Friday, March 28, 2014

The Delicate Etiquette of Correcting Someone's Irish

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The fortnight-long Seachtain na Gaeilge – yes, it is odd if it’s called a week and runs for a fortnight – has just ended. How many people noticed? How many people knew it was on in the first place?

In theory, Seachtain na Gaeilge is about encouraging people to make a special effort to use whatever Irish they have for that week (or fortnight, if you insist). But to use it for what? If you go down to the shop and order a mála milseán, will young Svetlana behind the counter have the first notion what you’re talking about?

The nation’s attitude to the first language was discussed in a piece in the Irish Times on St Patrick’s Day by Úna Mullally who, as well as being an Irish Times columnist, is also a presenter on TG4, and thus knows whereof she writes.

In the Irish Times piece, Mullally makes two points. Firstly, she believes that people who speak Irish outside the Gaeltacht should get the same support for their endeavours in speaking Irish as people who live in the Gaeltacht. Secondly, she believes that Irish that is not fluent is as worthy of celebration as Irish that is.

The problem with the first point is that Mullally contradicts herself in her own piece. In her third paragraph, she claims that “given the massive population of young people attending all-Irish speaking schools in the greater Dublin area, there’s an argument for Dublin eventually even being the largest Gaeltacht in the State.” Two sentences later she writes “if you want to ‘keep up’ your Irish in the capital, you’re pretty much on your own.”

Both conditions can’t be true. If Dublin is hopping with Irish speakers, then you cannot be “pretty much on your own” in keeping up your Irish. To use some broken English, the case has gotta be dis or dat.

Mullally’s second point in noble in thought and intent. She speaks of celebrating efforts that people make to speak Irish even if their Irish in poor, writing that, for those who are not fluent, “the intent to speak …[Irish] … is as valid as the poetic prose that flows from a native speaker.”

The problem with this noble thought is that it has very little bearing on reality. Concepts like “celebration” and “validity” have nothing to do with talking. “Celebration” and “validity” are words that have to do with equality politics. They are not about communication, understanding and being understood.

There’s a reason a person’s ability to speak a language, any language, is graded. If the person’s ability is insufficiently good, then that person can’t be understood. Celebrations and measures of value don’t come into it. The person may be a saint or a sinner but we’ll never know because he or she can’t tell us.

What we’re left with, then, is tokenism. I pretend that I can speak Irish and the person to whom I’m speaking plays along, while we both know that if either us hit a little bump we can drop in an English word, we both being – amazing co-incidence, I know – fully fluent in that language. But what we serve by doing that I can’t imagine.

Correcting someone’s Irish is seen as one of the rudest things we can do. The only Irish language book to ever make Number 1 in the Irish booksellers’ charts was Breandán Ó hEithir’s Lig Sinn i gCathú, first published in the mid-1970s. There’s a scene at the end of the novel where two professors are roaring at each other over the inscription on a plaque to commemorate the 1916 Rising.

One man insists the plaque should read “D’ardaigh siad an tine beo,” and the other says it should read “D’ardaigh siad an tine bheo.” This is not the celebration of validity that Úna Mullally was writing about, but it is a fairly accurate snapshot of what’s been going on in the country since Independence – fighting with each other has been more important than promoting the language.

But if no-one’s Irish is corrected, who’s ever going to get it right? Seán Ó Ruadháin, the great Irish scholar from our own County Mayo, wrote in frustration once that the idea of broken Irish being better than clever English was only meant to last for a while – it was never meant to be a licence for bad Irish.

Ó hEithir’s beo/bheo difference is a relatively subtle one. But there’s a picture floating around the internet currently of a man who’s made the most tremendous blunder in Irish, and he’s now stuck with it forever.

The picture is of a man who had a motto in Irish tattooed onto his back, right between the shoulders. The motto is from the poem Invictus, which Nelson Mandela famously recited to himself during his long years of captivity on Robben Island. The lines read:

I am master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul

There are two ways of saying “I am” in Irish – “tá mé,” and “is mise.” This man chose “tá mé.” He should have gone with “is mise.”

This tattoo is valid celebration of the Irish language by Úna Mullally’s lights. By someone else’s lights, it’s a disaster. Firstly, the man is stuck with it. It’ll only come off if he’s flayed, I believe, and bad and all as the translation is, getting skinned alive would be worse. But what’s worse is the confusion it creates.

Someone who’s struggling to learn when to use is mise and when to use tá mé will get confused if he or she is not shown good examples at every turn. Bad Irish means bad examples. Bad examples mean worse Irish, and worse Irish will eventually mean no Irish at all.

If the cost of saving the language is hurt feelings, it’s cheap at the price. I’m sorry Dublin. You’ll just have to offer it up.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Welcome Back, Kate Bush

Over the past weekend, you may have noticed people of taste in your circle grinning foolishly for no apparent reason. There is always a reason, of course, and in this case it’s more than likely because the people of taste in your circle have suddenly remembered that Kate Bush has announced that she will perform her first series of live shows in thirty-five years – thirty-five years! – towards the end of this summer, and cannot keep a lid on their happiness.

These are bleak times for music. Every generation seems a paler and paler imitation of the one that went before, and modern marketing produces records of such carefully-honed and deeply cynical soullessness and inhumanity that the old moon/June rhymsters of Tin Pin Alley seem as fearless chroniclers of the human condition in comparison.

And then there is someone like Kate Bush. When a modern – what? Singer? Performer? Personality? Is there even a noun for them? – writes his or her best-ever three minutes of music, he or she still can’t see Kate Bush on her very worst day in the far distance. The word “genius” is overused in our culture – in Bush’s case, it’s faint praise.

Pop songs are of their age. They bear their date like a carton of milk and stay fresh for about as long. Morrissey could only have been created by the British society in the ‘eighties. That’s why he’s such an embarrassment now.

Great music transcends that. Norwegian Wood could have been written tomorrow, and it would still sound like nothing else. The first time I heard Nick Cave’s Into My Arms I nearly crashed my car. Riders on the Storm sounds like nothing else. Heroes. There’s a lot of them.

And there’s no small amount of them created by Kate Bush – “written” is too limiting a word. David Bowie experimented with different genres – Bush is her own genre. You hear one of her songs and you know, instantly, that can only be Kate Bush.

Bush’s ideas come from somewhere known only to herself, and perhaps she herself doesn’t even know. There are esoteric theories of aesthetic creation that posit art is sometimes independent on the artist, that in the case of truly great art the artist is more a conduit than a creator.

Who knows? All we can be sure of is that nothing has ever sounded like Wuthering Heights or Running Up that Hill or any of the others.

She’s not too shabby at singing other people’s songs as well. Bush didn’t write Don’t Give Up, her mid-eighties duet with Peter Gabriel, but she owes it. It’s been written that Gabriel was generous in giving Bush the chorus parts of the duet, but it could be that he had no choice. When you sign a genius, you don’t have her singing backup.

Kate Bush’s version of Peadar Ó Doirín’s Mná na hÉireann is no less beautiful, and her Irish pronunciation should put some recent performances of Amhrán na bhFiann to shame (Brian Kennedy and Nadia Forde, named and shamed).

Hounds of Love is Kate Bush’s greatest album. Because she was so young when Wuthering Heights was released in 1978, by 1985 people began to think she was all-washed up. Her only attempt at touring in 1979 was a disaster, the records released in the early part of the decade didn’t do well, early fame is difficult to maintain.

And then Hounds of Love came out and it sounded like something coming through from another dimension. The drum-machines and synthesizers give the record an ‘eighties flavour, but there’s nothing ‘eighties about its sensibility, scope or ambition. It is astonishing, an expression of a genius at the height of her powers.

Also, the second side is unlistenable, which is something to consider about the upcoming concerts. John Lennon, for all his other faults, was correct in his assessment of the avant-garde, and some of Bush’s work is … challenging. It’s also highly unlikely that she’s do a greatest-hits show in Hammersmith, to send the punters home whistling. That’s not really in her nature.

But here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter a damn. Kate Bush has earned the right to do what she wants. Shy by nature, life hasn’t always been easy on her and the evil of contemporary fame hasn’t sat well with her. When she received a CBE from Queen Elizabeth last year, she made a point of having no interaction with the British media at all. This gives lie to the notion that the woman is nuts; making a point of avoiding the British media is not the act of someone who doesn’t have the head screwed on.

Bush’s own reclusiveness is the best thing about these shows. For many people they will be occasions of tremendous joy but, hopefully, for none more so than Kate Bush herself, who has earned joy over and over and over again.

And now, as a treat, here’s Kate Bush singing – or, more correctly, performing – the Elton John song Rocket Man on Wogan in the late 1980s. Leonard Cohen said once that the sign of a really great cover was that it transformed the song without actually changing it. For Elton John, it’s just another piano ballad. For Bush – well; you decide.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Hello, Sweetie

First published in the Western People on Monday.

If you want to know how Oisín felt when he returned from Tír-na-nÓg, try being the last man in Ireland who takes sugar in his tea when he goes visiting. It’s been bad enough in recent years, but a new report from the World Health Organisation has put the tin hat on it entirely.

The day is coming fast when even saying terrible things about Brian O’Driscoll will be more socially acceptable than taking sugar in your tea. You could ask for a slice of lemon – for reasons best known to yourself – in your tea and nobody would look twice at you. You could refuse tea entirely, and ask for an Iced Skinny Mocha, no whip, heavy on the syrup, and it’d be handed over just like that, instead of the hiding you would have got years ago for acting the Yank.

But ask for sugar in your tea and your days of going visiting are over. You can turn up in your wellingtons after a hard day digging ditches and nothing will be said. You can turn up at the door asking people to convert to some tree-worshipping religion or even, the Lord save us, give out booklets in praise of the old Latin Mass, and you’ll be asked to come in out the cold. But once you get the name of a sweet sugar man every door will close in your face.

There was a time in Ireland when consumption of sugar was seen as a patriotic duty. In the early years of the state, it was decided to set up the Irish Sugar Company, Comhlacht Siúcra Éireann, to process sugar beet for the island nation. There were two solid reasons behind the idea.

Firstly, the state hoped to be self-sufficient and it made more sense to grow our own sugar than to rely on imports. Secondly, the growing of sugar beet – and a sugar beet is a funny-looking thing, like a cross between a turnip and a parsnip – would encourage crop rotation by stealth. It was win-win as far as the government were concerned.

Sugar factories were set up in Carlow, Mallow, Thurles and Tuam and farmers from all around brought their beet to their nearest factory by train, truck, trailer and even the good old ass and cart. All in the past now, of course. The factories in Tuam and Thurles were closed in the 1980s. Irish Sugar rebranded as Greencore in the early 1990s but nothing could be done to save Carlow or Mallow. Progress, you know.

But now we’ve progressed to the stage where not only can you not grow sugar, you certainly should have nothing to do with consuming the stuff. In contemporary Ireland, you couldn’t cause a bigger shock by dropping a spoon of sugar into your tea when you’re sitting by the fire of an evening than if you stuck the spoon into the ashes and horsed that in instead.

The latest World Health Organisation report will do for sugar what being read out at Mass used to do to for poitín-makers. According to the WHO, the world is heaving with great, big fatties at the moment, and it’s too much sugar in the diet that at the root cause of it.

But here’s the one hope for the sugar-in-his-tea man, a straw for him to clutch at. It isn’t the sugar in the tea that swells you up like a balloon. It’s the secret sugars in the modern diet that sneak up on you until all of a sudden there’s a TV3 camera crew watching your every move as you dream of someday seeing your toes again, or changing channels on the TV without sweating.

If you put a spoon of sugar in your tea you know that you did that. You know exactly what it is, because it’s sitting there on the spoon in front of you. You can see the stuff. It’s the sugar you can’t see, that you don’t even know is there, that will do for you.

If you drink a can of coke, you know that’s loaded with sugar. You’re an adult, you know the risks. Fair enough. But when you think you’re being good as gold by choking down low-fat yoghurt, your disappointment will be acute when you find out that a five ounce tub of the stuff can contain five teaspoons of sugar – half that of a can of coke and about a tenth the refreshment, if even that.

We tend to forget how industrial the delivery of our food has become. A lot of so-called health-foods take quite some amount of processing to make them more “healthy” that something you just dig out of the ground or pull off a bush.

This goes back to the late 1960s – when else? – when the best dietary advice going identified fat as the leading cause of heart disease. The shops filled with low-fat alternatives to different foods – low-fat milk, low-fat spreads, low-fat biscuits, the full works.

But here’s the thing – fat gives food flavour. That’s why marbled steaks are so nice, because the fat is evenly spread throughout the thing. If you take fat out of foods, they’re not going to taste very nice. So the food industry simply switched the fat for sugar and rolled merrily along.

At the time, the food manufacturers, to be fair to them, may not have realised how much they were robbing the dietary Peter to pay the dietary Paul. In all probability, they thought they were doing everyone a favour. Unfortunately, the past decades have seen obesity become a real problem, not just in the west, but all over the world. This is because a lot of modern processed foods are not good for you, no matter how much they may claim to be.

So continue on putting the spoon of sugar in the tea, for all the harm it’ll do you. But when you’re in the supermarket, and you see slices of ham that are exactly rectangular in shape, ask yourself just how many piggies you’ve seen that you could use for a ruler to draw a straight line if you were stuck. If the number is low, best to drive on, and make your sandwiches from something a bit more recognisable.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Island of Sheep and Suckers

What’s more depressing about the #IrelandInspires video that’s so popular currently on You Tube? The very fact of its being there, or the fact that people seem to be taken in by the thing?

Hasn’t anybody read the titles on the film? Does anybody think about what those titles are saying, or what a strange way this is for Bord Fáilte – of all state bodies – to communicate? Or, in an age of six-second attention spans, is this the 21st Century’s iteration of Juvenal’s bread and circuses – the distractions that keep the masses entertained while the Government does what it damn well pleases?

The viewer who has learned the price of naivety the hard way starts getting suspicious when he or she notices that #IrelandInspires has miscounted the Irish Oscar winners who were born here (as opposed to being Irish), and the number of Irish Nobel laureates (ten, not nine, by my count).

OK – we Irish aren’t known for being smart, are we? How would we be able to count anything other than potatoes? But all bets are off when #IrelandInspires gets to its piece about Italia ’90.

The summer of the 1990 World Cup was definitely a turning point in the nation’s history. But that watery line about Bonner suggests that the people who made the #IrelandInspires video don’t truly understand the importance of that World Cup, and that’s unforgivable in a film that is meant to celebrate Irishness.

Con Houlihan, God have mercy on him, said that he was disappointed to have missed Italia ’90, having been in Italy at the time. That’s the kernel of what happened during the 1990 World Cup.

The 1990 World Cup is significant because, for the first time, it gave Irish people a sense that we had just as much right to the world stage, to the best things in life, as anyone else. That there was to be no more doffing of caps or tugging of forelocks before our betters. Without Italia ’90, could there have been Roy Keane? Without Roy Keane, could there have been Brian O’Driscoll? That’s the significance of Italia ’90. Italia ’90 made the Irish believe in themselves.

What film clip should #IrelandInspires have used instead of Bonner? John Healy, a big, fat, bald man, the greatest journalist of his generation, weeping with pride after Ireland won that game against Romania. You’ve seen it on Reeling in the Years, and you can now see it every week on TV – it’s part of the Second Captains opening sequence.

The Second Captains know Healy weeping sums up Italia ‘90. Why don't these lemons?

And why is #IrelandInspires so taken with the dismal science of economics? When Leonidas and his three hundred guarded the Pass of Thermopylae against Xerses and the Persians, did he inspire his men by quoting Sparta’s year-on-year GDP? When Wolfe took Quebec, did he inspire his men by telling them that house prices in Montreal had show year-on-year increases for six consecutive quarters, when adjusted for inflation? No, he did not. Wolfe recited Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard instead, and said he’d sooner have written that poem than win the coming battle. Wolfe was a man.

There is no poetry present in #IrelandInspires, but economic detail is packed into every minute. “Ireland’s the first Eurozone country to successfully exit an economic assistance program,” trumpets #IrelandInspires. Which means – what, exactly?

That Ireland is the first of the Fort Knox bullion robbers to get time off for good behaviour? That Ireland is the first husband on the street to stop beating his wife? That Ireland is the first cook to see the advantage in removing the egg from the boiling water with a spoon, rather than his fingers?

Besides. What is all this economic material doing in a Bord Fáilte video? 1,033 companies choose Ireland as their European base? Ireland has the most adaptable – whatever that means – workforce in the world? What’s any of that got to do with going on your holidays? Shouldn’t that be in an IDA video? When you buy your Rough Guides or Lonely Planets, do you see much mention of the adaptability of the workforce in Corfu, or the quality of scientific research in Marbella?

And why does Haiti get a mention, of all places? It’s four thousand miles away. Are there long and historic ties between Ireland and Haiti? Of all the disadvantaged countries in all the world, why choose Haiti?

#IrelandInspires tells us “our culture and music have reached the world,” while showing performers performing the ancient and traditional Irish art of fire-eating. #IrelandInspires was published during Seachtain na Gaeilge. Any mention of the first language over the three minutes? God between us and small farms.

Seventy-one years ago today, in his St Patrick’s Day address to the nation, Taoiseach Eamon De Valera said “the Ireland that we dreamed of  … [was of] a people who … devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit.”

#IrelandInspires isn’t buying any of De Valera’s old blather, whoever De Valera was. Getting time off for good behaviour when we’re caught with our hands in the cookie jar is inspirational now. Not having any understanding of the tide of history, not just long-term history, but the history of the current generation, is inspirational now. And most of all, the Ireland that we dream of has an eager willingness to lie down with every single multinational that pulls into the quay, without ever stopping to wonder what will happen when the multinationals move on to the next service provider.

At the last election we were told that the crisis would damn a generation. Now, three years on, we’re all on the pig's back? Who’s fooling whom this St Patrick’s Day, Ireland? Who are the eejits here?

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Connaught Rangers and the (First?) Crimean War

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Crimea is back in the news again. Vladimir Putin, with that gift that distinguishes all true bullies, senses a lack of conviction in the west. So he sends his troops into Crimea, just to see how high the dust will fly before putting his hands up, saying he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about, he doesn’t want any trouble, and so on. This is what bullies do. They see how far they can go.

The fact that this is all going off in the Crimea has historical resonance for people in our part of the world. The Crimean War of the middle of the 19th Century is a war whose place in history is out of proportion with its impact on history. There were many more wars like it, both before and after, from which Crimea was no better or any worse.

But Crimea had features that caught the public imagination like no other war did. It was the first war to be reported as news, with regular updates from the front lines. It was the war where Florence Nightingale made her name as the ne plus ultra of the nursing profession. And it featured one of the most glorious failures in military history, the charge of the Light Brigade.

What makes it particularly interesting for us is that the Crimean War of 1854-1856 also featured the “Devil’s Own” Connaught Rangers, the line infantry division of the British army that featured soldiers from the West of Ireland. These were men who, perhaps, were not so much looking for fame, fortune or military glory but saw a world that offered them few choices. Soldiering, tough though it was, was the best of a bad lot.

There’s a marvellous painting called “Listed for the Connaught Rangers” by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler, which gives a very vivid impression of what it was like to take the Queen’s shilling in 19th Century Ireland. The painting features two young men who have just joined up, walking up their country boreen and on into whatever theatre of war they would be sent (and the Connaught Rangers were sent to them all, in their day).

The recruits are accompanied by their recruiters, three boys and a man. One boy is carrying his tow-row-row drum over his shoulder. One is minding a mongrel dog, and the third is lighting a sneaky cigarette – he’ll regret that habit when he’s running to save his hide at Inkerman or Lucknow. The man is an NCO type, with a neatly done up tunic and a military moustache, and he’s keeping a keen eye on his two new recruits.

The recruits themselves are chalk and cheese. On the left, one unfortunate has his head nearly turned around on his shoulders, as he takes one last look at home. He’ll find life tough in the barracks.

His comrade won’t. He’s just the sort of man you need ‘midst shot and cannon’s roar. His hat his tipped back on his head, his hands are in his pockets, his shoulders are back and square, and his clay pipe is stuck in the corner of his mouth. He’ll make a good soldier – once the army finishes breaking him. They’ve broken tougher.

They all made good soldiers, really. The three famous battles of the Crimean War were at Alma, Inkerman and Sevastopol, and the Connaught Rangers won honours at them all.

The siege of Sevastopol lasted a year of the Crimean War’s three, as it was in possession of that port that victory lay. The Battle of Balaclava happened during the first months of the siege, at which the Light Brigade made their glorious and doomed charge for some Russian guns at the end of a valley. It must have been quite some sight to see – in the age of the pre-industrial wars, a lot counted for show.

The correct deployment of cavalry as a military tactic dates back to the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, two hundred-odd years before the birth of Christ. The cavalry were not deployed correctly at Balaclava – frontal assaults were jobs for heavy brigades, not light.

The Light Brigade at Balaclava, for reasons no-one has ever settled definitively, charged the wrong guns. But what a sight they must have been, those six hundred mounted men charging into the valley, sabres pointing straight ahead, heading straight for the Russian guns. Death or glory.

It was more the former than the latter for the Devil’s Own Connaught Rangers, of course. There were no Irish peasants in the Light Brigade. They couldn’t even have afforded the tailoring to make the uniforms.

The Light Brigade were gentlemen, in the old sense of the world, which is perhaps why their slaughter came as such as shock to the folks back home. Normally, it isn’t the gentry that end up being cannon-fodder. That would be more a job for infantry, such as those Devil’s Own Connaught Rangers. Always that little bit little more likely to be crushed under hooves than mounted in saddles.

Ninety years after the siege of Sevastopol, a town called Yalta, fifty miles or so east along the Crimean coast from Sevastopol, also got its name written into history. That was when the Allies met to decide how to divide up Europe after the defeat of Germany, and condemned Eastern Europe to exactly the same level of tyranny and oppression under Stalin as they would have got under The Fuhrer himself.

The next time someone bleats on about Irish neutrality during World War II, it might be no harm to remind them of that. Wars are fought over power. The victors write the morals of the story afterwards, not before.

The Connacht Rangers were long gone by the Yalta Conference. They mutinied in India in 1920 on hearing of the Black and Tan outrages at home, and all the Irish regiments were disbanded after the Treaty two years later. Were the Irishmen who fought under the crown right or wrong? Reader, look at the two men in Lady Butler’s painting, and calculate the odds of that landscape supporting them. You can decide for yourself.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Radical Thinking? No Thanks

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The Ministers for the Environment and Social Protection, Phil Hogan and Joan Burton respectively, are rolling out a new scheme for the long-term unemployed. If you’ve spent over two years on the dole you’ll now be offered a job with the local council, from street-sweeping to working in the local library or anything in between. You get another twenty Euro on top of your unemployment assistance if you do it, and your dole gets cut if you don’t.

Reaction, unsurprisingly, was mixed. There was a vocal section of the community who felt this was exploitation of people who were in a bad situation already, and a disgrace to the very notion of social justice and the dignity of the person. Then there was the less vocal population who thought a spot of hard labour was good enough for the work-shy layabouts..

The scheme, called Gateways, isn’t the worst idea in the world. The problem is that it’s so very far from being a good idea that it’s heartbreaking. For all the rhetoric after the crash and leading up to the last election, it’s clear that the new boss is just like the old boss, and any vague chance of innovative thinking is now lost. For all the trauma of the crash and the nation’s shocking return to the earth from the highs of empty-suitcase holidays to New York, we at least had a chance to rip things up and start again.

And did we take it? No, we did not. We settled, as we always do, for some tokenism. Now that the Troika are gone, it’s like neither the crash nor the boom ever happened, and politics has returned to what it would have been like in the 1980s if there had been no Charles Haughey to give it spice. Local squabbles given national importance while the country sinks slowly away and her young people leave in droves.

And the ones that don’t leave have nothing to do except pad around the house in despair, not going out because they can’t afford to, and watching the years suddenly accelerate by. And then two years are up and you get a letter from Gateways telling you that you’ve been chosen to cut the long acre by the cemetery outside of town and you wonder God, will you get an orange suit as well, like they get in Guantanamo? Will you sing spirituals while you work? And aren’t things bad enough without you being publically humiliated like this as well?

Say your business went wallop like so many did during the crash and you know that the people in the village are saying that your cough wanted softening alright, you and your coffee machine and smart phone and three pairs of shoes. What will they say now when you’re out with your long-handled sickle? Could the Minister not just put you in the stocks in the town square and be done with it?

And then there’s the other side. Even at the height of the boom, there were still long-terms unemployed people in Ireland. When it seemed like every single person behind a shop counter was from Liberia, Lithuania or some parish in between and could no more speak English than the average Irish person can speak Irish, there was a still a large indigenous population who couldn’t get any of those jobs, even when they spoke English all their lives. There’s something funny going on there.

So there it is. We talk about the long-term unemployed like they’re a homogenous lump, the one just like the other. Whereas they’re exactly like ourselves because they are ourselves, but for accidents of circumstance – bright people and dumb people and busy people and lazy people and every sort of pilgrim that ever walked.

On the face of it, the Gateways initiative sounds great. But it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Once the novelty has worn off it’s just another hoop in the social-welfare infrastructure of the state, that’s good enough to keep the disadvantaged from starving but not good enough to break the generational cycle of the thing.

The people voted for radical thinking. Where is it? What’s being done that’s a radical approach to this? For instance: Denis Naughten floated an idea before Christmas about welfare payments to families being linked to children’s performance in education. Did anything ever come of that? Was it discussed at the Reform Alliance Conference? Or was it let just wither on the vine?

What are we doing about reskilling people? The universities are pumping out IT graduates but the IT managers who drink pints with this column when this column is off-duty all say that hiring is hellishly difficult at the moment. Yes, the graduates have skills but they’re not the right skills, in the same way a plumber’s skills aren’t a carpenter’s.

So what can people do? If you can learn one computer language you can learn them all. What opportunities are there to get quickly qualified in a single-hot skill language? None. Irish tertiary education isn’t modular. You have to do a three year course and what in God’s Holy Name is the point in doing a three year course to learn one single language you can learn in three months?

You could buy a book from Amazon and learn it that way, of course. But if you don’t have a qualification the recruiters recognise, the recruiters don’t want to know.

So. if the Government really wanted to be radical it could:

  • Run modular courses for different computer specialties, as informed by the major employers in that sector
  • Phase out benefits rather than suddenly cutting them off when someone leaves the long-term unemployed list
  • Persuade employers and recruiters to be a little more expansive in their hiring policy, and to remember that skills are only a component of what makes a good employee. Skills can be taught. Character, not so much.

And that’s just three things that the Government could do at hardly any cost but with tremendous potential reward. What do we get instead? Job-bridge apprentices and Gateway grasscutters. Have we any tears left to shed?