Monday, December 29, 2014

The Year in Sports: Review and Preview

A year when Kerry won the football and Kilkenny the hurling does not sound like a year of revolution in Irish sport. And neither was it, really. Kerry have been béal-bochting all year about how this was their best All-Ireland yet because no-one gave them a chance, but the nation might be well-advised to take that with a pinch of salt. The 1975 team weren’t expected to win that All-Ireland either, and they turned out to be pretty handy in the end.

But the question of how long can this keep going on is getting more and more urgent in football. Ulster is the only competitive provincial Championship now. Connacht may be next year, or it may not. Leinster will be a parade, and Munster the usual two-handed set. This isn’t good for anybody, but how it’s to be remedied is the Gordian Knot of the GAA.

Two solutions get the most media airings. The first is a dual-Championship, for haves and have-nots. The second is a Champions-League style thing, because the Group games in the Champions League are always such heart-stopping affairs.

Neither of these solutions is acceptable, because both work against the very spirit of the GAA. The spirit of the GAA is representation of where you’re from, and competing against your neighbours. The GAA is not a professional sport, and neither are the inter-county competitions the be-all and end-all of the Association. If anything, they are brocade and it will be a bleak day for the Association if that is ever forgotten.

In an interview on the invariably excellent Second Captains podcast, former Roscommon goalkeeper and aspirant All-Ireland-winning Roscommon manager, Shane Curran, reckoned that for Roscommon to win an All-Ireland, one million Euro will have to spent every year for fifteen years to raise standards to that of the elite counties.

Reader, if the Association spent more time wondering how winning All-Irelands costs one million a year for fifteen years than worrying about Rachel Wyse and Sky’s threat to the Purity of the Gael, it might come a lot closer to finding out why the Provincial Championships aren’t competitive any more.

It is an interesting thing that hurling remains free of accusations of creeping professionalism, uncompetitive provincial Championships and cynical play. After fifty years without a drawn All-Ireland hurling final, we’ve now had two-in-a-row and each final since the Tipperary revival of 2009 has been hailed as the greatest-ever.

Would it be monstrous to wonder about this? Is there a case to be made that the hurling Emperor isn’t quite dressed for the weather? The back-door may be a pox on football, further punishing and humiliating the weaker counties for whom it was theoretically introduced, but at least people can understand it. The complex steps of the hurling Championship are like a puzzle escaped from a cryptologists’ laboratory.

For all its faults, there is general consensus that come the August Bank Holiday, the best eight teams in the country are still in competition for Sam. Can the same be said for Liam, or could the best team fall in Munster and then die the death of a thousand cuts in the purgatorial struggles of the hurling back door?

Such complexities are far beyond a Mayoman’s understanding, of course, but is it time hurling people started to wonder aloud?

The other sport about which the nation seems to be labouring under a particular delusion is rugby. The sports page previews this week will speculate about Ireland’s chances as an outside bet to win the Rugby World Cup, which will be held in England’s green and pleasant land next autumn.

Reader, Ireland have never won a World Cup playoff game in the seven times the competition has been held, including two years, 1999 and 2007, when Ireland couldn’t even get out of their group. The Irish rugby public should think about crawling before thinking about walking.

Will the World Cup be worth watching? An unthinkable question once, but getting more and more relevant now. The best sports columnist in Ireland, Keith Duggan of the Irish Times, wondered recently if rugby hasn’t become a brilliantly-coached bore in recent years, and a perusal of the stats solidify that case.

The former Welsh out-half, Barry John, once said that he could tell how a game would go simply by looking at how the out-half handled the ball in warm-ups. In the amateur game, the out-half dictated the game from his regal throne standing-off the scrum. Now, the only thing that separates out-halves is competence. There are thin degrees of difference between them at international level, but they’re like the thousandths of a second that separate cars in Formula One. Too miniscule to take seriously.

Rugby Union is now a game of continual tackling in defense and not turning over possession in offense. Tackling has become the be-all and end-all of the game that sneaky attackers are now making sure they get tackled, in order to turn the laws to their advantage, as Will Greenwood noted in the Telegraph.

Union may dominate League in England since Union turned professional twenty years ago – the RFU’s turnover is four times that of the RFL – but League’s influence over Union has proved so strong that the codes are closer than they have been in over one hundred years. Good news for the stand-up, pay-up moneymen coining it at every turn, but for what the French used to call la gloire? A victim to progress, I’m afraid.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Examiner's Top Forty Irish Sports Books

What marvellous food for thought the Examiner has given us in publishing a list of the top forty Irish sports books. It would be churlish to argue with the ordering of the list, as no two lists will ever have the same order. But there is much to be gleaned from the list about who we are, the sports we watch and how we chronicle them.

The first thing that strikes you about the list is how much it is dominated by the GAA. Eighteen of the forty books listed are GAA-themed. This is astonishing, as Paddy is not a man who has ever liked to go on the record. Paddy felt strongly this way against the Invader, but he feels no less so against the notebook and the Bic biro.

In a culture where omerta rules, how can we get eighteen books about the GAA at all, to say nothing of saying those eighteen are among the best forty of all time?

Well. Firstly, the list betrays a certain bias towards the recent – twenty of the forty books were published in the past nine years, and thirteen of the eighteen GAA books on the list were published after 2005.

This is not to say that some of the books aren’t deserving of their position; of course they are. But is fair to presume that, were the list compiled again in ten years’ time, the position of these books relative to each other will change.

For instance, Michael Foley’s The Bloodied Field, published in the past two months, is 23rd on the list, behind Eamon Sweeney’s The Road to Croker, Dónal Óg Cusack’s Come What May and others. This is the last time Foley’s book will be listed so low, while some of the others ahead of it will be folded back into the mists of time.

The other astonishing thing about the list is relative absence of horse racing and rugby. Horse-racing books can run to a specialist interest, but rugby has traditionally been a well-documented sport – it’s origins in the English public schools make that inevitable. Rugby has also undergone a popularity surge in Ireland as couldn’t have been imagined even as Brian O’Driscoll ran in his three tries in Paris in 2000.

In the light of this, it’s odd that, not only are there so few good books on rugby (as opposed to player autobiographies, say), but the rugby book that is head and shoulders above the other two is about a game that was played in 1978.

The books that top the list are also a bit odd. According to the Examiner list, the five best Irish sportsbooks ever written are Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride, Paul McGrath’s autobiography, Eamon Dunphy’s (first) autobiography, Michael Foley’s Kings of September and Tony Cascarino’s autobiography.

Four out of those five books do not make for jolly reading (all five, if you’re from Kerry). As a matter of fact, you would wonder why anyone would either play or follow sports at all if all that awaits them is what befell Kimmage, McGrath, Dunphy and Cascarino (and Micko, again, only if you live in Kerry).

There is no reason to let sport loom large in your life if the sport itself is the be-all and end-all. We follow sports for what they represent as much, if not more than, the sport itself.

At one level the 1982 All-Ireland football final was thirty grown men chasing a ball in the rain. At another level, it was Greek tragedy brought to life, as those who would think themselves equal to the gods were cut down by Fate. You don’t get much drama like that to the dollar, and that’s one of the reasons why we follow sports as we do.

Breandán Ó hEithir’s GAA memoir, Over the Bar, languishes at number 19 in the Examiner list. On my own list, it’s Number One. Other books show were sport fits in with history. Over the Bar shows where the GAA fits in with the Irish soul. An extraordinary, inspired book and essential reading for students of sport, of Ireland and of writing.

In the print edition of the Examiner list, Over the Bar is compared to a compilation of work by PD Mehigan, published at the same time as Ó hEithir’s book, 1984. Mehigan, who wrote under the pen-name Carbery, was one of the first GAA journalists and a man with a prolific output. But to compare his writing to Ó Eithir’s is to compare water with wine.

FOCAL SCÓR: William Hamilton Maxwell’s Wild Sports of the West, first published in 1832, should be on any list of great Irish sports books. Maxwell was something of a rake, who took a holiday from smokey London to do a bit of huntin', shootin' and fishin' in the West of Ireland. The prose in the book is, like Maxwell himself, rich and exuberant. For instance, Maxwell quotes from a contemporary tourist guide as to what exactly Connaught is like:

It lieth under a dark gray cloud, which is evermore discharging itself on the earth, but, like the widow's curse, is never exhausted. It is bounded on the south and east by Christendom and part of Tipperary, on the north by Donegal, and on the west by the salt say.

Now that’s writin’.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Ansbacher - Time to Publish, and Be Damned

Mary Lou McDonald may have impugned the august dignity of Dáil Éireann yesterday, but she has done the plain people of Ireland some service in doing it.

The entire political establishment has known the names on this infamous Ansbacher list for some time; now, thanks to Deputy McDonald, so do we. The plain people of Ireland, for one brief moment, are in with the In Crowd, and now know what the In Crowd knows. Or at least, some of it.

Will anything come of yesterday’s events? Who knows? If the Ansbacher list is just a list of unfounded allegations, then nothing will come of it, and all this will be quickly forgotten by history.

If the Ansbacher list is the goods on the most base corruption at the heart of Irish politics, the question then arises why Mary Lou didn’t drive the blade home and quote chapter and verse on the hows and whys of the thing?

The most likely scenario is that Mary Lou does not have the goods on these allegations, and is simply lobbing a high ball into the square, on the odds-against chance of it falling her way before being swallowed up by the full-back.

This would certainly make Mary Lou guilty of an abuse of Dáil privilege, and question her standing as a parliamentarian. But then, as the current Government cares not one whit for the Dáil, as demonstrated by its eagerness to guillotine debate and to run the country by the four-person junta that is the Economic Management Council, parliamentarian isn’t the title it once was.

It is interesting that, in this moment in history where we worship “whistle-blowers” – reader, do you remember one article that ever doubted Garda McCabe or ex-Garda Wilson, that ever wondered if these guys were just doing a dog even a biteen? No; me neither – isn’t it remarkable that nobody has sat down with Mr Ryan, the current whistle-blower, with a microphone, notebook and ballpoint pen?

The Irish libel laws are incorrectly balanced in the way they favour the establishment over the right to speak out and to question, so this makes the press a little more cautious than it ought to be. The fact that the journalism industry is currently falling apart like a three-dollar suit bought in Bangkok doesn’t help either.

But in abusing the privilege of that august chamber, Dáil Éireann, Deputy McDonald has opened a window for the journalists of Ireland to earn their corn. David Davin-Power reported on the Nine O’Clock News last night that Gerard Ryan’s report to Mary Harney is seven-hundred-pages long. So now it’s time to go through that report, and start seeing if things add up or if they don’t.

Why not publish it on-line, so we all can read it? Maybe it will be some enterprising Citizen Journalist who finally cracks the case.

Either result is fine, funnily enough. If Mr Ryan is simply an obsessive or a fantasist who can’t let this thing go, we ought to know. We ought to know for the good names of those who are currently under suspicion, and we ought to know so people aren’t completely gullible about conspiracy theories.

And if Mr Ryan is correct in his allegations, then we know that biggest lie of all throughout the 2011 election campaign was that not all politicians are the same. We will know they are exactly the same, and that we must find a new way of selecting politicians, the old one being clearly exposed as not fit for purpose.

The plain people of Ireland are in the slips, straining at the start. Time to turn finally open those closets, and see what comes tumbling out.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bígí ar Bhur Suaimhneas – Níl Tada Buaite Fós ag na Gaeil

Sa ndeireadh, bhí an cheart ag an gConnallach. Iarraidh air an deá-fhógra don bhliain seo chugainn torraí cluiche an Fómhair. Bhí na torraí ceanán céanna againne i 2006, a dúirt sé, agus níor thugadar aon chabhair linn i 2007.

Tá cuimhneamh teipe sa gCorn Domhanda i 2007 go láidir i meoin Uí Chonnaill, mar atá i meoin gach duine rugbaí na tíre. Ní raibh mórán ag tnúth go n-insíodh an Drisceollach an scéal go léir ina dhírbheathaisnéis agus d'fhán sé ina thost, mar is gnáth. Leanann scéal na bliana rugbaí sin go léir ina rún os comhair an phobail.

Agus anois, tá Corn Domhanda eile ag teacht agus pobal na hÉireann ag smaoineamh anois go n-éireodh linn an Corrán féin a ghabháil, agus sinne gan bua dá laghad i ndiaidh na gcluichí ghasra fós.

Ach seo foireann eile, a deirtear. Is é Joe Schmidt an saineolaí rugbaí is fearr sa ndomhan mór. Níl an glas ann nárbh fhéidir leis a oscailt. B'fhéidir. An uair deireanach a chuireas súil ar an scéal, ba iad na h-imreoirí amháin a bhí ar an bpáirc agus na traenálaithe go léir suas istigh 'sna ardáin, ach tá an cluiche chomh athraithe chomh tapa le déanaí tá seans ann go bhfuil dúl amú orm.

Ag smaoineamh ar na buanna in aghaidh na hAstráile agus na hAfraice Theas, cén fáth gur éirigh leis na Gaeil? An bhfuil siad chomh maith sin i ndáiríre?

Is deacair é a thuiscint ón meáin Éireannach, a chuireann na geansaithe uaithne orthu níos tapa maidir leis an rugbaí ná nuair a bhí Jack Charlton ann sa sacar. Bíonn an meáin Breataine réidh i gcónaí cnámh a chaitheamh chun na Gaeil fiáine, agus tá mo laethanta scoile chomh fada thiar liom anois níl fios agam cad a scríobhtar fúinn sa bhFrainc. Tá a bhfadhbanna féin acu ar ndóigh, na créatúir.

Agus an rugbaí éirithe chomh casta mar atá, breathnaím ar cluichí anois agus oscailte agam ar mo thablet, ag breathnú ar staitisticí an chluiche. D'éirigh linne an méid seo clibirte a bhuaigh, d'éirigh leosan an méid sin síneadh amach. Ní fhéidir na staitisticí go léir a chreideamh – bhí sé ghreamú aimsithe ag Ian Madigan acu, mar shampla, ach is ait é an greamú nuair a leanann an imreoir greamaithe ar aghaidh mar a bhí sé, ach go bhfuil Madigan anois aige mar phaisinéir chomh maith – ach cabhraíonn na staitisticí an cluiche gairmiúla a thuiscint.

Níor chabhair na staitisticí liom aréir, mar bhí an lámh in uachtar ag na hAstraláisigh ón chuid is mó imeartha. Níos mó seilbhe, níos mó talaimh, níos mó gach rud ag an Astráil ach cúlaithe ar an mbord, an t-aon staitistic amháin atá ina rí ar gach uile ceann acu. Bhí an t-ádh ag na Gaeil nuair a d'aimsigh Zebo agus Bowe a n-úid, agus ba é sin scéal an chluiche. Bhí an bearna ró-mhór do na hAstraláisigh.

Ní hea sin drochmheas ar cliathánaithe na hÉireann. Thógadar a seasanna, agus sin é an fáth go bhfuil siad ann, chun na seasanna sin a thógáil, in ionad an liathróid a ligeadh chun tosaigh nó praiseach éigin eile a dhéanamh as na seansanna.

Ach ar chonaiceamar fianaise i rith an Fómhair gurbh fhéidir leis na Gaeil an Corrán Domhanda féin a bhuaigh? Caithfear níos mó na an dhá úd sin a bheith ann. Tá an paca láidir go leor agus cróga a ndóthain, ach bhíodar faoi bhrú sa gclibirt agus agus ní hé an Astráil an fhoireann is fearr san obair sin sa domhain.

Tá Robbie Henshaw ag dul go maith i mbróga móra Uí Dhrisceoill chomh fada seo, ach tá D'Arcy sean go leor agus ní fheictear mórán luais idir an bheirt acu. Bhí an luas caillte ag BOD féin sa ndeireadh ach bheadh BOD ina imreoir agus é ar leathchos – fios ag gach éinne faoi sin.

Tá daoine ag súil go bhfillfidh Seán O'Brien agus Cian Healy agus níorbh aon íobairt é ceachtar acu a chur istigh sa bhfoireann, ach ag an am céanna tá imní orm maidir leis an bhfoireann seo.

Agus an bliain ina h-uimhir chorr, beidh Sasana agus an Fhrainc againn sa mbaile, ach tá an Albain tar éis feabhsú faoi Vern Cotter agus ní bhog an turas é ríomh dul chomh fada le Caerdydd agus an lámh in uachtar a fháil.

I mblianta roimhe seo, beidh buntáiste mór ag aon fhoireann agus leath-chúlaí amach na Leoin acu, ach tá dualgas agus stíl imeartha an leath-chúlaí athraithe. Níl an chumhacht céanna a bhí acu mar a bhíodh san seanshaol, agus leithid Barry John nó Phil Bennett nó Hugo Porta nó Jackie Kyle ina sheasamh taobh amuigh na clibirte.

Anois, tá níos mó dualgas ar an leath-chúlaí clibirte an imirt a chur i bhfeidhm. Is ar seisean atá an rogha idir cic, pas nó aimsiú a dhéanamh. Tráth, ba é mar dara geansaí a 10 é an 12; anois, a mhalairt a scéal atá ann. Tá seans ann go dtiocfaidh an lá agus, in ionad an chéad líne aimsithe é an leath-chúlaí amach, beidh sé ina chéad líne cosaint. Is fada an titim ar péacóg breá bródúil an rugbaí é.

Monday, November 17, 2014

That Troublesome Thing, Democracy

It is the nature of being a member of an elite to quickly forget what it’s like to be part of the hoi-polloi. Marie Antoinette, for instance, couldn’t conceive of a situation where people were starving. All she ever knew were sumptuous riches. She had no conception of people not having cake to eat.

Sinn Féin’s inexorable rise in the polls has the Irish political elite just as baffled as the last Queen of France. But how could the elite understand it, when they only ever talk to themselves? If they were to talk to real people living real lives in the real world, the secret of Sinn Féin’s success would be all too clear. It comes about – if you will pardon the infelicitous phrase – through process of elimination.

The current government swept to power on a manifesto of change. But all they changed were the chairs. The music remained exactly the same.

The current government did not stand up to Brussels. They did exactly what Fianna Fáil had laid out for them. The current government did not end cronyism. If anything, they brought it to newer and towering heights. And God only knows what the ongoing disaster of Irish Water will do before that debate calms down.

In the light of all this, you can see how people might be a little bit tetchy. Nobody likes being sold a pup. As for the Government’s greatest victory, the Promissory Note deal and the exit of the Troika – well, what does that mean, really?

The people were told that thirty years of hardship lay in store, thanks to perfidious Fianna Fáil and their crooked builder pals. And now everything’s grand after three years? Either the Government was lying while in opposition, or else it’s lying now. Both statements cannot be true.

So, having tried the strawberry flavour and then tried the banana flavour, the public are going to try another flavour again. And the only flavour left in the shop is Sinn Féin.

The Independents can’t form a Government. If anything, “Independent” doesn’t quite describe that eclectic group, as they nearly all have mother parties from which they are currently estranged.

Lucinda Creighton had the potential to create a new party that would, finally, end the civil war era of Irish politics. She had the moral authority that comes from giving up all she had, politically, on a point of principle, and she had a constituency desperate for change and reform.

But, perhaps through lack of vision on her own part, and certainly through extraordinary cowardice on others’ parts, Creighton could never rally people to her flag. Stephen Donnelly could have brought the Reform Alliance into life, cementing their status as fiscally responsible while take the right-wing Catholic edge off them. But he stayed put, and all Lucinda can do now is wait for Enda Kenny’s Night of the Long Knives and rejoin Fine Gael once Kenny’s head is in Mme La Guillotine’s basket.

Sinn Féin are soaking up the votes because there’s nobody else there. Fianna Fáil remain in ribbons after the 2011 election, while neither Fine Gael nor Labour realise just how betrayed so many of the people who voted for them in 2011 feel. They people didn’t get what they wanted at the last election, so now they’ll give the other crowd a try. That’s how it works, isn’t it?

The prospect of Sinn Féin in power horrifies the Irish political Establishment. As such, the media – who are as much part of the Establishment as An Taoiseach himself – have been bending over backwards to demonise Sinn Féin at every opportunity. But all they’re doing is making Sinn Féin stronger, because anybody can see the extraordinary bias in their coverage.

Mary-Lou McDonald’s expulsion from the Dáil last week is the latest case of this. All the coverage – all of it – dismissed McDonald’s expulsion as a stunt. Nobody was interested in teasing out the story a bit further.

For instance, did anybody ask if Seán Barrett is as even-handed as he ought to be in his role as Ceann Comhairle? Mary Lou McDonald’s isn’t the first name to make his bad books.

Former TD Luke Ming Flanagan has been vocally critical of Seán Barrett too. It’s not Sinn Féin’s imagination. That should make Barrett’s Ceann Comhairle-ship is a legitimate point of debate, but it’s not.

The second point is – does any of this matter? The Dáil’s theoretical purpose is to hold the executive to account, but the country is now run by a four-person junta, comprised of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The junta showed the Dáil exactly how much it mattered during the Irish Water debate. There wasn’t one. Irish Water was set up by fiat, just as things are done in any other totalitarian state.

And that’s why people are willing to give Sinn Féin a go. Because there’s nobody else there and, having been promised reform, the people still seem to kind of want it.

IN order to provide some vague alternative, the extraordinary prospect of a Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael coalition, to “safeguard democracy,” is now being floated. There is no notion that expresses the elitism of the governing classes so much as that idea.

A Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael coalition won’t stop Sinn Féin getting into government. All it will do is delay it, and ensure that Sinn Féin will have even more TDs and therefore more cabinet places in the election after next. If the people vote for Sinn Féin, they have to get them.

There is also the lesson of history in not giving the people what they voted for. Dick Spring’s Labour Party were never forgiven for denying the voice of the people in 1992.

If Sinn Féin get a mandate from the people to govern at the next election that mandate has to be respected, no matter how many stomachs churn at the prospect. That’s what democracy is – the people get to select their government, and not have their government decided by juntas and elites.

If the three establishment parties want to win more votes than Sinn Féin, they would be better off making it clear to the people why they’re worth those votes, rather than briefing against the dirty Shinners and hoping wool will be pulled over people’s eyes. The nation is sick of wool by now.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

We Have Learned Nothing in Irish Politics

First published in the Western People on Monday.

I, for one, welcome our new overlord.
The analysis of the by-election results in Dublin South-West and Roscommon South-Leitrim has focused heavily on how voters are turning away from the major Irish political parties. This was especially obvious in Dublin South-West, where Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour managed just 26% of the vote between them.

To put that in perspective, there has never been a government in the history of the state that hasn’t featured at least one of those parties in its makeup, and now they can only manage one vote in four between the three of them.

Why the public are so disillusioned is certainly due to a combination of reasons, one of which seems under-discussed in the national media. Could the disconnect between the mainstream political parties and the mainstream of Irish political life have arisen because the mainstream political parties have treated the electorate like fools since the crash, if not before?

For instance: during the end of the bailout debate in the Dáil last year, the majority of speakers made a point of commending the Ballyhea Says No Protest.

Ballyhea is a village in County Cork. Every Sunday without fail since March 6th, 2011, a group of locals have held a protest against the bank bailout.

There is a better chance of the GAA stripping Kerry of this year’s All-Ireland title and awarding it to Mayo in apology for events in Limerick than there is of the Ballyhea Says No protest group doing anything other than getting colds now that the weather has got chilly again. The Ballyhea protest is an attempt to get toothpaste back into the tube or water to flow uphill. The world doesn’t work like that. It just doesn’t.

Ballyhea says it’s not our debt. Of course it’s our debt. If it weren’t our debt, we wouldn’t be bloody paying for it, would we? This is how the world works.

Does anybody stand up and say this in the Dáil? No, they don’t. If the people were told that the milk is spilled and is now gone, never to come back, could they deal with it? Of course they could. Milk gets spilled all the time and the world doesn’t end. The world carries on just the same. But the Irish political establishment doesn’t trust the Irish electorate to come to terms with that.

Whether they were right or wrong, whether they were had their arms twisted or they were just thick, the government that signed the bank guarantee were fully mandated by the people to sign that guarantee. That’s what representative government is.

The sovereign people elect representatives to make decisions on the sovereign people’s behalf. If the government screws it up, it’s partly the fault of the sovereign people who elected them in the first place.

This isn’t news. This principle goes back to the Ancient Greeks, before the birth of Christ. There is nothing novel in this.

But representative democracy can do something that toothpaste-back-in-tube movements can’t do. They elect someone else. And that is what the voters in the two by-elections are clearly eager to do.

That is what they did the last time, but they were sold a pup. The people remain eager to get what they voted for, and so we get the voting patterns in the recent by-elections. The sad thing for the country, though, is that the new dispensation is just as likely to be a mutt as the last.

Michael Fitzmaurice, the new TD for Roscommon South Leitrim, seems a good and honest man. The type of man on whom you can rely to help you when you need it and pretend after that he did nothing at all. In the case of Roscommon South-Leitrim, the man’s own decency and likeability may have had as much to do with his victory as anything else.

But the reality is that he’s just one man. One man can’t govern. To govern, you need to form alliances, and how many Michael Fitzmaurices are there in the Dáil? The Independents dream of some sort of we’re-all-Independent-together faction in the next Dáil, but where is the common ground between Shane Ross, Michael Fitzmaurice and Michael Lowry? The gap is too big to bridge.

And then you have the socialists. Paul Murphy, Joe Higgins, Clare Daly and Joan Collins were all in the Socialist Party once. Presuming that the Anti-Austerity Alliance isn’t one and the same with the Socialist Party, the four of them are now in four different parties, even though they all agree with each other on policy.

They all agree, and they can’t get on. They won’t be forming any government, or if they do, it’ll probably have broken down in the time it takes them to go the Phoenix Park to get their seals of office from the President.

Besides. The establishment parties aren’t alone in not being entirely upfront with the electorate. Paul Murphy was elected in Dublin South-West because he is anti-water charge. Most people who voted for him won’t be liable for water charges in the first place. There are places in Dublin South-West that are so deprived, so far removed from mainstream life, that even to drive through them feels like having crossed into another country.

If there were honest politics in this country, the only issue on the doorsteps in areas like Jobstown and Cherry Orchard should be that candidates would move Heaven and Earth to keep children in school and on the straight and narrow. Dysfunctional though the adults’ lives may be, if it can be brought through to them that it may be possible to save the children from perpetuating the cycle, that would a treble victory for the people, the community and the nation.

What did we get instead? Extraordinary placards that beseeched us to stick our water meters up our bottoms. Not quite Meagher’s speech from the dock.

So here we are. Faith is lost in the establishment parties. The only people to rally to Lucinda Creighton’s flag were those who had nowhere else to go. The alternative parties hope to get their chance but, if their slogans are a guide, it’s hard not to think of the men to whom WB Yeats referred in The Fisherman one hundred and one years ago – “no knave brought to book / Who has won a drunker cheer.”

There are no leaders here. The country continues to go around and around in pointless, hopeless circles.

Forgive us, Frau Merkel. Come back to Erin, Mr Chopra. We promise to be nicer to you than those beastly Scots, Mr Cameron. Please. Somebody take us in. We just can’t make it on our own.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Margaret Burke Sheridan - Visse d'Arte

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The birthday of the greatest female singer Ireland has ever produced falls on this Wednesday. She is not a national figure because she was an opera singer, and opera has never been popular in Ireland. It’s a pity though – opera is one of the great achievements in human art, and Margaret Burke Sheridan was one of our own.

Very much one of our own, in fact. Margaret Sheridan was born in a house on the Mall in Castlebar on October 15th, 1889, the fifth child of the postmaster in Castlebar at the time, John Burke Sheridan.

Margaret’s mother died when Margaret was five, and her father died when she was eleven. Effectively orphaned – the Sheridan family don’t seem to have been that close - Margaret was raised to adulthood in the Dominican convent at 19 Eccles Street, Dublin 7, now part of the Mater Hospital. And it was while a student with the Dominicans that Margaret Burke Sheridan discovered that she had a gift.

At the age of nineteen, Sheridan left Ireland to study music at the Royal Academy in London. She was a success, but there was a war on and the opera scene in London was something of a backwater. If you wanted to be a star, you had to go to Italy, where opera is all.

Sheridan went to Rome, and started training again under a teacher called Alfredo Martini. And it was while training that she made the decision that set her path for the rest of her life.

A singer in a production of La Bohème in the Constanzi Opera House (now the Teatro dell’Opera) fell ill while Margaret Sheridan was staying in the Quirinale Hotel. The Quirinale is on the other side of the block from the opera house, and the manager of the opera house had heard Margaret practicing - Sheridan was in the habit of practicing her singing at her open window in the hotel. The manager took a notion, and sent a cable to find out if the nobody wanted to become a star in four days, filling as Mimì in Giancomo Puccini’s beloved opera about young love.

Fantastic, you would think. But it wasn’t that simple. Martini, Margaret’s teacher, was dead set against the idea, and for reasons that are do with what makes opera such a challenging art form.

The singing that we do in the shower or when loaded with porter is a natural ability. Sometimes the singing isn’t too bad, sometimes it’s wretched – it’s down to accidents of birth.

But the singing done by opera singers isn’t at all natural. Yes, there are natural voices, but they have to be meticulously trained, not only to make sweeter, richer sounds, but to be able to make those sounds on demand, consistently, for show after show, for performance after performance.

Margaret Burke Sheridan had a natural gift. But she wasn’t yet fully in control of her voice. She could sing, but she couldn’t sing in such a way that she could guarantee her singing wouldn’t impair her ability to sing in future. That’s how severe operatic singing is – if you don’t know what you’re doing, you are in danger of destroying your voice every time you open your mouth.

On the other hand, Sheridan had been living off the kindness of strangers since her father died. Different benefactors had invested in her talent, but it’s not the same as making your own money. And opportunities to sing a major role in a major theatre don’t come along every day. What use was there in completing her training if she were to have a perfect instrument but nowhere to sing? Besides; she could always go back and finish up her training, couldn’t she?

Sheridan made her choice. She sang Mimì in Rome on February 3rd, 1918, and instantly became a star. Even today, Italians don’t always take to foreigners singing Italy’s national art form, but they couldn’t resist Sheridan.

For twelve years she ruled the operatic stage, something John McCormack could never do. Margaret Sheridan sang in London, Naples, Monte Carlo and Milan, and was acclaimed by all. And then, after a performance as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello at Covent Garden in June, 1930, she never sang again.

She tried to, of course. At first, she would claim a cold or a chest infection and pull out of performances, in the fashion of primas donnas. But as the years went by it became clearer that she would never return to the stage. Alfredo Martini had been right. Without the proper grounding and technique, Margaret’s talent was a castle built on sand. It would last for so long but it was always doomed. And when the doom arrived, there would be no way to rescue it.

Sheridan was still a star. She was offered concert recitals – the form that made McCormack a household name and a very wealthy man - but she turned them down. As far as Sheridan was concerned, it was opera or nothing. Opera isn’t just the singing – it’s the acting, the music, the performance, the whole. To just sing without the rest of opera’s heady mix would be like drinking black tea. It just wasn’t the same.

Sheridan turned a brave face to the world, but the remaining thirty-odd years of her life were tough on her. She came back to live in Ireland but we are not a great nation for accepting our countrymen and countrywomen who have had success abroad.

But Margaret Sheridan was generous to the next generation, and did what she could for them. In her definitive biography of Sheridan, Anne Chambers writes of a Feis Ceoil winner, Phyllis Sullivan, who was tutored for a time by Margaret Sheridan.

Sullivan recalled Sheridan as being temperamental, but never mean. If Sullivan made a mistake, Sheridan would sing the line properly herself (while always avoiding high notes). Sullivan asked Sheridan why she didn’t sing in public anymore.

“My voice is finished,” replied Sheridan. “It’s all right singing for you, darling, but I would break on my top notes and I am nervous.”

Margaret Burke Sheridan died on April 16th, 1958, and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. The back of her headstone reads “Margherita Sheridan, Prima Donna. La Scala, Milan. Covent Garden, London.” Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam uasal.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Bias in the Media

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Although his politics are shared by very few people in the country, Joe Higgins, TD, has always been lauded for being a “diverse” voice in the Irish political landscape. Political correspondents often remark in their end-of-term parliamentary reviews how good it is to have Joe Higgins in the Dáil to provide “balance” to debates.

Well. We all must be careful what we wish for, and the national media discovered this the hard way when the terms of reference to the long-awaited Banking Inquiry were announced recently.

The Banking Inquiry was conceived, originally, as a fine instrument for dipping the previous government into a vat of boiling oil. However, that methodology would probably give some busybody in the UN another reason to give out to us, so the current government had to adjust the terms of reference.

The Banking Inquiry is now set to investigate all banking practice in Ireland from 1992 until the crash, some sixteen years. And just as everybody was about to sign off on this, Joe Higgins put his hand up and made a last-minute suggestion.

Higgins proposed that the inquiry examine “the development of a prevailing consensus, including the role of mass media and advertising and mortgage brokers, financial consultants and property development and sales companies.”

Since the crash, we’ve all heard a lot about “groupthink” in Irish political life. But Joe Higgins’s amendment to the Banking Inquiry is the first effort to discover what exactly this groupthink is, where does it come from, what does it do and is it a good or a bad thing.

Not everyone is happy about this. Ciarán Lynch, TD, chairman of the Banking Inquiry, was on Morning Ireland the week before last to discuss the Inquiry, and he seemed a little shocked to be hauled over the coals about the media angle.

“The media has no legislative power,” the Morning Ireland presenter kept repeating. Mr Lynch may have considered replying that a government backbencher doesn’t have all that much power either, but probably thought he’d only get into more trouble.

It is unlikely the nation wll be any the wiser after the Banking Inquiry. Anyone who expects anything other that stonewalling from witnesses and grandstanding from committee members hasn’t been following these Oireachtas Committee very closely.

People can be compelled to appear but they are under no obligation to say anything of any interest whatever once they’re there. So it’s all for show, really, a lot like the Houses of the Oireachtas themselves.

What makes this twist about the media interesting though is that it gives us an opportunity to consider the question of bias. All news reporting has to deal with bias, from the very start of a news cycle. By reporting one thing and not reporting another, any media organisation has already taken a step that may be affected by bias, either intentionally or unintentionally. It’s how the media organisation deals with that bias inherent in the news-gathering process itself that’s interesting. And there are two schools of thought here.

The current fashion is for admitting bias from the start. More and more media organisations don’t even try to be fair, but simply tell their audiences what they want to hear. The right-wing Fox News in the USA is (in)famous for its partisan reporting, but there are plenty of channels in the US who shout for the Democrats too. The problem is that people don’t get to see both points of view at once, and this causes a democratic deficit.

The classical model of good reporting in journalism is to acknowledge bias but to strive to overcome it at every opportunity. This is the model practiced here in Ireland – in theory, anyway – but it seems Joe Higgins is inclined to double-check that idea, just in case.

Does Higgins have a point? Well. It certainly is a remarkable thing that the entire country was convinced that the housing market could provide infinite wealth for so long. It also a remarkable thing that when the crash came, the country was equally convinced there was only one reason behind it. How much of these twin illusions was due to the way the boom, the bust and the repercussions were reported in the media?

The media is all-pervasive in our lives. When you get up, you know if the shower was hot or cold, you know if you could find your socks, you know if there’s milk in the fridge when you open the door. You could look out the window to see what the weather is like, but you know that could change in fifteen minutes or less.

For everything else that impacts on your life, you need the media. Do you need a new car for the morning commute? Can you afford one? Are car prices going up or down? Are petrol prices going up or down? What will it cost to tax and insure the thing? Should you forget the family saloon and buy some sort of jeep, because the road is all potholes and it costs money to repair broken axles?

You don’t have time to study economics to see overall market trends. You can’t keep up with the geopolitics of the oil-producing countries, or the physics of all the new ways of getting oil out of the ground. And you certainly can’t pop in to Leinster House and find out what future taxation and infrastructure policy will be. There are plenty in there who have no idea no more than ourselves.

So you rely on the media for this information. You watch the news and listen to it on the radio and buy a daily paper along with your weekly Western and you take a sneaky glance at the web at work too.

But reader – can you fully believe what you read in the papers, hear on the radio or see on the TV? Is everybody trying really hard to maintain objectivity, or do they go on the occasional crusade every now again? Or not even that – could it be that one side of the argument is presented, and a balancing counter-argument just doesn’t make an appearance? Who exactly is telling us what to do?

Monday, October 06, 2014

Looking Past the GAA's Black Card Propaganda

The science of statistics, for all the black arts associated with it, has one golden rule. It is this: correlation does not imply causation.

Because A and B happened in sequence does not mean that A caused B, or that B is the result of A. If it starts raining on the day you leave home without your coat, that does not mean that your coatlessness caused the shower. It is much more likely the rain was caused by the meeting of weather fronts of different temperatures than your own childlike optimism.

In much the same way, the black card statistics trumpeted so loudly by the GAA at the end of last week should be met with a certain skepticism. All statistics should be met with skepticism of course, but ones make causal claims as – shall we say, ambitious? – as these are very difficult to take.

The press release on the GAA’s own website boldly claimed that “With the introduction of the black card, the average number of points per game in the 2014 championship is roughly 9.5% higher than in 2013; the number of points scored has increased by just shy of five points per game since 2010.”

When you read “2010,” you may have heard a loud whirring sound. That is the sound of spinning. 2010 has nothing on God’s green earth to do with the black card. The only reason its tagged on there is because five sounds like a lot.

The black card has not been popular, not least as so few people know what exactly a black card offense is. But rather than admit they got it wrong, the GAA finds itself like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, denying the bleeding obvious. They are fooling nobody who takes a minute to think about it.

But if the black card isn’t the reason there were more scores in Gaelic football in 2014 than there were in 2013, what is? It could be any one of a number of reasons.

Gavin Cummiskey in the Irish Times theorises that “Dublin’s record -breaking summer of scoring must be factored into the increase.” Bless. This blog has taken Cummiskey at his word, and has indeed factored Dublin’s record-breaking summer into the increase.

If you remove the games that Dublin won from the 2014 scoring averages, the average total score per game drops from 34.92 to 34.4. The earth really didn’t move because of Dublin.

So what could it be? Are there any patterns deeper in the data?

Here are two tables. The first shows the average total points per game since the qualifiers were introduced in 2001, broken down by year and competition (the four provincial championships, the qualifiers and the All-Ireland series that starts in August).

And here are the average margins, broken down the same way.

The numbers are colour-coded, from green for the highest totals or margins, into white for average, down to red for the lowest. There is no sharp correlation between margin and totals per game, but there is certainly a case to be made for further investigation into the idea that the current inequality of the Championship is a greater factor in more points being scored.

Are more points being scored because more hidings are being handed out than heretofore? Look at Connacht. Is it a co-incidence that the highest scoring totals coincide with the current Mayo dominance?

Look at Ulster. Ulster is consistently lowest in totals and lowest in margin of victory. But isn’t a low margin of victory a good thing? Doesn’t it mean the games were competitive? Doesn’t everybody know that Ulster is easily the most competitive province? So why are the GAA squawking about point totals as measures of football excellence?

The statistics for the All-Ireland series sit badly with the theory that the greater scoring is significant of teams getting hammered rather than beautiful football being encouraged by the introduction of the black card – the high totals are not matched by high margins, as they are for some years in the other competitions.

But there are mitigating factors here. Firstly, the last eight teams in the country are the best teams in the country. This has been established in both theory and practice over the past five or more years. Naturally, then, these teams score more than teams that aren’t as good.

It was also in the All-Ireland series that the referees’ reluctance to issue black cards became glaringly obvious. The GAA press release tells us that black cards were issued at a rate of 0.8 per Championship game. How many of those black cards were issued in the All-Ireland series?

Four black cards were issued in the eight games of the All-Ireland series. One in the four quarter-finals, two in the three semi-finals, and one in the final. That’s a rate of 0.5 cards per Championship Game among the games that were the highest-scoring of all, contrasted with the 0.8 overall average in the Championship.

The GAA are taking the seanfhocal literally, and are trying to say black is white. End this black card farce now.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Redmond Problem

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Former Taoiseach John Bruton is not to be dissuaded in his support for John Redmond as a great Irish patriot and parliamentarian. But is John Bruton aware that the case he is currently building could blow up in his face and help sweep Sinn Féin to power just in time for the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising?

John Burton’s advocacy of John Redmond is part of the wider campaign to water down any commemoration of the 1916 Rising. This watering-down campaign has not been announced as policy, as there are concerns that such watering down would go down badly with the people. As such, the campaign has been a little more subtle.

There was Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland, which received blanket media coverage. There was President Higgins’s return visit to the United Kingdom, which was covered no less.

There has been this spurious “Decade of Commemoration,” where successive governments have tried to lessen the impact of the 100th Anniversary of the Rising by saying the Rising was just one of a number of things that happened at that time.

As a strategy, this is in the same league as a callow youth’s plan to sneak a copy of some naughty magazine in between a National Geographic and this week’s Western as he approaches a till manned by a live, actual female.

No-one is fooled. The people don’t care. We had a year-long commemoration of the 1913 Lockout in Dublin last year, and this year’s love-bombing of the 100th anniversary of the start of the “Great” War. Both were met by the same shrug as the checkout girl’s, who has zero interest in the callow youth’s taste in periodicals. The nation doesn’t care about a decade of commemoration, but there seems to be a big green X marking the spot for either April 24th or Easter Monday of 2016 somewhere at the back of our minds.

That the Rising still means so much to people is surprising, and certainly not in line with how successive governments have been viewing the situation. It only became obvious after the Presidential visit to the United Kingdom when, in a flush of enthusiasm, an invitation was extended for some members of the British royal family to come over and be part of the fun.

The nation reacted with horror and the proposal hasn’t been heard of since.

The reason that Irish governments have been very wary of the 1916 Anniversary is that the Rising was legitimised after the fact. Padraig Pearse and the other rebel leaders had no mandate to do what they did. They couldn’t declare a republic in 1916 because they didn’t represent anybody but themselves in 1916.

The 1916 mandate was backdated by the first Dáil in 1919, and since it all turned out grand in the end, nobody but an anti-national spoilsport would go questioning the morality of the whole thing. For the first fifty years after independence, everyone wore the white cockade.

And then, on January 4th, 1969, a march in support of a crazy notion of one-man, one-vote in Northern Ireland was ambushed on its way into Derry, to the supreme indifference of the watching policemen as a fusillade of stones, iron bars and nail-studded sticks rained down on the marchers.

One thing led to another and by the 1970s getting tanked up and singing Seán South of Garryowen south of the border didn’t seem like harmless fun anymore. Nobody wanted to mention the war.

That war-that-wasn’t took thirty years and over three thousand lives until a serendipitous accident saw political leaders in Ireland, Britain and the USA come to power, leaders who were willing take chances and bend rules for peace.
There are those who are sickened by retired terrorists swaggering around the corridors of power instead of doing stir in some suitable jail, but that is the price of peace. People have to turn a blind eye to things in the name of the greater good.

Until a bull charges into a china shop as John Bruton did when he condemned the 1916 leaders in a speech delivered at the Irish Royal Academy on the day of the Scottish Referendum.

For Bruton, the Irishmen who fought for Britain in the “Great” War were patriots, whereas those who rebelled in 1916 were not fighting a just war. But Bruton makes a logical error here. He presents reaction to the 1916 Rising as an either/or scenario.

If you are against the 1916 Rising, you must be in favour of Redmond, and you must therefore do your duty by the Empire. Meaning, in this case, head for the Somme two months after the Rising and get mown down by the German machine-guns in your thousands and thousands.

There was a slogan that was common in Ireland during those troubled times one hundred years ago – “Neither King nor Kaiser, but Ireland.” In his speech at the Royal Irish Academy, Bruton has eliminated that third way as an option at the time, and has presented war as inevitable. The only question was whether you marched under the tricolour or the Union Jack, but march and kill or be killed you surely would.

And that’s a very inappropriate road for Bruton to have gone down. Just how inappropriate was spotted immediately by the current Minister for Agriculture (and favourite to become the next leader of Fine Gael), Simon Coveney. On the morning of Bruton’s speech, Minister Coveney tweeted “For the record: I believe much of John Bruton’s commentary on 1916 is simply wrong and does not represent the views of Fine Gael supporters.” Duly noted, Minister.

It may be that Bruton doesn’t realise that he polarised the choice, and it was just unfortunate wording on his part. Or it may be that he’s fully aware of what he’s doing, and believes that, in times of peace and (returned?) prosperity, the nation will follow the good man Redmond ahead of gunmen like Breen, Barry and O’Malley.

But nationalism works at a level beyond the senses. When it boils down to flags, the Irish nation, for all the faults of the state, will rally under only one, and it won’t be the one still flying over Edinburgh. That is the nature of the patriot game.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Laois Are Hurling Champions Too

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The hurlers of Kilkenny and Tipperary will face each other on the field on honour once more this weekend. There had been no draw in All-Ireland hurling finals since the late 1950s; the replay at five o’clock on Saturday will be the third in three years.

And no harm either. The GAA has priced the tickets sensibly, and the finals of recent years have been epics of skill and spirit. Tipperary and Kilkenny share a border of thirty-five miles, give or take, and every yard of it bristles with rivalry. All the more so in September, if the great prize is at stake.

Whoever wins the All-Ireland on Saturday will deserve it. There’s no argument about that. But Croke Park will contain more than partisans from each competing county. As with football final, Croke Park will contain men and women for whom the game is all, even though their chances of ever seeing their own team march behind the Artane Band as the evenings shorter and the weather gets colder are slim.

Consider the place of Laois in the world of hurling. Laois were the All-Ireland hurling champions of 1915, when they beat Cork on a wet day in October in the final.

The senior hurlers of the O’Moore County have won only one title since – the Delaney Cup in 1949, when they squeaked past Kilkenny in the Leinster Final, 3-8 to 3-6. Laois went on to beat Galway to return to the All-Ireland Final, where they faced Tipperary. Tipp slaughtered them, 3-11 to 0-3. Laois have won nothing since.

But for those long and fallow years, Laois haven’t given up. Giving up is not what GAA people do. Laois soldier on.

If you are old enough, you certainly remember the Cork footballers beating Mayo 5-15 to 0-10 in 1993, and the memory still stings. The Cork hurlers played Laois three years ago in the preliminary round of the hurling qualifiers. Cork won by 10-20 to 1-13. How can you possibly go on after that? And yet go on Laois do, year after year, summer after summer.

Séamus “Cheddar” Plunkett is the current Laois hurling manager. Keith Duggan interviewed him in the Irish Times in March, and asked him if he ever wished he had been born “over there,” on the other side of the border. Plunkett’s answer is the answer of every GAA person worth his or her salt: “I don’t actually want to be from there. I know where I’m from!”

And so he does. Séamus Plunkett played on the Laois team that made it to the 1984 Centenary Cup Final. Pat Critchley was a midfielder on that team. Critchley would go on to win Laois’s only hurling All-Star the following year, and now Critchley is the manager of the Laois minors.

But Critchley and Plunkett’s personal connection exists outside hurling. Friends since childhood, they went on an adventure in the late 1980s that was every young person’s dream, at one stage or another.

In the late 1980s, Pat Critchley and Séamus Plunkett’s brother, Ollie, were in a band. The band was formed as the Drowning Fish, and then later came to prominence – of a kind – as The Mere Mortals.

They played at Féile, the big outdoor concert that succeeded Siamsa Cois Laoi and preceded the Electric Picnic, in 1990. The Mere Mortals charted in 1991 with a single called Travelling On after appearing on Barry Lang’s Beat Box, a music show that was on TV after Mass on Sunday morning, and their path to being the next U2 seemed certain.

Therefore, they hired Séamus Cheddar Plunkett to be their manager, because you always need a sensible one to mind the money. When Plunkett imposed a two-pint limit before every gig, the band knew they had hired the right man.

The video for Travelling On is on You Tube. It’s of its time, which is a nice way of saying that it’s awful. Paul Marron, the lead singer, looks like Bono did at Self-Aid, with an overcoat and great big woolly mullet. The song itself is built on one of those ning-ning-ning-ning guitar riffs that were the sound of Irish rock at the time. It’s brutal.

Pat Critchley’s role in the band was to play the accordion and the yellow maracas. This makes Travelling On and Where Do You Go To, My Lovely the only songs in the canon to use the accordion play rock and roll.

It’s easy to look back on an ‘eighties music video and laugh. But reader, those Mere Mortals probably had more fun in one weekend in Portarlington than any of us will have in our entire lives, because there were In A Band.

And there’s something about that aspect to Critchley and Plunkett, the Marx and Engels of the (hoped for) Laois hurling revolution, that speaks to the best of us. The Mere Mortals struggled to fulfill all their gigs because the lads had hurling matches to go to. For them, there was nothing greater than the game, nor anywhere greater than Laois.

In a feature on Today FM’s Championship Sunday during the summer, Pat Critchley reminisced on his childhood in Portlaoise, and how he always wanted to mark Billy Bohane at hurling training, even though Billy Bohane was an old man at the time.

Who’s Billy Bohane? He was a midfielder on the 1949 Laois team that Tipperary destroyed. A footnote in the national record, a hero to his own. As Patrick Kavanagh has told us, gods make their own importance.

So good luck and God bless the hurlers of Tipperary and Kilkenny, the best we have in the country. One of them will be crowned All-Ireland Champions for the 35th or 27th time, and be worthy of the title. But raise a glass on Saturday night to the likes of Laois and our own Mayo hurlers as well, counties who hurl away from the limelight but hurl on none the less. They know the ultimate truth. The GAA isn’t about winning. The GAA is about being. Long may it last.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why Do Kerry Keep Winning?

There have been two great Kerry generations in the past thirty years. There was the Golden Years team of the 1970s and 80s, featuring men so famous in the game they are known by one name only –Jacko, Ogie, Páidí, Bomber. And there is the Darragh Ó Sé generation, where that great man had the likes of Paul Galvin, Colm Cooper and, of course, his brothers Tomás and Marc to help him out.

But it is mistaken analysis to think that that Kerry rack up All-Irelands the way they do because they enjoy golden generations the way the hurlers of Cork, Kilkenny or Tipp enjoy golden generations. No. Kerry lead the pack in terms of football All-Irelands won, thirty-seven titles in comparison to Dublin’s twenty-four in second place, because whenever a year looks like being below average, when a title is there to be picked up a team that is not outstanding, it’s generally Kerry that do the picking-up.

Above anything, Kerry are hungry for titles. Hungry in a way that’s hard to describe to those who have never experienced such a combination of want and obligation. If Kerry have a choice of playing to tradition or playing to win, they will play to win one hundred per cent of the time, because winning is the only thing. And what’s more, Kerry are dead right in doing so.

All-Irelands are won against teams in the here-and-now. They are not won against some mythical standard, existing pristine and immaculate in the collective Gaelic imagination.

Kerry go into every game knowing what it is they have to do and grim-set and determined to do it. You often hear of lesser teams that “have no Plan B” when they are dumped out of the Championship. You never hear that of Kerry.

Kerry have more plans than the alphabet has letters. Science-fiction fans may remember the second Terminator movie, that featured a virtually-indestructible robot that could adapt itself to its environment, that could be whatever it needed to be in any situation. Reader, that is Kerry football in a nutshell.

You want to play fancy? Kerry will play fancy, and win 3-18 to your 1-22. You want to box? Kerry will box, and win 0-9 to 0-8. It’s all the same to them. There are no asterisks on the roll of honour. All that’s there is a list of years. Thirty-seven of them in Kerry’s case, with room for plenty more.

And that’s exactly what Kerry did yesterday. Instead of being too proud to play Donegal’s game, they played Donegal’s game better than Donegal themselves. You dance with the girls in the hall and nobody, but nobody, does that better than Kerry.

In recent year, the nation outside of the Kingdom has been given a precious insight into just how Kerry look at things, thanks to Darragh Ó Sé’s column in the Irish Times every Wednesday, and Jack O’Connor’s before him. They are invaluable insights into a GAA football county that is like no other, and help us to understand how exactly it is that Kerry maintain standards in their Kingdom, year after year, generation after generation.

For instance: it is a thing in some counties to protect players from reading criticism on social media. The idea is that the players will retire to their bedrooms, weeping at the hurt, and won’t come out in play football anymore. In Kerry, they think a little differently about how to make up-and-coming aware of what life in the big time is like.

Billy Keane recounted a story about David Moran, one of this year’s All-Star midfielders, during his first time on the Kerry panel, when Darragh Ó Sé was still the old bull in the field. Ó Sé hit Moran a slap that left Moran with a badly-cut mouth. Keane asked Ó Sé what the hell he did that for.

“David is too nice,” said Darragh. “I was trying to put a bit of fire in him. He doesn't get it yet just how hard it is.” That’s what it’s like at the top. A bit more severe than some randomer saying that you’re smelly on Twitter.

But Kerry have one other incredible asset that no other county has, or is likely to have anytime soon. Kerry has the richest football tradition in Ireland.

One difference between playing Kerry in Croke Park and playing them in Limerick is that you can hear what the Kerry support are saying. And the amazing thing is, they all say the same thing.

In Mayo, if Aidan O’Shea has possession and is travelling towards goal, from the half-forward to the full-forward line, one-third of the Mayo support will urge him to go on and bury it, one third will implore him to pass, for God’s sake, and the remaining third will beg O’Shea, on their mothers’ lives, to take his bloody point.

In Kerry, they all shout the same thing. Kerry football people know exactly the right thing to do at any particular point in the game. That’s how deep football is in their marrow. And what they don’t know, they learn quickly.

Another county might have folded their tents after the infamous “puke football” semi-final of 2003. Kerry didn’t. Kerry learned how to play the new system, and have won five titles in the eleven years since. What they couldn’t beat, they joined.

And that’s the lesson for all the other counties in Ireland, now that the 2014 season is over. If you want to beat them, you have to join them. You must do as the best does if you’re to live with them and hope to beat them.

But that’s for another year. In the meantime, hard luck Donegal, and well done Kerry, deserving All-Ireland winners of 2014.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scotland and the Call of Freedom

First published in the Western People on Monday.

A Scotchman, yesterday.
It’s all fun and games until somebody loses a country. The sage parental advice sounded ne’er so true as when the British political establishment suddenly woke to the prospect that, for all their blather, the perfidious Scots might just go and vote for independence after all.

It’s not just the rest of the United Kingdom who are suddenly transfixed by events north of Hadrian’s Wall. An independent Scotland would be something of a floating joker in the European context. Its proponents say everything will be fine and an independent Scotland will be welcomed with open arms in Brussels, while opponents grimly remark that one does not simply walk into the European Union and leave it at that.

For Ireland too, an independent Scotland would be more hassle than we need right now. Ireland’s great selling point for direct foreign investment, apart from our corporation tax, is that we are an English-speaking gateway to Europe. But they speak English in Scotland too – what happens if Scotland becomes a more attractive place to locate than Ireland? Nothing good.

Ireland certainly can’t come around and plead with the Scots to stay in the UK, given our own history, but the last thing we want is having our eye wiped by a free Scotland that’s also claiming to be the best small country in the world to do business. Therefore, the Irish keep schtum, and hope for the best.

But an independent Scotland might be too busy fighting for its very survival to even think about raining on the Irish parade. An independent Scotland will face two big questions. The biggest question of all is: what will they use for money?

The proponents of independence say that the money will be fine. They can use the pound sterling, just like always. But we in Ireland don’t have our own currency, and look how we got rolled around in a barrel because of it over the past few years.

Money, in itself, isn’t valuable. Money is a measure of value. That value is set by governments. If Scotland uses the pound sterling as its currency, it doesn’t get to set the value of that currency.

Scotland currently has a say in the value of the pound sterling, as part of the United Kingdom. But a vote for independence means the Scots get no say at all. So if Scottish interest rates are rising while English interest rates are falling – well, it won’t be pretty.

And then there is the EU conundrum. There are plenty of European countries that have regions that dream of independence. A smooth Scottish ascension to the EU would have the same effect on such Catalans, Basques, Silesians and others who hear the call of freedom as spinach had on Popeye the Sailor Man. If the Scots want in to the EU, they will have to sing for their supper. The door won’t just swing open for them.

There is also the peculiar thing about the EU being a union of like-minded peoples, sharing values and cultures. People like those in the United Kingdom, whose values are now at such odds with Scottish values that the Scots have no option but to strike out on their own. So the Scots are like everyone else in the EU, from Westport to Warsaw, except the British, from whom the Scots are so different that they need to be independent. Whatever way you slice it, that never adds up.

And so we return to the crux of the question: why on Earth do the Scots want to be independent in the first place? What Scottish values exist that aren’t also British values? What freedom will the Scots gain through independence that they haven’t got now? What currently existing Scottish oppression will end through independence?

There is a romantic inclination to connect the notion of Scottish independence with Irish independence. That Scotland, like Ireland, is entitled to independence in the name of the dead generations from whom she derives her long tradition of nationhood.

But that’s not the case with the Scots at all. Whatever strain of that long tradition existed heretofore was well and truly wiped out at Culloden’s Moor on April 16th, 1745, by His Grace Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. Scotland has been, to echo a phrase from our own past, as British as Finchley ever since.

So how have they now got it into their heads they’re not as British as Finchley? How is Scottish independence so close that the British Establishment has been love-bombing Scotland for all its worth for the past week, and promising the devil and all if only the Scots won’t walk out the door?

It is simply the appeal of the patriot game that’s caused the Scots to short-circuit the notoriously severe common sense of the man in the street in Auchtermuchty, and go chasing a hopeless dream? If it is, they won’t be the first people to be so short-circuited, for whom some woman’s yellow hair has maddened every mother’s son.

Of course, Ireland and the Irish experience isn’t a factor in the Scottish referendum at all, which is a little hurtful. However hurtful it may be, it’s not at all difficult to understand. A lot of people in Scotland despise the Irish. Ibrox is filled to the rafters every week, with the Billy Boys gustily sung every time.

But one thing the Scots can learn from the Irish is that there is a big difference between being able to revolt and being able to govern. It’s hard not to look back on the early years of the Irish Free State and see men slightly lost in the corridors of power, wondering what in God’s name are we meant to do now?

We all throw back the shoulders when we look up and see the flag fluttering in the breeze. But what does the notion of a nation state really mean in the globalised world of the early 21st Century? We were talking about being able to set your own currency earlier but even that is limited by the size and resources of your own country. Things like sovereignty and independence are ephemeral things in the modern world, especially when compared to the solid reality of economic prosperity and political stability. It would be a pity if the Scots, that most practical of people, were to lose all that now in chasing a will-o-the-wisp.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Three-Point-Plan for the Coming Election

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The Houses of Oireachtas reconvene this day week, the fifteenth of September. A leading bookmaker is currently laying odds of Burlington Bertie, 100/30, that there will be an election this year. That is a very tempting price.

We are currently in the run-up to the Budget and, as is the time-honoured tradition with these things, ministers are flying flags to protect their own departmental budgets. There’s nothing unusual in that.

What is unusual this time around is that the Labour Party have mandated a new leader to make a stronger Labour case at the cabinet table while Fine Gael continue to hold the austerity line. Eventually, something’s got to give.

Neither side wants an election, but sometimes these things take on a momentum of their own and, once the snowball starts rolling down the hill, there’s no real way to stop it.

If there is to be an election, this column is happy to announce one vote for hire in the next general election. Whatever party comes closest to the following list of demands is the party most worthy of your correspondent’s favour when exercising his democratic franchise.

Reform of the Electoral System
Everybody talks about reform, but if that talking doesn’t contain a practical suggestion it’s just so much air. Commissions to see if Ireland should lower the voting age to sixteen are all hooey. Platitudes. Deckchairs on the Titanic.

Real reform is something that shakes up the political system, and ours is a system that is badly in need of shaking up. We can’t object to Europe taking over the powers of our national parliament when our own national parliament is, for want of a better phrase, a joke shop.

A parliament exists to hold a government to account. The Dáil does no such thing. The TDs obey the party whip, which means that Ireland is an oligarchy as much as it’s a democracy – the Taoiseach of the day takes advice from his unelected but nicely remunerated advisers, and the sheep bleat their support in the chamber.

Why is this so? This is so because the Irish nation prioritises the local over the national interest. Why would we do that? Because the electoral system forces us to do that.

For example: suppose there are two candidates for election. One is someone who speaks well, understands the economy and has a vision for the future. The other is someone who doesn’t care one way or the other about visions, but will pull every string going to fix the main road into town.

If the first person gets elected, nothing changes. He or she is full of great ideas but, as discussed earlier, you’re as well off writing to Santa about them as speaking in the Dáil, because nobody is listening in the Dáil.

If the second person gets elected, nothing changes at the national level either, but you do have a chance of getting that road tarred. A simple choice for anyone who can tell the difference between half a loaf and no bread.

If the electoral system is changed, we can then change the type of politician we elect, and the new politicians can then make more radical changes to the system of Government. But without that first step, nothing changes at all. This column’s preference would be for a single-seat constituency supplemented by a list system of elections, but I’m not dogmatic about it. So long as the politicians realise a change of system is the difference between getting elected and not, that’s the main thing.

Deflating the Dublin Housing Market Bubble
How can you have a housing shortage in a city that is surrounded by ghost estates? It makes no sense, yet this is what we’re being told to believe about housing in Dublin. We’ve spent the past five years watching TV documentaries about ghost estates, and now we’re expected to believe there’s a housing shortage and we need to build, build, build?

Average house prices in Dublin are rising by six thousand Euro a month. There is no way that is not a bubble. No way. Speculator cash is driving up the price of houses, and it’s being facilitated by the National Assets Management Agency, NAMA. NAMA’s remit is to get the best price it can for the assets on its books, and NAMA is supremely indifferent to whether there’s a bubble there or not. Managing the economy isn’t NAMA’s concern.

Managing the economy is, in fact, the Government’s concern. Vote for a party at the next election who will make deflating the bubble a priority. The crash is only five years’ distant – surely we haven’t forgotten that lesson already?

One of the reasons that Dublin currently has a housing market bubble is because, post-recession, the Government has abandoned all pretence at treating all regions equally. Right now, Government policy centres on developing the capital as a hub for foreign direct investment, and letting the regions go whistle.

The theory behind the policy is that Dublin has to compete with other cities of the world like London, New York, Mumbai and Amsterdam in being attractive to a globalised workforce, and it is the duty of the rest of the country to pull on the green jersey and get behind the capital.

The theory is deeply flawed. Foreign direct investment is a false god. Indigenous industry will always be more reliable than foreign direct investment, for two reasons. Firstly, being indigenous means the company is less likely to move away to somewhere cheaper. Secondly, if one indigenous company folds, it doesn’t take the whole industry with it. All our eggs will not be in one basket.

Again, there is no rule that says Ireland can only look to foreign direct investment for its development. This is the information age – the absence of resources and infrastructure don’t hamper us anymore. We need electric power, computers and good broadband. Once we have that, we are only limited by our imagination and bravery.

Fine Gael won their greatest-ever number of seats in the last election on the back of a five-point-plan. Here’s a three-point-plan that the voters should use to decide the next government – electoral reform, financial prudence, and decentralisation. Are they really too much to ask?

Thursday, September 04, 2014

The Black Hole that is the Late Late Show

First published in the Western People on Monday.

If Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity is correct, there exist, somewhere in the universe, things called black holes. A black hole is a region of space where matter has become so compact it has collapsed into itself. A black hole’s gravitational field is so strong that it draws everything around into it, allowing nothing – not light, not gravity, not anything – to escape.

In Ireland, we are familiar with black holes. One will start broadcasting against this Friday night at nine-thirty on RTÉ 1, holding all otherwise sentient, sensible people in its iron grasp for the next two and a half hours.

People once thought that the Late Late Show couldn’t survive Gay Byrne’s retirement. They’ve had to think again – although Uncle Gaybo has never really gone away, his last Late Late Show was fifteen years ago. And still the show goes on after him, Friday after Friday, year after year.

It is not entirely unreasonable to expect that, should the direst of warnings come true and Ireland is three feet underwater as a result of global warming, or the proliferation of windfarms and pylons and the Lord knows what has left the green isle of Erin habitable only by rats, badgers and the rougher sort of insect, there will still be a tower in Montrose that will fizzle fitfully into life every Friday in autumn, winter and spring to announce that tonight, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the Late Late Show, and here is your host ...

Being the host of the Late Late Show is, supposedly, the premier job in Irish broadcasting. This is the reason RTÉ has historically paid its stars great pots of money for the apparently straightforward job of asking some British soap opera star how much she liked visiting Ireland and if, perhaps, she had any relations here. If someone like Pat Kenny wasn’t paid a big ball of money, the fear was that he would go somewhere else, and take all his listenership with him, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

The interesting thing is that the bluff has been called. Newstalk made Pat Kenny an offer he couldn’t refuse last year and so Kenny left RTÉ after forty years to do his old show for a new boss. Newstalk’s plan was that Pat’s pipes would sound from Marconi house, and Kenny’s loyal listenership would obey the massive advertising campaign to “move the dial” and follow their leader.

Except that’s not what happened at all. The latest figures are that Pat Kenny’s radio show on Newstalk gets 143,000 listeners, while Pat’s old show in RTÉ, now hosted by Seán O’Rourke, gets 307,000. That’s a hiding by double scores in anybody’s language.

The nation now has solid field data about what happens when a big star moves. Nothing is what happens when a big star moves. RTÉ get someone else, and someone else becomes a star instead. And what is the result of this? UTV come along and offer Pat even more money to do a Late Late-style show for them, once they get up and running. If this column were ever in a position to interview Pat Kenny, the first question would be “can you believe your luck?”

Pat Kenny’s successor as host of the Late Late Show, Ryan Tubridy, is equally blessed in having a career that seems impervious to the market’s opinion of him. In one way, Tubridy was given the media equivalent of a hospital pass when he was asked to replace Gerry Ryan in the 2FM schedule after Ryan’s sudden death. Ryan was not everyone’s cup of tea but those who liked him, loved him. And those who loved Gerry Ryan are not impressed by his replacement.

But in the bigger picture, the poor radio figures don’t really matter. What is amazing about Tubridy is that in the age of the world wide web, internet streaming, Netflix, Sky plus, digital TV and more, Irish adults will sit down on Friday and watch the Late Late Show, let it matter a damn who’s on it as a guest or who’s presenting the show. It could be Ryan Tubridy interviewing Miriam O’Callaghan or Miriam O’Callaghan interviewing Ryan Tubridy. There’s no real difference. It’s Friday night, and this is what we do.

Ryan Tubridy’s Late Late Show isn’t the worst show of its kind on television. That strange show RTÉ broadcast after the nine o’clock news on Saturday night is surely the racing favourite for that dustbin honour. In fact, that show is so far from good it’s hard to understand why it’s not on TV3.

The galling thing is that the Late Late Show isn’t meant to be a show that isn’t the worst show on television. It’s meant to be the best show on television, the show that holds a mirror up to Ireland as this great nation of talkers and wits discuss and debate the great issues of day, from Ireland’s role in Europe to whether the nation should simply put Brian Cody in charge of everything and be done with it.

That is very different from listening to comedian Des Bishop, economist David McWilliams, stylist Lisa Fitzpatrick and Dolores Kehoe. Who on earth is Dolores Kehoe? Who cares what the other three think about anything?

Writing in the Irish Times about Tubridy’s unhappy radio listenership figures, Laura Slattery suggested that the problem wasn’t Tubridy but RTÉ management, for asking Tubridy to do a job for which he clearly isn’t suited. But it’s easy to see how RTÉ management could be puzzled by Tubridy, as he’s not suited to presenting a TV show that holds a mirror to a nation either, and the figures for that show are solid as the rock of Gibraltar.

The answer, as is often the case, lies closer to home. It’s us. It’s the nation. The people of Ireland would watch the Late Late Show even if were presented by Lorcan Murray and featured the cast of Fair City reading tweets of the week. What incentive is there for the Late Late Show to be any good if there’s no disincentive for it to be awful? Why can’t we move the dial? Why do we feel we have to do what we’ve always done? What’s the matter with us?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kathleen Ni Houlihan at the Rose of Tralee

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Thank you, thank you, no, you’re too kind, thank you. A chairde go léir, tá fáilte is fiche romhaibh back to the Dome in Tralee where, after that break for the news, it’s time to meet the next Rose. And here she is now – it’s Kathleen Ni Houlihan, ladies and gentlemen!

Oh, thank you Daithí, it’s really great to be here in the Dome in Tralee.

Well, you’re very welcome of course Kathleen, as are all our lovely, lovely girls. Now Kathleen, where are you from? What’s your story?

From? Well. I’m from Ireland of course. You could say I am Ireland, if you want to get metaphysical about it.

Now Kathleen, there’ll be nobody getting physical here tonight before the watershed, we’ll have none of that carry-on. Sure where are you from, woman?

Oh God. Look – let’s say I’m from Sligo if it’s that big a deal. WB Yeats was from Sligo, and he wrote a play about me. It’s as good a place as any.

Oh, it is of course. Beautiful place, Sligo. Lovely fiddlers. And Kathleen, what is it that you do?

What do I do? What don’t I do?

Now look Kathleen, there’ll be time enough for the tongue-twisters later, when we’re backstage. What do you do for a living?

A living. Well. God. I’m a slave I suppose.

A slave! Well by God, we haven’t had one of those, I don’t think, ever, not even back in Gay’s time, and that isn’t today or yesterday. And tell us, what sort of life is it being a slave? Could you call it glamorous?

Glamorous isn’t the first word I’d use, no. It’s not a very glamorous life.

Isn’t it, isn’t it? Well sure, we can’t have everything? And Kathleen, where do you do this slaving?

Oh right here Daithí. Right here in Ireland.

In Ireland! Well, I never heard of that. And how did you get into it?

Oh, I’ve been a slave for years, on and off. I suppose you could say it started eight hundred years ago –

Eight hundred years! Go away out of that!

I’m sorry. I’m speaking now. Eight hundred years, yes, when the Normans came. They weren’t so bad, the poor old eejits. Then the English came. That wasn’t so great.

Indeed it can’t have been. Sure amn’t I often enough in the Aviva myself for games against “The Auld Enemy,” or that never-to-be-forgotten day at Croke Park when –

I’m sorry. Who’s telling this story? You, or me?


Thank you. So yeah, the English owned me for years and years. It seemed awful at the time, and there was one of them – what was his name? Ozzy? Odell? No, Oliver; yes, Oliver. He was a pig of a man, there’s no other way to describe him. And it’s true that the Famine wouldn’t have happened in Kensington. Or even Scotland. Besides, if they had a famine in Scotland, how would anybody be able to tell? That’s a hungry country if ever I saw one.

Now Kathleen, don’t get political. We’re live on television, there’s a big referendum coming up –

Are you still here?

Right. I’ll shut up now.

Good. It won’t be before time. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the English. Yes, they seemed a real pain when they were here and we blamed everything on them, a little like the way Dónal Óg Cusack blames everything on on the Cork County Board. He’s funny. But then, when the English left, things were still bad. So it can’t have been all their fault, can it? And then, as if we hadn’t enough of fighting, we started fighting amongst ourselves, because there weren’t enough of us dead. It was bad down here, I remember.

Yes. Yes, it was.

There may be hope for you yet Daithí. Just don’t push your luck. Now, where was I? Oh yes – so, there I was, the English gone, and me still somehow dressed in rags, chained up and scrubbing from rosy-fingered dawn until the black dead of night. So I began to wonder just how it was I could be free and still a slave. There could be one or two in those fancy boxes I see at the back of the theatre here who might know the answer to that.

Oh God. I’ll never get this gig again. They’ll have that little ceolán from Kildare back next year, sure as anything.

I’m sorry, what?

Oh, never mind me. Go on, go on.

You do fairly go on, you know. Anyway, where was I – oh, that’s right. I was down on my knees, scrubbing, every day the good God sent me. And then what do you think?

You entered the Rose of Tralee?

No, you ape. No, I got rich! I met this high roller and he swept me off my feet. We had good times, baby, I’m telling you. That man had pots of money – every summer at the Galway Races, drinking champagne out of my shoe, getting a new car because the old one ran out of petrol, all that. Sure we were all at it.

Not me. I was a butcher, back then. Before all the bling and wasted dreams.

Butcher? I wouldn’t have thought it and how Eleanor Tiernan confused you about the sausages that time. Anyway, there I was, having a fine old time and thinking hard times come again no more, when one day the guards paid us a visit in the Princess Grace room in the Shelbourne. Turns out every check the buck wrote bounced higher than an O’Neill’s size 5. They cuffed him and took him away, and next thing I know I’m finding out that those red-soled shoes might look good in magazines but they’re not so hot for legging it cross-country from Dublin to the Dome in Tralee with the police in hot pursuit.

And tell me Kathleen, do you think you’ll ever learn?

Do you know Daithí, that could be the first intelligent question ever asked at the Rose of Tralee? I hope I do learn, yeah. It’s long past time for me. Robert Emmet said he’d keep a seat for me among the nations of the Earth and maybe, after two hundred years, it’s time I took him up on that.