Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Sporting Year

This year, for what must be the first time in the history of the Gaelic Athletic Association, Dublin struck a blow for the little guy.

At the start of the summer the Championship looked like it would be played between The Big Three of Cork, Kerry and Tyrone, with the other counties supplying cannon fodder when required. As Kevin Egan has often pointed out, long shot winners do not generally win All-Irelands. Your correspondent has no figures to hand, but it’s a reasonable guess that Dublin were the longest price All-Ireland winners since Armagh in 2002.

Kerry left the game behind them of course, but Dublin still had to complete their part of the bargain and pick it up. Kerry have left games behind them before, but teams have not had the wherewithal – or the Kevin McMenamins – to take advantage. Sligo come to mind in 2006, as do Limerick in 2004. Good for Dublin, who are deserving champions.

Kerry do not wash linen in public, but it would be wonderful to know how they’re analysing this loss at home. How do they view Jack O’Connor in the Kingdom?

O’Connor has won three All-Irelands but those were won against teams – Cork and Mayo – whom Kerry expect to beat as a matter of course. In a county with so many wins, those will be taken for granted.

Against teams whom Kerry do take seriously, O’Connor’s record is played three, lost three – two against Tyrone, one against Dublin. There’s huge pressure on O’Connor and his aging team to make up for this next year.

From a parochial standpoint, Mayo had a superb season. James Horan was extremely lucky not to get sucker-punched against London but other than that he didn’t put a foot wrong during either League or Championship. Mayo are looking forward to another crack at it in 2012 – county board shenanigans permitting, of course.

In hurling, Kilkenny and Tipperary served another epic All-Ireland Final with Kilkenny proving there’s life in the old cat yet. The only pity was that the hurling Championship did go according to script, and there were no counties able to keep up with the standard set by Kilkenny and Tipperary.

Galway blew up – again, Cork’s civil war continues and the revolutionaries of the ‘nineties now struggle to keep their heads above water. Anthony Daly had another superb year with Dublin but it still seems somehow easier to see Galway beating Kilkenny twice than Dublin. And it’s more or less impossible to see Galway beating Kilkenny just the once.

The Rugby World Cup is struggling as a tournament. The balance is incorrect. There are ten top-flight rugby nations in the world – the Six Nations, the Tri Nations and Argentina. The other ten are making up the numbers – and are quickly put in their place if they dare to point that out, as Samoa’s unfortunate Eliota Sapolu discovered.

This means is that there are three weeks of group games at any Rugby World Cup that whittle ten teams down to eight. That’s not very effective. It also makes for extremely stilted rugby in the knockout stages, when the terror of losing dominates. The balance between the relatively carefree group games and the all-or-nothing knockout games is wrong.

The final itself is proof positive. New Zealand is the greatest rugby nation in the world and nobody with any feeling for the game could begrudge them, but 8-7 is a scoreline from the 1950s, not the 21st Century professional era. The only thing anyone will remember from this tournament is relief for the New Zealanders, and not much else.

Ireland’s win over Australia is bittersweet, looking back. Ireland had never won a quarter-final before the tournament, and they still haven’t. Irish rugby is at an extraordinary crossroads right now. If rugby can transition from the golden generation of BOD, ROG and POC, then it suddenly becomes reasonable to assume that rugby can overtake the GAA in popularity.

On that point – the chaps on Newstalk’s Off the Ball were floating an idea back in November that, if New Zealand could host a World Cup then so could Ireland, using GAA stadia for the games. They never quite explained why the GAA would want to sign its own death warrant by facilitating the tournament though.

Maybe they’re saving it for next year. An Spailpín will be listening closely, as ever – shirts don’t iron themselves, you know, and listening to Off the Ball remains the best way of dealing with the misery. Here’s to 2012.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Happy Christmas Everybody

Another Christmas rolls around. Some of us are still here, holding our ground, some have moved on to what I hope is a better station.

In the meantime, thanks for coming to read the blog over the year, even though circumstances mean that I can't post as often as I used to or would like. I still like to hop a ball when I can, and I appreciate everyone who comes along to watch it bounce.

To celebrate the feast, here's Yo-Yo Ma and wonderful Alison Krauss performing The Wexford Carol. Go mbeirfimid go léir beo ag an am seo arís.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Michael O'Hehir and his Legacy

John Bowman’s nasty and mean-spirited attacks on Michael O’Hehir in Bowman’s new book are further proof that there is such a thing as a Dublin 4 media elite, and that it exists independently of the vast majority of opinion in the country.

Michael O’Hehir wasn’t just the most loved man in the country. He was the most trusted. For instance; when CIE first introduced signal-controlled level crossings, stop gates where train tracks cross the public road, they needed a public information advertisement to explain to people what the gates meant and how you were supposed to navigate them.

Bear in mind that traffic lights wouldn’t be common at all outside of Dublin and the bigger cities. These level crossings would have been as alien to the majority population as HG Wells’s Martian war machines.

So what the nation saw in the ad breaks before, during and after the Riordans was a Ford Granada rolling up to the junction, stopping, and a small man with combed over dark hair and a Columbo overcoat getting out.

Once the little man started talking the nation immediately recognised the voice and knew it was in safe hands. If Michael O’Hehir said these yokes were ok, then they were ok. Michael O’Hehir was a man you could trust.

Nobody had that level of rapport with the Irish people, either before or after. Plenty of people couldn’t stand Gay Byrne, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone having an objection to Michael O’Hehir. It would be like picking a fight with Santa.

Impossible, until now. According to John Burns’s review of Bowman’s book in the Sunday Times, Bowman criticises O’Hehir under two species. The first is that O’Hehir saw a TV commentary as being the same as a radio commentary, and the second is that O’Hehir played down sendings-off, the better to protect people’s good name and the good name of the Gaelic Athletic Association.

TV commentary is in theory different to radio, yes. The broad stroke is that you need fewer words for TV because people can see the pictures. But a good TV commentary is still better than a bad radio one.

This is certainly the opinion of the people, who for years have muted their TVs in order to listen to Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh on the radio. The distinction didn’t seem to knock as much of a stir out of them as it did out of John Bowman.

What those people are going to do now that Ó Muircheartaigh has retired and RTÉ have decided they don’t need a chief GAA commentator at all, at all is hard to say. Bowman’s own opinion of the current state of RTÉ’s GAA commentaries is unrecorded.

That said, it’s hard to see any of O’Hehir’s current successors being employed by the BBC, as O’Hehir was for Grand National commentaries. The National has a relay of commentators, because it’s so long. O’Hehir’s job was to take over at Beecher’s Brook, a place where the race was often won or lost. A considerable responsibility for a man who didn’t know the difference between TV and radio.

To say nothing of the BBC’s concerns about the integrity of journalism, and any attempts by O’Hehir to protect the good names of the horses, should any of them take it easy around the back straight.

Did any newspapers splash that the Irish rugby team were on the beer with the English that infamous night in Auckland? Why did it take so long for the truth about Trapattoni’s dropping of Andy Reid to come to light? Whom exactly does John Bowman think he’s kidding?

The GAA players of Michael O’Hehir’s era lived in a different world with different rules to those of the modern world and the modern, all-intrusive media. Different Ireland, different rules. If John Bowman wants to have a go at anyone, perhaps he should look a little closer to home.

John Burns reported in his review in the Sunday Times that Bowman lists the producers of Prime Time Investigates. Bowman refrains from having a pop at those worthies for not knowing the difference between radio and TV, or for protecting the good name of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the ordinary working man. More smoked salmon, Marmaduke?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Anyone for Leadership?

How craven is the Government’s attitude to the inevitable EU referendum? It’s not quite as craven as the man in the women and children’s lifeboat but goodness gracious, it’s a long step away from the bold Robert Emmet’s speech from the dock in terms of inspiring the nation and giving light in darkness.

It seems clear that the Government will spend from now until the final EU deal is settled praying that God will somehow intervene and save them from having to bring another EU referendum before the people. The Government will not be alone in this; the entire Irish political establishment will be praying every bit as hard.

In a functioning democracy, the referendum would be a matter of course. In a country where there is political talent and will, they could even write a new constitution that would prevent these constant referenda clogging up the path to progress.

But Ireland is not a functioning democracy. It is a state governed by a tiny elite. A tiny elite who have zero interest in leading the people. A tiny elite who have zero interest in explaining what the European Union is and how Ireland has benefited immeasurably from it since 1973.

A tiny elite who prefers treat the sovereign people as mushrooms, explaining the EU only in terms of either a gravy train that hands out free loot (1973-2011) or an oppressor who grind the helpless Irish under a jackboot, in the face of which the sovereign people and their glorious government are equally helpless (2011-present day).

Successive Governments have refused to make it clear to the people just how Ireland integrates in terms of the EU whole, and just how high we are punching above our weight. Instead, the nation is told to eat their sweets and don’t be worrying their little heads.

Ireland has become a sink estate of the EU, living on handouts with not only no interest in bettering its own situation, but with no idea if or how that situation can bettered in the first place.

Which is how the latest mess has come to pass. Now the political elite has to go the electorate and present another referendum to the people. Another referendum that will be impossible to understand, at a moment in time when the people are very far from being receptive.

That was one of the problems with Lisbon. Referenda work best with simple issues that can be clearly expressed. Treaties, or, the Lord save us, “compacts,” can only be properly understood by constitutional lawyers. Joe Citizen hasn’t a chance.

It should never have come to this. The political class should have seen this coming since Maastricht twenty years ago, if not since ascension in 1973. Start as you mean to continue.

But they didn’t see it coming. Not even kinda. The implications of Maastricht didn’t even get a mention in Seán Duignan’s memoir of his time as Government press secretary of the time.

The chief concerns of the Government in June 1992, when Maastricht was passed, was whether they’d have to devalue the punt or what would happen at the Beef Tribunal. The Beef Tribunal!

Maastricht went through the Irish political system painlessly, without raising a single flag. The patient never felt a thing.

John Waters rightly called out Olivia O’Leary when she was doing to post-hoc reasoning on her radio piece for RTÉ’s Drivetime recently. The only people who objected to Maastricht were loopers like the Democratic Left and the late Ray Crotty. Every else just said: “Free loot? Where do I sign?”

When people become adjusted to a continual flow of European wine and honey, you can understand how they might get cranky when that flow is suddenly switched to cod liver oil. And the longer the political elite puts off having a birds and bees conversation with the nation about the nature of the European Union, the harder it’ll be to save the day.

Because the day can still be saved. The Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil officer class understand how Europe works, even if they have been shockingly remiss in bringing the rank and file with them. Labour’s days of opposing Europe are well behind them and besides; a EU referendum would be a good chance for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to show the statesmanship he wittered on about so tiresomely before the election.

The floating joker is Sinn Féin of course. Sinn Féin have been quiet since Friday, as they do their accounting on how the land lies. Good for them.

Sinn Féin have been anti every EU referenda. It will be interesting to see how they could oppose this one – and thus side with David Cameron, leader of the one country in Europe which has been less well served by its leaders about the EU than ourselves.

Kicking Sinn Féin has only recently been replaced by kicking the pope as a Fine Gael favourite pastime. Will even the chance to put Gurry on the hot seat for while tempt the Government to say to hell with it, we’ll have a referendum and live or die by it? Or will they stay hiding under the table, hoping the storm will pass?

Sunday, December 04, 2011

So. Farewell then, Socrates of Brazil

Today is a sad day for people of a certain age. News that the great Brazilian soccer player Socrates has died from an intestinal infection at the age of 57 reminds everyone who watched the 1982 and 1986 World Cups that we are mortal and we shall die.

It was a different era. There is saturation soccer coverage now – so much so that it’s easy to forget that one of the reasons the World Cup was a big deal previously is because there was nothing else.

In Ireland, what you knew about soccer you read in the papers or saw in highlights or what you saw in those strange midweek European Cup games, where Liverpool or Nottingham Forest would play in Belgrade or Budapest in a stadium ringed by an running track and a phalanx of heavily-armed military with the crowd deep in the shadows.

And then, every four summers, weeks and weeks of the stuff. Because you didn’t know who the players were, you were always ready to believe the hype, that these were colossi who bestrode the very earth, while mortals worshipped at their feet. Or at least, that's how they looked to a child.

Ricky Villas and Ossie Ardilles were the only players from outside the British Isles playing in England, and they both had to go back home to Argentina when the Falklands War broke out. Pre-internet and pre-satellite TV, all you knew were names and reputations – Rummenegge of West Germany, Platini of France, Maradona of Argentina. And everyone who played for Brazil. Every one of them.

Brazil arrived at the 1982 World Cup with too many central midfielders and not enough wide men. In a language that had yet to be invented, Brazil saw that as a feature, not a bug.

Brazil lit up Spain playing in a 4-2-2-2 formation, with Zico and Socrates as the penultimate two. Nobody had ever seen anything like it, nor would again. Brazil were at once fire and ice, rapier and broadsword, and became the most beloved international team since their own 1970 incarnation.

And then they lost. Brazil met Italy, the supreme pragmatists, in Barcelona’s Estadio Sarriá in the final game of their second round group. Brazil needed only a draw to go through. They lost, 3-2. Paolo Rossi scored a hat-trick and Zico would later describe the game as “the day football died.”

That was Zico enjoying the benefit of hindsight. Because four years later Brazil returned to the World Cup, and they lustre still shone just as brightly from the famous yellow jerseys.

Mexico 1986 was the last great World Cup. It was the last World Cup to showcase a man who was undeniably the Greatest Player in the World (don’t forget, Messi has yet to perform on the greatest stage, as Maradona, Cruyff (when he was bothered) and Pele have all done). Not only that, it had a number of teams who could have won it and deserved it just as much as Argentina did. Chiefly Brazil. Of course.

What a magnificent, frightening team Brazil were. Zico was a fitful due to injury, but Socrates was still there, pulling the strings. Unusually tall and gangly for a soccer player, with a distinctive thick black beard, he looked both completely at home and strangely out of place.

Brazil met the European Champions France in the quarter-finals. France weren’t that good, but Brazil ran out of luck that day in Guadalajara, losing to France on penalties.

The game turned on a penalty during the ninety minutes. Socrates had been taking them all during the tournament. He had a bizarre action – one step before striking the ball – but it worked. Keepers had no idea what to make of it.

But Zico had come on as a sub just before the penalty. Zico wore Brazil’s iconic No 10 shirt. Zico had never missed a penalty in his career. Zico had to take the penalty, because he was Zico.

France’s Joel Bats guessed correctly in goal. Zico missed, and the game went to penalties.

Socrates stepped up for the first. Bats was inspired by the earlier save of Zico. Bats saved Socrates’ shot, France won the shootout 4-3, and Brazil were gone. France went onto face Germany in the semi-final, and lost 0-2, to goals by Andy Brehme at the start and Rudi Völler at the finish. Bats was at fault for both of them.

And meanwhile Brazil are gone forever. The world waits for another Brazil to turn on the magic like they did in the 1960s and 1980s but that’s thirty years ago, and counting. The game has moved on. Whether it’s evolved or devolved is a debate for those who still love it. I don’t. Not any more.

All I do know is there once was a man, Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira, whom the world knew simply as Socrates, and he had magic in him. May God grant the eternal reward due him for the joy he brought to millions and millions of people, all over the world.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Freedom of the Press

The Father Kevin Reynolds libel case has opened Pandora’s Box for the Irish media. Things will never be the same again.

People who believe the Government’s request to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to investigate how Mission to Prey, the Prime Time Investigates program at the root of the problem, is a knee jerk response are completely mistaken.

The Government have no option but to initiate an inquiry, and it’s entirely possibly as a result of this that the Irish libel laws, which are restrictive in the first place, will become like an iron maiden for press freedom and for the public’s ability to correctly inform itself of what’s going on in the country and in the world.

This will be a disaster for the country, and if it comes to pass it will all be RTÉ’s fault.

Some weeks ago, the Phoenix magazine outlined the efforts made by Father Reynolds to clear his name before the program was broadcast. If even half the details outlined in that Phoenix story are true, this isn’t a case of an accidental libel, like printing a photo of a protest with a libelous placard that the picture desk didn’t spot in time. There were several stages at which RTÉ could have said: hold on, this doesn’t add up. Go back and make sure its true. They didn’t.

What RTÉ did, according the Phoenix, was the equivalent of climbing up on the roof of the house, standing on one leg, drinking a bottle of whiskey, dancing a jig and then being astonished when you fall off the roof and break your bloody neck.

Any step on its own was looking for trouble. To combine one after the other until disaster was categorically guaranteed suggests that RTÉ deserved all they got, and more.

The tragedy is that Ireland has never needed a free press more. One of the reasons that Irish politics is in such a wretched mess is because the journalism and reporting is so bad.

There is more than one reason for this, of course, and some of them are to do with the journalists themselves. Journalists are too easily swayed in Ireland because the country – and particularly the Bermuda triangle bound by Dáil Éireann, the Shelbourne Bar and Doheny and Nesbitt’s – is so very, very small. There is no self-regulation either because jobs are so few and so hard to come by. Nobody will bite a hand on which he or she may later rely for food.

But the other reason standards in Irish journalism are so low is because it’s so very difficult to raise legitimate issues of public interest without involuntarily libeling someone.

The press is permanently muzzled, and that stops them from doing their job, of holding the powerful accountable to the powerless. For instance; wouldn’t it be interesting to know just exactly how planning was granted for the different ghost estates in the country? Who voted yea, who voted nay, and why? But that question never gets asked, because councilors get their lawyers to write letters, and no provincial paper, in these times, could defend a hideously expensive libel case.

People don’t realise that they’re being kept in the dark because they do not trust the press to use their power wisely. You may think a particular politician a bum, a thief and a louse, but every five years you get a cut at him. You do not get a cut at the editor of a major national newspaper, or some wise guy who take a piece of you in print and make you a laughing stock in your community.

One of the editors of a major national newspaper – about to retire, if reports are to be believed – likes to complain loudly about the libel laws. His complaints would be easier to take if it were easier to believe that they arose out of a passion for freedom of speech, rather than freedom of his own speech. His frequent hectoring media performances suggest that he has a very particular view of who should be free to speak, and who should not.

And that won’t wash with people. The press, like Caesar’s wife, has to be above suspicion. People will not write a blank cheque for the Irish media until the Irish media proves itself responsible and worthy of the people’s trust.

The USA has the freest press in the world, and consequently the most responsible. For instance: The Chicago Sun-Times fired a TV critic for inaccurate reporting during the summer. Specifically, she wrote a review of a Glee concert that mentioned a song that was not performed at the concert. A Glee concert is about as trivial a thing as you can imagine, and they still canned her after seventeen years.

A famous writer and four editors of the Detroit Free Press were suspended without pay in 2005 because the writer wrote in a column that two former members of a College basketball team were at a game that they did not actually attend.

The players told the writer they were going but missed their flight or didn’t make it some other way, but really, it doesn’t matter to buggery whether the lads were there or not. The Detroit Free Press didn’t care. They issued the suspension on a matter of principle.

Hard to imagine anyone getting a hour on the naughty step for that sort of carry-on here – eh, readers?

RTÉ have pushed the cause of press freedom back to the Victorian Era, if not further, and the press are the people on whom we’re relying to investigate the Chinese walls between NAMA and the National Pension Reserve Fund, on whom we rely to tell us what our TDs do as we cannot possibly otherwise know, and on whom we rely to tell us what is going on Brussels and how will it shape our lives.

I hope RTÉ didn’t break that bottle of whiskey when they came off the roof that time. I think we could be glad of some anesthetic thinking about this.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Preventing the Future - Irish Politics Crippled by Lack of Vision

The spectacular trauma of the economic crash resulted in the current Government receiving the greatest popular mandate since the first Dáil itself. This should have Enda Kenny and his government a tremendous sense of power and purpose.

But the Government doesn’t seem empowered by the mandate, or even intimidated by it. It seems indifferent to it, the strangest reaction of all.

It’s like the coalition is unaware of the state of crisis in the country. Instead of realizing that they have been mandated to set the foundations of Ireland 3.0, the Government seem to think it’s business as usual.

It was Fianna Fáil’s turn, and now it’s our turn. So we’ll go through the same motions, but instead of their lads getting the gravy, it’ll be ours. Any notion of this being the sort of messing that sank the country in the first place seems beyond them.

The cynicism of the education cuts crystalizes the issue. For all their eagerness to use the IMF and the troika as an excuse, the Government is every bit as empowered to govern as any other government since the Treaty. Economic sovereignty has not been removed, contrary to popular belief.

The Government has to pay back the IMF just previous governments had to pay back loans gained in the money markets. The belt might be tighter, but the suit remains the same. It’s not like Michael Noonan is the first Irish Minister for Finance to look at an empty larder.

It’s a matter of supreme indifference to the IMF what the Government cut or don’t cut. All they care about is getting their money back. Because if they did care, the IMF would tell the Government that the proposed education cuts are not the way to go about planning for the future.

The particular cuts in question are the reduction in teacher numbers by two thousand and the ending of free post-graduate courses. Why cut two thousand teachers and post-grad grants? To save money. Are there other ways to save money? Yes, of course there are. So why choose this way? The reason for the cut is a legacy of the last government, but where and how deep is entirely up to the present one.

It could be An Spailpín’s cynical way of looking at the world, but the most obvious reason for making these cuts is because there’s no-one to complain. Two thousand teachers aren’t being laid off. Those teachers don’t exist yet, so nobody is fully sure if this is coming to their particular door.

The Teacher Unions represent current teachers, not projected ones. And while they should be looking to the future of their profession – well, it’s a fault in the Irish psyche that we value self-interest above all else.

It’s the same with post-grad grants. It’s a cut to the future, rather than the present. USI may huff and puff but once they’re marching down O’Connell Street, who’ll be able to tell them apart from Occupy Dame Street, The Irish Anti-War Movement or whatever other spurious organisations that have chosen that particular Saturday to waste the public’s time? Checkmate, sonny.

The Government was mandated to turn the system upside down, but it has no sense of that mandate. It has no sense of how the nation is at a crossroads in our history. It has no sense of that at all.

Tom Garvin published a book called Preventing the Future in 2006, about the myriad failures in Irish economic policy since the foundation of the state. But the subtext of the book is interesting – a tacit understanding that all those disasters are in the past, and that we have now started Ireland 2.0.

The same subtext is in David McWilliams’ Pope’s Children, for all he might try to reimagine it now – the idea that the Irish would never be so poor or so stupid again. The book is subtitled "Ireland's New Elite," after all.

There is no sense of how wrong that assumption proved to be being projected by the current Government. There is no sense of either a realization that the Irish are doomed to be poor or that the Irish are a nation who were on the cusp of something great, hit a bump in the road but is fully capable of rising again.

The current state of the nation is one or other of those alternatives. It cannot be both. And we need to know which it is if we are to progress.

Instead of answering that crucial question, the first six months of the administration have been spent on self-congratulation, optics, pope-bashing, losing a referendum and trying to pin the blame solely on Alan Shatter, now that Fianna Fáil aren’t around any more. It has not been spent in rolling up sleeves, taking stock or doing the vision thing.

The next six weeks will be about furiously shoving the round peg of no new taxes into the square hole of no new cuts. This is because finding jockeys for hobby-horses takes precedence over realizing that this Government has a mandate for change like no administration before.

It’s such a pity that they seem too dumb to realise what an incredible chance this is to change the country for ever. God help us all.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Diaspora v Deoraíocht - Correctly Describing the Irish Emigrant Experience

Emigration has been part of the Irish experience since the flight of the Earls at the start of the seventeenth century. But it’s only in the past sixteen years that we’ve described the vast Irish population that lives outside of the island itself as the diaspora.

In fact, we can pinpoint the exact date the Irish emigrant population became a diaspora – it was February 2nd, 1995.

A search of the entire Irish Times newspaper archive returns 2,287 hits for the word “diaspora.” The word appears 518 times between the paper’s first edition on March 29th, 1859 and February 2nd, 1995, an appearance rate that averages out at three times a year. “Diaspora” appears 1,769 times between February 3rd, 1995 and last Saturday, or once every three days. Quite the increase.

February 2nd, 1995, is the key date because that was when President Robinson delivered an address to the joint houses of the Oireachtas called “Cherishing the Irish Diaspora.” It’s clear from the simple but reasonable metric of the Irish Times diaspora hit-count that this address to Tithe an Oireachtais made the Irish emigrant experience synonymous with the word “diaspora.” The pity is that the world does not accurately describe the phenomenon.

There is an element of imposed foreign force to the leave-taking in other cultures that exhibit a diaspora. The Jews were forced from the Holy Land by anyone who showed up for the entirety of their history, and aren’t entirely welcome there now either. The African slaves were taken to America and the West Indies in ships where men had to lay in bunks that were sixteen inches wide and two per cent mortality was allowed for in the bookkeeping.

Emigration is not forced on the Irish. The Roman Empire isn’t billeted in Athlone. There are no slavers waiting in the harbour at Cobh. That does not mean the emigrants want to go – a visit to an airport and a count of red eyes and bitten lips will answer that question. But diaspora is the wrong word to use.

Ireland does not have a diaspora. It has a population in exile. And we have word that describes that condition of Irish exile exactly. The word is “deoraíocht.”

One of the more frequent criticisms of the Irish language is that it uses “makey-uppy” words, with “héileacaptar” and “teileascóp” being two of the more egregious examples. “Deoraíocht” dates back to Old Irish, the language heard by St Patrick during his slavery and his apostolate. There’s nothing makey-uppy about it.

“Deoraíocht” has a strong literary tradition. Pádraig Ó Conaire’s only novel is called “Deoraíocht,” the story of an Irish exile in London. One of the definitive accounts of the life of an Irish navvy in England after the Second World War is Donáll Mac Amhlaigh’s “Dialann Deoraí.”

The title has been translated in some places as diary of an emigrant but that’s not accurate; “Diary of an Exile” is the correct translation of “Dialann Deoraí,” as Valentin Iremonger, Mac Amhlaigh’s official translator, knew. There is a difference between being an emigrant and being an exile.

We can’t blame the waves of emigration from Ireland in the 1950s and 80s and now, or the steady trickle that’s always existed, on the British. Our condition of exile is our own fault. We were promised an Ireland that was Gaelic, united and free.

We’ve failed at every turn in creating a distinct, viable and independent state and people who can’t bear this failure feel they have no option other than exile. They don’t want to go but they want to stay even less.

Diaspora doesn’t describe that duality of not wanting to go and hating to stay. Exile does. The fact the Irish word has “deor,” meaning “tear,” as its route is especially poignant.

Michael D Higgins will be sworn in as the ninth President of Ireland on Friday. Higgins has already done his bit for the language in the founding of Teilifís na Gaeilge, now TG4, during his time as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht.

There’s a case to be made that the foundation of TG4 is the best thing to happen the language since the Gaelic League was founded by Douglas Hyde, the man who would go on to become the first President of Ireland. Now Hyde’s eighth successor has a chance to do something else for the language, and initiate the use of a particularly Irish word to describe a particularly Irish experience.

Mary Robinson spoke during her own inauguration in 1990 that Irish was an important part of our culture and that she herself planned to learn it: “Tá aistear eile le déanamh anois agam — aistear cultúrtha, leis an saibhreas iontach atá sa teanga Ghaeilge a bhaint amach díom féin.” (“I have another journey to make now – a cultural journey, to find the wonderful richness that is in the Irish language for myself.”)

It would be wonderful if our new President could restore the primacy of Irish to the Irish people and help us on our long journey to finding out just who exactly we are, whether we are at home or overseas. Go n-éirí leis.

Friday, November 04, 2011

George Hook

The great language of Yiddish has many beautiful words. “Zaftig” is the word for a beautiful woman who is, in Oscar Hammerstein II’s phrase, broad where a broad should be broad. Isn’t it fantastic? It’s a word that’s inherently delightful to say out loud, just for the joy of saying it.

“Chutzpah” is another one of those words. It means gall, or cheek, or nerve. It was exemplified by a man known to your correspondent in more dissolute days who was getting grief in the Dole Office at Augustine Street, Galway.

He claimed he was skint. The lady behind the hatch doubted the bone fides of his attempts to find work and, God bless her, she mightn’t have been far wrong. She demanded proof from my friend that he’d tried to find work in the next period or else his dole was getting cut.

My friend said he would certainly try to find work, but only if Rialtas na hÉireann, as represented by the Galway dole office, would provide him with stamps necessary to post letters of application in a pre-internet age. He could not buy stamps himself being, as we said at the start, skint.

Getting the dole office to buy your stamps is chutzpah. It’s a fantastic word, and a quality that is 98% galling but 2% a cause for admiration, for having the sheer neck to go for it.

Chutzpah does not even begin to describe two tweets from Mr George Hook last night. They are the first two in this screen shot:

Aren’t they astonishing? “Hook controversial by conviction; Dunphy by opportunism.” Indeed. Quite. Of course.

For those equally traumatised as your correspondent, help is at hand. The Phoenix Magazine printed a story on September 23rd about George and his adventures with Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V in a Rugby World Cup preview piece for the Indo. I’ve taken the liberty of scanning it – just click the image below and it should rise to legible and hilarious detail.

In the States, you get the road for doing that. But we’re currently redefining what we consider journalism here, aren’t we?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

David Norris and the Media

Failed Presidential candidate David Norris made a slightly petulant remark to Seán O’Rourke on Radio One late on Friday night, about his being “singled out for special treatment” in the media.

Senator Norris is quite correct in noting that he’d received special treatment but, in a coda apposite to his entire campaign, he still doesn’t realise that this special treatment was in his favour. The media did everything in their power to protect him from himself, until the task proved quite impossible in the end.

To give one concrete example: David Norris retired from the Presidential race at the start of August, and returned to it six weeks later, half-way through September. While David Norris was out of the race, he still remained an option in the opinion polls held during those six weeks. Why?

Once Gay Byrne stepped down from the race no pollsters bothered with him anymore, even though he had been a poll-topper, just as Norris had been. Nobody polled about Pat Cox once Foxy Coxy lost the Fine Gael selection convention to Gay Mitchell.

Opinion polls cost money. If Norris had second thoughts after his retirement from the race, it would have cost him serious wedge to commission a private poll to see what his standing was like in the country after the controversy broke. But he didn’t half to, because the pollsters were still including him fee gratis.

At any stage a poll commissioner could have told his or her pollsters to forget Norris; he’s history. But nobody did. The media left the door open for Norris’ return by providing him with tremendously useful polling data without his having to pay for it.

There is no such thing as unbiased news. It doesn’t exist. There is only a question of degree and direction of spin. For instance, if a media body condemns state-sponsored spin, it is good for the cautious citizen to wonder which spin it is they favour instead.

Media law in Ireland is such a mess that the media tends to self-police, which is not something Juvenal, of who guards the guardians fame, would approve. Self-policing manifests in different ways across different media; the Irish Times goes light on court cases involving travellers for instance, while the Sunday World can’t quite get enough of them.

But there are issues of which the media are of one mind, and do what is, in their opinion, their patriotic duty. This is the wearing of the infamous “green jersey.” The coverage of Queen’s Elizabeth’s visit is an example where everybody got with the program and nobody questioned the spin. Or at least, nobody important.

The problem with this “green jersey” stuff is that it’s not the media’s job to put the country first; it’s the media’s job to stress-test the institutions of state to ensure that the citizens know exactly what’s being done, or not done, in their name. A defense council in law has to examine every corner of the prosecution’s case and should always presume the client is innocent. The media should do the opposite, always presuming the Government is up to something and try desperately to find out what that something is.

That’s the theory. In practice, people have their own views and if they see a chance to do the country a favour by presenting their darling in as good a light as possible, that’s what they do.

The Irish media seems to have been of one mind on David Norris for years, before anybody thought of him as a Presidential candidate. John Waters outlined in the Irish Times last June the steps he himself took to save David Norris from himself when Waters was editor of Magill magazine in 2002 and Norris gave his infamous interview to Helen Lucy Burke.

Journalists hate giving interviewees sign-off on interviews. It doesn’t do much for objectivity. But both Waters and Helen Lucy Burke pleaded with Norris to amend what he said. Norris refused. The story went to print but it was never sensationalized, even though the views expressed were sensational, to say the very least.

Nobody else picked up on either because there was an understanding across all media that Norris was a National Treasure and wasn’t to be scrutinized as others are scrutinized. This tremendous regard for Norris lasted all though to September, to the extent of David Norris getting free poll data from a media that would not surrender its darling.

The Helen Lucy Burke interview with Norris wasn’t even a gaffe. It wasn’t a slip of the tongue. It was a carefully thought out philosophy of life. But still its did their best to save the National Treasure.

Eventually they couldn’t, as Norris, whatever he may think, fell because he lives in a world that is utterly different to the rest of the country. Norris’ fall wasn’t to do with letters or disability claims. It was to do with his attitude to the difference between a child and an adult.

Not everybody gets the same benefit of the doubt as Norris enjoyed. The late Brian Lenihan famously dropped a clanger when he said “we all partied” during an interview on Prime Time in November of last year. Did RTÉ do a Waters/Burke and stop the camera to say: “hold on now Brian, that’ll sound awful. We know what you’re trying to say about the excesses of the Celtic Tiger years but that phrase will dump you in the smelly. Why don’t we have another crack at it?”

No, they did not. They just thought gotcha!, ran the piece and Lenihan was monstered over a slip of a tongue while there were much bigger issues in the content of what he had to say.

Senator Norris clearly feels battered by the campaign and he certainly suffered during it. Some of the stuff in The Star was particularly wretched and that is par of the course there of course, may God have mercy on them all. But reality is that the media protected David Norris for as long they possibly could, and he would be well advised to reflect deeply on that before he writes anything hasty in his memoirs.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Five Post-Polling Day Questions

Michael D Higgins is the President Elect, and the country could have done worse. But it’s been a filthy campaign, and another indictment of a political system that is failing the people. Here are five questions that are worth pondering as we turn back the clocks and move on to the next great political crisis, Budget 2011.

Will We Ever See an Election That Isn’t Decided by Process of Elimination Again?
Baggage allowance is now more important to the Irish electorate than it is to Ryanair. Enda Kenny become Taoiseach by process of elimination – the fact he rose in the polls after refusing to appear on Vincent Browne’s debate is proof of that. And now the Presidential Election has been decided by the same metric. Gallagher supporters realized that the man wasn’t up to the hope so they stepped away and went for the only possibility of stopping him.

And could have been worse. Enda Kenny is a good and honest man. Michael D is a good and honest man, and he also did his bit for the country in founding TG4 and helping keep the language alive for another few years. Michael D deserves the win for that alone.

But it is deeply depressing that leaders are elected for their ability to disgust the electorate the least rather than their ability to inspire the electorate the most. That is very depressing indeed.

Why Did Sinn Féin Choose to Elect Michael D?
Sinn Féin didn’t win the Presidential election, but they certainly decided it. Prior to the Frontline debate, Seán Gallagher was home and hosed. We know this from three sources – the opinions polls coming up to the last weekend of the election, the RTÉ Red C recall poll that showed 28% of voters changed their minds in the final days, and that 70% of that 28% voted for Michael D, and the pattern of postal votes that were mailed before the Frontline debate showed Gallagher the clear winner.

But the Frontline sank him. The question from Martin McGuinness dropped Gallagher to the floor, and some hysterical media coverage in the papers administered the coup de grace.

The question is why – what’s in it for Sinn Féin? Their own high hopes blew up early in the campaign when a combination of wretched hypocrisy and hateful self-interest showed that partition is now as much part of the Irish psyche as porter and giving out about the English (the irony is lost on the people, of course). The Nation sees itself as a twenty-six county entity only, and wants nothing to do with the North. Nothing.

A harsh lesson for Sinn Féin, but they could have stood back and let Higgins and Gallagher duke it out. They didn’t. Martin McGuinness ended Gallagher as a viable entity. He could have stood by, but didn’t.

Why? What’s in it for Sinn Féin? Is it because they wanted to reach out to their fellow revolutionary socialist? Did the very thought of Gallagher appall them and they decided that they while they could not themselves win they could stop a man for winning? Do they think it sets them up better for the next general election, as the sworn enemy of cronyism where-ever they may find it? And will we ever get to the bottom of the ghost tweet? Questions, questions. It would be the nice if the media investigated even some of this but your faithful correspondent shan’t be holding his breath.

What Was David Norris Thinking?
The biggest loser of the whole campaign is undoubtedly David Norris. There wouldn’t even have been an election it weren’t for him – there could have been cross party support for Séamus Heaney, for instance, and the country could have saved itself a lot of money and angst.

Instead, Norris demanded his election and he can rue it for the rest of his days. For the first half of this year there was universal coverage of what a fine President Norris would make. The campaign exposed this view as hopelessly wrong. David Norris is an innocent, and he suffered the fate of all innocents when they leave the protection of their nursery. Slaughter. God love him.

Should Alan Shatter Consider His Position?
The surreptitious referenda campaigns were more serious than the Presidential Election. The President doesn’t actually do anything, of course, but those referenda could have visited untold disaster on the populace.

The Government’s attempt to sneak these complex and important referenda past the people by bundling them with the Presidential Election, like a schoolboy trying to sneak a copy of Nuts magazine into the pages of his Farmer’s Journal, was shameful and disgraceful.

But even more worryingly, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter’s bizarre response to the concerns of eight – eight – former Attorneys General should be addressed. Shatter dismissed the concerns of all eight men, who were appointed by different Governments and are of different political affiliations, as “nonsense,” and nastily suggested that some of the former Attorneys General had other agendae. Shatter did not spell out what those other agendae were or which of the eight held them, because that would have seen the Minister in the High Court in need of an attorney himself.

But it was an astonishing attack by the Minister for Justice on men who have sat at cabinet and have had significant roles in governing the country. What does it say about Shatter’s regard for the role of Attorney General itself?

For the Minister for Justice to disagree with one AG is fair enough, not least if the Minister is a lawyer himself and knows whereof he speaks. But to dismiss eight of them seems rather like a tipping point number, and dismissive of the whole office in the first place. Does Minister Shatter take advice from his own AG? Does he choose that advice a la carte? Will he dismiss eight opinions until he finds a ninth that he agrees with, and then preface his remarks to Dáil Éireann with “The Government, on the advice of the Attorney General…”?

Should the State have an Attorney General in the first place or a yes-man like The Bird O’Donnell? And perhaps more importantly, how can a Minister for Justice continue in his position when he holds so little regard for past holders of the office of Attorney General? It really is quite astonishing.

Should We Look at the Presidential Nomination Process?
Yes. Specifically, we should look at either abolishing the office entirely or having Presidents appointed by the Oireachtas. The country has been through a campaign that has been expensive in money, cheap in practice and mean in spirit. We don’t need to do that again. The fiscal suffering is bad enough without the damage done to our souls by so vicious a fight over so trivial an office. Enough. Let this be the last.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Think the Rain is Bad? What Will We Do When the Snow Returns?

Yesterday’s flooding in Dublin gives a nervous Spailpín Fánach pause to wonder about what exact plans have been made for the return of the snow.

We all know it’s coming. The ads for shoe ice grips for shoes have been running on the Irish Times home page for weeks. And it’s reasonable to ask just what the local authorities and the great ship of state herself are doing to get ready for another harsh winter in Ireland.

The first really hard snap in January of last year came out of the clear blue sky. The buses being cancelled in Dublin was annoying, but understandable. Who had ever seen it this bad?

The second time, eleven months later in November, was a little more annoying. When the temperatures dropped below freezing and Dublin Bus cancelled its services, for the “greater safety of the population,” we wondered just why they weren’t more prepared this time, and if it’s really acceptable to have a workforce have to make its own way home when the weather gets bad. They had ten months to think about it, after all.

Which means there are now no excuses for a third time. If the local authorities are doing their jobs, they will have plans made for when the ice hits. Because it’s coming, just as surely as God made little green apples.

They’re prepared across the water. The London Times had a report yesterday detailing the provisions that Her Majesty’s Government have taken for the safety of the citizens of the realm. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr George Osbourne, is carrying out an austerity program in Britain not dissimilar to the one here but even though road maintenance budgets have been cut, the British have still upped their salt budget.

The British, like ourselves, have a number of different agencies in charge of different aspects of transportation, but all the British agencies have already done their bit to keep the show on the road. Network Rail has spent £60 million pounds to keep the railway working, including investing in six snow carriages, decked out with ploughs, scrapers and brushes.

Heathrow has spent £34 million to get ready for the snow, an investment that includes the cost of 185 snow clearing vehicles. Gatwick has spent eight million pounds to buy, amongst other things, fourteen snow ploughs and over half a million litres of anti-icing agents.

The British local authorities have a stockpile of 1.4 million tonnes of salt. The highway agency has another quarter of a million, and there’s a Government National Strategic reserve supply of 450,000 tonnes.

Not only that, but the different local authorities realise they are in a different ballgame and so are deciding to salt less roads and send the trucks out in colder conditions in order to make supplies last longer. London’s Lambeth Council salted at one degree Centigrade last year. This year, the trucks don’t go out until it hits zero. It makes a difference, and the salt lasts longer.

Devon County Council has reduced the roads it will salt from 1,600 to 1,520, a five per cent reduction, to conserve supply. They know that climate change is now here, and they are making adjustments.

An Spailpín Fánach looks forward to the announcement from Minister for Transport, Mr Leo Varadkar, TD, and from Minister for Local Government, Mr Phil Hogan, TD, about what the Government’s plans are to prepare for this year’s harsh weather. Or will they just shrug their shoulders and blame Mr Chopra, like they always do?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Deireadh Seachtaine na nGiobal

Agus cad atá chomh leadránach sa tsaol ná machnamh seanfhir? Níl tada. Bhíodh ár n-óige againn uilig, ach cé go raibh na h-ainmneacha difríochta bíonn na scéalta mar a gcéanna, beag nó mór.

É sin raite, bhraith mé lámh fuair ar mo chroí nuair a chuala mé go bhfuil deireadh tagtha go deo ar Seachtain na nGiobal, Gaillimh. Bhí an deireadh fógraithe le fada ach ag an am céanna, baintear geit nuair a thagann sé.

Scíobhfar roinnt faoi chomh brónach atá an deireadh seo agus go bhfuil an t-airgead bailithe ar son na mbocht níos tábhachtaí na pléaracha na seachtaine. Ná bac leis an seafóid sin. Is dócha go bhfuil croithe roinnt na gníomhaire ar Seachtain na nGiobal san áit ceart ach bíonn coirp na mac léinn ins an t-aon áit amháin - istigh sa mBéar, agus iad ag iarraidh an méid is mó portair a chaitheamh siar mar ab fhéidir leo.

Bliain amháin tháinig cúpla boc chomh fada le Coiste Seachtaine na nGiobal le pléan. Tógfaidís HiaceFord Transit éigin ar iasacht, tabharfaidís cuairt ar gach contae in Éirinn, bailóidís airgead ar son Seachtain na nGiobal agus fillfidh siad ar ais arís. A leithreoir, fuaireadar an veain agus bhailigh siad an t-airgead ach ní dóigh liom gur fhilleadar riamh, agus tá beagnach dhá scór bliain caite anois.

Ba rógairí tofa iad, ar ndóigh, ach bhíodh laochra ann freisin. Bhíodh sé sconna déag taobh thiar Béar an Choláiste nuair a bhíodh an Beár sa gCearnóg Mhór. Ba é an Furstenburg an ceann a bhí sa triú áit ón gclé - níl fíos agam cén fáth ar fhan sin im' aigne, ach fan pé scéal é.

Bhíodh na sé sconna déag sin mar dushlán os comhair cúpla cara an Spailpín 'sna laethanta 'tá imithe. Agus Seachtain na nGiobal amháin, shroicheadar go n-déanfaidís iarracht pionta amháin a ól ó gach uile sconna.

Más mhaith leat sé phionta déag portair a ól, beidh fadhb agat. Is dhá bhuicéad beora iad sé chinn déag. Ach tá an caighdeán i bhfad níos áirde nuair atá meascán óil ann. B'fhéidir gurb é sin an fáth gur fhan an Furstenberg im' aigne. Tháinig sé ró-luath sa rás. Bíonn an Furstenberg searbh sa gcéad áit, agus níor díoladh mórán de ag an am, rud a rinneadh an beoir níos seirbhe arís. Bhíodh sé mar bhualadh ar an gclaí Foinavon in Aintree tar éis an chéad staid.

Ach bhíodh cairde agamsa agus boilg iontu cosuil le umair mhúnlaigh, báil ó Dhia orthu. Theip ar an gcuid is mó ach d'éirigh le beirt laoch pionta a ól ó gach uilig ceann de sconna Beáir an Choláiste san aon lá amháin.

Tógadh fear amháin abhaile, tinn a dhóthain ar ndóigh ach slán beo. Tháinig imní ar an gcomhluadar nuair a tugadh faoi deireadh nach raibh an fear eile ann ach fuaireadh slán ina leaba féin é níos déanaí tar éis seilg sa gcathair. Bíonn siad beirt socraithe agus ag obair go dian anois, agus táim ag súil iarraidh orthu cad a shíleann siad faoin deireadh ré seo. Is aoibheann bheatha an scólaire, ach tagann deireadh air i gcónaí.

Monday, October 17, 2011

We Are Sam Smyth

The ironic thing about it all, of course, is that Sam Smyth’s show isn’t even that good in the first place. Look at this picture of Smyth and Alastair Campbell – think that’s the picture of a man about to grill Campbell on dodgy goings-on in Whitehall during the Blair years?

It always seemed that Smyth’s guests were drawn from a very small circle, and the show was a sort of dry dinner party held ten hours before its natural time. There was never any danger of real world experience breaking in; it was for people who inhabit that awful Irish Bermuda triangle whose points are the Shelbourne Bar, Paddy Guilbaud’s and Dáil Éireann, and for those elect alone.

But even that has now proven too much. Sam Smyth, a man who does so very little to rattle cages, has found that even a little can finish a man.

It all goes back to 1997 and Smyth’s role in breaking the story that lead to the Moriarty Tribunal. Smyth got a lot of praise for his work as an investigative journalist, but the reality is someone picked up the phone and spilled the beans to start the ball rolling in the first place.

If that phone call hadn’t been made, just how hard would the awarding of the Esat license have been investigated by the Irish media? About as hard as the awarding of the drilling rights to Shell in Rossport, or of planning permission for three hundred house estates outside villages with a population of 150, not counting the idiot.

Maybe Ireland is too small to have a functioning media. Everybody gets to know everybody else very quickly, and it’s hard to be objective about people with whom you socialize. There are so few media outlets, it’s very easy for the powerful to blackball someone and put them out of a job. Investigative journalism of the Woodward and Bernstein school is cripplingly expensive. And of course, like any job, youthful enthusiasm wanes and it becomes easier to go through the motions after time.

The problem is that if Ireland is too small to have a functioning media it is also too small to have an independent government. This cannot be emphasized enough.

It is impossible for the people to make informed decisions about who governs them unless there is a mechanism by which the people can inform themselves about the alternatives. That ability to make informed decisions is now under its greatest threat since independence. What can be done?

The Government talks a lot of hot air about press freedom but the reality is no Government wants a free press. Governments want to control news, so the existence of press barons is in their interest. Once the baron is on board, the rest will follow – vide Blair’s courting of Rupert Murdoch across the Irish sea.

It’s up to the people to demand what the powerful will not give. Right now Smyth is doomed. They’ve put a fork in him, and they’re going to replace his cuddly beltway chats with a PR consultant who likes to talk about motor cars that people up to their snouts in negative equity can’t afford.

But there are still journalists of influence and repute who can challenge for press freedom. Wouldn’t it be great if Matt Cooper and George Hook used their drivetime radio shows tomorrow to explain the importance of a free press to their listenership, and just how vital a free press is to a democracy? Wouldn’t that be so much better than just taking a shilling? An Spailpín is looking forward to seeing people taking stands and putting their money where their mouths are.

I am Sam Smyth. And so are you. Don’t let them keep us in the dark. Don’t let them.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Post Saeculum Aureum: Where to Now for Irish Rugby?

Ireland’s World Cup was a failure. Anything you read elsewhere, about great memories and wins over Australia and the rest, is all blather.

Look at the picture of Brian O’Driscoll at the post-match press conference. He knows better than anyone just what the loss to Wales means. And it’s better for the nation to digest an unpalatable truth and move on than to remain in permanent denial.

This is the end of the golden generation. They shone their brightest in the twilight of their days, fighting on and on against time’s fell and inevitable hand. The golden generation were already over the hill when they won the Grand Slam two years ago. For them to still appear at the World Cup and to threaten so much is astonishing.

Even the term golden generation is misleading. It’s been O’Driscoll and the supporting cast. He had able subalterns in O’Connell and O’Gara but Ireland without O’Driscoll over the years of his reign were like low-fat milk or decaf coffee. More or less pointless. No emerald comet ever shone so brightly and for so long as O'Driscoll. He gave everything he had, and nobody can give more than that.

The depressing thing about the O’Driscoll era in Irish rugby is that the team didn’t win more. One Championship, a blessed Grand Slam, is not enough return. Celebrating Triple Crowns while Wales, England and France all won multiple Grand Slams was pathetic and betrayed a hopeless lack of ambition.

The wins over understrength and overconfident Australia and exhausted Italy in this World Cup were illusory. They simply papered over cracks. And when aging Ireland met young and hungry Wales there was no contest. Ireland were blown away by a much better team.

Seven countries have had podium finishes in the World Cups so far – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, France, Argentina and Wales. Even Scotland managed to win a quarter-final, once. Ireland never have, and struggle to get out of the group half the time.

This time Ireland topped the group, and still couldn’t progress. The Irish rugby community tends to stiffen with pride at the thought of the successes of Munster and Leinster in the Heineken Cup, and expects that to transfer internationally. Maybe having only two first-rate club sides in our domestic rugby is actually a sign of lean times ahead.

And leaner they’ll get, not least when it makes more financial sense for the provinces to bring in specialist tight head props, openside flankers and stand-off halves from overseas than to suffer the mistakes of up and coming Irish players who must learn their trade.

In theory those young Irish players can learn their trade in Connacht, the “development” province. As such, you’d think all Connacht players should be Irish and under-25, with some leeway for local men to build a support base. Here’s the Connacht rugby squad – how do you think that one’s working out?

Rugby has had ten years in Ireland like it has never enjoyed before. The question facing the IRFU now is do they push on and grow the sport in the country, or settle back to the comfort of the alickadoo community?

The horrified and short-sighted response to former Minister Eamon Ryan’s proposal that Heineken Cup rugby should be free to air suggests that the IRFU are unaware of the need to keep promoting the game. Travelling hordes supporting Munster was always very well when it was novel and money was flush, but that’s not going to happen for a few years. There are dark times ahead, and the IRFU ought to prepare properly for them.

One way to start would be by giving the smug self-satisfaction a rest and publicly bemoaning that the golden generation didn’t win as much as they should have, and if Ireland's greatest ever player wasn't let down by his home union.

What would be very revelatory and cathartic would be if the IRFU came out and said that Ireland could have had Warren Gatland as head coach for the entirety of Brian O’Driscoll’s career, and we shot ourselves in the foot big time there. An Spailpín Fánach shan’t be holding his breath.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Gallagherism - the Magic Door to the Presidency

There are strange stirrings in the Presidential election. Michael D remains favourite to win it – he’s the old dog for the hard road and he won’t be shooting himself in the foot anytime soon. But the rise of Seán Gallagher, as reported in this morning’s Irish Times, is astonishing.

It tells us a lot about the country, and is further evidence of the distance between the political and media elite and the ordinary people of Ireland, the ordinary people who have to find a way to survive the battering of recent and coming years.

There’s no good reason Gallagher should be challenging. Only Dana has less money. Labour, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael have more troops – sorry Martin – on the ground, and Mary Davis seems to have the most resources among the independents. And yet it’s Gallagher that’s coming out on top. Why?

He’s not postering. His website is, frankly, cook. His only exposure is in the shouting matches that masquerade as debates. How in holy Hell is Gallagher capturing the people’s imaginations?

Lack of baggage is Gallagher’s first moment of separation. People are deciding by process of elimination, and there are stronger reasons to object to Dana, Davis, Mitchell, McGuinness and Norris than they are to object to Gallagher or Michael D.

But it’s still remarkable that Gallagher is getting so much capital with so little exposure and less money. It’s can’t be just because of who he’s not. There has to be something else.

An Spailpín’s theory is that Gallagher is capturing the voters’ imagination because he says that he can create jobs as President.

It’s all very well to talk about visions and representing Ireland and the rest, but people living in the real world would sooner be able to pay the mortgage than listen to a lot of old blather about fairness, equality and respect. The Irish people have a lot of respect for the pound note. Surviving a famine leaves a pragmatic streak in the folk memory.

And this is what’s resonating for Gallagher. The country is falling to pieces. People want work. They want to pay their mortgages and have some sort of standard of life. If Gallagher says he’ll do that as first citizen, why not give him a shot? We can worry about pride at home, respect abroad later. This week we’re minding the job and paying the mortgage, thank you.

Of course, the President of Ireland can’t create jobs. Deputy Flanagan was correct in describing him or her as a person whose job is to cut ribbons. But you can’t say that in the middle of an election. You can’t say the President can’t do a damn thing, but we’re spending all this money on the election and office because we fancy a soft job up in the Park.

Gallagher can’t be attacked on the basis that he can’t do what he’s promising to do because that then means admitting the President doesn’t do a damn thing, really. That sort of admission will only make people who are still furious about what’s happened the country even more annoyed, and that level of fury is at Gas Mark 4 as it is.

Seán Gallagher has found the perfect storm and it could blow him right into the Phoenix Park. And once he’s there, what odds? He can’t create any jobs bar his own. He’ll be solid as a rock for seven years, step down, and lecture happily in America for the rest of his days.

Even though Gallagherism can’t deliver jobs, at least the people will have sent a message to the political elite that jobs are what count. Let’s hope there are ears to hear.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Crossing the Grain Line: To Beer or Not to Beer Before Ireland v Wales

Faster than light neutrinos booting along the spine of Italy are in the ha’penny place compared to the stress the immutable laws of nature will face in Ireland next weekend.

For the first time since William Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it, the great and manly pastimes of supporting the game of rugby and lorrying buckets of fermented barley, grain and hops are not only disunited; they are at daggers drawn.

Drinking has always been associated with rugby. Among players, the debauchery reached its apotheosis when Colin Smart, loose head prop for Tunbridge Wells and England, downed a bottle of aftershave at the France v England post-match dinner after their Five Nations game in 1982. Smart’s scrum-half, Steve Smith, later remarked that after Smart had his stomach pumped he didn’t look good but he did smell lovely.

It’s a professional era now, of course, and the modern player is fuelled solely by Lucozade Sport and boiled chicken. But for the supporters, the pints are lorried just as they always were. Rugby has always been a social sort of a game.

And that’s at the root of the weekend dilemma. The quarter-final between Ireland and Wales rises before the very dawn itself in the green land or Erin, and as such the question every supporter must ask is: pint like a savage and stay up all the night, or take one for the team and abjure Friday night gargle?

The young and restless will choose the heroes’ part, of course. Eager young men will mount the high stools like John Wayne mounting his horse while getting set to take on the Comanches – grim faced and determined in the awful realisation that men gotta do what men gotta do. By four the nightclubs and late bars will have inquired if they have no homes to go, and disgorged them onto the pavement where they do or do not.

Then they are at their greatest danger. Ladies will be making the glad eye and tempting our heroes with earthly delight. Some young men may be already insensible, and already sleeping the sleep of the just in gutters or bus shelters. And more will be laying siege to the chippers, hoping that a layer of greasy soakage between the pints already swallowed and the warm cans waiting back in the flat can make all the difference.

For greyer heads, the temptation is to wish the children well, and hope that they do not kick the wing mirrors off our cars on their way home. We choose to sit in and have an early night, in order to rise with lark, refreshed.

But reader, danger just as deadly as a night-club Natalie or a car-park coma awaits, even in the safety of the home. While trapped in one’s lair, nervously worrying about the ancient hwyl that has fueled Welsh rugby to deeds of glory through the generations, a fan may be tempted to turn on his or her television. It may be necessary to distract the mind from worrying about slow second phase ball, choke tackles or that awful dream we’ve been having where the Pink Panther recites from Yeats in the accent of Matt Williams.

Through no fault of his own, the innocent may, by a tragically unlucky chain of events and through no fault or his own, be exposed to the Late Late Show. This can only lead to one thing: a level of fury that reduces the television receiver to smithereens as you smash it to bits with the trusty poker.

But as you stand there among the broken glass and plastic, the righteous anger will subside and the grim realisation will drawn: oh bloody hell, how will I watch the game now? Reader, there will be only one choice. Go into the hall, put on your hat and coat, and go out, out into the night. Rugby and revelry have stood shoulder to shoulder, answering Ireland’s call, for too long for you to turn your back on either now.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Civil War Politics is Alive and Well in Ireland

The Presidential election, which had been so boring but has now sprung into spiteful life, has already proved one thing beyond all doubt: civil war politics is alive, well and thriving in Ireland.

Martin McGuinness’ entry, and his very strong chance of victory, has galvanized a moribund Fine Gael campaign. All week they have queued up to take shots – ho, ho – at McGuinness and all he stands for. While Fianna Fáil’s footsoldiers are much more sanguine about the prospect of President McGuinness. This is the insurmountable difference between the parties; their attitudes to the North, and bloody history of island.

Fianna Fáil have been deathly quiet about McGuinness, even though it is they who are in greater political danger from the rise of Sinn Féin. But even though their existence is threatened by the rise of Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil apparatchiks can’t muster the level of vitriol that blows up like a volcano in every Fine Gael heart at the very thought of a Shinner about the place.

Part of that Fianna Fáil quietude could be a hangover from another exercise in shooting themselves in the foot. Fianna Fáil’s declining to run a candidate in the Presidential election made sense in that the election of the First Ribbon-Cutter (thank you, Deputy Flanagan) is of secondary importance to preparing 2016 General Election candidates in the Local Elections of 2014. But they can never have imagined that Sinn Féin would pull off such a masterstroke as the entry of McGuinness. McGuinness’ candidacy has changed everything.

It is interesting to wonder if Sinn Féin would have run McGuinness if Fianna Fáil had run a candidate – An Spailpín suspects they would have kept their powder dry and not have brought so big a gun to the front. But that’s for the historians to worry about later.

In the present, the Fianna Fáil top brass can only lick yet another wound while knowing that a very big chunk of the fanbase will follow the flag and the republic, standing with Emmet and Wolfe Tone. The fact its someone else beneath the mast is of secondary importance.

While Fine Gael brings the fight to the Shinners, just like always. Fine Gael is the party that bedded the institutions of the state into the fabric of the country during the Dála of the first ten years of independence. As such, Fine Gael tend to defend those institutions with a religious zeal that Fianna Fáil have never been able to muster, despite their greater time in power. This Fine Gael zeal is especially interesting in this time of national crisis, when the institutions of the state have so clearly let us down.

The nasty sectarianism already evidenced in the campaign – that while Martin McGuinness is good enough for Nordies he is utterly out of the question for the good folk of the south – is perhaps another reflection of the reverence in which Fine Gael hold the institutions of the (southern) state. While they view the North as a failed state, Fine Gael hold the southern state to be just fine.

Well, it’s not. It’s really not. The evidence of the crash is that the institutions of the southern state have failed her people, and the fact that the new broom government are using a very old broom indeed for all their promises is something that can only fill the average citizen with despair.

Another reason why McGuinness is so attractive a candidate. The political establishment’s harping on about McGuinness’ past shows they are out of touch with the Irish present, where more and more people are beginning to realise that there may be more than one failed state on the island.

The First Ribbon-Cutter election isn’t that important in itself, but may be the beginning of a national conversation about who we are and who we want to be. The good and decent Unionists of the North were asked to put up with a lot for the sake of what they were assured was progress and a new tomorrow. For the people of the South to say that’s what’s good enough for the North isn’t good enough for the South suggests we have still to learn the lesson of history after all these bloody years. God help us.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier - Why?

A book isn’t a film and a film isn’t a book. This eternal verité is proved once more by the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie currently on general release. It’s beautiful to look it, superbly acted and scrupulously loyal to the original book. It’s just that as a movie, it’s not very good.

If you haven’t read the original John Le Carré book or are unfamiliar with the plot the odds are against you either figuring out what’s going on or why what’s going on matters. In their determination to be loyal to the book the producers of the movie have left out its heart. Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth – all of them are wonderful in the movie but they are dancers without a tune, moving to no purpose.

The only art form less subtle than film is opera. You can have subtle moments certainly but movies and opera are both written in great broad strokes. The media demand them.

To adapt a novel, the screenwriter has to boil the boil down to its very bones, and then rebuild a film structure, rather than a novel structure on those bones. You're chasing fools' gold if you try to recreate the novel in the screenplay - they're too different a beast. You have respect the conventions of each genre, and accept that what works in one won't work in the other.

What is Tinker, Tailor about? It’s not about the mole in British intelligence. The mole is incidental. Tinker, Tailor is about a man, George Smiley, who is an abject failure at everything he does bar one thing. He is absolutely gifted at his job.

Smiley has lost his job at the beginning of Tinker, Tailor and the whole narrative is about him getting his old job back. He has to do the only thing he’s good at. Smiley knows nothing else. He has no other fulfillment.

That’s what Tinker, Tailor is about, at its most fundamental. And every time you’re looking at something other than that journey of George Smiley to get his old job back the audience is being lost. The school scenes are some of the (many) joys of the book, but in the film they slow up the action. They have to go. Ricki Tarr has to go.

There are marvellous scenes there. Smiley’s reminiscence about meeting Karla, his Soviet opposite number, is moved to his hotel rather than the motorway café in the book, but it still works very well. The Christmas party motif in the film to reflect the more innocent days of the circus is inspired.

But in their effort to get everything into the film, the essence of the book is lost, and that’s a pity. It’s a noble failure of course, and the movie is certainly worth seeing in a way that so very many movies aren’t. But if you really want to treat yourself the price of two pints will get you the book. That really is a treat.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Lifting in the Lineout - The Rugby World Cup Format is Wrong

One of the reasons that rugby has adapted so well to professionalism is its willingness to change its laws as the game evolves. And not only that, rugby is willing to try a law for a season and then change it back if it doesn’t work. The administrators are always willing to do what’s best for the game.

Which makes it all the more of a pity that they haven’t tweaked the format of the World Cup. A phony war will be conducted all through the group stages, leaving the stakes impossibly high come the knockout stages where the safety net is suddenly swept away.

There are three divisions in world rugby. In the first division, there are the super powers – New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England and France. In the second division, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Argentina. In the third division, there’s everyone else.

Only a first division team can win the World Cup. A second division team can’t win it, but on their day they can stop someone else from winning it. The third division teams, God help them, are cannon fodder, and nothing else.

This means that forty group games will be played at the World Cup in order to reduce the top ten rugby playing nations to eight. That’s not the most efficient way of going about it.

In amateur days, it would be lovely for the USA to play New Zealand – they were all amateurs anyway and, even though the USA would still lose, there wasn’t the same air of businesslike formality about the All-Blacks running in try after try. There was still a place for magic and romance, no matter how thin a sliver.

But that’s all gone now as the professionals go about the expert dismemberment of the amateurs, and then have to trust all to eighty minutes of on-the-day inspiration from the quarters on. The pool games are too little while the playoffs are too much.

What’s the solution? There isn’t one, really. Perhaps the first ten teams in the world should play the World Cup as a league, each with one game against the other, and then some sort of semi-final and final to keep it interesting? It seems the fairest way.

The problem would be that the sheer physicality of modern rugby makes that impossible. Some players might manage the twelve game slate, but at a horrific cost to their health in later life.

And so we’re left with this strange shadow-boxing tournament for the first forty games of the World Cup and then the manic intensity of the final seven (let’s not count the third place play-off – nobody else does). But I suppose it’s the only World Cup we have and it’s better than nothing.

Of the five contenders, your Spailpín wouldn’t begrudge any of them, really. Australia isn’t even vaguely a rugby country but when it comes to the World Cup the Wallabies are unquestioned specialists.

New Zealand and South Africa are the greatest rugby cultures in the world (as would Wales be, if only it had the resources available to the other two) and An Spailpín has a lot of time for Martin Johnson’s heroic refusal to apologise for being English. Love him or hate him, the man’s got style.

And France. Always France. One of the greatest rugby nations, and the only one of the great traditional powers that was never part of the British Empire. That’s part of what makes them so different and so exciting.

But while it would be lovely to see France finally win a World Cup, the New Zealanders’ longing for the title, especially now on home soil, has become so acute that we are now in the peculiar situation of the favorites being the people’s champions too – to see New Zealand frustrated in every tournament is becoming cruel to everybody. (With the possible exception of the Australians, of course. Aussies are like that).

Ireland? Ireland should progress from their group, and then stand a fighting chance against South Africa (if things go according to seed), the Tri-Nations country against which the Irish have the best record. Not getting out of the group would be disappointing, but hardly novel. Losing the quarter-final would be par for the course.

But as the twilight quickly descends on the Golden Generation of O’Gara, O’Connell and O’Driscoll, it would be wonderful if they could win the quarter-final and claim one more page of history before night falls. Because when night does fall, it could last a long, long time.

Ka mate, ka mate...

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The Kinda d'État - Ireland's Contribution to Governance

There’s a great line in the Third Man movie where Orson Welles’ Harry Lime remarks on the different gifts the blood-drenched Italy of the Borgias and the orderly, methodical and godly Swiss brought to civilisation. We are lucky the arch-cynic did not cast his gaze more westerly, to this green isle of Erin.

If he had he would have discovered a nation that, having waited eight hundred years to take her place among the nations of the earth, now chooses to waste everything that so many died for like one of those forty and fifty stone abominations of humanity on reality TV, slowly gorging themselves to death.

Monday night’s history of the Rise and Fall of Fianna Fáil provided the keystone. Not because of the broad picture, which remains both sickeningly familiar and heartbreaking elusive, but because of one small detail. A passing comment that in itself sums up just why, in that phrase of our times, we are where we are.

Suzanne Kelly, daughter of Captain James Kelly, claimed on Monday night that the importation of arms to help the Republic’s nationalist brethren in Northern Ireland was sanctioned at the very highest level. The sanction was withdrawn when the dove faction in cabinet triumphed over the hawk, and the hawks – Blaney, Boland, Haughey – were then left out in cold to wither and die. The doves didn’t count for Charles Haughey’s powers of resilience and recovery of course.

In any other country, in any other democratic state, this would be hold the front page news. Was Ireland closer to war in 1970 over the Northern troubles than the USA was in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Why isn’t it this news? Where are the scholarly studies? Why doesn’t anyone care that Ireland was on the verge of a renewal of war with the old enemy?

Many hypotheses have been proposed in the misery of the past three years as to how the nation has come to this sorry state. Why wasn’t anyone watching the road? But perhaps the real answer is that nobody’s ever been watching the road, ever.

Maybe the truth is that Ireland has always been governed by luck and flaw, as the state lurches from one crisis to another while whatever cabinet is in power hopes to God there isn’t some sort of karmic Garda checkpoint at the next turn in the road.

An Spailpín is still stunned by Ms Kelly’s remarks on Monday, and that we, the nation, are completely at ease with the fact that we don’t definitely know what happened during the Arms Trial. More than two score years later, with nearly all the principles dead, was Ireland on the verge of a coup d’état?

Or was it a Kinda d’État, like every other damned thing that’s happened in this blighted country? Another half-arsed rebellion, like Emmet’s or Dwyer’s or, God help us, the Fenian invasion of Canada in 1870? Or the one that we’ll be celebrating ourselves in five years’ time? How did that one work out, on a scale of one to ten?

Does anybody take Irish governance seriously? If we did, we would damn well know just how close we came to war, bloody and horrible, in the late sixties. But we don’t. There is a cabal which knows, the elite families by whom this republic has been governed since its foundation. But the citizens? They know about as much about how this country is actually governed as a mountain goat knows about the second law of thermodynamics.

And we the citizens aren’t getting any smarter. Public debate on the great issues of the day – debt, secularism, education, sovereignty – is like seeing dancers in a nightclub strobe light. No action connects to the next. Each faction bays to the others across the empty and barren wastes where developed nations share ideas and move together.

But that land of intellectual ferment and growth is fallow ground in Ireland, ground where no faction ever learns anything from the other, from experience or from any damn thing at all, but simply seeks solace from repeating its own shibboleths over and over again, while the country slips slowly beneath the waves.

It’s whiskey in my tea from here on in. I can’t bear much more of this.