Monday, December 30, 2013

The Sporting Year - Review and Preview

After Mayo lost the All-Ireland Final to Donegal in 2012, a football man, a fatalist, and a personal friend of the blog remarked that this could be the beginning of an unprecedented era in Mayo football, where the heather county would manage an unprecedented feat of losing three finals in a row.

We’re two up on that now so those of you unlucky enough to be from somewhere other than the sweet county Mayo may excuse us if we’re a little twitchy in the year ahead, and whistle past every graveyard we see. James Horan has committed to another year, and the crusade will begin again in New York City in May. Fingers crossed.

The main story in Gaelic football was of course Dublin, who won their second title in three years and are showing all the makings of a dynasty. They have the best squad of players they’ve had since the 1970s, and the best coaching and management. They’re the team to beat in 2014, no question.

A rebuilt Kerry will be interesting, God only knows what Cork will be like, Tyrone are a team it’s hard to be fully convinced about and if you’re looking for a dark horse you could do worse than Galway, curse them.

It’s hard to see Donegal reaching the heights again, there’s no reason to expect Meath or Kildare to raise the bar in Leinster, which means that we could be looking at our first repeat matchup in the All-Ireland Final since 2009. Mayo are looking good for those three losses in a row alright.

In hurling, Clare were deserving champions as Davy Fitzgerald answered his critics for once and for all. To read the papers during the Championship was to be told that John Allen, Jimmy Barry-Murphy and Anthony Daly were the Balthazar, Melcior and Casper of hurling, while Davy Fitz was some sort of monkey that only recently swung down out a tree.

But Davy outgeneralled them all, tying Limerick in knots in the semi-final, playing an unexpectedly traditional lineup against Cork in the drawn final and then pulling a substitution masterstroke in the replay. Cork fought to the end and their iconic manager proved his class once more by looking on those two imposters, success and failure, and treating them just the same.

In rugby, the long-anticipated end of the Lions Tour was brought closer by Sky Sports’ genuinely awful coverage of the 2013 campaign. By the end it was hard to escape the conclusion that Will Greenwood would see a trip to the shops for a pound of tea as a timeless Odyssey across a desolate, barren plain, while Scott Quinnell would declare Samson bringing down the Philistine towers as one and the same with his opening the curtains of a morning. The level of hype was ridiculous, embarrassing and one of the reasons why so many non-rugby people find the Lions a joke.

Of course, the Lions touring Australia of all countries was half the problem. The Lions tour only works in countries were rugby is king, which means New Zealand or South Africa. Australia was only added to the schedule when South Africa was in its apartheid exile, and should have been swiftly removed once the Springboks returned. There is a better case to be made for the Lions touring Argentina than Australia. The Australian public could not give a stuff about rugby and indifference is a much greater enemy to the tradition of the Lions than countless hammerings at the hands of the All-Blacks.

As for the tour itself, there was shock, horror, hurt and genuine sorrow at home when Brian O’Driscoll was dropped for the third test but, in the bigger picture, the team justified Warren Gatland’s decision by not just winning, but by destroying Australia. A bad ending for O’Driscoll, but the correct call by management.

O’Driscoll is on his goodbye tour now – all rugby people’s one wish now is that this great man just doesn’t get hurt. It would perhaps have been better if he had retired, but Brian Moore was right when he said that if O’Driscoll were to retire, someone would have to retire him. A brave man fights to the end. We have been lucky to have seen him.

In soccer, the return of Roy Keane was best summed up by Ken Early of the Second Captains, who tweeted “my own feeling about the o'neill/keane combo is an unfamiliar and almost unsettling sense of excitement, anticipation and wonder” on the second of November, when the news broke. And even though Martin O’Neill is the manager, it’s Roy Keane who’s the story, as ever. The team isn’t any good and people who think it will get good when the players whom Trapattoni didn’t wouldn’t pick return may be fooling themselves. But throughout all this there will be Keane, O’Driscoll’s brother from another mother, and for that a nation will count its blessings.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Being from Mayo is Just Great

The Palace Bar, Fleet Street - the south-western
corner of the Mayo triangle, September 21st, 2013.
First published in the Western People on Monday.

These are days of magic and wonder in the county Mayo. It’s not always obvious to us, just as it’s not always possible to see the wood from the trees when we’re in the wood. But in time, when the world has turned a little more, and the young have grown up and the old have passed on, it’ll be clear as crystal to those who can look back just how great these recent years have been.

Twenty years ago next summer, the Leitrim Observer was the butt of some cruel jokes when that newspaper published a map of Dublin with directions to Croke Park prior to Leitrim’s 1994 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. Ho, ho, ho, thought the bigshots. God love them down in Leitrim, lost in the big city.

But it hadn’t been so long since Croke Park was a mystery to the County Mayo as well. It took twelve long years between 1969 and 1981 for Mayo to win the Nestor Cup, and the win over Tyrone in 1989 was Mayo’s first summertime win in Croke Park in thirty-eight years. Cities change a lot in thirty-eight years; we could have printed a map ourselves, and found it useful.

Now? Now, the people of Mayo know Croke Park as well as we know Croagh Patrick – backwards. We know where to park, where to eat, where to stay, where the good seats are, why it’s not wise in an age of austerity to buy from the concession stands inside or from the hats, flags and headbands men outside. We can spot a ticket scalper from fifty paces, and a man with a spare ticket from one hundred. We meet the same faces in the same places, tell the same jokes and dream the same dreams.

And we’re dreaming yet, of course. The ashy taste in the mouth come five to five on those third Sundays is something we could do without, and you can read better informed opinion on the finer points of the football side of things in the sports pages. But on the social side of things, on the cultural side of things, on what it means to the people of Mayo, at home and abroad – these are days of magic and wonder.

By the time August rolls around, three quarters of the counties in Ireland have resigned themselves to watching the Championship on telly, with no shouting interest. Not us. Mayo are consistently in the first division of the League, and consistently in the final eight of the Championship for the past twenty years. How many other counties can say that? How many other counties carry their banners to the capital, year after year, summer after summer?

For who knows what reason, the stars seemed to align on the Saturday night before the All-Ireland this year. There are two approaches to the All-Ireland Final always – either have a settler or two at home and travel up in the morning, or travel up on Saturday and do your settling in the city on Saturday night.

As your correspondent is currently exiled in the city, this isn’t an issue. Normally, the plan is to have one or two in town and then get home at a Christian hour, the better to rest for the trials ahead. This column made the same plan this year – town, few pints, home on the last bus.

But, for whatever reason, there was something happening in Dublin city that night. Something Mayo. Thanks to the Mayo GAA Blog, the best Irish sports resource on the world wide web bar none, it’s become a thing to assemble in a bar called Bowe’s, on Fleet Street, just south of O’Connell Bridge, before big Mayo matches. And on this particular night, it seemed like everybody in the county was in a transplanted Mayo triangle, formed by O’Connell Bridge, Bowe’s on the eastern side of Fleet Street and the famous Palace Bar to the west.

In Bowe’s, I met my cousin’s daughter, a child in my mind, a clever, chic and sophisticated young woman in reality. In the Palace, I met another cousin, home from Northampton for this most Mayo of events.

We sometimes forget how big Mayo is, and what a distance there is from north to south, from east to west. On that Saturday night, the plain of yews seemed to shrink to that one triangle in the capital, as we compared townland pronunciations, memories of past teams and dreams of the future.

After the disappointment of the All-Ireland Final, Keith Duggan wrote in the Irish Times that it isn’t that Mayo people don’t care about football; it’s that we care too much. And Duggan had a point, up to a point.

We do care too much. Football in Mayo isn’t just football. It’s everything we were, are, and hope to be. Everything that has gone wrong in our lives, everything that we regret, everything that we wish for, is wrapped into the fabric of the jersey that features the green above the red, and that’s an awful lot of weight to carry in one jersey in any one year.

And when Mayo do with their fourth All-Ireland we’ll find that it hasn’t solved everything. That regret is still real, that what’s done can’t be undone, that not all wishes come true. But when that small disappointment subsides, we’ll realise that what we want is what we had all along – the togetherness of it all, the adventure, the having something to look forward to all summer, the camaraderie under the green and red flags and banners, and the heady and thrilling pride of being from such a place as the sweet County Mayo.

Happy Christmas, one and all, and especially to yet another cousin whom I met high up with the eagles on the big day itself and who told me he enjoyed the column. See you next year, Mike. Up Mayo.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas at the Maginot Line, 1939

Being a sentimental fool, I like to put a up a Christmas song around this time of year for the day that'll be in it tomorrow. But this year is a bit special.

I found footage on You Tube of French soldiers celebrating Christmas in 1939, with a soundtrack of the great contemporary French singer of the time, Tino Rossi, singing Minuit, Chrétiens (O Holy Night) and Trois Anges Sont Venus. The footage of a army chaplain vesting and saying midnight mass in the Maginot Line is extraordinary. How many of those soldiers lived through what came in 1940? Maybe we don't have it so bad after all.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir, agus go mbeirfimid beo fós ag an am seo arís.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Not Minding Our Language

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The great man has moved on. In years to come, grandchildren will climb up onto the old people’s laps and ask “where were you when you heard the awful news that he was gone?”

“Who?,” you’ll say. “Nelson Mandela?”

“No,” they’ll say. “Seán Ó Curreáin.”

To describe the resignation of Ireland’s first ever Coimisinéir Teanga as a storm in a teacup is unjust to both weather and delph. Ó Cuirreáin’s resignation mattered in that world within a world that is the Irish public service, and even then in a very small corner of that.

To the country outside, the public that is passionate about saving the language, the public that pays lip-service to the language by singing the first three words of the anthem in Croke Park and the public that genuinely hates the language, Ó Cuirreáin’s resignation mattered not a jot. The world kept on turning just the same.

And that’s a pity. It’s to Ó Cuirreáin’s supreme credit that he did resign when he realised that there was nothing for him to do. Others in his place would have hung on like grim death, recognising a handy number when they saw it. So Ó Cuirreáin is to be celebrated for his patriotism.

What is to be regretted is that it came to this. That there isn’t sufficient vision to properly protect the language and hand it on for future generations, rather than see a slow race to the grave between those who would kill the Irish language by neglect and those who would kill it by incompetence, like pandas rolling over their cubs.

What is the job of the Coimisinéir Teanga? The Coimisinéir Teanga exists to ensure that the Official Languages Act is enforced. What does the Official Languages Act do? The Official Languages Act ensures that anybody who wants to conduct business of the state in the state’s first language, Irish, may do so.

So let’s think about that for a second. Remember back in September when the Government pulled the plug on the non-use exemption for motor tax and people had to queue for hours to register their vehicles before the Revenue took another slice out of them? Imagine queuing for that long, and then queuing some more until they found someone behind the desk who could speak Irish to you. You’d want to have thought of bringing a packed lunch before you left the house. And maybe a sleeping bag.

In an ideal world, of course you could do your business with the state in the first language of the state. In the real world, you’re grateful for what you can wrestle off them before whatever amenity it is you’re after is taxed, confiscated or otherwise disappeared.

The policy of mass translations and government jobs in perpetuity is a classic cub of the Tiger. The Government of the early 2000s, swimming in money, much preferred to throw great bags of the stuff at problems rather than work them out. Easier to set up a Coimisinéir Teanga to ensure you could apply for the pension or an pinsean as you pleased than to think about how differently the Irish think about their language now, the greater level of positivity that exists towards the language in the Galltacht, the area outside the Gaeltacht, and see if there’s any symbiosis that can be built between the two.

Irish will never return as the first spoken language of the country as long as English remains the de facto world language, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a huge role to play in the country. Unfortunately, finding out exactly what that role could be would be hassle; better to just write a cheque and forget about it for a while.

Therefore, we find ourselves in a situation now where the problem remains and there isn’t any money to throw at it. And now that belts are being tightened, the voices who are anti-Irish are suddenly getting louder about wastes of money on a “dead language.” The Government are unlikely to appoint another Coimisinéir Teanga – what would be the point? That will only cost them money and if Ó Cuirreáin couldn’t squeeze blood from a stone it’s hard to see the next man or woman doing it either. And in the meantime, the language is left to drift further towards the rocks.

Besides; ensuring the language is vibrant and well is not the job of the Comisinéir Teanga, and nor does it have anything to do with the Official Languages Act, 2003. That is a whole other can of worms.

The body in charge of the wellbeing of the language is Foras na Gaeilge, a cross-border body set up in December, 1999, as a dividend of the Good Friday Agreement. It is one of the more low-profile public bodies, to say the least, and far be it for a hurler on the ditch to assess what he knows little about.

But I do know this much: there is no received pronunciation in Irish. There is no dictionary in Irish, where Irish words are defined in the Irish language just as the Oxford English Dictionary defines English words in the English language.

There is a terminology board, whose responsibility it is to create words for things that haven’t existed before. Fighting over what is “pure” Irish and what isn’t is one of the things that scares people away from the language, but the current “correct” translation for tweet, as in the social media communication is “tvuít.” If that’s Irish, I wouldn’t like to hear Klingon.

So farewell, then, Seán Ó Cuirreáin, broken on the wheel of the nation’s hopelessly mixed-up attitude to its own language. I hope whoever takes over has more luck.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Is Eugene McGee Having Trouble With His Sums?

Eugene McGee, in his capacity as Chairman of the Football Review Committee (FRC) of the GAA, has come up with what he described in yesterday’s Independent as the “Four Eights” proposal.

The Four Eights proposal is that both the Ulster and Leinster Championships will feature preliminary rounds featuring Ulster and Leinster teams from the lower depths of the National League. One losing team from Leinster and one from Ulster will be added to Connacht, and the two remaining Leinster losers will be added to Munster. This way, all four provincial Championships will feature an equal eight teams – hence, “Four Eights.”

Except that they won’t. Connacht has seven counties that currently compete for the Nestor Cup – the five native counties, plus London and New York. Seven plus two equals nine, not eight. So it’s either back to the drawing board with that one, or else it’s bad news for the Gaels across the water. Or perhaps Galway – one can always dream.

McGee also remarks that one of the reasons that this “Three Eights and One Nine” proposal is necessary is because the current structure disenfranchises the club player, who often sees the club championship fixtures postponed for as long as the county team stays in the Championship. And that’s true, as far as it goes.

The problem is that the counties who stay a long time in the Championship are very seldom those who play their league football in Division 4. How often could fixture congestion have been an issue in Wicklow or Waterford in the past 140 years? As for the rest, this proposal will have no affect on them whatsoever.

Nobody doubts the credentials of McGee or his committee, or their intent, or their ability. But they have put forward a wrong solution to something that isn’t even a problem in the first place. The rationale behind it is baffling.

Every year, whenever someone gets hammered in the Championship, a talking head appears on the Sunday Game or someone writes a why-oh-why column in one of the papers, bemoaning the “inequality” of the Championship. You can’t argue with a paper, but at no stage does Des Cahill on the Sunday Game or, God forbid, Michael Lyster, ask the moaner on TV just what exactly is it about the Championship that’s unfair, with specific reference to the provincial system.

The broad stroke theory is that some provinces are easier to win than others. But which is it? Is winning Leinster easy or hard? The same team has won Leinster for eight of the past nine years, and was unlucky to lose in the odd year of those nine too. Does that mean ten of the eleven football counties in Leinster are pushovers?

People think that the standard of Connacht football is poor. How is that the Connacht Champions have won three quarter-finals and two semi-finals against the other provinces in the past three years? Two quarters and a semi against Ulster teams who are to be added to the Connacht Championship to either give them a chance or else to beef up Connacht? It makes no sense. There is no clear thought here.

All people hear is the moan. Nobody takes the moan further to see if there is a rationale behind it, or if it’s just moaning for moaning’s sake. But the facts are that there is no evidence that the Championship is unfair.

The Championship is a knockout sporting competition. For every winner, there are 31 losers. Is that fair? Most people think it is. So at what point, as you work back, does the Championship stop being “unfair”? Most people think the Championship only gets fair after the August Bank Holiday weekend – “that’s when the real Championship begins,” say the pundits, as all the best teams are there.

But hold on – if all the best teams are playing at the start of August, surely the system that got them there must be correct? And you’re telling me it’s broken and needs fixing?

When asked for an alternative to the modern-day slave trade that is the GAA senior football championship, the plaintiffs like to point to the UEFA Champions League as the exemplar of all that is good and right and most of all, fair, in a sports competition.

This year, Zenit St Petersburg have got to the second round with six points from their group games. Napoli got twelve points in their group game, and are going nowhere. What’s so fair about that?

There is no perfect system. In sports, someone’s got to win and someone’s got to lose and it isn’t always the best team that wins – that’s what makes it so compelling, and such a true mirror to life. There is no structure, anywhere, in any sport, that is always perfectly, entirely “fair” because it’s so hard to define just what “fair” is.

Besides. The two greatest inequalities in the GAA have nothing to do with the competitions. They have to do with the fact that counties have different population sizes and have different access to money.

The only way of dealing with the population size issue is a transfer market. People have talked about this occasionally in hurling, and there are dark rumours of attempts to carry it out in football. But people are generally of one mind that when Mayomen no longer play for Mayo or Kerrymen no longer play for Kerry we might as well pack it in and play whatever garrison game best suits our particular part of the world.

As for the money – well, once the lid is off that jar it never goes back on. Eugene McGee himself wrote once that allowing shirt sponsorship was the ruination of the GAA, as it allowed money to become a factor. The GAA was seen as being heavy-handed in opposing Kerry’s famous sponsorship deal with Bendix washing machines in 1985. Perhaps if they had held the line better back then there wouldn’t be as much chequebook football as there is now. It’d certainly do the counties toiling in Division 4 more good than giving them a third chance of a hiding in a “Three Eights and One Nine” Championship format.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Nigella, Gwyneth and the Holy Kale

First published in the Western People on Monday.

 With Nigella Lawson – magnificent creature! – back in the news, thoughts turn to that strangest of creatures, the foodie. A foodie is someone who likes to claim he or she is obsessed with food, passionate about food, or a food junkie, but beware – a foodie is the first person to be highly insulted if you think the foodie and some great fat lump who can eat two snackboxes and a battered sausage after a night out are one and the same. Highly insulted.

There are definite limits to the foodie’s obsession. For the foodie, the joy is – or seems to be – in the hunt, rather than the kill. A true foodie doesn’t seem to spend that much time eating actual food. The hobby seems to be much more about either sourcing exotic ingredients and then cooking them in a no-less-exotic way. After that, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if it all went in the bin, as most foodies are remarkably thin – a look seldom associated with those who winter well.

If foodies ate as much food as they talk about, they’d waddle around the place like human-sized penguins, always carrying satchels full of sandwiches in case they came over weak and needed a quick snack in between restaurants. Instead of that, they’re all thin as rails.

All of this reverence towards food is a genuine mystery to your correspondent. When cornered into eating out once, one of my companions at table asked me if I liked hot food. “Well,” I said, “I prefer it to the food being cold, like.”

This was the wrong answer, and I came across as being insufferably rude. But that wasn’t my intention – my answer, as well as being the first thing that came into my head, was and is my honest opinion. For your correspondent, eating is a means to an end. I am hungry; I eat; I am not hungry any more. Three simple steps, with the middle one just a detail compared to the misery of the first and the joy of the last.

For me, rhapsodies about the nature of the food I ate or the subtleties of its cooking are as bizarre as someone telling me that the train that travels from Ballina to Dublin is an eighteen-year-old General Motors 201 powered by a two-stroke, 3200 horsepower V12 engine. I couldn’t care less about the choo-choo – I just want to know how long you were stuck in Manulla.

The strangest thing about the foodie is what he or she chooses to champion as good eats at any one particular time. Sometimes it’s something that you’re fully familiar with, like the vogue for serving black pudding as a starter in the nicer restaurants.

You thought it was just another part of the breakfast, and here is now in its fifteen-Euro-a-plate glory. It’s like seeing Mick Wallace TD in a suit. You’re not quite expecting it.

But sheep guts are now, like, so last year. In the closing days of 2013, it is difficult to open a recipe book without learning about all the great things you can do with kale.

Kale, for those who don’t know, is a kind of wild cabbage. The difference between it and tame cabbage is that tame cabbage forms into a head, while the kale leaves stay separate. If a head of lettuce and a head of cabbage went to the office Christmas party and had a bit too much of a good time, kale would be the result.

Rachel Allen describes kale as one of her favorite vegetables in Rachel’s Irish Family Food, one of her many cookbooks. Gwyneth Paltrow actually drinks the stuff, as she testifies on her website, “Kale is full of calcium and antioxidants and just about everything else—it’s one of the best things you can put into your system. When juiced with a bit of lemon and agave, kale turns into a sort-of grassy lemonade.”

A sort-of grassy lemonade. I can imagine the delight of Harriet the Heifer but Anto the Western People Columnist? No, thank you. I’ll stick to the Lyons’s tay, thanks all the same.

What’s most bizarre about this second-class cabbage being hailed in the Manchester Guardian as “the hottest vegetable this season,” is that kale has a prominent role in one of the greatest of Irish poems, the Doneraile Curse. The poet who wrote the curse, Patrick O’Kelly, must surely spin in his grave every time kale gets written up in a glossy magazine or featured on some TV cookery show. Of course, glossy magazines and TV would startle him too, he being dead for the weight of two hundred years.

The Doneraile Curse came to be written when O’Kelly had his watch stolen while visiting that sleepy Cork town. Like all writers, O’Kelly was fully aware of the dignity of his person and, when he decided to take revenge on Doneraile for the insult done to him, he didn’t spare the timber.

O’Kelly damns Doneraile every which he can, excoriating the place over 62 burning lines. He wants fiends to assail the town, the sun never to shine in the town, fire and brimstone to fall on it, and so on. And naturally, he also considers certain alterations to the diet of the citizenry:

May beef or mutton, lamb or veal,
Be never found in Doneraile,
But garlic soup and scurvy kale
Be still the food for Doneraile

Kale is scurvy no more. Lady Doneraile, that sensible woman who bought O’Kelly a new watch in order to undo the curse (which he graciously lifted over another sixty-two lines), would serve it every evening at table if she were still on the go. This is the fickle nature of fashion. Next year, it may be our friend the parsnip, or asparagus may make a long-awaited but little-longed-for return. But for now it’s fields and fields of kale as far as the eye can see.

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Politics of Healthcare

I diagnose - money. Lots
and lots of money.
First published in the Western People on Monday.

The politics of healthcare are always difficult. You can only ever build so many hospitals and employ so many doctors. There will always be a gap between what people think they need and what a service can provide. Not every health care story will be good news, by the very nature of the business.

For all that, the politics of healthcare have taken an unedifying dip in recent years that reflects badly on all concerned. In arguing over budgets in the media instead of in their offices, where they belong, those involved in running the Irish health service are terrifying ordinary people who have enough to worry about as the nights continue to lengthen and the cold winter bites.

The most recent instance of this is the dispute over pay to the Chief Executive Officers of different hospitals in the State. It started some weeks ago, when the CEOs of the Mater, St James’s, Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin, and Tallaght Hospital published a letter they had written to the HSE, predicting all sorts of calamity should funding to those four hospitals be cut any further.

This letter was covered on Prime Time and made the main story on Morning Ireland the next day. Further calamity in the health service, doctors and nurses working 23-hour-days, what are the people to do?

At no stage did anyone stop and stay: wait a minute. Has anyone done the sums on this? Do these people have a point?

The wheel has come full circle now, as someone – goodness knows who – has leaked the salaries of certain hospitals CEOs to the media, and the shoe is now on the other foot. The salaries of the hospital CEOs who dare not cut one cent further are now in the news and, to the surprise of no-one, they are both big and fat.

This is what happens when amateurs play politics. They get your hands dirty. By entering the political arena, the CEOs have found themselves out of their depth, and are being outspun and outleaked at every turn.

And this would all be very funny if it weren’t for the fact that we’re talking about health spending. The story itself is now dead – the CEOs will be keeping their beaks tightly shut after this, while the HSE now says that the bonus money paid to the CEOs will be taken out of the relative hospitals’ grants. And that closes the book on the hospital CEOs’ shot across the HSE’s bows – the game ends in a score draw.

But while the story is dead, the smell of it lingers on. Pat Leahy noted in his recent book about the first two years of the present Government, The Path to Power, that the Government got blamed for the ideas that were floated but not implemented in their first budget.

The prospect of real cuts was fixed more firmly in people’s minds because they could relate to them. People don’t remember details of different budgets – how could they? But hearing that they’re losing their medical card or that a particular benefit was being cut – that’s very real and easy to relate to.

People will have forgotten the details of this storm in a teacup by Christmas – who got paid what and by whom. What they will remember is the chills that ran through them, in these times of austerity, when they first heard the details of the CEOs’ letter.

Future reductions in spending could “seriously threaten the quality and safety of patient services,” we were told, and that there are “unacceptable delays for treatment of certain cancer patients due to overwhelming demand.”  That’s what lasts in people’s heads, even though we don’t know if it’s right or wrong. The media has moved on, but the fear remains with ordinary people. And ordinary people have enough on their plates without being terrified out of their wits the next time they turn on the news.

Very few people on this island could estimate how much the CEO of a hospital should be paid. If you have to ring a man to come out and fix a gutter that got blown away in a storm, you’ll have your head well scratched figuring out how deep you’ll have to reach into the pocket to pay him. You haven’t a hope of having a correct option as to what Doctor O’Mahony of the Rotunda is worth.

When Liam Doran of the Irish Nurses Union comes on TV with his latest (long) list of grievances, you naturally sympathise with the nurses. But can you really make a call on whether or not their grievance is fair and just? How could you? The matters involved in health administration are so complex you’re lost as soon as you begin.

Better, then, for the media to be a little more judicious in how they report health stories, and not go for the terror angle. They ought to keep the narrative within certain bounds, and settle for that. For instance, here’s one way to go about it:

The British Government spends about seven hundred billion pounds sterling a year, give or take. One hundred billion of that spending is spent on the National Health Service – one pound in every seven.

The Irish Government spends about fifty billion Euro a year, give or take. Fourteen billion of that spending is spent on the health service – one Euro in every three.

Ireland is paying twice as much for half the service. How can that be? Where is the money going? Is it being wasted? Why is it being wasted? What’s being done to stop the waste? Who’s responsible? Who’s going to fix it?

Everyone can relate to those questions. It would be nice to hear the answer to even a few of them. Nice, but not at all likely.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Take a Bike

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The last Government introduced a bike-to-work scheme on New Year’s Day, 2009. It isn’t discussed much, the country being preoccupied with all the other things that happened under that unhappy regime, but the bike-to-work scheme has been a roaring success. Like the plastic bag tax or the smoking ban, it’s one of those small things that has made life exponentially more pleasant than anybody could have guessed it would.

The reason the bike-to-work scheme has made life more pleasant is because cycling is an excellent way to travel. It’s clean, it’s cheap, it helps keep the condition off and it’s really surprisingly soothing and good for clearing the head. And best of all, cycling is one of the few forms of exercise that everyone can engage in.

Anyone can cycle a bike, from those lean athletes who are half-human being, half-greyhound, on through ordinary people of all shapes and sizes, all the way down the evolutionary ladder to the pathetic likes of your humble correspondent, who once nearly pulled a hamstring playing snooker in the old Eglinton Club in Galway.

Cycling has always been part of the culture in Ireland. In the 1940s and 1950s the bike was the only way to get around – petrol was rationed during the war and people had no money to buy cars when the war ended – so if you wanted to travel, you went by bike. You may have grown up listening to people who cycled thirty or forty miles to the Reek, shot up in their bare feet, got Mass, scampered down again and another thirty miles home, not a bother on them. In “Over the Bar,” his iconic memoir of the GAA, Breadán Ó hEithir recalled cycling from Galway to Dublin and back with his father, going to see the All-lreland Final.

The bikes, of course, are different now to what they were. Going into a showroom – which is what they call bikeshops now – can be a little intimidating. What you thought were phone numbers are actually prices, and the price of even a lock can go into three figures.

You look at the bicycle itself, and you find out it’s got three times as many gears as your car, the frame is carbon rather than steel and the posture you have to adopt to cycle the thing is a lot like that of a man who bends down to pick up a fiver, gets a crick in his back and is then stuck like that. It’s not what you call dignified.

For the sportsmen it’s heaven of course. A bike for any occasion or terrain, built to order down to the last detail. But for the ordinary Joe, or the sort of goose who could do a cruciate playing cards, they’re not very dignified. And that’s without even talking about the lycra outfits that are the uniform of the serious cyclist.

Dignity was the original reason behind the greatest of bicycle designs. The great age of the bicycle was at the end of the Victorian era, and the Victorians had certain ideas about a person’s dignity, ideas that did not include having a person spinning around country roads with his or her rump raised in the air like the snowy peak of Nephin.

The classic design of the bicycle had the rider sitting up straight in the saddle, in the correct posture for ladies and gentlemen. The handlebars were well above saddle and wrapped back, like folded wings on a bird, to ensure the sitting position. The posture even gave those old bikes their famous nickname – the high nelly.

There was a particular way to mount them, that seems less common now. You mounted from one side, got the thing rolling and then either stepped through the looped frame if you were a lady, or bent forward, swung your leg over the saddle and across to the other side if you were a gentlemen. There was a tremendous elegance to the movement, possibly an echo of how stately, rather than fast, the journey would be.

The high nelly bicycle was always painted black, with the sometime exception of a small white rectangle on the back mudguard. Instead of carbon, the frame was made of iron and steel.

The best part of the high nelly was its saddle. The bike might have been slow and heavy, but sitting in that saddle made it all worthwhile, as it was treble-sprung – a great big hairpin spring at the front, and two fine big cylindrical springs at the back, just under either side of the hips. Sitting on one of those saddles on a flat road or spinning down a hill was like floating on air. Uphill, you had to get off and walk most of the time, but you can’t have everything in this life.

The high nelly was built to last, and last they did. Even in the ‘eighties, as the racing bike with its narrow saddle, aerodynamics, dropped handlebars and multitude of gears quickly rendered the old bikes obsolete, you still saw the old people cycling around on their faithful old bicycles that may have seen service for twenty or thirty years, if not more. There wasn’t that much to break on those old bikes and what did break could be fixed.

The high nelly would suit sportsmen cyclists badly. They’re too slow for the racers, and too big and heavy for the mountain-bikers. But for a relaxing spin around the country, taking in a spot of air and scenery and maybe a quiet pint by the fire of some convivial hostelry, you can’t beat them.

It’s not easy get an old-style bicycle, but it’s not impossible either. There’s a company in Limerick that repairs and refits old high nellies, or you can buy a new bicycle by a British manufacturer called Pashley. Pashleys are old style bicycles that sell under the glorious names of Guv’nor, Clubman, Sovereign and, of course, Britannia.

Or you can return to the bicycle showroom, spurn all the latest carbon models, throw your arm around the curate and say look, would you have such a thing as a Raleigh Varsity in the house at all? His face will fall, as he’d be much happier selling one of the pricey ones, but he’ll go far down the back and come out wheeling a fine black bike, with swung back grey handlebars, a carrier for the messages and even a bell. The saddle isn’t the armchair it used to be, but otherwise it’s a fine machine and recommended to all. Happy trails.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor is a Triumph for Steven Moffat

Steven Moffat was set no small task on Saturday night. Love it or hate it, Doctor Who is now a flagship BBC property, and worth many, many millions of dollars to the Corporation. The 50th Anniversary Special wasn’t just written for the Doctor Who fanbase – it was written for the broader sci-fi market of America, where the real money is to be earned (hence dollars as the correct currency of measurement).

In writing the 50th Anniversary Special, Moffat had to keep the fanbase happy, impress the Yanks and turn around two years of under-achievement with the franchise, which have been a letdown compared to the promise Moffat showed when he was appointed showrunner in the first place.

Moffat did all that, and more. People sometimes think writing is just pretty prose. It’s not. Without a plot, it all falls into the void. The Day of the Doctor was a tour-de-force plotting performance on Moffat’s part, and a supreme exposition of the screen-writer’s art.

Moffat faced three particular and peculiar challenges, any one of which could have broken another writer. It is to Moffat’s supreme credit that he overcame all three.

The Huey-Dewey-Louie Problem
In his book Hype and Glory, screenwriter William Goldman recounts a problem faced by a friend of his who was a scriptwriter on Charlie’s Angels. It seems the Angels, like all actors, were acutely conscious of billing, and kicked up blue murder if they thought one of their number was getting more lines than the other. That led to ridiculous dialogue where the writers had to make sure that each Angel got an equal amount of speaking time.

So, instead of having one Angel say “I’m going down to Tesco’s to get a box of teabags and a pint of milk,” Kelly would announce her intention to go to Tesco for teabags, Sabrina would tell her to make sure it’s Lyons’, and Jill would remind her not to forget the milk. Equal dialogue for Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Moffat had the same problem. He had three leads – three Doctors who are the same person and yet subtly different. He didn’t have clear delineation of character, but he did have three actors as capable of munching scenery as anyone out there if not kept on the bridle. And Moffat succeeded against the odds – each Doctor was able to co-exist, perform and not crowd the others out.

The Timey-Wimey Problem
Time-travel will never be possible. The potential paradoxes are impossible to resolve in reality. But time travel is always interesting in science-fiction, because it allows us to wonder: what if? What if Hitler won the war? What if John F Kennedy hadn’t been shot?

The problem of writing time-travel science-fiction is in dealing with the paradoxes – following each paradox through to its logical conclusion. This is what made Blink, the Doctor Who episode that really announced Moffat’s genius, so good. The paradoxical elements of Blink fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. Moffat was less successful in the expanded River Song story that dominated the season before last, as the plot never quite clicked open and closed as it had in Blink.

The Day of the Doctor isn’t quite as complex as Blink, but there are many paradoxes to be resolved through the three strands of the story – the contemporary, the Elizabethan and the Time War. Moffat tied them all together beautifully in a way that, like all truly great stories, that is both inevitable and unexpected. This was triumphant plotting on his part.

The Gallifreyean Problem
Russell T Davies, Moffat’s predecessor as Doctor Who showrunner and the man credited with much of the modern Doctor Who’s success, made a big decision at the start of that process – possibly bigger than he realised at the time. Because Davies found the Doctor’s essential loneliness an interesting part of the character, Davies decided that he would make the Doctor lonelier still by wiping out the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey.

The problem with that is that it leads to a considerable hostage to fortune as regards future stories – it’s not easy to churn out plots, and by wiping out Gallifrey Davies had denied himself a very rich potential source. Davies was always more of a soap-opera writer than a science fiction writer and either didn’t realise or wasn’t bothered by the problem of the fall of Gallifrey – his own plotting and frequent resorting to alakazam! solutions would suggest the latter.

Moffat, however, is a science-fiction writer and must have known for some time just how important the return of the Time Lords must be. (It would be interesting to find out just when Moffat started plotting The Day of the Doctor – many years ago would be a sensible bet). Because he is a science-fiction writer, Moffat knew that Control-Z wouldn’t cut it, and for him to solve the Time Lord problem just when the series needed a barnstormer for its 50th Anniversary is a breathtaking achievement.

It had been reasonable to assume that Moffat’s attention towards Doctor Who was distracted by his writing of Sherlock, Doctor Who’s blood relation as an archetype. Sherlock has been superb, and Moffat’s Who started falling off as Sherlock thrived. The Day of the Doctor dispelled all fears that the madman in the box is in danger of being neglected. The BBC will be booking convention at Comic-Con in Las Vegas for many years to come, and Moffat deserves no small credit for that. I hope he gets a raise.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Time to Cut Peig a Break

Originally published in the Western People on Monday.

Poor Peig Sayers has got another box on the ear. The British Sunday Telegraph published a story yesterday week about the return of 92-year-old Mike Carney to the Great Blasket Island. Carney left for the USA in the 1950s and this was more than likely his last time to visit the place where he was born.

The piece was written warmly and sympathetically by Cole Moreton, an English writer who already has a very fine book on the Blaskets, Hungry for Home, to his credit. Unfortunately Moreton, for all his sympathy, couldn’t resist joining the long queue that pins the blame for much childhood trauma on a little orange-coloured book with a picture of an old woman in a shawl sitting by the fire on the cover. Morton describes Peig herself as a “salty, witty, wise old woman” but bemoans the fact that her book makes her sound like a “pious misery-guts.” He goes on to remark that the book was “inflicted on generations of Irish schoolchildren who shudder at her name, even now.”

Harsh. Not a hundred miles from the truth, of course, as Peig Sayers’ (in)famous autobiography is by no means a laugh-a-minute page-turner guaranteed to split your sides with laughter, but can it really be as bad as all that? A book to elicit shudders every time it’s mentioned in society?

How Peig got to become such a touchstone for the culture that the first Irish governments strove so hard to restore is an interesting one. It speaks to our own insecurity as a people, our feudal desire, even after independence, to get approval from our former masters, and, by the end, the sad hames we’ve made of restoring the first language of the country to the people.

The story begins with the Blasket islands themselves, and their discovery by two English academics, a Yorkshireman called Robin Flower and a Londoner, George Thompson. Flower’s specialty was Anglo-Saxon English culture, from before the Norman invasion, while Thompson went even further back, to the classical world of Greece and Rome.

When Flower and Thompson discovered the Blaskets, they thought they had gone back in time. Because life on the Blaskets was so primitive, they thought they had arrived in the historical eras that interested them. Their reactions would have been similar to that of Sam Neill in the movie Jurassic Park, when he first sees the dinosaurs.

It didn’t take them long to reach for their notebooks and start telling everyone about this amazing slice of the medieval world still extant in twentieth-century Europe. And then the books were published – the three famous autobiographies of the Blaskets, the stories of a young boy, Múiris Ó Súilleabháin, an old man, Tomás Ó Criomhthain, and an old woman with, as she said herself on the very first page of the book, one foot in the grave, and one foot on the side of it.

Think back to how things looked to people in Ireland one hundred years ago, when Robin Flower first started visiting the Blaskets. All things Irish are celebrated everywhere in the country. The Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association are flourishing, the IRB is doing a spot of gun-running and now along come these two college-educated Englishmen telling us that only in Ireland, and on the most western part of Ireland at that, is society still pure and innocent and righteous. Is it any wonder it went to our heads?

Ten years later, we had the key to the car ourselves and we wondering just what in God’s name would we do with it. And, consciously or unconsciously, the original vision was to build the Blasket society on the mainland of Ireland itself. In his famous speech to the nation on St Patrick’s Day, 1943, Eamon DeValera described “the Ireland that we dreamed off would be the home of a people who … satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit.”

If that’s not a description of a Blasket islander, what is? Is that what made Peig Sayers’ book the template for the ideal Ireland – the idea that the people’s piety would counteract the people’s misery? Is that why Peig became the standard school text for so long, rather than An tOileánach or Fiche Bliain Ag Fás? Because Peig Sayers set the best example of how to grin and bear it?

Unfortunately for Dev, while he himself might be satisfied with frugal comfort, most people found (and find) it a contradiction in terms – there’s nothing comfortable about frugality. The traffic of scholars travelling to the Great Blasket was far outweighed by the traffic leaving, as people preferred running water and central heating to the frugal comfort of huddling in a currach into the teeth of an Atlantic gale.

The jig was up for the Blaskets, but nobody had the honesty to come out and say it. To say that Plan A hasn’t worked, and it’s now time for Plan B.

Seán Lemass tried to industrialise the country in the 1960s, but he wasn’t as culturally concerned as DeValera, even though he was of the same revolutionary generation. As such, things were left to drift.

The world of Peig and its importance in the culture became more and more distant to actual people’s lives, and all the energy that was put into the promotion of Irish dissipated and was lost in those endless government corridors where hope atrophies and the only light is provided by the piles of money that burn continually into the night.

But reader, none of this is Peig Sayers’ fault. She didn’t ask to be the heroine of the new state. She was a woman who lived a hard life and got on with it, just as so many generations of Irish did. Cut the old girl a break. She doesn’t deserve the abuse.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Not Every Word Has to Go on the Record

First published in the Western People on Monday.

If we use ugly language with each other, does not make us ugly ourselves? Is contemporary language an evolving thing, where yesterday’s taboo is today’s commonplace, or is there a line where we lose articulacy and nuance, and revert a little to the level of the beast?

It would take a considerable level of denial not to have noticed that words that were once unthinkable in polite company and absolutely out of the question in broadcast or written media are now everywhere and, if anybody minds, he or she is keeping it very much to themselves.

This was brought home the weekend before last when one of the national papers published a short extract from rugby hero Ronan O’Gara’s (latest) autobiography. There’s a headline on the extract, and then a sub-headline, with what’s called a pull-quote from the story – the fruitiest stand-alone quote the sub-editors can find in order to entice the reader to read the full story. The seventeenth word in that pull-quote is a swear word. And not just any swear word, but their master and commander.

And the question is: why was it necessary for Ronan O’Gara to use that notorious word in his book, and why was it further necessary for the newspaper to print it in full, in all its still-shocking glory?

There are two questions at issue here. The first has to do with authenticity of how people speak now, in 21st Century Ireland. The second has to do with children, culture, future generations and the state of the English language itself.

The reason swear words are more commonly quoted and used in media now is because there is a ruling belief in media circles that authenticity is more important than prudishness. People swear all the time, and for the media to not report that accurately, word for word, is to dilute the truth. Better innocence be corrupted than a story not be fully reported, like Oliver Cromwell, warts and all.

And that’s fine, in theory. But if you go through most news stories, you will be hard put to find anywhere a synonym for a swearword will not get the message across to anyone with the wit to read between the lines. “The argument became heated, and the defendant implored the accused to ‘go away’ in the strongest possible terms.” It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out what was said there.

But even that small example is a particular type of story, a court case. Court cases are important journalistically – you need special permission from the court to report them. They’re serious business.

Rugby, where we came in, is a game. Certainly it’s a professional game now and people invest a lot emotionally in it. But it’s still a pastime, something to worry about when you’re not worrying about the economy or the health service or the state of the roads. It’s important, but it’s not serious. It’s certainly not important enough for a national newspaper to deploy what is still one of the most shocking words in the language in a story where it isn’t needed.

It’s doubly disappointing because a Ronan O’Gara story in the newspaper will be devoured by children for whom O’Gara has been a hero for, literally, all of their lives. It would be an innocent child indeed who has not heard that word or its fellow travellers by now, but to see it used so causally in the newspaper gives the impression that it’s just another word, like cabbage, shoe or wardrobe. And it’s not.

The paper where the O’Gara story appeared prides itself on being the national “paper of record.” What that means is that they will print a news story even if it’s cripplingly boring because they think it’s important that there should be a record of that. In real terms, it means when you buy that paper, you are more likely to read a story about the Troika and European interest rates than who whacked whom on last night’s episode of “Love/Hate.”

And printing the Ronan O’Gara quote in full is part of that full record. By using the full quote, the paper wants to make sure the reader is in no doubt that O’Gara knew, when his phone rang, that his international career was at an end.

But again. This is a game, not an event of great importance. What great injustice to the truth would have been done had the quote been finessed a little. Like so:

“When it rang I had a look at the name. Declan Kidney. Oh no. Ignored it. Deccie obviously wasn’t ringing me to tell me I was captain against France.”

Would that have been such a disservice to the truth? The quote still reads authentically. The feeling O’Gara had when his phone rang and he saw the same is still crystal clear. What you don’t have is a child reading the paper and getting that one small slice less innocent before it is absolutely necessary for him or her.

Language is terribly important. Nothing has meaning without language, as it’s only through language we communicate. People are always going to swear, of course. Reader, if you are in McHale next summer and it happens that Roscommon beat Mayo by a late, late goal as in 2001, no-one will think any less of you if you if frustration overcomes you and you let yourself down for a moment by giving full expression to your dismay.

But when we’re writing, we do so in cold blood. Even under the lash of the deadline, we still have lots of time to choose which words to put in and which words to leave out. Reading the paper and becoming aware of the news is one of paths from childhood to adulthood. Papers should be aware of this responsibility, and remember that it is not, in fact, absolutely necessary that every word uttered goes on the record.

Monday, November 11, 2013

All-Stars and the All-Ireland Final

Des Cahill, genial host of the Sunday Game, tweeted an interesting question after the All-Stars presentation on Friday night. Not interesting in the way that getting figs into fig rolls is interesting but interesting in that the All-Stars give us the last occasion to have a row over GAA affairs in the year. We know they don’t matter but dammit, what else is there?

Des Cahill’s question was this: in the light of no Mayo forwards getting an All-Star this year, despite Mayo having gotten to the All-Ireland Final and having the top scorer of the Championships among their ranks, when was the last time this happened? When was the last time not one forward on a team that participated in the All-Ireland final failed to win an All-Star?

Funnily enough, it wasn’t that long ago at all. But even funnier, it wasn’t the runners-up who drew the duck egg up front.

Cork, All-Ireland Champions of 2010, had no All-Star forwards in 2010. Down, whom Cork beat in the final, had three – Marty Clarke, now in the land down under, Danny Hughes and Benny Coulter. The other three were Kildare’s John Doyle, the Gooch and Dublin’s Bernard Brogan, who also won footballer of the year.

The All-Ireland runners-up have failed to win an All-Star among the forwards seven times in the 42-year existence of the All-Stars – Mayo this year, Cork in 2007, Mayo again in 1997, Galway in 1983, Roscommon in 1980, Dublin in 1979 and Kerry in 1972.

The 1979 forward unit was made up of four Kerrymen – Ger Power, Seán Walsh, Pat Spillane and Mikey Sheehy - Seán Lowry of Offaly and Joe McGrath of Mayo. McGrath was there because of an epic display in the Connacht Final when he belted 2-5 past Roscommon. The fact that Mayo still lost by eight points tells you something about just how good that Roscommon team were in their day.

1979 is one of six times that the All-Ireland winners have supplied four of the six forward All-Stars, which is the record for most forwards from one team. The other years were Tyrone in 2005, Kerry in 1981, 1980, and 1978, and Dublin in 1976. In the light of the negative pall that hangs over Mickey Harte’s Tyrone, it’s interesting to note that they got such a haul of creative players in 2005.

The record for the losing finalists is also four, which is held solely by Meath of 1991. Tommy Dowd, Brian Stafford, Colm O’Rourke and Bernie Flynn were joined by Greg Blaney and Ross Carr from the Down team that beat them in the final, taking Sam across the border for the first time since 1968.

Every All-Ireland winning team has had at least one back win an All-Star, while five runners-up failed to win any All-Stars in the backs at all – Down in 2010, Kerry in 2006, Mayo in 2006, Dublin in 1994 and Cork in 1993.

Midfield pairings are not common among All-Stars. The runners-up have only 14 midfielders of the 84 awarded, an indication of how important the position is. Only twice have both midfielders come from the same county, and the county won the All-Ireland that year – Kerry’s Jack O’Shea and Seán Walsh in 1981, and Derry’s Anthony Tohill and Brian McGilligan in 1993.

There is less of a spread in hurling, where not as many counties compete at the highest level. The All-Star hurling midfield has featured one or both counties that contested the All-Ireland eighteen times out of forty-two. Of these, the midfield of the Champions has taken both positions three times – this year, 2003 and 2001, while the runners-up have taken both positions once, something that never happened in football. However, that year was 1994 and, although it was small consolation to them, it was the least Limerick’s imperious Mike Houlihan and magical Ciarán Carey deserved.

Is there a position where an All-Ireland final appearance or win especially helps to win an All-Star? Yes, there is - it's football goalkeeper. The All-Star goalkeeper has gone to a man between the sticks in September 33 of the 42 times it’s been awarded, in contrast to the 24 times in hurling.

Of the football goalkeepers, the goalkeeper has been on the winning team 20 out of those 33 times, with the losing goalkeeper winning 13 All-Stars. The last time the All-Star went to a goalkeeper who watched the final from the stands or the comfort of his own home was 2008, when the award went to Gary Connaughton of Westmeath. Connachton was the third of a three-in-a-row of All-Star goalkeepers who didn’t participate in the All-Ireland Final – Stephen Cluxton won in 2007 and 2006.

Dublin have won 14 goalkeeping All-Stars since the awards began in 1971, shared between three men – Paddy Cullen has four, while John O’Leary and Cluxton have five each. Cluxton is probably good for a few more too and, if he had won Footballer of the Year as well this year, few could have argued against it.

Friday, November 08, 2013

In Defence of Sugary Drinks

First published in the Western People on Monday.

“Well? Are you having a mineral?”

That was the inevitable question asked of any child in a pub in Ireland in the days when pubs were divided into lounge and public bars, distinguishable because the lounge had a carpet and the public bar did not.

The child was in the pub because one or both parents were also there, and feeding minerals into the child was considered the only way of keeping that same child quiet for the duration of the social event. And nobody saw any harm in it, as they smoked liked trains, drank like fish and drove home loaded. If anything, the child was getting off lightly – especially compared to what would happen him or her when he or she started licking all those toys painted with lead-based paint back home.

Anyway. That was then. Modernity now suggests that those well-meaning adults who bought all those minerals for all those children all those years ago would have been as well off standing the children a few bottles of stout, as at least that potion has that famous bit of iron in it. The innocent mineral, the fuel on which many a dry Pioneer dance was run, now turns out to be the real devil’s buttermilk after all.

This is an unexpected turn of events, to say the very least, but it is the current opinion of top scientists. A “Growing Up in Ireland” study recently showed that one Irish child in nine is putting on condition in a way children did not put it on heretofore, and it’s that wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, the humble mineral, that’s at the cause of it.

It doesn’t seem obvious that sugary drinks would make you fat, as it’s reasonable to presume that any drink at all is just being run through the system. However, the problem lies in what the drink does during that short time when it’s passing through.

The body fuels itself on protein, carbohydrates and fats, in the main. Carbohydrates and sugar are chemically similar. So when the body senses that carbohydrate/sugar intake is increased, the body wants more and more of the good stuff. The human being, like any animal, is a glutton by nature. You don’t see a lion eat some of an antelope, and then wrap up the leftovers for later. The whole lot goes down the hatch, because that’s the way the carnivore is programmed, from long before people were able to stand upright.

So, when you’re glugging back a high-sugar drink, as far as your body is concerned, you’re in the same position as the lion who has just bush-whacked the antelope and is now licking its chops, getting ready for the feast. Your body adjusts its chemical balance to prepare for what it thinks will be a carbohydrate explosion.

And then: nothing. You finish your can and chuck it in the recycling, thinking no more about it, while your subconscious hits every alarm bell it has. I’m starving, it says. Where is the food I was promised? What’s going on? Am I going to die? I’d better get some food, and quick.

And then you feel a bit peckish, and wander to the press for a nibble of a biscuit or two. But the biscuits are a little dry and you see the drinks machine in the hall and you think, oh well, why not?

And so it goes on until you’re a great fat lump who can eat his tea off his own belly. And it all starts with a sup of sugary drinks.

Or so the theory goes. And it’s true, that sugary drinks increase your appetite for more sugar. It’s the nature of the beast.

But at the same time, it’s hard to believe that a can of Coke every now again is like some sort of bicycle pump for blubber, and everything is the drink’s fault. There’s a thing in public life now where somebody reaches for an explanation that sounds half-way reasonable and it’s then promoted as the final word on a topic within twenty-four hours. Groupthink at its finest.

We saw it recently when an English comedian was praised for holding his own in an interview with the BBC’s notorious tough Jeremy Paxman. But if people stopped to think, they’d realise that the comedian only sounded good. His actual opinion, when you boil it down, was that of someone who has to fight the impulse not to use his finger to read.

And it’s the same thing with the sweet drinks controversy. People want to see black and white where there are many shades of grey, like so many other things in life.

The real problem with sugary drinks is like the problem with so much else in contemporary society. We don’t know how to self-moderate. Our materialist, consumer society tells us at every point that we can never have enough of a good thing and our materialist, consumer society is completely wrong.

The book of Ecclesiastics tells us that to everything there is a season, a time to live and a time to die. In just the same way, there is a time to enjoy a can of Coke and a time to enjoy a glass of water, or buttermilk, or even that notorious strong, sweet porter on very special occasions.

Bans and taxes on sugary drinks are a way of abdicating our own responsibilities. The theory behind it is this: If there were no sugary drinks, I wouldn’t be the fat lump I am now. The theory does not entertain for a second that I would just have got fat on something else.

Sugary drinks aren’t the problem. Drinking sugary drinks all the time is a problem. Not being active, in body or in mind, is the problem.  Go for a run now and again, go easy on the chips and you’ll be fine. Whatever gets you in the end, it’ll hardly be an odd can of Coke on a hot day in McHale Park.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Filleadh Keano

Ní h-amháin nach bhfuil mórán measa ar an sacar sa mblag seo, ach uairteanta déantar iarracht droch-íde a thabairt dó. Ach a leitheoir dílis, beidh mise, tusa agus gach mac máthar san áit chéanna oíche anocht - os comhair na teilifíse ag breathnú ar ITV, agus ag súil le deatach bán ag teacht ó shimléar Martin O'Neill agus an fear spóirt is mó clú air in Éirinn, Roy Maurice Keane.

Dúirt Dion Fanning, tuairisceoir sacair an Sindo, rud éigin súimiúil ar an bpodchraoladh Second Captains an seachtain seo caite. Dár leis, is cuma cé hé ina bhainisteoir foirne na hÉireann. Más cros-síolrú idir Bill Shankley agus Brian Cody é, ní fhéidir leis Glen Whelan a dhéanamh ina Liam Brady, ná Darren O'Dea a dhéanamh ina Phaul McGrath.

Mar sin, an rud is tábhachtaí don mbainisteoir nua ná go spreagróidh sé samhlaíocht an phobail, go dtógfadh sé blás ládasach Bhóthair Lansdún istigh san Aviva agus go gcuirfeadh sé nuacht agus cúrsaí foirne Poblachta na hÉireann i lár an aonaigh arís.

Agus ar m'anam, nach é an spreagadh samhlaíochta nuair atá Roy Keane ag teacht ar áis chuig an FAI a cháin sé chomh dian is chomh minic? Agus an bua is mó, an bua a ndéanann an beart seo chomh draíochta, ná go bhfuil Keane ag filleadh ach nach mbeidh sé ina bhainisteoir. Is é Martin O'Neill, fear atá meas air ó cheann ceann na tíre, a mbeidh ina bhainisteoir. Más an Néilleach amháin a bheadh ann, beidh an pobal sacair résúnta sásta. Ach tá aithne agus tuairim, go maith agus go dona, ag gach chuile duine ar Roy Keano agus, cé go mbeidh sé i scáth an Néilligh, bí cinnte go mbeidh áire ar gach duine ar an gCorcaíoch.

Dúirt Eamon Dunphy go bhfuil seans ann go dtarlóidh tubáise traenach, go gcríochnófar gach rud le deora sillte ar gach thaobh. Agus má tá a fhíos ag éinne ar tubáise traenach, is ag Dunphy é.

Ach is cuma - is é cad a tharlóidh idir an tús agus an scrios a mbeidh súimiúil, spraoiúil agus ábhair cainte os comhair gach pionta in Éirinn.

Nuair a scríobh Julie Burchill a beathaisnéis ar David Beckham, thuig sí rud nach dtuigtear go mór maidir le sacar sa lá 'tá inniú inn. Is saigheas soap opera é, agus tá an soap opera beagnach gach rud chomh tábhachtaí ná an imirt agus na cluichí. I Roy Keane, tá JR Ewing, Cúchulainn agus an Incredible Hulk measca suas le cheile. Tá an Spailpín ag tnúth go mór leis an gcraic, agus túsa chomh maith, a leitheoir. Túsa chomh maith.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Hey, Kids - Leave Those Teachers Alone

First published in the Western People on Monday.

This week is the mid-term break for many schools in the County Mayo. So while people who work have the blessing of a bank holiday today, tomorrow we go back to work while teachers and pupils either lie in or are kicked out of bed by outraged parents and told to clean the gutters or mow the lawn, as appropriate to their station.

We all remember what it was like to be in school as a pupil – if you didn’t, you’re making quite the achievement in even reading this paper – but relatively few know what it’s like to be at the top of the class, looking back at the children looking hungrily up at you. Reader, let’s spare a moment this morning to think of the teachers.

It’s fashionable among some people to say they succeeded despite their teachers, rather than because of them. This is a particularly miserable attitude, but it is by no means uncommon. For instance, during one of those clubby radio shows that RTÉ do so often during the summer, Miriam O’Callaghan interviewed the journalists Sam Smyth and Eamon McCann.

McCann, a Derryman, is a graduate of St Columb’s College, a school that is remarkable for the amount of influential people who have been educated there – Séamus Heaney, God be good to him, and John Hume are both alumni of St Columb’s, and there are many more who have made their mark on the city, the country and the world. Miriam asked McCann if he thought St Columb’s had much influence on him.

No, said McCann. He is the fine man he is today despite, rather than because of, his schooling.

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, of course, but McCann seemed blissfully unaware of the irony of his disdain for the school that educated him when he went on to mourn the absence of Latin in modern curricula, on the basis that the learning of the ancient language is good for teaching accuracy, mental discipline and giving a taste of the richness of human history.

This is ironic because, if it weren’t for St Columb’s and the teachers therein, where would McCann have learned his Latin in the first place? When the children of Derry were going home in the rain or running up the dark lane it is unlikely they were speaking Latin while doing it. McCann has his teachers to thank for his Latin and his subsequent grasp of grammar, though he seems to little appreciate it.

This is the sort of revelation that only comes with age (or not at all, in McCann’s case). When you’re a young person behind the desk, everything is, like, such a drag. A child who will happily rattle off the Manchester United first XI or can dash off the Kardashian family tree on the back of a copybook may have zero interest in naming the principle rivers and towns in Ireland or being able to recite The Old Woman of the Roads. Something’s got to give.

The worst mistake a teacher can make is thinking that there’s a way for the kids to treat you as one of themselves. There really isn’t, and that’s not the teacher’s purpose. The teacher’s purpose is not to get the children to do what they want, but to get them to do what they must.

Sometimes it seems that the Department forgets this distinction. Different academics publish papers about engaging with the child and that’s all fine but you have to remember that what a child wants to engage in is not what the teacher wants the child to engage in.

Some people say the great teachers are the ones who let the love of the subject shine through. Sometimes, with the major subjects of Irish, English or Maths the gifted and inspired teacher can be swept away by the beauty of a poem by Raifteirí, a short story by Michael McLaverty or the otherworldly beauty of those beautiful, clean lines that only exist on the limitless horizon of the Euclidean plane.

And all that’s true, but those aren’t the only teachers who are great. The great teachers are also those who teach subjects that will not help get a job, but will give joy for evermore. Think of the music teachers and PE teachers, who teach the joys of the eternal battle between the tonic and dominant chords and the incredible benefit of being able to kick with both feet.

And there are also the teachers who know that a real world exists beyond the schoolroom and it can be far more frightening and difficult to deal with than the Tuiseal Ginideach, mischievous trickster though the Tuiseal Ginideach certainly is. Anyone who has had difficulties and was quietly helped by a teacher will remember that kind act until it’s time to turn our backs to this world and prepare to face the next.

So spare a thought, then, for teachers. Every year the department makes their job harder by messing with the subjects and trying devious ways to cut junior teachers’ pay to appease senior members of the union. Every year teachers’ friends mock them for having it easy with those big, long holidays and that blissfully short working day.

But none of the rest of us will have a computer that will talk back and try to get all the other computers on its side, just for devilment. We can take five or ten minutes for a wander around the office when we like. We’re not on duty all the time, with sixty hungry eyes waiting for us to slip up.

But neither are we those who hand on the flame, problematic curricula or no, to another generation. For every ten or twenty children who are just counting the days there will be one who will be lit up by what he or she hears from their teacher, and has a job, a gift or perhaps a source of comfort and joy for the rest of their lives. How many of us can say that we contribute something similar to society?

Friday, October 25, 2013

What Have the Germans Ever Done for Us?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

She's in the Mayo colours -
how can she be that bad?
The Government are making a big deal of the budget being the “last austerity budget.” After this, they say, the bailout will be over. Ireland’s economic sovereignty will be restored.

Which leads me to a slightly traitorous question this morning. To wit: is that return of economic sovereignty entirely a good thing?

When the IMF responded to the bat signal from Ireland in 2010 the then-opposition made a big deal about the loss of Ireland’s economic sovereignty. The current Minister for Energy, Communications and Natural Resources nearly self-combusted in fury on Prime Time during one debate at the thought of the loss of our economic sovereignty, in one of his many memorably television performances.

But what exactly is this thing, economic sovereignty? The London School of Economics, who ought to know, tells us that it’s the power of a government to make decisions independent of other governments.

And that’s great in theory. But in practice, “ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine,” as the seanfhocal has it – “people live in the shadow of each other.” And that’s as true for countries as it is for people. The only country I can think of that exists independently of every other country is North Korea and North Korea gives every impression of being hell on Earth.

One hundred years ago, it was possible for a country to exist on its own. Even seventy years ago, when Eamon DeValera made his famous St Patrick’s Day address to the nation, saying the Irish were a poor people, contented with things of the mind, isolationism was still, kind of, an option.

But not any more. The twenty-first century counts its minutes in a globalised world, where we’re all living in each other’s pockets. For the past number of years, the particular pocket the Irish have been in has been Frau Merkel’s, to the general distress of the populace. Everything would be fine, we’ve been telling ourselves, if it weren’t for the Germans. But now the Government is promising a restored economic sovereignty, and escape from the German pocket, everything is going to be grand.

But is it? And is being under the Germans’ wing all that bad?

By the Germans, we mean the EU, really. The Germans call all the shots in the EU. Everyone knows it, and that’s almost certainly the real reason the British dislike the EU so much.

Although not as bad as the British, the Irish have a strange relationship with the EU. The EU built modern Ireland in many ways, and yet we despise it as an institution. The EU won’t let us do this, and they won’t let us do that. There’s every sort of regulation, tying us up and denying us liberty.

Do you know what else the EU doesn’t let us do? Starve.

Ireland joined the Common Market / EEC in 1973, forty years ago. We’ll commemorate (after a fashion) the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising in three years time, but there’s a case to be made that the EU has had a greater influence on the nation because it brought Ireland into the modern age. Money has flowed into Ireland for the past forty years from Brussels and in return we religiously shoot down every referendum, until the EU learns to ask us nicely.

A lot of this is the fault of the political culture of course, and another reason why the political culture is crying out for reform. For forty years the nation has been conditioned to just about tolerate the EU, like some doddery old relation whom we’ve been instructed to keep sweet in the hope of inheriting the land.

The Maastricht treaty was the treaty that set the ball rolling on the current drive for greater European Union, and was instrumental in the creation of the Euro. How was it presented at home? An eight billion pound jackpot for Ireland. Nothing else. Show me the money, and to hell with the big picture.

So the political culture is now reaping what it sowed in EU terms. Forty years of suspicion and distrust have their legacy. People talk about the EU not being democratic, as if that were a bad thing from our perspective. There are four million Irish and eighty million Germans. If the EU were truly democratic, do you think there would be Croke Park Agreements and Haddington Road Agreements and all the rest of them? There would be Reichstag Directives, and that would be that.

Ireland punches miles above its weight in the EU, yet we don’t realise it. We don’t realise just how well we’re doing. For eight hundred years Ireland was part of another multi-national organisation, on which the sun never set, and all we got for it were penal laws, a border and a long legacy of sectarianism.

During the Famine, the Irish were let starve, on the basis that the land was of greater economic use while grazing sheep than housing peasants. During the economic meltdown, the Germans sighed, sat down and wrote the Irish a cheque. That’s the difference.

And still people don’t realise it. Burn the bondholders!, they cry. Turn over the moneylenders’ tables in the Temple! And when asked who would then fill in the gigantic hole in the national coffers, we’re told we’ll be fine – someone always turns up.

Well, no. Someone doesn’t always turn up. Argentina defaulted on its debts ten years ago. When the Argentinean President, Christina Fernandez, went to visit the new pope, she had to fly the long way round, to avoid her airplane being impounded by one of Argentina’s many creditors. The fact Pope Francis is so concerned about the poor is because he has seen so many of them, and he has seen so many of them because Argentina’s governments have not been good.

We have been luckier. Ireland got into the EU in the nick of time and finally caught up with the modern world. When the modern world went to our heads, the EU came in to save us again. Get rid of the Germans? May they never go away.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Enda, Lucinda, and the Future of the Country

First published in the Western People on Monday.

It’s not often that the two most important politicians in the country are from County Mayo. Not only is that the case currently, but both Lucinda Creighton and Enda Kenny have it in their power to change the politics of the country forever, if they should so choose.

Enda Kenny is already a winner in this regard. The underestimated man has proven himself a leader of courage in a time of crisis in the country, and this can never be taken away from him. He has certainly blundered here and there along the way but the man who makes no mistakes is the man who does nothing at all. If Kenny were to resign in the morning history would view his Premiership favourably.

Enda Kenny is the man who brought stability back to the economy and, in a time of deep national unease, the man’s fundamental optimism and good humour were badly needed. He is getting a hard time currently over the Seanad referendum, which certainly was a blunder, but the Seanad will not be an issue on the doorsteps come either next year’s local and European elections or the general election that will decide who governs on the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising. You can safely bet the children’s allowance on that.

Lucinda Creighton may dispute that assessment of Kenny. It’s become quite clear over the years that the one party couldn’t hold two such contrasting personalities. Creighton left – or was pushed – from Fine Gael over her stance on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, but it could be that a row was always going to flare up and this Bill just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Life throws these things at us.

But now that she’s on the outside against her will, what does Creighton see as her options? The cleverest thing to do would have been to take her beating, and then be re-admitted to the party in time for the next general election. The Kenny faction may not like her, but there are plenty in Fine Gael who do. Equally, there is a population who, whatever their views on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill itself, admire Creighton’s courage in standing against the tide, and the woman’s considerable intellect. If she did her porridge, as it were, Fine Gael would have found a way back for her.

Instead, Creighton has been making waves. Where she could have sat out the battle and knitted on the backbenches, she has instead formed the Reform Alliance from among the other TDs who were ejected with her, and Denis Naughten, who lost the Fine Gael whip earlier over Roscommon Hospital. And what the Reform Alliance will do next is the pivot on which the history of this country will turn.

It all depends on whether or not Enda Kenny is still leader of Fine Gael come the next general election. He was seen as a sure thing, but his enemies – who never went away – will have been given fresh heart by the Seanad fiasco. Richard Bruton is certainly finished as an alternative leader, but there are plenty others willing to step up. Under a new regime, would Creighton and the Reform Alliance be welcomed back to Fine Gael’s bosom? Of course they would, if for no other reason to have them where the new leader can see them.

But what will the Reform Alliance do while Kenny is still the boss? The very formation of the Reform Alliance was a surprise. The Reform Alliance’s intervention in the Seanad Referendum, though almost certainly of no impact to the result, was a positive shock. The Reform Alliance was testing its muscle, to see how much they could press off the bench. And that then begs the question of how much muscle will they have built up when or if a return to Fine Gael becomes a prospect?

This is the big question in Irish politics now. The country is no longer in crisis, but it is a long way from being back on its feet. The turnout of the Seanad referendum and the repeated opinion polls that show such strong support for independents mean that there is a considerable amount of the population that no longer feels it has a voice in national politics. The space for a new party is clearly there.

There are three things that generally stand against the prospect of a new party. The first is opportunity, as Irish politics is conservative and loathe to change. The upheaval caused by the crash changes this for as long as the trauma lasts.

The second problem is finance, but a right-wing party will always attract more money than a left-wing one – who would finance a party that, once it gets into power, will only take even more money off you in taxes? It makes no sense.

The final point, then, is leadership. For a new party to exist, it needs a strong and charismatic leadership. Creighton has that gift. She could have wormed her way out of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, as others in Fine Gael did, but she stood her ground and suffered considerable consequences to her career. In a political system often accused of careerism and nothing else, she displayed integrity and courage. A lot of people still don’t agree with Creighton’s stance, but a considerable number of those cannot help but admire the woman’s courage.

If things fell their way, the Reform Alliance could win enough seats in the general election to be kingmaker in the next Dáil. By holding the balance of power, the Reform Alliance could make real and substantial reform the price of that king-making. In so doing, they could end civil war politics in Ireland, and do so at the symbolically important point in time of the 100th anniversary of the Rising. Ireland would stop being a teenager and accept adult responsibilities.

That’s the choice facing Lucinda Creighton from Claremorris in the coming months and years. Wait for an opportunity to return to Fine Gael, or take her chance at changing Irish politics forever. May God guide her in whatever decision she chooses to make.

Friday, October 11, 2013

What We Can Learn from the Clare Hurlers

First published in the Western People on Monday.

And then, after the heartache of the All-Ireland Football Final, the sweet and soothing balm of the hurling. It’s normally the football that brings the curtain down on summer and announces the dread return of winter. For the past two years the hurling replays have allowed us that extra half-hour of playtime before it’s time for bath and bed. Having been left empty-handed at the end of the Big Show, a lot of people in the County Mayo were grateful for one last game that could be enjoyed, rather than endured.

Cormac MacConnell, that great Fermanagh writer from a great Fermanagh family, once wrote that he knew just enough about hurling to know that he knew exactly nothing about hurling. And so it goes for most Mayo people, if not the majority of the country. Hurling is a mysterious priesthood, a game for initiates for whom it is the one true belief, while those outside the cast can only peer through the window at the great and ancient game.

The nation’s attitude to hurling, lik the nation’s attitude to a lot of things, is a strange one. If all the people who like to remark that hurling is the greatest game in the world actually played it or promoted it, a camán would be as commonplace to every child in the country as his or her Xbox. But talk is cheap and hurling remains where it has always remained, among its strongholds.

And in the light of that domination, what a thing it was last Sunday week to see Clare rise roaring once more from the bottom of the table, to overturn doubters, dissenters and all to bring the Liam McCarthy Cup home to the Banner for only the fourth time ever. Clare, that most marvellous of counties. God help you there in County Clare, stuck between Kerry and Kiltimagh, as the old people used to say.

While Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary hurl on the beautiful, rich land of the golden vale, the land in Clare is a lot like the land in the County Mayo – no less beautiful, but not at all as rich or fertile. And not only that, a feature of the Clare landscape is also the world famous Burren, about which a Cromwellian planter once remarked to his bitter disappointment that “there isn't tree to hang a man, water to drown a man nor soil to bury a man.”

But maybe there’s more to life than hanging, drowning and burying men. Music and hurling are far more worthwhile pursuits, as a typically impassioned Anthony Daly told an enthralled nation twenty years ago, when Clare last burst on the scene to carry the big pot away.

What a team those men were. What men that team was. The manager Ger Loughnane, who had drank enough bitter gall during his own playing days in the 1970s to know that any pain was worth not knowing defeat again. The imperious Lohans guarding Davy Fitzgerald’s goal. Daly and Seánie McMahon at half-back. If you imagine our own O’Sheas armed with sticks you get an idea of the Clare midfield of Ollie Baker and Colin Lynch. And upfront, the veteran Sparrow O’Loughlin and the firefly skills of Jamesie O’Connor on the wing.

There was no-one whom Clare feared in those days and, on the days when they were defeated, they died with their boots on.

Now, nearly twenty years later, under the management of Ger Loughnane’s own goalkeeper, Clare have done it again. Davy Fitzgerald isn’t the media’s idea of a polished performer. Not only is his heart on his sleeve, but his very guts are there, heaving for all to see. But behind that raw passion is a brain that is the hurling equivalent of the Rolls Royce motor car. There was a lot of debate about Clare’s tactics this year but, after all the talk, there is one thing that is sure. Clare won.

Clare of 2013 are an echo of Loughnane’s great teams of the 1990s, in that they are built from the back up. David McInerney, Brendan Bugler and Tony Kelly are worthy successors to Brian Lohan, Seánie Mac and Jamesie. The big difference between the teams of the nineties and the team of 2013 is the performance of young Shane O’Donnell in the final.

Only told he was starting an hour before the game began, O’Donnell scored three goals and three points to lead Clare past a valiant Cork, a Cork who would have reeled any other team in Ireland back. But not Clare, who were very much destiny’s children in 2013.

In a post-game interview with Shane O’Donnell broadcast on last Monday’s Morning Ireland, Clare’s latter-day Cúchulainn put it all in a nutshell. “Sure this is my first year on both panels, 21s and senior,” said O’Donnell. “I don't even have the all the baggage that the lads have from years gone by where they should have won things but they didn't. And it's a lot easier going out and playing when you don't have things in the back of your head like that.

It’s a lot easier going out and playing when you don’t have things in the back of your head like that. In Mayo, we have more things in the back of our heads than that young man could dream of. He thinks the baggage of twenty years a lot. He should try sixty.

But this isn’t to have a pop at O’Donnell. The man is the toast of the nation in these hard times and if he’s not, he should be. This is just to say that, reader, someday that will be us.

Someday that will be a Mayoman talking about how the only thing that matters is the here and now. That days come one by one and you either seize them or let them go forever. That piseogs and curses aren’t worth a bale of wet straw compared to the courage, talent and the eternal optimism of youth. God speed the day and, while we await it, up the Banner and may they enjoy a warm and short winter.