2015 Grateful 11

I have my life back. Rugby, for me, is over. To say that I’m gutted would be an understatement, but the disappointment I felt as I threw my jersey into the laundry basket to be washed, ironed, and packed away until next spring, is nothing to what the Boys in Green must be feeling. To do so well… and not have it be good enough. Heart-breaking.

That said, while the week might not have ended as I’d have liked it to end, it was a good one, all in all.

I was introduced to someone in the pub on Sunday as being ‘famous’ – not in any spotlight sense of the word, of course, but in the sense that so many people know me. That in itself isn’t particularly amazing – I’ve been here for years and a sizeable portion of that time has been spent on stage with the Gift of the Gab. So yes,  my name, if not me, myself, is known. Famous, I don’t think so. Known of? That’ll work.

PlanNot a week goes by that I’m not asked if I know someone who can do something. An English-speaking accountant to sort out the web of Hungarian tax laws. A Spanish-speaking football fan to decipher a player’s call to the camera. Someone who makes stained glass. And I get great satisfaction from hooking people up – connecting those who need something done with those who can do those somethings. This week was particularly good in that respect and at one stage, when I sat back and watched three strands of my life engage in a fascinating conversation at the Art Hotel in Budapest on Thursday, I mentally congratulated myself on a job well done. As Hannibal of A-Team fame might say: I love it when a plan comes together.

I don’t know where I got it. I doubt it’s hereditary. Perhaps it’s because I’ve needed stuff done so often that I’m particularly attentive to what others need doing. I don’t know. More often than not, I find myself volunteering contacts and connections. Just applied for a junior diplomat’s position? Never spoken to diplomat? Let me check. Want to export honey to Ireland but don’t know where to start? mmmm… am sure I met someone lately who was into the honey distribution thing… I’ll get back to you. Looking for a size 6 pair of roller skates? I think I know someone who just quit.

Perhaps I have the fixing gene – the one that wants to be sure that my world, as I know it, continues to function as it does. The one that wants to keep things going so that the status remains quo’d. As I said, this week was particularly good with regard to cosmic connections. And for that I’m grateful.

Had Ireland made the semi-finals… now that would see gratitude take off to a whole new level. Next time, lads. Next time.


My heart is in my mouth

rugby 2The minutes are ticking away. It’s getting closer to 3.30 (Budapest time). My nerves have been at me since I got up this morning. I’ve been going around the flat in my colours, trying to occupy myself with work. Mindless work. I can’t concentrate. I so want our boys to win in Cardiff today and yet I’m besieged by the age-old Irish fear that when we’re favourites, we don’t perform.

What is it about us? What are we like? Why can’t we cope with compliments and due praise? Why do we do so much better when we’re the underdog, when we have to prove something to someone?

In an effort to understand, I did some digging. Anything to distract myself and fill the next couple of hours before I head out to watch the game in the company of Welsh friends whom I hope I’ll be consoling come six o’clock.

One study says

Much of the inferiority complex that seems to distinguishing feature of the Irish psyche, and of the consequent sensitivity to real or imagined slights, may stem from the combination of cultural and political pressure.

I can make that fit – if I think about it hard enough. But surely there’s an easier explanation?

The National Identity Management Agency did a study last year that identified three of our major flaws:

procrastination, the inability to delay gratification, and the belief in the correctness of one’s point of view

They prescribed comedy as the solution and no doubt if we get a result today, we’ll all be laughing. But in the meantime, we’re a bag of nerves, too afraid to jinx the outcome by being confident, which may well come across to the rest of the world as indicative of our national insecurity. Freud has said that we’re the only race who cannot be helped by psychoanalysis and perhaps he has a point.

rugbyWe field an all-Ireland rugby team and so when playing at home, have two anthems – our National Anthem, Amhrain na bhFiann, as gaeilge (in Irish), and a Rugby anthem, Ireland’s Call. When playing away, we sing the latter only. And while both stir something in the cockles of this jaded heart, the Call awakens hope, kick-starts the prayers, and provides a modicum of fortitude for what lies ahead.

We’ve won our last ten games (FACT). We’re playing well (FACT). We have some of the greatest players in the world (FACT). All we need now is a little belief.

As to the mysteries of the Irish psyche …  they’ll have to wait until I’m less distracted. Go on the lads!

2014 Grateful 45

As I write, I’m multitasking. I’m sitting watching Ireland take on England in Twickenham in the 2014 Six Nations. The triple crown is at stake. We’ve already put paid to Scotland and Wales. And we’re also the only remaining unbeaten side in this year’s competition between these six rugby-playing nations: Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, and Italy and so have a shot of the grand slam.

I’m multitasking in an effort to distract myself. I’m like a hen on a hot griddle. I can’t sit still. . I’ve already cried my way through the brief retrospective of some great rugby moments in Irish history and feel for Brian O’Driscoll as he starts what will be his last game at Twickenham. I so want them to win.

The age-old rivalry between the two countries shows no signs of abating. The history of Irish rugby –  from its origins in Trinity College to its famous grand slam win of 1948, to Munster beating the All Blacks in Thomond Park – makes for interesting reading. And today, more than ever, we want our boys to win. I want them to win so that BOD will get his due.

I’m a huge fan of Brian O’Driscoll. Today he joins Australia’s George Gregan as the most capped international player in history as he gets his 139th cap. His records don’t stop at this. He’s also the highest try scorer of all time in Irish Rugby. He is the 8th-highest try scorer in rugby union history, and the highest scoring centre of all time. And he holds the Six Nations record for most tries scored and has scored the most Heineken Cup tries (30) for an Irishman. And he’s only 35. One wonders what’s left for him to do.

My knowledge of the rules of rugby is scant. I’ve only just noticed that they’ve changed the calls again and that scrums are now crouching, binding, and setting. I miss the whole engaging thing. I can’t keep up with the rules but this certainly doesn’t take from my enjoyment of the sport, given that when watching I spend a lot of time with my head in my hands or my eyes squeezed shut. It’s half-time and the Irish lads are no doubt in the dressing room getting a bollicking from captain Paul O’Connell as they face the second half three points down to England. We’re struggling. But as the inimitable George Hook has just said – no match is won at half-time. There is time.

But back to BOD. I wonder at our need for heroes. I wonder at our need for role models, for mentors, for people to inspire is to keep going. Ralph Waldo Emerson reckoned that the youth, intoxicated with his admiration of a hero, fails to see, that it is only a projection of his own soul, which he admires.  I quite like this take and wonder what I see in BOD that’s a projection of my own soul. It’s certainly not purity. When England went for their second penalty and I prayed that they’d miss (hardly a Christian thing to do) – and it bounced off the post – prayer answered.

Felix Alder, founder of the Ethical Movement, reckons the hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for men to see by. And BOD’s success has certainly done that for Ireland. He’s not alone. He’s been in good company but he has that certain something that makes him unique. A mulish obstinacy some say – and yes, that I can certainly identify with.

The sage of Potato Hill, American essayist Edgar Watson Howe, said: A boy doesn’t have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn’t like pie when he sees there isn’t enough to go around. I can relate to this – it’s not all about drama and being centre stage. And I reckon that BOD does far more for the country than we see or will ever know. It’s that quiet self-effacement that makes him so appealing.

So no matter the result – and there’s about 10 minutes to go – this week I’m grateful for heroes of the calibre of Brian O’Driscoll. For the pride they engender and the hope they inspire. The world would be a much duller place without them.




Selling body parts on the steps of the Basilica

IMG_2531 (600x800)Saturday in Las Palmas was spent trying to find a pub that was showing the Ireland/Wales match. The first Irish pub I found looked as if it had closed shortly after it opened back in 1996. So I took a bus to the old town where I had vague memories of passing a Guinness sign the other day. I eventually found it. They had one small TV and no rugby. Helpful as ever, one of the locals gave me another address to try – a sports bar where I could have watched everthing from skiing to showjumping, but no rugby. So I went to Tourist Information and as a result of the helpfulness that is so part of the service/tourism culture on the island, I tried three other places. I eventually gave up and treated myself to a cod and asparagus lunch in the shadow of Santa Anna cathedral – trading one religion for another.

IMG_2592 (597x800)I spent the day talking to myself; wondering where to go, what to do next. When it got a little too much, I stopped for coffee and a cava, marvelling at the occasional ‘old and lovely’ amidst the ‘new and not so lovely’. I stumbled across a few tiled masterpieces and some wrought-iron bandstands that were just crying out for a brass band. Away from the beach area, I began to get a feel for how the island used to be; a sense of what living here pre-tourism must have been like: stylish and genteel.

IMG_2600 (800x584)

IMG_2590 (800x593)

While Las Palmas has its share of high street shops that have become part and parcel of cityscapes across Europe, it also has its fair share of boutiques – designer stores that proudly display their ‘Made in Spain’ labels. I couldn’t quite get the hang of what appears to be a special shopping day when prices on the labels don’t seem to matter. But as the final bill was a lot less than my math made it, I really didn’t need an explanation.

My second (and only other item) on today’s agenda was to get mass. I’d scoped out the church earlier and arrived in good time to see the oddest thing in progress. A woman, carrying a large crucifix, followed by a priest holding  a lit candle, headed a procession of candle-bearing mass-goers up and down the aisles of the church. This was a first for me. But lo and behold,  2 February in the Eastern Orthodox Church and some Eastern Catholic Churches is one of the twelve Great Feasts aka Candlemas. Apparently, this is also the day on which the Churching of Women happens (another new one on me): a ceremony where new mothers are blessed. The ceremony includes thanksgiving for the woman’s survival of childbirth, and is performed even when the child is stillborn, or has died unbaptized. And it was here, apparently, that Our Lady appeared in a pine tree. Loathe though I am to quote Wikipedia, it does have this to say:

The story of Nuestra Señora del Pino (Our Lady of the Pine) is a fascinating one. At the site of the present-day Basilica, the image of the virgin herself is said to have appeared in a pine tree on 8 September 1492 to the first Bishop of Gran Canaria, Juan Frías. Said to possess healing qualities, Nuestra Señora del Pino has become the patron saint of the island. On the steps outside the Basilica it is possible to buy wax models of every part of the human body that can be offered for healing. The figure itself is extraordinary. It is said that one side of the face is smiling and the other side is sad. The figure is bedecked with jewels, although not as many as there were before the robbery in 1975.  I went in the side door, so missed the body parts!

IMG_2422 (591x800)The Canary islands were originally inhabited by Guanches, an aboriginal Berber people. On Gran Canaria, suicide was regarded as honourable. Whenever a new king was installed, one of his subjects willingly honoured the occasion by throwing himself over a precipice (as depicted by this statue in the grounds of the Santa Catalina hotel. [Spanish royalty apparently stay here when visiting the island and I wonder how many willing subjects they’d find to continue this tradition.] And it’s another first me for me: a monument to suicide.

IMG_2426 (800x598)It’s an odd place. It seems as if it’s not quite sure what it should be. Half urban beach semi-circled by tall hotels; half old world charm and beauty. Perhaps I just don’t ‘get’ Spain; I didn’t take to Madrid much either.

Mindyou, it’s been a lovely few days. The Hotel Verol is perfectly situated and the staff couldn’t be more helpful. That not so remarkable really as everyone (apart from the formidable, stylishly dressed middle-aged dowagers, hair-sprayed to within an inch of their lives) is helpful. They’ve certainly got the hang of this tourism lark.

Saturday, 2nd February, 8.39pm has come and gone. Now let’s wait and see what happens next.

Grateful 43

It was February 2002. I had just returned from the States and was living in Ireland. It was Six Nations time and Scotland was travelling to play Ireland in Dublin. For those who have experienced this weekend firsthand, there is nothing quite like it. All over the city, after the match, hoards of kilted Scotsmen make their merry way through the gauntlets of jersey-clad Irish women. In dark corners of pubs, you’ll see a gorgeous Scot, eyes shut as he listens to a homely Irish girl blather on about the match, or a gorgeous Irish girl, eyes similarly shut, as she listens to the Scot with a face like the back of a bus, give his opinion of what his lads should or should not have done during the 80-minute on-pitch battle. You see, there is a unique mutual fascination with accents, with each thinking the other’s accent to be one of the sexiest on Earth.

I had been to a rugby match years before when I was dating a chap from the Southside. I wasn’t overly impressed to see these Dublin 4 women painting their nails in the stands as their boys gave their all on the pitch. It was way too poseurish, way too posh for me who had thrown her heart at Jack Charlton and his soccer eleven. But that was 1990. This was 2002. I didn’t have a ticket for the match so I watched it in Northbrook, all the while being coached by my mates so that later I’d be able to hold my own in the pub post-mortems.

We were in Dublin’s smallest pub – the Dawson Lounge – and got into conversation with some Irish lads – D4 heads who had been to the ‘Rock (Blackrock college). I was doing alright, nodding in agreement as they commented on the tries and the whatnots and making all the right noises as they picked the match apart and the players likewise. Then it came time for me to show my colours and ask a question. (To those who say there’s no such thing as a stupid question, I say: you’re wrong!) So, says I, what’s the stringer’s name?

I actually heard a pin drop in the ensuing – shocked – silence. I had thought a ‘stringer’ was some sort of position  – like a hooker, a prop, a flanker.  I hope Peter Stringer never gets to hear of my mistake. It’s haunted me ever since and is regularly pulled out in company to show just how stupid I can really be.

As I said, that was in 2002. Since then, I’ve looked forward to spring time when the Six Nations starts again. I’ve waited anxiously for the Autumn Internationals. I’ve drank manys a sodawater and cranberry or bottle of Bulmers/Magners while shouting at the screen urging my lads on. I’ve drooled over Keith Wood and cried the day he announced his retirement. (To my mind, he’s one of the sexiest men ever to come out of Ireland.) I still don’t know all the rules and I still blag my way through a lot of the half-time and post-match commentary but I enjoy it immensely. I enjoy the escapasim, the patriotism, the unionism (is there such a word?) that comes with a nation united for a couple of hours with one shared aspiration – to do their best on the day. Unlike soccer, it’s not the final score that matters so much; rather it’s the quality of the game, the standard of the players, and the heart that they show.

I’ve been to some memorable matches; I’ve met some great people while bellied up to the bar in pubs  in various corners of the world. I’ve even had a pub open especially for me (in Transylvania) just so that I wouldn’t miss a World Cup match). Some great friendships are rooted in a rubgy match: every year I swap anniversary greetings with a mate of mine that I met during an Ireland/France game in a pub in Budapest and ten years after the Ireland/Scotland game of 2002, I’m still talking rugby with a Welsh mate in Scotland (bloody Wales!!!).

This week, having just seen Ireland give their all against Scotland, I’m grateful for the game of rugby – for the teams, the players, the fans, and the pubs that open around the world to make sure everyone gets a chance to see their boys in action. Whether it came from the Irish tradition of Caid  or the Welsh tradition of Cnapan or the French La Soule, there’s something special about its universality.