Suffer the little children from overzealous coaches

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On a glorious Sunday morning last October, one of those days where there is nowhere else you’d rather be than by the side of a soccer pitch, I was coaching my son Abe’s Under-13 soccer team. With about five minutes gone in the game, one of the opposing strikers broke through. He was bearing down on goal when our sweeper tried and failed to bring him down. As the boy stayed on his feet and had just the keeper to beat, the referee played advantage. His subsequent shot flew narrowly wide and that’s when the opposing coach jumped up.

“Next time he does that to you, you punch him in the face,” he roared at the top of his voice, veins bulging in his neck, eyes popping. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so serious and so normal around here. The coach received a yellow card from the ref and play resumed. No big deal.

A couple of weeks later, we were 2-1 down against one of the better teams in our league. For most of the second half, they battered us. Our keeper made a few good saves. Our defenders and midfielders performed heroics under severe pressure. As the final minute dawned, I was proud of how bravely we’d battled and relieved we were going to escape without a morale-sapping hiding. That was about the moment we lifted the siege. A couple of nifty passes were strung together and, totally against the run of play, we managed to grab an equaliser. The kids were thrilled and so was I.  Inevitably, the opposing coach wasn’t.

He ran onto the field as our boys were celebrating and shouted maniacally at his own team, “Horrible, that’s just horrible. How do you let that happen?” Hands gesticulating wildly, he was roaring this at 12 year olds who, as you can imagine, were already kind of gutted at conceding a late goal and turning what should have been a fully-deserved win into a draw that felt like a defeat. And he just kept at it.

When the final whistle went seconds later, he took his team into a corner of the field and berated them for another ten minutes as their parents watched and listened 20 yards away, none of them at all appalled by the spectacle. These fellows were 12, playing in the lower divisions of the Long Island Junior Soccer League. This is not elite sport. What is wrong with this picture?

I’ve asked that question a lot in recent months. More and more I’ve grown appalled by the behavior I witnessed from men charged with the job of coaching young boys. I’ve seen kids substituted for misplacing passes (surely page one in the “how not to teach the game” manual). I’ve seen a grown man take the ball out of an opposing 12 year old’s grasp on the touchline and kick it away in order to waste time while his team fought to preserve a “crucial” lead.

I’ve seen kids reduced to tears by the harsh comments of their own coaches and, more than once, those children happened to be suffering this abuse at the hands of their own fathers.  Half the time, the antics I’ve witnessed have been so outrageous that I’ve felt like laughing at the absurdity of it all. But, mostly, it just made me sad and disillusioned with the dreadful culture surrounding children’s sport in America.

So, when the autumn season ended prematurely because of SuperStorm Sandy, I made the decision to walk away from coaching soccer.  I’ve worked with kids for the past nine years and I’ve been with this particular squad of players since some of them were seven. I often thought I’d coach them all the way to Under-18s. But I’ve had enough.

I’ve had enough of the referees having to halt the games to ask the hyena parents to stop abusing the opposing kids. I’ve had enough of coming up against clipboard-holding clowns who think this is all way more important than it actually is. I’ve had enough of coaches who spend 95 per cent of every game shouting criticism rather than offering encouragement to their players. I’ve had enough of those who think winning a match involving 12 year olds is more important than giving every kid significant playing time and helping them develop basic skills.

Most of all, I’ve had enough of having to shake hands at the end of matches with opposing coaches I’d much rather punch some sense into. Not the beautiful game.
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Call me the Breezy Point cynic

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Just over three months ago, I huddled with my family on the unforgettable Sunday night that Hurricane Sandy blew through New York. We lost power for five days, we watched some of our neighbours have their houses torn in two, and I saw dozens of students whose lives have been turned upside down by the after-effects. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life, teaching me lessons about the relentless power of nature and the mindlessness of our modern obsession with so much triviality. When you’ve seen somebody lose their house, you never look at things quite the same again.

All of the above is why I sat up and took notice when I learned that a delegation from the Gaelic Players Association was in Breezy Point in Queens the other week, assisting with the ongoing attempts to rebuild that shattered community. Their arrival in the borough was timely. Many, especially beyond the tri-state area, have largely forgotten about the victims of Sandy. The Obama administration, which made political capital out of the disaster before the election, and plenty other politicians in Washington, are among those guilty of neglecting to help finish the job.

I saw the photographs of the players with hard hats on their heads, and I was, initially, very proud. I know a lot of them had visited the site of the devastation back in November and had been affected by it.

“The visit by the travelling GAA/GPA All-Stars to this extraordinary Irish-American community was a very moving experience last November,” said Donal Og Cusack on the GPA website. “We were invited out by the local people, to bring the Sam Maguire and help provide a boost to morale. However, when we got there we were taken aback by the extent of the devastation. We were equally inspired by the spirit of the community; there was a real sense of joy in seeing players arrive in the area. It was at that moment we resolved to return and provide some practical support to the reconstruction effort – and helping the local sports programme through our friend and community member Tim Devlin was, we felt, the best way to do that.”

So my first instinct was to look at this project and to think, here we have one more illustration of how the GAA is that bit more aware of its social role than other sports associations in Ireland. How noble of these men to give of their own time to help those who’ve suffered so much. Yet, I have to admit that a part of me was also troubled. That part of me wondered exactly why the GPA were in New York in the middle of winter, trying to assist with the effort to refurbish the Breezy Point Catholic club when they could have been in so many different places closer to home.

Maybe this says more about me than them but I had this nagging feeling their presence in the city may have had as much to do with the GPA’s expressed ambition to court Irish-American commercial interests as it did with true philanthropy. Remember, the reason they were over here in November was to host a dinner where they gave a bizarre award to Donald R. Keough, one-time President of The Coca-Cola Company. This is a country the GPA wants to make hay in. So, are my suspicions of their motives wrongheaded and harsh or an inevitable byproduct of the cynicism we all feel towards so much that happens in society?

The same week the GPA arrived in America, we had David Beckham touching down in Paris. Wasn’t our first instinct when the one-footed, one-paced wonder announced he was donating his Paris Saint Germain salary to charity to harrumph and point out that this charitable decision will do wonders for what is a floundering brand? Didn’t many of us regard it as a rather cynical move designed to win sympathy for a pathetic attempt to keep his playing career on life-support, long after he’s passed his sell-by debate?

While not lumping the honest amateurs of the GPA in with the most egregious example of style over substance in the history of sport, I just can’t help feeling there must be dozens of projects and communities around Ireland that need help right now. How many Irish boys and girls who frequent hurling and football clubs are going home from matches and training and heading to bed hungry at night? According a report last week, one in five school principals in Ireland claim more students than ever are arriving in school hungry.

Now, while it seems to be taboo to nitpick when people are doing something for charity, surely the question needs to be asked. Would the GPA be better served working on the behalf of hungry Irish kids or would the publicity benefits, especially in the American and Irish-American media, be so much less? Not to mention either there are dilapidated community centres and GAA clubs in every county that could do with a team from the GPA arriving in for the weekend to do some frantic refurbishing of the same kind they did so well in Breezy Point.

 

Now even if the GPA’s motives were a lot more high-minded than my low-brow suspicions, and I acknowledge some of the players involved have previously done sterling work on projects in Africa, there was something else really odd about this whole business. At a time when the nation is on its uppers, the Irish government donated $50,000 to help the rebuilding effort in Queens. Now, Breezy Point is not some shantytown in a third world country, it’s a neighbourhood in the hinterland of New York city, in the richest country on the planet.

The GPA are quite entitled to do whatever they want with their time and resources but, why in the name of all that is sensible is Brian Hayes, Minister for State in a nation on its knees, giving any money at all to an American community?

The legend of Ned Price – boxer, lawyer, playwright

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At a charity benefit for ex-boxers in a theatre in Newark, New Jersey in 1850, the master of ceremonies was struggling to find members of the public willing to get in the ring to spar with a gigantic African-American fighter named Molyneux. There was reluctance because every individual who had already braved the ropes ended up receiving a severe beating. Eventually, a man with an English accent stepped forward. The crowd oohed and aahed in anticipation of what a whipping this poor, unassuming volunteer might receive in this spectacle. They weren’t to know that this diffident character had once been a promising young middleweight back in London

“Don’t worry boy,” whispered the giant. “I won’t hurt you.”

The Englishman didn’t reply. He just smiled.

Two minutes of swift and dramatic combat later, the giant was flat on his back and the crowd were cheering for the unlikely hero, the fistic David who had put down the Goliath. Even though he didn’t know it then, 21 year old Ned Price had just taken the first steps in his professional boxing career….

More than half a century later, Price took ill suddenly at his law offices on Centre Street in Manhattan. As colleagues bundled him into a cab to take him to hospital, he died. When word reached Chinatown of his passing, locals quickly gathered on the street corners in large groups, animatedly discussing the news and weeping openly for the Englishman they loved as “Mleester Plice”.

“How many cases have I tried for you over the past 25 years, Tom?” asked Price of a Chinese friend one time.

“More than 1200,” replied Tom Lee, the unofficial mayor of Chinatown.

“And how many have I lost?” asked Price.

“Not a one,” answered his friend.

Although nobody knows if his win-loss record was really that pristine, there’s no question that the Chinese community in New York went into mourning at his passing.  Little wonder they did. They knew they had lost their own personal “human rights” lawyer, somebody willing to fight their corner in every court in the city, handling cases ranging from petty offences to criminal conspiracy on their behalf.

Between those two landmark events, Price led the most extraordinary life. He was a bricklayer by trade, a bareknuckle boxer by profession, a henchman for politicians in Civil War America, a lawyer immersed in Chinese American affairs, and a playwright whose work sold out theatres on Broadway and all across America. He also wrote one of the first training manuals for fighters, a book extant copies of which change hands for hundreds of dollars today. A forgotten figure in 19thcentury British sporting history, an Englishman who made a huge impact in America, Price never married and left behind a fortune worth nearly half a million dollars.

Born in Islington, North London in 1829, he began his travels when he accompanied his father George, a Welsh contractor, to northern France where the elder Price had signed on to build a section of the new railroad. There, Ned apprenticed as a bricklayer and also began picking up the various languages spoken by the other workers on the project. By the time, he arrived in America, he was reputedly fluent in French and Italian, linguistic skills that would come in handy in his new country, a place teeming with newly-arrived immigrants.

Following his boxing cameo in Newark, Price began training full-time and was soon getting into the ring with some of the biggest names of the bareknuckle era. However, the fight which would earn him a footnote in boxing history also proved to be his last competitive bout. On May 1st, 1856, he took on Joe Coburn from Ireland at Spy Pond outside Boston for the middleweight championship of America.

Although some eyewitnesses alleged referee Louis Bleral declared that contest a controversial draw to save himself the large sum he’d wagered on the outcome, all present testified that they received value for money.  Coburn and Price traded punches for, depending on which account you believe, 106 or 160 rounds. The placement of the zero scarcely matters. Either number captures the spirit of the time and the nature of the combat.

After a nearly four-hour epic that would go down in fistic lore, Price was so disgusted by the officiating and what he perceived as obvious corruption that he walked away from the ring. Using his flair for languages, he became an interpreter for the United States Circuit Court in Boston. There, he became embroiled in Democratic politics, and in 1860, he accompanied Benjamin Butler, a prominent Massachusetts legislator, to the Rump Convention where his job was to ensure his man came to no physical harm. He did this successfully and later moved on to Washington where he worked security at a hotel during the Civil War and studied law.

At the end of the war, he was called to the bar and the first client he took on was an African-American. That set the tone for a legal career which took him back to New York and into the service of those in that city whose ethnicity, as much as their criminal activity, often attracted undue attention from law and order. In a turbulent and violent era made famous in the movie “Gangs of New York”, Price was an outsized character whose reputation was that of a man capable of using his mouth or his fists to settle an argument, depending on whether he was inside or outside the courtroom. When either of those options failed to do the job, bribery was another tactic Price and able lieutenants like Tom Lee were liable to use to get defendants off the hook.

His legend as a man not to be trifled with had been amplified by the fact that in 1867, he’d written “The Science of Self-Defence – A Treatise on Sparring and Wrestling”, a book that was, for the longest time, regarded as the definite coaching manual for those interested in wrestling and bare-knuckle boxing. Price began writing the book in 1860 but was interrupted by the outbreak of the war. The lengthy gestation time didn’t harm its marketability any and copies remain in circulation more than a century and a half later.

“But our work is not a treatise on medicine-and we must not frighten our readers, nor must

we commit the worst of offences in this wide-awake age by becoming prosy,” writes Price in the introduction. “Our object, then, in this volume is to give a correct and reliable Manual on the “Art of Self Defense”, not founded on ‘obsolete’ rules of a by-gone age, but on the practical results of our own experience and observation, and we trust, with a clearness and precision that will render it invaluable to the pupil and interesting to the amateur and general reader. We also give such hints on training as will be useful to all persons engaged in sedentary pursuits.”

 

Writing became another major facet of his life.  Through his legal career, he became involved in some of the biggest cases in New York towards the end of the 19th century. Most famously, he represented James T. Holland, a Texan accused of murdering a man named Tom Davis who had tried to dupe him out of money in 1885. Davis was a sawdust operator, a type of street hustler common to the era who would fool naïve new arrivals in the city into parting with money under false pretenses. When he tried to take $500 from Holland, the Texan shot him dead.

Having got his man acquitted in a sensational case that gripped America, Price, who had also done some acting from to time, turned the material into a play called “In the Tenderloin”, the title referring to the crime-ridden part of New York  where so many of the lawyer’s clientele operated. The work authentically captured the underbelly of the city, at least in part because he hired actual crooks like George Appo, the most legendary pickpocket of the age and a man as infamous as any mobster today, to act in the play.

This work was a smash hit which toured the country afterwards and Price went on to write a dozen more plays. He was among a wave of writers who brought the criminal and seedy underworld of New York onto the hitherto polite stage for the first time, producing works where the bad guys were often portrayed as heroic and admirable figures.  His creativity was helped by the fact he was on first names with the likes of Billy McGlory, Matilda Hermann, and Tom Gould, colourful characters who ran the brothels and the shebeens and the casinos, often in cahoots with the NYPD.

Price also knew corruption from both sides and his involvement in the legendary Tammany Hall political machine offered him one more insight into the city’s diorama. With an eye on the box office, he cast John L. Sullivan, the undisputed champion of the bareknuckle age and the most famous athlete of the time, in two of his major works, “The Man from Boston” and “The True American”.

Although he had never boxed competitively again after the draw with Coburn, that aspect of his life still drew attention more than half a century later. On January 30, 1907, somebody in his law office had unearthed a newspaper clipping referring to his time as one of the most famous fighters in America.

“Fifty years ago, I could whip any man alive,” said Price, tears streaming down his face as he read the report, “and look at me now, I can hardly walk without assistance.”

He died the next day.

The Apollo of the Box

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A gifted skater, boxer and musician, his legion of fans in baseball knew him as either “The Apollo of the Box” or “The Count”.  The Sporting News preferred to describe him as an intolerant racist and “a man of the most sordid nature”. A canny promoter in Louisville witnessed the effect his good looks had on women and used him to introduce the revolutionary notion of a Ladies Day at the stadium. In the divorce court, his wife admitted to hitting him with a potato roller only after he had already cut her with a knife and smashed a water jug over her head. For a sober individual who never smoke or drank, Tony Mullane cut quite a dash.

At the age of five, his parents Dennis and Elizabeth brought him away from their native Cork to live in the new world, and eight decades later, his death after illness would be marked by obituaries in the New York Times and the Chicago Daily News . Between 1881 and 1894, he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball’s major leagues, winning a total of 285 games, a figure that still ranks him among the top 25 players in that position of all time. Last Thursday, however, marked the 120th anniversary of the day Mullane became the first player to pitch both right and left-handed in the same game, a feat so remarkable that only three others have ever managed it.

Although remembered most for his ambidexterity, his turbulent career teemed with incident. Once he realised how good he was, he began demanding a salary commensurate with his talent. A bold request at a time when players were bound to a team until the team decided otherwise by an oppressive device known as the ‘reserve clause’, the Corkman was the ultimate contract rebel.

After two immense seasons with the St. Louis Browns, he tried to move across town to the St. Louis Maroons for more money. When the Browns’ owner sneakily lured him back by stumping up the cash before then forcibly transferring him to a lesser club, Mullane signed for the Cincinnati Reds instead, and suffered a one year suspension from the game for his temerity.

“The flamboyant Mullane scrambled from club to club in pursuit of higher pay, but clearly he was worth it,” writes William Curran, in Strikeout: A celebration of the art of pitching. “He should easily have reached 300 career wins had the American Association not suspended him at the height of his career for jumping his contract. All the same, The Count’s frequent moves fetched him salaries many times what a good position player commanded in that era. It is suspected that in his best years Tony received under-the-table bonuses as well. Mullane’s career illustrates that, even as early as the 1880s, a proven winner could almost write his own contract although few other hurlers seemed bold enough to press their advantage.”

At one point, Mullane was drawing down $5,000 a year, more than six times the average wage in the sport. He was worth every penny. Apart from being the most formidable pitcher of the age – his physical strength befitting somebody who spent his teenage years fighting in the bareknuckle boxing rings of Pennsylvania – he could fill in competently at every other position on the field. If that was a truly noteworthy gift in a game where players specialise in one position from an early age, Mullane was a highly unpopular figure among contemporaries. Despite lavish earnings, his lust for more caused him to sit out another half a season late in his career as a protest against league-wide pay cuts. Then there was the matter of his unreconstructed racism.

“Moses Fleetwood Walker was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him, I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking for the signals,” wrote Mullane of Walker, his former team-mate with the Toledo Blue Stockings. “One day he signalled me for a curve ball and I shot a fast ball at him. He caught it and walked down to me. He said: ‘I’ll catch you without signals but I won’t catch you if you are going to cross me when I give you signals.’ And all the rest of the season he caught me and caught anything I threw. I pitched without him knowing what was coming.”

Once his pitching power faded, Mullane worked a couple of seasons as a professional baseball umpire before serving as a Chicago policeman until retiring at the age of 65. Even though his obituaries twenty years later contained no mention of his prejudices, they hurt him later. Baseball’s Veterans Committee placed him on a list of 200 former players who were considered for entry to the sport’s distinguished Hall of Fame back in 2002. His gaudy career statistics made him look like a posthumous shoe-in but the rules expressly state that voters must consider a person’s character and integrity as much as their playing ability.

And once they did that, he had no chance.

The Derby-winning Kerry jockey and the Queen of Music Hall

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As the glamorous couple made to disembark from the White Star liner, Olympic, at the pier in New York, an immigration inspector stopped them and posed a straightforward question.

“Is this man your lawful husband?” he asked the lady while pointing at her companion.

“No, he is not my legal husband,” she replied with some hesitation.

With that, the pair of them were duly marched back up the gangplank onto the ship and placed in custody. Marie Lloyd was detained for living with a man not her husband. Her travelling companion Bernard Dillon was charged with trying to bring a woman into America for immoral purposes. In October, 1913, the story made international headlines from Manhattan to London because the duo were, after a fashion, the Beckham and Posh Spice of their times. By one account, they responded by quaffing a bottle of champagne up on the promenade deck.

Once the hottest flat jockey in Britain, Dillon was a 24-year-old Kerry man who’d already lived a full life. He learned to ride at his father’s stables in Caherina near Tralee where Patsy Dillon had a reputation for unorthodox teaching methods.

To prepare his children for the rigours of the sport, he placed them up on yearlings, then tied their legs together beneath the horse so that every fall yielded a violent trashing and a disincentive to repeat the experience. Whatever the cruelty aspect, it worked. By the time Bernard departed to continue his apprenticeship in England, he was following in the professional footsteps of his older brother, Joe.

For her part, Lloyd was the biggest star of the British music halls and the darling of vaudeville. Specialising in popular songs like ‘Don’t Dilly Dally’ and ‘My Old Man Said Follow the Van’, she had a repertoire full of what were then perceived to be scandalous double entendres.

She met Dillon for the first time shortly after he rode Lemberg to victory in the 1910 Epsom Derby and the fact she was already married and nearly twice his age didn’t stand in the way of their unlikely romance.

Rather scandalously, they soon shacked up together and, coincidence or not, Dillon had lost his license within the year. He’d been repeatedly warned about his fondness for betting by The Jockey Club and no amount of celebrity associations could save him from a ban. Indeed, his off-the-course activities may even have contributed to the authorities deciding to take away his livelihood.

Just five years after arriving in racing’s big time with a triumph in the 1906 1,000 Guineas, his competitive career was all but over. Still, his stint in the limelight was really only beginning. Lloyd was a star of such wattage that her wage for the controversial trip to America where they fell foul of the moral turpitude laws was an estimated $1,500 per week. By the time she hooked up with Dillon, she’d been performing for more than a quarter of a century and was arguably the most famous entertainer in Britain. Just like her partner, however, the association didn’t do her much good either. In 1912, she was mysteriously not invited to the Royal Command Performance. This slur was attributed to both her “immorality” and her pro-workers stance during an earlier Music Hall strike.

This then is the tumultuous background against which the star-crossed lovers headed off to America in the autumn of 1913. After the initial showdown at the quayside and a threat to have them immediately deported, the immigration officials eventually agreed to allow them into the country under certain conditions. Each had to pay bail of $300 and to give an undertaking to stay in separate accommodation for the duration of their trip. Before the tour ended, they were man and wife. Her second husband had died back in England and the nuptials took place at the British Consulate in Portland, Oregon in February, 1914.

This was no happy ending however. Within months, the world was at war and Dillon was serving in the British Army’s Machine Gun Corps’ transport depot in Grantham. By then an alcoholic, his partying tended to interfere with his military duty. When this happened, Lloyd would arrive at the facility to berate the officers involved for having the temerity to discipline her husband. Despite that capacity for outward expressions of devotion, the marriage also began to flounder. She grew as fond as he was of the bottle and together they squandered such a fortune that, eventually, her sisters had to give her the use of a house to live in.

The couple separated in 1920 by which time Dillon had become an abusive wife-beater who was also arrested and bound to the peace for assaulting his father-in-law. Two years after that, Lloyd died from exhaustion and 100,000 people lined the streets of London for her funeral, and their last chance to applaud the Queen of the Music Hall. TS Eliot even wrote a famous, poignant essay lamenting her passing.

There was no such public mourning or literary encomiums for her husband. At the time of his death in 1941, Dillon was working as the night porter at South Africa House in Trafalgar Square in London. Today’s running of the 1,000 Guineas marks the 100th anniversary of his second triumph in that race aboard Electra. As fitting a time as any to remember a life less ordinary.

 

(originally published in The Sunday Tribune, May 3, 2009)

What kind of a nation are we anyway?

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When we first heard reports about a small, proud, independent nation on the western fringes of Europe weeping and gnashing its teeth at the loss of its sovereignty to foreign financial institutions, we had to do a double-take. Was this Ireland they were talking about, a people so proud of their heritage that an entire generation from Dublin 4 to Dingle have grown up speaking in a curious, bastardised and absolutely un-Irish accent born somewhere between the mid-Atlantic and the hills of Los Angeles?

Surely they didn’t mean the island where large swathes of the population spend inordinate amounts of their time obsessing over England’s lowest-rent reality television shows, the same place where every Sunday afternoon pubs fill up with men who use the first person plural when referring to Premier League teams in British cities they’ve never visited? How quaint that these very people are suddenly worried about ceding control of a country where the main shopping thoroughfares have long since become cardboard cut-outs of high streets in provincial towns all over Yorkshire.

The most unintentionally hilarious thing about the sorry events of the past month has been the way the word sovereignty has so quickly entered the lexicon. The same people currently hand-wringing about our perceived loss of independence are the very ones who a few weeks back would have reckoned sovereignty to be some sort of gaudy gold ring worn by men of a certain class. Against that unpromising background, the silver lining to this cloud is it might force us all to consider exactly what kind of a nation we are and, more importantly, what kind of nation do we want to be. The results of any such introspection might not be pretty.

Every dictionary definition of nationhood describes a people sharing a common language, history, culture, and religion. How many of those criteria apply to Ireland in the 21st century. Well, there is a common language alright but it’s not our own. The dysfunctional relationship too many of us have with our native tongue, a consequence of decades of poorly-conceived educational policy, is perhaps best illustrated by events in Croke Park on a September Sunday five years ago.

That was the day Sean Og O hAilpin, a man who spent the first 11 years of his life in Fiji and Australia, delivered a magnificent speech as Gaeilge when accepting the Liam McCarthy cup at the conclusion of the All-Ireland hurling final. Most of those listening in the stadium and watching on television couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying. More pertinent yet, many of them then had the gall to complain about this fact like it was O hAilpin’s fault vast numbers of Irish people don’t know enough of their own language to comprehend a few basic phrases at a sporting event.

But the language was taken from us by the English, they argue. Well, what excuse do we have for our strange attitude to our own history? Most nations born out of a military and political struggle (not to mention one that endured for centuries) take immense pride in this fact and go to great lengths to commemorate the various landmarks on the journey to independence. In Ireland, many are so afraid of embracing our (admittedly bloody) history that the most they will do is cock a post-modern snook at it, belting out “rebel” songs once they are drunk enough or once they see the IMF coming over the horizon.

Of course, they only sing ironically because it wouldn’t do to have any actual passion for the story of how the nation came into being. Celebrating (or even acknowledging) the events (some good, some bad, as is always the case) that led to Irish independence is perversely regarded as embarrassing and old-fashioned. Over time, it has become largely the preserve of whichever political party lays claim to the person involved in the particular cameo being remembered. Worse again, the fear of being associated with Sinn Fein and the IRA ensures majority stay away from these occasions lest they be branded fellow-travellers.

In most post-colonial countries, the biggest national holiday of the year is held on the date traditionally associated with shaking off the shackles of the larger power. In Ireland, we prefer to celebrate St. Patrick bringing Christianity into the country. All those people currently moaning and groaning about future decisions being made for us by faceless bureaucrats in foreign cities were probably too busy getting drunk on March 17th to ever wonder why, in allegedly post-Catholic Ireland, we never got around to cherishing our independence enough to actually properly celebrate it.

Any country which reveres its nationhood would have a better relationship with its own flag too. Somehow, somewhere along the line during the decades of violence in Northern Ireland, the tricolour was hijacked by the Provos. Beyond soccer internationals and World Cups, when do Irish people ever wave the flag? Upon moving to America, I saw more green, white and orange fluttering from residential homes in New York every March than I ever saw waving anywhere during a childhood in Cork. How many of those so concerned about sovereignty even have an Irish flag in their houses?

In every public school in America, the day begins with students placing their hands over their hearts and pledging allegiance to “the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Every single day for 14 years in the education system, every kid does this. Irish people deride this carry-on as jingoistic but it does explain why the average American loves the flag and honours it every chance they get. Do Irish children even learn the story behind the tricolour?

Of course, America is also a place where every year more and more movies dealing with the country’s struggle for nationhood go into production. If Ireland had any respect for its own evolution, surely the canon of films about the period between the Easter Rising and the Civil War would extend beyond two serious movies in quarter of a century, “Michael Collins” and “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”. If culture is an integral part of nationhood, what does it say about us that we can’t even attempt to revisit our past through the cinema, like any proper, mature country should?

The gaps in our culture extend farther than that. In Gaelic football and hurling, we have two of the last vestiges of our own uniqueness, ancient games which remind us we have a heritage all of our own, distinct from the American sitcoms and the English soap operas in which we find nightly solace. Yet, you can thumb through the entire body of Irish literature without finding either of those sports or the GAA (the largest organisation in the country) as the subject of a serious novel. Similarly, not a single movie has yet been made in which the games feature and are celebrated in the manner of say, baseball is in Bull Durham, or English rugby in This Sporting Life.

For all the liquored-up braggadocio and bravado of the Celtic Tiger years, the available evidence suggests we actually lack the self-confidence to celebrate the few remaining facets of our society that separate us from the rest of the world. We would prefer to try to fit into the pan-British and pan-American cultures with which we are so obsessed. This tendency fits the profile of an immature nation. Exactly how immature will be proven again in the coming weeks and months.

Some day soon, most likely during the forthcoming general election a politician in search of a headline and a campaign issue will announce the intention to demand more visas for the Irish from the American government. Everybody will cluck approvingly while conveniently forgetting the fact that during the brief window of our own prosperity, we were about as inhospitable as a country could be to those less well-off than ourselves. We took in those we were forced to by EU law and, ignoring our own tragic history of emigration, treated most others like dirt on our shoes. We even coined our own n-word to describe them.

Aside from evincing a worrying ignorance about karma, our over-reaction to people wanting to come and work in Ireland showed the national self-awareness deficit. Having traded for decades on the slogan “Ireland of the Welcomes”, we were the exact opposite and, here’s the best bit, we saw no contradiction in that behaviour. The same way we’ll see nothing wrong with putting out our hands out now and expecting Australia, England and America to take those we can no longer afford to keep. Just as they did so often throughout our history. Just as we might have done for others if we’d have realised being a nation requires responsibilities and sometimes doing difficult things for the good of the less fortunate.

The manner in which we treat the tens of thousands currently departing our shores is telling too. Every American citizen is entitled to cast a postal vote in every American election. No matter where in the world they are, no matter how long has lapsed since they left their native land, they are entitled to a say in the future direction of the country. In Ireland, the moment the latest generation is herded onto the plane, they will be disenfranchised, conveniently removing the most ambitious and angriest sections of society from the electoral register. In some cases forever. The best and the brightest, gone and soon forgotten.

“Irishmen want their country,” bellowed Eamon de Valera, then priomh-aire of the First Dail, from a stage in Madison Square Garden, New York in the summer of 1920, as the War of Independence raged back home. “It is rightfully and lawfully theirs. Irishmen want their freedom: freedom to live their own lives in their own way: freedom to develop along their own lines: freedom to express their own national individuality in government, trade, art and literature: freedom to raise their own institutions in accord with their own genius: freedom to come out once more into the big world to share its activities, to act and to be acted upon, and to contribute their quota to human achievement.”

De Valera brought the house down with that one but ninety years on, it seems the theory proved much more impressive than the reality.

 

(first published in the Daily Mail in 2010)

Irish sport has a drinking problem

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In the course of an interview with Roisin Ingle in The Irish Times the other week, the horse trainer Aidan O’Brien described alcohol as something that, in his words, has “most of Ireland destroyed”. For a man not noted for being loquacious, that was a perfect turn of phrase to use. And he went a little further too. “Young people should be in control of their own destiny, alcohol takes away that control.” O’Brien is a pioneer who also happens to be the most successful trainer of his generation and somebody destined to become perhaps the most successful Irish sportsman ever by the time he’s done.

Elsewhere that week, Elaine Carey of  3 Mobile, the phone company, gave a speech at the FAI’s AGM in Letterkenny, County Donegal. At the very beginning, she mentioned how she knew there were “a few sore heads” in the audience and then she offered a prize as an incentive to get the hungover people to listen.  In contrast to Aidan O’Brien, the FAI is, as the writer Declan Lynch once put it, “the dysfunctional football association that other dysfunctional football associations regard as the galacticos”. What a contrast then in the attitudes of the elite performer in one sport towards drink compared to the leaders of another sport.

Before the recent British Open began, Darren Clarke handed back the Claret Jug to the Royal and Ancient, made a big spiel about not having put any drink in it and then apologised for all the dints and dents the trophy had incurred while in his hard-partying possession. The state of the cup reminded us of how Clarke had behaved in the aftermath of his improbable victory last year. Remember the tired and emotional interviews he gave the morning after that triumph, slurring his words, still very obviously under the influence. Funny thing is I didn’t notice Ernie Els doing anything like that following his win this year.

Does anybody notice a pattern here? The Irish tolerance for drunken carry-on from the famous and in the FAI’s case, the infamous, is ridiculous. It’s such an accepted part of our culture that it can be jokingly referred to from the top table at a meeting that should have been addressing the crisis in Irish football. And everybody thinks Clarke is hilarious for his carry-on but too many fail to point out a more abstemious approach to his golf over the years might have yielded more than one major for somebody with his talent.

There seems an unwillingness to engage with the extent of the national drink problem, even when it spills over into the world of sport. For all the justified praise our fans received for their behaviour in Poland during the European Championships, there was far too little discussion of why absolutely pathetic states of drunkenness seemed to be de rigeur for so many of the supporters. Can we not go to a foreign country to support our team without getting absolutely blotto at every opportunity? Just because we usually don’t attack foreigners like the English used to do doesn’t make our drunken carry-on any less boorish.

This is not just a soccer thing either. There were Dublin fans who could barely walk on their way into Hill 16 before their heroes took on Meath.  There were plenty from all four counties barely able to see in front of them when they stumbled into Semple Stadium on Sunday for the All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals last Sunday. Great crack altogether especially for the young children forced to sit and watch their fathers tearing into pints at a furious pace right up until the throw-in. And we wonder why each subsequent generation appears to have a worse attitude to drink than its predecessors.

Of course, the rugby crowd disgraced themselves in New Zealand earlier in the summer when over 90 per cent of those arrested or not allowed in to one of the tests (rugby speak for friendlies) were Irish supporters. When this fact was pointed out by the local constabulary, some of the diaspora complained about unfair stereotyping. Yeah, rather than face up to our own idiotic attitude to getting wasted at sports events, we accuse our hosts of stereotyping us. Guess what, stereotypes are, usually, there for good reason. We are notorious for loving to get drunk at matches and that’s nobody’s fault but our own.

Taken in tandem with the constant drip feed of stories from Australia about the drink-related antics of the new Irish arrivals down there, all of the above would seem to indicate Roisin Shortall’s decision to try to bring in a total ban on alcohol companies sponsoring sport and cultural events is to be welcomed. We don’t think this is the cure for all the ills that afflict Irish society but as a sign that somebody in government recognises the damage drink is doing, it is a progressive step.

Aidan O’Brien is one of the most famous Irish people in the world right now and last week he came out and said drink is destroying Ireland. Yet, his comments barely made a headline, never mind prompted a national debate. They were hidden away down a feature article and nobody saw fit to make more of this. Roy Keane’s career was nearly derailed by drink many times. George Best’s career was ruined by it. In every county in Ireland there are prodigies whose promising hurling and football careers ended at the bottom of a pint glass. And those are only the sporting examples of the problems caused.

Every weekend, a new drunken atrocity occurs on the streets of our cities. There is some brief hand-wringing and caterwauling, then we go on about our lives. The drink culture is pervasive and pernicious and needs to be attacked and destroyed. It need not be part of who we are. It need not be an accepted element of our so-called culture. It need not be funny to see a sportsman celebrate a great achievement by getting wasted. The sooner more people realise that the better for the country at large, the better for Ireland’s future.

(this article first appeared in the Evening Echo, July 27, 2012)