Thursday, September 25, 2014

Laois Are Hurling Champions Too

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The hurlers of Kilkenny and Tipperary will face each other on the field on honour once more this weekend. There had been no draw in All-Ireland hurling finals since the late 1950s; the replay at five o’clock on Saturday will be the third in three years.

And no harm either. The GAA has priced the tickets sensibly, and the finals of recent years have been epics of skill and spirit. Tipperary and Kilkenny share a border of thirty-five miles, give or take, and every yard of it bristles with rivalry. All the more so in September, if the great prize is at stake.

Whoever wins the All-Ireland on Saturday will deserve it. There’s no argument about that. But Croke Park will contain more than partisans from each competing county. As with football final, Croke Park will contain men and women for whom the game is all, even though their chances of ever seeing their own team march behind the Artane Band as the evenings shorter and the weather gets colder are slim.

Consider the place of Laois in the world of hurling. Laois were the All-Ireland hurling champions of 1915, when they beat Cork on a wet day in October in the final.

The senior hurlers of the O’Moore County have won only one title since – the Delaney Cup in 1949, when they squeaked past Kilkenny in the Leinster Final, 3-8 to 3-6. Laois went on to beat Galway to return to the All-Ireland Final, where they faced Tipperary. Tipp slaughtered them, 3-11 to 0-3. Laois have won nothing since.

But for those long and fallow years, Laois haven’t given up. Giving up is not what GAA people do. Laois soldier on.

If you are old enough, you certainly remember the Cork footballers beating Mayo 5-15 to 0-10 in 1993, and the memory still stings. The Cork hurlers played Laois three years ago in the preliminary round of the hurling qualifiers. Cork won by 10-20 to 1-13. How can you possibly go on after that? And yet go on Laois do, year after year, summer after summer.

Séamus “Cheddar” Plunkett is the current Laois hurling manager. Keith Duggan interviewed him in the Irish Times in March, and asked him if he ever wished he had been born “over there,” on the other side of the border. Plunkett’s answer is the answer of every GAA person worth his or her salt: “I don’t actually want to be from there. I know where I’m from!”

And so he does. Séamus Plunkett played on the Laois team that made it to the 1984 Centenary Cup Final. Pat Critchley was a midfielder on that team. Critchley would go on to win Laois’s only hurling All-Star the following year, and now Critchley is the manager of the Laois minors.

But Critchley and Plunkett’s personal connection exists outside hurling. Friends since childhood, they went on an adventure in the late 1980s that was every young person’s dream, at one stage or another.

In the late 1980s, Pat Critchley and Séamus Plunkett’s brother, Ollie, were in a band. The band was formed as the Drowning Fish, and then later came to prominence – of a kind – as The Mere Mortals.

They played at Féile, the big outdoor concert that succeeded Siamsa Cois Laoi and preceded the Electric Picnic, in 1990. The Mere Mortals charted in 1991 with a single called Travelling On after appearing on Barry Lang’s Beat Box, a music show that was on TV after Mass on Sunday morning, and their path to being the next U2 seemed certain.

Therefore, they hired Séamus Cheddar Plunkett to be their manager, because you always need a sensible one to mind the money. When Plunkett imposed a two-pint limit before every gig, the band knew they had hired the right man.

The video for Travelling On is on You Tube. It’s of its time, which is a nice way of saying that it’s awful. Paul Marron, the lead singer, looks like Bono did at Self-Aid, with an overcoat and great big woolly mullet. The song itself is built on one of those ning-ning-ning-ning guitar riffs that were the sound of Irish rock at the time. It’s brutal.

Pat Critchley’s role in the band was to play the accordion and the yellow maracas. This makes Travelling On and Where Do You Go To, My Lovely the only songs in the canon to use the accordion play rock and roll.

It’s easy to look back on an ‘eighties music video and laugh. But reader, those Mere Mortals probably had more fun in one weekend in Portarlington than any of us will have in our entire lives, because there were In A Band.

And there’s something about that aspect to Critchley and Plunkett, the Marx and Engels of the (hoped for) Laois hurling revolution, that speaks to the best of us. The Mere Mortals struggled to fulfill all their gigs because the lads had hurling matches to go to. For them, there was nothing greater than the game, nor anywhere greater than Laois.

In a feature on Today FM’s Championship Sunday during the summer, Pat Critchley reminisced on his childhood in Portlaoise, and how he always wanted to mark Billy Bohane at hurling training, even though Billy Bohane was an old man at the time.

Who’s Billy Bohane? He was a midfielder on the 1949 Laois team that Tipperary destroyed. A footnote in the national record, a hero to his own. As Patrick Kavanagh has told us, gods make their own importance.

So good luck and God bless the hurlers of Tipperary and Kilkenny, the best we have in the country. One of them will be crowned All-Ireland Champions for the 35th or 27th time, and be worthy of the title. But raise a glass on Saturday night to the likes of Laois and our own Mayo hurlers as well, counties who hurl away from the limelight but hurl on none the less. They know the ultimate truth. The GAA isn’t about winning. The GAA is about being. Long may it last.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why Do Kerry Keep Winning?

There have been two great Kerry generations in the past thirty years. There was the Golden Years team of the 1970s and 80s, featuring men so famous in the game they are known by one name only –Jacko, Ogie, Páidí, Bomber. And there is the Darragh Ó Sé generation, where that great man had the likes of Paul Galvin, Colm Cooper and, of course, his brothers Tomás and Marc to help him out.

But it is mistaken analysis to think that that Kerry rack up All-Irelands the way they do because they enjoy golden generations the way the hurlers of Cork, Kilkenny or Tipp enjoy golden generations. No. Kerry lead the pack in terms of football All-Irelands won, thirty-seven titles in comparison to Dublin’s twenty-four in second place, because whenever a year looks like being below average, when a title is there to be picked up a team that is not outstanding, it’s generally Kerry that do the picking-up.

Above anything, Kerry are hungry for titles. Hungry in a way that’s hard to describe to those who have never experienced such a combination of want and obligation. If Kerry have a choice of playing to tradition or playing to win, they will play to win one hundred per cent of the time, because winning is the only thing. And what’s more, Kerry are dead right in doing so.

All-Irelands are won against teams in the here-and-now. They are not won against some mythical standard, existing pristine and immaculate in the collective Gaelic imagination.

Kerry go into every game knowing what it is they have to do and grim-set and determined to do it. You often hear of lesser teams that “have no Plan B” when they are dumped out of the Championship. You never hear that of Kerry.

Kerry have more plans than the alphabet has letters. Science-fiction fans may remember the second Terminator movie, that featured a virtually-indestructible robot that could adapt itself to its environment, that could be whatever it needed to be in any situation. Reader, that is Kerry football in a nutshell.

You want to play fancy? Kerry will play fancy, and win 3-18 to your 1-22. You want to box? Kerry will box, and win 0-9 to 0-8. It’s all the same to them. There are no asterisks on the roll of honour. All that’s there is a list of years. Thirty-seven of them in Kerry’s case, with room for plenty more.

And that’s exactly what Kerry did yesterday. Instead of being too proud to play Donegal’s game, they played Donegal’s game better than Donegal themselves. You dance with the girls in the hall and nobody, but nobody, does that better than Kerry.

In recent year, the nation outside of the Kingdom has been given a precious insight into just how Kerry look at things, thanks to Darragh Ó Sé’s column in the Irish Times every Wednesday, and Jack O’Connor’s before him. They are invaluable insights into a GAA football county that is like no other, and help us to understand how exactly it is that Kerry maintain standards in their Kingdom, year after year, generation after generation.

For instance: it is a thing in some counties to protect players from reading criticism on social media. The idea is that the players will retire to their bedrooms, weeping at the hurt, and won’t come out in play football anymore. In Kerry, they think a little differently about how to make up-and-coming aware of what life in the big time is like.

Billy Keane recounted a story about David Moran, one of this year’s All-Star midfielders, during his first time on the Kerry panel, when Darragh Ó Sé was still the old bull in the field. Ó Sé hit Moran a slap that left Moran with a badly-cut mouth. Keane asked Ó Sé what the hell he did that for.

“David is too nice,” said Darragh. “I was trying to put a bit of fire in him. He doesn't get it yet just how hard it is.” That’s what it’s like at the top. A bit more severe than some randomer saying that you’re smelly on Twitter.

But Kerry have one other incredible asset that no other county has, or is likely to have anytime soon. Kerry has the richest football tradition in Ireland.

One difference between playing Kerry in Croke Park and playing them in Limerick is that you can hear what the Kerry support are saying. And the amazing thing is, they all say the same thing.

In Mayo, if Aidan O’Shea has possession and is travelling towards goal, from the half-forward to the full-forward line, one-third of the Mayo support will urge him to go on and bury it, one third will implore him to pass, for God’s sake, and the remaining third will beg O’Shea, on their mothers’ lives, to take his bloody point.

In Kerry, they all shout the same thing. Kerry football people know exactly the right thing to do at any particular point in the game. That’s how deep football is in their marrow. And what they don’t know, they learn quickly.

Another county might have folded their tents after the infamous “puke football” semi-final of 2003. Kerry didn’t. Kerry learned how to play the new system, and have won five titles in the eleven years since. What they couldn’t beat, they joined.

And that’s the lesson for all the other counties in Ireland, now that the 2014 season is over. If you want to beat them, you have to join them. You must do as the best does if you’re to live with them and hope to beat them.

But that’s for another year. In the meantime, hard luck Donegal, and well done Kerry, deserving All-Ireland winners of 2014.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scotland and the Call of Freedom

First published in the Western People on Monday.

A Scotchman, yesterday.
It’s all fun and games until somebody loses a country. The sage parental advice sounded ne’er so true as when the British political establishment suddenly woke to the prospect that, for all their blather, the perfidious Scots might just go and vote for independence after all.

It’s not just the rest of the United Kingdom who are suddenly transfixed by events north of Hadrian’s Wall. An independent Scotland would be something of a floating joker in the European context. Its proponents say everything will be fine and an independent Scotland will be welcomed with open arms in Brussels, while opponents grimly remark that one does not simply walk into the European Union and leave it at that.

For Ireland too, an independent Scotland would be more hassle than we need right now. Ireland’s great selling point for direct foreign investment, apart from our corporation tax, is that we are an English-speaking gateway to Europe. But they speak English in Scotland too – what happens if Scotland becomes a more attractive place to locate than Ireland? Nothing good.

Ireland certainly can’t come around and plead with the Scots to stay in the UK, given our own history, but the last thing we want is having our eye wiped by a free Scotland that’s also claiming to be the best small country in the world to do business. Therefore, the Irish keep schtum, and hope for the best.

But an independent Scotland might be too busy fighting for its very survival to even think about raining on the Irish parade. An independent Scotland will face two big questions. The biggest question of all is: what will they use for money?

The proponents of independence say that the money will be fine. They can use the pound sterling, just like always. But we in Ireland don’t have our own currency, and look how we got rolled around in a barrel because of it over the past few years.

Money, in itself, isn’t valuable. Money is a measure of value. That value is set by governments. If Scotland uses the pound sterling as its currency, it doesn’t get to set the value of that currency.

Scotland currently has a say in the value of the pound sterling, as part of the United Kingdom. But a vote for independence means the Scots get no say at all. So if Scottish interest rates are rising while English interest rates are falling – well, it won’t be pretty.

And then there is the EU conundrum. There are plenty of European countries that have regions that dream of independence. A smooth Scottish ascension to the EU would have the same effect on such Catalans, Basques, Silesians and others who hear the call of freedom as spinach had on Popeye the Sailor Man. If the Scots want in to the EU, they will have to sing for their supper. The door won’t just swing open for them.

There is also the peculiar thing about the EU being a union of like-minded peoples, sharing values and cultures. People like those in the United Kingdom, whose values are now at such odds with Scottish values that the Scots have no option but to strike out on their own. So the Scots are like everyone else in the EU, from Westport to Warsaw, except the British, from whom the Scots are so different that they need to be independent. Whatever way you slice it, that never adds up.

And so we return to the crux of the question: why on Earth do the Scots want to be independent in the first place? What Scottish values exist that aren’t also British values? What freedom will the Scots gain through independence that they haven’t got now? What currently existing Scottish oppression will end through independence?

There is a romantic inclination to connect the notion of Scottish independence with Irish independence. That Scotland, like Ireland, is entitled to independence in the name of the dead generations from whom she derives her long tradition of nationhood.

But that’s not the case with the Scots at all. Whatever strain of that long tradition existed heretofore was well and truly wiped out at Culloden’s Moor on April 16th, 1745, by His Grace Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. Scotland has been, to echo a phrase from our own past, as British as Finchley ever since.

So how have they now got it into their heads they’re not as British as Finchley? How is Scottish independence so close that the British Establishment has been love-bombing Scotland for all its worth for the past week, and promising the devil and all if only the Scots won’t walk out the door?

It is simply the appeal of the patriot game that’s caused the Scots to short-circuit the notoriously severe common sense of the man in the street in Auchtermuchty, and go chasing a hopeless dream? If it is, they won’t be the first people to be so short-circuited, for whom some woman’s yellow hair has maddened every mother’s son.

Of course, Ireland and the Irish experience isn’t a factor in the Scottish referendum at all, which is a little hurtful. However hurtful it may be, it’s not at all difficult to understand. A lot of people in Scotland despise the Irish. Ibrox is filled to the rafters every week, with the Billy Boys gustily sung every time.

But one thing the Scots can learn from the Irish is that there is a big difference between being able to revolt and being able to govern. It’s hard not to look back on the early years of the Irish Free State and see men slightly lost in the corridors of power, wondering what in God’s name are we meant to do now?

We all throw back the shoulders when we look up and see the flag fluttering in the breeze. But what does the notion of a nation state really mean in the globalised world of the early 21st Century? We were talking about being able to set your own currency earlier but even that is limited by the size and resources of your own country. Things like sovereignty and independence are ephemeral things in the modern world, especially when compared to the solid reality of economic prosperity and political stability. It would be a pity if the Scots, that most practical of people, were to lose all that now in chasing a will-o-the-wisp.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Three-Point-Plan for the Coming Election

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The Houses of Oireachtas reconvene this day week, the fifteenth of September. A leading bookmaker is currently laying odds of Burlington Bertie, 100/30, that there will be an election this year. That is a very tempting price.

We are currently in the run-up to the Budget and, as is the time-honoured tradition with these things, ministers are flying flags to protect their own departmental budgets. There’s nothing unusual in that.

What is unusual this time around is that the Labour Party have mandated a new leader to make a stronger Labour case at the cabinet table while Fine Gael continue to hold the austerity line. Eventually, something’s got to give.

Neither side wants an election, but sometimes these things take on a momentum of their own and, once the snowball starts rolling down the hill, there’s no real way to stop it.

If there is to be an election, this column is happy to announce one vote for hire in the next general election. Whatever party comes closest to the following list of demands is the party most worthy of your correspondent’s favour when exercising his democratic franchise.

Reform of the Electoral System
Everybody talks about reform, but if that talking doesn’t contain a practical suggestion it’s just so much air. Commissions to see if Ireland should lower the voting age to sixteen are all hooey. Platitudes. Deckchairs on the Titanic.

Real reform is something that shakes up the political system, and ours is a system that is badly in need of shaking up. We can’t object to Europe taking over the powers of our national parliament when our own national parliament is, for want of a better phrase, a joke shop.

A parliament exists to hold a government to account. The Dáil does no such thing. The TDs obey the party whip, which means that Ireland is an oligarchy as much as it’s a democracy – the Taoiseach of the day takes advice from his unelected but nicely remunerated advisers, and the sheep bleat their support in the chamber.

Why is this so? This is so because the Irish nation prioritises the local over the national interest. Why would we do that? Because the electoral system forces us to do that.

For example: suppose there are two candidates for election. One is someone who speaks well, understands the economy and has a vision for the future. The other is someone who doesn’t care one way or the other about visions, but will pull every string going to fix the main road into town.

If the first person gets elected, nothing changes. He or she is full of great ideas but, as discussed earlier, you’re as well off writing to Santa about them as speaking in the Dáil, because nobody is listening in the Dáil.

If the second person gets elected, nothing changes at the national level either, but you do have a chance of getting that road tarred. A simple choice for anyone who can tell the difference between half a loaf and no bread.

If the electoral system is changed, we can then change the type of politician we elect, and the new politicians can then make more radical changes to the system of Government. But without that first step, nothing changes at all. This column’s preference would be for a single-seat constituency supplemented by a list system of elections, but I’m not dogmatic about it. So long as the politicians realise a change of system is the difference between getting elected and not, that’s the main thing.

Deflating the Dublin Housing Market Bubble
How can you have a housing shortage in a city that is surrounded by ghost estates? It makes no sense, yet this is what we’re being told to believe about housing in Dublin. We’ve spent the past five years watching TV documentaries about ghost estates, and now we’re expected to believe there’s a housing shortage and we need to build, build, build?

Average house prices in Dublin are rising by six thousand Euro a month. There is no way that is not a bubble. No way. Speculator cash is driving up the price of houses, and it’s being facilitated by the National Assets Management Agency, NAMA. NAMA’s remit is to get the best price it can for the assets on its books, and NAMA is supremely indifferent to whether there’s a bubble there or not. Managing the economy isn’t NAMA’s concern.

Managing the economy is, in fact, the Government’s concern. Vote for a party at the next election who will make deflating the bubble a priority. The crash is only five years’ distant – surely we haven’t forgotten that lesson already?

One of the reasons that Dublin currently has a housing market bubble is because, post-recession, the Government has abandoned all pretence at treating all regions equally. Right now, Government policy centres on developing the capital as a hub for foreign direct investment, and letting the regions go whistle.

The theory behind the policy is that Dublin has to compete with other cities of the world like London, New York, Mumbai and Amsterdam in being attractive to a globalised workforce, and it is the duty of the rest of the country to pull on the green jersey and get behind the capital.

The theory is deeply flawed. Foreign direct investment is a false god. Indigenous industry will always be more reliable than foreign direct investment, for two reasons. Firstly, being indigenous means the company is less likely to move away to somewhere cheaper. Secondly, if one indigenous company folds, it doesn’t take the whole industry with it. All our eggs will not be in one basket.

Again, there is no rule that says Ireland can only look to foreign direct investment for its development. This is the information age – the absence of resources and infrastructure don’t hamper us anymore. We need electric power, computers and good broadband. Once we have that, we are only limited by our imagination and bravery.

Fine Gael won their greatest-ever number of seats in the last election on the back of a five-point-plan. Here’s a three-point-plan that the voters should use to decide the next government – electoral reform, financial prudence, and decentralisation. Are they really too much to ask?

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Black Hole that is the Late Late Show

First published in the Western People on Monday.

If Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity is correct, there exist, somewhere in the universe, things called black holes. A black hole is a region of space where matter has become so compact it has collapsed into itself. A black hole’s gravitational field is so strong that it draws everything around into it, allowing nothing – not light, not gravity, not anything – to escape.

In Ireland, we are familiar with black holes. One will start broadcasting against this Friday night at nine-thirty on RTÉ 1, holding all otherwise sentient, sensible people in its iron grasp for the next two and a half hours.

People once thought that the Late Late Show couldn’t survive Gay Byrne’s retirement. They’ve had to think again – although Uncle Gaybo has never really gone away, his last Late Late Show was fifteen years ago. And still the show goes on after him, Friday after Friday, year after year.

It is not entirely unreasonable to expect that, should the direst of warnings come true and Ireland is three feet underwater as a result of global warming, or the proliferation of windfarms and pylons and the Lord knows what has left the green isle of Erin habitable only by rats, badgers and the rougher sort of insect, there will still be a tower in Montrose that will fizzle fitfully into life every Friday in autumn, winter and spring to announce that tonight, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the Late Late Show, and here is your host ...

Being the host of the Late Late Show is, supposedly, the premier job in Irish broadcasting. This is the reason RTÉ has historically paid its stars great pots of money for the apparently straightforward job of asking some British soap opera star how much she liked visiting Ireland and if, perhaps, she had any relations here. If someone like Pat Kenny wasn’t paid a big ball of money, the fear was that he would go somewhere else, and take all his listenership with him, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The interesting thing is that the bluff has been called. Newstalk made Pat Kenny an offer he couldn’t refuse last year and so Kenny left RTÉ after forty years to do his old show for a new boss. Newstalk’s plan was that Pat’s pipes would sound from Marconi house, and Kenny’s loyal listenership would obey the massive advertising campaign to “move the dial” and follow their leader.

Except that’s not what happened at all. The latest figures are that Pat Kenny’s radio show on Newstalk gets 143,000 listeners, while Pat’s old show in RTÉ, now hosted by Seán O’Rourke, gets 307,000. That’s a hiding by double scores in anybody’s language.

The nation now has solid field data about what happens when a big star moves. Nothing is what happens when a big star moves. RTÉ get someone else, and someone else becomes a star instead. And what is the result of this? UTV come along and offer Pat even more money to do a Late Late-style show for them, once they get up and running. If this column were ever in a position to interview Pat Kenny, the first question would be “can you believe your luck?”

Pat Kenny’s successor as host of the Late Late Show, Ryan Tubridy, is equally blessed in having a career that seems impervious to the market’s opinion of him. In one way, Tubridy was given the media equivalent of a hospital pass when he was asked to replace Gerry Ryan in the 2FM schedule after Ryan’s sudden death. Ryan was not everyone’s cup of tea but those who liked him, loved him. And those who loved Gerry Ryan are not impressed by his replacement.

But in the bigger picture, the poor radio figures don’t really matter. What is amazing about Tubridy is that in the age of the world wide web, internet streaming, Netflix, Sky plus, digital TV and more, Irish adults will sit down on Friday and watch the Late Late Show, let it matter a damn who’s on it as a guest or who’s presenting the show. It could be Ryan Tubridy interviewing Miriam O’Callaghan or Miriam O’Callaghan interviewing Ryan Tubridy. There’s no real difference. It’s Friday night, and this is what we do.

Ryan Tubridy’s Late Late Show isn’t the worst show of its kind on television. That strange show RTÉ broadcast after the nine o’clock news on Saturday night is surely the racing favourite for that dustbin honour. In fact, that show is so far from good it’s hard to understand why it’s not on TV3.

The galling thing is that the Late Late Show isn’t meant to be a show that isn’t the worst show on television. It’s meant to be the best show on television, the show that holds a mirror up to Ireland as this great nation of talkers and wits discuss and debate the great issues of day, from Ireland’s role in Europe to whether the nation should simply put Brian Cody in charge of everything and be done with it.

That is very different from listening to comedian Des Bishop, economist David McWilliams, stylist Lisa Fitzpatrick and Dolores Kehoe. Who on earth is Dolores Kehoe? Who cares what the other three think about anything?

Writing in the Irish Times about Tubridy’s unhappy radio listenership figures, Laura Slattery suggested that the problem wasn’t Tubridy but RTÉ management, for asking Tubridy to do a job for which he clearly isn’t suited. But it’s easy to see how RTÉ management could be puzzled by Tubridy, as he’s not suited to presenting a TV show that holds a mirror to a nation either, and the figures for that show are solid as the rock of Gibraltar.

The answer, as is often the case, lies closer to home. It’s us. It’s the nation. The people of Ireland would watch the Late Late Show even if were presented by Lorcan Murray and featured the cast of Fair City reading tweets of the week. What incentive is there for the Late Late Show to be any good if there’s no disincentive for it to be awful? Why can’t we move the dial? Why do we feel we have to do what we’ve always done? What’s the matter with us?