Monday, January 30, 2012

If Winter Comes, Can the National Football League Be Far Behind?

The Irish Independent treated itself to one of its shock-horror specials last week. There was a story about a storm brewing over a fixtures clash between the seventh week of the National Leagues and the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup rugby, and the fact of the latter adversely affecting the gate receipts of the former.

All of which makes philosophers wonder if anyone in the Indo every goes to games, or do they just pull this sort of stuff out of a pointed hat. An Spailpín can’t be sure, but he’s willing to bet two butter vouchers and a week’s children’s allowance that the entire gate for the last week of the National Football League in any given year wouldn’t fill Thomond Park once.

Allow for the fact that a slice of those attending those games are Gaels of old school and couldn’t be dragged kicking or screaming to a garrison game, and the chance of any sort of impact from the rubby is tiny. You can’t put a dent in something that’s already flat.

The journalists of Ireland have their arms twisted every year to pretend anybody gives a rooty-toot-toot about who wins the National League, and every year it gets to be more of a joke. Each game in the League is best understood as a once-off challenge, individual and separate from the last or the next.

The matches matter to the extent that everyone wants to play in as high as a division as possible and getting relegated will lower your standard of challenge match for next year but come on. There isn’t that big a drop between Division 1 and Division 2.

There is quite the drop from Division 2 to Division 3, and Division 4 is subsistence football I’m afraid. Doing well in the League is important to those teams, but you won’t see Christy Cooney shaking his booty to the Rubber Bandits on behalf of Leitrim or Sligo anytime soon.

Not that the League doesn’t have its charms of course. You only get proper GAA people at League games. You don’t stand in the snow and rain because it’s glamorous. The banter is more insightful, because the crowds know what they’re looking at and aren’t counting the minutes until they can get hammered with drink up the town after the game.

All this seems to pass the Morketing Deportment by, however. Instead they fill us with blather about Day One and Times for Heroes and Passion and all the rest of it.

The pentitant at a National Football League game doesn’t hand over his or her tenner because he wants to see who’ll win the League. He or she hands it over because he or she dreams of seeing hope for the summer among the muck and the rain. He or she has spent the winter stewing and wondering if something good can happen this summer.

And he or she goes to the League games in the hope of fueling that fire. If he or she doesn’t see something good, what of it? Won’t there be a different team out next week and maybe something will happen then?

Hope always burns until the ball goes up into the summer sky of Championship. The League helps fan the flames, and that’s where it’s true worth is, as opposed to anybody pretending they care who wins the thing.

An Spailpín, exiled from Mayo as Edmond Dantès was exiled from Marseilles, hopes to make the most of his current geography by spinning down to Portlaoise and casting a cold eye on Mayo v Laois. It’s a beautiful ground, and excitement is high at home for Horan 2.0 after the triumphs of last year.

Nobody will be caught napping this year as Cork were last year but there are players bubbling up in Mayo now and the League is the chance to see them audition for the green and red vestments and the impossible glory of the Irish summer. In the meantime, thank God for the League, and something to do of a weekend.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Milk is Spilt. Occupying the Bottle Won't Bring It Back.

Dublin 2 was fringed with protesters yesterday, heartscalded and weeping as the infamous Anglo Bondholders cashed in their latest dividend, or bag of swag, or whatever the technical name for the thing is.

A group of young people stretched from outside the old Anglo-Irish bank headquarters at the top of Stephen Green’s all the way down to the Spar on Merrion Row. They were a crack detachment of the Occupy Dame Street activists, not dissimilar to Brad Pitt’s recent squad of Nazi killers in Inglorious Basterds. Unfortunately, these protesters didn’t so much look like Hollywood heartthrobs as some slight superannuated Billie Barrie kids hoping for a chorus part in a new production of Oliver! Please sir, can I have some more, indeed.

Around the corner, outside Government buildings, someone had gone to greater effort. Two men were dressed in black suits and bowler hats, a la Laurel and Hardy, but these boys went one step further than Stan and Ollie ever did.

They wore pink piggy snouts, pink piggy facepaint and danced around in a piggy style to music that was hard to distinguish from the saddle of a bike. A knot of guards watched the pig men with wild surmise, while a TV cameraman had to fight hard not to join in the dance himself, clearing looking forward to a cracking lead on the evening news.

When it comes to empty gestures and crying after spilt milk, nobody does it quite like the Irish. The Anglo bondholders are getting paid. They were always going to get paid. Always.

There isn’t a force between hell and Bethlehem that will stop the Anglo bondholders getting paid. If there was, don’t you think the Government, now busy taxing the pound of butter and taxing the ha’penny bun, wouldn’t use it? Why on Earth wouldn’t they? Do you think they need more grief?

The pig men are play-acting. The occupy people will wake up with hangovers in strange beds this morning so for them it wasn’t a total washout, according to how one scores life at that age.

But for the plain people of Ireland, the people who have to write the cheques to finance this nonsense, it’s another dagger through a heart that looks like a pound of mincemeat right now. Now we waste time as well money. Money can come back. Time never will.

Hopping on one foot down O’Connell Street on Saturday at two o’clock as part of the People Not Banks Movement, the Hang the Bankers Movement, the End Capitalism Movement or Whatever You’re Having Yourself Movement won’t change a blessed thing. It’s all for show.

The milk is spilt. It was spilt long ago, and it’s not going back in the bottle. Ireland can no more reverse the bank agreement than it can the Border Commission, the Treaty, the Famine or the Norman Invasion. If we could, we would. We can’t. Get over it.

People are angry about how so much has been lost, and rightly so. But rather than be angry or playing at dressing up, it would behove the Irish nation better to find out what went wrong and to ask ourselves how exactly we can stop it going wrong again.

Next time, how about not believing every sun, moon and local hospital promise politicians make. How about voting for someone because they’re good and not because they live down the road. Or how about voting for someone who will reform the system so that it can never not be held to account again? Wouldn’t that be more productive than acting the maggot on Merrion Row?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Claire Byrne is the Late Late Show's Only Hope

RTÉ has a dilemma in regard to the Late Late Show. It is this: the number of people who watch the show seems to exist in inverse proportion to those who actually like it.

If people stopped watching the Late Late, the next step for RTÉ would be obvious and inevitable. But people don’t stop watching. Twelve years since Gay Byrne did his last Late Late Show, the program remains a ratings juggernaut for RTÉ, even though the amount of people who claim to like it is equivalent to the current population of the Great Blasket.

The Late Late is an anachronism. In its glory years of the 1970s and 1980s, there was nothing else. The very presence of people in Ireland talking on television about Irish things was remarkable in and of itself. To think that that the Gay Byrne Late Late was shy about combing the RTÉ canteen is to re-write history. But that wasn’t a problem then, because the very existence of the show was novel and thrilling. Who cared if this was Maureen Potter’s ten millionth appearance? Ireland had taken her place among the nations of the Earth.

That thrill is now long gone. The audience’s sophistication has increased dramatically, meaning that they are less tolerant of the revolving guest list of Pat Shortt, Brendan O’Carroll and someone from Fair City. But they are not so sophisticated as to go watch something else. The nation hasn’t reached that level yet, it seems.

This presents RTÉ with a dilemma. The show must stay on the road because it brings in the money necessary to pay those extraordinary RTÉ salaries, but the standard of show is now so low that it has to be depressing everyone who works in Montrose. It’s time for a change. Tubridy is out of his depth. They need a new host – or hostess.

Miriam O’Callaghan is presented as the Woman Most Likely whenever this discussion comes up, but RTÉ should be a little more daring and give the Late Late Show a 21st Century hostess. Someone who can talk equally well to the Fair City starlets before the break and put the heat on public figures after.

There’s only one choice. It has to be Claire Byrne, and for three reasons.

Firstly, she can do all the frothy stuff, as she does weekly on the Daily Show. Your correspondent has never seen the Daily Show but it’s almost certainly fine, if that’s your bag. Tubridy is fine interviewing the Fair City barmaids too, but it was, famously, a point of contention for Pat Kenny.

But while Tubridy struggles with the grown-up stuff, Byrne is excellent, as she proves daily on the Late Debate on Radio One and used to prove on the Newstalk Breakfast Show. This is the second point in her favour. Claire Byrne understands current affairs. Not only is she is a tenacious interviewer, but she never editorialises. She knows he purpose is to moderate debate, rather than participate in it.

The final reason Claire Byrne would make an excellent hostess for the Late Late Show is less obvious, but vital. She can’t be pushed around.

It’s a small thing, but subtly revealing – the Newstalk Breakfast Show does a paper view every morning. And while your correspondent hasn’t been keeping score, I do have the impression that Ivan Yates always does the broadsheets and Chris Donaghue always does the tabloids. When Claire Byrne co-hosted, they alternated. That says a lot about La Byrne.

If the Late Late Show can be saved, it’s only Claire Byrne that can do it. And if RTÉ send Brendan O’Connor to Mongolia and replace his wretched show with Máirtín Tom Sheáinín’s marvellous Comhrá on TG4, that wouldn’t be a bad day’s work either.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Army That Didn't Shoot Its Deserters

There is a story brewing in the media that the Irish state was somehow negligent in its treatment of deserters from the Irish army during the Second World War. The opposite is the case; the fact that the soldiers did not suffer capital punishment, or do not now have the threat of capital punishment hanging over them, was and is an act of profound clemency.

Being in the army isn’t like another job. The risk of death is part of parcel of soldiering. So how then do ask a man to go and do something that might get him killed?

You can’t have a company of soldiers who hold discussions on what we’ll do next. George Orwell wrote eloquently in Homage to Catalonia how hard it was to run a war with an army which rejected power structures, and would only act after full democratic discussion had been carried out – by which time the Falange were five miles inside the lines and cutting the Republicans to ribbons.

When a soldier is given an order he or she has to snap to it, and think about it after, if it all. This is especially true in wartime, when the risk of death or dismemberment is only a moment away. And one of the ways that armies since Alexander have maintained the discipline necessary to hold the line, to put your duty ahead of the need to secure your own welfare, was to execute you if you didn’t.

Whatever chance you had in battle, you had no chance against a firing squad. Therefore, they went over the top at Ypres and Passchendaele and all those other hellholes. It was the only way they could.

When soldiers deserted the Irish army during the Second World War, or the Emergency if you like, they were liable for a death sentence. The current bleating about them not being given heroes’ welcomes is nonsense. To not shoot the men was an act of profound clemency, taking into account many of the different factors at play. The Government can’t let acts of desertion slide, but to have shot them would have been too much.

The reality of the situation as it was in the Ireland twenty years after Independence is not being taken into account in the current debate. The chief spin is that Ireland was somehow morally bankrupt in not fighting Hitler. Well. Hindsight is twenty-twenty vision, isn’t it?

In 1938 the British did everything in their power to appease Hitler. Time Magazine named Der Fuhrer their Man of the Year. The USA, guardians of liberty, did not declare war on Germany until Germany declared war on the USA first. There are all manner of evils taking place in the world now, in countries run by evil people.

Hands up everyone who thinks its time to send to troops to Zimbabwe, to stop Robert Mugabe slaughtering his people just as Hitler slaughtered the Jews. And hands up everyone who thinks that’s ever going to happen. Wars are always about politics first, morality a distant second.

Besides. Even if Ireland had entered the war, it’s greatest threat to its own sovereignty was from the British, as Churchill made clear in 1945. He remarked that “if it had not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr de Valera or perish for ever from this earth.” If Churchill had come to close quarters with Mr de Valera, as he wished to do, would the Irish soldiers have then re-deserted to rejoin their own army, or would they have happily invaded away, secure that they were Morally Right?

De Valera’s famous condolence visit to the German embassy on the death of Hitler is always used as a stick with which to beat him. What is not brought up as often is that De Valera’s sending of the Dublin Fire Brigade to Belfast was a breach of neutrality. It was one of many other breaches. To say that the Government of the day were morally bankrupt in their attitude to Hitler is not true. They provided as much tacit support as they could under the reality of their own time and situation.

The headline in this Irish Times story describes the deserters as the “soldiers who left to fight Hitler.” However, if you read the story, you realise, as you may have suspected all along, that they left for money. They took the King’s shilling, as generations had before them.

We should never forget our history, but we shouldn’t try to rewrite it to suit modern agendas. More luck to the museum in Boyle that commemorates the Devil’s Own Connaught Rangers. The best of people took that shilling, because they had no other choice.

Paddy and Tom Clancy, of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem fame, served with the RAF in India. A man married to your correspondent’s mother’s cousin was in the RAF during the war. Good luck to them all. Starving for a principle is no way to live.

What is problematic is the current campaign to rewrite history and pretend that things happened that didn’t happen at all, or judge historical events out of their context. We were told that it was “too soon” for Martin McGuinness to be President of Ireland seventeen years after the IRA ceasefire. Yet eighteen years was not too soon for Ireland to fight alongside the army that hanged Kevin Barry and burned Cork, in the opinion of this “pardon the deserters” movement.

The “moral argument” that Hitler had to be stopped was not apparent to Neville Chamberlain, the editors of Time magazine or the United States in the 1930s, and none of their cities looked like Cork after the British Army went playing with matches.

De Valera’s sending of the fire brigades to Belfast is a bigger deal than the empty formula of the Herr Hempel visit. To berate the Irish state for its actions during the war is nonsense, and based on spin and second-guessing. As for the deserters, they got their shilling and they didn’t get a bullet when they came back home. They’re ahead of the game.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Won't Someone Put Connacht Out of their Misery?

After thirteen straight defeats, and a fourteenth as inevitable on Saturday as another tax increase or cursed referendum, the people involved in Connacht rugby need to ask themselves why do they bloody bother.

It’s hard to love something that doesn’t love you back, and there are no signs of love for Elwood and Connacht right now. Connacht lost in Italy last Saturday, to a team who would be the Gaelic football equivalent of Sligo. You expect to beat them, but every now and again they’re going to hand you your hat.

This Saturday, Connacht have to travel to Toulouse, which is the equivalent of playing Kerry in Tralee in high summer. If Connacht get less of a beating than the Huguenots suffered on Saint Bartholomew’s Day they can consider themselves very lucky. A seventy-point pasting could be on the cards, and the -26 available on the rouge et noir looks a gimme to your correspondent.

It’s one thing to say you should never quit, but that only applies to a fair fight. Connacht aren’t in a fair fight. Connacht have nothing like the funds or the resources that the other provinces have. You won’t fight anyone with your hands tied behind your back. You’ve handed your wooden sword, clapped on the back and told: on you go son. The Romans are thattaway.

Most wretched of all is the patronizing way the Connacht games are covered in the national media. How galling can it be for the players and supporters to be patted on the head and told what brave little meneen they are? Where's the pride listening to that?

If the people involved in Connacht Rugby do want to show some pride, they could realise that the IRFU needs Connacht more than Connacht needs the IRFU. The clubs will continue to play – people who want to play will be able to do so. Players who want to pay professionally will always have that chance. If you want to be paid for playing rugby, there are more towns than Galway in the world.

Ordinary people in Connacht itself support either Munster or Leinster anyway. Munster, because they were the first, a sporting personification of the Spirit of the Celtic Tiger. And Leinster, because even if you haven’t been privately educated, all that yak about “Munster by the grace of God” gets tiresome very quickly.

An Spailpín’s not very trusting nature suspects that the IRFU are content to keep Connacht barefoot, pregnant and tied to the kitchen sink because all four provinces are vital to the IRFU’s marketing of itself professional rugby product. “The four proud provinces of Ireland,” as that dreadful song goes. They want Connacht to exist to add lustre to the other three, but for no other reason. Back to the scullery, Cinders, and damn well know your place.

Well, when what’s left of Connacht come home from Toulouse, maybe it’s time to blow the whistle on the IRFU and start demanding some rights. If the IRFU want Connacht to exist a province, they need to support Connacht rugby.

The whole thing about Connacht as a “development” province is a joke and a nonsense. As soon as any player shows any signs of talent, he scurries away to Munster or Leinster, showing all the loyalty of a rat. Connacht must then make up the numbers with international players. These aren’t great old pros in the autumn of their careers. They’re not so much Dougie Howlett as Doogie Howser.

If the IRFU wants to support Connacht Rugby, let them go ahead and support Connacht Rugby. If they just want to patronize the west, Connacht Rugby should fold it tents and tell the IRFU go hang. Better to die on your feet than live on your knees.