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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