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. 

Indo col 116

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.  

Indo col 115

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. 

Indo col 114

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. 

Indo col 113

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. 

Indo col 112

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. 

Indo col 111

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 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.