Tuesday, November 30, 2004

So. Farewell then, Bewley's

And in my mind's eye I can see him still, the infant Spailpín supine before a black and white PYE television set in the late 1970s in the West of Ireland, listening to Gay Byrne going on and on about what Dublin is like at Christmas when Gay could have been using that valuable time to show even more of those marvellous toys.

Greybo was saying, in that peculiar sing-song that he has, about how wonderful Dublin gets after the 8th of December when the county people come up to Dublin "for to do the bit of shopping, do you see, and they like to meet under Clery's clock and get their bits and pieces, and then off to Bewley's for the cup tea and the sticky bun. Yehwha', Gay? I say, off to Bewley's for the cup of tea and the sticky bun Missus. Lovely. Just lovely. All right. All right. And now here's something I think you'll really enjoy, it's Red Hurley, backed by the Billy Barry kids, to sing The Little Drummer Boy. Take it away Red!"

Poor Gay has long since been taken away himself, and now they've taken away Bewley's as well. National institutions ain't what they used to be.

Whether or not Bewley's ever was what it was supposed to be is what An Spailpín has been wondering these past few days, as he reads the posters outside Gratten's Parliament calling for the people of Dublin to unite to save their bunshop. And if a Spailpín may borrow from a Beatle, Bewley's has probably been dead for about the same time as Elvis, the corncrake, and the door on the latch. If it ever existed at all.

An Spailpín is continually disappointed by his capital city, and his debut visit to Bewley's of Grafton Street was the first inkling, in the mid-nineties, that old Gaybo might have been spinning a bit of a yarn when he was going on about those sticky buns.

I wonder if all the people that are so lonesome after Bewley's ever used to visit the damned place. I have, more than once, and it's been quite hideous every time. The head buck cat of Campbell's Catering, the owners of Bewley's, remarked that it just wasn't viable to run a café on Grafton Street. You may rest easy in your bed tonight sir - by charging six Euro for a cup of tea and a sticky bun that was as hard and as edible as a slíothar, you did your best to make a shilling on Grafton Street.

Dining in Bewley's was not dissimilar to dining in Manhattan only if one was in the habit of taking one's meals at Grand Central Station. There was hustle and there was bustle in Bewley's of Grafton Street, but a reflective cup of scald, a smoke and philosophical discussion of the world? Pick some other joint fella, we're moving it along, getting along, getting ahead.

I believe that there are those that say it wasn't so much the sticky buns but the architecture that's the great loss in Bewley's. An Spailpín knows only one thing about architecture, and that is that you can't eat it. Those who were going to Bewley's to gape out the windows mustn't have been very hungry. Or else had long ago damaged the dentures on those titanium buns and were taking no further chances.

Watching the sad faces on RTÉ and Sky News this evening as the dear old padlock went around Bewley's front door, I began to wonder if anyone had ever really believed this nonsense about Bewley's, that it was some sort of uber-café where the elite meet to eat and greet. Surely a chophouse is a chophouse where-ever you go. As such, I conducted an experiment. I flicked over to TG4, to see if the Bewley's closure had impacted in Ireland, as opposed to Dublin. Nothing. Not a peep. The notion of Bewley's as a Platonic dining ideal appears to be uniquely an invention of the Pale, rather like their needing to win the All-Ireland to save the very game of Gaelic Football itself. So farewell then Bewley's - pull the door after you.

Extreme Commuting

A simultaneously fascinating and depressing article in today's USA Today about the 21st Century phenomenon of "Extreme Commuting," where some poor unfortunate Yankees take up to ninety minutes to get from home to work.

The average commute time in the States is 25.5 minutes.

The reason the Yanks are hitting the highways is the price of housing. Again, according to the article, the median cost of a house in Los Angeles was $405,000 last year, which works out at 304,000 in Euro. This is naturally out of the question as a price for a place to live, so what they do is they give themselves ninety minute commutes so they can buy a house at $275,000, which is 205,000 Euro.

An Spailpín was so stunned by this that he paid a visit to MyHome.ie to see what 200 grand in Yoyos would get him. The answer is a field in Lusk, which doesn't even have a house on it at all. Not only does not it have a house, it doesn't even have planning permission. You can't even build there! What are you meant do? Pitch a tent?

Did I mention that those ninety minute journeys are over seventy miles? Wonder how long it'd take you to get to the IFSC by car, famously the beating heart of the fabulous Celtic Tiger, if you started from seventy miles away?

Why aren't we rioting in the streets? What's wrong with us?

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Dumbing Down

The punters that take The Spectator magazine may be one half Little Englanders and the other half Colonel Blimps, but by God they know where they stand on the great issues of the day.

One of those great issues in Great Britain at the moment is education, and the standard thereof. Those resisting efforts to raise the bar a little and not end up sending halfwits to University - like poor Prince Harry, I suppose - maintain that standards haven't dropped, that they are in fact just as high as they ever were.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. Check out this utterly marvellous entrance exam offered by King Edward's School, Birmingham, in 1898. An Spailpín grew to man's estate quite some time ago, and wouldn't have a snowball's of getting into King Edward's.

The exam was for eleven year olds. Case closed, I think.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Brian O'Driscoll, Captain of Ireland

If only they could get O'Driscoll to shave off that cursed smig he'd be perfect. O'Driscoll is an exceptional player; it's possible that his predecessor as Irish captain, Keith Wood, was more loved, as he was closer to the Plain People of Ireland than O'Driscoll will ever be, but we should cherish comets like O'Driscoll. Their flaring passage in the heavens is all too short, and soon darkness will return. We should make the most of them.

O'Driscoll's three try hat trick in Paris is over four years ago now, the first time he really announced himself on the international stage. There was that funny business he was doing with his hands after the try, a mixed bag in the Championship, and then the Lions tour. And suddenly, here he now, Ireland and the world's best rugby threequarter.

As a player O'Driscoll really has got it all. Critics of his kicking are talking through their collective chapeaux. His tackling is impeccable, as epitomised by his hauling down of Australia's George Smith by the dreadlocks in the last World Cup. Live by the curling pin, die by the curling pin. His eye for a break is superb, and his balance is beyond extraordinary. There were times during last Saturday's game against South Africa, as O'Driscoll dodged between the South African tackles in a midfield maelstrom that was like watching Jason sailing the Argos through the clashing rocks of the straits of the Bosphorus, that you had to ask yourself how could any human being be so parallel to the ground and still remain upright. It was as if he was performing a drunken reverse limbo, where you have to go forwards rather than backwards, and all this after a big feed of poitín.

And still no bother to him. O'Driscoll's attitude is exemplary. Twenty-first century rugby isn't "just a game," and the Corinthian ethic is long gone from professional sport, but still something of it seems to suffuse O'Driscoll. The next time he leads Ireland out, perhaps for that relaxed upcoming fixture against the USA (although my money is on Humphries to captain Ireland that day), or else for the game against Argentina, see the broad smile that O'Driscoll brings to the game. See how he always has the crack with the mascots. O'Driscoll knows the difference between price and value; the RTÉ panellists may have a cut at him for promoting whatever brand of pop it is he promotes, but in his other behaviour O'Driscoll is an exemplary sportsman, aware that the Great Scorer takes account of how you play the game.

The only time when I've seen O'Driscoll noticeably tense before a game was on Saturday. Who would have thought Jake White shooting from the lip would have got the Irish dander so? And get the Irish dander it did; while the anthem - which is Amhrán na bhFiann, of course, not some other thing about puppets on strings who are provincially equidistant and of equal pride and parity of esteem - was being played, a tear clearly ran down O'Driscoll's cheek. John the Bull Hayes was as the Niagra Falls, although that could have been partly attributed to the idea of going against Os du Randt for eighty minutes and the thought of the dark deeds that would be committed by the two monsters in nomine patria, but to see O'Driscoll, the man that at other times has been so relaxed; well, it was remarkable.

But not, perhaps, as remarkable as the performance that Ireland put in the ensuing eighty minutes. The press gave the credit and the man of the match bot of Bolly to O'Gara, but O'Gara gave the credit to the pack. O'Gara is playing long enough to know what it's like when you don't have eight tough guys to serve you ball on a plate, and he prefers it this way, thanks. All eight were superb. The front row, which looked like chaff to the Boks' mill up until two o'clock on Saturday were outstanding. Paul O'Connell and Malcolm O'Kelly would have driven devils back into the fiery pit of hell if those devils had been wearing the Springbok on their breasts. Anthony Foley and Guy Easterby were outstanding, while debutant openside flanker Jonny O'Connor claimed at least six balls on the floor from the teeth of the South African beast, according to a hawk-eyed friend of An Spailpín who was at the game. And when I tell you that same man had his house raided by the gendarmes in the early hours of Sunday morning due to the neighbours' complaints of overly boisterous carousing, you make take it that O'Connor made quite the impression.

But, when An Spailpín is old and grey and full of sleep, and the green sward of Lansdowne road is reduced to the size and aspect of a living room where spotted and sickly young men come to represent their fatherlands at some sort of Xbox Olympics or something equally ghastly, it's O'Driscoll I'll remember. The O'Connell, Kelly and Connor boys marching and churning through the Saffy ranks yes, O'Gara's two beautiful pinging touchfinders to the left and right corners in the first twenty minutes hinting that this would be Ireland's day, Geordan Murphy, of reduced impact but still considerable genius on the wing, but most of all, Brian O'Driscoll, chest parallel to the ground, right hand holding the ball, the left touching off the ground to maintain momentum, hips swinging and swivelling, short legs churning, pumping and stamping as he cut the best midfield in world rugby to ribbons once again. What a hero he is.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Like Father, Like Son

I understand that the Billy Keane that writes an occasional sports column for the Irish Independent is a scion, son and heir of the legendary John B. If so, he's the apple that didn't fall far from the tree.

Sports journalism is a tricky business, in that while any ass can do it, it takes a very special donkey to do it well. Billy is that donkey. He has the correct perspective, in that he notices that sport is both immensely important and hopelessly trivial, all at the one time. What makes Billy unique, though, is a mastery of metaphor, simile and image that is Virgilian in its comprehensiveness. Check him out on today's rugger between Ireland and South Africa to see what I mean.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Bualadh na mBokke i mBaile Átha Cliath

Sular imríodh an cluiche idir Éirinn agus an Afraic Theas, dúirt Jake White, bannisteoir na Afraice Theaise, nach mbeadh ach triúr Éireannaigh ar fhoireann na hAfraice Theaise. Tar éis an cluiche, agus an Afraic Theas builte ar an dára uair ag Éirinn, an chéad uair ó 1965, cuireadh an cheist air arís, cé mhéid Gaeil a bheadh ar a fhoireann anois. Rinne Jake meangadh gáire; “gach aon cheann acu,” ar seisean.

Ba fhearr an lá é ag imirt rugbaí, an 12ú Deireadh Fomhair 2004. Bhí lá brea ann, an ghrian sa spéir ach gaoth fuair leí, an fód daingean faoin chós. I rith an tAmhrán Náisiúnta, chonacthas deoir ag teach síos grua Brian O’Driscoll, captean na hÉireann; bheadh Éirinn reidh don throid.

Fiche nóimead thart san chluiche, na foireanna ar chomhscór, a náid a náid, bhí an imirt ag casadh mar long i stoirm mhara, an lámh uachtar ag na hÉireannigh uaireannta, ag na Springboks uaireannta eile. Duradh i dtithe ósta ó mBaile Átha Cliath go gCape Town go mbeadh an chos ar bholg ag an nAfraic Theas ins an chlibirt. Chuirfidís ruaig ar na hÉireannigh ó maidin go hoíche, agus ar deirdeadh, brisfeadh droimthe agus croíthe na hÉireann ar charraig an cúigear daingeann na hAfraice Theas.

Ach ní mar a thuigtear atáthar i gcónaí. Chuir Jake White ceist ar bhród tosaí na nÉireann, agus thug siad a bhfreagra do ins an áit a dhéanfaí an scrios is mó – ar an bpairc. Taispeánnann cúig nóimead san dára leath conas mar a bhítí i rith an cluiche go leir. Bhí na Springboks ag teach ar ais ins an cluiche, agus a imreoir is fearr, Schalk Burger, leo arís tar eis an charta buí. Bhí an Afraic Theas ag deanamh léigear ar cúllíne na hÉireann, agus ag ionsaigh an t-aon bealach amháin a ionsaíonn siad – do bhuail siad go daingeann i gcoinne na hÉireannach, agus, nuair a chuireadh stop orthu, thógaidís an liathróid arís agus bhuailidís suas go daingean leí arís. Sin é an stíl a bhuaigh an Afraic Theas a clú agus a caill mar cheann de na tíortha rugbaí is fearr sa domhain, ar feadh na blianta fada, ach, i mBaile Átha Cliath ar an 12ú Mean Fomhair, theip orthu. Cé crua ab ea na Springboks, ar an lá, bhí na hÉireannaigh níos crua.

Is beag é an difríocht idir an bua agus an theip. Scríobhadh sula seo gurb é Schalk Burger an t-imreoir is fearr ag an Afraic Theas, agus ba é. Ach cé gur sár-imreoir é, is fear óg é – níl ach bliain is fiche d’aois aige, sílim – agus, cosúil le gach fear óg, níl sé comh glic ná ba cheart dó. Cuireadh é san bhosca peaca ins an dara leath, agus tá seans ann gur chaill an Afraic Theas an cluiche nuair a chaill siad Schalk Burger.

Is é céann de na fáthanna go bhfúil an rugbaí comh spéisiúl mar atá sé ná go bhfuil an cluiche comh shimplí agus comh chasta ag an uair cheanna. Tá fhíos agat ins an rugbaí, nuair a chailleann foireann amháin seilbh na liathróide agus tá cúpla fear ar an dtalamh agus an liathróid á lorg acu, go bhfuiltear an-dheachar a rá cad atá ceart nó mícheart a dhéanamh ag na h-imreoirí. Déantar gach peaca idir neamh agus an domhan faoin charn choirp sin, agus is ea tuairim an réiteora a bheartaíonn cé acu atá i gceart. De Sáthairn, ba ea thuairim an réiteoir go raibh an liathróid á mharú ag Burger fad a bhí sé ar an bhfód, agus mar sin, cuireadh amach é go dtí an mbosca peaca.

Ach a léitheoir, b’fhéidir go mbeadh tuairim éile ag réiteoir éile ar lá éile, agus cad a tharlóidh ansin? Ní fhéidir linn a rá, agus is é sin cuid tabhachtadh den imirt an rugbaí ar an gcaidhean is áirde, a fháil amach go tapaidh cad a thaitníonn leis an réiteoir agus cad nach dtaitníonn leis. Tiocfaidh an gliceas ar Bhurger fós, agus nuair a thagann sé, rachaidh Burger ina imreoir is fearr sa domhain.

Tuigtear uaireannta go bhfuil gach rud simplí sa spórt agus san shaol. Nuair atá an chraobh buaite againn taitníonn an ghrian níos teo, agus ní bhíonn aon gheimreadh comh fhuair mar an geimreadh a thagann tar eis cluiche cailte. B’iontach an bua a bhreith ar na mBokke, agus ba bhinn é an bhlás nuair a chualathas Jake White agus a fhocail á ithe aige, ach níl sé tabhachtach seachas mar scéal don leabhar chuntais tar eis an bhricfeasta ar an maidin De Domhnaigh.

Ní cheart don lucht rugbaí na hÉireann a bheith ro-shásta fós; más mhaith leo rugbaí na hÉireann dul ó feabhas go bhfeabhas, ní fhéidir leo a bheith sásta le bua i gcoinne an Afraic Theas agus é a leanadh le briseach ins an chéad cluiche arís. Nuair a shroichtear ar an gcaidhean árd, is gá caidhean níos áirde a bhriseadh. De Domhniagh tar éis an bua, bhí fhíos ag an domhan rugbaí go raibh neart nua sa rugbaí dulta. Is gá d’Éirinn é a chruthaigh anois, chun a thaispeáint gur rugadh aimsir óir rugbaí in Éirinn arís. Is bréa an dúshlán é.

Monday, November 08, 2004

An Faisisteachas Culthúrtha, An Ghaeilge, agus Newstalk 106

Fad a bhí an Spailpín ina luí tráthnóna inniu ag eisteacht leis an raidió, thit sé ar an Right Hook ar Newstalk 106, agus an oideachas á phlé acu. Is é George Hook an craoltóir ar an Right Hook de gnó, ach bhí an saineolaí rugbaí imithe inniu agus fear darbh aimn Ger Gilroy ina ionadaí do.

Ar aon nós, bhí an oideachas á phlé acu - ciallaíonn sé sin ná go gcuireadh an lucht eistiúl a dtuairimí féin isteach chuig Ger mar téacsanna agus léúdh Ger Gilroy iad amach agus chuireadh sé a thuairim féin leo. Ceart go leor. Chuir duine eigin téacs chuig Ger a rá narbh ceart é an caighdean Gaeilge a chuir ar múinteoirí na mBunscoil, mar tá roinnt maith múinteoirí cailte againn, ón Sé Chontae nó áiteanna Gallda eile, toisc nach bhfuil an Ghaeilge acu.

D'aithnígh Ger go mhór leis an tuairim sin. Is "cultural fascism" é, dár le Ger, gurbh gá do mhúinteoirí na mBunscoil caighdean Ghaeilge a chomad. "Cultural fascism," ar ndoigh. Bhuel, tá plé mór ar siúl no ag teacht in Éirinn faoin bhféiniúlacht - bhí an Ombudswoman, Emily O'Reilly, ag caint an seachtain seo caite faoin creideamh agus na measanna atá in Éirinn sa lá atá inniu ann, mar shampla. Tar éis titim an Eaglais agus teacht an airgid, tá chuid dár bhféiniúlacht caillte againn, agus is gá dúinn é a thabairt ar ais, nó rud eigin eile a chuir isteach in ionad an seanshaol. Ach nuair atá rudaí Gaeleach á lorg againn, cad atá níos Gaeleach ná an Ghaeilge? An "cultural fascism" é sin, a rá gurbh rud Ghaeleach í an Ghaeilge?

Níor chuir mé téacs chuig Ger, faraor. Ar an lámh amháin, níl an saibhreas agam chun tecsanna a chur ar caoga cent an téacs, agus, ar an lámh eile, ní doigh liom gurbh fhéidir le Ger an smaoineach a thuiscint. Ní bheidh an Chathaoir Fealsúnachta in Ollscoil Heidleberg á théigh ó thóin Ghearóid ar feadh cúpla bliain fós.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The Lifelong Season, by Keith Duggan

The canon of Great GAA Books is not one that reflects the role of the GAA in Irish life. Breandán Ó hEithir’s masterful Over the Bar remains head and shoulders above the pack, but what a scurrilous pack it is, comprised, in the main, of hack jobs, honest but uninspired histories and curiously bloodless and poorly ghosted autobiographies.

At last Ó hEithir’s book has something of relative stature to talk to in the offseason. Keith Duggan has been one of the outstanding GAA writers since he arrived at the Irish Times and now he’s written a book that is commensurate with his great talents.

The Lifelong Season is a series of pen-pictures of GAA life. Duggan profiles some of the people that have made the GAA what it is, and brings them to life with aplomb. Christy Ring is in there of course, the first and, in many ways, the only true icon of the GAA that rose above his own local allegiances to gain the respect and, eventually, the love of hurling followers all the world over. The Gaynors of Kilruane and Tipperary are there, as Len Gaynor, a veteran of the notoriously full-blooded Kilkenny-Tipp games of the sixties recounts that the hurl was used as much as a shield as a device for propelling the sliothar. And Duggan draws a masterful portrayal of the greatest ever Tyrone footballer, Frank McGuigan, whose story is that of so many GAA stars who were consumed by the flames of their own starring role.

In the chapter on Ring, Duggan remarks on how important it is that the story of Ring is recorded correctly, which means is written down. As Duggan wryly remarks, folktales do no travel down mobile phones; the deeds of Ring must be properly and permanently recorded, or else Jack Lynch’s graveside oration will be proved wrong, and the greatest hurler of all time will become just another name of the past.

The resistance of the GAA world to have books written is astonishing, and very difficult to understand, apart from the traditional rural distrust of the man with the pen. The introduction to Val Dorgan’s memoir of Christy Ring, published two years after Ring’s death, is instructive, where Dorgan recounts how he had to beg the Ring family to let him write the book. More of these books must be written, if the heroes of the games are to remembered, warts and all; thank God that a we have a writer of Duggan’s stature willing to take on the job.