Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Different strokes

In Irish politics, a "stroker" is a person who is able to carry out secretive, illicit or underhand deals. And this week it felt as though our whole economy was based on "strokes".

It’s not every Government that threatens to take legal action because it does not want to take up a €13 billion windfall.

Especially one that was in the midst of a grave recession just a few short years ago.

But, then again, the Irish Government does not seem to be the same as any other Government on the planet.

To judge by this week’s events, they don’t really believe in the long-term viability of their economy. A small island, on the edge of Europe, clearly needs to offer generous incentives if it is to attract big business.                                                                                        

So when the European Commission declares that Apple owes Ireland €13 billion in back taxes, the first reaction of the Irish Government is to express dismay. The second is to threaten legal action against the European authorities.

In the year in which we have celebrated the centenary of the Easter Rising, which ultimately led to Irish freedom, there is an awful lot of soul-searching going on.

Perhaps it’s time to take stock and to re-evaluate our rightful place in the world.

Saying 'no' to a €13 billion windfall:
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.

What would the men and women who gave up their lives for Irish freedom make of it all if they could see the Republic right now?

It’s been one hell of a summer. Baffling and bizarre, as the nation of ‘Saints and Scholars’ suffered two major embarrassments on the international stage.

It took the Brazilians, the people who have just impeached a president, to teach us a thing or two about how to deal with corruption.

They arrested two Irish men for the type of “ticket-touting” which seems to be taken for granted at the top of some Irish sporting organisations.

Indeed, despite some heroics on the water, the Irish made more headlines for alleged corruption by officials than the quality of the athletes who represented the country at the Olympic Games.

Barely had the country recovered from the shock of seeing two Irishmen being taken to Brazilian jails when the European Commission exposed Ireland as a ‘dodgy’ tax haven which provided “illegal” State aid to Apple for the past 25 years.

It seems that Apple, with the full blessing of the Irish Government, set up a "ghost" company to avoid paying tax in a country which is already famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for its low corporation tax rate.

Ireland is now known throughout the globe as the country where Apple should have paid €13 billion in back taxes, but where the Government does not want this sudden windfall which could pay for the Republic’s health service for a year.

The country is now known as the place where a global multinational corporation was able to take advantage of “incentives” or “tax breaks” which were not available to others.

The company paid just €50 in tax for every €1 million in profit it made after setting up a HQ in Cork.
According to the European Commission, Apple owes the Irish €13 billion because it has evaded paying tax under two agreements which date back to 1991.

That’s a lot of money for a country in the midst of a homelessness crisis, a hospital waiting list crisis, and where refugees are living in inhumane conditions for months or even years on end.

€13 billion would go a long way towards building social housing, taking patients off trolleys in overcrowded A&E departments, or tackling the mental health crisis which has seen so many of our young men take their own lives.

The Government should be ecstatic, you’d imagine. And yet they have spent more than €670,000 in legal fees to try to stop the EC from awarding it this €13 billion windfall.

Apple employs 5,000 people in Cork and has plans for a massive new data centre in Athenry, Co Galway.

It’s no wonder our Government wants to keep the company happy, in a country which has relied so much on FDI (foreign direct investment) to get over the recession.

There are 200,000 people employed in FDI companies across Ireland and Government Ministers are clearly spooked by the prospect of multi-nationals moving out of the country if they were faced with demands for back tax or a stricter tax regime.

Apple, hit with an unwelcome €13 billion tax bill
The EC ruling has caused some uproar, particularly among those who believe that there is one set of laws for the rich, or for global corporations, and another for the poor in the Emerald Isle.

In February of last year, for example, a young single mother from Co Donegal was awoken from her bed at 7am on a Monday morning and transferred to Mountjoy Prison for the terrible crime of not paying her TV licence.

She had not paid the €160 fee which state broadcaster RTE collects from every householder who owns a TV across the country.

The payment is compulsory, to fund a TV station which lost €2.8 million last year, despite a funding model which includes advertising revenue and the annual licence fee.

In contrast to the single mum, RTE employs a chat show host who earns €495,000 per year and a radio presenter who rakes in €416,000 to moan on behalf of the “little people” on national radio every weekday.

The single mum had managed to repay just under half of the €450 fine which had been imposed on her at Letterkenny District Court, but she found herself being hauled off to jail – by taxi.

She ended up spending just three hours in jail.

Countless people like her around the country must be baffled this week, that a corporation can get away with paying 0.0005% in tax while people who are struggling to pay the bills can be whisked off to jail for owing the State just over €200.

The message is simple, really . . . If you don’t pay your taxes you will go to jail, unless you’re a multinational corporation!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Flying the flag for Palestine

When a group of talented young soccer players from Gaza enjoyed a couple of dream evenings in Galway earlier this month, they made sure to record every important moment on their smartphones.

The young boys, aged between ten and 14, were delighted to be guests of honour at Galway United’s big game against the Irish champions, Dundalk FC, and they were determined to video the highlights for an absent friend.

The League of Ireland is hardly the most glamorous competition in Europe but, with 2,600 passionate fans in the ground, it was the biggest game any of them had attended in their short young lives.

When they performed a guard of honour to welcome the two teams onto the pitch at Eamon Deacy Park for the big televised game, the phones were produced.                        
The Al-Helal boys in Galway.
Photo: Sean Ryan. 

When half of the main stand stood up to sing for Palestine, they filmed the hospitable crowd with tears in their eyes.

When they were beckoned into a room under the main stand after the game, to meet no less a figure than the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, they were quick to produce the phones.

They were absolutely thrilled. They filmed for their mothers, their fathers, their siblings and their friends back in Gaza, but they had one young boy in their hearts and mentioned him every day.

When they were entertained by a community circus in Kinvara, a village which boycotted Israeli goods during the bombardment of Gaza in 2014, they kept filming.

They put the cameras away before hammering the locals from Kinvara United, displaying amazing skills, but took them out again after the game.

“This one’s for Karam,” they kept telling each other.

One of the organisers of the trip, Zoe Lawlor, eventually told me that they were sending daily messages to a team-mate, Karam Zaidan, who had been refused permission to travel.

It took Gaza Action Ireland and the Al-Helal Football academy three years to plan the boys’ Irish tour, in which they won all their games against boys of the same age in Dublin, Galway, Wexford, and Tipperary.

The trip had been cancelled when the youngsters were refused exit permits by the Israeli authorities, despite having the necessary visas, travel documents, and funds to make it to Ireland.

Three weeks after the ten day tour was called off, the Israelis eventually allowed 14 of the 15 boys to travel at short notice, along with two of the seven adults who were meant to accompany them to Ireland.

From Gaza to Kinvara.
Photo: John Kelly.
The boys were in tears when the much-anticipated trip was called off and there were more tears when they learned that Karam would have to stay behind.

As a small child, Karam suffered horrific injuries during the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip in 2009. He has recovered to become one of the best soccer players in the tiny strip of land which is home to 1.8 million people, but he’s disfigured for life.

He plays for an academy which takes in the best players from throughout the tiny enclave and his team’s ground in Northern Gaza has been bombed twice by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in recent years.

The only reason the trip organisers could think of for Karam to be refused permission to travel – while all his team-mates made it to Ireland – was that the Israeli authorities did not want Irish people to see the extent of his injuries.

Many of the boys at the Al-Helal academy were traumatised by the 2014 bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in which an estimated 2,250 people – including more than 551 children – lost their lives.

The boys have survived two major bombardments in their short lives and a female child psychologist was also left behind. It meant there was huge pressure on Ayed and Mohammed, the two adults who accompanied them to Ireland.

Life is not “normal” if you are a soccer player in Gaza and things which others take for granted, such as hopping onto a bus to play an away game, can be virtually impossible for those who live on the coastal strip.

Just last month, the Palestinian Cup Final was cancelled after the Israeli authorities barred a number of players from Gaza from entering the West Bank to play the second leg.

There are only three exits from Gaza, which has been described as the world’s largest prison. One is almost permanently closed by Egypt and another is only for freight.

In late July, the Shabab Khan Younis team attempted to travel to the West Bank via the Israeli-controlled Erez checkpoint, which is the only way out.

The Israeli authorities held the team for 12 hours before barring six players from entering Israeli territory.

As the team was left with only ten players for the game the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) said it had no option but to call off the final.                                    
Celtic "ultras" flying the flags at Parkhead.

“This behaviour is embarrassing. The players arrived at the checkpoint and were forced to wait 12 hours and to undergo interrogations and checks that have no relationship to security,” said PFA chairman Jibril Rajoub. 

“I heard they were asked about their neighbours and about all kinds of things in Gaza that have no connection to security. The sole purpose was to wear them down for hours upon hours in the burning heat, and in the end to allow only part of the team to pass the checkpoint and reach Hebron.”

He said he didn’t think there was anywhere else in the world where soccer players were treated in this manner.

But these kinds of obstacles are second nature to Palestinian footballers.

In November 2006, October 2007, and May 2008 games involving the Palestinian national team were called off because the players were refused permission to travel to fulfill their fixtures.

A striker for the national team, Ziyad Al-Kord, had his house destroyed by the IDF. Three members of the team (Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe, and Wajeh Mostahe) were among those killed during the same three week bombardment in 2009-9 in which young Karam sustained his injuries.

Two West Bank villages which featured in a promotional video by FIFA, world football’s governing body, only last month are now making headlines for all the wrong reasons. FIFA claimed that football was helping to bring the Palestinian nation together.

Since the video was released a month ago, houses in the villages in the South Hebron Hills have been demolished in order to make way for Israeli ‘settlements’ which are illegal according to international law.

I thought about Karam, the cancelled Cup Final, the dead players, and the demolished houses this week, when UEFA (European football’s governing body) threatened to impose a fine on Glasgow Celtic FC after last week’s Champions League game against a team from Israel, Hapoel Be'er Sheva.

UEFA has described the Palestinian national flag as an “illicit banner” after hundreds of Celtic fans flew them at Parkhead. Even though Palestine is now a member of the global football “family” and competes in international games. .

Celtic, founded in 1888, was the club set up by and for Irish immigrants who experienced discrimination and sectarianism when they emigrated to Scotland.

Like the Palestinians, the Irish have some knowledge of occupation and colonization. The people who left places like Donegal and Tyrone to begin new lives in Glasgow had a keener understanding than most of what it’s like to live under occupation.

“The situation in Palestine is a classic example of land that is being taken from people who lived there for generations. It chimes in with the course of Irish history,” Scottish historian Tom Devine told Al-Jazeera.

Thankfully, fans of Celtic FC have already turned the UEFA fine into a good news story, by pledging to match the fine by raising funds for a youth soccer team in the West Bank and Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Money has been flooding in for the campaign, with more than £100,000 raised for Palestinian charities within just a few days.

“Celtic is all about standing up for the rights of those who don’t have a voice and therefore I’m now delighted by a UEFA fine that’s only helped draw more attention to the human tragedy and showing how solidarity can force change,” said Celtic fan Will Gardner.

In the 1980s, a boycott of South Africa - including a ban on tours by sporting teams - helped to isolate the Apartheid regime. People now believe it is time to impose similar sanctions on Israel, until Palestinians are given some sort of hope for a peaceful, just future.

At the moment, there is no hope for the people of Gaza.

In an ideal world, there would be no place for “political” flags at a football ground.

But this is not an ideal world and UEFA’s fine smacks of hypocrisy in the face of European football’s refusal to address the issue of why Palestinian soccer players are treated so appallingly by the Israeli authorities.

Until a youngster like Karam has the right to undertake the kind of team tour which is taken for granted by gifted soccer players all across Europe, football fans should have a right to fly the flag in solidarity with the oppressed people of Palestine.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Marking the end of a remarkable life

It was a reflection of the spirit of adventure she showed throughout her life that Mary Kilroy was delighted to take part in a documentary film called ‘Older Than Ireland’ at 101 years of age.

Like all the other centenarians who took part in the film, my grandmother was happy to share her thoughts on a long life lived to the full on the big screen.

All 30 of them were born under the British Empire, and lived through the 1916 Easter Rising, the birth of a new Ireland, and two world wars.

Yet, as film-maker Alex Fegan discovered, most of them were happier to talk about their own personal tragedies, triumphs, loves and losses than the great political and social changes they had witnessed throughout their lives.

When Alex arrived at my grandmother’s farm-house in Caltra, Co Galway, to film an interview last year he found a lady dressed to the nines for an auspicious occasion, happy to tell an abundance of stories from her long and wonderful life.

A few people who saw the film, but never met Granny Kilroy, said that she struck them as a real character with an amazing sense of humour and a heart of gold.
Granny Kilroy, RIP.

Like many of the interviewees in ‘Older Than Ireland’, my granny didn’t have an easy life. Which is probably why she had such a rebellious streak, and such a sense of fun, by the time her grandchildren came into this world.

She married into a house which had been shot up by the notorious Black ‘n’ Tans, the British reserves who became infamous for their attacks on Irish civilians at the height of the War of Independence.

The Ireland of my granny’s youth was a turbulent place and my grandfather’s brother, who later became a senior Garda (or policeman), had been a wanted man. He was the leader of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in north-east Galway.

He spent time on the run, and in prison, as the Irish fought for independence during my grandmother’s childhood. One of his neighbours spent five years on the run, hiding in hay-sheds and getting fed by country people, as I was to discover during the 1916 commemorations in Caltra earlier this year.

When she married Micheal Kilroy, Mary Mannion moved from Menlough to Rabane, Caltra, where she raised nine children in a four-bedroomed house on a small farm.

She caused quite a stir in the documentary when she talked of having “loads” of admirers in her youth and of her relationship with a Protestant which didn’t go down well in a deeply divided country.

“Well, I had loads of them! They’re always codding me about that here. Oh, there was no scarcity of boyfriends,” she told Alex on film.

“I was doing a line with a fella who was a Protestant and he was a nice fella and everything, but my grandmother and mother and all said ‘do you want to disgrace us?’ And, oh, he was such a nice lad. But I’m telling you, I got rid of him quick enough. I had to let him off,” she laughed.

In later years, Granny would always “cod” her own 34 grandchildren about our relationships (or lack of them!). She took a keen interest in our love-lives, only because she wanted us all to be happy, as she had been with our grandfather.

Her Rabane house was always a sociable place; people would pop in for a chat at all hours of the day and play music around the hearth fire. But Granny was the boss, and you wouldn’t want to overstay your welcome.

Although a practising Catholic, she showed a rebellious streak through dark days of the 1950s and 1960s.

If a book by John McGahern or Edna O’Brien was banned, Granny Kilroy was sure to manage to get her hands on a copy to see what all the fuss was about. She’d be sure to arrange to have the banned books brought back to Caltra from England.

She loved any Irish writer who had a good sense of humour or appreciation for rural life, particularly Kerry playwright John B. Keane, and kept a scrapbook containing his most amusing newspaper columns.

She loved the theatre, and Irish literature in general.

Life was never to be taken too seriously, so we’d enjoy tall tales around her kitchen table or a flutter on the horses during the Galway Races. She’d even sneak a cigarette or taste of brandy to a willing grandchild, as long as the “responsible” adults weren’t around to witness her “delinquent” behaviour!

She outlived her husband by over 50 years and buried two sons. The passing of her eldest son, Paddy, at 28 years of age, was a particularly tough blow. But, as my mother Mary said at her huge 100th birthday party in Athlone almost three years ago, Granny Kilroy never let tragedy define her long life.

She taught all of her extended family the value of getting on with life, of putting a positive spin on things, and of having the ‘craic’ or some fun along the way, even if there was not always an abundance of food on the table.

Even at 101, she still extended a warm welcome to visitors. When the ‘Older Than Ireland’ crew visited her home, Granny marvelled that she had received 20 bottles of brandy for her 100th birthday – and was quick to offer a drop to her visitors.

She was a great support to my own immediate family when we lost my sister, Cliona, to cancer at 16 years of age. Granny Kilroy epitomised the importance of getting up, getting out, and putting a brave face on a new day, even (or especially) in the aftermath of tragedy.

As a teenager, when I secured a summer job in Galway, my parents (perhaps rightly!) would not trust me to stay at home on my own.

Fearful that the family home would be ruined by house parties, they would invite my granny in to the city to “supervise” me for two weeks.

The result was a fortnight of merriment, laughter, and irreverence in the family home, and more than a few nights out at Ward’s pub in Lower Salthill, where she’d be delighted to get chatting to the locals.

Even in her late nineties, she would sneak off to Athlone or Ballinasloe with her beloved grand-daughters to buy a new outfit for Christmas or a wedding, because Granny Kilroy always maintained a big interest in style and fashion.

In her beautiful Eulogy at Caltra Church last week, my cousin Fiona O’Driscoll recalled her love of style and fashion. Fiona grew up on the farmhouse with my gran.

“You live but once; you might as well be amusing,” she quoted Coco Chanel, a fitting motto for my granny’s fun-filled life.

Only our granny would make a big deal of recalling the exact number of birthday cards she got (452!) when she turned 100.

Her younger sister, Margaret, also reached a century and it used to bug our granny enormously when Margaret refused to disclose how many cards she received for reaching that wonderful milestone.

For ten weeks in a row, she used to visit Margaret every Thursday, but she could never elicit the exact number from her sibling. At 101 and 100, they maintained a very close friendship, but also a keen sibling rivalry.

There are a lot of things that annoy me about life in the West of Ireland . . . the climate, the way in which gombeens rise to the top of so many organisations . . . and yet my grandmother’s death last week brought home to me all that is good about life in this part of the world.

It was so wonderful that Granny was able to pass away peacefully, in her own home, surrounded by people who love her. If only all human beings could have such a peaceful ending after living such full and rewarding lives.

The gentle nature we have with each other, the sense of compassion, the strong family bonds and community spirit in rural areas were all reflected in an estimated attendance of 4,500 to 5,000 at her Removal in Mountbellew.

Granny would have been well impressed that we were two hours late getting to the church!

Having experienced too many tragic deaths, I expected my gran’s death to be a celebration of a long and wonderful life – and yet when I looked around the Church last Thursday I was amazed to see so many people in tears at the passing of a true local legend.

People should not really be in tears when someone reaches 102 years of age, but our gran was clearly held in high esteem by her local rural community, where her sense of humour was legendary, as much as by her wide extended family.

Granny Kilroy brought so much joy to the lives of her 34 grandchildren that the outpouring of love in Caltra last week was simply unforgettable.

All week, we’ve been swapping anecdotes of childhood adventures (and misdaventures!).

While some feigned shock at some of the things she said on camera, we are all now so thrilled that she allowed her warm personality to come across on the big screen when she agreed to be filmed for ‘Older Than Ireland’.

With a laugh, she told Alex that she’d ask St Peter “how ya doin’?” and “How’s she cuttin’?”  if she was to meet him at the gates of Heaven.

Truly, she lived a remarkable life.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Gazan dreams come true on Galway fields

It’s not often you witness the dreams of young Palestinian soccer players come true on West of Ireland fields, but after a three year wait a group of 14 boys from Gaza found themselves on cloud nine on Friday night.

Three weeks after the crushing disappointment of being refused exit permits by the Israeli authorities, the youngsters from the Al-Helal Football Academy were special guests of Galway United Football Club for their biggest home game of the year against the Irish champions, Dundalk FC.

After welcoming the two teams onto the pitch before the televised game at Eamon Deacy Park, the talented young footballers got to showcase their talents before Galway United’s biggest crowd of the season at half-time.

Not only did Galway beat Dundalk in a thrilling encounter, the boys from Gaza were invited to a special reception to meet the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, after the game.

The Gaza boys form a guard of honour for the Galway
United and Dundalk players. Photo; Sean Ryan. 

During the game, fans across the entire main stand rose to their feet to chant “Stand Up for Palestine!” to bring tears of joy to the eyes of the boys and their two adult coaches.

Members of Gaza Action Ireland and the Al-Helal academy had been planning the ten day trip for three years, but had to cancel the entire schedule when the travelling party were denied exit visas just before they were due to travel.

Eventually, almost three weeks after the trip was called off, the Israeli authorities allowed 14 of the 15 boys on the squad to travel, along with two of the seven adults who were supposed to accompany them to Ireland.

Last minute plans were put in place to reschedule the tour, which saw the boys from Gaza take on – and beat – much bigger boys from clubs throughout Ireland in a series of four games. Aged between ten and 14, the Gaza boys impressed soccer coaches across Ireland with their skills. They won all four games on the tour.

“The trip was worth all the trouble, because it was the first trip outside of Gaza for all the children, and it gave them an experience they never felt before,” said team coach Mohammed Al Rawagh.

“The three week delay – and not knowing if we would be coming – put some extra mental pressure on the kids. They were very disappointed when they were not given permission to leave Gaza.

“Plus, we had exit permits denied for five of our coaches and one child. Even though they allowed only two adults to travel, we both insisted that we should do it. Ireland is far more beautiful, with its people and its nature, than we expected.”

The Al-Helal academy’s ground in Northern Gaza has twice been bombed by Israel in recent years and the players were upset when one of their team-mates, Karam Zaidan, was refused permission to travel.

Karam was injured by shelling during an Israeli bombardment in 2009 and the players have remembered him in song and smart-phone videos throughout the ten day tour, which ended on Monday.

Relaxing after another big win in Kinvara.
Photo; Andrew Downes. 

“Even though he suffered terribly, Karam is one of their best players,” said Zoe Lawlor of Gaza Action Ireland. “You have to wonder why the Israeli authorities did not want that child in particular to travel to Ireland – is it because they didn’t want the Irish to see his injuries?”

Only one of the players, Mohanad Auda, can speak English. He earned the nickname of “Google” during the ten day trip, because he was called upon so often to translate for his academy team-mates when they engaged with Irish children.

“It’s so nice and so sweet here. I am happy. I am having fun in Ireland. The best parts have been playing against the Irish teams and going to the big Irish football game. I’m excited because I am playing outside Gaza. The Irish people have been so nice and so friendly,” said Mohaned.

Speaking through an interpreter, team captain Khaled Gouda said he was determined to represent Palestine with pride by playing his best against the Irish team. They won all six games against Ballybrack FC (Dublin), Pike Rovers (Limerick), Kinvara United (Galway) and three teams team from Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

“I’m enjoying being in Ireland and I’m thinking that I want to show the best of what I have so that people can see the talents of Palestinian children. It is a great feeling to represent Palestine and I have to be up to this responsibility,” said Khaled.

“In Gaza, we love to watch European football and we enjoy it. It’s a lovely feeling, being in Ireland, but I also miss my country. I miss Gaza. The fields here are very different from the fields in Gaza. We have natural grass, but it is not as good as this. Our natural grass in Gaza has more bumps, but it is more smooth here.”

The boys’ trip was featured on RTE television, the Irish State broadcaster. On the following day, Khaled was taken aback to be mobbed by well-wishers when the team enjoyed a walk in Dublin city centre.

“Many people came up and greeted us and invited us even for lunch on the street. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt a little bit famous, but it’s a tiring feeling because everybody wants to take pictures wherever we go. We want our borders to be open and to be free so that people in Gaza who want to come to Ireland, or any other place, can do so,” he said.

Khaled relished the atmosphere at the Galway United stadium and was delighted to meet the President of Ireland after the game.

The Chairman of the Academy, Ayed Abu-Ramadan, said it had been difficult for two adults to look after the 14 boys, as seven adults – including a child psychologist – were originally supposed to travel.

Many of the boys on the team were traumatised by the 2014 bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in which an estimated 2,250 people – including more than 551 children – lost their lives.

“We have been working on this for the past three years and we had been unable to get our team out of Gaza, so finally we got our team out of Gaza. It’s the first time we came here to Ireland. The results have been fantastic. It has given us hope for future operations like this,” said Ayed.

“It’s good for Irish people to meet Palestinians, to talk about their lives in Palestine, and to feel their suffering first hand. And it’s good for our players to see what Ireland is like. It’s not just the 14 players. Their friends, families, and neighbours were in continuous contact with the children on their smart phones throughout  the trip and they are learning about Ireland.”

The Galway leg of the trip was organised by a small committee in Kinvara, a small village in which the entire community supported a boycott of Israeli goods during the bombardment of Gaza in 2014.
Local organiser Vicky Donnelly said she was amazed by the offers of support once it was confirmed that the Al-Helal team was going to Galway.

Leaving Dublin Airport ... with hurley sticks and Galway
GAA caps!

“It’s actually brought tears to our eyes, to see the support we have received from all over Ireland for a group of boys who come from one of the most troubled places on earth,” she said.

At the end of the trip, an emotional Ayed said he hoped the trip could lead to greater links being forged between football clubs in Ireland and Palestine.

“We are hoping to set up something more sustainable, to maintain cooperation between the Gaza clubs and Irish clubs. Our academy could become a resource for the Irish teams in Gaza,” he said.

“We have many talented children in Gaza who I expect to become professional superstars.  We could become a resource for Irish teams to get players from Gaza. We would love to see Palestinian players come over and sign for Irish clubs.”

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dream comes true for Gaza children in Galway!

The children of the Al-Helal Football Academy in occupied Palestine had an amazing couple of days in Galway, in which they beat a local team, saw Galway United beat Dundalk FC in front of a passionate crowd, and even met the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, after the game.

Last night, it was clear that sometimes dreams really can come true when people put enough effort in to overcome barriers and obstacles.

The joy on their faces as they took to the perfect surface to welcome the two teams onto the pitch will live long in the memory.

I'll be writing a blog about their Galway visit in due course but, in the meantime, here's the piece I wrote for 'Maroon View', the sold-out match programme.

Well done to Kinvara United, Gaza Action Ireland, the Galway Community Circus, Galway United FC, President Higgins, and the entire Galway community for turning their dreams into reality.

How wonderful to see 14 children from one of the most troubled places on earth being treated like superstars!

The children from Gaza provide a guard of honour for the Galway
United and Dundalk FC teams last night. Photo: Sean Ryan Photography 


The children from war-torn Gaza who are Galway United’s special guests for tonight’s home game against Dundalk FC were all the more thrilled by their invitation to Eamon Deacy Park because they almost never made it to Ireland.

Currently enjoying a ten day Irish tour, the 14 young members of Al-Helal Football Academy were not granted the necessary visas to leave the tiny enclave despite being issued with Irish visas months ago.

Three years of planning have gone into their Irish tour, which should have taken place almost three weeks ago, but the Israeli authorities – who control all movement in and out of Gaza – were slow to grant them the necessary exit permits.

The boys were particularly upset that one of their team-mates, Karam Zaidan, was not given a permit to travel – along with five adults who had planned to accompany them.

But the boys, who enjoyed friendlies in Ballybrack, Dublin; Nenagh, Co Tipperary; and Kinvara, Co Galway, prior to tonight’s game are relishing the attention they are getting on the tour and filming every moment for Karam back in Gaza.                                    
Relaxing after the big win in Kinvara
Photo: Andrew Downes

Trauma is never far from these youngsters, who are aged between ten and 14 years. Their ground in Northern Gaza was twice bombed by Israel during the 2014 onslaught and Karam was badly injured during a previous attack in 2009.

According to one of the trip organisers, Zoe Lawler of Gaza Action Ireland, the young Palestinians were overjoyed when they were told they would be guests of honour at a televised SSE Airtricity League game. It was the icing on the cake as they approach the end of their Irish tour.

Their visit to Co Galway resulted from amazing work by a team of volunteers in Kinvara, including Vicky Donnelly, John Griffin, and Frank Naughton; along with soccer coaches Ger Ryan (Kinvara United), John Power (Power Soccer) and Gerry Mulkerrins, who set up their visit to the home of Galway soccer this evening.

“The project has been going on for a few years,” said Ms Lawler this week. “They should have been here three weeks ago, but we had to cancel everything when the permits hadn’t been granted for them to travel.

“The permits came through extremely late, so we had to reschedule the whole trip even though they’ve had the Irish visas for ages. The boys are sad that Karam didn’t make it, as they think it’s particularly mean to refuse a permit to a youngster who was injured in 2009.”

Ms Lawler said it was poignant that only one of the 15 boys who intended to travel had failed to get a travel visa, especially as he was badly injured in the shelling.

“Even though he suffered terribly, he’s supposed to be one of their best players,” she said. “You have to wonder why the Israeli authorities did not want that child in particular to travel to Ireland – is it because they didn’t want the Irish to see his injuries?”

The boys were delighted to meet former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr in Dublin last weekend and were mobbed by pedestrians on Grafton Street in the capital after their ten day trip was featured on RTE News.

They also showed they had skills in abundance when they beat a much bigger and more physical Ballybrack FC side 2-0 on their second day in Dublin.

Observers were hugely impressed by their composure on the ball and the dexterity of their goalkeeper in the win over Ballybrack, as Galway United and Dundalk FC fans can witness during their 15 minute kick-about at half-time this evening.

“These are talented players from a number of areas around Gaza. The academy seeks to develop their talents as well as other skills,” said team manager Ayed Aburamadan this week.

More than 500 children in Gaza, which is one of the most crowded places on earth, lost their lives in the 2014 bombardment by Israel. According to Aburamadan, this ten day tour has brought hope and joy which extends far beyond the 14 boys and their families.

None of the children had ever been on a plane before and none of them had ever been outside Gaza.

The players were taken aback to see Palestinian flags flying at Ballybrack FC, after joining Kerr and the Palestinian Ambassador to Ireland, Ahmad Abdelrazek, at Sandymount Beach in Dublin.

They took on a Kinvara United selection in the South Galway village last night, after being entertained by the Galway Community Circus.

Mr Adbelrazek travelled to Kinvara two years ago to thank the villagers who organised a community boycott of Israeli goods during the onslaught in Gaza which claimed 2,200 lives.

“It was a very small action, really, but the entire village came together when we tried to think of some way of expressing our solidarity with the poor people of Gaza,” said Vicky Donnelly, one of the organisers of last night’s welcome for the team in Kinvara.

The members of the Al-Helal Football Academy in Kinvara
Photo: John Kelly, Clare Champion.
“Afterwards, we were told that the people of Gaza were really touched by our small gesture. Now, two years on from that boycott, it’s really special to have something so positive to celebrate. We are delighted to be able to host these boys in Kinvara.”

Ms Donnelly said the organisers of the Kinvara and Galway visits have been amazed by the offers of support they have received since it was confirmed that the Al-Helal team would be visiting the city and county.

“Everybody seems to want to get involved and we can’t accommodate all the offers we’ve had,” she said.

“The support we have received has been really heartening. It’s actually put tears in our eyes, to see the support we have received from all over Galway for a group of boys who come from one of the most troubled places on earth.”

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

My city is buzzing right now

Attendances may have been down at the Galway Races last week, but there is no doubt that my native city has been buzzing like never before over the past few weeks and months.

Imagine, Galway ... little windswept Galway on the Atlantic coast is set to become the European Capital of Culture four years from now. No wonder people have been in party mode over the past couple of weeks.
The iconic Big Top at the Galway International Arts Festival
Photo courtesy of Andrew Downes. 

About 139,000 people attended the Racing Festival, with the inclement weather playing a part in keeping the numbers down, and over €14.5 million was exchanged through on-course betting.

But, in the three weeks prior to the races, the city seemed to be buzzing like never before.

Visitor numbers have definitely been up over the past couple of months and a hugely successful Galway International Film Festival came hot on the heels of an excellent Galway Film Fleadh.

The arts are buzzing in the City of the Tribes, which was designated European Capital of Culture for 2020 in the midst of all the festivities.

It’s evident in the city’s narrow, medieval streets.

The past few months have seen a significant increase in visitor numbers to Europe’s western-most city, as the economic recovery takes hold in the wake of the terrible crash which occurred less than a decade ago.

The streets are packed with visitors from all over the world seven days a week, as revellers take in the fantastic atmosphere and free entertainment conjured up by a wide variety of street performers and artists throughout the pedestrianized zone between the Spanish Arch and Eyre Square.

There already seems to be a party or festival every weekend between April and October in Galway City and now the city’s residents can look forward to a year-long party in four years’ time.

A budget of €45.7 million has been earmarked for the Capital of Culture project, which has the potential to create 18,000 new jobs in a city with a population of just under 80,000.

Previous cities to be awarded European Capital of Culture status in other countries have reported an increase of between 10% and 25% in the number of visitors for a full decade following the prestigious designation.

The designation is set to bring a boom to the city’s arts, cultural, and hospitality sectors.

“This is probably the biggest opportunity in the city’s history, so there is a responsibility on us all to make the absolute maximum out of it,” said Patricia Philbin, project leader of the Galway 2020 campaign.

“It is going to change Galway and provide opportunities for all those young people who are leaving our towns and cities.”

Scent of Sawdust at the Galway International Arts Festival
Photo courtesy of Andrew Downes. 
The new sense of optimism was evident at the Big Top, the huge blue tent by the banks of the River Corrib which has become an iconic image of the city in high summer during the annual Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF).

On the night the designation was confirmed, veteran singer Elvis Costello turned his sell-out show with punk rockers The Undertones into a communal celebration for 3,000 people.

Most of the bands who played the Big Top during the two week extravaganza jokingly pleaded with the audience members to invite them back in 2020.

This sense of optimism was evident at the same venue a week later, when traditional supergroup The Gloaming also rocked the tent to a capacity crowd.

No longer a city or region ravaged by emigration or any kind of inferiority complex, it was uplifting to see a huge crowd celebrate the joys of traditional Irish music in the company of acclaimed musicians including frantic fiddler Martin Hayes and veteran ‘sean nos’ singer Iarla O Lionaird.

It was a far cry from the dark days of the 1970s, when the idea of hundreds of people congregating in a huge tent to celebrate Irish music and culture would have seemed far-fetched.

Traditional music is thriving in Galway right now, as visitors can discover if they check out the free nightly sessions on offer in city centre pubs such as The Crane, Ti Coili, Taffees, and Ti Neachtain.

This year’s Galway International Arts Festival was the most successful in years, with the two week event breaking the box office target of €1.1 million in ticket sales.

Ticket sales broke the 200,000 mark for the second year running and the Box Office recorded its biggest takings to date.

“We are delighted with how the festival went this year and I would like to thank all the artists who were involved in the programme and all those who came to events," said John Crumlish, Festival CEO.

 “It was our biggest festival to date, with more of our own productions in the programme than ever before, so it is fantastic that people came in such numbers.

 “The memory of standing in front of that big screen on Mainguard Street during the Festival when the winner of the European Capital of Culture 2020 was announced is one that will live long in the memory.”

The city might be lacking in terms of art galleries, concert halls, and an art-house cinema, but every year the festival organisers show innovation in opening new venues, including a disused print works, empty warehouses (legacies of the economic collapse in 2007-8) and the giant blue tent at Fisheries Field.

“When I was a child, I was always so struck by the ambition of the festival, and the risks taken by the organisers. Risks taken out of necessity,” says artistic director Paul Fahy.

“Now our biggest venue is the Big Top, which is basically just four plastic walls and a plastic roof, albeit with the lap of luxury for everyone inside it. And the Festival Gallery, which normally only exists in my head for nine months of the year before we know where it’s going to be. And that gives GIAF a great sense of excitement.”

The sense of optimism extended to the Galway Racing Festival, which took place at the famed Ballybrit racecourse on the outskirts of the city last week.

About 800 horses competed in 52 races throughout the week, with a total prize fund of €1.9 million ($2.08m) which is significantly up on last year.

The festival provides a €56 million ($61.5m) boost to the city’s economy each year and organisers were expecting to at least match last year’s combined attendance of 140,000 over the seven days.

Helicopters no longer dominate the city’s skyline during the Galway Races as they did during the Celtic Tiger “boom” years, but the city’s hospitality sector was happy to see modest growth after attendance figures slumped during the economic downturn.

Not to be outdone, the city’s sports teams are enjoying a bumper year.
Enjoying a free outdoor show in Eyre Square.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Downes. 

Rugby team Connacht – who were almost put out of business in 2003 – captured the hearts of the nation when they won the Pro12 League title back in May.

The footballers won their first Connacht title since 2008, even though the season ended in a disappointing All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Tipperary, while the hurlers have a big semi-final date at Croke Park to come.

Connacht might not have the budget to match bigger teams such as Leinster and Munster, but led by the irrepressible New Zealander Pat Lam they have really tapped into the new mood of optimism which has taken over the City of the Tribes.

All in all, these are heady days in Ireland’s Western capital, a long way from the dark and distant days when impoverished emigrants on ‘coffin ships’ would set sail from Galway Bay for new lives in the New World with sadness in their hearts and tears in their eyes.

* An older version of this blog was published last week by the Irish-American website,

** Thanks to Andrew Downes and Galway International Arts Festival for the superb photos.