buaiteoir Buaiteora an Domhain
Alexander II, Tsar of all the Russias, described the Duke of Wellington as the “conqueror of the conqueror of the world” after Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. And it’s a fitting epitaph also for Eugene McGee, who died suddenly on Sunday morning.

McGee was a complex man. One of the greatest Gaelic football managers, while one of its worst players. A sometimes dour, if not downright rude, man who could inspire fierce loyalty. A pundit who was at once blinkered and revolutionary.

But whatever else is said or written of the man, and for all the great and terrible personal loss he is for his family, Eugene McGee will forever be associated with 1982, and the greatest All-Ireland football final the nation has ever seen.

We are lucky that, in an Association whose dedication to preserving its own history is spotty at best, we have a marvellous document of that Offaly team, their spectacular act of giant-killing, and a Kerry Golden Generation that came back from that defeat to become even more lustrous than before. It is Kings of September by Michael Foley, and it is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Ireland. Essential reading.

McGee is not noted as a Gaelic football tactician, as Jim McGuinness or Mickey Harte are. He liked his football, to use his own phrase, “tough, but manly.” Both Roy Keane and Graeme Souness have been preaching the worth of getting to the damn ball and worrying about tactics later in another code. McGee was of their church.

So was he lucky, or was he good? The results are there. Mick O’Dwyer conquered the world, and McGee conquered Dwyer. McGee was successful with UCD in Sigerson football, Offaly in senior inter-county, and even in International Rules, back when the Australians cared in the ‘eighties. (After an Irish triumph, some Australians believed that the Irish had an advantage because the game was played with a round ball. McGee was asked if he thought the Australians would have won if the games were played with the Australian oval ball. “We’d have won playing with a square ball,” spat McGee).

McGee was a proponent of the black card and the qualifier system, and was wrong on both counts in the opinion of the current writer. He believed that the first step to professionalism in the GAA came with sponsored jerseys, and was correct, again in the opinion of the current writer.

But that’s all these things are; opinions. The man’s record cannot be denied, and neither can the personality, the cut, the gimp of the man. He was proudly rural in a way that didn’t even allow for a rural-urban debate. He was who he was, and he made neither bones nor apologies about it.

It is possible that, reading the eulogies today, some misfortunate sophist with a algorithm where his or her soul ought to be will sit down and watch a tape of that 1982 final. He’ll see a game played on a wet day, with poor fitness levels compared to modern standards, poor skill levels compared to modern standards, and a game in which the best team did not win.

Reader, pity that man. There are those who would look on a rose and see only a bush, or hear a symphony and hear only noise.

The scientific approach to sport has its place, of course, but if it reigns supreme then sport becomes just another job, with carefully measured outputs and inputs and strengths and weaknesses and opportunities and threats.

It’s the sheer human drama of sports that compels, as players battle skills, yes, but also bravery and courage and the huge hand of Fate itself.

Sport is at once serious and trivial. Winning the All-Ireland is the most important thing in the year, after everything else, like births, marriages and deaths. There is a ceiling to how much sport can be parsed.

A wise and thoughtful friend of the blog cried when Kerry lost in 1982. He believed in merit as a child, and that the best team should win. And if that game between Kerry and Offaly were played ten times, Kerry would win it nine times. Of course they would. But the game was played only once, and Kerry didn’t win it. Offaly did, in the most unforgettable moment in Irish sport.

That could not have happened without Eugene McGee. Offaly went one stage further in the Championship every year he was in charge until they won the entire thing, and they did it at that turning point in history when the greatest team of all time were set to collect the uncollectable crown.

If that’s not the very illustration of the sublime, what is? And none of it could have happened without Eugene McGee, now called Home to his Reward. Suaimhneas síoraí dó, agus go raibh príomh-áit aige i nDáil na Laochra Gael.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

All-Ireland Football Championship 2019 Preview

Dublin are odds-on favourites to win their fifth title in a row, an achievement that would make them the greatest GAA team of all time, football or hurling. They would be the only team to achieve that feat, and that therefore makes them the best. Of course it does.

Of course, they would not be a sensible investment. An odd-on price is never a sensible bet in multi-horse field, even if there are fewer horses running in the race than you might prefer.

Your correspondent is inclined to take League form with a pinch of salt, but what was interesting about Dublin in the League wasn’t so much the results as the sudden loss of appetite. Dublin in their pomp revelled in burying teams. This new, steady-as-she-goes approach ill-suits them. Seeing them like this is like calling into the local and seeing the local Champion Pintman not only drinking tay, but drinking it out of a cup and saucer. Has the world changed, or is he only doing the dog?

There is an opinion abroad that Dublin could get broadsided in Leinster. Delicious though this prospect would be, it’s impossible to make a case for any other Leinster team doing anything other than falling valiantly. In recent years, it’s only Westmeath that have really put it up to the Dubs, but they’ve never had the sort of playing resources that Meath or Kildare or even Offaly once enjoyed. The pick of the three wouldn’t keep it kicked out to Dublin now.

A shrewd eye should be kept on Kerry. There was much made of how immature Kerry looked against Mayo in the League final, but you can grow faster in football years than you can in actual years. Seán O’Shea will only be a few months older come the summer than he was in that League final, but he’ll be carrying scar tissue that will stand to him in bigger battles to come.

How long it takes him and others to toughen up will determine how quickly it takes Kerry to win their next All-Ireland. It is not impossible it may happen sooner than we would have thought when the final whistle blew in that League Final.

The hardest challenge to the Dublin imperium will come from the North, as usual. The Ulster Championship is easily the most competitive, and perhaps it’s because of this that a dumping into the qualifiers seems to knock Ulster teams less out of their stride than others.

The leading hounds of Ulster are Monaghan, Tyrone and Donegal. Monaghan had a stinker of a league, and did well not to get relegated in the end. This, after beating Dublin in the first game and being hailed by some critics as the second best team in Ireland.

The reason why Monaghan had such a poor League isn’t obvious. But it’s difficult to believe that so valiant a team as we’ve known Monaghan to be in recent years have just suddenly thrown in the towel. The suspicion here is that it would be unwise to dismiss the Farney challenge without further intelligence.

Donegal and Tyrone have been praised for their league performances, and praise has been grudgingly given to those counties in recent years. It’s interesting that the praise heaped on the counties is at odds with the rumours drifting from the camps, about players not happy about playing for their particular managers and other stories of internal strife and woe.

Try though I might, I can’t force myself to believe that Tyrone have found a Philosopher’s Stone to take them one further than last year’s All-Ireland Final loss where, in truth, they never really competed. You have the players or you don’t, and Tyrone, for all Mickey Harte’s in-game tactical ability, seem one or two players short.

Donegal are blessed with the best player in the country, Michael Murphy, and will always be a threat while that man can pull on a jersey and answer Tír Chonnail’s dread war cry. The more help he has the greater Donegal’s chance becomes.

Galway were the darlings of the League last year, only to again disappoint in Dublin in the summertime. That Galway reign as kings of Connacht is beyond dispute and, should they face Mayo in a Connacht semi-final as many expect, they will enjoy home advantage at the butt of the broad Atlantic, also known as Stáid an Phiarsaigh, Bóthar na Trá. Kevin Comer’s absence continues, which has to be a source of worry.

Again, the word on the wind is that Comer is one of these players who is more than just another member of the team – he is seen, subconsciously at least, as the avatar of the Galway football tradition, and as such he cannot be replaced.

For all that, Galway are spoiled with talent, and learning all the time. Last year there were rumours of difficulty in integrating the Corofin players into the county team. That was noted, and the two teams have been bonding since the start of the year. Almost violently so if rumours of a January challenge match are to be believed, but then, people do like to tell stories.

Your correspondent’s friends insist to him that being afraid of Galway is like being afraid of the dark – an immature, childish terror, not borne out by scientific evidence. Right. Tell that to me again when we’re stuck in traffic for two hours on the Grattan Road after Galway pox a seventy-eighth minute winner over Mayo and we’re all thinking things can’t get any worse, only to see great Cthulhu himself rise up out of Galway Bay, release an eldritch roar, and make a beeline for the Róisín Dubh, foul tentacles thrashing the sea into foam around him. I’ll remember to laugh.

You may notice that there is one contender that remains unnamed. The reality is that Mayo have bounced back so high from taking the road from Newbridge to Nowhere last year that any attempt at rational thought on the part of any Mayo man, woman or child in the matter of football is now quite out of the question.

In her beautiful sonnet, Love is Not All, poet Edna St Vincent Millay remarks that, in a difficult hour, she may be tempted to sell your love for peace, or the memory of this night for food. Your correspondent would sell a damn sight more than that to see Diarmuid O’Connor lift Sam in the Hogan Stand on the first of September, and is unable to sensibly contemplate even the notion of it without either fainting or going insane.

For that reason then, I predict that not only will Dublin not win five-in-a-row, they won’t even reach the final. The final will be a repeat of the 2000 final, a draw between Kerry and Galway, and I’m danged if I know who’ll win the replay.

If anybody’s in Castlebar on the night of September 2nd, by the way, I’ll either be in Byrne’s, McHale’s, or above in a tree somewhere, looing. Up Mayo.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Dealing with Today's Protest in Dublin

Dublin city centre is due to be thrown into chaos for God-knows how long from lunchtime this afternoon due to a protest organised by a group called “Extinction Rebellion Ireland,” and the authorities seem incapable of addressing the issue. Your faithful correspondent returns to his escritoire, then, to see what suggestions he can make to help.

A spokesman for Extinction Rebellion Ireland, a Doctor Ciarán O’Carroll, is quoted in this morning’s Irish Times as saying that they “have no choice” but to throttle traffic in the city-centre at the start of the only four-day bank-holiday in the year.

“We have tried marching, and lobbying, and signing petitions,” the doctor tells the Times. “Nothing has brought about the change that is needed. And no damage that we incur can compare to the criminal inaction of the Irish Government in the face of climate and ecological breakdown.”

It’s a funny thing that, what with this being the only choice left to them, and they having worn themselves out marching, and lobbying, and signing petitions, that so very few people have heard of Doctor O’Carroll and Extinction Rebellion Ireland before. It’s odd also that the Irish Times did not put this question to Doctor O’Carroll – if Extinction Rebellion Ireland have been doing all this marching, lobbying and petition, why is the only hearing of it now? Have they not heard of Twitter? Or even, God help us, the ‘gram?

As a scientist, your faithful correspondent has to admit that it's entirely possible that all this has been going without my noticing it. I struggle to keep up with pop culture - until very recently I thought Drake was a gentleman duck, for instance.

So, in the interest of giving Extinction Rebellion Ireland a fair shake, I looked them up in Google Trends. In Ireland over the past ninety days, Extinction Rebellion Ireland have been of more interest than "hemorrhoid ointment", but not as much interest as "soda bread recipe." Here's the chart:



But the politics of all this are for another day. Right now the city has to deal with the fact that an enormous public nuisance is going to be caused in the city centre this afternoon and the city has a duty to protect its citizens from that enormous public nuisance. Extinction Rebellion Ireland’s right to protest does not override every citizen’s right to travel across the city as she wishes.

What, then, is to be done? Slooshing the protesters off the bridge with water cannon is the first and obvious solution. A joyous idea, and one sure to be popular with the people slowly roasting in their cars, but unfortunately not practical.

Just as a tackler in rugby has a duty of care to the player he tackles in the air landing safely on the ground, so the moral water cannon operator has a duty of care to those whom he scrubs from the pavement. The protest will centre on O’Connell Bridge, and it’s impossible to guarantee against one of these wretches going into the Liffey and drowning for the cause. This would be a Pyrrhic victory indeed, and so we must think of Plan B.

Plan B is to simply arrest the bums and cart them off to the barracks. Unfortunately, the contemporaneous situation in London, where protestors are also vigilantly acting the bollocks, suggests that being arrested is exactly what the protestors want. Therefore, the city should use the water cannon and let Extinction Rebellion Ireland chance Anna Livia’s cold embrace before playing into their hands.

Happily, there is Plan C – or B+, if you’re feeling witty.

Plan B+ is to arrest the protestors as before, but rather than cart them off to the Bridewell or Pearse Street cop shop, they are simply taken to the Papal Cross in the Phoenix Park and released into the wild, to gambol with the deer or make their way back into the city as they please.

The Phoenix Park, as readers may be aware, is not small. No buses run by the Papal Cross and there is no way out except on foot. Those Extinction Rebellion Ireland members who wish to return to the fray are, of course, entirely free to do so, but if they do it, they will have to do it on foot. An hour’s forced march back to the bridge may take some of the pep from their step and make them wonder if there really isn’t one more petition that they could sign that could yet win the day.

And when the rebels get to O’Connell Bridge, if it is the case that the protest is still going on, it’s simple enough to scoop them all up as before and spin them out again. Of course, each trip goes a little further than before. A Phoenix Park veteran can be dropped off to that green area in Cappagh Road, in Finglas, near the National Orthopaedic Hospital. After Cappagh, you get a spin out to Mulhuddart, say. And so on, and on, and on.

We could even have some sport on it, with Paddy Power making book on any activist being able to make it back to Dublin from west of the Shannon before midnight. Or Boyle's - we're neither snobs nor monopolists, you know.

It has long been the case that Dublin’s citizens are expected to put up with having their lives and business interrupted at the whim of any jackass with a bee in his bonnet. Maybe it’s time the city stopped being played for a chump for once, and gave those people who look for trouble exactly what it is they seek.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Members of the Oireachtas Have Nothing to Feel Smug About

It was around about the same time that UK prime minister Theresa May was in front of a baying House of Common. The contrast between this respectful celebration of 100 years of unbroken parliamentary democracy here [sic] and the shambles in London was not lost on the Dublin audience.

It is the nature of the politician to be blessed with an above-average amount of self-regard. An adamantine hide is necessary in a life where you submit yourself to public judgement at least once every five years. However; the notion of the current members of the Oireachtas stiffening with pride at the thought that they are the finest of parliamentarians, not like those knuckle-dragging Tans across the way, is too much for even the most ravenous of goats to stomach.

One hundred years after the first sitting of Dáil Éireann, Ireland is a state where the Gardaí have merrily ignored 7,900 crimes, some of them very serious, over the past seven years. Nobody knows why these crimes have been ignored, but the GRA, the Garda Representative Association, has made it quite clear that however it happened it wasn't their boys' fault. It may turn out that dog ate each and every one of their notebooks. It’s what Mr S Holmes used to refer to as a three-pipe problem.

This is the same police force who were discovered to have made up breathalyser tests, bullied whistleblowers out of the force and saw the last two Garda Commissioners and the last two Ministers for Justice resign under never-really-fully-explained circumstances. The police exist to enforce the law; what does the law currently mean to the police? It seems to them as a midge on a summer’s evening on the mountain; bothersome, but not really to be taken seriously.

The situation is so worrying a man could end up in hospital as a result. Except that were he foolish enough to do so he might be better of going straight to the graveyard with his wooden overcoat on, such is the state of the Health Service.

The current Minister for Health is - nominally, theoretically - in charge of a Health Service that is unable to diagnose cervical cancer and over-estimates the price of the new children's hospital by one billion Euro, and counting. That's not the price of the thing, remember; that's how much the original estimate differs from the current estimate, and it's gone up, rather than down.

How much is a billion Euro? It's enough to buy every single residential house in the town of Ballina, with about half of those in Castlebar thrown in as well. It's a lot of money, and yet the current Minister for Health, famously "mad as hell" about the cervical crisis, seems completely content to sign off on this bill, no matter how many more billions it goes up to. Don't forget either that this new hospital will not deliver one extra bed compared to the number of children’s beds currently available. Details!

One wonders what the Minister for Finance, Paschal Donohoe, thinks of all this. Paschal is one of the leading politicians in the country. He had enough nous to know that, as he himself could never become leader, his allying himself closely with Leo Varadkar once Varadkar made his run would make him the next-best thing. When appointed Minister for Finance, the cognoscenti thought of those many media performances where he smothered criticism of Fine Gael in the manner of a conscientious huntsman drowning surplus beagles, and thought: here is the man to keep an iron grip on the public finances.

If only. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council responded to last year's budget by accusing the government of repeating the mistakes of the past - over-heating an already-overheated economy, thus guaranteeing that the country will be once again on its uppers when the tide goes out again, as it inevitably must.

There is an irony in this as the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council was set specifically to perform this very task. One of the reasons identified for the crash of 2008 was that a "support the green jersey" policy blinded officials to their duty of telling the economic truth as it is, rather than as people wanted it to be. Thus when things went splat!!, there was no rainy-day money at all. Not behind the couch, not under the bed, not buried in the garden in a biscuit tin.

And now, ten years later, we're doing it all again. The ambulance drivers struck yesterday. A nurses' strike is guaranteed. The teachers can't be far away from having the Art class studying Placarding 101. There's that monstrous, growing bill for the Children's Hospital collapsing into the weight of its own gravity like a fiscal black hole, set to swallow every single thing around it. And that's not even counting the six hundred million lids that the Health department was over budget last year, and for which money was found from .. well. We never do find out where this miracle money comes from, do we?

And how does the political class respond to these triplicate impending disasters, to say nothing of Brexit itself, homelessness, the narrow tax base, the flight from rural Ireland? By poncing about the Mansion House telling each other how well they would have done at Soloheadbeg or Kilmichael had Fate not decided they would be born too late, and then off to Buswells, Kehoe's, Doheny's and sundry other houses to pint the night away.

Brexit is a nightmare, but at least the British can see that there's a dirty big iceberg off the starboard bow and it could sink the whole ship. The first our politicians - and we the people, God help us, because it is us, after all, who are the ones who elect the donkeys in the first place – the first any of us will know about the iceberg is when we're clinging to a spar in the freezing Atlantic, watching the state go under once more, and asking ourselves: how the **** did that happen? It's a mystery alright, Paddy. Who could ever have seen that coming?

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Year in Sports


If you want it, you'll have to fight for it.
If you want it, you'll have to fight for it.
Your bookmaker will return you fifty cent profit on every Euro you bet on Dublin if Dublin win five All-Ireland Football Championships in a row next year, something no county has achieved in football or hurling. How astonishing. And of course, the price is very hard to argue with. It is impossible to make a cogent case for any other county winning it, as each of the contenders has profound flaws and, while Dublin are by no means perfect, they are considerably better equipped to win than any other county.

For all that, your correspondent can’t get it out of his head that Dublin won’t do it. The pressure and hype will be bananas, as more and more entities see the chance of a quick buck and climb up onto an already-overloaded Dub bandwagon. Even though the new rules are for the league only, who knows what tiny cracks the League will reveal that could be torn open in the white heat of Championship. But most of all, the biggest struggle that Dublin will face to win five-in-a-row is the struggle all dynasties face – the fact that players get old.

This runs against conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is that Dublin have found the alchemist’s stone, and can regenerate players like no-one else has been able to before. Brian Fenton and Con O’Callaghan are cited as proof, the replacements that are better than what went before.

And that’s all fine, but there are more constants over the four-in-a-row starting fifteen than you might think. Cluxton, obviously. But also Jonny Cooper, Philly McMahon, Cian O’Sullivan and James McCarthy. That’s a lot of backs, keeping a lot of pressure off Cluxton, who cares little for pressure. It will not be the shock of shocks if Dublin do win five-in-a-row, of course. But it won’t be as big a shock as some think if they don’t. After all, Kilkenny were meant to be able replenish their players at ease too, but when Jackie Tyrell and Tommy Walsh and Henry Shefflin went off into the sunset, things began to fall apart.

Of course, the monstrosity that is the Super Eight section of the Championship will do all in its power to preserve the powerful against the threat of the weak. Would anyone have heard of Mullinalaghta if there had been Super Eights in the Leinster Club Championship, or even in the Longford Club Championship?

The Super Eights is a further betrayal of all the Championship stands for and should stand for, a point made time and again in this place. In many ways, the highlight of the summer was the sight of empty seats in Croke Park for the Super Eights, something that so shocked the grubby moneymen who are behind the thing that changes have already been made. Hopefully, it’s too late and the thing will be sent back to whatever hell from whence it rose.

Shane Dowling. No better man.
Shane Dowling. No better man.
Your correspondent is generally loathe to comment on hurling as I know enough about it to know I know very little about it, actually. I do know that the people of Limerick continue to float on a blissful cloud in this horrid winter weather and more power to them. But whether it’s my innate conservatism or not, I can’t help but be suspect of the provincial round robins.

Heresy, I know. For those in Munster and Leinster – and even for people from Galway, I believe – these round-robin games seem to have been an unending series of delights. But for someone at a remove, it was a struggle to keep up and figure out exactly who is ahead and who is behind.
But that’s what a great competition should do! is the response. Of course. But only up to a point. There has to be a narrative or else it’s all very hard to sort in your head. If every game is an epic then no game can be an epic.

Someone remarked that Limerick’s win this year was actually the greatest win of all time as no other All-Ireland winner had to beat so many top-class teams to win the title. And that’s true, but it’s also true because no other teams had to – it used to be a knockout competition. Maybe, as time rolls on, we’ll get used to it. Maybe. But it’s very hard not to worry about hurling when people are spending a lot of money claiming to promote the game in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, when they don’t stir one princely finger to promote the game north of the M6 motorway. There is something here that doesn’t quite add up.

Jacobus Rex
Jacobus Rex
This was the greatest year in Irish international rugby history. Ireland won the Grand Slam, they won a southern hemisphere tour, and they beat New Zealand. Joe Schmidt is the best coach in the world, and Ireland have some of the best players in the world.

There are those who ask questions about friendlies and what will Ireland do in the World Cup. They don’t really want to know. Anyone who follows rugby knows the worth of what Ireland have achieved and anyone who doesn’t, probably doesn’t really want to in the first place, and is only looking for mischief.

But as with football and hurling, dark clouds loom in the distance. The game is changing all the time. Professionalism is twenty years old now, and rugby is so different from what went before. Amateur rugby was a backs’ game of field position. Professional rugby is a forwards’ game of ball retention.

The old order is under more and more strain because money wins every argument, and nothing that went before, as regards tradition or honour or how-we-do-things, can withstand money. Agustín Pichot, the former scrum-half for Argentina and now vice-chairman of World Rugby, has spoken of how the demands on players cannot be met in current circumstances, and he's right. Something's got to give, and some things already have.

France was a rugby powerhouse once. Now, her clubs have strangled the life out of the national team. It may be Stockholm Syndrome, as no team found more ways to annually batter Ireland than the French did, but now they’re gone it feels like the game has lost something, and there is an empty space where those gallant prancing cocks used to be. It just doesn’t feel right.

The best man in Ireland, England,
Scotland and Wales?
How wonderful it would be if Tyson Fury could save boxing. It is one of those things that is only obvious after it is pointed out that without a functional, competitive heavyweight division all other boxing divisions are somehow lessened. And now, thanks to this extraordinary man it may be saved.

It's a long path and it’s a lot to ask of Fury, who has his own demons to fight outside of the ring, but sport needs boxing. For a sport so easily corruptible, it is one of the noblest of sports in its way. I hope it can be saved in these changing times, and look forward to the rematch between Deontay Wilder and Fury with no little anticipation.