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

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

In Ireland, you've got the people ...

What exactly is “home”?                                                        
Boxer Sean Mannion; The film about his life brought
many members of a Galway audience to tears

If, for example, you grow up in the wilds of Connemara, with the backdrop of picturesque but barren mountains, roaring Atlantic waves, stony fields, and the beautiful, living Gaelic language, can you always call it your home?

Even if, as thousands upon thousands have done, economic necessity forces you to leave your native place and to spend your entire adult life hundreds or thousands of miles from home?

The thought struck me, watching the wonderful ‘Rocky Ros Muc’ film this week, that few are connected to their land, their local communities, and the stories the rocks and the stone walls could tell, as the people of the West of Ireland.

Boxer Sean Mannion returned home from Boston for the emotional Galway screening of the new documentary film about his life and it was striking to see how many people in the capacity audience were moved to tears by his life story.

Not because he lost a world title fight, because Sean achieved a level of fame most of us can only dream of when he fought Mike McCallum in a gruelling bout for a world title in 1984.

But because Sean’s story was their story, and this extremely modest man – who in many ways has been his own worst enemy – epitomises the struggles all of us face when the land which produced us fails to sustain us and we are forced into exile, to start new lives in places like Boston, Brooklyn, Birmingham, or Brisbane.

It was striking to see that a man who has spent most of the past 40 years living and working in the US still felt more comfortable speaking “as Gaelige” (in Irish) when it came to a questions and answers session after the film.

Ciaran Tierney with boxer Sean Mannion at the European
premier of 'Rocky Ros Muc' in Galway

All through his life, Sean has been so proud of Ros Muc, the village where he was born and the place he still refers to as “home”.

Yet Ros Muc, through political incompetence or geographical isolation or deliberate neglect, never offered Sean and most of his generation a future and so he found himself bound for South Boston and a new life at a time when he was an Irish junior boxing champion.

In Dorchester, in ‘Southie’, he found a community that sustained him, a place where he could work on the buildings when his 15-year boxing career came to an end, a place where he could enjoy a laugh and a story in an Irish pub, or a game of cards with friends and family members from “home” who would converse in Irish into the early hours.

And yet, after 40 years away, Sean still looks at Ros Muc, and Galway, and Ireland as “home”.

It’s an experience which is so common to so many of us . . . the spirit of adventure, the need to travel for opportunities, the start of a new life, and yet the loneliness and the longing many of us experience for home.

Sean is a quiet-spoken man and yet it’s remarkable how film-maker Michael Fanning and writer Ronan Mac Con Iomaire manage to get him to open up about his own personal demons, which could resonate so much with Irish people scattered all across the globe.

We see how he embraced the new life in Boston, how the close-knit Irish community sustained him, and how his attempt to move home to Ros Muc, the place he dreamed of and was so proud of, ended after a few short months when he compared life in the rugged, wild west with the new life he had made for himself in Boston.

Sean Mannion with Heather Mackey of
the Galway Film Fleadh 
The story of the Irish is one of exile, broken dreams, loneliness, but also a stoic determination to succeed and a story of a people who have always tried to make the most of life, even when the odds were stacked against them.

We sometimes rail against the stereotype when we are depicted as the “drunken Irish”, but even our fondness for a night out and a pint is just a reflection of how much we love to engage with and socialise with each other.

Memorably, in the film, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh talks about his own battle with alcoholism and how it was common to so many Irish simply because they were so lonely for their friends and family members back home.

Walsh grew up in an Irish-speaking household and still refers to Mannion’s village, little Ros Muc on the Atlantic seaboard, as his “second home” even though he grew up in the tight-knit community of South Boston.

Some got into drugs, some drank their lives away, others joined the police or put their children through college and created opportunities which were never available to them in the little Irish villages they left behind.

At one point in the film, we hear that Mannion turned down an offer of $25,000 to wear a sponsor’s logo on his shorts at Madison Square Garden, a figure which would have matched his pay package for the biggest fight of his life.

The prospective sponsor was miffed that someone else had got there before him. What he didn’t know is that Sean didn’t want any money, he wanted the words ‘Ros Muc’ to be prominent on the front of his shorts when his 1984 title fight was beamed live all across Ireland.

It was the only one of his 57 professional bouts in the US to be beamed live across the Atlantic to the Irish people, something which is still a cause of regret for Sean. It meant so much to him to represent his own people, and to do so with pride.

The sponsor wanted to know what product his supposed rival had.          
Ciaran Tierney previewing 'Rocky Ros Muc'
on Galway Bay FM last week

“People,” was Sean’s simple and honest reply. "Human beings."

He was fighting for a world title, before a huge global audience, but he wanted to honour the tiny community which produced him and gave him a love of boxing, and of life.

The wonderful film makes it so clear that Sean’s life has been tormented by regrets over how he lost that fight in 1984, so it was amazing to see a capacity crowd give the Southpaw (now 60) a standing ovation for this fantastic film about his full, but troubled, life.

Sean Mannion would never consider himself a national hero, but in the way in which he has battled with issues such as emigration, loneliness, broken dreams, addiction, and a sense of belonging, he really has encapsulated so much of what is so good about being Irish.

And, of course, the film also has plenty of belly-laughs, because where would the Irish be without humour, even in the toughest times?

Sean has never felt fully settled in the United States and yet, like so many, he’d find it difficult or impossible to return to Ireland after so many years abroad.

The wilds of Connemara didn't offer much of a future
to the young people of the area for decades
Perhaps, though, it’s not so much about the village or the town you are from, but the people you get to know and connect with throughout your life.

His comment about the Ros Muc people reminded me of an Egyptian scuba diving instructor I undertook many trips with a decade ago.

Sabry Awwad taught people from all over the world how to scuba dive in the Red Sea for many years.

Every year, he used to laugh heartily when he’d hear me complain about having to return to the wind and rain of the West of Ireland in December.

He loved meeting people from all over the world, but he had a special regard for the Irish people he met on holidays in Egypt.

“You don’t know how lucky you are,” he used to tell me. “Different countries have different things to be proud of, but you guys are the luckiest of all. In Ireland, you’ve got the people.”

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

Read Ciaran's piece about 'Rocky Ros Muc' for Irish Central, published on July 7, 2017:

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Seeing through the Jobstown spin

Has Ireland always been such a divided, class-based society?          
Protesting against Irish Water in
Galway city centre two years ago

Or is it only in recent times that people are beginning to wake up to divisions and prejudices which have existed for generations?

For centuries, our people were united by colonisation. It was far easier to band together when we had a common enemy as subjects of the British Empire, when virtually all of our ancestors were treated as second class citizens in their own land.

It’s easier to unite against your rulers when they bind you into a life of poverty, persecute you for your religious beliefs, kill your language, deny you land ownership rights or force you into exile.

Far more difficult if the “enemy” is within.

A century has passed since the martyr James Connolly warned the Irish people that their struggle for freedom would be in vain if they replaced the British Empire with a new set of landlords, financiers, and capitalists.

God knows what he would make of the Irish Labour Party in 2017.

It’s far more difficult to unite when the corrupt politician up the road is securing jobs for the boys, the dodgy Garda Sergeant is deleting penalty points for the chosen few, or your local banker throws money around like confetti because he’s on a massive bonus for handing out unsustainable mortgages.

It’s the double standards people find most sickening.

We didn’t see bankers being hauled out of their beds at dawn for bankrupting the country or teams of Gardai raiding their homes and offices to find evidence of illegal or immoral practices which cost the country billions less than a decade ago.

It took a protest movement over water of all things, specifically the privatisation of water, to open people’s eyes to the divisions among us.

People asked, rightly, why it took Irish Water to mobilise so many people to take to the streets after years of witnessing the bank ‘bailout’, the IMF-EU ‘troika’, cuts to health and mental health services, a rise in homelessness, or the imposition of the unjust Universal Social Charge.

Celebrating the Jobstown acquittals in Dublin on Saturday
For many, though, Irish Water came as the final straw. They were sickened to see the people at the top on such massive pay scales, the perception that metering contracts were being allocated to the ‘golden circle’, and that yet another unfair tax was being imposed on ordinary people who just couldn’t take it any more.

It was amazing to attend the huge Irish Water demonstrations across the country, even in conservative Galway, and to see people who had never been galvanised before come together at street protests for the first time.

Nobody expected the campaign against water charges to attract such huge support and, clearly, it was troubling to the people at the top of Irish society to see so many people travel from all over Ireland to bring our capital to a standstill.

By the time a group of protesters sat down in front of a Minister’s car at Jobstown, in West Dublin, the State had become alarmed. Irish Water was in a mess, the State wanted a way out, and the Government was looking for ways to smear the protest campaign.

By blocking a Minister’s car or hurling abuse at the President, protesters could be denigrated and labelled as the “sinister fringe”.

And there’s no doubt that some of the abuse directed at politicians damaged the protest campaign as well as scaring more moderate protesters away.

Videos were circulated of people using foul language against politicians which should have no place in the political sphere. Tensions were high, as people accused the Irish Labour Party of betraying the working class in a way which would have had James Connolly spinning in his grave.

There was no excuse for personalised abuse against the then Tanaiste, Joan Burton, but did Gardai really need to raid the home of a democratically elected politician in the dark of night?

No matter what people think of Paul Murphy, he has a mandate to serve the people who elected him and he could easily have been called in for questioning as he made his way to the Dail. It’s not like the Gardai didn’t know where he worked.

A stark warning from James Connolly,
heroic leader of the Easter Rising
Did the Gardai really need arrive in a fleet of cars to haul a 15-year old boy out of his bed at dawn?

They could have talked to him on his way home from school, but they wanted to make some sort of statement in front of his family, neighbours, and friends.

That boy spoke brilliantly about his right to protest afterwards and about the perception among his neighbours after witnessing the blue flashing lights descend upon his home.

Did Gardai really need to hype up the evidence, when it was clearly contradicted by so many people who had video cameras at the scene?

Did they really need to charge people with “false imprisonment” when in fact they just sat down on a road in front of a Minister’s car and caused her some inconvenience for a few hours?

Much has been made since of the fear experienced by Joan Burton and her adviser Karen O’Connelly when they were allegedly trapped in two Garda cars for three hours in Jobstown in November 2014.

People talked of the “terror” they experienced, which seemed to be in stark contrast with the reality captured on photos and videos at the scene.

With some honourable exceptions, few people in the media have asked about the fear experienced by people who took part in a sit down protest and ended up facing a charge which had a possible penalty of life imprisonment.

Few have asked about the inconvenience and cost involved in a ten week trial when the evidence seen by the jury was clearly so at odds with the claims of some witnesses on behalf of the prosecution.

With Chas Jewett, one of the leaders of the
Standing Rock protest in the United States

Few have defended the legitimate right of people like Paul Murphy TD to protest against what they saw as an unjust charge, even though there was no excuse for banging on the Tanaiste's windows or the foul language used.

“There are lots of ordinary people around the country who are delighted by the verdict,” said Deputy Murphy at a meeting in Galway this week. “The establishment cannot take it when they are beaten by ordinary people.

“Ordinary people have been able to see through the lies. There has been no reference to us as victims, the fact that ordinary people were arrested and handcuffed at dawn in front of their own children.”

He pointed out that the defendants were fortunate others had filmed the protest, because it was video evidence which undermined the prosecution case.

“I think the mainstream media response to the Jobstown trial has been helpful because it shows how out of touch they are. It’s a case of ‘them against us’ and we live in a completely divided society.”

There clearly were some unsavoury elements to the protest which caused Ms Burton and her adviser to be detained against their will for three hours.

But charging people with false imprisonment – and threatening them with life in prison – was so out of kilter with what really happened that afternoon at Jobstown that the jury did not need to be swayed by social media or anything else to see through the smoke and mirrors.

Had James Connolly been around to accompany Joan Burton to Jobstown, there is little doubt as to which side he’d have been on.

Burying Irish Water during a protest in Galway city centre
a couple of years ago
“I thought the Brits were bad but, I’ll tell you what, that lot in the Dail are worse,” said Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six when the Jobstown defendants celebrated their acquittals with a rally in Dublin on Saturday afternoon.

A simplistic slogan, perhaps, from a man who knows far too much about injustice, but doubtless he is not the only Irish person to feel like the impoverished animals looking in on the pigs at the end of ‘Animal Farm’.

Have Connolly’s dire warnings come true, a century on from Ireland’s uprising against our own version of Farmer Jones?

Blog post from 2015: Protest has a vital place in a healthy democracy

Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook at http;//

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