Monthly Archives: December 2019

The perils and pitfalls of gift-shopping

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 4

 

Thinking of giving a gift voucher to someone this Christmas? A raft of new rules has just been made law, protecting the recipient from sharp practice.

Expiry dates are extended to at least five years from date of purchase; there’s no longer a limit on how many vouchers can be used in one transaction; anyone can use the voucher, not just the person named on it.

This is all good, I think any reasonable person would agree; vouchers seem another form of legal tender to me, and there’s no statute of limitations on pulling out that fiver mouldering in a dank corner of your wallet for the last decade.

That said, I wonder if a voucher is a bit of a cop-out as a present? It’s almost as if you’re saying, I couldn’t really think of anything to get you, so here – buy something for yourself. Saves me the bother.

We might as well throw a fifty in the recipient’s general direction, which automatically reminds me of that wedding scene in Goodfellas where ostentatiously respectful wise-guys line up to hand Henry Hill envelopes stuffed with cash.

I guess it’s not the only classic gifting booboo, though. Many of us have, for instance, bought a Christmas jumper for someone – generally with a picture on the front of a drunken Rudolph wearing sunglasses and grinning sleazily, or some-such nonsense – which are unwearable, by law, after midnight on December 25th.

In fact most gifts are fraught with some element of danger. You can’t buy someone a book, CD or DVD unless it’s something you very obviously don’t want to read, listen to or watch yourself. Otherwise they’ll assume you purchased it for yourself, in a “killing two birds with one stone” type situation.

On the other hand, getting something only they are interested in could result in the horrors of your home being filled with the moaning sound of Hozier on Christmas Day, or the receiver insisting you sit down while they read out passages from some horrendous new book about Kim Kar-krash-ian. It’s the ultimate festive Catch-22.

Maybe you’re thinking of buying someone a bottle of expensive wine? They might get squiffy and confess that they’ve always secretly hated you, and by the way that haircut makes you look like a shopping-centre security guard who got fired for drinking on the job and leering at teenagers.

A trip to a fancy spa hotel for some pampering? They might drown in the seaweed baths, or come home determined to change career to “hot-stone therapist”. A trip abroad? They’ll think you’re trying to get rid of them.

Clothes? Bound to be something they hate and probably won’t fit right. Tickets to some upcoming event? They’ll assume you consider them to be an uncultured oik who needs to be re-educated. Classes in something? They’ll assume you find them boring.

I’ve also discovered, to great personal cost, that the following simply “don’t cut it” as acceptable gifts: footwear, novelty slippers, Nightmare on Elm Street box-set, Freddie Krueger hat and stripy jumper, Kelly Brook calendar, carton of cigarettes (especially if they don’t smoke), “Santa’s sexy little elf” costume and a free haircut at Ray-Zerzzzz, “Tallaght’s skin-headiest barber”.

At this point, the normal human being will be looking around for a rock, in order to enact a “killing one person with one large stone” type situation.

And fellas, don’t even think about jewellery or lingerie for that special lady. If it’s a ring you have in mind, the shop will want to know her finger size. And they won’t accept, “Uh – kind of chubby? Like, not total sausages, but she’ll never be a professional pianist, put it like that.”

You can’t ask her, that’d ruin the surprise. So you end up inventing some spurious reason for measuring her ring finger, involving a convoluted lie about a new government think-tank survey analysing increases or decreases across a random section of the population, 1950-2020.

Meanwhile lingerie is a complete minefield. Get something too sexy and your girl might think you’re unsubtly suggesting that she is some kind of common trollop; or worse, you think becoming some kind of common trollop is a viable career option for her in these uncertain economic climes.

However, get something not sexy enough and she’ll suspect that you find her unattractive in some way, and want her to cover up in the bra and knickers equivalent of a burqa. Plus you’ve probably got the size wrong there too.

And forget about perfume. Men always have a crap nose for perfumes. We think something is sexy and classy, women think it stinks like a third-rate bordello.

The only safe option, ultimately, is to get the person something funny and silly as a stocking filler – I find that a novelty cigarette lighter in the shape of Gerry Adams, where the flame shoots out his terrifying, bearded mouth, is a sure-fire winner – and then pretend that the “real gift” must have been delayed in the post.

This is pretty plausible, actually, as the mail system always goes bonkers around Christmas time. Of course, by about April she’ll probably be wondering how it’s possible for the package to still be delayed. But that’s a problem for another day. Or year.


ARCHIVE PIECES: So long, Jim Gavin

Jim Gavin has stepped down as Dublin football manager, after seven years of unparalleled success. Here are two pieces on the Dubs, the first (from the Herald in March of 2018) about why Dublin’s dominance doesn’t bother me unduly, the second (from the Herald this September) addressing the issue of funding imbalances – and why the strength of GAA in the capital is more important, ultimately, than a competitive intercounty scene:

 

#1: On Dublin dominance

Summer’s here and the Jacks are back, with Dublin kicking off their football championship this weekend against Wicklow. Although let’s be honest: Dublin’s championship doesn’t really begin until the Super 8s in July.

It’s been like that for years, the Dubs capturing 12 of the last 13 Leinster titles. And strolling through each campaign, victory achieved in third gear by huge margins.

Never mind the massive odds on Wicklow overcoming their neighbours in Portlaoise on Sunday – Dublin loom over the entire province like a footballing Big Brother, impassive of face and brutal of execution, giant stone fist ever-poised to bring the pain.

To paraphrase Orwell’s 1984, if you want a picture of the future, imagine a Dublin boot kicking over yet another point against long-beaten Leinster opposition, forever.

This provincial reign of terror is one reason many football fans are uneasy with the Dubs’ current streak of glory. Another is that they’ve also captured five of the last six leagues, five Sam Maguires in seven years, and now are going for an historic All-Ireland four-in-a-row.

Where will it end? people wonder. Is this ruining the game? Do we need to break Dublin up into 12 different teams, or initiate large-scale forced migration from the capital to Leitrim, Longford and Limerick? (My answers are: I don’t know, no and maybe.)

Funnily enough, though, I don’t mind the present period of Dublin dominance. Certainly, the Leinster championship has become somewhat pointless and dispiriting for others; a new champion there would be no harm.

But with regards to the All-Ireland four-in-a-row tilt, I don’t feel it’s a bad thing. For starters, we may be watching history in the making – something genuinely special.

Football has only seen this happen three times in 130 years. Two of those were concluded in 1918 (Wexford) and 1932 (Kerry): an era so distant, it feels practically Jurassic. More recently Kerry did the same with probably the most celebrated GAA team of all, but even that’s coming on for four decades ago.

In hurling, we had four on the spin for Cork in the 1940s, and Kilkenny from 2006-09. The Cats’, then, is the only such achievement in recent history, and it assuredly did feel like an epochal moment.

Four-in-a-row is not easily done in GAA. Should Dublin pull it off in 2018, people will still remember their deeds in 2118. There’s the added intrigue of Stephen Cluxton’s captaincy: already the only man to lead his county to four All-Irelands, another on September 2 will make the goalkeeper immortal.

There are other reasons for my lack of Dublinophobia, besides “history in the making”. For one thing, as a Tipp fan, I’m relatively neutral; we have no rivalry with Dublin in football.

I can appreciate how their post-millennial empire sticks in the craw of Kerry people. If I were from Mayo, I’d be wondering if someone had literally put a hex on us. If I were from Meath, I’d be in despair.

But for me, there’s no past baggage. Dublin success doesn’t grind my gears in the same way that – I admit it – Kilkenny’s does.

Also, Dublin play the game in the right way. No blanket defence horrors, no needlessly complicated tactics, and little enough of all that “shot selection/man off the shoulder/circle of trust” corporate-speak nonsense beloved of modern-day managers.

In defence they employ a loose sweeper system and hit hard (and sometimes below the belt). Then when they get the ball, they roar forward in attack: daring, aggressive, fast and exhilarating. Watching Dublin is an exciting reminder of how good football can be when played with a spirit of adventure.

And it’s good for the GAA overall that the game is strong in the capital. Thousands and thousands more kids taking up Irish pastimes, loving them, protecting them for the next generation? That’s worth the price of a few uncompetitive intercounty championships.

Lastly – and maybe most importantly – I’ve always had a soft spot for the Dubs, going right back to 1983 and that memorable, off-the-wall campaign. It began with two draws and extra-time against Meath, through a shock victory over All-Ireland champs Offaly, on to Barney Rock’s famous equalising goal against Cork and the even-more-famous trip to Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the replay, replete with Joe McNally’s soccer-style coup de grace at the end, and finally the decider against Galway, when the Dirty Dozen triumphed after Barney (again) lobbed the goalie from near halfway.

Ever since, I’ve shouted for Dublin. I even had a poster of the Boys in Blue on my wall as a kid. (Oh, don’t judge me too harshly; Tipp hurlers were woeful at the time.)

There were a lot of fallow years since – a few near misses (1991! 1994! 2007!) and some embarrassments (2009!). Now, a lot of great GAA people in Dublin are getting their just reward, and I don’t begrudge them one bit of it. Although I have, at least, got rid of that poster.

 

#2: On Dublin funding

Even for those who couldn’t watch the entire game, you had to make time to catch the final five minutes. This was history being made: the first five-in-a-row in GAA history.

Of course, within minutes of the final whistle sounding on Dublin’s win over Kerry in a fantastic match, the naysaying commenced. In some places they call it Tall Poppy Syndrome; here we know it as begrudgery.

The main gripes about Dublin’s football dominance are twofold: they hold an unfair advantage in population size and, especially, they’re funded to a disproportionate degree.

On the first, I would agree to an extent; that said, this is the intrinsic nature of the intercounty system. Twice as many people live in Tipp, for instance, as in Laois; it will probably always be thus. So does the Premier have an unfair advantage over their Midlands neighbours?

Yes – that’s just how it is. To change would mean dismantling the county system, which would render the whole thing meaningless: over a century of history disregarded and binned.

Besides, Kilkenny is relatively small, and it doesn’t seem to hinder them too much. And it’s a laugh to hear people from huge population centres like Cork, Galway and Limerick moaning about the size of Dublin. Half a million people live in Cork! That’s a lot of potential footballers.

Furthermore, huge tracts of Dublin are GAA dead zones. It’s not as if every one of the c. two million inhabitants are Gaelic games devotees. It brings to mind the old adage about “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

The same with funding, for a few reasons. Yes, Dublin receives much more money than everyone else, both through central GAA funds and lucrative sponsorship details. However, the devil, as always, lies in the detail.

For one thing, money does not make someone a good footballer. Talk all you like about how the Dublin players are top athletes, with the right nutrition, strength and conditioning, rest periods and all the rest.

But football remains a ball sport, requiring a certain level of technical adroitness. And Dublin, even their harshest critics will concede, are lovely footballers. They don’t win by overpowering opponents: they win by being more skilled. Game management, match-ups, shot selection and the many other buzzwords of modern punditry: it all (or mostly) comes down to technique.

And that can be coached, by anyone, anywhere. One example: Con O’Callaghan scored a point against Roscommon where he soared to make a superb high catch, landed properly so as not to hurt himself, stood up, spun away to make space and gently lofted the ball over the bar.

Money doesn’t make that happen – it’s skill. O’Callaghan was obviously coached in the arts of high-fielding and kicking by someone, and practiced over and over, and now is very good at them. A county board bank balance has no relevance on anyone else being taught, and working to improve, that or any other skill.

So I’m not convinced that the money argument holds water. But even if it did – and here comes my most important point – I don’t care.

The whole point of funding GAA in Dublin is to get as many boys and girls playing, and their parents involved, as possible. (That’s where most of the money goes, incidentally: into games development officers for schools and clubs. It’s not as if Cluxton and Mannion are swanning around in fur coats and Maseratis.)

The senior football team will likely be a beneficiary of this investment, but it’s not the main reason for doing it. That would be getting hundreds of thousands of kids interested in Irish sport and culture, and as far as I’m concerned, this is all that matters.

The GAA is as much a social organisation as a sporting one, and keeping our culture alive is more important than guaranteeing a competitive intercounty championship. If I had to choose between them, I would choose the former. Intercounty is just the icing on a massive cake; encouraging kids to play, and their parents to develop an interest: that is the cake.

I mean, what do we want here: a return to the grim days of 40 years ago, when most Dubs sneered at Gaelic games and Irish culture was withering on the vine throughout our capital city? Personally I love the fact that, whenever I visit family in Inchicore, I see scores of smallies with hurleys and footballs.

If Dublin dominance is the price to be paid for Gaelic games tapping into this enormous human resource, it’s worth paying. I say all this, by the way, as a neutral – but a GAA person first and foremost.

By all means, split Dublin into two, or four, if it’s felt necessary. Sure, give more GDOs to rival counties. But don’t cut off funding to this sprawling metropolis which still remains GAA-free in many areas.

We won the battle against the death of Gaelic culture; let’s not now lose the war.

 

 


ARCHIVE PIECE: What should we do with “ISIS brides”?

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD MARCH 2019

With Irishwoman Lisa Smith currently being interviewed by Gardaí after her return from Syria, I figured it was a good time to revisit an old column which asks a new and vexing question:

 

What is to be done about Irish citizens who turn jihadi? It’s a question the UK and other European countries have been grappling with for a few years, and now it appears to be our turn.

In January Alexandr Ruzmatovich Bekmirzaev was captured by Kurdish forces in Syria, allegedly fighting for ISIS. Born in Belarus, he lived in Ireland for a decade and has citizenship and a passport.

Now Lisa Smith, a 37-year-old former soldier from Louth, has been found in a refugee camp, having fled Baghuz along with other so-called “ISIS brides”. She had travelled to the war-zone in 2015, married a British jihadist, now dead, and had a child.

While Gardaí estimate the number of Irish supporters of Islamic terrorism to be small, we can assume there will be more. So what should we do with them?

The British Government wants to cancel the citizenship of Shamima Begum, one of the most notorious ISIS brides. Many here would agree. Is there a point at which citizenship can or should be revoked? Certainly the moral argument can be made.

People stress the “terrorism” aspect of groups like ISIS, but that, in a funny way, reduces the full horror of what they’ve done.

Terrorism happens all over the world, generally carried out by secular groups with stated political aims. It’s awful, yes, but you can at least understand and reason with those people.

ISIS, by contrast, is a murderous death-cult whose insane, Grand Guignol acts of violence are so genuinely bloodcurdling, they seem closer to an OTT fantasy novel than something actually done by real human beings.

They’re probably the most depraved bunch on this planet since the Nazis. And indeed anyone who joins ISIS is worse than a Nazi, in that everyone knew, at least five or six years ago, exactly what they were inflicting on people in Iraq and Syria. Leaving Ireland for this horrendous “caliphate” is like joining the Nazis after seeing footage of the concentration camps.

So in one sense, European jihadis have themselves discarded their citizenship. They have, in fact, renounced membership of the human race.

Apart from the morals, ISIS brides and their ilk are also joining a group with the avowed aim of overthrowing the world for an Islamic caliphate; not that it could ever happen, but the point stands. Therefore they are traitors, enemy combatants and, now, foreigners.

The family and friends of these criminals talk about how they want to “come home”. But they already are home. The caliphate was their home, they chose it. And the caliphate lost, so they must deal with the consequences.

Is there any justification for their actions? Not in my opinion. Lisa Smith has been quoted as saying, “You see the propaganda…you want to come and live in a Muslim country…you want clean life but sometimes it is not like this.”

So, what – that makes it okay? You read about rape, slavery, crucifixion, decapitation, mass murder, babies slaughtered, people burned alive, and you were alright with all that, because it meant that you – special little you – could fulfil your dream of living in some Islamic paradise?

Is this a joke? If it is, it’s the sickest one we’ve ever heard.

I’ve even read someone defend Smith by saying she was “naïve and gullible”, and “groomed” and “radicalised” by others. The woman is in her late thirties. She knew what she signing up for.

And to be honest, even had she been young – AKA Begum – any teenager who embraces the panoply of horrors vomited out by ISIS is not naïve or gullible. They’re a sociopath who needs to be locked away and studied by psychiatrists.

For all that, I don’t necessarily think Bekmirzaev or Smith’s citizenship should be revoked, though I have absolutely zero sympathy for European jihadists, and believe their rehabilitation is not only impossible but morally unjustified.

No, my reasoning is this: why should the poor Kurds, Yazidis et al, who have suffered so much, have to deal with these criminals too? They should be shipped home, tried on charges of war-crimes and genocide, then locked up for life.

No possibility of parole. You’ve made your bed, and here it is: in the corner of this cell, where you will remain until death.

In joining ISIS, you moved beyond the pale of decent humanity. There’s no place for you anymore. There’s no redemption after that. I don’t advocate spiteful ill-treatment of prisoners – but prisoners they must remain for the rest of their lives.

That said, maybe it’s not our decision to make. It’s easy for us in Ireland to blah-blah-blah about this stuff in the abstract. Maybe we should ask their victims what they want to do with those fascist animals, and the ones who facilitated them.

Maybe we should ask the Yazidi people, raped and murdered and enslaved by ISIS. They were at the (literal) cutting edge of it. Many of ISIS’ victims want the death sentence for foreign combatants – to be honest, I wouldn’t stand in their way.