Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sporting Year: Review and Preview

Hurling is a game in crisis. The League doesn’t matter to anyone, and the Championship has so very few meaningful games. Even worse, not only is hurling not growing in the non-traditional (football) counties but the ancient game is in clear and visible decline in counties that are not only considered hurling powers, but that have won or contested All-Ireland finals in the past fifteen years. None of this is good.

And despite this litany of disaster, hurling still provided the greatest sporting moment of the year when Tipperary overcame Kilkenny in a game done scant justice by such weak adjectives as epic, magisterial, unforgettable, monumental. The 2010 hurling final showcased everything that is great about hurling, right down to the post-match singing of the Galtee Mountain Boy, singing that showed exactly what makes the GAA great – the perfect synergy of people, place and culture.

What this means for hurling in 2011 and beyond your correspondent cannot say, not being a hurling man, other than to remark that if this is ever lost, there will be a hole in the country’s soul that can never be filled.

The football final was not as good, but the football Championship was outstanding. The Championship started as an exclusive club where twenty-nine teams were warm-up acts for a Big Three, but Down reminded everybody with eyes to see that the great prize is there to be won by those who dare, rather than ceded by those who dare not. Small consolation to them as they lost their first ever football final, but a beacon to the rest of the country.

We will hear a lot in the first six months of next year about how that beacon shines for Dublin, something that annoys the country outside the pale more than somewhat, and does the least service of all to Dublin and Dublin GAA. This isn’t because of hype – talk is cheap, after all – but because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the game.

If Dublin are to survive using their new system, they will revolutionise Gaelic football with their three man forward line and twelve backs. An Spailpín Fánach doesn’t believe this tactic will work, but it is certainly going to be one of the stories of the year. Until the system is found out.

2011 bubbles with anticipation. Can Mickey Harte build a Tyrone 2.0 as the new generations comes through and his great servants retire one by one? Can Cork push on or was this the last hurrah for the weight of their panel? Can Sligo recover from their shattering Connacht Final loss? Have Roscommon finally turned a corner after a decade of misery? How much longer can Padraic Joyce carry Galway?

Every country has its narrative. James Horan’s first Mayo team will line out against Leitrim in Ballinamore on January 9th. An Spailpín hopes to be there. The road goes ever on.

In rugby, after reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated some years ago, the Golden Generation are finally gathered in the Last Chance Saloon. Declan Kidney’s mission for 2011 is to nurse them to the World Cup in October, and a last hurrah in a World Cup quarter-final. To get to a semi-final, something Ireland have never done, would be an outstanding achievement, and a fitting finale to several careers.

And possibly the last hurrah for quite some years; despite what the IRFU-istas write and would have you believe in the papers, the future is not bright. Scotland is on the rise, the deep and unaddressed flaw in the system that sees players not being developed because it makes better short-term sense to buy foreign props or stand-off halves, and the sheer weight of English and French money make the future challenging in the extreme for Irish rugby. It was fun while it lasted.

The World Cup was terrible for anyone outside of Spain. It would have been impossible to believe twenty years ago, but the World Cup itself may be in danger. Newsweek’s respected political columnist Jonathan Alter tweeted earlier this year that Qatar paid €7,500,000 per vote to stage the World Cup in 2022. It’s the only way the thing can be understood. The super clubs are on the rise and international soccer is on the decline. This is the future.

And finally – Irish sports lost their voice this year when Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh announced his retirement. His like will not be seen again, but there is hope for the future. It’s not likely, but maybe now wouldn’t be a bad time to get the ball rolling.

RTÉ Radio ought to try a little lateral thinking and appoint Seán Bán Breathnach of Raidió na Gaeltachta as their chief Gaelic Games commentator. Hector Ó hEoghagáin tweeted about this before Christmas, and it’s the only way. SBB is an outstanding commentator and, while English is his second language, Seán Bán is considerably more fluent and passionate in English than some of the current RTÉ men with microphones. The campaign begins here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Christmas to All, from An Spailpín Fánach

Another year of horrors, from IMF bailouts to Mayo losing in the Championship to Sligo and Longford. Thank God there's anyone still left here at all. To celebrate the season, here's wonderful Renée Fleming singing Schubert's Ave Maria. Nollaig shona daoibh uilig, agus go mbéirfimid go léir beo ag an am seo arís.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Doctor Who Christmas Special

An Spailpín Fánach is unlikely to be alone in considering the Doctor Who Christmas Special a Christmas TV highlight. But to really understand the appeal of the long-running TV show, it’s more instructive to look back to the summer, when the Doctor Who Prom was held in the Albert Hall.

The wonderful thing about Doctor Who Prom is that music from the TV series can be used as a way of introducing children to orchestral, actual, music, as opposed to the unspeakable X-Factor and its vile spawn. But this summer, there was an extra twist at the Royal Albert Hall: they brought along monsters from the TV show.

Highlights from the Prom were broadcast in September and it was wonderful to see the reaction of the kids as the monsters suddenly clanked, glided and slithered down the stars, as appropriate.

The ideal audience for Doctor Who are not internet saddos. They are children, from about age seven to eleven, and those lucky souls who remember what it was like to be that age.

The great thing about being aged between seven and eleven is that you’re old enough to tell the difference between a grocer and a goblin, but you’re still innocent enough to believe that there are such things as goblins and spooks and weirdies in the first place.

And even though you know there really aren’t any monsters under the bed and the creaking in the house is just the wind – well, maybe it isn’t. Maybe this time it really is the sound the advance craft of Admiral Zozo and his Martian fleet landing in the garden, and it’s now down to you to save the Earth. Maybe. You never can tell, and there’s no point in taking a chance when the future of the entire planet is in danger.

And that duality, between having being told by your parents that there are no such things as Daleks or Cybermen or Venetian vampires, and then actually those crazy chicks in the white dresses gliding down the stairs in the Royal Albert Hall with those gobs full of pointy teeth – well, I don’t know about you adults, but I’m going to keep my two eyes on them and I advise you against making any sudden movements, or else it could be curtains for the lot of us.

And that’s the joy of Doctor Who. People who should know better have tried to load the show up with a lot of sturm und drang but it’s all my hat. If you want Schopenhauer, read Schopenhauer. Leave fighting the Death Lizards of Megalon 7 to the professionals.

This is something that the current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat understands absolutely. He’s said that he decides on what goes on the show according to whether or not he thinks it’ll scare the bejabbers out of his kids. Once it does, it stays in the show. How perfect.

The Doctor Who Christmas episodes have been a mixed bag since they were introduced for David Tennant’s debut, with Tennant’s exit and the Kylie one being particularly weak. This year’s seems rather similar to a story by Chas. Dickens in its inspiration, but no matter. It’ll be wonderful for an hour. Christmas is a good time for Doctor Who. Who is Santa after all, but another traveller in time and space? Just like a Time Lord, in fact. Oh hold on ...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Horse Outside vs. Frank Kelly's Christmas Countdown

Whatever they do when they take those bags off their heads, whatever paths their future lives may take, the Rubberbandits will never mine so rich a strain of inspiration, or resonate with so many people, as they have this Christmas with Horse Outside.

If that sounds a little limiting, it’s not. Most people don’t achieve in a lifetime of creation what the Rubberbandits have achieved in the three minutes and fifty-one seconds of Horse Outside.

The difference between their weekly output on late night TV and Horse Outside is the difference between water and whiskey. The bridesmaid is impossibly glamorous, the chief Rubberbandit dances like Michael Jackson, the lyrics are equally piquant and hilarious and the whole thing is carried off with such brio that you’re just swept away.

Listening to Horse Outside and hearing talk of a Christmas No 1 brought An Spailpín back to another Christmas record of the past. Frank Kelly wrote a parody of The Twelve Days of Christmas in 1983 that was a big hit at the time and even saw him make an appearance on Top of the Pops.

The idea was that Gobnait O’Lunacy, Kelly’s everyman character stretching back to his days on Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, is writing thank-you notes to his girlfriend, Nuala. Nuala sends the gifts mentioned in the song to Gobnait and his mother on each of the twelve days and Gobnait replies, each letter growing more exasperated as the wildlife grows more difficult to control in the house.

Kelly’s Christmas Countdown is much more gentle than the Rubberbandits’ Horse Outside. Gobnait lives with his mother and his girlfriend’s name is Nuala. If Gobnait bought a horse, he would use cash money, rather than a bag of yokes and the barter system.

While the Rubberbandits swear the house down Kelly limits himself to parliamentary language, but it works well for him “You have scandalised my mother, you dirty Jezebel ... listen, slurry-head!” “Slurry-head” remains one of An Spailpín’s favourite insults – although, sadly, your correspondent is much more likely to chose the Rubberbandit vocabulary when exasperated, having gone to the town school.

It’s a mistake to read too much meaning into novelty songs. Joyce got away with it for Finnegan’s Wake but he was an exceptional case. That said, it’s undeniable that each song holds a mirror up to its age and society.

Frank Kelly’s song is set in an Ireland that’s before the fall of the church, with poverty, middle-aged men living with their mothers and the that small-town-as-the-universe feel. Horse Outside is recognisably today, with people who don’t really care what’s going on so long as they can get wasted and have a good time. Celtic Tiger in excelsis.

Horse Outside is a much more vital song than the Christmas Countdown – it makes you want to get up and dance. But the fundamental engine of the song is what the Rubberbandit advises his rivals in love to do with their Mitsubishis, their Honda Civics and their Su-ba-ru. Good fun to make gang signs to and roar out when you’re twisted at the office party. But fundamentally cheap and a little bit nasty.

Again, it’s only a song. But what’s kind of sad is that there isn’t a counterbalance in the culture to the coarseness of it. The old-world civility of people who write thank-you notes, whose girlfriends are called Nuala but will never top Mammy in their boy’s affections.

There was a lot of repression and sadness in that Ireland, and lost potential and torn social fabrics. But it’s hard to think the Rubberbandits, inspired though they are, are progress.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Budget - Ireland Late to See the Big Picture

The two most famous budgets in Irish history are famous because of their detail. In yesterday’s budget, the detail didn’t matter at all.

Ernest Blythe took a shilling off the old age pension, a ten per cent reduction, in the late 1920s and was never forgiven for it. Blythe was a scholar and a patriot, but his name lives in infamy because of that one decision. John Bruton’s career was always haunted by a proposal to tax children’s shoes in 1982 in a budget that was never passed – the entire Government fell on that one detail.

And that’s the problem of Ireland in our history. There is no big picture economic thinking. We are eternally hung up on detail.

For the first eighty years of the state, there was no actual need for big picture thinking, because Ireland was so stony broke we didn’t have the loot to spend in the first place. The only time there was any money in the state was during the boom years, and where the big picture seemed to be: how quickly can we blow all this lovely dough?

Very quickly indeed, as it turns out. And that’s why the detail of the 2011 budget doesn’t matter. When the IMF arrived, we suddenly got to see the big picture for the fist time in our economic history.

When you’re being fed into the woodchipper, it doesn’t really matter whether you go in feet first of head first. It’s just a question of personal preference. You’re getting mulched either way.

We are now so broke that the only – the only – aim we have as a state is to get into a position where we can be indebted to the international bond markets rather than the ECB and the IMF. Everything else is window dressing. The money’s not there. It’s just not.

While the bailout rolls out and the state’s hands are effectively tied behind her back, it would be nice if we as a nation took the time to have a good think about who we are and who want to be. What we have, what we want and what we can afford. And if we could try, as the anniversary of 1916 looms, to give some vague impression that the dead generations from whom Ireland receives her old tradition of nationhood did not die in vain.

It’s gone beyond a question of toxic banks now. It’s a question of toxic states, a two-tier Europe or else a return to sterling and a much more resonant loss of sovereignty than all that old guff we heard from Pat Rabbitte and others in recent years.

The country is so deep in a hole we can barely see the top anymore, but claims that things can’t get worse are nonsense. Not only can they get worse, they’ve already been worse. And you don’t have to go back to Peig Sayers to find the evidence.

Why did the 1982 Government want to tax children’s shoes in the first place? Because they were concerned that women with small feet would buy children’s shoes, rather than women’s shoes, in order to save money.

Reader, when you can imagine the gossip columnists of the Sunday papers marching to the children’s section of Penny’s and then writing up a return to children’s t-bar sandals as a fashionista must-have, then you’ll know that all the icing is well gone from the cake. In the meantime, we take our medicine and hope to God that, as the IMF bailout runs its course, we’ll emerge wiser as well as older.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Asking Turkeys to Vote for Christmas - the Need for Political Reform

One of the gentlemen on Marian Finucane’s panel yesterday morning suggested that the people should vote very, very carefully the next time out, and vote for candidates who put the national interest ahead of the local interest.

Which is fine, if such candidates are on the ballot. But such candidates are very seldom on the ballot, because the system is set up to discriminate against them along every step of the way.

Irish politics is not ideological. It is local and tribal. You vote for the local man, who then goes to the tribal gathering known as Dáil Éireann, and returns on the Thursday evening train with goodies to reward the faithful. While the members of the other tribes look at the bonfires in the distance and wish that they had such a warrior who brought home such bounty. That is the system as it is, though we are loathe to admit it.

There is a theory that this exists only in rural – meaning backward – Ireland but An Spailpín reckons it’s deep in the bones of the Irish people. For instance, An Spailpín would be interested in a price on John Gormley retaining his seat in Dublin South East, a constituency noted for being as far from the backwoods as it’s possible to be.

Are there enough people in the constituency to note that, while he saved both stag and squirrel, Gormley was equally if not even more busy in defending his constituency against that nasty incinerator at Ringsend? An Spailpín reckons there are. Time will tell.

Your correspondent is most familiar with Mayo of course, and that scared land currently serves as an excellent example of the dilemma that people are in once it comes to casting a vote in the current system. Do you vote locally or do you vote nationally?

Local needs clarification here. Local does not mean Mayo; local means Ballina, Castlebar, Westport, Belmullet, Ballinrobe, Ballyhaunis, Claremorris. Mayo is a huge county and is not one tribe. It is a number of tribes, all in competition with each other for what its warriors may bring back from the Great Gathering of the Tribes that is Dáil Éireann.

There is currently talk of Dara Calleary’s, Fianna Fáil’s bright young man on the national stage, seat being in trouble. The revealing thing about this is the question of where will Calleary’s vote go? The chances are it will elected Fine Gael’s Michelle Mulherin, which the big scoreboard sees as a shift to Fine Gael.

But it’s not. Michelle only gets the vote because she’s also from Ballina. If Fine Gael did not have as strong a candidate as Michelle in Ballina, there is no guarantee that those disillusioned voters would go to her.

The party doesn’t matter. The tribe does. The resulting party alignments in the Dáil are nearly co-incidental to the deals done on the ground that get people elected in the first place. Not quite, of course, but you couldn’t tell me that Noel O’Flynn of Fianna Fáil and Michael Ring of Fine Gael share more characteristics than they have differences. The only separator is geography. The only separator.

Twenty years ago, Mayo was divided in two three-seat constituencies, Mayo East and Mayo West. Ballina was in Mayo East, Castlebar was in Mayo West and a half-hour drive from one to the other showed you exactly what having a local man in a position of power could do. The roads around Castlebar were first world, the roads around Ballina third world. So much so, in fact, that in the mid-nineties some tourist brochure described Ballina as being “only a fifteen minute minute drive from a main road.”

That’s the system. Political scientists don’t like to identify as such between elections, but when the psephologists number-crunch during the election note that they pay very close attention to where the ballot are from as they are being opened. So Beverly Flynn getting re-elected isn’t a mystery – Castlebar people voted for the Castlebar candidate. Simple as that. The rest was just white noise to them.

If people are to vote for the national interest then the voting system must prevent them for following the first rule of all living creatures, which is self-preservation. The system as it currently stands implores the voter at the next election not to vote on who will govern and how, but on whether the hospital near them or one far away with get closed. Because if you don’t vote local then the other fella will, and you get hanged. And it’s far too near Christmas for people to volunteer as turkeys.

Political reform now.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Dublin Cabbie Dreams of the Dear Old Days Gone By

Sunday evening in snowy Dublin, and An Spailpín Fánach is on his way home from the rugby. I hail a cab on Shelbourne Road and direct the chariot to the Northside. Off we go.

We go past the turn off Pearse Street for the new bridge but An Spailpín passes no remarks. Opinions vary about being quicker along the quays or up the NCR. Nothing’s going to be quick today as the snow falls relentlessly. An Spailpín isn’t too bothered.

And then the cabbie gets talking. Was I at the rugby? How much were the tickets? Jaysus, that’s a lot to pay for a ticket. Well, I mean to say!

And he had a point. An Spailpín got them half-price, thanks to a deal run by the pragmatic Leinster Branch during the week, but the cover price of ninety Euros was shocking. No questions there.

The driver has moved on to the weather as we crawl up Pearse Street. I remark that the Nitelinks were cancelled on Saturday, leaving the citizens – whom Dublin Bus is meant to serve, after all – high and not-so-dry in the snow on Saturday night.

“Ah yeah,” says my man. “It was just like the good old days. I was doing Connolly Station, around there, and you could see the people going up the North Strand looking for a cab to get home.”

It's like listening to The Wolf wondering why Little Red Riding Hood didn’t come around here no more. I remember those good old days too, queuing for hours with drunks and ne’er-do-wells at College Green. We had made it to Tara Street by now, and were at a dead stop.

“This looks bad,” said the charioteer. “Will we go up Gardiner Street? What do you think?”

“Hold on,” replied your correspondent, hackles raised nicely. “If we were going up Gardiner Street, why didn’t we go across the new bridge? What’s the point in looping around?”

“Well, there’s a slope on Gardiner Street. I was worried about getting stuck, and I didn’t think the quays would be this bad.”

And I’ve got a mug here who’ll shell out ninety bills for a rugby ticket and fancies a tour of the docks, suspects the cynical Spailpín Fánach.

“A slope? On Gardiner Street? Look, you’re right. We’d better not chance it. Let me out here.”

The taxi-driver is shocked by this. “Are you sure? I don’t mind.”

“I know well you don’t mind,” said An Spailpín Fánach, the truest word uttered by either of us during the trip, “but I don’t want to take a chance with that oul’ slope. I’m better off taking a bus.”

I got out at Beresford Place, paid him his legal due, and left a €0.00 tip. And then I trudged on through the sludge and snow, west and north in the city on the way home. Yet strangely content all the same, thinking of the dear old days of the Dublin taxi driver and how, whatever else happens, those days are gone forever and will have no tears shed after them.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Burning the Wrong Witch - the Need for Irish Political Reform

Whatever else may befall from the events of this recession, the single thing that seems to infuriate people most is this idea that financial speculators are being rescued for backing the wrong horse. That people will see schools close and taxes rise in order to pay off the infamous bondholders.

Ireland, however, is not paying the price for the Mr Monopoly’s reckless speculation. Ireland is paying the price for our own inability to regulate our own banks, our own financial system and our own system of politics.

There is a worrying air of politics as usual about everything that’s going on in the country. Brian Cowen put in his best performance on TV at the press conference yesterday evening, when he resisted his hopeless jargon addiction and spoke plainly and in detail about the details of the bailout.

Two little too late for the misfortunate Cowen, of course. Any chance he had of saving either his Premiership or his job as leader of Fianna Fáil is long lost. Time doesn’t wait for someone to get his act his act together. It rolls on relentlessly.

Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore, rather than leading and risking a prize that's more or less impossible to lose, are just staying out of trouble and waiting for power to fall into their laps.

But where the people are being sold short is in thinking that the problem begins and ends with Brian Cowen and Fianna Fáil. Fianna Fáil will take their hammering at the polls in February but it will not be a wipeout.

And in the next election, who will bet against a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach taking the salute at the GPO in 2016? The lesson of history tells us that Fianna Fáil, though damaged, will survive, and come back to win the next one. That has been the case since 1932.

To understand how we got into this mess the nation has to realise that our whole way of doing business is fundamentally unsound and admit our own culpability in this. We are paying for the banks because we couldn’t regulate the banks. We couldn’t regulate the banks because we are, as a nation, a little too open to corruption and sharp practice.

We don’t think politicians should be on the take. But if a man wants a few pound for himself, like, that’s not so bad. Sure wouldn’t we all do that?

It’s been the case for over two thousand years, since before the fall of the Roman Republic, that elected representatives should be held to higher account than ordinary citizens – that even Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion, let alone Caesar himself.

In Ireland we repeatedly elect and re-elect politicians who not only put their own local and personal needs above the greater good of the nation, but shout from the rooftops that they do this, and are hailed for it.

Ireland isn’t a democracy of ideas. It’s a democracy of tribes – where local tribal chieftains fight over the spoils of the nation, and return to the village with rewards of patronage for the in-crowd. This is why the banks are in a mess – because actual fair regulation leaves no room for wheeler-dealing, cutting corners, horse-trading and nodding and winking.

This failure exists across the party system – why else didn’t the opposition call a halt to the disgraceful tribunals, if not for fear of being themselves exposed? Why aren’t the opposition now shouting for root and branch reform from the rooftops, other than the fact that the system suits them just as well as it suits Fianna Fáil?

The perception exists now that the bondholders are the bad guys, holding Ireland up to ransom. But the Irish ourselves that are the bad guys, because we regulate our affairs according to who you know and what deals he or she can cut.

And as a nation, we bitch and moan and rage about Brian Cowen and the bondholders and Fianna Fáil. But the sad truth is we are so blind to the true nature of our politics that we can’t even tell who’s holding the blade that’s currently slicing us up like a Christmas turkey.

Political reform now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

RTÉ Complacency, Incompetence Symbolic of the Greater National Malaise

Irish Press ConferenceRTÉ’s stunning and repeated coverage failures for one of the historic days in the history of the state is further evidence of just why we’re in the mess that we’re in.

The Observer hit the bulls-eye in its editorial yesterday. This isn’t just the failure of one Government, but the failure of an entire political culture. The media is part of that culture and, as the national broadcaster, RTÉ has a duty above and beyond all other media outlets to tell the people what’s going on. They failed in that duty.

Instead of having live coverage from outside Government buildings from when the cabinet meeting started yesterday afternoon, the national broadcaster decided instead to show Ireland’s Greatest Talent Show, Reeling in the Years and Fair City.

Aware that they were in danger of being scooped by both the BBC and Sky News, RTÉ managed to cancel Gaybo Laughs Back at half-eight to show the Government press conference live. Or almost live – the RTÉ feed was about a minute behind the British broadcasters. Evidence that RTÉ were really caught on the hop.

And then, the most astonishing decision of all – RTÉ cut from the press conference just as Vincent Browne was getting medieval on An Taoiseach, in order to interview their own correspondent. For no apparent reason.

The Nine O’Clock News did not reflect the momentous events of the day and RTÉ appear to have been quite content to go through the motions with a pre-recorded Week in Politics were the eternally mischievous Vincent Browne not hosting a special edition of his current affairs show. RTÉ appeared plenty interested in spiking Browne’s guns.

This is why the state is so deep in the soup. Because the higher echelons of Irish society – the banks, the broadcasters, the politicians, the legal profession - are all comfortable while the general population is utterly lost in what’s going on and genuinely terrified for the future.

Ireland needs a new politics. This is bigger than a single Government. The civil war politics has run its course and it’s time for new beginnings.

In Ireland, it’s more or less impossible to start a new party from scratch, for lots of reasons. The only hope is that one of the three major parties throws up a Gorbachev, an FW de Klerk or a John Hume.

Men who see the big picture and realise that they have to put a bullet in their own party to destroy their own politics to build a new system, as the old one is dead and stinking. We can only hope there’ll still be an Ireland when he or she rises. Go bhfóire Dia orainn.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Two Rock Star Autobiographies - John McGuinness and Keith Richards

Two of the greatest rock stars of all time have published books in recent weeks, just in time for the Christmas market.

John McGuinness, TD for Carlow-Kilkenny, needs no introduction of course. Rebel. Rockstar. Maverick. Outsider. A piper at the gates of dawn, a moonlight shadow, a zephyr howling through the Curlew Mountains and on into the members’ bar of Dáil Éireann.

While the lesser known Keith Richards is an Englishman with the face of a prune and who is said to have more of different people’s blood sluicing through his system than Count Dracula.

Both men laugh in the face of doom, and spit in the eye of terror. Both walk with hellhounds on their trail. McGuinness calls his book The House Always Wins, thus showing that he dreams the impossible dream, and fights the ungovernable sea. Keith Richards – well, you only have to look at the head on him.

Funnily enough, in calling his book “The House Always Wins,” the reader would be forgiven for thinking that maybe McGuinness is anti-establishment or something. You’d think that maybe he wants to tear down the house.

The fact that McGuinness remains very firmly ensconced in Fianna Fáil despite have roasted the Government on several occasions would indicate that our hero is happy as a tick with the way things are, actually. He likes to blow off a little every now and again, like some great whale somewhere between Greenland and Tarwathie.

In rock and roll terms, John McGuinness is very much like the former American president: he smokes, but he does not, under any circumstances, inhale.

McGuinness’ credibility as providing an alternative is lessened also by the first photograph in his book which is, unless I’m mistaken, a picture of his dear old Da and his dear old Da before him, both dressed in chains. Not because they were on the prison ship to Van Diemen’s Land now; it’s that they were both politicians before John himself, and thus got to dress up like Knights of the Garter. After all, what has been more important throughout the history of the Republic than royal blood? McGuinness is an unusual revolutionary if he’s leading the charge from inside the castle, aiming out.

Poor Dessie O’Malley was on Marian Finucane’s radio show a few Sundays ago, talking about how difficult it is to set up a new political party now. But at least Dessie tried. We have to say that much for him.

As for the guitar-picker: there’s an interesting quote from the manager of The Grateful Dead, Rock Scully, in Nick Kent’s recently published autobiography Apathy for the Devil, about the Stones, the ‘sixties and peace and love: “Woodstock and Altamount are seen as polar opposites in a mass-media generated parable of light and darkness, but they were just two ends of the same mucky stick, the net result of the same disease: the bloating of mass bohemia in the late ‘sixties.”

Not only did Joan Didion say more or less the same thing, but she called it at the time in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The sooner history swallows Keith Richards and his hopelessly narcissistic and utterly hypocritical generation the better. They’ll be no loss.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tosca at the Gaiety

Tosca is one of the most popular operas in the repertoire, yet it’s appeal isn’t immediately obvious. Tosca isn’t charming like La Bohème or heartbreaking like La Traviata; you don’t hear the faintest echo of the voice of God like you do when listening to Mozart, nor do you come away from Tosca trilling the tunes like you do from Carmen.

Luciano Pavarotti chose Tosca as his last ever opera (at the Met in New York in 2004) even though the tenor role, Carvaradossi, is a bit on the watery side. Floria Tosca herself isn’t the most appealing heroine in the repertoire either, yet all the greats have sung her.

Everyone comes back to Tosca for two reasons. The first is the quality of the drama which, after a slow-burning start, is as tight as any operatic drama can be. And the second is Baron Scarpia, the villain of the piece, who is the greatest original villain in opera.

Avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma,” Tosca says of Scarpia at the end of the second act; before him, all Rome trembled. Scarpia is the chief of police in Rome at the start of the 19th century. What Scarpia wants, Scarpia gets, and he’s not too fussy how he gets it. And what he wants tonight is Tosca herself. He’s a bit of a buck that way, Scarpia.

The opening chords of the opera, are Scarpia’s theme, a motif that’s repeated throughout the piece. Scarpia dominates the opera just as Tosca says he dominates Rome and the story of the opera is how his uniquely evil shadow falls on the lovers, the painter and revolutionary Mario Carvaradossi and the opera singer Floria Tosca.

The first act is frustratingly complicated, but the drama really begins when Scarpia makes his sudden entrance half-way through, announced by his theme. This is the moment when you know if the opera will be a success; the singer playing Scarpia must carry the role or else the whole show falls apart.

You quickly find out if he can as, after a few minutes to con the flighty Tosca into thinking that Cavaradossi is cheating on her, Scarpia gets to sing his great set piece, Va, Tosca, against the Te Deum that the church choir sings to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon as first act finale.

There are other great arias in Tosca – Tosca’s own Vissi D’Arte, Cavaradossi’s E Lucevan Le Stelle – but nothing matches the Te Deum. The music builds up as Scarpia’s lust for Tosca contrasts with the religious music of the Te Deum itself until Scarpia becomes aware of his own damnation – because religion and faith, good and evil are strong themes of the opera – at the climax of the piece when he sings “Tosca, you make me forget God!” A fantastic exposition of what makes opera great as an art form, and worth the price of admission alone.

For those going to see Opera Ireland’s Tosca, the final production before the establishment of the new Irish National Opera, here’s a treat to whet the appetite. It’s the brilliantly bug-eyed Ruggero Raimondi singing the Te Deum in a TV Tosca from 1992 that was sung live in real time from the historical locations in Rome in which the opera is set – the Church of Sant’Andrea Della Valle, the Palazzo Farnese and the Castel Sant’Angelo. Staggering.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Morgan Kelly, Fiscal Autonomy and the Kindness of Strangers

Morgan Kelly is not like the other members of the Irish economic commentariat. The officer class of the bean-counters – David McWilliams, Jim Power, Brendan Keenan, Brian Lucey – are on TV or radio so often you could imagine they were all somehow related to Ryan Tubridy. There’s no escaping them.

Kelly ploughs a different furrow. He is never on TV or radio, and is not available for press interviews. His only contributions are more or less bi-annual philippics in the Irish Times on the economic issues of the day, philippics that foretell the end of days just around the corner, where there will weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Stylewise, Kelly is a combination of the Biblical prophet Jeremiah (“Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Turn back to the Lord your God!”) and Corporal Fraser of Dad’s Army (“Doomed. We’re all doomed.”)

And Kelly may well be right. He has certainly hit a nerve with people who email links to Professor Kelly’s works when they come out and then spend the rest of the evening idly wondering where a man might get a good price on a rope and a bottle of brandy.

Professor Kelly also taps into a powerful vein of self-loathing and lack of confidence in the nation when he reflects how things have come to this: “Europeans had to endure a decade of Irish politicians strutting around and telling them how they needed to emulate our crony capitalism if they wanted to be as rich as we are.” We can all feel the lash there.

However. An Spailpín can’t help but wonder if Morgan Kelly’s current guru status has more to do with style than substance. Your humble correspondent wouldn’t like to try taking on Professor Kelly on the substance of the matter as An Spailpín has no financial training whatsoever. But on style issues there was one thing I noticed about Professor Kelly’s piece yesterday that gave me pause to wonder if that was brimstone I could smell or just more hot air.

Professor Kelly remarks that “During September, the Irish Republic quietly ceased to exist as an autonomous fiscal entity, and became a ward of the European Central Bank.” What does that mean exactly, “an autonomous fiscal entity”?

An Spailpín’s guess is that “an autonomous fiscal entity” is a state that can control its own money free of the influence of other states. And this has only ever been the case for three of the 89 years of the state’s existence.

The Free State punt was introduced in 1928, seven years after “independence” but as a currency it was directly linked to sterling. One English pound was one Irish pound. The only difference was the picture on the banknotes. Irish banknotes were printed in England, and the coins made by Her Britannic Majesty’s Royal Mint, until 1978.

In financial terms, Ireland didn’t even have dominion status as a currency. Perhaps this explains why Ireland wasn’t able to take advantage of our neutrality in the war – because the currency was bound hand and foot to the British war effort. We were only, in those most evocative of Irish phrases, kinda independent. Sorta free.

The punt lasted for three years among the currencies of the Earth, by which stage we joined the EMU and hung on for dear life while the value of the punt fluctuated like a citizen’s heart rate on reading another of Professor Kelly’s articles.

If I am doing the Professor a disservice maybe someone could email me but in claiming that Ireland ever was an “autonomous fiscal entity” it seems to me that Morgan Kelly is having a little bit of jam on it. It is not today or yesterday that Ireland has become reliant on “the kindness of strangers.” This has been the state of play since the foundation of the state.

When Brian Lenihan introduced his emergency budget last year, Richie Ryan, was interviewed on This Week on Radio One. Ryan, who served as Minister for Finance under Liam Cosgrave from 1973 to 1977, said that when he was appointed he got a letter from one of his predecessors who said that he would pray for Ryan and “the cross you bear for Ireland.”

That’s the reality of Ireland’s fiscal autonomy. The Tiger was the chimera; the hard life is the reality over the history of the state. Ireland is a very small country with no natural resources and a huge reliance on foreign direct investment to keep the show on the road. We are in no position to pull faces about the kindness of strangers. If strangers are running our economy maybe that’s a good thing. We’ve certainly made a bags of running it ourselves.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Is TV Really Better Than the Movies?

Is TV really better than the movies? The debate is in the ether. An Spailpín was discussing the issue only a fortnight ago with a man acclaimed by many as the Pride of the Ross, and now I see the matter mentioned in passing in the Telegraph and in Edward Jay Epstein’s Hollywood Economist blog.

The Telegraph and the Hollywood Economist concentrate on the parlous state of the movie industry, and do a fine job of it. An Spailpín recommend’s Tom Shone’s Blockbuster of some years ago for further study. But this notion that TV is better than the movies is one that concerns us more so than the future of Hollywood.

That the movies are particularly bad at the moment is more or less beyond dispute. With the exception of shooting stars like The Hangover the output of the industry is generally dreck. But is TV really that good either?

The rise of cable TV in the States is the reason behind the rise in the status of TV drama. Shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Sex in the City on cable in the past ten years have elevated TV drama to a more adult and serious plane, while the rise of the cheap DVD boxset and Sky plus means that TV watching isn’t as time-constrained as it once was. You can consume TV on your own terms, in your own time.

However, An Spailpín can’t help but think that TV as an art-form is denied the most important thing that an art-form needs: permanence. Because TV shows are so very long through their runs, who is going to be able to sit through all of a particular series that didn’t catch it first time out?

Most people of this generation love The Sopranos. In ten years’ time, who is going to want to sit down and watch a six-series, 28 disc box set in the hope that it will be worth his or her considerable time?

You can call a friend, tell him or her you’ve just seen this great movie from the 1970s called The Godfather and recommend it highly. Within a week your friend can have called around, borrowed the DVD or downloaded it him or herself, and report back. Your discussion of your shared aesthetic experience can enrich both your lives.

But if he or she has never seen any of The Sopranos and you make your recommendation this week, he or she won’t be able to report back until the Six Nations rugby starts, unless he or she has a most remarkably dull Christmas and might then make the finishing line before the end of the FBD League.

And even then, the experience of an intense exposure to those 28 discs isn’t the same as the slow exposure that our generation has had to the Sopranos, when it wove itself into our consciousness over ten years. It’s the difference between letting the pint settle or draining it white.

And as every year since the Sopranos was in its heyday goes by, the references to Tony Soprano will become more and more obscure and will become meaningless, like those to Poldark or The Onedin Line.

Poldark or the Onedin Line? They were big deals in the 1970s, along with I, Claudius, Rich Man, Poor Man and Washington: Behind Closed Doors. All of them thought revolutionary, must-see, appointment TV in their day. But who bothers sitting through 20 discs of the Onedin Line now? What would be the point? That was then, this is now.

Fathers can watch Shane with their sons and share an artistic experience. Mothers can watch Gone with the Wind with their daughters, and everybody can watch It’s a Wonderful Life. You can’t do that with TV series. It takes too long.

The Sex and the City TV show was the most revolutionary cultural experience for fifty per cent of the population of the west. But will the woman to whom that show spoke be able to share that with their daughters when they’re old enough to understand?

It’s difficult to see how. The DVDs will be kept at the back of a press somewhere, only taken out in punishment towards delinquent gentlemen of the house who do not leave out bins, do not put down toilet seats or talk during the X-Factor. Time’s fell hand will have obliterated the rest.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Who Cares if the French Are Rioting?

Prime Time had a piece last night on the current French riots. The underlying assumption of the piece was that the French are correct to riot, and it reflects badly on the Irish that we do not riot likewise.

An Spailpín Fánach would like to question both of those assumptions.

For starters, if the retirement age were set to sixty-two here, as Sarkozy is attempting to do in France, this would reduce our retirement age by four years from the current retirement age and six from the recently projected retirement age of sixty-eight. That’s not a cause for a riot; that’s a cause for celebration, with as much Complan and soft cakes as the serried ranks of the celebrants can swallow.

The French do protest too much. A tremendous romanticism attaches to the Paris riots of the ‘sixties for the ‘sixties generation, but for persons of a more recent vintage it’s very hard to see what all the fuss was about, other than shaping and acting the maggot. What did the Parisian rioters of 1968 achieve?

The sans-culottes of the 1790s Revolution brought about a new world order, for a time, of which Wordsworth memorably wrote “bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very Heaven.” The French of the 1960s made a hero out of Jerry Lewis, and that was pretty much it.

If the great Irish nation did take to the streets, loaded up with petrol bombs and placards, what would their demands be, exactly? The money is now gone. It’s not coming back. The only thing to riot about is where the axe falls.

Shuffling through the McCarthy report and comparing cuts in Health with cuts in Education is what’s Irish politics is about for the next number of years, and none of that sounds very inspiring when shouted down a megaphone.

A quango cull would be a good thing, anyway. An Spailpín will happily knit at the foot of the guillotine when certain public bodies are loaded up into the tumbrils. The persons with real grievances are those who were broken on the rack of the property market just as their forefathers were broken by the rackrenters of the 19th century.

People like an electrician married to a nurse who bought a semi-detatched house in the Dublin commuter belt on a half-finished estate on a 100+% mortgage. My heart bleeds for them. Who represents them in the Dáil? If they were third generation drug fiends the state agencies queue up to say musha, musha, peteen, peteen, without actually ever getting them off junk or making a contribution to society.

Theirs isn’t a chic despair, a ragged dishevelment, a la Claire X’s Dole Diary in the Irish Times. They’re just people. People who lie awake at night wondering if his job will be there in the morning. If there’ll be anything left in her pay packet after the next careful slicing to not upset any entrenched union deals. If they’ll ever be able to get out of their ghastly estate, which everybody – everybody – said was only the first step on the ladder. It’s a short bloody ladder now.

That electrician and that nurse would like to riot. But they know that it’s do no good. The milk has already been spilt and neither petrol-bomb nor placard is putting it back in the bottle. Besides; how would they get the time off work?

An Spailpín dreams of an Irish politics that would look out for people like that electrician and that nurse – ordinary people who get up and go to work and do the best they can to improve their lot and the lot of their kids. What I get is sleevenism and a lot of old merde on the telly about rioting in France. God help us all.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Have Ye No Pomes to Go To? The Return of Soundings

The republishing of Soundings, the Leaving Cert poetry anthology that was discontinued at the end of the last century, tells us many things about our current culture. Not all of them are good, but there is a definite light of hope.

The general welcome that the re-publication has received has been fuelled more than somewhat by nostalgia. The already-doodled cover is redolent of schoolroom ennui, and the new introduction by Joe O’Connor assures us that it’s socially acceptable to be seen with the book. The O’Connor imprimatur means there is no need to sandwich your copy shamefully between volumes of Pynchion and Vargos Llosa when approaching the till in Hodges Figgis.

However. The fact remains that Soundings is a schoolbook, and bears all the fell taint of that. Every poem is accompanied by questions to increase understanding of the work, but reading those questions again is too redolent of wet winter evenings, copybooks, pencil cases, Barry Lang’s Hotline on 2FM and general misery.

“Would you agree that the poem has some striking combinations of sound, vision and sense?” Yes, yes, yes, I’ll sign anything you want – just get me away from this damned desk and somewhere within a hundred mile radius of Belinda Carlisle.

The fact that Gill and Macmillan saw fit to mail freebie copies of the book to many media outlets and left out everybody’s favourite Irish blogger does little to endear it also. Bastards.

Those cavils aside, the republishing of Soundings, the initial demand that made its republishing worthwhile in the first place, and the general warmth with which a secondary school textbook has been welcomed tells us something that’s been lost in recent years. That there is such a thing as a poetry, and there is such a thing as the Western Canon. And if there wasn’t, there ought to be.

People like pomes. They don’t always know what they are, because the goalposts shift from day to day. People are told Séamus Heaney is a great poet, but are at a loss to recite any of his poems. You could recite a line, certainly, but you could recite a line from the Simpsons too and that doesn’t make Homer ... er, never mind.

Soundings means certainty. Soundings was written before the Marxist critiques of the Western Canon and the general scorn of a Dead While Male establishment had taken hold. The Canon is based on the idea that, as Gus Martin puts it in his original introduction, there are such things as great poems written by great poets.

That a baton has been passed down the ages from Chaucer to Shakespeare and Johnson, Donne and Marvell, Pope and Dryden, Shelley and Keats, Tennyson and Hopkins, Eliot, Yeats and Dylan Thomas. That there is a shared culture that allows one generation to connect to the generation that preceded it and to pass something on to the generation that follows.

Because it’s so very difficult to define what poetry is, perhaps An Spailpín can suggest taking a leaf out of the American academic and critic and say that poetry is that which is fun to recite out loud? When he wrote How to Read and Why, Bloom remarked in passing that he had to declaim verse in private, on deserted beaches or in empty fields, lest the PC police that roamed US university campuses at that time caught him and send him to the gulag.

But those days are old now and poetry declaimers may safely return to the light, holding their pints close to their hearts as they tell of country pleasures, travellers from antique lands, the ten years’ war in Troy, the Sunday in every week, and all those other dead loves that were born for me.

Soundings is not a complete collection, of course, but no collection can ever be. A thousand year tradition is lot to cram into one book. But as a statement of value and worth and a jumping off point for lifetime's delight, Soundings is sheer solid gold. Hurrah for its return.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

So. Farewell Then, Moss Keane

Moss Keane, second row forward for Lansdowne, Munster, Ireland and the Lions, was claimed by cancer at the ridiculous age of sixty-two yesterday. Des Fitzgerald, the former Irish tight head prop forward now famous as Luke Fitzgerald’s Da, said on the TV news yesterday that Moss Keane brought rugby to the masses in Ireland. Fitzgerald was correct.

When the nation saw Moss Keane in the emerald green jersey of Ireland, we saw someone who was recognisably ourselves. Rugby has always been an elitist game in Ireland, something the IRFU seem quite content to maintain, but there’s something in the fundamental nature of the game, the hard smashing intensity of the thing, that chimes with the Irish spirit, even outside of the rugby heartland of the country.

Rugby’s heartland exists in very small pockets in Ireland. That heartland is bigger now because of the Golden Generation but even though the heartland has always been small the fanbase for the national side is many times bigger. That’s because of the fundamental appeal of the game to Irish spirit, and the fact the nation has spent so many years welcoming the spring by watching the national rugby team playing regularly in the Five Nations Championship on Sports Stadium on RTÉ 1 with your host, Brendan O’Reilly.

The nation outside the pale respected great players like Phil Orr or Michael Kiernan, or the great Ulstermen who didn’t need to hear Ireland’s Call wafting on the breeze to come to Dublin and wear the green for an all-Ireland team, but we knew little of them beyond the national cause. But when the Irish nation looked at Willie Duggan, at Ciarán Fitzgerald or at Moss Keane, we saw ourselves, and liked what we saw.

Rugby was an infinitely simpler game in the amateur era. There was no lifting in the lineout, there were proper scrums and games were won because heroes seized the day and not because assignments were missed and gameplans incorrectly executed.

The international games of the amateur era, with its combination of ritualistic pomp and battle done between dentists and dustmen, farmers and financiers, was a combination of medieval pageant and a nineteenth century faction fight. And for Ireland in the 1970s and 80s, the man in the van with either lance or shillelagh as appropriate was Maurice Ignatius Keane.

Was Moss Keane the greatest player of his generation? Probably not, but the fact he was never dropped in a nine year career from 1975 to 1984 should say something about the man’s ability as a player, behind the image of the hard pinting and messing.

But more than that, Moss Keane’s larger than life personality gave the nation outside of the private schools of Cork and Dublin, the dreary steeples of the North and extraordinary independent republic of rugby that is Limerick, a reason to love the team and celebrate their deeds.

There wasn’t a lot going on Ireland in the 1980s. Johnny Logan winning the Eurovision in 1981 with What’s Another Year was enough to get a half-day off school. The Triple Crown wins of the Ciarán Fitzgerald era were a precursor to the great deeds of the soccer team under Jack Charlton. And there in the middle of it in 1982 was the man with the funny name and the country accent, busting fellas and laying them out. One of our own.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh anam cróga uasal Moss Keane, agus go raibh sé ina sheasamh ard arís i síntí amach ar ghoirt ghlasa na Flaithis.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Doing the Sums - Did the Tallaght Strategy Really Cost Fine Gael Votes?

Someone who really can do the sumsEnda Kenny is quoted in Saturday’s Irish Times as saying that he is not in favour of a second Tallaght strategy – Alan Dukes’ decision to support the Charlie Haughey minority government of 1987 in its policy of fiscal rectitude – because Fine Gael “suffered at the polls as a consequence” of the first Tallaght strategy.

But is that true? Fine Gael had 50 seats on 27.1% of the vote after the 1987 election. In the 1989 election, Fine Gael won 55 seats on 29.3% of the vote.

So the electorate rewarded Fine Gael in the immediate aftermath of the Tallaght Strategy. The popular vote increased by 2.2% and the Fine Gael seat total increased by five. That’s a positive result.

Fine Gael got hammered in the next election after, 1992, when it lost ten seats and dropped to 24.5% of the popular vote, but they can’t really blame that on the Tallaght Strategy. Fine Gael threw Alan Dukes overboard after they lost the 1990 Presidential election to Mary Robinson and ditched his Tallaght Strategy along with him. John Bruton, Richard’s brother, was in charge by 1992.

Fine Gael got rid of a leader who gained them seats and votes in the 1989 general election for one who lost them seats and votes in the 1992 general election. That is Fine Gael’s Tallaght Strategy legacy. They didn’t know a good thing when they had it.

This is not the only time in this generation that Fine Gael have been unable to interpret their own electoral numbers. If anything, 2002 was the greater psephological disaster.

Michael Noonan endured eight years of odium for the 2002 election result until his recent rehabilitation in the party – and that only came about by accident too - but that interpretation has always been unfair on Noonan. The party’s percentage of the popular vote dropped to 22.5% under Noonan in 2002 but the fall of 5.4 percentage points from their 1997 total resulted in an utterly disproportionate loss of seats.

While Fine Gael only lost ten seats on a 4.8 percentage point drop in support in 1992, the year of the Spring tide, they lost 31, more than three times as many, for a 5.8 percentage point drop in 2002, even though there’s only one percentage point in the difference.

There is a reason for this. The Irish electoral system is unfair. It not nearly as proportional as it claims.

The multi-seat nature of the constituencies means that a small tremor in the popular vote can result in an earthquake when it works its way through the local rivalries and the cute-as-you-like vote sharing and constituency dividing that the nation considers so vital to our national politics.

The corollary of 2002 happened in 2007, when Enda Kenny’s increase of only 4.8 percentage points of the popular vote, from 22.5% to 27.3%, saw Fine Gael increase its seat total by 20, from 31 to 51, an increase in seats gained that was out of proportion to the increase in votes won.

The result of 2007 was just as disproportionate in terms of popular vote versus seats as 2002 had been, but Fine Gael chose to ignore it because it worked their way in 2007. They are paying the consequences of that decision now, as bumbling conspirators again dream of a bloodless decapitation.

But the greater error was Fine Gael’s jettisoning of the Tallaght Strategy twenty years ago. Because they did not suffer from the adoption of the Tallaght Strategy in the first place, Fine Gael gained no advantage in dumping it.

Had they continued, Fine Gael would now be able to claim twenty years of a high moral ground when the standing of politicians has never been lower. And they could have, because the evidence is there as outlined above.

For the main opposition party to be so very poor at doing their own sums or exercising self-knowledge does not bode well for the nation at a time of deep and dark crisis.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lyons T for Trouble? Mayo's D-Day is Here

The reaction in Mayo to what is expected to be a rubber-stamping of Tommy Lyons’ appointment tonight as the new Mayo senior team manager by the Mayo County Board has been varied.

Storming the Bastille
On the one hand, there are those who wish to storm An Sportlann, headquarters of the Mayo County Board, just as French stormed the Bastille in the name of liberty, before they made their way to Killala to spread the same gospel of freedom here.

And on the other hand, there are those who just want the pain to stop, like that clapped-out boxer on the telly who yearns for the old one-two that one only gets from Uniflu™. Think of the prisoners on the Moorish ships in Chesterton’s Lepanto, who find their God forgotten and seek no more a sign. You get the idea.

There are very few who welcome Tommy Lyons’ appointment and the one emotion that the Bastille-stormers, busted boxers and prisoners-broken-by-years-of-adversity share is a deep and dark dread towards what the future may hold under a Lyons stewardship.

It’s not about Tommy Lyons personally, although it can’t be said he helps. Mouthy metropolitans are seldom welcome back the heathery mountain. The big problem that people in Mayo have with a potential Lyons appointment is the way the appointment was made.

Heartbreak and Bitterness
After the heartbreak and bitterness of John O’Mahony’s Second Coming the Mayo Board was in humour to salve wounds. They promised a process through which a new man would be appointed, divisions healed, new processes set in place and the Good Ship Mayo pointed to a brave new tomorrow.

Everyone who got involved in that process now seems to have been sold a pup, as horse-trading went on behind the scenes. The result is Tommy Lyons. The stories about the nature of that horse-trading vary, but the bottom line is that there are very real fears that the Lyons appointment will happen for reasons other than what is best for the county team.

Liam Horan has been put in charge of a Strategic Review Committee but Horan’s first job as chairman of that committee will be to explain how exactly it’s the case that Tommy Lyons has a better chance of having a Mayo team still playing football in September than James Horan, Denis Kearney, Anthony McGarry or John Maughan. Or Mick O’Dwyer, if it comes to that. Because it’s not at all easy to see right now.

A lot of this has to do with the responsibility of the County Board. What is their duty? Is it towards the clubs, the debt on McHale Park, or have they also a duty to field the best team they can in the senior inter-county football championship?

There is no doubt – except, perhaps, in the addled minds of the GPA – that if there were no clubs there would be no GAA. But the county team cannot be treated in so cavalier a fashion as to appoint a manager for reasons other than his being the best man for the job.

In Memory of Our Fathers
People live and die by their county teams. This is true for all counties, of course, but – and An Spailpín must confess a certain bias here – it seems especially so in Mayo where the people are so defined by what the football team does. The very notion of the team, of a Mayo style, of the unique colours, has a resonance for people that transcends a game or an organisation. The notion that there is a Mayo team out there, playing football, is a part of people’s souls. It helps people understand who they are.

For instance: a great and good friend of the blog was at the 2004 final, and he got talking to the man next to him. The guy next to was from Limerick, but he had hunted down a ticket and come up anyway, because of his father.

His father was a Mayoman and had died earlier that year. The son was making a vigil to Croke Park to do honour to his father’s memory, to see a Mayo victory that was no longer possible for his father but that would have meant so much to him had he lived. The Mayo GAA scene meant nothing to this Treatyman, but the very idea of Mayo was vivid and clear in his head.

He went home disappointed, as did we all. But that man, whoever he is and where-ever he is now, deserves better than this. He did honour by his late father’s memory, and he deserves better. The poor deluded fools who travel on Sundays for FBD League games and National League games as well as the glamorous Championship games of high summer deserves better than this.

The gobdaws and buck eejits and helpless innocents who daydream at least once a week about what it will be like when Sam returns to Mayo deserve better than this. The ludramans and the mentally unbalanced who compose greatest-ever Mayo teams drawn from men who never played senior club football in their heads to pass the time deserve better than this. Or else it’s time for us all to wonder just why we invest so much emotional energy to just get smacked around by an ungrateful lover. Again.

The Eleventh Hour
James Horan - the Flying Kiwi from BallintubberToday the eleventh hour, but it’s still not too late. The Board can still turn away from the Lyons candidacy and appoint James Horan, one of the stars of the first John Maughan team of the mid-nineties and the current manager of Ballintubber, now contesting a county final for the first time in their long and proud history. Horan has galvanised the anti-Lyons feeling and become the people’s choice. It’s up the Board tonight to do the right thing. God be with them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Vote Bono. Because He Likes Money Too.

There may be a point to Bono. The man may be finally fit for purpose. Bono’s attitude to money is exactly in synch with the spirit of the nation, and we can all come out together in our fecklessness and greed by acclaiming the U2 frontman as Ireland’s Greatest in the TV gameshow of the same name. He is who we are.

At first glance, John Hume would seem the obvious candidate to win from the five nominees (James Connolly, Michael Collins and Mary Robinson (Mary Robinson!) being the three others). Hume’s inclusion among so motley a crew is rather like seeing Mr Lionel Messi on the first eleven of the Dog and Duck in the Sunday League, or Ms Nigella Lawson, pre-Raphaelite tresses confined to a hairnet, heaving bricks of lasagne onto the expectant plates of the masses in the Kylemore Cafe, all the while smiling and saying “Mmm, scrumptious!”

But John Hume doesn’t need some penny-ante TV show to tell him he did his country some service. John Hume doesn’t need to try out. Best then to use the show to come to terms with the real two faces of the nation, and who better to do that than The Fly himself?

Money has always been closer to Irish hearts than either rock or, indeed, roll and Bono’s hare and hounds attitude to lucre is perfectly in synch with the genius of the Irish nation. The music doesn’t matter – as a friend of mine delights in pointing out, the real star of U2 is David “The Edge” Evans, because he has to not only play his own guitar part but he must cover for the hopelessly incompetent bass-playing of Adam Clayton as well. Busy man.

Bono’s attitude to money, like everyone else’s in Ireland, depends on whether the money is his own, or whether it is someone else’s.

When the loot in question is someone else’s, the coin gushes hither, thither and yon, with no-one stressing very much about where it goes or what it does. Consider the story in the New York Post and last week about one of the many charitable causes to which Bono is devoted. Bono’s ONE Campaign, based in Washington, DC took in $14,993,873 in donations in 2008. From that fifteen mil, it gave $184,732 in donations.

That’s 1.2% percent of the loot, for those who are scoring at home.

The ONE Campaign has responded by saying that they are an advocacy group, rather than a wealth redistribution group. What, then, happened to the other $14,809,141? Well, eight million went in salaries. The other six million clams must got have got redistributed somewhere else.

When the money is Bono’s own, however, we discover a horse of a different colour. Edun, the for-profit ethical charity fashion house run by Mr and Mrs Bono has a mission statement to raise awareness of the fashion possibility of Africa, but the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that 85% of Edun’s 2010 fashion lines were made from materials from either China or Peru. And as soon as the taxman started eying the artists’ tax exemption here U2 famously decamped to the Netherlands, the better to hang onto their guilders.

Bono spends other people’s money like a sailor on shore leave but hangs onto his own just a badger will hang onto a wellington once his teeth have sunk home. One life, but we’re not the same, as it were. Who else so exquisitely sums up the State as we’ve been running it?

Vote Bono. You know there's no alternative.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Na Gaeilgeoirí ina dTost

An bhfuil deighlt mór ann idir lucht labhartha na Gaeilge agus an lucht atá Gaeilge acu? Tá Gaeilge ag i bhfad níos mó daoine faoi láthair ná mar a bhíodh agus an Spailpín ina bhuachaill scoile. Tá an pobal níos múinte ná mar a bhíodh, táid níos bródúla as ucht na Gaeilge ná mar a bhíodh, tá mean cumarsáide nua-aimsíoch againne chun tacu leis an nGaeilge.

Cén fáth, mar sin, nach labraíonn níos mó daoine an Ghaeilge? Cén fáth nach bhfuil dúil Gaeilge níos laidre ann, maidir le nuachtáin, le leabhair, nó le cláracha teilifíse? Craoltar rugbaí as Gaeilge arís ar TG4 le déanaí - an bhfuil éinne sásta le seo amach ón Spailpín? An bhfuil an lucht rugbaí bródúil as, nó an bhfuil geanc arís orthu nach bhfúil na cluichí ar Sky Sports?

Bhuail na ceisteanna seo arís orm agus mise ag smaoineamh ar an méid páistí a gcuirfear chun Gaelscoileanna in ionad gnáthscoileanna an Mean Fómhair seo, mar a gcuireadh níos mó agus níos mó acu leis na blianta le déanaí.

Tuigimid go léir cúrsaí an tsaoil, agus tá fios maith ag an saol nach gcuirtear an chuid is mó páistí Ghaelscoileanna chun an nGaelscoil ar son na Gaeilge, ach mar bíonn an tuairim amach go bhfuil oideachais níos fearr le fáil i nGaelscoil ná mar atá i ngnáthscoil.

Ach cé nach bhfuil meas ag gach tuismitheoir ar an nGaeilge ar dtús, beidh Gaeilge ag an leanbh má leanann sé nó sí leis an nGaelscoil go dtí an Ardteist. Ní fhéadair ealú uaithi tar éis na blianta fada. Agus má tá an méid daoine seo ann agus Gaeilge chomh mór sin acu, cén fáth nach labhraíonn siad as Gaeilge? Cén fáth nach glcoistear 'sna tithe tábhairne é, nó 'sna sráideanna, nó ag cluiche nó in áit ar bith?

Bíonn drogall ar daoine nár tógadh le Gaeilge Gaeilge a labhairt mar is cuimhin leo go breá soiléir an náire nuair a rinneadh amadáin uathu sa scoil. Ach tá na leanaí na Gaelscoileanna ag labhairt gach lá sa scoil le ceathar bhliana dhéag. Cén fáth nach labhraíonn siad lena cheile as Gaeilge agus iadsan ina ndaoine fásta?

Bhíosa ag caint le cara agamsa le déanaí maidir leis an mbrú atá ar thuismitheoirí anois chun a leanaí a chur chun Gaelscoil. Tá na Gaelscoileanna éirithe chomh láidir sin sa tsaol. An é an scéal in Éirinn inniu ná go bhfuil an pobal Gaeilge is láidre ón ndrochsaoil ann in Éirinn faoi láthair, ach go bhfanann siad ina dtost? Cén fáth nach bhfuil tionchar níos mó ag an nGaeilge orthu? An bhfuilid ar an dtuairim go mbaineann an Ghaeilge le cúrsaí na scoile amháin, agus nach bhfuil sí tuilte le cúrsaí an domhain mhór?

Nó an bhfuil drochmeas na dtuismitheoirí níos tábhachtaí ná mar a shílfeá? An bhfuil a fios maith ag na leanaí nach mbaineann leis na Gaeilge ach bréagaíocht, cleas a h-imirt ar an lucht ísle atá amach ó geataí na nGaelscoileanna? Is cús buartha é más fíor é. Tar éis na blianta fada ag seasamh ar a son, ba chóir nár labhróidh focal Gaeilge riamh in Éirinn arís mura bhfuil ann ach claí chun na compordaigh a choinneáil níos compordaí arís.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Cork Ascend into Glory

Story of the game - O'Leary shuts down ClarkeCork 0-16
Down 0-15

After so many years of bitter disappointment, Cork ascended into glory when they won their seventh All-Ireland football title with a win over gallant Down in a wet Croke Park yesterday.

Down travelled under the weight of expectation drawn from the five teams before them who had never lost an All-Ireland final. Cork’s weight of expectation was even higher; had they fallen on Sunday, how could this generation have ever risen again?

For the first half-hour of the 2010 All-Ireland final it looked as though the day could only end in more rebel tears. Erratic shooting into the Hill saw Cork squander their early advantage in possession, while the Down forwards foraged for scraps and made the most of whatever came their way.

And then, the five minutes that changed the game as Cork laced over three quick points before the whistle to cut Down’s lead to three by half-time, 0-8 to 0-5. After struggling so hard to score in the first half it was like had Cork clicked into that higher gear that they’ve found so hard to find since losing to Kerry last year.

For Down, the writing was appearing on the wall, and it didn’t spell good news. They hadn’t made the most of their dominance, and Cork looked like they had found their form after a year’s search from Malin Head all the way back to their own Bantry Bay.

In the second half, the sands finally trickled out for Down. Martin Clarke, Down’s master of puppets, became less and less influential as the game wore on, shepherded by Cork’s imperious and talismanic Noel O’Leary.

The program tells us that O’Leary is a tree surgeon by profession – An Spailpín likes to think that O’Leary eschews the chainsaw to pull oak and cedar up by the roots with his bare, and think nothing of it. Yesterday, O’Leary took his instruction from the Book of Ruth, deciding that wither Martin Clarke goeth, Noel O’Leary doth also go.

But O’Leary was just one part, if a very important part, of what was the ultimate team triumph. This was the fundamental difference in the teams – Down could not live with Cork in terms of depth of talent. Look at the players who rose from the Cork bench – Graham Canty. Nicolas Murphy. Derek Kavanagh. Veterans of many campaigns, who were not going to let another summer end in disappointment.

It is to Down’s eternal credit that they still hung on as the waves of Cork pressure battered them, and a case could be made that Down were unlucky not to snatch a draw at the death. But for Cork to be denied would have been unjust and they well deserve their seventh All-Ireland football title.

FOCAL SCOIR: Croke Park is really going to have to look at its interval entertainment. Drumming is not music. Thirty seconds is bearable, in its context; Twenty minutes is criminal.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hoarse Sense - The Taoiseach Has a Duty to Engage with the Nation

The controversy over Brian Cowen’s interview on Morning Ireland yesterday is about judgement, not drink. The nation is sufficiently steeped in booze to know the difference between a hangover and a headcold.

Drink isn’t the issue. At the height of the Celtic Tiger, the nation was at its ease on Saturday nights knowing that our Teflon Taoiseach was swallowing well earned pints of Bass in Fagan’s of Drumcondra as quickly as the barmen could pull them.

Fifty years before, Pat Lindsay famously realised that the first inter-party Government was out of touch with the people when he discovered that James Dillon had never been in a pub other than his own and John A Costello had only been in a pub once, and hated it. This distance from pub culture put that first inter-party government seriously at odds with the nation. Paddy likes a pint.

Nobody in Ireland is going to hang Brian Cowen because he likes a pint, a smoke and a song. But what is going to cost him his position and, potentially, his legacy is what is either his inability or his refusal to engage properly with the nation who will sit in judgement on him very shortly indeed. Yesterday’s interview on Morning Ireland was another example of a golden chance to address the people that was not only wasted, but a self-inflicted wound.

Brian Cowen seems to hold the media in contempt on the odd occasion he thinks about them at all. He may very well be correct in his assessment. The problem is that Brian Cowen is not currently in a position where he can decide whether or not he likes the media. He stuck with them. He can’t do without them.

As Taoiseach, Brian Cowen has a duty to engage with the nation he leads and it’s only through the media that he can do that. For the leader of any democratic Government to despise the media to extent of only ever dealing with it at arm’s length is like a farmer despising cows. He can’t do it and be a farmer anymore.

Brian Cowen does very few media appearances and when he does do them he insists of speaking in nonsense jargon – the modalities of the situation moving forward in their totality, and so on and on and on. And this isn’t good enough.

The country is mired in recession, and people don’t know what’s going on. They’re frightened and confused by what they’re reading and the more they read, the more frightened and confused they get.

This is a quote from an Irish Times story last week about Irish bond yields: "The spread between the benchmark 10-year bond and the German bund was 372 basis points this afternoon, while the yield earlier rose sharply, by over 30 points, to a new euro lifetime high of 6.011 per cent at one stage, before falling back to 5.98 per cent at 5pm."

What does spread mean? What is a ten year bond? Why is it benchmarked? How many other bonds are there? What is a bond in the first place? What is a German bund? Is “bund” the German for “bond”? If it is, why doesn’t it have a capital letter like all German nouns? What are basis points? What is a yield?

Ten questions from one sentence. A question mark for every five words. And that is what people have been bombarded with for three years, incessantly, with no hope of respite. Who could possibly keep up?

People want to be told what’s going on in language they can understand. The nation can deal with being in a heap, if we are in a heap – eight hundred years of foreign oppression builds up a certain resistance. But there is an absolute duty on the man in charge to tell the people what’s going on. Brian Cowen is the man in charge.

Brian Cowen needs to treat with the media. He needs to tell the people he leads what’s going on in language they can understand. The best thing Brian Cowen could do this week is to return to the Late Late Show this morning and say the following:

"1. The country is in big trouble, and we’re all going to be cutting back big style for quite some time.
2. Fianna Fáil are to blame for the mess. We were in charge, we should have cooled things down and led the nation, rather than following an international herd.
3. Having broken the country Fianna Fáil are now fixing it. Ireland is still better off than it was in the past, and our position in the EU, the fact we speak English and our attractiveness towards foreign investment means that we can recover relatively quickly if we take our medicine now.
4. I don’t play golf, chess or bridge, go to the opera or put ships in bottles. I like to relax with a drink and a smoke and I don’t think I’m the only one. Not only that, but once this interview is open, I plan to go home to get to the Brewery Tap in Tullamore for a few scoops before closing. If that’s a problem you may express disapproval at the ballot box in the next election. I gotta do something to keep myself sane.
5. On the way to Tullamore I will stop off in the Park to ask the President to dissolve the 30th Dáil and call a general election for four weeks’ time. It’ll be a long campaign to give the nation time to decide as a nation if we want to be fiscally responsible, or if we want to do whatever it is the other crowd want to do, as they don’t seem to have a plan."

That’s what I’d advise Cowen to say. He’s the leader of the country. He has to show leadership. Ordinary people are very scared for their future and need to be reassured in language they can understand, rather than have jargon mumbled at them by a man who’s acting like he’s at the dentist. Their Taoiseach owes them that.

The Morning Ireland interview yesterday was an opportunity to do just that. Instead, he’s made it worse, and given ordinary people more to worry about. We didn't need that. We have enough to worry about as it is.