Mutton Island at dawn

Mutton Island at dawn

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

At least Leo remembers where he was ... !

If you want to see how modern Ireland works, take a look at the media coverage of the devastating floods across India, Bangladesh, and Nepal last week and contrast them with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Florida.                                                    
Flooding in Bangladesh, September 2017

It may have escaped your attention that more than 1,200 people died in South Asia last week, with more than 40 million affected by the severe flooding, but you would never know that if you received all your news from mainstream Irish media.

In Florida, two people had died as of late Monday night, but you heard a lot more about the hurricane in the US than the 18,000 schools which were destroyed or damaged in South Asia, leaving 1.8 million children unable to attend their classes.

It’s quite clear that some lives are far more important – and worthy of reportage – than others.

And that’s just the way President Donald Trump wants you to think, as he and elements of the media divide the world into “us” and “them” while playing on our fears.

Why should we care about “illegal” Mexicans or Muslims when we don’t see them on our TV screens?

If you want to know how Ireland works, have a look at the way in which the anniversary of the appalling terrorist attacks on 9/11 is marked with tribute pieces and eyewitness recollections every September.

Of course, the attacks in September 2001 shocked the globe. They had a particular resonance here in Ireland, where so many people have connections with the United States, but our media only tell a tiny part of the story.

Irish-Americans were rightly proud when Ireland declared a national day of mourning in response to those terrorist attacks.

In terms of Irish media coverage, Syrian lives don't matter much
People should never forget Ground Zero, but don’t we diminish ourselves as human beings when we make it clear that some lost lives are not even worthy of reportage?

Do we question enough? Do our TV news channels really tell us everything that’s going on?

How often do they ask us to stop and think of the innocent lives lost in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, or Libya as a result of US bombings since 9/11?

How often are we told the human stories behind the estimated 26,000 bombs which were dropped by the US last year? Do they matter?

Or do we not care because these people have been dehumanised by those in comfy offices who plan drone attacks? And by the news editors who decided not to even bother telling us about their bombs?

Take just one example. In July of last year, 85 people lost their lives in the village of Tokhar, in Northern Syria. They were killed by US air strikes, but their deaths did not even merit a mention on the main evening news.

Is it a case that their lives don’t matter? How can we care about them when we aren’t even told about their deaths? Just as we don’t tend to see the victims of the Bangladeshi floods on our TV screens.

If you want to know how modern Ireland works, take a trip down to Shannon Airport on a Sunday afternoon.

Once a month for 16 years now, a small group of peace activists have congregated in rain, wind, or sunshine to highlight the fact that a civilian airport in a ‘neutral’ country has effectively been transformed into a US military base.

You will see special branch Gardai filming the peace activists and jotting down their car registrations.

Funny how they have not once stopped to search one of the US military planes bringing so much death and destruction to towns and cities across Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

But we don’t like to talk about that in Leo Varadkar’s Ireland.

Instead we have a Taoiseach who tweets about where he was when Princess Diana died, 20 years ago, on the day two homeless people died on Irish streets.

We have local politicians who can spend a full meeting arguing over whether nor not they should have prayers before meetings, while the homelessness crisis in their city has reached unprecedented levels.

We have politicians who pay tribute to a retiring Garda Commissioner who was in charge of our police force when a brave, honest whistleblower was branded a sex abuser and almost 1.5 million bogus drink and drug-driving tests were conjured up out of thin air.

US troops at 'neutral' Shannon Airport


We have the retiring managing director of the laughable Irish Water company waving goodbye with €655,000 in salary, severance, and pension contributions in his final year.

This is taxpayers’ money, a reward for leading a venture – mired in controversy from day one – which now won’t even see the light of day.

We have patients lying on trolleys in our public hospitals, makeshift tent villages hidden away behind trees and bushes in our major cities, and an unprecedented rental crisis, but, hell, at least An Taoiseach can remember where he was the day Princess Diana died.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and content writer, based in Galway, Ireland. He is available for freelance and travel writing. Find him on Facebook here

http://ciarantierney.com/

Find Ciaran Tierney on Twitter, @ciarantierney

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

To win with class ... !

After 29 years of waiting, many a tear was shed. As the final whistle blew I hugged the big, burly Rahoon man in front of me, before dancing up and down with my brother, and running about five seats down to embrace the boys from Turloughmore. Similar scenes were erupting all around us in the 82,000 capacity stadium.                                                      
A joyous Galway homecoming at Pearse Stadium

After 29 years of heartbreak, Galway were champions. We nearly had to pinch ourselves, we were so overjoyed.

I was a young student, squatting in London, the last time Galway won the Liam McCarthy Cup and I consoled myself that there would be plenty more September victories when I declined my father’s offer of a ticket and a fare home.

Our team was the best in Ireland and I figured there were plenty more glory days ahead, so I delayed my return home for a winter of studies at NUI Galway.

I thought of the old man, aged over 90 now, presumably shedding a few tears at home in Galway City. He brought me to Croke Park when I could barely walk and, as an adult, I used to curse him for this strange, seemingly fatal, and beautiful addiction which can arise such passion on summery Sunday afternoons.

He had followed the team long before I was born, with the same sort of fatal pessimism which was common to our Tribe until about 5pm on Sunday.

I remembered 1980. My brother and I were small boys, held aloft by crying adults amid the din of seeing our side become triumphant for the first time in 57 years. Those tears made a lot more sense now, after so many years of heartbreak of our own.

My brother and I had been to every final Galway had lost since a youthful Conor Hayes bounded up the stairs to collect the Liam McCarthy back in 1988. It only added to the drama and excitement that there was so little between the teams in the end on Sunday.

Celebrating under the Cusack Stand after the game


Poor Waterford! If it had been Kilkenny, or Cork, or Tipp, we might have been less emotional and a bit more joyous. All week, we had consoled ourselves that at least we’d be happy to see them win it if the Tribesmen went and broke our hearts again by losing another final.

Hadn’t they been waiting 58 years? Hadn’t we roared on the likes of Tony Browne, John Mullane, and Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh hoping that they, like us, could end their curse against one of the ‘traditional’ powers?

Galway didn’t score a goal, again, but it didn’t matter when we had such supreme marksmen scattered around the field. They tested our nerves by letting in two goals, but was it ever going to be any other way.

In my previous life as a sports reporter, I had been to many All-Ireland finals. But this was different. I had watched Kilkenny and Cork teams pick up the Cup with the casual appearance of people who were out for an afternoon shopping trip. But what’s rare is wonderful and, all around us, people in maroon were shedding tears of joy.

The sun came out in the closing minutes and many of us were thinking of those who had not lived to see this wonderful day.

I thought of friends in London, Sydney, New York, Vietnam, and Brazil, and how joyful they must have been at that very moment, crammed into Irish bars in their maroon jerseys at all sorts of hours. Few things can unite our global diaspora like an All-Ireland final.

I thought of men like Ollie Canning, Joe Rabbitte, Eugene Cloonan, Kevin Broderick, and Damien Hayes, so many brilliant Galway hurlers who had put their hearts and souls into winning that elusive Celtic Cross. And, as I looked out towards the Hill and the emotional outpouring all around me on the Cusack Stand, there was no shame in our tears.

And nobody wanted to leave. Why would they, when we had been waiting for 29 long years? Those of us who remembered the glory days of 1987 and 1988 were reminded of our mortality, while the youngsters singing on the Hill must have felt they’d never see those kind of days.

It wasn’t just a victory, it was something wondrous achieved with such class both on and off the field.
To have a captain like David Burke, a man who battled back from injury and knew the pain of losing finals, step forward to collect the cup on behalf of the maroon hordes.

A TOUCH OF CLASS ... Galway captain David Burke and Joe Canning
with Margaret Keady, wife of the late Tony Keady, on Sunday

What a magnificent speech he produced, to remember the late Tony Keady, Man of the Match in 1988 and a man who had roared on among us just a few short weeks ago during the semi-final win over Tipperary.

He hoped that the win would give Tony’s wife and children just a little comfort in the midst of their grief, just as the fans had risen en masse to salute their former centre-back six minutes into the game.

What a wondrous gesture to remember the late Niall Donoghue, whose tragic passing in 2013 devastated an entire rural community. In the absolute joy of what once seemed an impossible victory, he reminded us all of the need to look after our mental health.

What a wonderful platform he used to raise this issue in front of hundreds of thousands of TV viewers. Even at the happiest moment of his life, he gave a shout out to those who struggle with demons and the organisations, like Pieta House, who provide wonderful help in the darkest of times.

There’s a lot wrong with Galway GAA – I know too many loyal fans who failed to get tickets for the final – but our young sportsmen did us so proud on Sunday afternoon.

Down on the pitch, our 28-year old ‘superstar’ showed the kind of humility he never gets enough credit for as he embraced Margaret during his captain’s speech. Without Joe Canning, Galway would never have reached this final and now the nay-sayers can no longer slag off the most gifted player of his generation for not having that elusive All-Ireland medal.          
The Galway hurlers undertake a lap of honour following
a thrilling All-Ireland final victory over Waterford at Croke Park

Did he bask in the glory? Of course he did. But he took time out to hug the newly bereaved widow, shared a tear with his parents at the front of the stand, and embraced children with special needs long before he made his way back to the dressing-room.                              

Such class from a young man who has faced far too much derision and begrudgery since his phenomenal talent began to generate headlines a decade ago.

The Galway hurling community is very much like a big family and the family rallied around the Keady family with absolute class throughout the weekend.

It would have been the perfect weekend if the GAA could sort out the ticketing arrangements which somehow leave some genuine supporters out in the cold.

The single mum from East Galway who takes her son to every game or the club hurler in the city who only missed the final deserve better than the people who attended their first and only game of the year on Sunday.

It was embarrassing to note that Galway fans were outnumbered about 4-1 by their Wexford counterparts at the Leinster final in early July.

The 'Maroon Army' took over Hill 16 on Sunday
Too many Irish sports fans tend to jump on bandwagons and it seems hugely unfair that so many tickets for the showpiece occasion of the year don’t go to the people who actually go out and support the teams in the earlier rounds.

Having said that, the Galway team of 2017 conducted themselves with absolute class, both on and off the pitch, throughout the weekend.

What a moment of pure emotion it was to see their wonderful manager Micheal Donoghue embrace his father, Miko, after bringing the Liam McCarthy Cup across the Shannon for the first time in 29 years.

Micheal surrounded himself with a wonderful backroom team and instilled the kind of self-belief in his players which has been lacking in Galway teams for much of the past three decades.

It was a wonderful championship. My favourite memory of all was of the three Tipperary supporters who embraced us and wished us well for the final in the Upper Hogan Stand at the end of a thrilling semi-final in August.                                        

So magnanimous in defeat, such worthy All-Ireland champions, I thought to myself as I remembered that I used to “hate these guys” when Tony Keady was at his pomp back in the 1980s.

Hatreds can disappear with time, old enemies can embrace and share their love of a brilliant game, and sometimes even the bridesmaids can become champions.          

Thank you, Galway hurlers, for filling an entire county with wonder, joy, and pride. And for showing us that some tales of woe and heartbreak really can have wondrous endings when you mix in belief, hard work, and skill.

The West has awoken from its slumber and the new dawn is a joy to behold.


Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Contact him via his website, http;//ciarantierney.com/

Find Ciaran Tierney on Facebook: http://facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia

Monday, August 28, 2017

Holding out for heroes

Was Richard ‘Dick’ Dowling a racist? And is it appropriate to commemorate him in the middle of his home town in the West of Ireland?                                                                
White supremacists in the streets of Charlottesville

The thorny issues of white supremacy and slave ownership made their way from Texas to Tuam, Co Galway, last week and the debate has raised some pertinent questions about how Irish people choose their heroes.

Just as quite a few of us are soul-searching over whether or not Conor McGregor is a suitable role model for Irish children – people respect his bravery, but not his bigoted bluster – it may be time to ask whether we have a tendency to hero-worship rather unsavoury characters?

In the West of Ireland, in particular, where the history of poverty, mass emigration, and the decline of our native language can be so sad, we tend to overlook the dark side of those who left oppression and famine behind in order to seek out fame and fortune across the globe.

So what if they were racists or slave-owners, it seems, as long as they were poor Irish people “made good”! Our barren land, which experienced such devastating population decline, was crying out for heroes.

Dick Dowling was enough of a folk hero for a statue to be erected in his honour at Tuam Town Hall in November 1996. People were proud that a starving 19th century refugee became a cult figure in his adopted home of Houston.

When the statue was unveiled, nobody at the ceremony cared to mention that he used to rent slaves, including one who was just 12 years old. That did not fit the narrative of the civic leaders who assembled at the North Galway hall to honour one of their own.

Was he a racist? It was a moot point in 1846, at the height of the Great Famine, when he boarded a ship for Liverpool. He was a traumatised nine year old child whose only concern was survival as he faced a new and frightening world.

Together with his ten year old sister, Honora Dowling, Dick must have been distraught at being separated from his impoverished parents back in Co Galway.

Like so many people across the region, Pat and Bridget Dowling had been forced into the workhouse after being evicted from their farm in Dunmore, just eight miles north of Tuam.

Dick Dowling left extreme poverty in North Galway
to become a Confederate Army war 'hero'
In sending their children to America, their only hope was that they might survive.

By the time they set sail for Liverpool, and then the Mississippi delta, it is doubtful the two terrified Dowling children would have set sight on a black face or considered the terrible injustice of slavery.

Their parents only wanted to give them some sort of a life away from the mass starvation all around them and they trusted their futures to family friends in New Orleans.

The children were part of a mass wave of Irish people who fled the famine for new lives in North America. In Galway, the nearest city to their parents, a hundred ‘coffin ships’ set sail for America in the space of just three years, 1847 to 1850. Many passengers did not survive the voyage.

These ships saved the lives of thousands, as did those which left the port of Liverpool. The population of Ireland fell from eight million in 1846, the year Dick and Honora left, to fewer than four million by 1911.

It’s more than likely they did not speak a word of English before they set sail. Irish was still the dominant language in North Galway at the time.

Had Dick and Honora set sail for New York or Boston, it’s quite possible the Confederate Army Major could have become a war hero on the other side.

By complete chance, a wave of anti-Irish sentiment in New Orleans – when immigrants from Ireland were banned from working on the waterfront – prompted Dick to move on to Texas.

According to the contentious Tuam plaque, Dick Dowling became a “business and civic leader” in the frontier town, which had a population of just 4,000 at the time.

He leased a saloon and became a real estate owner, marrying the daughter of Irish immigrants, but it was his bravery during the US Civil  War which turned him into a folk hero in Texas.

The Celia Griffin Memorial Park in Galway which remembers
all those who took the 'Coffin Ships' to America


At the Battle of Sabine Pass in September 1863, Dowling led a Confederate militia which repulsed an invasion of 5,000 Union troops, capturing two gun boats and several hundred prisoners. He died of yellow fever four years later, at just 30 years of age.

His bravery in battle turned Dowling into a controversial figure on both sides of the Atlantic. Two streets in Houston, Dowling Street and Tuam Street, were named after him. Dowling Street, however, was renamed Emancipation Avenue earlier this year.

A statue in memory of Dowling, erected in 1905, still stands in the city’s Hermann Park. But a school named in his honour was also renamed last year.

When the Tuam plaque was erected in November 1996, nobody mentioned or was told that Dowling used to rent slaves. But, according to records at Rice University, one of the slaves he rented was just 12 years old.

The plaque does not even mention that he fought for the Confederate Army, on the side of the slave-owners, in the Civil War.

To modern eyes, it seems incredible now that an Irish child who fled appalling oppression would find himself on the side of slave-owners.

But as Tim Collins points out in his 2013 biography, Dick Dowling – Galway’s Hero of Confederate Texas, Irish immigrants in the southern US states sympathised with the right to “home rule” during the Civil War.

They had little or no connection with the cities of New York and Boston and, like Dowling, it was only really chance which brought them to the southern states of America.

Times have changed since the city of Houston decided to honour Dowling with a statue in 1905.

Indeed, times have even changed since the good citizens of Tuam decided to erect a plaque in his honour on November 15, 1996.

A full civic reception was held in his honour in the town square where, presumably, nobody had any knowledge of his connections to the slave trade.

Back then, there were no white supremacists parading up and down the streets of Charlottesville, brandishing Nazi flags. People with appalling racist views did not feel emboldened by a US President with questionable views of his own.

Nor did Tuam have the small but thriving African community, including a church, it hosts today.

“What is heroic about supporting slavery?” asked local historian Catherine Corless, who broke the ‘Tuam Babies’ story, today.

A recent Galway vigil in solidarity with Charlottesville
“Our school history books never gave us the full facts behind our heroes. Hence, very few people, including myself were aware of the true intentions of Dick Dowling when he fought for the Confederates.”

There are plans in place for the construction of a new museum in Tuam, a town which has a population of 8,200.

Perhaps that might be a more appropriate place for a plaque commemorating a Confederate Army ‘hero’ than a prominent place at the Town Hall.

Tuam people might once have been proud of Dowling’s success as a businessman in Houston, but they can no longer claim to be oblivious to his murky past as a trader in human beings.

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can find his Facebook page here

Business website for blogging, journalist, and content writing: http://ciarantierney.com

Find Ciaran Tierney on Twitter, https://twitter.com/ciarantierney



Monday, August 21, 2017

This is Galway on a Friday night

The mood was sombre as we left the ground. Galway United had just lost a crucial game to a last minute goal from Dublin club Shamrock Rovers and the unseasonable drizzle matched the mood of the home fans for the walk back to the city centre.                            
Homelessness is far more visible than in the past

It was the first Friday night in months that Eamonn Deacy Park was in darkness as we left the ground following a home game and the shortening days seemed to bring grim tidings of a long winter to come for the city’s soccer club.

Relegation was beckoning and suddenly, given the biting wind and incessant drizzle, optimism was in short supply.

I normally drive to Galway United games and park my car across the river at NUI Galway. On this night, though, I had brought a group of 22 students from Mexico, Switzerland, Spain, and Brazil to the SSE League game, where they had revelled in the atmosphere and the quality of the football, if not quite the result for the home side.

So I zipped up my jacket and braced myself for the 15 minute walk into the wind and rain, towards the city centre where I had arranged to meet an old friend in a pub.

What I didn’t expect to discover was that a whole new “neighbourhood” had popped up in my city, barely ten minutes away from Eyre Square and the pedestrian heart of the city.

The Dyke Road is really green at this time of year, a bush-lined roadway between the soccer ground and the heart of the city.

To our right, amid the overgrown bushes, a number of discarded sleeping bags caught my eye. I had ignored them earlier, given the logistics of arranging match tickets for 22 foreign language students, but now I was in no particular hurry as I made my way back into town.

I heard some voices coming from behind the bushes. Someone, unseen, called out to me from just metres away.

Galway is famous for its festivals in Summer time
Curious now, I stopped and peered in through a gap in the bushes. A man of about my own age approached me.

I asked him politely what he was doing there and he told me this was his “home”. Leaving the road for a few minutes, I walked in through the bushes and discovered a makeshift village of six or seven of the kind of cheap tents you can buy for €25 or €30 in one of the discount supermarkets.

He told me that there were a dozen people living there and I felt ashamed that I knew nothing about this makeshift “community” which had popped up just ten minutes from the heart of my city.

I asked him if he was alright and told him I didn’t smoke when he asked me politely for a cigarette. There seemed to be a look of resignation in his weather-beaten face and despair in his quiet voice as I surveyed his appalling living conditions for just a few brief moments.

This was Galway in 2017, the kind of place the tourists never see, and it made me wonder how many other people scattered throughout the margins of my city were living in similar conditions just minutes from prying eyes.

How many were sleeping on friends’ couches or in their cars because the hostels were full? How safe did these people feel, sleeping in tents so near to the city’s main thoroughfare?

And so I walked on into the city centre, where my friend had arranged to meet for a post-game drink before driving home to his small town an hour from Galway.

It's "normal" now to see homeless people on the streets
of Irish cities throughout the year.

With him was another man I had met once or twice before. Also about my own age, he began to question me urgently about the rental situation in the city.

On strong medication for the past decade, the man is desperately seeking a change. He wants to move out of the small town where he can’t find any employment opportunities, where he feels trapped, but feels he is stuck in limbo and can’t move on with his life.

He has battled mental health problems for a long time and now feels it’s time to move on. He would love to get a job in the city, to have something akin to a normal life, and I can see despair on his face when I tell him it costs about €350 per month now to rent a room in my city.

How could he afford that? he wondered. How could he get a job when a decent place to live is beyond his means?

He wants to live a fruitful, meaningful life, but he’s in a spiral of unemployment and broken dreams, surrounded by people in the same predicament as him. Although he barely knows me, he confides that he’s trying desperately to get off medication and that it has hampered his ability to regain control of his life.

I feel bad. I feel as though I’m destroying his dream, even with a brief little chat about the rental situation in my city. And I wonder how hard he would struggle to return to the jobs market, given how the medication has “numbed” him out for years now.

I feel desperately sad to see how sad he is about his prospects of getting a job or a flat in Galway. The “half-way house” he lives in is keeping him off the streets, which he is thankful for, but things most of us take for granted (a job, independence, a girlfriend) seem totally beyond his reach.

Surely, in 2017, “numbing” people out of pain because they have had mental health difficulties in the past is just not good enough. Especially if they really want to make changes in their lives.
I feel apologetic as we bid our goodbyes.

I’m not drinking tonight, as I left my car in Salthill an hour before the football game. So I take my leave after almost two hours in the pub and make my way through the city centre.

In Forster Street, there are bodies huddled in doorways, beside some of the city’s busiest and most trendy pubs. Their faces covered under hoods, people have laid their sleeping bags out as they prepare for an uncomfortable night’s sleep.                              

Students enjoying the Galway Untied game on Friday,
just metres from where people are living in makeshift tents

In Eyre Square, two young men in their early 20s shout loudly to each other as they urinate in full view of a group of appalled Swiss or German tourists. They are oblivious to the disapproving eyes.

I cross the road, where three young women are alighting loudly from a taxi. Already drunk, one of them clutches a drink in her right hand. Excited, perhaps, by the prospect of a night out in one of the city’s clubs, they shout loudly at each other. One of them racially abuses the cab driver before heading off into the night.

The driver glances at me for just a brief moment, shrugs, and drives off to pick up his next fare. His reaction seems to make it clear that this is not an isolated incident on a weekend night.

At the corner of Eglington Street, it seems there is a riot going on. Not to worry, it’s just a group of young people socialising loudly outside one of the city’s biggest bars.

I’m no prude. I used to love socialising in the city centre late at night in my 20s and 30s. But trying to walk by a large group of people who are clearly out of their minds with alcohol is no fun if you are completely sober and walking alone on a Friday night.

I turn down Shop Street, a place which tourists tell me they find scary in the early hours. The place is buzzing with activity, as young people make their way towards the city’s late night bars and clubs. It will be heaving again when the clubs empty out around 2.30am.

I have to admit I haven’t been here for a while in the early hours. On the city’s main thoroughfare, in the heart of the pedestrian zone, I’m quite shocked to see quite a few people bedding down in doorways on either side of the street.

A couple from Eastern Europe seem oblivious to the passing eyes as they argue loudly while laying out their sleeping materials for the night. Tomorrow, people will be drinking lattes right next to the place they now call “home” for the night.

Just 50 metres away, some poor woman is sleeping out on her own. I don’t want to appear too curious, to discover her nationality. A kindly passer-by is down on his knees, asking her if she is ok, and I wonder what circumstances led her to sleep in a shop doorway in my wet and windy city, of all places, in August 2017.

I wonder how she will sleep when the pubs empty out at 2 or 2.30am and the young revellers make their way to the fast food premises. Will she face verbal or physical abuse? It’s already cold and wet in August, but will she still be here in November when the conditions will be much worse?

How did it come to this? That a little makeshift village has sprung up within a ten minute walk of the city centre or that people have no option but to bed down in shop doorways through the night?

That young revellers now see it as “normal” to come across people lying outside under the elements as they make their way to and from the late night clubs?

When did scenes like this become "normal" in Ireland? 
This is Galway, in August 2017. We have just had an amazing festival season, yet the sad underbelly is impossible to ignore if you venture into the city at night.

Why isn’t there more of an uproar in a place where the City Council can devote an entire meeting to whether or not they should say a prayer before their monthly meetings?

Yes, I felt like a bit of a prude on Friday; or a little naïve, to have been so oblivious to the extent of the homelessness problem in my city right now.

 But the City of the Tribes did not feel like the most welcoming place for everyone when viewed through sober eyes on a cold and wet Friday night.


Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can find his Facebook page here

Find Ciaran Tierney on Twitter: @ciarantierney

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Our divided tribal loyalties

The Basque woman five seats down from me was in awe.                
Is there a better game on the planet than a championship
battle between two top hurling teams? 

The stadium was packed. Over 50,000 souls had taken over the place and turned it red.

It was only a ‘friendly’, but the supporters of the ‘home’ team cheered every pass and move with a gusto which was totally out of kilter with the importance of the occasion.

"Why does everyone in Ireland support Liverpool?” she asked me at half-time. “Do you not support your own teams?”

In the city of Shamrock Rovers, Bohemians, and St Patrick’s Athletic, she was shocked to see so many Dubliners come out to support a team from the old colonial power.

In the Basque Country, they have grown up on tales of the Irish fight for independence from the British Empire. Now she was shocked to be in Ireland and to find that all the locals were roaring on a British team.

Her team is a total anomaly in modern professional football. They have a Basque-only recruitment policy, even today, and have finished in the top seven of La Liga for each of the past four years despite this restriction.

In Dublin, she was shocked to see that so many people had paid a minimum of €60 a head to support a team from the other side of the Irish Sea, in a contest which would have absolutely no bearing on the outcome of their season.

She wondered why Irish people didn’t support their own local clubs and how much stronger the League of Ireland would be if they weren’t so obsessed by the world-famous players who line out each weekend in the English Premier League.

Thousands of Irish fans turned up on Saturday to support
Liverpool FC in a friendly game against Athletic Bilbao
I didn’t know where to begin.

My own association with Liverpool FC dates back well over 40 years, before the days when my own city even had a team in the national league.

I ‘picked’ Liverpool as a five year old and my brother chose Arsenal, because younger siblings were not allowed follow in the footsteps of their siblings in 1970s Ireland. He has long since forgotten his boyhood preference for the North London club.

He has completely lost interest, and I'm losing mine, when the players no longer seem to have anything in common with the fans, no loyalty, no passion. And match day tickets are now beyond the budget of many Scousers.

As a squatter in 1980s London, I was lucky enough to see the best Liverpool team in history play on numerous occasions. They were probably the best team on the planet at the time and had a good sprinkling of Irish players, including Mark Lawrenson and Ronnie Whelan.

When, 15 years later, a childhood friend moved to Merseyside, trips to Anfield became regular occurrences. Memorably, between 2001 and 2007, a group of us followed Liverpool FC all around Europe. We had legendary nights in exotic cities which would never have been possible for fans of Galway United FC.

The average home attendance at Eamonn Deacy Park, the home of Galway United, is about 1,400 this season. There are thousands of soccer ‘fans’ in my city and county who have never seen their local team, even though United are producing some sparkling football as they battle against relegation in 2017.

Every Saturday or Sunday during the winter months, a group of them sit in a pub roaring on Chelsea FC. I've heard one of them say he'd rather be tortured than pop down the road to watch live football at Galway United FC.

When people ask me why I support Liverpool, I talk about the Hillsborough disaster, the close friendships I made following the team all around Europe, and the city’s long-established links with Ireland. But, ultimately, Liverpool FC are not “my” team. How could they be? I’m not from Merseyside and I don’t live there.

There was a magical atmosphere at the All-Ireland semi-final
between Galway and Tipperary at Croke Park
I felt a bit guilty about taking up a ticket when the opportunity arose to purchase one 24 hours before the game on Saturday.

But, as I was in Dublin for the weekend anyway, I still felt a desire to attend, to check out the new players who currently line out for my boyhood club.

Liverpool beat Athletic Bilbao 3-1, but the whole experience left me cold. I felt duped to have spent €60 for a game which had no meaning and slightly embarrassed as I tried to explain to the Basque fans why so many Irish people have such an affinity with a club from another land.

Especially while our own clubs are struggling to survive, including Bray Wanderers, who almost went out of business a few weeks ago.

It was hard to care too much about a game featuring players whose pay-packets mean they are totally out of touch with working-class fans, who can no longer afford to attend league games.

Watching 50,000 mostly Irish fans roar on an English club made me squirm a little, as though this was a triumph of hype and marketing over the reality of our lives on the Emerald Isle.

Of course, this is not just an Irish - or post-colonial - thing. I have met taxi-drivers in Bangkok and fishermen from Norway who describe themselves as passionate Liverpool fans. I have met fans from Hong Kong and Malaysia who have spent small fortunes to attend Liverpool games.

I could see that some parents were delighted to give their youngsters a first ever taste of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the Liverpool anthem which is now famous all across the globe. Dare I say it, though, the game was boring and definitely not worth the €60 admission fee.

I couldn’t help wondering why so many Dubs had turned up to support a team from England on an evening when their own GAA team was in action in front of 80,000 fans just up the road at Croke Park. I felt slightly embarrassed after talking to the Basque woman and slipped away before the end.

Less than 24 hours later, I found myself among my own Tribe.            
Celebrating Galway's victory minutes after the
All-Ireland semi-final in Dublin

Galway were playing Tipperary in front of 68,000 people and the skill levels, the passion, and the speed of the game seemed to belong to another world.

My ticket for a superb seat in the Upper Hogan Stand boasted a fantastic view and actually cost €15 less than my stub for a poor seat in the Aviva Stadium the night before.

As the crowd roared around me, I had to pinch myself to remind myself that these were amateurs, playing for the pride of the county, not professional athletes who kiss a club badge one month before moving on to join deadly rivals the next.

There was a huge tension in the air as two groups of young men battled bravely for a place in the All-Ireland final.

When Joe Canning produced a wonder strike in the very last minute, to decide the issue by the narrowest of margins, we all lost the run of ourselves, hugging strangers and jumping up and down with our fists in the air.

When it all died down, three different Tipp fans approached me to shake hands in the top of the Hogan Stand and wish us well for the final.

Gone was the poisonous atmosphere which marked games between our two counties in the late 1980s and 1990s, and I couldn’t help thinking that fans of Chelsea, Liverpool, or Man United could never sit beside each other in stadia and share our love of a beautiful game.

Neither would they ever imagine being so gracious in defeat as the wonderful Tipp fans I had the pleasure of meeting on Sunday.

The Liverpool game almost put me to sleep, while the hurling match demonstrated so much about what is brilliant about being Irish … touches of genius, passion, skill, and just enough lunacy to keep us all enthralled right to the end.

On a high after the hurling semi-final
Instead of being so obsessed by global superstars, we should learn to appreciate the wonders and home grown heroes who live and work among us.

Such as the two teachers from a Loughrea school who are now preparing for one of the biggest sporting occasions in Ireland. It’s hard to imagine the excitement among the town’s youngsters as they prepare to return to school to see home grown heroes Johnny Coen and David Burke come September.

And it might be easier to explain the pure joy of hurling, surely one of the best games on the planet,  to a Basque woman than to explain why so many Irish people are in thrall to Sky Sports and the major English soccer clubs.


Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find his Facebook page at http://facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Healing the wounds on all sides

When I last visited Belfast, the Good Friday Agreement was still a pipe dream.
Honouring hunger striker Bobby Sands MP on the Falls Road

There was an uneasy tension in the air.

The Troubles had ended, the guns were silent, but nobody knew what was coming next and three decades of conflict had left very visible physical and psychological scars.

Nobody ventured into the city centre late at night and it was quite shocking to contrast the eerie silence on the streets around City Hall with the vibrancy of my native Galway, a much smaller city, at the time.

The military bases, barbed wire fences, and ugly lookout posts still scarred the landscape across West Belfast and it would not be an exaggeration to say that parts of the Falls Road looked like towns in Palestine today.

The locals told me they were a people living under siege and they were weary after so many years of turmoil. At night, they stuck to their own area.

Those who did want to go into town had to face body searches at military checkpoints. "Going to town" for  few drinks was not part of the culture as it was in Galway on a Friday or Saturday night.

Naively, after a few late drinks in a city centre pub, I flagged down a taxi on a street two blocks away from City Hall.

It was 1am on a Friday morning and the only other person on the street, apart from my brother and I, was a much older man who hurled a pint glass, successfully, at a passing “paddy wagon”. The Royal Ulster Constabulary officers inside the vehicle just drove on, making me feel that this must have been a pretty regular occurrence in the city.

In Galway, if you tried the same thing outside Supermac’s in the early hours, you would have been chased down by the Gardai and hauled before the District Court for committing the same offence.

My brother reprimanded me gently for being naïve enough to think it was ok to flag down a cab on neutral ground.

This, after all, was the city in which ordinary people were picked up in black cabs, tortured, and killed, just because of their religious backgrounds.

An entire wall in West Belfast is dedicated to those
who were murdered with the collusion of security forces
My brother was considered a “legitimate target” by loyalist killers at the time, given that he was working for the Irish Government in a bunker near Stormont. He used to escape to a completely different world less than two hours away in Dublin at weekends.

Loyalists and Unionists were enraged that civil servants from Dublin were in their midst, negotiating frantically with their counterparts from London and Belfast in a bid to iron out a peace agreement which would somehow appease two bitterly divided communities.

He was only allowed to use one taxi firm, staffed by relatives of security forces, if he dared to venture into the city centre at night at the time.

I remember being taken aback when the driver asked us if we were Gardai as he carried my brother to his bunker outside the city. The only people from the Republic he carried in those days tended to be civil servants or members of the security forces.

Over 20 years later, I thought about that taxi ride to Co Down last week when I spent four hours on a fascinating walking tour of the Falls Road with a former IRA prisoner.

As he brought me on a tour of the area’s murals, with visitors from Germany and Italy, telling us an admittedly biased history of The Troubles, I was struck by how much the psychological barriers remain in place even though so many of the security barriers have been taken down.

Paul Mac An Airchinningh works as a taxi-driver most of the time, when he’s not telling tourists about the Republican conflict and his memories of far more troubled times.

Tour guide Paul Mac An Airchinningh
at a memorial to remember Easter 1916
As we walked towards the ‘Peace Wall’, Paul gestured towards the loyalist community just a few hundred metres away.

The people down there would never dream of coming to the shops nearest to their houses for a pint of milk, because they were on the Falls, he told me.

And he would never dream of drinking in a pub on the Shankill Road, even if it was just a five minute walk from where he starts his tours in the mornings.

In his mind, he has a map of Belfast. The people who take his cab from the depot in West Belfast never, ever ask him to bring them to loyalist areas to the north and east of the city.

Paul himself would not dream of staying in my accommodation across the river for the week, surrounded as it was by Union Jack flags on lamp-posts at the height of the marching season.

For all he knew about the place where I was staying, across the divide, it might as well be Beirut, he told me with a wry smile.

He was 60 years old and didn’t have Protestant friends. He thought it was sad, but didn’t think that was unusual, given his status as a former Republican prisoner who had associated or shared cells with men who died on hunger strike during one of the worst years of the conflict.

In the Sunflower Bar, once the scene of a terrible sectarian gun attack, I found Protestants and Catholics, gays, straights, and tourists, mixing to celebrate their shared love of traditional Irish music.

I even met people from Chile who had come to Belfast for the Irish music and the spectacular scenery along the coastline.

They had no awareness of the fact that the pub had once been sprayed with bullets, and three people died, just because they happened to be from the nationalist community.

Belfast has changed so much for the better.                                    
The Titanic Experience is hugely popular with visitors
from all over the world

The Titanic Quarter attracts tourists from all over the world, the pubs and restaurants of South Belfast are thriving, and people are no longer afraid to venture into the city centre after 7pm.

The horrible security barriers and checkpoints have disappeared and wonderful new hotels have popped up through much of the city centre. Visitors are no longer told that the city’s only hotel is “the most bombed hotel in Europe”.

The barriers have gone, but less visible barriers remain in place.

It still seems striking that in a city of 300,000 people there are still whole neighbourhoods where taxi drivers feel reluctant to venture. In Paul’s mind, his map of his native city is full of grey areas where he has rarely or never driven his cab.

On both sides of the ‘Peace Wall’, wonderful tour guides tell the tourists about the injustices which were inflicted upon them by terrorists or State forces.

Without realising that they have so much in common with those on the other side.

The good people of Belfast have always had
a brilliant sense of humour through troubled times
Belfast is a great place to visit for a few days and it’s brilliant that most of the barriers have disappeared.

It’s going to take some time, though, for the invisible barriers to disappear and for both communities to heal.

Because it’s far harder to hate people when you attend the same schools, work in the same places, support the same teams, and socialise in the same pubs and clubs.

Hopefully someday, in the not too distant future, taxi-drivers like Paul will have a map of the entire city in their heads. Only then can we say that the peace process has succeeded in healing the wounds on all sides.

For excellent guided walking tours of the murals of West Belfast, you can find details at http://coiste.ie/

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. To hire Ciaran for content writing or indepedendent journalism, see http://ciarantierney.com/


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Welcome to the City of Bluster

Did you know there was a "prayer crisis" in my city this week? No?

Well, I guess you might be more familiar with the homelessness crisis.                                  
It's festival season in Galway, but our councillors are
bickering over their pre-meeting prayers

At this time of year, Galway is buzzing with life. The pubs and restaurants are packed, the arts venues are heaving, but every night visitors are taken aback by the number of people they see bedding down in shop doorways.

They can’t imagine what it must be like to bed out in the most western city in Europe during the cold, wet, and windy months when tourists don’t fill the hotels and the rain and winds sweep in from the Atlantic seaboard.

The scenes in Galway this year are unprecedented, reminding me of the alarming level of homelessness I witnessed in San Francisco - where at least the climate is much better - two decades ago.

The problem in Galway has become more and more acute and more visible. Last winter, for example, homeless people could be seen to brave the harsh elements in a shelter in Salthill for the first time.

Photos circulated of the number of people lying in doorways on Forster Street on the morning of the funeral of a prominent campaigner for the homeless in the city. The sad irony was not lost on his family members and friends.

What the tourists don’t see are the women and children in distress, who have escaped from domestic violence in order to stay in safe houses run by charities at locations throughout the city.

Or how those safe houses can be full to capacity at certain times of year, forcing the members of some families to sleep in cars or on friends' couches.

You won’t see them lying in shop doorways, huddling together in sleeping bags, but they are homeless all the same.

On a special Facebook page, people literally beg for rooms and offer favours as students compete with workers to find places for the academic year.

There have been very few houses built since greedy bankers and developers bankrupt the economy almost a decade ago, putting a massive strain on accommodation as the economy continues to recover.

With rents rising alarmingly, and tourism booming, ordinary people feel they are being squeezed out of their own city and the waiting list for local authority homes includes hundreds of families and individuals who have been stuck in a limbo for years.

There is a transport crisis in my city.                                                    
The people who run this beautiful city spent 75 minutes
arguing over whether they should pray at meetings

In their infinite wisdom, city planners built hundreds of homes on the west side of the city for people who would then find work in factories on the east side.

They have planned everything around the car, in a city which was built for pedestrians or horses when it was founded over 500 years ago.

The roads are choked with traffic, to such an extent that friends living in Dublin tell us it takes them as long to get across Galway on a Friday evening as the entire journey from Dublin to the eastern outskirts.

Every morning, we hear about the huge tailbacks experienced by workers stuck in traffic on their way to the city from satellite towns and villages. They all sit, frustrated, in their cars for hours because nobody ever thought about providing decent public transport for them.

They rage against the city planners, because commuting times are comparable to those in cities ten times bigger than Galway. There is no sign of a decent bus service, safe cycle lanes, or the kind of light rail tram which would encourage so many people to leave their cars at home.
                             
The Catholic Cathedral dominates the city's skyline
There is a health care crisis in my city.

People living as far away as Donegal or Sligo have to come to Galway to spend hours upon hours waiting for treatment in our choked up public hospital.

The frustrations of dealing with illness, or visiting close family members or friends who are ill or in need of urgent treatment, are magnified by trying to negotiate gridlocked roads.

When they manage to make it to University Hospital Galway, they find the cost of parking prohibitive – if they are ‘lucky’ enough to find parking spaces at all. They don’t have the local knowledge to try to find a cheaper parking place in a city where the local authority views car parking as a serious source of revenue.

You’d imagine these important issues would be of huge concern to our local representatives, given that Galway is the European Capital of Culture for 2020 and this beautiful city relies so much on its reputation for friendliness to generate tourism revenue.

But, if you look at the local paper, the biggest issue to engage the members of Galway City Council before their lengthy summer break this week was a dispute over whether or not they should have a Roman Catholic prayer at the start of their regular meetings.

Flags flying over Galway City Hall, scene of this week's
enlightening 'debate' over the pre-meeting prayer
Housing, homelessness, or the health care crisis did not get a look in when the councillors managed to spend 75 minutes arguing vehemently over whether or not they should retain their Catholic prayer.

This week, before the break, they only had one thing to talk about – their precious Standing Orders and the prayer. The meeting had to be adjourned twice by Mayor Pearce Flannery (FG), on one occasion to allow the City Councillors to “cool off” during a heated debate.

There were even allegations of bullying and grandstanding among the pious Fianna Fail members of  Galway City Council, who were enraged that their precious prayer was being disposed of.

For non-Irish readers, these are the members of the political party which managed to bankrupt Ireland as recently as 2008. You might imagine they have more pressing issues on their minds.

So, to their shock and horror, the Councillors will no longer have a prayer in Irish before their meetings from September. They will replace it with a short period of silent reflection.

During the course of more than 20 years of reporting on the local authority, I always found it extremely odd that councillors, officials, journalists, and members of the public were expected to join in a Catholic prayer at the start of every City Council meeting.

I even felt distinctly uncomfortable about it during the 1990s, when the Irish people were being rocked by a succession of scandals involving the Catholic Church.

What kind of message did that convey to Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, or people of no religion, to see that those who governed them lived by an ethos of a “Catholic country for a Catholic people”?

Tourists enjoying the vibrant street culture of Galway
The council chamber hardly felt like the most inclusive or welcoming place when one religious group was given preference above all others at the start of every meeting.

Scrapping the pre-meeting prayer was surely a no-brainer in a society which may hope to welcome one million Protestants to a secular, pluralist United Ireland some day. It should have been abolished decades ago, despite the heated – and vocal – protestations of the Fianna Fail representatives.

They actually did not move on to any other issue because the councillors became so animated in their debates over the precious prayer.

If they can get so animated over a matter as trivial as a divisive prayer, imagine how heated the exchanges will be when they get around to solving the city’s housing and traffic problems.

Oh, wait … That’s not actually on their agenda!


Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and Digital Storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. You can find his Facebook page here

To hire a writer or blogger, contact Ciaran via http://ciarantierney.com