Monday, March 23, 2009

Bury Street Blues - Mayo Struggle for Every Score

Mayo 0-9
Dublin 0-9

The slightly baffled expression on the face of Mayo’s captain, Ronan McGarrity, to your left is one that will have been replicated on the faces of many of the Mayo faithful as they trooped out of the Stephenites’ pitch in Ballina after a desperately disappointing draw with Dublin yesterday.

In terms of disappointment, it was like taking the lodestar of one’s life to some classy joint like Ballina's own Ice House Restaurant for a feed of pan seared turbot, mussels Provençale, any amount of confit new praties and black olive tapenade crus, only to be served Tesco fish fingers and chips instead, washed down with warm TK red lemonade. Not quite the way to set you up for the evening.

Even more distressingly, Mayo were lucky not to be wiped off the face of the Earth by the extraordinary levels of dominance that Dublin achieved in the first half. Dublin did not take advantage of this, for reasons best known to themselves, but against a team with rather more lethal assassins up front (Meehan! Conroy! Joyce!) the results could be appalling.

As this is only the League such trimmings are something that the faithful could take on board, on the basis that you must break the eggs to make the omlette. However, the way that the Mayo formbook has lurched so violently this year, from implosion against Derry to fighting comeback against Donegal to clinical dispatch of Westmeath to a fighting performance in Tralee and now back to abjectness on the team’s return to Ballina is a source of great concern.

So what’s going wrong? Well, a number of things. Mayo are not bossing midfield, they can get overrun in defence but, most critically of all, Mayo struggle so very desperately to score. A Mayo score this year is like that Watchmen movie. It takes ages to arrive and when it does, you wonder what all the fuss was about.

Mayo have struggled to score in the past, and greybeards of the heather country often amuse themselves by chanting lists of the great shockers they have seen (the Connacht Finals of 1994 and 1995 are always to the fore there. Some All-Ireland finals get a mention too).

But the consequences of struggling to score are exacerbated this year because of the novel decision taken at the start of the year to enforce the rules of the game and protect the flair players. Scoring is on the up this year, and that’s why you see Kerry and Galway thriving the way they are. They have the boys that can stick it over the black spot.

Mayo share the second lowest scoring average in Division 1 of the National Football League with Donegal. Only doomed Westmeath are worse, and Mayo’s matching of Westmeath’s struggles before the posts makes Mayo favorites to join the Lakelanders in Division 2. The emphasis hasn’t been as strong on scoring in football in years, and a team that struggles to score in this new era is going to struggle to win.

Gaelic football forwards have to act as a unit. They must operate in rhythm with each other, not like some boys who are just meeting each other for the first time for the stag weekend of a mutual friend. The best way to achieve this unity of forward progress is to play a centre-forward who can direct operations with accurate foot-passing. Alan Dillon was heroic today, but a centre-forward he isn’t. Neither is Trevor Mortimer. Tom Parsons could be, and it would be nice to see him get a run there before the team goes to New York. After that might be a bit too late.

Aidan O’Shea is clearly the hot prospect, but my goodness gracious it’s a remarkable level of responsibility to put on a man who will be sitting the Leaving Cert in three months time.

If only there were someone who could do a job while O’Shea seasons. A veteran, a man with a lot of experience, who’d have the vision see what others cannot, to hit them high to Barry Moran or low to Conor, and maybe even take a crack at a 45 every now and again. But where would John O’Mahony find a man like that? If there were such a being, you’d think he’d be noticeable. Not least because of the hair, the boots and the tattoos...

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Britain's Changing Attitudes to Death

Thomas Gray is not considered one of the great poets in English in the same way that Milton or Byron or Tennyson are, but it all came together for him when he wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. Gray’s Elegy is one of the great poems in the language, if not any language.

London’s mayor Boris Johnson was writing recently in the Telegraph about what a joy it is to learn poetry by heart and if that’s your thing Gray’s Elegy should be on your shortlist. It’s a good poem to learn because it sticks to classical models of rhyme and meter. So when you recite it the rhythm of the thing is clear and distinct, and very pleasing to the ear.

As for the poem’s reflection on the death that awaits us all, Gray’s Elegy is unsurpassed. Samuel Johnson wrote that "the Churchyard abounds in images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." It’s very much just what the doctor ordered.

And the poem became enormously popular enormously quickly. Eight years after the Elegy was published, the British were laying siege to Montcalm’s French garrison at Quebec. They weren’t getting much change, until General James Wolfe decided on a daring attack up some cliffs that the French didn’t think were assailable, and therefore did not defend as tightly as other parts of the redoubt. As the assault party sailed for the cliffs, Wolfe recited Gray’s Elegy in its entirety to his fellow officers, to keep spirits up.

That’s General Wolfe in the picture above, as famously painted by Benjamin West. As you can see, although he took Quebec Wolfe paid for it with his life. Churchill like to quip during the Second World War that if any Briton doubted his patriotism, he should be told that “Wolfe took Quebec.” You may safely bet your life that Churchill could quote Gray’s Elegy in its entirety also.

It’s now two hundred and fifty years since Wolfe recited Thomas Gray's most famous poem before taking Quebec. News coming from Britain today about another path of glory that’s lead but to the grave shows just how much that country has changed.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Advantage Gatland in the Mind Game

If there were a Geneva Convention for pre-match banter, Welsh coach Warren Gatland would be getting a stern letter this week from Mr Ban Ki-Moon. Gatland’s remarks during the week about the Welsh hating the Irish was the equivalent of some African warlord dropping a dose of beriberi onto one of his neighbours from the clear blue sky, with a spot of whooping cough thrown in for luck.

What’s particularly tricky to figure out about what Gatland said is that the Welsh don’t hate the Irish at all. The Welsh hate the English, just like everybody else. The English hate the French, themselves, and the French, naturally enough, hate them back.

So why then did Gatland say it if it’s patently not so?

He said it because Gatland is a master of psychological warfare. Gatland lived in Ireland long enough to pick up a few traits about the Irish psyche, and the particular one that he’s thinking about here is the tremendous Irish need to be loved.

It’s not enough for Ireland to win a Grand Slam, even though Ireland haven’t won one for sixty-one years. There is a tremendous need for the Irish to be acknowledged as a great as well. If we don’t get the pat on the head, the nation pouts like a teenager.

If we stepped back a little, we could see that glory and Grand Slams are not necessarily the same thing. David Sole’s Grand Slam team of 1990 – and it by no means An Spailpín’s intention to have a cut at the Scots, God love them – were by no means a glorious team but the record book shows 1990, Grand Slam, Scotland, and that’s all that counts.

Gatland is clearly fully aware of this insecurity in the Irish psyche, this tremendous need. He’s also aware of that word that rhymes with poke, and joke, and coke, and the Irish connection with same over the years. So, like Begbie in Trainspotting throwing the glass over the stairs to see what would happen, Gatland has rolled his hand grenade in under the Irish door and walked away laughing.

He’s a sly dog, Gatland. The Irish are blessed in that Declan Kidney is no eejit either, but it is a sad truth that teams have been psyched out of games before by soft chat in the press, and England are the most famous example of that.

Brian Moore has been unfairly criticised in Ireland for calling the Irish chokers two years ago, but anyone who took the trouble to read what he wrote will notice that Moore was upfront about why it bothered him so much. Because Moore himself was hooker and pack leader on the England team that choked against Scotland in 1990, and then choked again against Australia in the World Cup Final the year after.

The story bears repeating. 1988 was a red-letter year in English rugby. The selectors finally did away with the Corinthian ethos that saw quality players being regularly dropped for fear of chaps getting too big for their boots, and instead boiled their rugby right down to brass tacks. Rob Andrew kicked the ball ahead of their pack and bad men like Mickey Teague and Wade Dooley chased after it, giving no quarter to whomever or whatever got in their way.

By 1991 England were unstoppable, grinding their way through opposition like so many locusts fed exclusively on bully beef. In the World Cup Final that year, England faced their antithesis, Australia, a flair team epitomised by the mercurial David Campese on the wing, one of the greatest players ever to play the game.

Campese knew that Australia stood no chance in a battle in the trenches with England. So he spent the week before the final giving interview after interview saying that England were destroying the game with their ten man game and it broke his bloody heart to think of the game he loved, a game about boys running with ball in hand and the wind in their hair, being crushed by the fearsome hooves of the yeomanry.

All balls, of course. Australia is not a rugby nation. They’d play League if only they were let, and they’re doing their damnedest to turn Union into League with those cursed ELVs.

But Campese was an exceptional talent, and a masterful student of the human condition. Campese looked into the soul of English rugby and saw Roundheads who wanted to be Cavaliers. Campese’s goading caused England to change their gameplan as they tried to play the Australians at the Australian game in the final. England were wiped out, Campese laughed his way back to Australia with the Webb Ellis Trophy under his arm, and Brian Moore is still bitter eighteen years on.

The parallel is not exact but the level of psychological insight is the same – sublime. And worse, the last time Ireland played for a Grand Slam they fell for another psychological trick. The Irish huffed and puffed over the insult to our President in 2003, but if they were that upset they would have trooped off and let the International Board sort it out. But the Irish are too afraid of being unpopular, so they let Johnson pull their pigtails, and then payed the price when the game began.

This same need to be loved is what Warren Gatland is playing on so expertly now. How will Ireland respond?

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Free Download - A Learner's Guide to Irish

About two years ago your faithful narrator took a look at such books as exist for adults to learn Irish. One of the ones I recommended most warmly was A Learner’s Guide to Irish, by an American academic called Donna Wong.

During the week I got mail from friend of the blog Rob, who told me that although Doctor Wong’s book is now out of print, it is now available in its entirety to download free from Cois Life, the website of its publisher. Anybody with any interest in the language should take the time. The book is solid gold.

The failures in the promotion of Irish have been many down the years. There are countless children’s books about learning Irish, because publishers know that there is a captive – in every sense of the word – audience there. But for adults who wished to go back there was no way in, because children’s books are not suitable for adults and books written in Irish itself are no use to someone with no Irish at all.

Another of the failures in the way the language has been taught is the idea that exists now that there’s some way to sugar coat it. That people without a gift for languages will just pick it up without having to do their homework. And the problem with that is that when you don’t have a gift for language and you don’t just pick it up you then feel stupid, then frustrated, then disillusioned, and then you just abandon it altogether. I don't have a gift for languages, and this exactly how I felt about the language in school. I got through it in the end through a good memory and a certain level of pig-headedness, but the syllabus and the established practices did not cut me many breaks. Nor many others, from what I can see.

It’s much more honest to admit at the start that Irish is radically different in its structures than English, and this is an issue for learners when they’re starting out. Irish is an inflected language, which means that the forms of the words change according to what they do in a particular sentence.

Lots of languages do this, with Latin and German being the most common examples, but English and the Romance languages like French, Spanish or Italian do not inflect words any more, and that’s what makes Irish so frightening for someone who is a native speaker of English. Such as ninety plus per cent of the population of Ireland. And these constructions which you can’t relate back to English are then doubly frightening if you have a teacher blithely ignoring their existence, and then expecting someone to just somehow pick up all these subtle changes (fuinneog, an fhuinneog, fuinneoige, na fuinneoige, na fuinneoga, na bhfuinneog, for example) as he or she goes along.

Doctor Wong’s book lists the rules. How many people put down fourteen years at school without ever knowing if the Irish for Christmas is “Nollag” or “Nollaig”? And if only one of those words translates as Christmas, what in the name of God does the other one mean? Using Donna Wong’s book as a reference will tell you, and may be the first step to Irish people being able to learn your own language. Something for which the State should thank her.

But which the State almost certainly won’t, of course. It is interesting to note that Doctor Wong’s generously acknowledges her debt to Brian Mac Giolla Phádraig’s Réchúrsa Gramadaí, and pointedly notes that “if this book [Réchúrsa Gramadaí] had an English translation, A Learner’s Guide to Irish would be unnecessary.” Doctor Wong wrote her book outside the structures of the Irish language industry in this country. It’s the nation’s own fault that Irish remains on her deathbed eighty years after independence. Something to reflect on for St Patrick’s Day as we celebrate what a fine people we are.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Slam of BOD? Irish Rugby on the Cusp of Glory

Peter Stringer’s triumphant return to the Irish rugby team yesterday evening two years after he was made the sole scapegoat for the 2007 World Cup disaster was a moment to delight the hardest of hearts in these hard times. In fact, laughing out loud when Stringer made his break to set up Jamie Heaslip’s try was the only sensible reaction. Stringer did the same thing for Munster in the 2005 Heineken Cup final, a break that won that game as well.

For a scrum half, it isn’t so much a question of if he breaks, but more a question of when. Because Stringer breaks so rarely, what’s rare is truly wonderful.

The criticism of the game in Edinburgh yesterday has been harsh. Ireland struggled in the first half, certainly, but credit to the Scots, who showed a return to their own thorny traditions, despite those hideous jerseys. But when you’re so long out of practice, it’s hard to get it to hang together for the eighty minutes, and Scotland were doubly unfortunate in that they came up against a team that are on a mission worthy of the Grail Knights themselves.

The book appeared shut on this Golden Generation – your correspondent certainly buried them rather than praised them in this space. And then, suddenly, a new coach, a new philosophy, some fresh faces and a harum-scarum win over France in Dublin to start the campaign and suddenly it’s 2003 all over again.

It has to be just as obvious to the players as it is to the fans that the Golden Generation has underachieved. A friend of the blog and a great rugby man himself told your faithful narrator during the week that he believed this could be the start of a brave new dawn for Irish rugby. The great gaping hole where Ronan O’Gara’s successor should be casts doubts on that theory. Ireland's playing population is so small that any chance that comes must be grabbed with both hands, because you don't know how long you'll have to wait until it comes again.

What this season is about for Ireland, therefore, is redemption. The BBC had a graphic last night that showed when you table the games won in the Six Nations this decade Ireland are second only to France in games won, but they have no Championship to show for it. When you consider the ballaragging Mayo get for consistently winning games yet coming second in the All-Ireland the irony is warm to the touch.

But unlike Mayo’s golden generation, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and the rest have seen the stone rolled away from the tomb before time is called, and they now know that they are only eighty minutes away from a title, the winning of which would make up for all those left behind, and would banish the ghosts that would otherwise haunt them into the autumn of their years.

The only problem is that the title will have to be won the hard way, in Cardiff, against the Welsh.

There is no question that the majority of the Lions’ first XV will be made up of Welsh and Irish. When the teams face each other in Cardiff at half-past five on Saturday it will be a contest so even that it will all come down to the vagaries of fate who will triumph in the end.

The Welsh have home advantage and a rich and proud history behind them. The Irish have the advantage of the kind of momentum that four wins gives. Ireland edge it slightly up front, not least with the presence of the new men of the back row, the stern and resolute Stephen Ferris and the increasingly irrepressible Jamie Heaslip.

It’s advantage Wales at half-back, where Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones are the leading contenders to wear nine and ten for the Lions in South Africa. And in the three quarters it’s possibly a slight edge to Wales as well.

Ireland’s greatest strength is Brian O’Driscoll, of course. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine famously wrote of Clint Eastwood when Unforgiven came out that “in three decades of climbing into the saddle, Eastwood has never ridden so tall.” It’s tempting to think of Brian O’Driscoll this year in the same terms.

The jets are gone now, compared to what they were, but it was never speed that separated O’Driscoll from the herd. It is his sheer appetite for battle, and for getting stuck in. The Brian O’Driscoll that exists between the white lines is not the same Brian O’Driscoll that gives such anodyne press interviews. O’Driscoll has a deep reservoir of fury that he taps into, rather like the Berserker warriors of Celtic lore.

He may not have said it at the time, but An Spailpín Fánach believes that O’Driscoll himself is more annoyed than anyone at the titles Ireland left behind. O’Driscoll did an interview for the BBC that was broadcast yesterday where he mentioned what winning three games against France, Italy and England were worth if Ireland were to lose in Edinburgh and Cardiff: “we won three games in 2005 and who talks about 2005 now?”

2005 was also the year that Brian O’Driscoll captained the Lions so very briefly. Funny how the subconscious pops up when you don’t expect it.

Brian O’Driscoll has been disappointed every time he’s reached a summit in rugby. Ireland have not won a Championship in his time, his Lions’ captaincy was a disaster and the 2007 World Cup was all nightmares come true at once. None of this is O’Driscoll’s own fault – even when Ireland were getting handed their hats by Argentina, O’Driscoll was personally outstanding as the team fell apart around him. Brian O’Driscoll wants this one very, very badly.

After the drama of team selection last week An Spailpín Fánach is confident that Declan Kidney will name the following team on Tuesday: Kearney; Bowe, B O’Driscoll (c), D’Arcy, Fitzgerald; O’Gara, Stringer; Horan, Flannery; Hayes; O’Connell, O’Callaghan; Ferris, Wallace, Heaslip. Go n-éirí leo ar shlí na glóire.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Watchmen, Comic Books and the Collapse of Western Civilisation

News of persons reading the original comic while queuing to see the new Watchman movie when it opened last Friday, the better to quickly spot any on-screen heresy, is a portent. Of what exactly it’s hard to say, but it can’t be anything good.

It’s a good experiment always to substitute names to expose prejudice. Persons reading the Bible while queuing to see the Passion of the Christ would lead to sotto voce muttering about Godboys and nutjobs. Pale young men taking a comic as their totemic text cause just a smile. Ah – they must be cool, we think, and pass merrily along.

There is a tacit understanding that people know what’s serious, and what isn’t. But is this really the case?

The film critic Tom Shone wrote a book called Blockbuster in 2004. Shone’s book concentrates on where the culture actually is, rather than where film critics would like it to be. The critics love Woody Allen, the people go to see Spielberg and George Lucas.

Blockbuster identifies just how seriously people are taking these comic book movies. In the penultimate chapter, Shone discusses the Phantom Menace, the movie that was embraced like the second coming of Christ on its release in 1999 by a generation that had grown up with the original Star Wars movie in 1977.

The problem is that while the first Star Wars retains its charm, the Phantom Menace is utterly devoid of same and makes for a dour night at the movies, leavened only by the horror of Jar-Jar Binks.

Did this cause people to stay away? No, it did not. People taught themselves to love the Phantom Menace, just as religious women try to ignore that passage in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that fits so very badly with current enlightened feminist theory (1 Cor 11:7-9, for anyone that wants to look it up). Shone himself puts it best in his book when, after quoting a fan’s internet posting on her determined efforts to like the Phantom Menace even though it’s a terrible picture, Shone writes of "the plaintive sound of a fan, masking her heartbreak, and returning to see the film, again and again, in the hopes that she may one day grow to love it."

People take these things seriously. After the heavy damage sustained by the Western Canon by the successive attacks of modernism, deconstruction and, most virulent of all, the 1960s, people are looking to fill the void that was once filled for intelligent people by the arts or the Church, and they are finding it in the lowest common denominator.

People are looking for messages in texts that were never designed to carry them. Comic book movies are fun for kids, or somebody’s inner child to return to a happy place in an unhappy world. But there seems to be a worryingly large population who are looking to them for life guidance. A lot of these pilgrims have votes. They elect governments.

The theory is that this is not so bad because the comic book itself came of age with the Watchman comic in 1984, and the comic book movie came of age with last year’s Dark Knight. These are darker texts, with fully rounded, recognisably human characters.

What rubbish. There’s nothing in either movie that’s as dark as the harrowing fairytale about the Little Mermaid, and the characters are about as a rounded as a brick.

Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker in the Dark Knight. When was the last time you met or read of anyone like the Joker in that movie? And if you haven’t read or heard of anyone like him, how can he then be real?

But when you read David Copperfield, you feel a real and palpable shock of recognition when you realise that, even though he’s disfigured her for life, Rosa Dartle will always love James Steerforth. An astonishing level of depth in a walk-in part, written by a man about whom the most frequent criticism is that he was an unredeemable caricaturist.

The most articulate advocate of the mature comic book movie genre is the Chicago film critic Roger Ebert. Before his recent illness, Ebert was on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show when Batman Begins was released, protesting that the movie should have a 15, not a 12, certificate. Adults should be allowed to see an adult Batman movie, Ebert claimed, to applause from the audience.

But if adults are watching Batman, what are the kids watching? Another question to worry about in a world where 300, the film directed by Zach Synder before Watchmen, took $300 million dollars at the box office. Charlotte Mary Yonge must be spinning in her grave.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Declan Kidney is Playing for the Pot

Declan KidneyIf Ireland do not win their first Championship in twenty-four years this year, or their first Grand Slam in sixty-one, the fault will not lie with Declan Kidney. The Irish coach has been outstanding in his first year in charge and yesterday, with his stunning selection against the Scots, Kidney has proved that he’s playing for the pot and has the belly for big stakes. More luck to him.

Grey old heads nodded into their pints when Warren Gatland made a typically daring selection for Wales game against Italy last. Gatland dropped the guts of the established team, and gave the fringe players a chance to shine and to play for the title in what will almost certainly be the title decider in Cardiff against the Irish.

It proved to the established players that there is no divine right to a jersey and to the fringe players that they will get their chance, and it’s up to them to grab it. By contrast the Irish support, like Pavlov’s dog, expected the expected from their coach yesterday.

And instead, Kidney matched Gatland stroke for stroke. Out go Paddy Wallace, Tomás O’Leary, Jerry Flannery and Jamie Heaslip; in come Gordon D’Arcy, Peter Stringer, Rory Best and Denis Leamy. Compared to what we have seen, this is as revolutionary as Galileo and Keppler announcing the rotundity of the of the Earth.

Would you have made the same changes? Perhaps not. An Spailpín would quibble with one or two himself, but then bow to Kidney’s awesome judgement. We have not seen this before in Irish team selections. This is revolution. There are no sacred cows. Imagine how it will feel this week for D’Arcy, for Stringer, for Best and for Leamy when they hear the skirl of the pipes in Edinburgh on Saturday evening? They know that they have not waited in vain and if they put the Scots to the sword they can make the starting XV in Wales.

Does it show disrespect to the Scots? Yes, it does. About as much as Gatland showed the Italians, because the Scots and Italians are about equal. Is Kidney daring fate and history, the light of other Irish disappointment in Scotland? Yes, and rightly so. History can’t pull on a jersey, and the Scots’ proud history can’t help them now as they struggle to cope with the new world of professional rugby.

There was a time when Scottish rugby was epitomised by the likes of Finlay Calder, captain of the Lions in 1989 in Australia and a man best understood as a set of brass knuckles made flesh and bone. Chiefly bone, actually, as Ireland's former fullback Jim Staples could tell you.

But the days of Scotland having nine Lions, as they had twenty years ago in Australia, are of the past, and the talent gulf between the sides is now considerably in Ireland’s favour. Besides, if Ireland are running scared of the Scots, they have no business in going to Cardiff looking for glory. Glory does not cower before a faded power; it polishes it off, and looks forward to fresh fields of battle.

The rejuvenation of Brian O’Driscoll is perhaps Kidney’s greatest contribution to the Irish campaign so far. What O’Driscoll has you can’t coach. But the open competition for places fostered by Kidney, the absolute meritocracy that he has instilled and the unity of purpose shown by a team previously scared by internecine divisions are the great hallmarks of this rejuvenated Irish team.

Kidney has postponed the axe for the golden generation, and now the Slam is closer than it’s been in quite some time. They will have noticed in the valleys, and will not sleep easy in the coming ten days. And meanwhile, a nation on its knees is deeply grateful for whatever rugger mojo it is on which Declan Kidney seems to have the freehold. Roll on Saturday.

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

World Book Day and Dublin's Second Hand Bookstores

Leonard Cohen hailed Dublin as “a city of writers and poets” during his series of concerts at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, last summer. How sad, then, to reflect on how Dublin’s second hand bookstores are now winking slowly out of existence, like stars in some doomed galaxy on the edge of the Milky Way.

Dandelion Books, a haven for science fiction, or speculative fiction as the aficionados currently have it, was on Aungier Street. Now it’s not. The Rathmines Bookshop is currently mutating into an art gallery and, saddest of all, Greene’s bookstore on Clare Street is now a haberdashery – the body is clothed where once the soul was fed.

Greene’s was the best of the three, because it has those two features without which no true second hand bookstore could be considered worthy of the name – it had shelves and it had stairs, and it had both in abundance. The shelves in Greene’s started at the very bottom of the stairs, and then snaked an eclectic path upwards, John Grisham standing cheek by jowl with John Milton.

Upstairs, a huge arched window lit the first floor, and shelf after shelf of books of theology and divinity that were never going to move. There was a shelf of Irish interest next to that, and then an alcove of Americana, biography and, bizarrely, true crime stories.

I bought a lot of old Irish language books there, in the old typeface and the old spelling – double jeopardy for the amateur, and no walk in the park for the seasoned student of the First Language. I bought a volume of short stories by Séamus Ó Grianna there, who published under the pen-name of “Máire” – a reverse Ellis Bell, if you like.

The book is called “Úna Bhán,” and the cover has a lovely water-colour illustration of that same lady, up on the back of a jaunting car, flowered hat tight on her head, a spare in a round hatbox behind the driver, waving goodbye to her people while off to make a new life in America.

The jaunting cars and hats are all gone now, and poor Greene’s is gone with them, exiled from its sweet city centre spot between the canals to one of the industrial estates that skirt the M50, now existing only in cyberspace like that other Irish bibliophile’s Shangri-la, Kenny’s of Galway.

The Hidden Bookstore on Wicklow Street carries on, of course, and that marvellous store in the George’s Street arcade with all its wonderful old Irish books, including marvellous Anvil paperbacks about faction fighters, the Normans and Devil’s Own Connaught Rangers. But the new prince and chief of Dublin’s second hand bookstores is now on the other side of the river, part of the astonishing development of Parnell Street as the twenty-first century rumbles on.

Chapters Bookstore has moved from its snug spot besides Arnott’s and Eason’s and the former office of the Irish Independent newspaper on Middle Abbey Street to its current glass façade in the Ivy Exchange, shared with the new and shiny Tesco on the corner.

Where on Middle Abbey Street it was small and dark and pleasingly musty, Chapters on Parnell Street is all brightness, light and fluorescence. The contrast between the old gloom and the new glow is such that going inside is as jarring for the bibliophile as entering the great cathedrals of Notre Dame or Chartes must have been for the medieval monks of France, used to tallow candles and perpetual twilight.

The selection in Chapters is better than it ever was in Dandelion Books, or Rathmines, or even Greene’s, but it’s hard not to notice that a second hand bookstore isn’t really about the selection. This ebay age has changed the rules that regard, because the internet now means that nothing is ever unobtainable.

But the fact of the books being second-hand is what generates the magic in a second hand bookstore. A bookstore is just a place of retail, but a second-hand bookstore feels more like a library. A library that belonged to thousands and thousands of people, each of whom had his or her own story and life and existence, and brought worth to that existence through their reading of books.

And now there’s a good chance that person is in another existence, and the books have been left behind. Any time you see a row of newly stocked Modesty Blaises or Bonds or ever poor Louis L’Amour in a second hand bookstore, chances are someone has gone on their last caper, assignment, or lonesome trail in the west, and the books are now foundlings, looking for a new home.

Isn’t it a pity that Dublin can’t emulate Paris and its great love of books? How lovely it is to see the stalls being set up in the mornings along the Seine, in the shadow of the great cathedral, and the rich display of wares.

There are bookstalls in Rome too, but they seem rather more interested in selling what used to be known as pictures of the Eiffel Tower than musty old copies of Dante or Boccaccio. One hopes none of our own visiting clerics peers too closely – it may shatter one too many illusions.

The weather in Dublin militates against the open air kiosks, of course, and those few braves souls who set up stalls in Temple Bar need to keep their eyes peeled for squally hens and stags coming from the east as just as much as showers and gales blowing in from the west. But it is rather sad that Dublin, a city haled as a city of poets and writer by one of the greatest poets and writers of our age on a blessed Friday the thirteenth last year in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, is losing these second hand bookstores, these lodestars of the literary life.

The city of Long Beach, California, designated Bertrand Smith’s famous Acres of Books bookstore as a “cultural heritage landmark” eighteen years ago, and Long Beach, lovely though it is, does not have the literary reputation that Dublin enjoys. Something to ponder today, World Book Day.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

Our Chief of Men - Will Ireland Ever Know Who Brian O'Driscoll Really Is?

Brian O’Driscoll delivered a performance of extraordinary heroism last night, dragging Ireland to a one-point win over England by what seemed like sheer force of will alone. Watching him struggling to get his bearings after another cheap shot tackle it was hard not to think of Cúchulainn lashed to the rock, making one final stand for home and heartland.

At the start of the season there was a clamour to replace Brian O’Driscoll as captain of Ireland with Paul O’Connell, in whom the nation likes to see the embodiment of ourselves. O’Connell is perceived as very much a heart on the sleeve sort of man, whereas O’Driscoll is hardly known to the country at all.

O’Driscoll’s predecessor as Irish captain, Keith Wood, is an opposite sort of character. Wood was clearly devastated by the implosion of Ireland at the World Cup, and he was retired four years from the team. Even now on the BBC, from the comfort of the analyst’s sofa, you can see the agony on Wood’s face when potential Irish weaknesses are suggested to him.

O’Driscoll has never been like that. O’Driscoll does his media duty but he sups with a very long spoon indeed. The real Brian O’Driscoll is hidden far, far back while Public Brian churns out platitudes about how he and the guys are really enjoying their rugby and, you know, if we execute the game plan good things can come from that. This diffidence doesn’t sit well with the nation. The nation likes tears rolling down John Hayes’ face. It does not like fancy haircuts and model girlfriends.

The mask has slipped very rarely. Brian O’Driscoll was interviewed by Marian Finucane at the start of the international season back in Autumn, and he was happily batting back the questions until Marian referred to George Hook. O’Driscoll made a throwaway comment that he wouldn’t consider Hook much of an analyst. Marion seized on it, her nose for a story being always very good, and O’Driscoll spent some minutes under pressure on his five metre line before clearing his lines.

The disdain expressed for Hook was a flash of the real Brian O’Driscoll, the man who hammers into rucks with such fury, who swung Australia’s George Smith around by his dreadlocks, who was exchanging slaps with a precocious Benoit Baby of France at Lansdowne Road some years ago. O’Driscoll has been responsible for two autobiographies but the real man remains resolutely hidden, while an impostor is sent out to tell the media that he’s really enjoying his rugby and, you know, if we execute our game plan good things can come from that.

There’s tremendous goodwill in the country towards O’Driscoll, especially now the bleak ‘eighties are back and we’re relying on the current rugby team as we relied on Ciarán Fitzgerald back in the day. And there’s an unspoken understanding that once Ireland win the Grand Slam we’ll all be able to sit back and say “O’Driscoll? Great player. One of the best ever. Why, I remember back in ’09, he did this, he did that, he did the other.” And this is worrying because the sad fact is that Ireland are not going to win the Grand Slam this year, and the nation will be no closer to knowing this giant who has worn the emerald green with such distinction and such glory for so long.

If they do not win the Grand Slam, Ireland may well still win the Championship, which would still be a considerable achievement. Every other nation bar Italy has won since Ireland’s last Championship twenty-four years ago. It puts things in perspective.

Scotland will be seen as something of a pushover in a fortnight’s time, even though they have won the Championship twice, in 1990 and 1999, since that last Irish win. Ireland should still beat them, as Scotland seem to have adopted worst of the Home Nations to professionalism. But if Ireland do successfully avoid a tartan banana skin, they still have to win in Cardiff to win a Grand Slam and it’s very, very difficult to see that happening.

Wales got cold-cocked in Paris on Friday night. These things sometimes happen. Ask New Zealand what the French can do when their tails are up. But Wales are richly talented, expertly coached, fiercely proud and want the Lions places they were done out of in 2005. The fault lines in the Irish team are becoming more and more obvious and the Welsh at home are just the boys to spoil a party.

Ireland could lose in Wales and still win a Championship on points, and that would be good. I seem to recall the Welsh and Scottish both winning Championships after losing their final games in the ‘nineties, and there are no asterisks in the record books because of it. And when he’s asked at the press conference afterwards if he has any regrets about not winning a Slam, Brian O’Driscoll will tell the media that Wales are a really great team, that he and the guys are really enjoying their rugby and, you know, if we execute our game plan good things can happen.

An then he’ll get up and thank the media for their time and walk off into the shadows, almost certainly into retirement if he chooses not to tour with the Lions this summer, or is too smashed up to do so. And we’ll never really have known him at all, Brian O’Driscoll, this latter day Cúchulainn, this chief of men.

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