Monday, November 17, 2014

That Troublesome Thing, Democracy

It is the nature of being a member of an elite to quickly forget what it’s like to be part of the hoi-polloi. Marie Antoinette, for instance, couldn’t conceive of a situation where people were starving. All she ever knew were sumptuous riches. She had no conception of people not having cake to eat.

Sinn Féin’s inexorable rise in the polls has the Irish political elite just as baffled as the last Queen of France. But how could the elite understand it, when they only ever talk to themselves? If they were to talk to real people living real lives in the real world, the secret of Sinn Féin’s success would be all too clear. It comes about – if you will pardon the infelicitous phrase – through process of elimination.

The current government swept to power on a manifesto of change. But all they changed were the chairs. The music remained exactly the same.

The current government did not stand up to Brussels. They did exactly what Fianna Fáil had laid out for them. The current government did not end cronyism. If anything, they brought it to newer and towering heights. And God only knows what the ongoing disaster of Irish Water will do before that debate calms down.

In the light of all this, you can see how people might be a little bit tetchy. Nobody likes being sold a pup. As for the Government’s greatest victory, the Promissory Note deal and the exit of the Troika – well, what does that mean, really?

The people were told that thirty years of hardship lay in store, thanks to perfidious Fianna Fáil and their crooked builder pals. And now everything’s grand after three years? Either the Government was lying while in opposition, or else it’s lying now. Both statements cannot be true.

So, having tried the strawberry flavour and then tried the banana flavour, the public are going to try another flavour again. And the only flavour left in the shop is Sinn Féin.

The Independents can’t form a Government. If anything, “Independent” doesn’t quite describe that eclectic group, as they nearly all have mother parties from which they are currently estranged.

Lucinda Creighton had the potential to create a new party that would, finally, end the civil war era of Irish politics. She had the moral authority that comes from giving up all she had, politically, on a point of principle, and she had a constituency desperate for change and reform.

But, perhaps through lack of vision on her own part, and certainly through extraordinary cowardice on others’ parts, Creighton could never rally people to her flag. Stephen Donnelly could have brought the Reform Alliance into life, cementing their status as fiscally responsible while take the right-wing Catholic edge off them. But he stayed put, and all Lucinda can do now is wait for Enda Kenny’s Night of the Long Knives and rejoin Fine Gael once Kenny’s head is in Mme La Guillotine’s basket.

Sinn Féin are soaking up the votes because there’s nobody else there. Fianna Fáil remain in ribbons after the 2011 election, while neither Fine Gael nor Labour realise just how betrayed so many of the people who voted for them in 2011 feel. They people didn’t get what they wanted at the last election, so now they’ll give the other crowd a try. That’s how it works, isn’t it?

The prospect of Sinn Féin in power horrifies the Irish political Establishment. As such, the media – who are as much part of the Establishment as An Taoiseach himself – have been bending over backwards to demonise Sinn Féin at every opportunity. But all they’re doing is making Sinn Féin stronger, because anybody can see the extraordinary bias in their coverage.

Mary-Lou McDonald’s expulsion from the Dáil last week is the latest case of this. All the coverage – all of it – dismissed McDonald’s expulsion as a stunt. Nobody was interested in teasing out the story a bit further.

For instance, did anybody ask if Seán Barrett is as even-handed as he ought to be in his role as Ceann Comhairle? Mary Lou McDonald’s isn’t the first name to make his bad books.

Former TD Luke Ming Flanagan has been vocally critical of Seán Barrett too. It’s not Sinn Féin’s imagination. That should make Barrett’s Ceann Comhairle-ship is a legitimate point of debate, but it’s not.

The second point is – does any of this matter? The Dáil’s theoretical purpose is to hold the executive to account, but the country is now run by a four-person junta, comprised of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The junta showed the Dáil exactly how much it mattered during the Irish Water debate. There wasn’t one. Irish Water was set up by fiat, just as things are done in any other totalitarian state.

And that’s why people are willing to give Sinn Féin a go. Because there’s nobody else there and, having been promised reform, the people still seem to kind of want it.

IN order to provide some vague alternative, the extraordinary prospect of a Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael coalition, to “safeguard democracy,” is now being floated. There is no notion that expresses the elitism of the governing classes so much as that idea.

A Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael coalition won’t stop Sinn Féin getting into government. All it will do is delay it, and ensure that Sinn Féin will have even more TDs and therefore more cabinet places in the election after next. If the people vote for Sinn Féin, they have to get them.

There is also the lesson of history in not giving the people what they voted for. Dick Spring’s Labour Party were never forgiven for denying the voice of the people in 1992.

If Sinn Féin get a mandate from the people to govern at the next election that mandate has to be respected, no matter how many stomachs churn at the prospect. That’s what democracy is – the people get to select their government, and not have their government decided by juntas and elites.

If the three establishment parties want to win more votes than Sinn Féin, they would be better off making it clear to the people why they’re worth those votes, rather than briefing against the dirty Shinners and hoping wool will be pulled over people’s eyes. The nation is sick of wool by now.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

We Have Learned Nothing in Irish Politics

First published in the Western People on Monday.

I, for one, welcome our new overlord.
The analysis of the by-election results in Dublin South-West and Roscommon South-Leitrim has focused heavily on how voters are turning away from the major Irish political parties. This was especially obvious in Dublin South-West, where Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour managed just 26% of the vote between them.

To put that in perspective, there has never been a government in the history of the state that hasn’t featured at least one of those parties in its makeup, and now they can only manage one vote in four between the three of them.

Why the public are so disillusioned is certainly due to a combination of reasons, one of which seems under-discussed in the national media. Could the disconnect between the mainstream political parties and the mainstream of Irish political life have arisen because the mainstream political parties have treated the electorate like fools since the crash, if not before?

For instance: during the end of the bailout debate in the Dáil last year, the majority of speakers made a point of commending the Ballyhea Says No Protest.

Ballyhea is a village in County Cork. Every Sunday without fail since March 6th, 2011, a group of locals have held a protest against the bank bailout.

There is a better chance of the GAA stripping Kerry of this year’s All-Ireland title and awarding it to Mayo in apology for events in Limerick than there is of the Ballyhea Says No protest group doing anything other than getting colds now that the weather has got chilly again. The Ballyhea protest is an attempt to get toothpaste back into the tube or water to flow uphill. The world doesn’t work like that. It just doesn’t.

Ballyhea says it’s not our debt. Of course it’s our debt. If it weren’t our debt, we wouldn’t be bloody paying for it, would we? This is how the world works.

Does anybody stand up and say this in the Dáil? No, they don’t. If the people were told that the milk is spilled and is now gone, never to come back, could they deal with it? Of course they could. Milk gets spilled all the time and the world doesn’t end. The world carries on just the same. But the Irish political establishment doesn’t trust the Irish electorate to come to terms with that.

Whether they were right or wrong, whether they were had their arms twisted or they were just thick, the government that signed the bank guarantee were fully mandated by the people to sign that guarantee. That’s what representative government is.

The sovereign people elect representatives to make decisions on the sovereign people’s behalf. If the government screws it up, it’s partly the fault of the sovereign people who elected them in the first place.

This isn’t news. This principle goes back to the Ancient Greeks, before the birth of Christ. There is nothing novel in this.

But representative democracy can do something that toothpaste-back-in-tube movements can’t do. They elect someone else. And that is what the voters in the two by-elections are clearly eager to do.

That is what they did the last time, but they were sold a pup. The people remain eager to get what they voted for, and so we get the voting patterns in the recent by-elections. The sad thing for the country, though, is that the new dispensation is just as likely to be a mutt as the last.

Michael Fitzmaurice, the new TD for Roscommon South Leitrim, seems a good and honest man. The type of man on whom you can rely to help you when you need it and pretend after that he did nothing at all. In the case of Roscommon South-Leitrim, the man’s own decency and likeability may have had as much to do with his victory as anything else.

But the reality is that he’s just one man. One man can’t govern. To govern, you need to form alliances, and how many Michael Fitzmaurices are there in the Dáil? The Independents dream of some sort of we’re-all-Independent-together faction in the next Dáil, but where is the common ground between Shane Ross, Michael Fitzmaurice and Michael Lowry? The gap is too big to bridge.

And then you have the socialists. Paul Murphy, Joe Higgins, Clare Daly and Joan Collins were all in the Socialist Party once. Presuming that the Anti-Austerity Alliance isn’t one and the same with the Socialist Party, the four of them are now in four different parties, even though they all agree with each other on policy.

They all agree, and they can’t get on. They won’t be forming any government, or if they do, it’ll probably have broken down in the time it takes them to go the Phoenix Park to get their seals of office from the President.

Besides. The establishment parties aren’t alone in not being entirely upfront with the electorate. Paul Murphy was elected in Dublin South-West because he is anti-water charge. Most people who voted for him won’t be liable for water charges in the first place. There are places in Dublin South-West that are so deprived, so far removed from mainstream life, that even to drive through them feels like having crossed into another country.

If there were honest politics in this country, the only issue on the doorsteps in areas like Jobstown and Cherry Orchard should be that candidates would move Heaven and Earth to keep children in school and on the straight and narrow. Dysfunctional though the adults’ lives may be, if it can be brought through to them that it may be possible to save the children from perpetuating the cycle, that would a treble victory for the people, the community and the nation.

What did we get instead? Extraordinary placards that beseeched us to stick our water meters up our bottoms. Not quite Meagher’s speech from the dock.

So here we are. Faith is lost in the establishment parties. The only people to rally to Lucinda Creighton’s flag were those who had nowhere else to go. The alternative parties hope to get their chance but, if their slogans are a guide, it’s hard not to think of the men to whom WB Yeats referred in The Fisherman one hundred and one years ago – “no knave brought to book / Who has won a drunker cheer.”

There are no leaders here. The country continues to go around and around in pointless, hopeless circles.

Forgive us, Frau Merkel. Come back to Erin, Mr Chopra. We promise to be nicer to you than those beastly Scots, Mr Cameron. Please. Somebody take us in. We just can’t make it on our own.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Margaret Burke Sheridan - Visse d'Arte

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The birthday of the greatest female singer Ireland has ever produced falls on this Wednesday. She is not a national figure because she was an opera singer, and opera has never been popular in Ireland. It’s a pity though – opera is one of the great achievements in human art, and Margaret Burke Sheridan was one of our own.

Very much one of our own, in fact. Margaret Sheridan was born in a house on the Mall in Castlebar on October 15th, 1889, the fifth child of the postmaster in Castlebar at the time, John Burke Sheridan.

Margaret’s mother died when Margaret was five, and her father died when she was eleven. Effectively orphaned – the Sheridan family don’t seem to have been that close - Margaret was raised to adulthood in the Dominican convent at 19 Eccles Street, Dublin 7, now part of the Mater Hospital. And it was while a student with the Dominicans that Margaret Burke Sheridan discovered that she had a gift.

At the age of nineteen, Sheridan left Ireland to study music at the Royal Academy in London. She was a success, but there was a war on and the opera scene in London was something of a backwater. If you wanted to be a star, you had to go to Italy, where opera is all.

Sheridan went to Rome, and started training again under a teacher called Alfredo Martini. And it was while training that she made the decision that set her path for the rest of her life.

A singer in a production of La Bohème in the Constanzi Opera House (now the Teatro dell’Opera) fell ill while Margaret Sheridan was staying in the Quirinale Hotel. The Quirinale is on the other side of the block from the opera house, and the manager of the opera house had heard Margaret practicing - Sheridan was in the habit of practicing her singing at her open window in the hotel. The manager took a notion, and sent a cable to find out if the nobody wanted to become a star in four days, filling as Mimì in Giancomo Puccini’s beloved opera about young love.

Fantastic, you would think. But it wasn’t that simple. Martini, Margaret’s teacher, was dead set against the idea, and for reasons that are do with what makes opera such a challenging art form.

The singing that we do in the shower or when loaded with porter is a natural ability. Sometimes the singing isn’t too bad, sometimes it’s wretched – it’s down to accidents of birth.

But the singing done by opera singers isn’t at all natural. Yes, there are natural voices, but they have to be meticulously trained, not only to make sweeter, richer sounds, but to be able to make those sounds on demand, consistently, for show after show, for performance after performance.

Margaret Burke Sheridan had a natural gift. But she wasn’t yet fully in control of her voice. She could sing, but she couldn’t sing in such a way that she could guarantee her singing wouldn’t impair her ability to sing in future. That’s how severe operatic singing is – if you don’t know what you’re doing, you are in danger of destroying your voice every time you open your mouth.

On the other hand, Sheridan had been living off the kindness of strangers since her father died. Different benefactors had invested in her talent, but it’s not the same as making your own money. And opportunities to sing a major role in a major theatre don’t come along every day. What use was there in completing her training if she were to have a perfect instrument but nowhere to sing? Besides; she could always go back and finish up her training, couldn’t she?

Sheridan made her choice. She sang Mimì in Rome on February 3rd, 1918, and instantly became a star. Even today, Italians don’t always take to foreigners singing Italy’s national art form, but they couldn’t resist Sheridan.

For twelve years she ruled the operatic stage, something John McCormack could never do. Margaret Sheridan sang in London, Naples, Monte Carlo and Milan, and was acclaimed by all. And then, after a performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello at Covent Garden in June, 1930, she never sang again.

She tried to, of course. At first, she would claim a cold or a chest infection and pull out of performances, in the fashion of primas donnas. But as the years went by it became clearer that she would never return to the stage. Alfredo Martini had been right. Without the proper grounding and technique, Margaret’s talent was a castle built on sand. It would last for so long but it was always doomed. And when the doom arrived, there would be no way to rescue it.

Sheridan was still a star. She was offered concert recitals – the form that made McCormack a household name and a very wealthy man - but she turned them down. As far as Sheridan was concerned, it was opera or nothing. Opera isn’t just the singing – it’s the acting, the music, the performance, the whole. To just sing without the rest of opera’s heady mix would be like drinking black tea. It just wasn’t the same.

Sheridan turned a brave face to the world, but the remaining thirty-odd years of her life were tough on her. She came back to live in Ireland but we are not a great nation for accepting our countrymen and countrywomen who have had success abroad.

But Margaret Sheridan was generous to the next generation, and did what she could for them. In her definitive biography of Sheridan, Anne Chambers writes of a Feis Ceoil winner, Phyllis Sullivan, who was tutored for a time by Margaret Sheridan.

Sullivan recalled Sheridan as being temperamental, but never mean. If Sullivan made a mistake, Sheridan would sing the line properly herself (while always avoiding high notes). Sullivan asked Sheridan why she didn’t sing in public anymore.

“My voice is finished,” replied Sheridan. “It’s all right singing for you, darling, but I would break on my top notes and I am nervous.”

Margaret Burke Sheridan died on April 16th, 1958, and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. The back of her headstone reads “Margherita Sheridan, Prima Donna. La Scala, Milan. Covent Garden, London.” Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam uasal.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Bias in the Media

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Although his politics are shared by very few people in the country, Joe Higgins, TD, has always been lauded for being a “diverse” voice in the Irish political landscape. Political correspondents often remark in their end-of-term parliamentary reviews how good it is to have Joe Higgins in the Dáil to provide “balance” to debates.

Well. We all must be careful what we wish for, and the national media discovered this the hard way when the terms of reference to the long-awaited Banking Inquiry were announced recently.

The Banking Inquiry was conceived, originally, as a fine instrument for dipping the previous government into a vat of boiling oil. However, that methodology would probably give some busybody in the UN another reason to give out to us, so the current government had to adjust the terms of reference.

The Banking Inquiry is now set to investigate all banking practice in Ireland from 1992 until the crash, some sixteen years. And just as everybody was about to sign off on this, Joe Higgins put his hand up and made a last-minute suggestion.

Higgins proposed that the inquiry examine “the development of a prevailing consensus, including the role of mass media and advertising and mortgage brokers, financial consultants and property development and sales companies.”

Since the crash, we’ve all heard a lot about “groupthink” in Irish political life. But Joe Higgins’s amendment to the Banking Inquiry is the first effort to discover what exactly this groupthink is, where does it come from, what does it do and is it a good or a bad thing.

Not everyone is happy about this. Ciarán Lynch, TD, chairman of the Banking Inquiry, was on Morning Ireland the week before last to discuss the Inquiry, and he seemed a little shocked to be hauled over the coals about the media angle.

“The media has no legislative power,” the Morning Ireland presenter kept repeating. Mr Lynch may have considered replying that a government backbencher doesn’t have all that much power either, but probably thought he’d only get into more trouble.

It is unlikely the nation wll be any the wiser after the Banking Inquiry. Anyone who expects anything other that stonewalling from witnesses and grandstanding from committee members hasn’t been following these Oireachtas Committee very closely.

People can be compelled to appear but they are under no obligation to say anything of any interest whatever once they’re there. So it’s all for show, really, a lot like the Houses of the Oireachtas themselves.

What makes this twist about the media interesting though is that it gives us an opportunity to consider the question of bias. All news reporting has to deal with bias, from the very start of a news cycle. By reporting one thing and not reporting another, any media organisation has already taken a step that may be affected by bias, either intentionally or unintentionally. It’s how the media organisation deals with that bias inherent in the news-gathering process itself that’s interesting. And there are two schools of thought here.

The current fashion is for admitting bias from the start. More and more media organisations don’t even try to be fair, but simply tell their audiences what they want to hear. The right-wing Fox News in the USA is (in)famous for its partisan reporting, but there are plenty of channels in the US who shout for the Democrats too. The problem is that people don’t get to see both points of view at once, and this causes a democratic deficit.

The classical model of good reporting in journalism is to acknowledge bias but to strive to overcome it at every opportunity. This is the model practiced here in Ireland – in theory, anyway – but it seems Joe Higgins is inclined to double-check that idea, just in case.

Does Higgins have a point? Well. It certainly is a remarkable thing that the entire country was convinced that the housing market could provide infinite wealth for so long. It also a remarkable thing that when the crash came, the country was equally convinced there was only one reason behind it. How much of these twin illusions was due to the way the boom, the bust and the repercussions were reported in the media?

The media is all-pervasive in our lives. When you get up, you know if the shower was hot or cold, you know if you could find your socks, you know if there’s milk in the fridge when you open the door. You could look out the window to see what the weather is like, but you know that could change in fifteen minutes or less.

For everything else that impacts on your life, you need the media. Do you need a new car for the morning commute? Can you afford one? Are car prices going up or down? Are petrol prices going up or down? What will it cost to tax and insure the thing? Should you forget the family saloon and buy some sort of jeep, because the road is all potholes and it costs money to repair broken axles?

You don’t have time to study economics to see overall market trends. You can’t keep up with the geopolitics of the oil-producing countries, or the physics of all the new ways of getting oil out of the ground. And you certainly can’t pop in to Leinster House and find out what future taxation and infrastructure policy will be. There are plenty in there who have no idea no more than ourselves.

So you rely on the media for this information. You watch the news and listen to it on the radio and buy a daily paper along with your weekly Western and you take a sneaky glance at the web at work too.

But reader – can you fully believe what you read in the papers, hear on the radio or see on the TV? Is everybody trying really hard to maintain objectivity, or do they go on the occasional crusade every now again? Or not even that – could it be that one side of the argument is presented, and a balancing counter-argument just doesn’t make an appearance? Who exactly is telling us what to do?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Looking Past the GAA's Black Card Propaganda

The science of statistics, for all the black arts associated with it, has one golden rule. It is this: correlation does not imply causation.

Because A and B happened in sequence does not mean that A caused B, or that B is the result of A. If it starts raining on the day you leave home without your coat, that does not mean that your coatlessness caused the shower. It is much more likely the rain was caused by the meeting of weather fronts of different temperatures than your own childlike optimism.

In much the same way, the black card statistics trumpeted so loudly by the GAA at the end of last week should be met with a certain skepticism. All statistics should be met with skepticism of course, but ones make causal claims as – shall we say, ambitious? – as these are very difficult to take.

The press release on the GAA’s own website boldly claimed that “With the introduction of the black card, the average number of points per game in the 2014 championship is roughly 9.5% higher than in 2013; the number of points scored has increased by just shy of five points per game since 2010.”

When you read “2010,” you may have heard a loud whirring sound. That is the sound of spinning. 2010 has nothing on God’s green earth to do with the black card. The only reason its tagged on there is because five sounds like a lot.

The black card has not been popular, not least as so few people know what exactly a black card offense is. But rather than admit they got it wrong, the GAA finds itself like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, denying the bleeding obvious. They are fooling nobody who takes a minute to think about it.

But if the black card isn’t the reason there were more scores in Gaelic football in 2014 than there were in 2013, what is? It could be any one of a number of reasons.

Gavin Cummiskey in the Irish Times theorises that “Dublin’s record -breaking summer of scoring must be factored into the increase.” Bless. This blog has taken Cummiskey at his word, and has indeed factored Dublin’s record-breaking summer into the increase.

If you remove the games that Dublin won from the 2014 scoring averages, the average total score per game drops from 34.92 to 34.4. The earth really didn’t move because of Dublin.

So what could it be? Are there any patterns deeper in the data?

Here are two tables. The first shows the average total points per game since the qualifiers were introduced in 2001, broken down by year and competition (the four provincial championships, the qualifiers and the All-Ireland series that starts in August).

And here are the average margins, broken down the same way.

The numbers are colour-coded, from green for the highest totals or margins, into white for average, down to red for the lowest. There is no sharp correlation between margin and totals per game, but there is certainly a case to be made for further investigation into the idea that the current inequality of the Championship is a greater factor in more points being scored.

Are more points being scored because more hidings are being handed out than heretofore? Look at Connacht. Is it a co-incidence that the highest scoring totals coincide with the current Mayo dominance?

Look at Ulster. Ulster is consistently lowest in totals and lowest in margin of victory. But isn’t a low margin of victory a good thing? Doesn’t it mean the games were competitive? Doesn’t everybody know that Ulster is easily the most competitive province? So why are the GAA squawking about point totals as measures of football excellence?

The statistics for the All-Ireland series sit badly with the theory that the greater scoring is significant of teams getting hammered rather than beautiful football being encouraged by the introduction of the black card – the high totals are not matched by high margins, as they are for some years in the other competitions.

But there are mitigating factors here. Firstly, the last eight teams in the country are the best teams in the country. This has been established in both theory and practice over the past five or more years. Naturally, then, these teams score more than teams that aren’t as good.

It was also in the All-Ireland series that the referees’ reluctance to issue black cards became glaringly obvious. The GAA press release tells us that black cards were issued at a rate of 0.8 per Championship game. How many of those black cards were issued in the All-Ireland series?

Four black cards were issued in the eight games of the All-Ireland series. One in the four quarter-finals, two in the three semi-finals, and one in the final. That’s a rate of 0.5 cards per Championship Game among the games that were the highest-scoring of all, contrasted with the 0.8 overall average in the Championship.

The GAA are taking the seanfhocal literally, and are trying to say black is white. End this black card farce now.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Redmond Problem

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Former Taoiseach John Bruton is not to be dissuaded in his support for John Redmond as a great Irish patriot and parliamentarian. But is John Bruton aware that the case he is currently building could blow up in his face and help sweep Sinn Féin to power just in time for the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising?

John Burton’s advocacy of John Redmond is part of the wider campaign to water down any commemoration of the 1916 Rising. This watering-down campaign has not been announced as policy, as there are concerns that such watering down would go down badly with the people. As such, the campaign has been a little more subtle.

There was Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland, which received blanket media coverage. There was President Higgins’s return visit to the United Kingdom, which was covered no less.

There has been this spurious “Decade of Commemoration,” where successive governments have tried to lessen the impact of the 100th Anniversary of the Rising by saying the Rising was just one of a number of things that happened at that time.

As a strategy, this is in the same league as a callow youth’s plan to sneak a copy of some naughty magazine in between a National Geographic and this week’s Western as he approaches a till manned by a live, actual female.

No-one is fooled. The people don’t care. We had a year-long commemoration of the 1913 Lockout in Dublin last year, and this year’s love-bombing of the 100th anniversary of the start of the “Great” War. Both were met by the same shrug as the checkout girl’s, who has zero interest in the callow youth’s taste in periodicals. The nation doesn’t care about a decade of commemoration, but there seems to be a big green X marking the spot for either April 24th or Easter Monday of 2016 somewhere at the back of our minds.

That the Rising still means so much to people is surprising, and certainly not in line with how successive governments have been viewing the situation. It only became obvious after the Presidential visit to the United Kingdom when, in a flush of enthusiasm, an invitation was extended for some members of the British royal family to come over and be part of the fun.

The nation reacted with horror and the proposal hasn’t been heard of since.

The reason that Irish governments have been very wary of the 1916 Anniversary is that the Rising was legitimised after the fact. Padraig Pearse and the other rebel leaders had no mandate to do what they did. They couldn’t declare a republic in 1916 because they didn’t represent anybody but themselves in 1916.

The 1916 mandate was backdated by the first Dáil in 1919, and since it all turned out grand in the end, nobody but an anti-national spoilsport would go questioning the morality of the whole thing. For the first fifty years after independence, everyone wore the white cockade.

And then, on January 4th, 1969, a march in support of a crazy notion of one-man, one-vote in Northern Ireland was ambushed on its way into Derry, to the supreme indifference of the watching policemen as a fusillade of stones, iron bars and nail-studded sticks rained down on the marchers.

One thing led to another and by the 1970s getting tanked up and singing Seán South of Garryowen south of the border didn’t seem like harmless fun anymore. Nobody wanted to mention the war.

That war-that-wasn’t took thirty years and over three thousand lives until a serendipitous accident saw political leaders in Ireland, Britain and the USA come to power, leaders who were willing take chances and bend rules for peace.
There are those who are sickened by retired terrorists swaggering around the corridors of power instead of doing stir in some suitable jail, but that is the price of peace. People have to turn a blind eye to things in the name of the greater good.

Until a bull charges into a china shop as John Bruton did when he condemned the 1916 leaders in a speech delivered at the Irish Royal Academy on the day of the Scottish Referendum.

For Bruton, the Irishmen who fought for Britain in the “Great” War were patriots, whereas those who rebelled in 1916 were not fighting a just war. But Bruton makes a logical error here. He presents reaction to the 1916 Rising as an either/or scenario.

If you are against the 1916 Rising, you must be in favour of Redmond, and you must therefore do your duty by the Empire. Meaning, in this case, head for the Somme two months after the Rising and get mown down by the German machine-guns in your thousands and thousands.

There was a slogan that was common in Ireland during those troubled times one hundred years ago – “Neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland.” In his speech at the Royal Irish Academy, Bruton has eliminated that third way as an option at the time, and has presented war as inevitable. The only question was whether you marched under the tricolour or the Union Jack, but march and kill or be killed you surely would.

And that’s a very inappropriate road for Bruton to have gone down. Just how inappropriate was spotted immediately by the current Minister for Agriculture (and favourite to become the next leader of Fine Gael), Simon Coveney. On the morning of Bruton’s speech, Minister Coveney tweeted “For the record: I believe much of John Bruton’s commentary on 1916 is simply wrong and does not represent the views of Fine Gael supporters.” Duly noted, Minister.

It may be that Bruton doesn’t realise that he polarised the choice, and it was just unfortunate wording on his part. Or it may be that he’s fully aware of what he’s doing, and believes that, in times of peace and (returned?) prosperity, the nation will follow the good man Redmond ahead of gunmen like Breen, Barry and O’Malley.

But nationalism works at a level beyond the senses. When it boils down to flags, the Irish nation, for all the faults of the state, will rally under only one, and it won’t be the one still flying over Edinburgh. That is the nature of the patriot game.

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.