Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Summer Solstice

An odd collection,
Of sorts
Recollections too,
Of sorts
Not morose, just odd
People and thoughts,
Paradoxes both.

In death a greater vitality
Than an embalmed living
And now
At Dawn
With astronomical arrogance
We head for the solstice place
And solace too.

Across a highway
Of moon crushed shell, desiccated frond,
Tarry tumbleweed and whittling willow
Rising higher and higher
To stumble over bittern
Bitter memories
To wait and wait.

While far below, at the edge
Champagne froth; and in the moment
A sea-anointed, wind-blessed
Of bramble buckled
To the tottering island Gods.

And cloud smothers the light;
No solstice here
No solace here
Just here.
Fish are jumpin’
’nd the cotton is high…


Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Referee's Rant

Recently a GAA referee called Willie Barrett was attacked by a fan while officiating at a hurling match in Tipperary. The incident was captured on a mobile phone and now is available on youtube.

Increasing violence directed towards referees both on and off the pitch has been a feature of soccer in particular but also Gaelic and increasingly rugby union.

In August 2002 South Africa's Tri-Nations clash with New Zealand in Durban was thrown into chaos when a fan attacked the referee.The two sides were locked at 17-17 early in the second half when a fan wearing a Springbok shirt ran on to the field and tackled Irish referee David McHugh.

The fan - 46-year-old Pieter van Zyl - was escorted off the field by stewards but McHugh was taken off in a motorised cart clutching his shoulder and was unable to continue.

As a former referee I felt very strongly that not enough was done to protect referees from players or spectators by way of sanction and this led to considerable frustration. The following letter is one I penned to the President of a Dublin rugby club following a match I officiated in 2004. It is long winded and I never received either a reply or an apology, which says something about the how the sport itself was been run at the time. Thankfully at senior level there have been significant improvements in the behaviour, thanks in the main to video and television, and also to the facility afforded clubs and officialdom to conduct a ‘post-match’ citing if technology has picked up on serious incidents. There still are significant concerns for the way the game is coached at a junior level however and like soccer encouraging teams to continuously question the referee is a terrible precedent.

I have deleted the name of the club involved lest even at this remove I be accused of slander or libel.

31 October 2004

xxxx xxxxx Esq.,
A Rugby Football Club,

Dear Mr xxxxx,

From the outset I would like to emphasise that I am writing to you from an entirely personal standpoint. I am not sure why I feel so strongly, feel so driven to do so but do so I must.

I had the pleasure on Saturday, 30th October, and I mean this sincerely, of officiating at the Connemara v ‘A Rugby Football Club’ AIL fixture in Clifden. The match had the intensity, tribal rivalry almost, normally associated with an inter-parish, or inter-town match but, of course, played with a level of skill, fitness and tactical nous of players who take their rugby very seriously indeed. That said, there are a number of concerns, which I feel warrant an airing, if only by way of expressing a perspective which perhaps is at odds with others but also, sadly, recognising that in the very volition of raising them will perhaps create misunderstanding as to any agendas that I might have. There are none!

I fully understand the pressures of organising, financing and encouraging a club with the history and aspirations that ‘A Rugby FC’ have (my brother Paul, is director of rugby in Cork Con) and there are people like you (and him) who have put in far more time and effort than I have been able to, who deserve the real credit for sustaining the game in very difficult economic circumstances.

However, I do feel that this determination, this desire to survive, to succeed, must not be to the detriment of what it truly means to participate or indeed, to have the grace to win and lose in equal measure. This is perhaps far too aspirational. Sport has long become what war once was, what war can still be. Humanity has always been innately violent, whether genetically programmed or as a response to external pressures is debatable, and the hope that sport would be a catalyst for a dampening of these tendencies is tenuous at best. In ancient times the Sa-Gaz (literally ‘head-smashers’) mercenaries employed by the Sumerians undertook for pay, the violent duties declined by the city dwellers of the first ‘civilisations’ and the meaning of their lives, literally their lives, depended on their ability to win or lose. In the modern rugby era a similar demand to succeed has meant succumbing to the criteria laid down by the value system, both playing and coaching alike, of the professional mercenary ‘rugbiest’. As with all mercenary endeavours however those values, those codes of conduct of the mercenary – or lack of thereof - are alien, imported, accepted, sanctioned, by the employing authorities because somehow these authorities believe that to defend themselves, to conquer their ‘enemies’, these values are necessary, their alien nature creating confusion, fear in the ‘enemy’. Both employers and mercenary alike recognise the transient and dispensable nature of this relationship and in equal measure dispense with the formalities of civility in pursuit of conquering, winning or ‘glory’.

This was particularly evident during the AIL match. If a ‘fear of losing’ at all costs comes to dominate the game, and that fear is mutated to a blame placed at another person’s door then we have all failed. If, at club level, violence is sanctioned as a virtue, or thuggery given tacit approval, or malice intended with prejudice condoned, then ‘winning’ a game, any game, is pointless, regardless of the legacy, the desire, the determination of any club. My primary responsibility as an official is to uphold the Laws of the game, but more importantly my primary duty is to ensure that these mercenary value systems, this so–called acceptable behaviour – understandable, necessary, coached, whatever – and conduct does not result in injury to other players; a responsibility that I refuse to apologise for.

One simple example of this attitude was when one of your players, sin-binned for dangerous play, was refused re-entry to the field because 10 minutes of ‘playing time’ had not elapsed. In games where there is not an automatic clock controlled by the referee then the assistant referee must take into account any injury time that has elapsed during the period of the ‘sin-binning’ in order that the full sanction intended by the notion of ‘sin-binning’ is enforced. The player failed to understand this instruction and proceeded in front of supporters, adult men, women and children, to loudly call me a ‘cunt’. Leaving aside my understandable distaste, given my profession, of the derogatory and demeaning word used so publicly and loudly I also felt that the use of language was unnecessary and puerile. At another point I had to remonstrate with the coaching staff to tone down their foul and abusive language from the sidelines, because they were in full hearing of all people attending.

Let not this ‘foul language’ commentary be misunderstood. In another life I am a published novelist, and publisher, and employ the use of colloquial language to effect but always with a care to who the writing is aimed at. It is more that the notion of standards, a sense of where they were at, of what example they are setting is completely discarded -under the mercenary value system of players and coaching staff - in this era of ‘winning at all costs’. I don’t suppose many people share this level of indignation, this reflection on a greater danger, but I do. We have long seen the effect of ‘anarchy of conduct’ in soccer and increasingly, in Gaelic football, and I feel the fight to hold onto what we have in rugby football, is worth that fight.

One final reflection: Following the match, while standing outside King’s pub in Clifden, two of your players confronted me with the accusation that the only reason I was an official was that I was a ‘failed’ player and therefore an embarrassment to the game.

On the journey home this comment made me think. By what or whose criteria in rugby does a participating individual become a ‘failed’ anything? In war, in survival, the criteria are probably obvious. In sport it can only ever be an approximation but it would be naïve of me, however, if I did not acknowledge that increasingly within rugby, at playing, coaching and officiating levels, there are such criteria and by their very nature ultimately deny the beauty and belittle the ideals of participation over ‘winning’.

Do I ever consider participating as referee an act of failure, or an embarrassment to the sport, to the notions of humanity? In a small way I have, given the demands of my profession, tried to enhance and maintain participation in rugby football. I have been a referee for 26 years, since starting with the Munster Branch in 1978 and although the judgement of whether I was, am, a good official is for others to decide, like everyone I have good days and bad, but that when those days end, and, they soon will, I will be saddened. I am not a mercenary; I do not claim expenses for either local or AIL matches; but that, it seems, is not enough any more.

Did my decision to participate in refereeing, while Hon Sec of UCC RFC all those years ago, while also playing for the University soccer team, to a Munster Branch request for somebody (anybody!) from the University club to be a referee forever render me a ‘failure’, forever engender in the game my participation a source of embarrassment? Perhaps it did but if personal satisfaction and enjoyment is a by-product of that ‘failure’ then yes, I have failed, and failed gloriously.

For what it’s worth from this ‘failure’ in the game I felt it necessary to reflect on something beyond myself, beyond my understanding. There is, I feel, an atmosphere, a condition, a malaise even, within the ‘A Rugby FC’s’ camp, which will, unless addressed, in the end negate enjoyment, stunt participation and ultimately leave a tainted legacy, albeit perhaps a victory.
Who really cares?

With best wishes,

Roger Derham.

c.c. xxxx xx xxxxxx, Coaching Co-ordinator.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tehran – The New Metaphysicians of Tlön

Destroyed Building in a Wadi of the
Hadramaut, Yemen

Somewhere in the 4th Century of the common era the Kingdom of Ubar, a kingdom which had existed from about 2000 BCE and occupied an area of territory approximating the land either side of the current Yemen-Oman border from the coast at Nisthtun to the Rub al-Khali and which controlled much of the frankincense trade at its origins, was destroyed in a tremendous catastrophe.

The people who suffered this destruction were the ‘Ad people and their chief city was called Iram, or the ‘place of the pillars’. The memory of Iram’s destruction in the folklore of Arabia remained very strong and 250 years later when the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) revealed the Qur'an the figure of the Prophet Hud (PBUH) was to feature very strongly. Hud, the warner, was sent back to try and get his own people, the ‘Ad, to mend their ways or suffer the consequences. They did not and their beautiful and rich city of Iram was destroyed, for ever.

And the ‘Ãd, they were destroyed by a furious wind,
exceedingly violent . . .

Qur’an surat al-hãqqah (The Catastrophe); 69, v. 6

In the Qur'an the catastrophe was said to be a desert storm that swallowed up the city, however it is most likely that a tremendous earthquake was primary agent, as evidence from excavations on Iram show that it collapsed inwards rather than have been buried by sand.

And so to today!

Due to increasing internal and external pressures being exerted on the political entity that is the Islamic Republic of Iran I get an overwhelming sense that the Iranian people, caught within this ‘powder keg’, are being manipulated even further. Recently, to heap further misery upon them, a cynical medieval religious fermentation of an apocalyptic vision of impending doom in Iran is being exercised. In an extension of the Qur’anic Prophet Hud allegory Ayatollah Aziz Khoshvaqt, one of Iran’s senior clerics, has warned Tehrani’s that their overt vices are inviting disaster and that a God sent earthquake is imminent and is coming to destroy them,

"Go on the streets and repent for your sins. A holy torment is upon us. Leave town."

Yet another cleric, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi has also warped this message and almost imitating another Qur’anic (and Biblical) revelation about the Prophet Lut and the city of Sodom,

“(We also sent) Lut (as a messenger): behold, He said to his people, "Do ye do what is shameful though ye see (its iniquity)? Would ye really approach men in your lusts rather than women? Nay, ye are a people (grossly) ignorant! But his people gave no other answer but this: they said, "Drive out the followers of Lut from your city: these are indeed men who want to be clean and pure!" But We saved him and his family, except his wife; her We destined to be of those who lagged behind. And We rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): and evil was the shower on those who were admonished (but heeded not)!”

Qur'an 27:54-58

has declared that “Women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes.”

What a disgraceful ignorance! If the earth moves for you you must be sinning!

Jorge Luis Borges summed up the shallowness of this untruthful type of base approach in Ficciones when he wrote:

“The metaphysicians of Tlön are not looking for truth, nor even for
an approximation of it; they are after a kind of amazement.”

A Tremor in the Suburbs of Tehran

The Truth!

Tehran, like San Francisco or Istanbul, is in close proximity to major seismic fault lines and a significant earthquake occurring is not a matter of whether it will happen but when. It is not a question of modesty or chastity but tectonic movement. The problem facing Tehrani's is not immodesty but the density of population (13,000,000 in the metro area) and the quality of construction. The earthquake in Bam, Iran in 2003 killed 27,000 of its 43,000 official inhabitants. Over the years since then much thought has been given to moving the capital because of the risks of an even more serious disaster. The table below gives a list of some of the earthquakes that have affected the Tehran area over the last 3000 years:

The most recent earthquake recorded in Iran was in Northeastern Iran 
on Monday, April 19, 2010 at 03:31:14 UTC 325 miles ENE of Teheran and measured 4.5 on the Richter scale of magnitude.

A few years ago when visiting the Hadramaut in Yemen in pursuit of my Frankincense trail from Socotra to Petra I got as far as Tarim at the eastern end and wanted to visit the tomb of the Prophet Hud (PBUH) which exists in a narrow valley about four hours drive towards Oman. Unfortunately we were unable to make it (drivers were not keen on bringing non-Muslims there) and it is something I would like to do in the future as well as travelling to the site of Iram in Oman. It holds a peculiar fascination and the following is a poem I wrote about seven years ago for inclusion in my novel Windsong – The Breath of Being:

The Pillars of Ubar

Into the empty quarter:
Rub-al Khali,
Empty, pitiless.
Red-eyed tracks
Travelling amongst the fortunate people,
To Shabwah
And beyond.

And the three-cornered light awakening
So strong as to take your breath away

With Afiah b. Nasr al-Shabatini:
The last of the Uzza,
Morning star, sacrificed.
Moving, mounting
Following the scent of precious trees,
To the pillars of Ubar
And beyond.

And the three-cornered light awakening
So strong as to take your breath away

There follows:
A khamson wind,
With Hud, the warner.
To swallow, drown
In seas of silica silence
All the people of ‘Ad,
In Atlantis,
And beyond.

And the three-cornered light awakening
So strong as to take your breath away

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Children and Adolescents Sexual Assault Treatment Service

The forensic aspect of my professional life involves the assessment of children and adolescents who are the victims or alleged victims of sexual abuse. The incidence of acute presentations is thankfully small and the majority of our work involves the examination of ‘cold’ or historic cases where the alleged episode or episodes of abuse come to light at some time from their occurrence.

Ireland signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and ratified it in 1992 and in both its initial report (UN Doc:CRC/C/11/Add.12, 17/06/96; Para 274) and second report (UN Doc:CRC/C/IRL/2, 20/09/06; Para 475) to the Committee on the Rights of the Child stated that ‘Special units for the investigation and management of alleged child sexual abuse are in operation in the major centres of population around the country. Each health board has services in place for the treatment and support of victims of child abuse, some of which are hospital-based while others are provided at community level.’

Unfortunately this is a misrepresentation of the true facts and over the last few years two colleagues and I have been trying desperately to establish such a special unit for children and adolescents (CASATS) to based in Galway and to serve the population of the West and Mid-West of Ireland. Our proposal has hit a wall however ( as it must be admitted many proposals have in these days of Ireland’s economic implosion) somewhere in the Health Service Executive labyrinth. The Department of Justice were not rushing into help either.

Last week my frustration with the whole process boiled over and I lodged a formal complaint with the Ombudsman for Children, asking her to investigate the matter.

While formulating the letter to her office my brain began to, as it is wont to, slide to peripheral aspects. Perhaps our proposal is not making enough of a visual impact I thought? Perhaps we need to present a more formalised image of what we are about? An image that would project a vision of permanence, of ongoing activity, of intent!

A Call to Arms!

From the cartouches of ancient Egypt to the shields of medieval knights I have always been fascinated by the construct, seeming permanence and visual history of these physical marks of identification, of remembrance of people long dead. There was nothing else for it! I would design a coat of arms for our unit and try to get it patented. It would be our calling card… and our memorial.

Complete vanity of course!

Instead of ranting in a corner it seemed a relatively harmless way of distraction from my frustration with the ‘new’ commissars of Irish health care. However what I was not prepared for was the incredibly arcane world into which I was venturing.


Heraldry as we currently understand it began with the presentation of a shield with six golden lions by Henry I of England (a Norman) to Geoffrey of Anjou, his future son-in-law, on Geoffrey’s attainment of knighthood in 1127. This became Geoffrey’s distinctive insignia and was retained by his descendents, the House of Plantagenet.

(As an aside, from Ireland’s perspective, the Angevians or Plantagenet, although related through the Empress Matilda, the grand-daughter of William the Conqueror, to the Normans were no great lovers of them and Henry II, the first Plantagenet King of England, was probably delighted with the opportunity to rid his court of any number of unruly Norman barons when he directed them to assist Diarmit Mac Murchada regain control of his Kingdom of Leinster in 1166.)

After 1135 the granting of a coat of arms rapidly evolved and developed into a science (albeit a very eccentric one) with very specific rules for construction and description of the arms. The control or patent of arms came into the hands (Heralds) of a few select individuals. It became then and remains today very big business. Arms were granted – for a consideration – to noble, commoner and corporate entities such as guilds or towns, and one has only to walk down some of the big shopping malls of this world to encounter a genealogical/heraldic concession plying its trade.

The Blazon

The blazon is the description of the coat of arms, which theoretically allows anybody to reconstruct the arms. The language of heraldry and its blazoning remains rooted in the medieval French of the Normans and Plantagenet.

I will attempt to blazon the arms that I designed as I understand the rules and then briefly explain what it means.

Argent, a lymphad sails furled Or, on waves of sea in base azure; overall in fess an escutcheon bordered Or, a lion rampant Or langued gules; overall in nombril a windrose gules and argent.
On a wreath of Or and gules a phoenix sable with embers gules.
On dexter Asclepius guardant gules and on sinister Themis guardant gules with scales Or
Veritas praevalebit ‘Truth will win out’

Helm closed chief azure mantled azure, doubled gules.

The arms is primarily an incorporation of the arms of Galway city with a superimposed windrose. Galway is chosen because of our location. The Galway arms has a galley known as a lymphad and it is customary to mention in a blazon whether the sails or furled or unfurled. The starting point in the description is the primary colour. In this case it is the metal tincture argent or white. The ship is primarily yellow or Or. When looking at an arms depiction the left as you look is dexter (the right of the shield) and right is sinister (the left of the shield). By convention all depicted galleys are presumed to sail towards the dexter side and thus the direction is not mentioned unless it is different. The bottom of the shield is the base and the top margin the chief. In this case the sea is in the bottom and is blue or azure.

Superimposed on the galley is a smaller shield or escutcheon with a yellow border and a lion rampant with a red (gules) tongue. The position is known as the fess point or centre point of the shield. This is known as a charge and in a charge all rampant lions (erect with claws bared) are presumed to face the dexter side. If the lion is looking out it requires a rampant guardant description or if looking back over its shoulder towards the sinister side it is described as rampant reguardant.

Superimposed again is a windrose at the nombril or naval point of the shield. The windrose is allusive indicating that patients from all points of the compass may be seen, and a reminder for the service to be prepared for whatever the ‘wind’ brings from any direction.

Again, as I understand it, the crest is always included in the blazon of the arms but not the other features surrounding the shield. In this case the crest is of the phoenix rising from the ashes from a torse or wreath and allusive to our aspiration that if our work is done well then the victims are at the start of a renewal in their lives. Again by convention the phoenix is assumed to be a half-bird depiction and this does not need to be specified. I have mentioned the red colour of the flames but am uncertain whether this is done or not.

The supporters are Aesclepius the Greek God of Medicine and Themis the Greek Goddess of Good Counsel and she carries the scales of justice. In an unusual depiction for supporters they are looking outwards and are thus described guardant. In Aesclepius’s right hand is the Rod of Aesclepius with it must be noted the single entwined snake. There is often confused with the Caduceus which is the messengers staff of Iris and Hermes and which has two snakes entwined. The caduceus would be an appropriate symbol for the blazon.

The helm is the helmet on the top and is of the closed type which is appropriate I understand for a civil entity. Again always assumed to be facing dexter unless otherwise which is then described. The mantle or cape is a decorative feature and has a front and a lining (the double) and these are in different colurs.

I have probably bored you to tears with this description but it is an area that I have only scratched the surface of. Anyway design done I logged on to the Chief Herald’s Office in Dublin to determine at what cost I could get this done and patented. The medieval office is now part of the Genealogical division of the National Library and it appears to be in turmoil. The last Herald has retired and there is no replacement as yet. There also appears from the links in the Wikipedia entry to have been significant problems in the work of the office over the past few years and whether it will survive is not certain. The difficulty for taking another approach such as registering the design as a trademark with the Irish Patent Office instead is that its appearance is so similar to hundreds of thousands of other Irish, British and European coats of arms is that the Patent office is unlikely to grant exclusivity.

Thus in the unreal world of heraldry we have already become ghosts. Self-defeating really!

Here endeth the blazon.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010


Jack, the last of his Christmas cigars in hand, reaches up to touch the skylight window. He ponders on the dead space between its layers... and the insulation of life in general. The Danish glassmaker’s trademark is etched high in one corner and after sucking hard on the cigar he blows a blue smoke-ring in that direction. In the background Coltrane plays. Exhalation music, he thinks.

Outside the window, towards the end of a brittle-clear January day, a twilight haze, the colour of indigo-blue, has precipitated. The colour of frozen skin, barely alive, he thinks, remembering the touch of her cheek when they first met at a New Year’s party; twenty years ago today he remembers.

She had asked him some time later, ‘What is it you really want from me, Jack?’

Nose against the cold glass he thought back to the first time they had slept together… stayed together. Sometime in the night he had woken up. He could still smell the scent of her yet knew she was already gone. Like a death her side of the bed was already cold, and his true sense of her had evaporated. He had lifted himself up on one elbow and scanned the room. She was standing in the doorway, in silhouette, naked with her long and ever so sensuous back to him, her right shoulder leaning against the frame and left leg stretched out like a ballerina, tracing imaginary shapes on the floor with her toes. On many occasions since then he wondered why she had stayed with him.

‘In my dreams, I dream only of you!’ He had replied; the words back then, so quietly said, had been barely a thrill of his lips. Dreams are but insulation between the layers of rational and irrational thought, he thinks. And he had many, he remembers. He traces her name in the condensation his breath had made with his finger.

‘Jack! Where are you?’ a voice calls.

‘Up here,’ he answers, rubbing out the name on the glass. ‘Looking at the sky.’

‘It’s a nice sky,’ she says as she climbed the retractable stairs and stood beside him.

‘Woad, the colour of despondency,’ he says.

‘What?’ she asks, pulling away a little to look at him.

‘I was imagining Viking longboats sailing up the inlet out of the haze and the purple or indigo-blue woad pigment that would have covered the warriors’ skin. The last colour many people saw before being rendered by savagery.’

‘Just the men, Jack! Many women would have survived,’ she laughed, touching him gently on the face.

‘Yeah,’ he laughs back. ‘But only the seeded ones.’

There is an awkward silence. She breaks it.

‘How are things today?’ she asks quietly.

‘A bit better,’ he replies, a bit too defensively. ‘It no longer feels like a hot poker up my ass,’ he adds, willing the radioactive iodine-blue seeds planted deep in his prostate well in their work. They had switched to twin beds for the time being. He did not want to contaminate her, not sure if he would or could inseminate…again.

‘Good,’ she says. ‘Your dinner is ready. Come on down.’

And she was gone...into the haze.

A Man Thing

About 1 in 7 Irish men in their lifetime will develop prostate cancer. It has a greater incidence than female breast cancer yet no national screening programme or management protocol exists. This is by in large the fault of men. Instead of fighting for an equivalent status to breast cancer services they have backed off, embarrassed, afraid, introspective. Accurate screening is available, in a relatively low cost base combination of PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) and prostate ultrasound. Treatment modalities and protocols including the implantation of either radioactive palladium or iodine seeds in appropriate cases has markedly reduced morbidity and mortality associated with the cancer.

We men need to become far more vocal and proactive in demanding an integrated national program.

Further Information:

F.J. Drummond, A.E. Carsin, L.Sharp, H. Comber. Trends in prostate specific antigen testing in Ireland: Lessons from a country without guidelines.

Ir J Med Sci (2010) 179;43-49