Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The So-Called Weaker Counties

“It’s hard to know what either county got out of this,” reflected Colm Parkinson on Newstalk after Mayo wiped out Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final on Sunday. Parkinson went on to remark that the current competitive structure is unfair, and that there ought to be a competition for the so-called weaker counties to play in while the top brass went on to contest the All-Ireland series.

There are odds of a gobstopper against a ticket to Australia on Martin Breheny doing a why-oh-why on this very topic in Wednesday’s Indo. After all, all he has to do is change the names and the dates. It’s what you’d call your perennial.

There is once group of voices that are always silent in this, and it is that of the so-called weaker counties themselves. Part of this could be pride, of course; nobody wants to break ranks and say I’m hurting, please give me the salve of an Intermediate Competition. A Baby Sam.

Then again, it’s reasonable to think that if the so-called weaker wanted such a competition they would have organised one by now among themselves. It’s not like you have to play in the All-Ireland football Championship. Kilkenny don’t, and Clare withdrew from the Senior Football Championship for a year or two after the infamous Milltown Massacre of 1979.

So maybe – and this is only a guess now – maybe the so-called weaker counties are playing in the Senior Championship, even though the prospect of a day like Sunday is very real at all times, because they want to. Maybe they think pride in the jersey is bigger than winning or losing.

It’d certainly make for an interesting Connacht Final in a few weeks’ time if Parkinson’s suggestions were implemented, and the so-called weaker counties were saved from themselves. Sligo are currently in the Connacht Final but they’ve only ever won three Nestor Cups in their history, just one more than Leitrim. And Mayo is a hot four to one on to retain the Connacht title.

Better to protect Sligo, and the delicate sensibilities of the Commentariat, and have Sligo delicately shunted into some competition played out of harm’s way in Carlingford or somewhere. The 2012 Connacht Final could then simply be awarded to Mayo in a walkover, by right of noble birth, or Mayo’s fellow super-power Galway could be plucked from the qualifiers to play in the Connacht Final instead. That way, we could all pretend that Sligo didn’t upset any apple carts at all by forgetting their station and sending the aristocrats of Galway to the guillotine by the very own seaside on the 9th of June.

Hard to see anyone from Sligo buying that two-bed apartment.

An assumption seems to have become widespread in recent years – and the RTÉ pundits have played a big part in spreading it – that the football Championship is falling to bits. Teams in Munster and Connacht don’t get enough games. Teams in Ulster and Leinster get too many. Teams in the qualifiers have an advantage over the provincial champions. The provincial champions have an advantage over the teams in the qualifiers. I don’t like it when it’s hot, I don’t like it when it’s not. Wah, wah, wah.

This childish level of analysis obscures the truth about the Championship and the true nature of the thing. It is this. The Championship is not a professional sports competition. If it were, there would be the Champions League style format and relegation/promotion and a transfer market and games on Sky and equality and maybe even cheerleaders and hot dogs.

The Championship is a cultural competition first and a sporting competition second. Yes, there is a Champion every September and yes, games are played but the true worth of the Championship is in its recognition of place and that all counties are held in equal esteem.

Whether the land is arable, pasture or slathered in concrete, whether they have hills or mountains or lakes, all counties have a day when they send their best to represent the people of that county.

The teams march behind the bands to say we are from this place; this place has helped to make us what we are, and we would not have it any other way. What happens after the band disperses and the ball is thrown in secondary to the expression pride of place, identity, history and culture that the Championship uniquely provides.

Declan Browne reflects the true heart of the GAA. Browne realised that his Tipperary birth was worth more to him than a cupboard of medals with somewhere that was not Tipp. For Browne, medals were temporary but the Premier was forever.

Players come and go, games are forgotten and heroes grow old but pride of place goes on and is passed on, through good times and bad, highs and lows, boom and bust. The people who realise that are the true All-Ireland Champions. Mo dhúchas, abú.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Mayo Championship Preview 2012

Mayo have been to six quarter-finals in eleven years. They have won three of them, and then won two out of three resulting semi-finals.

That record puts Mayo in the elite of the country. Twenty counties that have appeared in the quarter-finals since the Qualifiers were introduced in 2001. Fourteen of those twenty have gone on to the semi-finals, nine have gone on to the All-Ireland Final and six have won it, with Meath, Mayo and Down the only counties to not close the deal having gone that far. Meath and Down both won in the ‘90s, and the lustre still lingers. Mayo are cut no such slack.

Those five finals lost over eleven years mean that for the Mayo public only Sam will do. This is the county’s most sustained spell of success since the 1950s, if not even the 1930s. But the teams of the 1930s and 1950s sealed the deal in September, and that makes a difference.

Which is bad news for James Horan. Getting to the semi-final last year and beating Cork was no mean achievement. If he wins the All-Ireland he’ll never buy his own porter again in the County Mayo, but if he just goes one better than last year, winning a semi but then losing the final, it’ll be seen as worse as not having got out of Connacht at all. It’s what they call a lose-lose situation.

It’s also Horan’s curse that both Galway and Roscommon have been knocked out of the Championship before Mayo kick a ball in anger. Mayo will be the very last team out of the traps when they face Leitrim in Castlebar this Sunday. The presence of either Galway, sprung from the long grass, or Roscommon, young Turks eager to restore their county’s fallen reputation, would help concentrate Mayo’s minds on business.

Instead, they face two counties that have five Connacht titles between them – two for Leitrim, three for Sligo. Mayo beat Cork because Cork were complacent last year and now stand in real danger of being beaten themselves by not taking the opposition seriously enough.

Leitrim were disappointing last year against Roscommon and, to the best of my knowledge, have yet to win a game in the Qualifiers (although they did scare Meath one year in Carrick). That said, they have a solid freetaker in Emyln Mulligan who can turn the screw on Mayo if they get sloppy at the back. Some people think that a good challenge is what Mayo need. Mayo actually need to destroy Leitrim, as quickly and as ruthlessly as possible, if they mean business for the year.

Sligo are a profound danger in the Connacht Final. These are golden years for Sligo football – a quarter-final place in 2002, where it took all the might of the eventual Champions to beat them, their third Connacht title on a wet day in 2007, and 2010, the one that got away and the one that, if it doesn’t haunt Sligo in every waking minute, it ought to.

Sligo’s goal for the year should be to win a quarter-final on the August Bank Holiday weekend. This Sligo generation deserves that. If that quarter-final place comes at Mayo’s expense in the Connacht Final, so much the sweeter. For Mayo, losing two Connacht Championship games in a row to Sligo is unthinkable – just as Sligo thought losing to Roscommon in 2010 was unthinkable. Bad things happen when you take your eye off the ball.

And all that being said, Mayo are still worthy favourites to win the Connacht title and do well in August – the form line is clearly there. Not only that, but it’s entirely possible that this could be The Year for Mayo.

The defence is as settled as it’s been since the 1990s, with not only quality in every position but choices should an accident occur. Aidan O’Shea has come into his kingdom as Mayo’s Football God, and the half-forward line has some of the best players on the team.

It’s the inside line that could break Horan’s heart. Last year, it failed to quite deliver on its promise and, in his efforts to rebuild it this year during the League, the full forwards seems to have slipped away. It’s still possible that it could gel as the Championship rolls out but Horan, and the county, would sleep better if the wearers of shirts 13, 14 and 15 were as obvious now as the single digits are.

What Horan and Mayo have to remember is they don’t have to be perfect. All-Irelands aren’t withheld in years where a certain standard isn’t reached – they’re handed out every year to the team that was just that bit ahead of the rest at five to five on the third September. The single best thing Mayo could do is to give themselves a break, believe in themselves and let their football do the talking.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Singing When You're Losing

What is the correct reaction to certain and inevitable destruction? The answer is at the heart of the current spat over Roy Keane’s sing-song comments after the Irish soccer team’s annihilation at Spanish hands on Thursday night.

It’s not clear that this question is fundamental, as there are certain bottles of smoke over the issue. The hurt felt at the humiliation of defeat. The persons who’ve waited in the long grass to soften Trapattoni’s cough for him.

And the ghosts of Saipan, who have never been put to rest. All the old wounds bled fresh, with the interesting twist of a certain wizened commentator who has, not for the first time, changed sides when it suits him in his never-ending climb to the top of the stairs – the imp of the banisters, if you like.

But these are all false gods. It wasn’t really humiliating. It only felt that way. The 75% of people who responded to an RTÉ poll predicting an Irish result were kidding themselves. The Irish were 14/1 to beat Spain, the highest odds of any team at the European Championships ever. Ireland’s odds on a result against Spain were the same as the odds of a piggy revolt at the Roscrea Bacon Factory. Very long indeed.

And that’s an important point. You can only be defeated if you have a chance to win in the first place. The Republic of Ireland soccer team had no chance in the world against Spain. There’s nowhere to hide in professional sport – the Irish team is drawn from West Bromich Albion, Stoke, Wolves and other dregs of the English Premier League. The Spanish team is the combined power of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Mr Nail, meet Mr Hammer.

A heartbroken Liam Brady, a patriot who wears his heart on his sleeve always, remarked after the game that most of the Irish team, because of the teams they play in, will never have encountered  players so much better than them before. They don’t play in the Champions League, and Manchesters United and City can beat them with their second XIs. Asking Ireland to keep it kicked out to Spain was like running a Ford Cortina in the Monaco Grand Prix.

The Republic of Ireland’s game against Spain was an exercise in the Kobayashi Maru – a no-win scenario. Roy Keane was right to criticise the players – it’s been Ireland’s best players who have been at fault in Euro 2012, cruel irony – but he was wrong to criticise the supporters singing. The supporters knew that they were never going to win, but for some psychotic reason their nostrils flair and chests fill out at tricolours flying on an international stage, and Ireland having a place among the nations of the earth. Let the players worry about the game. The supporters’ role is different to that.

Take it closer to home. Kilkenny get a lot of criticism from hurling counties for the single-minded devotion to hurling, and some people wonder if Kilkenny’s hurling imperium exists at the cost of their county footballers. Kilkenny doesn’t field a team in the All-Ireland football Championship, and they are the only county not to do so.

But suppose they did. Suppose they said, ok, we’ll give it a shot. And suppose there was an open draw in Leinster and Kilkenny drew Dublin in Croke Park, in a double-header with Offaly and Wexford.

Butchery would be no name for it. It wouldn’t be so much Gaelic football as something out of Nero’s Coliseum. And suppose, as Dublin hammered the hapless cats into the Croke Park dirt, you heard, rising from the stands and the Canal End, the first strains of the Rose of Mooncoin? While the Brogans ran riot through the Kilkenny defense, all you could hear was Flow on, lovely river, flow gently along…

Would you think the Kilkenny fans losers cheering a team of losers, or would you think them patriots, for whom the black and amber is their eternal banner, through good times and bad?

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

We Must Teach Economics as a Core Subject in Schools

Every now and again someone in public life likes to pound the table and declare that the absence of this subject or that subject is a blight on the Irish education system. Some people think the children should be taught how to play a musical instrument. Some think it would be something of a miracle to get the little monsters to read and/or write, to say nothing of asking them to bang out sonatas on the piano. And so the long day wears on.

The latest to enter the lists is Senator Professor John Crown, who got busy on the Twitter machine over the weekend. The Senator is concerned about a certain level of scientific ignorance in the general population, remarking that “high levels of scientific ignorance in a society are very dangerous.” He went on say that “every person should do science in school right up to school leaving age,” on the basis that precise analytical skills will stand to students in their adult lives.

And that’s very laudable, of course. It would be lovely if people were more scientifically minded. Unfortunately, right now the nation cannot afford it. We cannot afford it in terms of money but more importantly, we cannot afford it in terms of time.

If any mathematically based subject should be brought front and centre in Irish education right now it isn’t science. It is economics.

Last week the sovereign Irish nation allowed the state to ratify the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union done at Brussels on the 2nd day of March 2012. All the evidence is that this was a blind vote on the nation’s behalf.

The nation voted on a Treaty that it didn’t understand, and that couldn’t be explained to it in the time frame given. The level of economic literacy needed to understand the arguments about the worth or otherwise of the Treaty doesn’t exist in the general populace.

What’s going on currently in Europe is extremely complex. Because of our history, we are brought up with the notion that states are formed because of nationhood – that no-one can set a boundary on the march of a nation, as Parnell put it.

But states can be formed for economic benefit too, and that is what is currently happening in Europe. A common language and culture is fine in a state, but what really butters the parsnips in a state is a common currency.

One of the reasons that the Euro failed is because it was created without the protections that exist for other, “proper” currencies – a central government and a central bank that regulates the flow of currency. One of the results of the referendum, of the establishment of the EU Stability treaty and the Spanish banks sliding slowly and surely to their doom, is that the European Central Bank is now being built, brick by brick, with the European Government to follow.

What that means in Ireland is referenda a go-go. Matt Cooper outlined this position in the Sunday Times and his article makes for distressing reading. More and more referenda will come down the line and each one will, by definition, trade sovereignty for economic benefit. And each referendum will be more and more fraught, for two reasons. The first is because sovereignty was so hard won in the first place and the second reason is because people genuinely don’t understand the economics of what’s happening.

One of early reactions to the Treaty vote was to identify a clear class division in Ireland, between a pro-austerity middle class and an anti-austerity working class. But is that true? Does the electorate understand how all this works? Are they sufficiently informed to make a judgment? Do the people really understand the full implications of austerity, the alternatives to austerity or the possibility of implementing one of the other?

Chances are they don’t. Economics isn’t taught as a core subject in Irish schools and it really ought to be. Generations have grown up and gone into the world without ever fully understanding just how money makes it go round.

Why is the West richer than the East? The West is richer than the East because the West is better able to generate money through borrowing and lending with banks. The East has a religious object to usury – there is no such problem in the West. Banks create wealth in a capitalist economy.

Why did the British Empire triumph and the Spanish Empire fall? The sinking of the Spanish Armada in 1588 certainly, but also because the British were so much better at trading. All the gold the Spanish looted from South America became worth less and less, because money is a measure of worth, and not actual wealth in and of itself.

That’s how the modern world was created, but most people don’t know it because it’s not taught in school.

It would be lovely if all subjects were taught in school. It would be lovely if the state could produce a population that saw all forms of knowledge as having their own particular merit. But in modern Ireland, the nation is being lost through lack of economic understanding. If it must be a choice between science and economics, the best bet is to follow the money.