Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mets' Irish groundskeeper calls it a day after 50th season

Pete Flynn throwing out first pitch before his
last game as Mets groundskeeper yesterday.

Pete Flynn's New York Mets career ended yesterday with the last game of the 2011 season. If you don't know Flynn's name that's understandable because Flynn was the team's groundskeeper and yesterday marked the end of his time with the Mets that began when the team was first formed in 1962.

Flynn is an Irish immigrant from County Leitrim. Although it's fuzzy now, I can recall what I thought the first time I heard Flynn's name and that he was from Ireland. My vague memory is that it had started to rain and the grounds-crew was rolling out the tarp to cover the infield and, I think, Flynn fell or got knocked over. Mets announcer Bob Murphy spoke his name, hoping Flynn hadn't been hurt in the fall. He then said that Flynn was from Ireland and that he had been with the team since the first days in the Polo Grounds.

Two things went through my mind at that moment. First that Flynn had been with the team since Day 1 seemed an incredibly long time in the past (this was around 1978). Next was that a man from Ireland had, what seemed to me, a dream job - tending the grass at Shea Stadium. "How does he know anything about baseball?", I wondered, not giving any thought to reality, which was that all Flynn really needed to know was grass.

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Flynn said it took him a year to understand the game after he first got the job with the Mets back in '62. It wasn't just baseball either. The Mets shared Shea with the NY Jets for 20 years and Shea also hosted many concerts, including most famously, the Beatles in 1965.

Even if being groundskeeper for the Mets was a dream job, I'm sure there were moments when it was far from easy. Shea Stadium wasn't very well built and Flynn had to contend with a field that didn't drain well.

After the Mets clinched the division title in 1986 Flynn was angry. The fans stormed the field and basically wrecked it. Flynn was angry at the club because they hadn't heeded his warnings about the need for security. He knew what was going to happen. He was angrier at the fans, saying they - we - didn't deserve a champion. There was no repeat of that destruction during the playoffs or after the final out of the World Series or any time since.

Flynn met all the great Mets, many great Jets, the Beatles, other rock stars and Presidents Nixon and Clinton. He witnessed all of Shea Stadium's special moments, including the Mets' World Series wins in 1969 and 1986. Yet, Flynn says the greatest thing he ever saw was the rain giving way to the sun over Shea just as Pope John Paul II came out to say Mass during his 1979 visit to New York.

In 2009 Flynn was inducted as a member of the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame. No doubt about it, Pete Flynn had a dream job.

{Photo from}

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Exploitation, humiliation damage Simon Cowell's X Factor brand

UK X Factor contestant Ceri Rees
Ceri Rees on Britain's X-Factor
I can't claim to be a fan of the X-Factor, but I find it hard not to admire Simon Cowell's business acumen. He's taken a basic talent show formula and converted it into a series of television programs that are broadcast around the world.

Just think about how simple the idea is: get a stage, ask people if they'd like to 'give it a go' and let the audience vote on who's the best. This scene has played out fifty million times in a million high schools. It's even been on TV in dozens of different guises.

Cowell's success in the face of such familiarity demonstrates his genius.

However, after a recent episode of the British X-Factor I wonder if he hasn't spread himself a little too thin. When Ceri Rees walked out on stage in the show that aired on September 18 it was obvious to anyone watching that this was a vulnerable woman, someone it would be easy to take advantage of.

Her lack of self-knowledge instantly reminded me of Susan Boyle, only she didn't have Boyle's self-confidence. Or talent. No, Rees walked out on stage without the ability to stun people with an amazing voice. In fact, she couldn't sing a lick.

The crowd laughed and sneered. Another similarity with the high school talent show is the how the X Factor crowd laughs joyously with the goofballs who are there just to show off and how the crowd laughs mockingly at those who don't realize they're no good. For that reason I don't really like these programs, but kids the world over do.

The judges feigned concern for Rees as they let her know she hadn't made the grade. Before she came on stage a short clip told us that Rees had auditioned for the X Factor three other times over past six years. Each time she failed as miserably.
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What no one in the crowd or among the viewing audience knew then was that Rees was badgered to come back on by the program's producers. They deliberately went out of their way to ask her back in order to humiliate her.

Her friends say she's been "in tears" ever since they rejected her again. Her singing coach, who gives Rees free lessons, says she called the producers after the program was recorded and asked them not to broadcast Rees's audition. They didn't bother listening.

Rees is an adult and even if I and others feel she's vulnerable she has the right to make her own decisions. However, if the show's producers pestered her into returning she might well have believed her moment had come.

You want to call it bullying? Go ahead. It's definitely cruel whatever it is and I hope the government authorities that control television licensing have a good look at this incident. If they're going to control TV they may as well start with this sort of thing.

And where was Simon Cowell in all of this? Well, he was in America preparing for the American X Factor. I actually doubt Cowell would have allowed that clip to be broadcast because it damages the X Factor brand, something he's worked hard to build.

Do I think he's too scrupulous to have used/abused a contestant like this? No, of course not, but I do think he'd have seen the danger to his business interests in actually summoning a person like Rees to humiliate them rather than just waiting for them to come to him.

That's why I think Cowell is spread too thin. He's gone to America and left in charge people with the same exploitative instinct, but not the nose for business that he has. Basically, Cowell's left the schoolkids in charge of his talent show. He may pay a price for that.

{Image from}

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Irish economy - back to the future with farming

Anglea Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy — Merkozy
Photo from Die Welt
If you cast a casual glance at the business pages or one of the business news TV networks (CNBC, Bloomberg, etc) you'll know that Europe is somewhere between financial trouble and a complete, 100% total catastrophe. Here in Ireland we're not much more than spectators as we watch our small, almost insignificant economy - although one that has borrowed way beyond its weight - being whipsawed around while we wait for Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy to get control of the runaway stagecoach that the euro has become.

While Merkozy (get it? Clever, no? It's not mine.) dither over whether to rescue the Greeks and save the euro at great cost to their own people or to cut Greece loose and risk losing the euro at great cost to everyone else we in Ireland just keep cutting costs in a bid to balance our budget and start repaying the massive debts run up by our 'live for today' banks and our 'tomorrow will never come' government.

Economically it's a very dark day. And yet, and yet, and ... There are some shafts of light starting to break through the dark cloud above us.

First, as my mother likes to say, misery loves company. That so many other European countries are now facing something of a crisis, including big boys Italy and, maybe, even France depending on how big a hit their banks have to take if Greece does have to 'restructure' its debts, has opened up the possibility that our bank debts might be 'Europeanized.' That is, the debts of all of Europe's troubled banks might become the responsibility of the EU as a whole, and not just the individual state's. That would be great for us if it happened because, well, our banks were more profligate than any other state's.

Even without the 'Europeanization' solution the debts issue is not quite as serious as it seemed a few months ago. Sure we still owe far too much, but maybe not quite as much as we feared and our paymasters have been cutting us some slack on the interest rate on our debts. That's all to the good.

Every penny saved on the interest bill is a penny that doesn't have to be cut from the day-to-day spending by the government. And there have been cuts. Serious cuts. Painful cuts. The kind of cuts that make people angry. The kind of cuts that have led to riots and strikes in Greece and Portugal. Yet here all is calm. It hasn't gone unnoticed.

The past few weeks have seen a surge in positive commentary on Ireland's ability to bear the pain of austerity. Yesterday on Bloomberg currency expert Richard Franulovich proclaimed that "Ireland is the one shining example where the austerity is playing out and they're meeting targets." Over the weekend a CNBC report noted that Ireland may be ready to exit the PIIGS - Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece & Spain. Before that we had the Financial Times declared that Ireland is "nursing itself back to health."

A couple of straws in the wind. There is still a long way to go, but it's a solid start.
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Great, but where is the economic growth going to come from? Well, exports are booming. Although the property-fed bank disaster has seriously damaged big chunks of the Irish economy, there are some industries that have made adjustments and kept on going.

Pharmaceuticals and information technology are two key industries that are still producing, still growing despite the difficulties here. In fact, I heard recently there are thousands of unfilled jobs in IT despite the lengthy unemployment lines. Those jobs are in Irish companies, not the big American names such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Intel. Enterprise Ireland, a government body, has even produced a video to entice workers into the field.

Tourism is also expected to be a big winner, but possibly the most unlikely source of future growth is agriculture.

Farming. It's almost unbelievable, but farming is a great growth industry in Ireland. Unbelievable because if you listen to the farmers they haven't had a good year since the wheel was invented, but at the moment farming and related businesses are a big part of what success we have.

Farming may sound old fashioned and an unlikely growth industry, but it is. Agri-foods is the term used today and agrifoods are booming: 150,000 employees and 19% annual growth.

China's importing a lot of baby formula these days and 60% of the world's baby formula comes from Ireland. That's agri-foods. Not just milk production, but a product made in Ireland from Irish milk. There's a great future in all sorts of products built around our dairy and other farming sectors.

India, China and North Africa are buying a lot of Irish beef. Milk and meat, growth products in the global food business and two products for which are our climate and soil are ideally suited. There is no good reason Ireland cannot be a world leader in milk and meat production.

Farming is also part of the knowledge economy. The urban stereotype of the stubborn, aging man meandering behind a handful of cows is out. Demand for places on Agricultural Science courses is rising rapidly. Tomorrow's farmers will apply the lessons of science and marketing to ensure Ireland's agri-foods business produces products that compete in the global food industry. The future is actually fairly bright - once we've conquered the debts of yesterday's failures.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Pulsating Irish win over Australia in Rugby World Cup

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton tackling Australia's Kurtley Beale(Photo – Sandra Mu/Getty Images)
Ireland's win over Australia in the Rugby World Cup today was incredible. Fantastic. Tremendous. I'd have to consult my thesaurus if I want to do justice to what the whole country watched this morning.

It's not a massive upset on the scale of say, the "USA!" win over the USSR in the 1980 Olympics, but it's a stunner nonetheless. What made it great, what made it so much fun to watch is that it was one of those sporting events that anyone can enjoy without necessarily understanding the sport.

The noise in the crowd - most of the fans in the New Zealand arena were rooting for Ireland - made for an electric atmosphere. The dedication, desire and drive of the Irish team were awesome to watch.

It was gritty stuff. Fans of old time football (gridiron variety) would have appreciated it. Woody "Three yards and a cloud of dust" Hayes would have loved it. For long stretches of the game a three yard burst would have seemed a long run.
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Rugby can be that sort of game. Sometimes there are great moves with lots of passing leading to tries. Other games both teams push and shove with equal intensity and it's only a little break here or there that makes the difference. Ireland won such a game this morning. Every man defended with all his body and spirit could give.

Unlike in football there are no timeouts and players play both offense and defense. Other than a few players who are substituted, most players play the full 80 minutes. Their only break is the 15 minutes at half-time. It can be a grueling affair and today was about as grueling as you could hope to see.

Yet it wasn't dull. The game was fraught with tension from the start and it only grew as the contest played out. With the clock winding down the Irish players, who had kept pace with and actually outplayed a team that was - on paper - superior, made a determined stand on their line to deny Australia a try in the closing minutes.

When the final whistle sounded Ireland had won 15-6. It was a fantastic spectacle and, thanks to the 9am start, the party in Ireland will be a long one.

{I only learned the other day that American Scott LaValla was a student and rugby stand-out at Trinity College in Dublin before playing professionally for Ulster.}

Thursday, September 15, 2011

For President of Ireland – San Jose's Ex-Mayor Tom McEnery

Abandoned housing - ghost estates - litter
the Irish landscape.
In two weeks nominations close and we'll know the final field for the October 27 election for President of Ireland. If ever there was a year for an Irish-American to give it a go this was it.

First of all, the field remains as it was on August 15 when I wrote that Ireland is seeking a half-way decent candidate for President. Michael D Higgins leads in the polls, but a third of the electorate is basically saying, "Can we have another choice, please?"

As we head towards the closing date for nominations - September 28 - it's becoming clearer that no political heavyweight is going to throw his hat in the ring.

So, as of now, there's no obvious candidate from Ireland, which opens the door for an Irish-American. But if a lack of star power from the candidates from Ireland has opened the door, the financial crisis in Europe and our own extremely serious economic crisis have forced it wide open.

This past few months the people of Ireland have learned an awful lot about our "friends" and "partners" in Europe. They are neither friends nor partners, not when the going gets tough. We may yet be hung out to dry by our European overlords before this crisis has played out.

Members of the Irish diaspora, especially Irish-Americans, are the only real friends the people of Ireland can count on. Irish-Americans' feelings for Ireland and the Irish are familial. For the past 150 years or more the wider Irish family has been willing to lend a hand when Ireland was down.

It's no different today. All Irish-Americans ask for is to be included, respected, to have that familial feeling returned. Electing an Irish-American would demonstrate that the people of Ireland understand this and reciprocate those familial feelings.

Another advantage of electing an Irish-American is that it would set the theme for the President's role for the next seven years. In Ireland the President doesn't deal with the day to day running of the government, the role is more symbolic as leader of the Irish people. Over the past 20 years the role of the President has evolved into something of a tone-setter for the nation. Mary Robinson was about 'change' and Mary McAleese was about 'reconciliation'. Well, right now Ireland needs 'renewal'.

Renewal. An Irish-American, especially one with strong business links, could help with the economic renewal the country needs. He (or she) would also signal a renewal of those somewhat atrophied family ties between Ireland and America, those ties that are at the root of so much of our tourism industry and that should rightly be a network that fosters an exchange of ideas and insights and even investment opportunities.

Mostly, however, an Irish-American, particularly one who is a little more American than Irish, would bring that 'glass is half full' optimism that would provide something of a renewal of the spirit. Definitely we don't need an Irish-American so Irish that he brings with him Irish melancholia. The 'ghost estates' and lengthy unemployment lines provide more than enough of that.

An Irish-American it is, but who?

McEnery (L) with ITLG execs
John Hartnett & Gordon Ciochon
 {Photo from}
Ideally the candidate should have relevant experience and a demonstrable affection for Ireland. I nominate Tom McEnery, whose political background and business acumen are exactly what Ireland needs right now.

McEnery served eight years as mayor of San Jose, CA, one of the largest cities in America. He's a successful businessman and former lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

It was thanks to McEnery that Dublin was twinned with San Jose and the great Silicon Vally-Silicon Bog link was born. McEnery helped get the Irish tech boom going by providing Ireland's Industrial Development Authority with office space in San Jose, which led to Intel, Seagate and a host of other IT companies setting up their EU headquarters in Ireland. McEnery is still helping build those ties today through his work with the Irish Technology Leadership Group and the Irish Innovation Center in San Jose.

McEnery's interest in Ireland is not just about business either. His impetus got the Bytes for Bullets program going in Belfast and Derry and he wrote the introduction to John Hume's book A New Ireland. He is well versed in Irish history - his Master's thesis was on Michael Collins - and is a regular visitor to these shores. He loves Ireland and he's done much for the country.

I have no idea if McEnery would want to be President of Ireland, but I'm sure he'd be a good one. Unfortunately, it may already be too late.

McEnery is not a household name here, although he should be, so he'd need a whirlwind of publicity and endorsements to be nominated by September 28. He'd need a great campaign to top the poll on election day a month later.

Still, given the smallness of the current crop of candidates, I don't think it's an impossibility. With the right campaign McEnery could go from relative unknown to President. At the very least he'd get the recognition in Ireland that's long overdue him.
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Monday, September 12, 2011

Irish hopes dented despite victory over USA at Rugby World Cup

USA head coach
Eddie O'Sullivan
Ireland beat America in the Rugby World Cup on Sunday. Were you watching?

Unless you live in the western states my guess is that you probably weren't watching because (a) the game started at 2am (EDT) and (b) it's rugby, which more than likely is not your game. No, if you were watching the Irish play football over the weekend it was probably to watch Notre Dame blow another one against Michigan.

That debacle at Ann Arbor on Saturday has led to wailing, gnashing of teeth and calls for the coach's head. Well, it's not far off that here with the Irish rugby team despite the fact that Ireland won Sunday's game. The final score was 22-10, which is not good enough for Irish fans in a game against the "minnows" from the USA.

The American team is coached by Irishman Eddie O'Sullivan, who was the Irish team's very successful coach until he was basically forced to resign after the Irish team disappointed at the last World Cup. O'Sullivan's presence added to the Irish fans' interest in the American team, but still they expected a more convincing win than a 12 point margin.
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That Ireland is considered a 'power' and America 'minnows' is bizarre, but that's the way it is when it comes to rugby. Rugby is not big in America or in most countries, despite the fact they're now playing a "World Cup."

Really only in Ireland, Britain, France, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and in the South Pacific is rugby a major sport. The Rugby World Cup, like baseball's World Baseball Classic, has to pad out the tournament with a lot of teams that have no business playing in such a competition and no hope of winning anything. America's one of those teams. So is Canada.

None of that matters to Ireland's rugby fans. They were hoping for great things, at least a spot in the semifinals, although they were also afraid that the team was not really as good they hoped it might be.

The Irish team hadn't won any of their warm-up games, although they didn't play terribly, but Sunday's poor showing has Irish fans convinced that the team is not really good enough. The fact that those watching on television in Ireland had to get out of their beds at 6:30 on a Sunday morning had only helped darken the mood.

There is a lot of pressure on the Irish players to come good at the World Cup. There have been too many disappointments at this tournament in the past. It's probably easier to play for the US team, knowing that 307m Americans slept peacefully through their opening round loss.

{By the way, although as I've said above rugby is very much a minor sport in America, Saturday's Scotsman reported on the rugby players who were killed on September 11, 2001.}

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Visiting Irish castles is popular for good reason

Mel Gibson used Trim Castle for scenes in Braveheart. 

According to the Irish government's figures almost 2.5 million tourists visited one or more of Ireland's castles and historic houses. That strikes me as an awful lot of people touring castles and other ancient houses and buildings, but I can understand the appeal – especially if you come from America or Canada or any place where medieval structures are non-existent.

And if you've been to Ireland you know there are castles everywhere, which makes it easy to find one to visit. Most of them are ruins, decaying reminders that nothing man builds is permanent.

Some castles are bigger than others, some are older, some are more significant and, it has to be said, some are prettier than others. Of course the beauty of a castle is, to a large extent, determined by the surrounding vista. Ireland has many spectacularly located castles. Although there may be some that are the equal of Dunluce, I doubt any can top the setting Dunluce has on the Antrim coast.

Even on a cloudy evening Dunluce looks spectacular
Although most of the castles are ruins, some have been partially restored, others are basically fully restored and some were never really fully abandoned or unused, but were rebuilt/restored many times. Carrickfergus Castle fits the latter category. It had a defensive role even in WWII when it functioned as an air raid shelter.
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Thanks to the fact that my son is so much younger than his older sisters I've been able to use him as an excuse to revisit some castles I'd been to years ago. We haven't been to too many, but Carrickfergus and Trim in County Meath are the two oldest ... and the best.

John Paul Jones was wary
of Carrickfergus Castle.
Both Carrickfergus and Trim date from the late 12th century, when the Normans came over from their strong-hold in England to set up shop here. Both Castles are impressive and provide that story-book castle look.

Perhaps due to the fact I was only at Trim last week rather than last year, as is the case with Carrickfergus, but I think Trim is the best to visit. Trim Castle not only looks fantastic - see above or the movie Braveheart - it also has what I think is just the right amount of restoration - not much. And it's historically very significant.

However, I have to admit that the visit to Trim Castle was really made by the tour guide, (David, I believe). He clearly loved doing what he was doing, knew the story of the castle inside and out. He conveyed his vast knowledge with such enthusiasm that it took a few minutes for my brain to adjust to the volume of information he was passing on. He knew how to make it great for children too, talking about things kids love like how people way back when didn't wash often and how they 'went to the bathroom' and so on.

While I think Trim is the best, you may think differently. The best part is that there are so many castles, especially the smaller tower houses that you can't help running into these picturesque, centuries old stone structures. Ireland's castles offer great pictures and great stories.