Monday, June 30, 2008

Irish Times Free to Access Online Once More

How heartening it is to go online this morning and see that the Irish Times is free to access online once more. The Irish media space has become a strangely narrow one, and it’s essential that a voice as strong as the Irish Times’ be heard. The world is now more globalised than ever before, with huge commercial behemoths crushing through cultural borders to flog product mercilessly, and unique cultural voices are needed if we’re not to be subsumed into the general mush.

The different print, radio and TV media are essential to the preservation of these voices, but the three strands of media are no coalescing as never before, because of the advent of internet technology. The media has changed unrecognisably in the past fifteen years, as the very way that we information is presented has changed. It’s no longer necessary to wait until the six o’clock news on the TV to find out what’s happening – you can follow it all as it’s happening on the web.

The newspaper as we knew it has been consigned to history, and the Irish Times realises this. The trick is how best to combine the two elements – the immediacy of the online content, which can now also allow for live streaming – with the more measured, homme serieaux approach of the classic broadsheet newspaper. Some are adapting better than others - the Washington Post and Manchester Guardian sites are An Spailpín’s two favourite examples of how best to adapt to the new environment – but it’s a question now of keeping up or being left hopelessly behind. Three cheers then, for the Irish Times’ bold move to embrace the brave new world. I hope they succeed, and I hope that more follow. An Spailpín Fánach isn’t ready for a barcode on his backside just yet.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Ar Son Lánúine Chun Phosadh

Tá cairde An Spailpín chun phosadh an deireadh seachtaine seo, in iarthar Chorcaí, agus, ar a son, seo Anna Netrebko ag casadh an amhráin álainn ó Le Nozze de Figaro, "Deh vieni, non tardar." Ní thaitníonn an léirigh (i Saltzburg i 2006, sílim) ró-mhór liom - an gcuirfeá do mhúinín i mo dhuine na gcleití sealbh na liathróide a ghlacadh ar son a fhairce? Ní chuirfinn ach an oiread - ach tá Netrebko ina fíor-realt agus comh gleoite go maithfidh sise aon locht. Go n-éirí leis an lánúin áthasacha uaisle go deo na ndeor.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

An Spailpín in the Mayo News

Yesterday's piece on the pressure mounting on John O'Mahony is in this week's Mayo News, the paper that provides the the best football coverage of the Mayo papers. You can check it out here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Walking Shadow: McDonald Dispute Brings Johnno's D-Day One Year Early

There will be one TD on the Yes side of the house who will be serenely indifferent to this week’s recriminations and repercussions over last week’s ambush of the Lisbon referendum. John O’Mahony, Fine Gael TD for the County Mayo, knows that the people of Mayo can look on the ebb and flow of the geopolitical tide with a steady eye, but losing to Sligo can get a man run out of town on a rail.

When John O’Mahony returned as Mayo manager two years ago, he said that one of his objectives was to calm down the annual early summer frenzy of ambition and excitement that builds from Belmullet to Ballaghaderreen and all points in between as Championship approaches. In this at least, John O’Mahony has been an outstanding success, as there has seldom been a greater air of foreboding and unease on the eve of Mayo’s first game of the Championship.

A cloak of invisibility, similar to that favoured by Fionn Mac Cumhaill himself, has enveloped the county team since their final league appearance, against Tyrone in Omagh. The exchanges then were gentle, as the sides waltzed each other around Healy Park, each with eyes firmly fixed on other partners. Since then even the rumours have dried up and no word at all, good, bad or indifferent, has emerged from the camp to get the people talking outside Mass of a Sunday, or during occasions of venial sin on the preceding Saturday night.

The situation reached its nadir when Mayo played Offaly in a challenge in Doctor Hyde Park some weeks ago, a challenge about which nobody seems to know or have seen anything. Mayo turned up like a flying column, played a game that nobody seemed to know was on twenty-four before, and then disappeared back into the mist, like they were Brigadoon Sarsfields instead of one of the top eight inter-county teams in the country.

As such, it is perhaps less than surprising that the weight of pre-match discussion centres around a man who isn’t on the panel at all. Part of the reputation that John O’Mahony enjoys has to do with his image as a conciliator, a man who can pour oil on troubled waters. This year, that oil caught fire like a chip pan and left O’Mahony badly burned, as Ciarán McDonald gave an out of character interview to an national newspaper saying that he valued nothing more than wearing the green above the red, and was bitterly disappointed not to have the chance to do so this summer. It was sufficiently explosive to have John O’Mahony do an early morning interview on local radio on the day of that paper’s publication saying that nothing was set in stone and the summer is long and all the rest of it, but the damage had already been done.

Now, while news of the county team remains strictly under wraps, McDonald has been like Banquo’s ghost during his appearances with Crossmolina, dispatching Ballaghaderreen and Knockmore with some aplomb in recent times. It hasn’t got to the stage where they play Simple Minds’ Don’t You Forget About Me on the PA at the Crossmolina home games, but that step can’t be far away now.

Looking back through the years, it seems impossible to be a hero in Mayo football without being dropped or forgotten or overlooked. And the constant turning of the world means that if Mayo do catch fire this summer, and if the coming men arrive this year, then history will very quickly swallow Ciarán McDonald, just as it has McHale and Padden and Corcoran and all the rest. But in the meantime, John O’Mahony has left himself a considerable hostage to fortune is this upsetting public falling out with Mayo’s most charismatic player since Willie Joe.

When John O’Mahony was doing a radio show during John Maughan’s final year in charge it was fascinating to hear the reverence in which he was held by many of the callers. It was like he was perceived as the football equivalent of the Biblical Joseph, exiled by his own tribe only to win two All-Irelands in the land of the Pharaoh.

The spurned figure of McDonald has now blown away that mystical aura, and John O’Mahony will address his team on Sunday as a man who knows D-Day has come one year sooner than he would have liked. Eamon O’Hara and co are waiting, eager to show that their Connacht title was no fluke. It’s only the first game of the Championship, but even Johnno’s legendary political skills will be in extremis should the Yeats county men storm Mayo, and cause a terrible beauty to be born.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

The Secret Chord: Leonard Cohen Live in Dublin

Leonard Cohen summed himself up in one pithy comment during his triumphant concert in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, on Friday night, when the 73 year old poet of romantic despair played for three hours before an enraptured crowd whom he held in the palm of his hand.

Sharon Robinson, Charlie Webb and Hattie Webb, Cohen’s backing singers, were singing the final coda of Tower of Song, one of Cohen’s many masterpieces, when the great man ad libbed.

“Friends,” he said, “that’s what it’s all about. De do dah dum dum, de doo dah dum.” Cohen smiled, and the crowd laughed politely (in contrast with the roars of appreciation that met him when he sang the famous line in Tower of Song about being “born with the gift of a golden voice”), but in those sixteen words Cohen summed up his whole approach to life, music and art.

Cohen is famous as a poet and lyricist, but the musicality of his material is unjustly ignored. When you look at the body of work, although the organ drone of Cohen’s own voice is obviously limited (you could never call Cohen a coloratura singer), the arrangements are much more beautiful than they’re given credit for. The dreamy waltzes like Dance Me to the End of Love or So Long, Marianne, the psychotic rock-disco of First, We Take Manahattan, the fragile melodies of Bird on a Wire or If It Be Your Will, the in joke of the famous lines in Hallelujah – “it goes like this/the fourth, the fifth/the minor fall, the major lift/the baffled king composing Hallelujah,” where the lyric is a commentary on the path of the melody. These are all really remarkable tunes.

Cohen may be a wordsmith but he is very clear on the distinction between a lyric and a poem. In a love poem, you can never use “baby” as a form of address. In a lyric, it’s as vital a tool as a hammer is to a shoemaker.

Paul Simon was once asked about the “lie-li-lies” of his song The Boxer, and Simon commented that they represented a “failure of songwriting.” Cohen knows better, and so did Paul McCartney when he wrote Hey Jude. There are no other words that fit as well. So it is with “De do dah dum dum, de doo dah dum” – that’s exactly what you hear when you’re paying your rent, every day, in the Tower of Song. These are the perfect words.

But another part of Cohen’s immense charm is that he resists this himself. An artist could be lauded by pseuds and fools because he writes lines as semantically dense as “All men will be sailors then/Until the sea shall free them,” but Cohen knows that “De do dah dum dum, de doo dah dum” is every bit as legitimate an expression. In his ad lib Cohen was having a little joke to himself to those who would praise him for what he is not.

And he was putting the limelight on his fellow performers as well. During the show Cohen made a point of introducing the band who were so vital a part of the experience – this was more than just a show – and he also gave due prominence to the backing singers. Sharon Robinson sang Boogie Street solo, and the Webb sisters took over from Cohen himself on If It Be Your Will, singing it quite beautifully. While they sang Cohen himself remained on stage, his fedora hat clasped over his heart, the man himself enraptured by the beauty of the singing.

It was a gesture of supreme courtesy and typical of the man. Cohen is a gent of an old school. He flattered the crowd with a reference to Dublin as a city of writers of poets (although he sadly resisted the temptation to repeat his famous 1973 rendition of Kevin Barry in the National Concert Hall) and always seemed rather surprised that so many people turned up to hear him sing. The crowd, for their part, were astonished that the only sign of age that he betrayed was a certain frailty around the neck when shown on the big screen, but a seventy-three year old man that can deliver three hours of transcendence on an open-air stage isn’t doing too badly.

At the end of the show Cohen, courteous to the last, commended everyone to drive home safely, and not to catch a summer cold. The crowd spilled out down the hill from the hospital, along the quays through some of the oldest streets in the city, quiet and awed as a congregation going home from a religious event which, in many ways, they were. First, we took Rathfarnham; then we took Crumlin...

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Voting Yes

How odd it was to see Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny go Tango and Cash on Questions and Answers last night. Tango and Cash, as you recall, is the cult 1980s movie about two maverick cops who put aside personal differences to ace the bad guys, and that’s what an increasingly desperate establishment has been doing in the hopes of saving the listing referendum campaign.

How did it come to this? Micheál Martin may have put his finger on it without realising it on Rodney Rice’s Radio show on Saturday. Martin was making the point that the Lisbon Treaty is a triumph of Irish diplomacy, a credit to the Irish presidency of the EU that they were able to rescue the project when all seemed lost after the French and Dutch shot down the original constitution. This then begs they question: why on Earth didn’t they say so before?

Most constitutions are aspirational documents. They suggest things rather than laying them down. The Irish constitution, like the man who wrote it, likes things in black and white. This is why we end up having referenda every couple of years when the plates shift and readjust in Brussels. Any Irish government is generally faced with three questions coming up to one of these referenda on how best to tackle it.

  1. Draft a constitutional amendment to say that from here on in changes in Brussels can be effected by act of Parliament without recourse to referendum.

  2. Try and sneak the referendum through by flying it under the radar, hoping the core vote will come out and Richard Boyd Barrett is on his holidays. In Cuba, probably.

  3. Give the electorate credit for not being complete dummies and have a debate about the European project that will be as informative as it will be mind-numbingly boring.

The first choice is the most sensible of the three, and the least likely to happen. Not least if Lisbon is squeaked through this time around. One of the reasons why referendum is in danger of being lost is that the people feel that the Government has been going for a fast one, and they don’t like that one little bit. They certainly will not sign off on a licence to do that without considerable persuading.

The second option is the one that the Government chose, and it’s clearly blown up in their face. RBB isn’t at the van of this one – although your vigilant quillsman saw him on the news last night, protesting – but there’s a whole other bunch that are, existing without visible means of support. It is a highly mistaken assumption that the electorate are sheep, despite behaving like sheep so regularly in the polling booth. Every now and then these lambs grow fangs, and start biting people on the arse. This is one such instance of that.

The third option was the way to go. If the Government said from the end of the EU presidency that the Lisbon treaty was the greatest act of Irish diplomacy and statesmanship since Frank Aiken was at the UN in the 1960s, that would have been the way to go. They could then repeat the message over the two years or so they had to campaign and that would then deprive Libertas of the opportunity to spout the sort of nonsense that they have been doing. Most of Libertas’ arguments are mischievous at best. Ireland’s sovereign position hasn’t changed since 1973, and won’t. Ireland’s commissioner is going anyway, and this is the best possible compromise. Germany’s voting power doubling in respect to Ireland still leaves Germany at a disadvantage. There for four million Irish, eighty million Germans. For democracy to come into effect Germany would have to increase its voting power by a factor of twenty.

The fact that the Germans themselves are willing to put up with such an arrangement that flies in the face of logic (and what could be more anathema to Germans than something that flies in the face of logic?) is testimony to the remarkable deal Ireland gets in Europe. How is this going to be strengthened by a no vote? If we vote no, it means we do not trust the Government to negotiate these deals at European level – even though we elected them to do just that just a year ago. And if the Government aren’t to negotiate these deals, who does? Declan Ganley?

Eamon Dunphy was rambling on Marian Finucane’s radio show on Sunday about some quote from Valéry Giscard d'Estaing that the Lisbon Treaty contains a clause that is so momentous that it is buried deep in the legal thickets. A clause that is so divisive that if it were only known the treaty would be held in contempt by all right thinking citizens from the Urals to Belmullet.

Eamon did not go on to say what exactly this mystery clause is. Is it the third secret of Fatima? Is it the DaVinci Code? Is it why Cristiano Ronaldo gets so much money when he’s not a great player? Is Valéry Giscard d'Estaing a member of the Illuminati, and wants Europe to be run by the lizards?

Eamon didn’t say, and An Spailpín certainly doesn’t know what it is either. An Spailpín is inclined to suspect, however, that Eamo is simply spoofing, at which activity Eamo would have a bit of previous.

The Government’s attempts to sneak the Lisbon Treaty through under the radar does them no credit, and some mischievous elements have been able to combine the brewing discontent over the plummeting economy, the fact that people don’t like being sold pups and the fact the treaty is unintelligible to the man in the street into a huge groundswell of opposition to the treaty. As far as your Spailpín is concerned, not understanding the treaty is not sufficient reason to vote against it. If you elect a Government to legislate, you’ve got to trust them to that that job, until such time as you elect someone else. When Mr Ganley is elected to something, we’ll know he has a mandate. In the meantime, voting yes is the only sensible option.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

In Defence of the Football Championship

Every summer someone else is at it. Sticking a finger in the football Championship pot, giving it a lick, pulling a face and saying “ugh! yucky,” ignoring the fact that generations have been raised from that same skillet containing that same stew. Kevin McStay is at it in this week’s Mayo News, Martin Breheny took a cut in Saturday’s Indo and, heartbreakingly, the gallant Willie Joe of the Mayo GAA Blog had a cut about a fortnight ago.

The cavils against the Championship are usually aimed at its structure, on the basis that the structure isn’t “fair,” whatever that means. Different structures are proposed, getting more baroque with each iteration. A Champions League style with eight groups of four, with seeding for the groups decided by the De Hondt system they use for elections in the North. Matches are then played in a anti-clockwise round robin, and the result, for a group made up of Carlow, Cavan, Roscommon and Kerry, say, is that the first three counties play each other in front of small crowds in games that mean nothing because there is no history between the counties, and then each one goes off to Tralee for a massacre. And when the smoke finally rises there’s the Kingdom, happy as you like in the quarters at the August Bank Holiday weekend. Just like now.

When people say the current system isn’t fair, they don’t outline what system they think would be fair. At what stage will it be alright for one team to give another a hiding? When Kerry are thumping Carlow or Antrim or Leitrim instead of Clare or Tipp or Waterford, what’ll be so far about that? And what’s so unfair about Kerry winning three in a row this year, as they look more and more likely to do? They’re only the best team in Ireland, after all. Who is being robbed? Or are all games to end in draws from here on in, and the winner decided by Tribunal? Where’s the fun in that?

People say Kerry have an easy run through Munster, and advantage they would not enjoy if they swapped places with, for instance, their great rivals from the first half of the twentieth century, Cavan. And that’s true. But isn’t it odd then that the Ulster Championship isn’t hailed as the greatest of the provincial Championships? It’s hailed as the very opposite in fact; our national football ideal is to watch Kerry exterminate some hapless goofs while the sun is declining above the blue sea. You can’t have it both ways, and in attempting to have it everyway, people are blind to what they do have in the Championship, a Championship that has lasted over one hundred years and is, thank God, still thriving today, despite meddlesome interventions and external pressures and hopeless naivety with regard to the threat of competing codes.

What is the Championship about? Is it about finding the best team in Ireland? No, it’s not. It’s a knockout competition – that is not the best way to find the best time in Ireland. The best way to find the best team in Ireland would involve in-depth statistical analysis of data, with the results being announced at the winter solstice on the Hill of Tara. It would find the best team alright, but it wouldn’t be much crack. My own sweet county Mayo are clearly the fourth best team in Ireland as regards consistency of Championship results since the century began – I don’t remember any laurels being handed out for that.

Can you be All-Ireland Champions without being the best team in Ireland? Of course you can. It’s wonderful to win an All-Ireland when you’re the best team in Ireland because it confirms your status, but being the best team doesn’t mean someone won’t come along and take Sam from in front of your nose. In fact, there are those who will say that is the sweetest way to win of all. Try S. Darby, Rhode, Co. Offaly – he’ll confirm the hypothesis. Even Kerrymen can tell you that – An Spailpín Fánach vividly remembers a Kerryman trying hard to remember a worse All-Ireland than 1997, while showing me pictures of his toddler sitting inside the cup. Thirty-odd titles followed by an eleven year famine confirmed for that man that you win them any which way you can, and when you get them you hang on tight.

So the Championship is not fair, the best team doesn’t win and it’s still the best cultural, social and sporting event we enjoy as a nation. How can this be? What makes it so good?

Ask Hannibal Lecter. He knows.

Remember the scene in Silence of the Lambs, the last time Hannibal meets Clarice, before he escapes wearing some poor eejit’s face as a disguise? He asks Clarice what do we covet, what do we want most? And he says we covet what we can see every day.

And that’s the magic of the Championship. It pits each of us against those whom we know. The fundamental fact of the Championship, the sine qua non, the very atomic structure of the thing is that it’s local. That’s what makes it so great. We get all het up is because the opposition is that county that is only be a field of rushes distant from us. The Provincial/county/parish division is arbitrary and irrational, drawn up by the cartographers of a British Empire ruled by a German king nearly three hundred years ago, but they are fundamental to the Irish psyche now. The birthright of any man from Knocknahaglish is that he can look down his nose at any man from Glendagower because Knocknahaglish Sarsfields beat Glendagower Pearses by three points in the Championship, and the Sarsfields with only fourteen men for the entire second half. That’s the miracle.

If Mayo play Donegal in the Championship, it doesn’t really mean anything apart from to either side. It’s a game, but it’s nothing more. But if Mayo play Roscommon, it’s another gracenote to a continuing unfinished symphony, with movements already devoted to Kevin Cahill and Locan Dowd, Enon Gavin breaking the crossbar, Derek Duggan’s seventy yard free, Dermot Earley being carried around in honour on his final day by Willie Joe Padden and Eugene Lavin, Joe McGrath crucifying Harry Keegan for 2-5 in the Connacht Final and Roscommon still beating Mayo out the gate. You’ll be a long time with your Champions League round robins before you replicate that.

The Championship is the distillate of those local rivalries writ large on the stage of glory, where the finest of each county are assembled to do battle for the honour a division on a map drawn by a man wearing a powdered wig, a cocked hat and breeches, and who didn’t know a double-hop from a foot block. That’s miracle of history and tradition, and that’s the miracle of the Championship. And I use the word “miracle” advisedly – it is genuinely miraculous that the Championship has survived into the twentieth century, it being the anachronism that it is.

The GPA are tearing at it, the backdoor has disfigured it and the country is warping and changing too rapidly for us to be able to say if any of this will be relevant in twenty years’ time, but while it’s here we should treasure the Championship for what it is – a miraculous freak of nature, happenstance, the dead weight of tradition and living pride of place that gives meaning and definition to every summer in Ireland. The backdoor will be closed soon now that the mania for wasting money is over, and the Championship will please God be restored to its natural order, when the five to five feeling of a high summer Sunday dictates whether you have another day out or if there’s always next year. Go máire an Craobh go deo.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Cruinneas Litríochta na Gaeilge

An mbeadh an Ghaeilge níos cruinne dá mbeadh na múinteoirí níos teo?Trasna na Bóinne á léamh ag do Spailpín faoi láthair. Cé go bhfuil clú agus cáil ar Earnán de Blaghd mar an fear ar thóg an scilling ó phinsean an lucht aosta i 1929, mac léinn mór na Gaeilge ab ea é ina ré féin, agus is ceart is cóir cuimhnigh ar sin. Táim ag baint taitnimh ón leabhar, seachas rud amháin. Tá litríocht an leabhar neamh-chaighdeánach, agus cuireann sé sin go mór isteach orm. Go h-áirithe, scríobhann an Blaghdach "béidir" nuair atá "b'fhéidir" an leagan atá caighdeánach. Ní fhaca mé an litriú eile in aon áit ar bith, agus ní thuigim cén fáth go bhfuil sé mar seo i leabhar an Bhlaghdaigh.

Nuair a tháinig athbheochan na Gaeilge ag deireadh an naoú haois déag, bhíodh de nós acu cainiúnta éagsúla na gceantar a choinnéail sa scríobhnóireacht. (Níl an leithscéal sin ag an mBlaghdach mar tógadh cúpla míle amach ó Bhéal Feiriste é, agus aon fhocal Gaeilge a bhí aige d'fhóglaim sé é. Ba chóir go mbeidh litriú níos rialta a bheith aige dá bhrí). 'Sé mo thuairim féin nárbh ceart é ansin do ghluaiseacht athbheochana teanga, ach tuigim go mbeidh sé suimiúl do scolairí teanga cosuil le Kuno Meyer agus a leithéid. Ach tá an ré sin thart, agus cad atá fágtha linn ná teanga atá neamhrialta maidir lena litríocht.

Tá an fadhb céanna le gach uile leabhar a léim, agus táim bréan de. Bíonn sé deacair dom litriú focal a choinnéail im' chloigín, agus focail éagsúla litrithe go difríochta i ngach uile leabhar. Tá sé comh dona seo - scríobh Seán Ó Ruadháin ailt san irisleabhar Feasta gach mí ar feadh cúig bliana faoi cad atá ceart agus mícheart sa Ghaeilge. Tá na h-ailt sin baillithe anois i leabhar, mar a scíobhas anseo chéana seo, ach tá botúin litríochta ag an Ruadhánach féin - bíonn litriú amháin aige in áit amháin agus litriú eile in áit eile. Murab fhéidir leise smacht a choinnéail, cén seans atá againne?

Má n-iarrtar ar fhear Bhéil Feiriste cé a mharaíonn na lucha sa theach aige, inseoidh sé "the cyat" duit. An cóir é sin a scríobh síos, mar a chloistear é, nó an litriú ceart a úsáid? Mar is é sin cad a thárla sa Ghaeilge nuair a chuireadh tús ar an athbheochan cead bliain ó shin. Agus cé gur rinneadh iarracht caighdeán a chuir ar litríocht na Gaeilge rinneadh, mar is gnáth, praiseach de. Baineadh an "dh" ó "oídhche," mar shampla, ach fágadh i bhfocail eile iad. Ní n-éireoidh le caighdeán rialta na Gaeilge mura n-athfhoisliú gach uile leabhar Ghaeilge chun iadsan a chur faoin gcaighdean, agus na sean-leabhair a choinnéail i leabharlann na hÉireann, slán ó fhóglaimeoirí nua na Gaeilge, agus fóghlaimeoirí nua na Gaeilge slán uathu. Tá an Ghaeilge deacair go leor mar atá sí seachas an saothar a dhéanamh níos deacra arís.

'Sé ceann de na fadhbanna go bhfuil an scéal comh fite fuite mar atá sé ná mar níl an údarás ag éinne, idir duine nó comhairle, breitheamh a dhéanamh agus a choinnéail. Tá stair na h-athbheochana saibhir le scólairí nar ghlac leis an gcaighdeán agus a scríobh mar ba mhaith leo, agus an diabhal chun gach duine eile. Seans gur shílid go raibh a bhfód féin á sheasamh agus an teanga bheo a choinnéail, ach tá an cath sin cailte faoi láthair. Níl cainteoir Gaeilge sa tír anois nach bhfuil Béarla aige nó aici fréisin, agus mar sin níl an fior-theanga, an teanga mar a bhíodh, linn anois. Tá dualgas orainn anois teanga nua, Gaeilge 2.0, a thógail agus ba chóir litríocht agus gramair a chuir agus a choinnéail faoi chaighdeán. Ach cé a dtabharfaidh an caighdeán dúinn? Ní fios, ár mbrón, ár mbrón.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Nevada Again

Nothing prepares you for Vegas. No matter how many times you’ve seen Ocean’s Eleven or listened to Sinatra at the Sands (“Get your hands off that broad!”) or seen poor hapless Fredo dissed by Moe Green, nothing prepares you for Vegas.

The first thing that strikes you is the heat, and strikes is just the word. It’s like walking into a blowtorch. You might have come to Vegas to play poker but even the Mormons dive for the casinos to get away from the awful, Hellish heat that scorches all it touches.

The casinos themselves present a different challenge. The sheer size of them is stunning; as feats of engineering they are astonishing, and have a strangely Disneylike air about them. They’re like really expensive malls in some ways, with high-end shops instead of K-Mart and Burger King.

And then there are the poker rooms, the heart of the Las Vegas experience. The main gambling floors are dedicated to slots and table games like blackjack and roulette. They’ll have a sportsbook in the corner with big soft easy chairs and banks of TV monitors showing games and horse-races from all across the States, and a wall of cashiers to take the bets. And then, in a room entire to itself, there is the poker room.

When I went to the poker room in Caesar’s Palace last year, the night San Antonio won the NBA Championship, I asked for seven-card stud, the chicken and chips of modern poker. An Spailpín Fánach plays Hold ‘Em of course, but just well enough to get beat. Your correspondent will not be at the final table of the WSOP anytime soon. But seven-card stud was what I was weaned on, and Herbert Yardley’s famous book gave me some little insight into the game.

“We don’t have stud,” the lady told me. “Nobody plays it anymore. All we have is hold ‘em.”

“Then take me to the hold ‘em cells,” I said. Sometimes, it’s too late to back away.

If you sit down at a Hold ‘Em tournament in Las Vegas, two hundred dollars in chips doesn’t like one hell of a lot, even at the baby infants level. Imagine playing in the US Open with just a seven iron, and standing next to Tiger with the full bag and the yardage books and the multiple major wins and all that staggering talent. Your inferiority complex becomes very simple in those circumstances.

I sat to the right of the dealer. To her left an overweight man, probably a businessman, who looked neither confident nor comfortable. Left again, a guy in his fifties, wavy hair, sitting back and enjoying it all. Another guy with a moustache. And then two younger guys, teenagers or early twenties, who didn’t look like they saw the sun much. Brett Maverick chic wasn’t for them – they favoured leisurewear, and sat hunched over their chips, just as Gollum crouches over his Precious.

This wasn’t their first time in the poker rooms of Vegas, but it was mine. I felt like Hawkeye walking into the Huron camp, but without Daniel Day-Lewis’ bedroom eyes. My eyes were more of the Tex Avery out-on-stalks-in-blind-terror type of eyes, something that may have been picked up by the opposition. I played for maybe an hour, never without any real idea of what was going on at any particular time. Playing at home, it was different. Online it’s different again, because you don’t have to worry about tells. In Vegas, in the arena, even at the baby infants level arena, I was out of my depth.

I was hung, drawn, quartered, skilleted, filleted, strung up, cut down, sliced, diced, shook up, shaken down, taken for a ride, led up the garden path and made offers I couldn’t refuse. I was carried out on my shield when all my dough was done and spent the rest of the night drinking sodas and looking at the fountains. And now, one year on, I’m going back, to see if the lesson was worth the price. What can I tell you? Vegas is that kind of place.

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