Slán, An Fear Rua

While laboriously constructing a post about last Sunday’s match (not that you’ll be able to tell that any time was invested in it), the news has come through that Liam Cahill has decided to can the discussion board on his website, An Fear Rua.

My initial reaction was akin to that of Matt Taibbi upon hearing of the death of Andrew Breitbart – warning: much swearing. This is not because I wish ill on Liam Cahill. Far from it, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment. It’s because I felt a knee-jerk delight in the demise of the forum. It’s been a number of years since I posted regularly on the website because the trolls had taken over. A number of characters in particular seemed to revel in dragging every thread down with derogatory references to everything Irish, rural or GAA. It seemed so blatantly to be the work of one person, with the same tone and style  from one sock puppet to the next, that eventually I objected to the manner in which they were allowed roam around the board only to be informed that “this is not a kindergarten” and have the topic closed.

That was it for me. Alas, online forums are exactly like kindergartens and the users need to be treated as such. Either AFR was unwilling or unable to police the trolls, or it seemed in my more irritable moments that this was AFR looking to whip up controversy in order to farm hits. Rather than flouncing off in state of high dudgeon I simply stopped posting. I’d post links to match reports on there, and it was a significant source of hits for me, but otherwise I stayed away. Life is too short.

For all of that, I’m sorry to see it go and wish Liam Cahill all the best. For a start, there was a recent post saying that he was not in good health and imploring people to bear that in mind when posting, an injunction that looks like it was ignored, so the initial reaction I mentioned above – in case you didn’t click on the link, Taibbi’s reaction on the death of Breitbart was “Good! F**k him. I couldn’t be happier that he’s dead” –  was in extremely poor taste. I also had some personal interaction with him many years ago. I had left a cushy job in Galway to pursue a possible career in journalism, and he was kind enough to give me some hard-nosed advice on the phone about the road to take (prime directive of journalism: networking is everything) and even offered me an opportunity to write for the website, an opportunity I accepted but was never able to put into practice as living in England cut me off from any regular insight into the game. It was very thoughtful of him though and I still appreciate his input.

And while I may rejoice in the fate of the online reprobates who will find themselves homeless with the closure of AFR, I will miss it simply because it was the best hurling discussion around. The productive subset of contributors were refugees from Clare Hurlers, one of the forerunners of the Internet boom in the late 1990’s and what a diverse and knowledgeable bunch they were. Debate would range across the entire hurling spectrum, from club to county, from Tony Forristal to old lags having a puckabout, from All-Ireland finals in Dan Fraher’s field to the soaring cathedral that is the modern Croke Park. It was invigorating, not to mention slightly intimidating to the self-confessed ignoramus, and more insightful than anywhere around. It was a wrench to leave it, and the thought that it is gone forever is a dispiriting one.

There are two lessons from the demise of AFR. For a high-profile individual, running an opinionated website is a recipe for disaster. A sporting website has to be a broad church. This may sound contradictory given the narrow range of interests that bring together followers of sport. What I mean is that prejudices from the outside world need to be left at the door and Liam Cahill, known to people of a certain generation as the face of doom-and-gloom employment figures on 1980’s RTÉ news bulletins, was not a unifying force. His public advocacy before the last election for Rise! (Rural Ireland Says Enough!) showed he hadn’t left his days of political hackery behind. In retrospect it’s clear that he wasn’t using sock puppets to boost traffic. If anything, he was the victim of a stalking campaign by a handful of individuals who did their level best to turn the site into an online cesspool. It happened with Up the Déise, where the far more easy-going Cian Foley had to endure an astonishing level of cyberbullying before he threw his hat at it, and while I can’t quite understand why AFR had such a scattergun moderation policy, it’s amazing that he put up with it for as long as he did.

The second lesson is that AFR consisted of people of a certain generation. It’s ridiculous to speak in terms of internet generations even though the world wide web has only been on the go about two decades, but I’m still using discussion boards for most of my online interactions in the manner of someone refusing to upgrade to that new-fangled colour telly yoke. His parting shot is correct to observe that the nature of debate has changed and centralised boards are an anachronism in the age of Twitter and Facebook. Boards are dominated by cliques and new faces are increasingly rare as the next generation simply sticks to what it knows rather than trying to cultivate links on some random board. With that in mind, twelve years isn’t a bad innings.

I won’t miss AFR. It’s not as if I ever went there often enough to feel deprived now it’s gone. But I’ll miss what it was meant to be. The intention was for quality essays to feed into decent discussion of the GAA. BBC4’s slogan is “Everyone Needs A Place To Think”. It looked for a while like AFR could be the GAA equivalent. It didn’t work out that way, but I’ll keep yearning for that place.