Sport offers mythology for our time.

Sport offers mythology for our time.

Across the world, every week, millions of men and women descend on stadia in homage to sporting spectacles. Countless others, of all ages, slouch before TV sets, and even squint into smartphones to satisfy a compulsive appetite, which I know too well. In Ireland we have a particular grá for team sports, as participants but mostly as viewers, or even as virtual participants, with the advent of video games.

The rewards for sportsmen, in particular, are stupendous, but the inequalities increasingly stark. For all the heroes receiving the adulation of the assembled masses, there are countless others left on an unforgiving scrapheap, sometimes even injured for life by the ruthless demands of their professions.

The popularity of sport as entertainment stretches far back into history, of Europe in particular. The gathering of crowds for sporting occasions was a feature of societies during Classical Antiquity, where spectacles were linked to religious worship. Dedicated to Zeus, the Panhellenic Olympics of Ancient Greece ran from 776BC until 393AD, attracting participants from all the Greek cities, affirming a collective identity in the process. Today the divine survives as sporting metaphor.

Later, Ancient Romans were fanatically devoted to circus, involving gladiatorial duels to the death, to which the impressive ruins of the Colosseum attest. It was the poet Juvenela (d.c. AD100) who witheringly identified bread and circus as the means by which the political temper of his countrymen was becalmed.

On a less impressive scale, sport continued as an important feature of life in medieval Europe, where knights tested their valour in vainglorious jousts, often for the edification of damsels. Moreover, an obsession with hunting, steeped in ritual rather than necessity, was also evident among those at the apex of the feudal pyramid. Pursuit of animals was not motivated by their utility as food, still referred to, revealingly, as ‘game’: its consumption conferred a status beyond gastronomic pleasure. The hunt habituated men to the sight of bloodshed, and the thrill of the kill.

Pre-modern sports bore a close resemblance to warfare, and the conditioning of a participant overlapped significantly with a warrior’s training. Tests of physical prowess such as wrestling – advantageous on the battlefield – have long been popular, but also skills such as archery, or javelin, drawn directly from warfare or hunting. An audience could experience the thrill of battle without risking dismemberment; lurid passions sublimated in the gruesome spectacle. Whether this appreciation whetted or becalmed a thirst for blood is debatable.

George Orwell assumed the worst claiming: ‘sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will’. But to deny the pleasure that an audience derives seems curmudgeonly, and sport is often a source of community in otherwise lonely circumstances, that need not depend on antipathy towards the opponent. Such animosities as do arise may express underlying tensions; as when Hooliganism in Britain came to prominence after Thatcherism ripped apart the social fabric of that society.

The nineteenth century incubated most of the world’s sport in Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began in earnest. There, mass attendance of sporting events by a new working class originates. Stadiums that could accommodate tens of thousands sprang up in fast-growing cities to satisfy a new-found appetite for weekend leisure activities. During the nineteenth century in Britain we find the codification of sports such as Football, Cricket, Rugby (Union and League), tennis, and field hockey all of which now have a global reach. We also see games such as golf, and motor racing emerging in more rarefied circles. Interesting, it is mainly in the Anglosphere that alternative sports emerged to confront the British invasion; in the United States, basketball, American football, baseball and ice hockey; while in Ireland the GAA developed its own distinctive codes. This demonstrates the importance of sport as a source of identity in an English-speaking world where other culture markers, such as gastronomic appreciation, were less marked. In James Joyce’s Ulysses the character of the Cyclops is generally identified with the founder of the GAA, Michael Cusack, who spouts the xenophobic bile Orwell would expect. It is striking that most non-English-speaking countries have had far less compunction about absorbing originally British sports into their culture.

The popular sports in our time depart from Classical and medieval precedent – notwithstanding the revival of the Olympics in 1896 – in the skills demanded of the participants. Although most contemporary sports still require serious athleticism, their skill set would be of no particular use to a soldier, especially one engaged in modern, technological warfare; perhaps a gamer might be more useful. Nonetheless, modern sport remains tinged with martial fervour, accessing, and perhaps controlling, that primal instinct to compete and, for men especially, to discuss the competition. Orwell opines that: ‘At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare’, but in the 1940s when he wrote most men, unlike today, had military training and were simply reverting to type when they took to the field.

Confrontations are not as anarchic in most sports as they once were. Even in the 1970s a high profile rugby match could easily descend into an all-out brawl involving every player on the pitch, as with the British and Irish Lions notorious ‘99’ call against South Africa. Most sporting authorities now clamp down heavily on violence that is not permitted within the rules of the game, and the television camera makes it difficult for serial offenders to escape detection.

The demonic ‘Judge’ Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s blood-stained novel Blood Meridan (1985) describes war as ‘the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence’. He proposes that:

Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them.

Indeed, the higher the stakes, the more gripping a sporting fixture becomes, and the worth of the participant may be defined by his success or failure at crucial moments. But ‘the Judge’ is correct only to a point. Sport is never a zero sum game as a crowd will also honour a team or individual who loses with good grace, and sport is not simply about victory; ‘greatness’ is also measured by how a loser conducts himself in defeat. Moreover, cheats that betray the Corinthian spirit of fair play and endeavour to win at any cost are generally loathed. Users of banned substances in particular are treated as latter-day devils.

As we enter a phase of history when a capacity to kill another human being is, thankfully, rarely called on, sporting traditions have developed a scale of excellence individual to themselves, albeit atavistic tendencies still lurk in their appreciation. It is striking that Carl Jung regarded games as being of the utmost importance to the wellbeing of societies. He said that ‘civilisations at their most complete moments … always brought out in man his instinct to play and made it more inventive’. Sport, he proffered, connects us to our ‘instinctive selves’.

Ancient epics, the Greek Iliad, Odyssey and Roman Aeneid all feature games as an essential ‘heroic’ expression. In the Iliad after the funeral of his comrade Patroclus, Achilles offers prizes to competitors in a number of events. The first is the chariot race in which Diomedes emerges as the victor. Afterwards Achilles reveals his sympathies for Eumelus whose chariot fell apart due to the intervention of the goddess Athena, saying: ‘The best driver of the lot has come in last. Let us give him a prize for it is only fair. Make it the second, for of course Diomedes came in first.’ But this only leads to disputes among other participants, who then have to be mollified by Achilles. Throughout the games we see resentments boiling over into disputes requiring mediation. This might lead to the conclusion that our “instinctive selves” should, insofar as possible, be kept in check. But by avoiding sport altogether do we risk such instincts emerging in fields where resentments can less easily be contained?

Sporting success can raise the morale of a whole society, such as Ireland’s after the 1990 World Cup in Italy. The connection that people many feel with a team or individual should, therefore, not be dismissed lightly. Even in defeat, fans can summon a spirit of togetherness that is not necessarily oppositional. It is not clear that defeat diminishes morale to the extent that victory raises it. As JFK said: Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan.

The popularity of sports is often attributed to the decline of religious worship, but the religious side to sport has not faded entirely – the homage is to an ideal of bravery, self-sacrifice and togetherness, virtues often associated with spiritual traditions.

Moreover, with lives increasingly sedentary and indoor, sport returns us to the idea of a challenge that is based on an athletic skill that is both a natural gift, and the product of training. The audience is also mesmerised by the mental dimensions to any game, pitting their wits against the likelihood of an outcome, and plotting how a team or individual might triumph or fail. It can also be the subject of discussion between strangers leading to camaraderie, rather than conflict.

Sport has become a stronghold for mythology at a time when the fantastical, and even the religious, operate on the margins of a generally rational culture. Commentators are given free rein to extemporise, and journalists rhapsodise, about the divine characteristics of participants. We bow before sporting gods, satisfying a generally latent desire for non-rational explanation, and even attribute occurrences to supernatural interference; deus ex machina. Commentators, unencumbered by the usual constraints imposed on ‘serious’ reporting, vent superstitions and casually avert to magical qualities. ‘Legends’ gleam from the gilded pens of lead writers.

This enhances the appeal of ‘titanic’ battles, but sadly we are, increasingly, lured by the theatre from examination of the vexed political questions of our time. Juvenal’s concern finds a clear contemporary echo: ‘The People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.’

The former manager of Liverpool Football Club Bill Shankly (1913-81) may have been speaking somewhat tongue in cheek when he said: ‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that’, but he identified a prevailing obsession that had become the stuff of transcendence. It was fitting, then, that when the current manager of Manchester United F.C. Jose Mourinho (b.1963-) arrived in British football to manage Chelsea F.C. he chose to present himself as the ‘Special One’. For a time the confidence trick worked and he carried all before him, helped in small part by the unprecedented patronage of a Russian billionaire.

Sporting occasions now offer an outlet for Dionysian exuberance in lives increasingly constrained by social conventions. In what other arena of life can a grown man scream and shout with unrestrained fervour? Or dance half-naked arm-in-arm with fellow fans? Attendance imports a communal sense of belonging, evident in the crowd at an enormous stadium, and among transnational fans of football ‘clubs’. Support for a national team also affirms a sense of belonging to what Benedict Anderson described as the ‘imagined community’ of the nation.

The medium is, no doubt, the message. The collapse of distance achieved by televisual communication allows individuals, often living thousands of mile apart from their heroes to connect with one another. This process is accelerated in the era of the Internet where streaming bypasses the traditional providers. Furthermore, debates rage in the comments sections below articles and video clips.

Sporting spectacles fill an imaginative void as mythological themes are played out in real time. The truly great teams, it is said, are those that learn from defeat, just as the heroes of epic returns from the trial of Hades the wiser. We also encounter the tragedy of the flawed hero whose indiscretions are captured by the ravenous paparazzi, and often taken as a wider symbol of the failings of youth, or of the insidious foreigner.

Yes we can have too much of a good thing, and our attention to sports has now reached pathological intensity. Slick marketing has moved an instinctive pleasure into a compulsive and easily-satisfied desire; sports footage operates in a way similar to how pornography substitutes for what is real. In particular, the multi-billion euro football industry uses every opportunity to lure child and adult alike into purchasing television channels, and merchandise that is gaudily flaunted. More troubling is the expansion of online gambling that distorts further the relationship with the spectacle.

Young men are now paid unconscionable fortunes to play games, many would happily participate in for much less, or nothing at all. Televised sport used to inspire kids to imitate their heroes, now with gaming technology they don’t have to leave their couches, and assume their form on the screen; just as the obesity pandemic gathers pace.

The appeal of sport extends beyond the plebeian masses who seek bread and circus. Rupert Murdoch recognised long ago that sport would act as a ‘battering ram’ for his pay TV, an example most newspapers have followed. Sports coverage underpins the Neoliberal zeitgeist by providing an alternative, apolitical, space with elements of tragedy and farce; villains and saviours; loyalty and betrayal.

Latent passions are evoked through metaphors such as the ‘trench warfare’ of a tight contest or the ‘phoney war’ of a friendly fixture; ‘citadels’ are ‘stormed’, and where ‘no quarter is given’; along with specifically supernatural ideas such as ‘demons’ being ‘exorcised’. Stress is laid on the grandeur and importance of the events unfolding, and too much of our lives – mine included – are absorbed by these duels.

With the degree of psychic energy devoted to the affairs of the circus, it is hardly surprising that political involvement is increasingly the province of the paid-up professional, and that the percentage of the electorate voting has declined precipitously. Now politics, including elections, is explained by analogy with sport: as when the leader of the Irish Green Party was told he was playing senior hurling now by a member of Fianna Fail, after his party entered government. This widespread obsession is barely questioned by a media that feed on the fervour, or by politicians who feel compelled to display their colours, and appear as ordinary guys. Nevertheless, sportsmen can use their profile to alter prejudices, and even lead protests such as recently in the NFL, where players demonstrated their ill-will towards President Trump by kneeling during the US anthem. Moreover, at least today sports are no longer seen as preparation for war.

Green should mean Red

Green should mean Red

The leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan has written an article for Village Magazine on the origins and current orientation of his party. I welcome references to seminal influences such as Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring (1962) drew attention to the environmental damage wrought by industrial farming; and to 1960s ‘systems thinking’, culminating in the Club of Rome, which used the latest information technology to measure future use of resources, thereby showing the finitude of economic growth.

As a lifelong supporter, however, I bridled at his contention that Green economics ‘is not easily categorised on a left/right ideological divide’. In my view Green ideas build on Red for a better world, but with crucial differences.

Left-wing ideology has tended towards over-reliance on narrow socio-economic data, which underplays the wider human experience, and often diminishes empathy. As Isaiah Berlin puts it:

the calm moral arithmetic of cost effectiveness which liberates decent men from qualms, because they no longer think of the entities to which they apply their scientific computations as actual human beings who live the lives and suffer the deaths of concrete individuals.

That is not to diminish the value of carefully-collated statistics, but selective citation of economic data was a recurring failure of the Old Left, as was denial of natural capital, and the value of individual wellbeing.

A problem with Marxist theory, and ‘historical materialism’ more generally, is a view of the progress of man, and his happiness, in isolation from Nature, and divorced from a spiritual life, which Marx castigated as an opiate. The idea of anything being sacred, including Art, is generally dismissed. Thus Terry Eagleton writes: ‘Literature, in the sense of a set of works of assured and unalterable value distinguished by certain shared inherent properties does not exist’.

Communist regimes caused enormous damage to the moral fabric of societies of Central and Eastern Europe. Rather than fostering empathy, they had the opposite effect of incubating materialism, and more selfish behaviour than might otherwise have arisen. The response of people brought up under Communist regimes to the plight of Syrian refugees has been instructive, and a theoretical dislocation from Nature permitted wholescale ecocide, including Chernobyl.

Eamon Ryan makes a valid point that Green ideology: ‘values our quality of life rather than just increases in the quantity of goods that are consumed’; and the pleasure my 85-year-old English friend Richard (pictured above) derives from his life bears out this point.

Richard prefers to spend the summer months living out of doors in a tent, and chooses to wrap up and take plenty of exercise, rather than pay heating bills during the winter months. Having given up driving long ago, he takes public transport or cycles, and has been a Vegan for over thirty years. Despite not flying, he is on holidays much of the time, including a recent four-month stint in the French Alps, where his advanced years gave him a free ski pass! He’s mostly joyful, and in rude health, while living off a meagre income.

While not everyone would accept the perceived privations that Richard happily embraces it has been established that monetary wealth only brings an individual to a fixed point on a graph of happiness. But everyone’s wellbeing, and survival, is now threatened by something far deeper, which is the devastating impact of mostly Western consumption on the planet. Richard himself is outraged and wants to organise a mass march on London to protest against government inaction.

Vast wealth now co-habits with shocking poverty in Ireland, and in fairness to Eamon Ryan he acknowledges this with his criticism of the American economic model. This battle against inequality must be put centre-stage, however, as merely focusing on environmental questions without first addressing social context risks making the party an irrelevance to the majority of the population.

Government parties argue that the population enjoys adequate social supports, notwithstanding the current housing crisis. But this is useless when lives are beset by anxiety over economic status, after sophisticated advertising techniques manipulate our behaviour towards ever-greater consumption. Many luxuries are now seen as necessities – not least owning a car – to the benefit of a declining number of beneficiaries, whose wealth is virtually untouched.

Marxist theory, relying on David Ricardo’s labour surplus theory of value, is correct that a free market leads to accumulation of wealth. That is the important justification for taxation of individuals and companies.

Seen ecologically, we have allowed a situation to develop wherein a small number of individuals are leading the despoliation of the Earth’s resources. Picture humanity as a forest that has spread over most of the biosphere, but within this forest there are certain trees that draw a disproportionate share of the water and minerals that sustain life, like Giant Redwoods towering over the rest, while everyone is running out of resources, and time.

That is not to say there isn’t a role for individuals, like Richard, who minimise their impact on the planet; but we need top-down structural changes to bring the giant interlopers down to a manageable scale.

Much of the power of capital now resides in a capacity to dominate the media space; we can see this in our own country where the white noise of news agendas infects the body politic, producing politics of incoherence and theatrical bile. To Eamon Ryan’s credit he is one of the few politicians who rarely engages in ad hominem attacks, and concentrates on addressing the important issues.

I believe, however, he must go further, and not simply in order to harness the anger over homelessness, and the absence of housing policy. Green politics arises as an extension of Marxist critiques of wealth and power, while acknowledging the limits of natural capital, and a human yearning for meaning through spiritual and artistic practice.

The influence of unchecked capital is evident in the deficiencies in our health system, which does nothing to promote health as opposed to treat diseases. As one general practitioner friend of mine forlornly observed: the health industry is indistinguishable from the wider capitalist economy. It is dominated by avaricious pharmaceutical companies and private insurers that sow fear. Leading Irish oligarchs such as Denis O’Brien (the Beacon) and Larry Goodman (the Blackrock Clinic) have stakes in a sector displaying the same wage disparities as in the wider economy.

Unsurprisingly, the government’s response to the obesity pandemic has been no more than a long-delayed, and tame, tax on soft drinks, which I called for four years ago. Moreover, the Irish Livestock-Industrial Complex has been allowed to dictate dietary recommendations, and the burden of disease grows each year. There is an important role for Green approaches to the health of society, as living Green invariably confers health, as Richard’s example shows.

Today a Neoliberal discourse holds sway which says that a conniving state is inherently inefficient at spending resources. This was articulated by Sunday Times columnist Niall Ferguson in his book Civilization (2011): ‘Private property rights’, he says, ‘are repeatedly violated by governments that seem to have an insatiable appetite for taxing our incomes and our wealth and wasting a large proportion of the proceeds.’

The use of the seductive “our” is revealing: Ferguson is really manipulating the low paid worker into a low-tax alliance with the Super Rich. This is a formula that the Republican party have turned into an art form in the United States. That is not to say that there aren’t serious problems with the way an étatiste elite wields power in Ireland. The salaries of many state officials are still disgracefully high. This is the legacy of the failed policy of the Tiger – boomenomics – and the grave planning failures that concentrated too many jobs in the capital city, driving up property prices as a result.

Green economics would embrace degrowth, and an aggressive response to the consumer economy, focusing initially perhaps on ending the use of plastics made from crude oil. That is a battle requiring more than a consensual approach, but it will be to the ultimate wellbeing of the collective, and Nature.

I share Eamon Ryan’s enthusiasm for a revolution in energy, which will bring an end to the use of fossil fuels, but the understandable worry is that the fruits of any windfall will not be shared evenly. In rural Ireland people don’t feel invested in alternative energy, and continue to fuel their cars with toxic fossil fuels that generate horrendous overseas conflicts, while many continue to extract peat from the precious remaining peatlands.

We need more than a technological revolution. A revolution in mindsets is required such that acquisition of monetary wealth ceases to be an overwhelming ambition. This will only come about when we alter a destructive relationship with the natural world, and see wealth in river banks not bank balances. A radical change in the way we ‘do’ education is called for, with far greater focus on human development than non-sensical state exams.

I welcome Eamon Ryan’s acknowledgement that we are losing the battle to save our natural world, including in Ireland, and I believe we cannot concede any more ground on this. The Green Party is primed to take on the Livestock-Industrial Complex and it should not shirk this challenge. To be an extremist in this cause will be a badge of honour to wear before the generations that follow: ‘What did you do in the Great War against Climate Change Grandpa?’

I anticipate a time when the Green movement becomes a mainstream political force committed to ending an exploitative relationship with Earth, and the patriarchal structures that underlie this. For this to occur we must take on the oligarchs, and their drones in mainstream media. We require a mass political movement that reverses the course of the great battle we are facing to save Nature, and humanity.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn showed that a leader imbued with principle, and poetry, can speak directly to a population when given the opportunity, especially through social media. The Green Party should be ambitious enough to take on the Byzantine political parties that dominate our dysfunctional system. These parties stand for nothing, and as we see this week, can fall out over anything.

Ireland’s Livestock-Industrial-Complex

Ireland’s Livestock-Industrial-Complex

It may come as a surprise that a Republican President, and former Allied commander-in-chief, Dwight D. Eisenhower coined the term ‘the Military-Industrial Complex’ before leaving office in 1961. Throughout the Cold War, and beyond, the US arms industry has exerted profound influence on political decision-making. This has yielded vast federal investment in manufacturing operations, and brought sinister deals with tyrannical foreign governments, including, recently, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. society has been weighed down by this relationship with the industry, as Michael Moore poignantly showed in his documentary ‘Bowling for Columbine’ (2002). Moore pointed to how the presence of the arms industry in small towns incubates states of fear that can have terrible consequences, including mass shootings.

The Military Industrial Complex has been defined as: ‘an informal and changing coalition of groups with vested psychological, moral, and material interests in the continuous development and maintenance of high levels of weaponry, in preservation of colonial markets and in military-strategic conceptions of internal affairs.’

Replace “weaponry” and “military” with “livestock”, and “agricultural”, and it could describe the “informal coalition” of interests operating to preserve the livestock-farming sector in Ireland. This country is similarly dominated by the concerns of an industry that would hardly survive in a free market. This has long been evident in media reporting on Climate Change, and even when it comes to nutritional guidance from professional bodies.

Since the Great Famine (1845-52), Irish agriculture has been dominated by cattle-rearing for beef, and dairy; although Irish farmers have been no laggards in adopting CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), mainly for pigs and chicken. Michael Pollan described one such CAFO in the United States as ‘a place I won’t soon forget: a deep circle of porcine hell.’ He adds: ‘Specialisation makes it easy to forget about … the hog that lived and died so I can enjoy my bacon.’ Adding: ‘however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity’.

Ireland operates facilities on a similar scale as those in the United States. One such was found to be in violation of what are very limited animal welfare provisions. In February 2015 the Irish Times reported on a case in which pig farmer Rory O’Brien was given a jail sentence of 18 months. Judge Sean O Donnabháin said: ‘This is cruelty on an industrial scale by one of the biggest pig farmers in the country. On a continuous basis he knowingly and without regard acted in this way’. Inside the rat-infested piggery, animals were left to starve leading them to eat one another. O’Brien’s farm held over 2000 pigs. That implicates a lot of breakfast rolls.

A curious psychology appears to operate whereby, since the Great Famine, Irish farmers have equated growing crops with poverty. The first Minister for Agriculture Patrick Hogan (1922-32) was a substantial cattle farmer, and an export-led strategy left a deep impression on state policy thereafter.

During the 1930s, and especially the Emergency years of the Second World War, government policy necessarily shifted towards a more diversified agriculture, designed to feed the populace. However, since the 1950s, livestock agriculture has become increasingly dominant, and a host of semi-state organisations including Teagasc and An Bord Bia, intertwine with multinationals such as Larry Goodman’s ABP Food Group and the Kerry Group, to create an “informal coalition” with tentacles reaching deep into media and politics.

Successive governments have supported these companies, including, most obviously, the extension of state benefits by Charles Haughey’s administration to Goodman International in 1990, after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, which caused losses to the company estimated at £70 million. The Middle East remains the preferred “colonial market” for the Complex, including the disturbing live animal trade.

It is at least symbolic that while Minister for Agriculture (2011-2016), Simon Coveney’s brother and political supporter Patrick was CEO of Greencore, while another brother Rory was Strategic Advisor to the Director General, and Head of Strategic Partnerships, in the national broadcaster RTE. The alignment of business, media and politics lies at the heart of maintaining the informal coalition, and Coveney’s new role as Minister for Foreign Affairs, leading Brexit negotiations, should be scrutinised closely for his efforts on behalf of the sector.

European subsidisation from 1972, through the CAP, essentially keeps cattle farming afloat in Ireland. Accounting for over half of Ireland’s c.85,000 farms, the vast majority of dry cattle (“beef”) farmers actually lose money on their enterprises, relying on Direct Payments (subsidies) for income. Government intervention in the market has long caused distortions. In 1966 then Minister for Agriculture Charles Haughey claimed: ‘agitation directed only to getting higher prices may develop a kind of dole mentality which would eventually make agriculture subservient to the state.’ This “dole mentality” is now ensconced in a subsidy-dependent sector.

Prior to the introduction of the CAP in 1971 the economist James Meenan had claimed: “the small farmer cannot profitably raise beef on his limited acreage”. He contended that it is: “…increasingly recognised that price supports are of most benefit to the large farmers who as a rule, are least in need of them, and that such supports do nothing to provide a lasting solution to the problems of small farmers”.

Far fewer in number, dairy farmers (c.15,000 out of c. 85,000), also avail of EU grants, but tend to be profitable, while operating on the best lands in the country. Cleavages have opened up between the two – with the advent of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) in 1993 – although it is convenient for the more profitable farmers to maintain an illusion of unity through the far larger, and industry-supported, Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), at least for the moment. If nothing else, this allows the Livestock-Industrial Complex to associate itself with embattled small farmers.

The Livestock-Industrial Complex operates via a number of pillars in both the public and private sector, which have brought successive governments to heel and maintained a spooky allegiance to the “farming way of life” in mainstream media, especially through the state broadcaster. The Agricultural-Industrial Complex faces its greatest challenge in a generation, however, as the state is committed to reducing its carbon emissions at a time when the sector wishes to expand with the ending of EU milk quotas.

Over a number of years I covered the media reporting on this issue for Village Magazine. An instructive example came from an RTE Drivetime report from Wednesday, 2nd of October in 2013 about the connection between livestock and climate change. It began with presenter Mary Wilson stating: ‘A UN report (‘Tackling Climate Change Through Livestock’) on the contribution of livestock to greenhouse gas emissions has been rubbished as misleading and outdated by JBS, the world’s largest producer of beef.’

In the first instance it would surely be customary to begin with a commentary on the findings of the UN report, rather than the response of an industry representative. There followed a four-minute interview in which Countrywide’s Damien O’Reilly questioned Gerry O’Callaghan the chief Executive of JBS, a Brazilian company heavily implicated in the destruction of rainforests. O’Callaghan was allowed to question the veracity of the report and impugn the credibility of its ‘out of touch, ‘academic’ authors.

O’Callaghan claimed de-forestation was ‘being managed really well’, and ‘only a fraction of it is associated with the meat industry’; claims environmentalists vigorously contest. He went on to claim that the research used in the report was ‘out of date’, and that the industry was making ‘great strides’ in reducing its footprint.

Back in studio Mary Wilson proceeded to interview Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth. The credibility of the report was immediately raised: ‘Does he have a point. Does it devalue the impact of the report?’, she asked.

As is still usually the case, the environmentalist was placed on the defensive. But the psychological and moral influence of the Livestock-Industrial Complex seemed evident in his response. While defending the report, Coghlan said in effect that it was a good news story for agriculture: ‘Better pastures and better grasses – we are seeing that in Ireland too.’ Placed on the defensive, Coghlan failed to use the opportunity to advocate a significant production towards environmentally friendlier and healthy alternatives.

Our ‘paper of record’ the Irish Times has also been slow to highlight the responsibility of farming for emissions, and still tends to slide away from doing so. Certainly its food coverage emphasises meat and dairy cooking; while sympathy for small farmers seems to extend to an unwillingness to meaningfully confront the industry. The Irish Times also contends with the interests of significant advertisers such as National Dairy Council and An Bord Bia.

Responding to the then FG-Labour government’s Climate Change Bill Harry McGee wrote in the Irish Times on February 26, 2013: ‘The Government argument is that an 80 per cent reduction by 2050 means annual emissions of 11 million tonnes of carbon equivalent, for everything. But agriculture alone accounts for 19 million tonnes at present. That means if everything else was reduced to zero, Ireland would still need to substantially reduce the amount of food produced, or dramatically cull national herds.’

He followed: ‘That is not a feasible solution, practically or politically, it is argued.’ The use of the passive voice tells us what we need to know: unspoken influences prevent deviations from a dominant line. The media bears a level of responsibility for the Irish state facing hundreds of millions in EU fines.

We also find the interests of the Livestock-Industrial Complex entering nutritional discourse, especially through the National Dairy Council. Maintaining consumption in the home market is clearly still a priority, perhaps for symbolic reasons as much as anything else.

The funding of research and development, including through charities, plays an important role in maintaining government nutritional advice that is not necessarily best practice, but ensures dairy in particular is consumed at high levels.

The Osteoporosis Society of Ireland was founded in 1996 by Professor Moira O’Brien as ‘a patient support organisation for those suffering with Osteoporosis and their families.’ Two of its leading sponsors listed on its website are Avonmore and Yoplait, and it has collaborated in the past with the National Dairy Council. As regards dietary calcium their website states:

“The richest sources of calcium in the diet are yogurt milk and cheese. Three servings a day will help meet calcium needs of an adult or child, five servings are recommended during adolescence and pregnancy. Smaller amounts of calcium may be obtained from other food sources, such as green vegetables, bread and sardines. It should be noted however that the bioavailablility of calcium from non-dairy sources is lower. Calcium intake can be boosted by including dairy foods in a variety of ways such as in smoothies, hot chocolates, pizzas, cheese sauces, lasagne etc. For some, milks fortified with extra calcium and vitamin D can be useful.”

This is at odds with the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) which say: ‘studies suggest that high calcium intake doesn’t actually appear to lower a person’s risk for osteoporosis.’ The authors refer to the Harvard studies of male health professionals and female nurses in which individuals who drank one glass of milk (or less) per week were at no greater risk of breaking a hip or forearm than were those who drank two or more glasses per week.

The HSPH states bluntly: ‘Calcium is important. But milk isn’t the only, or even best, source.’ They recommend: ‘Look beyond the dairy aisle. Limit milk and dairy foods to no more than one to two servings per day. More won’t necessarily do your bones any good—and less is fine, as long as you get enough calcium from other sources. Calcium-rich non-dairy foods include leafy green vegetables and broccoli, both of which are also great sources of vitamin K, another key nutrient for bone health. Beans and tofu can also supply calcium.’ One may fairly speculate as to whether sponsors influence the Osteoporosis Society’s recommendations.

The informal coalition of the Livestock-Industrial Complex operates at the highest levels of Irish society, and its role is rarely interrogated in mainstream media. A moral dimension flows form the Industry’s capacity to associate itself with historically downtrodden small farmers, now locked into the “dole mentality” Charles Haughey anticipated. Environmentalists should be prising small farmers away from this model and arguing for progressive re-rurification that will increase opportunities for employment in labour-intensive tillage and horticulture.

On a personal note, I would add that the “complicity”, which Michael Pollan alludes to, operates where the vast majority of the population eat, and enjoy, livestock-derived foods produced in Ireland. Nobody likes being told what they should eat, but until a greater proportion of the population shifts away from foods that have traditionally been considered an aspect of the pleasures of life – the butter melting on your toast in the morning; the Sunday roast; the turkey at Christmas; it seems unlikely that the Livestock Industrial-Complex will meet significant opposition.

Offering alternative dietary perspectives – a plant-based gastronomy – is therefore an important role for environmentalists. My own experience of shifting from a traditional gastronomic diet in my mid-thirties to a plant-based regime might perhaps be instructive. Contrary to carefully cultivated propaganda this was not an exercise in asceticism. I found my taste buds shifted considerably to a point where I began to derive enjoyment from different, usually healthier, foods. More importantly, I found my eyes opening to injustices that I previously took for granted.

Undoing kitsch: why I am asking for your financial support.

Undoing kitsch: why I am asking for your financial support.

Writers today confront challenges similar to musicians. People don’t expect to pay for online content, or the music they listen to. It is time for that attitude to change.

I have added a pop-up to this site, allowing readers to contribute financially after spending longer than two minutes on an article.

Large organisations such as the Guardian and Radiohead put out excellent material and seem to thrive, but unfortunately it is the Daily Mail and X-Factor that dominate our culture space. Independent voices are difficult to discern above this cacophony, and we can’t expect Radiohead and the Guardian to undo the damage alone.

I believe I have worked hard enough to develop ideas that should be listened to, and the current media constellation gives me insufficient opportunities. Fortunately, social media allows me to reach people directly.

I don’t expect a first-time reader to contribute, but if you believe I am performing a valuable service I would really appreciate your help, so I can keep going…

This Digital Age has dawned crisp and fresh, but the night has been long and heavy. Our senses seem blunted. As if through a miasma of intoxication, we recall encounters, but these memories fade rapidly before further flashing stimuli. A vast pool of information beckons, though we have not measured the depths, and fear a lurking monster in the deep.

A yearning for meaning is fixed in our collective unconscious. We seek direction, and purpose, yet fields of knowledge are obscured by professional intransigence, and ideologies seem discredited. Still, the cynicism we are left with leaves a fetid odour.

I have lived on both sides of a technological divide. Until my twenties letters and expensive phone calls were how we conquered distance. I remember a summer holiday when a group of us enjoyed access to a single cassette tape – in itself a remarkable departure – as well as the excitement of waiting for a pharmacist to process holiday snaps. Most of us have taken the ease of communication and access to information in our stride, but it is miraculous, and we stagger under the weight of its sudden, transformative, impact.

With this power in our hands, our civilisation is like a young foal taking its first steps: clumsily and injudiciously, yet brimming with an energy that cannot be restrained. The reach of the new technology is global, and its consequences already seismic. George Steiner wrote in 2001: ‘I believe that the current changes in the experience of communication, of information, of knowledge, of the generation of meaning and of form, are probably the most comprehensive and consequential since homo sapiens’ development of language itself’.

This brings new challenges to how we “do” journalism, which George Orwell defined as: ‘printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.’ With the advent of the Internet, mainstream publications have tended to consolidate, partly under pressure from declining advertising revenues. This reduces the scope for freelancers to contribute, and, importantly, for alternative viewpoints to be ventilated. Unfortunately, much of our media space has turned into an extended sales pitch.

The Czech author Milan Kundera described what passed for public discourse in Communist Czechoslovakia as political kitsch in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). This emanates from an aesthetic ideal ‘in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist’. ‘Kitsch’, he argued, ‘is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements’. It is the dream scenario of the spin doctor who plays the press like a violin. He gives the example of politicians kissing babies as an obvious expression political of kitsch, and it is certainly hard to imagine one volunteering to change a nappy!

Kundera was writing about a totalitarian government that ended in the early 1990s. He believed the West was immune from the excesses of kitsch. But there are forces at work across Europe and the United States today aiming to deny “shit”. Unfortunately the vision of a free Internet remains unrealised, and it is only with great difficulty that campaigning and investigative journalism occurs; especially in a small country such as Ireland, where a radical press faded away after independence was won in 1921.

For a long time I despaired at what I encounter in the Irish media. The absence of the environmentalist voice is a particular source of angst, and coverage of the arts tends to be obsequious. The mainstream of journalistic opinion is found in the centre-right, and the few left-wing commentators around have been repeating the same mantras, to no great effect, for decades.

Rather than banging my head against the wall of organisations that rarely allow me to express my views, I have decided to go out on my own and communicate directly with readers via my own website. To do this, however, I need financial support. I certainly don’t expect to grow rich out of this, but it would be great just to be able to keep going, and use anything spare to pay for publishing and promoting articles online.

I have no upper or lower limit in terms of what I think is an appropriate contribution. Any assistance would be greatly appreciate.

Vegans march on man eating pepperoni pizza.

Vegans march on man eating pepperoni pizza.

There’s been a scent of Veganism in the air this week. Before I hear the cheap joke about the consequences of a diet high in fibre, let me explain what I mean.

To some people the Irish Times Magazine is an emblem of the degeneration of Irish culture into mindless consumerism. In general the magazine’s articles have a lifeless quality where image is all, a home for ‘content’ rather than ‘writing’, notwithstanding the odd travel piece that is more than a journalistic junket. It’s here the vomit-inducing CGI creation that is celebrity chef Donal Skeehan has found a platform.

It’s rare to find anything worthwhile to read in it, as anything counter-cultural might not sit well with the target Saturday-brunch-demographic. In his Politics of the English Language Orwell wrote: ‘Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.’ So if you find an article boring there is a reason for that, and check too for the hand that is fingering your wallet.

Nonetheless, I commend restaurant critic Catherine Cleary for writing an article discussing the subject of Veganism that went beyond the usual superficiality. It was, however, deficient in many respects, not least in only allowing a small space for an actual Vegan voice, and repeating common shibboleths about Veganism being a ‘fad’ diet, and a claim by one person that animal proteins are essential for hard labour, as if there aren’t enough sportsmen and women proving the contrary.

Most erroneous, however, was her use of avocados, and to a lesser extent plant-based ‘milk’ as a measure of the number of vegans. It is surprising that a restaurant critic should be unaware of the wide popularity of avocados (not least Taoiseach Varadkar’s affection), and the number of people who prefer plant-based milks not for ideological reasons, but because they may be lactose intolerant, or simply because dairy is neither the best nor the only source of dietary calcium. The conflation of Veganism with diet is a convenient way of dismissing a philosophical approach that goes far beyond veggie burgers on a Monday.

I have had my own experience with the Irish Times Magazine in 2012 when I successfully pitched an article on Reforming our Food Culture while I was teaching a course on the History of Food in UCD. It was too good to be true. Before submitting I got this back:

“I know you are not filing your story until tomorrow (early as possible would be great), but I have commissioned the Irish Times Food and farming correspondent [redacted] to do a short panel to run with your story – she will be writing about the current problems of crop failure and lack of grass etc and the follow on effects on Irish consumers. Could you send us a draft copy of your story so she knows how to pitch her panel and doesn’t cover any of the same ground as you? It needn’t be the finished piece just a draft.”

I dully sent in my copy to the Food editor who said it was a good read when she got it. Then I got this message:

“The editor of the Magazine has decided that we should run an image of you with your article, so it has been decided to delay publication to give us time to arrange that with you. She had also, on reading the piece, mentioned that we might look at a couple of revisions, so it’s still a work in progress. Thank you for your patience.”

Then nothing for two months, until this:

“I am afraid the final decision on inclusion of the piece rests with the Magazine editor [redacted]. You might drop her a line if you want to go ahead and place it elsewhere – her email is [redacted]. In the meantime I would be delighted to include mention of your next course in Food File, either this weekend or on Saturday week, depending on availability of space.”

And then from me:

“Hi [redacted]
Further to our conversation last week, would you please let me know if you would like to take this article?
Otherwise I will try and get it published it elsewhere.
Best Wishes
Frank Armstrong”

Then nothing. What happened? Did the Ag. correspondent pull the plug or was it the editor? Was it a badly written piece? I think the arguments I made were pretty sound.

********

The emergence of a more vocal Vegan constituency was evident in a Dublin march calling on all slaughter houses to be closed down last Saturday afternoon. Up to a thousand people set off from the GPO with a police escort to ventilate their outrage at the annual industrial slaughter of up to fifty-seven billion domesticated animals worldwide.

I followed the progress of the march to see how people reacted to the plaintiff cries for justice. There were lots of phone cameras out which shows how social media easily disseminates what may not necessarily be a very large demonstration. I listened to a few lads attempt a counter chant in favour of steaks, but no opposition was evident apart from that. Mostly people looked puzzled at the plight of these animals being highlighted. The best shot I got was of an anonymous man downing the banality of evil that is a pepperoni pizza.

*********

The furore over the National Dairy Council’s add claiming their product is plant-based emphasises the industry’s sense of vulnerability to alternatives. Whoever decided to run a campaign suggesting Irish cows are capable of photosynthesis should really be considered for some kind of comedic award. But the disinformation could easily have grave consequences for someone who is lactose intolerant.

It’s also a big lie that Irish dairy cows subsist entirely on grass. A reasonable proportion of their diets are made up of imported grains, especially through the winter months, and as the industry consolidates that proportion increases. No doubt a slap on the wrist will dully be delivered, but by then the effect of further distorting a consumer’s understanding of where their food comes from will have been achieved.

*********

One wonders whether the number of Veganism will ever reach the critical mass necessary for real progress to be made. In Ireland the signs are not encouraging, as most of the media allows little meaningful discussion of this subject (articles written by Vegan advocates are almost never printed), and few, if any, politicians have taken up the cause. But this could change quite rapidly because of the challenge to Irish agriculture posed by commitments to reduce our carbon footprint, and the increasing availability of laboratory or analogue meat and dairy.

If a person can find a pepperoni pizza that tastes just as good and doesn’t involve slaughter then why wouldn’t he choose that?

Feirme-geddon. Ten reasons why Irish farming as we know it is on the way out.

Feirme-geddon. Ten reasons why Irish farming as we know it is on the way out.

We have already seen two agricultural revolutions in Ireland, now we are set for a third. This presents opportunities to farmers who are willing to adapt.

After the last Ice Age, the agriculturists who arrived in Ireland brought with them a tool kit of grains and domesticated animals that had spread from the Middle East into Europe. Irish conditions could sustain both, with pastoralism more evident in the rainy west. But before mechanization a living off cattle only allowed a semi-nomadic existence, forestalling the development of state structures.

It is said the Romans never colonised Ireland because they could not be sure of taking back a harvest surplus. Nevertheless, the arrival of Christianity coincided with innovations in water milling showing that grain was widely grown – wheat, oats, and rye – especially in the south and east.

Ireland’s first agricultural revolution coincided with the second wave of English colonisation in the seventeenth century. From that point, land ceased to be held as a common patrimony of clan or tribe, and individual ownership and possession – landlord and tenant – became the norm.

Colonisation turned Ireland into a bulk supplier of both grain and livestock for the Empire. But it was the arrival of an ambrosial New World crop, the potato, which was the game changer. Small tenant farmers, even in the rainy west, could survive on miniscule holdings, while much of the better land was devoted to cash crops and cattle for export.

The second Irish agricultural revolution began after the Napoleonic Wars when grain prices collapsed due to renewed European access to the British market, culminating in the Great Irish Famine. Geometric growth in the peasant population brought a monoculture that was susceptible to disease. The potato blight (phytophthora infestans) is reckoned by economic historian Joel Mokyr to have brought the worst famine to afflict any European country in the nineteenth century. Up to a quarter of the population either died, or were forced to emigrate.

Out of the devastation, pastoralism became increasingly dominant. That is an extensive system, however, which depends for profitability on low labour inputs: population in Ireland continued to decline for a century, and has still not reached the heights of the 1840s, which makes Ireland unique in the world for having a higher population then than now.

Membership of the European Community in 1972 fossilised this system, guaranteeing an income even when a farm is losing money, and keeping the price of land artificially high, thereby hindering the development of alternative agriculture, including horticulture. But large cracks are apparent, and a third agricultural revolution is required for the following reasons.

Carbon Emissions: thirty-three percent of the country’s emissions come from agriculture which is overwhelmingly livestock-based. We have the highest proportion of our emissions coming from agriculture of any developed country apart from New Zealand. Hundreds of millions in fines are on the horizon if we don’t hit EU-mandated targets. Overall we are the least Climate-friendly country in the EU. It seems unlikely that the EU will continue to finance a form of farming that is inherently carbon-intensive. Carbon sequestration is the Holy Grail of earnest livestock apologists, but there is little evidence to support this approach, and it seems like a chimera delaying necessary changes to production, and consumption.

Brexit: Ireland is about to lose favourable access to its traditional trading partner, and tariffs may be placed on Irish agricultural products. A weak sterling is already making life difficult

Peak Oil: our mechanized system is utterly dependent on oil and other fossil fuels such as natural gas, which is necessary for the Haber-Bosch process that produces the artificial fertilizers which are intensively used on Irish grasslands. Fracking may have bought some time, but the end of this finite resource will arrive eventually.

Climate Chaos: already we are seeing an increase in catastrophic storms passing over our exposed island. When it comes to defences cities will be the first priority for the state to protect; rural areas will be far more exposed as freakish weather becomes the new normal and oceans rise. Low tree coverage increases susceptibility to flooding.

Food Sovereignty: if we were to rely entirely on Irish products we would face severe food shortages, unless we adopted diets comprised almost entirely of animal products. Little grain is grown for human consumption, and knowledge of a traditional method of harvesting – bindering – in our wet conditions has been lost. The horticulture sector is almost non-existent, meaning most of our fruit and vegetables are imported from countries such as the Netherlands, which has conditions not dissimilar to our own.

Biodiversity Loss: the intensification of agriculture in Ireland is leading to extinctions of numerous native species. Agricultural authorities seem oblivious to the plight of other animals native to the island. Thousands of badgers are exterminated each year for a spurious connection to bovine TB. Loss of biodiversity could lead to ecological breakdowns affecting water and air quality. The present pace of ecocide cannot endure.

Disease Risk: the prophylactic use of antibiotics in Ireland has been documented, but this is not all. In factory farms antibiotics may be used to increase the weight of animals’ carcasses. Over-use of antibiotics in agriculture is a major factor in the emergence of superbugs that have already led to thousands of deaths across Europe, and threaten much worse.

Consumer Preferences: in almost every supermarket in the land there is a ‘free-from’ aisle. In particular the number of vegans is on the rise, which seems to have led the National Dairy Council to market their milk as ‘plant-based’, as if a cow can photosynthesize! Even meat-eaters are becoming increasingly uncomfortable at images of incarcerated animals having parts of their anatomy cut off in industrial farms, and dairy calves being taken from their mothers at just one day old.

Carcinogens: the WHO has defined red meat as a ‘probable’ carcinogenic, and processed meat as simply carcinogenic, which is placing a burden on our beleaguered health system. There is also compelling evidence that adoption of a plant-based diet diminishes the possibility of heart disease, and may actually be better than any pill. Meanwhile the dairy industry insists on the necessity of milk products to our health, despite the advice of the Harvard School of Public Health that dairy is neither the only, nor the best, source of dietary calcium.

Availability of Alternatives: billions are being invested in plant-based alternatives to animal products, including analogue meat and genuinely plant-based ‘milk’, which reduce environmental impact, and can be better for human health, besides avoiding a cruel system of production. The advance of laboratory meat technology also endangers the current model.

Ireland will not have to fall back entirely on its own resources immediately at least in the short term, and contrary to popular notions, becoming a locavore actually has a higher carbon footprint. Nonetheless we need to make our food system sufficiently diverse to withstand the challenges that lie ahead, while adopting best environmental practice.

We should be preparing for a third agricultural revolution on this island which can accommodate enhanced biodiversity through afforestation. We can also harness alternative energies in production. Old-fashioned greenhouses may be one of the best ways of diminishing the Greenhouse Effect. A widespread dietary shift towards plants is both necessary and desirable, for all concerned.

 

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Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales

Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales

I start with a little criticism before I get into rhapsodies. For a venue to prohibit a band from playing any covers during a performance strikes me as misguided. I commend encouragement of artistic creation, but this rule offends my Romantic sensibility; it could encourage a breakdown of hallowed musical and poetic form.

Experimental music has its place, even at a concert, but there is ample room for creativity within established patterns; nothing is ever entirely original, only the muse brings inspiration. It came as a surprise to scholars who discovered that the Homer poet – whoever that is – relied on stock epithets like ‘rosey-fingered dawn’, to build strict hexameter verse. These folk expressions were recited from memory before the arrival of writing, and joined with the poet’s own invention, to the accompaniment of strings.

We should remain wary of lapsing into cliché, as George Orwell sagely noted: ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’. But idioms that have been handed down bring colour to our speech and writing: tropes connect us to our ancestors in sound. It is the devotion that we give to the Word that is important, and this protects us from sounding hackneyed. The first syllable in ‘rhapsodise’ refers to stitching in needlework, the second to song; so it involves threading songs together, which is the stuff of epic.

Even the arch-Romantic poet Percy Shelley, who overthrew conventions such as belief in an almighty god, relied on poetic forms inherited from past masters such as Spencer, and Milton especially. Creativity is evident in the integration of new ideas into old structures. Thus, Homer’s genius in the Iliad was to develop a short episode within the ten-year Greek siege of Troy. This gives his tale a compelling energy, and encapsulates the longer struggle, which an expansive account cannot achieve. Each age plays with legends that have been handed down.

Café Blum in Berlin’s Neukölln, is a gorgeous old-worldly venue that was filled to capacity for the Loafing Heroes first concert in Berlin for six years. It’s a sign of their stellar quality that two Berlin members could slip seamlessly into the collective.

An exquisite array of instruments were in evidence: Bartholomew Ryan with voice and guitar, Giulia Gallina with voice, concertina and dulcimer; Judith Retzlik on violin, viola, trumpet and a little piano; and Fenster’s Jonathan Jarzyna on percussion, along with a mysterious electronic instrument.

Having organised a few Irish tours for the band I am accustomed to audiences – especially in pubs – occasionally not being respectful to their ethereal music which lilts, rather than declaims; especially Giulia’s haunting voice – and she doesn’t appreciate shouting over a crowd… But this Berlin crowd was almost meditative in its attention: a sturdy forest of straight backs that I viewed from my latecomer’s vantage.

And yet such respect seemed alien to me. I yearned for a drop of devilment, so an inner Irish gremlin compelled me to breath a few heckles for the amusement of an Irish mate who staged some in return. Out of earshot we mouthed barbed comments between ourselves, honouring the sacred craic: ‘Jaysus would you look at your man!’

At the end of the performance the audience clapped for a good five minutes. This was deep appreciation, if not the rapture of an Irish crowd that has been tamed. The band weren’t going to get away without an encore. But the hard-pressed musicians had only a day to prepare, and it took a little while for them to settle on which of their back catalogue to play.

In the meantime I started raucously shouting for covers I know they play, and would usually intersperse through a set. But my cries went unheeded, for the reason I discovered afterwards.

Yet they had just finished with their old favourite, T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, in which Bartholomew recites the poem to a familiar melody, out of which the band improvise on their assorted instruments. I have heard Judith wind a moistened finger around the top of a wine glass giving a high-pitched hum that somehow worked for the song; here she chose the piano as her weapon. It was a pity not to have Jaime McGill’s usual bass clarinet, and arsenal of peddles, but
Jonathan was making deranged noises on his electronic contraption to compensate. No performance of the song is ever the same – not least because members come and go – but it operates within an established pattern, as an evolving legend.

The poem is a classic statement of the modern condition: ‘I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.’ But I think the main reason it goes down so well is because it is so rare for poetry to be recited nowadays, and especially where the speaker really inhabits the verse, leaving an audience spellbound.

There is an amusing story to the recording that is now up on Youtube. A few minutes in you can make out the sound of phone ringing, which was Jaime McGill trying to say she was running late. Sometimes out of seemingly ugly imperfection something new and beautiful arises, and it now seems obvious that a phone should start ringing in the middle of Prufrock.

If a band includes a spoken word recital of a poem is that a cover?! The mind boggles. The distinction between song and poetry is artificial, to some extent a legacy of Modernist poets such as T.S. Eliot. Having mastered lyrical verse, he moved away from established forms, favouring enjambments, whereby one line merges with another, and a consistent rhythm is not developed. Eliot did this with a deep knowledge of the poetic tradition, and the Wasteland is still beautiful on the ear: ‘April is the cruellest month … ‘. But poets since the 1950s have strayed into more dangerous waters, where the past is ignored, leaving a boring narcissism instead.

Of course post-modern poetry can work splendidly, as with Allen Ginsberg’s seminal Howl:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

It also permits some of the worst excesses of self-indulgence at ‘dreaded’ poetry readings. It is hard to avoid an inclination to return to W.B. Yeats, and submit to the hard labour of learning the poetic trade, while occasionally giving vent to a post-modernism that has seeped into our bones.

There was some gnashing of teeth in literary circles when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Songs are often inextricably bound to musical compositions, and when you just read them song lyrics have nothing like the same force. Interestingly Paul Simon dismissed the connection between his song-writing and poetry in an interview in 1968:

‘I’ve tried poetry, but it has nothing to do with my songs … But the lyrics of pop songs are so banal that if you show a spark of intelligence, they call you a poet. And if you say you’re not a poet, then people think you are putting yourself down. But the people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry. Like poetry was something defined by Bob Dylan. They never read, say, Wallace Stevens. That’s poetry.’

Simon was right that a lot of derivative nonsense has been passed off as poetry in song, and that a great tradition was often sadly ignored, but that should not obscure how the songs Bob Dylan have entered the poetic canon, and even lyrics of his own.

Dylan was the leading light – though not my personal favourite – among a generation that developed poetry out of Rock n’ Roll and the folk revival. The prize seems appropriate to me if I ignore the etymology of the word literature, which means writing formed from letters. A Nobel Prize for poetry rather than literature would be more appropriate, which would include all forms, including the novel.

Dylan was of course also iconoclastic, going electric to the horror of some folkies. Labelled ‘Judas’, he responded: ‘I don’t believe you, you’re a liar.’ He had learnt at the feet of great ballad singers such as Liam Clancy and Woody Guthrie, but wanted to expand into new domains. This is the dangerous breaking of boundaries that re-connect with what has come before so as to avoid incoherence. Now, millions strum and sing the songs of Dylan, who took words and melodies from others in turn. That’s how the Songlines flow.

Ewan McCall who led the folk revival in Britain, and composed the classic Dirty Old Town, which is mistakenly assumed to be about Dublin (it’s about Salford in England), had another unbending rule in the folk club he founded that artists could only sing songs from their native countries. But as a Communist he should surely have realised that identity has an evolving plasticity, and anyway nowadays many bands, such as the Loafing Heroes, have multi-national casts.

Perhaps it’s a rebellious Irish streak – I’m still hoping to meet my orderly inner German – but I am wary or rules dictating what a poet can or cannot sing.
So when is a song, or a recital, a cover? There is no firm dividing line, and it becomes a matter of taste. Nothing is truly original, it is all adaptation out of a familiarity, and serendipity is evident too – like a phone ringing in the middle of a recording.

After a name change, it’s politics as usual in Czechia.

After a name change, it’s politics as usual in Czechia.

Last Thursday I was given a Tibetan flag to wave in front of Czech President Miloš Zeman in the small town of Zabreh na Morave. The photo above shows me under a banner in Czech proclaiming: ‘we are ashamed of you’.

I had met a Czech friend off the train, and proceeded straight to the main square along with a substantial body of townsfolk. They had gathered for a speech by the increasingly decrepit president, who has announced his candidature in the forthcoming Czech elections.

The reason my friends were flying these flags was in response to a police crackdown on pro-Tibetan demonstrators at a public meeting between the Czech President and a Chinese delegation last year. They wanted to emphasise the democratic importance of the right to protest.

As we entered the square, an innocuous-looking character sidled up to us and revealed a police ID. He was not aggressive in the least, and said he just wanted to ensure we weren’t going to raise a hue and cry during the speech. Nevertheless, it was a sinister reminder of times not long passed when the secret police merged with the civilian population.

Most of the crowd stood impassively for the President’s speech, who was hardly visible to the crowd as his failing legs compelled him to sit down for the duration. He droned on in a monotone for about half an hour, and my friends could hardly make out a word he said.

Opinion polls indicate he is still popular, and a few partisans were in evidence. At one point I was almost bowled over by a stout middle-aged lady who said we were taking up too much space. Another woman also shouted at me for obscuring her view with the flag. But people who might be vociferous Internet trolls were surprisingly demure in public, and most refused to engage in the rational debate my friends sought.

It’s fair to say that the freshly-branded country of Czechia is not in such a happy place right now. The jubilation which greeted the fall of the Iron Curtain has long passed, to be replaced with nostalgia for those repressive, but stable, times. Now, a permissive attitude to alcoholic-fuelled festivity often proceeds to toxic self-harm. Drawn by greater work opportunities and relief from a native reserve that breeds resentment, many of the brightest have left the country; leaving politicians to stoke the flames of xenophobia, thereby obscuring growing economic inequalities.

President Zeman has exploited long-standing fears of an Asiatic Other during the refugee crisis, in a country that was criss-crossed by Turks, Mongols and other invaders. He expressed the view that it would be practically impossible to integrate Muslims into Europe. To the horror of Czech liberals he has brought a rapprochement with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

What appears to be the extremely remote threat of terrorism is used to instil fear by exploitative politicians, many of whom trace their power to the Communist era. Now Czechia has its own version of Silvio Burlesconi in the shape of Andrej Babiš, who is keen to see the increasingly ineffectual president serve another term.

Babiš is the second richest man in the country, and controls a number of newspaper titles, including Dnes, the popular daily. His ANO (Yes) party manifests the same populist formula as Burlesconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, claiming to be neither right nor left wing, but really perpetuating a crony capitalism, which in Czechia grew out of Communism. ANO has recently become the largest party in the chamber of deputy. Only an outstanding corruption prosecution for appropriating EU subsidies is preventing Babiš from becoming Prime Minister.

Babiš is the Slovak son of a Communist apparatchik who was educated in a Swiss boarding school. He settled in Prague after the Velvet Revolution which divided Czechoslovakia, availing of his domestic and foreign contacts to turn the state-owned Agrofert into one of the largest companies in the country, with him as its owner. His career trajectory mirrors that of other oligarchs that emerged after the break-up of the Soviet empire.

The sad thing is that this is a country with great democratic traditions. Czechoslovakia produced political titans such as Tomas Masaryk and Vaclav Havel, who have been a shining example to the world; also the literature of Kafka, Hašek and others, offered an unparalleled critique of the power of an irrational state. Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in central and eastern Europe before World War II broke out. It is difficult to square all this with the extreme xenophobia that is found in the country today.

The town of Zabreh na Morave has its own ghosts that are rarely spoken of. In 1946 under the so-called Beneš decrees over two million ethnic Germans – so called Sudetendeutsch – were forcibly removed from the country, approximately twenty thousand of them dying in the process. Zabreh was known as Hohenstadt and was a German-speaking town, though the hinterland was Czech.

Zeman’s attitude towards this issue has been typically chauvinistic; even bizarrely claiming that Sudetan Germans had been done a favour by their forced transfer. Considering how the Czech people have been set upon by their larger more aggressive neighbours in recent history, it is perhaps unsurprising people should be unapologetic. But unless a nation addresses a dark past, historic failings tend to recur as we saw during the refugee crisis. The approach of my friends in Zabreh reassures me, however, that there are Czechs keeping the torch of democracy alight.

It’s personal: why I want to give up Ryanair.

It’s personal: why I want to give up Ryanair.

Most of us have a Ryanair horror story to recount. My own version occurred at the end of a trip to my then Czech girlfriend in Prague. I blame Ryanair for the end of that affair. Though it was also my own fault for getting into a post-modern, long-distance relationship.

Anyway, we’d just spent a week together before Christmas in wintertime Czech Republic, taking in a memorable cross-country ski trip and a few days in Prague, which is sprinkled with magic over Christmas: outdoor markets with steaming hot wine and trinkets, interspersed with happy burghers, in a toy town setting.

On the last night, however, relations were strained. “Where are we going with this?”, we both wondered. Some space after the heady immersion would do us no harm.

The following morning I set off for the airport with a sense of coming up for air, notwithstanding my deep affection for her; she too was looking forward to getting her routines back, away from the maniac Irishman.

It was a bitterly cold morning, a frost hung in the air under a marble-glassy-sky. A portentous gloom was apparent as I caught the smoothly-efficient, and cheap, public transport to Prague Airport, arriving in good time for my Ryanair flight.

I proceeded through the baggage checks and passport control without incident, and found the gate for Dublin listed for 8:30, settling into my book before boarding. But the gods were not smiling on me that day. In a flash of awareness I realised the flight I was awaiting began with the prefix EI, rather than FR.

This was an Aer Lingus flight! I swiftly discovered that Ryanair was leaving at 8:15, which gave me a few minutes still. I took off as fast as my legs could carry me to the Ryanair gate. There, I found two attendants waiting at the glass door to the runway, and could see the aircraft nearby outside with people still boarding. Saved! Or so I thought.

When I presented my boarding pass I received a shock. “I am sorry the gate is closed”, was the stony response from a lady, who, in another era, might have denied bread to someone with the wrong ration card.

“But the plane hasn’t left, I can see people boarding”, I cried in rising consternation. Her programmed response suggested I was not the first to be confused by the proximity in departure times, and that this was part of her job: “You can purchase a ticket for tomorrow morning for €150”.

I pleaded with her, told her I was broke, brought every emotional ruse to bear, including summoning tears. But she was an immovable stone to my emotional wave, and kept repeating the mantra of the price of the ticket for the following morning.

Then an older Czech woman arrived who may have made the same mistake, or just been late. She was given the same stock response in Czech. She put on a really impressive show, wailing like a banshee before a lady who, alas, was not for turning. We watched on in horror as the last of the passengers snaked on to the aircraft, a mere fifty paces away.

I then went to the Aer Lingus desk seeking another flight for that day, but was quoted an astronomical figure. When I got to the Ryanair desk they immediately presented me with a bill of €150 for the following day’s flight. They seemed quite familiar with this routine.

So I scuttled back into Prague that grim morning, filled with foreboding. In hindsight I should have booked a hotel but I’d already taken a significant financial hit. The day went as badly as might have been expected. It was never the same afterwards.

Ryanair’s success is built on people making mistakes, such as mine. Of course they brought down the cost of flying considerably, but profitability depends on inflicting misery on an unlucky minority.

It’s as ruthless a form of capitalism as can be imagined, inducing a stress the like of which never existed before Michael O’Leary got involved in aviation.
Of course other airlines aren’t much better anymore, and also treat their passengers with all the warmth we extend to numbers on a spreadsheet. But O’Leary is the dark prince who re-wrote the rule book, and consumers should recall what kind of character we are dealing with.

There is a story – apocryphal perhaps – about him from a period when he ran a newsagent in the Dublin suburbs. It was Christmas day and the ever-vigilant O’Leary stayed open when other shops were closed.

Sniffing an easy buck, the arch-opportunist quadrupled the price of batteries and lay in wait for the kiddies to come in search of them for their Christmas toys. He knew they would beseech their unfortunate parents to pay over the odds.

The story conjures an image of O’Leary dressed as Santa Clause for one of his giveaways. But really the big bad wolf lies underneath.

To become a multi-billionaire probably takes a degree of ruthlessness akin to that of a war lord of yore. What could drive a man (it seems to be a Y-chromosome thing) to seek such extraordinary wealth and power? There are only so many cars to drive and mistresses you can keep. Why do we allow unaccountable wealth like this to accumulate, while millions are still malnourished?

O’Leary masquerades as a country squire on his cattle farm and conveniently denies human responsibility Climate Change. He also refuses to recognise or negotiate with unions. He’s a decidedly sinister role model.

The recent cancellations of hundreds of Ryanair flights shows that his pilots are mustering opposition against him. Let us support them by boycotting Ryanair, where possible. For motivation just remember the stress he has probably already caused you.

We should really be reducing our carbon footprints by taking longer holidays, rather than short breaks according to the Ryanair model. Also, there is a ferry and rail deal that takes one anywhere in the UK for just over €50, and you don’t have to book it long in advance. Be the change you want to see in the world, and hurt this guy in the one place he feels it.

Ireland: a failing state. 10 reasons why.

Ireland: a failing state. 10 reasons why.

A French geographer once described Ireland as ‘une isle derriere une isle’, ‘an island behind an island’, which neatly expresses this island’s insulation from wider European currents. That is not to say we have had an easy time, acting as a guinea pig for English colonial exploitation, but at least since independence in 1922 our remoteness has brought a stability which allowed us to get along by ourselves, spared the twin hydras of Nazism and Communism.

But what we have achieved since independence has been, on many levels, a deep disappointment. Development beyond the historic Pale of Settlement – the greater Dublin region – has had hardly occurred, and what we have built, almost everywhere, has been a poor reflection on the Irish architectural talent in that period. Our natural environment has also been unprotected; we have devoured our bogs through over-grazing and fossil-fuel exploitation; and subjected the landscape to agricultural monoculture of ruminant animals; what forestry we have is mostly non-native sitka spruce that acidifies the soil. Nature is on the run with up to a third of species facing extinction.

I cite ten reasons why I believe the Irish state is failing, badly.

Oligarchs: I believe that massive accumulations of wealth is the single biggest problem facing the polity. One of their number, Denis O’Brien controls a huge swathe of the Irish media. Irish oligarchs don’t need gangsters as our defective legal system – especially draconian defamation laws – provides them with all the cover they need.

Environmental malpractice: we are nowhere near to reaching targets for
greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and remain one of the highest-emitting nations in the EU. Agriculture is the leading-offender, yet many environmentalists shy away from criticism of this biggest beast of Irish politics. Individual use of fossil-fuel guzzling cars is a necessity when living in most parts of the country, and alternative sources of energy are insufficiently harnessed. Dublin has one of the worst public transport systems for a developed country’s capital that I can think of.

Unequal health provision: We have developed a two-tier health system where health insurance is unaffordable for half the population. There is also a social gradient to the obesity pandemic whereby income inequality is expressed in expanding waste lines. There is a complete absence of joined-up thinking across government agencies with advances in healthy-eating being driven by individuals.

Misguided educational policy: Our model of education is defective in many respects. Student-teacher ratios at primary level are far too high, and the public-private partnerships at all levels maintains class identities that are expressed in ‘old boys networks’, and other hidden obstacles to integration. The control by religious organisations of state education is inconsistent with a truly independent republic. The Leaving Certificate is not a worthwhile examination by many criteria, and universities are seriously under-resourced, with far too many students being encouraged to embark on PhDs at the end of which there is little prospect of employment.

Media stagnation: Apart from oligarch ownership, other aspects are also unsatisfactory. The state broadcaster is driven overwhelmingly by commercial considerations, and delivers little in the way of public service programming. There is a serious dearth of publications offering serious reflection on society. The leading liberal newspaper, the Irish Times, although run as a trust, having purchased myhome.ie is a stakeholder in the property market.

Political incoherence: Try explaining what divides the main Irish political parties to a foreigner. The divisions are Lilliputian, stemming from a civil war fought over swearing an oath. Proportional representation in its Irish guise offers too much scope for independents – who generally care little about national let alone international issues – to be elected in multi-seat constituencies. Government often becomes an extended effort in appeasing minority interests to the detriment of the vast majority.

Food insecurity: When, not if, Climate Change begins to disrupt the world’s food supplies Ireland will be in difficult straits. Contrary to the propaganda of Ireland being ‘the food island’, we actually import the vast majority of our staple foods. If compelled to survive on food produced in Ireland exclusively we would have to invert the food pyramid, and subsist on a diet akin to Atkins’. Our agriculture also has massive fossil fuel inputs, and the organic sector is the smallest in the EU apart from Malta.

Garda Corruption: The list keeps growing and the heads of commissioners keep on rolling. Untangling the intertwining webs of ineptitude and corruption has been beyond the past two administrations. This is a perilous situation and the inability to pursue white collar crime, especially that perpetrated by oligarchs is deeply worrying.

Housing Crisis: It is more than about tackling the awful homelessness that has long been evident on the streets of Dublin. If you are young and not in a high-paying job, or well-connected, forget about aspiring to live in central Dublin. Artists and musicians are particularly vulnerable, and often opt for the Joycean option of ‘silence, cunning, and exile’.

Regional imbalance: When he was Minister for Transport our current Taoiseach described trains as a ‘romantic’, but not a realistic, aspiration for transportation in the country. Instead our resources have been devoted to building roads with predicable consequences for individual car use. A lack of connectivity is the single biggest obstacle to a person moving to another part of Ireland. Meanwhile on the continent high speed trains and local lines continue to be upgraded. Many Irish rural towns are on the brink of collapse. The agricultural subsidy regime maintains a system of cattle agriculture that demands low labour input for profitability, rather than labour-intensive horticulture.

The reason Ireland is a failing and not a failed state, is that there is still a great spirit manifest in the people of this embattled country, but the young and the creative are departing in droves, as they have done since independence. Also, to our credit, we are generally a tolerant people, and outright racism rarely rears its ugly head. Let us hope that the infusion of new peoples who arrived during our fortuitous boom years, together with the native spirit, can help build a state to be proud of.