Thursday, October 01, 2015

Mayo's Civil War

Civil wars can never be won. They can only be ended. The sooner they are ended, the less damage they do. All sides in the current Mayo GAA dispute should come to terms with this fact as quickly as they can.

The very fact a civil war has broken out is appalling; for positions to become entrenched and a long campaign to break out would catapult the county out of the lofty company it’s become so accustomed to keeping, and back to the days of being on the business end of a twenty-point whipping from Cork or a one-point massacre at the hands of Leitrim.

All minds must now concentrate on finding a solution. It is a bizarre thing to say, but the rights and wrongs of the thing don’t really matter now. The dispute must be ended as quickly as possible. And the quickest end to the dispute would be for the current management to resign and for James Horan to return for one more swing on the merry-go-round.

If Mayo win their fourth All-Ireland title in 2016, well and good. But while Horan and the team are trying to do that, the County Board should be spending its time properly planning the succession. If Mayo don’t win the All-Ireland, the team as we’ve known it over the past five years is shattered, and someone totally new is going to have start from Square One again.

But at least the County Board will have a year to make their plans for that contingency. What they can’t do, under any circumstances, is let the current situation fester, unresolved.

There is a meeting tonight. Some speculate it’ll be like the Donnybrook Fairs of the 18th Century, and that’s possible. God knows there’s enough resentment being built up, and no small amount of tub-thumbing instead of reasoned calm. But if ever there were a day to leave egos outside the room it’s today.

Mayo have been so close to Sam in recent years they can nearly smell the silver polish. Everybody knows that. Football people in Mayo all know the pall that hangs over the county of being the eternal bridesmaids on the third Sunday. Once that hoodoo is broken, football is liberated in Mayo and a tradition can be built to rival any county’s.

But what people are allowing themselves to forget is that a team is as delicate a creature as a thoroughbred racehorse, and just as easily spooked. John O’Mahony liked to quip that the opportunity of a lifetime only lasts as long as the lifetime of the opportunity. Cillian O’Connor and Aidan O’Shea are young men, but they have a lot of miles on the clock. Kevin McLoughlin has played in fifty of Mayo’s last fifty-one games, between League and Championship. That’s a rate of attrition that can’t last.

Nobody knows this more than the players. And so they seem to have decided that if die they must, they will die with their boots on. It’s not the done thing to wash dirty linen in public, but in a county whose bottle and appetite for battle has often being questioned down the year, the current team are standing up to be counted, and they have to be respected for that.

I wish the delegates well tonight. I know that theirs is no easy task, and I do not envy them it. And while tempers run high, the delegates should remember this: if Saipan happened tomorrow, Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane would be able to settle their differences inside half an hour. Thirteen years on, each understands the other’s position in a way that they didn’t during that time. The pity of it is that it’s thirteen years too late.

Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy have the rest of their lives to think of what might have been. I don’t wish that on the current Mayo senior panel, the current management, past management or anyone involved in the dispute.

Civil wars can’t be won. They can only be ended, and they have to be ended as quickly as possible. Mayo, God help us.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Rugby World Cup Will Be a Crashing Bore

The Rugby World Cup is the Mona Lisa of rugby union. We all pretend to love it but deep down, we all know it’s not really worth the queue.

Former Wales, New Zealand and British Lions coach Graham Henry wrote a watery preview in the Observer on Sunday in which he posited that a team with ambitions to win the Rugby World Cup must have a world-class fly-half. Graham Henry’s own World Cup was won with a fourth-choice choice fly-half, a man so out of the reckoning that at the start of the tournament Stephen Donald was half-a-world away, fishing.

Dan Carter has been acclaimed as the best fly-half in world rugby for over a decade. And his godlike boots were filled by Mr Nobody? Maybe you could win a soccer world cup with some midfield dynamo from Sligo Rovers filling in for Leo Messi, but it’s very hard to imagine it.

The 2011 Final was a poor game, and a fitting conclusion for a poor tournament throughout. France should have beaten New Zealand in the final. The French themselves should have lost to 14-man Wales in the semi-final, and the Welsh should have carved up by Ireland, who had won their group for the first time in World Cup history.

That World Cup will live in infamy as the tournament that saw the debut of the choke tackle. Historically, tackling in rugby was about hitting someone hard and knocking him down. Les Kiss, defensive coach for Ireland, realised that a law change to help adjust to the professional era meant that, instead of having to knock players over, it is now much more to your advantage to hold them up instead.

The law of Unintended Consequences took over. Running into space is now a schoolboy error in modern rugby. When you have the ball you find the biggest clump of opposition players you can find and head right for them, knowing that your own team are right behind you to support you in the inevitable wrestling match that follows. And then you do that for eighty minutes and pretend you’re playing the same game as Serge Blanco and Barry John and Tony O’Reilly.

Rugby, to its credit, has been good at policing its laws. It’s considerably more aware than some other codes that laws have to be constantly policed, to ensure the game is still true to its original ethos and not twisted out of shape by devious and squirrelly coaches. Unfortunately, both the realisation that the choke tackle is killing the game and that there may be a drugs issue – imagine a sport where a sixteen stone man can pick up another sixteen stone man and hurl him about like he was an empty dustbin having a steroid issue! The idea! – have arisen too close to the World Cup for it to be saved.

This means that, not only will we get the pointless empty-rubber games of the group stages, where the ten nations that compete at the elite level use forty games to lose two of their number, but we’ll also get a whole lot of sterile rugby to achieve even that rudimentary level of crop-thinning.

Not only that, but the organisers have managed to make the most tremendous balls of the seedings, that sees only two nations emerge from England, Australia and Wales, while Scotland and Argentina have been handed Wonka-esque golden tickets to the playoffs. They’ll go the same way as Augustus Gloop once they get there, of course, but still. It’s hard not to feel sorry for whichever of the the Pool A seeds that draws the short straw and has to watch that destruction at home.

The World Cup will be won by the team that makes the least mistakes. England are the sensible bet, as they’re on a softer side of the draw if they win their group. Funnily enough, Ireland could go on a run if they can beat France and win their pool. That would have been a big “if” once, but France are in the doldrums like they haven’t been since before the Second World War.

A quarter-final against Argentina awaits the winner of Pool D, and the winner of that faces, theoretically, a semi-final against England. Neither England nor Twickenham would have any fears for the Irish (the way New Zealand might, for instance) and you can expect the hype to hit record levels should that matchup come off.

The hype will be forced, though. Rugby is played in Intel-esque clean rooms anymore, with all spontaneity or improvisation or joy strictly forbidden. Recycle, recycle, recycle, kick the penalty, recycle, recycle, recycle, kick the penalty. We’ll cheer if Ireland win, but we’ll have to pretend we like it.

Foot rushes, props lumbering towards the line with the Enemy hanging off them, Simon Geoghegan or Brian O’Driscoll flashing through the gap – all these are things of the past. Recycle, recycle, recycle, kick the penalty. Repeat ad nauseam. Fare well, glory. Hail to thee, assembly line. Let’s form an orderly queue, everybody. Greatness awaits.

FOCAL SCOIR: This is the 1,000th published post on this blog over 12 years. I don't post as often as I used to, real life having caught up with me, but still. It's a kind of an achievement, nonetheless.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Mayo Post-Mortem #64 - Defending Without Due Care and Attention

The attending physicians at post-mortems #61, #62 and #63 were in a position to debate whether or not the patient could have been saved. What if Michael Murphy’s goal hadn’t been scored, or Mayo had ever got closer to three points against Donegal? What if Cillian’s shoulder hadn’t been a problem all year? What if Rob Hennelly’s seventieth-minute free had floated over instead of floating wide?

For the current post-mortem, there is unanimity among clinicians. If you’re four points up you then have to go five points up and continue to tighten the screw. Shipping three goals is the diametric opposite of what is required. This year, the terminal event was clear. There is no arguing it.

This year’s is the sixty-fourth post-mortem report to be written in the history of Mayo’s dream-that-will-never-die. The dream-that-will-never-die is a bit of media mythologizing, of course – for many of the sixty-four years since Mayo last won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, winning just one game in the summertime would have been a cause for celebration. The recent history of Mayo is one of unprecedented success – with, to tweak a phrase from Raymond Chandler, just that one tarantula on the angel cake.

Coming into this Championship, Dublin, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo were the so-called Big Four. Within this Big Four, there is a Big Three – Kerry, Dublin and Donegal have all been sufficiently good enough to win an All-Ireland. Mayo have not. Whether this is bad luck or poor judgement or a hundred other things doesn’t matter. The Roll of Honour only records who won. There are no footnotes or asterisked seasons.

And that won’t change this year. Mayo will return to the fray having found yet another way to lose, and that will increase the pressure of them even more. You may say that isn’t fair, and you would be right. But reader – what on God’s green earth has “fair” got to do with anything? Winning isn’t about being fair. It’s about winning. Anything else is a detail.

The goalposts keep shifting for Mayo. For years the knock was that Mayo had no forwards. Half-way through the Horan era and the emergence of Cillian O’Connor, the knock was that Mayo had no defence. That Mayo’s big problem was Horan’s tactical stubbornness and his team’s Achilles’ heel of conceding soft goals.

This year, Mayo conceded three goals on Saturday against Dublin, and two in the drawn game. None against Donegal, two against Sligo and two against Galway. It’s hard to see this as an improvement.

The deployment of Barry Moran as sweeper looked like a brave new dawn against Donegal, and was hailed as such. Now, that new dawn seems less clear.

Moran’s selection as sweeper seemed a bold and courageous decision at the time. The subsequent selections in the games against Dublin were less so. Watching the game on Saturday, it was extremely difficult to figure out who was marking whom in the Mayo defence. The current substitution policy has not always been easy to understand.

Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly had trouble bedding in having taken over from James Horan, but they clearly have the team playing for them now. Whether or not they can push on and win an All-Ireland remains the question.

Roscommon’s imminent appointment of Kevin McStay as their new manager, over whom Pat and Noel were appointed in such unfortunate circumstances, will add spice to any meetings between the teams next year – and Roscommon are a Division 1 team now as well.

Is it fair to put such a spotlight on Pat and Noel? No, it’s not. But again, fair has nothing to do with it. The pressure will continue to mount on everyone associated with Mayo football until Sam is brought home or Mayo go into decline, as Meath, Mayo’s tormentors of the 90s, have. There is no law that says that Mayo will always turn out. They didn’t in the 1970s. The team have to make the most of their window while its open.

Talk of this being the current Mayo team’s last gasp is nonsense. While some players will retire from the panel, the core group are in their footballing primes. It’s not like they’re going to go stop playing football for the summer and go off playing cricket instead. They are footballers. This is what they do.

And the Mayo people will support them, because this is what we do. A new generation has been indoctrinated into football by the current team. Whether they will grow up to the same Mayo God Help Us tradition as your correspondent’s own generation or a new, winning one will be decided in the coming years.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Mayo Pass a Difficult Test

It is the lot of the Mayo supporter to walk with ghosts. Ghosts of past players he or she has seen, memories of past achievements and disappointments, echoes of what-ifs and maybes. Mayo went into Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal with a lot of questions to answer. Some were obvious, like the goal-leakage identified by Malachy Clerkin in the Irish Times on Saturday. Some were a little more taboo; not spoken of, but certainly on people’s minds, shoulder-to-shoulder with all those ghosts.

It is to their eternal credit that the Mayo team and management answered all questions asked of them on Saturday, and more. Had the last of the four All-Ireland quarter-finals been an exam, Mayo would have graduated summa cum laude.

Top of the class were the new management team of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly. The challenges they had to overcome were many. Firstly, they had very big boots to fill. Secondly, the strange circumstances of their appointment meant that a lot of goodwill was lost at the start. Thirdly, the League campaign did nothing to ease the constantly frayed nerves of the Mayo support.

And fourthly, perhaps most importantly, the last time the Mayo County Board appointed a manager to give a team that one final push to bring Sam home, the appointee dismantled the team instead, put together a ragbag army similar to General Humbert’s, and suffered the same fate – cut down in Longford, beyond mourning or pity. The thought of the same fate happening the current group of players was distressing in the extreme.

Neither Pat nor Noel is a media creature. James Horan’s frequent media appearances have added to his reputation as a sharp analyst of contemporary football, while Jim McGuinness’s guru status is inviolable at this stage.

There isn’t quite the same bang off Pat and Noel, and the helplessless of the Mayo display against Dublin did nothing to dispel that impression. Post-Connacht final talk of a “secret plan” to shut down the greatest player in Ireland currently, Michael Murphy, sounded like people whistling past the graveyard to try to control their terror.

And then, on a dark Saturday evening in Croke Park, Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly rolled a gigantic wooden horse called Barry Moran out between Mayo’s full- and half-back lines and seventy minutes later, Mayo were not only back at the big table, but they were consuming all around them, roaring for more, more, more at the tops of their voices.

For Mayo, Saturday was a story of redemption. Barry Moran, so often cursed by injury, has now played on every line bar the goals. The man has a heart the size of a farm in Meath and to see him work was a joy.

As was the return of Ger Cafferkey. Cafferkey was a permanent selection in the Horan era, and seemed to be taking more of the blame than he deserved for events against Kerry last year. On Saturday he reminded everyone that there is no real substitute for class.

And when we speak of class, what can we tell of Tom Parsons? Missing from Championship football for four years, who knows what sort of grafting that man had to do to tame his natural talent and focus it to the purpose of the group?

Whatever he’s done, it’s paid off in silver dollars. The Mayo heart can only fill with joy at the thought of these proud men and the leadership and character they’re showing, summer after summer, setback after setback.

Was it a perfect display? Of course not. Some of the substitutions were puzzling. Cillian O’Connor was unusually inaccurate with the dead balls. There is always something unnatural about a Gaelic football team sitting a lead rather than racking up scores. But these are small cavils in what was a great display against a very, very fine team. Donegal were leggy and by no means at full-throttle but they still had it in them to bury Mayo. Victory over this Donegal team is no mean feat.

And now, the Dubs. All Mayo is suffused with delicious anticipation of another pop at the metropolitans, not least as previous clashes between the counties have had such edges. The matchups are as stars in the sky, as each management team tries to anticipate and out-general the other. There has never been a bad time to be a Mayo man or woman but right now, for those with an interest in football the summer wine is very sweet indeed.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Piketty is Wrong About German War Debt

Colette Browne quotes economist Thomas Piketty in her column in today's Irish Independent as saying that Germany had sixty per cent of its war debt written off after the Second World War. This is not true.

It's not true for this reason: there wasn't a Germany after the Second World War to pay any debts. Germany was gone, and there were two states, East and West Germany, in its place.

Britain, France and the USA were in charge of West Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was in charge of East Germany. The NATO powers quickly began to cut West Germany a break, as they had made a deal with the devil in the form of Josef Stalin to win the war in the first place, and now needed a strong Germany to protect Western Europe from the Soviets.

No such luck for the East Germans, which the Soviets already had in their mitts. Anne Applebaum has written an excellent book about rise of the Iron Curtain in the first ten years after the end of the war. From that we learn that the Soviets carried off everything in the occupied territories that wasn't nailed down, and would have continued to do so if Stalin hadn't kicked the bucket in 1953. East Germany remained a slave state, of course, but the Soviets went easy on populating the concentration camps left behind by the Nazis with people who didn't toe the state line.

Germany paid for her sins after the war, and now Germany is the main reason why there hasn't been a European war since – the longest period of European history without a war since Alaric and the Visgoths sacked Rome fifteen hundred years ago.

Beware, beware the celebrity economist. There's always a bottle of snake-oil that needs selling.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Val Doonican, and the Fight for Irish Freedom

Val Doonican did at least as much for Anglo-Irish relations as the Queen’s visit, that spurious rugby game in Croke Park, or the existence in material reality of Roy Maurice Keane, Junior. That fact is not widely known in this country, for different reasons, but it should be. Val Doonican is a hero, in his way, and should be celebrated as such.

Not even Val Doonican’s most ardent admirer could deny that the man was born square. Val Doonican was never cool. The jumpers, the rocking chairs, the songs – Delaney’s Donkey, Paddy McGinty’s Goat – no. There is no hipster willing to carry the charade through to that extent. But, in the long and troubled history of two islands in the North Atlantic, Val Doonican provided a bridge when it was needed.

We know there was huge emigration from Ireland to Britain during the war and after. We sing songs about it all the time. But what was that experience like, really? What was it like for someone who had grown up on the side of a mountain to find him or herself living in a terraced house in Blackburn, Lancashire?

There was a marvellous story in the Bullaí Máirtín collection called Peadaí Gaelach Eile, about a man about to go to London to make his fortune but who finds out just how much of a fish out of water he’s going to be before he even leaves home.

It was hard on that generation. They never liked to speak of it themselves, because it was humiliating for them. The current generation doesn’t like to think of it, because they seem to have trouble conceiving of people who are not themselves.

It’s interesting as well that the literature of those who built up and tore England down after the Second World War seems stronger in Irish than in English. Where are the English language equivalents of the navvying memoirs of Domhnall Mac Amhlaigh or Maidhc Dainín Ó Sé?

Nobody wanted to go on the record about how hard it was to come from rural poverty to a major industrial city. And nobody wants to think about the Irish being considered in England the way the Romanians are considered here. Dirty, stinking, going around in gangs, leaving their rubbish lying around, speaking gibberish, not to be trusted.

And then, in the mid-sixties, one of those dirty, stinking Irish people got himself a variety TV show on prime time with the BBC. He wasn’t dirty. He was very well turned out, always with his hair cut and clean and nice sweater on him. He sang comic songs with a twinkle in his eye.

And maybe, after watching the Val Doonican Show on TV, maybe some Englishman heard his Irish neighbours the next day and detected that trace of Doonican in them. Maybe the way they spoke wasn’t gibberish; maybe it was actually a lot like that chap on the television. I wonder could any of them sing songs as well?

What was Val Doonican worth to the Irish community in Britain in the ‘seventies, when the bombs were going off in Birmingham and Guilford and in the car park of the Houses of Parliament themselves? How reassuring was it for the ordinary British person to hear of Delaney’s Donkey winning the half-mile race after the newscaster had just told them that the IRA had just admitted responsibility for the bombing of another bar, resulting in five killed and seven maimed?

Yes, Val Doonican wasn’t very cool. No, Delaney’s Donkey isn’t quite Carrickfergus. But Val Doonican was, by all accounts, a very lovely man who asked for little from life and brought happiness and security to millions and millions. Very, very few of us will get to say that we we are brought to account on the Last Day. Suaimhneas síoraí na bhFlaithis dó.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Priorities in the Health Service

July 1, 2015
HSE management 'clearly incapable', say Portlaoise parents
Families who lost children told to 'go away and have more children', health committee hears
The HSE refused to advertise a helpline for patients on the night of the Prime Time programme, as requested by Patient Focus, because it didn't believe it would attract many calls, Cathriona Molloy of the patient organisation told the committee. The organisation was forced to use its own phone number for a helpline, which attracted hundreds of calls in the days after the programme, she said.

July 1, 2015
Hiqa to review Tusla over concern for at-risk children
Records obtained by The Irish Times earlier this year showed thousands of reports of abuse, neglect and welfare concerns over children at risk were waiting to be allocated a social worker. An internal report presented to the board of Tusla said backlogs were so acute in some areas that hundreds of extra staff are needed to bring numbers back to 'manageable' levels.

June 22, 2015
HSE orders review into nine maternity cases
The HSE has recommended a full review into nine maternity cases at three separate hospitals. A team examined 23 cases from the Midland Regional Hospital in Portlaoise, three from the Midland Regional Hospital in Mullingar and two from the University Maternity Hospital in Limerick between 1985 and 2013. It found that nine cases should be subjected to a full systems analysis review.

June 15, 2015
'Cloak of secrecy' around abuse of intellectually disabled
Fine Gael's Fergus O'Dowd made the claim after the Irish Examiner revealed 21 HSE workers have been sacked or suspended for alleged sexual, physical, and financial abuse of residents at care facilities for adults with severe intellectual disabilities since January 2014. Details published on Saturday show that, over the past 18 months, HSE management has been aware of serious incidents at seven such facilities.

June 12, 2015
What the hospital scandals teach us about management
HR policies are such that managers will tell you they are powerless to deal with people who ought to be sanctioned even for quite serious reasons.
It can take six months to replace a nurse through the shared HR services centre in Manorhamilton.
There is no effective performance management system for managers. Management structures are in a state of constant flux; many managers don't have the delegated authority they need to do their job; and some support functions are too centralised.
Compared to the HSE, the hospitality industry in Ireland has a better system for the training and cultural formation of hotel managers, sending them to the best hotels around the world on a carefully structured development programme. The results speak for themselves.

March 5, 2015
HSE 'Gave Contracts to Former Staff' Without Tender
The claims are understood to mostly centre around cases where contracts were awarded to companies led by former HSE staff, or where ex-HSE workers are now on the payroll. They include cases where the HSE has paid former staff members for spaces in care homes, without first investigating whether better deals could be found elsewhere. Committee chairman John McGuinness says some former HSE staff members have made huge money from unadvertised contracts.

These are just some of the reasons that the HSE has been in the news lately. And what is the Government doing about all this? Why, it's providing free healthcare for children less than six years old WHO AREN'T EVEN SICK IN THE FIRST PLACE. This isn't just an inefficient use of resources. This is immoral in every way and I don't know one politician who's had the stones to come out and say that, for fear they'd lose votes in leafy suburbs or roasted by a "Mums Outraged .." headline in the Indo or the Daily Mail.

Banana Republic. Will anything ever change in this godforsaken country?