Friday, February 28, 2014

The Alphabet Soup of Modern Technology

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Just when you thought it was safe to watch the news now that the Troika have packed their trunks and said goodbye to the circus, along comes this bugging thing. It’s gone to an inquiry so we’re unlikely to hear any more about it until that report is due, but in the meantime the innocent nation has once more been traumatised by having to listen to people pontificate on the airwaves despite the fact that they have no idea what they’re talking about. Not a notion.

Remember the guy who used to stand up on the bus and confess that he didn’t know what a tracker mortgage was? This past fortnight could have done with someone standing up and confessing that he or she hadn’t a breeze what a wifi network is, to say nothing about IMSI-catchers and all that James Bond stuff.

It’s alphabet soup. The telecoms industry is a holy terror for acronyms. In one way, it’s not entirely their fault, as the rate of technological progress has been so fast in the past thirty years that you’ve only invented one thing when some other pointy-head has gone and invented something else that makes your invention as useful as a butter-churn and you’re back to Square One again. When the race is being run at that speed, the technicians aren’t going to waste much time wondering if Joe Public can keep up.

Which is hard luck on Joe Public, of course. Joe Public is an easy-going sort of a fella, doesn’t like to make much fuss, likes his pint and football on telly. But the pace of the world is getting a bit hectic for Joe Public and he has to keep up with technology, even if he doesn’t want to. The whole world is wired now, and we have to make our way among the cables, whether we like it or not.

It was hard not to feel a little sorry for a prominent journalist last week who make a terrible fool of himself by trying to talk about technology that he doesn’t understand. The technology isn’t easy to understand and even those that can understand it aren’t always great at getting it across.

For instance: there was a story that briefly appeared a little before Christmas about cyber-security flaws in ten Irish hotels discovered by a vigilant IT company. So naturally people are scared and worry about their online security because they don’t know what’s going on.

People like to use hotel wifi when they’re on holidays because data roaming charges will hang you high but you’d still like to check Facebook or Twitter of an evening. But how can you use hotel wifi if it’s not secure? The company that did the survey said that hackers could find out everything bar the colour of your underpants, and that too if you’d been foolish enough to buy them online.

So you’re nervous having ready this story about cyber-security. You go online then before you go abroad to find out if hotel wifi is secure and you’re worse off than you ever were. One innocent asked a question about hotel wifi on one of the internet’s less forgiving technology forums only to be dismissively told that really, all things considered, you should only use public wifi through a VPN.

So you can imagine how much better the innocent felt after that. If he or she was unsure about hotel wifi he or she is hardly able to tell a VPN from the ICA. Thanks for nothing, fellas.

Someone sent a tweet last week of a story in a British newspaper saying that Germany was unhappy with wifi security standards, and advised people to stick with the good old cables, with which you always know where you stand. Thing is, that story was from 2007. In online terms, 2007 is old Methuselah’s time. It’s like warning people not to go to sea because of the dragons.

The most important thing to remember in trying to figure out new technology and security issues is this: There’s a considerable difference between what’s possible and what’s probable.

Is it possible to hack your Facebook account when you’re holidaying at the Hotel Splendide in Cannes? Yes, it surely is. But it would take a hacker of very considerable skills to do it and chances are you’re really not worth it.

Does that mean you can’t be hacked? No, it doesn’t mean that either. When you’re online, it’s a lot like parking your car. If you leave the doors open while you’re doing your shopping, there’s a good chance some gouger will drive off with the thing.

So be sensible. Choose strong passwords. If you’re asked to sign up to something too good to be true, don’t. There’s nothing that’s too good to be true. Use mainstream sites like Amazon or Google. Look out for web addresses that begin with https, rather than just http – it means there’s an extra layer of security. Just use the head and you’ll be fine.

Alphabet Soup: Wifi is the technology that takes you online when you don’t have a cable to plug into your machine. It was quite insecure when it started, but not so much anymore. The Hotel Splendide’s wifi is more than likely top notch. The wifi at that bar down by the docks, frequented by all those sailors with scars on the faces from bottle fights? Probably best wait ‘til you get back to the hotel.

Every phone has an IMSI – it’s an International Mobile Subscriber Identity, a means of letting the network know that you are really you. An IMSI-catcher, however, is a way of stealing your identity on the mobile networks, and they are not at all common because if they were, it’s the end of mobile industry.

Finally, a VPN is a Virtual Private Network. If you’re not planning to infringe someone’s copyright or get up to other online mischief, you’ll be fine without one. Just fine.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Seán Mannion, the Neglected Great of Irish Boxing

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Rocky Ros Muc, written by Rónán Mac an Iomaire and published towards the end of last year, is a book about the life and times of the greatest Irish professional boxer you never heard of. Seán Mannion was a granite-jawed welterweight / light-middleweight who fought out of Boston, Mass from 1977 until he finally retired in 1993.

In Rocky Ros Muc, Mac an Iomaire looks at the sport of boxing, life in Connemara, the Irish emigrant experience and the life of a man who could have been a contender. He weaves all those threads together to present an invaluable record of a way of Irish emigrant life and of a sport at a time when it was still a big deal.

Seán Mannion boxed as an amateur in Ireland before taking the plane to Massachusetts to make his fortune, like so many before him. He worked for his brother’s construction company by day and by night Mannion boxed in Connolly’s Gym.

Connolly’s Gym was on Broadway Street in Dorchester, the famous “Southie” area of Boston that is famous for its Irish and its hoodlums. Mac an Iomaire excels in portraying the atmosphere of the place at the time, when everyone knew who Whitey Bulger was and nobody wanted to get on the wrong side of him.

This is one of the many marvellous features of the book, how Mac an Iomaire is able to place you in the time and at the place. You’re in the Irish bars celebrating St Patrick’s Day, you’re ringside at the fights, and sometimes you can even hear the thock! thock! thock! of the punches hitting the heavy bag in the gym as Mannion hones his trade with a line of made guys, wiseguys and plain old two-bit hoodlums looking on and hanging out.

As a boxer, Mannion had several gifts. Firstly, he was lefthanded, a southpaw. Most boxers, like most people, are right-handed, which makes fighting a left-hander an oddity in itself. That puts opponents at a disadvantage straight away.

Secondly, Mannion had excellent ringcraft – he was a proper boxer, rather than just a brawler. But best of all, Mannion could take what was thrown at him. Seán Mannion fought fifty-seven professional fights, and was never knocked down in any of them. There are very few fighters about whom that can be said.

But for all that, Mannion had one fatal flaw. When he’s in training, a boxer has to live almost like a monk. He has to exercise right, train right, eat right. He has to go to bed early and be up before the dawn, running miles, skipping rope, sparring, hitting the heavy bag, hitting the light bag.

What he’s not meant to do is to live on fried food and booze, which commodities Mannion found hard to resist. There’s an amazing story in the book that illustrates just how far off the pace Mannion was in terms of training, and just how good he could have been if he’d been better managed.

On the 20th of August, 1982, Mannion was to fight Hector Figuerora at welterweight. Welterweight boxers weigh not less than 140 pounds and not more than 147. At the weigh-in on the day of the fight, Mannion weighed in at 156. Nine pounds overweight.

Figuerora’s seconds demanded a forfeit, but Mannion was given a chance to see if he could sweat the weight off. They ran the shower in his hotel room until hands couldn’t be seen in front of faces from steam, and then in Mannion went, dressed in a rubber suit and carrying a skipping rope.

After one solid hour’s skipping, Mannion was weighted again. Four pounds lost, but still five overweight. Back into the rubber suit with Mannion, and he started running up and down three flights of stairs. Up and down, up and down.

After half-an-hour, he was back on the scales. Another four pounds gone, but still one left. Figuerora’s corner wouldn’t concede the pound, even though Figuerora’s opponent was surely, surely spent after all this.

Finally, a last resort. Mannion was given a raw rubdown by one of his trainers – a massage without oil. The trainer more or less skinned Mannion to lose that extra pound. After the rubdown Mannion, naked and red as a lobster, climbed onto the scales and made the weight. Then he beat Figuerora on points over ten rounds. After all that working out, Seán Mannion was still able to box ten rounds and win.

Mannion got his shot at the World Title eventually, against Mike McCallum. It didn’t go well. Mannion had been injured in training before the fight but even if he hadn’t, McCallum would still have been too good. The great names of middleweight boxing in the 1980s were Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler, and not one of those four ever got in the ring with McCallum.

Seán Mannion’s is an extraordinary story of wins and losses inside and outside the ring and this book is a treasure. So much so that there may be people reading this who will wonder why, if it’s so good, Mac an Iomaire wrote it in Irish.

Firstly, Irish was very important to Mannion. He insisted on one of his brothers being one of his cornermen so they could speak in Irish during fights, and also insisted that Amhráin na bhFiann be sung, in Irish, before he fought McCallum. And secondly, why shouldn’t it be written in Irish?

Books written in Irish are not always good, and the currently ill-judged emphasis on ‘spoken’ Irish doesn’t do much to help. The market of books written in Irish, what gets published and what doesn’t, is a debate for another day. Don’t begrudge us our treat.

Besides; people often say they would warm up their school Irish if only they got a chance. The chance is here now with the publication of Rocky Ros Muc. Seconds out.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Whatever Happened to Handball?

Is handball the most ancient of the Gaelic Games? We associate hurling with Cúchulainn, of course, but no less a scholar than Flann O’Brien himself opens At Swim-Two-Birds with the proposition that Finn Mac Cumhaill was so physically enormous “three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.”

If that’s not the image of a Gael, I don’t know what is. But now, many years after the Fianna, handball seems to have disappeared off the map.

It wasn’t always like this. Sports Stadium used to feature handball as part of its smorgasbord of sports, and was certainly very handy to slot in in those moments when presenter Brendan O’Reilly had to spend more time than was ideal smiling inanely and speaking … very … slowly as he tried to fill in time because the live link to Leopardstown had just gone wallop.

Handball was a regular feature of Sports Stadium, not least, perhaps, because RTÉ’s internal politics saw more GAA people in the ascendency than is currently the case. Everybody who followed sports knew who Michael “Ducksy” Walsh was. And every school had a ball-alley, a great concrete thing out in the corner of the yard. These ball alleys were used more often for illicit smoking than handball, but still. They were there, for anyone that wanted them.

Handball has nothing like that profile now. When the GAA insist on doing their ten-cent mardi-gras before the All-Ireland finals, with the balloons and the drums, they also have a group of youths in one of the corners of Croker, playing Rounders. Rounders is poor man’s baseball but the Association considers it Gaelic and has done so since the days when whether or not something was sufficiently Gaelic mattered a great deal to people.

Handball is nowhere to be seen on All-Ireland day. It’s easy to set up a rounders – what? pitch? diamond? – in the corner of the Davin and Cusack Stands. Building some sort of instantly inflatable ball-alley is a more challenging task, but still. It’s a pity that the only solo sport the GAA has is so underground a movement.

All this comes to mind because a younger generation is doing its best to do what the Association itself seems reluctant to do, and give handball some of the publicity it deserves. styles itself as “the voice of Irish handball,” and that’s exactly what they’re trying to be.

The site is dedicated to handball and handball alone and, although online for a little over a month, it has already managed to kick up the dust with a provocative article on the future of handball and the role, if any, of the traditional 60x30 game in that future.

One the most interesting features on the site, and just the thing to draw people back to the ancient game, is the Five Most Stunning Handball Courts in the world feature. The site lists just that and, while you expect Irish locations, you’re reminded of and slightly stunned by the game’s international dimension when you see ball alleys in the Basque Country, Nigeria, the USA and even, the Lord bless us and save us, Kilkee on the west coast of Clare, looking out towards America across the wild ocean’s waves. Take a stroll over to the site and check it out. It’s all good stuff.

Friday, February 14, 2014


First published in the Western People on Monday.

James Horan’s chief goal in life is to return the County Mayo to All-Ireland glory. We all know that. But wouldn’t it be something if, as a happy accident of his mission, he were to return the hat to men’s fashion as well?

Horan is seldom seen without a hat. We presume he takes it off when he goes to Mass, or lifts it gallantly when passing a lady on the street, but otherwise the man is seldom seen without a lid of some kind.

In the good old summertime, Horan favours the baseball cap. In the winter, the sensible woolly hat. For his first few years, he wore a Mayo County Board team gear hat during League games, but the Sunday before last Horan debuted a new one, a bluey-grey sort of an effort not unlike the bluey-grey skies under which we have to labour in this wet first month of spring. And more luck to him.

The hat has been out of fashion for men for so long that the language no longer distinguishes between a hat and cap, as it once did. Now, anything you can wear on your head is called a hat, no matter if it’s a hand-made silk topper or a some sort of beanie with a little propeller on the top.

Even though they’ve been unfashionable for quite some time, some men have to wear hats for their own protection and well-being. This depends, like so much in Ireland, on the weather. A man needs his hat to keep the rain off at this time of year, but also to protect himself from the sun on those odd days when it deigns to shine.

The need for a hat on a sunny day may not always be obvious, and the penny may not drop until a man is sufficiently old to realise that he has changed with the years. Your correspondent can’t speak for everyone, but I was genuinely mystified for years when, the Monday after going to watch Mayo in Championship games, I would wake up with the crown of my head looking like that red spot in the centre of a non-stick frying pan.

Eventually, I took a proper look at myself in the mirror and realised that my hairline was not where I thought it was. It had retreated back across my pate like King James fleeing the Boyne, leaving the land undefended in the face of the big Orange man in the sky.

I’ve by jabbers worn a hat since, and over the years have amassed something of a selection. This is something to be recommended to the gentleman who needs to buy a hat but can’t make up his mind which hat he needs. There is a quick answer to him – buy several, and wear them as the occasion demands.

For instance, when those bitter winds howl in off the Atlantic, it is the foolish man who goes out of doors without his woolly hat pulled down tight over his ears. They call those hats toques (pronounced “tooks”) in Canada and if anyone should know about protecting themselves from the cold it’s the Canadians. The Great North is a beautiful country, but ludicrously cold for the majority of the year.

Gentlemen may be tempted to buy a chullo hat, having seen them in the shops or worn by angst-ridden musicians on the BBC. It’s best to resist the temptation.

Although it has a strange name, the chullo is becoming quite common winter headwear in Ireland. The chullo is a hat made from llama wool like that of the standard woolly hat, except that it’s pointier, almost like the business end of a bullet, and has two ear-flaps hanging down from the side, not like a bullet at all.

The chullo is originally worn by the people of Andes mountains in South America and more luck to them, but no man has ever worn one of those things at an elevation of fifteen thousand feet or lower without looking like the world’s most hopeless eejit.

Even Paddington Bear himself, a style icon for generations and native of Peru wherein the chullo is commonly worn, thought better of wearing such a thing when sent to London by his Aunt Lucy. Paddington styled himself in a practical sou’wester, a broad-brimmed floppy hat popular with sailors of the squally seas, paired with a practical blue duffel coat that always had a marmalade sandwich in the pocket, in case of emergencies. The diametric opposite of a fool, Paddington Bear.

Years ago, it was said that headgear was a sign of social class. The working man wore a flat tweet cap, the professional a natty trilby or homberg hat, while respectable upper classes wore bowler hats in the daytime and top hats by night. But social classes are seldom so simply identified.

Irish tough guys in the eastern US cities of the late nineteenth century favoured the bowler hat (called a derby in the USA) – if you look closely at Notre Dame’s famous fighting Irishman symbol, you’ll see it’s a bowler he’s wearing.

Also, the bowler hat was quite popular with the faction fighters at home in the earlier part of that century. This was less so for reasons of fashion, but for more practical considerations. The bowler is somewhat stiff to begin with but at the faction fights it was also often stuffed with straw to make a kind of helmet, the better to resist whacking shillelaghs with which the heavy work was done on the field of honour.

Stuck in the middle of a faction fight, a man might have been throttled by the flaps of his chullo, or have his trilby crushed before the blackthorn as the frog before the harrow, but the well-stuffed bowler could keep him alive until he got the price of the trip to America. One of James Horan’s most favoured summertime hats is that of the New York Yankees baseball team; it’s nice to think it a serendipitous tribute to those Fighting Irishmen who helped to build America.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Religion in Schools

First published in the Western People on Monday.

A cold and deathly chill must have run down Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn’s spine when he heard that even the Association of Catholic Priests reached for the trusty crozier and came out swinging.

There is a thing in politics called playing to the constituency and, difficult though it is to look into the heart of another, this is almost certainly what the Minister was up to when he suggested last week that teachers should spend less time teaching religion in national schools and more time teaching English and Maths.

The Minister was responding to complaints at the Irish Primary Principals Network annual conference that the curriculum was overloaded, and shot for what he must have thought an open goal at the time.

Now, when the most liberal wing of the Irish Church is giving him the business, the unfortunate Minister must surely feel more like Paddy Cullen in that infamous moment of the All-Ireland Final of 1978. If the Minister knows who Paddy Cullen is in the first place, of course.

This is a minor skirmish in the larger national battle, as the country re-organises itself for the post-Catholic reality. One of Ruairí Quinn’s stated aims as Minister for Education is to give parents more choice in their children’s education by having the Catholic Church hand over schools to non-Catholic patrons, but he’s meeting no small amount of resistance in this regard.

Why this is so is harder to understand. It may be residual loyalty to the fallen Faith, or it may be general terror of another quango terrorizing the land, or it may be some other thing. But it is an interesting moment in the country’s history, as a page slowly turns.

The Irish Education System began in 1831 when Lord Stanley, who would later become Prime Minister of Great Britain as the Earl of Derby, wrote a letter to Augustus FitzGerald, Duke of Leinster, proposing that His Majesty’s Government establish an Irish Schools Board. Stanley was Chief Secretary for Ireland at the time, and his idea was that children of all denominations should be educated together with no regard paid to religion.

Or at least, only a biteen of regard. Just a hint, like. In the early years of the scheme, the schools taught “common Christianity,” which was based on either a piece of Scripture or a lesson on Bible history, from texts chosen by the Commissioners of the Irish Schools Board.

The Catholic hierarchy split on the Schools issue, with both sides of the divide represented by two of the major figures of the time – Daniel Murray, Archbishop of Dublin, and John McHale, Archbishop of Tuam, and after whom McHale Park is named.

Archbishop Murray was twenty years older than Archbishop McHale. Having lived through the penal laws and Catholic Emancipation having only recently been passed, Murray was an advocate of softly, softly diplomacy. He didn’t much care for Stanley’s idea, but he thought it better than the hedge school and therefore viewed it as progress.

Archbishop McHale, by contrast, loathed Lord Stanley’s idea and made no secret of that loathing. McHale’s issue was that the schools were an insidious effort to convert the Irish to Protestantism, and that was not going to happen on McHale’s watch.

One hundred and eighty years on, this seems a strange stand-off. But the entire history of Ireland, the nature of the state and our long and difficult history with our nearest neighbour, at once our best friend and worst enemy, all centers on differences of religion.

Why has there been so much strife between countries as similar as Ireland and Britain? Why couldn’t the Irish get with the program, just as the Welsh and the Scots had? The Normans invaded Ireland, but they invaded England first! That’s how it works! Why couldn’t the Irish get that?

The answer is religion. The Scots and Welsh embraced the Reformation. The Irish clung to the Faith, through the Elizabethan Plantation, Cromwell, the Flight of Earls and the Penal Laws. And now in the 1830s, having stuck it out this long, they were going to lose the Faith by stealth through a schools system where texts were chosen by someone other than the Church itself? Not on your Nelly.

It was a long struggle for McHale, but he won in the end. The Catholic Church held its first Synod in Ireland in two hundred years in Thurles in 1850 where it said it wasn’t one bit happy with the Schools Board, and by 1869 McHale’s victory was complete. The Irish Church condemned mixed education and their condemnation was ratified from Rome by Pope Pius IX.

McHale had already banned the English schools in his own diocese as soon as he could, and brought in religious orders to found Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Tuam instead. After 1869, this was the case all over Ireland. The Church of Ireland saw which way the wind was blowing, and set up their own schools with just as much fervor.

Fifty years later, when Ireland had rejoined the nations of the world, the new governments knew that the sectarian divide was a time bomb, not least if the sectarian seed were planted so early as at primary school age. They made it a priority to reclaim education as the preserve of the people, rather than the church.

Ah no. They didn’t do any such thing. It could be because Irish governments soon realised the country was broke and were grateful that someone, at least, was educating the children. Or it could be that there was an ugly and disgraceful Catholic triumphalism about the early years of the state, and successive government of the Free State and the Republic thought Church-controlled schools the natural order of things.

Who knows? All we can be sure of now is that we have an educational system at primary level based on historic distrust between two religions that no longer have much, if any, influence on the people. And that’s without even mentioning the Tuiseal Ginideach…