Friday, December 24, 2010

Pogues' Fairytale is not a good Christmas song

As I write this I'm listening to the "Top 100 Christmas songs" countdown on ChristmasFM, Ireland's Christmas-only radio station. The countdown is only now in the 90s so there is a long way to go before they get to Number 1, but I'm sure it will be Fairytale of New York by the Pogues & Kirsty MacCool.

How can I be so sure that Fairytale will be Number 1? Well, this isn't the first of these polls. In fact, it is one of the annual features of the Christmas season that some media outlet will release a poll of either Irish or British people and invariably Fairytale is Number 1.

I am at a loss to understand how this can be. Fairytale of New York is a good song; I like it. However, it is a cynical, hopeless song that seems devoid of anything that makes Christmas special.

Now I know there are some people who don't like Christmas and probably enjoy the gritty "realism" that Fairytale evokes. Yet there is no way that most people feel this way about Christmas otherwise there'd be no way that It's A Wonderful Life would regularly feature as the best Christmas movie of all time.

I really don't understand why anyone would want to listen to Fairytale of New York at Christmas time. It's so depressing.

I used to think maybe it was a case of people not really listening to the lyrics, as happens (happened) with couples who love The Police's Every Breath You Take. I don't think that is the case with Fairytale, however. It really is inexplicable to me.

Springsteen's Santa Claus is Coming to Town is fantastic and just about any Christmas song from Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra hits the right note at Christmas time.

If it has to have "grim reality", I prefer Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas, which is an upbeat song despite the story behind it. And I really like Garth Brooks' Belleau Wood, which is an excellent song about the 1914 truce during WWI (although full of historical inaccuracies).

Both Do They Know It's Christmas and Belleau Wood contain that essential Christmas ingredient - hope. Fairytale starts with hope, but spits it out.

I have to say, however, that my favorite Christmas song is none of those above. It is Good King Wenceslas, which is the very opposite of Fairytale. The story of the man of wealth and power trudging through the snow on a dark, stormy winter's night to bring "flesh", wine and pine logs to a poor man is the essence of what Christmas is about. Hope. Hope was born 2010 years ago and Good King Wenceslas is a great summary of what tomorrow should mean to all of us.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Irish Weather goes "viral"

At the old saying goes, "it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good." That's certainly the case in Ireland where winds from the north have reestablished themselves bringing frigid weather and falls of snow to most of the country.

For many people this means another spell of trouble getting to work, dangerous icy roads and sidewalks and loads of cancellations. Given it's Christmas week, the return of the frosty weather has meant another blow to those stores that were hoping a good Christmas might save them.
However, there is a web site for which the snowy weather has been a boon. (Twitter: @iweatheronline, #IWO), a web site and now a viral social phenomenon, has captured a huge audience in a few short weeks.

I've mentioned before how it doesn't snow in Ireland like it snows in Albany, where i grew up, or New York, where I lived as an adult. Snow in Ireland, when we have it, comes in waves off the sea. This is one of the keys to Irish Weather Online's success.

Unlike the national weather service - Met Eireann - IWO provides a localized, "nowcasting" service which has been very popular during the recent spell of cold and snow.

Met Eireann will set the tone for the day with a general forecast telling us there is a chance of snow showers in the East or the North or wherever. IWO provides that as well on the web site, but through Twitter they provide SNOW ALERTS: "Snow in the next 15 minutes in Kilmihil, Doonbeg, Carrigaholt." What I've really enjoyed about this is that so many of the reports are about towns/villages/hamlets that I've never heard of before. I go to Google Maps to find where they are.

The past few weeks my phone has been buzzing with these snow alerts. When I'm at home they're mostly just fun (& annoying to my daughters), but when I'm out I love being told that a heavy snow shower will be heading my way in 15 minutes. That's just enough time to determine whether I should return or carry on with the journey. It only takes about 15 minutes for the roads to go from slushy to impassable.

Oh, and one more point in their favor: IWO has been (maybe only marginally) more accurate in forecasting the two cold spells we've had this month.

As well as the snow alerts, the site has been answering questions and posting pictures from people all over Ireland, basically providing an online forum for Irish people to talk about - share, really - one of their favorite topics: the weather. Blogging, tweeting, Facebooking the weather has really taken off and Irish Weather Online is at the center of the conversation.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Laid low by a snowball

It's always great fun until someone loses an eye. Who hasn't heard that old adage before?

Well, even a hurt eye can put a serious damper on the fun, as I found out last night. We had a heavy shower of snow yesterday evening and every kid in the neighborhood was again out throwing snowballs. I (and I refuse to say stupidly) decided to go out and join in.

My neighbor was out there with his kids and he was under assault from all sides. I joined him and shortly afterwards another neighbor joined our side. There were three of us; there were at least 10 of them.

We were doing fine. We had a neat operation watching out for each with occasional forays into enemy territory to administer 'justice'. All was going well.

Then - somehow without me noticing - my two teammates vanished to investigate a house alarm. I was on my own. Soon a swarm of junior Visigoths was overrunning our citadel.

I was making and throwing snowballs as fast as I could, driving back the horde. I was having some success, but then it happened. The smallest kid out there had snuck up on me. He got within 18 inches of me and then opened up...

My eye was hurting. I instantly threw up the white flag and headed for a shelter to see if it would clear. I stayed out another 10 minutes before I realized my eye was stinging too much for me to take any further part in the war.

I couldn't open my eye for most of the night. Today it's still fairly red and sore. I can't see too well - reading on the computer is a strain.

So, lesson learned? Maybe, but I hope not. I'd hate to think my last ever snowball fight ended in pain rather than the silly chatter about successful strikes. Throwing snowballs is great fun - until someone loses (the use of) an eye.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Absent shoppers out of sight, soon out of country

You've read so many times about how bad Ireland's economy is that if you don't live here I'm sure you're sick and tired of hearing it. Well, regardless, it's true. Things are really bad here. The IMF bailout is only a part of the story. It's BAD.

Yet, yet, yet ...

Twice recently as I've walked around Dublin with my head up and eyes open (not always the case) I've been struck by how many people seem to be out shopping, spending money. Maybe there are fewer than in prior years. I don't know, but by no means is Dublin a ghost town this Christmas.

The streets were busy with shoppers, the stores seemed crowded - no way I was going into one of those! - and the people on the train had loads of shopping bags.

So what's going on? I don't know. I've heard people talking about this Christmas as a 'last big blowout' before they have to live with smaller 2011 paychecks (thanks to new taxes in last week's budget). I guess that's possible. I really hope it's not a case of the people following the government's lead, taking on more debt when they already have more than they can repay.

I don't really think that's the case. I think it's just a clear demonstration as to how uneven the pain of a recession (depression, really) is spread. This is a 'tough time' for Ireland, but for each of those who have lost their jobs or businesses it's a tragedy, a crushing blow.

There are tens of thousands of people in the Dublin area who have been laid off over the past two years. I presume they were not among the mass of people I saw shopping in the city. They're just absent, out of sight, possibly nearly in hiding. Soon they will be not so much out-of-sight as out of the country.

This is Ireland after all and many of these laid-off people will not be sitting around waiting for things to improve while their skills and self-esteem atrophy. They're heading for the exit. Niall O'Dowd's column on the two young women emigrating two weeks before Christmas speaks volumes. A gut-wrenching decision especially with Christmas looming, but staying was too big a gamble on their future.

Sure it's only one case, but one that's being played out time and again all over Ireland. We don't have the statistics yet, but everyone knows someone who has left or is going just after Christmas. The numbers leaving are significant and if things pick up elsewhere, the numbers will explode. The press in America, Britain and Canada is already noticing the increasing numbers of young Irish around.

For the middle-age unemployed it's a nightmare. Families are harder to relocate. My daughters know girls their age whose fathers are now working in Britain, France, the Middle East and traveling home to see their families when they can.

Many in the media speak about a decade of correction before the current problems are resolved. That's a nightmare without end for the middle-aged unemployed.

The economy is bad, very bad, but it's a lot worse for some than others.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It's raining in Ireland, praise be!

Ireland is melting. Two weeks after snow and ice first started covering big chunks of the country it's losing ground. Grass is reappearing and those unshoveled sidewalks are gradually becoming less slippery.


Although today felt warm, the temperature probably topped out around 42F (5.5C) this afternoon. Best of all, it rained for a little while. Not long enough to totally eliminate the 3" of solid ice that has covered many of the roads in the Dublin area, but it's a start. The forecast says it will be similar tomorrow and over the weekend. With any luck the roads will all be ice-free come Monday.

This was a significant spell of cold weather, much longer-lasting than last winter's 'once in 40 years event'. And as I mentioned last winter, it rarely gets cold enough for snow to fall and stick here. I haven't met anyone who can remember it staying for nearly two weeks.

On Tuesday I was driving along the highway and caught a glimpse to my right of a wooded, snow-covered area through which I could see a frozen, snow-covered farm. For a moment I was transported back home. I thought I was driving down the NYS Thruway on a January day.

Of course the snow that fell was never properly cleared from sidewalks and side streets, which is where all that thick ice came from. There remains a real reluctance to clear slushy streets.

The public authorities did learn one lesson from last winter: throw a lot more salt and sand on the snow. It's not as good as actually moving the snow off the roads, but there was less disruption this time. Not a lot less, but less.

Despite the extra salt and sand, thousands of people couldn't get to work, costing our suffering economy hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity. Schools were closed, flights were delayed or canceled, and the hospitals saw a massive increase in the numbers of patients presenting with fractures. All due to a few inches of unplowed/unshoveled snow.

A new developing and possibly worse problem than the roads, however, is the water. Thanks to the deep freeze and now the thaw, many water pipes are bursting. Adding to this problem is that during the cold days and nights many people kept their water running in their sinks in a bid to prevent their pipes freezing.

As a result water supplies are extremely low. Many local authorities are asking people to limit their water usage; some are just cutting off the water for hours each evening. This is the third straight night that Dublin has issued water warnings, with many areas cut off completely from 7pm to 7am.

Frozen roads and sidewalks and now water shortages. It's easy to see why the people of Ireland are so keen on returning to their normal wet winter weather. Rain will wash away the ice and fill the reservoirs. Bring it on!

Friday, December 3, 2010

No one is dreaming of a 'White Christmas' in Ireland

A few weeks ago some Irish people, thinking about the leaner Christmas looming this year, were probably wistfully hoping that this might actually be a "white Christmas," something a bit magical to make this a Christmas to remember fondly. Not any longer as I doubt anyone in Ireland is "dreaming of a White Christmas" today.

Early last Saturday morning I had to wake early to bring my daughter to the train. She was heading to Limerick to play in a basketball tournament. We left the house around 5:50 or so. There was a light flurry in the air and a dusting of snow on the ground, but I thought little of it.

By the time I got her to the train, it was snowing pretty hard and the roads were covered. As I headed home two thoughts were running through my head: (1) The need to go SLOW and (2) the hope that it would last long enough for my son to get out to play in it.

I needn't have worried. The snow didn't melt quickly as it usually does and he got to play in it. Later that night it snowed again - more this time - and on Sunday we had a little more snow.

And so it went on and off snow and cold, crisp days and nights. Very unusual for Ireland. Today is the first day since Saturday that we've had no snow at all.

Somewhere along the way, the picture post card scenery and sounds of children laughing and playing wore out for Irish people. Of course, the roads were never properly cleared, although at least there was extra sand and salt around for treating the roads compared with last winter's snow debacle. This evening the sidewalks are a slushy, icy mess that will probably - if the recent trend holds - be frozen solid come morning time. Nobody's looking forward to that.

People are having trouble getting into work. The economy is losing €7m ($9.4m) a day thanks to the lost productivity.

Even the children seem less enthusiastic today. Fewer seem to be out throwing snowballs or building snowmen or just running around in it. Some have been off school all week and are probably looking forward to getting back to normal on Monday.

Everyone just seems a bit fed up with the snow (and ice and cold). The magic is gone.

We are three weeks from Christmas, but I suspect that a lot of people are already sick of 'glistening treetops' and would be happier to settle for the traditional Irish 'green Christmas' even with the standard wet and windy.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ireland needs ITLG's American optimism

Right smack in the middle of Ireland's jaw-droppingly doom-laden last couple of weeks there were a series of events organized by the Irish Technology Leadership Group. The ITLG is a non-profit organization of Irish and Irish-American Silicon Valley leaders whose objective is to foster links between Ireland and Silicon Valley that will help generate high-tech success stories for Ireland.

To make this happen the ITLG assists Irish companies with marketing, fund-raising, developing strategic partnerships and other key commercial tasks. In addition, the ITLG opened the Irish Innovation Center in San Jose. The IIC, which opened in March, affords Irish start-ups a space in Silicon Valley, from where they can establish links that will provide these Irish companies with access to technology and connections that are vital for technology businesses today.

The other thing the ITLG can provide is optimism. ITLG President John Hartnett, in particular, just oozes optimism. Hartnett bubbles over with excitement when he gets going.

Hartnett's an Irishman who has done well in America, but that's not enough for him. He's keen to bring the rest of his fellow Irish men and women with him. He's all smiles when he is talking about the possibilities for Ireland in the 21st century, which stands in stark contrast to how most people in Ireland feel today.

ITLG's Chariman is Craig Barrett, the former head of Intel. Barrett has a different demeanor, but is no less positive about Ireland's future. Barrett is like a hard-nosed football coach. He lets you know it's going to be a tough game, but he also has that top coach's ability to convince you that you will stop that fullback on the 4th down play at the goal-line.

Both men are inspiring and Ireland sure needs a large dose of that right now.

I also had a chance to sit with a couple of other members of the ITLG. They were also positive about the ITLG's mission, but it wasn't hard to detect some frustration. Too many "redundant conversations" - the same conversation with basically the same officials over and over - is what I heard. I can easily understand. The Irish government is like a fish on a hook - willing to listen, but not really able to do much.

If anything made me uneasy about the ITLG visit it was that they would be sucked into the defeatism and pessimism that just seems to hang on the air here now like a foul-smelling cloud. You can't avoid it. It gets in your lungs and takes over your whole being.

Ireland desperately needs someone to keep hope alive and the ITLG is doing that. I hope the small Irish companies they're dealing with can imbibe the ITLG's upbeat, American can-do attitude and not get dragged down by the all-encompassing negativity that currently stalks Ireland.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving at the American Ambassador's residence

My first Thanksgiving in Ireland was in 1986 and I was invited to the American Ambassador's residence on the big day.

Okay, I wasn't invited personally. The Ambassador's invite was for all American students studying at Trinity College, where I was putting in a year. My friend John, a fellow American, and I made our way up there hoping we'd get a decent bit of food. We weren't expecting to sit down to a beautifully laid table with linen table cloth and finest silverware, but we did hope we'd get some form buffet-style turkey dinner served on paper plates. Turkey sandwiches at worse.

Upon arrival we were provided with a can of Budweiser and a bag of potato chips. Not quite traditional, but a pleasant start. We were treated to a short speech by the Ambassador Margaret Heckler {photo}, who seemed to expect us to be in awe because the house was once the residence of Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston's father. "Can't you just image little Winston crawling along these floors." No. All we could imagine was food.

Finally she finished speaking and made her way around the room saying hello to everyone. And that was it. It took a few minutes before the ugly truth dawned on us, but that was it.

No turkey. No mashed potatoes. No turnip (rutabaga!), brocoli, cauliflower. No apple or pumpkin pie. No nothing, nothing but the sad reality that we'd walked an hour up and had another hour back to look forward to for one can of beer and a bag of potato chips. On Thanksgiving. Thanks Madam Ambassador.

There were probably 25 of us or so there and I think each and every one of us was too disappointed to speak. Eventually we sort of shuffled out. I think the cleaning people were sweeping up right behind us as if we were the Thanksgiving Day parade finishing its run down Broadway.

Eventually we made our way back through the damp and the cold to the center of Dublin. A group of us ended up in some second-rate restaurant eating food we couldn't afford, but reassuring one another that it was Thanksgiving.

I've never been back to the residence since, although not for want of trying. Every year between 2003 and 2008 I used my blog to shamelessly plead with Ambassador Foley to invite me up for a bite of food. He declined on each occasion.

So, now it's over to you Ambassador Rooney. I know it's late, but I could rearrange my schedule if you want to enjoy my company over Thanksgiving dinner. Beer and potato chips won't cut it, however.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Irish Government speaks as if the potato famine has returned

I met a friend of mine from America here early last week and he asked me to give him two minutes on the state of Ireland. I told him I didn't need two minutes: The young want out, the old are afraid of cuts and the middle aged are looking at a retirementless, childless future.

That was my assessment of mood of the country before we were forced to accept the IMF/EU bailout over the weekend. I think I can safely say the mood has not improved. In fact, if anything the mood has darkened, grown angrier and the focus of that anger is the government, which is now on its last legs.

There are a million reasons for the Irish people to be disgusted with their leaders, but this past week takes the cake. All week the government denied that the IMF was at the door - even denying what was happening after the IMF man arrived in the country!

Yesterday was even better. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan gave a joint press conference at which they admitted that we needed "help" from the IMF and the EU. It was an amazing, mind-boggling performance as they took obfuscation and denial to a new level.

Neither man ever used the word "bailout", but both talked about capital, contingencies, etc. At one point Lenihan referred to the "problems that have beset us."

Beset. My wife was all over that. She turned to me - more in wonder than in anger - and said, "Did you hear that? Beset? He's talking like potato blight is once again wreaking havoc across the land. It's like he believes neither of them had a role in bringing us to this point."

She is totally right. Both the Cowen and Lenihan, especially Lenihan, have frequently spoken of our problems as if a disease arrived on a ship and infected our banks. And, while the credit crunch did sweep the globe after the fall of Lehman, the dead black centers in our banks were made jointly by our greedy wreckless bankers, feckless regulators and (criminally) careless government.

Never during the past two plus years, since the banking crisis blew up, have we had a full, frank admission that mistakes were made. More importantly, never did the government either (a) level with us as to the depth of the banks' problems or (b) learn the full truth themselves. Now the people are furious because they never had the truth nor leadership during the past few years capped off this week with the loss off all pretense of Irish independence. And it wasn't lost in a natural disaster.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Daughter's "fiddling" disrupts Thanksgiving plans

As I'm sure you know, it's Thanksgiving next week. Despite the fact it's not a holiday in Ireland, my family always celebrates. We usually try to have the big feast on the actual day, but there have been times in the past when we've had to do as other Americans here do and move the festivities to Saturday. Unfortunately, this year neither is possible.

This year we will have to have our Thanksgiving Day this coming Wednesday, which means I'll be eating a leftover turkey sandwich for lunch on Thursday before you've even finished watching the big parade on Broadway.

Why do we have to move our holiday? My daughter is in the school musical this year – Fiddler on the Roof – and her school inconsiderately scheduled the show to run for four days starting next Thursday.

Nothing I could do. It's not a holiday here and I can't very well expect the school to reorder its schedule to suit the one girl whose father is from America. {My wife advised me that going down to the school and announcing in my loudest voice that "This is AMERICA you're snubbing!" probably wouldn't make any difference.}

So the big dinner's got to be Wednesday. That's just it with Thanksgiving in Ireland. You have to be flexible. You never know what might interfere with the celebration. I just never expected the problem with my Thanksgiving to be a family of Russian Jews.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tone deaf embassy missing big picture in Ireland

It's almost impossible to convey how gloomy life in Ireland is this week. Tuesday was the worst because the imminent national economic collapse had to share the headlines with two horrific stories of fathers killing women and children. It was almost as if we were reaching an apocalyptic "end times."

Doom and gloom is everywhere – everywhere except the American embassy in Dublin. Believe me I don't want to make a big deal out of this because it's not a big deal. It's a small deal and it has to do with Twitter.

The American embassy has a twitter account (@usembassydublin). I thought they'd abandoned it because it went silent in June. Silent until it sparked to life again on Tuesday. Since then the embassy has posted four tweets:
  1. Press briefing by President #Obama Aboard Air Force One: "We are going to have to step up our game." {Nov 16}
  2. Americans help rebuild #Haiti #libraries. {Nov 16}
  3. International enrollment in U.S. colleges reaches all-time high. {Nov 17}
  4. Interfaith dialogue strengthens faith and tolerance. {Nov 18}
Obviously there is nothing wrong with those statements. It's the tone that's wrong, wrong for this week (or as the Irish say – "for the week that's in it.")

A friendly nation is facing a dark moment, an existential crisis and the United States embassy in that country is sending out notices about how many Chinese students are opting for the University of Nebraska. It's like walking down the street and running into a neighbor whose wife is deathly ill and bragging about your kid getting 1400 on the SAT's. It was like whoever sent out the tweets from the embassy wasn't even living here.

I know I can be too sensitive to this sort of thing. Any immigrant probably has these feelings: I am an unofficial ambassador for America and the least I expect is that the official representatives will represent the United States with dignity, decorum, respect and sensitivity. At a minimum these tweets are insensitive.

Why not a tweet about President Obama's discussions on the Irish debt crisis, which are scheduled for this weekend. That would have at least demonstrated that the folks in the fortress that doubles as the embassy are not totally unaware of what's happening outside their gates.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Are QE2 fears driving McIlroy home?

Rory McIlroy is quitting the American PGA Tour to return to Europe for his golf in the new year. McIlroy said he was lonely and homesick in America, missed his girlfriend, his house and his dogs are all in Ireland and he missed all of that.

McIlroy is 21 and it's entirely plausible that homesickness is the reason he wants to move back home. I'm sure he really misses his girlfriend and she misses him. Same for his dogs.

However, he's not the only European golfer to spurn the US tour recently. Germany's Martin Kaymer, England's Lee Westwood and Italy's Francesco Molinari have all opted for Europe's tour over America's.

Now maybe they're all homesick, but maybe there's another factor that made it easier to give in to their homesickness. Maybe they're unhappy with QE2.

No, not Queen Elizabeth the second, but the recently announced second round of Quantitative Easing. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has decided that printing an additional $600bn is just what the American economy needs to get things going again.

Maybe he's right, but I have my doubts and I'm not alone. There are many people who believe that QE2 and many of the other measures being pursued by the American government will have little positive effect on the economy, but will seriously undermine the strength of the dollar.

You may scoff at the idea of a 21-year-old professional golfer understanding the ins and outs of the actions of central banks and currency movements, but these guys all have advisers who do understand. If the advice is that the dollar will decline by 15-20% over the next 12 months, then that's a serious hit on the golfer's income, enough to make the European tour more attractive to any "homesick" golfer. Driving down the value of the dollar makes imports more expensive regardless of whether it's a barrel of oil, a bottle of French wine, a Japanese car or an Irish golfer.

Announcing that you're going to play professional golf in Europe because you disagree with the way the custodians of the American dollar - Bernanke and President Obama - are doing their job would not be a winning ploy. It's much better to be seen as a lovesick puppy rather than a mercenary professional athlete.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Edmund Fitzgerald came from a Great Lakes Irish family of shipbuilders and sailors

The first click of the day was on a story that turned out to be about the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank 35 years ago today. I hadn't thought about that tragedy in years. I hadn't even heard the Gordon Lightfoot song, which is a good one.

For whatever reason I wanted to know who was Edmund Fitzgerald, after whom the steamer was named. I found a nice little summary about Fitzgerald and his family's roots on a site called Lake Huron Lore (overlooking the fact that the Edmund Fitzgerald sank on Lake Superior).

Fitzgerald was the head of the insurance company that owned the ship. However, Edmund Fitzgerald came from a family that was closely connected with shipping.

Edmund Fitzgerald {photo} was born in 1895 in Milwaukee, WI. Edmund's great grandparents – William and Juilianna – had immigrated from Ireland in 1837 and settled on a farm in Michigan, along the St. Clair river. Six of William and Julianna's sons were more taken by life on the river and lakes than life on the farm.

Three of those sons moved to Milwaukee in the 1850s and each took up different roles in sailing and shipping. John, Edmund's grandfather, became a shipbuilder. John's son William took over the business in the 1890s. Young Edmund believed he'd also work in shipbuilding, but his father died when he was only 6 years old and life took him in a different direction, although he never lost his love for and interest in shipping and the lakes.

Although Edmund didn't want the freighter named after him, his wife and the board of the insurance company made it happen because they knew what it would mean to a man with such a strong family connection to shipping on the Great Lakes. Edmund declared that the launch of the Edmund Fitzgerald was a great day for all the Fitzgeralds.

Edmund Fitzgerald died in 1986 "still deeply saddened by the wreck of the ship named for him."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Ireland has a new Chief Secretary

The position of Chief Secretary for Ireland was abolished following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. From that moment Ireland has had varying degrees of independence, but it was basically independent. Until now.

There can be no more argument on the matter. Many people have claimed with each new European Union treaty that Ireland was no longer an independent nation, that we were just a state in a vast European federal union. Others argued otherwise and it is, or was, a complex matter.

However, this week all pretense of independence evaporated as the Irish people got to meet our new Chief Secretary, Olli Rehn {photo}. Unlike the last Chief Secretary, Canadian Hamar Greenwood, Rehn is not a member of the British Government, but is the European Union's Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs. However, the roles are similar enough because the Chief Secretary's role was to see that British policy was enforced in Ireland as Mr. Rehn's is to see that the EU's policy is followed by this state.

Rehn dropped in for a visit this week. With the budget due in only a few weeks, Rehn's presence is a signal to all in the parliament that the real power here demands that Ireland toe the line on deficits, spending and taxation. Rehn reiterated his view that Ireland can no longer be a "low tax country" but must move towards being a "normal tax country," which means overall taxation rates should be similar to what applies in other EU countries.

Rehn helpfully offered the support of the European Commission to "Ireland and its citizens as they faced into the challenges ahead," but he offered nothing else other than "thou shalt comply" and get the deficit under 3% by 2014.

This is the price of being the good Europeans, the English-speaking country that was enthusiastic about the European project. We adopted the euro, unlike the bad Europeans across the Irish Sea. We opened our borders to the work‑hungry Latvians and Poles, unlike the Dutch, French and others. We showered love on all that was European, blindly ignoring that the powers that be were eying us coldly the whole time, waiting for an opportunity to punish us for our foibles and weaknesses.

For a while we thought we were rich, but it was a mirage. No, it was a trip, like we were on LSD. We were the debt addicts and we thought our wealth was real, but it was illusory.

Now it's not just cold turkey for us, but punishment. The EU is punishing us for our addiction, but the pushers, the German and French (& others') banks and investment funds who threw money at our banks and property developers, who fed our addiction, are not only getting away with it, but are being protected by the same people who are now dictating how Ireland is to run its affairs.

So we're stuck with stern-faced Olli, accepting his lectures like the bad children the EU always knew we were and, it seems, people here are taking it. The only question is how much longer before the people decide to send Olli to join Hamar Greenwood.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The British are keen to start 'shellacking'

I never thought about it on Wednesday, but apparently using the word "shellacking" as President Obama did on Wednesday is an Americanism. There's been a lot of comment about it England.

Like most commentators, the Daily Telegraph's Jenny McCartney is taken by the word and wants to use it more herself. However, she doesn't have the right meaning, at least to my ear. I know the word from sports broadcasts, but also (I think) from old war movies.

When you give the enemy a good "shellacking" you're not just winning, you're pounding him - hard, so he begs for mercy. You can't use the word (again, to my ear) as McCartney wants to, describing her malfunctioning computer as "completely shellacked" or to describing yourself as "shellacked by the flu."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Like a movie scene - Irish government declares "Let them eat cheese!"

Some headlines write themselves. This morning the Irish government's Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith announced that the government will soon be distributing 58 tons of cheese to poor people. It was only yesterday that Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen told the nation that the budget due December 7 – a date that already lives in infamy – will include massive cuts in government spending and significant new taxes.

To say that the cheese announcement from our tone-deaf, out-of-touch government was badly timed is understating things. Every radio station, news web site and especially twitter ran wild with puns and cheese-inspired slights aimed at the government. Of course, poor ol maligned (& slandered) Marie Antoinette didn't have a prayer as "Let Them Eat Cheese" was the cry heard throughout the land.

The fact that this is an EU-wide scheme made no difference. The government's reputation is in tatters and a slice of cheddar is not about to change anyone's views. They ceaselessly peddle the story that they're only victims of a storm that started elsewhere, but there's ample evidence that the abominable mismanagement in government and corruption among many of Ireland's wealthy elites were going to be a big problem even if the global financial crisis had not occurred.

If someone were to make a movie about Ireland in this era, it would likely start with a scene inspired by today's events:

The government is gathered late at night trying to figure out how to appease the masses after the Taoiseach's pre-budget speech. They're seated in comfortable chairs in a well-appointed conference/meeting/dining room in government buildings. They're enjoying wine and cheese.

Suddenly one of the ministers has a eureka moment and stands up with his glass and says, "I know, let's give them free wine." Some murmuring of approval, but the Taoiseach puts his glass down, pauses and says, "No, they drink more than enough already. Let's give them free cheese instead. Smith, you'll make the announcement in the morning. That'll make them feel better; buy us some time too."

Of course, this story could be better told in a cartoon using fat cats and scavenging mice. What we don't know is how it will end. Will it be the uprising and guillotine that did for Marie Antoinette or the desolate landscape so popular in apocalyptic nuclear holocaust movies. The government is betting on the latter.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Goal difference is no way to decide the league champions

The Airtricity League is Ireland's domestic soccer league and it just doesn't get a lot of love. Although soccer may well be the most popular sport in Ireland, most soccer fans devote their attentions to the goings on in the English Premier League, not the local league.

There probably isn't a whole lot the people who run the Airtricity League can do about this state of affairs, but they aren't above trying different things to generate interest. A few years ago they changed the season from one that ran basically from through the winter to one that runs through the summer. The idea was that Irish soccer would attract more fans to games on warm summer evenings than on cold, wet winter nights.

Here's another idea that the league should adopt immediately: have a one game playoff for the league title if two teams are tied at the end of the season. Last week's exciting conclusion to the season was only marred by the fact that Shamrock Rovers claimed the title by virtue of a better goal difference than the runners-up, Bohemians. That is just plain wrong. And dumb.

Soccer in Europe is structured differently than any American sports league. Here the team that as the best regular season record wins the league. End of story. That's how it should be really. There are no playoffs, no one-off championship to decide who the best is, but rather it's decided over the long season. The team with the most points (or wins) is the league champion.

They don't have loads of division champions, wild card teams, etc. playing a tournament to decide what's already been decided.

However, where soccer could learn something from America is when two teams are tied at the end of the season. Sure, I understand the goal difference, but it doesn't really say much about which of the two tied teams is best.

Last Friday night Shamrock Rovers could only manage a 2-2 tie with lowly Bray while Bohemians were winning their game. Both games were live on tv simultaneously. It was exciting. I'm sure a lot of non-fans tuned in. It was a great ad for the Airtricity League.

It would have been an even better ad for the league if rather than conceding the title to Rovers, the two teams had met for a one game playoff to decide the championship. Maybe it's too American an idea for the league, but they should consider it because goal difference is really a poor way to decide who's best after a long season.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

If you want a traditional Irish Jack-o'-lantern, get the right turnip

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like the story of Halloween's origins is EVERYWHERE this year, which means that just about every local paper in America is letting readers know about the day's connection to Irish culture, folklore and immigration. It's all good stuff.

I just thought I'd provide a little note to all the stories about Ireland and Halloween, particularly as it relates to the Jack-o'-lantern. Most of the newspaper articles explain, rightly, that in Ireland a Jack-o'-lantern were carved out of turnips. However, this may or may not mean what you think.

What am I getting at? Well, I'm saying that what one person calls a turnip may not be what you call a turnip.

I only became aware of this a couple of years ago when I was home in upstate NY with my family. My mother took my son to the supermarket to get the groceries. At one point my mother told him to go over and get a turnip, which he duly did. However, when he returned with the root vegetable my mother wanted, some busy body lady butted in to inform my mother that wasn't a turnip, but a rutabaga.

When they got home my son related the exciting tale of the woman who tried to tell him that a turnip was called a rutabaga. (Oh and was that name ever fun for the 6-year-old boy.) My mother than calmly stated knew it was a rutabaga, but she also knew what she wanted and what she wanted was known as a turnip in Ireland and knew that's what my son would get her.

That's all well and good, except I was raised in America and never once did I hear that vegetable called a rutabaga. My mother, born and raised in Ireland, never used the word, but neither did my grandmother, born and raised in America. What was going on here, some kind of conspiracy to keep me in ignorance? I had passed my 40th birthday completely unaware that what I called a turnip many called a rutabaga.

My wife didn't know about the rutabaga either, but she deftly dropped into the conversation that in England they call them swedes. So, now I know that there are three different names for a vegetable that I only ever knew as a turnip. And, apparently, I've never had the 'other turnip', which is not yellowy orange. I bet it's not as tasty.

Anyway, this is all beside the point. What you need to know is that if you want to make a traditional Irish Jack-o'-lantern today you need to get a turnip/rutabaga/swede, the one with the purplish top and yellowish bottom. No other turnip will do.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

NY-based hero of Irish independence all but forgotten in Ireland

Naas, County Kildare is going to honor the county's native son John Devoy with a statue. All I can say is that it's about time Devoy got some acknowledgment.

Devoy is one of the giants of Ireland's long struggle for national independence. Yet he is almost completely unknown here, which is par for the course when it comes to Irish-America. {You can get some idea of how forgotten Devoy is here from the local Kildare paper, which says he was born in 1861. Devoy was actually born in 1842.}

It's great that Naas is commemorating Devoy, but he only lived in the area a short while. The statue will be in the center of the town. There is a memorial along the road near Kill, Co. Kildare, which is where Devoy lived as a small boy. It's great that he's remembered in north Kildare, however, truly, Devoy should be honored in the capital, in Dublin.

During his life Devoy ...
  1. Was a Fenian – he joined the British Army in order to enlist Irish soldiers to join the Fenians. The Fenians were badly led and Devoy and his fellow Irish rebels were easily thwarted

  2. Lived as an exile – Devoy spent four years in prison for his Fenian role and was released on condition that he never again set foot in the United Kingdom (Ireland or Britain). He went to New York, where he lived out the rest of his days

  3. Organized a daring escape – from New York Devoy organized an escape of his fellow Fenians who were imprisoned in Western Australia. In 1875 he arranged for a whaling ship to sail from Bedford, MA to Australia to rescue the men who got out of jail through the assistance of Devoy's agents. (The Catalpa story deserves a big Hollywood production, but they'd probably ruin it.)

  4. Worked tirelessly for Irish independence – Devoy devoted his last 50 years to Irish independence. He led fund-raising campaigns, promotional tours for leaders from Ireland, helped organize the Irish Race Convention in NYC in 1916 and edited the Gaelic American.
He wasn't forgotten at the height of the struggle for Irish independence; Padraig Pearse said Devoy was "the greatest of the Fenians" and when he died in 1928 his body was returned from New York for burial in Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery. You'd be hard pressed, however, to find his name in any of the schoolbooks used today.

The statue in Naas is a great idea. A better idea would be a joint project, one that would see two statues of Devoy - one in Naas (or Dublin!) and one in New York. Naas could feature a young Devoy and New York the elder statesman of the movement that he was in the early 20th century. It would be great if the Naas folks could collaborate with Irish-Americans on such a project.

It would be even better if the people of Ireland would simply remember him.

{Read more in Terry Golway's excellent Irish Rebel: John Devoy and America's Fight for Ireland's Freedom. Image above thanks to UCC.}

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rooney fails on The Decision

What is wrong with English soccer players, their clubs and the people who run them? And what about British television channels? Don't they know anything? Any American could have explained to Wayne Rooney and his club Manchester United how to do this right.

For the past week or so we have had daily press reports about how unhappy Rooney is at United, how he would be open to playing elsewhere (Manchester City, Chelsea, Real Madrid, wherever). We've also had his manager explaining in somber tones how disappointed he is in Wayne and then exploding at the media for ... I don't know what, but just because he's Sir Alex Ferguson, soccer manager god.

Mixed in to all this were the tabloid stories about Rooney's marriage, whether his wife would forgive him or not and, amazingly, one story in today's Daily Mail about how Rooney's Mother-in-law was calling the shots on where he was to play his soccer.

You really had the feeling that the media frenzy hadn't yet peaked, that Rooney could be allowing the speculation to mount, generating suspense in us as if he were a Stephen Spielberg. But, lunchtime today Rooney announced that he had signed a new five-year contract and was staying at United. Just like that the suspense is over and we're left with a flat feeling of having been robbed. We needed something bigger.

This is where an American sports fan could have advised Rooney. Any of us would have said to him, "That's just not how it's done these days, Wayne. You don't just issue statements to the press with this sort of thing. No, no, no. You arrange for a one hour, prime time television program where you will announce The Decision. That's how young sports stars handle these matters nowadays."

It could have been great. A live audience in a small sized theater with two chairs on the stage. One for Rooney and one for an agreeable television sports personality, who would set the tone for the occasion. Heck, they could've thrown in a third chair for Rooney's Mother-in-law, which would have made Rooney's program much better than LeBron's. But no.

Now we're only left with "what might have been" because Rooney didn't follow the appropriate path. He has denied his fans and really all sports fans their due. He has not made The Decision.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Joining the euro was 1801 all over again in Ireland

In 1800 the Irish parliament voted to accept union with Great Britain, a move which was an economic disaster that snuffed out a burgeoning economy, led to decline, de-industrialization and, eventually, a disastrous famine that killed a million people and drove more than that out of the country. A complete catastrophe unrivaled in Irish history. If anything comes close, it was 1992.

In 1992 the people of Ireland voted to accept the Maastricht Treaty, an arcane document that few voters really understood. It committed Ireland to joining a single European currency, but the pluses and minuses of such a decision were never even considered in the run-up to the referendum.

The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Albert Reynolds sold the amended European Union treaty on the basis that we would get billions of dollars in aid and there would be no impact on our laws banning abortion. The only references made to the pending currency union were about how we'd enjoy the same low interest rates as the Germans. There was zero debate on the merits of joining a currency dominated by countries that, combined, accounted for about a third of Ireland's trade.

Today we're reaping what was sown in 1992. Most people here are blaming the "greedy bankers" or the "greedy property developers", but that doesn't explain why this property bubble and subsequent crash were so much worse than those that had gone before. Greed is part of the human condition and bankers' and/or property developers' greed is a constant.

No, another explanation is required and that's where the euro comes in. We exercise no control over the euro. Interest rates are determined to suit Germany & France, but the Irish economy does not move in synch with those economies. Ireland's two largest trading partners are the United States and United Kingdom, both of which are outside the euro. The fluctuations in the exchange rates between the euro and the dollar are not a reflection of economic conditions in Ireland, but serve to enhance our boom when America's up and Germany down and vice versa.

Anyone who visited Dublin before the bust would have recognized that Dublin's architecture is dominated by two eras: the recent boom and the late 18th Century. The Customs House, the Four Courts and Dublin's famous Georgian squares and many other buildings were built before 1800 by a confident, thriving Dublin. It wasn't just Dublin either. Great Georgian buildings can be found in other cities and throughout the country.

The modern equivalent of those great Georgian houses and official buildings are the large rural homes, the expensive apartment and the modern, confidence-oozing glass and steel office buildings that dominate our city centers. Gradually, however, those modern buildings and modern country estates are looking like symbols of another era, a time past, just as the Customs House would have seemed to 19th Century Dubliners.

Many people believe it will take nearly a generation to work through the problems caused by the recent boom and bust. Presumably this will not include anything like a murderous famine, but economic decline and emigration are sure to be part of Ireland's future for some time. And, just as in 1800, it was all avoidable if only Ireland's political class had recognized that union has a cost.

Monday, October 18, 2010

'Bankers' hours' – a phrase from another time

Bankers' hours. It was a phrase I was familiar with before I moved here, but I didn't quite understand it until I arrived in Ireland.

I had worked in a bank as a teller in Albany during the summer when I was in college. The bank opened at 9am and closed at 4:00. After closing the staff had to check their figures and paperwork and count the cash in their drawers which meant it was usually after 4:30 at the earliest before anyone left. Twice a week, however, we had 'late hours' when the bank reopened at 5pm for two hours. And the bank was open from 9 – 1 on Saturday mornings.

All in all, I never had the feeling that the people working there were under-worked. They sure as heck weren't underpaid as the rates of pay were pretty abysmal for tellers and the branch manager alike. {I'm not talking about me here. My parents were still housing, feeding and clothing me; I didn't need the money. I was making the minimum wage and saving most of it.}

All of this explains why I was so surprised when I got here and found out that (a) bank employees were fairly well paid as compared with wages generally and (b) banks were almost never open. The banks were open from 10-3 each day, BUT they closed for an hour at 12:30 for lunch. Suddenly I understood what bankers' hours was all about.

There were no late hours and no Saturday hours. If you had any sort of a job at all you probably couldn't get to the bank unless you opted for a late lunch and were willing to wait 30 minutes or so on line.

The banks and a large number of those who worked in them were arrogant. Nobody involved in banking seemed much interested in the customers' concerns. ATM's, which were a recent development when I first got here, were the only nod to the customers.

Gradually over the years the banks' hours changed. These days banks are open to 4 (5 on Thursdays) and the lunch break has been eliminated. A few years ago one Scottish bank tried to make its mark here by opening some branches on Saturdays.

That bank is now gone from the Irish market, but the other day I was in my own bank's local branch and they had a sign up advertising that they were now open on Saturdays. My first reaction was 'about time', but then I thought a little more and I realized they're too late. I only go into the bank two or three times a year. I do all my banking online these days.

Of course not not everyone banks online - yet, but that day is coming. Regardless, I can't understand why anyone would need the bank to be open on Saturdays, what with the ubiquitous ATM's and debit cards and telephone and online banking. Who cares what the bank's opening hours are now?

So it's come to pass that bankers' hours has lost all meaning here. Decades too late. Just as it was too late when the Irish people shed the deference they used to show bankers, a deference which the bankers arrogantly demanded before they ruined the country.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Ireland is green, but her people are not

Ireland's winters and summers will get warmer thanks to climate change, according to a report published last week by a team of experts. The prospect of milder winters and summers is hardly the stuff of climatic nightmares. An Irish summer generally means temperatures in the 60s and winter, although not icy cold, is typically damp and raw, with temperatures around 40oF.

For the most part the issue of global warming, climate change (what have you) worries Europeans far more than Americans. At least that's my impression. However, the average Irish man or woman is hardly quaking in their boots and reports like last week's are unlikely to scare anyone into changing their ways.

"You have the Green Party in government," you might say. That's true. The Green Party has two seats at the ministerial table. Those ministers and others in the party make a lot of noise, but the party makes up less than 4% of the Irish parliament. And, even that share of the vote can be attributed in large part due the Greens' image as innocently incorruptible rather than as a sign of any great support for the party's views on saving the planet or whatever.

All the other parties utter appropriately green statements on occasion, but it's always obvious that the environment doesn't excite them. EU environmental regulations are strict and, well, membership has a price.

All of which explains how the same people who voted for a government that banned the sale of incandescent light-bulbs also took to SUV's during the boom years like ducks to water. It's a case of appeasing the EU on the one hand and letting the market decide on the other.

I expect this situation to continue well into the future. I mean, after all, why would the people of Ireland want to prevent their climate going from north Atlantic to Mediterranean? All we have to do is carry on as we have been and wait for 2080 to bring the good weather.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Troy, NY snubbed in two Irish documentaries

Twice in a few days Irish television has snubbed Troy, NY. Twice! And, let's face it, Troy doesn't exactly get a lot of opportunities to be featured in the media outside of newspaper and television reports in and around Albany.

Early 20th Century Irish revolutionary James Connolly was the topic of both programs. In each case the producers traveled to New York cover the time Connolly lived and worked in America. Connolly spent about seven years in America, mostly in and around New York, but he lived in Troy from 1903 to 1905.

I wasn't too surprised that the TG4 program skipped the trip to Troy, but I hoped that RTE with its bigger budget would have made the journey to the Collar City, birthplace of Uncle Sam. The RTE documentary is one of a highly-promoted RTE series, Ireland's Greatest. Given the importance of this series in RTE's calendar I actually presumed last night's installment would include something about Troy. I mean, come on, cut Troy a break.

I know a mention in an Irish documentary is hardly the stuff that a city's tourism and commercial authorities dream of, but it would have been nice for Troy to get the acknowledgment it deserves as having been home to Connolly for two years.

Yet, there's more to the omission than simple sentiment on my part. I'm genuinely interested in what Connolly did in Troy. I had always believed he had helped organize meat-packers in the city, but when I searched online all I could find was that he had sold insurance there, hardly the kind of work you associate with a socialist agitator. He lost his job when his employer went bust and he then moved down to Newark.

I was really hoping RTE's program would shed some light on Connolly in Troy for me. Did he continue his work for socialism and labor? Or was the plan that he would give that up, sell insurance and take care of his family - he had a wife and five children - in Troy only to be drawn back to those efforts for organized labor after the insurance company folded? Is it possible that one of the key leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising may never have returned to Ireland if his job as insurance salesman had worked out?

Unfortunately RTE left me with this gap in the Connolly life story, one that I'll have to fill in on my own.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Forced emigration is not a lark

Everyone with an interest in Ireland and/or the Irish should read Niall O'Dowd's column on the Working Abroad Expo, better known here as the Emigration Expo, held in Dublin over the weekend. O'Dowd describes a scene that is incredibly sad, thousands of people hoping to find an opportunity to work in Australia or Canada or just about anywhere.

If you worry that O'Dowd's description is a bit overdone, you can find similar descriptions of the Expo in today's Irish Times. According to Twitter posts I read, people were lined up for more than 100 yards in wind and rain just waiting for the chance to pay their €10 ($13.70) to talk to people who might have some insight on possible leads on jobs outside Ireland.

While these scenes are not surprising given the state of the economy here, what has really surprised me recently is the flippant, disdainful responses of some people in the media when the discussion turns emigration. Some talk about emigration as if it's not much of an issue, that the whole experience will do the emigrants the world of good. "I went to London for two years when I graduated." That sort of thing.

That kind of thing gets my goat. First of all it's not that straight-forward. As O'Dowd's and the Irish Times' reports make clear, many of those who are looking to leave are not young, recent graduates. Many at the Expo were in their 30s, some even in their late 40s. A large percentage of the would be graduates have families.

Even among the young and single, not all have been prepared for this step. They came of age in an era when they were promised that emigration was at an and. They bought into the proposition that you could go abroad for a year or two and return if you so desired. They expected that when they left it would be temporary, just to get experience. And those who never wanted to leave, felt no need to get that experience outside Ireland, would be able to stay and work here forever.

That belief is gone now as many of those who are looking to leave don't want to go and don't expect to return. They're emigrating, not going abroad temporarily. Glib descriptions of the benefits of emigration to Ireland or suggestions that we need to "redefine emigration" and claims that emigration is "not really a problem" reek of indifference and arrogance. Such talk is insensitive in the extreme to those whose lives have been turned upside down, who feel they must leave to avoid unemployment, bankruptcy and despondency.

Sure going abroad for a year when you are 22 can be a big adventure, but leaving your homeland to seek work elsewhere because you were laid off and have no hope of being hired anytime soon is nothing less than traumatic. I can accept that many people feel helpless to do anything about the political or economic situation that's forcing people to leave. That's understandable, but it's unfathomable that even a minority of Irish people can be so dismissive of the difficulties that face these latest emigrants.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Ryder Cup would be nothing without anti-Americanism

The Ryder Cup teed off this morning and, well, I don't care. It's probably more than not caring because I actively dislike the Ryder Cup. To me it's an event that is built solely on hype and a ludicrous battle between American chauvinism and anti-Americanism.

The ridiculous, over the top, embarrassing nationalistic displays and language used by the American team is intended to lure Americans into rooting for the team (and helpfully boost the TV ratings) because it's "America vs Europe." Despite these efforts, from what I can make out taking American newspaper sports sections and web sites as a guide, American interest in the event is not great.

Over here it's a huge deal. I don't know if people in Germany, Spain or France care about the Ryder Cup, but in Ireland and in Britain this is one massive event.

Golf itself is a big deal over here and I can accept that golf fans would want to watch the Ryder Cup. What I don't understand is all this 'rally around the blue flag' nonsense because nobody really feels "European." Even the flag is a fiction because that is the EU flag, not the flag of Europe. Would the European Ryder Cup team shun a Swiss or Norwegian player because those countries are not EU members? I seriously doubt it.

So, as I stated above, the Ryder Cup's appeal outside of true golf fans is to anti-Americanism. There will be a lot of let's stick it to the Yanks type rhetoric from the tabloid media and those ignoramuses who pay attention to golf every two years. The ostentatious displays of American patriotism play into this anti-Americanism beautifully.

I am sure that the PGA loves encouraging all this WWE style nonsense because it boosts the ratings. They probably also like it because it might actually, hopefully, possibly get the players to really care, almost as much as they might if they were playing for a genuinely desired golf title, like the Masters and British Open, or even a minor title with a tidy pay check.

Fortunately for me, the Ryder Cup is on a pay TV station, one I don't subscribe to. So I'll have absolutely no trouble avoiding it on my TV this weekend. For the past few days it has led every single sports bulletin with the latest on what the players are saying, eating, scratching, whatever.

Maybe there just aren't enough big-time sports here at this time of year and the sportswriters and broadcasters have to do something and the Ryder Cup is it. I just wish they didn't have to stir the pot of anti-Americanism to generate interest. Of course, it probably wouldn't exist without it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ireland to the bond market: "We shall never surrender"

The Minister for Finance made a big announcement this morning on the state of Ireland's finances. Little in his announcement was really unexpected, but the reaction here is as if people were half hoping that things weren't really that bad and that we have been over-reacting. They are and we haven't.

What was funny was that as I listened to Minister Brian Lenihan I started singing "Turn out the lights, the party's over" in my best Don Meredith voice. Do you remember Meredith? He was the cowboy (and ex-Cowboy) who was part of the three person team of announcers for Monday Night Football back in the 70s and 80s. When Meredith burst into song the trailing team was usually still playing hard trying to win, but it was all over for them. I couldn't help thinking that's how it feels here today.

The Minister's announcement basically locked in the Irish people - those who are alive and nearly as many again who have yet to be born - to paying back debts they didn't incur on behalf of our criminally mismanaged banks. I know America's banks did stupid things, but American banks did different stupid things than our banks did and American banks were nowhere near as deranged in their pursuit of stupidity.

America's banks were led down the garden path by people who were the new alchemists: technologists who could turn risky loans into safe ones through securitization. Ireland's banks got into trouble because they didn't believe in rainy days and never gave a moment's thought to the fact that a three bedroom townhouse outside Dublin cost more than a three bedroom penthouse on the west side of Manhattan. Just plain D U M.

Now we all have to pay because, well, I'm not sure really. You see our banks are bust for making all those bad loans, but for reasons that escape me the Irish government has decided that those banks and pension funds and others who lent all the money to our banks - I think psychologists call them enablers, but they're really known as senior bondholders - must be repaid at all cost.

Yes, today the Minister announced that
We shall pay on the beaches, we shall pay in the fields and in the streets …
The figures are more than daunting. A cool €45bn ($61bn) or so (could be an even €50bn [$68bn] if things break just wrong) is what's supposedly required. That's about €10,000 ($13,600) per person. My family owes an extra €50,000 ($68,000) and, this is the best part, we have nothing to show for all this. Nothing.

You'll often hear people talk about a nation's or state's debts in these terms, but at least they'd have the satisfaction of having better schools or roads or hospitals or whatever. The only other situation that gives rise to such debts is war, which I think our government believes we're in. That might explain all the macho rhetoric.

All we have is the knowledge that German and French politicians and bureaucrats are telling us that we'll be fine and that we should ignore the fact that their bankers will not endure any pain for having stupidly lent all this money to our banks in the first place.

It gets better. This is all just to solve the big boys' problems. As many people on the radio have reminded us this morning, none of this takes into account all those small investors who borrowed money to buy a house or apartment or two as an investment and who now can't repay those loans. And there are many such people. All those bad debts have not yet been reckoned with. So our banks' debts remain unknown unknowns.

There weren't supposed to be any more unknowns - known or unknown - after this morning. The Minister's statement was flagged well in advance as the moment the government would provide clarity so that the markets could settle and we could get started on the decades of work required to turn this around. Unfortunately, all we've learned is that "Never was so much owed by so many to so few."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Leno's comment on Irish PM not the real issue

Jay Leno referred to Taoiseach Brian Cowen (Ireland's Prime Minister) in his September 22 monologue and, well, it's a big deal here despite the fact that Leno is not all that well known in Ireland. During the segment (seen here) Leno showed a picture of Cowen and asked the audience if the man in the picture was a "bartender, politician or comic." At the end Leno remarked that it was nice to know that America hasn't cornered the market on drunken morons in politics.

This Leno piece was clearly inspired by that interview, which was the source of the last big brouhaha to hit these shores.

Irish people are mostly embarrassed that the Taoiseach was featured in such a manner, one that reinforces a long held stereotype about Irish people. Some are even concerned - again - that those movers and shakers in the world of business and finance will hold this against us and cause us even more financial pain.

Last night Ireland's most po-faced commentator, Vincent Browne, asked the question, "Does Jay Leno's remark damage Ireland?" Browne definitely thinks so. I'm doubtful, not least because Americans are more used to Leno's use of such caustic humor and every American politician of note has been zinged by Leno at times.

As for Browne, he is a very serious gent. Even when he smiles or laughs it's to make a serious point. Even among those who like his views, and that does not include me, I would doubt many would want to spend many leisure hours in his company. He gives off a dull, tiresome vibe. (He could be great fun in private; I have no idea.)

I think we can safely assume that the bond traders don't give a hoot whether Brian Cowen socializes a tad excessively and foolishly allows himself to be photographed during one of these social occasions. From all that I know about bond traders, many of them are not above indulging at the occasional social outing. I am sure many of them would have seen that picture and thought, "Hey that Cowen's all right." Furthermore, as I said two weeks ago, I doubt decisions of direct investment will be affected by Leno's short segment.

However, there's also a possibility the picture of the Taoiseach clearly having a good time might appeal to some Americans, encourage them to visit, which is not to be sneezed at on a day when plans to increase tourism numbers was announced. The economic impact of Leno's remark will be, I'd assume, near to zero, but possibly slightly positive.

As for the stereotype, well that's a little trickier. The people of Ireland have a strange relationship with their image as drunks: they can get offended when someone in the non-Irish media makes mention of it (e.g. Leno), but at the same time it seems that most people here almost take pride in the nation's reputation for drinking.

I'm not just talking about undergraduate or pub talk either. I've heard people discuss the country's drinking on morning news programs as if it's a positive, as if it's just a bit of amusement and "isn't it great to be the world leaders in something." I've always found that strange.

Drinking too much, too young is a big problem here. That's the question that should be asked: are we too comfortable with drinking and drunkenness? Are we steering our young people down the wrong path with our ease with the overuse of alcohol?

Stereotype or not, that is the real problem here, not something said by Jay Leno about the Taoiseach.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ireland's Catholics rebuff media

An extremely well-publicized and media-promoted boycott of Mass by Ireland's Catholic women was almost universally ignored yesterday. The boycott was originally called by 81-year-old Jennifer Sleeman, who hoped the boycott would “let the Vatican and the Irish church know that women are tired of being treated as second-class citizens.”

Sleeman claimed that the empty pews at Mass yesterday would show the Church's hierarchy that “the days of an exclusively male-dominated church are over.” From what I saw at our parish yesterday and from what I read on Twitter and in the newspapers today attendance at Sunday Mass was unaffected by the boycott. Even a last minute appeal to those women who didn't want to miss Mass that they wear green arm bands was totally ignored. The boycott/protest was an abject failure.

The child abuse scandals in the Church that have dominated the headlines here for the past decade or more have seriously dented the Church. There is no denying that. However, the failure of Sunday's boycott's demonstrates that the Church in Ireland is far from dead, despite the fact that the media has pronounced its demise frequently.

The Irish media may not accept it, but they were seriously beaten this past weekend. Sleeman was the media's proxy in its war against the Church and this weekend Ireland's Catholics showed that despite all the problems in the Church they were not going to adhere to the agenda set by the editors and prominent opinion-makers in Ireland's newsrooms.

Yes, yesterday constituted a 'vote of confidence motion' in the Church and by any measure the media's hoped for empty pews failed to materialize.

If my parish is anything to go by, this weekend may even prove to be a significant positive for the Church. If anything, the congregation at Mass was younger than usual and there was no hint of any no-shows among women, young or old. The people voted with their feet – by attending Mass they voted against the no-confidence motion.

What this weekend proves is that the Irish Catholic Church may have hemorrhaged numbers in recent years, but a fairly large percentage of Catholics remain committed to the Church.

Problems remain, including a final reckoning for the child abuse scandals and a steep decline in vocations, but the decline may be at or at least near an end. The new Church will be smaller, no longer the dominant institution in Irish life that the old Church was was in decades past. However, this new Church will also be a strong counter-weight to the cynicism and liberal agenda beloved of the media.

Demands for change led by those inimical to the Church will be ignored. That doesn't mean that those who remain will be docile. Far from it. There will be a demand for better management and the laity will expect and be expected to take a more active role as the number of priests declines.

Change is coming, but it won't be the change desired by those whose dream is to see the end of the Catholic Church in Ireland.