A Travellerspoint blog

No joy in the Wesht

So, a few days have now passed since the latest All Ireland Football final and the inevitable defeat of Mayo at the hands of the woad shirted Dubs. Despite the fact that Mayo are the rest of the country's favourite second team and everyone outside the capital would rather have slaughtered their first born rather than see Dublin win, it was not to be.

Despite the outrageously over the top media hype in the run up to this game, where 'those in the know', were almost guaranteeing a Mayo win, I have to admit to a great foreboding as the game developed. Poor handling, poor passing, poor finishing, does not an All Ireland champion make. Couple this with having watched the game, although in Meath, but in a pub full of Dub supporters, including my cousin and his family, left me feeling today was not to be the wesht's day.

Frank, a gap toothed retiree from Louth, was my only support and Frank's contribution was limited to shouting ''Kick his head in!'' So the wait goes on, 62 years becomes 63 and Sam remains east of the Shannon. Until next year...

Posted by johnward 06:54 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

South

Almost three months ago, I arrived in Wexford, turned left and just kept going. I've been heading north ever since, hugging the coast until I reached Malin Head in Donegal, where I simply ran out of Ireland. Essentially my trip was over. I'd done what I wanted, but I don't want the journey to end. Not yet.

I turned around, came along the west bank of Lough Foyle, up the east shore, through Derry and into Antrim. I moved along the coast until I reached Ballycastle and ran out of steam. I didn't want to spend anymore time by the sea, but wanted some green fields, stone walls and somewhere away from the sound of seagulls.

I headed south, towards Enniskillen. I passed through towns, villages and hamlets called Stranocum, McLaughlin's Corner, Upperlands, Maghera, Magherafelt, I passed Spires Integrated Primary School, through Cookstown, the 'retail capital of Mid Ulster' and a sign advertising 'British Queens, Laid Daily'. I crossed from Antrim into Tyrone and bypassed Omagh. The towns all began to look the same - the dull church on a hill, ornate Orange Lodges, grand Masonic Halls, union flags flying proudly and unashamedly in the overcast sky.

I was heading into Fermanagh and Enniskillen. When I got there, I didn't even stop the car but simply pushed on into Cavan, my Dad's home county. I was back in euroland, a place where diesel is cheaper than petrol and a place called Bawnboy, a village with a couple of B+B's, a Buddhist temple and retreat, a store and a decaying workhouse built in the 1850's.

Nice to be back.

Posted by johnward 13:17 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Hama Rules Redux

Early 2011: I'm sitting in a hotel lobby in Aleppo, watching the 'Arab Spring' spread westwards. Sitting with me is Ali, one of the hotel owners. I ask him whether what we're watching on tv could ever happen in Syria. He says probably not, but he thinks that Assad needs to do something for the people, relieve some of the economic pressures and liberalise the political system, anything to prevent the lid blowing off the country.

Just over 30 years ago, the present president's father, Hafaz al - Assad (Syria is after all a family business), was just about to deal with some internal dissent of his own.

Hama was a city with a long history of opposition to the centralised, secular government in Damascus. A centre of the Muslim Brotherhood, the weeks and months preceding February 1982, had been a time of killing and retaliation, assassination attempts and increased repression. In February of that year, Assad had had enough. Using the combined forces of an armoured brigade, the Mukhabarat, special forces and the Saraya al - Difa, the regime's Praetorian Guard, under the command of Assad's aggressive younger brother, Rifaat, the city of Hama was essentially destroyed with perhaps 20,000 people killed.

NY Times journalist, Thomas Friedman, writing about his time as a correspondent in the region wrote:

President Assad decided to end his Hama problem once and for all. With his sad eyes and ironic grin, Assad always looked to me like a man who had long ago been stripped of any illusions about human nature. Since fully taking power in 1970, he has managed to rule Syria longer than any man in the post-World War II era. He has done so by always playing by his own rules. His own rules, I discovered, were Hama Rules.

I suppose Hama Rules can be summed up as Do it or it will be done to you.

March 2011: I'm in Damascus, having tea with a local business man. He tells me (whether he believes it or not, I don't know), that Assad is a man who is trying to do his best, but he needs to get rid off his father's old cronies who are still in positions of power and influence.

2013: Bashar al - Assad is two years into a brutal civil war, accused of the worst of war crimes and a humanitarian crisis that has overwhelmed the region, putting stresses and strains on neighbouring countries that have many internal pressures and dissent of their own. I've never been totally convinced that Bashar has ever been in full control of the government in the same way his father ruled Syria.

Although Bashar al-Assad inherited Syria's presidency on his father's death in 2000, analysts say he does not have Hafez al-Assad's absolute grip on power. He is surrounded by military and intelligence figures, most of whom are either related to the president or are members of his minority Alawite community, including his younger brother Maher, who commands the Republican Guard, the elite force whose six brigades protect the regime from domestic threats, and the fourth armoured division, considered one of the army's best-equipped and highly-trained.

He has a violent reputation and is thought to have a great deal of influence over his older brother - although he hasn't been seen in public since an unsuccessful assassination attempt last year. The blast also killed Mr Assad's brother-in-law, Deputy Defence Minister Gen Assef Shawkat, who it is alleged was once shot by Maher. Various cousins are powerful businessmen with an influence over economic policy (or what's left of a policy), whilst many relatives by marriage are in charge of the myriad of intelligence agencies to be found in Syria.

Bashar is the man who seems to be a figurehead rather than a President who was ever really in charge of the country, the CEO of the family business who is manipulated by unseen and eminently more ruthless figures. Even if he was to stand down tomorrow, I'm not convinced it would make any real difference to what is happening in Syria in the short term.

Having said that, he has certainly rewritten his father's Hama Rules.

Posted by johnward 12:01 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Border Crossing

I left Inishowen this morning heading towards Lough Foyle on the border with Derry. Many camp sites and hostels are beginning to close up for the winter months, so hugging the western shore of Lough Foyle, I passed through Greencastle and Moville and Quigley's Point and before I knew it I was barely 10km from Derry city. I decided to push on, crossing over the River Foyle via the new bridge and headed up the eastern side of the lough.

The fact that you've crossed the border only becomes obvious when you see the amount of cars with northern plates on the roads, distances to the next town have changed from kilometres to miles and of course I have now left the land of the euro behind me.

Another indicator of where I am is evidenced by the amount of Presbyterian churches proclaiming their fire and brimstone messages and the displays of union flags along the length of many streets. Passing through a series of small towns and large villages, it's apparent that tradition is alive and well in this part of Ulster.

One of the villages I passed through was Greysteel, not far from Derry, a sombre sounding name for a sombre looking place. The village was at the centre of events in the north in October 1993, when three armed members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters attacked a crowded bar, killing eight people. Another fatal shooting in the village was also carried out by Loyalists, when father-of-eight Jim Loughrey was shot at his home in November 1976. There's a certain amount of irony that the original Irish name of the village was Glasstiall which means "green strip", a much prettier name.

After 80 days in a foreign country, I seem to have arrived somewhere more alien.

Posted by johnward 12:35 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Malin Head, Donegal - The man in the tent Pt 2

Mikey, Michael and Katrina's son, said ''We'll have to start calling you the man in the tent.'' He was only the first of the day keen to find out what had happened the the crazy stranger who had insisted on camping out in a storm.

Most mornings, Michael gives a 30 minute talk to guests who are there for a day or two. He covers all sorts of things - local characters, folklore and myth and where the best places are to see big waves, dependent on wind direction. It also turns out that he and 10 neighbouring farmers have the grazing rights for their sheep on an island a few hundred metres off shore. An island all but invisible under a claggy sea mist.

Michael invited me along and the first thing I heard from Tom, one of the other guests was ''Do you know how the man in the tent got on?'' Michael said ''Why don't you ask him'', nodding his head in my direction.

Michael gives out useful stuff. For example, if you're up at the Head, make sure you know where the wind is coming from and make sure you point the nose of the car into it. Otherwise there's a very good chance, the door will be blown off. I met a local farmer up there, who told me that he's seen this happen more than once. I remain to be convinced he doesn't go up there to laugh at these foolish tourists.
Just below the high point of the Head is a large rock; this is where local people congregated to mourn the emigration of their children to America.

There are a series of abandoned buildings just above this rock, put up during Napoleonic times and by the Irish state during the Second World War, or as its known in the republic, with massive understatement, The Emergency. The word EIRE is picked out in rocks on a flat piece of ground below the buildings. This was information for German bomber pilots, letting them know they were over a neutral country and it would be churlish to drop their bombs here.

Michael will also tell you about which areas to avoid, as one of the locals who hates English people, has a tendency to unleash his slavering, slobbering hounds in the general direction of their throats. Michael also has a fund of stories about his time working construction in New York, and if asked will happily regale you with the idiosyncrasies of the great and the good and the rich and powerful. I do remember something about brown leather curtains...

Later that evening, I went for a pint in the bar where I bumped into Colin from Limavaddy. After we'd introduced ourselves, he said to me ''Did you hear that someone slept out in a tent last night?''

Posted by johnward 12:02 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Malin Head, Donegal - The man in the tent Pt 1

Firstly some definitions vis a vis the Beaufort Scale (an Irishman by the way):

Fresh gale: 62–74 km/h Moderately high waves with breaking crests forming spindrift. Well-marked streaks of foam are blown along wind direction. Considerable airborne spray. 39–46 mph

Strong gale: 75–88 km/h High waves whose crests sometimes roll over. Dense foam is blown along wind direction. Large amounts of airborne spray may begin to reduce visibility. 47–54 mph

Storm/whole gale: 89–102 km/h Very high waves with overhanging crests. Large patches of foam from wave crests give the sea a white appearance. Considerable tumbling of waves with heavy impact. Large amounts of airborne spray reduce visibility. 55–63 mph

''Are you the man who stayed in the tent? Let me shake you by the hand.'' That was my first meeting with Michael Doherty, who along with his wife Katrina own the Seaview Tavern, a B+B/hotel, bar and restaurant. They also own the neighbouring shop and petrol station, all fronting the Atlantic, just 4km from Malin Head, the most northerly tip of the island of Ireland.

I'd met Katrina the day before when she said I could throw up my tent in the neighbouring field. I'd heard about the Seaview as a place where the owners let people pitch for free as long as they bought a couple of pints and maybe a meal. I also knew there was some bad weather on the way, which had Katrina querying whether camping was really the best idea. I explained that adversity (dealing with) was my middle name and pitched away. It's worth pointing out that the weather was warm and sunny and the sea was barely exerting itself. It's also worth remembering that Malin Head is one of those places that figures in the Radio 4 shipping forecast; intriguingly named places like German Bight, Fastnet and Viking, so they should know what they're talking about. The forecast usually runs along the lines of ''Tempests are expected along the entire Atlantic coast of Ireland, so please make sure you have your will in order and the coastguard on speed dial.''

10pm. Fortified by a plate of chips and three glasses of Bushmills I hit the sack. Everything was in its place - water bottle, torch, Kindle, fleecey top, plasma tv...

Midnight. I suppose its possible to describe the weather as in a more reflective mood as the Breath of God perhaps and the Tears of Angels; the reality was more like, what I assume, being stuck in an industrial sized washing machine, is like. The wind howled, the rain deluged and I fought the good fight. The next four hours was simply a case of holding out and holding on, for morning.

5am. The defences broke, water was everywhere and I , along with sleeping bag, my Donegal tweed blanket and fleecey top baled. I dumped what I could in the car, a car I'd been trying to place as a windbreak. Where ever I placed it, the wind either went under it, over it or around it. I was grateful that at least it didn't go through it.

I spent the next hour sitting in the car in a t-shirt, a pair of boxers, a damp fleece and a sizeable dose of self pity along with a radio station playing hits from the 80's and 90's, thankfully nothing by Wet Wet Wet.

Daylight has a way of putting things in perspective as does a massive breakfast. Katrina looked at me with a certain amount of pity, bewilderment and I like to thing a certain amount of admiration. I was just mopping my plate with the last of the wheaten bread when Michael arrived. ''Katrina, have we a room for this man?''

Posted by johnward 13:03 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Another twist on the road to Damascus

Two days ago I was listening to Sean O'Rourke, the new presenter of RTE's breakfast radio show. O'Rourke is going head to head with Pat Kenny on Newstalk and Kenny once sat in the seat O'Rourke now occupies. It's really a case of the media watching and reporting on the media, which after a while gets incredibly boring and smug.

However, O'Rourke is an experienced political journalist and all the stories this week have been playing to his strengths. The coverage of Syria and its many attendant crises have been getting good, full coverage here. Ireland has a 'personal' stake in developments as just over a hundred of its troops should have been established in the Golan Heights this week in their peacekeeping role. That deployment has been halted, temporarily, by the UN.

He was interviewing an American academic on the day I was listening who was basically saying that Obama simply has neither the political leverage, the support or the numbers in either House to do anything in Syria. As the President who came to office campaigning on a platform condemning a decade lost to war, there was a certain irony to the self inflicted situation he now finds himself in.

American commentators and voters are sending out the message 'No more foreign wars. We want school books and jobs.' and it seems that members of Congress and the Senate are listening. The only firm ally Obama seems to have is his erstwhile opponent, John McCain, who is becoming to resemble the George C Scott character in Dr Strangelove - a general who wants to bomb, simply for bombing's sake.

But in the past 48 hours it seems that Obama has a new best friend in the unlikely figure of Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has proposed that Syria's chemical weapons should come under international control, which Assad seems to have accepted. So in one fell stroke, Obama is out from his behind that irksome 'red line' he crayoned on the floor last year, and has some temporary breathing space. No doubt US hawks are foaming incoherently in a dark room somewhere.

Of course when the politicians, the military and the 'experts' talk about what they should/could/would do in or to Syria, they always have to take into account the relative position's of Syria's strongest regional supporter, Iran, and biggest enemy Israel, who are still technically at war with Syria. Into this heady brew let's not forget the Syrian rebels, specifically the Sunni Islamist extremist and partly Al Qaida rebels. A former Israeli Consul General in New York, Alon Pinkas, is quoted as saying ''Let them all bleed, haemorrhage to death: that's the strategic thinking here (Israel)''

It is interesting that as this particular strand of the ongoing crisis has developed, then unravelled, there is less talk about Syrian refugees and the squalid camps they exist in in Jordan or Lebanon or Turkey and much more emphasis on the 'credibility' of the US and of course by extension Obama. Image it seems is all.

A more positive note: A friend of mine, John Wreford has lived in Damascus for the last decade. It's a city he put roots down in and called his home. Earlier this year, John had to finally leave Damascus and has set up (hopefully a temporary) base in Istanbul. He sent me a message the other day that a young woman Sammi, in New Zealand saw some of his photos and writings and wants to find out everything she can about Syria and what she can do to bring the attention of her friends and the rest of the country to what's happening in Syria. The last thing I saw is that she has developed a project to do just that. It seems that Obama, the hope of a generation has become just another politician mired in the world of realpolitik. Perhaps the baton has passed to people like Sammi.

Posted by johnward 09:40 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Dunfanaghy, Donegal - A history lesson

There aren't many tourists about now, the season is coming to an end and in the next month or so, most hostels will be closing for the winter. s. The owner of Corcreggan's where I'm camping, is a chap called Brendan, ex Irish army officer and a fan of things militaria. One of the rooms in the hostel is devoted to military uniforms (mostly American), caps and berets from armies from around the world, helmets and various other bits and bobs of hardware.

In front of the main house, the Irish tricolour is flown, although I have just noticed that the UN flag has been run up the pole. As I say, there aren't many people here at the moment, so when someone new turns up, its becomes something of an event. Yesterday John from Middlesbrough via a career as a maths teacher in Bristol, arrived on his bike.

He'd arrived in Belfast four days ago and has made his way into Donegal via Port Stewart and Derry. In Derry he went for a walk around the walls and looked down into the Bogside. He told me that he was too frightened to go in there as he remembered tv images from his youth of the increasing violence in the north. It was only after he chatted to the tourist information centre that he took his courage in his hands and took a walk on the wild side. And had a great time. He loved it.

But I am worried about his grasp of recent history and how that affects his perception of Ireland. Firstly he thought Bloody Sunday took place in Belfast and it was only when he saw the memorials in the Bogside that he realised he'd confused cities. More concerning, was when he said that he was unsure which army Brendan had served in. I told him that it was the Irish army, 'Ah, the IRA.'' When I explained no, the Irish army, he had real problems grasping the difference between the Irish army, the Official IRA or the Provos.

The conversation then went on to cover the Plantation, the role of the GAA during the Troubles (the difference between football and soccer caused John another problem), Seamus Heaney, flying the Union Jack and Israel and Palestine.

Although his grasp of history was shaky, he was good company and determined to find out more. which is pretty much all you can ask.

Posted by johnward 06:26 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Dunfanaghy, Donegal - The Well Mullet

It's amazing what I keep - old receipts, business cards, leaflets from here and there. I'm having a clear out, which is good for me and the car and came across three bits and bobs: the first is a leaflet entitled IS YOUR WELL AT RISK FROM YOUR SEPTIC TANK?

The first question I have to ask is, why on earth I needed information on a septic tank I don't have, have never had and in all likelihood will never have? Regardless, its full of info about the value of water, the potential risks, things called Microbial Pathogens (another word for germs) which are bad, phosphorus contamination, which certainly soundS bad and sludge, which sounds fun, but is bad.

With all this to worry about, I was expecting some sound, 21st century advice. The best I got was to make sure that my wastewater system is serviced in accordance with the manufacturers instructions, don't put nappies into the system and something which deserved a note all to itself, namely, NEVER ENTER A TREATMENT SYSTEM AS IT MAY RELEASE POISONOUS GASSES THAT CAN KILL IN MINUTES.

The second leaflet labours under the title DEMONSTRATING BEST PRACTICE IN RAISED BOG RESTORATION IN IRELAND - January 2011 to December 2015. So if you want to get involved with this project there's still time. I can hear the tittering at the back of the class, but a raised bog

...is a valuable wetland habitat that are becoming increasingly rare in Ireland.

. This is further complicated by the fact that despite being a wetland, there is both Wet Raised Bog and Dry Raised Bog. The leaflet is a call to arms to the Bog lovers of Ireland, to get involved to protect this valuable but diminishing environment. If there are raised bogs, are there also lowered bogs?

The third piece of stuff is a business card that also made me chortle out loud. It's called THE WELL MULLET PROJECT. I immediately had images of someone like Pat Sharp circa 1981, having some sort of crisis, possibly Post Mullet Traumatic Syndrome flashbacks, about his infamous coiffure. But sadly no. It's actually a project

...supporting sustainable health & wellbeing on and through the Mullet Peninsula, County Mayo

, delivered by the suitably qualified Jenny Suddaby MCoH. She will reiki you, realign wayward chakras and auras, detox the body (I refer her to my septic tank problem), teach you how to heal your relationships (and other peoples) and do something called matamorphic technique.

I'm almost sorry to get rid of them, but I see it as my own personal detox.

Posted by johnward 10:44 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Seamus Heaney - Death of the Naturalist

Seamus Heaney died a week ago and if you were in Ireland at the time, you would have witnessed something very special - an outpouring of national grief for a poet.

Of course Heaney was no ordinary poet; he was a Nobel prize winner, a professor at Harvard, a lecturer, a translator, a playwright, the winner of countless awards for his work and the recipient of many honorary degrees from universities around the world.

But he was also revered by Ireland and seemed one of the few Irish people who was not subject to the begrudgery that sometimes bedevils the country. In fact, the impact of his death of the 'ordinary' people of Ireland became apparent in the letters page of any newspaper or radio show you cared to pick up or listen to.

It was only five years ago that I read Heaney's first collection, 'Death of A Naturalist'. The poems talk about his childhood growing up in rural Derry and daily life on the farm; the death of his brother Christopher, he writes about in a poem called 'Mid Term Break', a poem that is now taught to Irish schoolchildren. I carry a copy of Death of A Naturalist with me at all times.

Fellow poets and writers and the great and the good have already written tens of thousands of words about Heaney and his influence on Irish society. He has long been talked about as the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, but that barely seems the measure of the man, as he has something to say that reaches beyond Ireland. All I know is that there will be no more from him and I feel that the world has lost a great voice.

The other day when I was speaking to Brendan, the owner of the hostel I'm staying at, about Heaney, and he told me that the night he died, people came to the hostel to read aloud his poems in the company of friends. I was about to say that only in Ireland would a poet's death have such an impact on a country, when I realised that the people of Ireland had in fact elected a poet, Michael D Higgins, as their most recent president.

Frank Galligan, a writer on the Donegal Democrat summed up what the loss of Heaney meant to him:

'As they say in his native Derry ''I'm broke to the bone.'' '

That probably a good enough epitaph for anyone.

Posted by johnward 00:39 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Dunfanaghy, Donegal - Rain & Journalistic no no's

Rain. Interminable. Bloody. Rain for the past 24 hours. The campsite has a water table very near the surface, so I'm squelching my way through the grass. Also colder than before. Today is the first day since July 2 that I've had to put on a pair of trousers.

I have two pieces of wisdom today.

First read a book called Europe by Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist. Very good.

Secondly, a note to Irish journalists - local, national, print, radio or tv - using a list of things/people/elite police units etc. to pad out reports should be a no no.

The sun is out.

Posted by johnward 00:30 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Slieve League, Donegal

The highest ice cream in the country

I spent a midge ridden night at a campsite in Killybegs, home of Ireland's largest fishing fleet. The site was spectacularly sited, overlooking the Atlantic, but those bloody midges made the view redundant. It was time to move on. I was heading further north into Donegal to a small town called Dunfanaghy, but first I wanted to visit Slieve League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe (apparently).

The Cliffs of Moher in Clare have the Irish sea cliff tourist gig all wrapped up with their UNESCO World Heritage Centre status and flash Interpretative Centre, charging a zillion euros admittance. Slieve League was the real deal.

Getting there is half the fun, involving an ascent through One Man's Pass, where the signposts advise you to give way to walkers, cyclists, sheep and the odd low flying gull. The car rarely gets out of second gear and the tarmac track is narrow and there is a 600m below me, but I've convinced my self it is all worthwhile.

As I turn out of what is the final bend in the track there are the cliffs, the dramatic fall into the churning, crashing Atlantic below (600m!!) and two mini buses a coach, 30 or so tourists and what has to be the highest ice cream shop (on wheels) in Ireland.

It made my efforts getting to the top fade into insignificance. But they are grander than the Cliffs of Moher.

Posted by johnward 08:47 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Doogort, Achill - The Blow ins Table

Yesterday was All Ireland semi final day. In the scheme of things, it doesn't seem to have had the impact on world sport that it deserves, but tis fair to say that Achill came to a standstill. The roads were empty and the pubs were full, watching perennial underachievers, Mayo, take on regular winners of the competition, Tyrone.

Mayo have arrived at the semis by playing most other teams off the park, with a mixture of scintillating skill and a new found steeliness and determination. Tyrone have got here virtue of a dodgy tackle in the last round that eliminated Monaghan.

The pundits, experts, talking heads. press and it must be said the entire population of Mayo seemed to believe this would be a walk simply a case of turning up and they would be in the final. Unfortunately, the Mayo team seemed to think the same and they were taken apart in the first half by a Tyrone team determined to put all the negative press of the past couple of weeks to bed.

Our table, a motly collection of Brits, Aussies, and mittel Europeans cheered as loudly as the rest of the pub when something went right and when something went pear shaped, sighed as only a supporter of 40 years standing could sigh. Half time arrived and somehow Mayo were still within a point of Tyrone. One exasperated supporter said ''We'll never beat the Dubs playing like this.'' A thick Dub accent replied ''You surely won't. The trouble with you Mayo supporters is that you're used to having won the game by half time.'' And of course he was right.

The second half (as it was a game of two halves) saw normal service resumed and in the end Mayo won if not comfortably, at least convincingly. And the Blow In Table celebrated as noisily as anyone

Posted by johnward 09:25 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Doogort, Achill - The Perils of Language

I'm moving on tomorrow, heading north onto the Belmullet peninsula, a place that rejoices in the description 'bleak vastness.' Meanwhile I'm sitting in the front breakfast room of the Valley Hostel, both shooting the breeze and chewing the fat with other travellers - a mixed bunch from Australia, Germany, Austria and a suspicious looking Frenchman.

The conversation inevitably turns to future plans, where to next etc. All is much of a muchness until Kirsten from Germany rather calmly announces that she and a friend will be hijacking a lift to Westport tomorrow afternoon.

I queried if she really meant hijacking and might she be confusing hijacking and hitch hiking. Thankfully for all concerned, particularly the drivers on Achill, she meant hitch hiking. Hijacking it seems requires too much preparation.

Posted by johnward 09:15 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

Doogort, Achill - The Red, Clinging Hands of Ulster

Yesterday was Sunday and that means GAA football is played the length and breadth of the country. Padraig, who works at the bar in the Valley House Hostel plays for the island side so I said I'd come along and watch. The last and only GAA game I've ever attended was in 1967 at the old Wembley Stadium, between Down and Derry, who were in London on a promotional jaunt.

As it happened, this piece of arcane GAA history came in useful, as I was chatting to the ref before tip off and he was saying that he was taking part in a pub quiz just the other week and one of the questions was 'In what year was GAA football played at Wembley Stadium? He now has the year and the teams involved to pull out of his quizzers back pocket at some future date.

Achill were playing Foxford in a championship match. Foxford had the run of things for the first five minutes or so, even scoring the first goal of the game, but Achill were scoring points from all over the pitch, building up a handsome lead,

Foxford had a lump of a man playing in midfield and I knew that he would be worth watching after an early exchange with his increasingly frustrated manager. Foxford were under pressure all over the field, second best to all knock downs and free balls. Their defence was taking a battering and I heard the manager shout for his No 8 to get back and help out. ''There's enough people back there already.'' he replied, to the obvious chagrin of his boss and defenders.

A high ball in the centre of the field; two opposing players jump for it and, almost inevitably, the Achill player wins the contest, but is dumped on his back for his trouble. It's one of those tackles that you see in rugby that is usually little more than a winding and a yellow card. Although a couple of punches were thrown, I'm not sure anything else was shown. All I could hear from the Foxford player was ''I had my eyes on the fucking ball. I had my eyes on the fucking ball.'' But he also had his hands on his off balance opponents shoulders.

Just before half time Achill scored two goals in quick succession and the game was pretty much over, but I still had high hopes that No 8 would provide some entertainment. He didn't disappoint, as during the half time team talk he made it obvious to everyone, that if anyone once more doubted his ability, his commitment or his parentage, he was more than happy to deal with them here and now. I got the feeling it would have been sans Marquis of Queensbury.

The manager stepped in at this point, saying that from now on, his voice was going to be the only one anyone heard and that the game was far from over. Five minutes into the second half, No 8 goes into contest a high ball, down he goes and calamity, he stays down with a turned ankle. His work for the day is done as is my anticipation of a major ruck with him leading the charge.

There were more points and goals scored and Achill ran out handy winners. Why all this talk of Gaelic games? It's because, despite the growing power and influence of the Premiership, Gaelic games retain a presence at the heart of the Irish psyche that is too important to dismiss them as 'simply' sport.

A couple of weeks ago, two northern teams, Tyrone and Monaghan met in the quarter final of the championship. At stake was a semi final place at Croke Park that is to be played next Sunday. A Monaghan player broke clear of the Tyrone defenders and looked likely to score a goal, when he was rugby tackled by Tyrone's Sean Cavanagh.

This incident seems to have led to a great deal of introspection into both the dark heart of modern football and of Ireland itself. The first reaction was from ex player Joe Brolly who was watching the match as a pundit in the tv studio. There is no way I can do justice to Brolly's outburst, which is full of sturm und drang, bewilderment, anger, distress - it's all there. If you want to see a man's head explode in anger google Joe Brolly for five minutes of fun.

Keith Duggan from the Irish Times wrote a piece that tried to put Brolly's outrage in some sort of wider context. He quoted a letter to the Times that refuted the argument that any player would have done the same in similar circumstances. The pursuit of success does not justify the means and it is that contrary thinking that has brought Ireland to its knees:

The pursuit of wealth at the expense of community interests motivated banks and has created an uncaring and divided and financially and morally bankrupt society. Every means at their disposal are now being used by those who made selfish and misconceived investments in the Irish property market to avoid suffering any financial loss and to continue with their ostentatious and extravagant lifestyles. Do we really want our children to grow up seeking to attain success at any cost.

Now, whilst it may not be possible and indeed fanciful to lay the blame for the country's current travails solely at the doorstep of Mickey Harte and his Tyrone team, there is a school of thought (my cousin Frank) who does believe that the success of Ulster teams over the past few years has been achieved via an increased amount of cynicism and dare I say, professionalism. That is professionalism defined as get the job done, get the game won, whatever it takes. His daughter told me that the coach of a team in which she played in had a code word he would shout when he wanted one of his players to go down as if fouled. Anna is 13 and left in disgust.

Inevitably, the twitterati were active denouncing this Ulster bias:

I think there has been an increase in general for Ulster people in general in the last 15 years... The prosperity (of the Celtic Tiger) bred a certain type of sneering, selfiish, cynical, self important beings who see themselves as intellectually and culturally superior and much more cosmopolitan than the average Bogger/Nordie/Skanger or whichever group they chose to look down their noses at on a particular day. Johnboy7

Now, I'm fairly sure that is something, whereever we may live, that we can all agree on. Those who live in the capital city, are by and large thieving bastards who should be in prison.

The reason why this incident is so important can best be summed up by Keith Duggan himself, when he wrote:

Still, it was clear that Brolly's outrage had sparked something throughout a nation that has been mystifyingly passive through a decade of tribunals, inept government and catastrophic banking regulation...For all its faults the GAA contains the best of us; a burning belief in community, in volunteering, in working with young people and, through the limitless sacrifices that players like Cavanagh make, to play for the near quixotic dream of bringing home a big shiny cup called Sam, it offers the best illustration that some things transcend mere money.

An almost Olympian definition of why sport matters so much and how it can define the best that is to be found in a country.

If only Match of the Day had the gumption to get the nation talking like this!

Posted by johnward 01:28 Archived in Ireland Comments (0)

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