Monday, 16 March 2015

Rock of ages

We were having one of those travel moments when we knew what we were looking for, but weren't sure what it looked like, and were concerned we had passed it.

But then, my friend and I gazed to the right and immediately spotted it:  Ireland's Rock of Cashel.  

In hindsight, we needn't have worried about missing it.

This is no pebble by the roadside, but a sizeable fortress mound with castle and cathedral ruins on top.   It would be pretty hard to miss... even for us.

First glimpse:  Rock of Cashel 

On the approach

The Rock of Cashel, nestled beside the town of Cashel, is also known locally as Cashel of the Kings and St Patrick's Rock.

According to legend, the rock comes from a nearby mountain, called the Devil's Bit.  When St Patrick banished Satan from a cave in the mountain, the rock was thrown to it's current site.

This is also where St Patrick was believed to have converted the King of Munster.  

Clearly St Patrick was a bit of an overachiever and hit his stride at Cashel.

Inside the ruins

We're at Cashel on a beautiful Irish autumn day - it's mostly cloudy, a little cool and with periods of light drizzle.   The weather sets the mood of this place perfectly.

Rock of Cashel is a mash of mostly ruined buildings that map its history.  Each crammed against each other, leaning and partially blending into each other.

Among the pack are a 12th century round tower, a 13th century Gothic cathedral and 15th century castle.

Importantly, there's enough remaining to give us a tantalising taste of what life might have been like here hundreds of years ago.  With the harsh Irish weather, and cool and dark castle interiors, this would have been no place for the faint hearted.

But for me, one of the best sites at Rock of Cashel is the graveyard nestled beside the ruins, complete with moss-covered headstones tilted to the side.  

Traditional Irish high crosses stand tall here, casting their eye over the region's impossibly green fields.

Heading out to the graveyard

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Australia's Eurovision 101

Australia is on tenderhooks.

This week the nation finds out which song Guy Sebastian will be singing to represent Australia in Eurovision.

I don't want to exaggerate, but this could be the biggest Australian news event of the year.

After all, this is the first (and possibly last) time Australia will be competing in Eurovision.

Guy Sebastian to represent Australia
The announcement of Australia's participation in this year's competition in Vienna, and subsequent appointment of Guy Sebastian as our chanteur of choice, has generated much discussion and confusion Down Under.  

It's all new to many Australians and there are lots of questions.

To bring Australia up to speed on this Eurovision caper, I've compiled a list of Frequently Asked Questions.

Q:  Australia is not in Europe so how can it be in Eurovision?
You're right!   Australia isn't in Europe so rest assured that your grade five geography teacher didn't lie to you.  

Still, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the group that puts on Eurovision, decided to give Australia a "wildcard" entry this year to mark the contest's 60th anniversary.   Given the aim of Eurovision is to bring nations together, inviting Australia to take part seems very apt, don't you think?

Pack your bags Australia, we're off to Europe!

Helping this decision would have been the fact that Australia is the largest Eurovision audience outside of Europe and has been screened here for 30 years.   In recent years, our interaction with the competition has grown.  In 2013, the Malmo hosts gave a nod to Australia, while last year Jessica Mauboy provided half-time entertainment in Copenhagen.  

Q:  Why does Eurovision exist?
It was started in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union as a way to unite war-torn Europe through light-hearted entertainment.   Think of it as the musical equivalent of the Olympics.

Interestingly, during the Cold War the Soviets tried to start their own version of Eurovision, called Intervision.

Q:  How does Eurovision work?
Each year, member nations of the EBU submit a song to be performed live during the contest.   With about 40 countries competing, there are two semi-finals and a grand final.   

Each country casts votes for their favourite song, awarding 12 points to their top pick, then ten points to second choice, and then eight to one points for the following eight songs.  Countries can't vote for themselves.

Each country determines their favourites by a combination of telephone votes and the votes of a jury, made up of music figures from that country.  The purpose of the jury is to lessen the impact of "bloc voting" (where countries just vote for their neighbours).  

The presentation of votes from 40-odd countries has taken on a life of its own in recent years, consuming quite a bit of time as the show crosses live to representatives in each country (often former Eurovision performers from that country or "local identities").

The winning country hosts the competition the following year.  Here are some common techniques countries use to try and win Eurovision.

We've been watching for 30 years

Q:  Isn't Eurovision a bit of a joke?
I can't deny that with the wind machines, costume reveals and other gimmicks, some acts are more of a novelty than others.  But just because it is a competition, doesn't mean it can't be fun. 

If you listen to some of the most popular picks from recent years, they have been strong songs from a range of genres, from pop and rock, through to folk and country.  Many have found wide appeal outside of Eurovision, even charting on iTunes Australia.

Q:  Why do some countries skip straight to the grand final?
The UK, France, Germany, Spain and Italy (known as the "Big Five"), along with the host nation, go straight to the grand final because they are the biggest financial contributors to the EBU.   

As a "wild card" entry, Australia will also skip the semi-finals and only perform in the grand final.

Q:  How do countries pick their songs?
Each country (well their Eurovision TV broadcaster) picks their Eurovision entry.  For some countries, such as the UK, the broadcaster simply picks who will represent the nation.   In other countries, the national selection process takes months of X Factor-style performances and public voting.

In Australia, the broadcaster SBS appointed Guy Sebastian as our representative after calling for expressions of interest from the local music industry.   The fact that Australia only knew quite recently that it was going to compete ruled out a public national selection process.

Q:  Have Australians participated in Eurovision before?
Why yes, but not representing Australia.  Olivia Newton John represented the UK in 1974, Johnny Logan won Eurovision for Ireland twice, Gina G represented the UK in 1996, and Jane Comerford was the lead singer for German entry Texas Lightning in 2006.

Jessica Mauboy in 2014

Q:  What else do I need to know
As with all competitions, there are a number of interesting rules: 
  • The songs must not have been commercially released before 1 September 2014
  • Each song can only last three minutes
  • A maximum of six people can be on stage during a country's performance.  The rules explicitly forbid live animals on stage
  • All artists must be at leat 16 years old
  • No one artist can compete for more than one country in any given year (but a country's representative doesn't have to have been from that country... hence Australians have been able to compete for other countries)
  • Songs must have lyrics and each country can decide the language they want their song to be in 
  • Each song must be performed live (there can be no vocals on the backing track)
  • Songs can't have "unacceptable language" or promote any organisation, institution, political movement, brand, produces or services
  • Each participating broadcaster is required to broadcast the show in its entirety (so countries at conflict with their neighbour still have to show their entry)