Indo col 124

Our people carrier has gone to the great mecha-elephant graveyard in the sky. Taken from us too soon – a mere seven years old – it had lived a dozen lifetimes’ mileage in those brief few years, as my wife raced back and forth from home to school and school to home and Lidl to school to home to dentist to doctor to the drive-through, one endless ricochet, pinging into potholes, between speedbumps, up hill and down dale like a squatter, fatter Millenium Falcon. 

The only people carrier that managed to be dirtier on the inside that it was on the outside, it was where homework was done, lunches were consumed, screaming matches were had, and about fifty euro worth of Lego was lost forever. Part livestock express, part coffin ship, it was only a matter of time before our elegant French-born bus was undone by fine Irish boreens. So we thought, hey, it is only a few years old, and while it has 140k on the clock, we were sure there would be somebody out there who would like to buy it as a chicken coop, although they might need to clean it first as all the rotting chips and apple cores in the door wells would probably give a prize rooster the avian flu. 

So we proudly went back to the dealership that sold it to us, full of expectations that we would get a few quid for it in a trade-in. Obviously we were on the backfoot from the get-go, as we had the vehicle delivered there on the back of a tow truck, after it had expired in a ditch. A princely three grand was offered, and gratefully accepted, as we exchanged it for the more modern, less palliative iteration. 

But now that she has changed her big ugly yoke for a slightly slicker, nicer yoke, I have come to the conclusion that I need to change my car too. Previously, the kids loved travelling in mine as it wasn’t like a mobile landfill and they were unlikely to catch the bubonic plague in it. Now they all want to travel in mummy’s car because it has a rear view camera so she doesn’t reverse into things any more. My sensor stopped working some time ago so I use my own natural instincts to reverse, ie, I stop when I hear the thump. There is little wrong with the old one, aside from the fact that in my mind I have now branded it ‘the old one’. It’s a mere four years old, and as my first car, holds a special place in my heart, for it was behind the wheel of this most bland of vehicles that I learned to drive and then passed my test. In my head I am telling myself that much like stabilisers on a child’s bike, I must now rid myself of my training car in favour of something with a bit more pizazz, something that makes me look less like a 44 year old father of four and more like someone that you wouldn’t instantly feel sorry for. 

I deserve an SUV. In many ways it makes sense – I live in the sticks and with the worsening climate change, I need to be ready for deep, manly snows, and incredibly dramatic puddles for me to rage through at 120kph. What’s that you say – SUVs are part of the reason our climate is disintegrating? Well you’re just saying that because you are jealous of how well I have done in life. Except obviously, this is the first hurdle I have to overcome – the fact that really, I may picture myself in a beautiful Audi Q8, but I might also need to use some of my magical thinking to magic up slightly more income. Because cars are terribly expensive things. In fact, the closest I could get to any kind of SUV was one of those lame versions that look like an inflatable sofa and are only marginally larger than one. So I set the controls on the car sites a little lower, with a few more years on the road, and a few more kilometres. Still, all I can reasonably aim for is basically what I already drive. And so I had to come to the conclusion that actually, not only do I not need a new car, I also don’t deserve one. Why should I try to convince the world that I am doing better than I am? Surely at my age I should be well past such insecurities, and yet they persist – why do I want to fit in with those in the executive models, whose motivational LinkedIn posts read like an especially narcissistic chapter of American Psycho? They are not my tribe. I deserve my slightly boring, safe, dependable, ordinary car, because that I how I want my life to be – to get from A to B with minimum fuss, and almost no style. 

Indo col 123

It is with great sadness that I bring you the news that we are starting our Christmas preparations. No, I don’t mean buying gifts – we aren’t that organised – but rather the sacred festive ritual of secretly getting rid of toys. Is there is a sadder ritual of capitalism than throwing out a toy just so you can buy another? And yet, it has to be done. To add to the horror of it all, we have found that it is the most expensive toys that they play with the least, and are therefore for the cull. The Buzz and Woody we moved mountains to get on a Christmas week shopping trip reminiscent of the cross-border snatch in Sicario sit there, unloved and destined for the charity shop. You just hope that they go to a more loving home than ours, that they make some other child happy, or at the very least that they don’t end up in an incinerator like at the end of Toy Story 3. Poor Buzz, falling with style into a refuse sack. 

In contrast, the one-legged army figure that was found in a park is squabbled over as though it were the Elgin Marbles. That could never be thrown out, despite the fact it was home to a colony of earwigs when we found it. 

So we sigh, and fill a box with the lesser loved toys, along with jigsaws, annuals, and anything else that we know they won’t miss. That cuts it down somewhat, but there still needs to be more, and this is where things get awkward, as we end up curating a death row for toys, specifically ones that we picked out first day and therefore feel we should defend. My wife will make the case for the prosecution – they never play with this, you should never have bought it for them – and I will make the case for the defence – they do play with it when you’re not here, they love it, their world will collapse without this off-brand soft dart gun that no longer works. How dare you try to take this from them, I cry, it is their constitutional right to bear arms, or to arm bears; you can have this rubbish toy when you pry it from their dirty little hands. But the case is made, the evidence is there – off to the refuse sack, with no appeals. 

This skirmish just leads into another, the people versus the toy kitchen; it takes up too much space I claim; they don’t play with it, so this is for the chop. But of course the kitchen can’t go, she counters – do you want them to grow up to be useless domestically like some other people we could mention? Lucky for her I didn’t have that soft dart gun in my hand anymore.  

The least contentious toy is the Play-Doh. Play-Doh is such an absolute pox that you only ever get it as a gift, usually with a wry smile from the other parent, who is clearly trying to teach you a lesson for going on about the deep shag carpet you got in the living room. There you go now junior, open it straight away so mum and dad can’t regift it, that’s it, mush and shred, now stomp it into their lovely carpet, mwahhahaha. Play-Doh should roll off the assembly line and go directly into a furnace, along with anyone who thinks it is a fitting gift. 

But the clearout got there eventually and we end up with a bag half-filled with stuff for charity, a pretty pathetic attempt given the two hours of arguing. But it is a sad ritual, not because of the obvious waste, but because we are marking the passing of another year – the toys are ultimately being swapped out for digital doodads, as they are all growing up. Even the youngest, a precocious (is there any other kind of child these days?) four year old, is only interested in Super Mario in whatever form he can get it. You can fret about screentime, or you can accept that this is how we live now. Digital immigrants like my wife and I are going to look like dinosaurs in another few years, as presumably Santa will be delivering every gift via app stores or 3D printer, and then after that, just like Buzz and Woody, we will be obsolete. 

Indo col 122

I am getting old. There have been a few occurrences recently that made it clear – I rejoined a gym for the millionth time, thinking that I would be in there every morning like I was in my 30s, pounding the treadmill like a Terminator or grunting under a bar. I went once and spent 20 minutes wandering aimlessly and then came home and ate five cold sausages. On another occasion, after an especially intense Lego build, I spent five minutes trying to get up off the floor, as between numb flesh and frozen joints, I felt like I was emerging from cryosleep. So I can’t just coast by anymore; fitness and health and now things I have to work at, rather than just enjoy as one the many benefits of relative youth. No, clearly something has to be done, and that something is making a will.

My wife gets terribly upset when I mention the inevitability of our demise. Please Bill, she says, I’m trying to watch Suits, please stop whispering about death at me; it’s Netflix and chill, not Netflix and chilling. But whether she wants to live in denial, avoiding the unavoidable truth by wasting hours of her life on a warmed-over Ally McBeal, or whether I want to indulge my inner goth, whispering of sweet nothingness at her, the end is coming, and we had best be prepared. 

Musing about what we would do if we won the lotto is really a lot less realistic than musing about what would happen if we were both to die in a car crash. And therein lies the main focus of our will – who will care for the kids? The longlist was easy: We’ve done a fairly terrible job with our offspring so far,  and that low bar means anyone in our wider circle of friends and family are in with a shot, but it’s still a big hypothetical ask, that becomes very real once you start contemplating it. Who would they like to live with, who would be capable of looking after them, who might actually wish to care for them? Even the longest list you could compile grows pretty short when you start factoring in simple things like economics – who could afford to feed and clothe them, because we just about manage to do it. After going through all that, you are left with a pretty short shortlist. Then, in a final irony, a friend rightly pointed out that it might be a lot easier to find a potential home for my children if I hadn’t spent so many column inches telling the world that they were out of control and belonged in a Channel 5 documentary. Not so much Who Will Love My Children? as it would be Who Will Tolerate My Infamous Brood? 

Eventually we decided on my wife’s sister and her husband, who seemed touched to have been asked, little realising that in fact it was like someone telling them that some day we may bequeath them a cursed monkey paw that will bring ruintion to their lovely home. Still, they have agreed, so there’s no backing out now. That is another box ticked – someone to care for the kids when we Thelma & Louise the people carrier into a ravine whilst trying to find Ikea. 

It brought home all the things we know now that we didn’t when we started our family – mainly, the massive responsibility. We thought of parenthood in an abstract way, in much the same way we think now about death, failing to take into account the practicalities – who cares for who, who gets what, where do we all end up. At least we have one possible future catered for, no matter how grim it is to contemplate it. All we need to do now is figure out how pensions work. 

Indo col 121

It has come to my attention that my 11 year old son is starting to change. Much in the style of a horror film, his limbs are lengthening, his skin is starting to get blemishes, and he assures me he has hair on his upper lip, although this is as yet invisible to the naked eye despite his attempts to will it into existence by referring to it as his moustache. His voice lurches from pitches so high only dogs can hear him, to a Tom Waits-esque growl; I can no longer ignore the tragic reality – that he is succumbing to manhood. 

When I was his age, I had to figure it all out for myself; all the body horror of puberty, the confusion of not knowing what was normal and what was a sign that your body was possessed by some ectoplasm spitting demon. My parents did their best to help, and gave me a church approved book about reproduction that asked more questions than it answered, and which also advocated writing poetry as a way of managing the urges. 

I decided that things would be different for my son, and if I didn’t get in there first with a frank and open discussion about sex, he would end up looking for answers himself. This is what I did when I was young, and even though we didn’t have the internet and really had to work hard to get our hands on filth, many of my friends dads had porno stashes that we would raid. It was the perfect crime – the dads could never confront the thief because then they would have to admit they had a pile of jazz mags with titles like Rubber Domination (the dad who owned that particular publication was the owner of a haulage firm). I was adamant that my son wouldn’t have to turn to the internet for answers, and instead would get a whistle-stop tour of human sexuality from his incredibly awkward dad. 

My Catholic upbringing probably has a lot to do with the location for our chat about the birds and the bees, so it was that I found myself sitting with him at 9am on a Sunday morning at Knockakeo holy well. If it seems an odd location for a talk about sex and sexuality, but clearly I wasn’t the only one taken by its beauty and solitude, as there was a condom wrapper on the ground next to the well. Perhaps this was a sign, I mused, for what else straddles the worlds of the profane and the divine if not sex, where we, as gods, can create life? Deep, stupid thoughts like that weren’t going to help my son though, so I gritted my teeth, stared at the horizon, and started talking about sex at him. We started with the basic physical stuff, and I soon realised that use of terms like engorged were not helping, so I simplified, eventually using a series of hand gestures to explain the most basic parts. I could tell he wanted to run and hide, and I did too, but it was two miles back to the car so we didn’t really have a choice. We were going to have The Chat, and no amount of him asking if we could go home was going to stop this. 

It is a strange thing to talk about sex with anyone, but to explain it to a child is the most bizarre thing of all. You try not to get too deep into the metaphysical stuff about emotions and desire, but without those, there is not much to talk about – the mechanics are important, but you can’t just explain those and not have to drag yourself through relationships, family, pornography, consent, all the various expressions of human desire. I kept saying, stop me if I’m going too fast or if you have any questions, but he just sat there praying for it all to end. The holy well must have heard him, because I soon ran out of things to say, and we headed back. On the drive home I told him to ask me anything, at any time, and that really, beyond the biology and the emotional stuff, the best advice I could give him for life would be the one commandment – don’t be a dick. Don’t treat other people with anything less than the respect they deserve, and don’t indulge in those ugly, performative aspects of masculinity that bring nothing but harm to this world. In other words, don’t be like I was, because if I can teach him how to be better than me, then I will have achieved some degree of absolution. 

Indo col 120

In many ways, I am a lot like Kris Jenner; we’re both clinging desperately to youth (she more successfully than I), and we are both more than happy to monetise our family in every way possible (again, she more successfully than I). When it was announced that her daughter Kim Kardashian might have lupus, I thought, this is a sign – I’m going to be Ireland’s Kris Jenner. It was a sign that book deals, TV spin-offs and my own skincare range would be just around the corner, because I also have a daughter with lupus. This was going to be my moment, when I get to tell the world about how great a parent I am, oh god, I might win some sort of award, there might even be a cheque or a slot on the Late Late. Of course, a few days after the news broke that Kim had been diagnosed as having lupus antibodies, she was diagnosed with not having lupus at all, but psoriatic arthritis. So no Hallmark Channel adaptation of my memoir, Ireland’s Most Put-Upon Dad – The Bill Linnane Story. Ah well. 

I was glad for Kim, because she is put-upon enough herself being married to Kanye, who seems like he wouldn’t be much use around the house, designing shoes when he should be helping to look for the Sudocrem while someone else pins down a wriggling toddler with a raw backside. The last thing Kim needs is the many challenges of lupus. My daughter’s condition, however, is never going away, and I long ago gave up on the notion that it might be a misdiagnosis, as lupus is so hard to diagnose that by the time the experts have made the call, they have explored every other option. 

I, like a lot of people, had never heard of it until a consultant in Crumlin was telling me all about it one morning in an outpatients clinic. I thought we were there to be discharged, but four years on from that diagnosis, we are still in treatment and will be for the foreseeable. But while I had never heard of it, lupus isn’t as rare as you would think: It is one of those conditions that seems rare until you start talking about it and people say, oh, my sister in law has that, or my grandmother had that, or my friend was just diagnosed with that (it affects more women than men). One person did ask if it was something to do with werewolves, but I think they were mostly joking. Another person helpfully asked if it was possibly triggered by a vaccine, which I initially thought was a joke, but it soon became clear that it wasn’t. I had to explain that no, it wasn’t caused by a vaccine (they prevent diseases, not cause them, obvs), it wasn’t that she was bitten by a werewolf, it was just one of those things that comes out of the blue. My wife and I also felt like there should be someone or something to blame – why her? Why our family? But there is no why, and when something like this arrives on your door, you just have to deal with it and try to maintain perspective. It would be great if she didn’t have this, but there are much, much worse things out there – syndromes and diseases and conditions that shorten lives and destroy quality of life. 

Lupus, with its effects on memory, cognition, mood, joint pain, skin, hair loss, and kidneys, is not the sort of thing anyone would sign up for, but it is manageable. Flare-ups come and go, medication ebbs and flows but will most likely be a part of her life forever. No amount of awareness raising by a celebrity diagnosis will change that, just as Lady Gaga’s 2016 album Joanne – named after her aunt who died of lupus aged 19 – didn’t make any material difference to the race for a cure, or to our lives. 

Kim Kardashian’s near-miss with lupus was probably for the best – if she had it, everyone would want it, butterfly skin rashes would become de rigeur, and everyone would be trying to get infused with Rituximab, sher we wouldn’t be able to get a bed in the local infusion unit at all. It’s for the best, and anyway, Kim has suffered enough after being saddled with Kanye Syndrome, and I’m not sure I could handle the media spotlight being shone on us, nor could I maintain Kris Jenner’s chipper tone whilst cameramen from E! film my filthy house and screaming kids. We, like any other family, mosey on with our various challenges and triumphs, with little fanfare, where the only true reward is seeing your kids grow to be happy and relatively healthy. 

Indo col 119

Our daughter remembers us as different people. She tells us that when she was young, there was no TV in the bedroom, no treats, no leaving your dinner uneaten. She apparently grew up in wartime London – there were curfews, rations, decorum, decency.  

Then her brother came along and the rules were relaxed somewhat; the odd treat, a TV in each bedroom, occasional raising of the voice. The, within 18 months of each other, two more came along, and we descended into a post-apocalyptic hellscape reminiscent of The Road – kids spend more time with TV than with us, junk food now just called food, hourly treats became a basic human right, and volume and vitriol of our interactions went up several decibels. I tell my daughter that she got the best of us, and that her little brothers really just got the scraps; those rules and their implementation were us showing how much we cared, about her and about being parents. So really, she should stop complaining and appreciate that the TVs and chicken nuggets are not signs that we love the boys more, but that the parents they have are a different species to the ones she had. We are outnumbered and outgunned, and all structure in our lives has made way for tail-chasing and nervous breakdowns. But with the dawn of a new school year, it has been decided that we are going to reach for the stars and try to establish that most glorious of parental constructs – a routine. 

Our loss of routine is the reason kids eat more junk than they should, watch moreTV than they should, and have to listen to us have meltdowns more than they should. It starts small – you are too tired to make school lunches the night before, so you buy them a roll  in the local deli. The younglings smell blood – they know that you are losing control, so they fire in a volley of ludicrous requests for crisps, the nutritional equivalent of crystal meth. No way, you say, but they just keep pounding at you with those pleading voices, and eventually you give way, and once they have that breach in your resolve, it is only a matter of time until they are eating jellies in bed watching movies at 11pm of a Tuesday. 

So we convened a meeting of the war council and it  is now time to take back control – martial law is being introduced, little people are to be a-bed by 7.30pm, the 11-year-old can stay up to 9pm only if he reads, and the eldest is hopefully going to stop calling us failures. For my wife and I, all this means we rigidly stick to roles – for her, it means more work the night before school, making lunches and laying out uniforms. For me, it means reading stories. It had been so long since I actually sat down to read my children a story that I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it. Storytime is my chance to shine – in a world where I spend most of my time making ham sandwiches and trying not to cry, I take to my readings with the gusto of a panto stalwart, an east Cork Brian Blessed, roaring about Gruffalos, turtle stacks, sneetches and whether or not there is room on a broom. It’s such a simple joy, and an amazing way to draw a close to our day, that I wonder why I ever stopped; Morrissey once warbled that there’s more to life than books, but not much more, and I think he might be right (even though these days he is mostly wrong). Reading to kids is one of those rare occasions where reading stops being an internal, personal pleasure, and is a communal experience, one with pleasingly sedative effects. 

Obviously, like all opinionistas, I love the sound of my own voice, and regular readers of this column will be pleased to know that in person it has much the same effect as in print, ie, it puts people to sleep. Twenty minutes of my droning – even with occasional bellows to represent Maurice Sendak’s wild things – knocks them clean out, where TV would keep them glassy-eyed until midnight. It is such a simple, tiny little thing, but it feels like a great victory; the resurrection of storytime, and my glorious return to the stage, in front of a rapt audience of two. 

Indo col 118

It has come to my attention that I don’t know my spouse especially well. There have been a few occasions over the years where pieces of information have suddenly manifested in the middle of a conversation, like when she casually mentions ‘those summers in America’ or working in random European capitals, leaving me wondering if somehow I have married Jason Bourne. Or she will suddenly inform me that she is allergic to chinchillas, or that she is one sixteenth Huguenot. 

We are together for 18 years, but it is only in the last few years or so that I have started to accept that I really don’t know her that well, and why would I: We conveniently skipped all the getting-to-know-you part of courtship by crashing straight into parenthood, ditching ‘so tell me a bit about yourself’ in favour of ‘let’s do shots’. To rectify this, I have decided to put some effort into my relationship, albeit the smallest amount of effort possible – I downloaded an app. 

The American psychological researcher and clinician John Gottman conducted extensive work over four decades on divorce prediction and marital stability. Among the results of his work were the identifying of what he calls ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’ for any marriage. Whether the use of horsemen was intentional or not, the four are definitely traits that I and many of my kind will recognise: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. 

I gave them capital letters because I am so good at them that they almost fall into the category of martial art, as I am able to summon my four horsebro’s at signs of the slightest disagreement so they can ride roughshod over our happiness. 

Gottman’s research has been conveniently distilled into the Love Maps method and associated app; over a series of topics, the app gives you challenges and questions for you and your partner, about almost anything. So despite feeling completely lame, and a little bit awkward, we gave it a go. For her, it was nice to have me finally ask her questions about who she actually is, having spent two decades putting up with my existential navel gazing and generally ignoring her. For me it was great because the app was free. Another blow struck against the sadness industry, no counsellor is going to monetise my dysfunction on behalf of Big Ennui.  Also, the perverts amongst us – ie, everyone – will be glad to know that there is a section on sex, which fittingly provided the most laughs for both of us.  

There are no grand revelations in any of the answers we gave to any question  – but neither of us was able to answer all the questions on the other’s behalf, proving that actually, we don’t know each other as well as we thought. She did better than me, but that’s probably because of her incredible Huguenot intellect, or her spy training. 

What the questions bring home is that this isn’t really about knowing your spouse better, or being able to recite every single detail of their life, but that you pay attention, because to know about them is to know more about yourself. I can see qualities in her that are counterpoints to mine, but for the most part we are far more alike than we are different, and like any couple, we are equally guilty of summoning the four horsepersons when we bicker about what constitutes the washing being dry. We have spent much of the last 18 years having the same, stupid argument, about the same stupid things, but ultimately we were just trying to find our way out of an endless stupid maze that we were both wandering through long before we bumped into each other. I’m not saying the Gottman Love Maps are going to solve those riddles, but at least we can say that we tried to find a path together. As for Gottman himself, he is still very much alive and working, and is happily married. And the cynic in me is also keen to point out that his first two marriages ended in divorce. Did I mention that the app is free? 

Indo col 117

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. 

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My house is almost the same age as me. This might explain why I find it so hard to accept that it needs work. Just as I can ignore my greying temples, creaking limbs and need for occasional physio, I have been pretending that our leaking shower, inefficient heating and threadbare furnishings are really all just in perfect working order, all they need is a bit of gaffer tape/wooly jumper/throw cushions and they work just fine. It has been a pitched battle between my spouse and I over the last few years as to what does and does not need to be done, but I have grudgingly accepted that a vast programme of cosmetic surgery is needed, for the house, and sadly not me. 

The news of the revamp was greeted with much joy by our eldest child, who had long been telling me that our house looks abandoned, a claim I refute by saying actually it looks occupied, most likely by that kid from The Sixth Sense or a lonely cartel footsoldier caring for fifty thousand cannabis plants with only an army of grow lamps for company. When her friends were coming to visit she would tell them to just look for the abandoned house with the collapsed gate posts, because who needs Eircodes when you have a notably dilapidated house in an era of Grand Designs and Rooms to Improve. 

Houses are built to last, humans, slightly less so. It was one of my dad’s wishes that we would live here, although I don’t think he would be too pleased to see how I have left it fall into disrepair. Just as my children run wild within the house, chaos rules without. I have also lost control of the gardens. Dad was a keen gardener, and I find myself standing knee deep in nettles wondering how I failed to pick up any of his skills, or even learn the difference between a weed and a shrub (if there is any). I try to tell myself that I am helping the planet by rewilding the garden, gifting it back to nature by only mowing it on a bi-monthly basis, encouraging bees and bugs and rats and whoever the hell else wants to live here by just staying out of the garden as much as humanly possible. But now we are fixing the house up, the pressure is on to sort the garden as cheaply as possible, which means I will do it using my Lidl hedgetrimmer and the miracle of fire. 

I still marvel that my dad was able to do so much with the grounds, given that much of it lies on a 45 degree angle and the mower he used weighs as much as a Sherman tank. He used to say that the garden was his gym, but I only ever had visions of him clutching his chest and keeling over the mower some day. In the end, it was the quiet drama of cancer that took him. Even when he was terminally ill he would potter out into the garden and poke about with a shovel, or just find a quiet spot and sit there, enjoying the fruits of his labours. I find no joy out there and would napalm the whole place to the ground if I could. I seem to have missed out on picking up his gardening skills, or his financial acumen, and I am struggling to manage a house that befits a bigger, better person than me. But it is home, and I have to get better, as a parent, as a gardener, as an income generator, because the refurb isn’t really about making the house great for us, but making it ready for the next generation. As a parent, and as a gardener, I am an enthusiastic sower of seeds, and little else.  

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Greetings and salutations from Salou, where you join us on what is most likely our last family holiday for some time. Our stay here is half board, presumably named because within 48 hours of dining in the resort you will be half bored of the entire concept of food. This isn’t helped by me, Ireland’s meanest dad, trying to maximise the investment I made in breakfast and dinner by insisting that all the kids eat is meat. Obviously this didn’t work as they all figured out that the buffet style meals means that really they could eat whatever they want, and there was nothing I could do about it because I am painfully middle class, and the only thing I fear more than not getting value for money from a buffet is looking like an angry oik in front of other parents. So choke down the rage and a fourth helping of veal, counting down the seconds until the mini-disco winds down and I can properly give out to them as they fall asleep in my arms. 

I had some grand delusions coming here – I was going to get so much work done, I would be sitting in the hotel lobby enjoying some excellent coffee and deep thoughts, with other families looking on impressed at how important I was that I had to work on me holibobs. Obviously this was complete fantasy, as I had somehow imagined that I would be taking a holiday from my responsibilities as a parent, and my wife would be sitting by the piddling pool on her own, unable to even blink in case one of the boys tried to water board another one with a sand bucket and beach towel. No, we were trapped there, being parents, all day every day in the blazing heat. 

But then a call from home; a death in the family, and I was on my way back to Ireland. There was even a tearful goodbye in the hotel lobby, with the four year old holding onto my leg, begging to come home with me, which, it later transpired, was so he could play Playstation and eat ‘the nice crackers’ he gets in Lidl. 

In the back of my head I have notions about time – that if I didn’t have kids, I would have the time to do amazing things. Then I find myself alone at home without them and realise that while I often see being a parent as being like a prison, in reality I am like Brooks from Shawshank Redemption – unable to function without the rigors and routines of the rather open prison that is family life. 

Funerals are a strange affair – you’re happy to see everyone, sad that it’s under such circumstances, and spend your time halfways between roaring with laughter and openly sobbing. Sad as it was coming home for a funeral, knowing that everyone was going to be there made it easier, even though the absence of a veal buffet did jar a little on my palate after all of my fine dining overseas. 

I was back in Salou before I knew it, to hugs and accusations about who was boldest in my absence. My trip home was a reminder that time is finite, that maybe I should stop resisting its passage, or arguing with myself about how it best spent. On the last day in Salou I brought the kids to see the olive trees outside city hall, some of which are estimated to be a thousand years old. They were duly unimpressed, because to them time is an infinite resource. I waffled on about all the human endeavours those trees have lived through; wars, famine, pestilence, plague, fidget spinners, Love Island, my holidays. They still didn’t care. But the whole trip was a lesson in how I should try to be more like the trees – rest and be thankful that I can go on holiday at all, soak up the sun and stop sweating the small stuff.