Certifiably Irish and embarrassing

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In late January each year, department stores across America begin stocking a range of garish green t-shirts of all shapes and sizes. They bear legends like: “Kiss me, I’m Irish”, “Slainte!”, “100 per cent proof”, and “Drink me I’m Irish”. Ordinarily trend-setting outlets put fashion needs and good taste aside to cater for what they consider the natives’ insatiable appetite for Irish-themed rubbish in the build-up to St. Patrick’s Day. No shop has ever gone bankrupt over-estimating how much awful shamrock-flavoured tack the average New Yorker is willing to buy. The market just gets bigger and more cringe-worthy every spring.

 

These are commercial concerns who we can forgive for their desire to cash in on the cloying American weakness for Hibernophilia. What are we to make though of our own government seeking to carve out its own piece of this awful pie? Last weekend, Micheal Martin, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, announced his department’s plans to sell a “Certificate of Irishness” to the members of the diaspora (and while he says it’s aimed worldwide we know the people being targeted are the Yanks) so far removed from the country that they don’t qualify for citizenship. Think of it as an official version of the makey-uppy passports kids get inside the secret agent kits they buy at toy shops. Except this one will come with an authentic government stamp, probably a harp.

 

“There are many in this room whose Irish family connections date back several generations and who may not therefore qualify for Irish citizenship,” said Martin at the Ireland Funds’ Global Young Leaders Conference in Farmleigh. “However, your presence here today and ongoing commitment to this country is a powerful testament to the enduring draw of our common heritage. I believe it is essential that we in Ireland value and affirm the validity of this sense of Irishness felt by so many people abroad. I have therefore decided to proceed with the introduction of a Certificate of Irish Heritage which will be available to those of Irish descent who do not qualify for citizenship. It is expected that this new initiative will be operational later this year.”

 

What other country behaves like this? Can anybody picture the Germans trying to sell a certificate of Germanness to the fifty million or so claiming that ethnicity who live across the United States? They’d have more class. What about the English, an ancestral grouping nearly as large as the Irish in America. Is it possible to see Downing Street signing off on something as crass and twee as this? No, didn’t think so. We are the only people who cling to this notion that everybody wants to be like us.

 

Hey, we’re the ones Sigmund Freud said couldn’t be psycho-analysed, the bunch about whom GK Chesterton wrote: “..all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad.” Who wouldn’t want to be one of us? Sure we might be a tad presumptuous but aren’t we great craic all the same? We might even have a peel-back section on the back of the certificate that offers a genuine aroma of Guinness, like the perfume samples in glossy magazines.

 

Aside from the arrogance involved in this enterprise, there is the shameless spectacle of a government department basically turning itself into the bureaucratic equivalent of Killarney. For those who don’t know, the Kerry capital is infamous, even among gullible Americans, as the place in Ireland that tries its damndest to part sentimental tourists from their dollars with the most over-priced and kitschy range of paddywhackery. Bad as it is when avaricious shopkeepers and publicans try to take advantage of sentimental old fools trying to get in touch with their ancestral roots, how much worse when the money-grab is sponsored by Dail Eireann?

 

The idea of a “Certificate of Irishness” (free “Kiss me I’m Irish” t-shirt with the first ten purchased!) was first mooted at the controversial Global Irish Economic Summit at Farmleigh last year. It’s stunning and depressing to think our best and (allegedly) our brightest were gathered at that conference and this is what they came up with. Although, one imagines a civil servant in Iveagh House doing some quick sums afterwards before announcing: “70 million people of Irish extraction around the world, there’s gold in them their hills boss!”

 

Of course, there is a historical precedent for this kind of thing. In the latter half of the 19thand early part of the twentieth centuries, the Fenians and Eamon de Valera both sold bond certificates in the would-be Irish Republic to Americans willing to buy into the notion of Irish independence. At the time, critics of both those schemes pointed out this type of fund-raising was illegal because they were selling stakes in something that didn’t exist. Not much has changed then.

 

Ninety years after de Valera raised $5m, some of which he rather cheekily used at a later date to finance the birth of the The Irish Press, a Fianna Fail-led government is trying to get people to purchase a stake in something completely notional that is impossible to access and worth nothing. What will this piece of paper be except the genealogical equivalent of one of those online PhDs you can purchase on the Internet? Except this one will most likely be framed and put on the walls of Irish-America, in between the embroidered blessing “May the road rise up to meet you”, and the wooden family crest (purchased in Killarney).

 

Nobody doubts this will be a commercial success. Four years ago, a couple of bright sparks in Cork decided to start selling three-quarter pound bags of Irish dirt to Americans. Based on the simple premise that the Yanks will buy anything at all that reeks of Ireland, they shovelled soil into fancy packaging and began catering for those who wanted, among other things, for their families to be able to sprinkle a little piece of home on their coffins as they were buried. Since that business is apparently thriving, there’s every chance of this government-backed certificate of spoofery taking off.

 

Indeed, Martin has opened up a whole new world of possibilities here. For young Irish-Americans, the preferred method of showing pride in their ethnicity (apart from getting drunk and fighting on St Patrick’s Day) has always been getting a rite of passage tattoo. Normally, it’s a fighting leprechaun, a four-leaf clover, or a Celtic Cross. There’s no reason that the Department of Foreigners shouldn’t be trying to muscle in on that lucrative action. Can’t get a passport? How about a pot of gold tattoo that comes with a certificate of authenticity from the Irish government?

 

The funny thing is that the department was very quick to claim the venture, which will be carried out in partnership with a private company, was not expected to generate significant revenue. A strange thing to say. By their own estimates, there are 70 million people who will be interested in this. If they charge thirty euros for every embossed sheet of paper declaring the bearer to be 100 per cent (proof) Irish, and even half those eligible buy into the notion, that’s nearly a billion euros right off the bat.

 

If it isn’t about the money then maybe it should be. At least then it wouldn’t look like one more embarrassing quest for validation of our own perceived greatness.

(originally published in the Irish Daily Mail, June, 2010)

Paul Galvin and the GAA fashion crisis

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In 1996, a 23 year old college grid-iron player from the University of Maryland named Kevin Plank came up with an idea for a sweat-absorbing undershirt to be worn while playing sports. He started a business in his grandfather’s basement, called the company Under Armour and less than two decades later, presides over a billion dollar a year corporation. To gauge how big his brand has become, count how many footballers and hurlers are wearing Under Armour beneath their county jerseys at the conclusion of any championship match this summer. Better yet, check out Spurs’ kit, the company’s first foray into English soccer.

Against this background, the news last year that Kerry footballer Paul Galvin might be planning to launch a brand of GAA sportswear should have been welcomed, not greeted with sniggering and guffaws. As if a bogman in too-tight jeans and pointy shoes could design anything! Those laughing at Galvin filing patents for the “Galvinise” brand were forgetting something important. It’s nearly always athletes who change what athletes choose to wear. Phil Knight was a runner looking for a better running shoe when he created Nike with Bill Bowerman and he started out selling his prototypes from the boot of a car at athletics’ meets across America’s north-west.

As an outsider looking in, it seems that GAA sportswear has been in dire need of a shake-up for decades and, given the way he straddles both the fashion and the sports worlds, Galvin could just be the type of crazy character to do this . Far from poking fun at his fashionista credentials and his fondness for collecting footwear, we should be desperately hoping he is the man to drag the jerseys, shorts and everything else into the 21st century. It’s about time somebody did because, with all due respect to O’Neill’s, who have been trying harder yet in vain in recent years, the county jerseys could still do with a serious makeover.

This much was hammered home to us recently by the belated unveiling of the new Cork jersey, replete with Chill.ie (an insurance company) emblazoned too largely across the chest. This happened with more of a whimper than a bang. The overwhelming public response seems to have been “blah”, the latest edition just one more variation on a very boring theme. Indeed, the biggest reaction to the whole business has been from people who are unhappy the jersey is not blood red enough for “the blood and bandage”. In our opinion, the entire event was just one more missed opportunity.

Yes, we know there are certain colours that must always be incorporated, and the GAA’s decision to have its own initials on the chest of the shirts rather than on the sleeves (as is the norm with soccer leagues around the world) doesn’t help the look but even still. When was the last time anybody, not just in Cork, saw their county’s new jersey and thought to themselves “that looks fantastic?” I’d venture a lot less often than fans seeing the latest design and muttering words like prehistoric and outdated.

As an outsider looking in, some of what’s going on with the GAA shirts just baffles me. What’s with all those futuristic lines going off at weird angles? Who came up with that innovation? Most of them look like they were created by somebody sitting around in the mid-nineties (the decade fashion forgot) doodling what the future of inter-county jerseys could look like if everything went terribly wrong. Whether by O’Neill’s or Azzurri (as the new boys they should be a tad more modern but they are not), too many seem to be all taken from the same awful template.

The Waterford hurlers took on Cork last summer wearing jerseys that looked way too much like the design on the front of a bottle of Yop. Where is the style or does our Irishness preclude us from having any? Do the companies involved just assume we’ll buy any old tat so they don’t need to waste money making them look good?

Maybe Galvin the style guru is the man to revolutionise this staid world because somebody with a keener eye for fashion needs to be involved in putting better shirts on the backs of the nation’s hurlers and footballers.  One of the first things Umbro did when trying to revitalize its brand a few years back was to bring in Aiter Thorpe, one of Britain’s brightest young designers, and to import the values of bespoke tailoring to the process of revamping the England shirt.

After a succession of ghastly kits, Umbro also went back to the future, delving into the past for inspiration. They figured out the simpler, plainer white England jerseys from long ago were much classier than the busy horror shows of the nineties and more recent years. The same thinking could easily apply to the GAA.  This year’s Cork shirt isn’t the worst in the O’Neill’s catalogue (several other unfortunate counties are vying for that title) but it can’t hold a candle to the classic worn with such distinction by the county hurlers back in 1984.  Which Limerick shirt is better, today’s gaudy version or the one from 1973? It’s no contest.

I know somebody who goes to Cork matches in a replica of the 1984 jersey and he is constantly badgered by people wanting to know where he bought it. The conversation usually culminates in all present agreeing that it’s a far superior-looking garment to the more recent editions. Anybody with two eyes should be able to see a throw-back, genuinely blood-red, design with no unnecessary shades or lines defacing it, and a simple white collar, would go down a storm with fans. This isn’t just a Cork thing either. You think the Dublin fans prefer what they are buying today to the classic shirt worn in the seventies?

This is a situation where less can definitely be more. Given how little material Galvin uses for the jeans he wears, maybe he realises that too.

John McGahern – the GAA’s only literary All-Star

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The short story is entitled “Love of the World”. In it, a Mayo centre-fielder and garda named Harkin gets embroiled in a vicious career-stunting brawl with travellers, indulges in a spot of wife-swapping with German tourists, and tastes more pain than glory on the football field. Unable to recover his equilibrium after the cheering has stopped, he descends into a kind of madness and ends up murdering his wife in a small town in Leitrim. A beautifully-wrought and disturbing yarn, what lingers is John McGahern’s incredibly accurate portrayal of the fleeting fame of the inter-county player.

“He had been deeply shaken by the way people turned away from him once he ceased to be a star, the same people who had crowded around him on pitches and in hotel lobbies, had stopped him in the street to ask for autographs,” wrote McGahern. “This constant attention had been so long a part of his everyday life that he had come to take it as much for granted as air or health. When suddenly it disappeared, he was baffled: he was the same person now as when he had dominated centre-fields, and it gnawed at the whole structure of his self-esteem, forcing in on him the feeling that he no longer amounted to anything, he who had meant the world to cheering, milling crowds.”

March 30thmarks the seventh anniversary of the death of arguably the most important Irish novelist since Samuel Beckett, a writer who also just happened to capture the essence of the national games with greater clarity and authenticity than any of his contemporaries. When Harkin ends up remanded in a psychiatric institution awaiting trial for the shooting of his wife, he receives a visit from his former beat partner. The two gardai sit down in rather awkward circumstances and then start dissecting the forthcoming All-Ireland football championship. Bizarre, yet note perfect.

“No man” said Patrick Kavanagh, “can adequately describe Irish life who ignores the Gaelic Athletic Association.”

For all the efforts of the sometime Inniskeen goalkeeper, hurling and Gaelic football remain massively under-represented in the highest echelons of Irish literature. Notwithstanding Michael Cusack figuring as a character in Ulysses, Paul Durcan’s timeless paean to Jamesie O’Connor, and the Whitbread prize-winning poet Bernard O’Donoghue’s lyrical tribute to the late Cork footballer Tom Creedon, the games are largely ignored by the heavyweights. Even if the magnificent Kevin Barry has made a few promising GAA references in his stories, it is somehow never regarded as suitable material for novels in the way various American writers have utilised baseball and grid-iron to such great effect.

“She’d witnessed men and boys look long and deep into his face, lost in the circle and dream of his fame,” wrote McGahern of Harkin’s wife watching him play. “She’d held her breath as she’d seen him ride the shoulders of running mobs bearing him in triumph from the pitches.”

The dearth of GAA literature then is what makes dipping into McGahern’s work such a treat. Sometimes Gaelic football just lurks in the background of a story, cropping up in the minutiae of a character’s existence. On other occasions, it’s central to the denouement. In every case, the rendering of its special place in Irish society is evocative, telling and candid. Anybody who’s ever witnessed the fickle nature of supporters would appreciate “Eddie Mac”, the story of a forward whose star wanes following an injury.

“As soon as it was plain that the cup was about to be lost, Eddie was taunted and jeered every time he went near the ball by the same people that had cheered him shoulder high from the field the year before,” wrote McGahern.

“On the surface he showed no feeling and walked stone-faced from the field; but on the following Wednesday, the evening every week he walked to the village to collect his copy of the Herald and to buy in a few groceries, he put his studded boots, football socks, togs, bandages in his green and red jersey, and by drawing the sleeves round and knotting them tightly made it a secure bundle, which he dropped in the deepest arch as he crossed the bridge into the village, only waiting long enough after the splash to be certain it had sunk.”

There can’t be a town in Ireland where some hurler or footballer hasn’t contemplated replicating the actions of Eddie Mac following the often toxic fall-out from an embarrassing defeat. And that’s the beauty of this stuff. The minor details of McGahern’s sporting portraits are always eerily familiar.

In “The Creamery Manager”, Jimmy McCarron is driving two gardai to the Ulster final in Clones and en route they begin discussing the Sergeant’s own brief inter-county career with Cavan. The man himself plays it down, claiming to have been given a couple of trial runs during which his deficiencies were duly exposed. His fellow travellers declare he was hard done by because a clique dominated the selection process. A conversation that has been had a million times yet only here is conferred with literary merit.

A few weeks after the match, the same two men are sent to arrest McCarron for unspecified financial shenanigans with creamery funds. Remorseful at how their Clones excursion might now be viewed by the authorities, he apologises for any possible guilt by association. One of the cops doesn’t see any need for that.

“You gave us a great day out,” says Garda Casey. “A day out of all our lives.”

What better summation of a championship afternoon than that?

Delaney is a great and fearless leader

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In the last couple of days, I’ve received several emails containing links to various YouTube montages chronicling Ireland’s improbable qualifying campaign for Euro 2012. Of course, my favourite clip isn’t Richard Dunne doing a very passable Paul McGrath impression in Moscow. It’s not even Keith Andrews starting the ball rolling against Estonia last Friday. Nope, my most cherished piece of footage, the one I just keep watching over and over again, involves FAI Chief Executive John Delaney out on the pitch at the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn, conducting the fans, punching his fist in the air and making the “let’s go for a few beers” motion with his right hand.
 
Watching Delaney do his jigs of delight brought back so many memories of his vital contributions in this campaign. Much like the fans cheering (if laughing at somebody sounds like cheering) him on in Estonia, I recalled his last-ditch tackle in Moscow on the night he helped keep the mighty Russians at bay. My mind filled with other cameos of his magnificence. The quality of his passing away to Armenia. The memorable way he imposed his will against the Andorrans like some sort of modern-day Roy Keane. Flicking through the highlight reel of Delaney’s on-field magic (has Trapattoni ever had such a trusted lieutenant in the fray?), I thought to myself: Who else is more entitled to celebrate with the fans than this guy?

 
Inspired by repeated viewing of Delaney’s antics, I decided to go searching YouTube for more vintage carry-on of this ilk. I couldn’t resist the urge to look for more clips showing the heads of successful sports organisations celebrating on the field of play, in front of legions of adoring fans. I started off trolling for Frank Murphy footage. Given the fact he’s been secretary of the Cork County Board through so many triumphs, I figured there must be no end of videotape of Murphy. I quickly found the classic shot of Jimmy Barry Murphy climbing up the railing on Hill 16 with Liam McCarthy in his hand back in 1999. Surely, his namesake must have done something similar through the years.

 
Imagine my shock. Picture my surprise. I could find no extant video of the head honcho in Cork GAA celebrating on the field of play. Or doing a Delaney as it’s now called. Of course, many will see this as a sign Murphy just isn’t as passionate about his games as the FAI’s top man. A fair point. Especially since there are no mobile phone montages showing Murphy conducting the Cork fans or buying them drink in pubs before big matches. I know Murphy has always divided people in Cork and now I understand why. Where was he when all those All-Irelands were being celebrated? Why wasn’t he out there on the field milking some applause for himself? We should be told.
 
Then again, I wondered whether this was maybe just a Cork thing. Perhaps other counties are more demonstrative than us. I decided to give Kilkenny a try. They’ve won a lot (okay, an awful lot) in the past few years. There had to be video of the county board chairman or secretary out on the grass in Croker, playing up to the black and amber hordes following one or other of their (traditionally lucky) All-Irelands. I was appalled and dismayed to discover nobody had ever managed to film Pat Dunphy (currently vice-chairman but previously secretary) climbing over the hoarding at the end of a single All-Ireland victory to throw shapes in front of the fans.

 
I was similarly disappointed when it came to Andy Kettle. As chairman of the Dublin County Board, you’d think Kettle would have been revelling in Pat Gilroy’s team defeating Kerry back in September. Well, if he was, there were no public displays of emotion. There are thousands of clips of the celebrating Dubs, shot from every available angle in the stadium that memorable day. And Kettle isn’t in any of them. No jumping around, no fist-pumping in front of Hill 16. Not a single jig of delight or drinking motion to drive the supporters wild with delight.

 
What is wrong with Kettle and all these other people who run the various sporting bodies? Do they not understand the significance of the roles they have played? Why did they not seize their opportunities to remind the fans of their immense and often undervalued contributions to the on-field success? Surely, all these sports administrators can see that failing to grab a piece of the limelight for themselves is quite ridiculous. In this day and age, the men in the suits and ties are every bit as important as the talent that crosses the white lines to compete.
 
At this point in my research, I came to a realisation. Maybe the GAA is just different, a bit backwards coming forwards and all that. So, I switched focus to international soccer. England recently qualified for Euro 2012. As Chief Executive of Club England, an entity within the association that is solely to do with the senior squad, Adrian Bevington is the man in the Delaney role there. But, you’ve guessed it. After hours of research and YouTubing, I could not find any upload showing Bevington bigging it up with the English fans after qualification was clinched against Montenegro in Podgorica.

 
Such dereliction of duty. That’s not the fit and proper behaviour of a man who really cares about his country and its followers. While Bevington should be ashamed of himself for not showing enough emotion for the cameras, all may not be lost for him. If the mooted Ireland-England friendly in Dublin comes off before the Euros next summer, at least the English supremo will get a close-up view of how a real, classy chief executive conducts himself at the Aviva Stadium. Should Ireland win that game, he may see what it truly means to do a Delaney. That’s a lesson in etiquette not available in any finishing school.

 

(first published in Evening Echo, November, 2011)

Learning the lessons of religion

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A couple of years back, a man who had been sexually abused by a priest went to meet Reverend Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin. The individual was apoplectic at the childhood suffering inflicted upon him by a member of the church and the subsequent reaction of the clerical authorities to these horrendous crimes. Predictably, he told Martin he had come to detest the institution and would have nothing to do with it for the rest of his life. Then, at the very end of the conversation, he thanked the Catholic prelate for hearing him out and said: “I believe you will be confirming my little lad later this month.”

 

In that vignette, we have neatly encapsulated the bizarre, almost schizophrenic attitude most Irish Catholics have towards the sacraments. All over Ireland during the months of March, April and May, families are in a tizzy about First Holy Communion and Confirmation ceremonies. Expensive outfits are being bought, restaurant rooms booked and, in some hideous cases, stretch limos and horse-drawn carriages lined up as modes of transport. In a country where significantly less than half of all Catholics attend mass on a weekly basis, a lot of houses where nobody ever goes to church are spending a lot of money they don’t have on a religion they have little time for.

 

“For many,” said Archbishop Martin famously, “the sacraments are the social events of a civil religion rather than celebrations of the Church.”

 

Even an atheist could agree with Martin on that score. That he made this comment while freely admitting just five per cent of Catholics in certain parishes in his own diocese attend mass every Sunday lends it added credibility. The enormous disparity between the numbers participating in the communion and confirmation rituals each spring and the sparsely-populated churches every weekend illustrates just how popular a rather ridiculous brand of a la carte Catholicism has become in 21st century Ireland. People don’t have the courage to rear their children outside the faith, don’t have the faith to rear them as proper mass-going Catholics in it, and yet still want to enjoy a couple of excuses to throw serious shindigs.

 

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s an easy alternative available that would improve the long-term health of the Catholic Church, appease those who wish to remove religious control from the vast majority of the country’s schools, and take the sacraments back from the party planners. The teaching of Catholic doctrine should be given over exclusively to the churches and be conducted outside school hours. This would end the monopoly position the religion has enjoyed in the classroom since the foundation of the state, force parents to face up to their own ambivalence towards the faith in which they were reared, and give teachers more time to devote to academic rather than spiritual counselling.

 

I know this is an option because this is the situation facing American Catholics whose children are in state schools, secular institutions where the teaching of any religion is strictly prohibited. When my eldest son turned six years old, we received a letter from the local church where he was baptised here in New York, inviting us to enroll him in a weekly class so he could make his communion two years later. The programme involved bringing him to the church for one hour of religious education before school every Monday morning.

 

It doesn’t sound like much but in a country where the world-famous yellow bus picks up every child at the bottom of his or her street and magically ferries them off to class, demanding that parents drive anywhere before 8am is a big ask. Although this is a question of much more than traffic, the scheduling alone makes you think long and hard about whether you want to bother with religion at all.

 

As a typically collapsed Catholic of my generation, I had to give it some serious thought. And, more than once during the first few months, when it proved logistically difficult and inconvenient, I almost pulled him out of the class. But, crucially, I didn’t, and, instead, I learned a valuable lesson. This was a far better way of inculcating religion than the Irish method. Why? Simply because it makes the parents really question what they are doing and, in the soul-searching that ensues, forces them to make a renewed and genuine commitment. A much larger and longer commitment than planning one fabulous party around the ceremony like so many are doing in Ireland just now.

 

There were other positive side-effects as well. Just by going to the church once a week outside of Sundays, we got to know the priests and nuns who work there, including Sister Phyliss, a fabulously old-school, Irish-American nun straight from the set of a 1950s movie. By the time the ceremony came around, we were on first-name terms with them all. We knew the work they’d invested in the kids and they appreciated the fact we were going the extra mile to have our children brought up in the faith. A far superior arrangement I would guess than Ireland’s outsourcing of all of this to the teachers at school.

 

At every juncture, it was also reinforced that this was, above all else, a religious event. The ancillary activities which in Ireland have started to dwarf the sacraments themselves were not even mentioned. Indeed, the only time anybody at the church referenced festivities was around the time of the child’s first confession. To celebrate that landmark, parents were advised to bake a cake with white icing (signifying new-found purity apparently) and to throw a small party for the child freshly absolved of all sins. The idea was to make the kid understand this was kind of a big deal and not something the significance of which should be lost in the shuffle.

 

Some will scoff at the quaintness of that but these little cameos ensured that when our children shuffled up the aisle to receive the communion wafer for the first time on a Saturday morning in May it was a truly solemn affair. There were no cameras in the church. None of the girls looked like sinister child brides or creepy pageant queens. Nobody acted like they were squeezing a little bit of religious ritual in between visiting family, partying, and collecting money. The event was about the sacrament first and everything else second. As it should be. You are either in it for the faith or you are not.

Contrast this then with the situation in Ireland. Scarcely a year goes by now without horror stories emanating from the communion/confirmation scene about lavish parties, ridiculous outfits, and pre-pubescent tanning. The whole thing is about something very different. It’s certainly not about the children entering the church and receiving the blessed sacrament for the first time. But how could it be any other way when so many people put their kids through this as a matter of course without ever actually thinking about it or considering an alternative?

 

The willingness of so many Irish parents to sign their children up for these ceremonies is positively Pavlovian. Everyone else in the class is making their communion so my child will too seems to be the mindset. Never mind that they only go to church for weddings and funerals and are utterly and legitimately disgusted by the scandals of the past two decades. Ignore the fact they only got the child christened under duress to please elderly parents who begged them to do it. Sure, if they only have to go to a couple of meetings before the day itself, they might as well keep up the tradition. It’s easier to opt in rather than to opt out.

 

This entire phenomenon is an unfortunate by-product of the outsized and outdated role of the Catholic Church in Irish education. As an outsider looking in on the recurring debate about removing the local priest as the patron of the primary school, it seems beyond time to take the crucifixes down off the wall of the classrooms and for teachers to devote hours currently spent imparting religious doctrine to teaching mathematics or Chinese. The impetus for this may soon come from the teachers’ unions or the government but it’s the church itself which should take the initiative.

 

In a policy document from a few years back titled “Religious Education of Catholic Children Not Attending Catholic Schools”, the Irish Catholic Bishops outlined the need for introducing religious education in local parishes to cater for those who haven’t access to it in the classroom. It’s a small step from there to admitting this is actually the way all children should receive their doctrinal instruction in the future.

 

Anybody who opposes this type of thinking should look at what has happened to the Irish language. Coercing people into studying Irish at school has all but killed it as a living tongue. Taking that lesson on board, the church needs to realise that by making religion extra-curricular it would lose quantity, gain quality, and ultimately improve its own long-term prospects. Only those who truly want to make an effort will remain committed to the process once it entails fitting one more appointment into already overbooked weekly schedules.

 

Of course, some will wonder where the church will find the people to teach all these classes. The Americans have an answer for that. They make parents sign up to do it. How many of those currently going bonkers about communion and confirmation parties would be doing so if they had to give an hour a week over to instructing the kids themselves? About the same number who go to mass every Sunday.

When Battling Siki fought Mike McTigue on St. Patrick’s Day

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TEN minutes before the fighters entered the ring, La Scala Theatre was silenced by the sound of a mine exploding near O’Connell Street. The Pillar Picture House was damaged, a baby boy was badly injured, and the master of ceremonies, Jim Harris, announced that by order of the military, nobody could leave the Prince’s Street venue until after 11.30pm. The edict barely raised a murmur of complaint. Having paid to witness Mike McTigue try to wrest the light-heavyweight championship of the world from the exotic title-holder, Battling Siki, fans weren’t going to allow the little matter of a Civil War raging outside intrude on the festivities.

On St Patrick’s Day, 1923, Dublin was the centre of the boxing universe. So many ticketless thousands congregated outside La Scala that the Dublin Metropolitan Police had to erect crash barriers and redirect traffic. Inside, George Bernard Shaw, a noted aficionado of the sport, took his seat alongside British heavyweight champion Joe Beckett and the French legend ‘Gorgeous’ Georges Carpentier. Public work-outs involving both McTigue and Siki at the Rotunda had whetted the city’s appetite and even a brief worry about the moral suitability of holding a prize fight worth £2,000 to the victor on a holy day had been assuaged.

“I can’t speak for Saint Patrick,” said Father O’Ryan from Goldenbridge, “but I think if I were in his place, I should be proud that after 700 hundred years of slavery, Ireland was free enough to welcome a stranger that dare not put his foot on the ‘sacred soil of Britain’. We all hope that our own countryman will prove that he is the best man but if it should happen that the man of colour and the foreigner, after a fair fight, proves to the world that he is the best man, he will be assured of hearty applause.”

McTigue was first into the ring, his entrance sparking enormous cheers from the partisan crowd. Born in Kilnamona, county Clare on 26 November, 1892, he’d emigrated to New York at 16 and wangled a job as a beef handler. After dropping a workplace bully with a single punch, his colleagues urged him to begin a boxing career that stretched for more than two decades. His first 13 years as a pro were mundane, an inability to knock out opponents made ‘Bold Michael’, as the posters ambitiously billed him, a hard sell at the box-office. The nearest he’d ever come to a title shot previously was annexing the middleweight title of Canada in 1921, and that he got to take on Siki in Dublin for the most prestigious belt of all was down to a curious confluence of circumstances.

In a major upset, Battling Siki (a more impressive moniker than his given name, Baye Phal) had knocked out Carpentier, the reigning world light-heavyweight champion in Paris seven months earlier. Despite being a decorated French soldier in World War One, the country’s newspapers turned on the Senegalese native for dethroning their hero. A hard-drinking womaniser, prone to strolling the Parisian streets with a lion on a leash, or with two Great Danes whom he got to perform tricks by firing pistols in the air, they labelled him ‘Championzee’ and ‘Child of the Jungle’.

The French authorities eventually conspired to ban him from fighting and when the Home Office also refused him entry to Britain, he had to box wherever he was allowed.

Certain in the knowledge that a knockout was his only guarantee of victory against an Irishman in Dublin on St Patrick’s night, Siki rushed across the ring at the first bell, unleashing a right to the ribs and a left to the face that put McTigue on the ropes where he quickly and cleverly took the sting out of the attack by ducking every subsequent jab. A couple of inches taller, the Clareman was over a stone lighter but was bringing to bear a reputation as a counterpuncher that saw him once described as “a high priest of the religion of defence”.

The first round set the tone for the next 19. Siki made the running and McTigue fought a smart, rearguard action forcing his man to chase him down and then picking him off with jabs. The pivotal moment came in the 13th. Having already opened a gash over McTigue’s left eye, Siki unfurled a massive left which had knockout written all over it, and the spectacular way McTigue evaded it wrung huge applause from the crowd. He returned to his corner to the soundtrack of ‘Bravo Mac’ chants, and from there on, his superior ringcraft saw him earn the decision on points in the last world title fight to go past 15 rounds.

When Manchester referee Jack Smyth raised McTigue’s hand above his head, La Scala erupted. That the bout had been far from a classic mattered little to those clambering into the ring. Amid chaotic scenes, one of McTigue’s seconds fainted and had to be carried to the dressing room. The fighter himself had a lengthy and emotional embrace with his own father before demanding quiet so he could thank the audience for their support.

“I protest that I won the fight,” said Siki. “I won at least 17 of the 20 rounds. McTigue might have won the other three but I won the fight alright.” Siki’s complaints about the judging were in vain. Most neutral observers felt McTigue had just about deserved the win.

“I won easily, and I would have stopped him in the 13th round only my right thumb was fractured,” said McTigue afterwards. “I beat him to the punch two to one. He didn’t land a clean blow in the full 20 rounds. I had no doubt whatever what the verdict would be. Siki had only two punches, a left and a right lead, and I blocked them both. I was trying to get him with a right to the jaw until I broke my thumb in the 13th round.”

When the Senegalese arrived in New York to restart his own career later that year, McTigue was photographed welcoming him to town. Unfortunately, Siki’s carousing lifestyle soon caught up with him, and the standard joke around the sport was that the only American sparring he ever got was in bar room brawls. On 15 December, 1925, he was found face down in the gutter in Hell’s Kitchen. Somebody had put two bullets in his back from point blank range over an unpaid debt of $20 and the murder was never solved.

Following a number of questionable bouts in which he didn’t put the title on the line, McTigue surrendered his title to Paul Berlenbach in May 1925. That comprehensive defeat almost convinced him to retire but at 35, he went the distance before losing to Irish-American Tommy Loughran in an epic contest for the then vacant world light-heavyweight title. Past his 38th birthday when he finally quit, McTigue opened a bar on Long Island which he ran until his health waned in the late 1940s. He died in Jamaica, Queens on 12 August, 1966, not too far from the cemetery in Flushing where Siki was buried 31 years earlier, the pair forever linked by their role in one of boxing’s most bizarre occasions.

“When the audience did leave La Scala, there was great excitement in O’Connell Street consequent on a number of shots being fired,” reported The Cork Examiner. “From somewhere in the vicinity there was a rapid burst of revolver fire. Immediately, a wild stampede for safety occurred, many people being trampled in the rush. Screaming women ran hither and thither whilst several more cautious sought to cower by throwing themselves on the ground. Even by doing so they took the risk of being trampled on. The crowd hastily dispersed afterwards and in a few minutes the street was deserted. A man named James O’Shea of 1, Harcourt Street was admitted to Jervis Street Hospital, suffering from a bullet wound to the leg. He is said to have been shot on Westmoreland Street.”

A memorable evening ended as it begun, the real combat upstaging the showbiz.

Kissinger, the New York Cosmos and the spy planes

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At a certain juncture during the New York Cosmos’ lengthy courtship of Pele in the mid-1970s, it became apparent that the Brazilian government might actually refuse to allow the country’s most prized national asset to leave. Knowing that sort of political intransigence had prevented the biggest clubs in Italy, Spain and Portugal from signing the player from Santos before, the Cosmos decided to try a different tack. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger accompanied one of the club’s delegations to Brazil where the central thrust of his rather blunt contribution to the debate was as follows: “Listen, America has done so much for Brazil that we’d now like you to loan us Pele.”

The Brazilians went berserk at the mere suggestion, but within a year, Pele was earning more than $1m a season in New York, while Kissinger became a regular visitor to the Cosmos dressing-room, and chairman of the North American Soccer League’s Board of Governors. While the public perception of him is as a war criminal or a master diplomat, depending on your political persuasion, Kissinger’s passion for soccer remains one of the few facets of his career not besmirched by controversy.

“I have been an avid fan ever since my youth in Fuerth, a soccer-mad city of southern Germany, which for some inexplicable reason won three championships in a three-year period, ” wrote Kissinger in an article for the Los Angeles Times on the day of the 1986 World Cup final. “My father despaired of a son who preferred to stand for two hours (there were very few seats) watching a soccer game rather than sit in the comfort of the opera or be protected from the elements in a museum.”

When the Kissingers fled Hitler’s Germany in 1938 and moved to New York via London, 15-year-old Heinz was renamed Henry but remained faithful to the game that had been the love of his life since he first took his bow as a schoolboy goalkeeper.

Appointed as a US Army interpreter in the closing stages of World War II, he soon found himself back in his newly-liberated home country where his fellow soldiers remember him spending his spare time driving a Mercedes (freshly confiscated from the Nazis) to amateur soccer matches. If the American GIs were suitably puzzled by soccer, it was to play a far more important role in the country’s subsequent foreign policy than they could ever have imagined.

In September 1970, a U-2 spy plane took aerial photographs of Cienfuegos, a naval base on Cuba’s south coast. Nobody thought much about their content until Kissinger saw them and marched into the office of President Nixon’s chief-of-staff HR Haldeman, demanding to see the commander-in-chief. As Haldeman eyed the reconnaissance photos, he couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

“It’s a Cuban seaport, Haldeman, and these pictures show the Cubans are building soccer fields,” said an increasingly more irate Kissinger. “‘Those soccer fields could mean war.” When Haldeman still failed to make the connection between armed conflict and the beautiful game, the Secretary of State’s voice went up a notch.

“Cubans play baseball!” he said. “Russians play soccer!” That might have been a slight generalisation, but his surmising that freshly-lined soccer pitches represented telling evidence that there were Russians based in Cienfuegos proved correct. It emerged that the ever-hospitable Cubans had indeed decided to facilitate the recreational needs of their Russian visitors as they collaborated on the construction of a nuclear submarine base.

His love of soccer hasn’t always been so kind to his ambitions. Eight years after first befriending Pele, the two men sat alongside Franz Beckenbauer as this influential trio testified before US Congress about the financial and other benefits of bringing the World Cup to America. Their eloquence on behalf of the bid proved to be in vain when Kissinger subsequently met his match in former FIFA President Joao Havelange, learning the hard way that the sport’s decision-makers are capable of machinations that put the most corrupt politicians and, ahem, Nobel Prize winners to shame.

On 20 May, 1983, the FIFA executive gathered to hear Canada, Mexico and the US stake their claims to host the 1986 World Cup. After a Mexican presentation that lasted seven minutes, Kissinger gave an hour-long tour de force outlining the logistical merits of staging the tournament in America and the potential benefits for growing the game there. With Havelange and his officials apparently listening intently, Kissinger was interrupted by an aide informing him that the Mexicans were already enthusiastically celebrating their assured victory.

Embarrassed, he beat a hasty and angry retreat.

“The politics of FIFA,” said Kissinger of the whole experience, “they make me nostalgic for the Middle East.”

The biter bit.