Loss horizon – Frank McNally on the pain of narrowly losing table quizzes and the pleasure of being a secret arts philanthropist

Pipped at the post

At the annual Dublin Rape Crisis Centre corporate quiz on Thursday, in what has become a tradition, The Irish Times was again narrowly beaten by rivals for whom mastery of general knowledge should be less of a professional necessity.

As a would-be chronicler of Irish life, I was intrigued on this occasion to see that a team of that name (albeit with a capital “L”) led for most of the contest. But we had drawn level with them by the last round, which then promised to be a straight Life and Times shoot-out.

Ultimate glory finally beckoned, after several second places. Failing that, we would at least again have the runners-up consolation of bottles of 10-year-old whiskey (which, to be honest, some of us may have preferred to the Waterford Glass winners’ trophy).

Then we crashed and burned in the last round, finally having to settle for third place and book tokens, after William Fry solicitors snuck past us into second. The law is not an ass, it turns out.

Among the questions on which we foundered was: “What is the only African country in which Spanish is an official language?” Our first guess was Morocco. Then I remembered my multilingual Moroccan friend who speaks several dialects of Arabic, as well as French, Italian, and English, but not Spanish.

So, after much prevarication, we opted instead for Mauritania. And we were heading in the right direction, at least, down Africa’s west coast. But we had stopped a couple of thousand miles too soon. The correct answer was Equatorial Guinea, as the smarty-pants of Irish Life (and no doubt you too, reader) somehow knew.

Still, it was all in a good cause, which badly needed the help. One of the other things we learned from our hosts is that the DRCC gets charitable contributions from only about 50 donors a month, which seems shockingly low.

But the quiz itself was well supported. Despite losing again, The Irish Times finished ahead of a whopping 40 other teams. It’s tough at the top.

***

First thing Friday morning, still conducting mental postmortems on the questions missed, I attended a tour of the old Dublin Port substation.

This has recently been reinvented as a fine exhibition and event space, one of several parts in the port’s “Distributed Museum”. And it includes a dramatic glimpse of the original East Wall (for which the modern inner-city suburb is named), dating from the 1700s and visible through a glass floor panel.

Port Heritage director Lar Joye and guide Marta Lopez also led me through the recent exhibition “the Dockers of Dublin Port” – now officially closed – and previewed the next one, opening in mid-March, which will mark the 150th anniversary of the Dublin Painting & Sketching Club.

It was a fascinating tour. But noting that Marta was from Spain, there was something I had to ask: “Do you know which is the only country in Africa where Spanish is an ...”. I didn’t even get as far as the question mark. “Guinea Ecuatorial”, she answered without hesitation, in one of that country’s official languages.

***

A reader wonders if I was correct in calling St Brigid’s religious foundation in Kildare a “monastery” (Diary, Thursday), given its female-only inner sanctum. Well, that’s what the Brigidine Sisters themselves call it on their website, so who was I to argue?

In any case, the question reminded me that on my perilous mission to Kildare Village last week, we also passed signs for the nearby hamlet of Nurney. Which, speaking of Hamlet, the friend who was giving me a lift referred to jokingly as “Nunnery”.

She wasn’t far wrong, as it happens. The name does have religious roots, from An Urnaí, meaning “The Oratory”. Unfortunately, as navigator, I could not in all conscience advise her: “Get thee to An Urnai”. That would have been the wrong exit off the roundabout.

***

Returning to the subject of philanthropy, one of the reasons I have chosen to become a bad poker player late in life (Diary, January 26th) is that it is a way of discreetly channelling funds towards the arts community.

One of the regular beneficiaries of my losses, for example, is a man named Feilimidh Nunan, who when not playing poker is a professional violinist working with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and other groups.

His forthcoming appearances include next week’s Puccini special at the National Concert Hall, marking this year’s centenary of the composer’s death. I like to think of myself as one of the show’s sponsors.

But my lack of talent at cards also benefits the theatrical sector, notably the poker circle’s host: actor and comedian Liam Hourican who, also next week, is directing Hamlet at the National Opera House in Wexford.

The Volta Theatre Company production promises “a traditional staging of the play, with a bold new edit”. There are two shows daily, morning and afternoon, for the benefit of Leaving Cert students, with an evening performance on Friday, March 1st, for the general public.

If you enjoy Shakespeare, or just want to be a secret arts philanthropist without the complication of playing poker badly, get thee to a box office now.

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