Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Sporting Year: Review and Preview

Hurling is a game in crisis. The League doesn’t matter to anyone, and the Championship has so very few meaningful games. Even worse, not only is hurling not growing in the non-traditional (football) counties but the ancient game is in clear and visible decline in counties that are not only considered hurling powers, but that have won or contested All-Ireland finals in the past fifteen years. None of this is good.

And despite this litany of disaster, hurling still provided the greatest sporting moment of the year when Tipperary overcame Kilkenny in a game done scant justice by such weak adjectives as epic, magisterial, unforgettable, monumental. The 2010 hurling final showcased everything that is great about hurling, right down to the post-match singing of the Galtee Mountain Boy, singing that showed exactly what makes the GAA great – the perfect synergy of people, place and culture.

What this means for hurling in 2011 and beyond your correspondent cannot say, not being a hurling man, other than to remark that if this is ever lost, there will be a hole in the country’s soul that can never be filled.

The football final was not as good, but the football Championship was outstanding. The Championship started as an exclusive club where twenty-nine teams were warm-up acts for a Big Three, but Down reminded everybody with eyes to see that the great prize is there to be won by those who dare, rather than ceded by those who dare not. Small consolation to them as they lost their first ever football final, but a beacon to the rest of the country.

We will hear a lot in the first six months of next year about how that beacon shines for Dublin, something that annoys the country outside the pale more than somewhat, and does the least service of all to Dublin and Dublin GAA. This isn’t because of hype – talk is cheap, after all – but because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the game.

If Dublin are to survive using their new system, they will revolutionise Gaelic football with their three man forward line and twelve backs. An Spailpín Fánach doesn’t believe this tactic will work, but it is certainly going to be one of the stories of the year. Until the system is found out.

2011 bubbles with anticipation. Can Mickey Harte build a Tyrone 2.0 as the new generations comes through and his great servants retire one by one? Can Cork push on or was this the last hurrah for the weight of their panel? Can Sligo recover from their shattering Connacht Final loss? Have Roscommon finally turned a corner after a decade of misery? How much longer can Padraic Joyce carry Galway?

Every country has its narrative. James Horan’s first Mayo team will line out against Leitrim in Ballinamore on January 9th. An Spailpín hopes to be there. The road goes ever on.

In rugby, after reports of their demise were greatly exaggerated some years ago, the Golden Generation are finally gathered in the Last Chance Saloon. Declan Kidney’s mission for 2011 is to nurse them to the World Cup in October, and a last hurrah in a World Cup quarter-final. To get to a semi-final, something Ireland have never done, would be an outstanding achievement, and a fitting finale to several careers.

And possibly the last hurrah for quite some years; despite what the IRFU-istas write and would have you believe in the papers, the future is not bright. Scotland is on the rise, the deep and unaddressed flaw in the system that sees players not being developed because it makes better short-term sense to buy foreign props or stand-off halves, and the sheer weight of English and French money make the future challenging in the extreme for Irish rugby. It was fun while it lasted.

The World Cup was terrible for anyone outside of Spain. It would have been impossible to believe twenty years ago, but the World Cup itself may be in danger. Newsweek’s respected political columnist Jonathan Alter tweeted earlier this year that Qatar paid €7,500,000 per vote to stage the World Cup in 2022. It’s the only way the thing can be understood. The super clubs are on the rise and international soccer is on the decline. This is the future.

And finally – Irish sports lost their voice this year when Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh announced his retirement. His like will not be seen again, but there is hope for the future. It’s not likely, but maybe now wouldn’t be a bad time to get the ball rolling.

RTÉ Radio ought to try a little lateral thinking and appoint Seán Bán Breathnach of Raidió na Gaeltachta as their chief Gaelic Games commentator. Hector Ó hEoghagáin tweeted about this before Christmas, and it’s the only way. SBB is an outstanding commentator and, while English is his second language, Seán Bán is considerably more fluent and passionate in English than some of the current RTÉ men with microphones. The campaign begins here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Christmas to All, from An Spailpín Fánach

Another year of horrors, from IMF bailouts to Mayo losing in the Championship to Sligo and Longford. Thank God there's anyone still left here at all. To celebrate the season, here's wonderful Renée Fleming singing Schubert's Ave Maria. Nollaig shona daoibh uilig, agus go mbéirfimid go léir beo ag an am seo arís.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Doctor Who Christmas Special

An Spailpín Fánach is unlikely to be alone in considering the Doctor Who Christmas Special a Christmas TV highlight. But to really understand the appeal of the long-running TV show, it’s more instructive to look back to the summer, when the Doctor Who Prom was held in the Albert Hall.

The wonderful thing about Doctor Who Prom is that music from the TV series can be used as a way of introducing children to orchestral, actual, music, as opposed to the unspeakable X-Factor and its vile spawn. But this summer, there was an extra twist at the Royal Albert Hall: they brought along monsters from the TV show.

Highlights from the Prom were broadcast in September and it was wonderful to see the reaction of the kids as the monsters suddenly clanked, glided and slithered down the stars, as appropriate.

The ideal audience for Doctor Who are not internet saddos. They are children, from about age seven to eleven, and those lucky souls who remember what it was like to be that age.

The great thing about being aged between seven and eleven is that you’re old enough to tell the difference between a grocer and a goblin, but you’re still innocent enough to believe that there are such things as goblins and spooks and weirdies in the first place.

And even though you know there really aren’t any monsters under the bed and the creaking in the house is just the wind – well, maybe it isn’t. Maybe this time it really is the sound the advance craft of Admiral Zozo and his Martian fleet landing in the garden, and it’s now down to you to save the Earth. Maybe. You never can tell, and there’s no point in taking a chance when the future of the entire planet is in danger.

And that duality, between having being told by your parents that there are no such things as Daleks or Cybermen or Venetian vampires, and then actually those crazy chicks in the white dresses gliding down the stairs in the Royal Albert Hall with those gobs full of pointy teeth – well, I don’t know about you adults, but I’m going to keep my two eyes on them and I advise you against making any sudden movements, or else it could be curtains for the lot of us.

And that’s the joy of Doctor Who. People who should know better have tried to load the show up with a lot of sturm und drang but it’s all my hat. If you want Schopenhauer, read Schopenhauer. Leave fighting the Death Lizards of Megalon 7 to the professionals.

This is something that the current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat understands absolutely. He’s said that he decides on what goes on the show according to whether or not he thinks it’ll scare the bejabbers out of his kids. Once it does, it stays in the show. How perfect.

The Doctor Who Christmas episodes have been a mixed bag since they were introduced for David Tennant’s debut, with Tennant’s exit and the Kylie one being particularly weak. This year’s seems rather similar to a story by Chas. Dickens in its inspiration, but no matter. It’ll be wonderful for an hour. Christmas is a good time for Doctor Who. Who is Santa after all, but another traveller in time and space? Just like a Time Lord, in fact. Oh hold on ...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Horse Outside vs. Frank Kelly's Christmas Countdown

Whatever they do when they take those bags off their heads, whatever paths their future lives may take, the Rubberbandits will never mine so rich a strain of inspiration, or resonate with so many people, as they have this Christmas with Horse Outside.

If that sounds a little limiting, it’s not. Most people don’t achieve in a lifetime of creation what the Rubberbandits have achieved in the three minutes and fifty-one seconds of Horse Outside.

The difference between their weekly output on late night TV and Horse Outside is the difference between water and whiskey. The bridesmaid is impossibly glamorous, the chief Rubberbandit dances like Michael Jackson, the lyrics are equally piquant and hilarious and the whole thing is carried off with such brio that you’re just swept away.

Listening to Horse Outside and hearing talk of a Christmas No 1 brought An Spailpín back to another Christmas record of the past. Frank Kelly wrote a parody of The Twelve Days of Christmas in 1983 that was a big hit at the time and even saw him make an appearance on Top of the Pops.

The idea was that Gobnait O’Lunacy, Kelly’s everyman character stretching back to his days on Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, is writing thank-you notes to his girlfriend, Nuala. Nuala sends the gifts mentioned in the song to Gobnait and his mother on each of the twelve days and Gobnait replies, each letter growing more exasperated as the wildlife grows more difficult to control in the house.

Kelly’s Christmas Countdown is much more gentle than the Rubberbandits’ Horse Outside. Gobnait lives with his mother and his girlfriend’s name is Nuala. If Gobnait bought a horse, he would use cash money, rather than a bag of yokes and the barter system.

While the Rubberbandits swear the house down Kelly limits himself to parliamentary language, but it works well for him “You have scandalised my mother, you dirty Jezebel ... listen, slurry-head!” “Slurry-head” remains one of An Spailpín’s favourite insults – although, sadly, your correspondent is much more likely to chose the Rubberbandit vocabulary when exasperated, having gone to the town school.

It’s a mistake to read too much meaning into novelty songs. Joyce got away with it for Finnegan’s Wake but he was an exceptional case. That said, it’s undeniable that each song holds a mirror up to its age and society.

Frank Kelly’s song is set in an Ireland that’s before the fall of the church, with poverty, middle-aged men living with their mothers and the that small-town-as-the-universe feel. Horse Outside is recognisably today, with people who don’t really care what’s going on so long as they can get wasted and have a good time. Celtic Tiger in excelsis.

Horse Outside is a much more vital song than the Christmas Countdown – it makes you want to get up and dance. But the fundamental engine of the song is what the Rubberbandit advises his rivals in love to do with their Mitsubishis, their Honda Civics and their Su-ba-ru. Good fun to make gang signs to and roar out when you’re twisted at the office party. But fundamentally cheap and a little bit nasty.

Again, it’s only a song. But what’s kind of sad is that there isn’t a counterbalance in the culture to the coarseness of it. The old-world civility of people who write thank-you notes, whose girlfriends are called Nuala but will never top Mammy in their boy’s affections.

There was a lot of repression and sadness in that Ireland, and lost potential and torn social fabrics. But it’s hard to think the Rubberbandits, inspired though they are, are progress.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

The Budget - Ireland Late to See the Big Picture

The two most famous budgets in Irish history are famous because of their detail. In yesterday’s budget, the detail didn’t matter at all.

Ernest Blythe took a shilling off the old age pension, a ten per cent reduction, in the late 1920s and was never forgiven for it. Blythe was a scholar and a patriot, but his name lives in infamy because of that one decision. John Bruton’s career was always haunted by a proposal to tax children’s shoes in 1982 in a budget that was never passed – the entire Government fell on that one detail.

And that’s the problem of Ireland in our history. There is no big picture economic thinking. We are eternally hung up on detail.

For the first eighty years of the state, there was no actual need for big picture thinking, because Ireland was so stony broke we didn’t have the loot to spend in the first place. The only time there was any money in the state was during the boom years, and where the big picture seemed to be: how quickly can we blow all this lovely dough?

Very quickly indeed, as it turns out. And that’s why the detail of the 2011 budget doesn’t matter. When the IMF arrived, we suddenly got to see the big picture for the fist time in our economic history.

When you’re being fed into the woodchipper, it doesn’t really matter whether you go in feet first of head first. It’s just a question of personal preference. You’re getting mulched either way.

We are now so broke that the only – the only – aim we have as a state is to get into a position where we can be indebted to the international bond markets rather than the ECB and the IMF. Everything else is window dressing. The money’s not there. It’s just not.

While the bailout rolls out and the state’s hands are effectively tied behind her back, it would be nice if we as a nation took the time to have a good think about who we are and who want to be. What we have, what we want and what we can afford. And if we could try, as the anniversary of 1916 looms, to give some vague impression that the dead generations from whom Ireland receives her old tradition of nationhood did not die in vain.

It’s gone beyond a question of toxic banks now. It’s a question of toxic states, a two-tier Europe or else a return to sterling and a much more resonant loss of sovereignty than all that old guff we heard from Pat Rabbitte and others in recent years.

The country is so deep in a hole we can barely see the top anymore, but claims that things can’t get worse are nonsense. Not only can they get worse, they’ve already been worse. And you don’t have to go back to Peig Sayers to find the evidence.

Why did the 1982 Government want to tax children’s shoes in the first place? Because they were concerned that women with small feet would buy children’s shoes, rather than women’s shoes, in order to save money.

Reader, when you can imagine the gossip columnists of the Sunday papers marching to the children’s section of Penny’s and then writing up a return to children’s t-bar sandals as a fashionista must-have, then you’ll know that all the icing is well gone from the cake. In the meantime, we take our medicine and hope to God that, as the IMF bailout runs its course, we’ll emerge wiser as well as older.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Asking Turkeys to Vote for Christmas - the Need for Political Reform

One of the gentlemen on Marian Finucane’s panel yesterday morning suggested that the people should vote very, very carefully the next time out, and vote for candidates who put the national interest ahead of the local interest.

Which is fine, if such candidates are on the ballot. But such candidates are very seldom on the ballot, because the system is set up to discriminate against them along every step of the way.

Irish politics is not ideological. It is local and tribal. You vote for the local man, who then goes to the tribal gathering known as Dáil Éireann, and returns on the Thursday evening train with goodies to reward the faithful. While the members of the other tribes look at the bonfires in the distance and wish that they had such a warrior who brought home such bounty. That is the system as it is, though we are loathe to admit it.

There is a theory that this exists only in rural – meaning backward – Ireland but An Spailpín reckons it’s deep in the bones of the Irish people. For instance, An Spailpín would be interested in a price on John Gormley retaining his seat in Dublin South East, a constituency noted for being as far from the backwoods as it’s possible to be.

Are there enough people in the constituency to note that, while he saved both stag and squirrel, Gormley was equally if not even more busy in defending his constituency against that nasty incinerator at Ringsend? An Spailpín reckons there are. Time will tell.

Your correspondent is most familiar with Mayo of course, and that scared land currently serves as an excellent example of the dilemma that people are in once it comes to casting a vote in the current system. Do you vote locally or do you vote nationally?

Local needs clarification here. Local does not mean Mayo; local means Ballina, Castlebar, Westport, Belmullet, Ballinrobe, Ballyhaunis, Claremorris. Mayo is a huge county and is not one tribe. It is a number of tribes, all in competition with each other for what its warriors may bring back from the Great Gathering of the Tribes that is Dáil Éireann.

There is currently talk of Dara Calleary’s, Fianna Fáil’s bright young man on the national stage, seat being in trouble. The revealing thing about this is the question of where will Calleary’s vote go? The chances are it will elected Fine Gael’s Michelle Mulherin, which the big scoreboard sees as a shift to Fine Gael.

But it’s not. Michelle only gets the vote because she’s also from Ballina. If Fine Gael did not have as strong a candidate as Michelle in Ballina, there is no guarantee that those disillusioned voters would go to her.

The party doesn’t matter. The tribe does. The resulting party alignments in the Dáil are nearly co-incidental to the deals done on the ground that get people elected in the first place. Not quite, of course, but you couldn’t tell me that Noel O’Flynn of Fianna Fáil and Michael Ring of Fine Gael share more characteristics than they have differences. The only separator is geography. The only separator.

Twenty years ago, Mayo was divided in two three-seat constituencies, Mayo East and Mayo West. Ballina was in Mayo East, Castlebar was in Mayo West and a half-hour drive from one to the other showed you exactly what having a local man in a position of power could do. The roads around Castlebar were first world, the roads around Ballina third world. So much so, in fact, that in the mid-nineties some tourist brochure described Ballina as being “only a fifteen minute minute drive from a main road.”

That’s the system. Political scientists don’t like to identify as such between elections, but when the psephologists number-crunch during the election note that they pay very close attention to where the ballot are from as they are being opened. So Beverly Flynn getting re-elected isn’t a mystery – Castlebar people voted for the Castlebar candidate. Simple as that. The rest was just white noise to them.

If people are to vote for the national interest then the voting system must prevent them for following the first rule of all living creatures, which is self-preservation. The system as it currently stands implores the voter at the next election not to vote on who will govern and how, but on whether the hospital near them or one far away with get closed. Because if you don’t vote local then the other fella will, and you get hanged. And it’s far too near Christmas for people to volunteer as turkeys.

Political reform now.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Dublin Cabbie Dreams of the Dear Old Days Gone By

Sunday evening in snowy Dublin, and An Spailpín Fánach is on his way home from the rugby. I hail a cab on Shelbourne Road and direct the chariot to the Northside. Off we go.

We go past the turn off Pearse Street for the new bridge but An Spailpín passes no remarks. Opinions vary about being quicker along the quays or up the NCR. Nothing’s going to be quick today as the snow falls relentlessly. An Spailpín isn’t too bothered.

And then the cabbie gets talking. Was I at the rugby? How much were the tickets? Jaysus, that’s a lot to pay for a ticket. Well, I mean to say!

And he had a point. An Spailpín got them half-price, thanks to a deal run by the pragmatic Leinster Branch during the week, but the cover price of ninety Euros was shocking. No questions there.

The driver has moved on to the weather as we crawl up Pearse Street. I remark that the Nitelinks were cancelled on Saturday, leaving the citizens – whom Dublin Bus is meant to serve, after all – high and not-so-dry in the snow on Saturday night.

“Ah yeah,” says my man. “It was just like the good old days. I was doing Connolly Station, around there, and you could see the people going up the North Strand looking for a cab to get home.”

It's like listening to The Wolf wondering why Little Red Riding Hood didn’t come around here no more. I remember those good old days too, queuing for hours with drunks and ne’er-do-wells at College Green. We had made it to Tara Street by now, and were at a dead stop.

“This looks bad,” said the charioteer. “Will we go up Gardiner Street? What do you think?”

“Hold on,” replied your correspondent, hackles raised nicely. “If we were going up Gardiner Street, why didn’t we go across the new bridge? What’s the point in looping around?”

“Well, there’s a slope on Gardiner Street. I was worried about getting stuck, and I didn’t think the quays would be this bad.”

And I’ve got a mug here who’ll shell out ninety bills for a rugby ticket and fancies a tour of the docks, suspects the cynical Spailpín Fánach.

“A slope? On Gardiner Street? Look, you’re right. We’d better not chance it. Let me out here.”

The taxi-driver is shocked by this. “Are you sure? I don’t mind.”

“I know well you don’t mind,” said An Spailpín Fánach, the truest word uttered by either of us during the trip, “but I don’t want to take a chance with that oul’ slope. I’m better off taking a bus.”

I got out at Beresford Place, paid him his legal due, and left a €0.00 tip. And then I trudged on through the sludge and snow, west and north in the city on the way home. Yet strangely content all the same, thinking of the dear old days of the Dublin taxi driver and how, whatever else happens, those days are gone forever and will have no tears shed after them.