Thursday, November 29, 2007

Kings of September, by Michael Foley

Na Fíréin i 1982Keith Duggan remarks in his masterful study of Mayo football, House of Pain, that it is a pity John Maughan and John O’Mahony were born in the same generation. It is just as much a pity that Duggan’s book and Michael Foley’s Kings of September were published in the same autumn, and for Foley’s book to pip Duggan to the coveted Boyle Sports Sports Book of the Year title. Foley’s is the rightful winner; in craft and skill the writers are equal, but Duggan’s canvas is the Dadaist struggle of Mayo to once more win the Sam McGuire Cup, while Foley’s art comes from the classics of the long-haired Greeks themselves, and the deathless struggle of men to become gods and claim the very field of heaven. Foley calls the Muse to sing, and then stands well back as the day is recalled when some gods fell, some gods were born and some gods were destined to rise again.

In telling the story of how Kerry and Offaly came to contest the 1982 All-Ireland Final, how the game was played and what its aftermath was, Foley has all the ingredients of classical epic, not least in his cast of characters. The greatest of all these characters is Eugene McGee himself, a remarkable man without whom Offaly could never have risen to the heights of glory they achieved. Nowadays, McGee is simply the straight-shooting pundit of the Irish Independent and Setanta Sports, the last man in Ireland with sufficient credibility to be able to damn a player in so rich a phrase as a “fancy Dan.” Foley’s book is an important reminder to the nation that McGee is not just another talking head, but one of the greatest Gaelic Football coaches of all time. Like all men touched with genius, McGee can be prickly – many of the Offaly players remark on how they never really knew him, and still don’t – but McGee took those men from the bottom of the Leinster Championship barrel to Ardán Uí hÓgáin itself, and the retelling of how he did that is fascinating in the extreme.

Not least when we consider against whom it was done. Much has been said and written about Kerry of the 1970s and 80s, but it’s remarkable to note, reading Michael Foley’s book, how much they suffered by losing that 1982 final. Even now, complete strangers abuse Mikey Sheehy in the street about missing the penalty in the 1982 final, twenty-five years ago. Mikey Sheehy has eight All-Ireland senior medals – how much more does he have to prove?

It’s fascinating also to consider that the defeat to Offaly in 1982 may have done more for the lustre of that Kerry team, looking back, than winning a five-in-a-row would have done. Had they won the five-in-a-row, they would have done something that had never been done before, certainly. Had they won the five-in-a-row, Kerry would have been gods, but the loss in 1982 and Kerry’s subsequent return showed us that gods can fall to, but falling does mean that you never get up again. To come back from Séamus Darby and 1982 and, nearly worse again, Tadhgie Murphy and 1983, gives the Kerry team of the 1970s and 80s a lustre greater than the five-in-a-row would have bestowed.

No talk of gods in a football sense is complete without mention of Offaly’s own peerless Matt Connor, and what happened to Connor in 1983, crippled on Christmas Day in a car accident, is one of the most moving passages in the book. Connor’s accident deeply affected the entire Offaly team – Eugene McGee’s horror at Connor’s accident was plain when he was interviewed about it twenty years later on Laochra Gael, and Offaly players in the book mention how very upsetting and unsettling they found Connor’s accident. It was brave of Foley to take on the subject when so many people find it so distressing, but without bravery this book could not have been so honestly written.

Kings of September’s final gift is Foley’s ability to contextualise the game in its place and time, the grim Ireland of the 1980s. If there is one single vignette that shows how much the country has changed, it’s when Seán Lowry talks of the people back home, watching on TV or listening to the radio. Modern GAA commentary never talks of the people back home, because it’s now taken for granted that you have enough money to bring kids and caboodle to Dublin for long and expensive match weekends; in Ireland of the 1980s, that was a luxury that was not easy to afford. Conspicuous spending is what it’s all about in our times; if it’s Saturday it must be Electric Picnic, and if Sunday, it must be Croker. Anybody sitting at home low on bobs is now some sort of louse or bum. Are we a richer or poorer people for it, I wonder?

Denis Walsh’s Hurling: The Revolution Years revolutionised the way books on Irish sports are written, and now Foley has taken it a step further. The prospect of further books of this ilk, the great events of Irish sports placed in their place and time, John Pullin’s England arriving at Lansdowne Road in 1973, the summer of 1987, when Stephen and Lydia Roche were King and Queen of Ireland, even Saipan itself. It’s a thrilling prospect, and Kings of September has led the way. It’s essential reading.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Operation Freeflow - The Teeny-Weeny Detail They Overlooked

Few things capture the experience of living in Dublin in the early years of the 21st Century as much as the remarkable paradox of Operation Freeflow, the traffic management system that the city uses to deal with Christmas shoppers. (The only real way of dealing with Christmas shoppers, of course, is to machine gun the wretches, but then you’d have Amnesty International annoying you and it wouldn’t be worth it. Pity). It’s not so much the system itself as the relentless self-congratulation that goes along with it that gets An Spailpín’s gabhar, as it were. I mean, dear Jesus, it even has its own website.

Look at the thing
. Look at that little picture there of Dublin in the snow. Does that look much like Dublin to you? Doesn't look much like it to me. Who do they think they're kidding? It’s more like a scene from one of those Budweiser ads – those Budweiser dray horses wouldn’t look half as pretty if they’d been kept in some twelfth floor flat in Ballier all year, I’m thinking.

Look at all this bumph from the Irish Times’ breaking news section:

"Hundreds of gardaí have been drafted into Dublin for the force's annual drive to keep the capital's traffic moving over Christmas. Some 160 officers have been transferred to Dublin Garda stations for Operation Freeflow, which began yesterday and will finish on January 4th. In addition, 48 motorcycle patrols will be put on key routes at peak times, supported by other mobile patrols, mountain bike patrols, the Garda Mounted Unit and the Garda Air Support Unit, according to the Garda Press Office. The operation will be managed from the Garda Traffic Control Centre on Harcourt Square, which will be in contact with Dublin City Council's Traffic Centre."

It sounds like a feature length episode of CSI, with Grissom working out a heuristic on the back of an envelope to see how many 1982 Ford Cortinas can be jammed into the Liffey Valley Centre. And, to be honest, it’s hard to argue with a lot of it; it’s a good thing that there are mobile patrols with mounted and air support to make sure the city can keep the traffic moving.

But here’s what gets me: What about the rest of the bloody year?

Reading from left to right across the foot of that ridiculous Freeflow website, which I'm clearly having a lot of trouble getting over, the Dublin Transport Office, Dublin City Council, the Gardaí, the Department of Transport, the Dublin City Business Association, Bus Éireann, Dublin Bus, Iarnród Éireann and the LUAS are all swelled up like harvest frogs, bursting with pride because they can get the traffic moving in December. Well, what about the other eleven months of the year? You can live and die in the car then, stuck in the timeless parking lot that is the M50, the junction of Berkeley Road and the North Circular Road, the entire village of Dundrum, and a thousand and one other traffic black holes. Where are these jokers then? They’re no-where to be seen, that’s where they are.

It’s like hiring a carpenter to put up shelves and when he only hammers one nail into the damned wall, not only does he think he’s done a great job, he expects to the congratulated on it. He thinks he’s just built Noah’s bloody Ark. Incredible.

An Spailpín Fánach advises all readers who have the ill-luck to have no choice but to shop in Dublin to rise at the crack of dawn to do so, if you can at all. And for God’s sake don’t be fooled by some load of soft chat about taking “public transport.” Public transport is miserable enough when there’s just you and your buke to bring onto the bus, with the driver scowling at you for wrecking his buzz and that whiskery buck on O’Connell Street getting in your way and doing nothing, I mean NOTHING, else, without having to face all that while being loaded down with cashmere ganseys from Arnott’s, scented candles, box set DVDs of TV shows that were very middling when actually broadcast, signed copies of Maeve Binchy’s books and three bottles of whiskey, while also being in charge of the safety and well-being of Adam, 8, Maedhb, 5, and Benjamin, 2. Take the car, for God’s sake. Life’s too short.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Chick Lit Meets Mick Flick - PS I Love You, the Movie

Do ye like me hat? I got it from the accordian player in the Quiet ManThere is now another reason to stock up on strong booze for Christmas. PS I Love You, the movie version of Cecelia Ahern’s massively successful debut novel, is being released Christmas week and, judging from its online trailer, it’s going to be a stinker of pandemic proportions.

Your constant quillsman has not read the original text, but he is quite sure that it in no way deserved the opprobrium heaped on it by an intensely jealous Irish media. Within the confines of its genre, the work was of a high standard, and the fact that Hollywood movie and TV people are willing to pay many dollars for rights to the material is a further endorsement of the author’s undoubted talent. Speculation that Miss Ahern owes this Hollywood interest to her father’s position is to show a touchingly naïve estimation of Ireland’s position on the world’s stage. Big business like Time Warner couldn’t give a fiddle-de-dee what sort of Tea-shop Ms Ahern’s father runs in Paddyland – all they want is product.

And more luck to Ms Ahern in her endeavours, although one feels that she will have earned every cent of whatever it is Time Warner is paying her for the book rights if she actually has to watch this movie as part of her contract. An Spailpín has only seen the trailer, and a harrowing ninety seconds it was. Someone, somewhere, seems to have decided that Chick Lit meets Mick Flick is the way to go, and this is the hideous result.

One has to feel for Miss Hilary Swank, who is not a bad-looking girl and has two Oscars on the shelf to underline her acting chops. It can hardly be easy to feel chic and glamorous when one is famous for portraying such unfeminine characters as boxers and, worse, boys, and it’s reasonable to assume that she snapped the hand off her agent when offered a leading role in a light romantic comedy, with an uplifting message to boot. Hollywood loves messages.

But Mr Gerard Butler as Miss Swank’s late husband in the movie. Oh dear. Oh no. Oh my.

Again, it’s hard to judge the width of the gap, if any, between the portrayal of the dead husband in Miss Ahern’s novel and his celluloid incarnation without having read the text, but it’s, again, reasonable to assume that if the guy in the book was one half the cretin, the merest trace of the gibbering moron, the vaguest implication of impossibly idiocy that Gerard Butler portrays in the movie trailer, then Miss Swank’s character would not be spending much time mourning his passing; rather, she’d be dancing on the coffin lid even while the ropes are lowering the thing down, high-kicking like the queen of the can-can girls at the Folies Bergère.

If you were to put every stage-Irish cliché in Hollywood history, from The Quiet Man to Darby O’Gill, from Finian’s Rainbow to, dear God in Heaven, Far and Away, into a bag, beat it with a blackthorn shillelagh and tie it up with shamrock, you could not create a mouldier mess than Gerard Butler’s portrayal of “a passionate, funny and impetuous Irishman named Gerry.” It’s truly Hollywood hibero-hideous in the worst possible way.

Gerard Butler gives it Killarney as soon as he steps into shot, gurning manically, grinning like the gold medal winner in the Chucklehead Championship of the World, and spouting line after line of the most ridiculous faith-and-begorrah stuff that it has seldom been my misery to hear. Well here we all are, aren’t we having the crack, sure laughter is worth more than gold in Ireland, and so on and on and on, until you fervently wish that maybe Mr Fintan O’Toole would come along and give us a thirty thousand word lecture on how the Celtic Tiger generation let down the legacy of James Connolly. And it's not every day you'd be wishing that.

Butler was last seen as King Leonidas in 300, so at least the producers are assured of a considerable gay turnout for his latest movie. But out from that, it’s hard to imagine sentient human beings wanting to sit through the thing. Miss Lisa Kudrow sleepwalks through an inevitable rehash of Phoebe as one of Miss Swank’s character’s VBFs, and the other Very Best Friend is Miss Gina Gershon, famous, insofar as she is famous at all, for her role as Cristal Connors in Showgirls. Showgirls was rightly laughed out of theatres on its release, but at least none of the dancing girls in that magnum opus were on stage wearing derby hats, smoking clay pipes and eating boiled beef and cabbage. For that small mercy we should be properly grateful.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Let My People Go-Go, by the Rainmakers

Talk about a rave from the grave - I hadn't heard this thing in twenty years. I think I remember them on Top of the Pops. They rawked.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

Dublin Bus Strike

Dublin Bus drivers are on strike this morning. Twenty-five routes have no service, and eleven more have “limited” service – whatever that’s meant to mean. The situation will almost certainly escalate, unless Dublin Bus management back down on the point at hand – which is do with where drivers will have their lunch break. It’s remarkable to think of an entire city grinding to a halt over where some buds will consume their ham sandwiches.

If An Spailpín Fánach is to retain any memory, any lasting sensation of his eight year sentence in this ugly city of Dublin, it is this: the unmistakable and unforgettable sensation of standing in the cold and rain at a bus stop on winter evenings, looking at several buses parked in a line at the bus stop, each with its doors closed; each and every bus containing a driver, snug and warm in the cab, hunched over the steering wheel, carefully studying the Evening Herald and not giving a fiddle-dee-dee for me or the rest of commuters getting colder and wetter.

So, readers, don’t pass a picket today – stop, and throw stones.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

New Guinness Ad

Spectacular, spectacular. Marvellous. And bejapers, it has much the same effect on me, that old devil's buttermilk.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

House of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football, by Keith Duggan

Mysteries wrapped in enigmas are child’s play compared to unlocking the riddle of Mayo football. The delicious misery of it, the hopeless ecstasy, the impossible release, the damned divinity of the only thing for which the county is known, and at which the county has fared so badly. In some strange parallel universe, Leonard Cohen must have come from Mayo, not Montreal; to whom else but the Mayo football team could Laughing Lenny be referring when he sings of the heart with no companion, the soul without a king, the prima ballerina who cannot dance to anything?

In his second book, House of Pain: Through the Rooms of Mayo Football, Keith Duggan comes as near as anyone can hope to explaining to outsiders, and to the county itself, why football is such a big deal in county Mayo, a county that has won less football All-Irelands than Tipperary or Wexford, and whose last All-Ireland was delivered over half a century ago, when the other big news of that Irish summer was Judy Garland singing in the Theatre Royal that July.

Duggan casts a cold eye on Mayo football from the blazing welcome afforded the victorious 1951 team as paraffin-soaked hay was torched along the railway tracks to mark the victors’ return, to the bleak and empty years of the 1960s and 70s, to the revival of the 1980s, Pádraig Brogan and 1985 and the 1989 final, to the harrowing losses of the past eleven years when Mayo, like Moses on the mountain-top, were shown the Promised Land and told that it was not to be for them.

Duggan is blessed with a fine prose style – there are many wounds in Mayo football, many backs up and many fires that need little stoking. Duggan is above that. As an outsider, he cares little for the internecine disputes that litter the history of football in county. Instead, what fascinates him is this: why do they keep coming back for more? After the humiliation of last year, cut to ribbons within ten minutes, when David Brady was sent on after eleven minutes, not so much to effect a change as to search for survivors, as Brady himself wryly remarks, not one man retired. They all came back for more. What makes them do it?

Duggan is especially strong in rooting the footballers in real life, the thing that elevates the great sports books from the mundane. Duggan echoes one of his predecessors at the Irish Times, John Healy, when he writes of Charlestown, football, and the mayfly career of John Casey, Mayo’s last full-forward. Ted Webb and John Morley, both of whom were tragically called home to Glory before their time, get a chapter each, and Duggan deals with their deaths with sensitivity, restraint and no little skill. Everyone who has been unfortunate enough to know someone who died young will know what Ted Webb's nephews mean when they say that Uncle Ted has always been with them while they grew up, just like any other member of the family; it’s just that he never comes in of an evening and sits down to dinner with everyone else.

David Brady, a large character in the book, is quoted near the end as saying that football isn’t that important, but we know that he doesn’t believe it. Duggan chooses this year’s county final as a fitting coda to end the book – those who know their Tennyson will hear a familiar echo as Duggan looks down on McHale Park at the old warriors clashing their spears on their shields once more.

This is an age when the GPA are passing their greasy hats, looking for money. Loot clearly doesn’t interest Duggan – no-one who wants to get rich has any business getting involved with following the green above the red. Instead, Duggan saw something in Mayo that can’t be explained in terms of money, and something Duggan thinks worthwhile enough to record for posterity. It’s that unique and delicate fusion of sport, place and sense of identity that is the wellspring of the GAA’s strength and success, that doesn’t fully submit to rational analysis but without which the organisation could not survive. Ultimately, it isn’t about who wins the cups; it’s about coming back next year and always ensuring that the green and red banners are raised aloft to represent their people. We are Mayo. We march on. The people of Mayo, and GAA people in general, owe Keith Duggan a debt. His book is essential reading.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

An Pictiúr a nInsíonn na Míle Focal

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