Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Metal Fatigue - Has Irish Rugby's Golden Generation Turned to Rust?

Brian O'DriscollSo this is it, then. Butch and Sundance are in Bolivia, Sam and Ilsa are at the airport, Romeo and Juliet will live happily ever after at Mantua. Time is being called on Irish rugby’s Golden Generation, and this Six Nations Championship is surely their last hurrah, their last chance to finally close a deal.

Eddie O’Sullivan, head coach of the Irish rugby team, will name his starting XV for Ireland’s first game of the 2008 Six Nations at half-past one this afternoon, and Eddie is under a little bit of pressure – this time last year, he was Lions coach-elect; now, he’s a man with a reputation in tatters, facing an expectant nation and surely aware that two of his guests this year, Mr Nathan Hines of Scotland and Mr Warren Gatland of Wales, will be rather looking forward to renewing acquaintances with the loquacious Corkman.

So what’s Eddie to do? The sad fact is, there’s nothing he can do. O’Sullivan’s religious commitment to short term goals means that, as the nation expects change after the horrors of the World Cup campaign, Eddie now finds himself in the position of Old Mother Hubbard. Where he hopes to find the cupboard stacked to bursting with pastas, pulses and high carb foods, he finds only a few tins of Heinz beans, and a shameful packet of Super Noodles, hidden at the back for emergency munchies.

An Spailpín Fánach hadn’t quite realised just how very bare the cupboard is until the week before last, when a good friend of this blog and a great rugby man forwarded me his team to face Italy at Croke Park this coming Saturday. And what was noticeable about it was that the usual suspects were all there, just as they will be tomorrow when Eddie announces his team. Maybe Eoin Reddan will be in for Peter Stringer, even though Reddan suffered rather at Munster’s hands last Saturday week in Thomond Park; the lesson of the World Cup is that when something goes wrong, Strings is to blame it seems.

But otherwise, the team picks itself, really. Geordan Murphy may be as popular with Eddie O’Sullivan as Miss Angelina Jolie is with Miss Jennifer Aniston, but with the Piper Hickie retired and Shane Horgan injured, Murphy is there by process of elimination. Andrew Trimble on the other wing, Dorse and BOD in the centre, yadda yadda yadda. In the pack, despite the good press he gets (really, reading the Irish papers, one could be forgiven for getting the impression that the Leinster back row is comprised of Fionn MacCumhaill, Cúchulainn and Mannamán Mac Lir), chances are Jamie Heaslip will not start on Saturday, actually, and the only change will be Mick O’Driscoll understudying for Paul O’Connell.

So, although we can expect huffing and puffing about the team selection and questions about why Heaslip or Luke Fitzgerald aren’t starting, the fact is that while those young men may be playing well, they are not challenging the incumbents for their positions on the national team. At all. Brian O’Driscoll might be careworn and weak from toil and disappointment, but he’s still the most talented player in the Six Nations. He’s going nowhere. You could drop D’Arcy, put Trimble at twelve and one of either Rob Kearney or Luke Fitzgerald on the wing, but really, how much of a difference would it make?

Golden generations do not come this way often. Just for pig-iron, An Spailpín went surfing for the Irish team that started the Six Nations – or Five Nations, as it was then – against Scotland ten years ago, on February 7th, 1998. These are they:

Conor O’Shea; Richard Wallace, Kevin Maggs, Mark McCall, Denis Hickie; David Humprhies, Brian O’Meara; Reggie Corrigan, Keith Wood (c), Paul Wallace; Paddy Johns, Malcolm O’Kelly; David Corkery, Keith Dawson, Eric Miller.

Not quite a golden generation. And a controversial selection at the time, because of the amount of new and untested players – O’Shea, Maggs, Hickie, Humphries, O’Meara, O’Kelly, Dawson. Try picking a best-of team between those and the Irish XV that faced Argentina in the final game of the World Cup. Here’s my stab at it:

Girvan Dempsey; Richard Wallace, Brian O’Driscoll, Kevin Maggs, Denis Hickie; Ronan O’Gara, Eoin Reddan; Marcus Horan, Keith Wood (c), John Hayes; Paul O’Connell, Donnacha O’Callaghan; David Corkery, David Wallace, Denis Leamy.

A bit harsh on Miller, a bit kind to Richard Wallace, maybe. The Maggs/D’Arcy debate is too long to go into here, but otherwise the choices seem clear. The Golden Generation dominates. And that’s what we mean by a Golden Generation – they stand out in the parade of history among those that have worn Emerald Green, not only because they had exceptional talent, but because they all arrived at the same time. But the Last Post is blowing for the Golden Generation now and An Spailpín is most mortally afraid that not only have the Golden Generation left it behind them, but misguided selection decisions during their reign, when the autumn internationals and summer tours were cynically used for CV padding rather than future planning, mean that Irish rugby will be in the doldrums for quite some time. The Golden Generation has not delivered, and over-reliance on too small a core of players has cost Ireland the future. Brent Pope told Tom McGurk on the telly the other night that he believed Ireland could win the Championship, that they were ideally placed. If we were to search Brent Pope’s effects, would we find a bookie’s docket for Beef or Salmon to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the optimistic Kimi’s wallet?

John O’Mahony likes to quip that the opportunity of a lifetime only lasts as long as the lifetime of the opportunity. The opportunity is on the life-support machine now and if Nick Mallett’s gamble on the tyro Italian half-backs pays off on Saturday at Jones’ Road, the Golden Generation could be on the scrapheap even sooner than worst fears would indicate.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Ag Fanacht ar an mBus: Tóg Go Bog É, Nó Lean ar Aghaidh?

Tugann súil ghearr an Spailpín Fhánaigh faoi deara go bhfuil páipéir scríofa ag beirt boc cliste Meiricéanaigh gur chóir duit fanacht ag an stop in ionad léanúint ar aghaidh go dtí an chéad stop eile agus tusa ag fanacht ar an mbus.

Bhí Justin Chen, matamaiticeoir i gCalifornia, ag iarraidh dul ar chuairt a chara lá amháin, agus bhí an bus á thógáil aige. Agus eisean ina mhatamaiticeoir, ba easca an rud é a pháipéir agus a pheann luaidhe a thógail amach agus eisean ag fanacht, cúpla suimeanna a dhéanamh, agus fáil amach go mbíonn sé níos fearr duit, maidir le am agus maidir le suaimneas, fanacht ag an stop in ionad dul ar aghaidh chuig an gcéad stop eile.

Cláraíonn an tUllamh Chen seo na tosca atá taobh thiar a thuairim - baineann an tuairim le luas an bus, mincíocht na mbusanna, cá bhfuil na stopanna busanna agus luais an siúlóra. Tá múinín aige féin go bhfuil sé an ceart aige, agus is docha go bhfuil - is glic iad na mbuachaillí atá ag obair sa California Institute of Technology.

Ach más fhéidir lena dtuairim éirí anseo i mBleá Cliath, príomhchathair na nGael, caithfidh sé cúpla tosca eile a chur isteach. Mar shampla:

  • Conas a thaitníodh na bocanna cliste seo leis an gceardchumann? Ní thaitníonn an dream céanna leis an gceardchumann go ginéaralta, ach b'fhéidir go mbeadh trua ag an gceardchumann ar beirt Poncán soineanta cosuil leo.

  • An bhfuil ar an mbus dul ar an M50? B'fhiu duit an Marie Celeste a fháil, ná dul isteach sa Triantán Bermuda, ná dul ar an mbóthar damaithe sin.

  • An ndéanfar scríos ar "buzz" na tiománaí? Ní thaitníonn leo a mbuzz a scríosadh riamh, fios agat.

  • AAn bhfuil an Herald léite ag an tiománaí fós? Ní rachaidh aon bhus go dtí. Agus an crosfhocal déanta freisin. Braon tae, go h-áirithe san aimsir fuar seo. Ó feach, tá snúcair ar an dteilifís - tá súil agam gur cheannaigh na Poncáin cótaí mhóra san aerfort, go bhfoire Dia orthu.

  • An chóir stop ag na stopanna ar chur ar bith? Nárbh fiú an fógra "As Seirbhís" a chur suas, agus amach ón gcathair linn go Dollier, agus an búma a chaitheamh taobh thiar na méilte? Buzz mairthe, a mhac!

Is féidir le Justin Chen agus a chairde fanacht ag na stopanna más maith leo. Ach tá súil agam go bhfuil siad óg, mar beidh siad buailte go maith in aois sula dtugann bus BÁC chucu agus siadsan ag fanacht gan bogadh.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hit Me on My iPhone

I know I'm a child, but I can't wait for iPhones to go on the market here. In the meantime, this is cool as.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

John Milton - Skip the Biography, Read the Poetry

Gustav Dore - An Drochbhuaachaill ag breathnú ar FhláithisAnyone who doubts just how dormant poetry currently is as an art-form need only read Andrew Motion’s enthusiastic review in this weekend's Guardian of Anna Beer’s new biography of John Milton – Milton's 400th anniversary is this year – to have their worst fears confirmed. Motion is the current British poet laureate, but from reading this one begins to wonder just what sort of poems he writes himself. And then one discovers Motion's poem celebrating the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, and all hope is forever lost.

Milton’s reputation ebbs and flows with the times – Robert Graves despised him, TS Eliot thought he was great – but An Spailpín Fánach is inclined to take his judgement from George Bernard Shaw. “English,” Shaw has Professor Higgins declaim in Pygmalion, “is the language of Milton, Shakespeare and the Bible.” Good enough for GBS, good enough for An Spailpín Fánach.

Motion seems less convinced. The first thing Motion does is make sure there’s some clear blue water between himself and Milton. Motion holds his nose while telling us that Milton was “a man whose views on the role of women seem to contaminate much that is central to his work and existence.”

Milton was also a enthusiastic supporter of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, as enthusiastic a supporter of genocide as has visited these shores, and the Green Isle of Erin has been visited by a few of them. Should we hold this against him, as well as his views on women? Should a man living three hundred years before women were granted suffrage presage his age? It’s a lot to ask, isn’t it?

Motion remarks that it’s difficult for Ms Beer to make “Milton at home likeable, or even vivid.” Is she writing a biography, or an episode of the Waltons? One of the countless evils of the culture wars is that political correctness insists that poets must be acceptable guests at a dinner party in Sandymount if they were alive today, thus wiping out more or less the entire canon of Western literature. Of course Milton was a tricky customer – how could he not be? But he also wrote what is possibly the most heart-breaking poem of loss in the language, Methought I Saw My Late Espousèd Saint, so he can’t have been all bad.

And he wrote Paradise Lost, the towering poetic achievement of the English language, the only epic in the language, the poem by which all others measure themselves and are found wanting. Motion tips the cap to this idea – “its peerless combinations of imaginative reach and political analysis, its profoundly subtle enquiries into the nature of our relationship with the divine, its marvellous organ-blast hymn to (and the plea for vigilant support of) liberty” – but one gets the sense his heart isn’t quite in it. Diane Purkiss, in her review in the Telegraph, gets it so much better: “it's not a difficult poem; it's easier than most of Shakespeare. Its sonorous organ tones and phalanxes of angels are the brilliant backdrop to intense moral debates between charismatic tempter and naive humanity.”

The reason for the distance between Milton and his twenty-first century readership is best summed up by John Carey, in his review of the Beer biography in the Sunday Times at the weekend: “Milton’s art is rooted in Greek and Latin literature and in Christian theology, and the vast majority of the British people are ignorant of all three.”

Professor Carey hated Ms Beer’s book, and stomps all over it in his review. It is the stomping of a love spurned, as it’s very clear that Professor Carey dearly loves the poem, and hates to see it not recognised for the supreme achievement that it is. Professor Carey’s hypothesis, about the role that Milton’s subconscious played in the writing of the poem, is especially fascinating to those who are captivated by the poem’s great contradiction – why it is that a poem whose avowed purpose is to “justify the ways of God to man” paints Satan in such an heroic light?

An Spailpín’s advice is to ignore Ms Beer’s advice entirely, and head straight for Paradise Lost itself. Don’t attempt to consume it neat, because you won’t get it. The references will be too arcane. But if you can get a good annotated edition, you are in for treat that will stay with you for the rest of your life. And remember also that this is an epic poem – things happen on the grand scale. But do make the effort – it’s the New Year, and you owe yourself a treat.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

What Have We Become?

The Evening Herald is reporting this afternoon that the Late Late Show program makers are eager to match up representatives of the Holohan and O’Donaghue families on the longest running chatshow in television history tonight.

The public is clearly interested in it – the tabloids are leading today with Robert Holohan’s father’s demand that Wayne O’Donaghue “stuff” his apology, and it’s not hard to understand Mr Holohan’s feelings. But of course if Mr Holohan were asked if he’d like Wayne O’Donaghue crucified on the Hill of Tara first thing tomorrow morning Mr Holohan would say yes, please. His feelings are understandable, but are they reasonable, and have they a place in reasoned debate?

What public interest is being served by raking over these people’s pain, all the time? There was a very sad image, taken from long range, on the Six-One News when Robert Holohan’s body was found three years ago. It was of the guards with their hats off, praying at the location where the body had been found. They knew that nothing but sorrow would come from this for anybody. Nothing good could come of this. Nothing. And now we have newspapers spending the week exploiting people who are demented by grief and the national broadcaster eager to broadcast – what, exactly? – on the flagship TV show of the nation.

The narrative of Irish history is a bloody one, the story of nation fighting for hundreds of years to be free and to govern its own affairs. And what do we want once we have that freedom? To see the Holohans and O’Donaghue go through the torments of the damned for our Friday night entertainment.

Anyone who watches or broadcasts this ought to be ashamed of themselves. Padraig Pearse wrote once of a people that were holy, that were august despite their chains. If this is the best the Irish nation can do with freedom then we ought to ask for the chains back. Freedom ill-suits us.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Lying Cold and Low

An Spailpín Fánach is having a Bob Cratchitt moment tonight. Bob Cratchit, as you almost certainly know, was the poor dummy in the employ of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ famous short story, A Christmas Carol – whenever Bob wanted to put another lump of coal on the fire, Scrooge would ask him did he, Bob, think he, Ebenezer, was made of money? So poor Bob was sitting there, perished in those scabby mittens the Victorians liked.

An Spailpín Fánach used to feel sorry for Bob in his mittens. Used to – right now, I’d slit Bob Cratchit from neck to gizzard for those very same mittens, as I sit here, shivering, trying to gain such heat as I can from the warm battery of the Dell Inspiron series of laptop computers.

The sitch is this: Last Sunday week, nine days ago and counting, the heating failed in Spailpín Towers. These things happen; I rang the service engineers and they sent a man at the crack of dawn on Tuesday. He sprayed some WD-40 on the fan in the gas boiler, charged me seventy lids and then went on his way. I thought the seventy lids a bit saucy, but as I’ve lived in so many cold houses in my day, I was too grateful to put up an argument.

That gratitude quickly curdled on Tuesday evening, when I returned home to find the damned heat was gone again. Wednesday morning saw a full and frank exchange by telephone between An Spailpín Fánach and his service engineer, the engineer making the point that as the heat had returned when he left, the service engineer’s contract had been fulfilled, while An Spailpín Fánach stuck to his guns that he could be either cold or not down seventy sovs, but not both, as was – and bloody is – currently the case.

I asked the service engineer when he would come around to put in a new fan, the incumbent being cleared busted. And that is when the situation went out of the frying pan and into the deep freeze entirely.

Difficult as it may be to believe, it seems the single most popular piece of mechanical equipment in Dublin this winter is the replacement fan for the Ideal (Ideal is the makers’ name – delicious, isn’t it? Sigh) Classic SE 15 FF wall mounted gas boiler. Forget your X-Boxes and your mobile phones, this fan is where it’s at. So much so, that this particular type of fan cannot be head in the entire city, nor, I believe, in the island of Ireland itself.

Your faithful narrator asked his service provider to pull the other one, on the basis it’s got bells on, when he heard this scéal about the fan that’s modelled on McCavity the Mystery Cat, and promptly phoned an alternative service provider. Picture the terrible dawning of the reality of the situation when I hear the same story from this other joker.

Could it be some sort of joke that the gas engineers of the capital are playing on innocent and gullible Spailpíní Fhánacha? I phoned Ideal Boilers head office, in Kingston Upon Hull, East Yorkshire, HU5 4JN, England, to enquire about these fans that are as won with Willy Wonka's Golden Tickets.

“Yes, they’re a very popular item,” said the nice girl on the other end of the phone. “They’re so popular that we can’t keep up with demand.”

“Well, maybe if you made more of the ******* things you wouldn’t have that ******* problem, you silly, silly girl,” the impeccably polite Spailín Fánach did not say to the girl on the phone – it’s not like she sets company policy, and besides, manners maketh the man, you know.

But manners don’t make much heat and nine days on, frost is forming on the lower slopes of An Spailpín Fánach’s person, and I do not like it. No-one has any idea of when the next fan will be in Dublin – the hunt for the new Irish soccer manager is only in the ha’penny place compared to the hunt for replacement fans for Ideal Classic SE 15 FF wall mounted gas boilers.

In Dombey and Son, also by Dickens, Paul Dombey is horrified to discover that Mr Toodle has named his son “Biler,” after the “biler” that runs the locomotive engines of the railway where good Mr Toodle found employment. A blue-faced Spailpín Fánach finds the naming of a child after a boiler not-at-all remarkable, after nine days’ of living life without one. It’s not something one is likely to forget. William Butler Yeats asks the child dancing in wind what need has she to care / For wind or water’s roar? Easy knowing Yeats must have had storage heating.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

So. Farewell Then, George MacDonald Fraser

Sir Harry Paget Flashman is demobbed at last. The wires are reporting this morning that George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman series of historical adventure novels, has finally succumbed to cancer at the age of 82, and fans all over the world will now never get to find out just how exactly Flash Harry ended up fighting for both the Union and the Confederacy during the American Civil War, or if Victoria ever sent her Harry to Ireland to sort out those beastly Fenians.

In his first literary incarnation, Harry Flashman was the bully in Thomas Hughes’ famous school novel, Tom Brown’s School Days, whose particular party piece was holding the younger boys over the fire until they squealed. Nice. Flashman gets his comeuppance, being expelled from Rugby school for drunkenness, and served as an example for one hundred years of How Not to Behave at School.

And then a Scottish journalist called George MacDonald Fraser had an idea. I’ve never heard or read how he came up with the idea, but my own guess would be that it was during his time in Burma with a Cumbrian regiment during World War Two that Fraser first realised a certain truth about empire-building. While you might talk about Tom Brown values at home, the boys you need to cut through the jungle and put smacht on the natives are much more like Harry Flashman than the authorities are generally willing to admit.

And this is the genius of the Flashman papers. Fraser puts Flashman at all the great historical moments of 19th Century British Imperial history – Kabul, Balaclava, Cawnpore - and even takes him on some American jaunts (with one eye on the great big market over there, of course), but Fraser does not change Harry Flashman’s essential character. Flashman remains, to the end, the coward, the bully and, in that marvellous Victorian word, the poltroon that he has always been.

The irony is that nobody knows it. To the outside world, Flash Harry is a folk hero, one of the men who helped civilise the world. But we, the readership, are complicit in his cowardice – we feel a guilty thrill of recognition when some old warmonger of the era, like Lucan at Balaclava, puts his arm around Flashman and says “good news, Harry old boy – the Light Brigade charge the guns in the morning, and you’re going with ‘em!” Harry puts on the brave face, but inside his bowels are as water as he searches desperately for the nearest rat to follow away to safety at high speed.

This change in narrative perspective is the making of the Flashman papers. PG Wodehouse said of the first book that "if there was a time when I felt that watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman," and that’s just how jarring it is, to have Flash Harry wink at you and say “yes, I was at Cawnpore, and I would have sold out the garrison in the morning if I thought I could trust the mutineers to save my yellow hide.” The tone of the books is the secret, and it’s a act of high skill on Fraser’s part, in book after book, to keep Flashman likeable as an anti-hero despite all the available evidence. Although a coward to his liver himself, Flashman recognises bravery in others and, while they may have been warmongers and racists and worse, the men that flew the Union Jack from Cape Horn to Bombay were no cowards, whatever else they were. Fraser has done his homework on the era, and the books are rich in historical detail about what was a very fascinating time. But most important of all, Fraser’s skills as a journalist superbly convey what it might have felt like to exist in that era, when the Empire was at its height, to the extent that you can almost smell the gunpowder and spices as you enter the kashbah, eyes peeled for danger.

Reading Flashman has been one of the great guilty pleasures in recent years, even for a poblachtánach Gaelach such as An Spailpín Fánach. It seems from this remove that Britain is currently trying very hard to forget she ever had an Empire, and the figure of Flash Harry’s lip curling before the natives isn’t one that’s officially encouraged. Flashman’s notorious wenching – he makes James Bond look like Saint Simeon Stylites – is a little infra dig also, of course. And that’s what makes him so glorious a guilty pleasure, and it’s a source of sorrow this New Year's morning that when the warhorse’s nostrils flare once more at the sound of the bugle, Sir Harry will no longer be there to wonder how in God’s name he’s going to get out of this one.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

News Item

Being back at work bites.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

January Sales

I have seen it all. Sixty-five sovs for a pair of welllington boots. By God, but wouldn't you fear for the land if you had to sign it over to a half-witted son or daughter who'd shell out that sort of money on a pair of wellies? Could you even send them to the fair? You'd send them off with the price of two or three banbhs, and they'd come back with some little green buckeen on a string who was due for a good water-boarding beyond in Roswell, New Mexico. I don't know. It's no wonder for the weather be as it is.

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