Wednesday, December 26, 2007

So. Farewell Then, Joe Dolan

An Spailpín Fánach was greatly saddened to hear of the death this St Stephen’s Day of Joe Dolan. I knew he had been ill, and had cancelled some of his recent shows, but I guess we never really expect death, even when the Reaper has sent his card ahead; it always seems like we’re all due another five minutes.

What I’m trying to figure out this evening, a few hours after his death, is why Joe Dolan was so popular in this country, without his having had an original hit since More and More and More in the early ‘eighties, over a quarter of a century ago. Joe Dolan, and that loud, brash and brassy Joe Dolan sound, has been a part of the Irish cultural landscape for over thirty years – what did Joe Dolan have that others didn’t?

The best guess that An Spailpín can come up with is that Joe didn’t do ironic, even in later years when hep cats starting “ironically” going to his shows. Joe put his heart and soul into every performance, and gave it socks every time. If you wanted to come and rock, that was great. If not, that was fair enough too, as long as you paid at the door and bought a drink at the bar.

There’s a cracking clip of Joe Dolan in his prime (in the mid-seventies, judging by the extraordinary mustard-yellow of that quite frightening shirt) currently on You Tube. They won’t let me embed it, but if we watch it carefully we might stumble on a clue as to why Joe Dolan was so popular.

The first thing you notice, once you get over the shirt, is that Joe is cutting a serious rug. He’s shaking, bopping, rocking and rolling, and giving it loads. He’s really into it, and his signature tune, Good Looking Woman, the song that everybody I know associates with Joe Dolan more than any other, suits his performance exactly. The verse lyric of Good Looking Woman is cat, of course, but the verse doesn’t matter, because it’s only side-dressing. Good Looking Woman, the song, is about three things – the Oh me, Oh my! bit, the brass that follows it, and Joe’s big voice booming along, mopping up the survivors. Good Looking Woman is a song about the joy of being alive, and it’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying anything as much as Joe Dolan always appeared to enjoy singing that song.

And, if you were in rural Ireland in the past thirty years, looking at Joe Dolan up on stage belting out Good Looking Woman, it didn’t matter that you were nearer to Craughwell than Carnaby Street, or that two hours earlier you were dosing cattle or cutting thistles. Joe Dolan proved that cool and contentment were states of mind, and he brought them with him where-ever he went.

A personal memory: When your correspondent was attending UCG in the early 1990s, I remember walking down the Dyke Road – what we were doing out there God only knows – in our tuxedoed finery after a Faculty Ball in the early hours of some winter morning. One of the party, filled with the joy of youth, started singing Good Looking Woman, something of a party piece of his at the time. For the oh mes, oh mys, he took of his suit jacket and started swirling it around his head, even though there were no girls there to impress. He just did it for the joy of the thing, just as the man himself would surely have done in similar frosty circumstances. Joe would have been proud of him.

God have mercy on Joe Dolan. He brought an awful lot of joy to an awful lot of people, and there are few indeed that do that. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann, gan amhras.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Christmas, from Big Lucy and An Spailpín Fánach

There's a second or two of interference on this recording from Montreal in 1975 but, seeing that the Big Man journeyed into Glory this year, I thought him an appropriate nominee to sing the annual Christmas greeting. I'll be in the Palace later, I think; in the meantime, Happy Christmas, agus go rabhamid go léir beo fós ag an am seo arís.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

The Sporting Year in Review and Preview

Tá ubh Cásca ag an nDorchach agus an Nollaig ag teacht - ní nach ionadh gur theip orthu go leirThe Irish Times reported on Saturday that the IRFU will have the results of their investigation into the World Cup debacle presented to its executive committee today. Whether or not the IRFU’s executive committee will go so far as to present those results to the great unwashed remains to be seen. It isn’t that terribly likely though. It is the nature of the bureaucrat to abhor revolution, and revolution could be the only possible result of the publication of the full story of how Irish rugby sank from its greatest heights since the days of Jackie Kyle to its current bleak prospects.

Sports historians of the future will surely puzzle to figure out just how the country was so willing to believe in the potential of the Irish rugby team and its spinmeister coach against the firm evidence of the facts. Ireland’s farcical win over England at Croke Park was presented as a combination revenge for Skibbereen and the re-heading of St Oliver Plunkett rolled into one. It was, of course, nothing of the sort. A fourth win in a row is not an epic event whose consequences ring down the centuries; it’s just something that happens every year, making it less like the Battle of Thermopylae and more like the Rose of Tralee. The destiny of the team had already been written when they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against a very average French side indeed in the first game of rugby played at Croke Park. And even then, when a bizarre series of results left Ireland with a chance of, if not a Grand Slam, a Championship at least, something that hasn’t been won since the days of Ciarán Fitzgerald, they couldn’t even do that. Ireland humiliated themselves in running up the score on Italy, only to leave the door open and let in two easy tries at the death. It was humiliating, and it was lauded as some sort of triumph by a media blinded by God knows what.

The naked Emperor was exposed at the World Cup in a series of deeply humiliating games, and now a big, black cloud looms over Ireland in the coming Six Nations. The Golden Generation looks old and tired; it is the nature of the sporting god that old age doesn’t appear progressively, as it does in real life, but appears in a thunderclap. An Spailpín Fánach’s fear is the combined warnings of both Brian Moore and Oscar Hammerstein II about letting life’s golden chances pass you by have gone unheaded by the Golden Generation, and they will now have the rest of their lives to regret it. As for those waiting in the wings, well, while typing this a vision came to An Spailpín Fánach of Master Jonny Sexton being coursed in St Denis on February 8th next year by the sort of dogs of war that exist in French back rows, and it wasn’t one bit pretty. What a shocking pity. What a terrible waste.

The World Cup itself was a success, on the whole, after something of a shaky start. The format still needs work but the tournament did throw up its epic matches and had worthy champions. At a time of change in world rugby, it’s nice to note that, the scorching Bryan Habana apart, the stars of the Springbok team were its second rows, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha. For your correspondent, the lasting image of the World Cup final will be of Bakkies Botha slamming into a ruck and an Englishman shooting off at the other end, like the final ball in a Newton’s cradle. Deserving champions.

A title also neatly fitting the current All-Ireland football champions. Thinking about just how much Kerry dominate all conversation to do with Championship football is a strange reminder of how just how far the Kingdom had fallen in that bleak decade from 1986 to 1997. That barren decade is probably a live issue in the Kingdom itself, and they’ve making pretty darn sure that it’s not going to be repeated.

Kerry, like any imperial power, are good as assimilating the tricks and techniques of enemy powers in order to strengthen their own campaigns. The Romans adopted war elephants after the Punic Wars and, in rather a similar vein, Kerry have adopted a considerably harder edge to their football after their defeats to the Northern Powers of Armagh (once) and Tyrone (twice) in 2002, 2003 and 2005. Kerry avenged the 2002 final last year, but no-one will have been more disappointed than Kerry themselves that Tyrone were so beset by injuries as to deny Kerry the opportunity to claim full vengeance. No matter; Kerry have never been snobs, and are equally willing to dispatch both prince and pauper on their way to another All-Ireland title. An Spailpín has to confess to being rather pleased that, as Kerry prepare for a three-in-a-row quest, it is Paul Galvin that will captain them. Galvin symbolises the new Kerry resolution, but he suffers from something of a divisive image, nationally. As far as your correspondent is concerned, Galvin is An Spailpín’s kind of fella and would be deeply, deeply grateful if there were anyone approaching Galvin’s stature in the sweet county Mayo.

There is not, of course. An Spailpín has learned never to say never when it comes to the perpetuating torture and delight of following the Mayo football team, for whom the Grail quest of the Knights of the Round Table compares to a quick stroll to the shops for forty tea bags and a pack of Viscount biscuits. Johnno, TD, can hear that ticking clock louder than most of course, and he will deeply interested in knowing who from the old guard will be willing or able to put in another season in the lists. Johnno’s experiments last year in the Championship failed more or less utterly and the one nugget that did wash up is now in Australia. More luck to that young man – while we may miss his absence here ní maireann an óige, and he needs to make the most of it while he can. In the meantime, Connacht remains as treacherous as ever. Roscommon have the twin threats of their own fierce native pride in the primrose and blue and the fact that John Maughan is more than capable of putting one over Johnno, and certainly has done so in the past. Sligo have made a shrewd choice of manager in Tommy Jordan, a man that will know the Mayo players inside out and, in this grim GPA dawn, knows that a lot of those mystery men with bags of gold will be interested in hotshot young managers, and kicking Johnno’s ass would be a fine way for Jordan to present himself to the nation.

South of the Mayo border, the appointment of Liam Sammon is a deeply fascinating decision by the Galway football Board. It’s always rather narked Galway pride that they needed a Mayo missionary to return them to football’s top table, and how deeply happy they would be if they could prove they could do it without Johnno. A deep football thinker and good friend of An Spailpín Fánach is the opinion that the job has been there for Sammon for years if he wanted it, and he’s only taken it now because he’s retired from teaching, and therefore has serious time to devote to it. How interesting that will make things.

A quick glance at Paddy Power tells us that Kerry are an astonishing 6/4 to win the All-Ireland in September, and both logic and experience tell us that the price is just about right. Dublin, Tyrone and Cork are the next four contenders and then it’s 14/1 the field, which is the way things go when the favourite is so short a price. Whatever about Tyrone (and An Spailpín is very inclined to agree to agree with his friend JP that Peter Canavan’s retirement has been seriously under-estimated as a factor in Tyrone’s decline since 2005), your correspondent is pretty sure that neither bud not bye will be putting a paw on the silverware come September. Kerry are probably the best bet at 6/4 but, as people are greedy and fancy those big fat prices – maybe a tickle on Meath at sixteens is the answer? Stranger things have happened.

FOCAL SCOIR: An Spailpín cares little for soccer anymore, but the farce surrounding the appointment of the next Republic of Ireland manager means that it’s more or less impossible to resist boldly going where, it seems, everyone in country has gone before. Therefore, An Spailpín Fánach lines up to make his prediction of who will be presented with orb and sceptre, and plenty of soothers for the likes of such sensitive souls as Mr Ireland and Mr Robert Keane. To An Spailpín’s mind, there is only combination that, like Great Art, is both completely unexpected and utterly inevitable. The new Ireland manager will be, can only be, Roddy Collins. You heard it here first.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tayto Man

An Spailpín Fánach was a little downbeat after debating the GPA with Dessie Farrell on Noel Walsh’s radio show on Northern Sound yesterday. I was a little perturbed, as I had said some harsh things about Dessie and the boys in this space, and I thought he might be thick. He wasn’t flustered at all, and as we discussed the issues, I realised why. Dessie has won; once Nicky Brennan and the GAA ran up the white flag, what some crackpot blogger said about the GPA was a matter of supreme indifference to Farreller, and was able to trot out the party line with practised ease.

I was still brooding on it when I was back in the house last night, and I was thinking about everything that I thought the GAA stood for, and now no longer does. And then I feel asleep, only to wake up, somehow, at work, having spent all night listening to Billy Joel, and dreaming of a familiar, yellow, face from childhood...

It's half past ten on a Wednesday,
and I'm sitting here in my stall
Staring at a Dell computer,
and trying to make sense of it all
The office has gone for some feeding,
to O'Briens for some kind of salad
It's an early lunch or it's some kind of brunch
but I'll stay here to sing you me ballad

La la la, de de da
La la, de de da da da

Bring back our youth, you're the Tayto man
Bring back nineteen eighty-four
Bring us back to the magical eighties
I don’t know this place anymore

I wish I was back in the 'eighties,
and so do all of my chums
When Charlie was running the country,
having got on so well running guns
And we were all on the dole but were happy,
with the occasional price of some beer
And we were taking the boat or staying afloat,
but life certainly seemed much more clear

Oh, la la la, de de da
La la, de de da da da

Then we knew what a sports hero looked like,
as Roche won the Tour with élan
And O'Hehir was the voice of the summer,
and Kerry had the brothers Spillane
But that's all part of the past now,
as the Cork hurlers all go on strikes
And that Dessie Farrell has us over a barrel,
because he thinks he can do what he likes

Bring back our youth, you're the Tayto man
Bring back nineteen eighty-four
Bring us back to the magical eighties
I don’t know this place anymore

In the eighties I didn't own nothing,
but stood in the rent supplement queue
Behind the clinic in Galway,
and you could have stood with me too
But the bank now owns a piece of me,
because I bought some real estate
I've two-up, two-down on the rough side of town
and my prospects ain't looking so great

I'm going to invent a time machine,
to return to old eighty-one
When Bagatelle sang summer in Dublin,
and things seemed so much more fun
When Gaybo was still on telly,
and people cooked cabbage and bacon
Pat Barry in Bracken, and dear Eddie Macken
and Tayto was all we were atin’

La la la, de de da
La la, de de da da da

Bring back our youth, you're the Tayto man
Bring back nineteen eighty-four
Bring us back to the magical eighties
I don’t know this place anymore

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Mayo Stands Up to the GPA!

They’ve broken his heart on more than one occasion, but An Spailpín Fánach is proud of the Mayo County Board this happy, happy day.

An Spailpín has been worried since the weekend about the craven way the top cats of the GAA caved in to those carpet-bagging mercenaries in the GPA. But thank God there still beat true hearts in Erin – the Derry and Tyrone county boards have voted against the grant scheme, and now Mayo stands with them in the van of the Mother of All Battles for the very soul of the GAA. At the Mayo Board meeting last night, there wasn’t one vote in favour of the disgraceful compromise offered by Central Council to rascality and schism, and it’s all I can to hold back the tears of pride just thinking about it.

The Irish media has made a jellyfish look like Leonidas guarding the Pass of Thermopylae in the way they have utterly failed to question the motives and method of the GPA. In one way it’s not surprising, because most writing on the GAA is so profoundly superficial that it’s clear the writers have no idea about the soul of the organisation. Anyone that writes, in clear conscience, that Dublin filling Croke Park on big match days is the ne plus ultra of GAA life is like a dietician saying that Tayto is the cornerstone of a healthy diet. Causality is not these people’s strong suit; to suggest that big crowds in the country’s biggest stadium are a cause and not an effect in GAA reality is to fundamentally misunderstand the organisation, and it’s a misunderstanding that could cost the organisation its very future.

It’s not hard to project what will happen if the GPA get their way. The grants will only go to the top twelve counties, and the minnows can go whistle, as usual. As more money comes in the gap between the strong and weak counties will become more pronounced. Eventually, more and more money will come in, and that will result in mismatches being played in front of empty stadia. Motions will then be put to Congress to divide the Championship into A and B Championships, the A Championship for Sam, contested by the elite, and the B for the also-rans, who can play for the Ciarán Whelan Punchbowl, or some other trinket. Or else they’ll continue the Championship, but they’ll amalgamate and break up counties according to money and population-base. Then, in the Leinster Championship of 2025 or so, the crowds will assemble from all around at the Chicken Tonight Bowl, just two miles from the M50, to see the first big Championship clash of the summer, the Longford-Roscommon Corncrakes versus reigning Leinster Champions, the Finglas Firecats, presented in association with Diageo and Goodfellas Pizza.

Think it couldn’t happen? It already has – in Wales. Rugby was in Wales what the GAA is still in Ireland, the heart and soul of a people. All the biographies of the great Welsh players of the 1970s contain a generic chapter about the hero – Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Gerald Davies, or whoever – coming home to find two suits from the professional Rugby League offering big money to play in the North of England, and someone’s old granny saying “don’t do it son, don’t let down your heritage, don’t let down the hwyl of ancient Cymru.” And that’s all ancient history now. Think I was messing about Longford-Roscommon earlier? What do you think the Neath-Swansea Ospreys are?

Tom Humphries signalled this exact parallel in the Irish Times four a half years ago, and Humphries was never a rugby man. But he met Cliff Morgan just when Wales were implementing the professional structures, and drew the frightening parallels.

The Welsh are victims of the fact that their game has an international dimension, and were therefore caught up in a tide not of their making. There is no international dimension to the GAA, bar those disgraceful junkets to Australia. The GAA is under no pressure from outside to professionalise, and here they are about to sign away their birthright for thirty Euro a week. And that’s the other thing – at least the Welsh are swimming in a big enough pool to generate enough money from many sources. The GAA can only draw on money within the nation, and if you want to see what a professional league that can only access internal revenue looks like, well, take a peek at the League of Ireland. Thank God for Derry, Tyrone and Mayo that they have made this stand. We are at the precipice, but we can still go back.

Know this: the GPA is about pay for play. Anything about “fair deals” is all old chat that has no discrete meaning, and an attempt to sugar a very nasty pill, as members from counties outside the elite twelve are hopefully now coming to realise. Eugene McGee wrote in the Indo during the week that he was disappointed that the GPA wasn’t looking out for the smaller counties. Since when did those boys show any sign of concern about smaller counties? I was surprised at Eugene.

It’s time the jokers in GPA were called to account. I was on Noel Walsh’s radio show on Northern Sound Radio this afternoon talking about this very topic, and I called on Dessie Farrell to put his money where his mouth is, and to debate the issue with me on Noel’s show. And I’m not even anybody – I’m just a guy that likes keeping a blog. But I’m ready to get in the ring to see if I can find out what makes Dessie do it. After all, he’s hardly a Gaelic player himself anymore, is he? What’s in it for him. Is Dessie willing to take me on, or is Dessie a chicken at Christmas? Watch this space.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Led Zeppelin

There’s a tremendously po-faced article published yesterday on about the imminent Led Zeppelin reunion and whether or not the band will play Stairway to Heaven at the show on Monday. It seems that the writer, one Andrew Goodwin, is a professor of media studies at San Francisco University, and “teaches a class on Led Zeppelin.”

A professor? Teaches a class on Led Zeppelin? That would explain some of it, as it’s only academics that can write sentences like: “[Stairway to Heaven] is unique among their epic tracks in that it privileges melodic/lyrical development at the expense of rhythmic exploration and timbral/psychoacoustic experimentation.” Timbral/psychoacoustic experimentation, eh? There won’t be much of that at Bayreuth this year, I’m thinking.

Having experimented sufficiently, Professor Goodwin then gets stuck into the lyrics. “If, for instance, the lady at the beginning of the song is a fool (she believes, after all, that she can buy a stairway to heaven), then why at the end of this long and winding lyrical road is she shining white light and showing us how everything still turns to gold? Some critics have turned themselves inside out trying to prove that this must be a different lady.

Not the sharpest stick in the box, Professor Goodwin. A different lady, by dad. Hasn’t he noticed, in the course of his professorship, that over the course of nine studio albums, Robert Plant hasn’t one decent lyric to his name? Robert Plant couldn’t write a shopping list, for God’s sake. A substantial amount of the Led Zeppelin oeuvre is simply shameless rip-offs of old bluesmen, and the other half has the merit of the phone book, lyric wise. In his interview with Plant and Allison Krauss in the Telegraph some weeks ago, Neil McCormick calculated that Robert Plant has sung the word “baby” some 271 times in the Led Zeppelin canon. So it’s not like we’re dealing with Sondheim here.

Professor Goodwin makes much of the fact that the lyric to Stairway to Heaven was printed on the gatefold sleeve of the Four Symbols album as proof that Zeppelin thought that Robert Plant had reached a new plane as a songwriter. Well, perhaps so, but considering the amount of yokes those bucks were ingesting during their pomp it’s equally likely that they wanted the lyric printed because the man in the moon asked them to print it, when they went visiting there on Tuesday, after a gig in the Royal Albert Hall. The lyric to Stairway to Heaven is cat. C-A-T, cat. Awful. Any eejit can see that.

None of this means that An Spailpín doesn’t enjoy “Zep,” of course. I do. But to try and spin some sort of university course out of them is ridiculous in the extreme. It’s sledgehammer cracking walnuts time. Led Zeppelin’s formula was quite simple, and you need not spend much time in the groves of academe to figure it out – let Robert Plant wail what he liked, have the boys give it socks behind him, and then have James Patrick Page tart up the lot back in the studio.

Having a musician who can also produce is never to be underestimated in any band. And this is Jimmy Page’s real gift, to mix in all that stuff that’s going on so that people can’t actually make out what Plant is signing but just let themselves go, like a really good ride at an extraordinarily loud and rockin’ funfair. People over-estimate lyrics; anyone that rates lyrics first is the sort of gnu that would sooner listen to the Divine Comedy than Zeppelin, and you won’t find An Spailpín signing up for that horror anytime soon. It would be nice if the lyrics were better – Phil Lynott could be quite gifted as a lyricist, God love him, and Zeppelin’s Monsters of Rock contemporaries, Deep Purple, possibly worse with quill in hand – but the little lyrical gap in the Zeppelin armoury is more than papered over by the tremendous noise that they generated, with Plant’s wailing contributing as much as anyone.

And it would be nice if, at some stage in the show on Monday, Led Zeppelin remembered the only guest singer that every appeared on any of their studio albums. The English folk revival of the 1960s and early 70s had a huge impact on Led Zeppelin, and they asked Sandy Denny to guest vocal on the Battle of Evermore on the Four Symbols album. Sandy Denny died tragically young, but your correspondent always smiles when he remembers the six words in Q magazine fifteen years ago that summed up Ms Denny’s performance on the track exactly. “Fought the Battle of Evermore. Won.” God rest you Sandy, where-ever you are.

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kings of September, by Michael Foley

Na Fíréin i 1982Keith Duggan remarks in his masterful study of Mayo football, House of Pain, that it is a pity John Maughan and John O’Mahony were born in the same generation. It is just as much a pity that Duggan’s book and Michael Foley’s Kings of September were published in the same autumn, and for Foley’s book to pip Duggan to the coveted Boyle Sports Sports Book of the Year title. Foley’s is the rightful winner; in craft and skill the writers are equal, but Duggan’s canvas is the Dadaist struggle of Mayo to once more win the Sam McGuire Cup, while Foley’s art comes from the classics of the long-haired Greeks themselves, and the deathless struggle of men to become gods and claim the very field of heaven. Foley calls the Muse to sing, and then stands well back as the day is recalled when some gods fell, some gods were born and some gods were destined to rise again.

In telling the story of how Kerry and Offaly came to contest the 1982 All-Ireland Final, how the game was played and what its aftermath was, Foley has all the ingredients of classical epic, not least in his cast of characters. The greatest of all these characters is Eugene McGee himself, a remarkable man without whom Offaly could never have risen to the heights of glory they achieved. Nowadays, McGee is simply the straight-shooting pundit of the Irish Independent and Setanta Sports, the last man in Ireland with sufficient credibility to be able to damn a player in so rich a phrase as a “fancy Dan.” Foley’s book is an important reminder to the nation that McGee is not just another talking head, but one of the greatest Gaelic Football coaches of all time. Like all men touched with genius, McGee can be prickly – many of the Offaly players remark on how they never really knew him, and still don’t – but McGee took those men from the bottom of the Leinster Championship barrel to Ardán Uí hÓgáin itself, and the retelling of how he did that is fascinating in the extreme.

Not least when we consider against whom it was done. Much has been said and written about Kerry of the 1970s and 80s, but it’s remarkable to note, reading Michael Foley’s book, how much they suffered by losing that 1982 final. Even now, complete strangers abuse Mikey Sheehy in the street about missing the penalty in the 1982 final, twenty-five years ago. Mikey Sheehy has eight All-Ireland senior medals – how much more does he have to prove?

It’s fascinating also to consider that the defeat to Offaly in 1982 may have done more for the lustre of that Kerry team, looking back, than winning a five-in-a-row would have done. Had they won the five-in-a-row, they would have done something that had never been done before, certainly. Had they won the five-in-a-row, Kerry would have been gods, but the loss in 1982 and Kerry’s subsequent return showed us that gods can fall to, but falling does mean that you never get up again. To come back from Séamus Darby and 1982 and, nearly worse again, Tadhgie Murphy and 1983, gives the Kerry team of the 1970s and 80s a lustre greater than the five-in-a-row would have bestowed.

No talk of gods in a football sense is complete without mention of Offaly’s own peerless Matt Connor, and what happened to Connor in 1983, crippled on Christmas Day in a car accident, is one of the most moving passages in the book. Connor’s accident deeply affected the entire Offaly team – Eugene McGee’s horror at Connor’s accident was plain when he was interviewed about it twenty years later on Laochra Gael, and Offaly players in the book mention how very upsetting and unsettling they found Connor’s accident. It was brave of Foley to take on the subject when so many people find it so distressing, but without bravery this book could not have been so honestly written.

Kings of September’s final gift is Foley’s ability to contextualise the game in its place and time, the grim Ireland of the 1980s. If there is one single vignette that shows how much the country has changed, it’s when Seán Lowry talks of the people back home, watching on TV or listening to the radio. Modern GAA commentary never talks of the people back home, because it’s now taken for granted that you have enough money to bring kids and caboodle to Dublin for long and expensive match weekends; in Ireland of the 1980s, that was a luxury that was not easy to afford. Conspicuous spending is what it’s all about in our times; if it’s Saturday it must be Electric Picnic, and if Sunday, it must be Croker. Anybody sitting at home low on bobs is now some sort of louse or bum. Are we a richer or poorer people for it, I wonder?

Denis Walsh’s Hurling: The Revolution Years revolutionised the way books on Irish sports are written, and now Foley has taken it a step further. The prospect of further books of this ilk, the great events of Irish sports placed in their place and time, John Pullin’s England arriving at Lansdowne Road in 1973, the summer of 1987, when Stephen and Lydia Roche were King and Queen of Ireland, even Saipan itself. It’s a thrilling prospect, and Kings of September has led the way. It’s essential reading.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Operation Freeflow - The Teeny-Weeny Detail They Overlooked

Few things capture the experience of living in Dublin in the early years of the 21st Century as much as the remarkable paradox of Operation Freeflow, the traffic management system that the city uses to deal with Christmas shoppers. (The only real way of dealing with Christmas shoppers, of course, is to machine gun the wretches, but then you’d have Amnesty International annoying you and it wouldn’t be worth it. Pity). It’s not so much the system itself as the relentless self-congratulation that goes along with it that gets An Spailpín’s gabhar, as it were. I mean, dear Jesus, it even has its own website.

Look at the thing
. Look at that little picture there of Dublin in the snow. Does that look much like Dublin to you? Doesn't look much like it to me. Who do they think they're kidding? It’s more like a scene from one of those Budweiser ads – those Budweiser dray horses wouldn’t look half as pretty if they’d been kept in some twelfth floor flat in Ballier all year, I’m thinking.

Look at all this bumph from the Irish Times’ breaking news section:

"Hundreds of gardaí have been drafted into Dublin for the force's annual drive to keep the capital's traffic moving over Christmas. Some 160 officers have been transferred to Dublin Garda stations for Operation Freeflow, which began yesterday and will finish on January 4th. In addition, 48 motorcycle patrols will be put on key routes at peak times, supported by other mobile patrols, mountain bike patrols, the Garda Mounted Unit and the Garda Air Support Unit, according to the Garda Press Office. The operation will be managed from the Garda Traffic Control Centre on Harcourt Square, which will be in contact with Dublin City Council's Traffic Centre."

It sounds like a feature length episode of CSI, with Grissom working out a heuristic on the back of an envelope to see how many 1982 Ford Cortinas can be jammed into the Liffey Valley Centre. And, to be honest, it’s hard to argue with a lot of it; it’s a good thing that there are mobile patrols with mounted and air support to make sure the city can keep the traffic moving.

But here’s what gets me: What about the rest of the bloody year?

Reading from left to right across the foot of that ridiculous Freeflow website, which I'm clearly having a lot of trouble getting over, the Dublin Transport Office, Dublin City Council, the Gardaí, the Department of Transport, the Dublin City Business Association, Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus, Iarnród Éireann and the LUAS are all swelled up like harvest frogs, bursting with pride because they can get the traffic moving in December. Well, what about the other eleven months of the year? You can live and die in the car then, stuck in the timeless parking lot that is the M50, the junction of Berkeley Road and the North Circular Road, the entire village of Dundrum, and a thousand and one other traffic black holes. Where are these jokers then? They’re no-where to be seen, that’s where they are.

It’s like hiring a carpenter to put up shelves and when he only hammers one nail into the damned wall, not only does he think he’s done a great job, he expects to the congratulated on it. He thinks he’s just built Noah’s bloody Ark. Incredible.

An Spailpín Fánach advises all readers who have the ill-luck to have no choice but to shop in Dublin to rise at the crack of dawn to do so, if you can at all. And for God’s sake don’t be fooled by some load of soft chat about taking “public transport.” Public transport is miserable enough when there’s just you and your buke to bring onto the bus, with the driver scowling at you for wrecking his buzz and that whiskery buck on O’Connell Street getting in your way and doing nothing, I mean NOTHING, else, without having to face all that while being loaded down with cashmere ganseys from Arnott’s, scented candles, box set DVDs of TV shows that were very middling when actually broadcast, signed copies of Maeve Binchy’s books and three bottles of whiskey, while also being in charge of the safety and well-being of Adam, 8, Maedhb, 5, and Benjamin, 2. Take the car, for God’s sake. Life’s too short.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Chick Lit Meets Mick Flick - PS I Love You, the Movie

Do ye like me hat? I got it from the accordian player in the Quiet ManThere is now another reason to stock up on strong booze for Christmas. PS I Love You, the movie version of Cecelia Ahern’s massively successful debut novel, is being released Christmas week and, judging from its online trailer, it’s going to be a stinker of pandemic proportions.

Your constant quillsman has not read the original text, but he is quite sure that it in no way deserved the opprobrium heaped on it by an intensely jealous Irish media. Within the confines of its genre, the work was of a high standard, and the fact that Hollywood movie and TV people are willing to pay many dollars for rights to the material is a further endorsement of the author’s undoubted talent. Speculation that Miss Ahern owes this Hollywood interest to her father’s position is to show a touchingly naïve estimation of Ireland’s position on the world’s stage. Big business like Time Warner couldn’t give a fiddle-de-dee what sort of Tea-shop Ms Ahern’s father runs in Paddyland – all they want is product.

And more luck to Ms Ahern in her endeavours, although one feels that she will have earned every cent of whatever it is Time Warner is paying her for the book rights if she actually has to watch this movie as part of her contract. An Spailpín has only seen the trailer, and a harrowing ninety seconds it was. Someone, somewhere, seems to have decided that Chick Lit meets Mick Flick is the way to go, and this is the hideous result.

One has to feel for Miss Hilary Swank, who is not a bad-looking girl and has two Oscars on the shelf to underline her acting chops. It can hardly be easy to feel chic and glamorous when one is famous for portraying such unfeminine characters as boxers and, worse, boys, and it’s reasonable to assume that she snapped the hand off her agent when offered a leading role in a light romantic comedy, with an uplifting message to boot. Hollywood loves messages.

But Mr Gerard Butler as Miss Swank’s late husband in the movie. Oh dear. Oh no. Oh my.

Again, it’s hard to judge the width of the gap, if any, between the portrayal of the dead husband in Miss Ahern’s novel and his celluloid incarnation without having read the text, but it’s, again, reasonable to assume that if the guy in the book was one half the cretin, the merest trace of the gibbering moron, the vaguest implication of impossibly idiocy that Gerard Butler portrays in the movie trailer, then Miss Swank’s character would not be spending much time mourning his passing; rather, she’d be dancing on the coffin lid even while the ropes are lowering the thing down, high-kicking like the queen of the can-can girls at the Folies Bergère.

If you were to put every stage-Irish cliché in Hollywood history, from The Quiet Man to Darby O’Gill, from Finian’s Rainbow to, dear God in Heaven, Far and Away, into a bag, beat it with a blackthorn shillelagh and tie it up with shamrock, you could not create a mouldier mess than Gerard Butler’s portrayal of “a passionate, funny and impetuous Irishman named Gerry.” It’s truly Hollywood hibero-hideous in the worst possible way.

Gerard Butler gives it Killarney as soon as he steps into shot, gurning manically, grinning like the gold medal winner in the Chucklehead Championship of the World, and spouting line after line of the most ridiculous faith-and-begorrah stuff that it has seldom been my misery to hear. Well here we all are, aren’t we having the crack, sure laughter is worth more than gold in Ireland, and so on and on and on, until you fervently wish that maybe Mr Fintan O’Toole would come along and give us a thirty thousand word lecture on how the Celtic Tiger generation let down the legacy of James Connolly. And it's not every day you'd be wishing that.

Butler was last seen as King Leonidas in 300, so at least the producers are assured of a considerable gay turnout for his latest movie. But out from that, it’s hard to imagine sentient human beings wanting to sit through the thing. Miss Lisa Kudrow sleepwalks through an inevitable rehash of Phoebe as one of Miss Swank’s character’s VBFs, and the other Very Best Friend is Miss Gina Gershon, famous, insofar as she is famous at all, for her role as Cristal Connors in Showgirls. Showgirls was rightly laughed out of theatres on its release, but at least none of the dancing girls in that magnum opus were on stage wearing derby hats, smoking clay pipes and eating boiled beef and cabbage. For that small mercy we should be properly grateful.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Let My People Go-Go, by the Rainmakers

Talk about a rave from the grave - I hadn't heard this thing in twenty years. I think I remember them on Top of the Pops. They rawked.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Dublin Bus Strike

Dublin Bus drivers are on strike this morning. Twenty-five routes have no service, and eleven more have “limited” service – whatever that’s meant to mean. The situation will almost certainly escalate, unless Dublin Bus management back down on the point at hand – which is do with where drivers will have their lunch break. It’s remarkable to think of an entire city grinding to a halt over where some buds will consume their ham sandwiches.

If An Spailpín Fánach is to retain any memory, any lasting sensation of his eight year sentence in this ugly city of Dublin, it is this: the unmistakable and unforgettable sensation of standing in the cold and rain at a bus stop on winter evenings, looking at several buses parked in a line at the bus stop, each with its doors closed; each and every bus containing a driver, snug and warm in the cab, hunched over the steering wheel, carefully studying the Evening Herald and not giving a fiddle-dee-dee for me or the rest of commuters getting colder and wetter.

So, readers, don’t pass a picket today – stop, and throw stones.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

New Guinness Ad

Spectacular, spectacular. Marvellous. And bejapers, it has much the same effect on me, that old devil's buttermilk.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

House of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football, by Keith Duggan

Mysteries wrapped in enigmas are child’s play compared to unlocking the riddle of Mayo football. The delicious misery of it, the hopeless ecstasy, the impossible release, the damned divinity of the only thing for which the county is known, and at which the county has fared so badly. In some strange parallel universe, Leonard Cohen must have come from Mayo, not Montreal; to whom else but the Mayo football team could Laughing Lenny be referring when he sings of the heart with no companion, the soul without a king, the prima ballerina who cannot dance to anything?

In his second book, House of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football, Keith Duggan comes as near as anyone can hope to explaining to outsiders, and to the county itself, why football is such a big deal in county Mayo, a county that has won less football All-Irelands than Tipperary or Wexford, and whose last All-Ireland was delivered over half a century ago, when the other big news of that Irish summer was Judy Garland singing in the Theatre Royal that July.

Duggan casts a cold eye on Mayo football from the blazing welcome afforded the victorious 1951 team as paraffin-soaked hay was torched along the railway tracks to mark the victors’ return, to the bleak and empty years of the 1960s and 70s, to the revival of the 1980s, Pádraig Brogan and 1985 and the 1989 final, to the harrowing losses of the past eleven years when Mayo, like Moses on the mountain-top, were shown the Promised Land and told that it was not to be for them.

Duggan is blessed with a fine prose style – there are many wounds in Mayo football, many backs up and many fires that need little stoking. Duggan is above that. As an outsider, he cares little for the internecine disputes that litter the history of football in county. Instead, what fascinates him is this: why do they keep coming back for more? After the humiliation of last year, cut to ribbons within ten minutes, when David Brady was sent on after eleven minutes, not so much to effect a change as to search for survivors, as Brady himself wryly remarks, not one man retired. They all came back for more. What makes them do it?

Duggan is especially strong in rooting the footballers in real life, the thing that elevates the great sports books from the mundane. Duggan echoes one of his predecessors at the Irish Times, John Healy, when he writes of Charlestown, football, and the mayfly career of John Casey, Mayo’s last full-forward. Ted Webb and John Morley, both of whom were tragically called home to Glory before their time, get a chapter each, and Duggan deals with their deaths with sensitivity, restraint and no little skill. Everyone who has been unfortunate enough to know someone who died young will know what Ted Webb's nephews mean when they say that Uncle Ted has always been with them while they grew up, just like any other member of the family; it’s just that he never comes in of an evening and sits down to dinner with everyone else.

David Brady, a large character in the book, is quoted near the end as saying that football isn’t that important, but we know that he doesn’t believe it. Duggan chooses this year’s county final as a fitting coda to end the book – those who know their Tennyson will hear a familiar echo as Duggan looks down on McHale Park at the old warriors clashing their spears on their shields once more.

This is an age when the GPA are passing their greasy hats, looking for money. Loot clearly doesn’t interest Duggan – no-one who wants to get rich has any business getting involved with following the green above the red. Instead, Duggan saw something in Mayo that can’t be explained in terms of money, and something Duggan thinks worthwhile enough to record for posterity. It’s that unique and delicate fusion of sport, place and sense of identity that is the wellspring of the GAA’s strength and success, that doesn’t fully submit to rational analysis but without which the organisation could not survive. Ultimately, it isn’t about who wins the cups; it’s about coming back next year and always ensuring that the green and red banners are raised aloft to represent their people. We are Mayo. We march on. The people of Mayo, and GAA people in general, owe Keith Duggan a debt. His book is essential reading.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

An Pictiúr a nInsíonn na Míle Focal

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Canticle Composed While Listening to Fireworks in Dublin on Hallowe'en Night

With sincerest apologies to Anni-Frid, Benny, Björn and Angetha. You know, it's hard not to notice that not only would the great Swedish nation not put up with this sort of hooliganism, they wouldn't even have the population who'd do it in the first place. Sigh, and double sigh.

Can you hear the bums Fernando?
I remember long ago when people still had rights
In evening's twilight Fernando
You could read or watch the telly or do anything you choose
You didn't need to board the windows
Or hide behind the curtains with your head down at your shoes

Say good luck to that Fernando
Those days are history, and now scobies call the shots
How simple must you be Fernando?
When the best way to spend your time is playing with a cracker
Can't they just live and let live
Or is it in their stars to always act the knacker?

There was something in the air tonight
It has to be the cor-dite Fernando
It was coming with a flash and bang
A pikey boomerang Fernando
Do you ever think we'll catch a break?
Well, I don't know,
I hope they blow themselves to Hell
And their mates as well

There was something in the air tonight
It has to be the cor-dite Fernando
It was coming with a flash and bang
A pikey boomerang Fernando
Do you ever think we'll catch a break?
Well, I don't know,
I hope they blow themselves to Hell
And their mates as well

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Monday, October 29, 2007

The Books Crux - Who Will Love My Babies?

Spéirbhean a bhí ann. Spéirbhean a gcuirfeadh fonn ar Easpag cic a thabairt dá fhuinneog gloine dhaiteHaunting the bookstores is one of the things that An Spailpín Fánach particularly enjoys doing. Even when I don’t buy any, I like looking at the books on the shelves and tables, seeing them there, and enjoying that peculiar atmosphere that exists only in bookstores. That atmosphere is heightened in second-hand bookstores, as I remarked in this space earlier, when mourning the passing of Greene’s of Clare St, and the second-hand stores always carry the additional promise of buried treasure, the book that everybody has forgotten but you.

I discovered just such a cache on Saturday, on a visit to the Secret Book and Record Store on Dublin’s Wicklow Street, a few doors down from Tower Records. You go down a long corridor to get to the Secret Store itself, and then you burst into the light, into a large retail space. In the middle are the display tables, with the special offers, while the books are categorised in a more orderly fashion on the shelves on the wall. And last Saturday, on the table nearest the door, I saw them.

Three piles, with maybe twenty or so books per pile, of books by such pulp greats as Edgar Wallace and Peter Cheney. What made them so wonderful – Wallace hasn’t aged well and I had never heard of Peter Cheney – was that they were all Pan books from the forties and fifties, with those marvellous Pan covers, with the cartoon drawings of terrified dames, tough guys with gatts and square-jawed heroes with cigarettes hanging from their lips, felt hats pulled down hard over one eye and bottles of mule-kicker rye whiskey just sticking up out of the suit jacket pocket.

And then I realised that there was only one way for all these books to have come on the market so suddenly – someone has swapped the easy-chair and the reading lamp for wings and the sheet music of the Choir Invisible. They’ve crossed over the bar and their books have been left behind, with no-one to care for them anymore. The books are in beautiful condition too, especially considering they’re so old. The shop owner even remarked on it, saying that most books of that genre get creased and hammered and kicked around, whereas these were loved and cherished. Anne Fadiman wrote in her wonderful Ex Libris that the one area where men show genuine tenderness is over their books – whoever collected these Edgar Wallaces loved them the way courtly swains love their maidens fair.

And now the lover is gone, and the maidens must make their own way in the world. I hope it’ll go easy on them, not least as I had a presentiment of my own deeply treasured collection ending up in a similar circumstance on a similar table. My friend An Tomaltach and I were taking porter in McDaid’s of Harry Street only a few days earlier, and our conversation turned to the issue of books, and how hard it is to keep them.

Although I have yet to ask him, I would hazard a fair guess that An Tomaltach would agree with me that the library of Lord Peter Wimsey, the gentleman sleuth, is pretty much the ideal for the conscientious bibliophile. Dorothy L Sayers tells us of the library that “its scheme was black and primrose; its walls were lined with rare editions, and its chairs and Chesterfield sofa suggested the embrace of the houris. In one corner stood a black baby-grand, a wood fire leaped on a wide old-fashioned hearth, and the Sèrves vases on the chimney piece were filled with ruddy and gold chrysanthemums.” Nice. Miserably, it’s hard to bang a library like that into a two-up two-down in a former corpo estate in the capital of the Irish nation, and it can only exist as an ideal, rather than an attainable goal. An Spailpín Fánach is up to his rapidly receding hairline in books, and he’s trying to summon the god of geometricians to figure a way to get the lot shelved without flooding me out of house and home.

Eventually, of course, it will come to either selling or donating some of the books, or buying a bigger gaff. The bigger gaff is the option of choice, but one which may be looked at askance by our friends in the banks, subjecting us to a smorgasbord of easy credit this time last year, tightening the belt as the hangman tightens the noose this year. But I hope and pray that the weather changes before I have to serve eviction orders on any of my books, and they end up in a pile similar to that one in the Secret Book and Record Store. This is difficult to understand for my friends who have no hoarding instinct or who, bizarrely, actually give their books away after reading them. A number of years ago I caught a friend with One Hundred Years of Solitude in a box destined for a charity shop; An Spailpín Fánach is now the proud owner of two copies of same magisterial novel.

But this Mother Goose complex is an instinct which I will have control, until such time as your faithful narrator buys his tropical island paradise and builds his bookshelves from palm trees. As such, your faithful narrator has been taking it easy in his book shopping this weekend. Only the Dorothy L Sayers’ from which I got that marvellous library description. And Ingrid Black’s first book. And two highly regarded movie books that, bizarrely, were on sale in Chapters, and therefore irresistible. And a jackpot collection of the old Irish Press columns of Seán Ó Ruadháin, my fellow Mayoman – a terrible crank in many ways but my God, beautiful Irish. But that’s it, definitely, until Christmas at the very earliest.

Except for when Duggan’s book finally comes out, of course...

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Sponsor Mark Lenahan for MS Ireland in the Marathon!

Mark Lenahan - one half Arkle, one half Cyberdyne Systems Model 101Anyone that really wants to do something charitable this weekend ought to ignore that fatuous and self-serving telethon and sponsor An Spailpín Fánach’s friend Mark Lenahan instead. Mark is running the Dublin City Marathon on Monday to raise a few pound for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland.

This is Mark here on the left. Shrewder readers will notice that’s not a pint of Lucozade Isotonic Sport there in Mark’s fist, so running the marathon won’t quite be a walk in the park for the poor dumb eejit. Wouldn’t surprise me if it offed him completely, to be honest with ya. But, to borrow a line or two of that old Waterboys song, An Spailpín surrenders, Mark won’t. While An Spailpín sits on his arse and mutters, Mark gets up off his arse and does things, like pushing his – no offense now Mark – plainly feeble and puny body over twenty-six miles of punishing road course to turn a buck or two for MS Ireland. And he won’t get some sweet little thang from South Dublin like Laura Woods making the glad eye at him afterwards on the telly – a week in the oxygen tent seems a much more likely bet. But still, off he goes, pounding out the miles because he thinks it worth it.

He’s a better man that you or I. Sponsor him a few pound – Diageo won’t miss it for the weekend. And if you see a pale, wan and bespectacled Ballinaman listing badly in the final few miles, when not even the beautiful-beyond-words Georgian buildings of this capital city can cheer him, do your best by Mark by shouting out encouraging words, like “open source software development!” or “way to configure that DNS!” or “Richard Dawkins is God! Or would be if I were a faith-sufferer, which I’m, er, not!” Somehow, he will hear, and it will help. Donate now.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

How They Could Really Raise Money for the Telethon

Do people in general feel nauseous towards this awful Telethon, or is it just your curmudgeonly correspondent, his pestilency An Spailpín Fánach? The rumble has been building for weeks, and now it’s only the habitual alcoholism of the Irish public, that happy refuge that has saved us so often in the past, that can keep the nation’s sanity on a even keel tomorrow evening. As kryptonite is to Superman, so the Telethon is to the right-thinking man or woman. Five minutes will bring you weeping and gibbering to your knees, while anything over half an hour could certainly kill. The doctors can fight at the autopsy over the diagnosis of what offed you in the end, boredom or disgust, but you’ll be clearing your throat with the Choir Invisible by that stage. And it’ll be a blessed bloody relief, after listening to God knows what kind of sanctimonious patronising pap out of Tubridy and his ilk.

I hear a voice at the back – you sir, you with the fashionably long high-maintenance hair. What’s that you say? It’s for charidee? Why am I am having a go if it’s all for charidee?

Well, because saying something is for charity isn’t a license to do what you want. All that is just old blather. It’s cheap programming for the weekend that lets RTÉ’s outrageously over-paid presenters feel good about themselves giving alms to the poor for a day.

A quick read of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St Matthew is instructive in this regard: When thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.

Sounding trumpets? Hypocrites in the street? You’d imagine that the former tax collector had actually sat through an RTÉ Telethon, and was still shaking as he sat at his desk to compose. Perhaps a vision - an apocalypse that made John's look like an episode of Little House on the Prairie.

For sinners who don't truck with the Bible, perhaps a story about another great leader of men is instructive in this case. Francis Albert Sinatra is a great hero of An Spailpín Fánach, and Francis, famously, cared little for the media. The great love of Frank’s life was Ava Gardner and, although their marriage was short, Frank and Ava always loved each other even though they couldn’t live with each other. Human beings are complex creatures.

Twelve years after their separation, Frank was in Italy filming Von Ryan’s Express, and Ava came over to visit. This made the paparazzi very excited, but they could never get a good shot of Frank and Ava together. So the lensmen pooled their resources and offered Frank $16,000 for a picture of himself and Ava, together.

Frank came back with a counter-offer; double the money, $32,000, if he could break an arm or a leg of one of them.

Imagine their shocked little faces. Good old Frank.

And in the spirit of the Hoboken Canary, An Spailpín Fánach humbly suggests that our Telethon heroes, doing it all for charidee and coming on, everybody, simply auction the following the delights to an eager nation if they really want to make a few pound:

  1. Doing It for Duxie: Half an hour in a handball alley with Ryan Tubridy and a hurl. You have the hurl.

  2. Sign o’ the Times: Liveline presenter Joe Duffy walking the mean streets of Tallaght-fornia with a placard, reading “Maybe if you took a FÁS course instead of a forearm’s fill of heroin you wouldn’t have these problems.”

  3. Hannibal Lyster: The Sunday Game presenter is locked up in a high-security bughouse somewhere in Maryland, USA, and left there to hell.

  4. That’s Life, Bouys: Pint-sized pottymouths Podge and Rodge have their mouths washed out with soap and are forced to read Molière in his original French.

  5. Ryan Line or Soap on a Rope?: Enormously fat radio presenter Gerry Ryan is boiled down for soap to be used on the missions.

That'd soften a few coughs, by Japers. C'mon everybody!

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Shopping for Groceries with An Spailpín Fánach

But supervillains want reward without labor! To make things come easy. It's wrong! Without labor there can be no payment and vice versa! The country cannot progress! Workers are the tools that shape America!While feeling peckish after another long day at the office, your Spailpín Fánach stopped off in his local convenience store on his way home. Outside, there was an indigent gentlemen who has that raspy voice that is the ne plus ultra of the true knight of the streets. He set a certain tone.

I entered the store, collected my item, and approached the register.

“One forty-eight,” said the young man behind the counter.

I said nothing, and handed over the two Euro bit. I saved my sally until I was pocketing my fifty-two cent of change, being both faultlessly polite and a big fan of that moment in every single episode of Columbo when your man would think he’d gotten away with shiving the wife and dumping the remains in the Pacific, only for Columbo to stop on his way out the door and say “you know, there’s just one thing that’s been bothering me...”

“Thank you very much,” I said to the shopkeeper on receipt of my fifty-two cent. “There’s just one thing that’s been bothering me. When you get a chance, you might update your prices on the display.”

“Eh?” says you man. God love him, he was too young to remember Columbo – he couldn’t hear the thunder of hooves building in the distance, nor see the distant clouds blackening in the Eastern sky.

“Yes,” I continued, placid as Saint Sebastian as the arrows thudded home. “You see, your display says one forty-one, but you’ve just charged me one forty-eight. I wouldn’t like the next person in here to make the same mistake I’ve just made.”

“I give you your money back,” says the shopkeeper, reaching for the precious seven cent.

“Oh?” said An Spailpín Fánach, the acrid smell of burning martyr filling the room. “Are you sure it’s alright?”

“Oh yes,” said the shopkeeper. “I have to get around to updating those prices anyway.”

I like to think he’s updating those prices now, while I’m writing this to remind us all that the Roman was pretty much on the money when he said caveat emptor. A bean counter of An Spailpín’s warm acquaintance tells me that one discovers in counting beans for a few different convenience shops around the town that the behind-the-counter banditry is of Olympic standard. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

What was I buying? Cream-crackers, of course – when in Rome darlings, when in Rome. Sigh.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Time to Accept the Obvious - England are the Best Team at the Rugby World Cup

Half a league, half a league, half a league onward
Once the penny finally drops, it’s obvious. We’ve spent the past month searching for the best team of the World Cup and they’ve been under our noses all the time.

New Zealand, crying bitter tears at home, are still the best team in the world, just as they always are. The All-Blacks haven’t adjusted to the existence of the World Cup yet, but year by year, now as then, the Silver Fern remains the gold standard. Argentina were brave and heroic, and have a potential genius at stand-off half in Juan-Martin Hernandez, but they were ultimately limited. South Africa are much the stronger team on paper, compared to England, and possess a game-winner in Brian Habana to whose brilliance England cannot hold a tallow candle, but the fact is that since South Africa boxed England’s ears for them in Paris on September 14th, every game for England has been an elimination game for them, and still they march relentlessly on. After a while, it’s not really a co-incidence anymore.

Alex Wyllie is showing poor grace in condemning the English style of play, not least as it’s exactly the style of play that forged the All-Blacks legend. Besides, it’s not as if England are breaking any laws of the game. Consult the rules, and ascertain how many extra points you get for aesthetic impression. None, I think you’ll find. The great characteristics of this England team are their resounding honesty and impeccable bravery. These men do not pretend they are hurt and dive in penalty boxes – rugby is not Steven Gerrard’s game. Instead, they scrum down and maul and ruck with impossible resolution and heroic heart. When the gunsmoke clears and the cannons no longer roar, watch for the white shirts marching grimly on, led by Corry, Shaw and Moody. Martin Corry, who has written such wry columns on the violence of breakdown play in modern professional rugby in the Guardian, is the epitome of the doughty yeoman who conquered at Corunna, Quebec and Cawnpore. He is not for turning.

England, above any team at the tournament, are forged by the events of the tournament; specifically, by the humiliation meted out to them in the Stade de France one month ago, when they were the only team at the tournament to be held scoreless. Once you hit rock bottom you can curl up and die, or you can realise that things can only get better. That’s the exactly the choice England made, to claw their way back up the ladder, rung by painful rung, that team of crocks, cripples and has-beens who don’t know what it is to get beaten.

The Tan burned Cork and hanged Kevin Barry, but he remains, in Kipling’s words, a first-class fighting man. What the Light Brigade looked down on at Balaclava is what England have faced in every game since that mauling under the hooves the Boks, and now they face it again. The monstrous strength of Os du Randt. The best second rows in the world, Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, the man named for a truck. The shattering and explosive play Schalk Berger, the all-round excellence of Fourie du Preez at scrum-half. And a back three against whom England cannot compare in Habana, Pieterson and Montgomery. Impossible for England to win, so they do only what they can, and what they’ve been doing for this entire World Cup – when Alain Rolland blows his whistle tomorrow night England will lower lance and sabre and charge the guns, just like they do. Theirs not to reason why.

Neil Francis’ condemnation of England’s play in this World Cup on Setanta last weekend was shameful. That he can’t see the pride infusing that team, their refusal to be cowed, is an indictment of the man and he should be deeply ashamed. Pierre Bosquet famously quipped that the Light Brigade’s charge at Balaclava was “magnificent, but not war”; England may not be rugby as Neil Francis’ understands it, but for him to deny the magnificence of the stand they’ve made at this World Cup does Francis no credit at all.

England are only ever one Brian Habana interception away from doom tomorrow – if South Africa score tries, England will be hard pressed to catch them. But if England can impose themselves on South Africa and are still in the game with twenty minutes to go England will win it. An Spailpín has no doubt about that. The ice that runs through Jonny Wilkinson’s veins will grow even colder as he relentlessly directs his men on, rewarding his pack with field position, territory and ultimately points on the board, the sweetest reward of all. Jonny Wilkinson, who looked to have paid for his World Cup medal in 2003 with the rest of his career, has come back from the professional rugby grave to stand on the brink of personally directing England to the first ever back to back World Cups – if you don’t find that awesome and thrilling you should stick to the horror of Tubridy Tonight on Saturday, because you really don’t know what you’re watching. Ask Keith Wood. He sees it too.

If tomorrow evening is a bridge too far for England, it’s hard to deny South Africa the title either. They are a fine and talented team, and Jake White has had to withstand a lot of interference just to keep the show on the road. But for your Spailpín Fánach, England are the story of this World Cup, as they’ve clawed their way back from humiliation on nothing but sheer guts and pride alone. I’m sorry, Tom Barry. Accept my apologies, Dan Breen. Patrick Sarsfield, what can I tell you? I know Cromwell had you poisoned Eoghan Roe, and Oliver Plunkett’s severed head sits in a jar in St Peter’s, Drogheda, as a grim reminder of eight hundred long and dark years, but England are the best team at this World Cup and will win the final, just five days short of St Crispian’s Day. God and Blessed Oliver forgive me.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

The Podge and Rodge Generation

The Podge and Rodge Show returns to our screens tonight. 400,000 people watch Podge and Rodge every week, which is phenomenal. Podge and Rodge are us. We recognise ourselves in them.

And is An Spailpín Fánach so very distant from his country and culture that I find something deeply, deeply wrong with that?

A Scare at Bedtime, the original incarnation of the O’Leprosy brothers, was inspired. It was the ideal format for the puppets, because it was on late at night, in its correct place. It also contains one of your correspondent’s favorite dialogue moments in contemporary Irish drama, not an overpopulated field.

It’s coming up to Christmas, and Podge discovers Rodge writing something. Podge asks Rodge what he’s writing.

Rodge: “It’s me Satan list.”
Podge: “Don’t you mean your Santa list?”
Rodge: “No – I was writing to him for ages and never got nothin’. I said I’d give the quare fella a go.”

Perfect. And the scare stories themselves, invariably featuring dirty work that is punished in a dreadfully apposite way, were inspired. Consider the case of the Tractor of Doom, featuring the Dublin ponce son of Old Man Toolin, who inherits the farm and attempts to plough the land, against the advice the locals who know it to have been druids’ land. He is returned to the soil under his own ploughshares, and it was good enough for him, the ponce. From Dublin.

Marvellous vignettes of Irish rural life, like visiting Ballymagash of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly fame after living solely on a diet of stale bottled stout and rancid chicken for about a week – you’d be seeing all sorts of quare apparitions.

And that was grand in its place. What bothers An Spailpín Fánach is that the boys weren’t kept in their place, and brought out into the mainstream instead, which is no place for that sort of schtick.

A friend of An Spailpín likes to refer to his swear switch. Like your correspondent himself, and like most of your corr's peculiar circle of friends, both male and female, this man swears all the time. But he is aware that sort of carry-on is upsetting to some people, such as his mother, or his boss, or his bank manager, or lots of other people, so when he’s in inappropriate company he switches off the swear switch. It’s like remembering to put the handbrake on in the car or lifting the toilet seat – simple common sense and courtesy for others.

What bothers An Spailpín Fánach is not only that Podge and Rodge don’t have a swear switch, but the nation doesn’t seem to mind that they don’t have a swear switch. We are all meant to join in laughter, delighted that we are no longer under the repressive hand of Eamon DeValera.

But Dev is dead thirty-two years now, and the society that formed him dead for even longer than that. What we have instead is Trevor Sargeant throwing the rattle from the pram a few months ago about not being invited onto the Podge and Rodge show. Trevor Sargeant, of the Green Party, supposedly the most righteous political party we have, thinks it’s of paramount importance to appear on a chat show where the chief lines of interrogation concern whether or not one ever had relations with one’s pets or inquires as to the regularity or otherwise of one’s bowels. James Connolly was shot in a chair for this?

Lucy Kennedy, Debbie McGee to Podge and Rodge’s Paul Daniels, is one of the supposed upcoming stars of RTÉ for playing straight-woman to this stuff. Maybe An Spailpín has been hanging around the convent for too long, but most ladies of An Spailpín’s acquaintance wouldn’t tolerate this conversation even in the limited exposure of a Saturday night out, to say nothing of broadcasting it into the nation’s homes at tax-payers expense. Is Lucy Kennedy that fond of the spotlight, or is, as a fiery redhead once told him many years ago, your faithful chronicler of contemporary Irish life hopelessly, irredeemably quaint?

Former gubernatorial candidate for the state of Texas Richard “Kinky” Friedman once wrote that there is a time to live and a time to die and time to stop listening to the Byrds. Maybe it’s time to start giving Podge and Rodge the wide steer, and tackle an apple and a good book instead.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Get in the Ring, Dessie!

Cuirígí coisc air!Mr Dessie Farrell, self-styled chief executive of the self-styled Gaelic Players Association, has been doing the media circuit again lately. Dessie has been droning on about a final smackdown between the GAA and the GPA over players’ “rights.”

To which An Spailpín Fánach says: Bring it on, Dessie. It’s never been entirely clear just whom the GPA represents, and that leaves cynics wondering that maybe they just represent themselves. A glance at laughably named Facts and Figures section of the GPA website is instructive: President, DJ Carey; Chairman, Dónal Óg Cusack; Secretary, Kieran McGeeney. It reads rather like the roll-call of the Justice League of America, don’t you think? President, Superman; Chairman, Batman; Secretary, Wonder Woman, and so on.

The current bee in Dessie’s bonnet concerns certain grants that the government has made available to all inter-county players for the great contribution they make to public life in this great and wonderful little green nation of ours. The sordid details of handing out the actual gelt the Government is leaving to the peons, of course. It’s infra dig for the Government to get it’s hands dirty, you know. You know yourselves the chances of the average civil servant being able to do it.

The GAA itself can’t administer these grants, as that would be tantamount to paying for play, in complete contraction with the organisation’s beliefs. And this is where Dessie sees his chance – he wants the GPA to act as the intermediary, or bagman, to distribute the loot.

The GAA is damned if they’ll let him get away with this, and they’re right. Bad and all as paying players for playing, paying Dessie and the boys to pay players for playing is just plain stupid.

Dessie is currently doing the media rounds throwing shapes because the media lack either the will or the knowledge to call his bluff. To wit, there never will be a players’ strike called by the GPA because that would be the same as turkeys voting for Christmas, and Dessie doesn’t fancy giving it all away just yet. Besides, even if the media haven't done their sums, I'm sure Dessie has - a grant of €5 million, as reported in the Irish Times link above, distributed among 150,000 GPA members, works out at €33.33 each before tax, and about seventeen clams or so after it (as the GPA would never encourage tax evasion). Hardly enough to throw away an inter-county career on.

What will happen if all the GPA members in the country decline selection for their counties? Nothing. Their county boards will find someone else to wear the shirts, and the county will be represented just as before, on those countless other occasions when players declined selection. The striking GPA member will then be in considerable negative equity with his team manager, for whom any sign of doubtful commitment is almost always a reason for the chop. You say county teams can’t go without their star players? It’s October – they can all tick along just fine until May at the least. And An Spailpín Fánach gets the feeling that no-one is going to give up their Championship summer just so Dessie Farrell can ponce around like some sort of Séamus Guevara. In the meantime, Dessie Farrell is just taking advantage of a dim and docile media to try and Uriah Heep some positive PR for himself and his organisation.

I would suggest that the next time Dessie appears on any media outlet the interrogator asks him a few questions that An Spailpín Fánach – always an eager student of the human condition – is quite anxious to know.

  1. Who pays Dessie Farrell’s wages as CEO of the GPA?

  2. Who pays the rent on the GPA offices at 132 Lower Drumcondra Street, Dublin 9?

  3. If the GPA owns the premises, how did they fund the purchase?

  4. Who pays the rest of the wages for the full-time staff of the GPA, to say nothing of the three new positions currently advertised?

  5. If they GPA is so awash in money, does that not invalidate their central thesis, that the players haven’t a pot to piss in?

Time to call these jokers’ bluff. They make me tired.

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