99s and Super 8s

Although the GAA championship starts in May, it really doesn’t heat up until the tail end of June. For provinces outside Leinster, you’ll have some sugar and spice on your way to the provincial finals, particularly in Ulster, where even the first round games can throw up some shocks. In Leinster, however, the trend of late, is to endure a period of drudgery up until the provincial final, which inevitably culminates in the ascension of the team from the capital by an eye-watering margin. And out of the Leinster coma stride the Dubs to start their championship proper.

This year, the revised format of the championships in both hurling and football, have given us ample talking points. We’ve all been seduced by the heady heat of hurling fired at us almost weekly. It’s been a joy to watch, and a credit to all those who’ve played it and brought us such entertainment. We’ve ad-libbed about location, location, location. Waterford hurlers not getting a home game, the question of Dublin’s ‘neutrality’ and the battle of Newbridge have generated more column inches and Twitter feed than this summer’s tournament in Russia. Tears were shed as an obituary was written for Mayo in June, a rare occurrence for the perennial runners-up. And further tears poured over broadcasting blunders that saw GAA coverage delayed so that bloody cricket or golf or some shite was captured by Sky instead. It hasn’t been a boring summer thus far.

And still, on the 14thJuly, I have the excitement of a supporter as if it’s only the first game of the season. Dublin play Donegal on the neutral soil of Croker this evening, and there is the unshakeable feeling that this is their first real game of the championship. The summer, in effect, starts this evening (or restarts if, like me, you feel that the hurling and the heatwave have combined, so far, to give us one of the best summers we’ve had in a very long time). Up to now, fans have languished on the sunny sidelines of pitches around the country, freckling and fan-tanning, talking Hawk-Eye over Choc Ices, and interim managers and six day turnarounds and black cards and red cards and blackguards. The US transfer market is doing a roaring trade, as the Mystery of Disappearing Dermo revealed itself.

The prospect of a number of round-robin games, gives us something to look forward to, though it might kill the immediate excitement of the ‘sudden death’ of championship. It has absolutely worked for the hurling series, but hurling is an incredibly sexy sport, whereas gaelic football is just a handsome relative. There is no puke hurling. Blanket defence football on the other hand… Though I have high hopes that this current Donegal side has moved away, somewhat, from the Jimnastics of iron curtain defences. It would be great to have an exciting, free-flowing game to watch this evening, start of summer, restart of summer or whatever you’re having yourself.

Only a few hours to go until I don my jersey and go searching for coins for bus fare. I’ll hit town, grab a cold one and then head in to watch both games, hoping that the Rossies do it in the first one. I’m giddy with excitement and happy-out that we are still there with games to look forward to. Seeing how good Kerry are looking this year, gives me hope that there may be a chunk of competitiveness in this competition yet. They look very sharp. But although I’ll be enjoying 99s throughout the Super 8s and cheering on the Boys in Blue, the new football format only ‘half-solves’ a problem. Yes, combined with the hurling, it’s giving me two summers in one, but for the counties from lower divisions, and in particular those in Leinster, for whom a provincial title seems set to be beyond their grasp for a long time to come, surely a system could be devised to ensure that those teams can also play longer into the summer? Fair is fair, every county deserves to make hay while the sun shines.

vanila sundae with choco on top
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All roads lead from Rome

All roads lead from Rome, Fiumicino Airport. A perpetual spine of concrete runs down the centre of the autostrada; an essential accessory for a nation of possessed drivers. The driver bringing me from the airport is no stranger to the high jinx of the highway here. With balls of steel, she weaves through traffic at speed, to a chorus of beeping horns and unheard curses mouthed by fellow drivers whizzing by in their Lancias and Fiats, all gesticulating wildly. She flicks her hand at roly poly man in a dusty Alpha. He thumps the air and roars something that doesn’t look romantic. She looks in the mirror at me and says that he has manhood is the size of an infant’s. I smile back. She doesn’t realise I speak Italian.

The carnival of speed and erratic overtaking ensues for an hour until we are turning off the autostrada, near Frosinone. From here begins a more civilized style of driving although at one stage, my pilot overtakes a line of three articulated trucks in what I can only describe, as a suicide manoeuvre. On from there to Sora where the road continues to ribbon across the Camino Valley. We’re surrounded by humps of green mountains on all sides. Tiny hamlets high on the mountains come in and out of view as we snake around bends. Terracotta rooves add splashes of sunned red to the emerald heights. Churches the size of matchboxes are dotted across the valley, if you threw a stone, you’d hit one of the beautiful chiesas or cappellas. They are as vital to Italian landscape, as the pub to urban Ireland.

We pass a dejected looking bar on the outskirts of Sora. Its canopy advertises Peroni beer although the sun drained it of colour long ago. Just the shadow of ‘PERONI’ can be made out from the white canvas sheltering the door. Beneath it, men with leathery faces in white vests sit around a plastic table, clutching palms of playing cards. They all look at the car when we pass. It’s as if we are the first vehicle to travel the road.

Heading towards the village of Casalattico, we pass a bridge that’s splattered with a pornography of election posters. Septuagenarians steeped in hair dye and olive oil look almost stately. They provocate their electorate with coiffure and photoshop, into believing they are the next messiah of the Republic. I spot one who looks like an Irish politician, Jackie Healy Ray, on a diet of sunbeds and five dames a day. He has that twinkle in his eye, that unmistakable glint you see in Italians that confesses sins. Those of the past and those of the future. A compulsion to sin in the present. It’s an obligation in fact. Time doesn’t efface this twinkle, it never will. Ceasar, Di Medici, Berlusconi, they all had the it. Jackie Healy Ray, or Salvatore del Duca as he’s known around these parts, glints at me and I react by questioning what my ‘upper age’ limit is now that I’m in the dying embers of my thirties.

Thankfully, Mad Max wrenches my mind from the gutter with another orgy of overtaking. She led me to within two seconds of meeting my maker. Coming towards us, at a speed probably faster than light, was a black BMW. She didn’t flinch. My heart stopped. Gianni Morandi contiued squaking on the radio.

-Dio! I cried.

-Ah parli italiano? she asked.

As if my lingusitc ability counted for anything now that I was about to wind up splashed on the bonnet of an oncoming car. And with that, she pulls the car back onto the correct side of the road, leaving the BMW with about 10 yards clearance. To the sound of his honking horn as he flies past, I make a pledge to God that if I arrive in the village in one piece, I’ll fill the offertory boxes of any chiesa and cappella I see for the next week. I’ll even canvass for del Duca.

red ford focus vehicle driving on sand under blue daytime sky

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NCT her quick!

Picture this, gorgeous Saturday morning in Dublin, the sun is splitting the stones. Everyone on the island is in good form. The boss headed off on holidays yesterday, the brother this morning. Centra are doing a 10 quid deal on the boxes of Coors and pretty much everything is ticketyboo. I’m in the NCT centre getting the boss’s car seen to. I’m a forward planner, so I’ve brought a Colm Tobín with me to get me through the half an hour or so of a wait. So far so good. Not even the scorpiness of clipboard girl at the gate could eat into my zen. She was having a bad morning – one of her seven a week.

Checked in the mo-mo, settled myself in a plastic chair and tucked into some prose. I let the background noise drift by, the callings of names and reg’s, the announcements of each prognosis.

The good –  “All sound there mate.”

The bad – “You need a new passenger headlamp and break pads.”

The ugly – “You shouldn’t be driving that, you’ve no brakes, your clutch is about to go and you need new tyres.” (To which the reply was a classic, “Tyres? I couldn’t need tyres, sure I only got them changed two year’ ago bud.”

I read on, strangely hearing Tobín’s accent more and more as I go along. It doesn’t happen with any other writer and I’ll chalk it down to the effects of the Irish heatwave. It has been known to do strange things to a redhead and sure a bit of a posh Anglo-Irish lilt in an NCT centre in Tallaght is trippy any day of the week. I’m engrossed in his depiction of Henry James when my literary reverie is butchered by a loud conversation belonging to two middle-aged ladies who’ve just appeared. It’s as clear as day that one of them is  hoping her decibels are going to expedite her car’s destiny.

Oddly, she’s probably as lilted as Tobín and from what she’s waffling about, she’s a teacher. No wedding ring, and that doesn’t surprise me. She has the kind of presence that’d make you want to hide. Though I am anchored in NCT ICU so can’t righty seek refuge from her. I stay and suffer in silence. No, in fact, silence would be utopia. This dear lady is here to be heard.

“I wonder why my car’s not ready yet?” She belts out to no-one in particular.

Her thinner, marginally quieter companion replies, “Is it on the screen there?”

“Oh LET me check.” Lads, she literally roared ‘Let’ before hauling herself in front of the small screen displaying the queue status of vehicles. “It says 15 minutes, that doesn’t make sense. I’m going to ask the guy when I see him.”

She turns her bulk, and her long teachery skirt catches the corner of my book, threatening to take Henry James to the ground.

“Yes, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll ask the GUY.” She reaffirms, as though her pal, sitting less than a metre away hadn’t heard her the first time or perhaps had forgotten having heard it all of five seconds before.

I will admit, at this point I curse under my breath. Just something mild and inoffensive along the lines of “gobshite”. It may have verged on “fucking gobshite”, but I don’t think I’ve escalated to proper curses, yet. I’m well on the way however.

Of course, the skirted one sits down beside me and shows no signs of shutting up. I implore God to speed her car the feck up.

“How long has it been now?” She sings. “Where is the guy?”

Her mate suggests she consult with the screen again, despite the fact that it’s been less than a minute and technology isn’t yet up to the speed of this tulip.

“I can see my car through the window, look!” She points. The entire waiting room looks. The entire waiting room hoping that she was also the far side of the window.

“It must be nearly ready,” the thin friend offers some form of solace.

“Yes. I’ll just ask the guy. There’s the guy.” She lumbers over towards the hatch to a bearded bloke who looks like a fat Conor McGregor and is possibly about to die of heat exhaustion.

“Howaya, Seat Ibiza is it?” he calls out to her. Sweat pouring down his temples.

“No. I’m the Toyota Auris,” she screams.

She’s an Auris alright. And again I’m thinking in Tobín’s voice. ‘Auris, auris, auris.’

“Not ready love.”

“How long more?”

“It’s on the screen. Ten minutes.” He wipes his glowing forehead, then calls out for the owner of a Seat Ibiza.

She stands again in front of the screen, squints, whacks my book with the heavy skirt and sits down to tell her pal that she might go to town to watch the Russian game this evening. She knows a Russian student who’ll be in town, so she might join her for the match. Christ, just leave now, I’m thinking. Just in case traffic is bad. Just in case town closes. In case the game starts early. Go!

And then, as if by magic, a handsome chap appears at the hatch and calls out her reg. It’s sooner than the aforementioned ten minutes which has to be the greatest miracle in the history of Dublin 24. The Auris has passed. The skirt passes me for the final time. I don’t mind that the book does take a tumble this time, I don’t even mind that I’ve lost my page. Two Arab guys in front of me smile at each other. It was one of those smiles, we all know the one. Happy fucking days!



Strip It Back

It’s a scorcher of a day in Dublin, searing in the late-twenties outside with not the slightest vein of a cloud in the sky. The library is heaving with students and the hand drier sounds out its constant hum from the nearby toilets. Overlooking the lake, students are working towards the last of their exams, only three days remain between them and the summer. Six desks and two decades separate me from a ginger boy at the far end of this desk bank.

He looks concentrated – the way you’d expect a student to be at the business end of the year. He’s the only red fella in the library, but I’d expect that’d go unnoticed by most – people having more important things on their minds I guess. The thing that can’t be overlooked though, is the fact he’s naked. Apart from a set of iPhone buds tucked inside his ear, the chap is buck starkers. Wearing nothing but his flame coloured mop and a handful of orange hairs on his chest, he’s tracing lines of highlighter across his book, in what seems to be a targeted attack on the entire page. Nothing has escaped the highlighter, not even the tabs.

But nobody bats an eyelid, neither to the nudity nor the neon artwork leaking itself across his page. He continues highlighting, everything. The hand drier keeps on whizzing. Pages turn and pens click. A blue lid from someone’s water bottle rolls past my feet and over towards the window. It’s as normal as any other day in the James Joyce Library. Then he looks up, looks right at me, maybe sees right into my head. Shit, I knew I shouldn’t have given him a second glance – now he thinks I’m a complete perv. But just as quickly he resumes his colouring, leaving me to return to my David Lodge novel and the poetry edits I’ve been avoiding since I arrived.

It’s not that I don’t want to do them, believe me I do. I want to meet my finished poem. I want to hear what it sounds like, see what it looks like. It’s just that the step between getting across the end line and hanging out in purgatory, is the woeful predicament of decision making. Follow line A or B or cut a new route for it? And if I follow one route, what am I turning my back on by shelving the others? I read on. The edit dilemma continues looping in the background. Then a voice whispers in my ear, “strip it back”.

I look-up to see if the clothesless chap was trying to spread his gospel, but no, his head was down, intent on doing further damage with a blue highlighter. His yellow one appeared to have died of exhaustion. Strip it is exactly the measure I need to take. And so I crack out the poem and shed layer upon layer of excess wordage. I peel back line from line and am merciless about what I’ll allow remain. After a few minutes, I’m left with a bare shell of a poem, hardly resembling the fat little thing I’d started out with. It’s just about skeletal and every word is earning its keep. It’s so stark naked I can now see it’s meaning.  I can feel it. I get it.

And there it is, the end is in sight. Laid bare, it’s found its shape. I look up, to see Carrot Top wrestle a Monaghan jersey over his head. He stands into a faded pair of O’Neill’s tracksuit bottoms and tucks his highlighters into his pockets. Nobody else is looking in his direction. It’s as if he isn’t there. And just as I type the last word of the poem up, a damp page floats onto my desk. It lands on my keyboard, wavy with the weight of neon ink soaked into it. I look up but he’s gone. I look at the page, and there repeated again and again across fifty lines “strip it back”.

young man
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