Thursday, April 30, 2015

Modern Ireland in Two News Stories

Denis O'Brien seeks injunction against RTÉ:

"Perceived notions that any individual, corporate executive, director or shareholder of Communicorp (let alone Denis O'Brien) has an input into what I say is simply bullshit." Ivan Yates.

So Denis fires off writs at RTÉ but wouldn't say boo to the Yateser? Well, alrighty then.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Inclusiveness, the British Army and the 1916 Centenary

Memorial to British in 1916 Centenary - Irish Examiner, April 1st, 2015.
Memorial Sought for British Troops Killed in 1916 - RTÉ News, April 8th, 2015.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens commemorate Irishmen who died in the Great War in the armies of the Triple Entente, which was an alliance between the British Empire, the French Third Republic and the Imperial Russian Empire under Tsar Nicholas II. (The memorial to all Irish soldiers does not commemorate any Irishmen who fought for the Central Powers, funnily enough). The memorial is located in Islandbridge, Dublin 8, but Merrion Square, just outside the Dáil, was one of the originally proposed locations.

A very telling speech was made during the 1926 debate about the location of the memorial, which seems to appropriate to current concerns about how to be “inclusive” in commemorating the Rising.

The speaker objected because he feared that locating the memorial in front of the parliament of an independent Ireland would give the impression, to those unfamiliar with Irish history, that the monuments were connected. That the deaths of Irishmen fighting for the Triple Entente led to Ireland taking her place among the nations of the Earth. He did not see this as being at all the case:

We had our talk of political dismemberment; we had our talk of partition; we had our conference on the less or more of partition; we had the shelving of the whole issue, and the hanging up of the [Home Rule] Bill until after the war, when that whole issue was to be reopened. The horse was to live, and it would get grass after the war.

The horse, not unwisely as I see it, decided it would have a bit for grass before the end of the war. Someone said, or wrote, that somehow, at sometime, and by somebody, revolutions must be begun. A revolution was begun in this country, in Easter 1916. That revolution was endorsed by the people in a general election of 1918 and three years afterwards the representatives of the Irish people negotiated a treaty with the British government. It is on that treaty, won in that way, that this state and its constitution are based, and I submit to deputies it is not wise to suggest that this state has any other origin than those. 

Let men think what they will of them. Let men criticise them, and hold their individual viewpoints. But those are the origins of the State.

It would be lacking in a sense of truth, a sense of historical perspective, a sense of symmetry, to suggest that the state had not these origins, but that it is based in some way of the sacrifice of those who followed the advice of parliamentary representatives of the day and recruited in great numbers to the British army to fight in the European war.

Fifty thousand Irishmen died in France. I hope that the memory of those men and their sacrifice and the motives of their sacrifice will always have respect and reverence in Ireland.

Who was the slavering, Brit-hating, báinín-wearing, backwoods-dwelling Republican jihadi who made that speech? It was the then Minister for Justice of the Free State Government, Kevin O’Higgins (the quotation is taken from Terence de Vere White's 1948 biography of O'Higgins, Anvil Press, 1966. p 173).

Nobody was as ruthless as O’Higgins in implementing the Treaty during the Civil War and after. But for all that, O’Higgins saw a clear line of demarcation between those Irishmen who fought under the Tricolor and those Irishmen who fought under other flags.

If O’Higgins’ shade were to return one year from now, and walk down what he knew as Sackville Street, what would he make of the Centenary? Reader, couldn’t you excuse him for wondering why he and his comrades ever bothered?

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Gaelic Football: A Diagnostic, Part II

The blanket defence is killing Gaelic football. It must be stopped.

Games evolve as they’re played. Players and managers think of new things, new tactics, new skills all the time. But every now and again whoever is in charge of a particular sport has to look at its development and ask: are these new developments true to the fundamental nature of the sport, or do they take the sport to a place where it really shouldn’t go?

How did the blanket defence come to be? Why didn’t anybody try it before? Joe Brolly’s Arcadian vision last Sunday of a manly, self-policing game is all balls. There was never a time when teams wouldn’t trample their grannies into the muck to win. Why, then, did it take so long for Tyrone to invent the blanket defence and Donegal to perfect it?

The answer is sports science. The modern Gaelic footballer has access to both a wealth of sports science knowledge that was not available to previous generations, and the leisure time to put that science to practical use. We never saw the blanket defence before because no team could come close to achieving the levels of fitness required to make it work.

Has this fitness infusion changed Gaelic football for the better, or for the worse? Advocates of both the system and of sports science say for the better. Players are fitter and faster today, they say, and this can only be a good thing.

They run “classic” games like the 1982 Football Final through software like Dartfish and produce charts to say that football is clearly better today than it was then in terms of possessions, plays, and different other criteria. Besides, they say, who can halt the march of progress?

Nobody can halt the march of progress, of course. But not everybody agrees on what progress is. One person’s evolution may be another’s devolution; one’s progression another’s regression.

To answer whether the blanket era of football is evolution or devolution, let’s take a lesson from Marcus Aurelius: What is Gaelic football in itself? What is its nature?

Gaelic football is a game of catching and kicking. That is its nature. But what price catching and kicking in modern football? Players who can catch and kick the ball are still useful in the game, but some of the greatest exponents of the modern game are noted for neither their catching nor their kicking, but for their unearthly ability to run and run and run and run.

The level of athleticism is what makes the difference in Gaelic football today. Modern levels of training has outpaced the earlier conceptions of what the human body is capable of doing, and an ability to execute the skills of the game has been replaced and, in some places, surpassed, by the ability to keep going, going, going in terms of value to a team.

The key skill now and into the future is workrate. But isn’t workrate something more suited to a factory or an assembly line than a sporting field of dreams? Alexi Stakhanov was named a hero of the Soviet Union for mining over 100 tonnes of coal in under six hours in the 1930s, but I doubt very much if anyone would have paid in to see him to do it.

When sports scientists talk about greater workrate and roll out their tables and charts and measurements they miss an important point. Sport isn’t meant to be empirical. It’s meant to be transcendental. Sport is meant to bring you away from the ordinary, not be just another part of it.

Joe Brolly is wrong in saying it’s the duty of managers to keep games true to themselves. The duty of managers is to win within the rules of the day. The duty of the GAA is to make sure the rules of the day are staying ahead of managers. This is not currently the case, but there’s no reason why it can’t be.

The GAA gave up on the eighty-minute finals after five years, and cracked down on handpassing when some teams were about to turn football into a variant of Olympic handball. There’s no reason for them not to slice up the blankets and let the games breathe again. Perhaps they could start with a proper definition of the tackle? God knows we’ve been a long enough time waiting for that.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Gaelic Football: A Diagnostic, Part I

The GAA published a press release last October blowing their own trumpet – and covering their own back – in the matter of black cards, and how scoring in football had increased in consequence of the card’s introduction. Those figures, unsurprisingly, did not stack up, as discussed here at the time.

Six months on, controversy flares again over the health of Gaelic football, which is either in the full bloom of robust health or anointed and ready for the Next World with no position possible in between. However, we now have two like-for-like datasets to compare – the football league just over, and the football league of last year.

Whether total scores is the best metric to measure the health of the game is open to debate, but as scores are the lingua franca of the current debate, it makes sense to start there. These are the average total scores per game between this year and last year, broken down by Division.

The figures are stark. Scoring is down a total of three and a half points per game across the Divisions. The difference is negligible in Division 3 and 2, while Division 1 and 4’s differences are much more dramatic. Scoring is down by five points per game in Division 4, and by a remarkable eight points per game in Division 1. Here are histograms of total scores between this year and last year (click for a close-up):

Is the scoring drop off county- as well as division-specific? Looking at each individual county (click for a close-up), Tyrone’s is the heaviest loss, followed by Wicklow, Derry and Mayo. Tyrone and Derry have both been relegated, but Wicklow and Mayo remain as they were. Sligo had the best scoring turnaround of all the counties in the League, but Sligo remains in the middle of Division 3. There isn’t a pattern here. The drop-off isn’t a county thing.

The balloon went up on this whole death of Gaelic football debate when Dublin beat Derry in Croke Park by 0-8 to 0-4 two weeks ago and Jarlath Burns tweeted that game as symbolizing “the death of Gaelic football.” How do the head-to-head comparisons work out between last year and this year? Again, click the graph for a proper look:

The Derry and Dublin matchup is there in third place in terms of greatest difference in points scored between this year and last year. Derry and Dublin managed twenty points less between them in 2015 than they managed in 2014. But again, there isn’t a pattern in the matchups per se – it’s all part of the overall pattern that scoring is well down this year compared to last year. It’s impossible to argue otherwise.

So how do these statistics reflect on the health or otherwise of the game? Here, as in so many other issues in Irish life, it all depends on the hobby horse you rode in on.

For instance, the eternally vocal Joe Brolly went in hard on Mickey Harte in over the weekend, accusing Harte of having ruined the game. This is ironic in a number of ways, not least as when “puke football” debuted in the consciousness of the nation in the summer of 2003, Brolly was the blanket’s Number 1 fan.

Has Brolly seen the light, like Paul on his way to Damascus? Or is Brolly eager not to have a black card debate, he himself having passionately argued that the black card would take the cynicism out of the game?

There are two other questions to be answered here, that seem simple but that aren’t, really. What is cynicism? And what is the game? When does doing your utmost to win a game mutate into cynicism, and when does the game you’re playing stop being the game you’re playing, but some other hybrid mutation of it? Come back tomorrow, when we’ll try to figure it out.