Monday, June 20, 2016

Galway Shock Mayo in Castlebar

There are two ways of looking at Galway’s shock defeat of Mayo at McHale Park on Saturday. We can take the broad view, or we can take a closer look at the game in and of itself. Let’s try both, and see what we can learn.

The media spent the final weeks of the National League bemoaning that those league games were the last interesting things scribes would have to write about until August. This is because that same media, possibly dazzled by propaganda from the GPA, considers the Championship a fossilized entity, a killing field in which “lesser” teams cannot possibly gain by being exposed to the mighty guns of the Division 1 Super Powers.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Last week, Tipperary of Division 3 unhorsed mighty Cork of Division 1. On Saturday, Galway of Division 2 unhorsed Mayo of Division 1, not only in Mayo itself but with fifty-two of Galway’s best and brightest missing from the muster-roll.

These things should not be happening. Sports science and the great god of the age, money, tell us that a commoner may never gaze on a crown in the Championship any more.

So what happened on Saturday? Is it possible that the peculiar magic of this fossilized Championship, no longer fit for the modern athlete and fan, somehow conjured dream into reality once more? Could it be that helpless Galway, with their missing players and dressed only their lowly Division 2 motley, somehow raised themselves at the sight of the green and red and channeled the spirits of their forbears to make themselves, for that one crowded hour, bigger than they thought they could be?

Could it be that there is something inherent in the very Championship itself, in the warp and weft of its history and tradition, that means Galway can raise themselves against Mayo in a Connacht semi-final in a way that is impossible to imagine them doing against Monaghan, say, in a round 3 Champions League style tournament so much more fitting to modernity?

Who knows? But it does seem legitimate to at least raise the question.

And what of Mayo themselves? This isn’t Mayo’s first time getting ambushed by Galway in Castlebar. May 24th, 1998 is a date that still lives in infamy in the County Mayo. Did Mayo think that sports science and money and TV ads would protect them from piseog, éigse and oidhreacht peile? What can a millionaire American basketball coach writing a motivational book know of the feeling in a Galwayman’s gut when he sees the green and red banners flying so proudly and arrogantly high?

The day was Galway’s and rightly so. While they and Roscommon prepare for Connacht’s banner day, Mayo have to ask themselves what exactly happened. Did they have a bad day at the office, and will they now scorch a path of devastation through the qualifiers in the hurt and fury of their response?

Oisin McConville suggested in the Examiner on Saturday that it was time for mutinous Mayo players to put their money where their extraordinarily big mouths are and, as sure as night follows day, there will be more than one why-oh-why column in the Irish Independent this coming week roasting the Mayo panel for what they did to the previous management.

Yes. And yet, no.

The mutiny is misunderstood by the national media. The mutiny was not a cause; it was a symptom. The mutiny was the inevitable result of the Mayo County Board’s failure to deal with the end of James Horan’s time as manager, a failure that, based on Saturday’s evidence, has yet to be fixed.

The situation at the moment appears to be that the Board wants Pat and Noel but wants no truck with James. Pat and Noel are unacceptable to the players but there is no way between Hell and Bethlehem the Board want Horan back. The only thing either party seems to agree about is that neither of them wanted anything at all to do Kevin McStay and Liam McHale.

Hence, Stephen Rochford. Rochford has no small job to do in the coming two weeks to reassemble the green and red Humpty Dumpty. Mayo were red-rotten on Saturday and, as the man in charge, Rochford has to fix them. Rochford will be forgiven any step he takes, no matter how drastic, so long as Mayo win the All-Ireland as a result. Anything short of that and he’ll be tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail, of course. Galway have their tradition, and we have ours. Up Mayo.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

A Modest Proposal Concerning the Hurling Championship

For all the criticism the back door system in football has (rightly) received, it is interesting that the hurling Championship seems to remain serenely immune from questioning, to say nothing of criticism. For the Gael to criticise hurling feels vaguely like treason, of a similar scale to having a sneaking regard for England in the soccer or secretly agreeing with Irish Times articles trolling speakers of the First Language.

One of the reasons that the hurling Championship has proved so difficult to reform is the strange place of the Munster Championship. One of the major arguments against proper reform of the hurling Championship is the “special place” that the Munster Championship holds in the Irish sports calendar. This is despite the fact that it’s now been ten years and counting since the Munster Champions went on to win the All-Ireland. There’s something wrong there somewhere.

What’s far worse is the peculiar situation of not knowing where a team stands after it wins or loses a game. In terms of positioning to win the All-Ireland, are Clare really any worse off since Waterford beat them on Sunday? Can anybody keep track of the losers of the Provincial championships? There are many back doors in hurling’s mansion, to the extent of its being a damnable job to keep track of who’s who until the semi-finals arrive in August. That doesn’t make for much of a Championship.

The paucity of counties that are able to compete for the Liam McCarthy Cup doesn’t help. We’re seeing greater and greater separation in football, but hurling has always been a game of haves and have-nots. Limerick, Clare, Waterford, Wexford, Offaly and Galway are all considered hurling counties despite not having more than thirty All-Irelands between them in over 125 years of trying.

One of the arguments for the retention of traditional football championship is the importance of the local rivalry. There aren’t enough teams playing hurling at the same level to have that rivalry. As such, in an effort to generate gate receipts and put some sort of gloss of competitiveness on the Championship, the vast majority of hurling counties are put through this out again, in again Lanigan’s Ball of a Championship before Kilkenny or Tipperary come along and box their ears for them, just like always.

Whatever slim chance (and slimmer it’s getting) there is of bringing back the old football Championship, there isn’t a snowball’s of the old hurling Championship returning. There just wouldn’t be enough games. But the current format is maddening, because teams are no further nor closer to the All-Ireland on the 31st of July than they were at Christmas.

So here’s the suggestion. We need more games, and we also need more clarity about who’s in the hunt and who’s a gone goose. So continue with the straight-knockout Championship but play each fixture as a best-of-three or best-of-five series.

The precedent is in American sports, where playoffs in baseball, ice hockey and basketball are all best-of series.

Under this sort of system, last Sunday would have been the first leg of a best-of-three between Clare and Waterford. If Waterford win again this coming Sunday, they move on and Clare are gone. If not, it’s mega-showdown for Game 3 in sunny Thurles in a fortnight. Good times.

The American sports play best-of-sevens, but they play three games a week. Midweek games would be just a little too jarring for the rhythm of the Championship and the summer isn’t long enough for best-of-fives played at the weekend only. As such best-of-three is certainly a good place to start.

If we had a best-of-series now, Game 2 next week between Clare and Waterford suddenly becomes huge, instead of Clare treading water and lesser counties into the ground for the next six weeks, and Waterford suffering long dark nights of the soul trying to decide if they really want another Munster title for all the good the other ones have done them in recent years.

Everybody thinks the Championship needs fireworks. Making the hurling Championship into best-of-threes with no backdoor would certainly strike a few sparks.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Mayo at Home Amongst the Nobility


There was a science teacher on the staff of St Muredach’s College, Ballina, in the 1980s called Joe Kenny. Joe was a big believer in bringing the theory down from the clouds and home to where you lived. To this end, used to tell the most beautiful analogy about the nature of chemical compounds.

If you look at the periodic table of the elements, the elements that are listed in the rightmost column – Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon and Radon – are called the Noble Gases. They are called noble gases because they have a full complement of eight electrons in their outer shells, and this makes them very, very stable. Noble gases are the upper class of the elements; they do not mix with the lower orders.

The other elements – the metals, the metalloids, the halogens and the rest – are social climbers. They all want to be stable like the noble gases, and they form compounds to achieve that stability. Sodium combines its single electron with Chloride’s seven to form a compound, common salt, with eight electrons in its outer shell.

But leopards don’t change their spots. A compound can never become an element, least of all an element as elevated as a noble gas. Even though this new thing, salt, is supposedly stable, it’s not, really. It lacks the blue blood, and always betrays its humble origins. It will always call the midday meal “dinner” when the noble gases call it “lunch.” It will always answer nature’s call with a visit to the toilet, rather than the lavatory.

And so it goes with the Mayo support. The support are compounds, raised to stability by years of success, but always wondering when will be the next time Mayo lose a Connacht Final to Sligo, or be butchered by Cork by twenty points, or bet toyed with by Kerry as a cat toys with a dead mouse.

The players, however, look at the world differently. 1975 is indistinguishable to them from 1798. 1993 isn’t much different. What’s real to them are their memories of Ciarán McDonald and James Nallen and Liam McHale – the memories of watching them as children, and wanting to emulate them as men.

One of the many remarkable things about the current Mayo generation is its longevity. The most previously-consistent Mayo team was John Maughan’s team of the ‘nineties, which won three Connacht titles in four years and came closer than any other, before or since, to winning Mayo its fourth All-Ireland title.

This Mayo generation has reeled off five Connacht titles and, even more amazingly, has won its subsequent quarter-final in each of those five years.

You will read, or have already read, in this week’s Championship previews that that this achievement is as a millstone around the players’ necks. Not true. It can be a millstone around the supporters’ necks, for whom the bleak days remain very real, but when the players themselves stand among the elite every August and look around them, at the Neons and Kryptons and Xenons of the football world, they know that they belong.

A millstone? Reader, dream on. This Mayo generation know that they have the measure of anyone else out there, including Dublin. The very fact they’re still being talked of as contenders, after the almighty balls that was made of the post-Horan transition, is testimony to the extra-ordinary things that are happening in Mayo right now.

Because for once the current generation, talented though it is, is being pushed from below. The Minor winners of 2013 did not get the recognition they would have got had Mayo not lost (another) senior final the year they won, but those one-time minors showed in the Under-21 victory that there are men there who are ready for their close-ups.

Not that their time is come yet. Most of the current generation aren’t going anywhere, but the strength that can added to the squad by those men who will join from the Under-21 panel is considerable. Cillian O’Connor is the most under-rated player in Ireland but his return to the panel for the dying stages of the league underlined, once again, his worth.

There are tweaks to be made on the team, and question marks here and there. Of course there are – how could there not be? This is a game, after all. Balls bounce funny. But Mayo people, whose fondest wish was once to see a Mayoman lift Sam on the third Sunday just once before they died, are now coming to the realisation that is no longer a dream but an imminent event. Maybe this year, maybe the year after. Maybe both. Maybe neither. Like the weather, there are some details that are known only to the Lord.

But the when isn’t now as important as it once was. When was important when we thought Mayo might win an All-Ireland, when no-one was looking, as nearly happened in 1996. Those days of backing into the party are over. Mayo come in front door now. We are now looking at a Mayo team that will win by right, and God speed that happy day. Up Mayo.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Football Championship Preview

People used to decry the lack of competitiveness in the Championship during the era of the Big Four. In 2016, the Big Four era looks like a wide-open contest that anyone might win.

Paddy Power is offering slightly better than even money on Dublin winning the 2016 Championship. That is a short, short price in a 32-horse race. There is clear separation from the rest as we look down the board – Kerry are second favorites at 3/1, Mayo 11/2, new kids on the block Tyrone at 12/1 and it’s 16/1 the field after that. So, football is now reflective of Irish life in general – both are a case of Dublin and then the rest.

Is there any point in running the Championship at all? Well, yes there is. Dublin are clearly the best team in Ireland and would win a US-style best-of-seven series against anybody, with very few teams, if any, being able to take them to the seventh game.

But the Championship doesn’t have best-of-seven series. Come August it’s all about turning up on the day and, in knockout competitions, upsets are always possible.

The biggest problem Jim Gavin has is keeping his team focused. The Leinster Championship, to the shame of the all counties involved other than Dublin, is a joke. One-time super-powers like Meath, Offaly, Kildare and others should be humiliated to have fallen so low. Instead, they seem to accept their position in the ashes.

Dublin have always been the big dogs in Leinster, but even when Meath, say, lost to Dublin, Dublin knew generally knew that they had been in a game. That hasn’t been the case in some time, and there is no reason – none – to suspect that’s going to change.

Which means Dublin have three hurdles to clear to retain the All-Ireland. Gavin’s job is to for them to keep their edge in the three months between now and August, when Dublin’s season begins.

Dublin, as ever, are bathed in hype. The modern Dublin team does more to live up to it than its predecessors, but the hype is still there. Oisin McConville was one of few to call Dublin out for being poor for long periods against Kerry in the League Final. People who are interested in winning this year’s All-Ireland should note the mental frailty that Dublin displayed there, and know just how very hard it is to maintain concentration over a long season of going through the motions in Leinster.

The other thing that aspirants to glory should note is that Dublin are very used to having things their own way. What will they be like when things start going against them? Gavin has drawn a lot of praise for having learned the lesson of Dublin’s defeat against Donegal in 2014. Have Dublin really learned a lesson, or have they just not come up against a team that questioned them the way that Donegal questioned them?

The team that will beat Dublin need a McGuinness at the blackboard to plot Dublin’s destruction. Is there anybody among the contenders that could lay claim to such a level of generalship?

Yes, there is. It is Tyrone. Since the era of the manager began in the mid-seventies, only one man has guided two generations of teams to All-Irelands – Seán Boylan with Meath in 1987-’88 and again, with a new team in 1996 and 1999. Mickey Harte has it within his power to emulate Boylan, and to end his time with Tyrone on yet another high. The only question is if his players can execute on the pitch what Mickey will have plotted in his head. And only time will tell that.

Equally, short of meeting them in the final, beating Dublin does not mean you win the All-Ireland. Donegal, 20/1 longshots to win the All-Ireland this year, can tell you all about that. The demise of Dublin would spur on the rest just as much as it would those who defeated Dublin, and open the competition out again.

Kerry most of all. It would be interesting to know whom the average Kerryman would prefer to meet in an All-Ireland, Dublin or Tyrone. Chances are he doesn’t know himself. Tyrone have been under Kerry’s skin since 2003 but Kerry really expected to beat Dublin in the final-that-didn’t-count a few weeks ago. Their frustration at not only not doing so, but getting hammered by a coasting Dublin team, was clearly evident at full time. Kerry can’t be in a good place in the heads right now.

The other major contender that are seldom in a good place in the their heads are Mayo, of course. More on them and their prospects tomorrow. In the meantime, Dublin are the pick but if you’re having a bet, Tyrone is a sensible investment at about 12/1.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Government or Circus?

The yawning gap that exists in Ireland between the process of electing a government and what a government is expected to do was illustrated in an almost offhand exchange about the Independent Alliance on the Irish Times’s Inside Politics podcast of last Friday night. The exchange is between Fiach Kelly and Pat Leahy of the Times’s political staff, and begins at 12:25 on the podcast:

FIACH KELLY
Sarah’s right. They are not used to government. They are used to saying ‘get up the yard, get off the fence, let’s put our shoulders to the wheel’ - 

PAT LEAHY
They’re the opposite of government. It’s not just that they’ve been a conventional opposition, but it’s the exact opposite. They’ve never been the sort of opposition that had to prepare, that had to watch what they said because they envisaged being in government after the next election.

FIACH KELLY
They had their ‘Charter for Change,’ which formed the basis of their negotiations over the past number of weeks. This document they drew up about a year ago about their principles – motherhood and apple pie is a generous description of said document. I was speaking to someone in Fine Gael today who said that last week was the worst week of their lives because, at least when they were dealing with Fianna Fáil they were professional operators, they knew how to negotiate. Then you turn around and talk to the Independents and they didn’t know how the system or the government or anything like that worked, at all. So it’s going to be a very steep learning curve for them.

And the question your broken-hearted correspondent asks of all this is: why don’t the media report this? Where are the articles and think pieces that say politics is a profession, like any other, and while getting elected is a key skill, being able to govern is another?

A national politician who is serious about national politics should know how the instruments of government work. He or she may disagree with how those instruments work, and that’s fine. When he or she is in power, he or she will then have the power to make those instruments better. But he or she must know what those instruments of government are in the first place. And it’s quite clear that members of the Independent Alliance haven’t a bull’s notion.

There is a chicken-and-egg situation here. Media claim that they don’t cover these issues because politicians don’t talk about them. Politicians claim they don’t talk about these issues because the people aren’t interested in them. But how can the people learn about them if not through the media?

Yesterday the Sunday Business Post led with a story about an ‘understanding’ between disgraced TD Michael Lowry and Fine Gael in return for Lowry’s support for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. As remarked upon here earlier, Lowry is like the dog that didn’t bark in the old Sherlock Holmes story.

Why would Michael Lowry support the government? What’s in it for him? The people of Tipperary elected Lowry on the first count in the election because he is seen to “deliver” for the people of Tipperary. What’s Lowry swung for the Premier this time? Why haven’t we been told? Why hasn’t any other media outlet (especially RTÉ) reported the story? Why hasn’t anyone asked the Nemesis of Cronyism, the Minister for Transport, Shane Ross TD, how he feels about a secret sweetheart deal with Michael Lowry?

This tweet from Matt Cooper may help explain why:




Extraordinary. A story broke in the US last week about how ridiculously easy a member of the Obama administration found seeding stories in the media. That man wouldn’t ever have to get out of bed in Ireland.

But we have a government now, and they are sitting down to govern. How will they do that? Well, some of those governmental decisions that effect people’s lives and, potentially, the future of the state itself will be decided by a man who won a coin toss. Not because the Taoiseach has had his eye on this or that person’s career and thinks he or she could do a really good job as a junior minister in a particular department. No. It’s because he won a coin toss.

Imagine if, God forbid, you are in court, accused of murder. And instead of a judge, Bozo the Clown walks in and announces that, as a result of a coin toss, he’ll be running the court while Mr Justice Murphy will be doing pratfalls and standing on rakes in Fossett’s Circus for the foreseeable future. Then, with Bozo tooting a horn rather than banging a gavel, the court comes to order and the trial for your life begins.

Welcome to Ireland in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising. God help us all.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A Government Cannot Be Formed

I, for one, do not welcome our new overlords.
A government cannot be formed, and it’s the people’s own fault. The sooner the political establishment comes to terms with that, admits it and pulls the lever for a second election the better off we’ll all be.

Fianna Fáil have had a merry old time over the past three weeks bullying Fine Gael in negotiations. And now, in the best schoolyard tradition, Fine Gael are going have their fun with that one group in the Oireachtas who are more natural victims than they are – the independents.

All that stuff out of Shane Ross and his bunch about new politics and broad policy outlines is now exposed as what anybody with the intelligence of a toad could see what it always was – nonsense. John Halligan is digging in over his local hospital, which should have every alarm bell ringing for Denis Naughten. Naughton won Roscommon because he knew Roscommon Hospital had to come first. If Halligan gets Waterford – oh, excuse me, your honour, the South-Eastern – Hospital sorted for a cardiac unit, what must Naughten do to deliver for the Ros? Brain Surgery? Head transplants?

It is interesting to note that supposedly the most idealistic of the independents, Deputy Zappone, was the first to row in behind Enda Kenny’s re-election as Taoiseach. It would be interesting to know what exactly she’s been promised in return for her support. Your correspondent likes to think she’s been promised a herd number for a unicorn farm somewhere outside Firhouse or Knocklyon, but chances are the deal isn’t even as substantial as that.

And what of that most mysterious of independents, Deputy Lowry? Deputy Lowry has made no bones about his support for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, and nobody seems to have a problem with that. Five years ago Dáil Éireann passed a motion calling on Deputy Lowry to resign his seat, such was the Dáil’s repugnance at his behaviour, as exposed by the Moriarty Tribunal. Nobody now seems to have a problem with his presence, to say nothing of his vital vote in electing a government. If everyone and their uncle is getting sorted, what in all this for Deputy Lowry?

The media don’t seem too bothered harping on about this. The media are part of the problem. The media are negligent in their duty in calling these members to account, and saying this is not the way to govern a country. It’s all a game in Ireland’s political Bermuda triangle of Leinster House, the Shelbourne Hotel and Kehoe’s of South Anne Street.

Your correspondent thought – foolishly, as it turns out – that the crash of 2008 would be a learning experience for the country. Instead, it’s been an exercise in becoming more ignorant.

At the nadir of the boom, the standard narrative was that the country had fallen into an economic abyss that would take thirty years to recover from. It took three. So, either the abyss was actually a pothole, or Ireland pulled off an economic miracle so extraordinary it makes the German post-war recovery look like two cavemen fighting over a tusk using the barter system. Or both. Or neither.

There are subtleties to all these things. We don’t subtle in Irish politics. Or thoughtful. Or even vaguely sentient.

Maybe, when the election is called, we’ll bite the bullet. Maybe we’ll show the political parties that there is a reward at the ballot box for proper, intelligent politics. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. The only functional part of Irish politics is that we get exactly the government we deserve. God help us all.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Second Election is the Only Sensible Solution

Enda Kenny must do the sensible thing. He must go up to the Park and tell the President it’s time to give the wheel another spin.

The strong media consensus that a Grand Coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was not only the only possible result from the election but that it was the only sensible result from the election has proved to be so much blather.

It would take a seismic change to overturn a political culture that has lasted for nearly eighty years. As it happens, that seismic change happened five years ago, but instead of a radical realignment of Irish politics, we got a return to the Fine Gael / Labour coalitions of the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were just as ideologically similar then as now, and they certainly had numbers to form a coalition, but nobody was talking about an FF/FG coalition being either inevitable or obvious then.

Five years on, we have stalemate, as the difference between how elections are run in this country and how governments are formed are clearer than they ever have been. In theory, the voter goes to the polls with the intention of selecting a government for the country. In practice, the voter goes to forty different polls and votes for the candidate that will best represent his or her local area when it’s time for goodies to be handed out.

Hence the impasse. In the past, the dominance of the major parties has been such that the flaw inherent in the system was never exposed. Fine Gael’s loss of a TD for not building a school in Ballycarrick was made up by the gain of a TD who was passionate on the retention of the garda station in Carrigbally. Checks and balances.

Unfortunately, the slow dissolution of the two-and-a-half party system has not been matched by a likewise evolution of political awareness in the electorate. This is partly a western thing; it doesn’t seem that the US electorate are having a particularly statesmanlike moment right now either, while the Tories in the United Kingdom are pointing a gun to their own heads while threatening to shoot the hostage. Extraordinary behaviour.

But the Irish context seems worse, somehow. Not least because the country is so small, and it shouldn’t be so hard to communicate what’s actually happening. For a small country to be independent, the citizens must be more active than they have to be in the big country like the UK or Germany or the USA. In big countries, there will always be enough clever and/or informed people to keep the political show on the road. Here, we need more hands to the mast.

A second election, then, but an election like no other. This second election, if it comes soon, will be the first honest election in God only knows how long. It will be an honest election because the electorate will be eager to know just why it’s going through this all again, and this will involve asking hard questions of the politicians.

Elections are understood to be about what different parties will do if given the chance to govern. This election has been unusual in electing a substantial number of TDs who are not trying a jot to govern, or who cannot muster support because they are independents. It will be interesting see them answer the question of why anyone should vote for them next time out.

For that reason, the Taoiseach should accept that, while the people have spoken, what they’ve said is unintelligible. Therefore, they must be asked again. Enda Kenny bottled a chance at remarking the politics of the country after the 2011 election by coalescing with Labour, rather than forcing Fianna Fáil to support their own policies. It is that choice that allowed Fianna Fáil to rise again so spectacularly.

But now Enda Kenny has that rarest of things in life: a second chance. By calling a second chance he can expose the limits of clientelist system and bring the voting public to a new understanding of politics and what good governance can actually do. The people will see that they must vote for a government, rather than a county councillor with super powers.

For what it’s worth, your correspondent doesn’t expect that happen. Some sort of government will be cobbled together that will pass a budget (Berlin permitting), and then collapse in 2017, leading to the election then. But things will have moved on by then, and the moment will have passed. New politics is difficult for old politicians, after all.

And yet that hope still glimmers. Enda Kenny has a very rare chance to really make history. I hope he takes it while it’s there.