Sunset in Salthill

Sunset in Salthill
Photo by Aidan Coughlan

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

An uncomfortable truth for Culture Night

It was a gorgeous evening in Galway.

The giddy excitement which usually greets the start of a weekend was magnified by the magnificent range of cultural events taking place for free all across the city centre and Salthill.

Down by the Claddagh, three musicians called Shiftwork were conjuring up beautiful songs from the deck of an historic boat.

A seal popped his head above the water to share in the general merriment. Later, traditional Galway hookers sailed around the perfectly still waters at the mouth of Galway Bay.
An asylum-seeker's room, recreated in the heart of Galway

There were musicians, artists, and entertainers providing wonderful free entertainment throughout the city as Galway really got into the spirit of Culture Night.

Over in Eyre Square, however, passers-by were being reminded of an aspect of modern Irish “culture” which many of us would prefer to ignore.

The Direct Provision system is not something we celebrate, not something we would prefer to highlight in the European Capital of Culture 2020.

But the role of an artist should sometimes involve exposing uncomfortable truths, and there is no more uncomfortable truth in Ireland in 2016 than the way in which the country treats its refugees and asylum-seekers.

In Galway, we know that they are living in a former hotel facing the seafront in Salthill or a hostel just off Eyre Square in the heart of the city.

Galway artist Richard Chapman's take on Europeans'
hypocrisy towards refugees. 

But how many of us have ever stopped to check out their living conditions or to ask how they are getting on in 21st century Ireland?

Do we really know about the months and years it takes to process their applications while entire families live in tiny hotel rooms?

To mark Culture Night, the Galway Anti-Racism Network (GARN) invited Galwegians to spend a little time in Direct Provision.

The exact dimensions of a “normal” direct provision room were marked out in the middle of the city and passers-by were asked to imagine what it was like to live in a tiny hotel room for months on end.

The space available for furniture, belongings, and beds was mapped out on the ground and the ‘live’ exhibition attracted hundreds of curious on-lookers.

Some children lay on the ground, imagining the reality of sharing a tiny room with siblings and parents for months or even years on end.

It was interesting to see so many people check out the dimensions of the tiny room, trying to envision what it’s like for a family to live in such a confined space.

A stark message for Culture Night.
A direct provision centre hardly features among the “normal” cultural heights of the city.

Residents were on hand to engage with curious on-lookers and to give us an insight into their normal lives in Galway and Salthill.

They cannot work, so they asked us to imagine what it was like to get by on €19.10 per week while sharing a hotel with dozens of others.

They told us that some of them had been living in this limbo, in the land of a thousand welcomes, for over ten years.

They asked whether we knew that 17 firms across the country were taking in about €50 million per year from the Irish Government to run 34 accommodation centres across the State.

Some of them have to survive the winter months in mobile homes.

They asked us to imagine what it was like for the children, who attend primary or secondary schools in Galway, when their curious friends asked them about their living conditions, the food they ate, or when they’d be able to invite them over for sleepovers.

They can’t cook or bring food to their rooms and they most certainly can’t invite their school friends over to stay the night in the centres. Keeping a pet is also out of the question.

It was news to me that they were given a rule book, containing 44 pages of rules, when they arrived.
Or that any complaints they may have had about the running of a centre could only be made to the manager of their own centres. Even if their complaints may have been related to the management of the centres.

During the week, residents of the centres had written testimonies about the reality of their lives. The testimonies were posted on a wall, next to the Browne Doorway, for revellers to read as they made their way around Eyre Square.

“At least as a prisoner you know when you are getting out – not when you are an asylum-seeker,” wrote one lady.

The asylum-seekers present were so welcoming, so happy to share their stories. They spoke of the depression they experienced, as they waited anxiously to discover if they would be allowed to stay in Ireland or deported back to their countries of origin.            
Recreating a room in the heart of Galway.

Mental health problems in the direct provision system are estimated to be five times higher than in the wider Irish community.

It reminded me of a heart-breaking exhibition I attended in Galway last year, in which a South African asylum-seeker admitted that the system felt “familiar” – because it reminded her of the Apartheid system.                                                                          
In terms of raising awareness, it was a hugely admirable three hour event organised by the Galway Anti-Racism Network and the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland.

It was not the most “enjoyable” event in the packed programme for Culture Night in Galway, but it served a hugely important purpose in reminding hundreds of people of one of the great scandals of our own era.

We can ask why Irish people turned a blind eye to clerical sex abuse or the scandal of the Magdalene Launderies in the past.

With Direct Provision, we have no excuse. Thanks to initiatives like last Friday night’s, nobody can claim that they don’t know about this system which condemns children to grow up in unsuitable accommodation for months or even years on end.

Thanks to Richard Chapman for the cartoon. You can view more of his work at

Check out my website or follow me on twitter, @ciarantierney. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

They don't want you to wake up!

In my country, they don’t want you to wake up right now.

They don’t want you to ask why a single mother can be sent to jail for not paying her €160 TV licence while one of the biggest corporations in the world, Apple Inc, can get away with not paying over €13 billion in unpaid taxes.

Not only that, our Government is fighting for Apple's right not to pay tax which is owed to the very same Government – and is prepared to take on the European Commission to do so.

They don’t want you to ask why the hard-pressed Irish taxpayer was forced to take on 42% of Europe’s banking debt.                                                                
Burying Irish Water at a protest in Galway

When pressed about this gross injustice, our Government told us that we had to do it because the European authorities said so.

These are the same European authorities we are now fighting tooth and nail to make sure we don’t get the €13 billion-plus windfall.

They don’t want you to ask why we kept getting so many threatening letters, informing us that we had to pay for a new private company called Irish Water.

Most of us were very happy with the way in which our local authorities looked after our water needs.

And we hated the thought that a tiny elite of select individuals could make a "killing" from this precious resource in one of the wettest countries on the planet.

These letters, thankfully discontinued or suspended, kept piling up while the head of Irish Water was getting a nice €300,000 “golden handshake”.

And this at a time when there were such serious questions about the awarding of contracts to those who installed meters in housing estates across the country.

They don’t want you to question how up to a dozen Gardai could miraculously appear to “protect” the water meter installers in our estates.

This, at a time when we are told that Garda resources are stretched to the limit and there is “open warfare” among criminal gangs in Dublin.

They don’t want you to ask why so many greedy speculators were rescued, why bankers on massive bonuses never had to pay for their misdeeds, or why the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) was allowed to lose €223.5m of taxpayers’ money from the sale of its loans portfolio in Northern Ireland.

A water protester who tries to prevent a meter from being installed outside his home can be threatened with jail, but a NAMA executive who grossly undervalues property which was bought with the State’s money is only doing his job.

They don’t want you to ask why people who are scraping a living in unsecure jobs are forced to pay the deeply unpopular Universal Social Charge, while senior executives working on “our” behalf can seemingly make corrupt or secret payments to businessmen and politicians.

Nobody marched when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank came to Dublin to “bail us out” in 2010, or when the property tax was invented in order to pay off the debts incurred by the toxic banks.

They waited until the formation of Irish Water to take to the streets, not because it was the biggest issue the country faced but because they viewed a sickening quango as the final straw.

And then they were demonised.

They don’t want you to ask why there is a homelessness crisis and a surge in rental prices at a time when there are so many empty properties all across the State.

Or why a single mum living in a hotel for a year can be demonised by sections of the media, because she refuses to take up an offer of a rental home which has no long-term security for her and her daughter.

In my city this week, homelessness charity COPE reported a 23 per cent increase in the number of families who became homeless in Galway last year.

That’s 56 families, including 133 children, who had no place to call their own and had to rely on emergency accommodation in 2015.

Yet if people on the housing list are offered accommodation from a private landlord they can lose their place on the lengthy waiting list and find themselves homeless again in a year or two.

They don’t want you to ask why the corridors in A&E departments have been divided into lettered “zones” because it is now so normal for people to spend entire nights lying on trolleys in our public hospitals.

It’s easier to find your elderly relative if you have been told their trolley is in zone Z of the corridor.
And it’s pretty hard to kick up a fuss about the conditions in the Emergency Department if you are waiting for hours or even days for a bed in a ward.

They don’t want you to ask why millions of euros were spent on security in order to bring gas ashore in North Mayo, in a part of the world where oil and gas companies were shocked by the low tax rates imposed by the Irish Government.

Or to ask why “supertrawlers” trawl Irish coastal waters, while small fishermen on our off-shore islands find fishing limits so restrictive that they are better off leaving their boats at home in the harbours.

NAMA: the subject of a new Irish scandal
They don’t want you to ask why there are such “sweeteners” for multi-nationals while small local businesses can struggle to get off the ground.

Or why asylum seekers have to spend years living under the inhumane Direct Provision system in the country where the pain of forced exile should be more familiar than virtually anywhere else on earth.

Or why US military men can pass with impunity through a civilian airport, perhaps even renditioning prisoners illegally or carrying weapons of mass destruction, in a country which has been “neutral” for decades.

For 15 years now, Shannon Airport has played a key role in the global “War on Terror”, while the security firm which patrols my local University campus has had a presence in Israeli prisons for years.

G4S are due to pull out of Israel within the coming year, but their presence in so many countries across the world shows how “interconnected” we all are these days.

A lot of people I know are fed up with zero hours contracts, an inequitable tax system, the privatization of water, and the preferential treatment which bankers and businessmen seemed to receive in the wake of the economic crash.

Yet when people speak up about austerity, and attend a march, they are labelled as the “Sinister Fringe”.

Even though they realize that our entire society is built on injustice and inequality; and the system is rotten to the core.

Sometimes it seems as though the Government is running scared. And, yes, they don’t want us to wake up!

For journalism work, social media strategies, content writing, 'ghost' blogging, or public relations, contact Ciaran at

Find me on twitter, @ciarantierney

Thursday, September 8, 2016

An awful shower!

They are an awful shower, those Europeans.

Imagine, the cheek of them! Telling us Irish that poor oul’ Apple owe us €13 billion plus interest in taxes, at a time when we’re doing our best to lure in the multinationals and bring our young people home from the four corners of the earth.

Over €13 billion in unwelcome taxes? No wonder the country is up in arms. People must be enraged.

They must be ringing their TDs all the way from Cork to Donegal to tell them to fight it all the way to the top Court in Europe.

Have those pesky Europeans no idea how we do things in the land of the stroke, the hand-shake, the wink, and the banana?

Have they no idea how important it is for us to provide "sweeteners" to keep the big boys on board in the greatest little country in the world to do business in?
Taoiseach Enda Kenny: doing his best to fight the unwelcome
€13 billion-plus windfall from the European Commissionn

Some eejits are wondering what €13 billion might do to help us tackle our homelessness crisis or our hospital waiting lists, or at least abolish the deeply unpopular water charges, but this time the European Commission have just gone too far.

They can’t just force us to take tax off one of the biggest corporations in the world.

So the Government is up in arms and rightly so. This is a new Emergency, in the only country on earth which had its own name for World War Two.

Our leaders are off to Brussels, or Strasbourg, or wherever these big decisions are made, to fight tooth and nail for Irish sovereignty.

Funny, there were no Government delegations heading off to Brussels to fight for Irish sovereignty in those far off days following the 'bailout', when the toxic banks were taking almost €9,000 from every man, woman, and child in the country.

There weren’t too many calls, from official circles at any rate, for the Europeans to stop meddling in Irish affairs when the State spent €60 billion to stabilise those toxic bankers.

Figures released three years ago showed that the financial crisis cost Ireland 25% of GDP, but there was no talk of forcing the Europeans to change their minds.

Come to us with a €13 billion windfall, however, after Apple set up a global HQ in Cork, and the Europeans are threatening Irish democracy.

There was no talk of bullying within the EU – and not much solidarity from the Irish – when the Greeks were tied into a bailout which seems set to cripple their economy for decades.

It cost us €60 billion to “bail out” the banks and yet I’ve never met a single person who felt that Anglo Irish Bank should have been saved. The net cost has been estimated at about €43 billion, as the Government is set to recoup some of this sum.

But, in all those dark years of austerity since 2008, we never heard the Government challenging the Europeans or telling them that they had to re-think their financial policies.

There was no point in complaining when the offshore Irish were forced to pay for 42% of Europe's banking debt.

Now they are offering us €13 billion, plus interest, and the nation is up in arms.

Apple: their decision to set up a HQ in Cork could
yet have huge implications for the Irish economy
So … impose water charges, force the low-paid to pay the ‘Universal Social Charge’, or bailout the banks to the tune of €60 billion, and our European masters are only doing their jobs.

Sorry, lads, there's nothing we can do, because the lads out in Brussels said so. And we can't change their opinions on anything.

Vote the wrong way in two European referenda and, instead of accepting the result, the little Irish “pixie-heads” have to vote again until they come up with the “right” result.

Demand a return of some of our fisheries rights, or an explanation as to why we gave away our natural resources in the Atlantic at a knock-down price, and you'll be told these decisions were irreversible.

But tell us we are due €13 billion plus interest in unpaid taxes, and those European bullies are suddenly threatening the very fabric of our democracy.

After years of inertia by our leaders in the face of European bullying, it's great to see Enda Kenny out battling on behalf of the Banana Republic ... standing up for the rights of the poor little Irish in the face of this unwelcome windfall.

An awful shower, indeed, those pesky Europeans!

(find me on twitter, @ciarantierney)

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Different strokes

In Irish politics, a "stroker" is a person who is able to carry out secretive, illicit or underhand deals. And this week it felt as though our whole economy was based on "strokes".

It’s not every Government that threatens to take legal action because it does not want to take up a €13 billion windfall.

Especially one that was in the midst of a grave recession just a few short years ago.

But, then again, the Irish Government does not seem to be the same as any other Government on the planet.

To judge by this week’s events, they don’t really believe in the long-term viability of their economy. A small island, on the edge of Europe, clearly needs to offer generous incentives if it is to attract big business.                                                                                        

So when the European Commission declares that Apple owes Ireland €13 billion in back taxes, the first reaction of the Irish Government is to express dismay. The second is to threaten legal action against the European authorities.

In the year in which we have celebrated the centenary of the Easter Rising, which ultimately led to Irish freedom, there is an awful lot of soul-searching going on.

Perhaps it’s time to take stock and to re-evaluate our rightful place in the world.

Saying 'no' to a €13 billion windfall:
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.

What would the men and women who gave up their lives for Irish freedom make of it all if they could see the Republic right now?

It’s been one hell of a summer. Baffling and bizarre, as the nation of ‘Saints and Scholars’ suffered two major embarrassments on the international stage.

It took the Brazilians, the people who have just impeached a president, to teach us a thing or two about how to deal with corruption.

They arrested two Irish men for the type of “ticket-touting” which seems to be taken for granted at the top of some Irish sporting organisations.

Indeed, despite some heroics on the water, the Irish made more headlines for alleged corruption by officials than the quality of the athletes who represented the country at the Olympic Games.

Barely had the country recovered from the shock of seeing two Irishmen being taken to Brazilian jails when the European Commission exposed Ireland as a ‘dodgy’ tax haven which provided “illegal” State aid to Apple for the past 25 years.

It seems that Apple, with the full blessing of the Irish Government, set up a "ghost" company to avoid paying tax in a country which is already famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for its low corporation tax rate.

Ireland is now known throughout the globe as the country where Apple should have paid €13 billion in back taxes, but where the Government does not want this sudden windfall which could pay for the Republic’s health service for a year.

The country is now known as the place where a global multinational corporation was able to take advantage of “incentives” or “tax breaks” which were not available to others.

The company paid just €50 in tax for every €1 million in profit it made after setting up a HQ in Cork.
According to the European Commission, Apple owes the Irish €13 billion because it has evaded paying tax under two agreements which date back to 1991.

That’s a lot of money for a country in the midst of a homelessness crisis, a hospital waiting list crisis, and where refugees are living in inhumane conditions for months or even years on end.

€13 billion would go a long way towards building social housing, taking patients off trolleys in overcrowded A&E departments, or tackling the mental health crisis which has seen so many of our young men take their own lives.

The Government should be ecstatic, you’d imagine. And yet they have spent more than €670,000 in legal fees to try to stop the EC from awarding it this €13 billion windfall.

Apple employs 5,000 people in Cork and has plans for a massive new data centre in Athenry, Co Galway.

It’s no wonder our Government wants to keep the company happy, in a country which has relied so much on FDI (foreign direct investment) to get over the recession.

There are 200,000 people employed in FDI companies across Ireland and Government Ministers are clearly spooked by the prospect of multi-nationals moving out of the country if they were faced with demands for back tax or a stricter tax regime.

Apple, hit with an unwelcome €13 billion tax bill
The EC ruling has caused some uproar, particularly among those who believe that there is one set of laws for the rich, or for global corporations, and another for the poor in the Emerald Isle.

In February of last year, for example, a young single mother from Co Donegal was awoken from her bed at 7am on a Monday morning and transferred to Mountjoy Prison for the terrible crime of not paying her TV licence.

She had not paid the €160 fee which state broadcaster RTE collects from every householder who owns a TV across the country.

The payment is compulsory, to fund a TV station which lost €2.8 million last year, despite a funding model which includes advertising revenue and the annual licence fee.

In contrast to the single mum, RTE employs a chat show host who earns €495,000 per year and a radio presenter who rakes in €416,000 to moan on behalf of the “little people” on national radio every weekday.

The single mum had managed to repay just under half of the €450 fine which had been imposed on her at Letterkenny District Court, but she found herself being hauled off to jail – by taxi.

She ended up spending just three hours in jail.

Countless people like her around the country must be baffled this week, that a corporation can get away with paying 0.0005% in tax while people who are struggling to pay the bills can be whisked off to jail for owing the State just over €200.

The message is simple, really . . . If you don’t pay your taxes you will go to jail, unless you’re a multinational corporation!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Flying the flag for Palestine

When a group of talented young soccer players from Gaza enjoyed a couple of dream evenings in Galway earlier this month, they made sure to record every important moment on their smartphones.

The young boys, aged between ten and 14, were delighted to be guests of honour at Galway United’s big game against the Irish champions, Dundalk FC, and they were determined to video the highlights for an absent friend.

The League of Ireland is hardly the most glamorous competition in Europe but, with 2,600 passionate fans in the ground, it was the biggest game any of them had attended in their short young lives.

When they performed a guard of honour to welcome the two teams onto the pitch at Eamon Deacy Park for the big televised game, the phones were produced.                        
The Al-Helal boys in Galway.
Photo: Sean Ryan. 

When half of the main stand stood up to sing for Palestine, they filmed the hospitable crowd with tears in their eyes.

When they were beckoned into a room under the main stand after the game, to meet no less a figure than the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, they were quick to produce the phones.

They were absolutely thrilled. They filmed for their mothers, their fathers, their siblings and their friends back in Gaza, but they had one young boy in their hearts and mentioned him every day.

When they were entertained by a community circus in Kinvara, a village which boycotted Israeli goods during the bombardment of Gaza in 2014, they kept filming.

They put the cameras away before hammering the locals from Kinvara United, displaying amazing skills, but took them out again after the game.

“This one’s for Karam,” they kept telling each other.

One of the organisers of the trip, Zoe Lawlor, eventually told me that they were sending daily messages to a team-mate, Karam Zaidan, who had been refused permission to travel.

It took Gaza Action Ireland and the Al-Helal Football academy three years to plan the boys’ Irish tour, in which they won all their games against boys of the same age in Dublin, Galway, Wexford, and Tipperary.

The trip had been cancelled when the youngsters were refused exit permits by the Israeli authorities, despite having the necessary visas, travel documents, and funds to make it to Ireland.

Three weeks after the ten day tour was called off, the Israelis eventually allowed 14 of the 15 boys to travel at short notice, along with two of the seven adults who were meant to accompany them to Ireland.

From Gaza to Kinvara.
Photo: John Kelly.
The boys were in tears when the much-anticipated trip was called off and there were more tears when they learned that Karam would have to stay behind.

As a small child, Karam suffered horrific injuries during the Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip in 2009. He has recovered to become one of the best soccer players in the tiny strip of land which is home to 1.8 million people, but he’s disfigured for life.

He plays for an academy which takes in the best players from throughout the tiny enclave and his team’s ground in Northern Gaza has been bombed twice by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in recent years.

The only reason the trip organisers could think of for Karam to be refused permission to travel – while all his team-mates made it to Ireland – was that the Israeli authorities did not want Irish people to see the extent of his injuries.

Many of the boys at the Al-Helal academy were traumatised by the 2014 bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in which an estimated 2,250 people – including more than 551 children – lost their lives.

The boys have survived two major bombardments in their short lives and a female child psychologist was also left behind. It meant there was huge pressure on Ayed and Mohammed, the two adults who accompanied them to Ireland.

Life is not “normal” if you are a soccer player in Gaza and things which others take for granted, such as hopping onto a bus to play an away game, can be virtually impossible for those who live on the coastal strip.

Just last month, the Palestinian Cup Final was cancelled after the Israeli authorities barred a number of players from Gaza from entering the West Bank to play the second leg.

There are only three exits from Gaza, which has been described as the world’s largest prison. One is almost permanently closed by Egypt and another is only for freight.

In late July, the Shabab Khan Younis team attempted to travel to the West Bank via the Israeli-controlled Erez checkpoint, which is the only way out.

The Israeli authorities held the team for 12 hours before barring six players from entering Israeli territory.

As the team was left with only ten players for the game the Palestinian Football Association (PFA) said it had no option but to call off the final.                                    
Celtic "ultras" flying the flags at Parkhead.

“This behaviour is embarrassing. The players arrived at the checkpoint and were forced to wait 12 hours and to undergo interrogations and checks that have no relationship to security,” said PFA chairman Jibril Rajoub. 

“I heard they were asked about their neighbours and about all kinds of things in Gaza that have no connection to security. The sole purpose was to wear them down for hours upon hours in the burning heat, and in the end to allow only part of the team to pass the checkpoint and reach Hebron.”

He said he didn’t think there was anywhere else in the world where soccer players were treated in this manner.

But these kinds of obstacles are second nature to Palestinian footballers.

In November 2006, October 2007, and May 2008 games involving the Palestinian national team were called off because the players were refused permission to travel to fulfill their fixtures.

A striker for the national team, Ziyad Al-Kord, had his house destroyed by the IDF. Three members of the team (Ayman Alkurd, Shadi Sbakhe, and Wajeh Mostahe) were among those killed during the same three week bombardment in 2009-9 in which young Karam sustained his injuries.

Two West Bank villages which featured in a promotional video by FIFA, world football’s governing body, only last month are now making headlines for all the wrong reasons. FIFA claimed that football was helping to bring the Palestinian nation together.

Since the video was released a month ago, houses in the villages in the South Hebron Hills have been demolished in order to make way for Israeli ‘settlements’ which are illegal according to international law.

I thought about Karam, the cancelled Cup Final, the dead players, and the demolished houses this week, when UEFA (European football’s governing body) threatened to impose a fine on Glasgow Celtic FC after last week’s Champions League game against a team from Israel, Hapoel Be'er Sheva.

UEFA has described the Palestinian national flag as an “illicit banner” after hundreds of Celtic fans flew them at Parkhead. Even though Palestine is now a member of the global football “family” and competes in international games. .

Celtic, founded in 1888, was the club set up by and for Irish immigrants who experienced discrimination and sectarianism when they emigrated to Scotland.

Like the Palestinians, the Irish have some knowledge of occupation and colonization. The people who left places like Donegal and Tyrone to begin new lives in Glasgow had a keener understanding than most of what it’s like to live under occupation.

“The situation in Palestine is a classic example of land that is being taken from people who lived there for generations. It chimes in with the course of Irish history,” Scottish historian Tom Devine told Al-Jazeera.

Thankfully, fans of Celtic FC have already turned the UEFA fine into a good news story, by pledging to match the fine by raising funds for a youth soccer team in the West Bank and Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Money has been flooding in for the campaign, with more than £100,000 raised for Palestinian charities within just a few days.

“Celtic is all about standing up for the rights of those who don’t have a voice and therefore I’m now delighted by a UEFA fine that’s only helped draw more attention to the human tragedy and showing how solidarity can force change,” said Celtic fan Will Gardner.

In the 1980s, a boycott of South Africa - including a ban on tours by sporting teams - helped to isolate the Apartheid regime. People now believe it is time to impose similar sanctions on Israel, until Palestinians are given some sort of hope for a peaceful, just future.

At the moment, there is no hope for the people of Gaza.

In an ideal world, there would be no place for “political” flags at a football ground.

But this is not an ideal world and UEFA’s fine smacks of hypocrisy in the face of European football’s refusal to address the issue of why Palestinian soccer players are treated so appallingly by the Israeli authorities.

Until a youngster like Karam has the right to undertake the kind of team tour which is taken for granted by gifted soccer players all across Europe, football fans should have a right to fly the flag in solidarity with the oppressed people of Palestine.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Marking the end of a remarkable life

It was a reflection of the spirit of adventure she showed throughout her life that Mary Kilroy was delighted to take part in a documentary film called ‘Older Than Ireland’ at 101 years of age.

Like all the other centenarians who took part in the film, my grandmother was happy to share her thoughts on a long life lived to the full on the big screen.

All 30 of them were born under the British Empire, and lived through the 1916 Easter Rising, the birth of a new Ireland, and two world wars.

Yet, as film-maker Alex Fegan discovered, most of them were happier to talk about their own personal tragedies, triumphs, loves and losses than the great political and social changes they had witnessed throughout their lives.

When Alex arrived at my grandmother’s farm-house in Caltra, Co Galway, to film an interview last year he found a lady dressed to the nines for an auspicious occasion, happy to tell an abundance of stories from her long and wonderful life.

A few people who saw the film, but never met Granny Kilroy, said that she struck them as a real character with an amazing sense of humour and a heart of gold.
Granny Kilroy, RIP.

Like many of the interviewees in ‘Older Than Ireland’, my granny didn’t have an easy life. Which is probably why she had such a rebellious streak, and such a sense of fun, by the time her grandchildren came into this world.

She married into a house which had been shot up by the notorious Black ‘n’ Tans, the British reserves who became infamous for their attacks on Irish civilians at the height of the War of Independence.

The Ireland of my granny’s youth was a turbulent place and my grandfather’s brother, who later became a senior Garda (or policeman), had been a wanted man. He was the leader of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in north-east Galway.

He spent time on the run, and in prison, as the Irish fought for independence during my grandmother’s childhood. One of his neighbours spent five years on the run, hiding in hay-sheds and getting fed by country people, as I was to discover during the 1916 commemorations in Caltra earlier this year.

When she married Micheal Kilroy, Mary Mannion moved from Menlough to Rabane, Caltra, where she raised nine children in a four-bedroomed house on a small farm.

She caused quite a stir in the documentary when she talked of having “loads” of admirers in her youth and of her relationship with a Protestant which didn’t go down well in a deeply divided country.

“Well, I had loads of them! They’re always codding me about that here. Oh, there was no scarcity of boyfriends,” she told Alex on film.

“I was doing a line with a fella who was a Protestant and he was a nice fella and everything, but my grandmother and mother and all said ‘do you want to disgrace us?’ And, oh, he was such a nice lad. But I’m telling you, I got rid of him quick enough. I had to let him off,” she laughed.

In later years, Granny would always “cod” her own 34 grandchildren about our relationships (or lack of them!). She took a keen interest in our love-lives, only because she wanted us all to be happy, as she had been with our grandfather.

Her Rabane house was always a sociable place; people would pop in for a chat at all hours of the day and play music around the hearth fire. But Granny was the boss, and you wouldn’t want to overstay your welcome.

Although a practising Catholic, she showed a rebellious streak through dark days of the 1950s and 1960s.

If a book by John McGahern or Edna O’Brien was banned, Granny Kilroy was sure to manage to get her hands on a copy to see what all the fuss was about. She’d be sure to arrange to have the banned books brought back to Caltra from England.

She loved any Irish writer who had a good sense of humour or appreciation for rural life, particularly Kerry playwright John B. Keane, and kept a scrapbook containing his most amusing newspaper columns.

She loved the theatre, and Irish literature in general.

Life was never to be taken too seriously, so we’d enjoy tall tales around her kitchen table or a flutter on the horses during the Galway Races. She’d even sneak a cigarette or taste of brandy to a willing grandchild, as long as the “responsible” adults weren’t around to witness her “delinquent” behaviour!

She outlived her husband by over 50 years and buried two sons. The passing of her eldest son, Paddy, at 28 years of age, was a particularly tough blow. But, as my mother Mary said at her huge 100th birthday party in Athlone almost three years ago, Granny Kilroy never let tragedy define her long life.

She taught all of her extended family the value of getting on with life, of putting a positive spin on things, and of having the ‘craic’ or some fun along the way, even if there was not always an abundance of food on the table.

Even at 101, she still extended a warm welcome to visitors. When the ‘Older Than Ireland’ crew visited her home, Granny marvelled that she had received 20 bottles of brandy for her 100th birthday – and was quick to offer a drop to her visitors.

She was a great support to my own immediate family when we lost my sister, Cliona, to cancer at 16 years of age. Granny Kilroy epitomised the importance of getting up, getting out, and putting a brave face on a new day, even (or especially) in the aftermath of tragedy.

As a teenager, when I secured a summer job in Galway, my parents (perhaps rightly!) would not trust me to stay at home on my own.

Fearful that the family home would be ruined by house parties, they would invite my granny in to the city to “supervise” me for two weeks.

The result was a fortnight of merriment, laughter, and irreverence in the family home, and more than a few nights out at Ward’s pub in Lower Salthill, where she’d be delighted to get chatting to the locals.

Even in her late nineties, she would sneak off to Athlone or Ballinasloe with her beloved grand-daughters to buy a new outfit for Christmas or a wedding, because Granny Kilroy always maintained a big interest in style and fashion.

In her beautiful Eulogy at Caltra Church last week, my cousin Fiona O’Driscoll recalled her love of style and fashion. Fiona grew up on the farmhouse with my gran.

“You live but once; you might as well be amusing,” she quoted Coco Chanel, a fitting motto for my granny’s fun-filled life.

Only our granny would make a big deal of recalling the exact number of birthday cards she got (452!) when she turned 100.

Her younger sister, Margaret, also reached a century and it used to bug our granny enormously when Margaret refused to disclose how many cards she received for reaching that wonderful milestone.

For ten weeks in a row, she used to visit Margaret every Thursday, but she could never elicit the exact number from her sibling. At 101 and 100, they maintained a very close friendship, but also a keen sibling rivalry.

There are a lot of things that annoy me about life in the West of Ireland . . . the climate, the way in which gombeens rise to the top of so many organisations . . . and yet my grandmother’s death last week brought home to me all that is good about life in this part of the world.

It was so wonderful that Granny was able to pass away peacefully, in her own home, surrounded by people who love her. If only all human beings could have such a peaceful ending after living such full and rewarding lives.

The gentle nature we have with each other, the sense of compassion, the strong family bonds and community spirit in rural areas were all reflected in an estimated attendance of 4,500 to 5,000 at her Removal in Mountbellew.

Granny would have been well impressed that we were two hours late getting to the church!

Having experienced too many tragic deaths, I expected my gran’s death to be a celebration of a long and wonderful life – and yet when I looked around the Church last Thursday I was amazed to see so many people in tears at the passing of a true local legend.

People should not really be in tears when someone reaches 102 years of age, but our gran was clearly held in high esteem by her local rural community, where her sense of humour was legendary, as much as by her wide extended family.

Granny Kilroy brought so much joy to the lives of her 34 grandchildren that the outpouring of love in Caltra last week was simply unforgettable.

All week, we’ve been swapping anecdotes of childhood adventures (and misdaventures!).

While some feigned shock at some of the things she said on camera, we are all now so thrilled that she allowed her warm personality to come across on the big screen when she agreed to be filmed for ‘Older Than Ireland’.

With a laugh, she told Alex that she’d ask St Peter “how ya doin’?” and “How’s she cuttin’?”  if she was to meet him at the gates of Heaven.

Truly, she lived a remarkable life.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Gazan dreams come true on Galway fields

It’s not often you witness the dreams of young Palestinian soccer players come true on West of Ireland fields, but after a three year wait a group of 14 boys from Gaza found themselves on cloud nine on Friday night.

Three weeks after the crushing disappointment of being refused exit permits by the Israeli authorities, the youngsters from the Al-Helal Football Academy were special guests of Galway United Football Club for their biggest home game of the year against the Irish champions, Dundalk FC.

After welcoming the two teams onto the pitch before the televised game at Eamon Deacy Park, the talented young footballers got to showcase their talents before Galway United’s biggest crowd of the season at half-time.

Not only did Galway beat Dundalk in a thrilling encounter, the boys from Gaza were invited to a special reception to meet the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, after the game.

The Gaza boys form a guard of honour for the Galway
United and Dundalk players. Photo; Sean Ryan. 

During the game, fans across the entire main stand rose to their feet to chant “Stand Up for Palestine!” to bring tears of joy to the eyes of the boys and their two adult coaches.

Members of Gaza Action Ireland and the Al-Helal academy had been planning the ten day trip for three years, but had to cancel the entire schedule when the travelling party were denied exit visas just before they were due to travel.

Eventually, almost three weeks after the trip was called off, the Israeli authorities allowed 14 of the 15 boys on the squad to travel, along with two of the seven adults who were supposed to accompany them to Ireland.

Last minute plans were put in place to reschedule the tour, which saw the boys from Gaza take on – and beat – much bigger boys from clubs throughout Ireland in a series of four games. Aged between ten and 14, the Gaza boys impressed soccer coaches across Ireland with their skills. They won all four games on the tour.

“The trip was worth all the trouble, because it was the first trip outside of Gaza for all the children, and it gave them an experience they never felt before,” said team coach Mohammed Al Rawagh.

“The three week delay – and not knowing if we would be coming – put some extra mental pressure on the kids. They were very disappointed when they were not given permission to leave Gaza.

“Plus, we had exit permits denied for five of our coaches and one child. Even though they allowed only two adults to travel, we both insisted that we should do it. Ireland is far more beautiful, with its people and its nature, than we expected.”

The Al-Helal academy’s ground in Northern Gaza has twice been bombed by Israel in recent years and the players were upset when one of their team-mates, Karam Zaidan, was refused permission to travel.

Karam was injured by shelling during an Israeli bombardment in 2009 and the players have remembered him in song and smart-phone videos throughout the ten day tour, which ended on Monday.

Relaxing after another big win in Kinvara.
Photo; Andrew Downes. 

“Even though he suffered terribly, Karam is one of their best players,” said Zoe Lawlor of Gaza Action Ireland. “You have to wonder why the Israeli authorities did not want that child in particular to travel to Ireland – is it because they didn’t want the Irish to see his injuries?”

Only one of the players, Mohanad Auda, can speak English. He earned the nickname of “Google” during the ten day trip, because he was called upon so often to translate for his academy team-mates when they engaged with Irish children.

“It’s so nice and so sweet here. I am happy. I am having fun in Ireland. The best parts have been playing against the Irish teams and going to the big Irish football game. I’m excited because I am playing outside Gaza. The Irish people have been so nice and so friendly,” said Mohaned.

Speaking through an interpreter, team captain Khaled Gouda said he was determined to represent Palestine with pride by playing his best against the Irish team. They won all six games against Ballybrack FC (Dublin), Pike Rovers (Limerick), Kinvara United (Galway) and three teams team from Nenagh, Co Tipperary.

“I’m enjoying being in Ireland and I’m thinking that I want to show the best of what I have so that people can see the talents of Palestinian children. It is a great feeling to represent Palestine and I have to be up to this responsibility,” said Khaled.

“In Gaza, we love to watch European football and we enjoy it. It’s a lovely feeling, being in Ireland, but I also miss my country. I miss Gaza. The fields here are very different from the fields in Gaza. We have natural grass, but it is not as good as this. Our natural grass in Gaza has more bumps, but it is more smooth here.”

The boys’ trip was featured on RTE television, the Irish State broadcaster. On the following day, Khaled was taken aback to be mobbed by well-wishers when the team enjoyed a walk in Dublin city centre.

“Many people came up and greeted us and invited us even for lunch on the street. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt a little bit famous, but it’s a tiring feeling because everybody wants to take pictures wherever we go. We want our borders to be open and to be free so that people in Gaza who want to come to Ireland, or any other place, can do so,” he said.

Khaled relished the atmosphere at the Galway United stadium and was delighted to meet the President of Ireland after the game.

The Chairman of the Academy, Ayed Abu-Ramadan, said it had been difficult for two adults to look after the 14 boys, as seven adults – including a child psychologist – were originally supposed to travel.

Many of the boys on the team were traumatised by the 2014 bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in which an estimated 2,250 people – including more than 551 children – lost their lives.

“We have been working on this for the past three years and we had been unable to get our team out of Gaza, so finally we got our team out of Gaza. It’s the first time we came here to Ireland. The results have been fantastic. It has given us hope for future operations like this,” said Ayed.

“It’s good for Irish people to meet Palestinians, to talk about their lives in Palestine, and to feel their suffering first hand. And it’s good for our players to see what Ireland is like. It’s not just the 14 players. Their friends, families, and neighbours were in continuous contact with the children on their smart phones throughout  the trip and they are learning about Ireland.”

The Galway leg of the trip was organised by a small committee in Kinvara, a small village in which the entire community supported a boycott of Israeli goods during the bombardment of Gaza in 2014.
Local organiser Vicky Donnelly said she was amazed by the offers of support once it was confirmed that the Al-Helal team was going to Galway.

Leaving Dublin Airport ... with hurley sticks and Galway
GAA caps!

“It’s actually brought tears to our eyes, to see the support we have received from all over Ireland for a group of boys who come from one of the most troubled places on earth,” she said.

At the end of the trip, an emotional Ayed said he hoped the trip could lead to greater links being forged between football clubs in Ireland and Palestine.

“We are hoping to set up something more sustainable, to maintain cooperation between the Gaza clubs and Irish clubs. Our academy could become a resource for the Irish teams in Gaza,” he said.

“We have many talented children in Gaza who I expect to become professional superstars.  We could become a resource for Irish teams to get players from Gaza. We would love to see Palestinian players come over and sign for Irish clubs.”