Friday, May 30, 2014

Irish Politics - Leaning Left, or Keeling Over?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

There’s nothing like seeing ourselves as others see us to find out who we really are. As such, the New York Times’ report on Saturday evening about our elections is particularly interesting.

“Ireland has taken a decisive step to the left in local and European elections,” reported the New York Times, going on to say “early returns on Saturday showed that the big winners were Sinn Féin, formerly the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and Socialist independent candidates.”

And when you read that you have to suddenly stop and say: is that what we’ve just done? Is that what’s going on here? Is Ireland, nearly one hundred years after independence, going to have its first-ever left-wing Government come the next general election? Has the wheel turned full circle for Sinn Féin?

Certainly, the fact that Sinn Féin is less and less toxic to the electorate with each passing election is clear as a bell. But it does not necessarily then follow that Leo Varadkar is correct when he suggested on Saturday that the next general election will be a two-horse race between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. There are more tea-leaves swirling around than that.

Equally, the rise of the socialist independents isn’t entirely robust as a theory. Catherine Murphy and John Halligan, both late of the Workers’ Party and both current Technical Group TDs, welcomed the rise of the independents on RTÉ as if it had something to do with them. But does it have something to do with them? Is there a red tide rising in Ireland, or is something else going on?

The success of Murphy and Halligan’s fellow Technical Group TD and future MEP if press-time polling is to trusted, Luke “Ming” Flanagan, is the most spectacular result of the election. But Ming isn’t like any other politician – the national media likes to group him with Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, but Ming is infinitely smarter than Wallace and not as ideologically tied up as Daly.

Luke Flanagan’s campaign was a textbook example of how to get elected in modern-day Ireland. He didn’t put a foot wrong in any of it. Flanagan spent the first week or ten days of the election running in the five and ten kilometre races that are all over the country now. Why? Flanagan’s biggest image problem in this constituency is that he’s a good-for-nothing layabout stoner, and he conquered that immediately by running the races and proving himself healthy as a trout. Genius.

Flanagan’s second, and no less inspired, tactic in the campaign was to loosely ally with other independents who were running in the locals. They got a slice of Flanagan’s charisma, of which he has buckets, while he got his leaflets distributed.

What was that worth? Think of it this way. On his Facebook page on April 16th, Flanagan thanked an independent candidate in Athlone for taking seven thousand leaflets to distribute. You know those bales of paper that you can buy in the supermarket for your printer at home? Seven thousand leaflets is fourteen of those bales, and would cost €4,200 to post. Genius.

But is Ming the exception or the rule? Did people vote for Luke Flanagan because he’s perceived as left-wing, or because they can’t help but like the man? Did people vote for Sinn Féin because Sinn Féin are left wing or because the anniversary of the 1916 Rising, the source and origin of the state itself, is looming and Sinn Féin seems to be the only party that wants to celebrate it, rather than hide it in some bizarre stew that also includes Passchendaele, Ypres and the sinking of the Lusitania?

It got very little coverage overall because it was a skirmish on the side of the great battles of the local and European elections, but the real soul of Irish politics could be seen in the Longford-Westmeath by-election. There were nine candidates on the ballot, of whom eight were from Westmeath and just one from Longford.

That single Longford candidate, an independent (of course) called James Morgan, entered the race late on a platform of “A Vote for Morgan is a Vote for Longford.” He polled 5,959 votes on the first count, of which 5,900 are unlikely to have come from Westmeath.

And that’s Irish politics in the nutshell. We pretend elections are about issues, but they’re not. Not really. Left/right, pro/anti Europe don’t matter a hill of beans. Irish elections are about defending the home patch because the entire culture has been set up that way for generations.

For the people of Longford to have put merit over geography is like the unilateral disarmament theory during the cold war. It seems noble, but you’re only inviting someone who isn’t noble to blow you away to Hell. Everything about the Irish system of elections is set up to ensure the continuance of this parish pump culture, where the back yard is more important than the nation.

Why are chronically ill children being denied medical cards? Why has something terribly rotten at the heart of the Garda Síochána been allowed to fester unchecked? Why will we be paying for water that we can’t even see through, to say nothing of drink?

Because the Irish political system makes fighting over whether Ballyglenna or Ballyknock loses its post office more important than the health of the nation’s children, the policing of the state, or access to clean water.

Is Ireland leaning to the left? Only insofar as we’ve decided to chase our own tails anti-clockwise for a change. Above anything else, Ireland needs reform of its political culture to elect a new type of politician and bury civil war politics for once and for all. It then needs comprehensive public service reform so it can raise sufficient taxes to protect the vulnerable, something it cannot do currently in the culture of wanton waste.

It will take twenty-five or thirty years for these things to come to pass. But until they do, until we have a functional democratic system instead of one ruled by clientelism, favoritism and nepotism, all the blood shed for Irish freedom will have been shed for nothing. Every precious drop of it.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Oireachtas Éireann Sends in the Clowns

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Eddie Fossett and Tom Duffy may sleep on peacefully in eternity. The founders of the circuses that still bear their names must have been worried, even so far away from earthly cares, about the future of their profession.

What point in hiring lion tamers or trying to source those big shoes for the clowns when the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry was about to show the world the greatest circus ever seen?

Instead, the shock resignation of former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter saw the banking inquiry booted into touch as the Government hurried to steady the ship. This isn’t the first time this has happened – political analyst Noel Whelan noted on Twitter that last week was the fourth time the Banking Inquiry has been announced in the lifetime of this Government, and it hasn’t happened yet.

The nation will have a lucky escape if it doesn’t happen at all. Certainly we would like to know what happened with the Irish banks, but that doesn’t mean an Oireachtas Committee is the best means of finding it out.  If anything, an Oireachtas Committee is the last place we should look for anything, bringing up the rear after prayers to St Anthony.

The Oireachtas Committee system is the most over-hyped thing in Irish politics since Seanad Éireann. Oireachtas Committees don’t find things out. They are stages for shapers and windbags, roaring at one another in the hopes of making it to the Six-One News. They only thing they reveal is gas. Any amount of it.

And the Banking Inquiry Committee will be the most wretched of the lot. Fine Gael have been looking forward to something like since they got into power, but it’s not because they think it’ll reveal the truth. It’s because it’s a chance to give Fianna Fáil a thorough kicking, and they can think of nothing more delicious than that.

Consider an interview with Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe on Morning Ireland on Mayday last. Presenter Gavin Jennings put it to Kehoe that the inquiry was just going to be a show-trial, a chance for some early-season electioneering. Perish the thought, replied Deputy Kehoe.

“When I was briefing the opposition whips yesterday evening of this banking inquiry I asked them to take into account the whole area of bias, and to consider carefully the people who they will be appointing to the committee,” remarked the Chief Whip, blissfully oblivious to the notion that it’d hardly be opposition who would turn up with the tar and feathers.

Deputy Kehoe went on to say “when the members are appointed to the committee by their political parties, their names will be submitted to CPP [Committee on Procedures and Privileges], who will look at the members of the committee to make sure there is no bias involved in the membership.”

Deputy Kehoe did not remark that he himself sits on the Committee on Procedures and Privileges, so he’ll be doubly-sure that there won’t be any bias on the banking committee.

And then, Deputy Kehoe delivered his coup de grace, pointing out how we could be triply sure that the Banking Committee won’t be biased. “I can assure in my own party - and I’m not going to go into individual names - that were very much aware that this committee was going to be set up and they wanted to be members of this committee,” said Deputy Kehoe. “They were very careful in their utterances, and any comments that they have made, over the past numbers of years.”

Deputy Kehoe is a member of Fine Gael party, of course. Sadly, Gavin Jennings did not follow up with a question along these lines: “Hold on a second, Deputy Kehoe – are you telling us that members of Fine Gael have deliberately kept quiet about the banking crisis in the hopes of not being seen to be biased when appointed to the committee? But doesn’t that just make them fifth columnists, there to score every political point going like a cross-code inside line of Gooch Cooper and Henry Shefflin?”

Sadly, that question wasn’t asked and Paul Kehoe finished his interview on Morning Ireland by saying the public wants know who’s to blame. And so they do, very badly. But if the public have learned anything from the past six years, they should have learned this: the blame isn’t some one’s. It’s some thing’s.

That thing being our political and regulatory system, of course. The current government was elected on a ticket that promised change, and they have not delivered on that promise. Not even kind of. Only the faces have changed; the suits remain exactly the same.

Consider the recent trial concerning the infamous Maple 10 accounts at Anglo-Irish Bank. Judge Martin Nolan didn’t spare the timber when it came to the financial regulator’s role in the crisis. People have asked why isn’t he accountable? Well, because Irish law is such that people in those sort of positions aren’t held accountable.

This is how the state is set up. Why would we enshrine laws that could only put one of our own behind bars? Far better to enshrine laws that lock up weirdoes, misfits, gobdaws, quarehawks, hop-off-me-thumbs and Shinners. Lots and lots of Shinners.

In the light of all we’ve learned since the crash, what laws have been passed to make the financial regulator from here on in accountable? Anybody know? Who’s examining these fellas’ homework now that the Troika have move on?

Does anyone know what would happen if, by some accident, the financial regulator were held to account? Would every public servant be held to account? Has anybody asked David Begg what he would make of these onions? Or did nobody bother, because we already know very well what David Begg and the many unions he represents would make of these onions?

That’s why the banking inquiry can only be a circus. When the Troika left, it was like the strings were cut on the puppets and the Government collapsed into a heap. Alan Shatter is gone, the European and local elections will be a slaughter for the junior coalition partner and there’s another tough budget to come. What is the Government doing while the ship sinks beneath the waves? Fighting over towels on deck-chairs, of course.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Mayo Championship Preview 2014

A hallmark of what we may call Horan football is a commitment to defense. It was a feature of his Ballintubber teams, and it’s a feature that continued at county level. If you scored on Mayo, you earned it.

How odd, then, that in Horan’s fourth year in charge, Mayo conceded an average of two goals over their eight League games. Those sixteen goals include three against fourteen-man Dublin and two against fourteen-man Derry. Why are Mayo leaking goals? What’s behind it?

The theories are many. Some said it was the absence of Keith Higgins from his usual station. Some said it was the absence of David Clarke, or Chris Barrett, or Tom Cunniffe. Some said the attacking half-backs leave the full-back line too exposed, and more said it was just an All-Ireland hangover and everything would be fine once the summer came.

But An Spailpín’s mind keeps going back to St Conleth’s Park, that tight little bandbox of a pitch tucked in off the main street in Newbridge, where Mayo played Kildare in the first round of the National League this year. Aidan O’Shea made a clumsy challenge about twenty minutes in, and was served a black card and his marching orders in consequence.

It was a bit harsh and it didn’t seem that big a deal at the time. But there is a thing called the butterfly effect, where something very small can amplify to suddenly become catastrophic. Is it possible that black card awarded to Aidan O’Shea is such a trigger?

With the greatest respect to the man, people automatically assumed that the black card was introduced for the Ryan McMenamins of this world, the hardy wee men who will happily chew broken glass before letting their man score.

But on that cold day in Kildare, it wasn’t a Ricey-esque bit of a boyo that got the line. It was one of the most recognisable and stylish players in the country. And when that happened, did the Mayo players subconsciously think: hold on. I have to watch myself here, or else I’m off and someone of lesser ability than me is on, meaning I’m letting the team down?

Could that explain the suddenly leaky defence? The subconscious is an unruly beast. It can betray you when you least expect it, and without you even knowing about the betrayal until afterwards, if ever.

These are the shifting sands that Mayo must navigate as, once more, they try to pull themselves together for another tilt at the windmill. How do they play defence? Can they return to the full-blooded commitment of last year, epitomised by Tom Cunniffe’s famous hit on Peter Harte?

Mayo are in big trouble if they can’t, because there are few signs that they will be able to win any shootouts. The perpetual knock on Mayo forwards is easy shorthand for lazy journalists. Forwards are a team within a team, and teams can amount to more or less than the sum of their parts. Right now, Mayo are less and the clock is ticking on James Horan to find out why that is.

Nobody wants to hear whining at the time, not least when you lose to Dublin’s greatest team since the days of Sean Doherty, Brian Mullins, Jimmy Keaveney and the rest, but it is a fact that Mayo were bitterly unlucky in the All-Ireland Final last year.

Andy Moran was a risk in one corner after such a long layoff from injury, while Cillian O’Connor, had he been anyone else at all, would have sat this one out too because of his injured shoulder. Add in Alan Freeman’s sickness during the week of the final and James Horan was looking at three empty shirts where a full-forward line ought to be. That Mayo came within a point of Dublin at all was a tremendous achievement.

Horan’s chief mission in the League was to fix that problem, and make the Mayo forwards into a unit that is more than the sum of their parts – this, before the backs started devolving, as outlined already.

But the longer the League went on, the less comfortable Keith Higgins seemed at centre-half forward. Adam Gallagher flared brightly on the wing, and then disappeared. Cathal Carolan got injured. People began to question Alan Freeman. The midfield, strong to begin with, has been improved by the return of Tom Parsons and the excellent form of Jason Gibbons, surely Mayo’s player of the League. But fore and aft of the midfield, there are causes for serious concern.

And yet, with all that said, Mayo are still in a better position than the majority of teams in the Championship. They have experience of winning on the great stage, and are only a small tweak away of suddenly finding the accelerator again. Even now, as I type, barmats are being stripped and the bare sides covered with complex diagrams of forward interplay, drawn by the football people of the heather county as they exchanged theories and formations.

The work is being done, but will it be enough? Who knows? Mayo play the winners of Roscommon and Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final, which will be by no means a gimme. And although Mayo’s record in and aptitude for the Qualifiers is awful, maybe a loss to the winners of Roscommon and Leitrim would be no bad thing. It would give Horan a bit more room for further experimentation than a Connacht Final, where there is no room for experimentation at all.

Sligo have never not risen at the prospect of a Connacht Final and, while Galway appear to be struggling currently, they are not to be trusted even if their fifteen men limped onto the Connacht Final field of glory wearing bandages, ringing bells and shouting “unclean! unclean!” Since 1998, no sensible Mayo person will ever knowingly under-estimate the heron-chokers. They simply can’t be trusted.

But who knows what will happen, really? Championship exists on a different plane to the League, and always has. Were one of the surfeit of current midfielders to go inside as Kieran Donaghy did for Kerry in 2006, could that work the oracle? Or how about two of them, as Donaghy teamed up with Tommy Walsh in the second half of the last decade?

All the possibilities are there, and Horan has the players. Whether he can find the right combination before running out of road is, as ever, the never-ending question. Up Mayo.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Football Championship 2014 Preview

How good are Dublin right now? They’re so good that it’s actually frightening to list their advantages. Send the children out to play, pull the curtains, maybe take a strong drink for your nerves. Here we go.

Firstly, Dublin are in the extraordinary position of being both greater than the sum of their parts, and of having parts that are pretty dang good in the first place. Diarmuid Connolly can win games on his own. Michael Darragh MacAuley, the ultimate twenty-first century footballer, can win games on his own. No inter-county player has ever improved as much as Eoghan O’Gara has between now and when he first burst onto the scene. And so on, and so on.

Secondly, Dublin have home advantage in every game they play. If anything, it’s a double advantage in that their home (and don’t talk about Parnell Park – when was the last time Dublin played a Championship game in Parnell Park?) is the most sacred turf in the entire Gaelic Athletic Association.

Thirdly, the Leinster Championship is currently the worst it’s ever been. It’s 9/1 the field for someone other than Dublin to win the Delaney Cup this summer. If you took the pick of the other ten counties competing, could they keep it kicked out to Dublin? Probably not.

Fourthly, Dublin’s evisceration of Roscommon in this year’s Under-21 football final suggested that Dublin don’t so much have a pipeline of talent coming through as a torrential flood that will wash away all before it. Pat Spillane said on the TV last year that Dublin could dominate football for the next 25 years.

And at that, suddenly, a chink of light. For Dublin to dominate for the next 25 years means that Pat Spillane must be correct in his analysis, and such a thing simply cannot be.

Every dominant team looks unbeatable in its dominance. Until they are beaten, and then suddenly people say well, I was never sure about this, or they were never tested in terms of that, or one hundred and one other things. Barcelona in the soccer this year. The mighty cats of Kilkenny in the hurling last year. There are no unbeatable teams.

In his book Hurling: The Revolution Years, Denis Walsh recounts how Liam Griffin prepared his Wexford hurlers to play Offaly in the 1996 Leinster Final. Offaly were the Leinster kingpins at that time, having played in the last two All-Ireland Finals, winning one, while Wexford had lost sixteen finals in a row, between Leinster and the National League.

Liam Griffin, the Wexford manager, knew that you can’t just pretend those beatings didn’t happen. He hired a psychologist, Niamh Fitzpatrick, to see what she could do to fight the negativity that hung in the air. And it was her idea to ask every member of the Wexford panel to name a reason why Wexford could beat Offaly on Sunday in the team meeting after Wednesday training.

For the first five minutes, there was absolute silence in the room. It was a very long five minutes for Fitzpatrick, who worried that if her idea backfired, it would ruin the team and they’d be butchered.

And then, someone spoke. Fitzpatrick wrote the idea down on a flipchart. Someone else spoke. That idea went down too. By the end of the night, the flipchart had thirty ideas on it, thirty ways by which Wexford could beat Offaly. Liam Dunne went home and told his mother that night that Sunday would be dressed in purple and gold. And so it came to pass.

Are Dublin unbeatable? No, they’re not. It’s just a question of pinpointing what Dublin’s key strengths are, and neutralising them. Easier said than done, of course, but very far from impossible.

Dublin’s empire is built Stephen Cluxton’s precision kickouts, as they guarantee Dublin a constant flow of position. That flow of possession has to be stopped, by whatever means necessary within the rules and the spirit of the game.

Next, a team has to think about MacAuley, Dublin’s fulcrum. MacAuley is central processing unit of Dublin’s imperium. He is Mr Everywhere. Everything goes through him. He’s got to be stopped. And stopping him will hurt, so teams have to be ready to pay that price. Because once MacAuley starts to struggle, the entire team will start to struggle with him.

And then there’s Diarmuid Connolly, the best of a genuinely superb set of forwards. If Connolly gets warmed up he is the best footballer in Ireland, and therefore he cannot be allowed to warm up in the first place.

If your correspondent were to choose any Mayoman of past or present to mark Connolly, I would choose Anthony “Larry” Finnerty. This seems odd, as Finnerty spent his whole career as a corner forward. But when taking on a super-power you have do as Wexford did, and think outside the box.

Finnerty was never a back and probably couldn’t mark a bingo board, but he is one of the wittiest men ever to play Gaelic football. Finnerty’s job would be to keep Connolly apprised of how he’s doing in this particular game, and of other matters pertaining to the city and the world in a constant flow of repartee. This will bring extra pressure on the other five defenders of course, but shutting Connolly down will be worth it.

And as well as all this, of course, your own players have to play like gods – all the above does is reduce Dublin from the Olympian to the merely excellent. But events can build their own momentum, and once the camel gets his nose into the tent, you’d be surprised how quickly the rest of him arrives in afterwards.

So, if not Dublin, who? Is the team that beats Dublin the automatic All-Ireland winner? Yes, of course, if it happens in the final. Not necessarily, if it happens earlier. A team could be spent having beaten Dublin, while all the others up their game, seeing daylight where there was once only the jeering of the Hill. Which means that we can divide up the contenders into those who could beat Dublin and take advantage, those who could beat Dublin only to get beat themselves, and those who could inside track it, and seize a chance left by Dublin’s exit.

There has never been a better team at picking up All-Irelands than Kerry, but whether the current Kerry could beat Dublin – and they want to beat Dublin very, very much – is open to question. Kerry are in a better position to replace the Gooch than any other team and they have an excellent midfield, but the backs are raw and that could cost them. Kerry are never to be ruled out, however.

Cork or Donegal could beat Dublin in theory, but it’s not that likely. Cork need a little seasoning while Donegal are on the slide – it was an impossible dream that the McGuinness lustre would last.

Monaghan could beat Dublin but might not win the All-Ireland. Derry can’t beat Dublin but could win the All-Ireland. Tyrone are the best value bet, having the confidence recent All-Irelands brings, the youth coming onstream and the best manager of his generation, if not the best ever. A lot depends on their up-and-coming players, of course, but if it’s in them, Mickey Harte will find it.

And Mayo? Well. Tune in tomorrow, friends.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Destructive Love and the First Language

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Psychologists call it destructive love. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. The poor lonely singer in Love is Pleasing, who left her friends and her own religion, she left them all for to follow him.

All of these great doomed loves pale to nothing compared to the hopeless of the Gaeilgeoir’s love for Gaeilge, the ancient language of the Gael. It came to mind last week, while reading an online discussion about the new postcodes.

Someone remarked that maybe the postcodes would allow letters addressed in the first language to be delivered a little bit livelier than they are currently. Someone else wondered if the anyone addressing letters in the first language wasn’t just being a little awkward, and would they not just stop showing off and cut out the nonsense.

At this stage, people licked their lips and waited for the fur to fly, because suggesting to Gaeilgeoirí that insisting on using Irish is just being awkward is like going into the toughest bar in town and ordering a pint of milk. It’s shillelagh time.

In this case, the Gaeilgeoir didn’t rise to the bait. What would be the point? In all our hearts, we know the battle is being lost. It’s visible from all points.

The state was founded on poets’ dreams. Not quite as substantial a foundation as considerable riches in natural resources or harbours vital to international seaways. One of the poets’ dreams was that everyone on the island would be speaking Irish within a generation. The superior culture would wash east from the Gaeltacht and swept the inferior culture of the oppressor into the Irish Sea, where it belonged. Darwinism at its finest.

Well, that didn’t happen. The Gaeltacht is still considered the one true well of Irish linguistic purity, but the reality is the last person to only speak Irish lived, died and was buried long ago. The language is laid out like Tim Finnegan at his famous wake, with a copy of Dineen’s Dictionary at her feet and a DVD of TG4’s Laochra Gael at her head.

Every time that different Governments tried something new to save the language, their plans blew up in their face. Attempts to standardize the language were dismissed as “Civil Service Irish.”

The spelling of the language was modernized, making books printed in the 1920s and 30s, when the fire burned brightly among Gaels, very difficult to read now. And the project failed to be consistent in its revisions, leaving the orthography of Irish broken in bits, having fallen between two schools.

Compulsory Irish was the way to go in the early days of the State. In the 1960s, opinions had changed, and compulsory Irish was seen as killing the language through coercion. So compulsory Irish was done away with, and the decline accelerated instead of slowing down. Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t.

The language struggles to keep up with the modern world – how could it not? An Béal Beo, written by Tomás Ó Máille and first published in 1936, is still in print today and is regarded as one of the great works of scholarship in the language. But the words and phrases Ó Máille records describe the lifestyle of a very different people in a very different Ireland to today’s.

Just looking through the chapter titles emphasises the changes – chapter six has words for turf and the bog, chapter seven deals with the fair, chapter nine looks at seol an fhíadóra, the weaver’s loom.

And then, of course, when all hope is lost, it happens. You hear her voice in the last place you were expecting, and you forget everything negative that’s gone before. You are hers and she is yours and you will love your own language until the end of time for one or both of you.

For instance: you may wish to install a thing called Linux on your computer, in the hopes of keeping up with the modern world. During the installation, you will given a choice of language options, and you get a shock when you see that those options include Irish.

Linux is open-source code. That means it’s free to use, but it also means it must be written for love, not money. Nobody gets paid for writing open-source code – how could they? If it’s given away for free, how could anyone get paid to write it?

But people write it anyway, out of love. Love of different things – computers, obviously, but also love of a certain vision of humanity, where everybody works together for the common good, because it’s the right thing to do.

And in the midst of all these pale but noble souls there was at least one, but probably a few, Gaeilgeoirí. Every day they come in, open up their machines and open up Linux, looking for the tables where the language labels are stored.

All the usual suspects are in all the usual places –haughty France, fiery Spain, world-conquering England – all the great countries of the world are represented by their own languages. And then the pale and noble souls would get typing and clicking and saving, so as to make sure that the strange, throaty, hardsoft, staccato-sibilant language clinging to life on a small island on the western edge of Europe could take her place with the best of them in the shiny halls of cyberspace.

Some Gaelgeoirí like to believe that Gaeilge captures something of the Irish soul that is untranslatable, that can only be understood by those who think in Irish. The language’s enemies say that even if that were true, that day is long past.

But maybe the way that the language has managed to survive for all these years, is reflective of the Irish themselves. That our language’s dogged survival mirrors the Irish nation’s no less dogged survival.

An island people, stubborn, quixotic, inconsistent and, in many ways, much better off they’d give up the struggle and just be like everyone else. But damned if they want to be like everyone else, and so we march on into the future just the same. Nár lagaí Dia ceachtar acu.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The Real Purpose of Education

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The trips to the teacher conferences in Easter can be a trial for a Minister for Education during hard times. The teacher conferences allow gamekeepers to play poacher, and a Minister takes his dignity in his hands before them.

Last week, Minister Quinn was like nothing so much as a B-29 bomber flying over Germany during the Second World War, dropping tin foil in the hopes that the radar doesn’t pick him up and stick a few Messerschmitts on his tail. And with the way history is currently being treated by the Department, it might have occurred to some history teachers to stockpile a few those Messerschmitts in a hanger somewhere, just in case.

The Minister’s tin foil came in three species – the ongoing debate about school ownership, reform of the Leaving Cert marking system, and an extraordinary suggestion that all National School teachers should have passed Honours Maths during the Leaving Cert before being handed their box of chalk and a few tidy cuts of marla.

Of the three suggestions, the change to the Leaving Cert grading is most likely to happen. The school ownership debate will drag on for decades, while the Honours Maths requirement is utter nonsense. But while the grading change may happen, that does not necessarily mean it is worthwhile.

The reason behind the proposed changes to the Leaving Cert grades – changing them back to ten per cent bands, rather than the current five – is that the Department feels the current system leads to too much targetting of exams, and exams aren’t what education is about at all.

Education, according to the Department, is not about cramming or learning by rote. Education is about giving students the ability to think for themselves, and not some outdated legacy-of-the-slave-trade theory about teaching students stuff that they didn’t previously know.

There are two points to note about the theory of education. Firstly, the idea that students are inhibited from thinking for themselves by the current system is usually put forward by the third level sector, who report that students are getting thicker every year, damn them.

The universities are inclined to be a little more diplomatic in delivering this bad news, but wall-to-wall thickos in the lecture halls is what it boils down to. Students, they say, are spoon-fed in secondary school, and are therefore incapable of working on their own at third level.

The evidence of this is purely anecdotal – the universities do not stoop so low as to back this argument up with figures. Nor indeed does anybody ask just how much regular feeding, as opposed to spoon-feeding, goes on in the lectures hall of Erin.

Not only are the third-level sector’s complaints about students needing spoon-feeding not backed up by evidence, there is evidence to the contrary. The fact that students target their exams so precisely is clear evidence of strategic thinking, such target-setting being an clear instance of short term operations aimed at a long term goal.

You say the students did not figure this out this targetting themselves, but are taught it in school. Very well, but what they are surely not taught how to do in school is how to get into nightclubs when they should be at home either studying or working on the land. It is in this difficult art that you find young people’s analytic thinking at its finest.

Consider two friends who regularly swapped glasses and donkey jackets before attempting to get into nightclubs in Ballyhaunis during the the Saturday nights of their youth, in the 16th or 17th Century, I believe. The baby-faced one didn’t look so cherubic without his glasses, while the donkey jacket added that certain air of maturity – he could have been just home from the buildings in London.

As for the donkey jacket’s original owner, he was sufficiently alpha in those days to wear two pair of glasses and still carry himself like Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. No lack of analytical thinking in those excellent products of the Irish educational system.

Besides. The second point is that teaching students to think isn’t, in fact, the sole purpose of education. Thinking is something that human beings are programmed to do. Education can polish it a little, but the best practical thinking is done on the feet, in the real world, when the pressure is on.

The true purpose of education is to take a body of knowledge and hand it on to the next generation. Thinking is like breathing. It’s not so much an achievement as a base requirement.

When students go out into the great world they invariably find out to their horror that employers don’t employ people to think. Employers employ people to do, which is a completely different thing.

If you are employed by the ESB, they will appreciate it if you have some little understanding of electro-physics. Accountants are often praised for their ability to do sums. And flawed though the HSE may be, they still prefer doctors who can identify elbows from other items of anatomy.

There is no way to analyse these facts, nor is there any purpose served in thinking about them. You just sit down and learn them off, just like others have done before you for hundreds of years.

As for your richer life, outside of the office, the case for the Old School was best put by Professor Harold Bloom of Yale University in his book How to Read, and Why. When it comes to poetry, Bloom makes the point that not only should you read poems but, where-ever possible, you should memorise them as well.

How did Nelson Mandela survive twenty-seven cruel years on Robben Island? Tremendous character and fortitude of course, but also by little things, like reciting William Earnest Henley’s Invictus, night after night. There was a man who was armed for the world.

Good poetry learned by heart is a gift to treasure forever. Would that the Department of Education were interested in ensuring our current schoolchildren were armed so well.