Friday, August 30, 2013

Will the Electronic Cigarette Save the Tobacco Industry?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Electronic cigarettes are the best thing to have happened the cigarette industry since the invention of the filter tip. The Government should act quickly to ban then, before the turn the tide and make smoking fashionable again.

Electronic cigarettes, for those who might not have come across them, are ostensibly another aid to quit smoking, like chewing gum, patches or inhalers. The difference between electronic cigarettes and their antecedents is that they’re a little more sophisticated and, proponents say, they work that much better.

The problem with patches or gum is that none of them feel like smoking. Electronic cigarettes come as near as possible, releasing a nicotine vapour, getting hot, having to be ignited, and so on.

Paul Kehoe, the Government Chief Whip, caused a small stir a few weeks when he suggested that the Government regulate electronic cigarettes just as they regulate any other medicine. People couldn’t see where he was coming from. Surely if they help people kick the demon weed, they should be available on every street corner?

Yes, they should, if that were all electronic cigarettes do. The problem with electronic cigarettes is that their advertising gives actual cigarettes something that they haven’t been able to advertise in nearly half-a-century – glamour, and lots of it.

The next time you flick through a magazine or are shopping and spot a poster, look out for the electronic cigarette ads. Those slinky, sophisticated women, those rugged and fearless men, puffing away – do they look like they’re selling a health aid? Or do they look like cigarette advertisers have always looked, like sellers of a lifestyle?

Once you start advertising a message that electronic smoking is cool and sophisticated, it isn’t a great jump to start to wonder what actual smoking is like. Is that cool and sophisticated too?

If electronic cigarettes were selling only to those who are trying to give up smoking, they certainly make a very slight effort to get that point across. The weight of their message seems to be that if smoke (electronically, wink, wink), you instantly become as chic as Audrey Hepburn or as cool as Humphrey Bogart. You’d be a while trying to make Milk of Magnesia look that cool.

And this is the danger. The nicotine in cigarettes is addictive, certainly, but a nicotine craving leaves your body within twenty days. There’s no trace of the stuff left in the system, and it’s not natural to crave it if you’ve never been introduced to it. Cigarettes’ real attraction is their transformative power, to make any ordinary Joe or Jane into a Hollywood star. You might be in Swinford but once you light up you’re on Sunset Boulevard.

The Government’s current campaign to fight smoking by making manufacturers package cigarettes in plain packaging may be completely pointless, such is the additive nature of the cigarette. Martin Lindstrom details an experiment conducted on smokers in his book Buy-ology, where a group of smokers were connected up to a brain scanner and shown various anti-smoking ads – the blackened lungs, the rotting teeth, and so on. In theory, the areas of the brain that register revulsion should have lit up. Instead, it was the areas of the brain that register cravings that rang the bells.

Meaning that when smokers were shown pictures of the scientifically proven consequences of their smoking, the rational part of their brains were completely by-passed. All that registered was: “man, I could sure use a smoke once this experiment is over.”

That’s how addictive they are. It is hard work to smoke now, in comparison to years ago. You have to go outside in the pub, and leave the company. You are in the rain and, if you are in the capital, you are liable to be hassled by all manner of ne-er-do-wells. But still the people carry on, even people who are too young to remember a time when you could smoke in bars.

The smoking ban is ten years old this year – anyone in their mid-twenties or younger is too young to remember being in a old-style bar, when the air was so thick with smoke that you couldn’t see the end of the room. And still they want to smoke, even though they have only ever been discouraged to do so for all their sentient lives.

Why would they do that? They do that because cigarettes are the most glamorous and addictive things humanity has managed to invent in five hundred years, and the most dangerous since the atomic bomb. By the time it was realised just how bad for public health they are, cigarettes were already an essential part of adult life for a huge, huge section of the population. It’s taken generations to row that back to where we are now, and all those advance are in danger of being lost by the glamorous way that electronic cigarettes are allowed to advertise.

The easy thing to do with cigarettes would be to ban them outright, but the lesson of history tells us that prohibition is always a disaster. And the Government can’t price them to the hilt because that will make them even more glamorous, and associate smoking with sunbathing in Monaco and skiing in Saint-Moritz.

Funnily enough, the Government is currently doing as good a job as can be done with cigarettes – heavily regulating where they can be sold, and to whom. Penalizing advertising and lumping on as much tax is as feasible. Ideally, the habit will get a long, slow death and by the time it finally dies off people will have forgotten it was ever widespread in the first place.

Unless the industry gets a boost from the electronic cigarette industry, and is able to ride the coattails of that advertising. If, as may happen tomorrow or next week, a model arrives who becomes the poster girl for electronic cigarettes, and she’s all over the papers, looking chic with her electronic cigarette. And all her adoring followers will wonder: why should I always eat spam? I wonder what actual bacon is like?

Ban the things now, and cut them off at the pass.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Singing Mayo Songs

First published in the Western People on Monday.

A friend of the column once told me that the real reason Mayo don’t win All-Irelands is because we don’t have songs. He is from Tipperary, and the memory of Pat Kerwick singing the Galtee Mountain Boy in the Hogan Stand when Tipp beat Kilkenny in 2010 won’t be soon forgotten by anyone who was there to hear it.

However. It is not true to say that Mayo has no songs. Of course we have songs. Our problem is that we are disinclined to sing them.

In some ways, it’s a general Irish thing. We don’t care for being noticed. So at matches, whether GAA, rugby or soccer, we are inclined to sing the anthem sotto voce, in a way that can barely be heard. This contrasts with the French, the Italians or, most impressively, the Welsh, who belt out their anthems con brio, and more luck to them.

Whatever about the national situation, it could be the thing in Mayo that we are inclined to be sheepish when it comes to singing because of the long tradition of being downtrodden in the county. It started with Cromwell and continued all our lives with the idea that the motto of the county was Mayo, God help us. Not the best of banners to bring into battle.

But the times are changing a little. A generation ago, Croke Park was a stadium for other counties to play football or hurling, while Mayo couldn’t get out of Connacht. Now, it’s as familiar to the Mayo fans as McHale Park, while St Jarlath’s Park, Tuam, a torture-chamber for the guts of half-a-century, means nothing. Not every change is a bad thing. Wouldn’t it be nice if, when Mayo take on Tyrone this weekend, we could do a bit of singing when we’re at  it?

But what to sing? The Sawdoctors’ Green and Red of Mayo is the people’s choice, despite Croke Park’s interesting decision after the Donegal game to play the N17 instead. But while it’s lovely and those booming chords are suitable for stadium rock, all proper Irish singing is done in more cosy venues, such as pubs, taverns and westward-bound buses. Without the guitars, the Green and Red of Mayo is something of a dirge.

The greatest song ever to come out of the County Mayo is Cill Aodáin, by Raifteirí. Brian Cowen, a great supporter of Irish, quoted it when declaring the 2011 election, which was about happy a moment as that unhappy man enjoyed in his Premiership.

Although a Mayoman by birth, Raifteirí spent much of his life in Galway. Cill Aodáin is the song he wrote about going home in the springtime, when nature begins to bloom and everything is looking lovely. The song lists what he’s looking forward to on his journey home and ends on a magnificent crescendo, where Raifteirí praises Cill Aodáin for all that grows there and says that were he only at home again among his people, the age would leave him and he’d be once more young:

Cill Aodáin an baile a bhfásann gach ní ann
Tá smeara is sú craobh ann is meas ar gach sórt
Is dá mbéinnse arís i gceartlár mo dhaoine
D’imeodh an aois uaim, is bhéinn arís óg.”

Beautiful. Unfortunately for our purposes, the air is tricky and there are precious few recordings of it. When You Tube lets you down, you know something is very rare indeed.

Besides, when you’re looking for a sing-song song, you need a song that people can join in. High-stepping your way through complex notes is no good to you – you want songs where people can throw the head back and let her rip.

Even though it was written to be sung by men in tuxedoes standing beside gleaming pianos, Moonlight in Mayo fits the bill for a sing-song. The thing about Moonlight in Mayo is that it’s a fun song to sing. It’s difficult to sing well, of course, but so is Danny Boy and that doesn’t seem to stop people.

Both those songs are challenges. There are big soaring notes in both – “but come ye BAAAAACKK, when summer’s in the meadow…”, “when it’s moonlight in MAYOOOOOO.” You mightn’t hit them every time, but it’s satisfying to try. Less satisfying for the unfortunates who happen to hear you try, certainly, but good old crack when you’re the one doing the lowing.

The only problem with Moonlight in Mayo is that it doesn’t feel very Mayo-y. This is explained by the fact that it was first published in the USA by Percy Wenrich and Jack Mahoney, and it’s reasonable to doubt they were local. It’s reasonable to assume that, like a good professional should, Mahoney picked Mayo for his moonlight because of that soaring “o” at the end – try singing “moonlight in Cork” to the same air and you’ll quickly discover why that wouldn’t fly.

And then, of course, there’s the actual anthem, The Boys from the County Mayo. Widely known though seldom recorded or heard sung. One reason why it’s so rarely sung, perhaps, is because it’s so long and inclined to ramble.

However. If the clever sing-song-singer performs some judicious editing, and sings only the first and last four lines, making eight in total, the Boys from the County Mayo becomes just as anthemic as we would wish it to be. The first four lines set up the love for the home place well, and that magical county is rather beautifully described as a the land of shamrock and heather – what finer plants are there?

And then we get to the business end, which is rather more like the money, with the marvellous white feather reference, the aristocratic distain for the cowardly act, the call to the brotherhood and the identification of that brotherhood with the true-hearted boys of the County Mayo. It’ll be good to hear the home voices echo through the mean streets of the capital this coming Sunday. Up Mayo.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Evolution of Tyrone Football

1996. Peter Canavan is reminded of his place.

Bill Simmons of ESPN remarked in the run-up to this year’s Super Bowl that the US media is considerably behind the general public in its coverage of steroids in American football. In the same way, the GAA media does not always cover what people are talking about in regard to Gaelic games.

There are rows in camps that are never reported on but are discussed among GAA people in every bar and at every crossroads in Ireland. There are peculiar funding issues that the media do not touch with a ten-foot-pole but that, again, are very much the lingua franca of common GAA debate.

And then there is the question of what’s on and what’s not. This is one of the reasons why we’re still talking about Joe Brolly disgracing himself three weeks later. There have always been teams that, ahem, play on the edge in the GAA. It’s just that they are not discussed in the media, other than in code. Such-and-such a team play on the edge. They’re hard, but fair. Theirs is a robust brand of football.

And these codes cover a multitude of sins. The problem as regards journalism is that once someone breaks cover as Brolly did, and accuses one team of being dirtier than any other team in Ireland, the language doesn’t exist to discuss the accusation properly.

For over one hundred years teams and players have been given the benefit of the doubt, and then anointed in retirement, as the sepia tint of history and nostalgia washes out the blood and bruises of the opposition. As such, people are very unsure of their ground as regards Tyrone’s particular style of play.

Which is a pity. It’s a pity in terms of journalism, because the games are one of the few things that have been an unqualified success in Ireland since the Civil War. They should be correctly recorded, so that future generations may understand. And it’s also a pity because Tyrone, three-time All-Ireland Champions and still in with a chance of four, are being given a bad name that those good football people do not deserve.

“Dirty” play, in GAA terms, is hard to define. Striking – that is to say, punching someone – is considered a worse offence than spitting, in sporting and in civil law. But in sporting culture, spitting is by far the worse offence.

If you punch someone, there’s an above average chance that someone will punch back, and the best puncher will win the day. Spitting doesn’t work like that. Spitting back doesn’t even the score, so all the spat-upon can do is punch the spitter. This will get the spat-upon sent off, and the spitter wins hands-down.

That’s just one example. There are many, many more examples, at different levels of nefariousness. The GAA rules as written are different to the GAA rules as refereed, because so many decisions are at the discretion of the referee. And that is the root cause of the issue.

Ger Loughnane remarks in his autobiography that he repeatedly told his great Clare team of the ‘90s that the referee would not protect them. They had to protect themselves. This is a fundamental truth of the GAA, and one that Tyrone have learned the hard way.

Look at the history of Tyrone football. Tyrone won their first Ulster title in 1956, when they were the first new county to win Ulster since 1900. Tyrone won only four more Ulster titles before beating Galway in an All-Ireland semi-final and were then unlucky to lose to Kerry after being seven points up in the 1986 Final.

Ten years later, Tyrone were back in the All-Ireland final. They lost to Dublin after a free was awarded to Dublin in the dying seconds. A visibly distraught Tyrone manager, Art McRory, was interviewed coming off the pitch. “I knew Dublin needed to win an All-Ireland,” he said, “but I didn’t know they needed it that badly.”

McRory apologised for his unsporting remarks almost immediately, but all he did was vocalise what a lot of people watching thought. The following year, Tyrone retained their Ulster Championship but lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Meath.

Tyrone were mugged in that semi-final. Peter Canavan carried Tyrone on his back in the mid-nineties. Meath sandwiched him while he was still in the air after kicking a point and that was that danger taken care of for the rest of the game. Two other Tyrone players had their heads stood on.

Meath went on to win the All-Ireland in 1996, and again in 1999. One of the men who sandwiched Canavan is considered, along with Anthony Tohill, the greatest midfielder of the 90s. One of the men who stood on a Tyrone head is on the GAA Team of the Millennium.

The referee will not protect you, said Loughnane. You have to protect yourself.

Liam Hayes wrote about Meath’s robust style of play in his memoir, Out of Our Skins. He admitted that Meath were dirty, and did no small amount of chirping during a game.

There is one remarkable passage in which he describes how Meath made a point of mentally breaking a new Dublin midfielder on his debut, for fear he might develop into a player down the line. A solution worthy of King Herod himself.

Hayes also wrote that Meath developed that tough style because they were tired of being pushed around by the great Dublin team of the 1970s, a team that included a number of notoriously dangerous characters. And Dublin got tough, they say, to go toe-to-toe with the great Meath team of the 1960s. And so on into the past it goes.

If there’s a problem with Gaelic football the problem is in the rules, not in the men. Tyrone are no better or no worse than average and are not doing what so many teams have done before them. You can only dance with the girls in the hall. If the girls in this particular hall can crack their knuckles and drink pints in one swallow, you have to match them or go dance somewhere else. The referee will not protect you. You have to protect yourself.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Vandalism Inherent in the Leaving Cert

First published in the Western People on Tuesday.

A creature, made of clay

The Leaving Cert results are due this week. This will almost certainly result in the children of the rich and privileged disgracing themselves out foreign on holidays, and the publication of po-faced reports of same in a fortnight’s time that will not neglect any sordid detail.

Happily, no Mayo boy or girl would do such the thing – who could leave the country while the footballers are once more on the cusp of glory? Greece, how are ye.

What is a more interesting topic than boys being boys is the actual exam itself, and how the Leaving Cert, like Irish society itself, has changed with the times and not always for the better.

The impossible triangle of the Maths paper made headlines back in June, but that was a once-off blunder, and one that is unlikely to recur. What is of greater worry is the state of the syllabuses themselves, and the dumbing down that is getting more and more apparent as he years go by.

For instance, Project Maths is the great fashion now, rather than the old method of students swallowing their theorems and formulae whole, like so many boa constrictors.

The theory behind Project Maths, that of awakening the mathematician within, is fine but every maths teacher who has spoken to your correspondent about Project Maths does not think it’ll work. On the bright side, they are looking forward to a bull market in grinds for as long as it exists, and the grinds will be conducted in the old fashioned way. Open wide, scholars.

Irish is a tricky one. People involved in the promotion of Irish are generally very reluctant to confess any bad news about the language, and this prevents honest discussion of what’s actually happening.

The press looks no deeper than whether or not Peig Sayers is still on the syllabus, and take her exclusion as a sign of progress, without ever wondering what will replace her. Suffice it to say that the ancient language remains in mortal danger in our schools, Gaelscoileanna notwithstanding.

And then there is the sorry state of the English syllabus. The teaching of English, like so many other things, underwent no small upheaval during the 1960s. Prior to that unhappy decade, there was a Great Tradition of Literature, with every age adding its Great Writers to that Tradition.

The sixties, being the time of revolution it was, had no time for anything as unhip as tradition or standards, but did manage to generate a righteous fury that the so-called tradition was actually a power-structure that supported Dead White Males.

Fifty years on, nobody is really sure what a “great book” is anymore, and that level of insecurity is evident in the current Leaving Cert syllabus. As a matter of fact, the syllabus is so insecure about what a great book is that some of the books aren’t books at all. By the clever use of the word “text,” you can now go to the movies and call it school.

There are six films listed as prescribed texts for the Leaving Cert, ranging from Citizen Kane to Blade Runner, and they have no business there at all. The fact that each film lists its director as its author shows that not only does the Department not know that a film isn’t a text, the Department is equally unaware that film is the ultimate collaborative art form. Who signed off on this?

Bad and all as that is, a look at the poetry section is even worse. Geoffrey Chaucer is the man who wrote the Canterbury Tales, the poem that established English above Latin as a language worthy of literature. There is no sign of him on the latest syllabus, due for 2015.

The gallant and courtly Andrew Marvell – no sign. John Milton, second only to Shakespeare as a writer of blank verse and the only man to successfully write an epic poem in English, Paradise Lost, doesn’t make the grade.

Alexander Pope, “little Alexander the women laugh at,” the greatest of the Enlightenment poets? We don’t want his kind around here. George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron, a man whose celebrity in his time echoes the madness of our own? Not good enough for the Leaving Cert.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron’s great contemporary and the man whose Ozymandias gives the culture its great lesson the importance of worldly power? His poems are no good here. John Keats, the last of the great Romantic Poets to be the born and the first to die? Nope, sorry.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the twelfth British poet laureate and the man whose poem “Ulysses” Judi Dench’s M quotes in the blockbuster James Bond movie Skyfall, goes right over the heads of children we now consider educated.

Patrick Kavanagh, second only to WB Yeats as the greatest Irish poet of the 20th Century and the authentic and eloquent voice of rural Ireland? A mystery to those who will sit their Leaving Cert in 2015.

And who’s there instead? Greg Delanty, Kerry Hardie, Liz Lochhead, Richard Murphy and William Wall are all on the syllabus for 2015 and there isn’t one of them whom your correspondent could pick out of a lineup.

This is an appalling state of affairs. Verse is the highest expression of language, any language. English has tradition of poetry that is over a thousand years old, predating even Chaucer, and that thousand-year tradition is being sidelined, and ignored, by the current Leaving Cert syllabus.

The great works are touchstones of what we consider important in life, once the dinner is eaten and the mortgage paid and we sit back and wonder what it is to be human. These poems have travelled down the generations and given wonder and consolation to countless people where-ever English is spoken.

Irish children are now being denied that heritage for reasons that are impossible to understand. This isn’t education. This is cultural vandalism and it’s time someone called a halt to it.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Did the Pope Sponsor King Billy?

First published in the Western People on Tuesday.

Father Hoban’s column the week before last had to do with sainthood, and how tricky it is for popes to claim a halo. Interestingly, a quick look at the list of the Blessed, those who are next in line for sainthood shows a pope who may or may not have had a role in the history of this country and – if the rumours are true – not at all for the better.

There are a number of parallels to be drawn between Blessed Pope Innocent XI, who reigned from 1676 to 1689, and the current Pope Francis. Reform of the Roman Curia was said to be a major reason behind Francis’s election this year, and Innocent was a zealous reformer himself. Both men’s natures were frugal – they didn’t care for ceremony and enjoyed living humble lives.

Jorge Bergoglio father was an accountant. Benedetto Odescalchi’s family were gentry, but very minor gentry. They pulled themselves up by their bootstraps by founding a bank, and lending money to those whom they thought were good for paying it back. This fact will be significant in Innocent’s later career.

We Irish are inclined to moan about the EU but the reality is that the history of Europe before the founding of the Common Market was continual and unceasing war between the different states and noble families. When Innocent ruled the Papal States, he helped King John III of Poland lift the siege of Vienna in 1683 and rout the Turks who were threatening from the east. You’d think that would have made Innocent a hero in Christendom. It didn’t.

The most important man in 17th Century Europe after Pope Innocent was King Louis XIV of France, the so-called Sun King. Louis wanted to be boss himself and did his best to undermine papal authority by getting councils of bishops to say, in not so many words, that maybe England’s Henry VIII had a point, and the pope shouldn’t be telling divinely appointed kings what they’d do or to whom they’d bend the knee.

You can imagine how little Innocent cared for these onions. And another King who had the gift of giving Innocent a pain in his neck was James II of England. James had converted to Catholicism while in exile in France, and got to be good buddies with Louis XIV while he was there.

Innocent thought that James could have been a little more subtle in the way he went about restoring Catholicism to England, and he was also a bit worried that this restored English Catholicism would a French-flavoured Catholicism, instead of Rome’s own hard drop.

As every schoolchild knows, it wasn’t only the pope who thought James II needed to draw in his horns. A Protestant delegation travelled to William III of Orange, married to James’s daughter Mary, and told him that now was the time for a Glorious Revolution.

William arrived in Devon in November 1688, James’s reign imploded and the only fighting that was done was here, in Ireland, where lives mattered less.

All that is on the record. What is less widely known is that the Glorious Revolution arrived at just the right time for William of Orange, because at the time he got the call the man who would become King Billy was up to the feather in his tri-corn hat with debt. He hadn’t a shilling, and what was worse, he owed money.

Internal Dutch politics meant that the House of Orange wasn’t popular at all in the middle of the seventeenth century and therefore the House of Orange had to get itself some bridging finance to keep things ticking along. And bridging finance they got, from an Italian banking family based outside Milan.

Once William sat on the English throne, he was able to pay off his debts and still have the price of his Friday night porter. And who were those Italian bankers who got their money back? Why, they were the Odescalchis – those same Odescalchis whose brother sat on the Throne of Peter, invested with the power to loose and to bind.

Pope Innocent XI was beatified by the Venerable Pope Pius XII in 1956. Innocent’s actions at the Battle of Vienna had a poignant echo in 1956, when the Russian tanks rolled into Budapest and the west seemed in as much danger from an Eastern invader as it did in 1683. But that’s as far as it’s got for Innocent, who waits on for his elevation.

Italians enjoy conspiracy theories like no other nation. The idea that Pope Innocent XI winked at the fall of Catholic England because, Protestant or not, William of Orange would be able to pay his debts to the Odescalchi family if he were King of England is exactly the sort of intrigue that delights them.

Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti, the journalists who discovered details of payments between William of Orange and the Odescalchi family in the Vatican archives, claim that the novel they wrote based on their findings caused them to be run out of town by the Vatican, and they now live in Vienna. This is all grist to the rumour mill.

Is the story true? Well, who knows? Money has a well-earned reputation as the root of all evil but could Innocent XI be so fond of it that he would support someone whom he considered a heretic? Or was it the case that at least William never pretended to be something he wasn’t, unlike the treacherous Sun King of France?

Father Hoban wondered in these pages how it was that only five popes have been elevated to sainthood in the past 900 years. If all their cases are as complex as that of Innocent XI, it’s a wonder that even five of them have made it over the line. It’s hard to be a saint in the city.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Mayo Fan's Metaphysical Dilemma - What Does All This Really Mean?

Do people from other counties agonise over metaphysics the way Mayo people do? When they won their respective finals or quarter-finals, did the four counties lining up the for the next two weekends’ hurling semi-finals spend sleepless hours wondering what those wins meant, or were they just glad to be still be in the show, and have their summer extended by a few more weeks?

Maybe Limerick. Limerick and Mayo followed parallel paths of misery in the mid-nineties, losing two All-Ireland finals, at least one of which was entirely winnable. The jubilant scenes in the Gaelic Grounds when they won the Munster title would suggest that, in terms of dementia, Limerick could give Mayo a game of it.

Clare’s success of the 1990s is still warm in the memory. Maybe the Bannermen are enjoying a feeling of belonging as they prepare for the Treaty County the weekend after next. As for this weekend’s semi-final, there are very few Corkmen or Dubliners who could be described as quiet and unassuming. They don’t get dazzled in the limelight. If anything, they’re inclined to wilt without it.

Not so, historically, for the County Mayo. Times are changing, certainly. Since John Maughan took over a team that languished in Division 3 of the National Football League in 1995 these have been glory years for Mayo. Mayo played in Croke Park just three times between 1951 and 1981 and, naturally, bit the bullet each time. Now, the place is as familiar as Moylette’s corner is to a Ballinaman – and they used to be very familiar indeed on Moylette’s corner, back in the day.

But can we enjoy it? Can the people of Mayo, like the man in the song, take the day for what it’s worth and do the best we can? Or will that longing for September redemption hang over everything we do?

Justly or no, Mayo are the All-Ireland favourites as you read this piece. This may be due to a quirk of bookmaking – because Kerry and Dublin are playing each other in the semis, they tend to cancel each other out, pricewise – but the fact is that national favoritism is not a place to which Mayo are accustomed. There is too much water under the bridge not to feel a frisson on uncertainty when thinking of what’s ahead.

Is this justified? Isn’t this the best Mayo team we’ve seen since the 1950s? Strong on every line, with depth on the bench, a messianic manager and a back-room staff who leave nothing to chance? They even have a team psychologist, to make sure the marbles are all correctly accounted for and the lazy media cliché about Mayo’s “mental toughness” is suitably addressed.

Well. We’ve seen this before, and we don’t have to go back to the 1950s to find it. There’s a new steel in Mayo, say the pundits. How is the current steel different to the steel of Horan’s team when he was a player, when the team were – allegedly – banned from the Valley of Diamonds in Enniscrone because the ferocity of their training was eroding the beach? Or the team of 2004, who went 1-3 to 0-0 down against Galway, only to come back and win? Wasn’t there steel there?

The Mayo forwards are different to what they were. So too in 2004, when Ciarán McDonald was in his full pomp at centre-half forward, his favourite position, pinging in passes to the Mortimers on the full-forward line. Conor Mortimer had his best season in 2004, in this writer’s opinion, probably due to the fact that his brother beside him and McDonald behind him effectively fenced in his more impish tendencies and forced him to concentrate on the job in hand.

The Mayo celebrations shook the Big Tree the night after Mayo beat the reigning All-Ireland Champions, Tyrone, in 2004. It all fell apart then. A stutter against Fermanagh, rumours of trouble in the camp and some difficult to understand selection decisions saw Mayo suffer the same fate as the frog before the harrow in the 2004 All-Ireland final. So it goes.

Mayo are unlikely to see this year’s campaign collapse as 2004 collapsed. These are different men, in different times. But then, fans are inclined to judge losses on when they occurred, rather than why. The 1998 team got a Mayfly summer of one match, when they were unlucky to lose to a Galway team that went on to justify their win by returning Sam to the West for the first time in thirty-two years. But could that ’98 team have been The One, if it survived past May?

The 1998 Championship was far from vintage, and Mayo ’98 were better than ’97. Or how about 1999, when Mayo ended the Tuam hoodoo on a hot day when St Jarlath’s Park was so full that a spectator could have lifted his or her feet from the ground and still not fall over? John Maughan was chaired off the ground that day; how long ago it seems. Ifs, buts, and maybes – these are what we build our summers from in the County Mayo.

Maybe this team will win the All-Ireland and join the immortals. Maybe it won’t. Maybe their destiny is in their hands. Maybe it’s not. Maybe Dublin or Kerry or Tyrone are better. Maybe someone else will get injured, as Andy Moran got injured last year or John Casey in 1999.

What would be nice would be if Mayo fans could live in the now, and drink the sweet taste of victory and vengeance from the weekend. The All-Ireland will hang over every Mayo team until that wanted is sated but in the meantime, the Green and Red still flies high as summer moves towards Autumn. That’s a feeling of deep, deep satisfaction and should be enjoyed fully while it’s here.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Dismal Reporting of the Dismal Science

First published in the Western People on Tuesday

Of all the many surprises adulthood has in store – some wonderful, some completely horrid – one of the least-expected is a sudden and intense interest in what Victorian philosopher and critic Thomas Carlyle called the “dismal science,” economics.

Prior to about 2008, the nation was happy to be interested in economics only insofar as it affected the price of beer, wine or Ryanair flights. And then suddenly Lehman Brothers bit the bullet in the States and we all turned to each other and asked “who or what in blazes are Lehman Brothers, and why are they scaring me so?”

Five years of relative misery later, we’re still no wiser. Not really. Some people have read up on economics, in a desperate attempt to get some sort of handle on what’s going on. They’re still reading. An Taoiseach told the nation at Christmas 2011 that “these are not our debts,” but still continued to pay them. Why would we pay bills that aren’t ours? Aren’t our own bad enough?

And then there are the good-hearted innocents of Ballyhea, County Cork, who still protest the bank bailout weekly, turning the village into something out of one of the poorer episodes of the Irish RM. God love them.

Into this general confusion stepped one Mr Ashoka Mody, who spoke at length on the News at One on RTÉ Radio One last Sunday week. Mr Mody, who was part of the original IMF team that visited Ireland when the then Government were saying there was no way, no how the IMF were coming here, told the News at One that the current policy of austerity is wrong, and that innovative alternatives were needed. He did not say what those innovative alternatives were, of course, even though we’d all be curious to know.

The IMF itself reacted quickly on Monday, saying that Mr Mody didn’t work for them any more and did not represent their views. “There is no evidence that Ireland’s fiscal consolidation is self-defeating”, they said.

So who to believe? This is where it gets interesting, especially for those of us who always feel a bit thick when we can’t keep up with economic conversation.

RTÉ describes Ashoka Mody as the former IMF chief of mission to Ireland. However, a November 19th, 2010 article in the Irish Times describes Ashoka Mody as “assistant director in the European Department of the IMF.” Mody is described in a November 19th Irish Times article as “the IMF’s expert on Irish affairs.”

When Ashoka Mody was described as IMF chief of mission when he was interviewed on RTÉ in April of this year, also criticizing the bailout, but when exactly was Mody chief of mission? The current chief of mission is Craig Beaumont. When did he take over? How long did Mody reign?

The questions continue. Do any of these titles matter? What exactly is a chief of mission anyway? Is it better or worse than Head Bottle Washer?

Sometimes, when the plain people of Ireland scratch our heads at this stuff, we’re told it’s our responsibility to inform ourselves. And so it is, but it’s also journalism’s job to explain these things a little better too. Not everyone has a degree in economics.

This is a quote from the RTÉ interview with Ashoka Mody – brace yourselves: “At this point it looks like, given the debt dynamics, if debt levels remain where they are and growth remains where it is, there is never going to be a reduction in the debt ratio the foreseeable future and so logically we are left with the only other option: Generating growth by abandoning the severe commitment to austerity and hoping there will be a short-term boost to growth, which not only improves growth, but brings down debt levels.”

What does that mean, exactly? Debt dynamics are what, exactly? What’s a good debt ratio? What’s a bad debt ratio? Who are you people? How did I get here?

If you read the quote carefully, you’ll notice a hostage to fortune in the text. It’s “hoping.” Mr Mody is “hoping there will be short-term boost to growth.”. Mody hopes that abandoning austerity would work, but that’s really not the same as counting on it. Not least if you’re in Government, and have to put the nation’s money where your mouth is.

So how has it come to pass that this man addresses the nation instead of someone else, like the lugubrious but straight-shooting Colm McCarthy? Why aren’t we quite sure of what exactly Ashoka Mody’s job title was with the IMF? And why isn’t he asked these questions?

There’s no doubt that Ashoka Mody knows his stuff. He lectures at Princeton, he has a knockout CV, he’s very far from a daw. But it’s journalists’ duty to be accurate in how they describe people, what those people do, and what those people say.

Journalists have to break the jargon down into terms the people can understand, without breaking down so much the people can’t understand them. That’s the job.

Which is another reminder of what a terrible loss George Lee is to RTÉ News. George may have been one of the most hopeless politicians ever, but as a newsman on economic issues he was superb. Standing in the rain outside the Central Bank or the Dáil, blinking behind his glasses, reaming off fact after fact.

There was also something in his delivery – a certain tension, a repressed twitch, an edge to voice that suggested that George had seen the books and they made the Third Secret of Fatima look like something out of Spongebob Squarepants. Ireland needs George. We need to know what’s going on. We are surely owed that much.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Running Men - Donegal, Mayo and the State of Modern Football

There was a schoolyard game in the 1970s in Scoil Pádraig, Béal an Átha that may have been played in every schoolyard, or may have been unique to that particular grove of academe. Boys would line up at one end of the yard, hands joined, forming a human chain. A single boy would then run at this chain, choosing the weakest link – invariably small, fat kids with glasses, not dissimilar to your correspondent – and attempt to burst through the cordon. Those that did, did. Those that didn’t were surrounded, and probably shipped a few belts for their pains.

It will be extremely hard not to flash back to the days of the old school yard in Croke Park at four o’clock this coming Sunday, when Mayo and Donegal will both play a version of modern football that bears a closer resemblance to that schoolyard hurly-burly than to the sublime elegance of Ciarán McDonald, Michael Meehan, Maurice Fitzgerald or Matt Connor. But there it is. This is the modern game, and if you want to win, you have to play it.

The eagerness with which the modern philosophy has been embraced by the Mayo football public is an interesting study of the conflict between idealism and practicality. Mayo were always a Fancy Dan, tricks-on-the-ball football county. For Mayo, it wasn’t enough that the county should win the All-Ireland; Mayo should win the All-Ireland playing Mayo football.

Now, the penny has dropped that Mayo’s commitment to Mayo football may be one of the reasons why they lost all those finals in recent years. And, having failed to beat them, Mayo have now decided to join them. The fact that James Horan’s fighting talk at the start of the week was received without a murmur of dissent shows just how much Mayo have bought into the new orthodoxy. Substance trumps style every day of the week.

Of course, this is not to say that there are no skilful players out there. For all the talk of the Donegal System, Donegal would have won nothing if they did not have players of sufficiently exceptional ability to operate the System. Karl Lacey, Mark McHugh, Michael Murphy – you don’t get many of those in the one crop. There’s a case to be made for Murphy being the best forward in the country.

People thought same old Mayo when that first goal crashed home in the All-Ireland final, but how many forwards other than Murphy would have been able to score it? How many could have made the catch, broken into space and rifled home the shot? Murphy is worth his weight in gold.

Mayo have players too. Mayo are looking at what could be a golden generation of players who are young, talented and natural leaders. They’re on every line, and there are a few on the bench as well, chomping at the bit to get on. It’s a heady brew for supporters who have supped the bitter gall in the past.

Livening up the Sunday Game
Not just that, but the current Mayo team are ideally set up to deal with the Donegal System. Darragh Ó Sé wrote a how-to guide for playing against the System in his excellent and essential Irish Times column after Donegal beat Down in the Ulster semi-final. Kicking it long won’t work – the ball may travel faster than the man, but that doesn’t make any difference if the man doesn’t have to travel at all. It doesn’t make any difference is the man is just waiting there for the dropping ball with two or three of his best friends for company. Backs in the System eat that for breakfast.

Modern football is about possession in collision. You have to retain the ball when you collide with them, and you have to strip it when they collide with you. And then you have to be able to take your scores in what space is afforded to you outside of the slaughter zone. That’s how you win.

Last year, Donegal played with an aura not seen since those old Ready Brek ads of the early ‘eighties. Not only were good players playing a System they trusted and believed in, but the System was the talk of the country. It was like football alchemy, a magical formula for turning base metal to gold. Shell-shocked and beaten men limped off pitches in Ulster and Dublin, wondering what in God’s name had just happened them. They’d never experienced the like of it before.

But that was then, and this is now. The aura is now gone from Donegal – after an imperious display against Tyrone in their first game out, Donegal struggled when Down used Donegal’s own weapons against them and then Donegal got wiped out in Clones by Monaghan. Donegal recovered to win against Laois, but Laois isn’t the most prized scalp in the country.

The pivotal question before last year’s All-Ireland Final was what could Mayo do to stop Donegal? This Sunday, it’s about what Donegal can do to stop Mayo. By all accounts, Donegal’s defensive setup in Carrick-on-Shannon made their previous incarnations look like the Harlem Globetrotters, and this will most likely be key to Donegal on Sunday. The longer they can defend and keep the score down the more likely they’ll be to win it.

Mayo, by contrast, will want to reverse last year’s game and get an early lead because if Monaghan proved nothing else, they proved the System is badly suited to chasing down leads. Aidan O’Shea gets a certain amount of stick for running into tackles; on Sunday this will be a feature, not a bug.

And there are the intangibles too. What will the weather be like? What will the ref be like? What happens if someone’s sent off? If someone’s sent off, will it be a Colm Coyle or a Liam McHale? These are things on which destiny can hinge. But all things being equal, Mayo look good for avenging the 2012 All-Ireland, and competing in their third semi-final in a row. Run on, you true-hearted boys. Run on.