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.