Tuesday, February 04, 2020

What Are, Aren't, and Should Be Major Issues in the Election

Saturday will be, we are told, a "change" election, after which things will never be the same again. This is not the country’s first "change" election. The post-bailout 2011 election was a change election. So was the 1997 Deep Bertie election, and the Spring Tide election of 1992, and the Rise of the PDs in 1987. We could go on back to the 1920s, always finding the repeating pattern of things changing in order that they may remain the same, like in that Italian novel.

The PDs won fourteen seats in 1987. The Labour Party won more than twice as many in 1992. Those are historical elections now; is it possible that it is the children of those who voted PD in 1987 and Labour in 1992 who are now going to vote Green and/or Sinn Féin?

For a country that so enjoys an election, we seem unusually poor at documenting and/or analysing our politics. Why have we had so many change elections in the past thirty years?

Some people are claiming that that the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael duopoly is finally over. They said that in 1987 too. Like the life of novelist Mark Twain or the fate of the Irish language, reports of the duopoly’s demise have been premature before.

Why, though? Why is that? Why are there these sudden lurches among the electorate, from the right-wing PDs to the softish-left social democrats of Labour to the – to borrow a phrase from Seán Lemass about the origins of his own party – slightly-constitutional Shinners?

Don’t forget, there is nobody more surprised at this Shinner surge – if it is a surge, and not another false dawn – than the Shinners themselves. Up until ten days ago, Sinn Féin were about consolidating the seats they hold, and trying to shore up leaks. Now they’re getting their ears boxed in the media for not running enough candidates, when one month ago it looked like they might be running too many.

It’s a cliche of politics to talk about a gap between the elected and the elected, between the people and the elite. But my goodness, we had a Dáil declaring a climate emergency at the same time as rural Ireland was getting ready to picket meat factories and hold up traffic in Dublin over the destruction of a way of life that some feel the Green Party are only interesting in accelerating.

There used to be a tradition of match-making in Ireland. Were any matched couples such strangers to each other as the current elected and the current electorate?

What even is it that we do when do we go to vote? It’s not something that we really document. The weight of scholarly work on Irish politics seems to have been a series of laments and jeremiads about how awful it was that Irish politics did not operate along a left-right divide, thus shaming Irish academics when they attended conferences (in such socialist states as East Germany, Cuba and the USSR, funnily enough). Would it not have made more sense to document politics as they were, rather than as academics would have had them be?

Are we better at understanding Irish politics now, or worse? Where is the great study, for instance, in the rise of the Independents in recent years? Nineteen independents were elected to the 32nd Dáil. There’s a good chance that number will be higher after Saturday and whenever the Tipperary election is finally held.

What does a vote for an independent say about that independent’s voters’ views on how the country should be governed? Why does a TD who was voted unfit for office by his fellow parliamentarians continue to top the poll in his own constituency?

Whose job is it to tease these issues out? It is the media’s job to tease these issues out. Why don’t the media tease these issues out? The media defence is that these issues are not teased out because the public isn’t interested in teasing them out – that the public likes sausages but cares little about how sausages are made.

To which there are two responses. The first is that distinguishing between the public interest and what the public is interested in is meant to be a cardinal concern of a responsible media, not least when the primary media outlet, RTÉ, is a public-service broadcaster.

The other response is that the media has no problem in the world in featuring issues about which the public could care less, the recent climate emergency business being a case in point. Which is more important? Why not devote even half of the resources devoted to climate issues to electoral reform issues? It doesn’t make sense.

And here’s what makes least sense of all. This is another change election. The most seismic election in the history of this, or any other, state was in 2011.

Fianna Fáil, the party that ruled the state from three of every four years of the state’s existence, went from seventy-one seats to twenty as an outraged and furious electorate blamed them for everything that had gone wrong in the country since the 2008 global financial crash.

And now, nine years later, Fianna Fáil will be back in power. They won’t have seventy-one seats, but they look good for sixty, give or take. How has that happened? Was the crash as bad as it was made out to be? If it wasn’t, why did the people get the impression that it was?

Either the media made fools of themselves by saying the crash was going to be far worse than it was, or else Ireland, that dear little island of green, has pulled off a bigger economic miracle than West Germany pulled off in the 1950s. Which is it? How did it happen? Who is to praise? Who is to blame? And where do I go to read about it?

You may think the answers to these questions – just how bad was the crash? How did we recover? Have we recovered at all, or are we simply on the batter again and there’s an even worse hangover waiting around the turn? - would be front and centre in the election campaign, with politicians and pundits making cases pro and con different interpretations of recent history.

You would be wrong. These have not been issues in the campaign. At all. And it’s going to be change elections all the way to the horizon and the nation going around in ever-decreasing circles until we start asking ourselves these questions, and paying attention to the answers.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

The Year in Sports

Shane Lowry was, naturally, a popular choice for RTÉ’s Sports Personality of the Year. The nation sees itself in Lowry – smashing them off the tee, showing nerves of ice on the green, and lorrying porter on the 19th. Fine girl you are.

He wasn’t the right choice though. The Sports Personality of the Year Award should have gone to Stephen Cluxton, goalkeeper of the Dublin football team that won an unprecedented five All-Ireland titles in a row.

That there wasn’t more talk of it is a reflection of Lowry’s popularity, and the fact that Lowry’s own GAA-credentials are first class. But it was still the wrong decision.

If not naming Cluxton footballer of the year earlier, or not naming him as the All-Star goalkeeper earlier, were scandalous, then how much more scandalous was the lack of acknowledgement of the great gouges in the history books with which Dublin have carved their names? And how often can it be that one team can be summed up in one player, a rock on which all subsequent edifices are built?
And how often do we see a player absolutely redefine the very concept of his position, as Cluxton has done?

There are two arguments contra Cluxton. The first is that Sports Personality of the Year is an annual award, rather than a body-of-work award. The second is that Lowry’s achievement in winning the British Open was greater than Cluxton’s in winning five All-Ireland titles in a row.

The first argument is bogus, because annual awards are about bodies of work as much as they’re about any particular year. Did Paul Newman win an Oscar for The Color of Money because Color of Money a better film than The Hustler, say, or because Newman acted better in The Color of Money than in The Hustler? Was John Wayne really better in True Grit than he was in The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance? Come on, now.

We’re on trickier ground when we come to comparing sports, of course. Lowry is the third Irishman to win the British Open. Five straight All-Irelands have never been won before, and there were some pretty good teams that won four. Five was beyond all of them.

And then the third and, for your correspondent, clinching argument. This year is the 35th running of the RTÉ Sports Personality of the Year. Lowry is the ninth golfer to win it. No Gaelic footballer has ever won it. Bejabbers, but the nation must be fierce gone on the golf all the same.

And speaking of rugby, there was some harrumphing about no rugby player having been nominated for that Sports Personality list this year, harrumphing that was easily silenced by asking who, exactly, had covered himself in glory in the year gone by.

Rugby is in a strange place right now. If, as its critics would argue, every game outside of a World Cup match is a friendly, then international rugby becomes the Brigadoon of sports, rising from the mist only every now and again. And the worst thing for rugby is that scheduling is the least of its worries.

Nearly a quarter-century from the advent of professionalism, the new reality hasn’t bedded in at all. Players are torn by the competing demands of club and country, the need to physically survive so attritional a game, and the hope that they won’t end up in homes for the bewildered in their old age, their brains having been battered about like Moore St oranges for ten or fifteen years.

In praising the new breed of lock forward in his Sunday Times column, Stuart Barnes put his finger on another problem of the game, which is its increasing homogeny. Rugby used to be a game of many dimensions, with room for big men, small men, fat men and thin men.

Now, like motor cars, science sees us thundering towards the one streamlined super-player, fast enough to be a back, strong enough to be forward, and all looking the same from one to fifteen. If the players are all the same then the gamed will be all the same and the élan and artistry and sheer drama that international rugby served up for over one hundred years will all be lost and gone with the wind.

Not that you’d know that from the rugby press here. Your faithful correspondent was rather taken aback as different rugby scribes aimed kicks at Joe Schmidt once Schmidt was safely on a plane to the other side of the world and couldn’t hold it against them. The start of the Andy Farrell reign, where the IRFU gave the press a list of list of approved journalists and press accepted being dictated to like lambs and slaves, is not a hopeful sign. It’s the job of the media to tell the people what’s going on. It’s not the job of the media to act as an adjunct of the IRFU’s PR department.

The story of the decade of course is the one that can’t be reported. The FAI are fifty-million Euro in debt, and they say they don’t know how it happened. How can you end up in a fifty-five million Euro hole unbeknownst to you? Fifty-five million is a considerable amount of potatoes. If you were five million in the red, you’d say things were bad. Fifty-five million is Department of Health level stuff. Complete systems failure.

And the public will, as is traditional in the land of Erin, be the last to know. The top brass of the FAI has had legal eagles ready to swoop at any vague hints that there might be funny business going on for the past twenty years and it is a fact that Irish libel laws protect and favour the interests of the strong over those of the weak.

Don’t think that anybody will see prison bars over this either. We don’t do white-collar crime well in Ireland, I’m afraid. The FAI will probably be bailed out by a government too chicken to let nature take its course. Small fry will be put on the dole as a result of that bailout, but the parties responsible will pack up and move to retirement in sunny Spain, and get season tickets for Barca, maybe. It stinks, and it’ll continue to stink for quite some time.

Happy New Year.

Monday, December 30, 2019

An A-Z of the Past Decade in Mayo Football

Your faithful correspondent was flattered and delighted to be asked to add his two cents to the Western People's recent magnificent tribute to the Mayo footballers of the past decade, published about two months ago now. Here now are those two cents, with nothing added or taken away. Or hardly anything. Ahem.

A is for Ardour
It’s reasonable to wonder why we do it. Mayo people think we’re great at football but three All-Irelands in 130 years isn’t quite Liverpool’s Glory Years in Europe. But you can’t choose whom, or what, you love. Mayo are ours and we theirs and the GAA senior football team is our morning and evening star, whether we like it not.

B is for Bowe's
John Gunnigan, the man behind the Mayo GAA Blog, decided to hold a sort of a Mayo pre-match party on the eve of the All-Ireland semi-final of 2011. We all knew Mayo were going to lose in the morning, but Gunnigan thought it important to mark how far the team had travelled from losing to Sligo and Longford the year before. And so, visits to Bowe’s of Fleet Street became a pre-match institution as this remarkable decade rolled on. The night before the 2013 Final it felt like Mayo’s Age of Aquarius had dawned in that area of Dublin bounded by College Green in the south and the river in the north. It didn’t last, of course, but it was magical while it was there.

C is for Cork
Younger readers may not remember what a bogey team for Mayo Cork were. Cork beat Mayo in the 1989 final, but the humiliation of Cork beating Mayo by 5-15 to 0-10 in the 1993 semi-final particularly stung. It looked like business as usual in the early minutes of the 2011 quarter-final, and the pundits’ pre-match mockery of Mayo was going to prove all too true. Then Aidan O’Shea cleaned Noel O’Leary, Kevin McLoughlin stuck a goal and history changed. Mayo met Cork again in the quarter-finals of 2014, and won a game by a one-point margin that felt like six or seven. As someone remarked at the time, “isn’t it nice to be the bullies for a change?”

D is for Donegal
Mayo played Donegal in the Championship four times this decade, and won three out of four games. But the one game of those four, the one Donegal won, is the only one that’s carved in stone. In the Championship, when you win is often more important than whom you beat, or how often, or by how much.

E is for Egg-Chasing
Every hardcore GAA club member treats rugby like a black-widow spider. They don’t want it about the place and if there’s any hint of an infestation, it’s all hands to the pumps until the crisis is dealt with. This is a little paranoid, not least because it’s not at all obvious that the IRFU wants its base to be widened as much as young people in non-rugby country want to play the game. However. There is one egg of which the GAA should be much more wary, and that is the Sherrin KB Size 5 ball used by the Australian Football League. It’s very hard to expect any young man to turn down the offer of Australia and our blessings and best wishes to all to take their chance when it comes but goodness gracious, it’s middling heartbreaking for those who are left behind.

F is for Forwards, Quality Scoring
Well, Bernard Flynn, or Dessie Dolan, or Tommy “Tom” Carr, or whoever, why do you think Mayo didn’t win the All-Ireland this year? I’m glad you asked me that Joanne – I think that it’s mainly due to a lack of quality scoring forwards. This summer, Cillian O’Connor surpassed Colm “Gooch” Cooper’s career scoring total. O’Connor is twenty-seven years old. Why not think about that one for a while Bernie, or Dessie, or Tommy?

G is for Galway
You could make a case that the best Mayo team of the first Maughan era was the 1998 team. But no-one would ever know because that team didn’t last past the month of May, beaten by Galway in Castlebar before the schools had closed for the summer. The hero of that Galway generation has just been appointed Galway manager. The prospect of history repeating is not a pleasing one.

H is for Heraclitus
Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that a fire is always changing, and yet is always the same. It’s the same with the Mayo team. There’s been some talk in the media about the “end” of Mayo. Teams don’t end. Mayo will have a team in the Championship as long as there is a championship. Always changing, always the same.

I is for Insult
The first your correspondent ever heard of the so-called Mayo curse was outside the Big Tree after Mayo were hammered in the 2004 Final. There is no way between Hell and Bethlehem it’s been around since 1951, because if it was I’d have heard of it before then. I don’t know who started the curse story first, but if he, she, it or them ever has the lard beaten out of him, her, it or them by stout men with sally rods, that’ll be fine by me.

J is for Jackeen
In discussing Gaelic games with Dublin supporters, it’s essential to point out that the nickname “Jackeen” comes from the vast amount of Union Jack flags the city-that-took-on-an-empire hung all over the metropolis for the visit of King Edward VII in 1903. It drives them demented. Demented.

K is for Kerry
If you’re playing serious football, you’re measuring yourself against Kerry. Over this decade Mayo went from cannon-fodder in 2011 to equals in 2014 to victors in 2017. It was hard luck on Aidan O’Shea, but when Kieran Donaghy boxed O’Shea in the dying minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final replay, we knew the Kingdom was done when that was all they had left. Anything that happened in that oul’ Super-Eights stuff isn’t right Championship at all, you know. Ahem.

L is for Limerick
The city of the ancient walls and the broken treaty stone will always have unhappy memories for Mayo. The 2014 semi-final replay should never have been played in Limerick, and the County Board were chicken not to stand their ground. The match had spectacular levels of drama and was a classic for Kerrymen and for neutrals, but none of that is worth yesterday’s chewing gum when it’s your team that gets knocked out.

M is for Money
It got lost in the coverage of Ireland’s hammering at the hands of New Zealand in Tokyo, but that same day saw a special congress of the GAA introduce a two-tier system to the Championship. They say it’s to give smaller counties a chance. It’s not. No law was ever made for the poor. It’s another step on the road to professionalism, along which the GAA has already travelled a perilously long way. In trying to mimic other sports, the GAA is in grave danger of losing that thing that makes it unique and unparalleled. God forfend the unhappy day.

N is for Newbridge
Stephen Rochford’s tenure as Mayo manager ended in loss to Kildare in Newbridge. Newbridge hadn’t been awarded the fixture when the draw was made but Kildare kicked up, the country got behind them and they claimed their reward. This column looks forward to Kildare showing similar gumption the next time the current Leinster and All-Ireland Champions tell them there’s no room for Dublin’s massive travelling support in Newbridge.

O is for Overseas
People used to say that what goes on tour, stays on tour. That was pre-social media. Anybody involved in sports, on either the playing or administrative side of things, should have the fact that the world is now a village tattooed on the palms of their hands, for fear they’d forget it while dazzled by the bright lights and make jack-asses out of themselves and all belonging to them.

P is for Propaganda
History is written by victors. The narrative of the 2017 final is a case in point. That game is remembered for its ending – Lee Keegan chucking his GPS-tracker in the general direction of Dean Rock before Dean Rock kicked the winning free. Except that wasn’t the ending. The ending was when all three of the Dublin fullback line dragged down their men as David Clarke was taking the kickout, ensuring that there was no short kickout option. Did the referee issue three black cards? He didn’t even blow his whistle. Did anybody go bananas in the RTÉ studio or in the papers afterwards? Not at all. After all, Dublin winning All-Irelands is good for the game. Future Mayo teams should always remember what it’s like to be disrespected. It’ll help concentrate their minds.

Q is for Quest
A year or two ago, a friend was stuck in traffic on the way home from one of those indeterminable qualifier fixtures and was surprised to find himself not caring. He saw the cars stretch fore and aft of him, all bedecked in colours, all in common cause, and he was washed over with feelings of camaraderie and fellowship. Reader, when you can’t remember the years or the opposition or the players’ names, you’ll remember that feeling and many like it from these golden years.

R is for Reek, The
In the dying years of the Twentieth Century, between the All-Ireland final of 1996 and its replay, some Ballinamen climbed Croagh Patrick. One of them looked down from the summit, turned to his fellows and asked “how can anywhere this beautiful not win an All-Ireland?” Some mysteries pass all understanding.

S is for Sam
S is for Sam, S-A-M, Sam. Accept no substitutes.

T is for Tickets
It’s never been easy to get a ticket to an All-Ireland final. I know a man who knows a man who met a man who heard of a man on a lock-in in Kilkenny some years ago, when the hurlers were unbeatable. He and his fellow zombies regained consciousness sometime around midday and, while searching his pockets for any money he might have left, he found a ticket for the hurling final that was on that very day. He held it up, and got a laugh from the boys. If he had done that in Mayo, it wouldn’t have been a laugh he’d have gotten. It’d have been a spin in an ambulance.

U is for Ululation
Ululation is the sound of sorrow vocalised, from the Latin ululo – I shriek, I yell, I howl. We are more inclined to describe that sound as “keening” in Ireland, but Kerry have already taken K – just like they take anything else that isn’t nailed down if you don’t keep your two eyes on them.

V is for Victory
Mayo won three national titles in this decade. The minors won in 2013, the Under-21s in 2016, and the seniors won the League this year. Had those victories occurred in any other generation, there would be statues chiselled and songs sung. But they happened in the shadow of this extraordinary decade, and thus didn’t get what they might otherwise have gotten.

W is for Winter
Andy Moran retired this year, as did Ger Cafferkey. Alan Dillon hung up his boots a year or two before that, and there will be more to come. It’s sad that neither Andy nor Alan nor Ger won an All-Ireland, but is any sadder than the fact that Ciarán McDonald didn’t, or Liam McHale, or Willie Joe Padden, or any of the countless others? Winter is what it is, and we must accept it.

X is for X-Marks-The-Spot
Fifty-three degrees, forty-four minutes, thirty-one-point-seven seconds North, seven degrees, fifty-five minutes, three-point-five seconds West. Those are the exact co-ordinates where Sam will cross from Leinster into Connacht on his way to Castlebar if they’re travelling by bus. It’ll be 53 degrees, 25 minutes 43.8 seconds North, seven degrees, 57 minutes and 38 seconds West if they take the train. Some of us have been planning ahead.

Y is for Youth
The fire is always the same, and always changing. Youth must be given its fling. There are footballers coming into their prime now who know of no other Mayo than the one that plays in Croke Park as leaves turn on the trees and they take up the torch in their turn.

Z is for Zzzz’s
Of which there are only sixty-one thirteen left until Mayo's first game of the FBD League in dear old Caisleán a'Bharraigh. Can’t wait.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Schadenfreude and the Irish Rugby Team

The Irish rugby establishment suffered two traumatic events on Saturday. The first was the defeat of the national team – the No 1 team in the world, twenty-two-point favourites on the day – by hosts Japan at the Rugby World Cup. The second was that news that no small proportion of the nation were delighted to see Japan win.

It was the second event that was the more traumatic. It was like when a relationship breaks up. You thought she loved you; turns out, you make her sick. That’s not easy to get the head around.

There is a certain amount of begrudgery, of course, a defining Irish characteristic if ever there was one. There’s always been a demographic who despise rugby and all who play it.

These are the people who insist on referring to Autumn Internationals as “friendlies,” and dismiss Six Nations games as not counting because they’re not the World Cup. They’re never going to happy, and their contribution is best ignored.

It’s the public that took real pride in the achievements of the rugby team who are now turning away from it that should concern the IRFU. The IRFU have always been a little … peculiar in the matter of rugby evangelisation. It’s something that they may come to regret.

There is an opinion among rugby-haters that rugby is despised because only a certain class play it. That isn’t true. Irish people have always had an affection for rugby, often in places where the game is as alien as cricket or baseball.

Ollie Campbell tells a story in Tom English’s magisterial oral history of Irish rugby, No Borders, of Campbell’s car breaking down somewhere in Connemara, and of his getting a lift to a garage from a nun.

The nun had no interest in rugby, but the Ward-vs-Campbell was at its zenith at the time. Ward-vs-Campbell was part of the national conversation, one of those things on which everyone has an opinion.

This particular nun considered it shocking that the IRFU wouldn’t give that nice Mr Ward a go. She had no idea who Campbell was but Campbell did the only thing he could, and agreed wholeheartedly with her.

The eighties are far distant now, and the rugby of that era seems as dated as old black-and-white newsreel footage of FA Cup games featuring Blackpool or Preston North End from before the war. There was no need to tell the nation that Campbell and Co represented the “Team of Us” – it was written in every line of their faces.

Rugby was, famously, a game for all sizes. Irish people could look at the team and see the nation in all its complexity and diversity, before diversity became a thing.

There were tall men and short men, fat men and thin men, scrawny men about whom you worried would have violence done to them, and other men on whom you could count to do violence unto the other crowd. But only when they were looking for it, mind. Peaceable ould souls otherwise.

Rugby was enjoyed by Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter, at a time when those distinctions were matters of life and death. English’s book deals quite sensitively with those divisions, which were dealt with without any ersatz anthems having to be invented to paper over cracks.

And somewhere along the line that connection was broken. A lot of people no longer make that connection between the team and the nation.

Professionalism is a part of it. Rugby was a very easy to game to understand – you won if you hit them harder than they hit you. That’s not the case any more. Rugby is now decided in the breakdown, which can only be properly understood by watching tape with coaches and having a very good eye for body positioning and the physics of the lever.

I remember Donncha O’Callaghan talking about how much of his game – tackling and clearing out rucks – was just a job, like any other job, and I remember thinking: how sad. It’s meant to be a game. It’s not meant to be just another job.

Rugby at the moment is in a strange place in its evolution. Ireland, by luck rather than judgement, found itself perfectly suited to the professional setup when the IRFU realised that the provinces, rather the clubs, were the future.

Other countries have been less lucky, none more so than France, where the demands of the French clubs have reduced the fighting cocks of the national team to feather dusters.

And what’s most bizarre of all, in Ireland especially, is that there is no discussion of these changes. For the Irish rugby community, the people who would recognise Ollie Campbell at the bottom of a meadow, it’s business as usual, except that Ireland is top dog now, instead of cannon fodder.

Other than that, it’s all as it ever was, with clients to entertain at the England game and tickets to dump on one’s underlings when Italy or Samoa are in town.

Every year the GAA displays its anguished breast at the professional creep into both hurling and football, and problems with the game of football and with the Championship setup.

In rugby – nothing. The sound of silence permeates the halls, except for the intermittent thunk of a passport being stamped and some hired gun being handed a backstory about how much he loves Guinness’s porter, Kerrygold butter and Father Ted.

Reader, do you remember that Irish-by-birth-Munster-by-the-grace-of-God stuff we used to hear in the early 2000s? We don’t hear it so much now, with Munster not having the same schools feeder system as Leinster or Ulster and having to go shopping for players, just like an English soccer team. And that’s fine, in its way, but it is remarkable that nobody ever writes about it.

Nobody ever writes an op-ed saying that for him or her the Munster experience has been cheapened because Limerick isn’t to the fore as it was. There are some op-eds about members of the Irish team that are not Irish, but as everybody is doing it – and none more blatantly or disgracefully than New Zealand, the greatest rugby nation in the world – the writers can perhaps excused that. But ordinary people, who cheer the jersey first and the game second, really aren’t happy about it.

The amateur ethos enveloping the professional game has created a disconnect between the Irish team and the people who are not heartland rugby people. Heartland rugby people, the people who should be evangelising the game in written and broadcast media, don’t address what happened to Munster-by-the-grace-of-God or the ethics of foreign players wearing the emerald green.

Rugby pundits are far more interested in disappearing into an increasingly isolated world of jackals winning first-phase ball and dynamic offloading. The people are wondering why if Paddy Jackson or Seán O’Brien ever went on a night out with their Irish team-mates and what exactly those nights out were like. It would be odd if they didn’t, wouldn’t it?

When Ireland lost to Japan, did anyone wonder if maybe somebody shouldn’t give Paddy or Seán a bell, in this hour of direst emergency? How would the rugby world react? Would fans book tickets home? Would writers they no longer recognise the team? Or would they suck it up and parrot the parrot line?

Increasingly, that’s going to be more and more up to themselves. The nation is looking at rugby and thinking: it’s not me that’s changed. It’s you. I just don’t know who you are any more.

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.