Monday, December 17, 2018

The Year in Sports

If you want it, you'll have to fight for it.
If you want it, you'll have to fight for it.
Your bookmaker will return you fifty cent profit on every Euro you bet on Dublin if Dublin win five All-Ireland Football Championships in a row next year, something no county has achieved in football or hurling. How astonishing. And of course, the price is very hard to argue with. It is impossible to make a cogent case for any other county winning it, as each of the contenders has profound flaws and, while Dublin are by no means perfect, they are considerably better equipped to win than any other county.

For all that, your correspondent can’t get it out of his head that Dublin won’t do it. The pressure and hype will be bananas, as more and more entities see the chance of a quick buck and climb up onto an already-overloaded Dub bandwagon. Even though the new rules are for the league only, who knows what tiny cracks the League will reveal that could be torn open in the white heat of Championship. But most of all, the biggest struggle that Dublin will face to win five-in-a-row is the struggle all dynasties face – the fact that players get old.

This runs against conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is that Dublin have found the alchemist’s stone, and can regenerate players like no-one else has been able to before. Brian Fenton and Con O’Callaghan are cited as proof, the replacements that are better than what went before.

And that’s all fine, but there are more constants over the four-in-a-row starting fifteen than you might think. Cluxton, obviously. But also Jonny Cooper, Philly McMahon, Cian O’Sullivan and James McCarthy. That’s a lot of backs, keeping a lot of pressure off Cluxton, who cares little for pressure. It will not be the shock of shocks if Dublin do win five-in-a-row, of course. But it won’t be as big a shock as some think if they don’t. After all, Kilkenny were meant to be able replenish their players at ease too, but when Jackie Tyrell and Tommy Walsh and Henry Shefflin went off into the sunset, things began to fall apart.

Of course, the monstrosity that is the Super Eight section of the Championship will do all in its power to preserve the powerful against the threat of the weak. Would anyone have heard of Mullinalaghta if there had been Super Eights in the Leinster Club Championship, or even in the Longford Club Championship?

The Super Eights is a further betrayal of all the Championship stands for and should stand for, a point made time and again in this place. In many ways, the highlight of the summer was the sight of empty seats in Croke Park for the Super Eights, something that so shocked the grubby moneymen who are behind the thing that changes have already been made. Hopefully, it’s too late and the thing will be sent back to whatever hell from whence it rose.

Shane Dowling. No better man.
Shane Dowling. No better man.
Your correspondent is generally loathe to comment on hurling as I know enough about it to know I know very little about it, actually. I do know that the people of Limerick continue to float on a blissful cloud in this horrid winter weather and more power to them. But whether it’s my innate conservatism or not, I can’t help but be suspect of the provincial round robins.

Heresy, I know. For those in Munster and Leinster – and even for people from Galway, I believe – these round-robin games seem to have been an unending series of delights. But for someone at a remove, it was a struggle to keep up and figure out exactly who is ahead and who is behind.
But that’s what a great competition should do! is the response. Of course. But only up to a point. There has to be a narrative or else it’s all very hard to sort in your head. If every game is an epic then no game can be an epic.

Someone remarked that Limerick’s win this year was actually the greatest win of all time as no other All-Ireland winner had to beat so many top-class teams to win the title. And that’s true, but it’s also true because no other teams had to – it used to be a knockout competition. Maybe, as time rolls on, we’ll get used to it. Maybe. But it’s very hard not to worry about hurling when people are spending a lot of money claiming to promote the game in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, when they don’t stir one princely finger to promote the game north of the M6 motorway. There is something here that doesn’t quite add up.

Jacobus Rex
Jacobus Rex
This was the greatest year in Irish international rugby history. Ireland won the Grand Slam, they won a southern hemisphere tour, and they beat New Zealand. Joe Schmidt is the best coach in the world, and Ireland have some of the best players in the world.

There are those who ask questions about friendlies and what will Ireland do in the World Cup. They don’t really want to know. Anyone who follows rugby knows the worth of what Ireland have achieved and anyone who doesn’t, probably doesn’t really want to in the first place, and is only looking for mischief.

But as with football and hurling, dark clouds loom in the distance. The game is changing all the time. Professionalism is twenty years old now, and rugby is so different from what went before. Amateur rugby was a backs’ game of field position. Professional rugby is a forwards’ game of ball retention.

The old order is under more and more strain because money wins every argument, and nothing that went before, as regards tradition or honour or how-we-do-things, can withstand money. Agustín Pichot, the former scrum-half for Argentina and now vice-chairman of World Rugby, has spoken of how the demands on players cannot be met in current circumstances, and he's right. Something's got to give, and some things already have.

France was a rugby powerhouse once. Now, her clubs have strangled the life out of the national team. It may be Stockholm Syndrome, as no team found more ways to annually batter Ireland than the French did, but now they’re gone it feels like the game has lost something, and there is an empty space where those gallant prancing cocks used to be. It just doesn’t feel right.

The best man in Ireland, England,
Scotland and Wales?
How wonderful it would be if Tyson Fury could save boxing. It is one of those things that is only obvious after it is pointed out that without a functional, competitive heavyweight division all other boxing divisions are somehow lessened. And now, thanks to this extraordinary man it may be saved.

It's a long path and it’s a lot to ask of Fury, who has his own demons to fight outside of the ring, but sport needs boxing. For a sport so easily corruptible, it is one of the noblest of sports in its way. I hope it can be saved in these changing times, and look forward to the rematch between Deontay Wilder and Fury with no little anticipation.

Monday, October 15, 2018

On Pride in the Nation

The Times Ireland published a column on Saturday in which Caroline O'Donoghue declared that, for the first time in her life, she is proud to be Irish. Your correspondent is damned if he can see why.

Right now the nation is blessed with a government that is looked down upon by other governments held together with baling twine, UHU glue and three rusty nails. The current government relies for its survival on Deputy Michael Lowry, TD, a deputy found guilty of incorrect tax returns this year and against whom a motion of censure was passed in 2011. Not what you'd call moral authority, as such.

The reason the government had to go cap in hand to Deputy Lowry in the first place is because it found itself one member short when Deputy Denis Naughten jumped before he was pushed over a number of undeclared dinners he enjoyed with one David McCourt, who represents the only bidder left standing in the "competition" to win the licence to rollout the National Broadband Plan.

Deputy Naughten received not-at-all common cross-party support for his principled decision to resign but, as Gavin Jennings pointed out on Morning Ireland on Friday, it is not at all clear why exactly Naughten had to go.

On the face of it, Denis Naughten had to go because had lunch with someone involved in a bidding process over which Naughten himself had the final decision. But the fact Naughten had lunched at least once with Mr McCourt was already known to An Taoiseach and in the public domain. So what, then, is the dining tipping point? At what point does a Minister become compromised?

Is she fine if she has two dinners, but damned after three? At what point in the third dinner does the bell toll? First bite? Last slug of brandy, last pull of the cigar? Or just at the point where the big pot of spuds is placed on the table, with the steam rising off them and everyone ready to reach in and grab?

The answer is, of course, that there is no point. There are no standards in Irish politics. There are only circumstances.

If the wind is behind you, you may do what you damn-well please. If it's not, you have to tread very carefully, for you will be as damned for permitting the building of the halting site as you will be for stopping it.

You have to tread so carefully, in fact, that the best thing to do is to close the door of the Ministerial office, put the feet up and sleep peacefully until the next election and/or reshuffle, whichever comes first, and it's time for some other silly bastard juggle live hand grenades. At least you've got the pension sorted.

The absence of standards in Irish public life is equally visible in the Presidential election. Firstly, in the quality of the candidates, which is of the póinín variety - that type of miserable potato more often thrown out to the chickens than offered to feed the family.

It is secondly reflected in the media's inability to make head nor tail of the campaign, other than writing thinky-thought pieces beating the breast about the media's poor job in holding Michael D to the gas last time out, and promising to go harder this time - without actually going so far as to go harder, as such. All things considered, with prejudice to none.

And speaking of the First Citizen, An tUachtarán has decried black media coverage of his Presidency - being a poet, "black media" is Michael D's own coinage of "fake news," the pet term of one of his fellow Presidents - at his campaign launch. At no stage are the white media ever so base as to list what these horrid rumour are, or even ask him directly to answer them. That wouldn't be cricket.

However, when you spend as much time in the gutter as your correspondent, you get to hear a few things. Unless there is a rumour out there that has not come to the low haunts frequented by Spailpíní Fhánacha, Michael D has nothing to fear. It's not like he's done anything illegal or jeopardized the state. If the full story were to come out, it may not even cost him the election. If anything, it might even win him more votes.

And that's because nobody knows what "proper" behaviour is in Irish politics, because nobody has ever seen it, or expects to.

Ireland is not a democracy. It is a feudal system where chieftains gather to squabble over beads and trinkets to bring home to their own gullible followers, while making out like so many bandits themselves and laughing all the way to the bank. If this is the Ireland you're proud of you can have it. I myself am sick to my teeth of it, and I mourn all the blood it cost to build so base a state.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

What is the Point in Watching the Budget?

Pascal O'Donoghue, TD, Minister for Finance
Do you plan to watch the budget today, Reader? Will you listen to the Minister, thrill to the analysis, and carefully ponder the responses to the budget from the parties’ various spokespersons on finance when they, too, address Dáil Éireann?

And are you entirely sure that’s wise? All things considered, would you not be better off beating yourself unconscious with a brick instead?

You say that’s crazy talk. No, it’s not. Beating yourself unconscious with a brick is every bit as sensible as listening to the budget and expecting the government to exercise any control over the public finances – insofar as they government can figure out what the public finances are in the first place, of course.

The one reason the country hasn’t sunk beneath the waves – and I thank almighty God for it – is that we must have our budgets signed off in Berlin anymore, even since that time we went crazy buying two-bed apartments with one parking space and thinking they were little goldmines. The majority of the spending is already spent before the Minister got out of bed this morning. What the Minister will actually be talking about is what he’s allowed to spend from the change discovered at the back of the couch, as the big money is only handled by the big boys any more.

And even then, the unhappy man will still make a bags of it. His is an impossible task.

Professor Séamus Coffey, head of the Fiscal Advisory Council, was interviewed on This Week on RTÉ Radio One on Sunday. Professor Coffey noted that every year for the past fifteen years the Department of Health has been unable to calculate its spending correctly.

This is phenomenally bad practice, and what makes it worse is that every time the Department manages to underestimate spending. It’s not that the Department of Health gets its sums wrong, as such. It’s that it always gets them wrong in the same way.

For fifteen years the Department has tried to calculate how much it needs, and each year it’s underestimated its budget and had to be dug out. This is despite always going higher than last year for each of the fifteen years.

This isn’t bad maths. If it were bad maths, they’d have over-estimated at least once. This is something else.

Let’s put that in perspective. Let’s say you’re saving for a mortgage, and you decide to cut down on the pints. You budget yourself a fifty-Euro-a-fortnight pinting allowance, and swear never to break it.

At the end of the fortnight, you do your sums and you find that instead of blowing fifty Euro on porter, you’ve blown eighty. OK. You were unrealistic in your initial calculation. There are few places in Dublin city centre where you can get a pint for less than a fiver, and five pints a week isn’t even half the weekly limit as set out by the killjoy Department of Health. OK. So you recalibrate, and your new fortnightly pinting budget is now eighty Euro.

You examine your spend after this second fortnight and find out you’ve spent one hundred Euro.

This isn’t great. Not only are you still over budget, but you’ve doubled your initial estimate. This is bad. You feel bad. You’re not looking forward to telling your girlfriend, who’s counting on you pulling your weight for this mortgage. But at least you know now what the price of booze is. You budget for a hundred bucks this time, and go again.

That’s three budgets reader. The Department of Health have got this wrong for fifteen budgets in a row. If that were the case where you were saving for your mortgage, it’s safe to say that you could forget about the mortgage. You could forget about the girlfriend too, as she’d long ago have walked out. But you yourself are not bothered about a mortgage now, of course. Why would you need a mortgage when you now live under a bridge, off your cake on a cocktail of Buckfast and dry sherry all the livelong day?

Minister Harris, a man borne down by the sense of his own dignity, is inclined to respond that there is no discretionary spend in Health. If some invalid, some wretched soul, were to call to a hospital, how could the hospital send him or her away?

Such an unfortunate should not be sent away, of course. But your faithful correspondent can tell you who should be sent away. The genius who agreed to pay €6.5 million per year in rent for the new Department of Health offices eighteen months before anybody actually moves into the place could do with sending away.

The only reason whoever is monitoring how well hospital consultants are maintaining their working division between private and public patients while working in public hospitals can’t be sent away because it seems that person doesn’t exist in the first place.

According to last week’s report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, no more than 20% of beds in public hospitals are meant to be set aside for private patients. However, beds are considered plain beds, not public beds or private beds, and “the HSE does not draw comparisons on activity levels between hospitals or individual consultants in order to monitor trends in activity over time.” So that’s bound to be going well.

You may think your faithful correspondent is picking on the Department of Health. Not at all. Consider this shaggy dog story, as reported in yesterday’s Times Ireland:

The Irish Greyhound Board had their old stadium in Harold’s Cross valued in March of last year. Savills' reckoned it was worth twelve million Euro if developed, six million if it remained a dog track.

A few weeks later, the Department of Education asked the Valuation Office to survey the dog track at Harold’s Cross, and see how much it was worth. Harold’s Cross could do with a new school, you see.

Where Savills' considered the site worth €12 million, the Valuation Office thought it worth more €23 million. The Department of Education bought the site for €23 million in May of last year. Did the site more than double in value in two months? What exactly are we missing here? Other than our shirts, of course - we lost those long ago.

Now. Suppose you’re some sort of nut who thinks maybe the country would be in better shape if we spent money wisely, instead of finding new and, frankly, quite astonishing ways to waste it? For whom exactly should you vote in the coming election? Whom can you trust to get a start on that task?

I’ll give you a minute, dear Reader. Then you can go off and find yourself a brick.
a brick.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Eamon Dunphy and Official Ireland

A working-class hero is something to be

Eamon Dunphy helped elect two Irish governments. No small achievement for anybody. For a man who made his name by claiming not to be part of “Official Ireland,” it’s surely something of a miracle.

Dunphy details his first involvement in government formation in his (relatively) recent autobiography, The Rocky Road. It’s in the first few pages, should anybody feel like a browse – investing in the book cannot be recommended.

The year is 1993. Dessie O’Malley, the great nearly man of Irish politics, has resigned as leader of the party he founded, the Progressive Democrats. The succession is between two people – Pat Cox, and Mary Harney.

Harney is convinced that she is much more popular nationally than Cox. But Cox is the definition of a smooth operator, and the PD parliamentary party is in love with him. What is Mary Harney to do?

She explains the situation to a close personal friend. Eamon Dunphy was then writing a much-discussed column on the back page of the Sunday Independent, in which he used to butcher such persons in public life as the editor deemed worthy of butchering.

Harney told Dunphy that she knew, just knew, that she was the popular choice, but how to convince the PD parliamentary party? Dunphy discussed the situation with the editor and deputy editor of the Sunday Independent at the time, and persuaded them to run an opinion poll on who was the public’s choice for Dessie O’Malley’s successor. They were reluctant, but Dunphy was a star at the paper and he got his way.

The poll showed that Mary Harney was indeed the people’s choice. She beat Pat Cox for the leadership, and went on to lead PDs into the 1997 coalition with Fianna Fáil that shaped contemporary Ireland as we currently know it.

And all because of Eamon Dunphy. If she and Dunphy weren’t friends, if Dunphy hadn’t been able to get that poll run in the Sunday Independent, Pat Cox would have become leader of the PDs and the history of the past twenty-five years could be different.

That’s power. And fifteen years later, Dunphy anointed another Irish political leader.

Shane Ross was part of the Irish political wallpaper for thirty years. He was first elected to the Seanad in 1981, and used to make speeches to nobody in the way that Irish Senators do. He was also Business Editor of the Sunday Independent, where he wrote columns about how the boom could only get boomier.

By the time the boom went bust, Eamon Dunphy had reinvented himself yet again. His Sindo bootboy column having gone stale, Dunphy was a radio news/discussion show presenter with a Janus-like presence. Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings; representations of Janus show the god with two faces, one facing left, one facing right.

Dunphy’s radio persona worked the same way. He still carried himself as the gunfighter, the outsider, the sworn enemy of “Official Ireland.” His actual interviewing style was a most peculiar sort of soft-soap, once both fawning and leading.

Those he once excoriated in the Sindo were now leaders of the revolution that would build the new Ireland. A typical Dunphy question at the time would be “Martin McGuinness, is it not the case that you are building a brave new Ireland?” to which McGuinness could but reply why yes, Eamon, yes, I am.

And then the crash happened in 2008, and Dunphy found a new hero. His former Sindo colleague, Shane Ross.

Dunphy always addressed Ross as Senator in those radio interviews, continuing the Roman theme. “Senator Ross,” he would ask/direct, “is it not the case that official Ireland has acted disgracefully in the matter of the Bank guarantee and that you would have done a much better job had you only been in charge?” Why yes, Eamon. Yes, I would.

And now Senator Ross is in charge. Could Shane Ross have got elected without Dunphy folding Ross into his rebel’s cloak? Of the many reinventions in Irish public life, surely Shane Ross as the Champion of the Common Man is the most remarkable.

When Europe was ruled by kings and emperors, it was the powers behind the thrones that called the shots. Bismarck for Germany, Metternich for Austria, Martens for Imperial Russia. Ireland is a long way from such power, but for one man to have played so prominent a role in forming two governments says something.

This lad Dunphy is a cod. Eamon Dunphy is as much part of "Official Ireland" as dodgy planning permission and guards that lose their phones at inopportune moments. Dunphy's role points out just how innocent, vulnerable and childishly-easily manipulated a people we are, and how very far from being a functional democracy this country is. God help us all.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Liadh Ní Riada Can Win Sinn Féin the Presidency

Sinn Féin can claim an astonishing double-result this autumn if they contest the Presidency. Firstly, they can strike another devastating blow to Fianna Fáil, who were too quick to row in behind a second term for President Higgins. But more importantly, by selecting Liadh Ní Riada as their candidate, Sinn Féin can make a profound statement of nationalism and Irish identity, the kind of which we haven’t heard in at least half-a-century.

Why Ní Riada? Because of who she is and what she represents.

Liadh Ní Riada is the daughter of Seán Ó Riada, the man who saved Irish music from doom in the early 1960s. We have made a bags of many, many things as an independent state among the nations of the world, but two things we have to show for ourselves are our games and our music.

Before Seán Ó Riada, people were ashamed of the music. It was strictly for hicks. What made the difference was the music’s embrace by Ó Riada, because Ó Riada came from the classical tradition. He knew the table settings, as it were.

Ó Riada recognised traditional music’s inherent dignity, and brought it to the concert hall. And people who had thought nothing of the music heard the orchestration of Róisín Dubh that Ó Riada did for Mise Éire and thought: hold on – is that us? To echo Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Irish Nation suddenly realised that this music, which they had considered a joke, poor potsherd, was actually immortal diamond and worthy of admiration all over the world.

Ó Riada founded Ceoltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, from whom came the Chieftains. The Clancys and the Dubliners were the beloved sons of the masses but without the Chieftains the music would have sunk back to obscurity. Instead, it lives, survives and thrives.

Seán Ó Riada himself cannot run for the presidency. He died young, in 1971, two months after his fortieth birthday. But Liadh Ní Riada, in coming where she’s from and in being who she is, can be the avatar of what Ó Riada believed in, an Ireland Gaelic, united and free.

Because what does the President do, really? The office is the vestigial tail of the Lord Lieutenancy. It’s either a retirement home or a springboard to a cushy job in the UN or the Vatican (although that’s not going so well lately).

Perhaps the most important role of the Presidency is in telling us who we are, in being an avatar for the nation. And what better avatar than someone who believes in the causes for which independence was won, at the cost of so much blood?

At a time when it’s so hard to say what it is that makes us different, why Ireland deserves nationhood, why, God spare us, the island should be united under one flag, would it be so bad to return to first principles?

Even if she were not to win, Liadh Ní Riada could do her party some service in landing another kick to the prone body of what was once the mightiest force in Irish politics, the Fianna Fáil party.
Fianna Fáil was once renowned for its profound political sense.

DeValera said he only had to look into his heart to know what the nation was thinking. But that political sense is entirely absent from the party now as it lurches from one disaster to another.

The confidence-and-supply agreement was a good move. But everybody knew it was, to echo a phrase of the past, “a temporary little arrangement”. There was no way it could be long-lasting, because there would come a threshold when such kudos available to Fianna Fáil for putting the country first by supporting a government would all have been gained.

After that, the pendulum swings in the other direction, and Fianna Fáil gets all the blame for being in government, and none of the benefit. Fianna Fáil were always going to pull the plug.

Except they didn’t. Opportunities arose one by one, and passed by one by one as Mícheál Martin steadfastly refused to take advantage. The revelations about the Gardaí making up traffic violation reports was the sort of dream chance that oppositions of other eras requested from Santa in their Christmas letters, and still Fianna Fáil held fire.

And now, it is they who have presented an open goal to Sinn Féin, in a misunderstanding of both the age and the current political situation.

Our is a populist age. It an age of clearing swamps, and giving voices back to the people. It is an age of distrust of the establishment and cosy deals among the members of same.

Not only have Fianna Fáil backed President Higgins for a second term, they have done so absolutely, positively, with no way to back down. With Fianna Fáil now backed into a corner - the last place any sensible politician wants to be -  Sinn Féin can now run a candidate that hits Fianna Fáil in both the head and the guts.

The head, by making Sinn Féin look like a party more interested in what the people think than what is convenient for the establishment. The guts, by fielding a candidate who will be a siren song to the traditional vote of the (once) Republican Party.

Can Ní Riada win? Reader, she can win on the first count. She doesn’t even need to say anything. All they need do is play this at her rallies and the Park is hers. Go n-éirí léi.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Mayo Post-Mortem #67: Exhaustion

One day you lower the bucket into the well and when you bring it back up the water just won’t be there anymore. That’s the day you know your goose is cooked, and that day arrived for Mayo on Saturday night in Newbridge, in the evening sunlight of this scorching summer.

It’s not the only thing that happened, of course. Kildare bet the house on the venue and won, and their players stood up to be counted. Aficionados of the game were teary-eyed at the foot passes of forty and fifty yards finding their men and, if they do nothing else this summer, Kildare will be worth a cheer for reminding the nation of the value of that skill.

All Kildare will have their ears pinned to the radio on Monday morning to see what’s next to get in the selection box. It’ll be of academic interest only in Mayo. After seven long summers, it’s going to be odd being locked out while the party goes on.

Will Sundays now see lost men and women going into the bookstores and browsing the adult coloring books, or the Danish home design books, or even 12 Simple Steps to Learn Business Cantonese books, as they desperately try to fill the Mayo-sized hole in time that’s opened in their lives? Thank God for porter and Smithwick’s ale – a fine refreshment and a sensible alternative in this hot and heavy weather – for their already-discovered powers of instituting oblivion.

There has been end-of-the-line talk about Mayo. It’s understandable, but it’s not fully thought out. Football teams can be understood in the same way the peculiar nature of fire is remembered down the centuries since the Greek philosopher Heraclitus first twigged it. A fire, said Heraclitus, is always changing, and always the same. How can something be changing and always the same? But look at the thing – how else can you describe it?

And so with Mayo, as it is with any football team. The pieces come and go, but the team, the movement, the idea, the spirit goes ever on.

What makes Saturday seem more of a watershed is that the fire hasn’t been flickering at quite the same rate as it should have been. A team will always change, and managing that dynamic is one of the keys to managing a team.

A reluctance to let reality intrude on romance has retarded that natural and necessary process of change, which will make it seem harsher than maybe it might have been when it comes, but there you go. You’re always best pulling off the band-aid in one tug. The ease-it-off approach is kidding yourself.

The good news for Mayo is that while Mayo are unusual in their extraordinary ability to not win All-Irelands, they are equally unusual in squandering a bizarre amount of riches in the process of competing for those All-Irelands.

Certain people hold that the issue with replacing players was that no players were coming true but that’s just not true. The FBD League was made by God in His workshop in Heaven for the express purpose of having a good look at young players. To use it to put even further miles on old men’s clocks is bizarre.

This is the team that started against Sligo in the FBD League in January, as recorded by the unrivalled Mayo GAA Blog: Clarke; Harrison, Cafferkey, O’Donoghue; Boyle, Hall, Paddy Durcan; Gibbons, Coen; McLoughlin, O’Shea, Diarmuid O’Connor; Doherty, Regan, Andy Moran. Reader: what on earth was the point?

But there it is. Rightly or wrongly, very few people think Stephen Rochford will ask for more once his three years run out in the autumn, and that will mean new management, new processes and, God help us all, new hope. One year after Mayo last lost in the Qualifiers, they beat the All-Ireland Champions to begin a seven-year All-Ireland quarter-final winning streak. The players are there. The players are always there. Mayo is always there. Up Mayo.

Friday, May 11, 2018

All-Ireland Championship Cancelled for Next Three Years, Possibly Forever

et in Arcadia ei
History matters in sports. One of the great joys in the completion of any sports season is the ranking of that season’s Champion among the pantheon of the greats.

We kid ourselves doing this, of course. All-Ireland Finals have been played over sixty, seventy and, for a short time in the 1970s, eighty minutes. The catch-and-kick game of the 1960s isn’t the almost-basketball game of the 1980s and the current game is the least like any of its predecessors.

What role would Brian Dooher, say, have played in the 1960s? Would the legendary Mick O’Connell of Valentia even get a jersey in this era where high-fielding really isn’t a thing anymore? If you were to play an imaginary game between a team of the 1980s and a current team, how do you even up the playing field?

Do you load up the men of the 80s with protein shakes, broccoli and weight programs? Or – your correspondent’s own preference – do you load the contemporary athletes up with warm Smithwick’s ale and a twenty-Carroll’s smoking habit, and see how much they fancy running up and down Croke Park then?

All good fun in the pub to while away the winter while the Championship sleeps, ready for another year.

Sadly, all that comes to an end this summer. The introduction of the so-called Super 8s means that this year’s Championship, and future Championships to come, are as different to the previous 130 years of competition as a brick is different to an ice cream cone.

The Qualifier system put great strain on the Championship by giving the Great Powers a get-out-of-jail free card while claiming to level the playing field for the smaller counties. But for all that, the fact that the eventual All-Ireland Champions still had to play three knockout games meant there was still a hint of what the Championship had been, and should be.

How many true knockout games did Kerry have to play in their ‘80s Golden Years? What about Galway coming into the hurling championship at the All-Ireland semi-final stage? Not that awful many.

This new age of the Super 8s, however, is a definite break with tradition. There’s no point codding ourselves anymore. Whatever puncher’s chance the underdog had prior to this is now legislated out of existence.

Powerful counties that have tradition and money on their side now have the rules of the competition itself in their corner as well. Dublin or Kerry can now lose twice, in their provinces and in the Super 8s, and still be in an All-Ireland semi-final, happy as Larry and licking their lips at the prospect of munching down whatever lambs are fed to their slaughter.

Darragh Ó Sé left the yerra behind in his column in the Irish Times during the week. The Provincial Championships doesn’t matter a tu’penny damn any more, according to Darragh. The Championship only begins in July in the Super 8s. Everything prior to that is shadow-boxing.

How has this come to pass? How has the Championship been turned on its head without Gaels seeing comets in the sky, or great cliffs falling into the sea, or any of those other portents of great change?
It’s all down to Money, of course, long-recognised as the root of all evil.

Eugene McGee once opined that the GAA lost its soul when it first agreed to shirt sponsorship. Whatever; whenever it happened the genie is out the bottle now, and there’s no getting him back in without some profound and uncomfortable sacrifice on many people’s part. And neither sacrifice nor restraint is a noted quality of Modern Ireland.

Quietly, unnoticed by many, an opinion grew within the Association, fostered by the GPA and their media enablers, that the GAA has a duty to offer the elite athletes of the nation a space or forum to display their gifts. This, aligned with Croke Park Teoranta’s insatiable desire for dollars, combined to bring about our woe.

The GAA that existed to provide the opportunity to play Gaelic games to as many people as wanted to play them has been pushed aside by a new organisation, eager to grab some of that sports/leisure industry revenue. The cuckoo has taken over the nest, and the end is nigh for the GAA as we knew it.

We are now on the slope that will tumble us, sooner than we think, towards a professional league of maybe eight football teams, six hurling. They’ll call themselves Leinster Lions or Breffni Badgers or the Earl of Desmond’s Rangers, and they’ll have woolly mascots that the kids love and it won’t be too bad, really, and we’ll get used to it sooner than we think, even whingers like your correspondent. But what it won’t be is what we once had, the pearl worth more than all our tribe that was the Championship.

Which makes it all the more important to speak truth to power now, before we are lost, and identify what it is that is before us. This new Super 8s Championship is a damnable thing. It is despicable, hateful, monstrous. It is an abomination, an affront in the sight of Almighty God.

And somehow it is here, all set to ruin the summer like one thousand showers or one million protests on the Garvaghy Road. It is a crime and a sin that the Super 8s now rig the Championship to ensure that only the rich can survive. We should shed a tear and keen a lament for that which is lost. We surely own it that much after all these years.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Why Mayo Don't Win All-Irelands

The Irish Examiner’s Kieran Shannon wrote a marvellous profile of Tommy Guilfoyle, the greatest Clare hurler of whom you’ve never heard, last summer. Tommy Guilfoyle was, and is, a prince. He is all that you could ask a man to be.

Guilfoyle's hurling career was dominated by injuries as freakish as they were frightening, and also he had to deal with the sort of personal tragedy that puts all those games we play in their true perspective. Tommy Guilfoyle spent the early ‘90s meeting with Triumph and Disaster, and treating both imposters the same.

And then, in 1994, it all came together. Injury free at last, Guilfoyle was back playing with the county and reminded the Banner of his talent by hammering two goals home against Tipperary, hated Tipperary, in a league semi-final in Limerick.

Ger Loughnane then took over as Clare manager at the end of the 1994 Championship. Loughnane is from Feakle, the same club as Tommy Guilfoyle, and Loughnane had trained Guilfoyle at Under-14. For Clare hurling, 1995 was going to be The Year.

And so 1995 was – just not for Tommy Guilfoyle. When Loughnane selected his panel for the 1995 Championship, Guilfoyle wasn’t on it. Guilfoyle wasn’t happy about this, and held it against Loughnane for sixteen years. And then news broke of Loughnane’s cancer battle and Guilfoyle, like the gentleman he is, put things in perspective and renewed his friendship with the man who denied him an All-Ireland medal.

Why didn’t Loughnane pick Guilfoyle? For this reason: Loughnane knew exactly the sort of team he wanted playing for Clare, and exactly what it would take to make them. The brutality of Clare’s training in 1995 is well documented.

Loughnane knew Guilfoyle couldn’t take that sort of punishment after all he had been through, and Loughnane also knew that there were no half-measures. No exceptions could be made. Everyone had to get equal treatment. And so, in the name winning, Loughnane cut Tommy Guilfoyle’s heart out and threw it in the bin.

If Tommy Guilfoyle had been a Mayoman, his would have been the first name down on every team sheet in 1995, and Clare would still be waiting for an All-Ireland. Clare people would love Tommy Guilfoyle and happily fight anyone who dared besmirch him or question his right to stand in the pantheon with Leahy and Whelehan and Pilkington.

But they wouldn’t know what it was like to hear the Clare shout ring out from Jones’ Road all the way west to the crashing waves of the broad Atlantic itself, as the team came home to the torchlights with the Liam McCarthy cup on the front of the bus. They’d still be waiting on that particular joy.

In Mayo we think they’re big-time because of all these finals we’ve been in. Mayo are everyone’s second county and we lap that plamás up like cats at a saucer of milk. We never stop to ask if all that milk is any good to us, or if it’d be any harm to have a shot of whiskey now and again instead, to put hair on the chest.

Anthony Daly was Ger Loughnane’s captain when the curse of Biddy Earley was broken in 1995. Nineteen years later, he resigned as Dublin hurling manager after Tipperary hammered Dublin into the ground in a quarter-final. He was doing colour commentary on RTÉ radio some weeks later when Limerick put up a heroic-but-doomed stand against Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final on a wet day in Croke Park.

Joanne Cantwell asked Daly what TJ Ryan, the Limerick manager, would be feeling on the sideline. Daly, as ever, didn’t hold back. TJ Ryan will be proud of his men, said Daly, and would not feel the scalding humiliation Daly himself felt when he watched Tipperary lay waste to Dublin from the Dublin sideline earlier in the summer.

Daly went on to talk about the welcome the Limerick players would get back home, and how everyone would congratulate them on how well they played and commiserate them on their bad luck. They don’t commiserate you on back luck in Kilkenny, mused Daly; if Kilkenny had let a chance to win slip as Limerick had done, they’d go off and pick a team that wouldn’t let that happen. No forgiveness.

That’s the difference, said Daly. If you want to be big-time you have to be ruthless. You have to be able to cut the beating heart right out of your best friend and throw it in the bin like it’s nothing more to you than a chewing-gum wrapper. Winning has a price and if you can’t pay it, you can’t have it.

Up Mayo.

Monday, February 26, 2018

TV3's Rugby Coverage

Quinny. Great, fantastic, brilliant.
As a colour commentator, TV3's Alan Quinlan is a little on the black-and-white side. It's hard to know why this is the case - Quinlan worked with Sky Sports before TV3 won the Six Nations, and his fearsome reputation as a player would suggest that he knows where bodies are buried.

None of that came through in his commentary on the Ireland v Wales game on Saturday. It's disappointing, not least because the game is difficult to analyse.

If Ireland were so good, why were Wales within three points of snatching a result at the death? How did Ireland overcome the losses of Henshaw, Henderson and Furlong (to say nothing of Farmer Seán O'Brien)?

Were the replacements so good that suddenly Ireland has discovered a rich seam of international players? Were the missing players maybe not-all-that-exceptional in the first place? Or is it the case that the system is more important than the man in modern rugby, especially in Joe Schmidt's particularly mechanised vision of the ancient game?

These are the questions Quinlan should elucidate for us as the game progresses, not least as modern rugby is so very technical now. Just as the missing nail cost a kingdom, so a man coming in the wrong side of a ruck can now cost a Championship. It's hard to keep up.

It's likely that Quinlan does know all this. He won a lot with Munster when Munster were as gods in Ireland, so he must have figured something out along the way. But whatever that is, he's either unwilling or unable to share with the viewer.

Quinlan's delivery is odd - when he speaks there's a breathless quality to him, like a man whispering at the top of his voice. He's always excited, which is the same as never being excited. He tends to say "Watch Sexton here", or "watch Best here" but never goes on tell us why - either because he's too excited or expects we can discern patterns in the hillocks and drumlins of red- and green-clad beef strewn about the five-metre line without a guide.

Also, for a man who is relatively new to the job, Quinlan has developed two peculiar quirks in his commentary. Quinlan is very prone to the colour commentator's capital error of repeating what the main commentator just said. In an effort to perhaps disguise this, Quinlan elides his remarks to simply listing the players names. "Best, Murray, Sexton, Earls!" he roars. "Sander, Farrell, Sander, Murray!" "John, Paul, George and Ringo!" "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!"

The more surreal of these quirks is Quinlan's extraordinary reliance on adjectives. This is something he's almost certainly unaware of - who thinks of parts of speech when they speak? - but it is almost certainly unique to him. There are many poor colour commentators - Tommy "Tom" Carr springs to mind - but the adjective stream is a new one on me.

Your correspondent was watching the game for the first twenty minutes before the penny dropped about Quinlan's reliance on adjectives. After that, to keep score on each one was, with me, the work of the next sixty minutes.

Alan Quinlan used fifteen different adjectives to describe play in those sixty minutes. There is a case to be made that he used sixteen, if you consider "what a" an adjectival form - what a kick, what a pass, what a tackle. Sadly, it took me a little too long to twig and I did not keep score of that one. I'll be ready again.

On the others, he used seven adjectives once and once only - bad, big, effective, impressive, incredible, super, and tremendous.

Huge and massive were called to the front twice. Wonderful was used three times, dangerous five, good eight, fantastic eleven, brilliant twelve and, the clear winner with thirty-four carries across the gain-line was great. Great kick, great catch, great tackle, great offload, great ruck, great maul. And so on and on and on.

The Quinlan adjectives are relentlessly positive. The only negative adjective Quinlan used in those sixty minutes was bad, and he only used it once.

Quinlan used dangerous five times but, in rugby, that can be seen as a compliment. Whenever Quinlan himself was described as dangerous in his playing days, it was always meant as a compliment - unless used by the citing commissioner, of course. From this we can only conclude that not only has Alan Quinlan taken some sort of Positive Thinking course, he's come out the other side. Brilliant.

Back in studio, Shane Jennings is a thoughtful analyst but, in an unfortunate echo of international career, he struggles to get noticed above the sulphurous hot air of his gasbag co-analysts. Reader, your humble correspondent would happily spend an hour listening to the Minister for Finance, Mr Pascal Donaghue, TD, extemporise on the Irish income tax bands viz-a-viz European tax harmonisation with particular regard to corporation tax and the liquidity of the sovereign than ever hear one more word on the subject of rugby from either Shane "Shaggy" Horgan or Matt "Maddie" Williams. At least neither Franno nor Hookie have made their way to Ballymount - a small mercy for which a nation offers its grateful thanks.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Social Media Ninjas and the Eighth Amendment

The Eighth Amendment Committee
The Times Ireland edition led yesterday with a story about an (unnamed) Irish anti-abortion campaign group that has hired a company called Kanto to handle the digital side of things once the campaigning starts.

Kanto was founded by one Thomas Borwick, who describes himself as the Chief Technology Officer of the Vote Leave Brexit campaign, and the story goes on to speculate that, because of the tactics used in the Brexit campaign, the hiring of Kanto and Mr Borwick “will raise fears about the Eighth Amendment referendum.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

The definitive book of the Brexit campaign is All-Out War, written by Tim Shipman, chief political correspondent of the Times’s sister paper, the Sunday Times. It’s 662 pages of small type in paperback, 26 of which are a fairly comprehensive index. Neither Thomas Borwick nor Kanto are mentioned anywhere in those 26 pages.

In the index section dealing with Vote Leave, we are directed to ‘and digital campaign, 414-19, 421, 424-25, 464.’ Thomas Borwick isn’t mentioned there either.

Shipman identifies Vote Leave’s digital campaign as a key part of the shock victory. On pages 414 to 419 of his very readable book, Shipman identifies the key players – Henry de Zoete, digital director. Zack Massingham, of a Canadian social media company called AggregateIQ.

And there were three astrophysicists from the west coast of the USA who were brought in to crunch numbers in the same manner Wall Street hired physicists to construct models to persuade people to invest in subprime mortgages before August, 2008. We can’t be sure, but it’s unlikely that Thomas Borwick was one of those astrophysicists.

A quick Google revealed some, but not very many, references to Borwick as CTO of Vote Leave, most notably a piece by Carol Cadwalladr in the Guardian. And the man himself is not sparing in singing his own praises on his LinkedIn page with regard to his work with Vote Leave: “I have gone through the process of everything from wire framing websites to daily scrum meetings and planning our central database system for 43 million voters and maintaining an 80 user computer system.”

Just below the Experience section in LinkedIn, as the great world knows, is the Skills section. The specific computer skills Borwick lists are Microsoft Office, Microsoft Excel and HTML. Quite a modest list for the Chief Technology Officer of a system sitting on a 43-million-row database that was used to create the biggest political upheaval in Great Britain since the Glorious Revolution of 1689.

Your correspondent has no fears for Thomas Borwick’s PR career. Borwick’s father is Jamie Borwick, 5th Baron Borwick, and his mother, Victoria Lorne Peta Borwick, Baroness Borwick, is a former Deputy Mayor of London and MP for Kensington. The family have a coat of arms – three bears’ heads, a row of three eight-pointed-stars, all on a white background. One imagines even the haughty Lannisters sitting up and taking notice.

What this means is the man has contacts. If you hire Kanto, you get access right into the ventricles of the beating heart of the British establishment. What you may be less likely to get is the sort of computer savant that the unnamed Irish anti-abortion group may be expecting. Whoever that anti-abortion group is, it is to be hoped they kept the receipt.

Monday, January 15, 2018

On Referendums

The 'eighties, man.
RTÉ are guilty of some sloppy reporting of Ms Mary Laffoy’s remarks at the opening of the latest meeting of the Citizens’ Assembly in Malahide on Saturday last. RTÉ tell us that “Ms Mary Laffoy told the members that the holding of referendums is a fundamental part of democracy,” but what MsLaffoy actually said was “The holding of a referendum is a fundamental component of our democracy.”

The “our” is important. They never hold referendums in the USA. They hold them all the time in Switzerland. They are held very rarely in the United Kingdom and, after the unmitigated disaster of the last one, they will think long and hard before calling the next.

Ireland holds referendums to change the constitution because the constitution dictates that it can only be changed through referendum. The current constitution succeeded the Free State Constitution in 1937. The Free State constitution was changed by act of parliament, as the US constitution is. This is what happened to the infamous Oath of Allegiance – De Valera and Fianna Fáil dumped it in jig time, and quickly took apart other provisions of that Free State constitution that they found equally objectionable.

There then being nothing left but the bones, Fianna wrote up a new constitution which was accepted by the people in 1937. Eighty years ago, and counting.

There were fourteen referendums held in the first fifty years of the Constitution, of which ten passed and four failed. There were twenty-five more amendments passed in the next thirty years, and more failed referendums than your correspondent could be bothered counting (the numbering on Wikipedia seems a little inconsistent).

As European integration continues referendums will be needed more often and will be less and less suited to changing the constitution. Referendums are suited to broad-stroke topics, rather than Brusselspeak. The legalese will be too subtle to be suited to a referendum debate and vote, and it is the nature of referendums that when people are in doubt, they will vote no to be on the safe side.

The idea of representative democracy is that the people shouldn’t have to wade through this sort of legalise to make decisions. The sovereign people elect representatives to carry out their wishes, and its those elected representatives that are to do the wading through the legal thickets. If the people dislike how their representatives do that wading, they elect some other representatives. Representative democracy.

However. The nation is now lumbered with a series of problems when it comes to referendums. The first problem is that the Ireland of 2017 is starkly different to the Ireland of 1937 and the constitution is no longer suited to the governance of the country. Ireland needs a new constitution.

The second problem is that while the population is better educated in such things as skills and diet, we are less educated as regards civics, public standards, public behaviour and the very definition of nationhood. This is part of a general western malaise of course, but a small country like ours should have been better able to hold its public representatives to account.

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that if a new constitution were written by a joint committee of Pericles of Athens, Thomas Jefferson of the United States and Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, it still wouldn’t get passed because a combination of cranks, demagogues, ne’er-do-wells and out-and-out fools would get together to find a fault, any fault, and persuade a scared and gullible electorate to take no chances boys, take no chances, you wouldn’t know what they’d be up to. Don’t take a chance!

The third problem is that the current crop of public representatives are rather in love with the idea of referendums, as it means they don’t have to take responsibility for what they were elected to do. Taking responsibility is about the last thing they want to do.

A craven reaction to the Abortion referendum is only to be expected, of course. But the twenty members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Funding of Domestic Water Charges voted unanimously – unanimously! – in favour of a referendum on the ownership of the nation’s waterten months ago. There were usual suspects on that committee but there were also politicians there who aspire to governing the country, and who should hang their heads in shame. By whom I mean Barry Cowen, Alan Farrell, Kate O’Connell, Willie O’Dea, Lorraine Clifford-Lee and maybe one or two others. The full membership is here.

The chances of any government addressing this referendum issue and the datedness of the constitution are, of course, extremely slim. They’re quite content with this piecemeal, heads-down, rock-no-boat agenda while the European super-state is being built and Ireland is left out. Until the day comes when the Taoiseach of the day is called to Brussels and told there isn’t going to be an Irish constitution any more.

He or she will be told that the country’s economy has crashed four times and being bailed out three, and no matter how often you’re told you’re told that your insistence on seeing houses as capital assets, your limiting of access to justice to those who can pay and your inability to police the country is scandalous, shameful and a bridge too far, the penny just won’t drop. We’re sorry Paddy, but we’re taking the keys of the car. You’ll be much safer with us to mind you.

But, of course, it will be too late to cry about it then. The British are ninety-five years gone. We have no-one to blame but ourselves.