Thursday, October 16, 2014

Margaret Burke Sheridan - Visse d'Arte

First published in the Western People on Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Bias in the Media

First published in the Western People on Monday.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 06, 2014

Looking Past the GAA's Black Card Propaganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Redmond Problem

First published in the Western People on Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Laois Are Hurling Champions Too

First published in the Western People on Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why Do Kerry Keep Winning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scotland and the Call of Freedom

First published in the Western People on Monday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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