Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cheering Bad Rugby

Ireland are 2/1 on to win the Six Nations Championship, and 5/4 to win their third-ever Grand Slam. Joe Schmidt’s team are fourth favourites to win the Rugby World Cup itself, even though Ireland’s next win in the knock-out stages of that competition will be their first.

Heady days for Ireland, not least for those who spent so many years watching the Golden Generation fall just short, year after year, of winning a Championship. Let’s not even mention the decades before.

Why, then, do the days coming up to what should be a mouth-watering encounter with Wales, recent rivals on so many levels, seem so empty? Why do two lines from Leonard Cohen’s beautiful lament, So Long, Marianne, keep ringing through my head?

“Your letters all say that you’re beside me now
Then why do I feel alone?”

Why doesn’t a dominant Irish team feel like a dominant Irish team? Why is it so hard to squeeze any fun or delight or joy out of this long-awaited dominance? What’s gone wrong?

We all know the answer, of course. Steve Hansen, coach of the All-Blacks themselves, mentioned it only last week. What’s gone wrong isn’t the team. It’s the game itself.

Rugby has always been aware of the need to balance the game between the broadswords of the forwards and the rapiers of the backs. The banning of the direct kick into touch at the end of the ‘sixties gave birth to one of rugby’s golden ages in the ‘seventies. Now, in the professional era, the International Board has to be even more vigilant in its guardianship of the soul of the game.

If this were any other year, the International Board would be swiftly attending to the current devolution of the game where, instead of running to daylight, you are now a crazy man if you don’t find the biggest monster on the other team and run right at his rock-hard tummy.

The International Board aren’t looking at the rules however. The International Board are looking at the calendar, and the calendar tells them that the Rugby World Cup is only six months away. There is no time to do anything more than tweak a rule here or there, and tweaking isn’t what rugby needs right now. It’s full open-heart surgery.

You saw it in one vignette during the first game of this year’s Six Nations, Wales v England. At one point in the game, Dylan Hartley, England’s spirited hooker, squirreled out of a maul with the ball under his oxter and hit the gas for the end line. But Hartley was doomed. He was quickly caught and possession was turned over.

Former Irish captain Phil Matthews was doing commentary for the BBC at that game. Matthews explained that you just can’t do what Hartley did in rugby anymore. You cannot make a break unless you are sure you have support. If you do, you will be choke-tackled, held up and see precious possession turned over.

But what is rugby for if not to run with the ball in hand? Surely that one thing is the sine qua non of the game. And what sort of game is it where grown men, big and strong, cannot go into enemy territory without a chaperone? What happened to the dash and daring of Brian O’Driscoll in Paris fifteen years ago, or rumbling, lumbering glory of Ginger McLoughlin in Twickenham eighteen years before that?

One of Ireland’s greatest-ever international tries against Wales was Noel Mannion’s long spirit from a blocked-down kick at the Arms Park in 1987. Such a run would be gooney-bird rugby now. There’s no longer any room for heroes.

Tony Ward recently suggested in his column in the Indo that the numbers on the field need to be reduced. No. If we wanted rugby league we’d watch rugby league. It’s not like it can’t be found. We want to watch rugby, the game that, at its best, combines the iron fist and the velvet glove like no other.

How, then, to get it back, in this supremely defensive, supremely professional era? Amateurism can never come back. Once your soul is sold it’s gone forever. On the technical side, the lawmakers could look at banning lifting in the lineout, and making it a contest again. Why not? What's so great about lifting?

There is perhaps something they could do about the rucks, but the laws concerning the breakdown in rugby are now so complex that even Professor Ivana Bacik, Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College, Dublin, would be stumped by them.

So here’s another possibility. Why not enforce some drug laws? The sight of a fifteen-stone man picking up another fifteen-stone man and throwing him about the place like a farmer throwing a wellington at the village sports is now commonplace in rugby. That is by no means commonplace in nature.

Everybody says that players are all getting bigger. But they don’t have to. If the International Board wanted to spot who was doing the dog with supplements and yokes and calf-nuts and God only knows what, the International Board could. All it takes is the will.

In the meantime, let’s hope Ireland can win the Slam, starting with giving Wales a trimming on Saturday. Joe Schmidt is a fine coach, but the media’s portrayal of him as rugby’s General Rommel is nonsense.

Ireland are playing the ten-man game better than it’s ever been played before, but it’s still the ten-man game, where the out-half kicks for territory and the backs are just there to make their tackles if the other bunch have the temerity to run the thing back.

The rugby is appalling, but at least it’s appalling rugby that Ireland are winning. We’ve seen the other day often enough to take some bit of a pleasure in this, scant though it may be.

Friday, March 06, 2015

So. Farewell Then, Jim McCann

Sweet-voiced folk singers are as ladies of Shalott – their gift is their curse. The vogue is for the folk singer to have that bit of grit in the voice, with the late Ronnie Drew being primus inter pares of the species. Sweet-voiced folkies are viewed with suspicion, like opera singers slumming it until they get the call from La Scala.

All nonsense, of course. All musical terms are hard to pin down in prose, and to explain what it is that makes a voice sweet is a task beyond your correspondent. A sweet voice is something that you know when you hear it, and you heard it every time Jim McCann stepped up to the mike.

McCann, the man who replaced the unreplaceable Ronnie Drew in the Dubliners from 1974 to 1979, is the latest of that iconic ballad group on whom time has been called by the Great Barman in the Sky. He will be a footnote in today’s papers, and that’s a pity. His talent and artistry deserve more than that.

All their talent and artistry deserved more than that. John Sheahan’s son is an enthusiastic archiver of the band’s work, and there are a small, devoted gallant band of posters to YouTube who post some of the most glorious clips, many not seen since first broadcast all over the world over twenty-five years, each one a treasure in its own particular way. God bless them in their mission.

Hard-line folkies didn’t believe in recorded music, as such. Frank Harte, the great singer of Chapelizod, believed a song only existed at the moment of its being sung. It’s likely that McCann, and Ronnie, and Luke, and the rest believed that too, or else simply believed that singing was something you did to pace your drinking. It’s hard to imagine Coldplay or some other bunch of Gawd-help-us musos noodling around in the studio if the Dubliners were waiting outside, looking at their watches.

You can hear this disregard for the process on McCann’s version of Spancil Hill on the Fifteen Years On record – he fails to hold the notes on “dreaming” in his gorgeous cover of that gorgeous song. Why didn’t they just record it again? Too close to closing time is the most likely answer.

Is this neglect a bad thing? Is neglect even the correct word? Records by the ’sixties folkies like the Dubliners or the Clancys, or even the obscure records by the Grehan Sisters or the great Anne Byrne, should be thought of more as artefacts than things to stand with Blonde on Blonde and Pet Sounds. Besides; what does an album mean anymore in the Age of the Download?

In their recordings, we can get a glimpse of what Jim McCann and the rest of the Dubliners were like in their pomp, but it is only that. A glimpse. A fleeting moment.

Katy Perry, God bless her, does her thing for the telly. In real life, she might not make the same impression. With the Dubliners, it’s different. The recordings confine them in a way they were not meant to be a confined. A song is a song when it’s sung. Not before, not after. Katy Perry does the same show in Berlin, in Bali or in Birmingham. With the Dubliners in their prime, anything could happen from the first strum on the guitar.

So what, then, was Jim McCann like? He was a funny man – that’s clear from his appearance on the legendary Late Late Show Tribute to the Dubliners. He was a patriot – he always made a point of telling the story of Grace Gifford and Joseph Mary Plunkett before singing his greatest hit.

McCann had a successful solo career before and after the Dubliners, so his time with the Dubliners never fully defined him. But it is a reasonable argument to make that the five-year match between the Dubliners and Jim McCann brought out the best in each. He slowed them down a little, and let the music breathe. For their part, the Dubliners' artistry and virtuosity added embellishments to McCann’s voice and guitar that session musicians never could.

As a singer, Jim McCann will be remembered for the sweetness of his voice in songs like Carrickfergus, Boulavogue and Four Green Fields. But his Spanish Lady is the definitive recording of that liveliest of songs and McCann also recorded as blood-curdling a rendition of Follow Me Up to Carlow, a very ensanguined song to begin with, as was ever put on record. There was more to him than that soft cooing in the heather.

McCann’s greatest song, in your correspondent’s opinion, was Easy and Slow. It was another considerable hit for him, showcasing the true beauty, subtlety, sweetness and colour of McCann’s extraordinary voice.

I remember him singing it on an RTÉ series of the very early 1980s, strolling down along Thomas Street, down to the Liffey, and the impression it made has stayed with me in the thirty years since. I hope, in honour of his spirit, that clip appears on YouTube soon.

And in that thought, here’s another recently discovered classic, McCann singing Carrickfergus with the Dubliners in their prime from 1977. Ag moladh Dé leis na n-aingil go raibh Jim McCann, seisean agus a ghuth binn galánta.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Why Are Official Translations of Irish So Poor?

Yesterday was the start of Seachtain na Gaeilge, a fortnight – yes, yes, we know, and that isn’t even the worst of it – when two young and good looking people are pictured in zany and exuberant poses that illustrate to a grateful nation what fun it is to speak one’s own language.

However. The biggest obstacle to learning Irish isn’t the absence of youth, or pulchritude, or zaniness. It’s the absence of any consistency in the language. Why does Gaeilge always have to be briste, everywhere you look?

Peig Sayers’ infamous autobiography is no longer on the curriculum, but it remains a stick with which to beat the language. The life of an old woman on the Great Blasket Island is not seen to be relevant to contemporary youth, unlike, say, the adventures of a medieval Danish prince with an Oedipus complex, or something like that.

But the spurious issue of “relevance” isn’t the real problem with Peig for students of Irish. The problem with Peig is that the language of the book is not standard Irish. It’s Munster Irish.

When you’re all grown up and fluent in the language the quirks of the different dialects are small beer. But when you’re trying to learn the thing the inconsistencies are the very stuff of nightmares.

Consider a student trying to get her séimhiús and urús in order. On Monday she reads that Peig is hanging out her washing “sa ghairdín,” and on Tuesday she discovers that Padraig Ó Conaire’s little black donkey is grazing contentedly “sa ngairdín.” Who’s right? Either? Both? Neither?

The Académie française was established in 1635 to preserve standards in the French language. What of Irish, gasping for breath on the edge of the Atlantic? Who are the forty immortals who look after its well-being?

In theory, the well-being of Irish is looked after by a body called Foras na Gaeilge. Foras na Gaeilge was founded in late 1999. Before that, there was nobody, really, in charge of the standard of Irish. Not really. Maybe a few desks in the Department of Education, but nothing serious.

People think the welfare of the language is the responsibility of the Minister for the Gaeltacht, but it’s not. Her job is currently to keep the people of the Gaeltacht sweet and not have them voting for those damned Shinners next time out.

So how, then, is the standard maintained? If you are a commercial entity or a Government department, say, do you get in touch with Foras na Gaeilge and get them to sign off on your translation, or even do the translations themselves?

This is important because contemporary Irish is being destroyed by translations that are unaware of Irish idiom. These translations translate word-for-word with no account being made for idiomatic difference and end up with Béarlachas, English disguised by an Irish overcoat. A good-for-nothing patois, neither one thing nor the other.

For instance: Dublin Bus currently runs a recorded announcement imploring passengers not to do something (stand up upstairs, maybe, but I can never catch the first part) “when the bus is moving.” “While the bus is moving” is translated as “nuair atá an bus ag bogadh.”

That is textbook Béarlachas. It is correct and yet utterly wrong. It’s like pork-flavoured ice cream. There’s nothing technically wrong with it. It’s just not natural. It just doesn’t work.

The Irish word “agus” doesn’t just mean “and.” It also means when or while. “Bog” does mean “move,” but it’s more in the sense of softening or melting or loosening. The word you want here is “gluaiseacht,” moving, which even non-professional you may be vaguely familiar with from the Irish for motor car. Gluaisteán is the third Irish word every Irish child learns, after milseán and leithreas.

That then gives us “agus an bus ina ghluaiseacht.” This literally translates as “when the bus is in its movement,” because to say “ag gluaiseacht” is another slice of Béarlachas. It sounds ridiculous in English, and so it should - its idiom is entirely Irish.

What has all this got to do with anything? Well, thousands of schoolchildren travel in and out to school every day on Dublin Bus. Those thousands of schoolchildren hear this rubbish, and then it’s a big mystery why their own Irish is equally rubbish, or why they can’t get seem to get it into their heads how the language works. But what chance have they when bad examples abound to the extent they can’t tell the good from the bad anymore?

Maybe Foras na Gaeilge would be better off translating that one phrase than sponsoring all the coming two weeks’ gurning for the camera and acting the eejit. It'd be a start, wouldn't it?