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?

Decentralisation
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.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The ESRI and the True Nature of Education

First published in the Western People on Monday.


The Economic and Social Research Institute, the ESRI, have published a report about the Leaving Cert. The report, titled “Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post-School Transitions”, is a sequel to the Institute’s 2011 hit, “From Leaving Certificate to Leaving School: A Longitudinal Study of Sixth Year Students.”

This year’s report is shorter than the 2011 version – it is seventy-four thousand words long, five thousand shorter than before. One would like to think it’s shorter become some editor, with his cigarette, eyeshade and blue pencil, returned the first draft to the authors with instructions to “punch it up a little bit,” but hope may be in vain.

As may be any hopes of the authors that anyone would read their reports. Seventy thousand words qualifies as novel-length – who on earth is going to plough through all that, and why? A look at what appeared in the press last week would suggest that not only does the ESRI’s Leaving Cert Report tell us nothing we don’t already know, it is based on some painfully naïve suppositions about how the great world turns around.

The ESRI report tells us that social class is a major factor in whether or not a child goes to university, a revelation equal in shock to hearing that night follows day or water is wet.

Some years ago, possibly as many as twenty, Fintan O’Toole wrote a genuinely magnificent column in the Irish Times about the nature of social class. He considered two children, both born on the same day, and rolled dice at each pivotal stage in their development to see what their luck would be like in life.

At birth, the middle class kid rolled a six and the working class kid rolled a one. By the time the kids were in school the gap was of the order of 24-4 or 30-6 and will never be bridged. That’s how the world turns, and has done for as long as humanity has recorded its own history.

The ESRI report does address the problem of students learning off answers for the Leaving Cert, but not quite in the way you might expect. Should the State make an effort to make the foremost exam in the State less predictable than clockwork and taxes?

Why, sure they could do that but the ESRI would be much happier if “discussion could usefully focus on the potential role of project work and team work within senior cycle in equipping young people with the kinds of skills they need for lifelong learning and the labour market.”

This is the sort of stuff we have to listen to all the time about education. Forget all those fuddy-duddy notions about learning stuff you didn’t know. Project work and teamwork are very much where it’s at.

Reading these sorts of theories, you would be forgiven for wondering if some of the theorists have ever worked on a project or in a team, because the chief thing you learn from working on a project or in a team is that Hell is other people.

Projects aren’t collaborative efforts. The majority of people on a project aren’t pushed. They’ll do enough to keep the boss off their backs but after that, well, life is for living, not projects, as far as they’re concerned.

One person on the project will do more than half the work, for different reasons – enthusiasm, natural leadership, fear, whatever. But as sure as God made little green apples there will also be at least one person on the project who won’t do a tap, not even under threat of violence. He or she has figured out that the leader and/or the others will crumble and cover for him rather than shop him to the bosses. And that sort of Machiavellianism is not a lesson that we should be teaching our children.

The other thing you have to wonder about these educational theorists is if they ever met a child. They seem to have a very vague idea of how children operate. The theorists will tell you that, rather than hammering home times tables and handing out mountains of homework, if you just open the child’s minds to the wonders of mathematics, they’ll light up like tiny stars on every point of the co-ordinated plane.

The theorists tell you that people shiver and break out in hives at the very mention of the world “maths” because the teachers are teaching it badly. The theorists may be assured that if the maths teachers knew a better way to teach maths they would do, for the same reason they walk into the classroom, rather than hop.

The current vogue in teaching maths seems determined to make what was once straightforward complex, for no apparent reason. Its proponents say it’s because it encourages the children. But being confused isn’t the same as thinking, a fundamental point the theorists seem to miss.

The US equivalent of our Project Maths is called the Common Core. One of the Common Core support materials outlines an old school maths question – “If 3(y-1)=8, what is y?” – and goes on to say it’s no good because “this question is an example of solving equations as a series of mechanical steps.”

How is that a bad thing? All maths is built on one single sentence, written by Euclid of Alexandria, three or four hundred years before the birth of Christ. “A point is that of which there is no part” is the sentence with which Euclid opens his book, The Elements. Euclid took the smallest thing there is, a thing can cannot be broken into smaller parts, and built a whole mathematical world on it, in a series of mechanical steps.

Reader, if it was good enough for Euclid, it’s good enough for you. If you got your Leaving Cert results last week, congratulations and the best of luck to you. If you’re facing into the Leaving next year, there is one little-known and under-exploited trick that will stand to you. Keep doing your homework. Everything falls into place after that.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mayo v Kerry, Down Through the Years

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Kerry and Mayo are both western, coastal counties, with neither one likely to be mistaken for somewhere in the Golden Vale or the Garden of Ireland. Both are ravaged by emigration, both have Gaeltachta, and they even share an obsession with Gaelic football.

But here is the difference – when it comes to football, Kerry win and Mayo lose.

Every country’s folk literature has prince and pauper stories – two boys who look exactly alike but, through accidents of fate, are living completely different lives. In Gaelic football, Kerry are the royal sons, enjoying the spoils of victory. Mayo … well, Mayo are down in the scullery, washing the potatoes.

It’s hard to believe in the light of current events, but the Mayo and Kerry rivalry hasn’t always been one-sided. Kerry faced Mayo as Munster Champions when Mayo won their third and last All-Ireland, in 1951. They drew the first semi-final before Mayo edged past the Kingdom in a 2-4 to 1-5 victory in the replay.

Few on that 1951 team could have thought that Mayo would win just four Nestor Cups in the next thirty years, in 1955, 1967, 1969 and 1981. For the remaining twenty-six years, Mayo couldn’t get out of Connacht.

Mayo played Kerry twice in the four semi-finals that followed those four Connacht titles in those barren thirty years. In 1969, Kerry were reeling from their third-straight defeat at the hands of Down in an All-Ireland Final, a streak of northern dominance that gets Kerry backs up still, nearly fifty years later.

Mayo had a golden generation at that time that was born, to borrow Thomas Gray’s words, to blush unseen. It was the bad luck of Ray Prendergast, Johnny Farragher, Willie McGee, the peerless Jinkin’ Joe Corcoran and more to be in their pomp when Galway had their greatest-ever team. Mayo finally beat Galway in 1967, and had their best chance at an All-Ireland final appearance two years later, when they faced Kerry in the semi-final.

Mayo lost by a point. They had a free to draw, but it sailed wide. Kerry went on to beat Offaly in the All-Ireland Final, while Mayo went into decline. For twelve years Mayo lost to every county in Connacht in one year or another. Some years Mayo were unlucky, and some years they were just plain bad. But Mayo always lost, year after year.

Until Mayo finally broke through in 1981, and met Kerry again in the All-Ireland semi-final. At half-time it was all going to plan as Mayo led 1-6 to 1-5.

But Kerry’s greatest-ever team woke up in the second half, and scored 1-13 without reply. Mayo were buttered up and down Croke Park, scrunched up and put out with the rubbish. Welcome back to the big-time.

Fifteen years later, the teams met again in the first All-Ireland semi-final of 1996. Kerry had won only their second Munster title in the nine years since O’Dwyer’s men finally fell to Father Time, and were managed by one of Dwyer’s great lieutenants, Páidí Ó Sé. The early ‘nineties weren’t good for Mayo either, as every year the team found new ways to get knocked out of the Championship in a more humiliating fashion than the year before.

John Maughan was named the new Mayo manager in 1995. A former county player whose career was cut short by injury, Maughan had managed Clare to a Munster Final win over Kerry four years before. Mayo had beaten Galway on a wet day in Castlebar to win the Nestor Cup, but when the sides met each other in the All-Ireland semi-final, everybody knew who were the aristocrats and who hadn’t a seat in their trousers. And then the ball was thrown in, and the world turned upside-down.

Mayo have had many sweet days in the summers since 1981, but there’s a strong case to be made for that semi-final win over Kerry in 1996 to be the sweetest. It certainly wasn’t expected – there was strolling room on the Hill that day, room to wander down to another barrier, ask the people there if they could believe it either, and then wander back, shaking the head.

In their dreams, Mayo might have thought about scraping by Kerry, somehow. No-one saw a six-point thumping, 2-13 to 1-10, graced by goals by James Nallen (“Nallen has it now … to McHale … back to Nallen ... GOAL! JAMES NALLEN!”, as Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh put it at the time) and the current Mayo manager, who revelled in the great stage of Croke Park during his playing career.

The 1996 Final and replay were what they were, but none of that seemed to matter on the morning of the 1997 Final. Mayo were back in the Final after beating Galway in Tuam for the first time since the 1950s, and feared no man. Someone said later that Mayo must have been the first team to play Kerry in an All-Ireland final and think they just had to turn up. Nobody told Maurice Fitzgerald, and the Kingdom was restored by a man who is a bigger hero in Kerry than even the medal-laden heroes of the seventies and eighties.

Mayo and Kerry have met four times since, with Kerry winning them all. No; with Kerry unleashing Hell on Mayo, great waves of brimstone-filled fiery wrath and destruction, flailing Mayo to ribbons time and again.

But the defeat in 2011 was not like those of 2004, ’05, and ’06. James Horan’s team is being paid the greatest complement that can be paid a team, and they showed signs of that in the first year of Horanism. Mayo are now streetwise, and not to be tangled with.

By contrast, there is an echo of 1997 about Kerry, with their having discovered yet another skinny magician who seems able to command the very elements themselves. Kerry are hungry to make up for the 2011 Final loss to Dublin should Donegal fail to win the other semi-final, while Mayo have long ago gone past hunger to a deep and awful spiritual want. Who will triumph on Sunday? Reader, watch this space.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is UFC Really a Sport?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Consider two fighting Irishmen, in fair Las Vegas where we set our scene. But these men are not alike in dignity, and are viewed differently despite their very similar pursuits.

Conor McGregor, the Ultimate Fighter, is hailed on all sides as an athlete and hero while poor Sheamus O’Shaunessy, being a professional wrestler, is considered some sort of circus act.

It’s hard to make a case for professional wrestling being a sport, chiefly because it’s not. Wrestling is not a sport the same way Coronation Street isn’t a sport. But it entertains the children and can’t really be said to do any harm.

But since when did we decide to take Mixed Martial Arts seriously? Is there really that big a difference between these two wild and whiskery Irishmen?

Is the Ultimate Fighting Championship an evolutionary leap from boxing, as its adherents would attest, or is just an offshoot of wrestling, sold in the global marketplace like so many pounds of lard and with just about the same nutritional value?

Men have always fought, and probably always will. It’s too deep in the genes to ever go away. Fighting is certainly in the Irish genes – we had the faction fights of the 18th and 19th centuries and even today some families, for better or for worse, still settle disputes in the old-fashioned way, with their bare knuckles.

John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensbury, was the man whose twelve rules codified fighting into boxing, the sweet science, and it was boxing that was the pre-eminent fighting sport of the 20th Century. Mike Tyson once said that the Heavyweight Champion of the World was the “baddest man on the planet,” by which Tyson meant that being Heavyweight Champion made you the hardest man alive. It’s not hard to understand the attraction of that.

But that was twenty or more years ago. Boxing is a dying sport now, killed by its own greed. Being the “baddest man on the planet” ceased to mean anything when there were four or five baddest men on the planet at any one time, as different associations named different Champions in the hope of getting a slice of the lucrative American TV pie.

The increased money available in the other professional sports attracted men who might otherwise have been boxers. The sanitisation of society and real fears over the long-term damage that boxing can do haven’t done anything for the sport either. Amateur boxing is popular but it’s nearly unrecognisable from the pro sport in its terrible glory.

Boxing’s slow death has opened a vacuum in the market, and it’s that market that the discipline of Mixed Martial Arts, through its primary exponent, the Unified Fighting Championship (UFC), is trying to fill. As a marketable product, UFC is inspired, a perfect fit for its throwaway age. As a sport – well. Ultimate Fighting isn’t quite, as the young people, all that.

The idea of the Ultimate Fighting Championship is that a Champion is just that – ultimate. He would win a streetfight as quickly as he would win a boxing match. It is boxing without the science or, indeed, the sweetness. Raw, visceral, primal stuff.

Except that it’s not, is it? The UFC is as far removed from streetfighting – or brawling, or causing public nuisance, as streetfighting is also described – as boxing is. Barefoot streetfighting might not be the best tactic, not least as some Rommel of the backstreets may be wearing bovver boots himself, and take an ungallant advantage.

There is something counter-evolutionary in seeing a barefoot person wearing gloves. It’s as if he or she got mixed up somewhere in the process of evolution. But kicking has to be part of this Ultimate Fighting, not because it’s a fully-rounded martial art, but because some sort of kicking motion is essential for audience appeal.

A lot of people who like UFC grew up watching video games, and fighting video games always feature kicking. Therefore, the UFC had to have some sort of kicking action in the show, so the lads in the audience would know when to cheer.

They couldn’t have booted kicks though, because there’s a big difference between a kick from a bare foot and a kick from a booted foot. Real life isn’t a video game. Therefore, UFC’s tough guys fight barefoot. In their tootsies, like little girls.

You don’t read that on the posters.

It’s a pity that boxing has gone into its terminal decline. The Marquess of Queensbury brought a kind of nobility to fighting. Before its corruption, there was an honesty to boxing that is not so obvious in UFC.

Domhnall Mac Amhlaigh, a Galwayman with Kilkenny roots, wrote an excellent memoir of his life as a navvy in England after the Second World War called Dialann Deoraí – “Diary of an Exile.” At that time, socialising was done by attending dances run by the local Catholic parish. The dances themselves were dry, but the pubs nearby did a roaring trade as men reacted as they always do in times in drought. They loaded up, and arrived at the hall steaming.

Naturally, fights broke out as a consequence. However, there was one priest who ran a particular dance and didn’t care for the Irish letting their nation down in pagan England. He broke up the fights himself, and held the combatants back until the dance was over.

Then, when there was no-one in the hall but themselves, the priest marked out a ring, handed out boxing gloves and had the boys settle their disputes like gentlemen.

There is no real trace of the gentleman about UFC and how it markets itself. Certainly, gentlemen were few and far between among some of the men who climbed through professional ropes over the years, but the sport always had that aura, that layer of discipline and self-control running through the violence and holding it in check. This counts for nothing in UFC. It’s all about the shaping.

Shaping, because it would be interesting to know just how tough these lads really are, when they have their shoes on and aren’t oiled up for the cameras. We have seen some robust exchanges in Croke Park recently – would any of the Ultimate Fighters fancy seventy minutes of that?

A friend of the column was fascinated by WWE Wrestling when he was a child. One day, his father came in as he was watching some fight, with some guy posing in the ring. “He might look tough now,” said the old man, “but I wonder how tough he’d be after digging twelve ridges of potatoes?”

Not very, is this column’s guess.