Citius, Altius, Fortius, the Beanbag and School Sportsday

Campsie Playing Fields Omagh. Field of Legends.

Today it was school sports day for the children. A scorcher of a day for a change, the blue sea shimmered in the distance as the kids tried their hand at throwing a foam javelin, running with bean bags, the penalty shoot out, throwing bean bags.

All modern games for sportsday they are, with the focus on participation rather than winning. Parents stood around watching benignly and sipping coffee and munching on a muffin or two. No-one made a bollix of themselves disputing a photo finish or calling foul after a false start stopped their kid winning some dubious race. It’s the way of the modern sportsday. No-one gets to be a dick. Everyone wins. The children are happy. It’s all very genteel. There’s not even a parents’ race.

The parents can go home safe in the knowledge that their beloved child has seen them see them come fourth in the sack race, last in the egg and spoon and first in the beanbag throw. A bit like a politician electioneering, you’ve gotta be seen to be there.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether little Jim Bob, Jimmy Ray, Tabatha or Delfina win one of these benign inoffensive little races. No-one remembers and everyone forgets. If Big Mickey, Jimmy Ray’s dad took a psycho, wrecked the joint, busted the teacher, kicked over the bean bag holders and fucked everyone out of it in a moment of sportsday rage, now that would be memorable. Sadly, if nothing else on entertainment grounds, that doesn’t happen.

Was it ever thus. Roll it back 35 years or more to our school sports. Firstly, parents weren’t present, weren’t welcome and in fact if they had turned up at the sports day they would probably have been told to fuck off home by their children let alone the teachers.

My memory of Sports Days at St Colmcille’s in Omagh was of hard-bitten affairs down in St Patrick’s Park beside the river. I don’t remember the weather being good at all. Ever. The sports included proper manly activities like the Long Kick competition. That required you to root a big heavy brown size five football out from under the goal posts as far out the field as you could. Often the goalmouth in St Pat’s Park would be flooded so you would have to clear the water in the manner of a Ryder Cup golfer. After a few practice goes and then the real thing a whean of times, the knee ligaments would fair feel the strain. I think I did well in it once.

There was a bit of a sandpit maybe for the long jump. The grass overhang would be trimmed around for the sports. But none of us boys wanted to be Eamon Coghlan, or Alberto Jauntorena, Lasse Virén or even Edwin Moses. My heroes were Tyrone’s Eugene McKenna, Patsy Hetherington that played for Tyrone and Omagh Town, Gordon Hill and Steve Coppell of Man United. I still remember my first Tyrone match at the then Omagh St Enda’s standing on a grassy knoll with my brother John as Tyrone beat Sligo.

Moving on the Brothers the Sports Day raised a notch. Only just. Obviously there was some sort of schools athletics board for we were marshalled and entered into various events and it was taken seriously enough. Being a lanky hoor I was entered for the high jump and long jump. My later knowledge of sport confirmed that not being fast, in fact being downright slow, I would be incapable of jumping too much.

Improbably however I won the high jump with some mediocre clearance. The dubious prize was to represent the school in the Northern Ireland [sic] championships at the Mary Peters track. It was on a Saturday and off I set on the school bus with my gaelic shorts and football boots.

I was totally underwhelmed by the Mary Peters set up. For all the talk I expected some sort of stadium with spectators. It wasn’t that much better than Omagh St Enda’s in fact the Omagh ground was better because it had gaelic goal posts. My main memory is of a long bus journey. And sitting around all day. I was only in one event so I had to sit about while the other boys went through the motions in theirs. The only excitement really was the fact that some of the older lads were fellas we knew were good footballers maybe playing Corn na nÓg or Rannafast so when they spoke to us we felt a million dollars.

Suffice to say my performance was shite. The height I failed at was lower than the improbable but still mediocre height I’d cleared down at the playing fields in Omagh. It was no surprise. I didn’t know what I was doing, hadn’t practiced and was crap. Never again did I get selected for the school athletics team. And there was one simple reason for that. I was calculating and made damn sure I never won anything. Nothing, ever again.

That’s not to say even had I applied myself I would have been any use at running, hurdling, sprinting or jumping or indeed putting the shot, javelin throwing or firing the discus (Sadly we’d no hammer throwing for I had a few hoors I would gladly have aimed at. Yes, Tusa?). But my unremarkable field athletic career was firmly stamped with mediocrity.

I was happy playing gaelic football and hurling for the school. The other athletics were a dalliance, an excuse for a time out of school at sports day down in the playing fields. On the way there and back we might leer at a few Omagh Academy girls. We would tog out and go through the motions of whatever sports we had been forced to enter by Terry McGurk or Mick O’Kane. All teachers put their hand to the pump to help out. It was a great exercise in the whole school coming together in common purpose.

I remember Lewis Meenagh was always very diligent in running off the javelin competition. He never struck me as a javelin fan, and sadly I never got to ask him what he thought of Fatima Whitbread or Tessa Sanderson. Now that would have been a meeting worth seeing.

In upper sixth the whole thing took on a farcical new context. We would dodge about smoking, barely able to hide our contempt for the whole sports day participation thing. Taking the piss was the thing.

My good mate Decky Coyle had decided he would win the triple jump competition, merely to prove a point. He had practiced his technique is Strabane [probably chasing women] and loudly proclaimed that he would win easy which was unlike the man for he was unathletic and that’s seriously understating the fact.

On the day at the Playing Fields we gathered around the Triple Jump pit as Coyle went through an elaborate stretching routine. He was serious about this thing. When it came to his turn he took off like a bat out of hell down the track, launching himself on the hop part of his routine but when he stepped he did his hamstring and collapsed in a heap of shite ending up in in a roar of agony lying in tatters in the sandpit. The rest of us had to walk away bent double as a few lads managed to hold back the laughter long enough to help him out of the pit.

The games the following year was marked most notably by my other good mate Cormac Cunningham winning the 800 metres. Having cut across the track half way around the second circuit he won the race easily. No-one in authority was paying sufficient attention to notice this outrageous assault on the Olympic ideal. I may be wrong but he may in fact have been selected to represent the school on the back of this stunning feat. Faster, quicker, shorter indeed.

There were other feats of gamesmanship, cunning, deceit and downright cheating. But no-one took the thing sufficiently seriously to notice or care. There were no parents present, no strops and no rows.

And best of all, there were no fucking beanbags.


The Return of Oliver Cromwell

Last night on the wireless as I drove back from Belfast there was a discussion on the economic woes facing Ireland. Cheerful and optimistic it wasn’t.

One contribution was an ultra depressing exegesis of the current state of the Irish economy and the prospects for our young people by a young Leaving Cert student from St Patrick’s in Navan.

Judging by his mood, all the exam halls of Ireland should today have erected signs over their portals declaiming ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Enter Here.’  Such was the pessimism. It seems the youth of Erin are resigned to a life in different climes.

The plain people of tomorrow won’t be the plain people of Ireland, they will be the plain people of Australia, Canada, the United States, the UK. Wherever they will go.

It harks back to other times. And it is a stark reminder to those who were maybe unreceptive to the arrival in Ireland during the naughties of Eastern European migrant workers, that we are only one economic downturn away from the curse of mass emigration once again.

The Young scribe tellingly reported that young people were sick or hearing what had caused the national woes and wanted to move on. Typically moving on meant via plane.

As if the mood wasn’t sombre enough, a follow-up item told the tale of a couple from Monaghan. The husband, out of work and unable to find employment as a civil engineer, or in fact any engineer, had headed to Australia to work, leaving his wife and children behind. She was left at home literally holding the babies, bereft and at a loss at the absence of her husband and soulmate. It was a case of living grief. Economic misery had dictated that the husband was forced to head south.

The husband is working 21 days on and seven days off on a gas pipeline in Australia near Brisbane. He, a trained civil engineer does some of that but also labours over 14 hours each day. It is back-breaking work. She described his working conditions as part-Auschwitz part-prison.

He was able to phone home via skype but the mutually agreeable time was when the children were going out to school. His wife recounted how when he first called they spent 15 minutes weeping together at their plight. In love, happily married, a couple joined in trying to keep the family together and separated by distance and the need to earn a living.

It was heartrending stuff. And in all these circumstances several thoughts cross your mind. How would I/We contend with these circumstances if we found ourselves in that position. How did the country get to the stage where a home, a family and a marriage was forced into a long distance love affair?

The answer is in education. In providing the children of today with the skills and tools to leave this place and go where the wind and the work takes them.

And where they can go voluntarily without being driven out of the country by the modern day Cromwells who came and stole their future.

A Day in the Life of a Pound Coin

Cáit wrote this for a school assignment. It is very good so I am posting it here for her.

I am a pound coin. I was made in the Royal Mint in London in 2005. I don’t like the picture on my front. It’s of some woman, I think her name’s Elizabeth. On my back, I’ve got a picture of London Bridge. When I grow up, I want to be a euro, because they’ve got two colours, and they’re so much cooler than us one-tone pounds. Here’s a story of how I’m on my way to becoming a euro.

Today Aoife’s ma gave me to Aoife to pay for her trip to Belfast.

“Aoife, make sure you give this to Miss Mullan, OK? It’s an envelope in the front pocket of your bag!” she dropped me, Newbie Niall and Ancient Anna into the envelope. We slid around, testing for holes, but the envelope stood firm. Then it went dark. We felt the plod, plod, plod, plod motion of our Person walking. On the journey, we exchanged gossip.

“Psst, Penny. Did you hear about the notes?” Niall whispered, ignoring the disapproving glances Anna sent his way.

“Oh yeah. The two-pound note thing. That’s ancient, Niall, almost as old as Anna!” I said, rolling around, trying to scratch that itchy spot on my side.

“No, not that! The Mint are thinking about replacing us with Notes!” Niall hissed as the flap opened.

“Yes. One, two, three. It’s all there. Bye Aoife.” Miss Mullan tipped us into a big, deep blue box, on top of at least a dozen other coins. She slammed it shut and left us in the dark for at least half an hour.

“Yes Miss Mullan. How was your weekend? Yes, ours was lovely, although you know that incident at the Doherty Cup didn’t help.  Yes, yes, mm-hmm, no. Bye, talk to you later!” I’m slid into the elegant black leather bag of a woman. The scent of Chanel is overpowering. All the company I’ve got are wads of crisp twenty-pound notes that look down their corners at me, and clusters of one-and-two pees that huddle in a corner and giggle. The lady opens her purse and takes me back out.

“Here you go. Thank you. “ She nods, and smiles, and presses out past the crowd. I was dropped into a plastic bucket and left there.

“On hundred and fifty three, one hundred and fifty four, one hundred a- grrr! Oh no, not again.” The man who’s counting us has knocked the neat stacks of coins over. I decide to make a roll for it, because I’m getting crushed by at least six other coins every time he stacks us. I spin on the ground for what feels like an age, until I find a hiding place. Under the table, no, beside the socket, no, under the dog basket, no, wait, under the dog basket? Perfect. I quietly glide over, and am instantly hidden from view. I lie there; using the time to relax, and make sure I’m as shiny as ever. After about an hour a boy who’s got gap teeth and shaved hair finds me.

“Heads-or-tails, Dara? DARA! Heads-or-tails?” he lisps, just before he flicks me up, up, up, high into the air. I float there, feeling the cold air cool my warmed skin. Then I fall. I land hard on the pavement with a smack then roll along the ground. Presently I find a rusty grate. It soothes my itchy side, and scores the image of the doll on my front. I fall through the slats and drop until I splash into the murky depths. I sink, down until I’m resting on a shelf. Maybe now I can get some peace. Peace to think about my change. Peace to transform, into a brand new sparkling euro.

Direct Mail

The Vet. The Dog, TV Licence and the Electricity Meter.


Having taken my dog to have her put to sleep, I wasn’t in the form to pay the euthanising fee there and then. I drive past the Vet’s regularly to-ing and fro-ing from Coleraine. The day Leo was born in the car, he actually made his first appearance in the well of the passenger seat as we turned the corner at the Cheese factory. In fact, the common joke at the time was that we would call him cheddar or some other cheese related name to reflect his place of birth. Sadly now rounding the same corner I cannot pass the Vet’s without remembering the three dogs we have had put to sleep there, Sam, Peig and lately Hub. There will be others. The Vet very kindly sent me a sympathy card about ten days after the lethal injection. It was another lethal injection. And not really of sympathy. I viewed it as a sugar coated reminder to pay the reckoning. Of course a couple of days later the real bill arrived, itemised. Clinical. Straight to the point. I caught a breath. Not a breath like Hub did. I wrote the cheque and posted it back and thanked them for their kindness. That’s the way with dogs. And Vets.


The Council sent me a final demand to pay the dog licence. It warned me wanly that further action could be taken if I failed to pay. And what I thought? For a handful of dust. I phoned the woman. Environmental Health she answered helpfully. My Dog’s dead and you sent me a licence reminder. I was tempted to replay the ‘trauma’ but she was efficient. The records would be amended accordingly she said. She didn’t even say sorry about your dog. Bitch.


My brother phoned up PowerNI. Very honest he was. He told them how long he’d had the house, he read out the meter reading and he set up a direct debit. All that honesty seems to have fucked them up altogether. Now the electric firm, they’ve gone all bipolar. The positive addresses him by name and offers a statement of account. The negative calls him The Occupier, not The Owner mind you, but The Occupier. It tells him that the account he so diligently sorted out to their benefit has been disconnected. I’m glad my call may have been recorded for training purposes. I imagine a few have been over the years and have indeed been used for training classes. ‘Wait til you hear this grumpy hoor’ I hope they say. She said she would ring me back; my bipolar brother seems to have short-circuited the whole process.


TV Licence demands. If they tell me one more time they have opened a case. A case of what? They must spend many’s a TV licence writing to those that don’t have one. I remember the cat and mouse as a student. The idiot licence collector coming to the door trying to establish if you had a TV or not. A football match on live TV, the sound booming out on a Wednesday afternoon. It sounds like you have a TV sir can I come in and check? No they are listening to the radio. I will come back with the RUC he says the fuckin moron. Get out, and move your foot I said his toes jammed Jehovas Witness style between door and frame. Grudgingly I paid when I bought my house. The point of principle made. But they wear you out. Opening cases. Calling you The Occupier.

So there you have it. The Vet. The Dog, TV Licence and the Electricity Meter. How not to do Direct Mail.