The Corrections

There is something oddly Catholic about Non Disclosure Agreements, with their omuerta approach to supply – ‘you can have this, but you can never tell who gave it to you’. These common, legally binding documents meant that for many modern non-distilling Irish whiskey brands, a crucial element of a spirit’s identity was immediately out of reach for their marketing – the origin story was a secret, so they had to get creative. They looked to the biggest brands, saw what they were doing, and copied them. This, in turn, led to issues around our credibility at a crucial time in the category’s history, but much of that was a hangover from an era when we were struggling to survive. 

Just over a century ago, Irish whiskey was booming. The Scots were in the ha’penny place, we were kings of the spirit world. But times changed – there were wars of independence, world wars, economic wars, and ultimately a change in drinking tastes. Irish was no longer the whiskey of choice, and we entered an almost terminal decline. All over Ireland, distilleries were shuttered. Even the biggest Dublin distillers had to unite to survive – they joined forces, and soon the only operational distilleries were in the south in Midleton and in the North at Bushmills. 

But it was the former that had the most impact, as the consolidation of the old firms meant that you had brands like Powers and Jameson that called Dublin home but were being made in Cork. In the case of Jameson, the labels had Bow Street on them until it was changed late last year (the shops still have the Bow Street bottles in them). As the category struggled for survival in the Sixties and Seventies, historic brands were untethered from their spiritual birth places, and geography, provenance and home all became fluid concepts. 

To compound matters, John Teeling’s entry into the market with Cooley saw him sell whiskey to anyone who wanted it – this meant that all you needed to put out a whiskey was a brand. So we had limited sources, and many brands. In retrospect, it is little wonder that we ended up with issues around transparency, but it feels like that while the big three players were working out the technical file which governs how you can make whiskey, they might have given some time to coming up with guidelines for selling the stuff too. However, they were all in the business of third-party supplies, so why would they want to start schooling their customers on what to put on the label? But change has now come for whiskey in Ireland, in the form of an official guide from the Food Safety Association of Ireland, in conjunction with Irish whiskey producers. This moment was always going to come, and is a sign of our growing strength. Here, I’m going to offer my own utterly inconsequential thoughts on some of what lies within. 

After the intro and a lengthy explanation of labelling with regards to category, it moves on to marketing, which is where it gets interesting: 

It is important that any marketing materials (including labelling, claims made and/or terms used) are not false, misleading or inaccurate. The use of voluntary information should be considered in the context of legal requirements under Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011 on the provision of food information to consumers. Voluntary information is often used as part of the marketing of a spirit drink, where the information and terms used highlight particular messages and/ or attributes that the producer/brand owner wishes to convey to consumers, as part of the promotion of their product. Such information is often used as part of the labelling of the product itself; this includes statements made on the labels of the products themselves, as part of promotion on websites, and/or on other media formats. 

Voluntary food information In accordance with Article 36 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011: Food information (including spirit drinks) provided on a voluntary basis shall meet the following requirements: (a) It shall not mislead the consumer, as referred to in Article 7 (see below) (b) It shall not be ambiguous or confusing for the consumer, and (c) It shall, where appropriate, be based on the relevant scientific data.

The guide then links to an existing document which goes back to 2011, which states: According to Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2002 laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Safety Authority and laying down procedures in matters of food safety (3) it is a general principle of food law to provide a basis for consumers to make informed choices in relation to food they consume and to prevent any practices that may mislead the consumer.

So there have been laws there to prevent shenanigans for some time, but whiskey isn’t the only category that needed to do some housekeeping in this regard – how often do we buy vegetables sold under fake Irish farm names that are actually imported goods? False provenance is an issue across the food and drink sector, but until every consumer has a moment of clarity when they suddenly realise that they don’t really know where their food comes from, things are unlikely to change. But back to Irish whiskey, and the FSAI guide: 

In accordance with Article 7 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011: 1. Food information shall not be misleading, particularly: (a) as to the characteristics of the food and, in particular, as to its nature, identity, properties, composition, quantity, durability, country of origin or place of provenance, method of manufacture or production (b) by attributing to the food effects or properties which it does not possess (c) By suggesting that the food possesses special characteristics when in fact all similar foods possess such characteristics, in particular by specifically emphasising the presence or absence of certain ingredients and/or nutrients

On that last note, St Patrick’s were already hammered over their claims their spirits were gluten free – as all spirits are gluten free (their pushing of this aspect possibly has something to do with the fact that St Patrick’s started out as a food allergy testing firm). I’ll come back to St Patrick’s later. 

The first point in that section is the interesting one, mentioning that whiskeys should not be misleading in relation to country of origin or place of provenance. Now we are getting to the crux: 

Any statements on labels that would appear to give the impression of distilling where distilling is not yet taking place is not permitted. Any specific claims made on the packaging regarding where the product was distilled, matured or blended must be accurate. Any information provided must be factual, and evidence will be required to support any claims. 

This is where we start to enter Irish whiskey’s twilight zone – building a brand to build a distillery. Releasing a sourced whiskey is a common way to raise capital for your planned distillery. Naturally, if you are creating a brand for your future releases, you name it after your future distillery. So you have a whiskey on the market that is named after a distillery that doesn’t exist (yet), or has no mature stock (yet). So how do you shoot straight with the consumer? Look at Tipperary Boutique Distillery and how they handled it – their sourced stocks are released under Tipperary Boutique Selection. The question then is – is there still a chance that consumers might think the whiskey within those releases is from Tipperary, when it is not? How do you counter that, or can you? What about Glendalough Distillery – they actually do have a distillery as they made a small amount of their own whiskey and then went on to create other spirits, and they also have a range of sourced whiskeys – should they have taken the word distillery off their labels until the stock in the bottles was 100% their own spirit? I don’t think so. It seems like this could hobble the development of distilleries. And what if you want to bring out a spirit named in celebration of some local beauty spot – if you wanted to release a single cask bottling under the name Carrauntoohil, is it reasonable to expect that consumers would know it’s a mountain and one that doesn’t have a distillery perched at the summit, or anywhere near it? Again, this is the sort of branding that wouldn’t be a problem if you didn’t already have people claiming there is a distillery where there isn’t one.

Back to the guide: 

For example: ‘Distilled by St Mary’s Distillery, Dublin, Ireland’: This voluntary text ‘Distilled by’ could be understood to mean that the ‘whiskey’ was wholly distilled in this distillery. ‘Place of manufacture’ as defined in Regulation (EC) No 110/2008 means the place or region where the stage in the production process of the finished product which conferred on the spirit drink its character and essential definitive qualities took place. Consequently, ‘Product of’ can be used if distilling, blending or maturing of the product took place at the named distillery. 

This sets it all down in plain English. Don’t say it’s from a place that it is not from. If you know of any brand who is doing this, or who you think might be confusing consumers, contact the FSAI. On that note: 

Care must be taken with the use of brand names and company or trading names, which may be taken by consumers to be the name of a distillery (when they are not). For example: brand name – (X Distillery) with an address at St John’s Bridge. This statement could mislead the consumer, as they might think there is a distillery at St John’s Bridge, whereas, in fact, this could just be the brand name of the whiskey. Care must be taken when giving this kind of information, as this implies that the distillery is in a certain location that may not actually exist, and this could potentially mislead consumers, which would be in breach of Article 7 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011. 

No mention here of the use of ‘distilling company’ as a term – as in the case of Kilbrin Distilling Company’s Kilbrin whiskey, which, the website told us, was from the parish of Kilbrin. I’ve pointed this out before but I’m going to do so again – there is no distillery in Kilbrin, nor are there any plans for one. The brand was cooked up by a subsidiary of Wm Grant & Sons. No consumer could be expected to know by looking at a bottle of the stuff that it wasn’t from Kilbrin, especially since the label also claims the whiskey was distilled and matured by the Kilbrin Distilling Company. This is bullshit. But rather than just make this point on the internet and get angry about it, I contacted the FSAI to see just how serious they were about sorting out this sort of shit. Within a week the branding on the Kilbrin site had changed to a more generic, less geographically rooted narrative (aside from the name, which stayed the same).  

Back to the guide, and a note on place: 

In the case of Irish whiskey products that use a place name as a sales name or brand name, it is important to ensure that any claims which specify where the product is distilled, matured or blended are accurate and do not confuse the consumer as to place of provenance.

This goes back to my earlier point about place names generally – is there an assumption on the part of the consumer that this is where the whiskey is from? Should whiskeys using place as an identifier offer clarity on whether the whiskey is actually from there? Again, if you are building a distillery in a specific place, then you more or less have to use that as your brand name. But if you are bringing out a whiskey with no plans for a distillery, or some vague plans to possibly build one in the future, then you need to make sure your whiskey has some connection to that place other than vague marketing concepts. And no, I don’t mean the local water used to cut the whiskey down. On the water-as-an-element-of-place move, the guide does include this: 

With regard to ‘spring water’, please note that Directive 2009/54/EC on the exploitation and marketing of natural mineral waters reserves the term “spring water” for a water that meets specific criteria. If an FBO wishes to use this term on their label, they must ensure that the water used meets the criteria set out in this legislation. (See Article 9(4) of Directive 2009/54/ EC for the specific requirements.)

This is from another part of the FSAI site: The requirements for a water to use the term ‘Spring Water’ are set out in Article 9(4) of Directive 2009/54/EC on natural mineral waters. Spring water is a description reserved for water which is intended for consumption in its natural state, comes from an underground source, protected from all risk of pollution and is bottled at source. Only very limited treatments are permitted. 

So they are even cracking down on the ‘local water’ aspect. Hallelujah. 

On to the use of official titles: 

Equally, any reference to the distiller must be accurate. Any information provided must be factual, and evidence will be required to support any claims. The labelling, packaging, advertising or promotion of an Irish whiskey should not, having regard to the presentation of the product, create a likelihood that the public may think that the whiskey was distilled by any person other than the person who distilled it. A ‘master distiller’ is responsible for the quality of the product that a distillery produces and any reference to a ‘master distiller’ must reflect a person who has acquired such a responsibility and skill set. If using this phrase, the company must explain the meaning of this term bearing in mind Article 36 of Regulation (EU) No 1169/2011

I think the notion that you can put any name down as master distiller is a side effect of NDAs. Brand owners felt that if they were forbidden from putting the name of the person who distilled it, as it would then reveal where it was distilled, then they could put any name into that slot. Some were clever and used that space for ‘selected by’, some just stuck their own name in there. Avoiding this sort of faux pas really isn’t rocket science – just dress the label up like a distillery bottling but change some of the language. If you’re a bottler, you don’t need a master distiller. In a few years time, NDAs will be less common, and indies can release put a distillery’s name on the bottle, details about the cask, the year, the strength, so much detail that you won’t have room for the master distiller’s name. For the last few decades, we had a market dominated by massive entities with fuzzy logic on their labels (Bushmills’s establishment date being another great example) and a lot of newcomers who thought this was the norm.  I’m not saying the mess we had was inevitable, but I can see how it came about. Neither do I want to use a lazy generalisation by saying ‘everyone was at it’ but if you analysed every Irish whiskey label of the last 40 years, you would see how common these sort of fudges were. 

The guide rattles through a range of terms, rules, regulations and generally is worth looking over. While the action taken on Kilbrin gave me great hope that they were reining in the nonsense, I was positively clicking my heels when I saw that the FSAI and IWA were tackling St Patrick’s Distillery. Fun fact – St Patrick’s Distillery have been in existence for five years now and they have never distilled, as they don’t have a distillery. The have a dusty gin still, and that’s it. To be fair to St Patrick’s, they do state that they source their whiskey, but the fact remains that they don’t explain that all their spirits are made elsewhere, and that they call themselves a distillery when they are not. They got dragged over this recently in the Irish Times

When contacted, the company said it made no secret of the fact that it bought “new-make whiskey” from other distilleries and then aged the product in oak barrels by the sea.

“Our view is that the character and personality of a whiskey comes from the barrels it’s been matured in and the location where that ageing takes place,” the company’s general manager Cyril Walsh said.

We don’t claim to be a distiller but the legal name of the company is St Patrick’s Distillery and our international trademark is St Patrick’s Distillery,” he said, noting that the company was primarily an exporter with growing sales in the US, China, Russia and Canada.

The emphasis there is mine, because my jaw is still on the floor from when I first read that. But the second line is also worth noting, because this notion of over there is central to much of this. Irish whiskey’s market is overseas. The USA is the kingmaker for an Irish whiskey brand, but there are other places. So a certain amount of what went on was fuelled by the notion that people overseas would not rumble what we were up to – Kilbrin is a great example, as when I contacted the FSAI, they weren’t aware of the brand at all, because it seems to be solely aimed at the US market. So there was this idea that the poor foreigners need not know that the placename on the label has fuck all to do with the whiskey in the bottle. Spoiler alert: It’s a small world, and the internet has made it very easy to click a few links and see through this sort of nonsense. I am hearing more rumblings about tourists coming here expecting to find distilleries where there are none. Any brand out there who is selling sourced whiskey with a view to building a distillery needs to make that journey part of the brand – make sure your consumer is informed about your hopes and dreams; help them believe. That way they won’t show up at your lock-up wondering why you only have a forklift and pallets and nary a glimmer of copper to be found. 

It is still early days in our resurrection, and while there are still operations like St Patrick’s ‘Distillery’, they are fast becoming outliers – the FSAI labelling rules are there, and they are being put to use. Whiskey is quite a confusing world, and it’s up to people in the know to inform those who might not be au fait with NDAs and the multitude of other factors that make provenance such a minefield. In ten years time, none of this will matter – distilleries will be up and running with maturing stocks, but for now it helps to have people who love Irish whiskey and who understand how it works to ensure people don’t get misled. You can download the guide here, and you can contact the FSAI here: https://www.fsai.ie/makeacomplaint/.

Coull runnings

Kerry is Ireland at cask strength. As a Cork man, it pains me greatly to say anything nice about our neighbours to the west, but The Kingdom is a place of raw and startling beauty. Obviously there is a danger here of over-romanticising it, engaging in some noble savage mythos with proto-fascist symbolism of pure mountain air and fresh faced natives, as though anywhere with a population of more than ten thousand is a place of corruption and filth. So Kerry is beautiful, and in its rugged persuasions, it is not unlike Scotland. Which might make moving from one to the other a smooth transition, if not an immediately logical one. 

Michael Walsh has a bright future ahead of him. After taking a job in the new distillery in Dingle back in 2012, at a time and in a place where there was little employment, he learned the craft on the job, and became head distiller. But we are now in the middle of the boom, and the time was right to move on – and so he did, becoming head distiller at Boann in Drogheda as they get set to make whiskey. This obviously left an opening in Dingle, a distillery that has mature whiskey (mature in comparison to those who came after, if not in comparison to those who came before), a great reputation and the special aura that comes from its remarkable location and the fact it is the first point in Irish whiskey’s most recent timeline. But master distillers can be hard to come by – few claiming the title in Ireland would have more than five or six years experience, unless they work for one of the big guns. So the latest announcement from Dingle about who they have appointed is even more startling. 

Glen Moray Distillery is in Eglin, in the heart of the Speyside region of Scotland. It’s a great little distillery with great output – solid, bang-for-your-buck whiskeys with a side order of experimentation. Their master distiller, Graham Coull is one of the more engaging voices in whisky Twitter, shooting straight about the workings of a distillery and speaking his mind plainly. The son of science teachers, he undertook a chemistry degree in Edinburgh University before working with Wm Grant in Kininvie, Balvenie and Glenfiddich as distillation manager, before going on to become master distiller in Glen Moray. His no-bullshit approach means that he should really fit in in his new role as master distiller of Dingle Distillery. 

And now for some personal thoughts – my inital one being, ‘fucking hell’. Coull has been with Glen Moray for 15 years, and is not just leaving his distillery, and his homeland, but a solid job in a big company (Glen Moray is part of La Martiniquaise, which is owned by French drinks billionaire Jean-Pierre Cayard, who does not like publicity). 

There is an excellent profile of Coull on Scotchwisky.com, where he offers this telling quote: 

I like age statements, but I’m not precious about them. You can get a six-year-old in a first-fill cask which is better than a much older expression in a refill cask.

Dingle is in a NAS holding pattern right now, but soon it will be coming of age – over the next four years it will be heading into ‘entry level ten’ phase, and then looking beyond. That ten-year point is like graduation – you have a ten year old that be carried in supermarkets alongside all those other tens in Tesco. You have something that ordinary consumers will be interested in, provided the price is right. Up to this point Dingle’s NAS releases have been in tiny batches with a sizeable price tag. I would hope that this will be a little better balanced in future, as Glen Moray was an excellent value-for-money whisky. And while Dingle currently has that special aura, if it is going to complete on the world stage it will need to engage in a little experimentation – Waterford is coming out of the blocks in the next 12 months, as is PJ Rigney’s grand cru whiskey, so really, there is some stiff competition. 

Coull’s move here is an exciting development – and an endorsement of just how boomy our boom is becoming. All that said, he still has to wrestle with single pot still, which one Irish distiller eloquently described to me as ‘an absolute cunt to make’. So best of luck with that Graham!

I’ve no doubt the Coulls will get a céad míle fáilte here, and seeing what they do with Dingle is going to be really interesting. But man, good luck to them dealing with that Kerry accent.

Blue blood and brown spirit at Powerscourt Distillery

Powerscourt Waterfall.

There are three key strands to any whiskey marketing campaign. First, there is place; your water is the cleanest, your loch is the coldest, your warehouses are kissed by the sea, your home is where the hearts are.

Then there are the people; tales of founders, their ancestors, coopers, barrelmen, distillers, gaugers, bootleggers.

Finally, there is the product – the wood, the copper, the yeast, the liquid gold. Given the importance of the liquid itself, you would think that product should come first, but the stories that are easiest to tell, the ones that capture our hearts, are not the ones about the liquid, but about people and place, and how they interconnect. 

I

For all its aristocratic beauty, there is an air of gothic doom about Powerscourt House. Once home to the Powerscourt Conferences, when people of God would gather to discuss unfulfilled biblical prophecies, it has survived being almost completely destroyed by fire, and decades of decay. The stunning gardens are even home to a pet cemetery – this is Brideshead, revisited by Stephen King.

But any of the great houses will have their share of tragedy, of highs and low, for they have existed for centuries, with Powerscourt House dating back to 1741. But it has bounced back, with a thriving marketplace within the house, bustling tourist trade, and now, in its most recent addition, a distillery. At a time when there are distilleries popping up across the country, Powerscourt Distillery is not only impressive because of the size of its operation, but because of the pedigree of the project. 

Two local entrepreneurs, Gerry Ginty and Ashley Gardiner, initially approached one of Powerscourt’s current owners, Sarah Slazenger – a descendant of the sporting empire’s founder and current MD of the estate – about opening a distillery on the grounds of Powerscourt. It was the perfect venue – incredible scenery, a steady flow of tourists, abundant arable lands, and centuries of history. Slazenger was in, but there was an opportunity for another investor, and this time they got one was an impressive background in whisky.

II

Alex Peirce was halfways through his veterinary studies in Edinburgh when he discovered that he was allergic to animals. During some large animal training he suddenly puffed up and struggled to breathe. This would mark the end of his career as a vet. He was crestfallen, but coming from a family of entrepreneurs – his father Mike was a founder of Mentec, which played a central role in Ireland’s tech boom – Alex was quick to reroute into studying economics, consoling himself for his veterinarian Catch 22 by drinking a lot of the local spirits – ie, high-quality scotch. Then, in 1995, his father became one of the primary shareholders in the Isle Of Arran Distillery off the coast of Scotland. 

Alex Peirce and Sarah Slazenger.

With Pierce The Elder’s experience in Arran, and the pedigree of the proposal Ginty and Gardiner had put together, it wasn’t long before Powerscourt Distillery was ready to join the ever-growing list of new Irish distilleries. So they had vision, they had location, they had money, they had experience. But they needed one final piece of the puzzle – a master distiller. There are many distilleries in Ireland, and many of the newcomers have either distillers, or head distillers, but very few have bona fide master distillers. The pressure was on Powerscourt Distillery to get someone who would live up to the pedigree of the project.

Master Distiller Noel Sweeney in Powerscourt Distillery.

Having had experience of making neutral spirit in one the state alcohol plants, Mayo man Noel Sweeney joined John Teeling’s legendary Cooley Distillery – itself formerly another one of the five state Ceimici Teoranta plants, along with Carndonagh, Ballina, Carrickmacross and Letterkenny – in 1989. 

Qualified in analytical chemistry and total quality management, he was mentored in Cooley by a Scottish distiller named Gordon Mitchell, who later went on to work for the Peirce family on Arran in 1995. Teeling’s Cooley Distillery was a game-changer in Irish whiskey – up until then, Irish Distillers Limited owned the only other distilleries on the island, in Bushmills and Midleton. Nowadays, IDL are a picture of support for newcomers, back then, they were less so, with Sweeney recounting one attempt being made by IDL, then headed by Richard Burrows, to buy Cooley so they could bulldoze it into the ground. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the competition authority blocked that deal, and Cooley continued to disrupt – they double distilled, they made peated whiskey, they sold to whoever wanted it, and they made excellent malt and especially excellent grain whiskey. But consolidation is the way for distilling – especially when a boom strikes, as one has in the past five years in Ireland. 

Cooley distillery was sold to Beam in 2012 for more than seventy million. In the aftermath, Beam cut off supply for third party sales, and created a vacuum, one that was soon filled by John Teeling, who set up Great Northern, a sort of Cooley Mark II.  Sweeney was still with Cooley, but was looking for a new project. At this point, the Irish whiskey boom was punching through the stratosphere, so it was only a matter of time before someone headhunted Sweeney – he was inducted into the Whisky Magazine ‘Hall of Fame’ in 2017, a title held by only two Irish distillers to this day. So when the Powerscourt team came knocking, he was ready for a new challenge. 

III

With Sweeney on board, the group were able to secure stock from what they coyly refer to as an undisclosed distillery. NDAs, or non-disclosure agreements, are the unfortunate contracts that forbid mention of what distillery you source your stock from, but the spirits released by Powerscourt – a ten year old grain, 14 year old single malt and a blend – all bear Sweeney’s name as master distiller, because, as the man himself says, he is the person who distilled them. You can tell, because the grain whiskey has that soft, sweet element that Cooley – and Sweeney in particular – did so well. 

“In Cooley we used fresh bourbon barrels for an excellent smooth grain whisky. It’s creamy – a nice introduction to whiskey. Lots of vanilla, citrus – this is not any way harsh. Fercullen ten is finished in first fill bourbon. I made it, watched it for nine and half years, bought it and watched it for another six months. Well, Alex and Sarah bought it and I watched it.” 

The location of Powerscourt Distillery is enviable – centuries of history, remarkable scenery, and a torrent of tourists coming for all the estate offers – the big house, the gardens, the garden centre, and the five-star hotel which is also located on the grounds. 

Then there is the team: With Sweeney, they have more than just an excellent distiller – they have a seasoned communicator, a man plugged into the world whiskey network, and knows who has the best barrels and how much you should pay for them, and who also brought some of his excellent sourced stock to keep them ticking over while their own stocks mature. It is hard not to be impressed by the sheer quality and strength of Powerscourt Distillery.  

Powerscourt Distillery is also offering a cask programme to would be investors – Alex Peirce sees it as more of a club rather than a purely transactional entity. With asking prices of 7,600, and only 397 casks (honouring the 397 foot high Powerscourt waterfall) this will be a somewhat exclusive club. 

Peirce is quick to point out that this distillery isn’t about building a business and then flipping it – they are in it for the long run, and a sign of how serious they are is seen in the fact they are not bothering with any intermediary spirits to bring in revenue over the next five to ten years.  With the Irish whiskey boom showing no signs of slowing down, and this project’s accumulated wisdom, skill and prestige, Powerscourt – from the great house to the still house – look to a brighter future together. 

Fercullen Premium Blend Irish Whiskey (RRP€42), Fercullen 10-Year-Old Single Grain Whiskey (RRP €55), and Fercullen 14-Year Old Single Malt Whiskey (RRP €90) will be available to purchase at The Powerscourt Distillery & Visitor Centre, and at selected outlets country wide. 

A million photos from the launch night last December:

And now for my Jerry Springer-style final thoughts: There is no doubt that Powerscourt is a force to be reckoned with. In the years to come, there will be some distilleries that will fail. I doubt that Powerscourt will be among them. Into the future I expect them to replicate an Arran-style operation here – rock-solid, quality whiskey, with interesting finishes and an abundance of class. But can they excite? That’s the big question. Operations like Blackwater, Waterford, even WCD in their quiet way are doing things different, and those are just three close to where I live. Not everyone can reinvent the wheel, and while a distillery that is dependable is a great thing, it will be interesting to see how Powerscourt stands out. It is very much to the manor born, but it may need more than lineage to capture hearts and minds in a crowded market.

Here be dragons

The meeting of Grace O’Malley and Queen Elizabeth I (a later illustration from Anthologia Hibernica, vol. 11, 1793)

Grace O’Malley lived – this much we know. The full facts of her story exist in the space between history and folklore, the former telling us that she was a ruthless warrior, a veritable Daenerys Targaryen, but with boats instead of dragons. The latter tells us that she was a pirate queen, oft portrayed in the buxom pastels of a swashbuckling bodice-ripper, and described using patriarchal terms like feisty and headstrong. Whichever version you subscribe to, O’Malley, or Gráinne Mhaol, or Granuaile, was an outlier – a woman of power in the late 1500s, a time when women had no power at all. 

Born into the Irish aristocracy, O’Malley was surrounded by men with names like Donal The Warlike and Iron Richard, but stormed her way to power in defiance of King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I. O’Malley was fighting against more than British tyranny when she commanded her warships – she was fighting against the death of Gaelic rule, a battle that she would never win. Her death in 1603 marked the passing of an old order, and the start of a new Ireland, for better or worse. 

Stephen Cope speaking at the launch in Howth Castle.

Stephen Cope knew he was onto something when he trademarked Grace O’Malley’s name. As the former MD of Lír Chocolates, the Mayo man understood that Brand Ireland isn’t just about quality food and drink, it is also about storytelling, and that this is a nation overflowing with stories waiting to be told. With whiskey sales accelerating, a plan was hatched to release a whiskey that told the story of O’Malley. 

Stefan Hansen loves rugby. He played it professionally in his early years, and still dabbles a little, on and off the pitch. When he was 23 he realised that if he was to become a full-time pro, he would have to leave Germany, and probably never return. So he chose his homeland, and another path, forging a successful career in a global advertising firm, eventually breaking away with his friend Hendrick Melle to found private equity investment company Private Pier Investment and Private Pier Industries. The two had some brand experience with Ireland, via a pet food firm named Irish Pure, but they understood that Irish produce was respected around the world for its excellence. The trio set to work building the Grace O’Malley brand, but they needed product. They were looking for mature stock in the middle of a whiskey boom, when everyone is looking for mature stock. 

John Teeling is famous for being the teetotaller entrepreneur who democratised Irish whiskey, but he is also a rugby fanatic. When the O’Malley team sailed into the boardroom of Great Northern Distillery to talk shop, it ended up being a 45-minute deep dive into rugby lore, with Hansen and Teeling rolling back the years. As the meeting ended, the actual business of the day was casually mentioned – the O’Malley crew were seeking whiskey. Hansen asked for a large amount of mature stock – of both excellent quality and age. Teeling said yes. The deal was done, and Grace O’Malley Whiskey was out of dry dock. They then brought in Paul Caris of drinks consultancy Alteroak. Caris, a Frenchman who works with gin and brandy producers, set to work on the whiskeys, aligning the different age statements with cask finishes, and arranging the releases in three distinct categories. 

The top level is the Captain’s Range: These are all 18 year old single malts, non-chill filtered and without E150a; the first is exclusively bourbon cask, limited to 900 bottles and retailing for 349. There are also 450 bottles of this released at cask strength, and these retail for 649.  The Amarone cask finish edition is limited to 450 and is €449, while its cask strength edition is limited to 250 bottles at €799.99. The 450 bottles of cognac cask finish are €399.99 each – the Amarone and Amarone Cask Strength are available to pre-order on the site now. 

The prices seem excessive, but the team says that they are limited releases and they have also based the pricing ‘on an independent chemical analysis of the composition and objective quality of the distillate’.  They also say the pricing also reflects Caris’s involvement; while they also claim the wood barrels – Italian, Jamaican and French – are the absolute best provided by Caris’s company. The firm also says the finishing – ‘fresh and wet’ –  is unique and they are only able to do this through Caris’s sourcing knowledge and links to the top wine and cognac makers. Cynics might say that the buyer would need to be fairly fresh and wet themselves to splash out 800 on a bottle of 18 year old single malt, but this is a booming category and premiumisation like this was inevitable. 

Some booze at the launch.

Fortunately, for the steerage passengers among us, there is the mid-range Navigator whiskeys – the Dark Char and Rum Cask blend, and the Dark Cask blend, both priced at €64.99. The Crew Range will be the entry level whiskey which will be a blend launching in June with an RRP of €39.99.  This is a blend of 40% triple and double distilled single malts and 60% grain whiskeys of varying age statements up to 10 years old. They will also have a Heather Infused Gin – RRP €42.99 – in their Crew Range and a Golden Caribbean Rum. 

There are plans for a maturation facility on the west coast, and the trio are estimating that they will be generating €6m in revenues within five years. There are no plans for a distillery – the Grace O’Malley brand is going to be independent bottlings, with an eye to bonding in the future. The brand is launching across Europe, but as with so many Irish whiskeys, America is the promised land, where the brand hopes to appeal to the 33 million people who claim Irish ancestry. 

Stefan Hansen, Stephen Cope and Hendrick Melle

With its character-driven narrative you could write this off as a novelty release, and some of the imagery used in the campaign doesn’t do a huge amount to dispel this unease:

However, this is a brand with something for all palates (and wallets); entry level to super premium, blends to well aged single malts. Leather bound bottles make it eye-catching to the average consumer, while those limited numbers on the high end bottles will appeal to collectors. The team behind the brand are keen to celebrate the strength of their links to Great Northern Distillery, but going forward this may need to shift – the idea of independent bottlers is that they are independent, and bottle from multiple sources. It may be hard to convince the whiskey nerds of the value of your brand if all you can offer them is repackaged Cooley/GND. There are others out there building indie bottling brands based on a broad range of distilleries and expressions. But these are early days for the O’Malley brand, and the team are putting in the hard yards on building that identity. 

The narrative is on point – they held the launch in Howth Castle, where in 1576, when O’Malley was refused access to the castle, she took the occupant’s owners relative hostage until they were forced to allow her entry, and as a result, a place at the table is always set for her. Perhaps to balance the all-male team team behind the brand, they are sponsoring a yachtswoman who happens to be a descendant of O’Malley. Westport native Joan Mulloy took part in the 50th La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro Race, which sailed into Irish waters for its Kinsale stopover in June. Dubbed ‘the Tour de France of the Ocean’, Mulloy and her co-skipper raced under black sails emblazoned with the name of her ancestor. Having been the first Irishwoman to compete in La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro last year, Joan’s ultimate goal is to compete in the Vendee Globe, a solo round-the-world-race in 2020. Joan will represent the brand in a number of events and special challenges, including a trip later this year retracing the route of her ancestor who sailed from Clew Bay to London for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth I in 1593. With their supply line secured, and the wind in their sails, the Grace O’Malley line of drinks are heading into relatively uncharted waters – that of indie bottlers in a rapidly developing category. Unlike Grace, history is on their side, whether that will be enough remains to be seen.

See https://graceomalleywhiskey.com/ for more. Below are some photos from the launch.

If you are still reading this, there is an excellent piece by Charlie Taylor in the Irish Times that goes into a lot of the real nitty gritty of the brand, ie, not a load of conjecture and hyperbole like the above.

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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. 

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Parents of adult males, a question for you: Does the food consumption ease off at any point, or does it only get worse? I have three sons and I’m not quite sure whether to feel proud or concerned at the locust-like rate they devour food. It has taken a while to get to grips with just how frenzied their feeding is – one minute you’re crushing a few Liga into a bowl and watching them dribble it down their chin, the next you are opening the fridge door and wondering if bears got into your house as you are sure you did a weekly shop the day before. 

We are now at the stage where a tray of lasagne that should feed ten adult humans – or three Garfields – lasts all of 25 minutes, with the eldest male taking the lead on requests for seconds and thirds. There is a great satisfaction in feeding a child with a healthy appetite, but there comes a point where I wonder where the hell they are all putting it, as, while I also had a big appetite as a child, mine was finely balanced by having a big arse too. My mum used to regale people with tales of trying to find a Confirmation suit to fit me, with nothing in the Young Sirs section of the haberdashery with a seat sufficiently wide. In the end she was forced to bring me to one of those stores that carries specialist sizes where we were able to get some jaggedy tweed balloon pants to cover my ‘big bones’. 

In our house, what once considered a weekly shop has been downgraded to just another one of our tri-weekly grocery shopping trips, as we rattle through entire trolley-loads of foodstuffs in a space of hours. Sometimes I stand outside my house and look up at the crows nesting in the chimney, listen to the screeching of their young, the endless hunger, poor parents run ragged trying to source enough bugs to keep them happy, and I think – I feel your pain, winged bro. 

Obviously there are differences, mainly in the fact that the crow gets to boot its young out after a month or so, while I am here for what feels like evermore. Eternity spent as a short order cook, catering to the demands of three little mouths that seem to have adapted a Hobbit’s eating schedule – breakfast, second breakfast, brunch, snacktime, lunch, dessert, dessert redux, more snacktime, dinner, some more dinner, dessert again, picnic on the slopes of Mount Doom, and maybe a load of sandwiches to see the evening out. What is most startling about the amount they consume is how different it is to my diet as a child. I ate well, and had the odd treat, but for them treats are a regular occurance. It’s not just a side effect of a busy household, where you don’t really have the time to craft carrot sticks and homemade hummus for them – although time and a lack thereof does play a role – but rather than things have just changed; how and what we eat has changed. They often eat with a screen on somewhere, just to distract them from trying to kill each other; but they also eat considerably more junk than even I, in my sturdiest pre-Confirmation phase, would have. 

What would have been called junk food in my youth is now just food, treats are no longer treats, they are just currency – just as our forefathers would have used casual threats to get kids to cop on, now we use sugary treats. ‘Stop screaming or you’ll get a clatter’ has become ‘stop screaming and I will give you a six pack of Monster energy and a family sized bag of Doritos’. Neither solution is ideal. At least there is comfort in the START report last week that I am not alone in slowly poisoning my kids; one in three parents (33%) find it difficult to cut back on treat foods or keep them to a minimum, while more than one in three parents (36%) said they were not confident about changing their child’s behaviour when it came to eating more healthily. Given that I have zero control over my children’s behaviour generally, I am clearly in that one-in-three category. I do know that taste is learned – anyone who has eaten treats from other countries will understand that until globalisation makes us all believe that every food should be 50% high-fructose corn syrup, the concept of ‘treat’ is a fluid one. Surely I can retrain my kids’ palates to delight in reasonably healthy food rather than seeking the worst flavouring and colourants known to man. So the detox starts here, just in time for Confirmation season and the eternal struggle between man and trouser. 

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The time has come for me to choose a career for my eldest child. Like most humans, I realise that each life we bring into the world is really just another chapter in the eternal Groundhog Day of our DNA – we just keep repeating a life until we get it right, and then when we do we presumably ascend to some sort of 2001: A Space Odyssey-style monochromatic Versaille in the sky. Part of this endless loop is ensuring that your kids follow all those paths you didn’t explore, the dreams you never chased, to see if that would have led to the perfect life – that singularity of knowing that your path is the one you were always meant to be on. With our firstborn about to be consumed by the Leaving Cert cycle, the time has come for me to ask myself – which one of my dreams should I force her to live out?

Sadly, while I was busy asking myself whether I would rather her be a graphic designer or playing lead guitar in a grindcore band (or both, she could design the album covers!), she went ahead and chose a load of science subjects for her Leaving Cert, leaving me in no doubt that she didn’t want to follow in my footsteps into the low wages and general depression of a career in the humanities. When I asked her if she was sure she wouldn’t like to work in communications, ‘I’d like to own a house some day’ was her snappy retort. So, despite feeling more than a little rejected – compounded by the fact she openly tells me she doesn’t want to be poor like me – I decided to change lanes and try to find some form of science that both she and I can enjoy. Naturally, I found alcohol.

In the past four months we have visited four distilleries and two breweries, all in the name of science. Some might say that this is terrible parenting – indoctrinating a 16-year-old into a  culture of alcohol – but our trips aren’t about drinking, but rather the chemistry of it – how different styles of alcohol are made, why it has the effects it does, how it is marketed and sold, and why it deserves our respect. I drank a lot in my youth, and it’s only in the last ten years that I have actually started to ask – what the hell am I drinking? Where did it come from, what went into it, how does it work? I would like all my kids to ask questions about alcohol rather than adopting the classic few-naggins-be-grand approach of my generation.

Ten years ago I probably thought I would be one of those cool parents who allow their kid to drink at home, thinking it made them more mature and me seem more French, as they shotgun day-glo alcopops in the kitchen before vomiting rainbows in the back garden. Now, I’m not so keen on laissez faire parenting. I know she takes a drink, but I don’t want her doing it right in front of me. In the final confirmation that I have turned into my dad, I am of the mind that it’s my house, and therefore it is my rules. And rules are the most important part of alcohol – creating the stuff is a very precise science, so consuming it should be too.

I accept that she is a teenager and is going to drink with her peers, and don’t want to make it a secretive, hidden thing, but I want her to see that there are rules around it for a reason, even in our home. Whether my slightly oblique approach will work, only time will tell. There is, of course, a cold mercenary aspect to our booze research trips – there are careers out there for people who understand booze – how it is made, how it is marketed, and how it is sold. If she can combine an understanding of alcohol on a chemical level, with an understanding of human nature, then maybe chemistry with a dash of humanities is the recipe for success (provided she extends her staff discount to her dear old boozehound dad). Of course, by the time this goes to print, she will probably have jettisoned the idea of chemistry in favour of training to become a yoga teacher or a garda, but at least we will have the memory of our road trips to the booze factories of Ireland.

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I am pleased to report that I have survived a weekend without my spouse. Not only that, but I also managed to avoid misplacing any of the children left in my care. Who knew I had such skills? Certainly not my wife, who spent the last few weeks laying the groundwork for her bonding trip away with our daughter; incredibly detailed instructions on how to wash teeth or what constitutes breakfast were delivered as though I was being told how to defuse a nuclear bomb. Overall I felt like she saw me as someone who had been hired for the weekend via Tradesmen.ie to do a nixer minding her kids. I duly snapped that yes, of course I know that Euthymol toothpaste isn’t suitable for four year olds, before slipping into a quiet fury and refusing to take in any of the other instructions which, it turned out, I did kinda need.

My approach to parenting is based on the Lean process – I find waste, and eliminate it. Brushing hair, while a worthy pursuit, is a complete waste of time when you have three feral boys with the springy curls of Sideshow Bob. As long as there are no parasites living in the mess atop their toe-shaped heads, I presume the hair looks after itself and finds its own path. I also feel people in soft play areas are less likely to complain about my kids appalling behaviour if they look like they just escaped from a compound.

Being parents means we often operate like shift partners – I come home, I eat dinner standing up complaining about weather or traffic and then we split, one half takes laundry, post-dinner clean-up, floor washing, or paperwork, the other takes homework, bedtime prep, and hoovering. Usually we try to spare some time to watch TV together in total silence, or, if we are feeling energetic, have an argument about money. It’s only when you are left on your own with the kids for a couple of days that you realise how difficult life is for so many single parents. It’s not just the crushing workload, the emotional strain, but to just have someone to turn to at the end of the day and say, oh god I am so tired of being a parent.

The boys and I survived, apart from being caked in filth and in the early stages of scurvy. The ladies of the house, however, had slightly less fun. I’m not thick enough to claim that mother-daughter relations are always complicated – I’m sure that there are many of the ‘daughter-more-like-a-best-friend/mother-more-like-a-sister’ relationships out there, but in our house, it can be a tad tense from time to time. Sometimes I get dragged into it, a sort of Kofi Annan figure, when neither side can see eye to eye. I got phone calls from both parties over the weekend, informing me that the other was being unreasonable. I told them both that since the city they were in, Kilkenny, was famous for attempting to burn witches, maybe they should stop screeching in such a public fashion lest they get tethered to a pole and torched. I still have no idea what caused their fracas, but I know it had something to do with going shopping – one party wanted to consume without guilt, the other believes that all old people – ie, anyone over 30 – is killing the planet through willful ignorance. And so the weekend marked the start of the age of teen enlightenment. I remember it well, the moment when I first discovered the concept of mutually assured destruction, and that sudden shift from being a carefree child to an anxious teen, lying awake thinking about nuclear war. Of course, three decades on and we’re all still here, and it turns out now that it was never going to be something as ICBMs ripping through the skies that kills us all, but rather cars, plastic, petrochemicals, and according to my daughter, our relentless consumption and zombie capitalism. After their return home in complete silence, I tried to reassure my wife that while it may have ruined the weekend, our daughter and the rest of her generation are the only hope for a planet that my generation helped ruin. On the upside, I did conserve a lot of water by not bathing the kids for two days. Every little helps.

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I sometimes joke that if our house went on fire, the first thing I would save is the computer. I usually qualify this by explaining that obviously, I would drag people out first, but of the personal belongings, the computer would be the only one worth running back into a burning building for. This isn’t because I want to erase my browsing history, but because I want to save our family history. The transition to digital photographs means that the last 15 years of our lives are recorded on the harddrive of the kitchen computer, and just as my parents generation said they would save the photo album from a burning house and little else, I would risk life and limb for those 60,000+ images.

If I could give you one piece of parenting advice, apart from the obvious ‘don’t have kids’, it would be to go and buy a decent camera. When my parents were young, photos were a luxury, like having your portrait painted. Then cameras got cheap, and photos equally so. Then, once phone cameras became slightly better than an Etch A Sketch at capturing moments of our lives, we just gave up on cameras, and on good quality photos generally. Sure, we are snapping away at everything we see – meals, homeless people, road traffic accidents – but it is purely for our social media channels, to posture on Insta, to virtue signal on Twitter, or to horrify on WhatsApp. Photos of our kids all seem to end up on Facebook, in fact Zuck’s black hole consumes 136,000 photos a minute, with more than 300 million photos per day being uploaded to the site. This is all well and good, but as we change phones almost annually, Facebook has become our photo albums – a worrying thought when you realise that someday our world will be rid of it, and all your photos might go too. Good luck explaining to your kids that the reason you don’t have any photos of them is because when society finally fell to the fake news zombie armies, nobody was left to run the servers and the internet collapsed. I mean, you won’t have to tell your kids that because we will all have died of preventable diseases that came back because of morons on Facebook telling us vaccines are making us addicted to fluoride, or something. My camera is an entry level DSLR. It only needs to be entry level because the photos most people are throwing onto Facebook are so bad that I look like Ansel Adams in comparison.

Most people baulk at the idea of paying three or four hundred euro for a basic DSLR, but think nothing of throwing down a grand on an iPhone simply because it has a camera that is almost as good as a DSLR.  The photos I take serve two purposes – they are a visual record of a hectic life, when days can run into each other, years whip by and memories become muddled. They also serve to reassure me that I am getting some of this right. You can say, well maybe if you just existed in the moment and enjoyed things, rather than obsessively recording them, you might feel better about your attempts at life. Perhaps, but there will come a point where memory fades, and having a record will matter. I scroll back through the albums on the computer and realise that I haven’t got everything wrong. It’s like a compilation of my greatest hits, because nobody takes photos of the arguments, the sleepless nights, the worries – our photos are all perfect moments (with the exception of the ones taken by the four year old of his brother mooning) – chips and seagulls at Knockadoon, chasing after mara in Fota, bobbing about in a boat somewhere off the coast, all smiles and laughter. It’s like Rappaport’s Testament in Primo Levi’s Moments Of Reprieve: “While I could I drank, I ate, I made love….I studied, I learned, travelled and looked at things. I kept my eyes wide open; I didn’t waste a crumb. I’ve been diligent; I don’t think I could have done more or better. Things went well for me; I accumulated a large quantity of good things, and all that good has not disappeared. It’s inside me, safe and sound. I don’t let it fade, I’ve held onto it. Nobody can take it from me.”

So get a camera, take nice photos, bear witness to your life; record all the things your kids won’t remember and you will someday forget, store them where they are safe, and for the love of god, check the batteries on your smoke alarms.

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And so we come to the Easter holidays, when we pause and reflect on the greatest martyr of all – the average parent. I would have written this column several weeks ago if I had known the Easter break was coming, but like most people I had no awareness of it until I noted my kids were at home all day and no truancy officer was knocking on the door to ask where they are.

No school holiday is as slippery as the Easter midterm, suddenly jumping out of the school year when we least expect it, like a panto villain. Oh no! It’s the midterm break! Now I have to spend time with my children rather than forcing them on some poor teacher who thought their job would be more like Dead Poets Society and a lot less like The Shawshank Redemption. The Easter midterm is able to sneak up because it is based on the paschal lunar calendar, because obviously a busy family will always have time to follow both the gregorian and julian calendars, despite the fact we can’t remember to attend dental appointments.

But Easter is here now and we have to deal with it in the best way we can – by trying to farm out our children to some manner of activity camp. Naturally, there are people out there who do track the ebb and flow of the moon, because all the camps were booked up. Googling to no avail, you start to wonder if there is even a local terror cell that might be looking for recruits to bring on manoeuvres in the woods; but there were no options left, so we were stuck doing that most dreaded of tasks – entertaining our kids. So we turn to history. All of Ireland has been a battlefield at some point, so there are plenty of sites to visit where my kids can learn about decapitations, sieges and plague. Our most recent trip through Ireland’s bloody past was at Cahir Castle, a sort of hipster outing for those of us who see the Rock of Cashel as too mainstream since the British queen visited it.

Cahir castle offers a full, immersive historical experience from the get-go by only accepting cash. Apparently, they are getting a card reader soon, but as the castle has been there since the 13th Century, I could see why they might not have a sense of urgency about such matters. Our tour guide walked us through the castle’s history, with plenty of gore-soaked facts to keep the kids engaged. Afterwards we were free to roam the buildings, and this is where it become such a great day out. The site is like an MC Escher etching, all hidden corridors, machicolations, murder holes and winding stairs. Best of all, there was only one way in and one way out. So I could then let them go free range, scampering off into high towers, dungeons and battlements, safe in the knowledge that if Cahir Castle could survive centuries of attack, it would probably survive my children, and if one of them made a break for it I could just drop the portcullis.

In 1650, Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army  – the original British stag party – arrived in Cahir, and sent a note requesting that the occupants, the Butlers, leave forthwith, which they duly did, only to retake it a little over a decade later. The Butlers know, as all parents do, that when you are outnumbered and facing your gaf getting wrecked, simply head out for a while.

It gives me a warm glow to find places like this, not because it instills a love and understanding of Irish history in young minds, but because it is both cheap (entry for us all was less than a tenner) and it tires them out, the main goals of any trip with kids. The park next to the castle even has a sword stuck in a stone, which they spent a good 20 minutes attempting to extract, as I sat back, sipping a coffee, saying ‘oh you nearly had it there, give it another try and really put some effort into it now’.  Everyone was asleep by 7pm that night. Who needs activity camps when you have the OPW?

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Do you know where your kids are? On a related note, do you know how much they are paying for ecstacy? I do, primarily thanks to the gardaí who gave a drugs awareness talk in my daughter’s school. Apparently, kids in our town are paying two euro a pill. It seemed an odd angle to take, informing a room full of teens that two yokes cost less than a pint, but they offered a memorable counterpoint, telling the class of a young lad they found one night who had taken two ecstacy tablets and was trying to chew his way through the back wall of the local GAA pavilion. Strange stories like this rarely work as a deterrent – while they may be true,

they are outliers, and it is in the grim mundanity of drug abuse that the real horror lies.

I came of age in the immediate aftermath of the summer of love, at the point where the seasons changed and it became the winter of bottlings, thirty púnt ecstacy tablets and rampant scabies.

Around that time I shared a house with a guy who was enthusiastically taking and selling drugs. He was nice enough, would always offer to make you a cuppa, and liked to play chess. Obviously, as a drug dealer, it wasn’t all cups of tea and knight-takes-pawn. The house phone was outside my room, I would often hear him threatening people over debts owed to him, sometimes it would be a fiver, sometimes a couple of hundred. He was under pressure, to feed his own habit and to manage his debts. On top of this there was the constant cat and mouse with the drug squad. He had a sizeable record for burglaries and theft, and was facing into serious jail time if he was caught again. But he had an ingenious way of avoiding getting busted: He would ingest whatever drugs he had on his person when the DS would pull him aside for searching. When they didn’t find anything, and let him go, he would vomit it back up, clean it off, and sell it on. If I have one anecdote that captures the grotty horrors of drug abuse, it’s the thought of consuming a tablet, cooked up with who knows what in a dirty lab, which has also been inside someone’s stomach and possibly has traces of sick on it. You didn’t see that on Ibiza Uncovered.

My daughter was horrified by my story, which is good, because drugs are bad. Aside from the risks of organ failure, brain damage, addiction and ultime annihilation, I just wanted her to understand was that it isn’t just the unknown chemicals you are consuming with drugs like ecstacy, but the circles you end up moving in – damaged, desperate people who can self destruct in the blink of an eye and take you down with them. I was only a tourist in their world, but even for those brief few years in the mid-Nineties I could see that some of them were never going to escape, never going to find peace.

One night my former housemate was arrested on suspicion of drink driving. He did his usual trick of swallowing what he had on him, but this time the plastic wrapping ripped, and he died of a massive drug overdose, aged 19. It prompted newspaper articles asking how could this happen here, and decades on, it would appear that we are asking the same questions, only with more urgency, as drugs are becoming more and more nasty. The gardaí even told the assembly about ketamine, a drug which, whilst not widely available, nor as terrifying as crystal meth, but not exactly the sort of thing you would want your kids ingesting, mainly because its primary use is as a horse tranquilizer. It’s hard to hear about these things and not feel like the world is becoming more dangerous, that drugs themselves are becoming more dangerous. But my daughter’s generation are different – they are encouraged to talk about mental health, about happiness and the pursuit thereof, about relationships and self esteem. They also understand that, contrary to what the gardaí told them, the ultimate gateway drug isn’t cannabis, it’s alcohol.

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My kids go to Catholic schools. They were Christened in the local Catholic church, make their Communion and Confirmation there, and at some stage down the road they may very well get married in a Catholic church, just as my wife and I did. We don’t go to Mass, nor do we pray, nor do we engage in anything vaguely Catholic, apart from having more kids than we can afford. I am not a Catholic…anymore. There are parts of Catholicism that I miss, mostly the social functions: I sometimes think it might be nice to have the Stations, but you get tired of them too, such as the moment when the priest asks who is going to host it next and some fella who owns half the farmland in the parish slips out the door so fast that all is left is a spinning biscuit on a Denby plate and a half-supped tea. But generally, I have made my peace with the faith and bid it farewell, but we still operate within the general structures of Catholicism, because this is Ireland, and you don’t really get much choice.

My parents were devout Catholics, my sister once wanted to become a nun, and when I was a kid I used to collect Bibles. No, not in the church after Mass, I mean I actually had a collection of Bibles. Back then, to be Irish was to be Catholic, a fact driven home to me by attending a Protestant secondary school, and being singled out for sectarian abuse while wearing the uniform, despite the fact that the goons calling me a ‘black Proddy bastard’ would be standing behind me in Mass the following Sunday. The Protestant faith is the only religion I have any vague experience of, outside of Catholicism, and even then my grasp on it is tenuous at best. I know they have better hymns, drive estate cars and are great gardeners, and that’s about it. Oh, and there’s something to do with transubstantiation. Aside from that brief window into another faith, my youth was intensely Catholic. I’d love to rattle out the old, well it never did me any harm line, but in reality it did, as I never knew a whole lot about other faiths, and thus, other cultures, and thus, geopolitics.

When it came to sending my kids to a school, I could have joined the clamouring throng trying to get their little ones into the local Educate Together, where my children would receive a well rounded religious education, where all faiths are considered and discussed.

Or I could just walk the path of least resistance and send them to a Catholic schools, which is exactly what I did, mainly because the Educate Together is at the other end of the town from the main school cluster, and saintly as I am I am not capable of being in two places at the same time to drop off half the kids to one school and the other somewhere else.

It was an easy choice, as I’m not especially worried about my kids being indoctrinated into a religion that I have little affinity for, because in the end, religion has a purpose. It offers easier answers to difficult questions, and enables me to explain to my children that my family are in heaven, as opposed to telling them, well actually they are in the town’s main cemetery, conveniently located at the rear of the CBS playground, perhaps during small break you could stare across towards the family headstone whilst Carmina Burana plays in the background?  There is time enough for the hard facts.

The reaction by some wings of the Catholic Church to divestment was a thing to behold. Threatening a school with some sort of Logan’s Run style programme, as well as the end of Christmas, is just the sort of thing that is keeping people from returning to the faith. Our local church recently had a stab at modernity by bringing in Lizzie’s Answers, a hyper-Catholic American YouTube star, to talk to the students of the local convent school. By the accounts my daughter gave me, the person was even more grating in person than she is on YouTube, and the high point of the talk was when she said that back when she was a Protestant she used to weep for being unable to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic church. I’ve received communion in Protestant and Catholic churches, and this, also, never did me any harm. Even if I was a practising Christian I’d tend to see them as more or less the same, like when you order lasagne but you get spaghetti – you just get on with it. If the Catholic Church wants to continue to exist, they need to relinquish control of the schools, and allow people to find a way to them, rather than forcing us into their system, which will only breed resentment, like when U2 gave us all a free U2 album via iTunes whether we wanted it or not. And if even Bono received such a terrible reaction, what chance does God have?

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Can a shed ever be too big? According to Irish planning law, yes, it can. This is one of the facts I discovered when I went completely mad and bought myself one of those fancy, steel built sheds, the hyper modern kind that look like Frank Gehry-designed visions of the future. This effect is enhanced by my other, dilapidated, Unabomber style shacks – because I don’t just have one shed, I have two; one is small one that could just about hold a lawnmower, but with no room for me to tinker with said lawnmower, thus making that shed almost completely useless. Sheds need to be at least big enough for an old computer desk from 1992, covered in scratches, paint and oil. This elevates the shed from storage facility to crafts workshop, from a mere dumping ground to Francis Bacon’s studio. What great works could be carried out here – perhaps the upcycling of a lamp you found in the electrical recycling centre, or perhaps the removal of one of your own fingers, do we really need ten of them?

So I have one embarrassingly small shed, and one medium sized one on the other side of the garden. It is buried in a hedge, adding to the whole Unabomber vibe. It contains bikes that the kids can’t cycle because the roads are too dangerous, weedkiller and powertools I am scared to use as they are too dangerous, golf clubs that appear to date back to Famine times, and a box of mementoes, incorrectly labelled ‘momentos’ to create the illusion the box might contain out-of-date mint sweets rather than Valentine’s cards from ex-girlfriends.

But the house is still overflowing with actual mementoes – family heirlooms that we still haven’t figured out what to do with – and we need somewhere to put them. So I am like Goldilocks and the three sheds, because the time has come to get a proper, grown-up steel shed, one with concrete foundations so that should a twister ever touch down in east Cork – and with our climate disintegrating, it is possible – my shed would be safe from harm. Granted, having this many sheds on one site switches my home from domestic abode to cult compound, but my dream is that with this final steel fortress, I will finally have a shed that cannot be infiltrated by those little furry creatures that ruin everything – kids.

Sooner or later the toys start to spill over from inside the house to the shed, tractors, goalposts, basketball nets, deflated paddling pools, and all the other items made unusable by the fact that we live on a hillside, and the only flat space is at the cold side of the house, and that space is about to be filled by my lovely shed.

Even on my trip to the shed outlet was exciting, as you were confronted with the many iterations of shed, the endless possibilities – from moderate lean-to, to chalet, to functioning aircraft hangar. I was suddenly struck with shed envy and I started to consider demolishing the house to accomodate one massive shed into which all my belongings – and possibly even my wife and kids – could be neatly stuffed. In the end I opted for a smallish shed, small enough that you don’t need to fill out any paperwork, big enough that if a twister hits, I can fit myself, my whiskey collection, and possibly one child in there with me to weather the storm. Of course, when I say ‘storm’, what I really mean is ‘divorce’. The news of the State plan to shorten the time required apart to finalise a divorce sharpened my shed purchasing. ‘No, I won’t need plumbing or power’, I told the shed man, before ominously adding ‘….yet’.

The fact that you currently need to live separately for four years to get a divorce is insane. If my wife goes for a night away I am straight onto Tinder, doomsday prepping, seeing if my ring still slips off over my fat knuckles whilst uploading pics of me from ten years ago. She can’t leave me alone in the supermarket for more than ten minutes without returning to find me attempting to seduce some poor sod trying to buy stale bread in the about-to-go-off section. We are a fickle species, me especially so, so the thought of having to stay married, but live apart for four years just seems like a lot of hard work, and if there is one thing that unites my wife and I, it is a loathing of hard work. Even Brexit seems a doddle compared to Irish divorce.

So we grind it out, but if I had a dollar for every time the word divorce has been mentioned during an argument, I would probably be able to afford a divorce, or just a much bigger shed. With new legislation promising a quicker resolution to divorce, it is of paramount importance that I have a bunker to escape to, and that my future is all shed, no tears.

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God be with the days when the closest we came to the internet was the mysterious portal that was Bosco’s Magic Door. I can still remember the excitement as Frank or Jonathan or Mary or whoever recited their dark incantation about seeing what’s on the other side, only for the plywood door to wobble open into the lion enclosure in Dublin Zoo, a biscuit factory, or some other location that was within that mythical land known as The Pale.

There were many lessons contained in these segments – mainly, that magic was fairly shoddy, and had a limited reach that only stretched as far as Walkinstown, and that us culchies simply didn’t matter as our lands were unworthy of a visit by the red lord Bosco. Important lessons that still hold true to this day, although obviously for this generation, the Magic Door has made way for that most accursed of portals, the internet, also known as ‘that thing my kids stare at when they should be outside playing and keeping shift workers awake’.

I had assumed that my kids were particularly addicted to the dumpster fire that is YouTube, that their screen addiction was a side effect of rural isolation. Apparently not, as word from our more fortunate townie acquaintances suggest that green areas in the estates, once crowded with packs of feral kids chucking plastic bottles at cars and getting dog turd on their school shoes, are barren, silent places. The kids are all inside, watching YouTube, the equivalent of smearing dogturd across your brain.

Granted, that is a sweeping statement to make, but much of YouTube is a vast cultural desert, featuring the odd oasis of accurate, informative, engaging creations, and sprawling dunes of unboxing videos, conspiracy theories, celebrity-themed clickbait, Minecraft soap operas and the sun-bleached bones of Vine compilations scattered here and there. I am part of a generation who saw YouTube as the place with the worst comments section on the internet, where a five second clip of a kitten falling asleep in a drawer would lead you into a scrolling warzone of racism, misogyny, and death threats. Obviously as technology moved on, those in the comments section just started making their own content, and monetizing their mental health difficulties. This is why I am now at the stage of parenting where, after being forced to explain to my son that there are people on the internet who mean him harm and that, much like real life, he should never, ever talk to strangers, I have to try and teach him how to spot disinformation, propaganda or just plain lies.

Much like Fr Ted Crilly’s Golden Cleric speech, the Digital 101 module I am teaching my son has now reached the section titled ‘liars’. He keeps telling me about videos that come with exaggerated thumbnails promising some great revelation but are actually a video of some jackanapes reacting to a video of someone reacting to a video of someone unboxing a poundshop toy. What makes YouTube such a plague is that it is unfettered bilge – say what you like about RTE, but there is quality control, craft and care that goes into their programming, and your child doesn’t get fed literally fake news by the mbps.

YouTube is almost impossible to avoid – even with a filter to stop adult material it is still a malfunctioning sluice for grot and rot. You can switch off the WiFi, but sooner or later you are going to have to teach kids that the internet is a haunted amusement park, and better to do it now before they are old enough to own credit cards or bank accounts which they can give away to the first scammer to appear in their email.

The main difference between my youth and my son’s is that the flow of information was generally controlled – by Church, by State and by its own citizens. Now there is an open conduit into all our homes, a Pandora’s box which, unlike Bosco’s, cannot be closed. All I can do is try to teach him one of the most important lessons in life  – how to spot a lie.

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Did you know what you wanted to do with your life when you were 16? Or do you know what you want to do with your life now? Perhaps you are one of that special breed who was born knowing what career they wanted, whose first word was ‘accountancy’ or ‘fast-moving consumer goods’. Or perhaps you are like me and, despite stumbling into your mid-Forties, you still have no real clue what you are doing – or even plan to do – with your life.

Career has never been to the forefront of my mind, what with so many other important issues to ponder on, such as which member of the Avengers I might be, or what the cut off age for skinny jeans is (it’s 26, BTW). For my daughter however, career is the topic of the moment, as she is coming to the end of transition year, and after a year of putting most of her brain into powersave mode, she now has to try and figure out what subjects she chooses and, ultimately, what she is going to do with her life. Apparently she already has some ideas, as she has made her choices without seeking my advice, something that came to light when I found myself wandering around her parent teacher meeting like someone playing an especially dull game of Pokemon Go.

Her teachers were largely positive – she is doing well, despite her health woes and associated poor attendance. Her memory is also affected by her lupus, so while I would never want her to be defined by the condition, or to feel it is holding her back, her subject choices will need to be guided by these difficult realities. The teachers were open and honest about her selections, telling me that both chemistry and biology require hard work, excellent attendance, a photographic memory and a deep understanding of the subject matter. At this point the alarm bells inside my head started to ring, as I envisioned two years of test tubes, complex equations and all the other accoutrements of a field that I, like many liberal arts graduates, do not understand. It’s that fear that she has chosen something that I cannot help her with, that is beyond my grasp, and perhaps most of all, that she might not have an innate ability towards. This last one is really more like a weird biological superstition than an actual logical fear, and it’s one that perhaps has more to do with ego than anything – the notion that I have certain gifts, and ergo, my kids will have those same gifts. But this process of identifying aspects of your child and attributing them to yourself or your spouse, depending on whether they are positive or not, is hard to fight. Stubbornness? Not from me, no way no how. Sense of humour? That’s from me, of course, sher amn’t I a laugh a minute. And so it goes with school, where I have assumed she will be good at the things I am good at, but that prophecy has yet to be fulfilled as she has almost failed English several times and has dropped art for the Leaving, whilst embracing subjects I either dropped or failed when I sat the State exams back in the Paleolithic era. But her decision is her decision and no matter how I tried to steer her from this path, she is dead-set in her choices, and that stubborn streak that I pretend she gets from her mother probably mean she won’t change her mind no matter how difficult the subjects turn out to be. For me, it just means a return to calculators, latin, and the gnashing of teeth.