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It feels good to be Irish - celebrating being Irish, bring on Poland and the UEFA Cup

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The Irish team poses for a group photo prior to kickoff against Hungary on Monday.

A story on the Euro soccer front to come, but first an observation on the current state of the Irish economy, one that may not reflect the real state of the nation but is worth telling all the same.

A few years back, four to be precise, I remarked in this column on a journey to the Donegal town of Ballyshannon, birthplace of the legendary Rory Gallagher.

Rory, as some of you may know, was the finest blues guitar player this country of ours ever produced, and even though he is commonly associated with Cork he was actually born in Ballyshannon.

So every year, for the past 10 years or so, the good people of Donegal have honored him with a festival weekend on the June Bank Holiday.

And just in case you think they are cashing in on his link, let me remind you that only 200 people turned up the first year as one of the organizers, Barry O’Neill of RTE fame, told us from the stage of the Big Top on Sunday night.

This past weekend some 10,000 people flocked to the northwest of Ireland to pay homage to Rory, with the acts including one Mick Taylor of Rolling Stones fame, Pat McManus of Mama’s Boys fame and that rollicking good London band Dr. Feelgood -- despite the fact that their singer is dead and their lead guitar player long since left the parish to go solo!

Quite a feat that but never mind, this column isn’t about Dr. Feelgood but it is about Rory Gallagher in a strange sort of a way.

Last weekend, thanks to my new job behind a desk in Dublin, I was able to go to Rory’s hometown (that’s sort of a pun on one of his songs) for the first time since 2008, even if it was only on the Sunday.

Last time around I traveled north with eldest son Cillian. This time the youngest, Ciaran, was initiated into the Gallagher festival trek and he enjoyed it, even if he wasn’t born when the great man died in the summer of 1995.

We’ll talk more of Rory in a moment, but first that observation on the state of the nation that I was telling you about.

When we went north four years ago we passed through the Cavan town of Belturbet, mostly because it’s on the main road to Ballyshannon and it would be rude never mind silly not to.

Belturbet, with the twist into the main street and the twist out of it, was a fairly sad looking place in 2008. My abiding memory was the number of “for sale” signs that seemed to adorn every second building.

Houses, pubs, butcher shops and groceries all seemed to be for sale. I remember remarking for many weeks afterwards that Ireland Inc. was screwed if Belturbet acted as a barometer for our economic woes. And yes, we were well and truly screwed as subsequent events have served only to prove.

Hence my interest in spotting “for sale” signs as we went around those bends again early on Sunday afternoon. Four years into this depression of a recession I feared the worst, but guess what? I was pleasantly surprised.

The mass of “for sale” signs have skipped town, maybe with those who have emigrated in search of a better life. We spotted only two from one corner to the next as well as a couple of “for rent” notices on commercial prospects.

Maybe nobody is buying anything anymore in Ireland. Maybe the recession has bottomed out in Cavan. Maybe things are going to get better.

Who knows, but it was good to see life has returned to something approaching normality in that part of the world.

There was a feel-good factor an hour up the road in Ballyshannon as well -- fueled perhaps by the fact that this was Buckfast City for the weekend as that cheap and sweet wine produced by English monks appeared to be the tipple of choice for so many blues fans at the open-air gigs.

The tone for the day was set by a band from the locality called the Skins. As Louth were getting hammered by the Dubs on the TV screens in the nearby bars the Skins did a great Gallagher impersonation, fueled by a brilliant guitarist and a great singer.

Sadly -- and it was sad -- said singer announced that this was to be their last gig together. Maybe we can start a Skins appreciation weekend in the future! We should.

Later that night, and back in the Big Top added to the festivities this year, Pat McManus played out of his skin and the great Horslips, with fan and hack John Watters dancing in time with the beat, rocked the circus tent.

And just after midnight, the European Championships began for me. Not in Poland or the Ukraine, not in Poznan or Gdansk but under canvas and a Donegal skyline.

Having, as Con Houlihan so famously and greatly put it, missed the 1990 World Cup because I was at the tournament in Italy and also the two that followed, I have always wondered what it must be like to watch Ireland perform on a big stage from afar.

On Sunday night last I got my answer as Horslips sang “Dearg Doom” and a thousand or so people went wild with delight.

“Dearg Doom” is basically a song of the Cuchulainn era when Irish giants ruled the land. It is also the mainstay of the “Put ‘Em Under Pressure” tune co-written by Larry Mullen of U2 fame, and one that has served as the national anthem of Irish soccer ever since Big Jack’s team recorded it in Windmill Lane in 1990.

Horslips left the stage after “Dearg Doom” on Sunday night, but the crowd weren’t having it. They screamed out for more and a circus tent united in a chorus of “Ole Ole Ole.”

The hairs rose on the back of the neck. When the band returned, affable bass player Barry Devlin remarked, “If the Irish fans sing it that loud in Poznan next week we’ll make the quarterfinals.”

In those few minutes Euro fever arrived for me, and I got what it means to be an Irish fan back home for a major championships. Now I am excited by the events to come for the next fortnight or so.

Not even Monday’s drab 0-0 draw with Hungary and all the shortcomings of that performance in Budapest could put me off.

Bring on Poznan -- as the marketing campaign for my Sun newspaper says.

After Belturbet, Ballyshannon, the Skins, Horslips and Rory Gallagher, I can’t wait.

After one Sunday in Donegal, it feels good to be Irish again. I just hope the next Sunday and the game against Croatia proves it.




Trap Won’t Get Rattled

MUCH will be read into Giovanni Trapattoni’s post-match comments in Budapest on Monday night when he suggested that he will change his tactics for the Euro opener against Croatia.

Disturbed by the relative ease with which a young Hungarian side cut through his defense, Trap appeared to suggest he would ditch his beloved 4-4-2 in Poznan next Sunday.

Many headlines have already followed the remarks but I’m sorry, I don’t buy it.

Sure, Hungary played with just one striker and a big man upfront on his own, just as Croatia will do in Poland this weekend.

Sure, as Trap likes to say by the way, Ireland’s midfield was over-run at times and vulnerable to the pace and the creativity of Hungary on the break.

But Irish teams have always been vulnerable to such tactics from the opposition. They have been since long before Trap arrived four years ago and they will be long after he is gone.

In truth, I suspect Trapattoni was playing to an audience of one as the rains fell in Budapest on Monday night – one Slaven Bilic, the Croatian manager who was watching in person from the stands.

Trapattoni is a wily old fox. He will know that Bilic was watching his every move and hanging on his every word in the stadium named after the great Puskas.

Any suggestion that Irish tactics might change at this late stage will only confuse Bilic as much as it has bewildered the rest of us.

Trap loves his little details. He loves any little thing that can give him an advantage, mentally or physically. That, I feel, is where those comments came from late on Monday night.

I still believe Ireland will play 4-4-2 in Poznan next Sunday. And the team will be the team that started on Monday, namely Given, O’Shea, Dunne, St. Ledger, Ward, Duff, Whelan, Andrews, McGeady, Keane and Doyle.

They are the players and that is the system that got us this far. The manager won’t change it now. I think!

HEROES OF THE WEEK


WE’RE in the middle of the worst recession the country has probably ever seen yet 20,000 Irish fans are readying themselves for the journey to Poland as we speak. The best supporters in the world? The next fortnight may well prove it.

IDIOT OF THE WEEK


WITH the Euro 2012 week that’s in it, we’ll be nice to all men. And women. And that bloke in the Bronx.

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