Kobane and virtual war

kobane

The 21st century is a strange, strange place.

Like almost everyone in the world outside Kurdish populated areas of northern Syria, I had never heard of the town of Kobane before the summer of 2014.

Kobane is a small city, roughly the size of Galway, in Irish terms, squeezed up against the Turkish border with Syria. Apparently it got its name from a Kurdish corruption of the word ‘Company’ because it developed as a railway hub in the early 20th century when European companies built the railways in what was then the Ottoman Empire. Officially though, in the Syrian Arab Republic it was known as Ayn al Arab.

Had it not been for the Syrian Civil War, people would probably still not have heard of Kobane and for that its 50,000 or so inhabitants would have been very grateful. Today they are scattered as refugees across Turkey, Syria and Iraq, or if they have returned to the shattered, bombed out city, are probably sleeping in the ruins of their houses.

But this is not the strangest thing about Kobane. Death and destruction has been visited on dozens of Syrian towns and cities without the rest of the world paying undue attention. No the strangest thing about Kobane is that the desperate battle waged there from September 2014 to January 2015 was followed across the world, literally ‘in real time’ by millions of people. And I was one of those people.

ISIS and the YPG

The insurgent group calling itself Dawla al Islamya fa Iraq wa al Sham (Daesh to its enemies) or in English ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or laterally, the Dawla Islamya (Islamic State or IS) swept across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, taking the city of Mosul and much of central Iraq and then attacking the Kurdish north.

From its advance, across the internet, came the most appalling images, heads cut off by grinning bearded fighters. Hosts of desperate teenagers (Iraqi Army cadets and Syrian conscripts) machine gunned into mass graves. Prisoners hoisted one by one to an execution place beside the Tigris River and then shot in the head. The Yezidis a minority Kurdish speaking sect, driven completely out of their homes to die on a barren mountain. All this happened within two months. All was filmed gloatingly and promoted on twitter and other social media by the group’s supporters.

The ideology of ISIS (an ultra-extreme form of Islamism) may not be unique, nor its violence (though horrific) unprecedented in the context of the chaos that has engulfed Iraq since 2003 and Syria since 2011. What was different was its unashamed promotion of its violence and its exposition to the world. It was saying; ‘we do not think this is wrong, we are proud of these atrocities and we will use them to impose our ideology’. They quickly became demon figures in popular culture.

And against them, the world needed heroes. The shambolic Iraqi Army did not fit the bill, nor the Syrian Army of the dictator Bashar al Assad, nor the Syrian rebels groups, themselves largely inspired also by political Islam. The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga seemed a better bet. But better yet was the Syrian Kurdish militia the YPG. The YPG (People’s Protection Units) was formed to defend Kurdish area of northern Syria when that country collapsed into civil war. It was largely sponsored by the Turkish Kurdish (excuse the shorthand, any Kurdish readers) guerrilla group the PKK.

It carved out three autonomous parts (‘cantons’) of Syria, Afrin, Cizire and alone in the centre, Kobane.

The YPG and its women’s militia the YPJ espoused and to some extent implemented, a radical egalitarian programme. For instance for every male official there must be a female one. Women fought alongside men. All localities must elect a committee which makes all local decisions. Despite being Kurdish nationalists, the YPG worked with all the other ethnic groups in areas under its control. It was the YPG which rescued the Yezidis from extermination on Mount Sinjar.

So when, in September 2014 ISIS forces attacked the YPG held city of Kobane, it seemed a genuine case of angels against demons.

Now in reality the YPG and their PKK sponsors are no angels. They are a highly authoritarian militaristic organisation, with a violent history, like any organisation involved in prolonged guerrilla war. But this did not seem important at the time.

Attack on Kobane

The battle for Kobane was a horrendous four month attritional killing match, largely fought out among the ruined buildings of Kobane itself.

I was not there.

What I am going to be write about here is how, in a very strange way, I and others experienced it. I awoke one morning and found a Guardian headline saying ISIS had taken 60 villages around Kobane.

Moving to twitter, one could get hourly updates, many of them, by Daesh sympathisers showing grinning fighters gloating over dead Kurds, lined up at their feet. Dead Kurds including beautiful young women, disfigured by bombs or bullets. One photo showed, or purported to show, a teenaged YPG prisoner having his throat cut. And all the more repulsive was the commentary. Of the dead female fighters, one wrote, ‘comfort women by night, cannon fodder by day’. Of the young murdered prisoner, ‘look now at the big bad communist PKK’.

Now here’s the strange thing about personal engagement in war. Seeing the pictures of dead young Kurdish fighters inspired in me immense, genuine sorrow. I would look at the shattered bodies and see bright beautiful young people whose lives had been snatched away. But when the YPG posted their pictures of killed Daesh, I thought either, ‘good’, ‘fuck them’ or else ‘not enough’. Dehumanisation comes easily to us when we pick sides.

For several weeks fighting ebbed and flowed in the countryside, each day maps posted up online showed Daesh creeping closer to Kobane itself. At times the YPG would counter attack, and the yellow lines on the map would expand. Pictures posted up on twitter by Kurds would show the horrible black flag begin thrown down by YPG fighters and replaced with the yellow flag with red star of the YPG. And I would punch the air. I was filled full of admiration for the bravery of the Kurdish fighters. I would play punk versions of Spanish Civil War songs on my computer. ‘No Pasaran’, ‘Madrid que bien resistes’.

But ISIS had the upper hand in numbers and weapons. The videos they would post up showed them advancing in tanks, with self-propelled artillery and in disciplined formations. They reached Kobane itself it the first week of October. The virtual war now took on an even more surreal dimension. Several hundred metres away from the actual fighting was the Turkish border, where foreign journalists and Kurds could watch the battle in relative safety. So now one could get live actual reports and live footage from the battlefield.

A Kurdish activist calling himself Cahit Storm hid in a pepper field just over the border and morosely told his followers that the Black flag had appeared on hills and buildings inside Kobane. Mishtenur Hill, 600m high overlooking the town fell to ISIS after a bitter battle in which the Kurds used , at least once, suicide bombers. Within hours the pro-PKK twitter accounts were referring to ‘the martyr Arin Mirkan’.

As Daesh fighters took over the hill a panicked Kurdish tweeter named Kovan Direj called desperately for air-strikes, ‘Strike them! Strike them!’ he wrote. We, those of us following the fighting with an increasing sense of dread, felt as if it was actually happening to us. A Spanish journalist on the border, Lluis Miguel Hurtado, tweeted ‘without the hill defending the town would be a utopia.’

Pictures appeared online of grinning Daesh militants holding up the severed head of a ponytailed female YPG fighter. Hours later the Kurds posted a picture of his own dead body. ‘Karma didn’t take long for this motherfucker’ someone wrote.

As the Kurds were pushed back into a corner of the town, it was becoming apparent that the situations was desperate. Cahit Storm wrote on twitter, ‘you have no idea how difficult it is watching Kobane falling to Daesh’. Kobane came to dominate my thoughts. I even dreamed of it constantly. Every time I was away from the internet for any period I immediately checked it with a sense of dread expecting to hear the worst. It got so that I would only log in going straight to trusted pro-Kurdish twitter accounts. I didn’t want to hear bad news from any Islamo-fascist gloating over the latest atrocity, nor to see pictures of their dress-clad bitches under their insect-black flag.

At the same time Turkey closed its border, refused all help to pass through its territory and shot down in dozens the pro-PKK Kurds who demonstrated in support of Kobane on its streets.

But the worst never quite happened. I was part of a twitter storm asking the US first for air-strikes and then for an airdrop for the beleaguered Kurds. And miraculously, both occurred. Seeing packages of the parachuted arms ammunitions and first aid supplies dropping form the air, I again punched the sky. And suddenly Cahit Storm and others were reported massive explosions from American bombers in the ISIS-held part of Kobane. What do you know, I thought, just occasionally the Americans get around to bombing the right people.

But that was not the end of the battle. Far from it. It became a slugging match in which the YPG forces held doggedly on to their enclave in the west of Kobane, while ISIS tried to dislodge them with suicide truck bombs and mass assaults. Meanwhile the US Air Force relentlessly pounded the ISIS positions. It was grim, bloody urban warfare. The toll it took on actual participants, both in terms of lives lost and trauma inflicted must have been awe-inspiring. Oddly enough the relentless attrition also took its toll of twitter warriors.

Several seemed to succumb to a kind of combat exhaustion as the fighting dragged on.

Here’s what I wrote, privately in early November 2014. ‘What’s going to happen I just don’t know. There’s a part of me that just wants it to be over. The twitter updates, the smashed up bodies. I want it all to end. Maybe the peshmerga will get in in time. Maybe not. If not let’s be honest it’s all over for the YPG fighters in Kobane. In the most gruesome way. I can’t even think about that.’

Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga forces with artillery and mortars did get in. In January 2015 the Americans stepped up air-strikes and the town, what was left of it, was liberated.

It was a great victory over what looked like certain defeat for the forces of humanity. A huge Kurdish flag was planted over the re-taken Mishtenur Hill. It was of course a huge relief for those of us who had been caught up in the drama from far away. But I wonder, if any others, like me felt a little ashamed of themselves.

I blocked all the pro-ISIS accounts I have come across, so now I never see pictures of YPG dead. I do see, increasingly, pictures of heaps of Daesh dead. And I don’t even think anymore, well that is regrettable, but in the end it will save lives.’ Nor do I even think, ‘fuck them’. I just think ok, looks like a good day then’.

 

 

 

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Commemoration fatigue and fatigue in general

republic flagI write this post as a kind of Easter Rising therapy.

Why? You may ask. My other website The Irish Story today, Easter Sunday has got around 10,000 hits, by far its best ever. I was on national television, commentating (intermittently) on the state’s 1916 commemorations. I’ve had a series of articles in the national press (ok online only, but still)

I organised a series of talks on the Rising for the People’s College and am down to give two more talks this spring on 1916. All good, no? This is what you wanted isn’t it?

Interest in early 20th century Irish has never and probably never will be greater than now on the centenary of the 1916 insurrection.

So what’s wrong with me? One problem is that I very foolishly decided to write a book on an unrelated subject at he same time. Another problem with trying to get swept along by the tide of Rising mania is that you get sucked into to its poisonous debates. One of the article I wrote for the newspaper featured comment calling me a ‘mendacious revisionist’.

The problem with national myths is that you’re not supposed to question them. Or if you want to question them at least align yourself with a substantial other faction. I’ve never been very good at this. With the result that my every utterance on the Rising is accompanied by a sense of dread. I have not actually been very controversial nor received much abuse. And yet I find myself worrying about this every time I type a sentence on the Rising or open my mouth on it in public.

The 2016 commemorations are a good thing if you’re interested in Irish history. Not for the great new insights, centenaries are not great for that, but for the public interest which allows those of us who do care to get our research and our thoughts across.

But right now I just feel tired. I feel stressed with having to mediate the public’s mood and put across the right messages. And I want to sleep.

 

Some thoughts on St Patrick’s Day

1St-Pat_2845820b

These are my memories of St Patrick’s Day when I was a kid ;

My Dad (and possibly my Mum but I mostly remember my Dad) would take me into the parade. We would park somewhere near the quays but it wasn’t too much of a problem as there wouldn’t be all that many people in town anyway.

It would always (but always) be freezing cold. Normally a freezing wind would sweep up the Liffey and scour you to the bone. Your fingers would turn slowly blue as you clutched your little Irish flag.

And then the parade. First would come the Irish Army band – which for a young boy was exciting enough – some of the soldiers had real guns! – with the big drums whose sound would reverberate in your belly in a satisfying way.

Then the American majorettes, – girls in swimming costume types outfits twirling batons and, like your fingers, turning blue in the cold and then some other Irish-Americans, who having made the pilgrimage to the old sod, would actually just be walking along slapping each others backs in congratulation. I remember feeling vaguely pitying towards them all.

But what really sticks in my mind about those Dublin St Patrick’s days of the 1980s and 90s was not the above. No what I really remember was the essential dullness of the parade. This was summed up in roughly every fourth float, which was a plain truck with a loudspeaker. ‘A.D.A (pause) SECURITY’ it would drone on a loop. Over and over. ‘A.D.A – SECURITY’. This wasn’t just one year, this was every year.  For several years.

What was ADA security? I have no idea. Why was it in the St Patrick’s Day parade? Don’t know.

Just to check I didn’t hallucinate this, I asked my sister, who remembers the same thing. And my Dad who tells me it was intended as an exposition of Irish industry (stop that laughing).

It seems symptomatic of the half-assed way we did things in Ireland at that time. We used to secretly snigger at the few tourists (usually Irish American) who were suckers enough to fall for it. We used to also marvel at the St Patrick’s Day parades they apparently had in America itself. With rivers turned green, green beer and assorted other random green bullshit. I remember gazing in wonder at the film The Fugitive in around 1993 and wondering at the massive St Patrick’s Day parade in Chicago that takes place in the background of several scenes.

Anyway at some point people worked out that what St Patrick’s day needed in Dublin was to be ‘festival’. As Rio had the Carnival we would St Patrick’s Day. So some time in the late 1990s – I’m tempted to say 1998 but I’m too lazy to look it up – Paddy’s Day became a kind of extravaganza with fireworks, dancers and bongo drums. ADA Security whoever they were, were sent packing to whence they came.

For me this marks an important cultural shift in Ireland. From really not caring and going through the motions regarding our culture to making it all up from scratch to make extra money out of tourists.

Now in or around the same time, whether connected or not, St Patrick’s Day in Dublin became an absolute orgy of drink fuelled mayhem. Maybe it was always like this and I didn’t realise. But from about 2000 onwards, St Patrick’s Day grew to be an annual hunting season for gangs of feral drunk teenagers. I remember one such day around 2009  I was cycling around the Royal Canal, somewhere near Finglas when I encountered a friendly Garda. Was this, I innocently asked him a busy day for him? He merely looked at me sagely. That night the news reported the riot squad had been called out in Finglas.

On another occasion in or around the same period I happened to be drinking in a pub in Phibsborough on the day. It was the one and only occasion when, like the western saloons of the movies, the entire pub became embroiled in a drunken fist fight after a disagreement between two men. This was at about 4 pm.

The modern St Patricks’ Day in Dublin is a strange hybrid, the odd moment whereby thousands and thousands of young people come to the city from across the world for what they think it is the beer-fueled party to end all beer fueled parties. Unaware that the sensible citizen stays at home for the day and they share the city streets with that portion of the population that has been gagging all year for a spot of drunken mayhem.

The following is my facebook entry from March 18, 2012.

Went into the city centre for a while yesterday but it’s all just too mental. Garda riot squad pursuing a mob down O’Connell Street, your shoes sticking to the ground because of all the spilt drink, broken glass everywhere, packs of drunk teenagers. All the pubs and streets absolutely rammed with people. And half the people at least seemed to be Brazilian or Spanish. I like Brazilians and Spaniards but it’s just weird to hear so many people wrapped in tricolours talking away in Portuguese and Spanish, especially on Paddy’s day. Decided I was getting too old for this and needed a good strong cup of tea. The police are virtually under siege all day. However I also want to report seeing a garda bringing a case full of beer bottles into a certain station yesterday evening, just so they wouldn’t feel left out I suppose.

In the end all the participants get something out of it after all…

Wicklow 200 2014 – Sebastian Strikes Back

rain w200 2014

Readers of Dorneythoughts will have encountered already the story of our 2013 Wicklow 200 and Sebastian’s unfortunate demise right on the brink of finishing.

As 2014 rolled around there were ominous signs. Sebastian had armed himself with; heart rate monitor, cadence monitor, turbo trainer, and most importantly, an all carbon bike with Italian flag painted on the side. None of this boded well. I had since developed mild ashtma – the unfortunate product of a viral chest infection and stag weekend in Brussels – and had been off the bike for nearly two months. I noticed the return of a moderately sized belly.

When cycling I began to notice too Sebastian’s rear  wheel beginning to get away from me and to fade into the distance as I huffed and puffed up climbs. This was ominous as Sebastian is a competitive type and had long sworn vengeance on the Wicklow 200 and me in particular for the debacle of 2013. I steeled myself for a long arduous day of chasing him around Wicklow.

As it turned out though it was to prove as much a battle against the elements as with Sebastian.

One of the most difficult things about the W200 is actually its early start – 700 am in Greystones, meaning that most riders turn up knackered and sleep deprived even before it starts. So it was with us. We managed to get there in plenty of time this year, but as we did, the heavens opened. Great streaks of rain piled down the car windscreen as we pulled into the carpark, where hundreds of riders were milling around.

I went for a quick toilet break, hanging up my helmet on a coat hanger outside the cubicle but keeping on my little peaked cycling cap, which I would need to keep out the rain. After we registered and pulled away, joining hundreds of riders up the first climb of the day, the Long Hill, the rain eased off a little. During the climb (just a warm up for the real things later) I chatted with guys from the Dublin Fire Brigade cycling club. At the top the sun even came out for a moment, displaying my shadow beside me. I looked at it. Then I patted my head. I turned to Sebastian, ‘I’m not wearing my helmet’. ‘Oh yeah’ he said.

I’m not a helmet warrior, when commuting by bike (as opposed to ‘proper’ cycling) I usually don’t wear one. But (a) the rules of the W200 demand you must wear one at all times and (b) today of all days, with increasingly heavy rain and long dangerous descents it would’ve given me some peace of mind. Too late to turn back now though. I just had to put up with the odd steward shouting at me, ‘where’s your helmet man?’

helmetless w200

On the road to Laragh there was not rain. There was a deluge. We sloshed through rivers that flooded the road before taking the turn right up towards the 8km long climb of the Wicklow Gap. The previous year we had done this climb in baking sun. This year streams of water passed us going the other way as we ground up the Gap. Rainwater sluiced off our waterproof jackets. I say ‘we’ but in fact I saw Sebastian only for the first half of the climb. The previous year I had had to wait from him on this climb, but now he was dropping me. I just gritted my teeth and met him at the top.

Descending in the rain is not a joy. Particularly not when helmetless. Faster riders zipped past us, throwing up sprays of muddy water. About halfway down I realised my brakes were no longer really slowing me down and just let go. On the long flat stretch from Hollywood to Baltinglass I was for the first time, grateful for Sebastian’s increased prowess, chewing his back wheel as he rode me up to a big, fast group of club riders. I got a couple of funny looks. ‘Do you know you’re not wearing a helmet?’ Sigh. ‘You see what happened was…’

A soggy food stop in Baltinglass. So far so good. But the hard part starts now. The rolling countryside through Hacketsown and back towards Aughavanagh really saps you. Particularly in this weather. And I spend most of it chasing Sebastian, who seemed particularly keen to drop me. The hardest part of the W200 is a middle section with three climbs one after the other. First a 2km dash up Aughavanagh. Then a punishingly steep 5km ascent up Slieve Mann and then another hard 5km up the Shay Elliot (Drumgoff). Sebastian sprints up the first climb with me hanging on for dear life.

At Slieve Mann though, I had an unexpected revenge. At the bottom of this spiteful climb we stopped to take off our rain jackets – the rain had eased for now and we knew we were going to sweat. The process then begins of the long slow grind up the 10% gradient on road surfaces that feel like they’ve been bombed from the air. You have to just get into a rhythm and see it out. But after doing this for a few minutes I looked over my shoulder. No Sebastian. It seemed his efforts in the first half of the event had cost him dearly. I spun joyfully to the top and tried not to gloat when he arrived.

More hairy descending in the wet and then up the Shay Elliot climb. Again Sebastian dropped back. I silently patted myself on the back. There is no victory quite like a spiteful pointless unacknowledged one. But in fact this year he is only maybe a minute behind me on the Shay. I internally noted that the future can only bring this gap down, and shuddered.

Of the descent I can remember nothing except squeezing wet squealing brakes and hoping they slowed me down a little. But of the road to Rathdrum and the second food stop – around 150 km in – I can remember the following; rain so torrential we could not see the road ahead. The floodwater soaking through my cycling shoes so that my feet began to lose feeling. Our wheels sloshing through small ponds on the road. Sebastian and I  chasing a rider in an orange Euskatel kit. Sebastian and I looking at each other and laughing. With conditions so horrendous there is sometimes nothing to do but laugh.

Final leg – Rathdrum to Greystones. This section on the W200 always hurts the most – mainly because most riders are already spent by the time they reach it. There are a seemingly never-ending series of small climbs that sap your energy further. And of course this year there was the rain. We were constantly taking off (optimistically) and putting back on (realistically) our rain jackets.

At one point a herd of cattle crossed the road, leading to a traffic jam of riders behind it. But no one objected. We were glad of the break. ‘I don’t think this is a bad thing at all’ I remember saying. As the road leveled out we get in a fast group and gallop towards Greystones at about 30km/h. Which after all that time in the saddle is fast. Driving the group are some tough women cyclists. ‘Pick it up’ one shouts at us when we get on the front.

As we approach the final roundabout in Greystones, Sebastian is almost deliriously happy. He has erased the shame of 2013 when a mechanical failure right at the end prevented him from finishing. He sings an improvised song based on my name, then he sprints for the finish. I am too tired to chase him.

I never did find my helmet.

World Cups

wc 1970

You can, they say, measure out your life in world cups. This now frightens me quite a lot as I have 7 under my belt. I’m now 34.

In 1990 I was 9 going on ten. For Ireland it was perhaps the best world cup ever. But for me it was not only that. It was a party and festival of football. Far off teams from far off countries. Johnny Giles explaining it all in his perm. How disappointed I ultimately was with the final – an utterly cynical spectacle. So indeed were many of the knockout games. It seemed a violation of the spirit of the game. The death of idealism somehow. And the weirdest thing is that my nine year old self could feel this as a betrayal and yet know also that in the scheme of things it didn’t matter.

But in 1994 there was still a sense of fractured idealism that had to be recovered. 1990 had seen the fewest ever goals. Everybody myself included willed it to be ‘the best tournament since 1970’. It wasn’t really but Brazil did win it, their first triumph since that fabled team of Pele and co. They even played Italy in the final, as in 1970.

But whereas the 1970 team had swept away the azzurri 4-1, Brazil of 1994 vintage stuttered to a 0-0 draw followed by penalties. Again at the end a strange sense of betrayal for me. As if the reality that you wanted to believe in wasn’t real at all. There was only sterility and negativity out there. And genocide in Rwanda which broke out around the time the World Cup was ending. The news that reported the World Cup Final led with thousands of bodies floating down rivers in the heart of Africa.

Writing this it’s interesting that I felt and to some degree still feel, with a deeply irrational conviction that the ills of the world, even of human nature could be set at nought if only the best teams, playing free flowing football could win and win in style and without bad grace. Why do I think this? What does it mean?

By contrast, 1998 seemed strangely dead. For the first week the main story was continuous rioting by English fans in Marseilles. No Ireland, which removed a degree of emotional involvement. But also many of the games seemed anaemic, many of the stadiums half empty. Brazil had great players at this time – Ronaldo, Rivaldo etc but strolled into the final with such little effort that they hardly seemed to deserve it. France also had a great team –Zidane, Deschamps, Desailly and co. Zidane then and later was probably the best all round player I’ve ever seen.

They did have a more epic run to the final – including a surging come back against Croatia (and Suker one of my favourite players of that era). And the final itself had a kind of epic feel about it, with the Marseillais crashing out and the French tricolour everywhere. Zidane’s two goals decided it but what I most remember is Petti’s breakaway goal which had that gorgeous quality of the inevitable that the best counter- attacking goals have.

2002 was a real low point. Brazil had some excellent players but never needed to really play well to win the tournament, though I was glad they did. The final was really a stroll, though I was pleased for Ronaldo who scored two goals. Ireland had the Roy Keane affair and spirited game against Spain early in the morning, going out on penalties, after which, here in Ireland, the heavens opened. The odd thing is that none of these things are my abiding memory, which is just of the poor football and the extremely irritating success of poor but hard working teams such as South Korea, Turkey and God help us, the USA. There was no glorious football, no sublime triumph of the excellent. No titanic matches. It was not the first time I realised it but the clearest example of my distaste for the plucky underdog.

2006 had at least one classic game – Germany and Italy but the final was a dour affair, to be mainly remembered for Zidane’s sad swansong. And then penalties. Italy, as far as I was concerned, were champions in name only. The same, strange cheated feeling as back when I was 9. Betrayal almost. The cheats like Matterazzi would always win. The talented, the creative would lose.

It is notable that as the numbers of participants has gone up, the quality of world cups has fallen sharply. Since 2002, the better teams have indeed generally come out on top. In 2010 Spain started slowly, but playing remorseless possession football ploughed their way through to the final. Their victory in a bad tempered final did soften the old feeling of betrayal, Iniesta’s excellent winner in particular but it did feel as if they were only temporarily staving off the forces of darkness. None of this stopped me watching almost every game, as usual of course.

And 2014? Well, there was good and bad. One of the main plus points was that it was in a real football heartland, Brazil and thousands of South Americans followed their team there. The atmosphere was somewhat less contrived than in South Africa, where armed police kept the locals a safe distance away from the stadiums.

The football? Again it had its upsides. Germany had a team of genuine quality. Messi produced just enough moments of magic to keep us interested. There was the drama of Spain’s decline and Brazil’s rather fortunate run to the semi-finals and dramatic implosion against Germany. And yet. Brazil – the country that somehow used to be the guardian of football’s soul – has lost that title forever. Their 7-1 rout at Germany’s hands was slightly sad to see but no one could say it was undeserved.

And again, there was just a lack of ‘epicness’ about it all.

The naïve joy of the World Cup seems to have gone a little, dissipated by too many games of inferior but well organised teams set up to defend. And, in fairness, too much cynical and world weary lethargy from the stronger nations. But maybe I’m just getting old.

 

My Wicklow 200, 2013

On the Wicklow Gap.
On the Wicklow Gap.

My first time doing the Wicklow 200 since 2006. It hurt.

Wicklow 200 2013

Stress. It’s 6.10 am and I get a text from Sebastian *; ‘Where are ya dude’? I was supposed to be at his house at 6.00. He comes to pick me up. But he’s not happy.

We get on the motorway after a few twists and turns and motor it out to Bray. Sebastian is not loosening up. We get there just before 7.00. After some more messing we roll out at about 7.30. Along the long brooding N11. There’s no mass start in the W200 anymore so we pass by groups in dribs and drabs and get passed too by others, including one guy in a time trial skin suit and sperm shaped helmet. It really does take all sorts. Lots of hybrids and commuting bikes as well as road bikes, but we skim by them quickly enough.

Up the Long Hill, a long but gradual climb on a good road over the shoulder of the Sugar Loaf, generally we cut through the slower riders, passing lots who’d started earlier. One or two stay with us or go faster. At the top a lot of the 100 riders on their hybrids have pulled over either to rest or maybe to wait for their friends. Sebastian is not impressed by this. Not professional enough. It doesn’t reinforce his self image of cool powerful purpose.

I’m glad to get them out of the way. On the long flat road to Laragh we try to get in a good group, but as Sebastian remarks, ‘there are no groups’. Every time we follow some fast riders into a group, they don’t settle in, but fly past them, us following. We try to sit in some groups but find ourselves going too slowly, so we hop on to the next. Same thing. In a fast group coming down through Annamoe we let the leading riders go and roll into Laragh and the turn off point for the 200 on our own.

A few more pedal strokes and it’s up the Wicklow Gap, that long slog of 8km uphill. Never very hard but not easy either. I exchange pleasantries with group of guys in black, I think we were talking about weddings or something but I honestly can’t recall now. I drop Sebastian for a short time at the steep part but drop back for him then. We reach the summit together. There’s a water stop which is kind of chaotic (there is for instance no water, just carbohydrate flavoured stuff). The sun is beating down already – it’s about 9.00.

W200 drink stop

The descent is fun and fast and we end up rolling along in a very big group, smashing down the rolling terrain towards Hollywood, led by two very strong old Northern guys. Lots of Nordie and semi Nordie riders are here including fast group of racers from Carrickmacross, Monaghan. Another climb and then a steep descent into Hollywood. Then it’s onto the Blessington Road and banging away down to Baltinglass and the first stop. We decline to match the 40kph speed of the Carrickmacross boys and plough along ourselves until we finally get overtaken by a fast, but not too fast, group led by the Blessington club,’ Reservoir Cogs’ and get dragged into the first food stop.

It’s the Wicklow so there’s queues for the check in. But everyone’s in good form, there must have been 500 riders there. The general sentiment seems to be ‘80km in, this isn’t so bad’. Experience and pessimistic nature has me telling them, ‘the tough part is yet to come’. And so it is.

There’s a long 40km stretch of rolling road between Baltinglass and Tinahely, after which the climbs start again in earnest. But first we roll through sleepy southern Wicklow and County Carlow, including a steep little hill through Hacketstown, before again facing north and back into the mountains. One little ramp downwards on this section gets us up to 78 kmph I’m told by people with the right equipment for measuring such things.

But then, as I knew it would, the fun starts. First a quick 2 km climb and descent up Aughavanagh. No big deal. Then signposts for the Glenmalure valley, which means we’re going up Slieve Mann. I just spin away and soon leave Sebastian behind. There’s no waiting in middle of hard climbs, this one c.5km at an average of 9% gradient. In other words for every ten metres you travel, one is straight up. I’ll see him at the top.

The scenery is beautiful in this quiet valley but all you can see is long lines of cyclists struggling very slowly upwards. I’m feeling fairly good and I’m passing most riders now, apart from the odd accomplished guy who spins past me. Christ it’s not easy though. The sun is scorching down, the road is steep and broken. You have to weave to avoid potholes and slower riders, some of whom are reduced to walking. Gradually, very gradually the road levels out. Around a bend is the summit and the water stop. Which is great but there are massive queues of thirsty cyclists. The strong northern guys from the road to Hollywood appear over the crest as I’m waiting and shout that they’ll get water at the bottom. But I’m completely out and it would be foolhardy to go on with empty bottles.

Besides I have to wait for Sebastian. When he does arrive, I let him skip the queue by standing beside me. But on the plus side he does persuade me out of the mad idea of getting out of the queue and continuing with no water. This is wise advice.

The reason it is so is that I had completely forgotten what lay at the bottom of the Valley – another 5 km climb, the Shay Elliot. I remember virtually nothing about the descent, just blessedly fast and easy kms and a cooling breeze. But I can remember plenty about the unanticipated Shay Elliot. The gradient is never as steep as Slieve Mann. I’m grinding away fairly handily, but I’m tired now, 130 km in, my legs ache and above all I hadn’t been mentally ready. Some riders start walking right at the bottom

Sweat stings my eyes and now my upper lip too where it’s been sunburnt. At the top riders are flaked out all over the place. One or two appear to be asleep. There’s a van selling food and drink here. I buy a can of seven up for me and two bottles of water for Sebastian, who arrives maybe ten minutes later. ‘Genius’ he says. I’m impatient to get going again. Another beautiful descent and we’re back down onto the Laragh Road, heading for Rathdrum. The surface is terrible, my ass hurts, my wrists hurts, my neck hurts. But after ten km or so we roll into Rathdrum. I meet one or two of the people I’d been talking to in Baltinglass. ‘I told you it’d be tough’. They nod. ‘It was’. Everyone seems relieved though, the worst is over. But as I recall from the 100 last year, the final 50 km or so are not easy.

At first it is. We get in a good group and fly downhill into Avoca. But then the road turns skywards again, another 3-4 km climb into Redcross. It seems like unnecessary punishment. Sebastian groans, ‘I don’t want this’. We’re all hurting though. Another water stop at the top. Another wait. On every hill I’m passing a woman in Killmallock club colours who’s not stopping.

The descent is better suited to motocross than cycling. Massive potholes span the road like tank traps, filled in only with sand. You have to either jump them or smash your back wheel into them. You know there’s one coming up when the riders ahead of you shout ‘hole!’ if they see it in time, or ‘fuck!’ if they haven’t.

The course at this point seems designed to break your spirit. Every time you think the climbing is finished you turn a bend and go up again. People are complaining. Their bodies are protesting.

But then it appears as if we’re home and dry. The terrain levels out. A good group, powering along in the big ring, headed for Greystones, less than 20km away now. I take a turn at the front, feeling really good. My phone rings, but I ignore it. I can’t reach it anyway. But I take a look behind me to make sure Sebastian is there. No sign. I check my phone, missed call from Sebastian. Oh bugger. Goodbye fast group that was going to haul me home. I pull over the side of the road. After maybe ten more minutes Sebastian appears. His spoke has broken – probably on that dodgy descent.

We limp off, losing the route momentarily before finding our way back. Then from behind me ‘FUCK!’. Sebastian’s bike is gone. His buckled wheel has snapped off his rear mech, which is now wedged in the wheel. He does not take this well. His sun glasses fall off and he kicks them into the gutter.

He hurls his bike onto the grass verge. And says something along the lines of ‘why are these things always happening to me?’ and ‘I’m cursed’. He has to call the service wagon to pick him up and take him to the finish, a mere 7 km away.

Finishing.
Finishing.

He tells me to go on. Which I do, with the relief of the unburdened. After a pleasant chat with a veteran rider I fly into Greystones, to get my card scanned, pick up my medal and get something to eat. About 10 hours have passed since we left this place. I still have to deal with Sebastian, who is inconsolable when he arrives. His chance to prove his worth to the universe has again been foiled. Still, he’s driving me home. So I make comforting noises.

*Not his real name!

First Post, February 6, 2015.

Me at a wedding. Had to put some picture up.
Me at a wedding. Had to put some picture up.

Just a little first post to whoever comes across my blog. I’ll be posting thoughts on more or less whatever interests me; culture, world affairs, sport, cycling and life in general.

The main idea is to write things not connected with Irish history, which I do on my other site http://www.theirishstory.com