Sunset in Salthill

Sunset in Salthill
Photo by Aidan Coughlan

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.”

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dream comes true for Gaza children in Galway!

The children of the Al-Helal Football Academy in occupied Palestine had an amazing couple of days in Galway, in which they beat a local team, saw Galway United beat Dundalk FC in front of a passionate crowd, and even met the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, after the game.

Last night, it was clear that sometimes dreams really can come true when people put enough effort in to overcome barriers and obstacles.

The joy on their faces as they took to the perfect surface to welcome the two teams onto the pitch will live long in the memory.

I'll be writing a blog about their Galway visit in due course but, in the meantime, here's the piece I wrote for 'Maroon View', the sold-out match programme.

Well done to Kinvara United, Gaza Action Ireland, the Galway Community Circus, Galway United FC, President Higgins, and the entire Galway community for turning their dreams into reality.

How wonderful to see 14 children from one of the most troubled places on earth being treated like superstars!

The children from Gaza provide a guard of honour for the Galway
United and Dundalk FC teams last night. Photo: Sean Ryan Photography 


The children from war-torn Gaza who are Galway United’s special guests for tonight’s home game against Dundalk FC were all the more thrilled by their invitation to Eamon Deacy Park because they almost never made it to Ireland.

Currently enjoying a ten day Irish tour, the 14 young members of Al-Helal Football Academy were not granted the necessary visas to leave the tiny enclave despite being issued with Irish visas months ago.

Three years of planning have gone into their Irish tour, which should have taken place almost three weeks ago, but the Israeli authorities – who control all movement in and out of Gaza – were slow to grant them the necessary exit permits.

The boys were particularly upset that one of their team-mates, Karam Zaidan, was not given a permit to travel – along with five adults who had planned to accompany them.

But the boys, who enjoyed friendlies in Ballybrack, Dublin; Nenagh, Co Tipperary; and Kinvara, Co Galway, prior to tonight’s game are relishing the attention they are getting on the tour and filming every moment for Karam back in Gaza.                                    
Relaxing after the big win in Kinvara
Photo: Andrew Downes

Trauma is never far from these youngsters, who are aged between ten and 14 years. Their ground in Northern Gaza was twice bombed by Israel during the 2014 onslaught and Karam was badly injured during a previous attack in 2009.

According to one of the trip organisers, Zoe Lawler of Gaza Action Ireland, the young Palestinians were overjoyed when they were told they would be guests of honour at a televised SSE Airtricity League game. It was the icing on the cake as they approach the end of their Irish tour.

Their visit to Co Galway resulted from amazing work by a team of volunteers in Kinvara, including Vicky Donnelly, John Griffin, and Frank Naughton; along with soccer coaches Ger Ryan (Kinvara United), John Power (Power Soccer) and Gerry Mulkerrins, who set up their visit to the home of Galway soccer this evening.

“The project has been going on for a few years,” said Ms Lawler this week. “They should have been here three weeks ago, but we had to cancel everything when the permits hadn’t been granted for them to travel.

“The permits came through extremely late, so we had to reschedule the whole trip even though they’ve had the Irish visas for ages. The boys are sad that Karam didn’t make it, as they think it’s particularly mean to refuse a permit to a youngster who was injured in 2009.”

Ms Lawler said it was poignant that only one of the 15 boys who intended to travel had failed to get a travel visa, especially as he was badly injured in the shelling.

“Even though he suffered terribly, he’s supposed to be one of their best players,” she said. “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?”

The boys were delighted to meet former Republic of Ireland manager Brian Kerr in Dublin last weekend and were mobbed by pedestrians on Grafton Street in the capital after their ten day trip was featured on RTE News.

They also showed they had skills in abundance when they beat a much bigger and more physical Ballybrack FC side 2-0 on their second day in Dublin.

Observers were hugely impressed by their composure on the ball and the dexterity of their goalkeeper in the win over Ballybrack, as Galway United and Dundalk FC fans can witness during their 15 minute kick-about at half-time this evening.

“These are talented players from a number of areas around Gaza. The academy seeks to develop their talents as well as other skills,” said team manager Ayed Aburamadan this week.

More than 500 children in Gaza, which is one of the most crowded places on earth, lost their lives in the 2014 bombardment by Israel. According to Aburamadan, this ten day tour has brought hope and joy which extends far beyond the 14 boys and their families.

None of the children had ever been on a plane before and none of them had ever been outside Gaza.

The players were taken aback to see Palestinian flags flying at Ballybrack FC, after joining Kerr and the Palestinian Ambassador to Ireland, Ahmad Abdelrazek, at Sandymount Beach in Dublin.

They took on a Kinvara United selection in the South Galway village last night, after being entertained by the Galway Community Circus.

Mr Adbelrazek travelled to Kinvara two years ago to thank the villagers who organised a community boycott of Israeli goods during the onslaught in Gaza which claimed 2,200 lives.

“It was a very small action, really, but the entire village came together when we tried to think of some way of expressing our solidarity with the poor people of Gaza,” said Vicky Donnelly, one of the organisers of last night’s welcome for the team in Kinvara.

The members of the Al-Helal Football Academy in Kinvara
Photo: John Kelly, Clare Champion.
“Afterwards, we were told that the people of Gaza were really touched by our small gesture. Now, two years on from that boycott, it’s really special to have something so positive to celebrate. We are delighted to be able to host these boys in Kinvara.”

Ms Donnelly said the organisers of the Kinvara and Galway visits have been amazed by the offers of support they have received since it was confirmed that the Al-Helal team would be visiting the city and county.

“Everybody seems to want to get involved and we can’t accommodate all the offers we’ve had,” she said.

“The support we have received has been really heartening. It’s actually put tears in our eyes, to see the support we have received from all over Galway for a group of boys who come from one of the most troubled places on earth.”

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

My city is buzzing right now

Attendances may have been down at the Galway Races last week, but there is no doubt that my native city has been buzzing like never before over the past few weeks and months.

Imagine, Galway ... little windswept Galway on the Atlantic coast is set to become the European Capital of Culture four years from now. No wonder people have been in party mode over the past couple of weeks.
The iconic Big Top at the Galway International Arts Festival
Photo courtesy of Andrew Downes. 

About 139,000 people attended the Racing Festival, with the inclement weather playing a part in keeping the numbers down, and over €14.5 million was exchanged through on-course betting.

But, in the three weeks prior to the races, the city seemed to be buzzing like never before.

Visitor numbers have definitely been up over the past couple of months and a hugely successful Galway International Film Festival came hot on the heels of an excellent Galway Film Fleadh.

The arts are buzzing in the City of the Tribes, which was designated European Capital of Culture for 2020 in the midst of all the festivities.

It’s evident in the city’s narrow, medieval streets.

The past few months have seen a significant increase in visitor numbers to Europe’s western-most city, as the economic recovery takes hold in the wake of the terrible crash which occurred less than a decade ago.

The streets are packed with visitors from all over the world seven days a week, as revellers take in the fantastic atmosphere and free entertainment conjured up by a wide variety of street performers and artists throughout the pedestrianized zone between the Spanish Arch and Eyre Square.

There already seems to be a party or festival every weekend between April and October in Galway City and now the city’s residents can look forward to a year-long party in four years’ time.

A budget of €45.7 million has been earmarked for the Capital of Culture project, which has the potential to create 18,000 new jobs in a city with a population of just under 80,000.

Previous cities to be awarded European Capital of Culture status in other countries have reported an increase of between 10% and 25% in the number of visitors for a full decade following the prestigious designation.

The designation is set to bring a boom to the city’s arts, cultural, and hospitality sectors.

“This is probably the biggest opportunity in the city’s history, so there is a responsibility on us all to make the absolute maximum out of it,” said Patricia Philbin, project leader of the Galway 2020 campaign.

“It is going to change Galway and provide opportunities for all those young people who are leaving our towns and cities.”

Scent of Sawdust at the Galway International Arts Festival
Photo courtesy of Andrew Downes. 
The new sense of optimism was evident at the Big Top, the huge blue tent by the banks of the River Corrib which has become an iconic image of the city in high summer during the annual Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF).

On the night the designation was confirmed, veteran singer Elvis Costello turned his sell-out show with punk rockers The Undertones into a communal celebration for 3,000 people.

Most of the bands who played the Big Top during the two week extravaganza jokingly pleaded with the audience members to invite them back in 2020.

This sense of optimism was evident at the same venue a week later, when traditional supergroup The Gloaming also rocked the tent to a capacity crowd.

No longer a city or region ravaged by emigration or any kind of inferiority complex, it was uplifting to see a huge crowd celebrate the joys of traditional Irish music in the company of acclaimed musicians including frantic fiddler Martin Hayes and veteran ‘sean nos’ singer Iarla O Lionaird.

It was a far cry from the dark days of the 1970s, when the idea of hundreds of people congregating in a huge tent to celebrate Irish music and culture would have seemed far-fetched.

Traditional music is thriving in Galway right now, as visitors can discover if they check out the free nightly sessions on offer in city centre pubs such as The Crane, Ti Coili, Taffees, and Ti Neachtain.

This year’s Galway International Arts Festival was the most successful in years, with the two week event breaking the box office target of €1.1 million in ticket sales.

Ticket sales broke the 200,000 mark for the second year running and the Box Office recorded its biggest takings to date.

“We are delighted with how the festival went this year and I would like to thank all the artists who were involved in the programme and all those who came to events," said John Crumlish, Festival CEO.

 “It was our biggest festival to date, with more of our own productions in the programme than ever before, so it is fantastic that people came in such numbers.

 “The memory of standing in front of that big screen on Mainguard Street during the Festival when the winner of the European Capital of Culture 2020 was announced is one that will live long in the memory.”

The city might be lacking in terms of art galleries, concert halls, and an art-house cinema, but every year the festival organisers show innovation in opening new venues, including a disused print works, empty warehouses (legacies of the economic collapse in 2007-8) and the giant blue tent at Fisheries Field.

“When I was a child, I was always so struck by the ambition of the festival, and the risks taken by the organisers. Risks taken out of necessity,” says artistic director Paul Fahy.

“Now our biggest venue is the Big Top, which is basically just four plastic walls and a plastic roof, albeit with the lap of luxury for everyone inside it. And the Festival Gallery, which normally only exists in my head for nine months of the year before we know where it’s going to be. And that gives GIAF a great sense of excitement.”

The sense of optimism extended to the Galway Racing Festival, which took place at the famed Ballybrit racecourse on the outskirts of the city last week.

About 800 horses competed in 52 races throughout the week, with a total prize fund of €1.9 million ($2.08m) which is significantly up on last year.

The festival provides a €56 million ($61.5m) boost to the city’s economy each year and organisers were expecting to at least match last year’s combined attendance of 140,000 over the seven days.

Helicopters no longer dominate the city’s skyline during the Galway Races as they did during the Celtic Tiger “boom” years, but the city’s hospitality sector was happy to see modest growth after attendance figures slumped during the economic downturn.

Not to be outdone, the city’s sports teams are enjoying a bumper year.
Enjoying a free outdoor show in Eyre Square.
Photo courtesy of Andrew Downes. 

Rugby team Connacht – who were almost put out of business in 2003 – captured the hearts of the nation when they won the Pro12 League title back in May.

The footballers won their first Connacht title since 2008, even though the season ended in a disappointing All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Tipperary, while the hurlers have a big semi-final date at Croke Park to come.

Connacht might not have the budget to match bigger teams such as Leinster and Munster, but led by the irrepressible New Zealander Pat Lam they have really tapped into the new mood of optimism which has taken over the City of the Tribes.

All in all, these are heady days in Ireland’s Western capital, a long way from the dark and distant days when impoverished emigrants on ‘coffin ships’ would set sail from Galway Bay for new lives in the New World with sadness in their hearts and tears in their eyes.

* An older version of this blog was published last week by the Irish-American website,

** Thanks to Andrew Downes and Galway International Arts Festival for the superb photos.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Two tragedies, worlds apart

I got home from work and turned on the BBC News last night, expecting to hear something, anything, about a tragedy I’d been alerted to earlier in the day.

But there was nothing, not a word.                                  

I switched over to RTE News, and it was the same. Nothing. Silence.            
Coalition forces bomb a populated area in Syria

I felt I was living in an Orwellian world, where the people in authority, the elite, the Government, the authorities, call them what you wish, wanted to control what news I heard or saw.

At 7pm, I switched to Channel 4 News, and in fairness, at last, a mainstream channel on these islands dared to report on a horrific tragedy which had happened the day before.

I had read it in the Daily Telegraph, I had seen it on Russian Television, but when I watched both the BBC and RTE I began to disbelieve what I’d seen and heard.

How could such a tragic loss of life be considered so unworthy of attention?

Just a day earlier, an estimated 85 civilians, including almost a dozen children, had lost their lives. Yet there was no condemnation from our leaders, no minute’s silence, no expressions of regret about the loss of so many innocent lives.

The dead were in Syria, killed by air strikes.

US combatants had targeted an area in northern Syria which had been held by Islamic State (IS) or Daesh fighters.

85 lives lost, a death toll which was eerily similar to the 85 lives lost when a terrorist in a truck ploughed through a crowd of revellers celebrating Bastille Day in the French city of Nice.

All across Europe, people were, naturally, in shock at the news of another terrorist atrocity on French soil, coming so soon after the relief of seeing the European Championships football tournament conclude without any major incident.

Malcolm X: his jaundiced views of elements of the media
seem even more appropriate in 2016

France was in mourning again, yet we hardly ever hear news reports about the bombings carried out by the French in Libya or Syria.

After the latest Syrian attack, there were no commemorative walks along the Salthill Promenade or books of condolences opened up in Dublin.

Editors at the BBC and RTE did not even deem the attacks worthy of reportage.

So why is this important?

Well, the ‘terrorists’ who carried out this attack regularly stop to refuel their war planes at my local international airport. Nobody knows what they carry through Shannon, because nobody dares to find out.

On the day after the atrocity in Tokhar, the Irish Government confirmed in the Dail - the Irish parliament - that over 25,000 US troops had passed through Shannon Airport in the first six months of this year.

Gardai won’t search their war planes and those “dissidents” who dare to do so, some of them respected academics, can expect to make a visit to Ennis District Court.

When over 120 civilians are killed in just a few days in Syria and Iraq, we don’t see their faces on the TV (unless we go looking for obscure channels) and we aren’t even told that the French or the Americans killed them on our behalf.

It is believed that eight families were wiped out in the attack on Tokhar on Tuesday, in one of the deadliest bombings by coalition forces since the outbreak of war in Syria.

Two days earlier, a woman, four children, and an elderly man were also killed by coalition forces in an air strike on the Syrian city of Manjib.

The US military says it is investigating the civilian deaths, which is more than can be said for the Irish authorities who haven’t a clue who or what has been flown through Shannon (in ‘neutral’ little Ireland) over the past 13 years.

The loss of any innocent human life, whether in France or Syria, is a tragedy.

But some elements of our media don’t even bother to report some of them and, when they do, they refer to the lives lost as “collateral damage”.

How dehumanising our language has become over the 80 years since George Orwell used to write about Big Brother and the brainwashing of the totalitarian state.

Now “we” use drones to kill people thousands of kilometres away – US President Barack Obama famously sits down every Tuesday with his advisers to decide who should be slaughtered this week.

We rightly condemn the Islamic terrorists who carry out atrocities on European soil, but we ignore or are afraid to condemn the “terrorists” in uniforms who carry out atrocities on our behalf.

We don’t see their victims and the perpetrators view them from the skies, or military bases hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away, as though they were playing video games.

How much easier it is to "dehumanise" a civilian victim in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan when you kill them by pressing a button far removed from the combat zone.

So over the past week we've had at least two tragedies, which seem to be worlds apart.

We stop to mourn the deaths of innocents in Nice, and rightly so, but our "masters" decide not to even
tell us about a tragic loss of life in a Syrian town.

Why would we mourn them?

We never, or hardly ever, see their anguished relatives on our TV screens.

The monthly protest against US military
use of Shanon Airpor

And then we wonder why people in the Middle East detest the western world?

The attacks on civilians in Syria or Iraq don’t justify the appalling scenes we have seen in France and Belgium over the past couple of years, but they do at least provide some sort of context which is dangerously lacking from elements of our media.

It’s easier to understand why there is so much hatred out there when our politicians and news channels make it clear that some lives don’t really matter.

There is no doubt that ISIS are murderous terrorists, who pose a threat to the entire world.

But the people who bomb cities thousands of miles away don’t always do so with good intentions, as the Chilcot Inquiry found when it investigated Tony Blair’s rush to war in Iraq.

Sometimes the “terrorists” are on our side, too, much as we choose to ignore the uncomfortable truth about what’s really going on in the unreported parts of the world.

You can watch an Al Jazeera report of the tragedy in Syria here:

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The silence is deafening

There seemed to be almost an eerie silence about a move which could have a profound impact on the Irish media landscape last week.

In the furore which surrounded Brexit, uncertainty over the Irish border, and the Chilcot Inquiry into Tony Blair’s Iraq war, few seemed to notice that global media baron Rupert Murdoch decided to significantly increase his interest in the Irish market.

His News Corporation has decided to buy Belfast’s radio-focused Wireless Group in a £220 million (€257m) deal. It has massive implications for media ownership, and control, in Ireland and should really open up a debate about who controls our mainstream media.

Wireless owns seven radio stations on the island of Ireland, six in the Republic, and runs an advertising sales house in Dublin.

Why is this significant?  
The Sun: actively campaigned for a Brexit vote
 Well, Rupert Murdoch already owns The Sun, The Times, and The Sunday Times, London papers with Irish editions.

Suddenly, Irish media interests are going to be concentrated in even fewer hands and Murdoch will have a greater influence on Irish society.

Rupert, of course, knows a thing or two about influence.

His Fox News channel in the US is known across the globe for its partisan support for the Republican Party. Anyone who thinks differently is ridiculed.

In the UK, according to ‘spindoctor’ Alistair Campbell, Murdoch put undue pressure on Prime Minister Tony Blair to go to war in Iraq in 2003. He offered Blair the full support of his newspapers if he took the deeply unpopular decision.

More recently, his papers were hugely influential in pressing for a Brexit vote in the UK. The Sun tabloid led with the front-page headline, "IT'S BORIS DAY”, on the eve of the referendum.

In the midst of a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment following the vote, The Sun printed the following: "Where the Brex was won: Streets full of Polish shops, kids not speaking English... but Union Jacks now flying high again."

Hardly the best message to convey to the readership of a tabloid at a time of heightened tension, racism, and xenophobic attacks, with many immigrants in Britain reported to be living in fear.

For decades now, Murdoch has been widely known as the “kingmaker” in British politics, so much so that his switch in support from the Conservatives to Blair was seen to be hugely significant in determining the outcome of General Elections.

It’s only a few years since his newspapers were the subject of the Levenson Inquiry, which examined allegations of phone-hacking, corrupt payments, and the perversion of the course of justice.

The allegations led to the closure of The News of the World, Britain’s biggest-selling Sunday newspaper.

Murdoch was so upset by all the allegations hovering over News UK that he reinstated Rebekah Brooks, Chief Executive during the phone-hacking days, to the top job in September of last year.
She resigned at the height of the controversy in 2011.

Brooks may have been cleared of all charges, but some top executives at News Corporaiton could still face corporate criminal charges, and the incidents of phone-hacking occurred under her leadership.

People were shocked to see her return to News International. Media reform campaigners Hacked Off slammed her return last September.

"This could only happen in a dynastic company where normal rules of corporate governance simply do not apply,” said Evan Harris, joint executive of Hacked Off.

One of the most hurtful front pages
in British newspaper history

As a Liverpool fan, I know all about The Sun and how the tabloid could hurt thousands of people by printing vicious lies. All across Merseyside, people still boycott The Sun as a result of an infamous front page in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989.

In a nasty front page piece, the tabloid tried to blame the fans for the deaths of 96 people who went to a football match and never came home.

The Sun claimed the survivors hampered the efforts of the (now disgraced) police to rescue the dead and injured, whereas the fans were the true heroes on a truly awful day.

In Ireland, we already know a lot about billionaire  moguls, who wield their power through media interests.

The country’s leading media owner, Denis O’Brien, was accused of “gagging” free speech and even parliamentary privilege when a member of the Dail attempted to raise concerns about his finances last year.

For a few days in 2015, nobody dared to report on what had been said in our national parliament, after questions were raised about his relationship with IBRC, the State-owned bank.

He even forced the deletion of an article by the nation’s favourite satirical website, Waterford Whispers News.

O’Brien is no ordinary billionaire. He’s the chief shareholder in the country’s largest newspaper group, Independent Newspapers, and owns key news stations including Newstalk and Today FM.
He applied for an injunction to restrain broadcasters from reporting about his dealings with IBRC, arguing that it breached his privacy rights.

Because of the injunction, nobody in Ireland could listen to or read about what Catherine Murphy TD said in the Dail about Mr O’Brien for days.

O’Brien, who lives in Malta for tax purposes, owns 20 national and regional newspapers, but still feels a need to silence those who dare to question his dealings.

In May of this year, it emerged that he had initiated legal proceedings against the former Fianna Fail TD for Galway East, Colm Keaveney.

He’s suing the former TD for defamation arising from a speech by Mr Keaveney which was circulated to a public relations firm.

Referring to a politician as a
"poisonous snake" ... a day's work
at Rupert Murdoch's tabloid.
Let’s not forget that financial dealings involving Mr O’Brien were investigated by the Moriarty Tribunal, which cost the State in excess of €50 million.

It found that Mr O’Brien made payments to former Minister Michael Lowry (FG) which amounted to £447,000 Sterling (€521,000 in today’s money).

As Minister for Communications, Lowry awarded the State’s second mobile phone contract to Mr O’Brien. It was the start of his global media empire.

Given Mr Murdoch’s tendency to influence politicians and Mr O’Brien’s propensity to take legal action against those who question his financial dealings – even in the national parliament – it’s important to ask whether their media empires are good for Irish society.

Yet nobody seemed to be prepared to ask those questions when Mr Murdoch decided to expand his influence in the Republic of Ireland last week.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Breaking down the barriers

When I was a youngster, the only British people I knew wore uniforms, pointed guns, and seemed to have hatred in their eyes.

For a couple of years in the 1970s, my parents lived right beside a militarized border which contained watch towers, a barbed wire fence, and was patrolled by heavily armed soldiers.

Crossing the bridge between Donegal and Tyrone was an ordeal; my parents and their friends had to psyche themselves up for routine journeys to places like the nearest supermarket or dentist's.

On one occasion, I remember my father being hauled out of the car by the men in uniforms after he dared to speak back after a long and tiring day spent visiting cousins in Monaghan.

The people of Lifford never knew whether or not they would be hauled out of their cars at gunpoint by young men from places like Sheffield and Sunderland who probably hadn't a clue why they had been sent to Northern Ireland in the first place.                          
Nigel Farage MEP addressing the European Parliament yesterday

Even though I was only five or six years old, I can still remember the agonizing fear in the car as we used to approach the border; our parents cajoling us to be as quiet as mice in the back in case we'd antagonize a hostile, or perhaps even trigger-happy, young soldier.

I remember a customs post up in flames or bombs going off, lighting up the night sky across Lifford and Strabane.

Some neighbours used to celebrate terrorist murders because some of them really believed that the victims deserved to die and you could almost feel the tension and hatred in the air.

People never mixed with the "other side". They'd go to separate schools, play separate games, work in different places and live in different neighbourhoods.

"Our" side had the GAA and Catholic schools, "their"side had cricket or rugby. To this day many people in places like Derry cannot bring themselves to support the Northern Ireland football team which is why James McClean, from the Creggan, plays for the Republic even though he grew up North of the border.

Two teams, a nation divided, and yet we live in peace in 2016.

In the 1970s, some members of my tribe, the Catholics, used to claim that there was no point in even looking for a job because discrimination was institutionalized. In those days it was almost impossible for a Catholic in Derry to get a Council home.

When 14 unarmed people were shot dead during a Civil Rights march my parents decided they'd had enough and they managed to orchestrate a move back to Galway. They did not want their five children to grow up in such a tense environment.

That tension was still in the air when I used to travel to Derry to cover Galway United games for my local newspaper in the 1990s.

You always felt fear or discomfort when you crossed that border and watched the military helicopters flying over the Brandywell on Sunday afternoons, even though the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the deeply unpopular police force) had an unwritten agreement with Derry City that they would not enter the football ground.

Years passed before I really got to know English people. Even when, as a third level student, I spent lengthy summer holidays working in London, I only really mixed with the Irish or Jamaicans; there was a lot of distrust of the Irish, while the IRA "campaign" provided a negative backdrop to our experiences as young migrants in the British capital.

It was in London that I first encountered casual racism, but I knew that didn't mean there were more racists in the UK than back home in Ireland. In those days, you could probably count the number of black people in Galway on two hands.

For me, strangely, the catalyst for change was my love for scuba diving. My two regular diving buddies on the west coast of Ireland both had young families and didn't have the time or the money to travel with me on my underwater adventures.

So I booked the first of many holidays to Egpyt and - shock, horror - found myself on a boat full of English people. I braced myself for a tense week and, yes, sometimes there were cultural misunderstandings or comments made through ignorance rather than hatred.

My fears were unfounded and I even began to make life-long friends who would contact me twice a year to see if I'd like to join them on trips to the Red Sea. By mixing with each other, by sharing our passion for a wonderful hobby, we broke down barriers which we had allowed to build up over generations.

During a wonderful gap year in 2010, I became a professional scuba diver. Every day I mixed with English people at Blue Planet Divers, some of whom had military backgrounds and had even served on tours of duty, pointing guns at Irish Catholic people in Northern Ireland.

Some of them also became life-long friends.

At the turn of the Millennium, I also renewed my love affair with Liverpool FC, honed as a child in the 1970s back in Ireland. I travelled all around Europe with Scousers and could not feel more accepted or have had more fun.

I'm never going to sing 'Rule Britannia' or 'God Save the Queen', but by mixing and having the 'craic' with English people I have completely banished the prejudices I built up in my mind as a child.

With the Brits having voted to leave the European Union this week, Ireland is in shock as many of us worry about an uncertain future as an isolated island off the north-west coast of the vast continent.

Everyone is focusing on the perceived racism and xenophobia of some of those who voted for Brexit last Thursday.

How quickly we forget how undemocratic, or even anti-democratic, the EU has become.

When our parents voted to join it in the 1970s, the European Economic Community led to economic prosperity on an island which had been ravaged by decades of stagnation, unemployment, and hopelessness.

They didn't vote for a system which would allow bureaucrats in Brussels to bully small countries such as Ireland, Greece, and Portugal.

They didn't vote for a dictatorship which would tell the Irish people that they made the "wrong" choice when they rejected the Lisbon and Nice treaties.

They didn't vote to impose severe hardship on the Greeks or to make a murky deal with an awful Government in Turkey, just to keep the migrants out in the face of growing racism across many of the 28 member states.

They didn't vote for the annihilation of Irish fishing rights or a loss of power by nation states which ensures that the Irish Government no longer seems able to decide whether or not it can abolish deeply unpopular water charges.

They didn't vote for a parliament which refused the right to Irish MEPs to comment on a vote which will have more of an impact here than anywhere else yesterday. Luke 'Ming' Flanagan MEP, from one of the most remote regions in Europe, claimed that he and the other MEPs from the Republic were effectively being 'gagged' yesterday.

But Brexit proved one thing, emphatically - ordinary people across Europe feel alienated from the EU institutions which govern them.

The EU needs reform, it's just that people like the racist Nigel Farage MEP (UKIP) and opportunist Boris Johnson MP (Conservative) are not the ones to provide the solutions.

It's a sad day for Ireland when our nearest neighbour and biggest trading partner leaves the EU, but in all of the noise over xenophobia and racism let's not forget that there were very valid arguments about how undemocratic the EU has become during the Brexit debate too.

This is a time for healing wounds and building bridges.

Nobody wants to see a militarized border separate the Republic from the North again.

Luke 'Ming' Flanagan MEP,
not allowed to speak yesterday
And few want a divisive vote about a United Ireland right now, either. Not while a million people see themselves as British, even if the Britain they know seems to be falling apart.

Before we talk about that we need to start following the same teams, drinking in the same bars, living in the same neighbourhoods and mixing with each other to break down the barriers.

I had to go all the way to Egypt and Thailand to learn that I could make friends with ordinary English people, and be accepted for who I am, yet how many of us have made no effort to find out about the "others" who live just down the road.

Racism and xenophobia only fuel ignorance and offer no solutions, while isolation is simply impossible in the 21st century.

I do think British people made the wrong decision last Thursday, but only a fool would claim that the EU is not in need of sweeping reforms.

As for the border; well, nobody, but nobody, wants a return to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s. There are too many connections between our two islands and our communities within this island to allow that to happen.

It's a time to build bridges, not to put up new fences, customs posts, passport controls, and watchtowers, long after many of us were so happy to see them being dismantled.