Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Irish Art: Time to Call a Spade a Spade

An Spailpín Fánach saw the above exhibit in an art gallery on Merrion Square over the weekend. Not in the shed out the back now, but up against the wall. On exhibit. For sale.

Your deathless aesthete got a lot of dirty looks when he responded in the only sensible manner, by laughing out loud. They’re looking for six hundred Euros for these three amigos, you know. All I can say is, when you’re paying €200 for a shovel, you know why the country is fecked.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

Another No Vote is the Real Threat to Irish Sovereignty

An Spailpín Fánach finds the current Lisbon debate exasperating. The issues seem quite simple indeed – either we are capable as a nation of electing governments to govern, or we are not. And if we are not capable of this fundamental aspect of running a democracy, then whether or not we have one, two, or four-and-twenty EU Commissioners is really by the way. It’s the least of our worries.

There are loud voices on the No side talking about Irish sovereignty. It would interesting to find out what exactly they mean by sovereignty. Sovereignty, as An Spailpín understands it, is the ability of the Irish government to treat with other sovereign governments to form international agreements.

There is a ground-up process here – everyone in Ireland who spent long years negotiating the Lisbon treaty in the first place is either elected him or herself or else answers to those who are elected by the people to represent the people. If the Irish nation doesn’t like Lisbon, then it needs to start voting for politicians who feel the same way, and let them negotiate the international treaties instead. That’s how it works.

It’s the only way it can work. The Lisbon treaty is long and complex. Suppose you don’t like one article. Is that enough to shoot it down? Do you think, of the hundreds and hundreds of people that wrote this document, every one of them thinks it’s perfect? At what stage do you find it so objectionable that you consign all those years of work to the dustbin? And are you prepared to accept the consequences of that?

An Spailpín is sadly aware that there are those who are planning to vote No as a protest vote. This is a very misguided attitude to take. Because while that No voter may believe in good conscience that he or she is doing his best by the nation, that is not at all obvious to the exterior world.

A No vote as an anti-government protest vote makes political sense to the exterior world only in the sense of support for anti-Lisbon parties having similar support. This means that there is a credible political philosophy behind the No vote, and once something exists, it can be dealt with. But pro-Lisbon parties dominate the Dáil. Dominate it. If a majority of people keep shooting down a treaty supported by ninety per cent of the politicians they themselves elect, there is a profound and serious disconnect in the entire system.

This dualism is what makes it very difficult for other political cultures to understand how to do business with the Irish. If the Irish can’t be consistent about this, how can they be consistent in international agreements? When Europe deals with the Irish, to whom are they really talking?

To talk of European wrath in response to a second no vote is disingenuous. It would be more a question of indifference that wrath. And this is bad news.

If it were wrath, at least Europe would care. If it’s indifference, the more politically evolved European nations will simply continue along themselves and slide the Irish to the periphery, where it seems they want to be in the first place. As expressed in consecutive referenda. And if the Irish want that, fine. It’s really no skin or Europe’s nose either way.

If your son or daughter is running with a bad crowd after school you experience wrath, because you are concerned for his or her future. If it’s the neighbour’s kid, you simply expect the police to lock the brat up and be done with it. You feel sorry for the parents, of course, but no so much as you’d bother your barney getting involved yourself. That’s all heartache and no reward. Who’d be bothered with that?

Anybody who thinks Ireland can drag these negotiations out indefinitely while we mess around here needs to ask if the rest of Europe sees us as neighbours or family. It’s pints of cop-on all around for the Gael.

The miracle of Europe, the fact that so many nations have found common bonds after spending all of recorded Western history fighting wars against each other, is a little lost on us here in Ireland because we were not involved in those wars ourselves, except as a dominion of another power. And the fact that we are still tied economically in so many ways to Britain, who has not quite cottoned on to the fact she is no longer a world power on her own, creates certain tension here.

One of the reasons for independence from the United Kingdom in the first place was that we, the Irish nation, believed we had no say in the governance of the UK. Irish politicians and diplomats and have punched above their weight in Europe since we joined the EEC in 1973 and we are not viable as an independent island without alliance to greater markets. Ireland gets so much more from Europe than we put in.

Let’s try and act like grown-ups for once in our lives and acknowledge that being democrats has responsibilities as well as rights. In this case, having mandated our government to treat with other governments we should accept what they come back with, rather than simply throwing rattles from prams just because we can. Vote yes.

FOCAL SCÓIR: It is a measure of the way the No campaign has campaigned that when I discovered the poster in this post online I honestly couldn’t immediately tell if it was from Cóir themselves or one of the parodies. I really couldn’t. The People Before Profit Alliance – I think; the comrades change their name more often than Sellafield, you know – have a poster with the clever line that Lisbon is “from the same geniuses that brought you the Recession.” A bit rich from the same geniuses that brought you Tito’s Yugoslavia, Zhivkov’s Bulgaria, Hoxha’s Albania, Mao’s China, Stalin's Russia and Ceauşescu’s Romania, don't you think?

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dublin Bikes

A Kelly other than the boy from KillaneLike Miss Kelly Brook here on our left, An Spailpín Fánach dreams of the wind in his hair. Or at least, what’s left of his hair.

The Dublin Bikes initiative has your diarist’s imagination in thrall. Just as John Keats was taken to new and unexplored worlds when he first looked into George Chapman’s translation of Homer, so An Spailpín Fánach dreams of travelling in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seeing.

Freed from shackled traffic, I dream of whizzing around the city on that most noble, that most Irish of forms of transport, the bicycle. I would take a spin along the south side, perhaps, through the great Georgian facades of Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square. I could roll across the canal at Mount Street Bridge, salute the bould Paddy Kavanagh, immortalised in bronze forever, and then carry out his own instructions and look out for his ghost on the Pembroke Road, dishevelled with shoes untied.

Or I could criss-cross the Liffey in the manner of that other great song, and follow the pursuit of the man who was so badly smitten with the Spanish Lady, up and around by the Gloucester Diamond and ‘round by Napper Tandy’s house.

I’d be out of the saddle pumping the pedals like a man who feared hellhounds on his trail at the Gloucester Diamond, of course, but still. Dublin has been lacking short hop city centre transport since Ryan Tubridy’s grandfather put an end to the trams and the Dublin Bikes scheme is as close the municipality has come to fixing that ancient error.

So I made my way as far as the bike depot beside Pearse Street last week, and went for it. The annual sub is cheaper, of course, but the website says you must wait fourteen days for your card, and An Spailpín is not as young as he was. I shoved in my flexible friend, and waited for something to happen.

Nothing happened. The whole thing froze. I didn’t know if my details had been read, if my card had been scanned, or what happened.

I turned around. There was a citizen behind me, with his mobile phone in his hand.

“Same thing happened me,” he said. “I had to ring them back. I’ve been here for ten minutes.”

I looked at my credit card. I looked at the machine. I looked at the bikes, all lined up at a rakish angle, gleaming and new, with solid frames, handy front baskets and snazzy blue mudguards on the back wheel. I bid my dreams of freedom adieu, turned up my collar and walked on, hoping to catch a bus on the quays.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Kerry Do That Thing They Do

Kerry 0-16
Cork 1-09

There is a running joke in the much-beloved Peanuts cartoon strip. Lucy promises Charlie Brown that she will hold the football for him to kick it. She’s pulled it away in the past, but each time Charlie, God love him, believes the best of her. So Charlie runs in and kicks with all his might, Lucy pulls the ball away at the last second, like she always does, Charlie goes whoosh! through the air and ends up on the flat of his back, and Lucy’s girlish laughter rings in Charlie's ears. Again.

Cork must have felt very much like Charlie Brown when they woke up this morning. This year was the year when it was going to be all different. This was the New Jack Cork, the biggest, baddest football team every seen on Leeside. They crushed Kerry in Munster, and destroyed Tyrone in Croke Park. They were going to show Kerry once and for all who was boss. They weren’t afraid of Kerry any more.

Turns out Kerry weren’t afraid of them either. And that proved a crucial point.

Every other county in Ireland looks at the Championship one game at a time, and takes it piece by piece. Not Kerry. Kerry start in September and work back. Is this arrogant? Well, not really. Arrogance is misplaced self-confidence. Those thirty-six titles give Kerry something to be self-confident about.

Nobody does football as Kerry do football. There is Kerry, and there is the rest. Kerry's own football culture is fantastic, with levels of competition and excellence unparalleled elsewhere in the country. And then there is the fact that nobody understands the nature of the senior inter-county Championship better than Kerry do.

One of the reasons that the Romans conquered the world was that they learned from their enemies. When Rome was under threat from the Carthaginian navy for control of the Mediterranean, the Romans taught themselves to become sailors. There was no marine tradition in Rome prior to that.

Equally, every time a team has threatened Kerry – Down in the sixties, Dublin in the seventies, Tyrone in this decade – Kerry have added characteristics of the opponent to their own arsenal, making themselves stronger while remaining true to their own fundamental philosophies.

Mick O’Dwyer’s teams abandoned catch-and-kick after Down exposed it in the sixties, and then matched the athleticism of Kevin Heffernan’s Dublin. Pat Spillane held his nose about “puke football” when Tyrone first unleashed the swarm defence, but Kerry gave Cork a masterclass in defending yesterday.

I don’t know who got the Sunday Game man of the match, but I would think seriously about giving it to Tommy Griffin at fullback. It was uncanny to see perfect ball delivered to Colm O’Neill’s chest while O’Neill was in front of Griffin and then see Griffin coming away with the ball and setting up another attack.

The other thing that has made Kerry great in recent times is that nobody understands the true nature of the Championship better than they do. For Kerry, and for Kerry alone, a provincial medal now ranks lower in esteem than the National League.

Other counties may be afraid of taking their chances in the thickets of the qualifiers, or else consider it beneath their dignity. Not Kerry. Kerry realise that everybody whom they could meet in the qualifiers will fear them, while they themselves fear nobody.

Kerry would not fancy a trip to Healy Park, but what are the chances of them being drawn against Tyrone, and losing home advantage as well? Not as high as they were for Mike McCarthy for to slot back into the team like he’d never been away. When you are talking about Kerry, you have to formulate an entirely different set of rules.

Nobody should be more away of this now than Cork, for whom this defeat has to sting. It casts a pall over everything they’ve done this year, as what failed for Cork this year was what fails for them every year.

One of the reasons for introducing the back door in the first place (because nobody likes to say m-o-n-e-y out loud) was this theory that Cork had a great team in the 1970s and, if only they hadn’t played in Munster, they could have won All-Irelands. On the evidence of today, maybe the simpler Championship just saved Dinny Allen and the boys some serious heartbreak further on down the line.

FOCAL SCÓIR: Congratulations to Armagh on a fine win over Mayo in the minor final. Ray Dempsey’s charges played their hearts out but Armagh were a superior outfit and class told in the end. Good luck to them.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mayo Minors and the GAA - Symbols of the Best of Ourselves

Your correspondent is flattered to be in the Mayo News today, writing about the Mayo minors who are facing Armagh in the All-Ireland final on Sunday, but also about the GAA itself, that remarkable organisation that remains, in so many ways, the best of ourselves. Up Mayo.

On Sunday at a quarter past one or so yet another Mayo team will respond to the call of the bugle on All-Ireland Final day. Mayo have been in so many senior finals in the past few years that some people have actually become blasé about the big day, or else bitter about the cruelty of the defeats.

This is the wrong attitude. Life is short and fleeting, and it’s best to take the poet’s advice and gather ye rosebuds while ye may. No day in Irish life is greater than All-Ireland final day, and to see Ray Dempsey bring another Mayo team to the great stage is a cause of delight and celebration.

Bliss it would be to win, of course, and bring home the Markham Cup. There is no reason why they can’t win it, and several why they can. But even the very fact that we are still playing Gaelic games is miraculous, in its own way.

In the modern world, the fact that an amateur organisation can be such a unifying force to show the nation at its best is staggering. Not least when you consider the forces ranged against it.

The current recession has exposed much of what we’ve been interested in lately as fools’ gold, and we seek solace among the wreckage. Yet throughout all this, there still shines the GAA, an organisation that should have been consigned to history along with doors on the latch, visiting your neighbours and whitewashing the house.

But progress hasn’t swallowed it yet, and as the country faces peril in public life, the GAA could be the very best thing we still have going for us.

Because the GAA still represents all that’s best about us. The GAA is not eighty thousand people in Croke Park watching Dublin v Kerry – the GAA is having somewhere to send your kids to play a game, to be looked after and learn about life, to learn about fitting in, about who they are and where they’re from, about the wisdom of taking Kipling’s advice on treating those impostors, triumph and disaster, just the same.

Some people will tell you that rugby in Croke Park is the triumph of the GAA. I say to you that the triumph of the GAA is that people keep clubs going by giving up their weekends to sell lotto tickets, and by packing fifteen schoolboys and a dog into a van and taking them to a match refereed by a sheep and umpired by curlews in a field that isn’t marked on any map.

And for we Mayo people this week, having another team at headquarters on All-Ireland Final is a reason for joy, confirmation that the organisation is strong and replenishing among the plain of the Yews. None of this happens by accident, or divine right, or dumb luck. It happens because the players and the management and the Board, God love them and forgive them their trespasses, put a lot of effort into it.

When Mayo face Armagh on Sunday, remember for a moment that there are thirty other counties who would give a lot to be in Mayo’s stead. Not least the gallant Mournemen, who found in Mayo a wall which they could not scale on that wet day in Croke Park. Or Tipperary, who fell in Tullamore while the nation’s eyes were on Kerry and Dublin. Or Roscommon, who took Mayo to a replay after giving all they had in the Connacht Final, in the best traditions of the Constant Hearts.

Winter will soon be with us, and who knows what that winter will bring. But before the winter bites, what joy that the minors are in the final, challenging for honours, and what joy that the green and red flags will wave at headquarters as the sun sets on another magical Irish summer. These are the days of our lives. Up Mayo.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Beatles for Sale Again

What an extraordinary large place The Beatles still hold in the public consciousness. They seem to be all over the place once more, forty years after they last shared a stage together, as the back catalogue is remastered and re-released.

The last time your correspondent was in London it was visible how large a role the Beatles play in British tourism. The airport shops are full of Beatles souvenirs. The tourist brochures advertise places associated with the band – Abbey Road studios, John Lennon’s flat in Marylebone, and so on. God only knows what it’s like in Liverpool, where they were actually from.

Will all this last? A lot of it has to do with the nostalgia of the rapidly aging sixties generation, which must be one of the most narcissistic in western history. They can’t let go of the notion that nobody ever did anything worthwhile before them, and that all subsequent events should be guided by them. Every couple of years there is another “British invasion” to the USA as some band or other try to recreate Beatlemania.

What makes it bizarre is that the Beatles were just a band. Some of their songs were sublime, of course, better than anything written before or since, and nobody has come close to the impact that Revolver and Sgt Pepper had as regards how different music could be.

The only band that came near the Beatles in terms of songwriting, singing and general soundscaping were ABBA. But ABBA don’t get the credit because they immediately followed the Beatles, and the songs themselves are now encrusted in that awful Mamma Mia! phenomenon which An Spailpín Fánach will never understand.

But the Sunday Times will never publish a lost interview with Bjorn Ulvaeus. Nobody rings Benny Anderson and asks him for his take on the nature of humanity. That is the level of expectation that is expected of the Beatles. All You Need Is Love is elevated from a pretty little singalong to some sort of credo, a credo that does not survive cursory, to say nothing of thorough, examination.

But it’s not really the Beatles fault that people elevate the body of work to a standard that it doesn’t deserve. And while future generations will look at each other in slack-jawed amazement at the continuing sales of records before Rubber Soul, or all that dreadful filler on the White Album, there are some songs that will never die. These are An Spailpín’s personal favourites.

01. Hey Jude, because people like to sing along.
02. Norwegian Wood, because it’s beautiful. Just how extraordinary the tune is as tune can be found out by listening to the Buddy Rich Big Band version. Marvellous.
03. You've Got to Hide Your Love Away. A gem hidden among the dreck of Help!
04. Here Comes the Sun. Distilled summer. Isn't this a lovely clip on Youtube of George Harrison at a concert for Bangladesh in the 70s, and smiling when the crowd recognised the opening bars? What a humble man he was.
05. Two of Us. Never makes the top ten lists – until now. I think it’s lovely.
06. Get Back. Rocks.
07. Yellow Submarine. Singalong summertime.
08. She's Leaving Home. Wistful and beautiful.
09. In My Life. The lyric is a bit clunky but the tune is gorgeous.
10. Helter Skelter. U2 stole this song from The Beatles. An Spailpín Fánach is stealing it back.

Nearly thirty years ago Joe Strummer was singing that “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” Their demise was exaggerated. Perhaps the best reflection of how big the myth is in the culture came from Lloyd Cole’s piquant remark about why the Commotions broke up. “I blame Yoko,” he said.

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

One Man's Electric Picnic is Another Man's Electric Chair

An Spailpín Fánach is a left hand thread in a right hand world.

All across Ireland tonight, An Spailpín Fánach’s generation will be getting themselves ready for the Electric Picnic, a boutique pop music event that is taking place outside Stradbally, County Laois, this weekend. In a field outside Stradbally, County Laois.

Tonight, ladies will hang up their kitten heels and root under the stairs for their Wellingtons. Wellingtons that cost sixty lids and are painted in tropes more psychedelic than is common back at the mart, but wellies nonetheless. Gentlemen, knights gallant of the practical sex, will take the tent out of its bag and count pegs, check groundsheets and make sure the mallet is packed and ready for violence against the pegs and the earth.

And on the northside of Dublin, in the House of Books and Spiders that is his lair and refuge, An Spailpín Fánach will reflect, once again, that these people are shelling out serious wedge in a recession to spend two or three nights outdoors, in a field. In the rain. What in damnation is the matter with them?

Some people say it’s the music. Music that makes staying in a field in Ireland in September worthwhile hasn’t been written, baby. And if it has, it hasn’t been written by the bagels who will strum a moody Rickenbacker at the Electric Picnic.

An Spailpín Fánach rather liked the Fleet Foxes album but, being both old and musically literate enough to be familiar with all four of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, it was hard indeed to listen to the Fleet Foxes album and not get an overpowering sense of Déjà Vu. And that was while domiciled in one’s own property. As opposed to sleeping in a field. In September. In Ireland.

An Spailpín Fánach can understand the appeal of the Electric Picnic, or Oxegen before it, for young people. It’s worth sleeping in a field if you’re a young person because Mammy and Daddy won’t be there, which means everything else is gravy after that fine start.

The problem for An Spailpin’s Fánach’s generation is that An Spailpín Fánach’s generation are Mammy and Daddy. They have no damn business sleeping in fields. There is nothing left to prove. You can afford gigs where you can retire to a bed at night, and enjoy hot water and flush toilets in the morning.

But An Spailpín Fánach is out of step. The culture now views grown adults cavorting in fields in the rain as some sort of – God, I don’t know, Green Party voters' sabbat I suppose. Have you seen that ad for tea on the television, where Grandmamma remarks to a young lady that one’s clothes didn’t get dirty at the rock concert in Grandmamma’s day because, darling, one simply didn’t wear any.

Are An Spailpín Fánach’s judgemental lips the only ones that cry “you dirty old slapper!” at Granny when that ad is on the telly?


There used to be a notion of the march of progress. Man evolves from the apes, makes tools, use the tools to make shelter, lives in shelter, learns how to eat sushi, pretends to like the absurdist theatre of Samuel Beckett, and so on. There are very few things that make reversing that evolutionary stream worthwhile, and sleeping outside of shelter, in a field, in Ireland, in September, in the rain is not one of those few things. And, God love him, neither is Damien Dempsey.

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