Monday, January 28, 2013

It's Unloveable, It's Unwinnable, and It's Back - It's the National Football League

A noted GAA pundit opined on Newstalk recently that the All-Ireland Championship should be divided into two. The top sixteen counties in Ireland should compete for the All-Ireland proper, and the rest for a lesser trophy more suited to their humble status. When asked how the top sixteen should be decided, the pundit thought having the teams in Division 1 and 2 of the National League at the top table and the teams in 3 and 4 eating in the scullery should do it.

A neat solution, but indicative of fundamentally woolly thinking. It is correct to note that the gap between Divisions 2 and 3 is a much more natural one that that between 1 and 2, or 3 and 4. But that gap yawns for a greater reason than a talent gap – it’s to do with the fundamental structure of the league itself.

The National Football League is played over seven games. In league terms, that’s nothing. It’s too short a gap to establish who is truly the best. The English Premier League plays forty-odd games before deciding a Champion. Major League Baseball, before getting caught in its current playoff format trouble, asked its teams to play 162 games before winning a pennant. If someone’s on top of the table after playing 162 games nearly every day for five months, you can be pretty damn sure that they deserve to be there.

A seven game league gives no such margin for error. If you slip in the first game, you may never be able to catch up in the remaining six. Suppose counties A, B and C are favorites to gain promotion from Division 3 to Division 2, and the foothills of glory. A loses its first game at home, but wins the remaining six. B wins all seven of its games. C wins six out of seven as well, but has a superior scoring difference.

B and C are promoted, A remains in the mire and the manager has to break his heart trying to get lads thinking about the first game of the Championship and not drinking Sam Adams in Boston during the lazy, hazy days of a Massachusetts summer. The fact County A remains in Division 3 doesn’t mean they’re a bad team; it just means they were victims of an iniquitous system.

That’s the zany thing about the League. The fact it’s unfair doesn’t really matter, because nobody cares about winning the thing. What consolation are those four Leagues to Cork? Winning doesn’t matter. All you can do in the League is survive. You might be able to deal with being relegated to Division 2 but once you cross the midway you might never bubble up again.

The radio is currently heavy with advertisements promoting the League but they’re actually ads to promote the Spring Series in Croke Park, where Dublin will play an astonishing – even for them – five of seven games on home turf. League games in Páirc Tailteann, Celtic Park, O’Moore Park and other venues will be completely different experiences.

The one thing better than surviving the League is finding new players. Mayo’s James Horan has been particularly diligent in this regard. Where his predecessor used the League to put a winning run together only to be rudely returned to Square Minus One by a pasting in the final, Horan has show a blatant and epic disregard for any League results at all. The media made much of Mayo’s League Final appearance last year but it was a chimera – Mayo finished fourth of eight in the League proper and, if fog had not descended in the abandoned game against Dublin in Castlebar, could very easily be in Division 2 now.

Horan knew it didn’t matter. He knew finding players and getting strength in depth matters. And that search will surely continue this year, if selections from the FBD League are anything to go by. The Mayo support, always philosophical, will have plenty to mull over during the spring.

As for who wins it, who knows? Kerry’s little ears are poking slightly above the long grass after their crippling four years of hurt. Cork are developing a Mayo size monkey on their backs and may probably be grateful to get relegated and take some of the pressure off themselves for the summer. Kildare continue to doggedly knock on the door. Meath, Galway, Armagh and Laois are all eager for a return to the top table, but they will any of them swap promotion for the prospect of football in August. The League is all very well, but it remains, as it always must, four months of shadow-boxing before the great pageant of the Irish summer.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Accidental Trollist

Of all the horrid beasties that crawl and lurk through the darkest corners of cyber-space and the virtual world, is a truth universally acknowledged that the troll is the worst. The troll is that nasty creature who would sow discord where there should be harmony, sadness where there should be joy, hatred where there should be love.

As such it is rather a jolt for your faithful correspondent – a lover, not a fighter for all of his adult life – to discover that he is now that thing that is most despised. In some sort of Kafka-esque metamorphosis, I retired to bed a human being, pink and rather hairy, and awoke a troll, green and rather scaly.

The worst thing is that I wasn’t even trying. Over the years, on both this blog and more recently on Twitter, my very favourite thing on the internet, I’ve made it a point to not roll around in the muck unless I absolutely, positively have to. The secret of Twitter isn’t to engage, although engagement is important. It’s far more important not to engage, because firstly, you may be misunderstood, secondly, 140 characters doesn’t allow for much subtlety of expression and thirdly, fourthly and far most importantly, 99% of the great wide world really doesn’t give a rooty-toot-toot what you say.

When you engage with strangers, it’s important to remember that it’s very similar to seeing Brian O’Driscoll in a pub. Manners permit a nod in passing and perhaps small talk if queuing at the bar or at adjacent stalls at the porcelain against which all pints must eventually flow. But you do not pull up a chair, sit down and ask him if he’s pissed at Kidney for making Heaslip captain. That isn’t done.

What separates Twitter interaction from normal social interaction is that it’s the peculiar nature of Twitter that any tweet addresses the entire pub, rather than just one’s own group. And as such, a path to interaction exists that doesn’t exist in real life. But walking down that path can have unexpected consequences, as your now green, scaly and – oh God, oh God – slimy and smelly Spailpín discovered.

The sitch is this. One of the other many joys of Twitter is that you can enjoy sports events or public debates with a wider, virtual, community. This was the case the weekend before last, when your correspondent was sitting down enjoying some American football. Also sitting down in another part of the world enjoying the game was Brian Moore, solicitor, oenophile and former rugby union hooker for Nottingham, Harlequins, England and the British Lions. So far, so good.

During the course of the broadcast Brian Billick, one of the commentators, remarked how much he was looking forward to visiting the US troops in Guantanamo Bay. The co-commentator saluted all US troops, where-ever they may be and both men agreed that the US of A was the greatest country in the world. Fair enough.

Unless you’re Brian Moore. Moore didn’t like them onions, and tweeted: “#nfl Stupidity - NFL US comms refers to troops & proclaims the greatest nation on earth; co-comm then mentions Guantanamo without irony.”

Now. Really, I should have let that lie. But Brian Moore and I suffer from a difference of perspective. For Moore to hear another nation’s jingoism was shocking, because he’s not used to it. For us in Ireland, we hear it all the time, because we watch BBC and ITV. We spend all our lives listening to another nation’s jingoism.

But I didn’t think that difference of perspective through at the time. Instead, I replied to Brian Moore, remarking: “Everyone on the BBC wears a poppy in November Brian. You're in no position to give out about militarism.”

And then all hell broke loose. Moore replied with “Go away, you Irish troll,” which hurt my feelings just a biteen. However, I did not call him names as he did me, and tried to make my point as politely as I could. I realised half-way through though that the point was too subtle for the medium and I should have kept my damn mouth shut. Oh well. These things happen.

What I don’t think is fair, however, is that Moore has now subsequently blocked me – meaning that I am now no longer permitted to follow him. His tweets do not appear in my tweet stream, and I cannot respond to his tweets as I did the weekend before last.

Again, in the bar situation, I have no business butting into Brian Moore’s conversation. I’ve never met the man. But his tweet was in the public domain and I was far more polite replying to him than he was replying to me. Yet it’s me that’s wearing the leper’s bell, and am unclean, unclean.

For what it’s worth, a choice between Eddie Butler and Moore’s BBC commentary and our own come the Six Nations is no choice at all, with the BBC winning every time. Moore is superb as an analyst, with his love rugby union football easily over-riding the bias that he makes no secret about.

I also like that he occasionally tweets a word in Irish. He may be doing it to rise people, but at least he’s gone to the trouble of finding out what the word is. There are people in our own country who can’t even do that. And I still stand over my opinion that the poppy is a military symbol. Of course I do, because it is.

I’m just a little miffed that Moore blocked me when I wasn’t the one doing the name-calling. When the 21st Century Emily Post updates her famous guide to etiquette I hope my sad case of the Accidental Troll makes a sidebar, at least. And now, please excuse me – it’s damp in the cave, and I don’t want any more moss or lichen on my laptop.

Monday, January 07, 2013

The Warm Glow of the Winter Leagues

The Championship is the only GAA competition that matters. We all know that. The Association does its best to advertise the National League but real GAA people know those three (four if you count Division 2) Leagues in a row were cold comfort to Cork last year and the year before. To what end, then, are the Winter Leagues? What purpose do they serve?

Who currently has the McGrath Cup on their mantelpiece? Who dusts the McKenna Cup? Who could recognise the O’Bryne Cup if they saw it in a pawnbroker’s window? And how can the boys on the comma-tee bring their wives shopping in New York City if the winners of the Irish branch of the FBD League refuse to travel?

Three-pipe problems, all. But your correspondent remains a fan of the winter leagues, be they ever so humble. They fulfill, almost by accident, a purpose that the professional competitors of the GAA do so well – the winter leagues make the fans happy.

The GAA, being an amateur organisation, is often at a promotional disadvantage compared to professional sports. The GAA prioritises players over spectators, while the professional sports know that spectators must come first if money is to be made.

The GAA Winter Leagues are the only competitions in the GAA where the spectator comes first. Not, of course, the inflatable shamrock-wavers; such delicate flowers would look out of place in such theatres as Ballinmore, Co Leitrim, Ballinlough, Co Roscommon or Tuam, the true heart of Galway football.

No, these delighted fans are the hardcore, the proper GAA people who have been on bread and water since five to five on the third September, with nothing to console them in the long dark nights only soccer players beyond in England, hugging and kissing after scoring goals and otherwise acting the maggot.

For that small but devoted brand, the winter leagues are like a sort of AA meeting where you can not only confess your terrible additions and hopeless needs, but also be safe in the knowledge that, while you are fallen, you are among a community that know and understand your pain.

A GAA person attending a Winter League game is like a man going to an AA meeting, declaring that he used to drink a pint of bleach with a meths chaser just to get the motor running, and being greeted with knowing and rueful smiles. I spent more nights barefoot in skips than in my own bed in 1983, declares a man at the back of the stand. When the rats came for me during the DTs, they ran away again, laughs another happy soul. I just like a glass of wine with my dinner, mutters a girl through clenched teeth, carefully adjusting her pashmina as the players warm up at the town goal.

You could say that it’s only at the winter league games that the GAA person is ever truly at peace. There’s no peace to be had in going to the Championship games. Championship games are fraught with anxiety, less so now in the back door era but still very real for the majority of counties.

National League games are meaningless in themselves but always at the back of the mind of the GAA person is the narrative arc, the presence of the big picture that can be as foreboding as it is enticing. If we never get out of Division Four there is no way we’ll return to glory. If that young fella can carry this form into the summer we might keep it kicked out to them, for a start. If, if, if. Those nagging doubts can never be cleared from the mind as spring moves slowly into summer.

But in the winter leagues the year stretches long ahead. You’re out of the house, and already the cold air is making you feel better about the Christmas excesses. Whereas before your head was annoyed with the most unspeakable muck on telly – and you wouldn’t mind the English stations, but our own! Our own! Is this what I pay the license fee for? – now you’re looking at the tantalising prospect of this year being The Year, , that Magical Year for which you’ve waited since you were a child.

There’s a few lads up from minor that you’re looking forward to seeing. Some lad is back from Australia – covered in tattoos, the hoor, but he was a good one before he left. And can your full-forward work off that condition before the Championship begins?

No gourmand sitting before a dinner cooked by Nigella Lawson herself ever licked his lips as happily as the GAA person at a winter league game, when hope springs eternal in the mud, the cold and the rain. God bless them all, and good luck to them.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Na Macallaí ar a nDúiseacht - Oidhreacht Notre Dame agus a Tábhacht Dúinne sa mBaile

Tháinig na "Fighting Irish" abhaile i Meán Fomháir, nuair a d'imir Notre Dame cluiche peile Meiriceánach i gcoinne Navy san Aviva. Tugadh fáilte rompu agus a lucht tacaíochta, agus bhí deireadh seachtaine mhór i mBleá Cliath i rith a gcuairt. Ach ar bhac mórán faoi Notre Dame - a n-oidhreacht, a ndúshláin, a mbrionglóidí - nuair a chuadar abhaile? Nó an rabhamar sásta ár ndóthain leis an airgead ar chaitheadar anseo?

Is stráinséirí dúinne Notre Dame. Nuair a smaoineann an chuid is mó daoine ar fhoireann Éireannach ag imirt thar sáile, smaoiníonn siad ar Glasgow Celtic. Tá Glaschú níos giorra, ar ndóigh, agus ceangail stáiriúil láidir idir Celtic agus na Gaeil, i dTír Chonaill go háirithe.

Ach is mór an trua é nach bhfuil níos mó clú nó measa ag na Gaeil ar Notre Dame, ar cheann de na foirne peile is mó le rá 'sna Stáit Aontaithe. Ní thaitníonn an razzmatazz Meiriceánach mórán linne, nó daoine gleasta cosuil le mo dhuine ar leathaobh duit.

Sin bearnaí chultúrtha, blásanna éigsiúla. Ach an rud is mó ba chóir a rá faoi Notre Dame, an ollscoil agus an fhoireann peile, ná gur thugadar dea-chlú ar na Gaeil nuair a bhí an clú ag teastáil, agus ag teastáil go mór. Sin é an fáth is mó gur chóir dúinn leanúint ar pheileadóirí Notre Dame anseo in Éirinn. Chuir a gcuid gaiscí loinnir ar ainm na nGaeil, loinnir atá níos láidre agus níos tábhachtaí ná aon mhíchompóirdeachas faoi Pheadaithe phlaisteacha, bearnaí chultúrtha nó seafóid dá leithéid.

Bíonn fáilte roimh na Gaeil i Meiriceá anois, ach ní mar sin a bhíodh a scéal i gcónaí. Céad bliain ó shin, feiceadh fógraí NINA go forleathan i mBostún - "No Irish Need Apply." Bhí lucht mór Meiriceá i gcoinne na ndeoraí ag teacht ina mílte ón Eorap, agus na Gaeil troideach, ólta ach go háirithe.

Tarlaíodh roinnt rudaí chun an scéal a n-athrú, ar ndóigh. D'obair na Gaeil go crua. D'ullmhaigh siad le cheile chun cospóir a dhéanamh dóibh féin. D'éiríodar ina gcumhacht ins na bailte a bhíodh droch-chlú orthu roimhe sin - féach ar na Gearáltaigh agus na Cinnéidigh i mBostún. Ach bhí clú Notre Dame mar fhoireann peile gach píosa chomh tábhachtach chun dea-chlú a thabhairt chuig na Gaeil ná gach rud eile.

Níorbh ollscoil Ghaelach í Notre Dame ar dtús - ba é sagart Francach a chuaigh go Meiriceá mar mhisinéir a bhunaigh an ollscoil ar dtús, i 1842. Ba ollscoil Caitliceach i lár tuaithe Protastúnach é - bhí níos mó baill an Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in aghaidh daoine sa stát ná ag aon stát eile ins na 1920í - agus mar sin bhí ar lucht Notre Dame a gclú féin a dhéanamh, gan tacaíocht ó chomarsa.

Níl éinne cinnte conas ar bhaistigh an leasainm "Fighting Irish" ar fhoireann peile Notre Dame, agus scoil Fhrancach i lár-iarthar Mheiriceá í. Tuairim go raibh roinnt daoine le sloinní Ghaelacha ar an bhfoireann ins na 20í. Tuairim eile gurb "Irish" an masla is coitianta ar daoine ísle sa gceantair sin ag an am.

Ach thóg Notre Dame an masla dóibh féin go h-oifigiúil i 1927, agus rinnedar a gcéad cloch ar a bpaidrín as. Arís, ní raibh mórán Gaeil ann i South Bend ag an am - Ioruach ab ea Knute Rockne, an treanalaí a bhí mar cheannaire ar chlár peile Notre Dame nuair a d'éiríodar ina bhfataigh na peile - ach nuair a bhí Rockne agus a fhoireann ag caint ar treithí Ghaelacha anois, ba é crógacht, cumhacht, croí agus gan ligeadh suas a bhí i gceist aige.

Agus d'fhan an bhrí sin leis an bhfocal "Gaelach" i Meiriceá as sin amach, go dtí an lá 'tá inniu ann - buíochas le scoil Francach i Meiriceá a bhí á mhaslaigh agus a rinne iarracht í féin a chosaint.

Agus Notre Dame an séisiúr seo? Tá na macallaí ar a ndúiseacht, mar a dheirtear i South Bend. Tár éis cúig bliana is fiche teipe - nó "cúig bliana is fiche gortaithe," mar a leanann an cliché - tá na Gaeil i bpríomh-áit peile na gColáistí arís, agus chun aghaidh a chur ar Ollscoil Alabama sa gCluiche Ceannais Dé Luain seo chugainn. Is iad Alabama rogha na coitianta ach tá seans an trodaí ag na Fighting Irish agus, i ndáiríre, cad ab fhearr dóibh ná sin? Go n-éirí leo.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Where's Your Pride? The Problem with The Gathering

Gabriel Byrne’s visceral attack on The Gathering, the five million Euro tourism initiative which started last night outside the site of Grattan’s Parliament, touched a nerve in the country. Some people said Byrne was a begrudger. More said it was sour grapes on Byrne’s part that he wasn’t the head buck cat of the whole show himself.

But maybe the reason so many people remember Bryne’s attack in November, and why so many people are apprehensive about this whole Gathering project, is that it touched on a deep need and yearning in the soul of the nation.

What do the Irish want more than anything else? It used to be an Ireland united, Gaelic, and free, but at some stage in the past fifty years the twenty-six counties embraced partition as the natural order of things. We all would like to see a deal on the banking debt but we are now in the fifth stage of our fiscal grief – acceptance – and will be simply grateful for any easing of the yoke that our diplomats can wrangle. And at the personal level, we all have our own individual aims, from parents that want their kids to go to college to those poor souls who pray that their kids can somehow stay out of jail.

But the one thing that unites the nation is this: we all want to be proud of Ireland and of being Irish. A people who invented the notion of the hunger strike have nothing to learn about pride and how pride can be more important than life itself.

That’s why there was such a row over the singing when Ireland were getting slaughtered at Euro 2012 this summer. The Singers thought the signing reflected the spirit of the Indomitable Irishry, while the Silent thought the singing shamed the nation by portraying the Irish as happy victims instead of a warrior race raging to the last at cruel fate. But both sides of the argument were motivated by love of country; the only thing that divided them was how that love would be perceived abroad. The patriotism itself was never in doubt.

Which brings us to The Gathering. The idea itself is laudable, both as an acknowledgement to our huge emigrant population (which An Spailpín still insists should be described as a “deoraíocht” rather than a “diaspora,” by the way) and as a much-needed revenue source for one of our few indigenous industries, tourism.

But what’s worrying Gabriel Byrne and a lot of other people is how Ireland is being portrayed abroad by this particular jamboree. Does The Gathering portray an Ireland that is, in Pearse’s words, “august, despite her chains,” or an Ireland of hucksters and gombeens that is a cross between The Irish RM and Killnascully?

The early signs are not promising. The website is badly designed. The idea of a website as a venue for users to take over and make their is a good and modern one, and very much of the zeitgeist in terms of the social web. But it’s badly expressed and it’s not at all clear that that’s the purpose. The first language is also notable by its absence – there’s a little bit there, but certainly not of sufficient quantity to frighten the horses or suggest that we’re all that different from Bradford, Boston or Brisbane.

The chief worry about The Gathering is that it’s going to be cheap and make the nation look cheap in consequence. There’s a troubling section on the website called “I Love Ireland,” that contains a list of things that are meant to cause us to swell with pride. Your faithful narrator swelled with something else entirely on reading “25 things you never thought you’d miss about Ireland.” If that’s what Ireland is like, give me Syria every time. Horrible.

That list of twenty-five things is not who the Irish are. It can’t be. That’s the Irish as seen by the sort of pond life that buys those awful “Little Book of Your Mammy's Bloomers” books. Your correspondent wants no part of them, and doubts he is alone.

In 1916, an IRA battalion took command of St Stephen’s Green, which includes buildings owned by UCD. Liam Ó Briain describes the rebels’ forlorn attempts to barricade their position in his memoir of the Rising, Cuimhní Cinn, using materials found in the surrounding buildings. At one stage, a soldier found some big, old, thick books and suggested they be used in the barricade. Ó Briain recognised the books as copies of the Annals of the Four Masters. “We can’t use them,” he told the soldier. “If we’re fighting for anything, we’re fighting for those books.”

Tourists come to Ireland to have fun, not to read about long-dead monks or the works of those long-dead monks themselves. Of course they do. But at the same time, we should present ourselves as being more than the best little country in the world to get drunk. We should have it within us to realise it’s not all about money, and show some little bit of pride.