Thursday, August 30, 2007

An Spailpín Fánach's Farewell to Music

If ever a picture told a thousand words...I don’t listen to music very much anymore. I certainly don’t buy it. I’ve been moving house lately, and as I pack up the CDs and go through them I look at the odd one and think “why in God’s name did I buy this crap?” And then the invariable answer comes – because I read in a magazine that it was cool.

I name and shame: Trout Mask Replica, by Captain Beefheart. Forget everything you read – it’s garbage. There is no other word.

I used to buy a lot of music, and then, slowly, I began to find that there was less and less stuff I wanted to listen to. Once you’ve caught up on the classics – Stones, Who, Beatles, you know yourself – you find that the current crop doesn’t really measure up. Is there any record that sounds quite as revolutionary as Astral Weeks or Forever Changes still does? And it’s been forty years since those records were made. No progress in forty years - two generations, at least - is not a great sign.

It’s doubly disappointing when you realise that the so-called classics don’t stand the test of time that well either. There will always be revolutionary artistic endeavour, like the two I’ve mentioned already, but there’s nothing to revolutionary about something that was influential forty years ago. After forty years, the revolution becomes the establishment. In his marvellous series on Twenty Century Greats, Howard Goodall pointed out just how revolutionary the Beatles were, but I remember when the DEC VAX computers were the cat’s pyjamas but I don’t get the vapours today at my amazing home wireless internet access. It’s just part of the wallpaper now. Ozimandias, King of Kings…

Some of An Spailpín’s friends are fluttering with anticipation at the prospect of attending the Electric Picnic (or Siamsa Cois Laoi 3.0, if you like) this weekend. It must be a lifestyle thing. I looked at the list of bands playing and was able to file them all under two species; who the hell are they, and I thought they were dead. If most of that bunch were playing in the back garden not only would I draw the curtains, but I’d seal up the windows as well, just in case, nasty old humbug that I am.

A friend of the blog was shocked last week when I told him I don’t listen to music anymore. It’s not so much that I don’t listen to it, as that I don’t look to it for the same meaning I once did. Music is still vital to him (although he’d a be longshot to be seen at the Picnic as well, I might add), but for me the magic is broken. I liked the Kaiser Chiefs last year, but when I see that their songs are being performed better currently by bubblegum pop acts like Lily Allen and Girls Aloud, well, a man tends to see them for what they are.

“Cabaret music” used to be the rock and rollers’ great sneer to the squares – Paul A. Rothschild refused to produce The Doors’ LA Woman because it was “cocktail music.” Now, the insult has no frisson anymore; in fact, if you are entertaining this weekend, I’m quite sure a spin of LA Woman while the digestifs are being served will go down terribly well. We are all into cocktail music now – has anybody seen Snorah Jones’ record sales lately?

Besides, rock and roll is past its sell by date. Sinatra sang saloon songs for grown-ups; it’s hard to take Mick Jagger seriously when he sings “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” for an audience who are thinking “I Can’t Get No (Nursing Home) Subvention.” The Sinatra era is dead as well, as people have lost the art of both writing and appreciating that sort of urbane, sophisticated lyric and melody. Wicked was the big Broadway hit musical last year, but the songs are, uniformly, very middling indeed. Send in the Clowns? Don’t bother, they’re here.

Bono likes to tell us that rock and roll can save the world. Well Paul, it’s had half a century now since Bill Haley first rocked around the clock – how do you think it’s doing so far? Any stir?

Freddie Mercury had it figured from the start. Freddie knew that this crack about rock and roll saving the world was all blather. “My songs are like Bic razors,” he said. “For fun, for modern consumption. You listen to it, like it, discard it, then on to the next. Disposable pop.”

Good old Freddie. He knew that life is a cabaret. He put on a show, but he never claimed them to be any different to the ones George Formby used to do at Blackpool pier in the 1930s. Nothing wrong with George, and enough right with him not to pretend to be anything he’s not. As for the rest of the shapers, well, we’ll have to wait and see. Enjoy the picnic if you’re going, but try not to join any movements or cults. And to end on a happy note, here’s Freddie singing one of those disposable pop songs, one of An Spailpín’s own favourites (the hopeless old softy), Love of My Life. And isn’t it interesting to note that, as Freddie’s voice soars and he leads the singalong, there’s no emotion there at all? Freddie knew what he was doing alright. God have mercy on him.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

IRFU Adopt Soviet Five Year Plan Strategy, Apparently

An Spailpín Fánach is utterly stunned at the announcement today that Eddie O’Sullivan has been appointed Ireland coach until 2012. 2012! And this before a ball is kicked in the World Cup!

The Union points out in the release that they did the same thing in 2003, giving Eddie a vote of confidence before the World Cup. But they do not point out that the reason for that was because it was still less than two years since they hung Warren Gatland out to dry. The IRFU had made their bed and they then had to lie in it.

But this is four years on, when people are gradually beginning to see the hype of the past year or eighteen months for what it was, and will be watching the World Cup with a much more critical eye than heretofore. So for the IRFU to batten down the hatches like this smacks of nothing so much as the deal that the FAI made with Mick McCarthy before the soccer World Cup in Japan. And we all know how well that worked out.

It’s tempting to wonder if this new contract includes a get-out clause should O’Sullivan be offered the Lions job in 2009 when they tour South Africa. O’Sullivan is the long-time front runner (clever Eddie having skilfully disassociated himself from the 2005 debacle by by leaving Sir Clive to swing slowly in the wind), and we have confirmation of this favoritism in O’Sullivan’s appointment as coach to the Barbarians in December (whose brand has no proved as lasting in the professional era as the Lions’, more’s the pity). Your correspondent will bet good money that get-out clause exists, but An Spailpín doesn’t think it will come to that – it’s hard not to get the sinking feeling that there won’t be too much Emerald Green in the Lions’ squad by the time 2009 comes around. How very depressing.

FOCAL SCOIR: Anybody know how Gatland got on since he got the bullet here for being no good? What’s that? Three English Rugby Premiership titles in a row with London Wasps, a Heineken Cup with Wasps as well and an inaugural Air New Zealand Cup with Waikato last year? Clearly a bum – we’re well shot of him.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

France the Bet for the Rugby World Cup

For the beleaguered Irish rugby coach, the dark skies over Ravenhill on Friday night were for once not solely attributable to the malign summer weather. Eddie O’Sullivan, spun into a corner at last, can only have beheld a sky dark with the sight of chickens coming home to roost.

This Irish rugby team has been living on no small amount of gas and hot air being generated jointly by fans with typewriters, cynical advertisers trying to turn a buck and the ambitions of the aspirant classes of the Celtic Tiger cubs. But now the squad is exposed as being desperately thin, and only one unlucky injury to O’Driscoll, O’Gara or John Hayes away from humiliation and exposure as fools’ gold. A sad fate potentially in store for the most talented squad ever to wear emerald green in the great and glorious game of Rugby Union Football, and one which they will have all the rest of their lives to regret, as Brian Moore pointed out after they let in those two soft tries against Italy in Rome on St Patrick’s day to choke another Championship away.

So if Ireland don’t win the World Cup – and they won’t – who will? New Zealand are the hot favourites of course, and if they do win, not only should we not be surprised, we should not begrudge them. No country loves the game as the New Zealanders do, no country is as steeped in the game’s traditions. Begrudging articles in the press over the past months wondering who will save us from these troublesome All-Blacks reflect no credit on their writers.

That said, for a team that’s consistently choked in every World Cup since David Kirk lifted the first Webb Ellis trophy twenty years ago the All-Blacks are really quite shocking value at 6/4 on or so. They may win it, but An Spailpín Fánach will not grow fat(ter) and full(er) on odds like that. Time to look further down the card.

South Africa are historically second only to New Zealand in terms of rugby prestige. Despite many internal turmoils Die Bokke are coming to the boil quite nicely now, and certainly won’t be anyone’s tomatoes in the tournament. They’re in the soft half of the draw too – likely pool winners, with a quarter-final against Scotland or Italy. If they take fire, there’s nothing to stop them going all the way, but the continual sniping at the squad and management as political agendae are served back home in the Rainbow Nation make the Springboks hard to fully trust with the children’s allowance for September.

Australia has a tremendous record at the World Cup, winners twice and getting to the final last time out when they arrived at the tournament with no chance. However, your faithful correspondent will never bet on Australia on principle, on the basis that they are the carpet-baggers of World Rugby. Once can’t help but feel they’d all be much happier playing Rugby League in a pool of mud somewhere around Widnes and environs. Let them away.

Wales is the only other country with New Zealand and South Africa to hold rugby as the national game. During the amateur era the Welsh could keep up to an extent, but the harsh reality of professionalism exposes their lack of population. Wales' 2005 Grand Slam was a thrilling return to everything that makes rugby great, proof that it need not be all about simple brute strength, but all the good of that has been subsequently squandered by infighting and, perhaps, Sir Clive’s disgraceful selection policies during the 2005 Lions tour. In James Hook the Welsh have, potentially, a right and true inheritor of the blood-red ten shirt of Davies, Bennett, John and Morgan, but Wales have no chance of winning the World Cup. More’s the pity.

Brian Ashton, coach of the defending Champions, has been returning very quickly to basics in his selections, realising that champagne rugby is all well and good, but it was old fashioned bully beef that brought dear old Blighty through at Cawnpore and Corunna. That said, the ten-man game has no answer to falling behind in the scores, and the bull-headed persistence in trying to make a Union silk purse from a League sow's ear can only end in tragedy. England will not retain the Cup.

And that just leaves us with the hosts. France have an excellent record in the World Cup, getting to two finals, even if both final appearances were on the back of inspirational against the odds semi-final wins (1987 against Australia, and 1999 against New Zealand). But history shows us that the host nation always gets to the final, and that alone makes them worth a bet. As the likely winners of Group D, theirs is the softer route to the Final. Their talent base is rich and deep – remember Benoit Baby? Benoit Baby gave a man of the match performance at centre against Ireland in Lansdowne Road in 2005 as a replacement, as I recall, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since. That’s riches, as Keith Duggan pointed out in the Irish Times at the time.

An Spailpín is a little concerned at Bernard Laporte’s preference for Michalak at stand-off half, and would certainly not be entrusting this particular Fredo with softening Moe Green’s cough beyond in Vegas. The steady Skrela is my preference, although I get the feeling that Lionel Beauxis could become a star at this tournament. There’s something about the gimp of him, you know.

But perhaps the most fascinating characteristic of the French that inspires An Spailpín Fánach to dig the garden for some gambling doubloons at the price of 17/2 or so is what the French themselves call “l’esprit du clocher” – the spirit of the clock-tower. Your village in France is defined by any point at which you can still see the spire on the village church, and the village must be defended at all times. It’s not so much that France will want to win on home soil, as the soccer team did in 1998, as the notion of seeing someone else triomphe-ing under their Arc on October 20th will be more hateful to them than words can express, and all will be smashed before them to ensure that doesn’t happen. A semi-final line-up of Australia v New Zealand and South Africa v France then, with les bleues to triumph over les noirs in the final. Aux armes, citoyens, and invest in France. From an Irish perspective, there will be no other solace from this World Cup.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

For the Day That's In It

Might as well make the most of it - it's been a cold and lonely winter, after all...

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sucker Punch

Paul O’Connell wrote in his Sunday Times column today that the Irish rugby team and management were totally shocked by the violence that broke out in the game against Bayonne on Thursday night. Hmm. How odd that, among such rugby folk, none of them received a copy of that reliable of Christmas presents, Rugby’s Great Heroes and Entertainers, by the BBC's former voice of rugby Bill McLaren?

Everybody’s favourite Scotchman relates an anecdote about a friend of his that left Scotland for the weekend to referee a French club game. Bill met him when he got back, and asked him how he got on at the game. “It’s not a referee those fellas want,” said the ref, “it’s a missionary.”

No less distressing, the Irish rugby intelligentsia seem equally unaware of the ill-fated Irish tour to South Africa in 1998, when rugby was still at something of a nadir here. Ireland got their hats handed to them in the first test, and they were getting something of a shelling in the second too. Just like Bayonne during the week, they were being met by an immeasurably superior force, and they had a choice – they could lie down and take it, or they could stand up for themselves. Punches flew, there was a certain amount of huffing and puffing in the media afterwards, but it was hard not to be sneakily proud of Painless Paddy Johns and his men at the time. An Spailpín isn’t proud of it as a moment in Irish rugby, but he’s not ashamed of it either. What happened in South Africa nine years ago and in Bayonne last week were inevitable in a game as violent as rugby. Mismatches are dangerous. Whatever about the wisdom of that particular tour, Thursday’s visit to Bayonne was like walking around the city of Limerick roaring “drug dealing is wrong!” or “girls never kiss guys who participate in gangland hits or associated criminality!” at the top of one’s voice. Only disaster can ensue.

And so it did, in the form of the injury to Brian O’Driscoll. What sighs of relief were heard across the nation when a relieved Czar Eddie told his faithful people that O’Driscoll only had a broken sinus and not a broken cheekbone as initially feared. So that’s all right then.

An Spailpín’s old friend BT was making an interesting point last night – the sinus can’t actually be broken. It’s a medical impossibility. The sinus is a cavity between bones – a cavity is empty by definition. You can’t break what ain’t there. You can look it up if you don’t believe me.

So, if O’Driscoll’s sinus isn’t broken, what is?

Here’s An Spailpín’s guess, and it’s only a guess of course. I hope I’m wrong, but I get a bad feeling about all of this. My guess is that all this chat about O’Driscoll’s sinus is an exercise in news management. In a fortnight, when the excitement has died down, the IRFU will release a press release to the effect that BOD’s sinus is, worryingly, not responding to treatment. The nation holds a breath, speaks to Joe, hears Hookie huffing and puffing unduly. Then, on the eve of the World Cup a downcast Eddie O’Sullivan, with solemn music bought on the cheap from the former Soviet State funeral back catalogue playing in the background tells a waiting world that, sadly, for BOD, the World Cup is over just before it’s begun, and his position in the squad is to be taken by anyone but Jerry Stauton. Marion discusses it if she’s back from her holidays, Eddie looks kindly on the media, who can only pray to be someday able to appreciate his impossible genius, and the media in turn offer to kiss his Episcopal ring. Even the Ulster boys, who are cheered that Paddy Wallace is now at twelve, Dorse is at thirteen and Sir David Humphries has been drafted in to answer Ireland’s Call once more.

An Spailpín has said it before and will say it again. O’Sullivan out, Frank Hadden for the Lions. It will be a mantra soon.

FOCAL SCOIR: What in damnation were Ireland doing playing in blue? Since when did the Emerald Green of Ireland become replaced by the powder blue of … where, exactly? Key West? A visit to the IRFU site tells us that the Irish don’t even wear emerald green anymore; “IRFU dark green” is what you should ask for now from your local Dulux supplier. Jesus Christ. It’s no wonder the weather is as it is.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Don't Buy the Snake Oil at the Dublin v Kerry Medicine Show

The nation should start digging its fallout shelters now. A mushroom cloud of hype, blather and nonsense is about to explode in the Irish sports media, rendering the sporting landscape uninhabitable until perhaps the next fortnight at least. It’s started already, with Paul Curran having his tummy tickled by Des Cahill on the wireless yesterday evening. The upcoming Meath v Cork semi-final will act as some sort of fire trench for this week, which the media will patronise in the manner of the punters at the Rolling Stones this weekend at Slaine trying not to be too mean to the support acts, but everybody knows where the their hearts – if that’s the right word – lie. They’re just killing time until they can see the Jumping Jacks Flash.

What’s especially sickening about this great Dublin v Kerry rivalry stuff is that there isn’t a great Dublin v Kerry rivalry. It’s a myth, a conspiracy invented by cynical journalists and cute Kerrymen that’s perpetuated a fraud on the plain people of Ireland for at least thirty years. And An Spailpín is sick of it.

Ironically, the one element of that great Dublin v Kerry myth with which An Spailpín has no argument is the only one that’s ever been questioned, and that’s whether or not the 1977 semi-final between the teams was the Greatest Game of All-Time. While An Spailpín has no interest in getting into an argument in trying to quantify the immeasurable, that game was repeated on TG4 a few Christmases ago and for your correspondent it was as if Santa had come back with another box of Lego. Those who talk about missed frees and dropped passes are those same people who, when you come back from climbing Everest, ask you why you didn’t climb the flagpole. We pray for them, and return to the tape with poor Micheál O’Hehir’s commentary for the ages. Epic, marvellous stuff.

But the rest of the myth is all baloney, quite frankly. The myth is this: the great rivals of Gaelic football since the time of the Tuatha DeDanann are Dublin and Kerry, who exist in complementary opposition in the same way that bacon and egg are the same but different, and neither is ever as good as when paired with the other. This rivalry reached its zenith in the 1970s, when the best Kerry team of all time met the best Dublin team of all time, and each was the equal of the other.

Up to a point, Lord Copper. The notion of there being some sort of equality between the teams in the 1970s or ever is not matched by the facts. In the 1970s, that so-called Golden Age, Dublin beat Kerry in 1976 and 1977, and deserved both wins. However, Kerry beat Dublin in 1975, and hammered them in 1978, '79, '84, '85 and '86. Dublin like to make faces about Brian Mullins’ car crash and how he was never the same and if he hadn’t had that crash yada yada yada – I often wonder what the faithful GAA men and women of Offaly think when they hear this whining.

Dublin haven’t beaten Kerry in the Championship – of “Champo,” if you must - since that semi-final in 1977. At all. The nearest they came to it was that quarter-final draw in Thurles in 2001, when Maurice Fitzgerald kicked his famous free. The last time the teams met in a quarter final in 2004, Kerry ate Dublin without salt. And even more interestingly, Dublin hadn’t beaten Kerry before the 1976 All-Ireland since 1934, according to a text message on Des Cahill’s show last night.

This means that Dublin have two victories to show for seventy-three years of this so-called greatest rivalry in Gaelic football. That’s not a rivalry by any definition of the word – as baseball historian Richard Johnson said about the relationship between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, it’s only a rivalry if you consider the hammer and the nail to have a rivalry.

It’s easy enough to see why Dublin and their apparatchiks play up this myth, as the Dublin support has rather inflated notions of worth, and are never bothered too much about knowing their onions. But it takes two to tango – why do the Kerrymen insist on playing along? All Kerrymen insist that they consider Dublin their greatest challenge – even Colm Cooper was saying during the week that he would love to play Dublin at Croker. Are Kerrymen unaware of history?

As they would say themselves, not at all boy. It’s not that Kerrymen tell lies – it’s just that they like to put a certain blás on the truth.

An Spailpín is not a psychologist, and, to be honest, he gets the queasy feeling that were Sigmund Freud himself to return to the mortal realm and be locked in a room for twenty-four hours with an average Kerryman, the Austrian would walk away the proud owner of eight acres of bog and scrub on the side of a hill in Ballyferriter, and a three legged puck goat called Charlie. Kerrymen are way ahead of you at all times.

Whatever they say among themselves, Kerrymen’s national statements on football are strictly for tourist consumption. All that old guff about the Kerry style of football is all my hat. If there is a Kerry style of football, why have there been so many hit-men in the green and gold down through the years? There’s only one style of football that they care about in the Kingdom, and that’s the one that brings home Sam in September. How the game is won doesn’t really bother them. I don’t recall them handing the cup back in 1997 or 1962 or lots of other years because their style of play was below their own high standards. If Kerry win 0-2 to 0-1, they’ll take it, don’t you worry.

And this is why Kerry love playing Dublin so. Dublin turn up with their swagger and Evening Herald supplements and 98FM outside broadcasts and their heads swelled from turning on the telly looking at Ó Cinnéide or The Bomber or someone else talking live from a picture postcard about how much they love, respect and honour the Dubs, and then they get savaged by Kerry. Wiped out. Again. Dara Ó Cinnéide is a fine journalist in either language, and a huge addition to the TV coverage, but don’t let that butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth demeanour fool you – Dara will toe the party line and keep a straight face but he’s just spinning, spinning, spinning all the time.

Are you having doubts that Kerry would be so devious? Isn’t it odd, so, that when they weren’t talking up Dublin during the summer Kerry were talking up Tyrone? Isn’t it odd that, while Kerry were poor mouthing the absence of Moynihan and McCarthy they didn’t seem to think the absences of Canavan, McGuigan and O’Neill would knock a stir out of Tyrone? It’s not because they’re still bitter as eleven acres of lemons about 2003 and fancied some handy payback? Surely not.

Down v Kerry is a rivalry. Offaly v Kerry is a rivalry. And here’s why – both Down and Offaly did what Dublin were never able to do, and that is make Kerry cry. Kerry are still bitter about Down in the 1960s and Seamus Darby in 1982. They couldn’t give a hoot about 1976 or '77 because that debt has been paid in full. Two losses in seventy years – they can live with that. But never to have beaten Down? To see the impossible dream of the five in a row go wallop in the last minute, the last minute when Kerry always triumph, like they did last Sunday? Now that hurts.

Not that you’ll be reading that anywhere in the national media. Tomorrow in the Irish Times, Tom Humphries, a Dub, will ghost-write the thoughts of Jack O’Connor, a Kerryman. It won’t be pretty. If you have holidays to take, take them now – it’s not like the outcome of that Dublin v Kerry game is in doubt, after all.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

Ag Ceiliúradh Tommy Makem Tar Éis a Bhás

Thomas James Makem, 1932-2007. RIP.Agus na caointe go léir atá scríofa in ómós an té atá imithe ar slí na fírinne, is é King's Call, an t-amhrán a scríobh Phil Lynott tar éis bás Elvis Presley, ceann de na h-amhráin is ansa liom. "Agus do chasas a cheirníní ar feadh na h-oíche," a shéinneann Lynnott, "ag ól in ómós mo chara sár-dhílis."

Bhí an Spailpín ag déanamh an rud ceanán céanna tar éis briseadh scéil bháis Tommy Makem inné. Agus mise san oifig fós, ag cuardaigh Youtube agus ag breathnú arís ar laoch mór cheoil na hÉireann.

Níl ach Liam Clancy fagtha anois - nach mbeidh sé uaigneach dó an seachtain seo chugainn, nuair a mbeidh sé ina sheasamh ag uaigh a sheanchara, a dheartháir fola mar a duirt sé inné, agus ar eolas aige gurbh é féin an t-aon duine atá beo ar an bhfód fós ón tseandream? Táim uaigneach féin ag smaoineamh orthu go leir, agus níor bhuail mé le ceachtar acu. Is cuimhin liom socraid Paddy Clancy - déanadh clár teilifíse fúithi, agus fir móra aiséirí an cheoil tradisiúnta na hÉireann, Ronnie Drew, Paddy Reilly, Finbar Furey, Liam Clancy agus Tommy Makem féin, ag seinnt "Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go" sa reilg, ag breathnú ar chónra Phaddy, a cháibín cailiúl ar an mullach, ag dul síos an fód.

Bhí fios agam i gcúl mo chinn nach raibh eolas ar shaothar Tommy Makem go forleathan sa tir agus, tar éis feachaint ar na páipéirí tar éis fograíodh an drochscéil, táim cinnte anois. Seo an sliocht sa Independent inniu - níl faic tada nua ann, níl leargás dá laghad ann, ach gach rud bainte ón idirlíon agus an sreang nuachta. Agus maidir le cad a scríobh Fintan O'Toole - níl fios agam conas ab fhéidir leis chodladh, tar éis cad a scríobh sé faoi fhear tar éis a bháis. Tá súil agam go mbeidh daoine níos cneasta leis féin nuair a dtiocfar a uair. Nach cúis náire í d'iriseocht na hÉireann go comóirtear saol agus saothar níos fearr sa Daily Telegraph, Sasana, ná i bpáipéirí náisiúnta na hÉireann?

An ciallaítear as seo go n-obraíodh Tommy Makem agus na Clancy Brothers in aisce, gur chaith sisa a síol ar thalamh bán? Dea-scéal agam agaibh dá bhrí sin, a leitheoirí - fad atá fios fagtha sa domhan cé hí Éirinn nó ce h-iad na Gaeil, beidh Tommy Makem agus na Clancys beo fós. Tagann faiseanna nua cheoil le gach uile ghlúin, ach fanfaidh guth an duine beo go síoraí, agus mar sin fanfaidh saothar Tommy Makem beo leis. Iarradh ar Ledbelly uair amháin an cine den saigheas daon-cheoil iad na gormacha. D'fhreagair sé gurbh daon-cheoil iad na gormacha cinnte; níor chuala iadsan á sheinnt ag capall riamh.

Agus is é sin, an daonnacht a mbainneann le gach aon daon-cheoil, a gcoinneofar ceol agus saothar na Clancys agus Tommy Makem beo go fóill. Fad ab fhéidir samhlaigh ar ropaire ar thaobh sléibhe i bhfolach ó Maor an Caiseil, nó seanfear ag breathnú siar ar a shaol mar Pheilim Ó Brádaigh, Bard Aird Mhaca, nó ab fhéidir linn gáire a dhéanamh in aghaigh an bháis, mar an fear ar an dtuairim gurbh bhreá an rud é, a bhuachaillí, bheith marbh go deo, beidh Tommy agus a shaothar beo linn. Tá ár ndeora tite anois; is gá duinn tús a chur ar ceiliúradh saol agus saothar Tommy Makem, agus cad ab fhearr na an ceann seo? Go codlaí tú go sámh, a Thomáis, bí cinnte go seinnfear do cheol go deo.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

So. Farewell Then, Tommy Makem

Tommy Makem RIP, Paddy Clancy, RIP, Tommy Clancy, RIP, Liam ClancyTommy Makem died late last night, about six in the evening local time, in Dover, New Hampshire, USA. Makem was seventy-four, and had been suffering from lung cancer. The Ireland that awoke to the news of his passing this morning is utterly changed from the Ireland he left in the 1950s – do we really know who this man was, and what his legacy will be?

A friend of An Spailpín, who plays close, close attention to music, gets irritated when he hears the often repeated line – and it’s going to be by-God repeated all day today – that “the Clancy Brothers revived Irish traditional music.” His argument is that the music was always here, and that making traditional Irish music acceptable in Dublin isn’t the same as “reviving” it. A barman in Taylor’s Bar in Galway, a haven for music once, now sunk into infamy, told me years ago that the Chieftains did far more for the music than the Clancys, whom he considered a cabaret act. And it’s as a cabaret act that the Clancys are often seen, with the bainíns and the showbiz patter and the rest.

And that’s fair enough – everybody needs somebody to look down, as John Prine and Kris Kristofferson wrote some years ago. Maybe it is the case that Makem is now part of history. Richard Downes struggling to place Makem in context on Morning Ireland this morning is evidence of that. But An Spailpín is free of Morning Ireland’s time constraints, and will try to place Makem in the pantheon, now that he has moved on to sing with Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna and the other great Ulster Bards.

Tommy Makem was born in Keady, South Armagh, seventy-four years ago. His mother, Sarah Makem, was a noted collector and singer of folk-songs, and it was through this connection that he first met his friend and musical collaborator Liam Clancy, with whom he was to work for fifty years, on and off.

Sarah Makem was visited in the mid-fifties by Diane Hamilton, an American heiress with an interest in folk music. Ms Hamilton was touring Ireland collecting songs, and she had brought Liam Clancy with her from Carrick-on-Suir to work the recording equipment. Some years later, both men had emigrated, to make their fortune as actors on the New York stage, and they met up again in Gotham, many miles from home.

Then, as now, there was very little money in acting, and the men supplemented their acting wages by singing in the evenings in the folk clubs that were springing up all over New York as part of the folk boom that was started by Pete Seeger and others, and that would reach its crescendo with Bob Dylan. The boys discovered that there was much more money in singing than in acting and, recruiting Liam Clancy’s two elder brothers, Paddy and Tommy, they went on the road as full-time folk-singers, singing that songs that Sarah Makem had collected and that Liam and his brothers had learned at school. Their attitude was best summed up by Makem himself in Philip King’s marvellous TV documentary of some years ago, Bringing It All Back Home. Makem was reflecting on the change from acting to folk singing, and how the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem suddenly hit the big time with an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. “We took the money and we ran like Hell,” said the always phlegmatic Makem. The correct attitude in all circumstances.

The Clancys and Tommy Makem could supply the one thing that the US folkies of the sixties craved above all else – authenticity. Most of the folkies who were singing Woody Guthrie songs about lonesome hobos and the hard times of the working man hadn’t done a days’ work in their lives. So to hear Irish songs being sung by guys who were from, like, Ireland, was so far out it was out of sight, and they lapped it up for all it was worth. Add in the huge Irish American market in the States and all of a sudden, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were on the crest of a wave, taking the money and running like Hell.

The wave washed up on these shores too, of course. After spending the hundred years after the famine with the head down, the nation suddenly looked up to see three chancers from Tipperary and one from the County Armagh coming out of Carnegie Hall, New York, New York, dressed in tuxedos, with their bainín jumpers draped over their arms. And those musicians, who had been playing away all this time, suddenly found their doors being beaten down by young people eager to turn onto this groove that – wait for it – had been here all the time! Can you believe it? And we didn’t even notice! Ciarán Mac Mathúna, that great scholar of Irish music, summed up their appeal by saying that while Thomas Moore took the wild harp or Erin and put it into a snuff box, the Clancys and Tommy Makem took it out of the snuff box and into a pint class.

The popularity of the Clancys and Tommy Makem spread like wildfire. In Liverpool, Luke Kelly stopped going to jazz clubs and learned to sing folk songs from Ewan McColl. Christy Moore quit a perfectly good job in the bank to take to the life of the wandering minstrel. Luke Kelly returned home to form the Dubliners in the back room of Donaghue’s of Merrion Row, Dublin, and some years later Moore would form Planxty, the band that joined the song and instrumental strands of the tradition together in the first Irish traditional music supergroup. And all because someone got sick on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem went on instead.

Like all history outlined in broad strokes, the story of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem has its non sequiturs. For starters, the Clancys weren’t quite as authentic as they seemed – just as Pete Seeger didn’t spend much time jumping railcars, so Liam Clancy was happy to report in the sleeve notes of his first solo album that he himself had only got blisters on his hands twice; once, from chopping wood in a Connecticut tree nursery, and once from rowing a boat on Central Park lake. The Clancys sang the best of rebel songs, even though the elder Clancys, Paddy and Tommy served with the RAF in India during World War II. Most ironic of all of course, was that these great ambassadors of Irish traditional music weren’t part of the tradition at all – Irish traditional music, in its purest form, is a solo art. We sing solo. The rousing choruses of the Clancys and their countless nickel and dime imitators is not part of the tradition.

Or, more correctly, not yet. One of the great things about the tradition is its fluidity, and its ability to change. That’s why the tradition is still alive. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem are now part of the tradition, and a never to be lost part because of their recordings. Lighting the living flame was one of the great official pieties about the 1916 revolution – whatever else Tommy Makem did, he did that much. The tradition was always here, will always be here – the lucht sí will look after it, even while we’re too busy turning the next dollar to do it – but the Clancys and Tommy Makem brought the tradition into the mainstream. It’s not there any more of course; O’Donaghue’s is now little more than an ersatz tourist trinket shop and our biggest musical hero is currently a Dubliner who seems to have got it into his head that not only is he American, he’s black as well. But for all that, the Clancys and Tommy Makem did their bit for the nation and for heritage, and their recordings will always be with us. God have mercy on Tommy Makem, and I take my leave with this clip of Tommy Makem in his prime, with his rich, clear baritone with that distinctive hint of vibrato, singing The Butcher Boy on Pete Seeger’s TV show. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam uasal, agus go tseinne sé ceol bríomhar na nGael go deo i measc na n-aingil.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Sligo Sailing to Byzantium, Royals Rising from the Tomb

"A freastálaí! Tá Eadhrach éigin im' anraith s'agamsa!"
It looks like another mouth-watering weekend at headquarters for GAA men and women this weekend. An Spailpín Fánach knows enough about hurling to know that he knows nothing about hurling and as such will leave speculation on the ancient and noble game to those that understand it better than I. But the Saturday program in the football looks tasty indeed, with one novel pairing and one rather sturm und drang looking rematch.

The pundit nation has been saying for some weeks now that, painful and all as it is for them (the pundit nation) to cast slights and/or aspersions on Sligo’s apocalyptic achievement in winning the Nestor Cup, Sligo are quite clearly chum, prey, born victims, tourists on Store Street, doomed. Everybody in the qualifiers has been licking their lips at the prospect of drawing Sligo in the quarter finals (how Central Council must have been tempted to bend the rules – just this once! – and have Sligo play Dublin) and now to Cork falls the honour of delivering the coup de grace to the plucky Yeats’ Countymen.

An Spailpín Fánach holds a contrary view. Sligo are not used to the big time certainly, and your correspondent would fear for his neighbours’ chances against Meath or Monaghan or Derry. But Cork is the ideal team for Sligo to have drawn, and the reason is this – if Billy Morgan couldn’t get his charges to focus on Louth, with their All-Ireland title pedigree, how will Billy get his team to concentrate for Sligo, with only three Nestor Cups to show for one hundred and twenty years?

How bare that cupboard looks compared to Cork’s, which heaves under the strain of its one hundred plus titles, with one more added only a few short months ago? And as each Cork man stands to attention during the anthem and looks at his Sligo marker, how hard will he find it to suppress his haughty snigger, and the feeling that he’s been challenged to a fight by his kid sister, braces, bangs and all?

If anything Louth have done Sligo a disservice, by giving Cork an early warning of the danger of complacency in a simple game like football, where class lines are not as clearly delineated as popular perception has it. Billy Morgan, the greatest football man in the proud history of a proud county, will have been banging that home to his men morning, noon and night since they left Portlaoise, but deep down, can Cork really take Sligo seriously? And by the time they do, will it be too late?

Of course, Sligo will want to learn how to pop over those thirteen yard frees, or else they’re as well to stay at home listening to their Westlife records. We may take that as read. And, to be honest, they’ll need a goal or two as well, as they just aren’t natural scorers and will need the boost a goal gives. But let’s not forget that Cork don’t really shoot the lights out either, and were having as much trouble finding their new secret weapon as An Taoiseach is currently having finding his bank receipts. Add into the mix the remarkable Eamon O’Hara, as fine as player as exists in the game and a man who, as the picture from the Mayo News shows, can have a remarkable ability to get on the opposition’s nerves, and all of a sudden Sligo don’t look that bad a proposition at all. Least of all with a five point start as offered by Ladbrokes.

The second match is a different kettle of fists. These teams will have no problems at all taking each other seriously – both multiple All-Ireland winners in the past ten years, and both participants in a remarkably violent All-Ireland semi-final eleven (eleven! Can it be?) years ago, which Meath won by, er, a knockout, I suppose.

Tyrone have since made up for the bleak years of the nineties by winning their first two All-Irelands, and are many people’s tip for Sam this year (including that fine GAA man that sets the odds for Ladbrokes, incidentally). However, here your correspondent has to go out on a limb and suggest that Tyrone are now further from the top of the mountain than they may perhaps realise, while Meath are roaring back to the summit with their customary gusto. For all this chat about systems and coaching and what have you, a team is only ever as good as its players, and there is no coaching manual that can turn mortal clay into Peter Canavan, Brian McGuigan or Stephen O’Neill.

In the other corner of the ring, it’s taken Colm Coyle, a Royal folk hero in his own playing days, just one year to restore Meath to the top table. The rise from no-where is as much a part of Meath’s great tradition as rough-housing and the Meath-are-never-bet stuff, and this year might just be another manifestation of that. Fine big boys all over the park, Moyles busting a gut between the fifty yard lines, and a full-forward line that’s now looking as deadly as any in the game, bar Kerry. Add in Graham Geraghty to spring from the bench and that’s some package. Ladbrokes are giving Meath a three point start at 4/5 and a really quite remarkable 9/4 on the outright. An Spailpín’s advice is to fill your boots.

FOCAL SCOIR: I know I’m getting tiresome talking about falling standards in journalism and it seems clear that nobody cares, but this sort of rubbish in today’s Independent really gets my goat. “Croke Park’s decision to cash in on the pulling power of Dublin footballers was rewarded yesterday when their All-Ireland quarter-final against Derry became a virtual sell-out in less than 300 seconds.” It is reasonable to presume from that that 80,000 tickets were sold in five minutes. This is not case, as only 2,000 tickets were sold on ticketmaster, and the rest through usual channels. About the same number and rate as bought tickets for Neil Young in Vicar Street a few years ago. Does this mean that every halfwit hack in the country will now start filing stories about Croke Park’s decision to cash in on the appeal of Canadian singer-songwriters by having a 60x30 handball exhibition between Neil Young and Laughing Lenny Cohen? I weep.

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