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?