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Sometimes I think it might be nice if dads had a badge system, like scouts. It would be great if, when we complete a basic function of parenting, like changing a nappy, or coating an entire family in lice ointment, you got a little badge you could stitch onto your weekend cargo pants, so that other parents knew that you were at least at an unofficial Fetac Level One or Two and could sorta be trusted with their child. 

This came into my head when a series of unfortunate events – specifically the four pregnancies that destroyed my wife’s back – meant that I, and not she, would be bringing my daughter and three friends to a concert in Dublin. This would be the hardest merit badge I could ever earn – trying not to lose your own child in the big smoke is hard enough, but not losing three of her friends meant that I took to this with the earnestness of Liam Neeson in Taken. I told my daughter to prep her friends’ parents well in advance; send word along the wires that it would not be a mother – caring, nurturing, practical – who would be bringing the kids to the badlands of Leinster, it would be a man – feckless, inattentive, gassy. I wanted everyone to know because then they couldn’t come crying when I came back with only one or two of the four teens with me; this way I could just turn around say look, if you wanted me to write a two thousand word thinkpiece on modern fatherhood, that I could do, but if you expect me to actually care for a child – mine or your’s –  well I’m afraid that I am not genetically wired to do that. 

So my wife was crippled with pain and I was about to be burdened with a trip to Dublin and four excited teens who very clearly had alcohol stashed somewhere in the car, but I couldn’t quite figure out where, no matter how I shook the suitcases as I put them in the boot. But we just went through the grand charade that they weren’t going to drink, and that I was going to care whether they did or not. Given that they were going to see Post Malone, a few cans would be the least of my worries. Malone, in case you don’t know, has some of the worst face tattoos and most amazing voice in modern music. Sadly he uses that voice to warble his way through many, many swear words, but it all seems to work, as he is now at the point of pop stardom where he is expanding his lifestyle brand to include a weed business. To think that when I was a kid all we had were singing priests and moving statues, and now here I was, trafficking some teens to a brainwashing exercise with someone who looks like he would get shot in the opening scenes of a Tarantino movie. 

So we got to the hotel, and I did the decent thing and went into town for a pint so the kids would have their space to get ready and chug cans. This is a point my wife would have handled differently – she would have got a taxi into town, and a taxi back, and instead of pint read ‘500 euro worth of luxury goods’. But I’m a simple man, with simple pleasures, and once I had my pint I walked back to where I believed the hotel to be, only to find that it wasn’t there and that despite living in Dublin for four years, I was now lost in the mean streets of Dublin 4. I also realised that I was surrounded by Post Malone fans, and that teenagers really need to wear more clothes. Thank god my little girl is more demure, I thought to myself, in what was clearly a set-up for a looming plot twist. 

In the end I managed to find the only person who was more of a bogger than me – a garda – and asked him for directions, and so I traipsed back to the hotel, now emptied of its many, many Post Malone fans, all gone off to various random street corners to gat cans and talk loudly in weird American accents. After the show I once again took to the streets, as several thousand over excited younglings spilled out of the RDS; everywhere I looked there were teens shouting into their phone that they didn’t know where in Dublin they were, but could mum and dad please come get them. After several equally irritating phone calls to my own child, in which she also had no idea where she was, I gave up and walked back to the hotel. They eventually moseyed back, and she checked in with me to tell me they were safe. Imagine my horror when I opened the door to my first-born child, her hair in corn rows with day-glo extensions, and an outfit that would have made Vogue-era Madonna blush. Much like a solar eclipse, I couldn’t actually look directly at it for fear I might go blind, so I just expressed some mild outrage, and the view that if this was the front, I shudder to think what the back of her attempt at clothing looked like. She agreed that there were some things better left unknown, and moonwalked down the hall to her room, to spare my eyes. 

We checked out the next day, and I made it back to the sticks with all four teens. It felt like an accomplishment, one that I probably won’t get to repeat with her. In another couple of years she won’t need or want me to be there for her after gigs, to drive her anywhere. Already I’m hearing talk of that most dreaded events – the parent-free sun holiday – so the clock is ticking for us, and especially for me to get all the merit badges I can, so that I can look back and say – yeah, I did my best, and maybe I’m not quite an eagle scout at parenting, but I at least taught them the survival skills they need. 

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Do you hear that? It’s the sound of someone else looking after your kids, and it is brought to you by the Department of Education and the miracle of free-ish education. Relax, drink it in, maybe even break it by clearing your own throat, because the summer is at an end and the children are once again wards of the state for several hours a day. There were times during the school holidays when I thought I might actually expire from the stress of having to spend my days off with my own children, caring for them as though they were my sole responsibility, rather than a kind of timeshare with the State. It takes a village to raise a child, and by ‘village’ I naturally mean ‘a teachers lounge filled with twitching wrecks who were lured into the profession with the promise of endless summers and instead spend it in a classroom that smells like a locker room and locker rooms that smell like tombs’. 

There is a mild relief and a particular sadness that comes with the winding down of another summer. Per nature’s almanac, the evenings suddenly got darker, and Ireland’s favourite tax exiles, the swallow, evacuates their holidays homes, built in our eaves without a scrap of planning, and heads south. The final sign that summer was almost over came with the opening of the Brown Thomas shop, because few things signal that winter is coming than standing in your cargo shorts and T-shirt with Jingle Bells playing and synthetic pine needles pricking your in the face and head. 

Another school year begins – the eldest is charging headlong into fifth year; the 11 year old is still trapped in national school despite looking like a fully grown adult male, complete with moustache; the six year old is switching from his special language assistance school into the local mainstream school where he will replace his perfect enunciation with some flat east Cork vowels. The youngest, despite our best efforts to get him dispatched into the arms of the education system, is spending another year in playschool. So we are getting there, where-ever ‘there’ is. The start of the school year is one of the biggest milestones for any parent, marking out the steps to readying your child for the world and ultimately booting them out so you can run an AirBnB from their room. 

But I’m not sure there is anything like an endgame here; with the age of retirement creeping up and house prices screaming into the stratosphere, it feels like I will still be working and my kids will still be living at home for several decades more. But what then – what comes after? In another few years I will have been a parent for more than half my life; by the time I retire, a life without kids will only be a very distant memory – what will I do with the freedom? And what if it isn’t freedom at all? What if this is what defines me – I act like this is a race to some glorious finish line where all my kids are living in comfort and happiness, but what if I am living the big win right now? A random meeting a while back with a widow brought it all home – she told me about her husband’s death, and how much she missed him, and when I asked if she had children, she said she did, and that they were great, but it wasn’t the same. They had their own lives to be getting on with, and nothing could really fill the void in her’s. It stuck with me – some day, my wife or I will die, so promises about a distant tomorrow where we camper-van the Wild Atlantic Way as active stylish seniors are not worth the imagination they were written on. 

But what the end of the summer holidays does bring is the chance to do something for us – to sneak out after the school run and blow some of the college money on eggs benny, to spend some time in conversation and to share the stresses and strains of parenting, while somewhere else some poor substitute teacher tries to put manners on our wildlings. Every September is a chance to steal back some time for us, to keep connected while we count down the years to the autumn of our lives, whenever that may be.  

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Lord, grant me the showmanship of a circus juggler. I had forgotten just how much performance went into their bit in the show, but a recent trip to the circus reminded me of just how much they amplify what is essentially a walk-on part in a production that is based around the threat of death. I stopped going to the circus years ago for two reasons – firstly, I was never sure what the plural of circus was. Second, the absolute horrors of animal cruelty. The last one we saw had five emaciated tigers in a cage, slowly climbing up on chairs, and staring bleakley around while some auld lad flapped a flaccid whip. It was excruciating to watch. I found myself thinking, go on, remember who you are, leap off that shaker style kitchen chair and rip that guy’s throat out. But they didn’t – human and tiger alike just looked old, tired and waiting for death. Perhaps I should tell you there is a metaphor here, that seeing an apex predator caged and broken, docile to the point of almost being dead spoke to my ongoing crisis of masculinity. But it is just depressing seeing anything in a cage, especially a big cat, rather than in their natural habitat – being hunted by poachers or American CEOs with rocket launchers. 

Obviously, the world has changed since I last entered the big top – animal cruelty has become passé, as we evolve and realise that forcing an elephant – an animal that is incapable of forgetting – to trek around Ireland’s most forgettable towns is just not on. So the circus came to town, and reassured that I wouldn’t have to sit there seeing a dishevelled lion feigning interest in our screams, I went along. 

First there is the ground work – you tell the kids that there is no way you are buying them any of the glowing tat that gets brandished in your face as soon as you walk in. No way, no how – that stuff is garbage and it breaks before the interval, so we are definitely not getting any. We made it to our seats without succumbing, but then one of the sellers appears and stood in front of us, waving a selection of neon ephemera at our kids whilst grinning like Pennywise from IT. We were doing so well – refusing to make eye contact with them, telling the kids they couldn’t have anything as we forgot our wallets – until the seller decided to up their game, went off and came back with three Minecraft light-up swords. Before we knew what was happening we were thirty euro down and getting hit in the side of the head with a geometric weapon made from the finest Chinese plastics. You didn’t see this kind of crap in The Greatest Showman, did you? 

The show begins and you soon discover that the person who sold you the tat is now spinning twenty metres above the ground in a unitard via a rope around their neck, and you regret cursing them for their hard sell on the Minecraft gear because it appears that they now might actually die. In fact, many of the best parts of the show were the ones with the highest chance of someone getting maimed. All human existence is something of highwire act, where we try to live well and not explicitly invite our own demise, but it still awe inspiring to see an actual highwire in action; in the age of YouTube giving us every kind of prank and pratfall you could ever wish for, seeing a trapeze show or a wheel of death in real life has the power to take you back to your own sense of childlike wonder; the kids and us, all transfixed, hands to mouths in horror as we brace for someone to fall and die. Nobody dies, and we are duly awed (and quietly disappointed). 

And then there is the juggler, who takes showmanship to new levels, roaring into the ring on a huge motorbike, complete with assistant, who seems to be there purely to point at him while he flings clubs and balls about the place. There were no chainsaws, no knives, no machetes being juggled – this was just him, in extremely tight white pants, in a power stance, managing to not drop things. I only have two things to juggle – work and life – and still struggle to not screw up on a daily basis. And yet here’s this guy, splay legged, roaring his own importance while he slings about twenty tennis balls into the air. If I could at least approach my life with the same level of confidence and performance, and perhaps less like the bumbling, brutish Zampanò from La Strada, I at least would make this entire performance a little more enjoyable for my little troupe with their light up swords and candy floss in their hair. The circus was brilliant – everyone loved it, and we promised the kids that there would be many more circuses (circii?) to come. 

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Nervous motorists of the greater east Cork region, I bring glad tidings – you are now one step further away from death, as I am now a qualified driver. It took a lot of effort, and the sharpening of minds that the Clancy Amendment brought about, but I managed to navigate the mean streets of Wilton without running anyone down or screaming abuse at my tester (which, according to the tester, is a common occurrence). It was hardly surprising that I would pass, as I have been driving for two years now and – readers of a sensitive disposition may need to look away now – I mostly drove without a qualified driver accompanying me. This was partly due to necessity – I live in the sticks and have four kids, so driving is a fact of life. The other reason is that I will never learn until I absolutely have to – for me, deep learning only comes on pain of death, and nothing forces me to grasp complex concepts like junction boxes and gyratory roundabouts than the desire to not die. Of course, now that I am a fully-fledged legally qualified driver, all that’s left now is to regret that I didn’t do it decades ago.

Of the many things my wife and I have argued over – and it is an ever-growing list of virtually every single event in history and every particle in the known universe – almost nothing has created as much tension as my unwillingness to drive. The result of my refusal was that she effectively had another dependant, rather than a supportive spouse. Ciara can you drop me to the pub, Ciara can you pick me up from the pub, Ciara can you do the shopping, Ciara can you transport me around like some sort of minor baron in the 16th century. It’s a miracle she didn’t just pack the car and drive off into the sunset. 

I’d blither on about how I was actually saving the planet by not driving, meanwhile she would be spending six hours a day in her car running errands and slowly losing her mind. I downplayed the issue in my mind, but I can see now the damage it did, and not just to my marriage but to other aspects of my life too – when my father was dying of cancer I wasn’t even able to bring him to his hospital appointments, or just say, hey, let’s drive down to the beach and watch the waves roll in. His last few months would have been that tiny bit more special if I had been able to bring him places – and that is the real miracle of being able to drive. People talk about the freedom, but it is more than just being able to get somewhere not served by a bus – ie, a lot of the country. It’s the spirit of adventure that it instills in you, and the realisation that Ireland is there waiting to be explored. In the past two years I’ve subjected my kids to more stately homes, holy stones, dolmen, castles, cliffs, ruins, caves and red deer than they had ever seen before, and my wife has been able to simply be in a house that is utterly silent – the heroin of any working parent. 

There are many aspects of marriage that I have failed at, but my shift from L to N plates is a sign that there is always hope, and people can change. I can say I should have done it 20 years ago, and think of all the opportunities I missed out on in life, or I can say that well, I’m here now, killing the planet while saving my marriage, cursing those who do not correctly use gyratory roundabouts, and realising that while the L plate may be gone, it doesn’t mean that I have to stop learning. 

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I am pleased to report that we have entered negotiations around a tattoo. No, not for me – I am 44 this month, and the last thing my old skin needs is some ludicrous adornment to draw attention to how saggy and pasty it is. It is my eldest child who is considering getting inked. This is quite the escalation of her demands, given that it was only last Christmas she wanted a puppy, and now she apparently wants to join the Yakuza. It’s hard to know if she is just leveraging her way to the puppy by telling me she is going to get some ironic hipster watercolour of a Capri Sun or a misspelled Arabic word, and is then going to settle for the puppy. Either way, it’s a flat no, because tattoos are a timestamp from another you, one that is passing even as the artist is drilling the ink into your skin. I told her that when I was her age, I desperately wanted to get a Guns N Roses tattoo. Who are they, she asked? Exactly, I replied. Whatever she is thinking of getting, in a decade it will be completely out of date; in two decades it will be embarrassing, and in thirty or forty years you will have to spend some time explaining a blurry skull/mushy celtic knot/sagging wizard to your kids. 

I spent some time trying to tell my daughter that the version of herself she is now will be gone in 12 months, but her tattoo will be forever, so maybe she should wait until she is safely out of the age of terrible ideas – ie, past the age 25 – and see if she still wants one then. No, she wants one now, and the more I resist, the more ludicrous the proposed tattoo became – concepts like ‘thug life’ across the knuckles, or an ice cream cone on her face, like Gucci Mane. 

Eventually we stumbled across a perfect resolution to our negotiations – the fact she is on blood thinners means that rather than being a common-or-garden bad decision, for her getting a tatt could just end up in an ED, covered in blood, with a half finished ice-cream cone tattooed across her forehead. While I might be secretly relieved she can’t get thug life across her knuckles, it is just another thing we have to add to the ever growing list of things she can’t do that other teenagers can. She wanted to get a summer job, medical advice was that she shouldn’t; she wants to go to the beach with her friends, but she isn’t meant to go out in the sun. She is advised towards foods she doesn’t like (‘eat more red meat’, they tell a girl who is going vegan to save the world) and has to take an inordinate amount of medications each day. Even the meds don’t work as they should, so the latest attempt to get better results from the pharmaceutical bombardment is that she gets infusions. No, not infusions of lemongrass and peppermint, as one might expect for an eco warrior like her, but of immunosuppressants and steroids. 

There is something so sad about seeing our child lying in a hospital bed for six hours, cannulated and being drip fed drugs to stop her body from attacking itself. I try to put things in perspective, reminding myself that things could be worse – I grew up watching my sister’s losing battle with epilepsy, and the list of things that she could not do was far longer and more cruel than ‘avoid sun and tattoos’. But it is still cruel. Her condition is one of those which you are reassured won’t stop you from living a normal life – but normal life is sometimes about crap tatts and sunburn, rather than having to be more mature than your years and actually try to grasp the concept of a future you who needs to be cared for in the present. 

But we still argue about tattoos and school and all the other things other families argue about, because the world keeps turning. Her illness is her cross to bear, while my wife and I are really a sort of tag team version of Simon of Cyrene, occasionally jumping in to try and carry the weight, and reassure her that she has plenty time to make terrible choices, and that if we can’t rely on her to wear factor 50 when out and about, then puppy ownership and dragon tattoos are both a long way off. 

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Few things have brought as much strife into our house as Love Island. Sure, me constantly reading passages of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science to my (committed homeopathic) wife almost brought us to divorce, and our general disagreement about domestic colour schemes is often a buttermilk beige powder keg, but it is in our annual viewing of Love Island that things most frequently fall apart. 

We find it hard enough to settle on something we can watch together – we struggled through Poldark, after being lured into watching it when we heard it had loads of riding – and there is, as 30% of each episode is made up of slow-motion side-saddle cantering along the Cornish coast. But after the third season we realised that Poldark was actually just Emmerdale in a tricorn, and that if we wanted to see urchins living in squalor and succumbing to the plague we could just spend time with our kids. 

Love Island, on the other hand, is meant to be an escape. Smugly watching it from Terminally Settled Peninsula should be a source of joy – we are here on West Egg, smirking as we gaze out across the bay at a bunch of cut-price Gatsbys and their increasingly desperate attempts to find happiness. Look at them there, I chortle; if only they could find happiness like us, as I slouch on the sofa in faded pyjamas with paint on the leg, applying my fungal nail treatment. For old married couples like us, Love Island should be akin to a night out at the Roman Colosseum, watching these poor fools fumble around looking for love or anything that might vaguely resemble it, desperately trying to avoid dumped from the island before they got to properly milk their 15 minutes of fame. In a week all we will recall is their hair. 

We bicker throughout the season. Of course, if we could just watch the show in silence, and keep our thoughts to ourselves, then all would be fine. But no, that’s not how married life works – you have to start discussing who is right and who is wrong in the various micro-dramas in the villa, or possibly even discussing the stupidest topic of all – which housemate would you couple up with? (We both said Ovie, obv). But somewhere in the background of all our stupid arguments about how gloriously mismatched everyone in the villa is, there lies the bigger question – if we could go back, would we? If we could rewind all this, and start over, decouple and recouple or whatever, would you do it? Love Island is a window on the past – it is watching your younger self, muddling through life, before all your greatest lessons were learned; an ode to innocence and selfishness, when it’s all about the benefits of well defined abs and never about defined benefit pensions. I feel like the Ghost Of Couplings Future, reaching through the screen in spectral form, to whisper at them about what little I have learned; maybe spend less time in the gym, maybe be a little less self involved, maybe don’t expect anything from this show except a small amount of fame, a reasonable amount of money, and a worrying amount of abuse. But when you leave, view your soul as you do your body, and work on that for a while, because the flesh fades and soon all you will be left with is your jeggings and XXXXS shirts, yearning for someone to bicker endlessly with about important issues such as whether subway tiles are still in or whether lavender oil actually does a damn thing. 

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I have decided that my eldest son is going to be a star. He doesn’t know it yet, and it will probably come as something of a surprise, given that he has never shown any interest in performing. I’d love to tell you the signs were there, that he was always jumping on the table during dinner and reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy or doing a selection of showtunes, but really, there weren’t any signs, or indications that he wanted to perform. It was I who had the awakening to this previously unexplored career avenue during his end of year concert. This was the point where I went from casually disinterested parent to enthusiastic showbiz dad, with dollar-sign eyes and a heart full of unfulfilled dreams that I could now project onto him. This would be my calling – I was going to be one of those showbiz dads, like Justin Bieber’s old man, or Lindsay Lohan’s parents. You know – a real success story and the envy of parents everywhere.

I was tremendously excited to learn that the play my son was cast in was set in the Middle East, which is very topical right now. Could it be a Fisher Price remake of Zero Dark Thirty, I pondered? No, it could not. He would be playing the role of some manner of comical mujahideen in Ali Baba And The Bongo Bandits, which, it turned out, really didn’t have any great insights into the geopolitics of the Persian Gulf, but instead had characters with names like Sheik Yabooty and Mustafa Widdle. Still, even the great Robert De Niro had to start somewhere, and look at him now – doing ads for bread on UK TV. 

Things have changed since my day – the only shows I can ever remember from national school were Nativities, where I usually got to play a sheep, or rock. If you were lucky you got cast in the church’s Easter pageant alongside a live donkey and someone from the girls school wrapped in a blue blanket. The idea of a school play that wasn’t religious was, well, sacrilege. 

It’s a weary trope to say that kids today have it easy. Wasn’t like this in my day, we mutter through pursed lips, somehow reimagining that we lived as Victorian chimney sweeps in a shack under the Thames before dying of consumption aged ten leaving a wife and ten kids behind. Kids today have it easier in some ways, and harder in others – but at least we spend more time thinking about them as emotional beings, whose mental well-being is just as important as points in the Leaving or sporting prowess. 

My son’s school production was a joy – to simply see a bunch of 11 year old chewing scenery like young Oliviers, and revelling in their moment in the spotlight. In between fretting about how the internet is destroying their minds and they are all going to need hip replacements at 40 from doing The Floss, it is good to remind yourself that the world is actually getting better, and that the kids might actually be alright. Perhaps my generation are lightening up a little too – after all, the school principal told us that we were the first audience in the school’s history to give a standing ovation, although the fact most of us were double parked outside probably had a lot to do with the speed at which we jumped out of our seats. 

After the show my son said he enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure he would like to do it again. I could see that he would have liked a more prominent role, but perhaps like his dad, wouldn’t be great at sticking to the script, or even sharing the spotlight. Maybe I won’t get to be one of those great showbiz dads after all, and that my kids can just be normal, and quietly great. I guess that’s ok too. 

Death and Taxes and Holidays

Salou looks like it was designed for the social media age – all wide boulevards, parrot-populated palm trees, mountainous horizons, historical buildings, and multicoloured, interactive fountains. Everywhere you look there are stunning foregrounds and backdrops for those Insta moments. Even as you walk along the coast to where Salou ends, there are platforms on the rocky outcrops for you to take those all-important selfies. 

My sixteen year old was delighted – every day we would go for a stroll for her to source content for her social channels, and we weren’t the only ones – everywhere there people waving their phones, filming, snapping and posting. But while Salou had a few wannabe influencers waving selfie sticks, the surrounds of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was like a particularly chilling episode of Black Mirror – it was like social media had become a virus, transforming people who should be awed by the staggering beauty of the building into witless goons who just want to use it as a backdrop. We even saw one couple standing in the middle of the road in the face of oncoming traffic in their attempt to get the perfect angle on their shot. 

Holidaying in Spain makes economic sense, as certain things are cheaper there than here; food, accomodation and medicine to name but three. This meant that I came home with 20 packs of Avamys sinus spray (11 euro over the counter there, thirty euro on prescription here) and some booze. Lots of booze, thanks to this gent on Twitter, who upon hearing I was going to Salou, informed me that the must-see spot in the area was not Gaudi’s beautiful architecture, or the stunning coastline, or even the colossal amusement park, but was in fact the local offie.  And lo, so it was that I found myself on more than one occasion in the Wine Palace Salou, enjoying their air conditioning and their remarkable selection of spirits, meats, beers and friendly staff. They have very few Irish whiskeys, but to give an idea of the prices they charge, they had the WCD ten year old for 19.99. Why can’t we have this in Ireland, we cry! I have no idea, but I am generally of the belief that you can never understand a country’s economy without working there – then you get to see what is and is not working, and most importantly, how your taxes are collected and how they are being spent. The average industrial wage is higher in Ireland than it is in Spain, so life here costs more than it does there. As for alcohol, it is taxed at a high rate in Ireland, as the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland recently pointed out, noting that 25 EU member states pay less excise tax on Irish whiskey than Ireland: 

A new Drinks Industry Group of Ireland report, Excise Tax Rates in Europe: How Ireland Compares in 2019, authored by Dublin City University economist Anthony Foley, shows that Ireland continues to have the second-highest overall excise tax on alcohol in the EU, the highest excise tax on wine, the second highest on beer, and the third highest on spirits.

Despite Ireland’s renown for the production of some of the world’s most popular drinks products, the Irish government levies a tax bill of €12 on a bottle of off-licence-bought Irish whiskey and 54 cents on a pint of Irish stout served at a pub, restaurant or hotel.

In terms of excise tax, Italian tourists pay four times less excise on a bottle of Irish whiskey in an Italian supermarket than they would if purchasing it for the Irish distillery that produced it.

In France and Germany, countries equally renowned for their drinks industries, excise tax rates on wine and beer are far lower. A shopper in France pays just three cents in excise on a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, while a patron at a German beerhall pays five cents in excise on every pint of lager.

It is a common theme – why come to Ireland to buy whiskey when it is cheaper back home? And therein lies a bigger question about Irish whiskey – why is it so expensive? Partly it is through strategy – it was framed as a premium product almost from day one, and those notions never went away. Smooth, triple distilled, luxuriant. But high taxation domestically ought to be of little concern to producers when the vast majority of it is being sold in export markets and thus beyond paddy taxman’s reach. Just look at the stampede into the sector – surely they aren’t all terrible accountants who grossly misread the Irish tax code? Clearly there is profit to be made.  

Taxes on drink here are high and sales of drink are high, and even though those sales are falling, the cost to society and public health from abuse of alcohol has also been high. In fact, the WHO recommend high taxes as a way of negating the ill effects of abuse.

Alcohol deserves a high price because it deserves our respect. Neither should alcohol be seen as a basic human right – perhaps we should reframe our thinking on it and see it, not as one of the central struts of Irish identity, but as a decadent, occasional pleasure. Personally, I cannot imagine my life without it, but I have to accept that no matter how I try to rebrand that, it is still a drug and my love for it makes me an addict, albeit an incredibly pretentious one. 

In Salou I bought two Spanish brandies, then when I came home I ordered another, and my general take on the products is that they are excellent – incredible liquid, exceptional value and a welcome counterpoint to my whisky obsession. Sometimes you just need to recalibrate those taste buds by diving into another spirit altogether. I still love whisky, but even your mouth needs a holiday from time to time. But the bottles I bought were not just Spanish brandies, they were Catalonioan – like any sophisticated pisshead, I like to imbibe some local gatts on my hollibobs.  If you want to know more about these brandies, there is an excellent piece here by Joe Micallef which goes into how they are made. Micallef is the chap who wrote of the Irish government’s ‘schizophrenic’ attitude to alcohol in Forbes, an article appeared to earn him some favour with the IWA parent group Drinks Ireland, who hosted him in Dublin a few months later

It’s worth pointing out that A) using the term ‘schizophrenic’ with such negative connotations, utterly unrelated to any discussion of mental health, is generally to be avoided, and B) governments have always struggled with the dilemma of massive tax gains from the sale of alcohol, and the enormous cost to public health, law and order and society at large from the abuse of it. All nation states struggle to balance this equation – Soggy Sweat’s If By Whiskey still captures the essence of the dichotomy, many decades after he spoke those words. 

So booze is cheaper in Catalonia. You know what else is cheaper? Human rights. The images from the marches in Barcelona do make for easy viewing; ludicrous jail sentences being handed down for ‘sedition’, ie, holding a referendum. It cuts to the bone of our approach to ‘cheap’ hols and ‘cheap’ booze – a price is always paid somewhere, and not by us.

Ireland is a progressive, wealthy country. I am happy to live here and to pay taxes here. Certainly there are ways that those taxes could be collected in a fairer manner – don’t treat tiny producers the same as massive transnationals – and spent more wisely – infrastructure, modernisation, etc – but generally I am ok with taxes as long as we don’t see riot police baton-charging citizens. I paid more than thirty thousand euro in taxes last year, this year will be slightly less than that, and I am happy to do it. I’ve lived a life of almost relentless privilege, but when I needed State support, it was there for me. That said, The Wine Palace does ship to Ireland

Some Terrible Holiday Advice

“We’re all going on a summer holiday” was the cry in 218BC as Hannibal led his troops through a high alpine pass to attack Rome in what was the first recorded package holiday. Things have changed since then; instead of elephants we have airplanes, and instead of meagre rations of salted meat we have 15 kilo suitcases stuffed with clothes that we won’t be wearing, but the objective is still the same – cross Europe to get some sun, have some craic and perhaps level a European capital. But the key to Hannibal’s success is much the same then as now – prepare, prepare, prepare, and try to leave the under twos at home. 

There are two options – the package and the self-book. We opted for package as we had to weigh up the intense hassle of trying to organise flights, transfers, accommodation and all the rest for the six of us, knowing full well that we would make a mess of it and end up Home Alone-ing one of the kids (bad) or one of us (good). You can save quite a bit of money by spending hours of your short life on Booking.com and Ryanair, but there is always the fear that you will book one bag too few, one child too few, or an apartment that is 400 nautical miles from the airport. The package deal is the path of least resistance, a hedonistic luxury, like clicking your fingers and being magicked away, along with much of your annual income. But if there is one thing I learned from going on holiday with four kids, it is that there is no cheap way to do it. 

Travel light: Everyone overpacks, especially if you are on a package holiday where you are unlikely to get hit with fines for overweight bags. You think you will need a different ensemble for every night you are there, but once you are there you realise that actually you don’t really care if you wear the exact same outfit to the buffet every night, as many of the other residents are bedecked in vests and swim trunks, making you look like Coco Chanel by comparison. If you spill gazpacho on your shirt, either the hotel or its environs will have a launderette. This means you can also clean your clothes before going home, thus avoiding clogging your washing machine filter with sand and seashells. Save also on luggage weight and space by leaving the aspirational items, such as books and gym clothes, at home. If you are travelling with kids you won’t have time or exercise to read as you will be gazing, unblinking, into the paddling pool to make sure you know exactly who hit whose kid first. 

Screentime: You may have some notions about forcing the kids through some sort of digital detox and leaving all their devices at home. We went the other way, making sure that we had every form of electronic entertainment fully charged and ready to go before we left home. You can say, well screen time is the opiate of the tiny masses, but when you have three boys aged four to eleven ruining dinner for you and everyone else in the resort, some sweet sweet opiates are just what is needed – get ‘em doped up on YouTube and stuffed with patatas fritas and you might actually be able to enjoy your food, as opposed to the panicked trolley dash along the buffet with a screaming child in tow. 

Plan activities: We tried to go places every second day. A day trip to a city or nearby fishing village, and then a day off from being cultured when you can just sit by the pool and do nothing except damage your skin. 

Unless you are going off grid, TripAdvisor will be able to point you in the direction of local sites of interest, so at least you can come home and say you got some sense of the region. If travelling with smallies, bring a stroller, or hire one out from the hotel. We did this for our corpulent four year old, which led to us shamefacedly breaking two of them trying to lug him around. But it was worth it, as being trapped by the pool for more than a day really starts to feel like you’re in a display in the reptile house of Dublin Zoo.

Try somewhere new: When we only had two kids we used to go to the same resort in Lanzarote year after year. The reasoning was that it made settling in easier, but it became a sun-baked Groundhog Day. If you are booking a package holiday, it is unlikely that you will be more than a few minutes walk from all the amenities you will need, but a new location means new things to see – there are only so many times you can experience the wonder of Timanfaya National Park before you start yearning for another volcanic eruption just to liven things up. Also, two weeks anywhere is too long. Nine or ten days is loads, seven is just short enough that you want more. No holiday should end with someone muttering that they can’t wait to get home, although there is a great joy in flopping into your own bed after two weeks of weird springs and noisy air con. 

Don’t drink: This, clearly, is not for everyone. Until this year I had never been on a holiday where I did not drink – in fact, like a lot of holidaymakers, I consumed more drink than I would at home. On this trip I found myself asking – why? A holiday is meant to be a break from the norm, and my norm is having a drink. So I didn’t drink – I had more energy, more focus, and more money in my pocket. Granted, I then spent that money on ten bottles of spirits that pushed my luggage into the Heavy Bag sticker category, but I found the break far more pleasant for not drinking. My kids would probably say the same, which is the aim of family holidays – in many respects, I am just a tour rep for them, making sure they have a good time and that they don’t get burned, or lost, or bitten by a rabid cat. Our memories of the holiday are as clear as they can be, free from the haze of alcohol, and beyond the duty free and tatty clothes we lugged home, it is only the memories that last. 

Written for the Irish Independent.

Black Swan

Alan Foley, Cork City Ballet.

The great Soviet ballet dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev said that you live as long as you dance. It’s a sentiment Alan Foley echoes when talking about the abrupt and cruel end to his time as a professional dancer; “Dancers die twice – first when their time as a dancer ends and then when their life ends.” 

Foley was indeed fortunate that, for him, both deaths didn’t happen at the same time. Born with a congenital heart murmur, he had been monitoring his health and knew that someday he would need major heart surgery, but as long as he was healthy he would keep dancing. Then, aged 38, in the build up to a major show he was starring in, he collapsed. Two major heart surgeries later and he was alive, but his life as a full-time ballet dancer was over. There was no fading out, no wringing of hands as he struggled against advancing years – he was simply done. Asked if he thinks that perhaps it was better to go with a bang, rather than a long drawn out battle against an ageing body, he says no – it was a hugely traumatic way to finish, as he felt a choice was taken from him. But in the quarter century he spent dancing to that point, few could say that he had not achieved a remarkable amount. 

For the layperson, the word ballet invokes images of the icy grand dame, cane in hand, barking orders at terrified dancers as they contort their bodies into unnatural arcs. It is also perceived as an artform that is accessible only to the elites. Alan Foley does not fit either of these stereotypes. He is genial, good humoured, and swears as easily as he laughs. His father worked in a factory, his mother a housewife, and he and his eight siblings lived in the Cork suburb of Ballinlough, before moving to Fountainstown, a sort-of Brighton of the Rebel County. The family had, as he puts it, no airs and graces. From an early age he loved to dance, and specifically to perform, as he used to line up his teddy bears as an audience and dance around the living room. Then, aged eight, he won a disco dancing competition and after that his formal training began. But disco, sadly, was not to be as timeless as ballet. When he was 13 he wrote to the Royal Ballet School asking if they had courses in disco dancing. Unsurprisingly, they did not. But he came to understand that ballet was the way forward, and he also had the good fortune of being from Cork, a place with a strong ballet heritage.  Joan Denise Moriarty set up her first dance school in Mallow in the Thirties, and, along with Professor Aloys Flesichmann, became a central figure in the development of dance in Cork, and founded the country’s first professional ballet company in Cork in 1959, quite the achievement after the battles she had faced in implementing a culture of ballet in Ireland; in 1931 the Pavlova Company came to Cork, and was promptly denounced by the Catholic church, and thus played to empty theatres. 

By the time Foley joined her school in the Eighties, Moriarty had achieved legend status, but Foley was something of the unctuous young upstart, and the two frequently clashed. But despite the friction and electricity between them, Foley got away with far more than his female counterparts ever did, but Moriarty had her limits. As Foley’s skill as a dancer grew, so did his stature in the dance world. In 1989 he was accepted into the Vaganova Ballet Academy Summer School in Russia. Foley was delighted, accepted immediately, and ended up with his photo on the front page of the Cork Examiner. However, Moriarty did not sanction the trip, nor did she know he had accepted the offer, until she saw the paper. She was not best pleased, or, as Foley puts it, ‘she was beyond furious’. But there was little she could do. So off Foley went to what was then Leningrad, and the glamorous world of Russian ballet, where he was staying in the same digs that Nureyev had stayed in. Expecting imperial grandeur, upon arrival he was startled to pull back the covers on his bed and find several cockroaches scuttling away. Ballet in Russia was a way of escape – there was no elite there, just dancers desperate for success, willing to endure terrible conditions in order to achieve fame, fortune and freedom. So he trained, and trained hard. 

Not long after he returned it became clear that Moriarty and he would have to part ways. In the aftermath of that he was effectively cast out from ballet in Cork. It was heartbreaking for Foley, but he persevered, setting up Cork City Ballet in 1991. Shortly before Moriarty’s death in 1992, the apprentice and the master made their peace, with Foley acknowledging that while they clashed over many things, he stills owes her a huge debt of gratitude. 

“Of all the people I have worked with, she was the most important, because she was the one who instilled the love of the artform in me. She wasn’t the best ballet teacher, not by a long shot, but she had the passion and the integrity that you need for any artform. And she passed that on to me.”

Aside from the discipline of ballet, Foley also learned business acumen from Moriarty, and soon realised that he didn’t want to be a poor ballet dancer, as many of his friends were and are, so when he graduated he opened a ballet school. In 1998, he was the first person in Ireland to be awarded the Fellowship Diploma in Classical Ballet (with distinction) of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing in London. He is still artistic director of Cork City Ballet, and is now in the position of having dancers in the ballet troupe who were trained by his academy. It is 12 years since his operations, and since he had to stop dancing, but he found other joys in life – being able to relax, to watch TV, to enjoy food (he worked as a chef in Bunnyconnellan in Myrtleville to fund his studies), things that can be seen as luxuries for the professional dancer who is always on tour, always on pointe. But he is still on the move – before he wanted to be a dancer he wanted to be a pilot or a train driver, so forward motion has always been part of his make up. Next is Cork City Ballet’s production of one of the best known and loved ballets of all – Swan Lake. Foley is pragmatic about putting on such an iconic show, and its ability to get bums on seats. “It absolutely is one of ballet’s greatest works, and that is why the crowds keep coming; Swan Lake is sublime. You mention ballet the world over, and the first thing people think of is Swan Lake. It would sell out a show in the middle of Basra.”

But this isn’t playing Basra, but rather back in Cork, the Opera House to be precise. The big shows like this are the financial generators that enable them to stage smaller, more challenging works, as they have had no Arts Council funding since 2011. Ballet is an expensive business – the most basic tool of the ballet dancer, a pair of pointe shoes, costs around a hundred euro, and everything else rises in cost from there. But he is used to the grind – when he started out he asked his bank if they would be interested in sponsoring him. They gave him five púnts. Internally screaming, he thanked them, took the fiver and never looked back. Foley’s path has been very different to that of his mentor, Miss M, as he calls her still, but he is keeping her dream of Irish ballet alive. 

Cork City Ballet returns this November with their spectacular full-length production of the classic ballet  – Swan Lake. Thursday 7–Saturday 9 November 2019; 2.30pm/8pm. Tickets are €25, €31, €38 & €43 | Family Ticket €120*. 

Written for the Irish Independent.

#Iconic

I was off on my Scottish jolly when I heard the news – I was nominated for an award. What could it be, I pondered; Prick Of The Year? Gowl Of The Millenium? No, it was Whisky Magazine’s Icons Of Whisky awards – basically the Oscars of getting pissed. I am listed in the Communicator Of The Year section, along with a wild bunch of bloggers, writers, and industry folk. It’s a list that me scratching my head – really, people like me shouldn’t be on there, as I straddle that divide between industry and consumer. In an ideal world, it would be an award to celebrate the fans, for those who just love the stuff and write or tweet about it. Skin in the game, and all that.

Unlike the Oscars, the voting operates by ranking names on a list, and so is basically a popularity contest – AKA, the type of contest that I am unlikely to win. It’s also thusly the type of contest that requires you take to the hustings and engage in a lot of thirsty begging for votes, all the while trying to look like you don’t desperately want to win. Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted and honoured to have even been nominated, but the only reward I need from the whiskey world is my invoices being processed in a timely fashion. There are people on that list who are into whiskey not as a career, but as fans, and they should be the ones celebrated, not semi-pros like me. That said, I’ll be sure to mention all this in my acceptance speech which I am currently drafting. 

Further Thoughts On Whiskey Tourism

Ah Kilbeggan – Irish whiskey’s Marie Celeste. A distillery that has that perfect blend – the old side is as if it was trapped in time, all dusty and decrepit, full of charm and character. Then there is the actual functioning distillery, compact and bijou, with a little grit and not much glam, but a real, honest-to-god whiskey making exercise. Really, Kilbeggan should have it all, and yet somehow, it does not. I was there earlier this year and did the tour, and while the person giving it was perfectly pleasant, it was clear that they had no interest in whiskey, and most likely, little interest in giving tours. It wasn’t their fault, and I also have a lot of sympathy for an employer in a rural area trying to find guides with enthusiasm, knowledge and the communication skills to bring the whole experience to life; people like that are a rare breed. Similarly, I have a lot of sympathy for anyone who takes a job in a distillery when they clearly have no interest in anything other than just paying the bills.To spend your day talking to people on a topic you have fuck all interest in must be a Sisyphusian hell, not to mind the odd whiskey nerd asking you about molecular processes when you just want to go home and watch Fair City. After the tour, I popped into the gift shop. I mentioned to the lady behind the counter that Irish whiskey was expensive, and she proceeded to give me a lengthy and wildly inaccurate explanation as to why I was wrong. Irish whiskey is older than Scottish whisky, she said, in a pointedly grumpy fashion. I left shortly after. 

Then we went to the Old Bonded Warehouse in Tullamore, which was like being transported to a different world; friendly, well-informed staff, excellent service and an all-round experience I would recommend (even though it isn’t a distillery). It was a reminder that tourism is as much about people as it is about place – Kilbeggan was all place, Tullamore was all people. But Tullamore – a large town – was always going to have the edge on a small village like Kilbeggan when it comes to finding the right staff. 

So what then of the big smoke and its recent whiskey boom – how is their tourism offering? Frankly, I have no idea – but I did pop into Teeling, Lyons and Roe one afternoon last month. I was curious to see Lyons and Roe, given that they have colossal firms behind them. Both are located in remarkable buildings – Roe an old power station, Lyons a centuries-old church – and have been kitted out in spectacular style. Yet somehow they lack soul; at least the abundance of rust and dust in Kilbeggan brought character. Roe is very modern, stylish and bold, whereas Lyons has a remarkable and profound history – and yet they opted to stick faux-pub frontage to the walls of a place of worship that has been there for centuries. I have long since thrown off any semblance of faith, but there is something of a desecration about it all – gift shops, stained glass celebrating a Lyons ancestor, and those little stills up on the altar (and presumably a massive outsourced distilling contract resting in the tabernacle). The developers would tell you that they rescued the building, that without the Lyons family’s intervention, it would have fallen to dust – and they are right, as buildings need to be used to live. But those faux pub fronts were just an awful, awful idea. It’s hard not to see them and think of Christ casting out the money lenders from the temple.  

Lyons and Roe will make a mint – tourism alone will contribute a sizeable sum to their income. 

What then, of Teeling? It is off the main drag, but well worth the short walk – it is very modern, very cool, and has the great bonus of an exhibition space you can walk around for free and learn about the history of distilling. Their tour is the cheapest of the three, and the upstairs bar is full of great little spaces for those Instagram pics. They also have the most interesting bottle-your-own selections – I think of all the distilleries in the last few years charging onto the scene, not many have created so many great expressions from sourced stock as Teeling. But then, could you expect anything less? 

So, to sum up – get good staff. Train them well. No need for tatts and moustaches, a smile will be fine, because if you are a drinks giant, sticking a few hipsters behind the bar won’t make you cool. Do try to find people who are interested in either tourism or whiskey or people. Do not tell your tour guides to rattle off the three-years-and-a day line, as it grates on my nerves like a fork across porcelain – you can call me a pedant, but it is just not true, and every time it is spoken aloud to a group, it moves further from myth and into truth. Three years is what it takes to become whiskey, and one day more does not ‘make it better than Scotch’. No point in being insecure about it – Irish whiskey is great, don’t bother comparing it to anyone. I’ve been on plenty tours in Scotland, nobody over there is rattling out the tired old line about how they double distill because they get it right the first time. That’s because the Scots don’t care what we are doing, or saying, or anything. They are going to continue to eat our lunch for some decades yet.

I’m not going to mention the IWA map again, but from my perspective, we have some way to go to get the the level Scottish whisky tourism operates at. It isn’t about having centuries old whisky – we have an incredibly exciting selection of distilleries here that don’t even have stock on the market yet – but it is about avoiding the Irish tendency towards glib backslapping and cheering that you will never beat the Irish (despite history teaching us otherwise).  We need to see our own failings and work on them, not don the green jersey and refuse to learn from others with more experience. Anyone here who has a whiskey tourism offering should take a pilgrimage to Scotland and basically steal their ideas. Sher lookit didn’t they steal the drink itself from us? Tis only fair. 

The Angle’s Share

Friends, I have been to the mountaintop; I have been there and I have looked beyond and I have seen the promised land. In other words – I have seen Scottish whisky tourism at work, in Speyside in 2015 and 2018. At the Spirit of Speyside Festival you can see first-hand just how the entire region and all the distilleries in it work together to make the event a success. It is in this model that Ireland can draw inspiration. Enter Irish Whiskey 360°:

One shared spirit, many unique characters.

Irish Whiskey 360° leads you deep into the homes and heartlands of Ireland’s extraordinary distilleries. Your journey will take you North, South, East and West, through ever-changing landscapes, from rugged coastlines to historic cities.

This is part of the Taste The Island initiative from Fáilte Ireland, the Irish tourism board, and it takes an all-island approach to food tourism. Bushmills, one of the greatest distilleries in the world, is located in the North, along with powerhouse newcomers Echlinville, to name but two, so no whiskey tourism programme could exclude NI. When it comes to something as niche as whiskey tourism, the last thing we need are divisions. 

I was filled with great expectations; the 360 site would operate as a vast guide to all the distilleries, telling you who had mature stocks, who didn’t, who you could visit anytime, who you could visit by appointment only. There would be a section telling you about distillery only bottlings, a complete, all-Ireland map showing preferred routes from distillery to distillery, perhaps even a few other places of interest for people coming here to travel around and really gaze into the heart of Ireland – silent distilleries, great whiskey pubs, the odd brewery that does collaborations with whiskey firms; there would be warehouses, whiskey experiences, good restaurants with a whiskey slant. We need to build those links between distilleries – a trail of breadcrumbs to lure fans out into the wilds. This would be one for the real whiskey tourist, not just the coach tours who just want to use the loo. 

Anyway, this is the map:  

Aside from everything else, what is the story with the red speckles? Has there been an outbreak of plague in the north west and sunny south east (again)?

Seventeen locations, and not all of them are distilleries – Tullamore Distillery is by appointment only, one day a week, so the location they are flagging is the Tullamore DEW experience in the town. Same for Bow Street – it’s a whiskey experience, not a functioning distillery. As for places on that list where you can buy indigenous whiskey, I reckon about half of them have gift shops where you can come away with something that was actually distilled there. So the website’s claims that with their guide you’ll get to know the many very different characters that make up the Irish whiskey family seem more than a little far fetched – you’re far more likely to get to know a lot of Cooley and Bushmills. 

The breakdown of the 17 distilleries is thus: 

Roe & Co Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

The Powerscourt Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Dublin Liberties Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Clonakilty Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Slane Distillery – new distillery, no mature stock.

Pearse Lyons Distillery – new distillery, mature stock from when they were operating in Carlow, nothing from the new site (as far as I know).

Royal Oak Distillery – new distillery, should have mature stock shortly. 

Rademon Estate Distillery – mature stock coming out later this year. 

Connacht Whiskey Distillery – mature stock, no idea when it is being released. 

The Echlinville Distillery – mature stock, no idea when it is being released.

Dingle Distillery – mature stock.

Kilbeggan Distillery – mature stock.

Tullamore D.E.W. – no mature stock either in the distillery or the bonded warehouse tourism bit in the town.

Jameson Distillery, Midleton – mature stock. 

Teeling Whiskey Distillery – mature stock.

Bushmills Distillery – mature stock. 

Jameson Experience, Bow Street – has some maturation on site but to all intents and purposes, no mature stock. 

The Irish Whiskey Association are keen to point out that this is phase one of the project, so this might explain why they only listed distilleries that can take larger tours. The distilleries listed all also happen to be IWA members, and this is where my nerves start jangling. If the IWA wants to create a whiskey tourism offering that only features their members, there is no problem – some of the biggest drinks firms in the world (Brown Forman, Pernod, Diageo, etc etc) are members of the IWA via their Irish operations, so they can afford to create their own initiative and promote it themselves. My issue is that our national tourism board has partnered with the IWA for this, something which is thus far a remarkably limited view of Irish whiskey in 2019. It’s taste the island, not taste the IWA. 

So I put this query to the IWA’s PR firm: There are some distilleries in Ireland not on the list – what was the criteria for the ones currently on the map? Are other attractions going to be added – such as whiskey pubs? Or is it just for whiskey distilleries? The response I got was this: 

“Phase one features Drinks Ireland | Irish Whiskey Association member visitor centres/brand homes who came together to initiate and fund the development of the project. Future phases will see extension to other Irish whiskey tourism partners, including those in the on-trade.  The Festival of Irish Whiskey in October will include other participants beyond the 17 featured visitor centres and brand homes.”

All the distilleries here pay a lot of tax, and some of that tax goes towards funding the tourism board – I would be deeply concerned if I thought any whiskey firms might be excluded from any tourism initiative. Granted, some don’t do large scale tours, but places like West Cork Distillers and Waterford Distillery host visitors (albeit it on a very small scale at the moment). So I went back to the PR firm for clarity, asking: Are non-IWA members going to be included in the campaign, including having their presence marked on the map of distilleries, as well as on the website? Or is this initiative purely focussed on IWA members? The mercurial reply was: 

“Future phases will see more partners being included, on a commercial basis. The current focus is on the 17 founding members and the Festival of Irish Whiskey, which is open to non-IWA members to be included.”

Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but there is something about those answers (‘on a commercial basis’) that leads me to think that non-IWA members might end up being left out, or treated as a lower tier in our whiskey tourism offering. Again, there is nothing against the IWA running a tourism campaign, but if this is the Irish whiskey section of the Taste The Island campaign, then we cannot leave out some places because they are not in the IWA, or even because they only take small tours, or are not normally open to the public. Have a look at the Visit Scotland whisky tourism site and how they portray Speyside – all the distilleries are listed. Then read this breakdown of the sheer power of whisky tourism in Scotland as a whole. If the Scots are getting it right, there is no harm in following their lead.

We either have a vibrant whiskey scene, or we don’t. We either have a thriving whiskey tourism offering, or we have a list of 17 places – some distilleries, some not – that you can go and walk around with your mouth open. Festivals are meaningless when the most basic tool of any tourist – a map – only shows a select few sites of interest. Who would look at the 360 map and think Connacht Distillery is worth driving across the country to see? There needs to be a trail, a route, a guide. I find it extraordinary that there is a far more comprehensive list of distilleries and upcoming whiskey projects available on the excellent Westmeath Whiskey World blog than there is on the 360 site. 

Part of the problem here is that the IWA has become the body to represent the industry, even though it doesn’t represent all of the industry. The IWA is there to represent business interests, but what happens to those who have no interest in paying a subscription to be a member? What about the smaller, indie firms who can’t afford to join? I understand that there needs to be some benefit to IWA members, but in this particular instance, there needs to be a bigger view taken. Firms can be rivals on the shelf, but should be comrades everywhere else.

I would very much hope that the next phase of the 360 project includes all distilleries; just last week I met up with an American tourist who came here purely to visit distilleries, and those that he couldn’t tour, he went along to and took photos from the outside. That’s the power of whiskey tourism, and understanding how it works will be key to harnessing it. We have a young scene, but it is vibrant, and, much like Scotland, it has one of the most beautiful backdrops in the world. By following the example the Scots have set, we too can find the promised land.

The Equaliser

John O’Connell in one of the Marsh Road warehouses.

It’s Good Friday, and West Cork Distillers is going through an audit for its organic certification. John O’Connell is practically running he is walking so fast. All is going well with the audit; O’Connell seems pleased. Despite breaking the land speed record as he moves from room to room, he still finds the time to show me around. Having visited the distillery 12 months before my Easter visit, my expectation was that little would have changed. I was wrong. The notion that life moves slower down west is disproved by WCD, which seems to be accelerating its already rapid expansion. 

In one lab they have a pilot plant alongside analytical equipment, meaning they can work on experimental washes and play around with locally-sourced fruit yeasts taken from Gougane Barra woods – O’Connell is all about fermentation, and is vocal about the role it plays in determining a spirit’s flavour profile.   

Wild Gougane Barra yeasts.

One of the newer pieces of equipment dreamed up and built from scratch in WCD is an electrodialysis machine. They can analyse new make, isolate components that they might not be happy with, and run the liquid through the dialysis machine to cleanse the spirit of them.  

But while they are relentlessly pushing toward a scientific utopia, they are also pushing for greater transparency in their barrels, now only sourcing from named bodegas, eschewing non-disclosure agreements in favour of greater clarity and information for the consumer. There are few people who WCD refuse to work with, and the firms they do create drinks for run from the aristocratic Baring family behind Lambay Whiskey, to UK TV star (and west Cork man) Graham Norton. But WCD have another project underway, one which may cause ripples in the industry.

Some distilleries here are offering cask programmes as a way of generating some revenue in order to offset the massive cost of getting up and running. It is a great idea – you buy a cask and feel part of a distillery’s story. Some distilleries are charging seven to ten grand a cask. But talk to anyone who has bought casks in Scotland and they will tell you that over there prices are far more reasonable (and thus more realistic as an investment). But with people using Dingle’s founding fathers five grand buy-in as a baseline, the only way is up, and up, and up. This meant that for most of us, cask ownership was just a pipe dream.

One of the Marsh Road warehouses.

Enter then the West Cork Whiskey Co-operative, a small group gathered through word of mouth, who were given the opportunity to buy some of the 5,000 casks released for sale by West Cork Distillers. Some have bought one or two, some have bought many more. And I, dear reader, bought nine, because although I am of meager means, my dual loves of both whiskey and bargains mean that this was an offer I could not refuse: The co-op offered a 200 litre first fill bourbon barrel filled with grain spirit for 888 euro, single pot still for 990 euro, or single malt for 1,086 euro. I bought one grain, four pot and four malt. One is for my godchild, four for each of my kids, and the remaining ones may end up getting bottled at some point (thus the grain). It is a bit of madness, and a bit of fun, and I don’t expect to make any money. Whiskey is a playground for me, not a place to graft.

So here comes the economics; the annual storage and insurance in year one, as well as the administrative cost of running the co-op, is included in the entry price. With a modest price appreciation of 2-5% per annum on current market valuations for aged whiskey, investors could generate 12-15% investment returns per annum over a three-to-10-year period. The co-op will act as the legal trustee and the registered tenant in WCD’s bonded warehouse, and the investor is the beneficial owner and is allocated a share in the co-op: One member, one vote. There is also the online trading platform which offers the ability to bid on other people’s whiskey or auction your existing whiskey to interested buyers. Loss of liquid in the casks beyond evaporation (2.5% per annum) or damage due to fire etc., is fully insured at the purchase price. As for tariffs and Brexit, WCD are a global business with diversified revenue streams so they are insulated better than most. 

O’Connell’s approach to this is much like his approach to business in general – be fair. Of course, there is also a bonus for WCD – they get an injection of cash, and will always have the option to buy casks back from the co-op should they need to. After their massive expansion in the past 12 months, they may need to – four warehouses sit at the end of the Marsh Road site (foundations needed to be set 15 metres underground, as the road lives up to its name), while they are finally throwing open the doors to the public, with a sizeable visitors centre, which houses their new distillery, which comprises of three pot stills, one hybrid and one column.

If WCD make all this look easy, these stills are a reminder that it isn’t – all came from planned distilleries that were abandoned, including the stills from the Niche/Quiet Man. Setting up a distillery is an expensive business – WCD exists largely through sheer force of will, and they still embody that Mad Max spirit of innovation and invention, making any equipment they can, and sourcing everything else in as cost-effective a way as possible (they even have ouzo stills, imported to Skibbereen after they were spotted by a staff member on holiday in Greece).  

How many people bring back stills from a holiday in Greece? Usually it’s just a straw donkey.

WCD have become a force to be reckoned with – their output of four million litres per annum may be dwarfed by the likes Midleton (100 million LPA); or even their main competitors in the wholesale market, Great Northern, who boast a remarkable 11 million LPA, but WCD have something that others do not – diversity. No parent firm, column and pot distillation, on-site maturation facilities, a bottling hall, and contract activity. As Darwin noted, it is not the strongest that survives, but the most adaptive to change. WCD were created out of necessity, invention and desperation – they will try almost anything (hard kombucha, anyone?), create just about any spirit they can if they find a market for it.

WCD also has a four-pronged revenue stream – their own branded products; bulk spirits and fermentates; contract manufacturing and wholesales. Domestically, they deal with the big supermarkets – Aldi, Lidl, Dunnes, Tesco and the Musgrave Group, who own SuperValu and Centra. They also have multiple contracts overseas, and are looking to expand further. They also bought out the Halewood stake in the firm, so the two McCarthy cousins and O’Connell are now the majority shareholders. They achieved all this with no marketing team – which, in the whiskey world, is possibly the most startling fact of all.

It is early days for the co-op – but if WCD can do it, why not others? Do we want Irish whiskey to be some elitist members-only affair where only those of significant means can afford to buy a cask (or a bottle)? Is it right that some brands are charging seven grand a cask, or 300 euro for a 16 year old whiskey? More importantly, is it good for the category? We need places like WCD to create equilibrium. With the co-op, people can get a sense of how much whiskey actually costs, rather than what someone decides it is worth. Obviously I’m going to roll back on this in spectacular fashion in 16 years when I release my own bottling for a grand a pop, but until then we need to calm the fuck down. An overpriced, overheated market draws the wrong kinds of entities into the marketplace.

If you are interested in buying a cask for a reasonable price, shop around – there are plenty of places that ought to cut you a deal, and at least now punters can say well, WCD charge a grand, why are you charging five times that (or more)? As for the co-op, membership is closed, but it may re-open again in the future. Chances are that if it does, it will be done in typical WCD fashion – quietly, fairly, and with as little fanfare as possible.

The War On Terroir

Can terroir exist in whisky? I like to think it can, but that’s because I choose to. Like Fox Mulder, I want to believe. The idea makes sense to me; but then, I have zero understanding of science, zero understanding of the destructive forces of distillation. So maybe I should take a backseat and shut the hell up, which is what I did when I got this email. I can’t remember the context, but the person who wrote it seemed pretty straight – considering they were using a fake name and fake email address. They had worked in distilling for decades (which in Ireland narrows it down to a few dozen potential candidates, thus necessitating the hidden ID) and just wanted to say their piece about their own experience of terroir in whiskey, so here it is:  

“We played with that more than a decade ago and took three separate strains of barley and made three totally different malts. The taste difference was notable as new make, but this was expected as most new make batches will have a slight difference in taste and aroma. However, we put them into three very similar casks (all ex-bourbon from the same distillery with the same fill and disgorging date) as identical as possible considering a casks variance, and all the whiskies tasted the same after five years. The barrel is far too overpowering for the tiny incremental changes the terroir supporters suggest. In my opinion, terroir in whiskey is 100% a marketing ploy as I’ve tested both ways – identical whiskey from the same batch in different casks and the opposite test with different whiskies in as identical as possible barrels and on both tests the barrel comes through by a huge country mile. The barrel does the vast majority of the flavour, definitely 70% or more depending on the barrel.

“Try buying a charred or toasted cask, add plain spring water to it and even after 48 hours of the water in the cask, remove some water and taste it and you’ll get those unmistakable whiskey flavours. The cask is honestly the big difference in whiskey. 

“Think of how many medals Cooley won prior to the sale to Beam. John Teeling couldn’t give his whiskey away at the time (which is why he had so much mature stock). And then all that stock got sold to brands and they did some unique finishes (Teelings 24 year old is a recent example finished in Sauternes casks), Hyde is another and plenty more world awards from that stock. All the same whiskey as Noel never did much to change the mash bill at Cooley. 

“The difference came in the finish, which was 100% from the cask. Every single brand in Ireland has known the importance of the barrel for hundreds of years. Even think of Redbreast in 1903. Gilbeys were wine merchants as were the Mitchell brothers with the Spot family. They had leftover wine casks and got them filled by Jameson. It resulted in some of the world’s best ever whiskey.”

Mysterious anonymous email endeth.

In the new make I tasted in Waterford, there were massive differences between farms – but give those different distillates ten years in a barrel, and then we shall see. New make exhibiting what seems like terroir is very different to a 15 year old spirit exhibiting terroir, because how do you eliminate the effects of the cask from your deductions? Do you sell each bottle with a sample of the new make so you can discern which flavour elements are down to where the barley grew, and which are down to the wood? Or is all this completely besides the point? Waterford Distillery has taken the focus off wood and placed it farther back in the process, to an element of whiskey that had been relegated to a walk on part in the narrative. If quality wood programmes are so important, why not grain also? And beyond that – why not yeast, why not fermentation times? Why not people? Reynier’s persona is central to this debate – he is as much part of the terroir of Waterford’s whisky as the grain. This was all his mad idea, his vision. You can criticise him, mutter about people ‘coming over here’ telling us how to make whisky, write it all off as marketing, or some zany experiment – but as experiments go, it is a remarkably grand one, and whether or not you believe in whisky terroir, or choose to believe or not, it is still exciting. 

For a more scientific, less nonsensical take on terroir: 

The Heretic

Mark Reynier believes the Vikings invented whisky. The nomadic distiller claims that, contrary to the common belief that it was Irish monks who discovered it, it was the Vikings who first started to distill barley to make the water of life. Why would monks make such strong spirit, Reynier counters to anyone who objects to his interpretation of history – surely for men of God it would be heresy? Whatever about his take on the origins of distilling, few can doubt that he is an expert on heresy. 

A third-generation wine merchant and independent whisky bottler, Reynier was the driving force behind the resurrection of Bruichladdich Distillery on the Hebridean island of Islay. He bought the mothballed distillery, transformed it into a gloriously wild experiment in the somewhat staid world of Scotch whisky, and then sold for stg£54 million it in 2012. After the sale, Reynier took some time off and went fishing. Many in his position would have simply retired, but Reynier was to prove that his work on Islay was laying down a template for what would follow, as he brought his unique approach to whisky to its spiritual home – Ireland.  

Whilst on Islay, Reynier became obsessed with barley. The central ingredient of any single malt, it somehow ended up with a walk-on part in distilling – large firms place almost all the emphasis on casks, claiming that up to 80% of flavour comes from the wood the spirit ages in. Ever the heretic, Reynier queries why, if wood is so important, they don’t just use neutral spirit to make whiskey, or indeed simply water? Why bother with barley at all, if it has so little input? He decided that barley was the key to everything, and that local barley the most important of all. 

While many larger distillers quietly imported their barley from warmer climes to ensure supply (and keep costs down), Reynier started using locally grown barley. His background in wine meant he knew about the importance of provenance and terroir – the unique microclimate that makes the wine from one vineyard completely different to wine from one alongside it. So he brought out whiskies that were distilled from certain strains of barley, or from certain farms. 

Duncan McGillivray, former general manager of Bruichladdich, happened to mention to Reynier that the best barley he had ever seen was from the south east of Ireland. Fortuitous indeed then that shortly after the sale of Bruichladdich, Reynier managed to snap up the state of the art Guinness brewery in Waterford, the capital of Ireland’s sunny south east, for a bargain 7.5 million euro. He rehired many of the former Diageo staff who were let go when Guinness pulled out, and while he transformed the brewery into a distillery, his staff transformed from brewers to distillers. Now all he needed was some grain. 

Barley grower Trevor Harris.

Reynier put in place an unprecedented network of farms to supply his barley, with a forensic level of detail – Waterford Distillery can track their spirit from grain to glass, and tell you about soil types, field locations, barley strains and even a short history of the farmer who grew it. Their storage facility was named the ‘barley cathedral’ and the distillery itself became a kind of techo-pagan temple created solely for the adoration of grain, with Reynier as chief celebrant. There were to be no white spirits – no vodka, no gin, no poitin – no single pot still whiskey, a traditional Irish style, and no grain whiskey. This is about single malt and nothing else. With a solid business plan and the confidence of his backers – among them Waterford native and pharma mogul Seamus Mulligan – Reynier is in no hurry to get his product out. Yet while many distilleries play it safe in those shaky early years, Reynier is taking his spirit of experimentation to the roots of whisky itself. 

Mark Reynier, on right, with Irish biodynamic barley farmers John McDonnell and Trevor Harris at the biodynamic vineyards of Jean-Paul Zusslin in Alsace.

From one aspect or another, all interests of human life belong to Agriculture.

Rudolf Steiner, speaking in the Agriculture series of lectures in 1924

Reynier was the first person to distill Irish whisky from organically grown barley. But this wasn’t enough – how do you enhance terroir to the highest possible degree? The answer lay in some of the world’s great vineyards, and the writings of the occultist philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In 1924 a group of farmers were concerned about the impact of modern farming methods on their soil. They enlisted Steiner’s help, and he gave a series of lectures which went on to form the central strut of biodynamics. This modern-sounding agricultural philosophy sees the farm as an organism, one which is self contained and does not need outside interference. Fertilizer should come from the farm itself through a series of preparations – one of which is a cow horn packed with manure and buried for a period of time, while a spray for aphids comes from water that nettles have been soaked in. 

Steiner was the father of anthroposophy – a philosophy led by the belief that there is a spiritual world accessible to us all through inner development. With biodynamics, he drew on this and the teaching of mystics from the 16th century, and thus some of the guidelines of biodynamic agriculture are somewhat left of field. To quote some of the instructions on the Biodynamic Association website: The six compost preparations are made from specific herbs: yarrow flowers, chamomile blossoms, the whole areal portion of the stinging nettle while in flower, oak bark, dandelion blossoms and valerian flowers. Four of these six preparations are enveloped in sheaths of animal organs. All are made with a sensitivity to the rhythms of the sun and zodiac. All but one are buried in the ground for a specified period of time. When the preparations are finished, they have the appearance of well-ripened compost, with the exception of the valerian preparation, which is in a liquid form. 

Whilst much of biodynamics is an engaging form of holistic agriculture, the use of ‘sheaths of animals organs’ and lunar phases as a guide for planting is a stumbling block for many. However, Steiner’s views on agriculture may cause furrowed brows, his thoughts on other issues, such as race and education, raise even greater questions about his deductions. 

The body which awards biodynamic certification, the Demeter Association, does not enforce the lunar calendar planting, but does ensure the preparations are as laid out by Steiner. Yet while biodynamics has its critics, it hasn’t stopped some of the great wine producers from using it – Domaine Zind Humbrecht, Romanee Conti, and Chateau Margaux all adhere to the rules laid down by the Biodynamic Association. 

As Reynier has shown consistently throughout his career, if it works for wine, then why not whisky – after all, he openly admits that he is making a whisky for wine drinkers. This is for those who want to delve deeper into the liquid, to understand its provenance and to answer the bigger question of ‘why’ – why does this drink have the flavours it does?

Reynier in front of the Inverleven stills in Waterford.

“Soil here is the medium,” Reynier says.  “It’s made from the subsoil which is made from the bedrock, which is filled with minerals, and the roots of whatever it is growing down into those different soils gets the most minerals. This is why we chose biodynamics – if you as a farmer keep putting nitrates on the ground, what incentive is there for the roots to go down, if they are just being fed on the surface? So the more fertiliser you use the less likely it is that the roots will dig deep.

“Most whisky drinkers are going to have no idea what we are talking about – I don’t care – but wine drinkers will. They will understand, or at least the guys I am talking to, will understand how biodynamics has influenced the greatest winemakers to take the ultimate step up. 

“Biodynamics is agricultural management philosophy that is the culmination of ten thousand years of farming know how – call it folklore, call it old wives tales, whatever. But this is accumulated knowledge of how to grow, and how to look after your land, from before a time when you could go to the shops and buy what you needed to care for the land, you had to use what you had on your land, and they knew that everything they needed was right there. 

Reynier with head distiller Ned Gahan.

“Fertilizers, pesticides, all naturally produced. Everything was done from within the farm. It was codified by Rudolf Steiner, who was approached by the farmers who felt that all this accumulated knowledge about caring for the land was being lost to modernity, and to the agro-chemical industry that really started after the First World War, when all these munitions firms went into selling chemicals to farmers.  

“You can see the results of this, where chemical oversude has created a pan in the soil, soil that is to all effects dead, thanks to all the chemicals. So the soil is dead, the erosion is high, the fertility is zero, it’s almost like hydroponics. It creates an ever increasing need to put more and more things like into the soil. 

“What Steiner realised was that what the old farmers knew actually worked. So he wrote it up in a code, which is called biodynamics. It’s more than organics –  biodynamics is a way of life. It is a way of keeping a live soil going.

“Vineyards are where you see it most – the biodynamically farmed vines become healthier, they are able to resist infection. Of course, this doesn’t mean a biodynamic winemaker will be a good winemaker – it just means you will produce very good grapes. But if you are a great winemaker, and you have the best terroir, then your biodynamic grapes will make an incredible wine. It’s no coincidence that many of the top ten or fifteen winemakers have  biodynamic vineyards. They don’t say much about it, perhaps because they are a little embarrassed by it – biodynamics is easy to ridicule, easy to pooh-pooh.”

The Mary Street cellar of Waterford Distillery.

Reynier says the roots of biodynamically farmed crops go deeper, the plants dig for nutrition as they are meant to, rather than relying on a shallow surface layer of regularly sprayed chemicals. His belief in biodynamics is overwhelming – he says that the lunar planting cycle makes sense, for just as the moon controls the tides, so too must it control fluid like sap within plants. 

As for Reynier himself, he is slower to put down roots. He still lives on Islay but commutes to Waterford on a weekly basis. If that seems like a trek, it is a short hop in comparison to the journey he undertakes to his latest project, a rum distillery on the island of Grenada, a development even more challenging than Bruichladdich and Waterford combined. But Reynier is undaunted. 

In Ireland he has encouraged farmers to resurrected heritage grains – two barley strains named Hunter and Goldthorpe – which haven’t been used commercially for decades, and were brought back from a seed bank. These strains of barley fell by the wayside in the agriculture industry’s shift away from choices based on flavour towards strains picked due to their yield. 

The distillery is also working with Dr Dustin Herb from Oregon State University to prove that terroir exists – first they have micro-distilled samples from two varieties, grown and harvested at two test sites independently, and Dr Herb now matching up the environmental data with independent sensory analysis. Then they will be sending the samples off for gas chromatography to get compounds/sensory/environmental data matched up, so they can interrogate environmental changes and the compounds that result from it. The full report is due towards the end of 2019. Until then, the great whisky terroir debate will rage on, with Reynier in the eye of the maelstrom, and relishing the role.

He seems to be driven by a desire to prove that conventional wisdom is a form of complacency, whether it is in his belief in terroir, biodynamics or his claim that the vikings invented whisky. Reynier’s detractors would say that he is an agitator who uses conflict to keep the conversation steered in the direction of his whisky project, that all the bluster is marketing – but his actions in Waterford speak far louder than any words. Waterford Distillery’s experiment in terroir has taken Irish soil, Irish grain and Irish farmers and placed them back where they belong – at the heart of Irish whisky.