Sunday, September 27, 2015

So we were fools ...

So we were fools, were we?

According to an opinion piece I read in a national newspaper at the weekend, the hollowness of the “anti-austerity” campaign was exposed by the failure of the Greeks to overturn the harsh measures which were imposed upon their country.

The Greeks were fools for voting for Syriza, it seems, and we were fools for supporting them in their hopes that a democratically elected Government might just stand up for ordinary people.

But the newspaper columnist, who might as well be paid by the Irish Government to spout pro-Government propaganda every week, believes that we fell for the “seductive slogans” of populist politicians.

He didn’t write a word about the injustice of ordinary, poor people in Greece, Ireland, or Spain “bailing out” a tiny elite of bankers, politicians, and developers who plunged their countries into a mess which was not of their doing.

Instead, he almost revelled in the failure of Syriza to take on the powers that be in the European Union.

So the Irish politicians who flew out to Greece to campaign for Syriza last January should now be eating humble pie.

Those of us who thought there might be another, better way have been forced to concede that austerity is the only option for societies which were riddled with debt by bad right-wing Governments and tiny, smug elites. Or so it seems.

Yes, we’re fools. Fools to think there might be an alternative. Fools to think that people who are struggling to put food on the table should not have to pay for the crimes of the few.

Fools to think that elderly patients should not be lying on hospital trolleys, while our Government slashes and burns – implementing a harsh ‘bailout’ programme – with such a relish.

Or that we shouldn’t have to pay twice for our water while lucrative contracts are handed out to the cronies of the people who happen to be in power.

A street meeting to oppose the installation of Irish Water meters in Galway

The same columnist warns us that our choice is between “stability” and “chaos” in the next election.

In a country in which 54% of the wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population, it could be argued that what he means by stability is really maintaining the inequality of the status quo.

The views of the jobless, the homeless, the patients on trolleys or the couples struggling in negative equity are not taken into account, just as Stephen Collins' cynical dismissal of Syriza's "populism" fails to acknowledge the fact that ordinary Greeks have suffered considerably under austerity in recent years.

His nightmare scenario is that a host of Independents and left wing types will be returned to the next Dail, as opposed to the wonderful people who have led us out of the chaos over the past four years.

When commentators view Irish political life through the exact same prism as our leaders, you wonder about the future of Irish journalism. Surely we need people to question the cozy consensus, to show that there are thousands upon thousands who are still struggling to survive in the Emerald Isle.

When people keep telling you that the Government is doing a mighty job, that the “recovery” is well under way, you wonder if you are even living in the same country.

This remarkable recovery is not evident in the thousands who are still choosing to emigrate, to seek new lives in Canada, Austraila, or Britain.

It’s not evident in the protests against Irish Water which were evident in housing estates all across Galway City over the past few weeks. People in the Westside, Shantalla, and Mervue demonstrated in numbers because they knew they were being asked to pay for a scam.

Who owns the meters? How much are the people at the top getting paid? Is the plan to privatise?

The recovery is not evident in the overcrowded Accident and Emergency Department where I’ve witnessed dozens of people lying on trolleys overnight in recent weeks.

It’s not evident in the Department of Social Protection Office, where people are being constantly urged to join JobBridge schemes – to get their social welfare plus €50 – in order to “massage” the true jobless figures.
Hell, someone was even looking for an experienced solicitor to undertake one of these nine month internships a few weeks ago.

It’s not evident in the homelessness crisis across our cities, or the way in which students are finding it impossible to find affordable places to live.

Homelessness only became an issue last winter when a poor man from Co Kilkenny died within metres of the Dail. Yet charities like the Peter McVerry Trust tell us that we are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis.

It's not evident in the thousands of people with crippling mortgages, legacies from the "boom" days. People who work hard all week but can barely afford a night out on the town because they've been trapped into crippling property debts.
But, according to the newspaper article I read on Saturday, the “recovery” is well underway and the only alternative to the “stability” of our current Government is “chaos”.

It must be great for the Government to know they have such well-paid cheerleaders, urging them on with scare stories about the lack of alternatives every week.

Even if it leaves you feeling that some people inhabit a parallel universe, a long way from the working class housing estates where people have maintained a four week vigil to ensure the Irish Water meters have not been installed.

The article on Saturday might just leave you with a feeling of dread, that we don’t really live in a democracy; and that efforts by parties like Syriza are futile – because the interests of big business and a small elite take precedence over the rights of ordinary people all the time. 

Syriza’s failure to get better terms for the Greek people did not expose the party as “populists” with seductive slogans, it rather underlined the futility of seeking democratic change within the confines of a far from democratic European Union.

But, of course, we are fools for believing that any alternative is possible.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The gathering of the Tribe

My website

When I took voluntary redundancy from my local newspaper almost a year ago, my head was full of plans to cut loose again and travel the world.

Having enjoyed the best year of my life far from the “safe harbour” in 2010, when I took a 12 month career break, my mind was buzzing with potential projects in far-off, sunnier climes. Another winter in Galway was definitely not part of my plans.

But sometimes fate works in mysterious ways and health complications – I picked up the MRSA bug in my local public hospital – put paid to my dreams of a radical change. 
The Galway players line up at Croke Park

Instead of volunteering in Nicaragua, guiding scuba divers in Thailand, or teaching English in Spain, I was confined to the safe harbour for seven months as a team of wonderful public health nurses set about healing my wound.

I had too much time to think, but I also began to appreciate the gentle beauty which us natives can often take for granted in the West of Ireland.

Not for nothing was my home town voted the “friendliest city on earth” just last week. But I must confess that, for much of my life, I was too busy or too preoccupied by perceived problems or injustices to revel in the delights of the people around me.

A scuba diving instructor in Egypt once told me that the best thing about Ireland was the people, when I complained about returning home to another wet and windy winter in the City of the Tribes. Sabry had never been to my country, but he had met enough Irish people through his job to appreciate the friendliness, easy-going nature, and hospitality of the people.

My long illness brought on some unwanted anxiety and uncertainty, but it also helped me to appreciate the simple things. Like the people in the clinic’s waiting room, who would share tales about their lives. Many of them had returned home after years spent working in England. Or the nurses, who went out of their way to accommodate me with early appointments when I had to reschedule during a digital marketing course.

Sometimes it feels as though there is a deep sadness in the West of Ireland, brought about by melancholic weather and the generations of people who have been forced to move overseas in search of better lives.

But the sense of community, the sense of place, is something to be revelled in; the way people will pause for a chat on the street or spend hours interacting with strangers in pubs is something we should never take for granted, because you don’t find that in many parts of the world.

On an emotional weekend in Dublin, I got to really appreciate my tribe. Galway, the Tribesmen, had reached the All-Ireland hurling final and I had friends and family home from the UK, Spain, New York, and even Australia.

We dared not dream of winning a first All-Ireland title in 27 years against the raging hot favourites, but we didn't want to miss the event just in case ... When we saw how muted the Kilkenny celebrations were, it was painful to imagine how wonderful the party would have been had the underdogs defied the odds.

There is nothing like an All-Ireland weekend to heighten the emotions, as we recalled past battles, defeats and victories, and the sheer heartbreak of following a team who have come close so often only to fall at the final hurdle.

The Galway hurlers break our hearts, but let nobody say that Galway people are not passionate about the game.

In the capital's pubs before and after the game, we swapped tales about games we had witnessed (or where we’d watched them) down through the years.

I was a young student squatting in London in 1988, the last time Galway won the All-Ireland. I was having too much fun to come home for the final and never thought I’d wait at least 27 years to see them win again. I have been to all six finals they’ve lost since then.

In 1989, I was on the Hill with my younger brother for the semi-final clash with Tipperary when there was a poisonous atmosphere in the air after the ‘Tony Keady Affair’. A year later, he watched the final in the Bronx, on the day Joe Cooney produced a master class but still ended up on the losing side against the Rebels.

In 1993, after we'd lost to Kilkenny, an old man on the train home said he’d never see Galway win another All-Ireland. It’s the kind of fatalism we share with Mayo football fans and I knew exactly what he meant. Defeatism and negativity can be traits of those of us who grew up among the stones, the drizzle, and windswept fields of Connacht.

It took us eight years to get back to Croke Park in September and Tipperary ruined our plans in 2001. Four years later it was Cork’s turn and Kilkenny, the game’s dominant modern force, blew our dreams to smithereens in 2012 and again this year.

Celebrating the semi-final win over Tipperary
To add to the torture, our team even managed a draw against the best team in history three years ago. We could have, and should have, beaten them to end the famine that afternoon.

When the hurlers beat Tipperary in last month’s semi-final, I suddenly felt pangs of regret that I was no longer involved in writing about them for the newspaper. There’s a giddy excitement about the build-up to an All-Ireland final – unless you’re from Kilkenny, where it’s probably just another annual event like Christmas or St Patrick’s Day.

On Saturday, my sister took the ferry home from London. She refused to miss the final. It cost her a fortune she could hardly afford, but as she headed back on Monday morning she said it was all so worthwhile.
From the singing in the pubs, to the chats with fans of all ages who had made the trip to Croke Park, there is something truly special about the All-Ireland weekend.

The way the supporters of the opposing teams mix and share their passion for the game is unmatched in any sport. There were over 82,000 people in Croke Park with no need for the kind of segregation I’ve seen following Liverpool to Champions League, UEFA, and FA Cup finals.

My cousin flew in from London, too, to see his team get beaten yet again. He doesn’t even remember his team winning an All-Ireland, but he had to be there, as did the old musician friend home from the Canary Islands.

We lost, but we celebrated all that is good about being Irish – and the West of Ireland in particular – in the crowded bars along Dorset Street on Sunday night.

These are the things that dreams are made of, even if our dreams were shattered yet again last weekend.

Galway people love their hurling and we should remember that there are passionate fans in places like Laois and Carlow who would love to see their team take part in just one All-Ireland final at a captivated Croke Park.

I’m so glad that the team got a rousing reception when they returned home. 

They reminded this cynic about so many of the good things associated with life in the West of Ireland, whether it's pucking a ball against a gable wall or spending hours talking about the game we love.

I could have been lying in the Nicaraguan or Spanish sunshine on Sunday, starting a new life, but it just felt right to be in the middle of my crazy, passionate, wounded Tribe, as we learned to cope with the pain of defeat once again. Sure, that's life!