Monday, February 26, 2007

Fans with Typewriters - How the Irish Public is Settling for Second Best

Sonia - not content with second bestAs An Spailpín Fánach wades through indeterminable acres of rubbish about the rugby on Saturday, he can’t help thinking back to when Sonia O’Sullivan was in danger of becoming a national pariah for disrespecting the flag.

Do you remember? Sonia had won some race or other – she used to win plenty of them, you know, back in the day – and some gnu fired a tricolour at her during the lap of honour, or when she was off somewhere for a sneaky Woodbine. But Sonia continued on her way, without stopping to drape the flag around herself and give the nation a vision of Cathleen Ni Houlihan made flesh.

Heresy. Cue the usual suspects, spluttering their outrage on Liveline and like fora. The dirty Cork jezebel, thinks she’s too big for her britches. Who does she think she is? If I had won that race, I’d have carried the flag, and been proud of it, because I love Ireland more than life itself. And so on.

The nation, you see, was outraged that Sonia had refused the nation’s love. The nation had been feeding off this notion that Sonia O’Sullivan was the best runner in the history of running, and that she was one of us. And now the haughty bitch won’t carry the tricolour, for which patriots fought and bled and died? Shame! Boo! Hiss!

And from there on in, Sonia had to take the flag everywhere she went, in order to keep the home fires burning – and to stop getting Joan of Arc’d herself on her next visit home, of course. That was the price of being the nation’s darling.

An Spailpín remembers something O’Sullivan herself said at the time, that wasn’t taken up much in the media. It hadn’t been taken up because the media had divided into two camps – those that thought any mention of the flag business was infra dig, dear boy, and those who, in Burns’ words, nursed the hate to keep it warm.

What Sonia O’Sullivan said about the flag business at the time was that she didn’t take the flag because the other girls on the athletics circuit would think “oh look, there’s Sonia thinking she’s somebody again.”

Sonia O’Sullivan, whatever else one may say about her, was a winner. She won, and did not accept failure. And the time of the flag controversy was 1994, one year after her being stunned by those Chinese girls who, on a diet solely of hill-dwelling caterpillars, as I recall the cover story at the time, shot by Sonia in the 1993 World Championships. So Sonia was not feeling much like a winner, as she had lost on the grand stage, and losing was deeply, deeply unacceptable to her.

But that’s not good enough for the Irish nation. The nation wants to have its party, and hell damn and blast anyone that lets the truth get in the way of that. So the flag story was quietly left to die, while Sonia had to pack a tricolour with her toothbrush for the next ten years and the OCI even had her carry the thing at the Olympics, as a final act of penance.

All that was meant to have changed after the national trauma of Saipan, which grows more and more difficult to understand as the years go by. The media promised the nation that its days of being fans with typewriters were over. From now on, they would shoot from the hip and damn the consequences. Fiat justicia – let right be done.

Until the Irish rugby team played at Croke Park of course. Then all that old slobber went out the window. Come on Ireland! We love you! Very, very much!

Brian Moore, former hooker for Harlequins, England and the British Lions, is the only commentator who is not letting himself get caught up in the propaganda being cynically churned out by a craven media. Writing in this morning’s Telegraph, while acknowledging the intense atmosphere surrounding the game, Moore points out – cruelly but truly - that the Irish win “wasn’t quite like beating Stephen Hawking at arm wrestling.” This English team aren’t very good, and haven’t been very good in four years. It’s 2003 since England last beat Ireland, don’t forget. Moore goes on to point out that what happened on Saturday against England only puts Ireland’s failure against France the Sunday before into harsher perspective, finishing with the words “The quality of the win actually exacerbates the failure against France; and as one who knows about this, the gut-wrenching regret will actually increase, not fade.”

“As one who knows about this”: how Moore must still bitterly regret his England team’s Grand Slam loss at Murrayfield in 1990 and the World Cup Final loss at Twickenham in 1991, won by David Campese before a ball was kicked.

And well he should regret it, because Moore, like Sonia O’Sullivan and Roy Keane, was a winner. He was not interested in making up the numbers or uttering inane pieties.

It’s possible that Ireland may win the Championship yet. If France lose to either England or Scotland and Ireland wallop the Scots and Italians, it’s certainly possible. If not, then every other competing nation bar Italy will not only have won the Championship, but have won a Grand Slam, since Ireland last won the Championship in 1985. Scotland and Wales have won a Slam each, and a Championship to go along with the Slams; the French and English have won multiple Slams and Championships.

And not only have Ireland gone without a Championship while everyone else has had their days in the sun, this Golden Irish Generation, the greatest combination of players to have ever worn emerald green together, has come second in three out of four years, and third in the fourth. And when they are old and grey and look back on their careers, will they ask what might have been? Settling for the odd win against the old enemy and the once-off days of glory was all very well for the amateur era, but that time is over. When the All-Blacks tour now, they most certainly do not play Munster any more. And it’s not because they’re frightened of 1978; it’s because they couldn’t be bothered. Rugby has moved on, but nobody seems to have told poor forlorn Paddy. Take that, you eight-hundred year oppressor! Hurrah! Where’s me pint?

An Spailpín Fánach looked at the tears streaming down the faces of John Hayes and Jerry Flannery during Amhrán na bhFiann and felt sorry for this generation of remarkable talent, whose kind will not be seen again. Their chance of glory in 2007 has gone, there may be few enough chances left in the future, and here they are crying because they think this still means something? That it’s not just another game? Shame on the management for being so easily sated, and shame on a craven rugby media for not calling them out over it. Content with second place – what would Sonia O’Sullivan or Roy Keane think?

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Can Somebody Please Turn Off that Infernal Racket? Thank You

William Butler Yeats - probably glad he's deadThe Lake Isle of Innisfree is one of the great poems in the English language, written by one of the language’s greatest poets, our own WB Yeats. It’s a poem about finding peace and quiet in a busy world, where the only sounds are those of the “bee-loud glade” and “evenings full of the linnet’s wings.”

It is not hard to extrapolate, therefore, that a visit to either a convenience store, run by either Spar or Centra, or a doctor’s surgery, or any public place at all, would now result in the misfortunate poet being driven to an even greater state of dementia than he was moping about after that lady of notoriously high maintenance, Miss Maud Gonne. Were the poet to visit Spar, eagerly seeking another Troy for Ms Gonne to burn, his delicate poet’s ears would be assailed by the unspeakable muck that is 98FM or FM104 as played in this city, perpetually, from what your tearful Spailpín can figure out. The sound of one million millions of empty vessels clanging and booming and making most noise is as peaceful as the water lapping with low sounds by the shore of that very Lake Isle of Innisfree compared with some cretin named Rick! or Jonny! or Tim! who feed a slow, spirit-sapping and soul-crushing drip drip drip of imbecility into the ether.

An Spailpín is safe at home, as every radio in the house contains, in order of greatest emergency, a channel selector, a CD player, and, if worst comes to worst, an off switch. However, if one is at a doctor’s surgery, say, as would be the case of an Irish airman who foresaw his death and was wondering if he could get a potion of some kind to postpone it for fifty bloody years or so, one’s already delicate mental balance would be tipped past the melting point by the misery of having to listen to Gerry Ryan talking about how much pudding he ate for his tea last night, or RickJonnyTim!!! asking his congregation to text in their carefully worked-out opinions on whether or not a young woman who’s lived with a camera going through her garbage for the past ten years, post binge, post divorce, post shaving the hair off her head might-maybe-would-you-think have a few issues. I wonder would she, she would? What do you think Natalie?

At this stage, of course, were the poet Yeats in the surgery, he would have taken his cane to the wireless, showing that he too had picked up some of those violent ways that La Gonne was teaching ignorant men at the start of the last century. But some welterweight of a nurse would come out from behind the counter and take the cane off the puzzled poet, and tell him that he can wish for the cloth of heaven as much as he bloody likes, but the waiting room will listen to Cap’n Gerry and that’s the long and short of it.

When I play on my fiddle in Dooney
Folk dance like a wave on the sea
But why they can’t quiet that bastard
Seems damnable strange to me

Mutters the poet sadly to himself, and An Spailpín can’t blame him. Why can’t people just sit quietly once and while? Would it really be so hard? If you want to listen to the radio, can’t you buy headphones, and not drive a Nobel Laureate – and two-time Irish Blog Award® nominee – demented? Please?

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Na Sínigh atá Ró-thógtha leis an Saol ar Líne

Ceann de na rudaí a chur is mó bhróid ar bhur Spailpín Fánach le linn m'aimsir ar an nGréasán ná nuair a bhfuaireas amach go bhfuil cosc ar an mblag seo ins an Sín. Bhí cara liom ag fánaíocht amach ins an domhan Oirthir, agus nuair a rinne sé iarracht cuairt a chur ar a Spailpín, níorbh fhéidir leis. Scríobh mé beagán faoi ag an am, agus ansin chuireas as mo chloigín é.

Tá sé ar ais im' chloigín agam anois toisc go bhfuil sliocht sár-spéisiúl sa Washington Post ar maidin inniu faoi paistí Síne atá comh tógtha leis an nGréasán agus an saol idirlín go gcuireann a dtuismitheoirí faoi ghlas iad, go dtí go gheobhaidís laigheas ar a n-andúilíocht.

Tugann an tuaisceoir cuairt ar oispidéal andúilíochta i Daxing, ceann de bruachbhailte Bejing, príomhbhaile na Síne, agus is uasfásach an áit é. Tá trí roinn ann san oispidéal, ina bhfuil na daoine atá go réasunta maith, na daoine go résunta dona agus cúpla chrátur ina bhfuil gach dóchas cailte fúthu. Ach ag léamh an sliocht agus na h-agallaimh leis na n-othair - no leis na gialla - sílim go bhfuil an leigheas níos measa ná an galar. Tá saol bhuachaill amháin déanta amach ar a shon go dtí go mbeidh ceithre scór bliana d'aois aige - cá bhfuil an maitheas ansin, agus do saol caite agat sula caitheann tú é?

Níor thug an Spailpín cuairt ar an Sín riamh, agus má tá an t-ádh liom, ní thugfaidh go deo. Níl mórán meas acu ar an saol, de gnáth, go h-airithe saol an gnáthduine, agus ní féidir meas a thabhairt ar sochaí mar sin. Ins na 60í bhí sé coitianta go leor bheidh i lucht an Chathaoirligh Mao anseo sa Domhan Iarthair - tá súil agam go dóiteann gach anam le náíre nuair a gcuimhnítear air anois, agus gach rud ar eolas anois againn ar Mao agus a dream dúnmharaithe oilc.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Irish Blog Awards

An Spailpín Fánach is quite flattered to be nominated under two species at the Irish Blog Awards, to be held in a fortnight’s time or so. The process is interesting, in that one is shortlisted by public vote, but the eventual winner is decided by a judging panel – the reverse of the Academy Awards, for instance. It’s an un-named judging panel, I also note – poor Decimus Junius Juvenalis wouldn’t fancy them onions, but I don’t suppose anyone is reading Juvenal anymore. Sic transit gloria mundi – Latin for “that’s showbiz, toots.”

The categories are interesting – your faithful scrivener is not nominated for sports, even though I would hazard a guess that at least half of the posts here have been about sports. It also stings a little to find myself not nominated for the best humorous post, despite having written two epics last year – one of what was could even be sung to piano accompaniment. I loved those two pieces. Sniff.

But not to worry. I’m so grateful to be noticed that not only do I plan to turn up for the night but I’ve even dropped – for this one post only – my habitual use of the third person. It’s a relief to think that there’s somebody on the other side of the wall reading this stuff, and maybe even liking it now and again.

So to anyone that voted for me for either the Best Use of Irish in a Blog or as the Best News/Current Affairs Blogger, a sincere thank you very much. I’ll try not to let you down and, to echo an icon for a moment, I’d like to thank you all for voting and I hope I’ve passed the audition.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

God Save the Queen

Here's Jonny!Who says people aren’t passionate about music anymore? A bemused Spailpín Fánach has spent the weekend listening to a lot of huffing and puffing concerning the playing of the English National Anthem at Croke Park on Saturday, when England play Ireland. As a matter of fact, your on-the-pulse-of-the-zeitgeist correspondent may have even unwittingly triggered it all himself, during the course of an interview last Monday with Noel D. Walsh of Shannonside/Northern Sound Radio.

But people certainly do seem to be getting het up about it, and An Spailpín Fánach can’t quite figure out why, short of guessing that it’s another manifestation of the perpetual Irish need for having it both ways. We – the nation at one, to believe certain media outlets – are delighted to have our guests come and adore “our” lovely stadium, just so long as they’re not those beastly Tans who like to sing God Save You-Know-Who.

An Spailpín can’t fully understand why there’s a debate in the first place. Surely once you turn on the red light you concede all rights to say that you’re not that sort of girl or that you’d hate to ruin the friendship? Once you’ve taken the money, the customer is entitled to get what he paid for, and if he wants a singalong with it, a singalong he gets.

It’s also difficult to understand quite why it is that so much blather is being built up about a game that happens every year. Ireland first played England at rugby union football on February 19th, 1875 at Kennington Oval, a game which the home side won by two goals and a try to nil. It would be twelve years before Ireland managed their first win over England, but they’ve been playing happily every year since that original twenty-a-side encounter in 1875. Why is this Saturday going to be such a big deal? It couldn’t be the presence of certain nouveaux among us who like to thank the grace of God for them being the way they are, as if the Big Man wasn’t getting enough yada yada yada from Richard Dawkins? Considering the hype machine that was overheating by the Thursday before the French game, when a breathless Áine Lawlor told the nation on Morning Ireland that one upon a time, a little boy called Denis in Tipperary dreamed of playing in Croke Park, An Spailpín thinks he would be well advised to keep his head down for the week, for the sake of his own sanity.

An Spailpín is not in favour of the opening of Croke Park, as regular penitents at this corner of cyperspace are aware. That does not take from his great love for the game of rugby football, however. To those who would call this hypocritical, I would remark that my love for strong black pints of Guinness’ Porter does not mean that I’m going to start pouring the stuff over my morning Weetabix. To everything its place, and a GAA stadium is for GAA games. Not anybody else’s. But what An Spailpín cannot understand, for love nor money, is why those same learned men who call for the opening of Croke Park then start spluttering and turning red in the face at the notion of a visiting team playing their anthem? There is no more point in booing God Save the Queen when England come to Dublin to play rugby on Saturday than there was booing them when they arrived two years ago, or four, or eight, or ten, or twelve, or fourteen, or sixteen, or eighteen, or twenty. There’s nothing new about it. If people are thinking of it because the game is on “sacred” soil, look up and tell me if that red light is still switched on. If it is, then can it Agnes, and shut up.

Consultations with the weekend newspapers may have enlightened the boo brigade, although An Spailpín sadly notes the Cap’n’s prescient remarks to and concerning Cool Hand Luke that there are some men you just can’t reach. On Saturday, that quillsman semper optimus of the Irish Times’ sports pages, Keith Duggan, had a fascinating story about the last time Ireland played an International at Ravenhill in Belfast, and some last minute brinkmanship on behalf of those much derided blazers in calming the objections of the southern based Irish players who objected to the playing of the home anthem – which was God Save the Queen, of course, as the game was in Belfast. As Duggan remarked, it’ll be good crack when Ireland play Italy up there this coming August as part of their World Cup preparations.

And then Peter O’Reilly in the Sunday Times had a piece about John Pullin’s never to be forgotten bravery in leading out England at Lansdowne Road in 1973. As An Spailpín is concerned that some of these splutterers may even consider being so unspeakably boorish as to boo the visitors’ anthem on Saturday, a brief history lesson from when rugby was still an amateur game.

1972 was one of the worst years of the Northern Troubles. The second Bloody Sunday happened, the British Embassy in Dublin was burned down, Laughing Lenny Cohen sang Kevin Barry during his show in Dublin – it was hot stuff all around. A bit too hot for the Scots and the Welsh rugby football unions, who flat-out refused to come to Dublin for their games. When you consider that by the time of those games Ireland had already beaten the English at Twickenham and the French at the old Stade Colombes, this stung more than a little bit. The Welsh made a mealy-mouthed offer to play their game at the Arms Park (where Ireland hadn’t won since 1965, and wouldn’t until 1985 – thanks Taff, that is kind of you to offer) but what happened was that Ireland’s home fixtures were not played, and the Championship ended, for the first and only time, in a ludicrous five-way tie, despite the fact that Ireland were undefeated.

This put a lot of pressure on England to turn up in Dublin in 1973 to fulfil the fixture, and turn up they did, lead by a doughty sheep farmer from the West Country, John Pullin, who played hooker for Bristol, England and the Lions. Pullin famously remarked at the post match dinner that while England might not be any good – they lost 18-9 in a score that flattered them – at least they turned up. An England team got their first and only ovation at an Irish sporting ground in 1973 when they took the field at Lansdowne Road, and they deserved it. And this is the history and tradition of a team whom people are thinking of booing? The mind boggles, and the spirit is shamed by more fatuous and cynical behaviour in modern Ireland.

For what it’s worth, Ireland should win pulling up on Saturday. Brian O’Driscoll will be back, and that will make all the difference. It’s hard to see England winning enough ball on the deck against such expert scroungers as the Irish back-row and the Irish centres, and it’s also difficult to see a former League player turning into a silk purse overnight. Every few years someone jumps ship from League and is hailed as the next big thing, but it hasn’t worked for anybody yet. Hard to see it working for Andy Farrell on Saturday either.

Jonny Wilkinson is, of course, the dangerman. Daniel Carter, the New Zealand 10, has been hailed as the best in the world but for An Spailpín’s dollar that title is Wilko’s anytime he can stay out of the hospital. A player of astonishing talent and bravery, and a man of icy calm and resolve. If Ireland give away penalties inside their own half, Wilkinson can and will punish them. He has the technology.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Faisean Fóbhrístí na bhFear

Caroline álainn, sáreolaí faisin - cad é a tuairim ar fhóbhrístí na bhfear?Agus eisean ag éirí níos sine, tá sé ag éirí níos deacra ag an Spailpín Fánach an domhain a thuiscint. Féach ar an sliocht seo san irisleabhar Newsweek - tá fir Meiricéanach (agus cialltar gach fear sa domhain iarthar as sin) ag tabhairt níos mó áire ná mar a thugadh riamh ar a bhfóbhrístí. Agus rogha caoga/caoga ag gach aon fear sa maidin an gcuirfeadh sé a fhóbhrístí ar féin ar chur ar bith uair amháin, anois tá gach aon saghas fóbhristí le ceannach, chun choimeád le gluaiseachtaí faisin agus mar sin de.

Is fada uaidh a thógadh do scríobhnóir, agus is fada uaidh a choinneofar, más féidir leis. Ní cheart d'fhíorfhear a cheann a chur trí cheile agus é buartha faoina fhóbhristí, an dtéann siad le faisean nó nach dtéann? Nach bhfuil sé buartha go leor mar atá sé anois, ag smaoineamh ar cá bhfaighidh Maigh Eo lán-culaí agus lán-tosaí sula dtosnóidh an Comhortas, nó cá mbeith Catherine Morahan ag ól ar an ndeireadh seachtaine agus cad é a tuairim ar léine a trí Mhaigh Eo, gan dul síos isteach síopa Thomáis Doinn agus €50 - SEA, CAOGA EURO! - a chaitheamh ar péire fhóbhristí.

Níl ach dhá rud tabhachtaí maidir le rogha na bhfóbhrístí agus is iad sin ná an bhfuil na fóbhrístí glan go leor, agus an féidir leo an boc féin, an fear beag, an t-eejit, a choinneáil faoi smacht. Má tá na fóbhrístí salach, is easca go leor é péire nua a fháil nó an péire seo a ní. Ach murab fhéidir leo do mhicí a choimead faoi ghlas, tá tú cailte, gan dóchas sláin dá laghad. Tá a aigne féin ag an mboicín agus dá scaoilfí siar é, sileofaí roinnt deor sula gcuirfí smacht air arís.

Feicim ar na fóbhrístí seo Meiricéanach go bhfuil áít éigin spéisialta acu chun do chuid seoid a thaispeáint. A thaispeáint, ar ndóigh! Trua mo chroí orthu, ach cén saghas fir atá ann i Meiricéa faoi láthair, nuair atá orthu a mbocanna a thaispeáint - nach bhfuil gach uair dúiseachta an Spailpín Fánach, agus gach fear na hÉireann, an fear céanna a chur i bhfolach, toisc gan fhéídir linn a chumhacht a choinneáil faoi smacht?

Ní nach ionadh go síleann Osama go bhfuil seans aige.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Life on Mars

Phoarr, what a beauty - it's the Mark III Ford Cortina!An Spailpín Fánach does not watch TV anymore – he’s a little too grand – but if I did, I would watch Life on Mars, which begins its second series on BBC2 tonight.

Life on Mars, for those of you unfamiliar with the idea, is about a policeman from modern, Cool Britannia, Britain who is transported back in time – don’t worry about how, you’re far too simple to understand – to the 1970s, where a very different sort of policeman existed. The kind that fitted up Micks for pub bombings and voted for Enoch Powell. This is rather shocking to our modern, metro and thoughtful hero, and many japes result from the culture clash.

John Harris writes about Life on Mars, and the phenomenon of “Seventies Man” (think John Thaw as Regan in “The Sweeney” and you have him) in this morning’s Guardian, and does so quite brilliantly. Click here to read and enjoy, and make sure you have Blockbuster or a spot of Zeppelin in the background for the full effect.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Attention Bibliophiles!

If you're having a quiet one in the office this Friday, there's a marvellous blog debate going on at the Guardian about over-rated authors, starting with that notorious windbag, that Grand Panjandrum of Pretension, Henry James. Colin Toibín's mate. Join in the fun here.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

On the Learning of Irish

Sharon, agus conas mar a d'fhéachfadh sí ortYou’ve bitten the bullet. You’ve seen David McWilliams flicking his fringe while talking Irish with some múinteoir gaelscoile on The Pope’s Children, and you decide that you want some of that. It’s the off-season for classes – not that they’re worth a damn anyway, on An Spailpín’s experience – so you make your way to Eason’s or Hodges Figgis and you decide you’ll buy a book, and try to tackle the ancient language of the Gael that way.

You stand at the shelf that Hodges Figgis allocate to books in Irish – not many, but still the most in the capital city of this republic – and there she is, giving you the come hither look, or, she might say herself, an cuma tar anseo, a chuisle mo chroí. It’s Sharon Ní Bheoláin, and she’s the face of Turas Teanga, RTÉ’s most recent attempt at the painless instillation of Irish into the national psyche.

You have a vague memory of the show being on, but you must have been doing something else at the time. You buy the DVD box-set for fifty lids, go home and watch the first episode. You never watch it ever again, and leave it shamefully at the back of the press, along with that interior decoration book and the The Essential Heart on CD.

Turas Teanga epitomised all that was wrong in Irish language teaching. Because there seems to be an idea abroad that the slightest suggestion that any effort on the part of the prospective students would have same prospective students fleeing the premises in the manner of several nymphs surprised while bathing, what you have instead is beautiful Sharon driving around some beautiful scenery in a beautiful open-topped car intercut with some bucks turning hay and speaking Irish in impenetrable accents. What on earth is the point?

To An Spailpín’s mind, any question of learning a language is a question of building a vocabulary and understanding grammar. An Spailpín has read of sages who can pick up languages just like that – a gift enjoyed by caddish hero of the Flashman novels, for instance – but for mortals, things don’t come that easy, and you’ve going to have to sit down with your dictionary, grammar and workbook and put in the hours. But once you’re prepared to accept that, there is hope. Of a kind.

The ace, king, queen and jack of Irish grammars is a book called Réchúrsa Gramadaí, written – or compiled, even – by Brian Mac Giolla Phádraig. It’s a beast of a grammar, and answers all the questions you could possibly have – provided you’re sufficiently fluent to read the thing, because it’s written entirely in Irish. An Spailpín remembers flicking through a copy in secondary school and when I beheld a sample Leaving Cert question from 1936, I felt as that character in Chesterton’s Lepanto, who found his God forgotten and sought no more a sign. Had I had a Bible written in the original Coptic Greek it could not have been more useless than Réchúrsa Gramadaí was to a schoolboy whose first language was English.

An Spailpín still remembers the sense of being hopelessly lost and confused between all those urús, séimhiús and I-haven’t-got-a-clues that moved in and out of the miles of non-standard prose we had to hack through in those classrooms, responding to forces of I knew not what. A voluminous memory and what I suspect was a certainly antipathy on the part of the examiners won me a C in the Honours paper, and after that year’s Matriculation it was slán leat to the Gaeilge for ever.

Returning wasn’t easy, as it’s remarkably difficult to find good books of Irish tuition. It’s been said that there are more writers of Irish than there are readers and a quick visit to the bookstore will quickly suggest that notion is based in reality. Most of the books are aimed at children, of course, because they are forced to buy the books for school. Good egg for the author, but not so much fun for an adult learner, whose interest in súgradh, milseáin and lá cois farraige has hopefully receded.

The best book of tuition in the language, in the basics of how the language works, is “Cruinnscríobh na Gaeilge,” by Ciarán Mac Murchaidh. In his introduction, Mac Murchaidh remarks that previous grammars have been a little too comprehensive, and he’s hoping to come up with a more user-friendly edition. And he succeeds admirably – working through the book I saw for the first time where all those h’s were coming from, and why they were there. I even found out what An Tuisil Ginideach was, something I honestly never knew in fourteen years of Irish in school. I tell you most solemnly, watchers of the skies with new planets swimming into their ken were only in the ha’penny place with An Spailpín Fánach.

There’s only one problem with Cruinnscríobh na Gaeilge. It’s written in Irish. Grand if you have that Gaeilge bhriste that was always considered better than Béarla cliste, but if your Irish is so rusty now that you can no longer see the metal beneath, Cruinnscíobh na Gaeilge is no good to you at all.

The Christian Brothers’ famous New Irish Grammar is a possible solution. It’s in English, and therefore accessible. It appears to be modelled on the famous Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer, and it’s pretty by God comprehensive – sadists and terrorists the Brothers may have been, but they didn’t believe in phoning it in either. It is hard to imagine any question of Irish grammar that is not answered somewhere within the pages of the Christian Brothers’ New Irish Grammar.

The only problem, of course, is that while it’s all very good as a reference, trying to use the New Irish Grammar as textbook is like trying to learn a language from a dictionary. That’s just not the way languages, or human brains, work.

So it’s hats off and sound the trumpets for Ms Donna Wong. Donna, as you may have gathered from her handle, ain’t from round here. Ms Wong was studying Irish in San Francisco and now teaches it in Golden State College. As she remarked in an interview with last year, Ms Wong had such difficulty finding an Irish textbook in English that she wrote one herself.

A Learner’s Guide to Irish is the result, and An Spailpín Fánach heartily recommends it to anyone tackling a return to Irish. Once you begin to recognise the word mutations that are so much a part of Irish and so alien to English, the mountain will become considerably less terrifying. It still has to be climbed, but at least now you have a guide on whom you can rely. And what more can we ask for?

Of course, it’s a point of shame for the nation that this essential service, a basic textbook on the supposed first language of the State, needed a foreigner to write it and, had a foreigner not written it, would be waiting to be written yet. Were the body politic worth a damn, they’d make Ms Wong a freewoman of Dublin. Instead, they’ll probably be too busy shouldering each other out of the way trying to get into a photocall with Paul O’Connell at Croke Park.

But no matter. Irish has been for idealists for some time. If you’re looking for reward or thanks, you’ll need to look elsewhere for a hobby. But knowing some Irish does make Irish people feel more whole, or can do, certainly. If you doubt it, click on this link to Liam Ó Maonlaí singing ‘Sí Do Mhaimeo at a Fleadh a few years ago. If it means nothing, it means nothing and that’s fair enough. But if it registers at all, maybe a twenty bucks towards Donna Wong’s book wouldn’t be a bad idea as spring approaches, with its marvellous promise of growth and renewal, fás agus athbheochán.

FOCAL SCOIR: I noticed, while looking up stuff for this (because your diligent Spailpín does his homework you know), I was disappointed to discover that Réchúrsa Gramadaí is no longer in print. This is another source of national shame – even though the book may have blighted my childhood, that does not mean that it’s not very valuable. All it means is it should be kept well away from children. Like firearms or votes. I hope it’s back in print soon. For the nation’s sake.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Amy Winehouse

Maybe she should have gone to Rehab after allIn an age of impossibly bland music, someone coming along who sounds noticeably different is always going to stand out. Consider the Scissor Sisters – nothing that they do is that terribly different from what’s gone before, but their level of brio and enthusiasm in the Coldplay / Travis / Radiohead era of earnest shoe-gazing makes the Sisters a band whom it’s difficult not to like. Sticking video game effects into I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’ – how perfect is that?

And it’s this appreciable level of difference that makes Amy Winehouse special and note-worthy. Ms Winehouse has, in Leonard Cohen’s lovely phrase, been born with the gift of a golden voice. Your faithful quillsman, who hardly ever listens to any music other than classical or Irish traditional any more, having finally choked on surfeit of record company Product, pricked up his ears the first time he saw the video for Rehab while channel surfing, and the chanteuse has remained an object of fascination since.

Rehab is an absolute tour de force. The fabulous, growly, voice of Ms Winehouse herself, rich and resonant. The funky bass and percussion. The marvellous sounding brass, with those fabulous nods to old Motown and Stax and Booker T and the MG’s.

The rest of the album, Back to Black, doesn’t live up to this of course. Ms Winehouse is not Leonard Cohen; in fact, she’s not even Seth Cohen, that vacuous philosophising muppet on the appalling OC. But my God, what a voice, and how well it suits the soul sound. Actual music, by actual musicians. Revolutionary.

Sadly, a little too revolutionary for our friends in the music industry. The given wisdom there is that music or talent isn’t enough, so the record company are playing up Ms Winehouse’s fondness for the drop for all it’s worth. The Back to Black record is being marketed as a chronicle of a broken heart, something similar to a 21st Century version of that awful song about only a woman’s heart possibly being able know this level of misery. Nonsense, of course, and even it was true, Ms Winehouse lacks the writing ability to chronicle it. Anybody buying Back to Black to explore this territory is being sold a pup. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is what they’re looking for, but as far as the music industry is concerned, Joni is yesterday’s news while Amy is what they dream of – fresh Product.

And, in order to keep the profile of their Product sufficiently high, not only does the record industry allow Ms Winehouse to indulge her self-destructive tendencies, they encourage her. Witness Ms Winehouse’s shambolic appearance duetting with Charlotte Church on “Beat It” from some months ago. Whatever else one can say about La Church, she’s been a pro since she was twelve, and she is seriously unimpressed by someone turning up a mess for a gig.

Not that the industry cares. Ms Winehouse is now being flogged around the States, as this informative and rather depressing profile in this morning’s Washington Post reveals. That old lie about destructiveness and creativity going hand in hand is trotted out again, because the record industry flaks know its makes such sulphuric copy. And a lie it is: Shane McGowan wrote A Rainy Night in Soho at the start of his career; ten years of hard living later, the best he could come up with was Paddy Public Enemy No 1, a frankly distressing dirge about Dominic McGlinchey. Says it all, really.

The final paragraphs of that Washington Post interview make for distressing reading, as just how much Ms Winehouse is being manipulated by those whose wages she is effectively paying and whose very employment she is effectively justifying. Because it’s all so fake – Ms Winehouse is marketed as being as street as a manhole, but she is in fact from a comfortable middle-class background, and was bounced out of several private schools in her day. So, instead of being the authentic new voice of 21st Century urban Britain, she is in fact a poor little rich girl gone slightly off the rails.

But what a marvellous voice. A voice so powerful, in fact, it reminds your nostalgic narrator of the great Cerys Matthews of Catatonia. Cerys was marketed in exactly the same way – this tactical marketing rethread doesn’t phase the record industry because they know that as far as the current, 18-23 record buying public are concerned, Catatonia’s International Velvet in 1996 is about as fossilised as Blonde on Blonde in 1966 or Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! in 1956. Cerys doesn’t hit the bottle any more and doesn’t sell any records worth a damn, but she’s healthy and happy and well-adjusted, and maybe that counts for something too. An Spailpin would like to think the two ladies could meet up sometime and compare notes, an event that would no doubt cause great horror and anguish in certain record industry boardrooms. But maybe some things are more important than the dollar. Rock on, Amy – try to stay safe.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

On the Teaching of Irish

A student of Irish wondering if he should throw in a few more fadas for luck, yesterdayAn Spailpín is interested to note Conradh na Gaeilge’s suggestions about improving the teaching of Irish in schools, as published yesterday and reported in the Irish Times this morning. The proposals are fine, as far as they go; the problem is of course that as long as the syllabus remains as misguided as it is any proposals along the lines of those of Conradh na Gaeilge’s are exercises in deck-chair re-arranging on doomed ships from the Harland and Wolff shipyard. However, to re-invent the Irish language syllabus would require things like courage, vision, commitment and logical consistency, none of which are concepts traditionally associated with Dáil Éireann or the inhabitants therein.

An Spailpín Fánach is also just rotten enough to remark that Conradh na Gaeilge might be better served attending to the problems in their own house. Your humble correspondent signed up for one of Conradh’s own classes some years ago – the ardleibhéal, no less – and the experience was a disappointing one. In fact, were it not for the fact that his friends are now insisting that your slightly bitter quillsman accentuate the positive I would posit a view that the only reason Conradh runs classes is to make easy dough, but as I say, I eliminate the negative in these things anymore and let all this little stuff go.

One of the reasons why the Conradh classes, and any other classes I’ve attended, have been wastes of time is the absence of set texts, and this asinine idea currently in vogue for the “spoken language.” What this means in effect is that teachers can just gas away for two hours and then toddle off home, happy that they’ve done their bit for the language.

Well, life isn’t that easy. Learning another language isn’t for cissies, and learning one as complicated as Irish takes a certain amount of guts. One of the reasons why Irish is so difficult is because of the mutations of the words – words change according to the grammatical function they perform in a sentence in a way that is utterly alien to English constructions. It’s quite common in Latin, but dumbing down means that we try and keep exposure to that from our children’s innocent eyes as well. We can’t risk thinking breaking out, you know.

An Spailpín Fánach’s chief memory of Irish from his schooldays – and those schooldays last fourteen long years, let’s not forget – is of Irish essays being returned with corrections in red ink that indicated h’s missing in some places and h’s to spare in others, the whole thing peppered with missing fadas, making that days pensées looking like they’d been caught in a blood-coloured blizzard. By the time the Leaving Cert rolled around, I had given up all hope of ever figuring out what went where, and I approached the upcoming examination in the same stoic manner as an infantryman going over to the top at the Somme – I knew that if I made it safely to the other side I was damned if I was ever coming back to this God-forsaken vision of Hell.

Children start learning Irish at the age of four. It’s a fifty-fifty shot if they’re even fully toilet-trained and we, in our wisdom, expect them to pick their way through a sentence as euphonically pleasing and grammatically complex as “ná bac le mac an bhacaigh agus ní bhacfaidh mac an bhacaigh leat.” We are an optimistic race.

Irish grammar is complicated. Full stop. Most people’s memories of Irish at school are of being hopelessly lost in its thickets, or else of simply counting the days until the Leaving Cert when they’d never have to look at another leabhar or focal ever again. So, nice and all as it would be to think that one could just painlessly soak the language up, as porter is imbibed on Saturday night, that’s not the way the world works, and all the wishing in the world won’t make it so.

The Government, insofar as it gives the language any consideration at all, is interested only in not rocking boats – not rocking the traditional pieties about part of what we are and aren’t the Gaelscoileanna great, and not rocking the gravy trains to the Gaeltachts and subsequently losing seats in the election. After that, they couldn’t give a rooty-toot-toot.

If you do give a rooty-toot-toot, if in this age of concepts of patriotism going no further than ringing Dessie Cahill to tell him how deeply proud you are to see rugby and soccer in Croke Park, then God help you. However, An Spailpín is stricken with the same sickness, so call back in a few days to this strange space and we’ll see what we can to do to learn our language correctly. In the meantime, An Spailpín respectfully suggests to Mary Hanafin and her underlings in the Department of Education that perhaps she could take Mr David Lee Roth’s advice, and employ hotter teachers. This is the Podge and Rodge generation after all.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Pill, Pill a Rúin - Scéal an Seoigigh

An Seoigeach ag an líneAgus Éire ina luí i ndubh na h-oíche, bhí ceann dá mic ag déanamh gaisce mór amach ins an Ástrail. Ach ní ar son na hÉirinn a bhí sé ag scríobh a ainm i leabhar na stáire, ach ar son an sean-namhaid. Cad é an tuairim ceart ar Eamon Seoige, an cricéadóir is fearr a rugadh in Éirinn riamh, ach atá ag imirt ar son na Sasanaigh?

Rugadh an Seoigeach i mBaile Átha Cliath i 1978, agus ba léir óna óige gurb cricéadóir den scoth é. Ach cén maitheas dó é, agus cricéad gan meas ina thír féin? Bhí dá rogha aige - lean ar aghaidh ag imirt anseo in Éirinn, lena chlub Méarnóg, nó téigh go Sasana agus iarracht a dhéanamh áit a bhaint amach i bhfoireann cricéad Shasana. D'imir roinnt eachtrannach ar son Shasana leis na blianta - Graeme Hick, Allan Lamb, Tony Greig - ach bheadh an Seoigeach an chéad Gael a n-imreodh ar son tire Mountjoy agus Carew.

D'éirigh leis, agus d'éirigh leis go maith. Bhí Sasana ar turas na hÁstráíle i rith an Gheimridh, agus iadsan ag imirt ar son na Luaithrigh, an comhórtas cricéid is sinne sa dhomhan. Theip orthu, agus theip orthu go dona - bhí bród na hÁstráile bruite tar éis a dteip féin i Sasana i 2005 agus, idir gá na hÁstráile ar dhíoltas a bhaint amach, agus imreoirí ghórtaithe Shasana, cuireadh an corr-ruaig ar an dtír a chuir an cricéad ar an tsaol.

Pé scéal é, bhí Sasana briste buartha, agus comhórtas eile le imirt acu, comhórtas ar cluiche ar lá amháin, in ionad na Triallcluichí a thógann cúig lá, an saigheas cricéid is uaisle sa spórt uasal seo. Agus gach rud caillte acu anois, agus cricéadóirí ar an gclaí sa bhaile ag béicéal ar a gcinn, cén fáth nach dtabharfaí seans ar Pheadaí?

Tugadh an seans ar an Seoigeach, agus ambaiste, thóg sé é le greim an fhir báíte. Fuair Eamon Seoige an mórscór ar na trí cluichí deireneach agus, ar an maidin seo, fuair an Seoigeach a chead, scór dríochta an slacaí i gcónaí, an chéad cead bainte amach ag slacaí Sasana le cúig cluiche déag, agus cead a thug an bua do Shasana sa deireadh. Agus anois ar maidin, ní h-amháin gurbh é an Seoigeach an cricéadóir is fearr in Éirinn, ach i Sasana comh maith.

Ach fágann an ceist linn fós - an chóir dó a thír féin a thréagadh agus imirt ar son Sasana? Is é tuairim a thacadóirí go bhfuil an ceart aige, go bhfuil bua an cricéad aige agus mar sin, is a dhualgas é an cluiche a imirt ar an gcaighdeán is airde ab fhéidir leo, caighdeán an Thriallchluiche. Ar an lámh eile, conas ab fhéidir dilseacht a thabairt do Shasana gan do dhilseacht ar Éirinn a thréigeadh? Fíor go leor gurbh bhreá an cricéad leis an Seoigeach, ach is léir freisin go bhfuil an cricéad níos tabhachtaí ná a thír, agus is feall é sin. Pill, pill, a rún, mar a dhéireann an sean-amhráin. Níor éirigh le einne sa deireadh a thug cabhair ar an gcórón, ach cailleadh a dtalún agus briseadh a gcroí i gcónaí. Beidh an toradh céanna i ndán don Seoigeach.

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