Friday, July 23, 2010

25 years and a recession can take a toll

I was on the DART - Dublin Area Rapid Transit - last week when I thought it was sad sign of how bad things have gotten here. I don't ride the train all that often, but I was shocked by the state of the train I was on: broken seats, graffiti and filth. I've seen one of those on a DART train before, but this was the first time all three seemed to be riding so comfortably together.

It was a far cry from my first ride on the DART back in 1985. Back then it was brand new and I, a student from New York, couldn't get over the difference between the DART and the broken down, graffiti-covered, filthy Subway. And even though the DART showed signs of age it never looked neglected. Until now.

On Friday evening I headed back into Dublin, but this time on the Luas - Dublin's light rail system - with my family. What a difference. The Luas is today what the DART was back in the mid 1980s. At least, I hope so because I saw the Luas as a sign that things would get better, that there is hope still. I felt a bit better after the Luas journey.

Later on Friday, we ate at Captain America's, which is older than the DART, but shows no signs of neglect. I've only been there twice before: in 1973 and during my student days during the mid 1980s.

Yup, 1973. We traveled to Ireland to visit my mother's family. A few weeks on the family farm in County Kildare. Great time.

One day during my stay my aunt took me into Dublin to see the sights. We finished with a burger at Captain America's. One of those great childhood memories, which probably explains why I've returned so rarely - didn't want to spoil the memory of that day.

Well, on Friday a spur of the moment decision found me back in Captain America's. I'm sure it's changed since the early 70s, but it wasn't much different than I'd remembered. And, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the experience.

The food was better than most places that serve a similar menu and the rock-n-roll memorabilia is great. Despite the name, I think Captain America's has a genuinely Dublin feel, unlike a similarly themed near-by restaurant that is part of a vast international chain.

Next time you're in Dublin ride the Luas and the DART - still has great views - and then go to Captain America's for a bite and skip the Hard Rock Café.

{Top picture is me behind a DART train (clears throat and mutters - inaudible) ** years ago.}

Monday, July 19, 2010

World War I dead reburied

Today in Fromelles, France a joint Australian-British ceremony marked the occasion of the last burial of the 250 men from the Australian and British World War I armies whose bodies were recently found in a mass grave near the battle site. This follows last week's ceremony at Arlington when American soldier and Irishman Thomas Costello was buried with full military honors following the recent discovery of his body in eastern France.

The Australians who have been buried at Fromelles were killed 94 years ago today, in what was the worst day in Australian military history. July 19, 1916 was the first day that Australians fought on the western front and by the morning of the 20th nearly 2,000 were dead and another 3,000 were missing. More than 200 of those who were found in the grave were Australian.

The bodies of those who died were behind the German lines when the action ceased and the Germans buried them in a mass grave*, where they remained until the grave was found in 2007. The exhumation, identification and reburial process carried out by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission culminated in today's ceremony.

Many descendants and other family members from Australia and Britain traveled to France for today's events and there's great media interest in both countries.

Relevant to this site is the question of whether any of those who fought in the British or Australian forces were Irish? That's unclear, but there are Irish names among the 96 Australians whose bodies have been identified. There were no Irish regiments involved in the action, but it would hardly be a surprise to learn that some of those Australian or British soldiers were Irish immigrants or - even more likely - children of immigrants.

The British and Australian authorities are still trying to identify those soldiers who have not yet been identified and are still seeking DNA samples from people who believe that a family member was killed in the battle.

There are still hundreds presumed buried in other mass graves in the area. I heard one historian say on the news this morning that in the past few weeks another mass grave had been located meaning more bodies will be exhumed and identified, if possible.

Although interest in the Irish involvement in World War I is pretty low, it has been increasing in recent years. Yesterday Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness encouraged Irish nationalists and republicans to remember those who fought in the war. I hope many are encouraged to do so and that we have a better national memory of those Irish who suffered in the trenches.

I'd also like to think that this national remembering will include those who fought in the Austalian or New Zealand or Canadian or, like Thomas Costello and my grandfather, in the American army. It would be great to think of people here offering up DNA samples to help identify a forgotten family member lost in the trenches nearly a century ago.

{* The bodies weren't just dumped in a big pit by the Germans. Each body was wrapped individually in a blanket. The Germans often buried their own dead this way. There are 25,000 German soldiers buried in a mass grave in Langemark Cemetery near Ieper in Belgium.}

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Steinbrenner won but with no class

George Steinbrenner is dead and Yankee fans should say a little prayer of thanks for all he did and they might want to throw in a few prayers asking one or two saints to intercede on his behalf and ask God to overlook many of the things he did.

I'm a Met fan and hate the Yankees. It warms my heart when they lose or even just do something stupid.

Most Met fans, including me, enjoyed the fact that George turned the Yankees into a circus. Before Steinbrenner the Yankees were supposedly all about class and professionalism, but once Steinbrenner got involved all of that went out the window.

Oh, he made the right noises, but George wasn't a classy guy. He didn't hire classy guys. Unfortunately, he did hire winners.

I never understood why Yankee fans hated Steinbrenner. In 1973 he bought a team mired in mediocrity and in a few years turned them into champions. Sure, Steinbrenner's Yankees might not have been the same as (the mostly mythological) cool professionals of the past, but they won.

Unlike other baseball owners, Steinbrenner didn't fear free agency when it came in the mid 1970s. He threw himself - and his checkbook - into building a winning team. In 1976 he had his first pennant, but that wasn't enough and following the loss to Cincinnati in the World Series Steinbrenner brought Reggie Jackson to New York to play for manager Billy Martin.

That year the Yankees romped home in the American League and won the World Series. Reggie Jackson lived up to his big contract and his own bragging and delivered when it mattered. Across town the Mets' cheapskate owners were dismantling the team and off-loaded the franchise player - Tom Seaver - because they were determinedly refusing to join baseball's new era.

It was the darkest of times as the Mets found a new long term home in last place. Meanwhile the Yankees won again despite the George & Reggie & Billy circus act.

However, George's interfering ways caught up with him in the 80s and the Yankees stopped winning. They weren't terrible, but they were never quite good enough. And what was more, the Mets were better. Those were the glory days. The Mets dominated New York, the Yankees played second fiddle and we Met fans were all able to fully enjoy Steinbrenner's show because we all knew the Mets' success was killing him.

Then came the 90s. Steinbrenner was exiled from active involvement in the Yankees for paying a gambler to try to get dirt on Dave Winfield, a big money signing who Steinbrenner derided as a bust. George became an obscure figure, unfortunately the Mets became an obscenity so Met fans couldn't enjoy Steinbrenner's discomfort as much as we would have otherwise.

Then something terrible happened. Steinbrenner returned, chastened. And he seemed to have learned his lesson. He still wanted to win, but he just wrote the checks and let his baseball people run the show. Just like that it was the 1950s all over again as the Damn Yankees won and won and won even beat the Mets in the World Series. Oh yeah, and the team was full of classy professionals. Sickening.

I think it was around that time - the late 90s - that Yankee fans mellowed on Steinbrenner.

In recent years Steinbrenner has been less and less involved in running the Yankees, leaving most of the responsibilities to his son Hank. George managed one last hurrah, a final gesture towards what he'd been in the 70s, when he all but dismissed long-time manager Joe Torre after the 2007 season. He was old and frail then and Yankee fans mostly gave George a pass on that one as they were as annoyed as he was that the team had stopped winning (temporarily, unfortunately).

Steinbrenner made the Yankees interesting and winners and for that Yankee fans should be grateful to him. Most Met fans would have loved to have had to endure the 27 years Steinbrenner has given the Yankees.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Forgotten Irish soldier to get full military honors at Arlington Cemetery

On Monday an American soldier killed in action will be buried in Arlington cemetery with full military honors. This soldier was not, however, killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, but in eastern France in 1918.

Private Thomas D. Costello (60th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division) was killed during what was known as the St. Mihiel Offensive in a wooded area near Jaulny on September 16, 1918 and was buried near the scene.

Although the location of Costello's grave was reported at the time, the Army was unable to locate the exact spot after the war. Costello's body was only discovered in 2006 and identified using "forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence," including dental records.

Among the details revealed about Costello is the fact that he was born in Ireland in 1892. Costello was living with his sister in New York at the time he enlisted.

In some ways Costello's death seems almost like ancient history. Yet, during the fighting which claimed his life, he wasn't far from where my own grandfather's regiment (165th Infantry) was involved. Costello never came home, never had a chance to marry, have a family or descendants. That my Irish immigrant grandfather was spared where Costello wasn't is just one of those things, part of the lottery that is warfare.

Costello's nearest living relative, his great-great nephew Michael Frisbie of Maine, will be at Arlington for the ceremony. Until the Army contacted him, Frisbie never knew he had a great-great uncle who had fought in WWI. It's great that Costello's been found, is being buried where he belongs (although the American cemetery at St. Mihiel would have been equally appropriate) and is now remembered by a family - and a nation - that had forgotten him.

Photo - American soldiers on the march near St. Mihiel in September 1918.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Potholes in the roads and black-holes in the banks are a source of fascination

Irish people used to almost love complaining that "we have the worst roads in the world." I don't know how true that was, but the roads are so much better now that nobody would make that claim today. However, we now own a new "worst in the world title": Ireland now boasts the worst bank in the world.

Of course all of this depends on how you measure the quality of a bank. I'm sure there is a bank out there that someone might believe is worse than Anglo-Irish Bank, but I doubt they'd be able to point to any facts of figures to back them up. It would almost certainly be based more on anecdotal evidence borne of frustration.

That's not the case with Anglo-Irish. Oh no. Unfortunately, we have an actual quantifiable measure by which we can compare the performance of banks and Anglo topped the list in 2009 as having lost the most money.

Of course, losing the most money doesn't necessarily make a bank the "worst" in the world, but it's an arguable case. However, Anglo – which is NOT a big bank – lost €15bn ($18.5) in 2009. That's more than Royal Bank of Scotland lost, more than Citibank lost, more than any of the massive conglomerate banks you can think of lost, which I believe certainly qualifies it as the worst bank in the world. At least for 2009.

These days Anglo's not so much in the business of losing money as taking it. Anglo is now fully owned by the government. That means that each and every taxpayer is a (probably not too) proud owner of a piece of the worst bank in the world. The price we pay for this claim to fame is that we're all paying back the money Anglo lost in 2009. The joys of nationalization.

That brings me back to the roads. Back in the days when the number and size of the potholes was almost a daily news item, cars were regularly wrecked by, and occasionally lost in, potholes, so vast and so deep were they. Whenever people spoke about this issue they always conveyed anger and frustration, a sense that it didn't have to be this way and that a large dose of mismanagement and corruption helped create the problem.

At the same time, people always managed to convey - I don't know - a sense of wonder that the roads could be so bad. Wonder is probably not the word. It's more a fascination with the grotesque.

It's the same today whenever people talk about the banks. Nobody fails to express their anger and frustration at the mismanagement and corruption that created the Anglo-Irish Bank black-hole and the other banking black-holes. Yet I sense that same sense of fascination when people speak of the banks. If the banks were just bad, there'd be only anger, but they are in such bad shape that people seem to marvel at the fact that we may well have "worst banks in the world."