Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Won't Anybody Think of Kieran Donaghy?

The last fancy eats he'll see for a while.
The Gaelic Players’ Association, or GPA, like to make a big song and dance about the suffering of the inter-county player, and the great efforts that the GPA make to help those forced to wear that crown of thorns, that overladen creel, that 21st Century hairshirt that is the county jersey.

As far as the GPA are concerned, the county player, like lovely Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, is worth it.

“County players are separately [separate, that is, to the club players who make up 98% of the GAA’s playing population, and should be glad of the seat at the back of the bus, the scuts – ASF] supported through a Development Programme in specific recognition of their commercial importance and significance to the GAA in three main areas - the sale of sponsorship deals, broadcast rights and gate receipts.” says the GPA’s FAQ page.

What your correspondent can’t get through his cabbage head is why, for all their rhetoric about elite tier players and commercial significance, one of the most elite of Gaelic football’s elite tier players is currently on the brink of penury and ruin while the GPA seems to be doing nothing – nothing! – to support him.

The Indian Summer of Kieran Donaghy was one of the stories of last year’s Championship, and the single most important factor in Kerry’s winning of their 37th All-Ireland. Donaghy has been named captain of Kerry this year and what is his thanks? He’s out of a job. That’s his thanks.

The Irish Independent reported last week that Donaghy has quit a fine job in the bank in the heat of the worst recession in Europe since the 1930s because of his football commitments. What’s the man expected to live on? Air? And him with a young family to support as well. It’s a disgrace, that’s what it is. It’s a scandal.

Where are the thousand GPA swords leaping from their scabbards to protest this injustice? Why isn’t Dónal Óg Cusack doing a piece to VT for RTÉ Prime Time, followed quickly by Minister for Sport, Transport and Tourism Pascal Donohoe being asked “but Minister – what about the children?” by Miriam O’Callaghan over and over again?

It’s a long time between now and 2016, when Donaghy will be able to work again. It’s a long time to be without a steady income. The steadfast Gaels of Erin endured rapine, famine and oppression for eight hundred years before our Gaelic culture, handed down to us by Almighty God, was able to take its place among the cultures of the earth, and were glad to do it. Are we now to stand idly by while one of our greatest current exponents of Gaelic football, that jewel of Gaelic culture and sportsmanship and athleticism, starves on the side of the road?

Can we bear the thought of Kieran Donaghy, a hero and role model to the youth of Ireland, living from hand to mouth for an entire year, never knowing where his next hot meal is coming from? Is he to spend the next twelve months using one teabag for four mugs of tea, watering down the breakfast milk and – horror of horrors! – economizing further by ating rice instead of spuds with his dinner? I should bloody hope not.

This column knows where our duty lies. This column calls on all Gaels to rally to the cause. Footballers, hurlers, handballers, Scór tin-whistlers and even whoever exactly it is that claims to play rounders are to get out now and start collecting non-perishable goods, clothing, fuel and other necessities of survival and common human dignity. Parcels are to be made up and shipped to Kieran Donaghy, c/o Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, Co Kerry.

Blankets would be good too – with the way the summer is shaping up already, the poor man might be glad of them. And when winter comes around, maybe someone can stick a knife in that damned Bóthar goat and send the carcass down to Donaghy. He can ate the thing himself and then try to flog the skin to a bodhrán-maker to get the price of a bowl of hot soup or something. Star will need all the help he can get in the long, cold winter.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Bias and the National Broadcaster

At first glance, the front page story in Saturday’s Irish Independent was a delicious revelation that, for all their bien-pensant rhetoric, the Irish Labour Party are just as venal as the next party when it comes to the dirty of game of politics.

The Indo reported that there had been a spat between Fine Gael and Labour over who would represent the Government advocating a Yes vote on the Prime Time debate tomorrow night. RTÉ wanted Leo Varadkar, the first Minister in the history of the state to come out as a gay man, but there was an agreement already in place between Fine Gael and Labour that it would be two Fine Gael, one Labour over the course of three RTÉ debates. Fine Gael had already used up their quota with Frances Fitzgerald and Simon Coveney, so Alex White was going on Prime Time and that was bloody that.

Great story. Not front page news, of course, but front page news hasn’t been what it was in the Indo since Vinnie Doyle retired. And then suddenly you might stop and wonder: what is it to RTÉ who represents any particular side anyway?

The story quotes an RTÉ source as saying "Our job was to get the best people for both sides, and one would have thought that Leo was the best person on the Government side for the last debate.”

But is it really RTÉ’s job to get the best people for both sides?

A referendum debate isn’t like a run-of-the-mill news or current affairs program. The national broadcaster’s job during a referendum or election campaign is to provide a public forum for debate. It is not the national broadcaster’s job to vet the debaters as regards their suitability to speak or represent a point of view. The national broadcaster’s only job is to measure speaking times for fairness and ask as unbalanced a set of questions as can be reasonably expected.

There is no national broadcaster in the USA, but the prospect of a commercial broadcaster stepping in to advise a political party on whom it should or shouldn’t use in a particular TV debate is ludicrous.

If, during the 2008 US Presidential Election, the Republicans wanted Sarah Palin to debate against former President Bill Clinton, can you imagine someone at one of the networks saying “our job was to get the best people for both sides, and one would have thought former Governor of California Arnold Schwartzenegger the best candidate to represent the Republican side?”

It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? That’s not really the way it works.

To bring the story back home, suppose the No side decided on a second-time lucky strategy and put Gaelic footballer Ger Brennan forward as their representative for the Prime Time debate.

Would RTÉ turn to the No side and say, “look, Ger was a very underestimated center-half back in his prime but for a debate like this, you really need to send a heavy hitter like Breda O’Brien, David Quinn or Rónán Mullen to the plate”? Or would RTÉ just say “You’re sending Ger Brennan? Well, alrighty then,” and then text their friends to stock up on popcorn?

It’s not like RTÉ’s record in these debates is particularly strong. That the RTÉ Frontline debate cost Seán Gallagher the Presidency is as sure as little green apples. The only question is if that was due to incompetency or something more sinister.

In a sighting of that rare bird, investigative journalism, Jody Corcoran joined some dots about who’s pals with whom among the players on the night of that Frontline debate three years ago, and drew up a very interesting pattern. That piece was published three years ago, in March of 2012. Nothing changed as result of his investigation, of course. Nothing ever does.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What's Another Year, Mayo?

For all the good-natured teasing other counties like to indulge in when it comes to the County Mayo, it is only fair to acknowledge that there’s a strong line of realistic fatalism that runs through Mayo people’s devotion to and enthusiastic promotion of the county team.

This was at its most noticeable at the first of the Mayo GAA Blog meetups in Bowe’s of Fleet Street, Dublin 2, the night before Mayo lost to Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final of 2011. Nobody in that bar thought that Mayo had a prayer the following day, and they were fine with that. After getting sliced up in Sligo and Longford the year before, Mayo people were content to be still alive in August.

Which is why, perhaps, the county isn’t tearing itself apart as the Championship looms (“looming,” of course, is a relative concept; the Championship proper started a fortnight ago when Galway played New York, while Mayo won’t make their debut until another month from now, by which time Galway will have played two Championship games. But there it is). The people of Mayo have drank deep and well during the Horan years. If 2015 is to be a down year, then so be it. Country people can relate to the notion of seasons.

Now that the pressure has come on Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, the two men tasked with not only living up to Horan’s standards but taking the team that one step further, the prospect of a down year has not been as apocalyptic as we thought it might be.

The team has a puncher’s chance against anyone, of course. Any team with Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor among its ranks will always have a puncher’s chance against anybody. But the people of Mayo have seen enough of thoroughbred football in recent times to know that the team isn’t quite that this year.

It can’t be repeated too often that winning a fourth All-Ireland only requires Mayo to be one point or more better than anyone else that year, as opposed to having to measure themselves against some sort of eternal Platonic metric of football greatness. And if, as has been noted, the contenders aren’t quite battering down the door this year, that still doesn’t mean that Mayo 2015 will be good enough. Besides; the evidence of history is that whenever a “soft” Sam has been there to be won, it’s Kerry who weren’t too proud to stoop and pick it up for the collection.

People will remember a similar foreboding before the trip to Salthill two years ago next week, when Mayo battered Galway as that proud county have seldom been battered before. But this year feels different, somehow.

Cillian O’Connor was present in 2013, for starters. Evan Regan, the long-heralded Sorcerer’s Apprentice, continues to be blighted by injury and these two men’s absence leaves the Mayo attack looking like men taking bows and arrows to a gunfight.

Would a loss in Connacht, either in Salthill or later, be the end of the world? Not necessarily. There are those who believe a time in the shadows of the Qualifiers, bursting forth to glorious life in Croke Park at harvest time, could be the ideal route for Mayo. The Qualifier Odyssey would give the group a badly-needed opportunity to gel and pull themselves together.

But here’s the rub. It’s not like these men are strangers. It’s not like they’ve just met. Whatever is keeping Mayo from performing at the level of which they’re capable, it’s not because they’ve just met each other.

And so we have it. Short of a miracle, the 1951 team have one more year to wait, at least. As for Mayo, if they don’t win the All-Ireland this year, the powers-that-be have to decide if an All-Ireland is still in the current group – the majority of whom are in their prime, of course – or if the bus has left the station. If there is an All-Ireland in this group, it won’t keep. It’s up to the Board then to decide what went wrong this year and what can be done to put it right. Before it’s too late.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Championship 2015: To Have and Have Not

Pundit and expert GAA tipster Kevin Egan noted some years ago that teams don’t come from nowhere to win football All-Irelands anymore. Campaigns like those of the three successive Ulster winners of the early nineties don’t happen in modern football.

The last team to come from nowhere to win Sam was Galway in 1998, three years before the Qualifiers were introduced. Since then, nobody has won an All-Ireland without serving their apprenticeship first, and many apprentices have come and gone in those years with less to show for it than they might have had in earlier, more innocent times.

Paddy Power’s odds on this year’s Championship show a clear striation between haves and have nots. Kerry and Dublin, winners of four of the last five titles, sit looking down on the rest like Olympian gods. Past performance gives (slim) hope for the next three counties – Mayo, Donegal and Cork – while everybody else just seems to be making up the numbers.

Of the longshots, it’s interesting to see Galway are more favoured than Monaghan or Roscommon – something that will have them hopping from one foot to the other with fury from Boyle to Ballymoe – but that’s the enduring power of a Brand, as the morketing people like to say.

The quarter-finals are the killing fields of the minnows’ dreams. The breakthrough team either meets its Waterloo at the quarter-final, like Monaghan in 2013, or has nothing left in the tank by the semi-final, like Mayo in 2011. The most a team in those circumstances can hope for is a scalp, as Mayo claimed Cork’s in 2011. If the team doesn’t then improve in the following year or two, back to the pack it sinks, while someone else takes a turn.

There is nobody in Leinster who can keep it kicked out to Dublin, sadly. It’s been said that Dublin should not be blamed for being so far ahead of the provincial pack, and so they shouldn’t. But counties with football traditions like Kildare, Meath and Offaly should burn with shame at the shambles they find themselves currently in.

In the other three provinces, there are teams on the rise. Roscommon, obviously. Tipperary, maybe. Armagh, maybe. Monaghan are teetering on that point where they must advance or slide back. Of those four, three have a shout of travelling through the front door while Tipperary claiming Munster would not only a be a shock but it might be the end of them. The Qualifiers are not a fair system.

Nobody will care much for playing Tipperary in the Qualifiers, but whom Tipp meet in the quarters – if they get that far – will determine how much longer they can play football. Tipperary v Roscommon would be a perfect tie for both counties’ supporters, but not, perhaps, so good for either team’s development. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – best for them to take it one match at a time.

Of the five contenders, Cork get the easiest ride for disappointing so often. This is a mixed blessing. It’s nice for the footballers not to get abused on the street as can happen in other counties, but it’s also sad because the footballers know in their hearts that they’re not getting abused out of politeness, but out of indifference. That’s a disgrace for so fine a football county.

Donegal and Mayo are both in periods of transition management, where someone has had to take over from an iconic leader. Donegal choose continuity. Mayo did not. How their seasons will pan out may end up being reflections of those choices. There are those who see Donegal as being on the wrong side of the hill but at least they’ve been to the top – not something Mayo can say, sadly. More about Mayo’s perennial dilemma anon.

As for the Olympians, it’s a 50/50 matchup. If I were to pick one, I’d pick Kerry. They have the richer tradition, which counts, and I’m not sure if this stuff about an un-ending stream of talent on a Dublin conveyor belt is quite true. Dublin have always had a rich pick of players, through good times and bad. What’s happening right now is that Dublin are blessed to have players who are exceptionally talented in the modern game, most notably Stephen Cluxton and Michael Darragh MacAuley, and a player who’d stroll onto any team in any era, Diarmuid Connolly. It’ll be some conveyor belt that will replace those boys.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Modern Ireland in Two News Stories

Denis O'Brien seeks injunction against RTÉ:

"Perceived notions that any individual, corporate executive, director or shareholder of Communicorp (let alone Denis O'Brien) has an input into what I say is simply bullshit." Ivan Yates.

So Denis fires off writs at RTÉ but wouldn't say boo to the Yateser? Well, alrighty then.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Inclusiveness, the British Army and the 1916 Centenary

Memorial to British in 1916 Centenary - Irish Examiner, April 1st, 2015.
Memorial Sought for British Troops Killed in 1916 - RTÉ News, April 8th, 2015.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens commemorate Irishmen who died in the Great War in the armies of the Triple Entente, which was an alliance between the British Empire, the French Third Republic and the Imperial Russian Empire under Tsar Nicholas II. (The memorial to all Irish soldiers does not commemorate any Irishmen who fought for the Central Powers, funnily enough). The memorial is located in Islandbridge, Dublin 8, but Merrion Square, just outside the Dáil, was one of the originally proposed locations.

A very telling speech was made during the 1926 debate about the location of the memorial, which seems to appropriate to current concerns about how to be “inclusive” in commemorating the Rising.

The speaker objected because he feared that locating the memorial in front of the parliament of an independent Ireland would give the impression, to those unfamiliar with Irish history, that the monuments were connected. That the deaths of Irishmen fighting for the Triple Entente led to Ireland taking her place among the nations of the Earth. He did not see this as being at all the case:

We had our talk of political dismemberment; we had our talk of partition; we had our conference on the less or more of partition; we had the shelving of the whole issue, and the hanging up of the [Home Rule] Bill until after the war, when that whole issue was to be reopened. The horse was to live, and it would get grass after the war.

The horse, not unwisely as I see it, decided it would have a bit for grass before the end of the war. Someone said, or wrote, that somehow, at sometime, and by somebody, revolutions must be begun. A revolution was begun in this country, in Easter 1916. That revolution was endorsed by the people in a general election of 1918 and three years afterwards the representatives of the Irish people negotiated a treaty with the British government. It is on that treaty, won in that way, that this state and its constitution are based, and I submit to deputies it is not wise to suggest that this state has any other origin than those. 

Let men think what they will of them. Let men criticise them, and hold their individual viewpoints. But those are the origins of the State.

It would be lacking in a sense of truth, a sense of historical perspective, a sense of symmetry, to suggest that the state had not these origins, but that it is based in some way of the sacrifice of those who followed the advice of parliamentary representatives of the day and recruited in great numbers to the British army to fight in the European war.

Fifty thousand Irishmen died in France. I hope that the memory of those men and their sacrifice and the motives of their sacrifice will always have respect and reverence in Ireland.

Who was the slavering, Brit-hating, báinín-wearing, backwoods-dwelling Republican jihadi who made that speech? It was the then Minister for Justice of the Free State Government, Kevin O’Higgins (the quotation is taken from Terence de Vere White's 1948 biography of O'Higgins, Anvil Press, 1966. p 173).

Nobody was as ruthless as O’Higgins in implementing the Treaty during the Civil War and after. But for all that, O’Higgins saw a clear line of demarcation between those Irishmen who fought under the Tricolor and those Irishmen who fought under other flags.

If O’Higgins’ shade were to return one year from now, and walk down what he knew as Sackville Street, what would he make of the Centenary? Reader, couldn’t you excuse him for wondering why he and his comrades ever bothered?

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Gaelic Football: A Diagnostic, Part II

The blanket defence is killing Gaelic football. It must be stopped.

Games evolve as they’re played. Players and managers think of new things, new tactics, new skills all the time. But every now and again whoever is in charge of a particular sport has to look at its development and ask: are these new developments true to the fundamental nature of the sport, or do they take the sport to a place where it really shouldn’t go?

How did the blanket defence come to be? Why didn’t anybody try it before? Joe Brolly’s Arcadian vision last Sunday of a manly, self-policing game is all balls. There was never a time when teams wouldn’t trample their grannies into the muck to win. Why, then, did it take so long for Tyrone to invent the blanket defence and Donegal to perfect it?

The answer is sports science. The modern Gaelic footballer has access to both a wealth of sports science knowledge that was not available to previous generations, and the leisure time to put that science to practical use. We never saw the blanket defence before because no team could come close to achieving the levels of fitness required to make it work.

Has this fitness infusion changed Gaelic football for the better, or for the worse? Advocates of both the system and of sports science say for the better. Players are fitter and faster today, they say, and this can only be a good thing.

They run “classic” games like the 1982 Football Final through software like Dartfish and produce charts to say that football is clearly better today than it was then in terms of possessions, plays, and different other criteria. Besides, they say, who can halt the march of progress?

Nobody can halt the march of progress, of course. But not everybody agrees on what progress is. One person’s evolution may be another’s devolution; one’s progression another’s regression.

To answer whether the blanket era of football is evolution or devolution, let’s take a lesson from Marcus Aurelius: What is Gaelic football in itself? What is its nature?

Gaelic football is a game of catching and kicking. That is its nature. But what price catching and kicking in modern football? Players who can catch and kick the ball are still useful in the game, but some of the greatest exponents of the modern game are noted for neither their catching nor their kicking, but for their unearthly ability to run and run and run and run.

The level of athleticism is what makes the difference in Gaelic football today. Modern levels of training has outpaced the earlier conceptions of what the human body is capable of doing, and an ability to execute the skills of the game has been replaced and, in some places, surpassed, by the ability to keep going, going, going in terms of value to a team.

The key skill now and into the future is workrate. But isn’t workrate something more suited to a factory or an assembly line than a sporting field of dreams? Alexi Stakhanov was named a hero of the Soviet Union for mining over 100 tonnes of coal in under six hours in the 1930s, but I doubt very much if anyone would have paid in to see him to do it.

When sports scientists talk about greater workrate and roll out their tables and charts and measurements they miss an important point. Sport isn’t meant to be empirical. It’s meant to be transcendental. Sport is meant to bring you away from the ordinary, not be just another part of it.

Joe Brolly is wrong in saying it’s the duty of managers to keep games true to themselves. The duty of managers is to win within the rules of the day. The duty of the GAA is to make sure the rules of the day are staying ahead of managers. This is not currently the case, but there’s no reason why it can’t be.

The GAA gave up on the eighty-minute finals after five years, and cracked down on handpassing when some teams were about to turn football into a variant of Olympic handball. There’s no reason for them not to slice up the blankets and let the games breathe again. Perhaps they could start with a proper definition of the tackle? God knows we’ve been a long enough time waiting for that.