A Time For Giving?

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Christmas is a time for giving, or so the old corporation driven mantra would condition us to believe. The Irish people especially are a nation of ‘givers’, at least we felt we were until the recent controversy over the exorbitant salaries of the Central Remedial Clinic’s CEO, Paul Kiley. Fists have tightened in condemnation and direct debit accounts to the charity frozen in a punitive show of displeasure. The reaction is not surprising, people feel that their small act of philanthropy is being used to line the pockets of another middle-aged, suited man, an all too familiar sight to the Irish people. But it raises quite a few questions, namely can we trust where our contribution goes, or do we even care?

Domestic charity is one thing to keep track of, we can follow the money, or at least wait for some buffoon to surface driving a Rolls Royce made of ‘Trocaire’ boxes, but what about our overseas contribution? Do our donations fall down a rabbit hole of corrupt governments and corporate interests or does it reach those who really are in need? In order to understand this culture of ‘giving’ overseas I spoke with three different people involved in differing levels of overseas charity, in order to trace just where our contribution goes and where it should go.

Professional ‘Givers’ –

Tom Milan is a professional ‘giver’, an adviser to agricultural cooperatives across Africa and is currently working with the ‘Irish Foundation for Cooperative development’. He had first travelled to Kenya in 1984, armed with a degree in agriculture as an advisor working with the Eokot tribe, a nomadic collective of people in order to teach them the skills in irrigation and seed planting. Tom continues to work in Kenya now managing a large swath of cooperatives which specialize in ‘Value addition’, the most enabling form of aid there is he says. He spoke about the superficial forms of aid that the Irish people are sometimes lured into, “You see these ads saying raise money for a chicken, or a goat but a chicken or a goat costs the same in Kenya as it does here. The cost of living, while lower in Kenya are still far from cheap. A chicken might give a family a meal but it won’t send their children to school […] schools can cost around 300 dollars a term. Its education that they need.”

Tom’s experiences first hand with some of the world’s poorest make him an accurate gauge of tracking where our aid goes, and where It should go. “A lot of people say they will work with the poor, and many do but there’s a median we have to reach, value addition gives the poorest a far greater and far longer chance at sustainability”, citing ‘Meru’ as an example, a herb and Jam production cooperative which operates out of Nairobi and which buys from indigenous Kenyan women, giving them and their family a salary.

“Ireland is the biggest producer of baby food in the world, our agricultural skills and our industries are among some of the best around”. He continued saying it should be our skills that we export to these countries, not simply our pocket change.

He warns that even in what seem to be the most altruistic of endeavors we must be weary of the economic interests involved, “Many refugee camps in these regions, in areas like Darfur are a business in themselves. Large aid companies are licensed in to provide for the people, but they should be giving the people incentives to leave, to go back to their own homes. Less money goes into this part of the operation than should go in”.

Holy Faith and the Missions –

Eithne Regan, a Holy Faith nun has had similar experiences as Tom but operates differently, and in differing regions. She has spent much of her life traveling to and from Trinidad and Tobago as part of her missions with the order. Talking about our own attitudes to charity she says, “Irish aid is always a little suspicious of the religious orders […] but the religious community offer long term support to impoverished peoples. We, as religious orders employ high quality local staff, but sometimes the government funded projects that we come over to help with aren’t given the aid they need, so we need that small amount of Irish aid, not just to get us by but to give the children we work with some comforts, like shampoo or sweets”.

She, like Tom warned about the fetishisization of the poor, “There’s always a danger of trying to tick boxes when lobbying for aid, and there have been certain trends in development language which appear again and again HIV, Aids etc., all of which seem to make people more likely to give”. She described for me a case where a man who was hoping to donate privately said, “It looks far too clean, if it looked dirtier I might have donated”. It shows the catch 22 situation that aid organizations find themselves in, wanting to convince us to give but doing so without emotional manipulation, “when people want to give you money you have to be alert of the fact that they are placing a lot of trust in you, you have to maintain your own integrity”.

Eithne’s view of where aid should go doesn’t however differ that wildly from that of Tom’s, believing that a twined approach of both immediate and the long term forms of aid are what are needed to make real change. She spoke about projects such as ‘Grameen Banking’, a micro credit lending organisation which gives small start-up loans to women so that they can begin to generate a small sustainable income. The business is a Nobel peace prize laurite and encompasses all of the values that both Tom and Eithne have talked about.

Student Volunteers –

Student volunteers, which make up nearly 40 percent of all Irish volunteers overseas engage first hand with the Irish people in collecting money for projects such as ‘Wells for Zoe’.  Craig Hanan, a computer science student in DIT spoke to me about the collecting for a project to educate students and local peoples in ‘open source’ software. “There used to be an almost pornographic version of poverty in these countries, showing starving children and all that. I think people are more likely to give when you show you’re willing to work for the money. I raised almost 1600 euro running a marathon.” Craig was quick to note that his organisation had been quite established, saying “people trust projects that they are familiar with”.

It would seem that although the idea of giving to a trusted brand may open the door the sort of ‘business charity’ that most people are weary of, it displays the ability of the Irish people to differentiate between a frivolous gestures, making them exempt from guilt and genuine gift of aid to people in need, in a way that will help them the most. It would seem that although the Irish people have been lied to, and for too many years blindly cheated of their money, they are still willing to give to those who have less. Only now we listen, question and observe shepherding what we have given into the hands of those who need it.

Electric Six live at the Academy | Review

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Trashy disco fun. That’s what Electric 6 are made of. It’s what they do and it’s exactly why we love them. Its sexually aggressive disco rock played to an audience of Pink flamingos, or at least that’s how it felt to be there. Standing around in clusters the audience were attempting to pull themselves out of the hypnosis they had fallen under. The support was captivatingly weird, like listening to a mad homeless man scream obscenities at furniture. Except in this case the furniture was a beautiful woman and his clothes were collage of old Whitesnake album artwork.

As the gyrating disco-dome that was Andy -D retired off stage the crowd began packing in – stubbing cigarettes outside and spilling beer on their sleeves, everyone was itching for some signature Dick Valentine stare’s, and boy were they not disappointed.

“We have nine albums, and we need you to buy a copy of every one”. They began with Nom de Plume from their most recent album ‘Mustang’, a classing cheesy rock anthem full of horror cinema synth warming the crowd into the weird and familiar vibe of Electric 6. Thankfully the crowd wasn’t filled with ‘goldefish memory’ fans shouting ‘Gay Bar’ till they were hoarse and old heads began nodding appreciatively in anticipation.

From there on in it was classic ‘six’ tunes all night. ‘Shes White’, ‘Improper Dancing’, ‘Down at McDonaldz’, each song pulling the crowd into a nostalgic toss of bodies, beer and boobs (Not that any were actually seen but they were there in spirit). Dick Valentine’s signature nonchalant pacing and infamous audience stares featured and by the time ‘Danger! High Voltage’ came around the sweaty foreplay was over and a palpable sense of elation charged into the crowd. Feet leaped into the air and mouths working in overdrive, screaming the chorus.

Midway through the set a timed body emerged from the back of the stage holding a cow bell. The band had set up a ‘kickstarter’ to have the chance of playing the infamous ‘Gay Bar’ on stage with the band. Three had raised enough money, one from the States, and two from our little town of Dublin. It was a mini moment of national pride, except ‘Amhrán na Bhfiann’ had been replaced by one of the ‘danciest’ homo-erotic tunes in history, played not once but twice. Like a musical ‘round-two’. A short rest was allowed for in between Valentine before crashing back in, like a student protest on ecstasy.

‘Dance Epidemic’, ‘Adam Levine’ and ‘I Buy the Drug’ saw out the remainder of the set-list each one as tasty and as strong as a Long Island Cocktail with a little umbrella in it, complimented by Valentines gruff theatrical vocals and solo’s worthy of soaring eagles. Leaving and returning to the stage, for I would imagine a small epipen injection of snake adrenaline ‘Electric six’ finished off their encore with ‘Dance Commander’. And, like all good soldiers of ‘six’ the crowd obeyed the dance commander’s orders for fun, swaying and thrashing the last piece of life they had left in them. A great gig, a sweaty gig, an annual staple as important to ‘Electric six’ fans as Christmas is to children.

Dublin’s Bike Polo Scene?

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There’s no greater fear than slowly tipping over the precipice, or in my particular case falling off a bike. Time slowed and the horizon slipped from beneath me I swung my mallet, flailing like an upriver salmon. By the end of my journey towards the concrete I resembled a piece of art that belonged in the MET, my bike and body had eloped with another’s as we crashed together. “If only they still played on grass”, I thought to myself as one of the lads, who had un-knotted himself from the collision, offered me a large padded hand.

 It was my first experience of falling on ‘Hardcourt’, the preferred court of the Dublin Bike Polo Association. There was seven us playing in the vacant basketball court in Sundrive park on a wet October morning, where the enthusiasts (and I do mean enthusiasts) had met to spent a day playing one of the most bizarre games any passer-by had ever seen. Many had in-fact stopped, with their dogs and children to watch the peacock coloured bikes and helmets as they whizzed about the court.

Johnny, one of the most experienced players and an old salt of the sport had agreed to talk to me about the game, so a few of us made our way back to his. The house, which he shares with a few bike messengers like himself was, well, covered in bikes. Bikes in the hall, bikes behind the couch, a few parts about living room. He offered me a cup of tea and I almost expected a small bike to be floating in it. “The game had started off with [bike] messengers, now it’s anyone who could play”. We sipped our tea, bit into a biscuit and he continued, “It had started off four years ago in Dublin, Kroppa here had started it here with some messengers”.

 Kroppa, a fellow messenger and a brother in ‘bike polo’ arms had said earlier that he didn’t feel comfortable being interviewed, but once the conversation began he couldn’t help himself. “Well it had all started off as grass polo about a hundred years ago, it was an Olympic sport […] its quite different now”, barely pausing for breath between sentences. Kroppa hadn’t been able to resist talking about his passion, none of them could. They spoke like love-sick teenagers who had fallen hopelessly in love with metallic femme-fatales, appearing at her basketball court every Saturday morning to woo her.

“It’s still a niche” said Greener, another victim to the game’s allure. “People who enjoy it, really enjoy it. Their committed to it […] but there is no financial incentive”, he explained, stating that the game is played by impassioned zealots rather than career hunters. Unlike other sports where people dream of greenback vistas and champagne showers, the Bike Polo community play for the thrill of the game, but also for the camaraderie. Sipping on my warm tea amongst, which were only hours before strangers to me, I understood what they meant.

The game itself was logistically as difficult as one might assume, a meticulous ballet of body movements. One hand would be tasked with steering and breaking, the other with swinging and scoring. It’s a task which requires some years of experience with bikes, a dual mind-body exercise in balance and precision. Attempting to learn by example I watched the others balance their weight on the mallet, adjusting and jumping the bike out of corners filled with sweet wrappers and debris which littered the court. Each game started with the players lined up at either hoop of the court before members of the opposing team sped toward center court clashing, and often breaking their mallets in a collision of steel and rubber.

Although I was playing, I found myself stopping in amazement at the speed and delicacy with which they shepherded the ball. Each player had decorated their steed with a rainbow of coloured bike parts, like the flag colours of jousting knights. Between the spokes of the bikes were pieces of painted cardboard to stop the ball from breaking through. ‘Dublin Bike polo’ and been painted by Greener onto his, a symbol of pride.

Midway through the day it had begun to rain, making the court slippery and, for a novice like me as safe to play on as a unicycle on ice. All except Johnny retired to a children’s playground, vacant because of the weather. Crouched beneath slides and council approved castles I got to know the team and could sense they were a well bonded group of players. We joked intermittently about the strange sight passers-by would see, a gang of bearded men huddled under a playground. Bike jargon, a foreign language to myself was tossed around, a compulsive expression of their shared passion.

 The more we spoke about the subject in Johnny’s museum of bikes, the more I understood it.  “In the beginning it was a bit of fun for messengers playing on [fixed gear] bikes, it was silly, you would fall over but its way better when you get a good play. That’s why people began improving their bikes. Shorter frames, better breaks […] then there was a big split”. Johnny explained the change that has occurred in the four years the game has been here in Dublin, Those who wanted to play seriously did so, adjusting and fashioning their own bikes into fine-tuned bike polo machines. Those who did not simply stopped playing, explaining the small number of players who arrive each week.

That’s not to say however that the game itself is as secretive or as unknown as it may have appeared to me that October morning. The bike polo ‘scene’ in Dublin are part of a global network of players. From countries ranging from France to Japan the game is played in almost every city in the world. Greener described their recent tournament in London saying, “When you’re at a tournament you’re trying to represent the Dublin scene so you want to play some good polo. The teams come from differing countries but its more about the ‘Dublin scene’, it’s a better banner than Irish.” “We have about nine to ten players, London would field about 50 teams” interjected Johnny.

 It seemed evident that the bigger the city, the bigger the bike culture thus the more people that want to play the game. “We’ve left flyers in bike shops and posters in colleges”, but the number of bodies appearing each morning has yet to soar. “People who play Bike polo tend to travel a lot for whatever reason”, began Greener, “it’s the best thing about tournaments, the sense of community. We meet up, play some polo and get a bit rowdy”.

Although I had simply been a tourist that day, slipping and crashing like an over enthusiastic foal I had gotten an insight into a rare sub-sect of Dublin life. Bike polo is a niche, whether or not the team would like to admit it, but it is an incredibly inviting and accommodating one. They assure me that every Saturday there is a spare mallet, even a spare bike for those who wish to dive into their world. Their great ardour for the game is infectious, and when situated within its global context it has a romantic air about it. To think, that in cities across the world, in basketball courts and vacant lots players are sweating, crashing and picking each other up, playing with friends and never for pay, a popular culture that most of the world doesn’t know exists.