Monday, May 31, 2010

Is the Championship in Danger?

The great Keith Duggan took a thoughtful and sombre sideline cut in the Irish Times on Saturday. Reflecting on what he perceived as a strange lack of spark in the Championship so far, Duggan wondered if somehow, through oversight or accident or simple process of evolution, the magic of the Championship has disappeared and its very future is now in doubt.

One of the strange things about the Championship is how little we understand it, really. How little we talk about its essential nature. It has been with us throughout the years, existing independently to the passage of time, a thing greater than ourselves.

They suspended the civil war in Kerry so Stater and Diehard could unite in a cause greater than either, that of the green and gold. The Championship was pristine, a Platonic ideal that existed as an embodiment of an Ireland that was the best of ourselves. But we never analysed it o tried to understand it. We just took it for granted, and assumed that it would always be there.

The Championship was able to survive independent of history because there was no history in Ireland. The country was stagnant for half a century. The reasons why are open to debate (although Tom Garvin did a pretty good summing them up in his book Preventing the Future), but stagnant it was.

And then things took off in the mid 1990s, at a pace of change we couldn’t have imagined. A lot of things happened in the country that should not have happened, mostly to do with money and how it was spent. Gaelic games became awash with money for the first time ever as part of that process. The Championship was sucked down to our levcel. And the question facing the Championship now, and the very GAA itself, is how does it now react to the loss of money in the light of the crash.

The very existence of the Championship is a miracle. A miracle of idealism. Croaking about unfairness in the Championship doesn’t take into account that the unfairness of the Championship protects the weak. The attempt to make it the Championship more fair, the backdoor system, is now a failure on two counts. It has strengthened the strong and it’s actual purpose as a money-making racket will be exposed very badly this summer.

It’s unfair that someone like Declan Browne, say, will never win an All-Ireland medal because he comes from a weaker county. But a transfer system were introduced, would Tipperary even be able to field a team in the Championship? The Championship may be unfair, but that unfairness is what keeps people going in some counties. The fact that no matter how small the population is, they compete on the same plane as Dublin, Cork or Galway. Do you deny one man, or a whole county? Unfair is a good thing.

We don’t really understand the nature of the Championship. The introduction of the backdoor was proof of this, and other discussions about how to “improve” it would surely kill the thing off altogether. We ought to treat the Championship like the exotic hothouse flower it is, and make all efforts to tender it and keep it alive. Because if it does wither, a light will go out in our lives that can never be lit again.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Oh No, Minister! Free to Air Rugby and the IRFU

What an extraordinary spat it is that has broken out between the IRFU and the Minister for Communications, Eamon Ryan, over what rugby games should be free to air live on terrestrial, rather than satellite or cable, television.

There is a list extant of games that are of such cultural impact that they must always be free to air for the good of the people. The Minister wants to add the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup to the list, and the IRFU have gone ballistic over it.

Philip Browne, CEO of the IRFU, wondered at the press conference yesterday if the Minister could bear to having the dread title of the Man Who Killed Irish Rugby on his conscience. One wonders if Mr Browne knows Mr Jack O’Connor, the trade unionist with a similar line in doomsday polemic.

The IRFU’s argument is that the deal with Sky to broadcast the Heineken Cup floods Irish rugby with money, money without which the game would wither away and die. The Minister, and this is the crucial part, says that the majority of money funding Irish rugby comes from TV rights to the national team, and the Heineken Cup money is buttons, relative to this.

How interesting. Both of them can’t be right. I wonder which of them is at variance with the facts?

Listening to the Minister talking to Darragh Maloney on Sport at 7 on Radio One yesterday evening, it was hard not to feel for the man. Ryan was talking about things like culture and national moments, stuff you seldom hear from national politicians. Eamon Ryan believes that the great rugby moments of the current, greatest ever era in Irish rugby belong to the nation and not just to those who can afford Sky Sports or are happy to spend their afternoons scooping on the high stool and keeping an eye on events at Vicarage Road.

The IRFU, by contrast, seem focussed solely on the money.

The history of rugby in Ireland is an odd one. Rugby is a minority sport as regards participation, but the national team is watched and loved, and has been for generations. There is a clear disconnect between the rugby culture in Ireland, which is small, and the huge population whose backs straighten and shoulders go back when they see the Irish team in Twickers or Murrayfield or Cardiff or, God help us, Paris.

A good part of the nation grew up listening to Fred Cogley calling the plays on that great Irish team of the late seventies and early ‘eighties, men with fifty caps each, give or take, by the time they finally won that Triple Crown in 1982. The nation looked at Willie Duggan and Moss Keane and we saw ourselves as we would like to be. That meant a lot. And it still does.

But the IRFU don’t look at it that way. They have a different way of looking at it. They’re very happy that people are watching now but they are aware that the participation has always been small. And that doesn’t bother them. It’s been fine so far; why change now? They’re not really that bothered about Eamon Ryan’s rhetoric about “national events.” That’s not how they look at it.

Someone was getting booed taking a kick at goal in some game on Setanta a few weeks go, which is not the done thing at rugby. One of the Setanta analysts, commenting on the booing in studio afterwards, remarked that while Croke Park was all very well and good, there were a lot of people going to rugby games now, people who would normally go to Hill 16, who don’t really understand the rugby ethos. And, by implication, never will. He did not expound, but he didn’t have to. We got him loud and clear.

Any other sport would be in tears are seeing its gate for marquee events reduced from 80,000 to 50,000. The IRFU, by contrast, are whistling a happy tune as they return south of the river. I think An Spailpín will be backing Minister Ryan on this one.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Constitutional Reform

An Spailpín Fánach has to confess himself bemused by the opinion pieces popping up in the media about constitutional reform and sovereignty at the moment. The nation can’t pass piffling little referenda without two cracks at it. How many pucks will we need for a whole constitution?

The brief sovereignty spat is very difficult to credit, and Stephen Collins rightly castigated the idea – if “idea” isn’t too strong a word – behind it in the Irish Times on Saturday. Besides; our sovereignty, such as it was, was ceded to Europe long ago and thank the Lord God for that.

Would Ireland be sticking to its current course of fiscal rectitude if there wasn’t some guy called Gunther or Franz to answer to every Friday? The evidence of history tells us: not on your nelly. But the sovereignty debate is interesting because of the questions it raises about how we govern ourselves.

Ireland is in a heap because we put all our eggs in one basket and had no interest in the wide and earthy in acting responsibly. That’s easy to understand. What’s less easy to understand is why the Greeks are in the doghouse and the Irish are not. It defies all logic.

Unless. Unless the Irish are doing something right after all. But what on God’s Earth could it be?

An Spailpín has a crazy guess. For which there is no evidence, but it’s no less wild than thinking we’re capable of an act of statehood like writing a new constitution. What if everything we heard about Ireland in Europe during the different referenda campaigns was true? What if we really do punch above our weight in Europe?

It would certainly explain how we’re still viable, in a way that Greece is not viable. Anne Applebaum listed what the Greeks have to do to put their house in order in the Washington Post last week, and it made for grim reading. The difference between what’s happening in Ireland and what’s happening in Greece and what’s happening in Ireland is the difference between getting caned by a Victorian headmaster of the Wackford Squeers school and doing half an hour's hard time on the naughty step. No comparison.

The European hand on the tiller is what’s keeping the Irish ship afloat. What’s worrying is that this spectacular achievement, staying onside in Europe, won’t count for nuts in the next general election. Europe gets zero coverage in the press here. It never features in general election campaigns. And won’t in the next one either.

If we are to reclaim Irish sovereignty, then maybe the nation should start doing something about it, instead of deluding ourselves that we as individuals bear no responsibility at all for what happened in this sovereign and democratically accountably state. The stories about innocents having their mouths stuffed with gold by evil bankers while all the while shouting “no! no! I like being poor! Take that rotten gold away! I’d hate an apartment in Spain!” get hard to take after a while. If we are to be sovereign over our future, we need to decide on a more positive vision of Ireland than blaming others and booing England at the World Cup.

In the meantime, thank God for the Germans – their scholars did their bit for the language, their engineers built Ardnacrusha and the Kaiser did his bit for Sir Roger. We’re the last people that should be giving out about Germans.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mayo Championship Preview 2010

Leonard Cohen, like all great poets and artists, is a Mayoman. He’s not actually from Mayo, of course, but that doesn’t matter. Mayo is so much more a state of mind than an actual place, bounded by mere convention of geography or physical reality. Mayo is bigger than that.

And how else but through being a Mayoman in his soul could Cohen, the poet of romantic despair, have written so many songs that so precisely describe the condition of those associated with the team? Tonight Will Be Fine, the song the players sing the tunnel in the hope of avoiding another catastrophe. Ain’t No Cure for Love, as the fans pick the bones of another black day on the long road home. One of Us Cannot Be Wrong, as the Board try to figure out how in God’s name they got saddled with floodlights that they can’t turn on. And for the manager, Hallelujah, of course.

Hallelujah opens with a scene that’s very appropriate to John O’Mahony at the moment. King David is trying to write a psalm in order to give praise to God, and he’s finding it a bit of a struggle:

It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

It’s just like looking into Johnno’s head, isn’t it? The baffled king composing Hallelujah. Herding cats is a fine job compared to this. And right now, it’s very hard to see them getting herded to Croke Park anytime in the late summer.

Anything can happen of course. O’Mahony has turned things around before, rejigging Galway after Roscommon hammered them in Tuam nine years ago. Maybe he can take the ashes currently before him and restore life to the husk of a football team.

Johnno was all about positivity after that loss against Cork two weeks ago. The problem is that he’s been talking down Mayo’s chances since he was given the keys of the car four years ago so it’s something of a challenge to suddenly turn that around and expect people to believe in a long summer.

An Spailpín hopes to God there’s positivity in the camp, because there’s very little of it in the county. Whatever else you can say about O’Mahony, he hasn’t been afraid to try players. All his team selections have been radical. But they haven’t worked, and that’s the crucial thing.

There’s no shame in losing to Cork. It’s not like Cork are a bad football team. But to see the Mayo team so lacking direction against Cork was heartbreaking.

Kieran Shannon wrote in the Tribune last Sunday that Mayo haven’t shown bite since 1997. Kieran Shannon must be watching a different a different Mayo to An Spailpín. There was plenty of bite in the team that challenged the Hill in 2006. The team that came back from 1-3 to 0-0 down after ten minutes to beat Galway in 2004. Bite isn’t the issue. Mayo’s issues are deeper than that.

And too deep, unfortunately, to resolve this year. There are many great players in Mayo – again, contrary to popular perception – but they don’t know where they’re playing or what they’re meant to do. They’ll give heart and soul for the colours and the county, but there are too many pieces out of place to fall into place in time to mount a serious run in the Championship this year.

The yearning of Mayo people for a deal sealed on the third Sunday of September is seen as unrealistic by many commentators. It does not seem impossible to An Spailpín Fánach. Mayo reach so many finals how is it unreasonable not to expect them to win one of them, if only by a combination of pox and the law of averages? No wonder the Minister for Education is trying to get Universities to accept people who have failed Honours Maths in the Leaving. As a nation, we're clearly cook at sums.

The happy day will come. It’s not impossible that it will come this year, of course, but it’s not likely. Which doesn’t meant we should give up. Heart with No Companion is another song that Leonard Cohen has written that speaks directly to the true-hearted men from the County Mayo.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Football Championship 2010 Preview

There’s some talk in the corners of bars and public houses that this year will be a “down year” for Kerry. It is a measure of just how dominant Kerry have become since the introduction of the back-door qualifier system that what qualifier as a down year for Kerry would qualify very much as an up year for nearly every other county in the Championship.

What’s understood by a Kerry having a down year is that they will only get to an All-Ireland semi-final or final, instead of stomping the snot out of everyone in sight. There are GAA men up and down Ireland who would sacrifice their first born on Moloch’s smoking altar to have the county team still kick football when the pilgrims come down off the Reek. For Kerry, that sort of stuff doesn’t register.

The worst thing is, of course, it’s true. Anyone who doubts Kerry’s ability to get over retirements and emigration issues is someone who is deeply unfamiliar with Gaelic Football and the Kerry ethos. When Darragh Ó Sé retired, he simply remarked that the jersey would be there after him. The struggle goes ever on for them.

Tommy Walsh and the Slugger Kenneally may be upside down on the other side of the world but Kerry’s hopes have not gone down the dunny with them. The fact that Mike McCarthy has been coaxed back into the lists indicates that both he and Jack O’Connor think Sam is within their grasp once more. Why else would McCarthy bother?

Cork are favourites with the bookies, fluttering between 2/1 and 5/2, slightly ahead of Kerry at 11/4 or threes in spots. But there is a profound lack of value in betting on Cork because we have no evidence to say that Cork have dealt with their choking issues.

Kerry getting ambushed some sunny Saturday evening in Derry or Omagh mightn’t even save Cork, because it’s only by slaying the demon that Cork can truly purge their issues. That is the single biggest thing they have to face. Cork are spoiled with players, but the best team is not always the best players. There is no value in betting on Cork until we are sure their heads are right.

It’s hard to have full faith in Tyrone, who have lost the lean and hungry look that brought them those three All-Irelands in the last decade. There are good minors on the way, but they’re not there yet and football has become so physical that minors tend to get smashed to bits if they’re brought onto the senior Championship team too early. It’s hard to back Tyrone with any degree of confidence.

Dublin are never a good price because of the population that back the Dubs even if they were playing the New York Yankees at baseball. The price is always skewed by money on come what may. But when it comes to choking, Dublin are right up there with Cork and Mayo and Derry. No value here.

And then the prices start getting big, and you think: God, it is looking like a weak Championship this year alright. Cork, Kerry, maybe Tyrone, then the rest. But the Championship is still a knockout competition come August, and anybody who’s still alive come the last eight is in with a chance.

In recent years, there’s been a semi-final team who were not expected. Meath last year and in 2007. Wexford in 2008. Mayo 2006. Being in the last four is not an impossible dream for anybody. The problem is being sufficiently big-time to seize the day.

With Kerry and Cork locked in their own private duel there’s a chance for a team to sneak into that semi-final spot and after that they are only 140 minutes away from Sam. Of the contenders, it’s hard to put money on Derry, Donegal or Down as they flattered to deceive in the past. Down and Armagh played a fantastic Division 2 final and Armagh have, in Steven McDonnell, one of the true giants of the game.

But as far as An Spailpín is concerned, the best bet to blow the Championship wide open is Joe Kernan’s Galway.

The poor mouth emanating from New York last week is to be taken with a pinch of salt. No reason to believe that Galway couldn’t smush New York any time they wanted; which is exactly what happened in the end, of course, as Padraic Joyce did what he does.

The hammering suffered by Galway in the first game of the League in Castlebar is the most foolish gold of all. There was a profile of Galway in the Sunday Times of March 21st that was very instructive.

Galway have a very scientific training regime going on at the minute, using a Stat Sports GPS tracking system to monitor heart rate, distance covered, pace and hits taken. They cared very little for that game back in February. But come June and a game against either Sligo or Mayo, Galway will be roaring like bulls. If they can get enough possession to feed their forwards, they will do damage. And at 18/1 best price for Sam with Boyle sports, they are not a bad bet to find that semi-final sweet spot and who knows what may happen then. Other than laying off on Cork and Kerry, of course.

Mayo preview coming up tomorrow. Dia is Muire linn.

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Moleskine Passions

It is a source of continuing regret to your correspondent that his handwriting fails to live up to the Moleskine notebooks in which he writes.

An Spailpín’s handwriting is a horrible, beastly thing, while the Moleskine notebook is a creation of exquisite beauty. If you can image Miss Kiera Knightley dressed as Mrs Hilda Ogden, late of Coronation Street, you can sense the incongruity.

Moleskines are pretentious, certainly. They may have been used by Hemingway and Van Gogh when those boys were on the earth but if they cost then what they do now I’m pretty sure Ernie and Vinnie would have bought in the stationary section in Tesco instead.

But for a stationary enthusiast, Moleskine notebooks are an essential indulgence. An Spailpín uses four of things: A daily dairy, started in 2007 as a sneaky means of keeping my Irish fresh; an address book, a small day to day notebook, as favoured by Hamlet, prince of Denmark (“look, I’ll set it down in my book”) that not even the iPhone’s excellent notes app can do away with, and a slightly larger notebook in which to plan bigger projects. One notebook per plan of world domination, dated on commencement.

Moleskine notebooks are gorgeous, and were just perfect. For your eagle-eyed diarist noted a display in Hodges Figgis recently that suggests some pointy-head in the Morketing Deportment thought it was time to justify an existence, and now Moleskine have a new range of notebooks that cause your Spailpín no little distress.

Moleskine Passions are regular Moleskine notebooks, but aimed at particular demographics. And this is where it gets tricky.

Recipe and wine books are fine by An Spailpín. Utterly useless to him personally, of course, as An Spailpín is dog rough, but he respects those who are into that sort of thing. Women, I believe, is the collective noun.

Recipe books have been kept for millennia, and it’s nice to have a pretty one. Two thumbs up for the wine and recipe Moleskine passions.

The book, film and music passions are much more tricky, because they encourage people who are precious to be so to the nth degree. If you have an opinion on a book, a film or a piece of music then please tell your friends. Share the opinion.

Opinions only count when they’re shared. Otherwise, they’re like John Gray’s friends in the country churchyard, born to bloom unseen. If you have no friends, that’s fine. You can always start a blog and share opinions that way. You wouldn’t be the first.

But if you’re just putting your thoughts and feelings into a journal that only you yourself will read you are pulling the horizons of the great world down around your ears, and confining them to an A6 page. And that’s no way to live. Go, tell it on the mountain. For God’s sake don’t write your opinion down only to seal it with lead like it was radioactive.

Aughrim is lost at the final journal. It pains An Spailpín to break bad news always, but the final Moleskine Passion is for people to write down their passion about “Wellness.”

An Spailpín’s home dictionary of choice is the tenth edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, published in 2002. It defines 240,000 words and phrases, none of which are the world “wellness.”

This is because there is no such thing. “Wellness,” insofar as it means anything in its current use, means healthy. Nothing else. But they can’t use healthy, because you can’t sell snake-oil as healthy. Healthy is boring, like taking exercise and not stuffing yourself with buns.

But once you get into the Wellness business, then you can see the punters kicking down the shop doors loooking for crystals, oom chanters, bones for throwing, colonic irrigation paraphernalia and every other sort of knick-knack and geegaw that exists at the very bottom of the chest of every huckster, crawthumper and charlatan in the land.

An Spailpín will continue to keep his dialann and hopes someday that his handwriting will once again match his stationary. But a wellness journal I shall not keep while I retain either health of sanity. Moleskine ought to be ashamed of themselves.

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