independent

Friday 25 April 2014

Now he's away with the Faroes

Damian Corless on what Brian Kerr will find if he's stranded in his new football empire again

Signing up for the tall order of managing the Faroe Islands football team this week, ex-Irish boss Brian Kerr said: "The main attraction is it's an international job relatively near Ireland."

But while the windswept archipelago of 18 islands is a mere 678km from our northern shores, lying midway between Norway and Iceland, there are no direct flights, and Kerr will recall that when he brought his team there in June 2005, half the Irish fans never made it because the typically wintery summer weather closed the airport.

But the Faroes are closer to Ireland than we might imagine. Local lore has it that the first settlers were Irish monks seeking solitude who introduced sheep and oats.

Pollen analysis showing oats were grown from 650AD lends substance to the story. St Brendan 'The Navigator' is commemorated on a 1994 stamp, while the old Norse Faroese tongue incorporates a smattering of Irish.

The monks were displaced by Vikings and, being good monks, have left no blood line. However, the Faroes were part of a trade network with Dublin as a hub, and many Irish women made their way there as wives or slaves. DNA analysis shows the 84pc of Faroese females are of Irish or Scottish descent. The islands even have an ancient Irish name, Na Scigiri.

In 2007 National Geographic named the Faroes as the best island community in the world, ahead of The Azores, Hawaii and the Bahamas. Weighing up environment, ecology and culture, the magazine placed the Faroes first for "integrity of place".

This honour, no doubt, helped the islands' tourism business. Birdwatching and whalewatching are fuelling a spurt in ecotourism -- even though the natives would be as quick to eat both forms of wildlife as admire them.

Islanders are permitted to catch a quota of 950 pilot whales each year, with communities in party mood co-operating to drive schools into the shallows. There, the small whales are gleefully dispatched in a bloodletting orgy that makes the opening of Saving Private Ryan look like a shaving nick.

It's still common to see strips of whale meat and blubber hanging outside houses, becoming leathery and preserved by sea salt in the wind.

Last year scientists urged an end to eating whale because the meat is so contaminated with toxins from polluted oceans, but when a newspaper polled the islanders on their attitude to a ban, two thirds came out in favour of continuing the festivals of slaughter.

Some, however, prefer more modern fare. The arrival of Burger King in the capital, Torshavn, a decade back generated great publicity and divided the Faroes' traditionalists and modernisers.

Since then, other new restaurants have broadened the range of cuisine available, but the islanders' favourite dish remains lamb, potatoes and gravy.

If the Faroes have yet to become a mecca for foodies, they've even less to entice the tippler. Over 80pc are Lutherans; and a deep distrust of liquor led one commentator to describe the pub culture there as "grim".

Apart from some private clubs, alcohol was prohibited until 1993, when six state-run off-licences opened selling drink at prices so high as to keep consumption to a minimum. Beer above 6pc volume is outlawed.

While the Faroes have their own parliament, called the Logting (Law Thing), the islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark and their neighbour controls their foreign policy and law enforcement. The inhabitants are split between those who want independence from Denmark, and those who appreciate the Danish subsidies (15pc of GDP). Fishing accounts for 95pc of all exports, and the islands went through a recession when the industry slumped in the 1990s.

However, soaring fish prices have fuelled a strong recovery and the jobless figures in a population of 48,000 are just 3pc. The Faroes even offered bankrupt Iceland a dig-out of $52m six months ago. Islanders favouring independence are hoping that explorations for offshore oil and gas will provide the economic platform to break with Denmark, but returns have been slow.

Prime Minister (his title is Lawman) Kaj Leo Johannesen favours keeping the Danish link. The 44-year-old has a track record as a safe pair of hands, having won four caps as the Faroe Islands goalkeeper, plus three domestic league titles. After some tough times, it seems Brian Kerr has found a home from home.

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