The GAA could sing a Turkish protest song

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When I first moved to America, I ended up playing junior soccer with a team made up almost exclusively of Turks that was called New York Besiktas. We wore the black and white stripes of the Istanbul club, we had the crest containing the crescent of Islam over our hearts. During that hugely entertaining season, I learned that the Turks had a near-monopoly on the petrol stations of Long Island, loved to argue with each other at half-time, and, if you were wearing the colours of Besiktas, you had to despise their hated crosstown rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbache.

That much came to mind over the past few weeks as I watched the television news scenes of civil unrest from Turkey. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the whole brouhaha about Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s apparent desire to make the country less secular and more religiously conservative is the galvanizing effect it has had on the soccer clubs. Witness social media spreading a remarkable photograph of three Istanbul fans wearing Besiktas, Galatasaray and Fenerbache shirts while marching together, their arms entwined beneath a flag that read: “Tayyip do you know Istanbul United? Since 31 May 2013.”

Imagine the most rabid Celtic and Rangers fans coming together, co-ordinating a march to demand Scottish independence and you start to picture how seismic and impactful this stuff has been on Turkey. Ordinarily, these supporters despise each other and very often, way too often in fact, clashes between their clubs, result in violence, hooliganism and murder. They are united now though because they see that something more important than sporting bragging rights over local rivals is at stake. This is not about goals scored or titles won, it’s about the future direction of the country they love.

Of course, we’ve been here before in recent years. During the Egyptian uprising in 2011, soccer fans were credited with being the most organised and coherent protesters when the people started taking to the streets to try to oust President Mubarak. In particular, the fans of Al Ahly (which translates as The National), a club formed a century earlier to help give students a voice against the British colonial rulers, were prominent on the barricades and in the pulling together of the various strands of the movement.

“The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt’s anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government’s worst nightmare,” wrote James Dorsey, an expert on the Middle East. “Soccer, alongside Islam, offers a rare platform in the Middle East, a region populated by authoritarian regimes that control all public spaces, for the venting of pent-up anger and frustration.”

While the role of soccer in the revolution in Egypt was overshadowed by a riot at a match in Port Said where 73 died, the importance of sport as a vehicle for protest hasn’t been diminished any on the world stage. In the build-up to last week’s elections in Iran, soccer clubs featured again and again in dispatches. Some candidates promised to free teams from government control, others sponsored the teams in an effort to win votes. All the while, the rulers worried that Iran clinching World Cup qualification might yield celebrations that would become become an occasion for protest against the government.

All of this is relevant because perhaps the most shameful aspect of recent Irish history has been the public’s rather stoic acceptance of the bondholder bail out and other fiscal atrocities committed by those with their hands on the reins of power. I understand there is no great protest culture in Ireland but, from the outside looking in, it seems astonishing that more people were not moved to take to the streets in greater numbers to vent their rage and demand action.

To this end, I look at the stuff going on in Turkey and Egypt and I realise we have the very vehicle for an Irish protest movement right under our noses. We have the sporting organisation that unites more people than any other. We have the GAA. By most estimates one in four people are members of a GAA club. There is one, usually with a clubhouse and meeting rooms, in every parish in the 26 counties. The GAA has the power and the infrastructure already in place to demand and to effect real change. It has the power to move mountains.

That it has never flexed this muscle yet isn’t the point. It could and maybe, as generations of Irish children have been sold down the river for the bondholders, it should. There’s a great irony here too. From what I can see, the longest and most sustained protest against the bondholders has come from Ballyhea, a town many of us instantly associate with hurling. Moreover, one of the key figures in that weekly and very noble tilt at the windmill is the Irish Examiner sports journalist Diarmuid O’Flynn.

In the interests of full disclosure, I don’t know Diarmuid O’Flynn. I spoke to him on the phone once many, many years ago. But here’s what I do know. Him and his ilk have done the country some service with their weekly effort and they have also offered an example. All those people sitting around in pubs, whingeing about the austerity measures and the increased levies and the Anglo tapes, need to get off their arses too to help the country get out from under these punitive conditions. And the GAA could have a role to play in this.

The GAA can provide a nationwide apparatus and a formal structure to any protest movement. It also has the social and moral weight to force the government to act. To do so all it needs is to stand up, speak up and show the authorities just how many people come under the GAA banner. Picture Kilkenny, Cork, Dublin and Donegal players heading up a million man march through the streets of Dublin the day before an All-Ireland final. Some might think that sounds ludicrous. Not more ludicrous than the idea of Istanbul’s three major clubs uniting under one flag to protest a prime minister.
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Six foot two, eyes of blue, Jimmy Barry….

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The first time I met Jimmy Barry-Murphy I was an 11 year old boy and he was presenting Sciath na Scoil medals in the cramped gym of Scoil Mhuire gan Smal in Glasheen. When my turn came, I shuffled up to the table, shook his hand but couldn’t look him in the eye. Too overawed. This was 1982. There was no bigger star in our universe. The second time I met him, I was a 31 year old man and he came over to a table in a restaurant in Cork to say hello to my dining companion, an old friend of his. Again, I shook his hand. Again, I couldn’t make any significant eye contact. Too overawed. Twenty years had gone by but the aura surrounding him remained in place.

For Corkmen of a certain age, anybody over 35 really, next Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final with Galway is different from all other hurling matches in recent years. Why? Because this afternoon, Cork are managed by Barry-Murphy and his very presence inspires hope where even last summer there was so very little. Our heads tell us his presence on the sideline can’t count for that much in Croke Park once the ball is thrown in but the problem is, with this man, we are always ruled by his place in our hearts.

We imagine him leading us back to a final (an achievement that in its way might surpass the All-Ireland win of 1999) because, with him, emotion triumphs over logic every time. How could it not? There were better exponents of both codes than him, just none that had his impact on big games, his charisma or his flair for the dramatic. Whether you called him Jimmy, JBM or Jimmy Barry, he seemed to be quintessentially Cork. Incredibly modest off the field and cocky enough on it the way the great ones have to be, he was the embodiment of so many virtues we like to prize as our own.

For our generations, coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, Christy Ring was a black and white story handed down from our fathers and our grandfathers, a reel of sepia footage. Meanwhile, JBM was a living, breathing, technicolour deity who walked among us. The day after watching him perform some wondrous feat like pilfering three goals against Blackrock down the Pairc, you might see him nipping out of Lennox’s chipper on Bandon Road on the way home. He came to our school with the cup. He came there to present medals. He was real, he was genuine, and he was, most importantly of all, ours.

It helped too that he carried himself with uncommon grace. He won All-Ireland medals at minor, Under-21, senior and club level in both codes and amassed seven All-Stars. An incredible haul. Yet, visitors to his home will vouchsafe there is not a single memento from the sporting half of his life hanging from the walls.

“You know what they say about Jimmy’s house,” said one member of the current Cork panel. “You go to sit down and you might find an All-Ireland medal under a pillow on the couch, just lying there.”

If that type of humility endeared him to all, there are more impressive facets to the character too. A couple of years ago, an old classmate was in hospice in Cork coming to the end of a battle with cancer when Barry-Murphy (whom he had never met before) dropped in to pay him a surprise visit. In an impossibly dark time, a conversation with his hero provided a tiny cameo of bright light. And, we know that wasn’t the first time he performed that kind of deed in those kind of circumstances.

It didn’t surprise us then that he turned up in the Vita Cortex factory just before Christmas. As the workers struggled for justice, he came to lend his support. Of course, he was also lending his celebrity and his credibility to their cause, garnering column inches of publicity for the strikers and, in his own inevitably understated way, showing his solidarity.

That kind of stuff and more is why the episode of Laochra Gael which featured Barry-Murphy a few weeks back had all forty and fifty-something Corkonians feeling wistful and romantic about our childhoods. Of course, some were inevitably complaining about the quality of the production because a documentary about our hero would need to be hours long to satisfy our craving for every scrap of footage. Most if it was fine though. They went big on “that” goal against Galway and, perhaps legitimately so. It was special.

“In the following weeks – and years – there was no scarcity of sciolists to maintain that it was all ‘luck’ or ‘chance’,” wrote Kevin Cashman of the goal in The Sunday Tribune. “It is pointless to explain to such people about the patience and practice and concentration and the unique natural gift of co-ordination of limb and eye which went to make that stroke. It is best simply to tell them that the greatest shots of Bobby Charlton and Ollie Campbell and Steve Davis and John Lowe were all luck and chance too.”

The comparisons may have to be explained to our younger readers but you get the meaning. Still, purists (and when it comes to discussing Jimmy Barry, all Cork people are purists) argued that the Laochra Gael people ignored perhaps the truest expression of his genius.

That was the moment in the otherwise long-forgotten 1980 League final replay against Limerick when he went on a solo run, took three opponents with him and then stopped dead and put his hands on his hips. Only at that point did everybody, including his opponents, realise he’d let the ball drop on the blindside so Pat Horgan could pick it up and point it unhindered. A fleeting moment where vision, daring, class and touch were manifest in a sleight of hand nobody else would have even thought of, much less attempted. Classic JBM.

 

 

 

(first published in August, 2012)

 

My son is a Yankee Doodle Dandy

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Just after 6pm last Tuesday night, I found myself leaning against a security barrier in the South Bronx, craning my neck to see if any buses were coming. I had spent the previous half an hour in the same spot in the hope that the two 13 year old boys in my care might catch a fleeting glimpse of the Spanish and Irish players as they were driven into Yankee Stadium. When the NYPD outriders finally appeared ahead of the Ireland convoy, the boys began jumping up and down, pointing their phones at the bus like tween girls at a One Direction concert.

That the windows of the Irish bus (and the Spanish one when it came) were tinted and they didn’t even see the shadow of a footballer mattered not a jot because this giddy ritual was all part of their trip to the Ireland-Spain pageant. My son Abe was born in Dublin but has grown up a soccer fanatic in New York. He has a framed Xavi poster on his bedroom wall, once wrote a letter to Iniesta for a Spanish class project (he never replied!), and, among his slightly schizophrenic shirt collection, there are England, France, Argentina, Portugal, Barcelona, Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Cork City jerseys.

The poster child of soccer globalization was wearing the Irish Euro 2012 green number when we picked up his friend Jared earlier that afternoon. Three years ago, Jared had never watched a soccer match he wasn’t involved in. Tuesday, he got into the car, apologised for wearing a Barcelona training top rather than an Ireland jersey, and then started asking me to tell him stories about an old footballer whom he’d recently discovered, some guy by the name of George Best. “Apparently he was brilliant but he was a bit of a drunk,” said Jared.

These children are part of what I call “America’s Barcelona generation”. They have come of age in an era defined by Messi and co being available on television every week. They watch and devour everything to do with that team. As kids who’ve been doing the famous “rondo” as part of their own training rituals for years, they insisted on being in their seats early to watch the Spanish warm-up, to catch the full panoply of flicks and tricks on show.

One of them might have been wearing an Ireland shirt and his birth cert says Holles Street but that Ireland were providing the opposition was incidental. For these boys, Spain were the main attraction, and, judging by the sea of La Roja red, speckled with Madrid white and Barcelona’s red and blue, they were not alone in this. Yankee Stadium was no replay of Ireland outnumbering the Italians in Giants Stadium all those years ago.

Of course, the early attendance impressions may have been slightly skewed because during the first half hour, our view of Spain’s passing masterclass was repeatedly interrupted by Irish supporters straggling in.

“Why are the Irish fans all coming in late?” asked Jared.

“They were in the bar,” said Abe, before I could even try to put a spin on it.

And from the bedraggled, beery shape of some of them as they navigated the steps to the nosebleed seats (one beauty was wearing a shirt with the name Long-Cox and the number 69 on the back), the child was right.

If my lads came to see the Spanish greats do their thing, they also learned a whole lot more. They were so taken with the rather mundane renditions of  “The Fields of Athenry” that they wanted to know more about the song. At half-time I ran through and explained the lyrics, and they looked at me and they looked at me.

“They sing songs about a famine (which is part of the New York state curriculum) to inspire the team?’ asked Abe.

“Eh, yeah.”

All the stuff Irish adolescents might take for granted on a visit to the Aviva was thrilling and novel for these Long Island kids. From the Irishmen cavalierly jaywalking along Jerome Street to the line of green shirts urinating against a wall in the car-park to the foul-mouthed Brazilian in the Flamengo shirt, swearing uncontrollably at the Spanish players throughout, this was all part of the carnival they’d been desperate to see

For an expatriate father though there is always an added charge to going to see Ireland play, especially when you bring along one of your own children. I heard the babel of familiar accents, saw the kaleidoscope of county jerseys in our midst, and suddenly, for a moment, I was 3000 miles away. Then my son said something and I realised again how American his accent is, how American he is. And looking around the grandstand, I saw plenty of others in the same boat as me, forty-something exiles surrounded by New York children wearing forty shades of green for the night that was in it. Anything to please Dad.

There was just one crucial difference. I didn’t see any of the other Irish-American kids slapping their seats in frustration every time Spain came close to breaching the valiant Irish defence.  None of them were on their feet, arms in the air celebrating when Soldado and Mata scored. But Abe was. Wearing that Ireland shirt gifted to him by his uncle Tom before the Euros, the Irish tracksuit top he got for Christmas tied around his waist, he reacted to the Spanish goals with the joy of somebody born and reared in Madrid.  Shameless. No allegiance to the country of his birth at all.

On the way out, we stopped at a merchandising stall and Abe produced $20 he’d been carefully hiding away all day. From all the items available, so many scarves and hats where the tricolour loomed large, he bought a La Roja t-shirt with the Spanish crest on the front. By the time we’d left the stadium, he had pulled it over his head. A man-child between two countries. Or three. And counting.

 
 

 

President Obama, the white Negroes and the smoked Irish

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In 1850, the very same year a young Offaly man named Falmouth Kearney sailed to America to seek his fortune, the United States Census carried a new classification for a group known as mulattos. Among other reasons, this category was introduced to accommodate the increasing number of children born of inter-racial marriages between African-Americans and Irish immigrants. More than a century and a half later, Kearney’s great-great-great grandson, President Barack Obama, somebody who can trace his bloodlines to exactly that type of relationship, will return to Ireland next week to be greeted with so much adulation it will give a whole new meaning to the term “Black Irish”.

 

Obama is merely the latest African-American icon to be belatedly claimed by Ireland and, by extension, Irish-America as one of our own. The list of the great and the good black legends with Irish connections is long and growing each year. Muhammad Ali’s maternal great-grandfather was Abe Grady from Ennis, Co. Clare. Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan and her link to Ireland was a grandfather. Jimi Hendrix’ mother Nora Moore’s lineage was even more direct, an Irish father. If these are all tangible, authentic ancestral connections (unlike, ahem, the ongoing debate about the veracity of Bill Clinton’s claim to have Fermanagh roots), the question is why it’s taken us so long to address this facet of our diaspora.

 

For generations and generations, the black branches of the Irish-American family tree went untouched and largely ignored outside the obscure provinces of academia. Whether or not this failure was the inevitable byproduct of decades of historic feuding between the two ethnic groups, this seemed, for far too long, to be the genealogy that dare not speak its name. Rosa Parks may well be able to lay claim to being one of the most influential African-American women of the 20thcentury but most people didn’t know until her death in 2005 that her great-grandfather was a Scots-Irishman named McCauley.

 

We learned in school in Cork about Parks’ heroic refusal to sit at the back of the bus and the way it sparked the civil rights’ movement in America but nobody told us she was of Irish stock. Why not? Well, the answer to that case in particular, and our refusal to engage this whole area in general can be best explained by the case of Billie Holiday. The chanteuse was one of 17 children born to a black Virginia slave and a white Irish plantation owner, a vivid tale of its time that highlights how not all relations between African-Americans and Irish were consensual or even formally acknowledged.

 

“My great-granddaddy who was Irish had a nice, pretty, little slave girl and one day he was out walking and visiting, and that’s how we all got mixed up like we are,” said Muhammad Ali with a smile when questioned about his Irish heritage during a 1978 interview on American television. As he always did back then, Ali asserted any white blood in his family could only have come as a result of some slave-owner taking advantage of his chattel. Whatever euphemism Ali used to describe this carry-on, he usually drew uncomfortable laughter from his audience and everybody moved quickly on.

 

Of course, this version of events was untrue and did a grave disservice to Abe Grady who married a freed slave in the 1870s in Kentucky and begat Ali’s maternal line. But the fighter, then in his radical Nation of Islam, anti-whitey phase of his career, regularly told reporters the claim he had white ancestors was a typical attempt by the establishment to try to denigrate blacks who achieve greatness by asserting their white blood had something to do with that success. One can imagine at least some Africa-Americans watching the footage of Obama in Moneygall on CNN next week thinking along similar lines.

 

Having first come to light during his trip to Dublin to fight Al “Blue” Lewis in 1972, Ali’s Irishness was (deliberately or conveniently) forgotten about for nearly three decades. Given the Irish-American propensity to try to establish even the most tenuous linkage to any high-achiever, this seems very odd. Was it his colour that explains this delay? Or was it anything to do with the fact that by the time Abe Grady’s story came to prominence again in the early 2000s, the fighter had made the journey from polarising racial polemicist to respectable grand old man of world sport?

 

That would seem a fair reading after you look at the photographs of Enda Kenny and others joshing with the former champ when he was guest of honour at the American-Ireland fund-raising dinner in Manhattan the other week. By our estimates it took the doyennes of Irish-America nearly forty years to come to terms with, accept, embrace, and, some would now say, try to exploit Ali’s Irishness. Nobody talks about the slave origin myth he used to peddle back in the day. And nobody in his camp asks why he was the curiously forgotten Irishman for so long?

 

The pity in all this is the Irish and the African-Americans once had much more in common than marriages and relationships. For a long time in the 19th century, they shared a space at the bottom of society’s ladder. The ghettoes in which both groups were shoehorned in the big cities across America often overlapped. Hence the love affairs that sprung up. Indeed, their stations were so similar that the Irish were alternatively known as “white Negroes” and “Negroes turned inside out” while their black counterparts were described as “smoked Irish”. No more graphic demonstration of their equality than that.

 

“Those terms reflected the scorn and disdain with which both were regarded by the better-situated, by the leading elements of American society,” said Noel Ignatiev, author of “How the Irish Became White”. “There was speculation that there would be some “amalgamation,” that is, that Irish and black would blend into each other and become one common people. That didn’t happen; in fact, the opposite happened.”

 

As the 19thcentury wore on, the Irish in America moved up the ladder and, as they did so, developed a reputation for racism that they’ve struggled to shake off ever since. This is the elephant in room when it comes to Obama’s trip to Ireland. When the two ethnicities were competing for the worst-paid jobs, they fought violently. Once the Irish got a stranglehold on industries, they did everything they could to keep out their former peers. That they’d been the victims of institutionalized prejudice themselves back home didn’t matter a jot. They gained some semblance of power and they often abused it.

 

If the troubled history between the two explains why Irish-America has been traditionally so reluctant to claim African-Americans with traceable Irish antecedents, all that has changed now. Not long after the news of Obama’s plans to retrace the journey of Falmouth Kearney broke back in March, the first reports appeared in New York’s Irish papers that his wife Michelle also had a connection to the old country through an ancestor by the name of Shields. Well, she’s the First Lady now. She’s ascended high enough to be claimed as one of our own.

 

(first published in the Daily Mail in 2011)

The Memory Motel, famous for Mick Jagger, Carly Simon and, eh, J1 students

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The sun set a deep shade of red over the Long Island town of Montauk last Tuesday evening, and by 7pm the first bonfire was blazing on a beach that stretches for miles and miles of golden sand. A girl with a Dublin accent sat in the courtyard of the Memory Motel, famously immortalised in the song of the same name by the Rolling Stones, Skyping on her iPhone with home. Over her shoulder, a slightly bedraggled Irish tricolour hung in one of the windows. Behind her head, the sign at the office read “No Vacancy”. 

Twenty yards farther along the main drag, we happened upon a group of Irish students who explained why there was no room at the inn.

 “We’re six to a room down there,” said Paraic McEnery from the Limerick Institute of Technology, as he and his pals stood on the steps outside Wok and Roll, waiting for their Chinese takeaways.

Six to a room in a place where Mick Jagger once reputedly seduced Carly Simon when the Stones were in town hanging out with Andy Warhol.

“The six of  us, a double-bed, and a television and nothing else,” said Anthony Slowey, a native of Donegal studying at the University of Limerick. “It’s just as well us lads are very close.”

As if on cue, one of them holds up a freshly-purchased inflatable mattress and they laugh the carefree laugh of individuals here courtesy of the J1 visa that allows students to work in America legitimately for the summer months. They didn’t come to these parts for four-star hotels or for comfortable beds. The dust and sweat caked into their clothes at the end of working days on construction sites and golf courses indicate that.

They came here for the full-on experience, working by day and, by night, well, enjoying all the other delights on offer in a seaside resort that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, 100 miles east of New York city, 3000 miles from home. Ask them why they picked this particular place and they rattle off the reasons. “There’s the sun, there’s the beach, there’s the nightlife, it’s everything we were told it was going to be.”

It’s everything and a little bit more. In recent years, some J1 students have found work more difficult to come by than their predecessors as the recession bit deeper and deeper in to the American economy. Not this year. At least not for these boys. All six were fully-employed within days of taking the long bus journey out from the city.

“Jobs?” asks Micheal Roche. “After a few days, they were practically walking up to you throwing the jobs at you, I’m telling you, they are that desperate for people to work. There’s no shortage around here.”

That a shop on the main street sells Cadbury’s chocolate, Barry’s Tea and Tayto crisps is an illustration of Montauk’s enduring and unique relationship with Ireland. Local legend has it the connection began when two Irish students came to the town one summer in the mid-sixties to work for their aunt on her hot dog stand. By the mid-80s, it was one of the favoured destinations for the J1 brigade. This year, it’s estimated at least 1000 will be knocking around the place (and according to the Limerick sextet’s unscientific research, the ratio is roughly ten girls to every fella).

The Irish are easy to spot all along Route 27 that runs right through the town, not just because their skin is a little more pink and pale than the locals, there’s also the fact they walk everywhere. A very un-American activity. Hazel and Mairead, from UCD via Donegal and Mayo, were trundling along Edgemere Street, baguettes under their arms, and their thumbs aloft. A day working in a seafood store behind them, they were hitchhiking the two miles out to the apartment they share outside the town. They wouldn’t give their surnames but they sang the praises of their hosts.

“Somebody always picks us up,” they chorus. “Americans are great like that. They can’t do enough for you. Our first weekend here, we were sitting on the side of the street, our two big suitcases, and nowhere to stay because it was Memorial Day weekend. We were in real trouble until this woman came along, ‘You’re Irish right?’ ‘Yeah,’ we said. Well, she brought us to this family who took us in for the weekend, fed and watered us and then drove us to our job interviews. We just couldn’t believe how generous they were.”

For those who aren’t beneficiaries of such random acts of kindness, there are other safety nets. Orla Kelleher is Executive Director of the Aisling Irish Community Center in Yonkers, a traditional Irish enclave just north of New York city. Three seasons a year, her office helps immigrants arriving to make new lives for themselves in America, assisting them as they seek out accommodation and chase up job leads. A large part of the summer though is devoted to the cause of the J1ers.  It’s early yet but this June has been good so far because she’s had no reports of any students sleeping rough for want of a bed.

“You are always worried a couple of them will end up on park benches or on beaches at night,” said Kelleher. “We find every year that one of the biggest problems is students are just not properly prepared. Despite our best efforts to educate them and despite the availability of so much information online on our website, they are still surprised at how difficult it is to get jobs. The first thing I do when they come into my office is tell them to get out of the city and head towards the Jersey Shore and out onto Long Island where there is more seasonal work available. They don’t seem to realise either how expensive it’s going to be get up on their feet.”

The problem is often one of unrealistic expectations. Mythmaking and exaggerating about the lucrative earning potential of a J1 have been staples on Irish college campuses for decades. There is far less talk about the logistical problems of sorting social security numbers, the need for extra cash for security deposits and the inconvenience of having to wait a month for the first cheque to clear. The single biggest mistake made every year is students failing to bring enough cash to tide them over in the first few weeks.

“One of my friend’s sisters came here last year and she made so much money that she came home and bought a car,” said Fiona Kelly, a student of geography at Trinity College, delighted to be swapping summer in South Dublin for the South Fork of Long Island. “So you’d be hoping you could do the same. But even if I don’t make any money, it’s all about spending a summer away from Dublin and getting the experience of living here.”

As a generation of students who spent so many of their childhood years growing up in the maw of the Celtic Tiger, it’s instructive that the dozen or so I meet all downplay the financial motivation for coming here. One or two mention the hope they might save enough to have a blow-out on the West Coast before going home. There’s even ambitious talk of a few days in Las Vegas. Most will be happy to break even though, to spend a few days in New York city, and to have milked every last drop  of fun from their stay. Whatever happens, they’ve learned valuable lessons about camaraderie and community not available in any classroom.

“We met two girls on the bus coming out,” said Slowey. “They had nowhere to stay and we had our room sorted already so of course we let them stay with us for a week. You know people would do the same for you. The Irish look after each other around here.”

Wherever in America the students land, from Ocean City, Maryland to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and all points in between, finding accommodation is always the most difficult part of the J1 experience. Witness a group of students from Dublin Business School who were scammed out of $5000 by a landlord in Santa Monica, California even before they set foot on the plane last month. This is why, no matter how cramped and overcrowded the living conditions, nobody ever turns down a request to put somebody up, for a night that inevitably turns into a week, and sometimes even more.

The accommodation shortage is exacerbated by the fact every batch of fresh Irish students is confronted by the sins of their predecessors. There are landlords in Montauk who won’t even consider renting to Irish. Too much damage to the properties. Too many stories of disgruntled tenants smashing up apartments in disputes over security deposits at the end of the summer.

“It only takes a handful of students to cast a cloud and leave a bad impression,” said Kelleher. “Some landlords are happy to let them stay six or seven to a room but others take exception to discovering they’ve rented to one and soon there are seven or eight living there. The vast majority play by the rules but it’s those who don’t that people remember.”

There are bartenders around Montauk who won’t serve Irish because they are too messy when they are drunk.  There are employers who won’t hire them either. Not because of their drinking or their work ethic. It’s just that in previous years too many students have started work, promised to stay until Labour Day (the first weekend in September and the traditional end of the busy season) and then departed early, leaving their employers high and dry. They won’t get fooled again.

“You’d think they’d be sick of Irish around here at this stage but they aren’t,” said McEnery. “There are still so many people we meet every day who can’t do enough for us.”

In part, the locals embrace the influx because Montauk is a seasonal town whose population swells from 1200 to 20,000 in the summer. They need the migrant workers and the fact the students spend so much (they can rattle off the nightly drink specials in every pub from Sloppy Tuna’s to The Point) of their income around the place is greatly appreciated.

“This is the perfect spot for a summer if you want to work all day and party all night,” said Hazel and Mairead from UCD. “You can go out every night here if you want. That’s kind of what the JI scene is all about isn’t it? And it’s a lot more fun than spending the summer back in Ireland.”

The internet means it has never been easier for emigrants (even seasonal ones) to be so far away from friends and family. Those without phones sit in the Coffee Tauk café on Elmwood Avenue between shifts  and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi to chat with home. Those without their own laptops in tow go to the Montauk Library and queue up to use the computers there for the same reason. Some even complain that the technology means their parents can contact them too easily too often. The words “plaguing me” were used by more than one ungrateful child.

All agree however that this particular summer in America carries a certain extra poignancy to it for these Irish students, as it has for the past few years. Amid all the partying and posturing, these young men and women know that moving to work in a foreign country is a very definite post-graduate possibility for a lot of them. In many ways then, this is a trial run, an opportunity to see if they can cut it abroad.

“We are very aware of the fact we will more than likely have to leave Ireland for work,” said Slowey. “This is our chance, you know, to see if we can survive on our own, this far away from home.”

Listening to them talk, the prognosis so far looks good.
 
 
(this piece first appeared in the Daily Mail, June 2012)

Hey Joe, where you going with no gloves on your hands?

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The first official entry on Irishman Joe Coburn’s boxing CV lists his professional debut as a clash with England’s Ned Price at Spy Pond outside Boston in 1856. Although some say 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.

More than a century and half after a nearly four-hour epic that would go down in fistic lore and prompt Price to walk away from fighting, Coburn was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York this week. In a class set to be headlined posthumously by the great Arturo Gatti, Coburn’s presence is an acknowledgement of his role in the early days of a sport where the Irish contribution was at that time always outsized.

If the press release heralding him as a boxing pioneer listed him as a native of Middletown, County Armagh, there is a rival claim alleging he was born in Carrickedmond, County Louth on July 29th, 1835 before the family moved north. Either way, he sailed to America in 1850 with his mother Mary, his brothers James and Michael, and his sister Mary-Anne. The teenage boy started his working life as a bricklayer but, like so many Irish in the second half of the 19thcentury in New York, bareknuckle boxing became his vocation.

“His superiority in the ring is is due mainly to his quickness of movement, not his physical strength,” went a report in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “He delivers a blow like a pistol shot and jumps back in an instant, and is on his guard before his opponent can return the compliment, inflicting punishment without receiving any in return.”

After that impressive professional bow against Price, Coburn’s career suffered over the next few years from the disorganization and chaos that afflicted the fight game in that era. Even Cyberboxingzone.com, the pre-eminent boxing history site lists encounters on his resume where the opponents and the outcomes remain unknown. Still, there is no question that in 1862, he took possession of the Heavyweight Championship of America after John C. Heenan refused to get in the ring with him, an event recorded in a song the opening verse of which reads:

“You gallant sons of Paddy’s land I hope you will draw near
It’s of an Irish Champion brave I mean to let you hear,
His name it is Joe Coburn from Erin’s fertile shore
He has now challenged Heenan for £10,000 and more.”


He held the title for three years and his reign showcased all the problems that would afflict boxing forever after. After defeating Mike McCoole in another 67-round classic of the genre in Charlestown, Maryland in 1867, all attempts to get it on with Tom King and Jem Mace, the best of the Englishmen at the time, were thwarted. When Mace refused to fight in America, Coburn went back to Ireland in 1863 to try to arrange a bout there. Following protracted negotiations, a venue was settled upon, Pierstown, Wexford, but the two camps couldn’t agree on a referee. An all too familiar tale.

By the time they eventually fought in 1871, Mace was the champion of the world. Having surrendered his own title in 1865, Coburn’s two fights against his English rival both ended in draws, one in bizarre circumstances when the police intervened.  Thereafter, his career declined and his life took what was an all too typical turn for boxers in New York in the 1870s. He ended up in court for shooting at two policemen in the city, an event which, demonstrating his celebrity, drew hundreds of onlookers to the trial each day. Sentenced to ten years hard labour, he ended up serving only five but his propensity for violence had become part of the public record.

“Joe Coburn used to clean out a bar-room in this city,” went a report in the New York Times in 1883. “Who ever heard of Joe using his fists in his unnumbered broils? Pistols, beer glasses, bottles or anything that might do injury if hurled in a certain direction, were his weapons.”

When he got out of jail a year before that withering account of his reputation, there was such goodwill towards him that a benefit night was held at Madison Square Garden, the expressed purpose of which was to make him enough money to fund the purchase of an up-town saloon. Acknowledging his previous issues, he vowed never to touch drink again himself because it had caused him so much grief. On that particular evening, more than 3000 turned up, some of them paying way over the odds to bolster the coffers, to witness an event the highlight of which was Coburn sparring several rounds against John L. Sullivan, then champion of the world and the most famous athlete in America at that time.

There were several more exhibitions against Sullivan over the next few months and later, Coburn took part in some experimental bouts where the fighters wore gloves which had been soaked in a preparation of lamp-black so that spectators could better see punches landing.  Before his death from pneumonia in 1890, there were also further altercations with the law, the charges ranging from robbery to public drunkenness. When they came to read the citation explaining his entry into the boxing canon this weekend, they should have recited some of the lyrics from “The Cowardly Englishman”, a song about Coburn’s challenge to Jem Mace.

“My age is nine-and-twenty and my weight eleven stone,
I’m five feet eleven and a half in height and Irish every bone,
I never met a bully yet of fifteen stone or more,
Was ever fit to conquer me all on Columbia’s shore…”