Thoughts on ‘Up the Ra’ etc

So in the aftermath of the Irish Women’s International team qualifying for the World Cup, there has been a certain amount of controversy about their after-match celebrations in Glasgow.

In the dressing room the team were filmed singing the ‘Celtic Symphony’ a song by the Wolfe Tones that had the chorus ‘ooh ah up the Ra’.

My first thought was simply; ‘why did they upload this to to the internet?’ And secondly; ‘couldn’t they have sung something better’? Why is there a need to bring the memory of violent conflict into a sporting event?

Now, I’m not naïve about this. Sport, as well know, is ritualised warfare. This is deeply hardwired into our DNA. The triumph of our tribe over the opposing one is what it is all about. International sport is this writ large. If I may be permitted a digression, sport, particularly football, is also in a way a form of art, as witnessed by the economy and grace, the beauty even, of Amber Barret’s winning goal against Scotland on the night. But I digress. The heart of sport is a kind of non-violent ritualised conflict.

So in this context it is not surprising that sport and again, particularly international football, lends itself to violent nationalist imagery. It is all about ‘our side’ against theirs. Sports teams do often look to actual combatants, or at least those immortalised in song, as a kind of inspiration. Jack Charlton’s Irish (men’s) international side famously used to pump themselves up before games by playing the rebel ballad ‘Sean South from Garryowen’, which immortalised one of two IRA guerrillas killed in a raid on an RUC station during the ‘Border Campaign’ in 1957. This despite the fact that most of the team of the era were born in England.

Having some experience of Irish football fans culture I can attest that in the past (in the 1980s and 90s for example), rebel songs far more bloodthirsty than either Sean South or Celtic Symphony often got an airing.

Further, the song in question on the night was not nearly so explicitly a celebration of armed violence as ‘Sean South’. ‘Celtic Symphony’ is actually a rather strange and abstract homage to Celtic FC of Glasgow, whose fans call their home ground ‘Paradise’ (the song goes ‘we’re on our way to Paradise’) and references the ‘Jungle’ the now long departed terrace at Celtic Park. It continues that graffiti on the walls of Glasgow says, ‘we’re magic ‘we’re magic’ and also ‘ooh ah up the Ra’. This could, I suppose be taken as a mere description of Celtic fans chanting that slogan (which they did at the time the song was written, 1989) or as an endorsement of the chant. Take your pick.

Contrary to what some have been saying online, ‘up the Ra’ is not a reference to the ‘Old IRA’ of the 1920s that fought a guerrilla war against British rule (and subsequently against the Irish Free State too) as it was not a slogan of that era. ‘Up the RA’ along with ‘Tiocfaidh ar la’ and ‘the Brits’ are products of the Northern Ireland conflict or ‘the Troubles’ roughly 1969-1998 and so ‘the Ra’; referred to the Provisional IRA.

Were the women’s football team theme thinking along such lines when chanting ‘up the Ra’? I strongly doubt it. They were most likely singing a rousing song that combined football and a form of patriotism. I suspect that actual violent conflict (let alone car bombs and shootings of the Troubles) was the last thing they were thinking about.

But in any case, an old debate was wheeled out (certainly online), as it was in late 2020 when a Sinn Fein TD Brian Stanley equated the Kimichael ambush of 1920 with the Warrenpoint bomb attack on British paratroopers in 1978. One could not, one side said, support the actions of the IRA of 1919-21 and not those of the Provisional IRA. On the other, it was retorted that only young people with no actual memory of the Troubles would wish to minimise the suffering caused by the Provisional IRA campaign and compare it with the ‘Old IRA’.

There was also, from a Northern unionist perspective, the view aired that such songs were deeply hurtful and showed how little respect their community and its victims had in the south of Ireland. This of course provoked the response from Northern nationalists of the inconsistency of condemning rebel songs and at the same time celebrating British military or loyalist paramilitary violence. So it goes.

This is not the place to go into the historical comparisons between the IRA of the War of Independence and that of the Troubles. Suffice to say though, that if as the argument goes, savage deeds were done in both periods (this is certainly true) should this not be a cause for regret rather than celebration? Even if one deeply agrees with the cause of Irish independence and united Ireland? If violence was necessary in either period (which we could debate forever without result) does it still need to be revisited verbally at every opportunity?

I personally would also argue that the context to both eras was different and that context is important. If political violence is justified by motivation regardless of the political context, why is there not widespread support for a renewed campaign by the various groups now calling themselves the IRA? And yet virtually no one, including Sinn Fein supports this in the post Good Friday Agreement context.

But this is all beside the point. Rhetorical support for the past actions of (mostly defunct) armed organisations may be on the rise in Ireland but support for political violence certainly is not. The debate over such songs is in part political and linked to the political rise of Sinn Fein. This also signifies to a degree a generation gap, which is fuelled not only by memories of the Troubles but also the perception among young generations that they have not the access to secure careers , home ownership and other vital necessities that previous generations had. This again fuels rhetorical republicanism as a kind of social rebellion.

But finally, there really was a conflict in in Ireland and an IRA and there there really were victims of this organisation, most of the relatives of whom are still alive. Debates about the rights and wrongs of this do not get around it. Rebel songs will always be sung by those with a taste for them. But might it not be good idea for Irish sports teams to find better inspiring songs for themselves to sing in order to avoid all this baggage?

When Brain Kerr became manager of the Irish youth international sides in the 1990s he stopped the playing of rebel songs and instead introduced non-political but rousing songs such ‘Home Boys Home’. Notwithstanding the masculine title of the above, perhaps the Irish women’s team could find a similar replacement?

Remaking ‘Zulu’ today

Zulu (1964) - Rotten Tomatoes

I re-watched the classic British film ‘Zulu’ the other day. The film is set at the battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879, in which a small post of around 100 British soldiers held off a force of around 4,000 Zulu warriors.

Now, the politics and history of ‘Zulu’ would make it ‘problematic’ to use the fashionable word, today. The very name of the film suggest an alien, menacing ‘other’. And of course, despite the title, the film is entirely presented from the point of view of the British garrison. I wouldn’t, as some would, call it ‘racist’ exactly. It’s old fashioned. The Zulus are terrifying, but respected as a worthy adversary. They are presented as the aggressors, when in fact, it was (the reader will be unsurprised to learn) the British who provoked a war that the Zulu king did everything he could to prevent. The British invaded Zululand, not the other way around. But I’ll come back to all that.

What’s striking is how good a film ‘Zulu’ still is. Some of the hand to hand combat scenes are unrealistic from a modern cinematic point of view – there are lots of bayonets passed under arms, for instance, lots of bloodless wounds, lots of men collapsing after a weak blow, in one case of a crutch. But the film expertly ramps up the tension and makes for a sense of dread, as if the garrison could be overwhelmed at any time.

The characters are also sparingly, but very believably, drawn. Chard the reluctant engineer officer takes command over Bromhead the arrogant and resentful aristocratic officer. They squabble and their hands shake with fear as the Zulus approach. Hook the ‘damned ranker’, comes good when the chips are down. Colour Sergeant Bourne presents the epitome of British stolidity and ‘stuff upper lip’. The Welsh soldiers, one of whom says, ‘this land isn’t a bit as good as Bala’ wonder what they are doing there, then sing the Welsh nationalist hymn ‘Men of Harlech’. At the end, the officers, having fought their first action, admit to feeling guilty and sick at the slaughter.

This was the postwar generation. Both Stanley Baker, the director, who also played Chard and Michael Caine who played Bromhead, had done their National Service and Caine had actually fought in the trenches of the Korean war. There is something of a sense of familiarity with the military and with the true horror of war that one just does not get with most modern war films.

The landscape of South Africa is expertly used to to give a sense of vastness and remoteness. No one is coming to help the small garrison.

And the Zulus are actual Zulus, recruited as extras for the film and incidentally, paid equally to the white extras, who were recruited from a South African infantry battalion, contrary to the directives of the Apartheid era government in South Africa. Longtime Zulu political leader (and later divisive leader of the Inkatha party) Mangasutho Buthelezi, appears, representing the king of 1879, Cetshwayo. When performing both ritual dances, songs and combat manoeuvres in the film, it is quite clear that the Zulus know exactly what they are doing. I suspect that even rural Zulus of today are much more cut off from the traditional way of life – including warrior training – than were the rural Zulus of the early 1960s.

So I come neither to bury ‘Zulu’ nor entirely to praise it. It is a product of its time, which is both a strength and weakness.

But to come back to my title; how would we remake ‘Zulu’ today, should we ever have the chance?

One temptation would be to remake it entirely from the Zulus’ point of view, which would be interesting, but to work, this would have to go to some lengths to portray the actual worldview of Zulus of 1879 and not a lecture in which modern college educated actors infused the nineteenth century Zulus with 21st century liberal and racial politics. Nothing would be more tedious, for it would merely be an exercise in seeking approval and would give us no insight into the Zulus, then or now.

The Zulus of 1879 lived in an absolute monarchy, in which all males were trained from adolescence in war and military tactics. Indeed they lived for most of their young manhood in military units named Ibutho until, at the King’s order they were allowed to marry and disperse to their own homesteads, but were called upon to muster for war or other service, again at the King’s order. The Zulu kingdom resembled Sparta more than anything else. It was from this that the Zulu regiments developed their intense discipline and tactical skill.

It was also a hierarchical society, in almost every way, with hierarchy determined by birth, by lineage and of course, by gender. Most normal life was spent herding cattle, the main source of wealth and attending the daily chores of life. How to get inside the heads of such people would be difficult, and would probably be a task best given to a writer who was native to Zulu traditional, rural culture.

But leaving that aside, the fact is that ‘Zulu’ baldly misrepresents the context of the war of 1879. The opening scene of the film has the missionary Witt and his daughter attend a marriage ceremony at the Zulu capital Ulundi when word comes in of the Zulu victory at Isandlwana. The character of Witt utters the immortal line, ‘while I was here talking of peace, a war has started’ and the Zulus then set off to destroy Witt’s mission station at Rorke’s Drift because it has a British garrison.

There are many things wrong with this (for a start, Witt was not in Ulundi, nor would he have been), but here are the main points: The battles of Isandlawana and Rorke’s Drift on January 22, 1879, took place eleven days after the British forces had invaded Zululand in three columns and about five weeks since the British governor of Natal Bartle Frere had issued an ultimatum to the Zulus that they must accept or face war.

The terms included a demand to disband the Zulu military system and accept a British governor as well as handing over of several prominent Zulus to be tried by the courts in Natal and Transvaal. (These latter were the result respectively of the abduction of two women in a marriage dispute, who had fled from Zulu territory and a border dispute between the Zulus and the Boers). All of which terms the British knew that the Zulus could not accept. In fact the ultimatum was a ploy by Frere so that he could invade Zululand and incorporate it into British ruled South Africa.

It was the British who were, unequivocally, the aggressors. It was they who had invaded Zululand and the crushing of the British column at Isandlwana was, by any standards, an act of self defence by the Zulu kingdom. And while the British defeat there was a surprise, the state of war was not, after all it was the British who started it.

The Zulu force that attacked Rorke’s Drift was actually the reserve force from the battle of Isandlwana. They had not fought at the battle apart from mopping up a few British fugitives and, commanded as they were by a relative of the Royal House and brother of the King himself, Dabulamanzi ka Mpande, they were looking for their share of glory. In their enthusiasm, or perhaps Dabulamanzi’s caprice, they actually disobeyed Royal orders not to cross the border with the British province of Natal, on whose side of the Buffalo River the mission station at Rorke’s Drift lay.

The Zulus were mostly older married men in their thirties or forties of the uThulwana ibutho and had run over 30km from the battlefield at Isandlwana, pursuing fugitives and fighting skirmishes. They must have been tired and hungry but confident of victory.

So a remake of ‘Zulu’ from a Zulu perspective should show: the men being mobilised from their family homesteads as the King mustered his army in defence of the Kingdom as the British prepared to invade. Their peripheral part in the battle of Isandlwana and their fatigued state as they approached Rorke’s Drift as the evening drew in. Dramatic tension could be supplied by Dabulamanzi’s hotheadedness, crossing the Natal frontier to get a victory of his own, against his orders and the advice of his calmer officers or Indunas. It might be a story of Zulu fortitude as much as British.

Reaction to calls to ban Zulu film screening

The battle itself should be much less grand and much more desperate than is portrayed in the 1964 film. There was not calmly directed volley fire from the British soldiers and sweeping charges directed by the Zulus as shown in the film. Rather there was a desperate close quarter struggle. The Zulus took advantage of dead ground, a shallow dip in the ground from which they assaulted the British position throughout the evening and into the night.

The British, huddled behind piles of mealie bags, were far less orderly than the redcoats of the film, with their calmly delivered volleys. Rather they fought for their lives, firing as fast as they could load their rifles and bayoneting any Zulu who managed to jump over their barricades. The 100 odd men fired between them about 20,000 rounds (fortunately for them, the post was an ammunition depot) so that their rifles became too hot to touch, their faces were blackened by the powder smoke and their shoulders (in some cases both shoulders) were too bruised to hold the rifles into.

The British troops on campaign would not have resembled the pristine Redcoats of ‘Zulu’ at the start of the battle and most certainly not by the end of it.

By the next morning Zulu bodies were piled up on the ramparts,almost to the top, where they had tried to climb over. It was a terrifying and traumatic ordeal for both sides, but the Zulus suffered far more -17 British soldiers were killed compared to about 500 Zulus. A remake would have to show not only the desperate British defence but the resolve that made the Zulus attack into a storm of fire again and again throughout the night and the courage of their indunas, many of whom were killed.

While ‘Zulu’ depicts the Zulus sniping at the post with Martini Henry rifles captured at Isandlwana; ‘our own damn rifles’ Michel Caine’s character complains, in fact the Zulus who did climb up the Shinaye Terrace overlooking the mission station and fired down into it, were equipped with obsolete flintlock muskets, which explains why their fire was so ineffective. Most Zulus in 1879 carried a musket as well as their traditional shield and spears.

‘Zulu’ has a stirring scene where the departing Zulus salute the bravery of the British, but this of course, did not happen. In fact the battle had a much more bitter aftertaste. The hundreds of Zulu wounded found around the post were all killed with the rifle butt or bayonet by British troops and their bodies dumped into the nearby river.

This was partly the result of the British relief column, in fact that larger part of the invading force, which the Zulus had evaded on their way to attack the camp at Isandlwana, having passed through the carnage left at the camp, where the Zulus had killed and ritually mutilated (by slashing the abdomen), every British and auxiliary soldier they could catch. The fighting at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift engendered not so much mutual respect as mutual fear and loathing. The film should show this.

Finally, a good way to show the sad irony of the fight from the Zulu point of view would be the reception that the uThulwana and the other units received when they returned home. The King upbraided Dabulamanzi for having disobeyed his orders not to cross into Natal and the warriors themselves were mocked as cowards and belittled for having failed to take such a small post, in contrast to the great victory over a much larger British force at Isandlwana.

Many of the British participants long afterwards exhibited symptoms of trauma from the battle, nightmares, listlessness and bouts of irrational, violent behaviour, as well as physical scars and deafness from the incessant gunfire. Bromhead, one of the two lieutenants who commanded the post, would never speak of the battle and found it ‘most distressing’ when he was asked to write a report of the action.

A remake need not pander to modern identity politics to show a grittier look at the ferocity and tragedy of colonial warfare in the nineteenth century.

(See also my more in depth article on the Anglo Zulu War on my other site The Irish Story).

Zulu War
A real photograph of the Zulu commander at Rorke’s Drift, Dabulamanzi ka Mpande, with his bodyguard.

An American Parable: You Don’t Have to Live Like This

At his inauguration as President of the United States, Donald Trump spoke of an America few outside the country will have recognised. He spoke of ‘American carnage’ where American jobs had disappeared overseas, where crime ran out of control and inner cities collapsed into ruin.

Many, both inside and outside America rolled their eyes at the rhetoric and the ungracious language. And yet, lurking uncomfortably behind the bombast is an awkward reality.

America has serious problems; of deindustrialisation, the failure of public schooling; of continued racial segregation and hostility and above all, of the dominance of finance at the expense of the productive economy. In other words, ability to make money out of loans, hedge funds and derivatives, combined with the ability to business to locate where it wants, means that financiers have never been wealthier, while stable, well paid working and middle class jobs have become scarcer and scarcer.

Trump’s appeal is based on a nationalistic promise to turn all this around. To return the great industries to America, to bring crime back under control and one suspects, though it is not openly said, to restore white dominance over ungrateful, parasitic minorities.

Symbol of all this supposed decline is Detroit, once the home of the American motor industry, now a dying husk of city, large parts of which have been abandoned, its once grand buildings falling into decay, its population dwindling into a poverty stricken, largely African-American, core.

It is in Detroit that Benjamin Markovits’ thought-provoking novel, ‘You don’t have to live like this’ is set. Markovits’ book is, in its way, a kind of parable for how 21st century America has failed to solve its problems.

The main character, ‘Marny’ graduates from Yale with a history degree, spends some years working in a low-level teaching position in Britain (Wales to be exact) then returns home aged thirty and drifts in and out of his parent’s house in New Orleans. Similarly, his most erudite college classmates drift from job to job, while Robert James, the good looking ‘superficially intelligent’ ‘Greek God’ of his college dormitory, goes into finance and makes millions from a hedge fund.

This, it seems to me is the first parable of the book. Work that gives meaning to life is undervalued and underpaid. Work that is essentially meaningless, but incredibly lucrative, dominates modern life.

At one point Marny lectures his brother on the importance of community and of fulfilling work. His brother, a lawyer, responds that Americans don’t want fulfilment, time off or family life. ‘They want to make more money than their neighbour does, that’s how they know they’re winning’.

But Robert James, Marny’s college friend and hedge fund millionaire, is something of an idealist. He wants to use his wealth to finance a new community in Detroit that would repopulate an abandoned neighbourhood and bring it back to life. He compares his ‘settlers’, who are carefully hand-picked, with the early American colonists. Marny, his old college buddy, drifting and searching for purpose (he volunteers for the Obama presidential campaign in 2008), is among the first of this new breed of self-styled pioneers.

Here in miniature is the modern centre left (‘liberal’ in American terminology) utopia, of private capital funding social progress. The new neighbourhood, christened, ‘New Jamestown’ will be environmentalist, complete with its own farm, its residents, chosen, among other things for their diverse racial and gender profile, are provided with health insurance, they open ‘mom and pop’ shops and cafes. They are the model of a diverse, socially conscious, liberal community.

Like the 17th century pilgrims who landed on Plymouth Rock though, Robert James’ ‘settlers’ have to contend with the native population, not all of whom are thrilled to see the new arrivals take over the area. In post-industrial Detroit, the ‘natives’ are mostly black residual working class population.

Marny has run ins in particular with a gruff former American football player Nolan, who from the start makes clear that he sees ‘New Jamestown’ as ‘occupied territory’ and the gentrification project as ‘negro removal’. The two develop an uneasy friendship.

The narrator also embarks on an awkward romance with a local black school teacher but also cheats on her with a self-obsessed German self-styled filmmaker.

Ultimately the supposedly model community cannot escape the ingrained nature of racial and class division in American society. From the start the ‘settlers’ mount armed patrols and road blocks to keep their area safe from the ‘natives’. Without giving away the book’s plot completely, it all ends in chaos and destruction, as the locals perceive that police force and justice system have lined up with the settlers against them and respond with violence.

Just as ‘Black Lives Matter’ accuses police forces in America of shooting down black men without justification, so Marny’s black friends and girlfriend ultimately accuse him of siding with a racist justice system against them. No amount of well intentioned, privately-funded ‘social entrepreneurship’ can wish these problems away.

President Barrack Obama himself makes an appearance in the book, apparently to cheer on the project, but it is rumoured he ‘doesn’t trust these hedge fund guys’. And with good reason.

‘New Jamestown’ it turns out, is not really a philanthropic project to create an urban utopia, but rather a profitable investment for Robert James. The model community is, in the end merely a diversion, the real purpose being to buy up large vacant warehouses in Detroit to store waste metal.

Here then, is the book’s central parable. The idea of combining social idealism with finance capital failed, because the latter’s raison d’etre will always simply be profit. It failed to tackle real social and racial problems because it did not really address them.

Rather, as part of what was essentially a money-making scheme, it simply tried to create community of model consumers to replace the old awkward working class community. The ‘new’ community is completely dependent on the handouts of private capital, has no self-sustaining economic or social basis and folds as the first real problems emerge.

Marny, the main character and narrator, emerges from the ashes of ‘New Jamestown’ back where he started, without a real home, without a job or a partner and without a purpose.

If we could extend the imaginary world of Markovits’ intriguing novel into late 2016, we can imagine some of the ‘refugees’ from the failed project blaming the capriciousness of finance capital and voting for Bernie Sanders. But we could just as easily imagine others drawing the conclusion that the problem was ‘corrupt’ Democrats, their pie in the sky liberal scheme and their constituency, violent and ungrateful blacks. It is from here that Trump’s support base emerged.

Benjamin Markovits’ novel is not a ‘political’ book in a narrow sense, but it is an extremely thoughtful and insightful look at America in the era of Donald Trump.

Shakespeare and the Human Condition

Why Shakespeare, at the time of his 400th birthday, still matters today. By John Dorney

I am not a Shakespeare scholar, but I am an admirer.

I well remember my first encounter with Shakespeare. I was 15 years old and had to read The Merchant of Venice in school.

At first it seemed a grievous chore. The language was archaic English of course – ‘and thus verily do I truly think you doth…’ etc. – to the degree that it needed explanatory notes down the side, almost a translation, for a speaker of modern English to follow.

And there was more. My teenage self found an aversion, common I think to that age, to anything written more than 50 years previously. How, if it was written so long ago, in an age so different from ours, could it possibly be relevant to us? Weren’t all its ideas outmoded, all of its assumptions wrong?

Take The Merchant of Venice for instance. The play is essentially the story of an Italian Christian merchant, Antonio, who borrows money from a Jewish money lender called Shylock.

Antonio cannot pay back the loan after the ship his merchandise was on sinks, and Shylock attempts to collect, per the contract, a pound of his flesh. At the last minute, Antonio is improbably saved by the deus ex machina intervention of Portia, a wealthy heiress. The wicked Jew is ruined at the end.

On the surface, this seems to be a crude story of anti-Semitic prejudice, with an improbable plot twist. What quickly became apparent though, even to an adolescent was that in Shakespeare’s hands, the tale is full of complexity and human insight.

Antonio’s melancholy

Let’s start with Antonio, who is introduced with the speech, ‘in sooth [truth] I know not why I am so sad’. His friends ask him if he is worried about business, tell him to snap out of it, find himself a girlfriend, to occupy himself, but he finds he can’t; ‘It wearies me, you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff ‘tis made of, where of it is born, I am to learn’.

Anyone who has ever suffered a bout of depression or even melancholy knows all about this. The most difficult thing is understanding why one feels that way.

That Antonio embarks on a reckless, apparently altruistic escapade, guaranteeing his spendthrift friend Bassano’s loan is also typical of someone suffering from their own demons. He will do anything for what he thinks of as ‘redemption’ in the eyes of his friends, such is his feeling of guilt and worthlessness.

Shylock and the bitterness of the humiliated

Moving on to Shylock. The Jewish money lender is of course the bad guy in the story – at the time most Christians believed ‘usury’ or charging interest was a sin and Shylock, who demands human flesh is a grotesque parody of a Jewish ‘bloodsucker’.

But what really fascinated me upon my first reading was the power and insight Shakespeare gave the character. Shylock sets the punitive conditions for repayment of his loan to Antonio because Antonio has publicly insulted him, ‘scorned him’ as a Jew.

In Shylock’s famous speech one can feel the bitterness of the humiliated, ‘He hath disgraced me … Laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, Scorned my nation, Thwarted my bargains, And what’s his reason? I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? ‘

But also, and this is crucial, Shakespeare understood the bitter burning desire of the humiliated and powerless for revenge. Shylock continued ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?’

The feelings are not outdated, what Shakespeare captured are enduring features of the human condition. Injustice breeds hatred and bitterness more commonly than a virtuous desire for equality.

Macbeth and the logic of mass murder

My second meeting with Shakespeare was Macbeth, the bloody story of a power struggle for the throne in Scotland.

It so happened that as I was reading Macbeth in school, I was also learning about Stalin and the Soviet Union. What I learned in history was deeply shocking for a young man with socialist sympathies. How could the Soviets, supposedly the messengers of human progress have killed so many millions, in the gulags, before firing squads, and in torture chambers?

Loss of naive idealism is probably something we all go through at some point, but learning about the Stalinist period also posed a philosophical problem; How was it possible to suspend all human sympathy so as to commit such ghastly atrocities?

Oddly, Shakespeare’s Macbeth provided some answers . Macbeth first kills the incumbent king Duncan, partly out of ambition, partly at his wife’s urging, thinking that ‘it would be quickly done’. One act of bloodshed that could be quickly forgotten about, ‘a little water’ Lady Macbeth says, ‘clears us of this deed’.

But then Macbeth finds that once he has killed to seize power he must kill again, first to eliminate his friend Banquo, who suspects him of the King’s murder, then to do away with other rivals, and finally, to eradicate even potential rivals.

By now he has committed so many terrible acts it scarcely seems to matter if he commits more; ‘All causes shall give way. I am in blood. Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more. Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’

Stalin and other tyrants over the centuries no doubt thought much the same. Stalin is even supposed to have said, ‘One death is a tragedy, one million deaths are a statistic’. Whether he said it or not, it echoes alarmingly with Macbeth’s speech.

Shakespeare then, is not and probably never can be out of date. That he retains his place in English literature is no accident. In this age of hyper

information we learn from Shakespeare’s writing that we are not the first generations to confront human problems, nor even the best at understanding them.

Shakespeare remains, of course, a man of his time, but his insights into the human experience, as well as the beauty of his prose speak just as clearly to us today.

Review: The Man on Devil’s Island, Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France.

Man on Devil's Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair That Divided ...

Many of us with a passing interest in French and European history will have heard of the Dreyfus affair. Until reading Ruth Harris’s fine book The Man on Devil’s Island, though, I had little idea of the full story behind nor any real understanding of why ‘The Affair’ convulsed France throughout the 1890s.

Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish engineering officer in the French Army, was accused of spying for Germany, tried and convicted of treachery. Someone had leaked plans of French fortifications and new weapons to Germany, French intelligence came upon a letter offering to sell such secrets for money and Dreyfus, on the flimsiest of evidence, took the blame.

Alfred Dreyfus.

Dreyfus, a native of Alsace, the French province annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, came under suspicion initially because he had visited his home province to see relatives, which technically was an illegal visit to an enemy power. It did not help him either that he was Jewish and an ‘intellectual’ graduate of a polytechnique. He was thus, in the eyes of many of his fellow officers, a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ with no real ties to the French nation.

The sole actual evidence presented against Dreyfus was the intercepted letter or ‘bordereau’, which, by some convoluted logic, was pinned on Dreyfus. Despite the letter not matching Dreyfus’s handwriting (the Army concluded that the cunning Dreyfus must have forged his own handwriting so it would not match) and despite the real German spy, Ferdinand Esterhazy actually being uncovered two years later, Dreyfus was sentenced to penal servitude on the Devil’s Island in the Caribbean, where he was kept in what was effectively a wooden box for five years.

The crux of the Affair was that the Army court martial convicted Dreyfus based more on their own prejudices than real evidence. Even worse, once they had the evidence that he was innocent, the Army high command took the view that publicly reversing their verdict would damage the image of the military and could not be done. Certainly not on account of a ‘German Jew’.

And so, once the case was outlined and publicized, most prominently by the journalist and novelist Emile Zola in his famous letter ‘j’accuse’, France was split into two rival camps. The Dreyfusards, a coalition of left wing and liberal intellectuals, anti-clericals and, to a surprisingly small degree, the Jewish community, strove for Dreyfus’s release and for his pardon.

This, we might readily understand. Dreyfus was, after all, a patriotic Frenchman, who had left his native Alsace, after it was annexed by the Germans in 1871, to serve in the French Army. The case against him was so flimsy that it cried out to be rectified, the injustice so obvious it could hardly be ignored.

Two rival camps

More intriguing though, is what the case meant to the Dreyfusards. It was hardly at all about Dreyfus himself and far more about hammering what the left saw as the ignorant, prejudiced, reactionary right wing, sullied by monarchism and ‘obscurantist’ Catholicism. They, on the other hand, the Dreyfusards, represented progress, enlightenment, scientific principles, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Still, however arrogant, as Harris herself acknowledges, some Dreyfusards may have been, it is not difficult to see where they were coming from.

It is more difficult to understand what might have motivated the anti-Dreyfusards. And so it is perhaps more intriguing still to read about the anti-Dreyfusards, such as Edouard Dumont of the newspaper La Libre Parole. How could they have defended such an indefensible position? For them, it was not important whether Dreyfus was guilty, it was much more important that what they saw as the pillars of the French nation; the Army, Catholicism, the ‘purity of the French race’ not be sullied by a public reversal of the verdict of the Dreyfus case.

A Jew was after all, to their mind, not a real Frenchman. Even if Dreyfus was not the one who was selling military secrets to the Germans, it was certainly his supporters, a rabble of godless and deracinated intellectuals who were attempting to destroy ‘the eternal France’, by attacking the Army and the Church.

An Army major named Henry in 1898 admitted that he had forged evidence against Dreyfus and subsequently cut his own throat. Dreyfus was finally released in 1899 after a military court confirmed the verdict of guilty but Dreyfus was pardoned by the President Emile Loubet. But Dreyfus was not actually cleared of charges and re-admitted into the Army until 1906.

The Affair caused lifelong friendships to break up, saw bitter invective exchanged, witnessed street riots and even assassinations. Dreyfus’ lawyer at his retrial in 1899, Ferdinand Labori, was shot and wounded by an unknown gunman. Dreyfus himself survived an assassination attempt by an anti-Semitic journalist in 1908.

The origins of French secularism: 1903 not 1789

Perhaps the most important long term effect of the Dreyfus affair however came in the Republican reaction to it. The ‘Radicals’, a left wing Republican group, came to power in the election of the ‘Left Bloc’ in 1902, a coalition of Republicans, liberals and socialists, largely drawn together by the Dreyfus affair.

Determined to smash the ‘reactionary’ Catholics, who had to their mind, not only framed Alfred Dreyfus, but imperiled the Republic, they formally separated Church and state in France. Over 200 religious orders, accused of ‘obscurantist preaching’ were declared illegal and exiled from France. The Radicals purged the Army of pious Catholic officers and used troops to forcibly seize Church property.

One often assumes that French secularism dates back to the Revolution of 1789. In fact, as readers of this book will discover, it dates back to the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair. It was then, 1903, that it was decreed that no religious school could receive state funding and that no religious symbols could be displayed in the classroom or any other official building and that civil and that church marriages would be separate.

The anti-Semitic Right, despite its defeat in the Dreyfus affair, did not disappear and had its final real flourish in the wartime Vichy regime, which collaborated in sending thousands of French Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. After the Liberation of 1945, they were both defeated and discredited.

Today the Dreyfus affair has some quite frightening resonances in contemporary Europe. Europeans, and not only in France, are again divided into mutually antagonistic intellectual camps.

Echoes of the Affair today

One camp, who declare ‘refugees welcome here’ another, apparently on the rise, insisting that there is an active ‘clash of civilisations’ and that Muslim immigrants to Europe represent the ‘enemy within’. One camp, favouring European integration and liberal universalism, the other championing traditional national identity and , explicitly in the case of Britain, scorning the EU. One camp maintains that ‘terrorism has nothing to do with Islam’. The other that ‘Islam is a cancer’.

Just like the pro and ant-Dreyfusards in belle époque France, the two camps increasingly see each other as incomprehensible and despicable. Both see the other as a threat to European civilisation as they understand it.

It would be a mistake though, to totally equate those who fear and dislike Islam in Europe today to the anti-Dreyfusards of the 1890s. For unlike them, todays right wingers and nationalists champion secularism (in France especially) against Muslim religiosity.

The Dreyfusards believed above all that enlightenment, logic and faith in human dignity would, in the end, carry the day. We must hope they were right.

Some initial thoughts on the Coronavirus Pandemic

What WHO calling the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic means ...

Not having written on this blog for over a year, I decided to pen my thoughts on the Coronavirus pandemic. I’ll keep it short.

First; this is only the latest outbreak of new epidemic disease to come out of east Asia. One could go back to the ‘Asian Flu’ of 1957 or the ‘Hong Kong Flu’ of 1968, however of more immediate relevance is Sars in 2003, and H1N5 or avian flu in 2005. It has been speculated that the cause here is ‘wet markets’ in China where animals are both slaughtered and sold in the same location.

The animals sold include wild animals, including bats, which harbour a range of viruses that, due to mingling of different species’ blood and other  bodily fluids can ‘jump’ species and eventually infect humans.

While some, particularly in such unenlightened quarters as supporters of Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have used these circumstances to deflect the blame for the virus onto China, China does, it would seem, have a case to answer. One would hope that its government, at a minimum, can eliminate these sites of infection in the future.

China’s approach to the virus has also come under legitimate criticism for at first attempting to cover up the outbreak in Wuhan, even imprisoning doctors who highlighted it, and denying for a considerable period, that the disease could spread from human to human.

This criticism of China is fine, as far as it goes. The problem is that some appear to want to use it as an excuse for doing nothing themselves to combat the virus. Which brings me on to my second point.

China, certainly in an authoritarian manner, but also very effectively, managed to contain the virus in Hubei province and eventually to suppress it there.

Its neighbouring countries in east Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, through their experience with prior novel epidemics, have also managed to contain the virus through rigorous testing and isolation of patients. They have, as a result had comparatively very few deaths due to Covid 19.

Where the real failure has occurred has been in western Europe and now the United States. For whatever reason, lack of preparedness or complacency, perhaps, our European countries (and now America too) have absolutely failed to contain the virus, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths so far. This failure is of such magnitude that the east Asian countries, which appeared to have had the virus under control, are seeing a second wave of infections due to returning travellers from Europe and North America.

This is being little commented on here in Europe at the moment, but the truth is that we are paying a very high price, economically, socially, financially and most of all in human lives, for our complacency. We should have been prepared and we were not.

Even in relative ‘success stories’ in Europe such as Germany, deaths far outstrip those in South Korea: Germany has over 70,000 cases and about 850 deaths to date, by contrast, the Republic of Korea has 9,800 cases and 165 deaths. This is despite the latter being right beside China, with a massive volume of transport between  the two, and being unlucky enough to have a ‘super spreader’ in an evangelical church congregation. It is certainly not my intention to malign Italy at this time, but merely to note that it has now experienced around 12,000 deaths from the virus, more by a third than South Korea’s total number of cases.

If China’s neighbours were able to suppress the virus, European countries should have been able to do so also. Excuses that it was not possible to track and trace all travellers from China will not do. If Hong Kong, which is actually part of China, albeit with an autonomous government can do it, so could Italy, France, Spain, the United Kingdom and indeed Ireland. It is too late for recriminations now, but preparations for a pandemic should become an intrinsic part of national defence planning from now on.

Third and final point. It has become customary to graft on to the pandemic one’s political and social agenda. E.g. the pandemic shows we must have a nationalised health service, it spells the end for the Trump presidency (or of capitalism itself to some commentators), in Ireland it shows the senselessness of partition on a small island. And so on.

It is far too early to say what the full economic and social implications of this shutdown of almost the entire developed world will be, but the results will be unpredictable and will not fall into anyone’s ideology. The pandemic will almost certainly not cause, as some appear to hope the world to fall into the template which they wish it to.

My only hope is that at least the minimum lessons about preventing another global pandemic can be learned.




Some thoughts on Brexit

Image result for brexitNo doubt the world has been waiting with baited breath for my thoughts on Britain’s tortuous efforts to leave the European Union. All two readers of this blog will now have the chance.

I do not pretend that my thoughts are especially well informed or insightful, but anyway, here goes.

First, I want to start with an unpopular opinion, in Ireland anyway. I can see some reasons why British citizens would want to leave the EU. If you are worried about national sovereignty, it is true that the EU increasingly intrudes upon it. European Law is now superior to national law in many respects. For instance, in Ireland, where it had become common to use, as evidence in court, text messages sent electronically, the European Court of Justice has recently ruled that such evidence is inadmissible.

In the case of Graham Dwyer, who was found guilty of murder in 2015, this may lead to the quashing of his conviction. Now whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, this and other examples does show that increasingly European law is being decided at the centre and that this overrides laws made in national parliaments. For those who consider that democracy is vested in national sovereignty, this is a legitimate concern.

Secondly, there are those who are hostile to large scale migration from the poorer parts of Europe to the UK under the EU. Now this is not a particularly attractive idea, but it is, at least, not a fantasy or a lie. There has been extremely large scale migration from eastern Europe to Britain and this has put strain on housing, service and wage rates.

Thirdly, and this is an idea I have very little sympathy with, most of the conservative ‘Brexiteers’ appear to believe that Britain could strike far better trade deals outside of the EU than within it. Frankly this is rather hard to believe. Why would a medium sized European country that no longer has its own manufacturing base to any large degree hold more sway than the largest block of economically developed countries in the world?

And what is more, the neoliberal (I had to use that word at least once) enthusiasts for Brexit surely do not have much sympathy for the working class voters who are concerned about immigration. But I digress, the point here is that such people appear to believe that Brexit would have economic benefits. Let’s assume that this is a sincere belief.

If the above points are worth the massive dislocation in leaving the largest, richest and freest block of countries anywhere is the world is a matter of opinion. I would suggest that they do not. But I want to make another point. To take such a grave decision required a British Prime Minister and cabinet who (a) had a strong electoral mandate to do it, (b) had been working on draft plans on it for years and had a clear agenda and (c) had campaigned and won a general election on this basis. That is how the British parliamentary system is supposed to work.

Instead, David Cameron recklessly called a referendum to try to overcome internal opponents within his own party. The referendum was disfigured by systematic untruths, mostly by the leave side, followed by a very narrow victory for ‘leave’ followed by Cameron, the Prime Minister’s resignation. Instead of there being a strong prime minister leading Brexit, there is no leadership at all.

Referenda are not part of the British constitutional system (unlike Ireland as it happens) but instead of elected representatives leading the country, which is how the British system is supposed to work, they being led by a highly fractious, one time only vote, which gives them no clear guidance on the most fundamental and crucial issues.

There does not even appear to be consensus on matters as basic as whether or not Britain should stay within the EU’s free trade and regulatory area. Theresa May, who I will unkindly, but I think not inaccurately, call the default prime minister, appears not to have a problem with it, but cannot get her scheme approved in parliament.

Naturally, here in Ireland, the preoccupation is with the Border between the two states on the island. Here again, it was quite clear that this would be a hugely problematic issue and the main problem here is not that the British wish ill on us or wish to refortify the border, but rather that there has been no planning at all for this logically inevitable problem.

Perhaps what the whole saga really shows is the rot of the British (and perhaps not just the British) system of representative government. Having been accustomed for far too long to marketing type campaigns in order to try to win votes, its politicians seem incapable of doing what they are in fact supposed to do, which is govern the country, to solve problems and to plan for the future.

Fascism 2.0?

Image result for fascism

Back in 1940, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled ‘Inside the Whale’. The basic premise is that, like the Biblical character Jonah, stuck inside a whale, the average person could live through great storms on the outside, terrible wars and great world events, but remain relatively unaffected in their own lives. The ‘whale’ or outside world could swim through the terrific storms and all kinds of tribulations, but deep inside its belly Orwell, like Jonah heard only faint echoes of them.

Now Orwell himself experienced more than most. By the time he wrote ‘Inside the Whale’, he had just come back from the Spanish Civil War, where he had gone to fight fascism, been shot in the throat and then nearly been arrested by his own side for belonging to the ‘wrong’ left wing faction.

But recently, metaphor of living inside the whale, in our cosy western bubble has been recurring in my mind. Our lives go on as before and yet we can see around us, as Orwell did in the 1930s and 40s, our world descending into crisis, with dysfunctional politics, the rise of a new authoritarianism and impending environmental catastrophe.

And even inside our ‘whale’ we are beginning to be buffeted by the storms outside.

Who can go to France or Italy or Spain and not see the thousands of African or middle eastern migrants on the beaches and around the train stations; products of the obscene inequality between Europe and their home countries and the zone of war that stretches from Iraq to Chad?

Who has not seen or heard, just beneath the surface, the anger of European populations at what some regard as an ‘invasion’? Or noticed how the far right; the Front National in France, the AFD in Germany, and others have become mainstream parties? Ireland felt only the faintest echo of this recently in surprisingly large electoral vote of presidential candidate Peter Casey.

Who, who has met any Turks or Russians, can fail to see how they will no longer speak about politics in public, afraid of the consequences of saying the wrong thing? The same does not yet apply to Brazilians or citizens of the United States, but it might in the near future.

And who above all, can fail to notice the radically changing pattern of our weather? Even in Ireland in the last year we have had a hurricane, numerous storms, a freezing winter and a scorching summer all in 2018.

And yet all, apparently goes on as before. The whale is swimming into an oil spill. I will not pretend to have any solutions, but I will suggest some causes.

First, the world we have created is one of unparalleled complexity. The human population has grown to a level never before seen and it is consuming resources faster than ever before. At the same time, the almost instant passage of information makes the poor more aware than ever of their plight and determine to live in the ease to which the rich are accustomed.

This makes the management even of developed countries increasingly complex and difficult. In part, I think, the rise of authoritarianism is due to frustration at a world that is increasingly difficult to understand, increasingly full of uncaring ‘others’ who get in one’s way and full of apparently intractable problems.

Where the growth of this kind of society has outpaced the state and its law more rapidly, and where inequality has been sharpest, as in, say Mexico, Brazil, the Phillipines or South Africa, it has also seen an explosion in crime and murder, as well as corruption. The desire for a strongman, a Duterte or a Bolsonaro, or even a Trump to provide simple, violent solutions to such problems is a powerful siren call.

Historian Timothy Snyder describes this phenomenon as ‘sado-populism’ whereby leaders such as for instance Vladimir Putin in Russia or Victor Orban in Hungary or Recep Tayip Erdogan in Turkey, are unable to really solve fundamental problems like massive inequality or corruption, so instead offer their followers consolations in retreating to religious tribalism and nationalism and offering them victories over outside ‘enemies’.

Even in western countries, such is the complexity of a modern economy and so skewed are its rewards that many long for powerful simple solutions to strike at their perceived ‘enemies’ – immigrants, ethnic minorities, the underclass – and solve their problems.

I want to make one more point here, however. The rise of right wing authoritarians, now as in the 1930s is not caused by people becoming more stupid or more prejudiced. It is caused by the objective failure of liberalism – which I will define here as an economic system allowing for free movement of capital and unregulated labour and a political system based on individual rights and freedoms to address these problems.

Brazilians are not wrong to be worried about crime and corruption. Nor are Americans wrong to worry that working class jobs can no longer buy a house or health care. In all probability neither Trump nor Bolsonaro will solve these problems, but and this must be emphasised, neither did Lula or Obama.

Secondly, at the same time as hyper consumption and production has been globalised, the planet simply cannot cope. Humans are consuming and otherwise destroying resources faster than these can be replaced. With an ideology of ‘economic growth’ that actually demands that we increase the level of consumption every year, this is set to continue and if what we used to call the Third World is ‘developed’ the process will accelerate even faster.

While scientists inform us that we have a mere twelve years to avoid catastrophic climate change and that we have killed about 70% of natural wildlife in the last fifty years, nothing changes.

How does this relate to the rise of authoritarianism? One way, is that authoritarianism is western countries is very largely being driven by hostility to mass migration. And that mass migration is in part being caused by rising temperature making parts of the world uninhabitable.

In another way, the new authoritarians are a driver of this impending disaster. Trump has disbanded the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. Bolsonaro threatens to allow unrestricted logging in the Amazon. These are more complex impediments to ‘our riches’ as Bolsonaro has said that must be removed.

But again, the likes of Angela Merkel, Barrack Obama and Emannuel Macron have also failed to really address this, the central issue of our time. I say this not to relativise the dangers of climate change or the irresponsiblity of the new authoritarians, but to point out that tackling it requires changes much more fundamental than mainstream politics is prepared to carry out.




Air traveller or prisoner?

I do not do much travelling. In fact I have hardly left Ireland at all in the past ten years. This is not because I do not like to see new places. On the contrary, I love seeing new places. Rather, it is because I absolutely loathe the experience of air travel.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not scared of flying. No, what I intensely dislike is the experience of getting an aeroplane. Most likely, any readers will already know exactly what I’m going to say, nevertheless, here’s my story.

In times gone past, a traveller on an aeroplane was treated like royalty. And this is most likely because they were, if not actually members of a royal family then certainly as rich as one.

Today, in the era of mass air transport (and of course random terrorism) the air traveller is actually treated more like a prisoner. Ponder this: in what other feat of endeavour does one have to queue endlessly for several hours, to get into a narrow space, have to pass through a security barrier that requires the removal of all personal possessions and then (in some cases, including mine, on my most recent trip) an invasive body search?

That’s right, the answer is: prison. Then on disembarking more queues, a surly check of one’s passport to make sure one is who one says one is. Once again, in what other area of human activity are you so closely watched, corralled and inconvenienced?

And in between the herding of humans that a modern airport is, you must sit tightly packed with hundreds of other sweating, irritable humans, wiling away the hours in the most uncomfortable of positions.

Next time, I’m taking the boat.


Why the League of Ireland isn’t better than the English Premier League (but it is)


The new League of Ireland season is about to roll around and I approach it with some trepidation.

As a Shamrock Rovers supporter (fan is the wrong word here, you are not generally a ‘fan’ of things that cause you so much frustration, grief and occasionally embarrassment), the prospects for the coming year look mediocre. Probably Dundalk will win the league again, for the fourth time in five years. Cork will probably come second and the Hoops will probably come third. Maybe we’ll do something in the cup (for the first time since 1987).

Around this time of year, LOI fans will generally write things like, ‘the LOI is better than the English Premier League (or whatever it’s called nowadays, I thought it was called the Premiership of something) because of the community, the atmosphere, the realness etc’.

Now I want to introduce a dose of realism here. Just because it’s more honest. In terms of the quality of football, the LoI is not better than the English top flight. Standards here have improved in my time (about 25 years now) of watching the Irish domestic league, but standards in the English top flight have sky rocketed in that period.

Watching (as I very occasionally do) Qatari Manchester City (the original Manchester City, the one Niall Quinn played for, was a very different creature) it’s impossible not to be awed by the technique, the fitness and the athleticism of the players. Let’s not pretend that we can match that, because we can’t.

Don’t get me wrong, you can see some good football in the LoI – Rovers’ battles with Dundalk last year were as full throated and attacking as you could wish to see, but nothing of the standard across the water.

So we might argue also that, ok, technically we inhabit a different planet in the LoI, but at least our games are more exciting; less diving, less defensive play, less cagey football. Sadly this is nor really true either, at least not anymore. The tactics of risk averse football – with one striker (maximum) and endless aimless passing the ball around between the defenders, followed by an aimless ball forward, it doesn’t matter so long as you still have most of the team behind the ball in a defensive posture – have also seeped into the League of Ireland.

Under Trevor Crolly and Pat Fenlon at Rovers, we had to put up with so many excruciating games where basically nothing of any note would happen, that it made you want to scream. Like everywhere else, the football in the LoI is sometimes great, mostly mediocre and sometimes god-awfully dull.

Diving, which you almost never saw in the LoI when I started going to games has also crept in, indeed it’s as routine here now as it is everywhere else. I always remember seeing Matt Britton, a Rovers fullback, in around 1998 (today he sells carpets and has successful chain of shops), nearly breaking a Dundalk player in half in an over the ball tackle on the main stand side of Tolka Park, in reprisal for some previous tackle.

And the Dundalk player ( I forget who it was), just got up, limped for a bit until the pain went away and got on with it. That would never happen now. The player would roll around on the ground long enough to try to make sure Britton was sent off and his manager would go ballistic on the touchline demanding the same.

So we can’t really claim moral superiority in that regard either.

But here is where I get to the rub. Despite not being terribly excited about the new LoI season, I will still go to most Rovers home games and some away ones in the Dublin area, whereas I do not plan to watch any English football, either live or highlights, in the immediate future.

And the same basically goes for the Champions League. I might watch it if it’s on, but I feel no attraction towards it anymore. None at all. (And, just to be clear, Rovers-supporting notwithstanding, I used to watch both religiously).

Why is this?

Because top level football today is an utter circus, to the extent that it is demeaning to the viewer. Competitive football is in a sense, absurd anyway – putting so much energy and emotion into the efforts of a group of young men trying to kick or otherwise propel a ball between two sets of posts.

But we invest it with meaning because it embodies so many of the things that are, rightly, very important to us; teamwork, hard work, dedication, mastery of a skill, belonging. And, importantly, it also gives us clear, easy to understand, measures of victory and defeat, which are so difficult to mark out in day to day life, and which, psychologically, I think we need. But all of this depends to an extent on the sincerity of those engaged in the spectacle.

Today in the English Premier League it is impossible to believe in this sincerity. A player, before he even kicks a ball, will likely be paid far more in a single week than an average spectator could earn in a year. I am not exaggerating. The average weekly wage of a player in the top flight of the English game is £44,0000 or about 60,000 euro. While average yearly wage in England is £27,000 and in Ireland 35,000 euro.

And the top players in England are paid far more than this.

In these circumstances it’s impossible to believe that the players actually really care about the results or the clubs they are playing for. Why would they? Regardless of what they do, they will be massively rewarded. Nor in any case, do the players assembled expensively from every country in the world in a club like Manchester City or Chelsea, or even Manchester United – a much diminished club – have any emotional connection with the club they are playing for.

Now maybe there is no connection between these facts and the fact that most English games today seem to be listless pallid affairs, but I think that there is.

So if English or indeed Irish fans of English teams want to pretend to get excited about a bunch of apathetic millionaires pretending to care about winning games for ‘their’ club, or worse, paying their own money to pay such a cadre of overpaid spoilt children, well that is up to them. But personally I find the idea of investing any emotion, let alone money, in such a farce offensive.

It wasn’t always like this, I look back on clips of English football of my youth in the late 1980s early 1990s and even up to about 2000 and it can still make me smile. But not anymore.

So here’s my point. The League of Ireland for all its many faults, is still part of the real world, not just a scam to take money away from ordinary people and give it to millionaires. The players cannot be doing it just for the money because there simply isn’t enough to make it worthwhile. The annual average LoI wage is about 16,000 euros and even the best paid players only make about 40,000 a year from football. Oddly this makes them seem to care far more.

I can cycle to Tallaght, lock my bike outside, pay 15 euro for a ticket, watch games with people from all walks of life (the LoI is a predominantly working class sport, but supporters actually come from all social backgrounds) and watch young men who have trained hard and who want to win and who, for the most part, seem proud to play for the club. (Thank you, by the way, to Stephen Bradley, who restored my faith in Rovers teams doing this after the aforementioned Crolly and Fenlon era.)

So there it is. I can’t argue that our league is better than the English Premier League by any objective standard, but I will be consuming 100% more of one than of the other.