Tuesday, December 22, 2015

McGregor Rising

I was around eight years old when I saw 1916 Dublin depicted in a TV offshoot of the Indiana Jones saga, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. It was one of my favourite programmes, probably because it coloured my young mind with things masculine and militaristic. And when this was fused with an historical event that had actually happened in Ireland, I was transfixed. It was the first time I'd heard of the Easter Rising. 

I'm nearly thirty now. And although I'm the same, things have changed. Yes I still think guns and rebellions are cool, but I've also delved a little deeper into things. A few years ago I wrote a blog entry that asked on what grounds people could claim pride in being Irish. I'm not sure I feel quite the same now. But I'm still an uncomfortable side-taker, normally too full of analysis to get down off the fence. (Don't vote for me)

Of course there is one realm that invites even the most uncertain of us to be part of the flag waving group. And things are good in Irish sport. Our footballers have qualified for the European Championship, which makes up for the familiar false dawn of the Rugby World Cup. We also have boxers vying for Olympic glory next summer right? How are the cricketers doing these days? Does Rory Mcilroy still think he's British?

No need for that. Something else has come along. While not being an expert on mixed martial arts, I'm pretty sure Conor McGregor is “the” ultimate fighter. All the experts say so. And anything I've seen of him in action suggests as much. Yes he has an almighty ego, but only because he needs to. Anyone doing what he does needs to draw from mental reservoirs overflowing with self-belief. Quite simply, he wouldn't be as good otherwise.

Honestly though, what I really like about Conor McGregor is how Irish he is. It's something that he refers to regularly. He's even got The Foggy Dew playing over an entrance draped in green, white and orange. It's all very bombastic. Such is the big and bold world of professional sport in America.

Of course, despite McGregor's ability and strength of character, the brutality of UFC is something that can't be ignored. But even though it's not always easy to watch, these fighters embody fitness, technique, focus and discipline like few other athletes. It's not for young children, but it's most definitely a sport.

In fact, it's precisely the danger of UFC that makes Conor McGregor even more interesting. Watching a proud Irishman ruthlessly dispose of his opponents with precision is indeed alluring. It challenges what might be one of our biggest insecurities, that, when all is said and done, we are best known for “having the craic” with pints Guinness on St Patrick's Day.

In the aforementioned Indiana Jones' episode, a young Séan O'Casey questions the protagonist upon hearing him sing a bar of "When Irish eyes are happy". "Indy" tells him he's been to the theatre, whereupon O'Casey presumes he's been treated to a painfully cliché depiction of Ireland laden with shamrocks and shillelaghs. 

"What's wrong with that" asks Indy. 

"Everything" replies O'Casey. "Because it's a phoney. And a lie. The kind of thing that makes us a laughing stock."

'Look at the Irish aren't they a scream'" he jibes sarcastically. 

"It makes my blood boil. Because I am an Irishman."

It's ironic that in sifting through an Americanisation of Irish history, I find one of the best descriptions of my own national frustration. I should also mention that O'Casey himself turned out to be one of the Rising's biggest detractors. Nonetheless, Easter 1916 represents an Irishness that is still so seductive. Maybe it's why we're so preoccupied by it 100 years later. And maybe it's also why Conor McGregor is so appealing. Because, in a strange way, he embodies the same idea of Ireland as a force to be reckoned with.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


I went to Cuba knowing not too much. Having spent two weeks there, I am but a little wiser. That it was the most amazing place I have ever seen is not to imply that I or my friend John enjoyed every last moment. But I knew, even after a few days, that this was a holiday I would not forget.

But forgetting was how it all started. After a day or two in Havana, I realised that my habitual engagement with the online world would have to go on hiatus. My fledgling command of Spanish was also put to the test by the fact that English on the island is still relatively scarce. There were hand gestures and monosyllabic words a plenty as I remembered that essential communication is fundamentally based on common sense.

For the most part, the people of Cuba come across as tremendously likable. Even if many we interacted with saw us as a pair of walking cash machines, there was less of the aggressive salesmanship I've encountered elsewhere. There was almost the sense that, underneath the toil with which they obviously grapple, Cubans don't take it all too seriously. The truth, I know, is much less simplistic.

But that disarming lack of seriousness leaves a lasting impression. One night, a group of four men sat down nearby in the bar we were drinking in. The barman asked them where they from, to which they said they were Italian. “Ah Italia,” replied the host, “La mafia”. In a Havana restaurant, a local patron unloaded cúpla focal on us when we told him where we were from. He was an ex-boxer, who had trained in Ireland under none other than Michael Carruth. “Póg mo thón, indeed.”

Tourism is Cuba's lifeline. And not just for those wise enough to avail of impending change. In Santa Clara, around three hours from Havana, we passed by a school yard where teachers and junior students were conducting class outside. When one teacher noticed us, she gestured to know if we had any pens. I had three, and after taking my bag from my shoulders with earnest affirmation, I tossed her a black bic and continued on my way. This was a memorable dose of reality: a teacher begging tourists for pens. I tried to ward off the smugness that inevitably followed.

More grit was evident on our journey to Trindad in a 1950s Dodge Taxi. Through the Sierra del Escambray mountain range, the driver navigated potholed roads that had to be seen (or felt) to be believed. After a snail's pace ascent, we gathered some speed on the way down. From the back seat I had just about enough time to anticipate our subsequent collision with a cat rising out of the ditch. I'd call the event fitting if it didn't trouble me the way it did.

Trinidad welcomed tourists like no other city we visited. Old men with cowboy hats sat on corners smoking giant cigars, ready to charge anyone who considered them photo-worthy. In every bar, the resident band sent out their often beautiful singers to boozy customers with cap in hand. On one occasion, I donated three pesos and was met with disapproval because I had used the wrong, much less valuable, currency. John, ever the diplomat, defused the situation with two convertible pesos.

With notable exceptions, the food in Cuba was the worst I've eaten. Generally, the restaurants ranged between average and terrible. A pizza in Santa Clara was certainly the most disgusting meal I've ever been served. Thankfully, the guesthouses, or Casa Particulares, were of a much higher, if still basic, culinary standard. As a vegetarian, I lived functionally on rice, eggs and vegetables. John's experience of meat was more volatile. In Cienfuegos, he suffered a night of vomiting that left him even lower on energy in unforgivable heat. Enough said.

And then there's la revolución- the preverbial “two fingers” extended by the Cuban state to the world's most powerful country, with only ninety miles of water to keep them apart. Although Cubans still practice Catholicism, it takes only a few days to figure out who Christ competes with. The famous print of Ernesto “Ché” Guevara is omnipresent, reminding citizens of their role in one of the Cold War's most remarkable episodes. The martyr takes his place along side the still living Fidel and Raúl Castro, a sort of Holy Trinity for Cuba's declining version of Marxist-Leninism. With recent events in mind, it would interest me to see Cuba again in about ten years' time.

Underscoring this recent experience was the ever emitting sound of Cuban music. As no kind of expert, I am still prepared to agree with popular opinion, that the island's musicality is a particularly strong attribute. A classical pianist in a Trinidad bar, flanked by his bored looking wife, summed up so much of what, here, is so difficult to convey. And that kind of thing, in case you think this entry has been a bit negative, was the incommunicable highlight. Go and find out for yourself.