There is a feeling you get after the break up of a relationship and you pass you ex in the street and see that they have, in fact, gone to shit. It’s a strange mix of pity and schadenfreude that comes over the one who has moved on. I wonder if anyone from the Walsh Whiskey team felt that way when a provisional Royal Oak whiskey label was submitted to the American Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB), as spotted by whiskey sleuth Charlie Roche:
Royal Oak is a beautiful distillery, and to see this label – which may only be a very early draft or just a placeholder – comes as something as a shock.
Or perhaps it doesn’t – perhaps the split between Bernard Walsh and the Italian drinks group Ilva Saronno was over this precise thing; whether to go high or go low; whether to keep that premium branding on a premium sourced product, ie, Writers Tears/The Irishman, or to put out an indigenous, young and potentially fiery whiskey under basic-ass branding. There are, obviously, plenty of spaces for all kinds of brands; the quality and quantity of output from Great Northern means that we will have an array of good quality whiskeys coming in often low quality branding. Not everyone wants something as elegant as Writers Tears, sometimes you just want a smashable dram that you can drink without any reverence. But The Busker? Aside from the label, isn’t the name a tad close to The Whistler?
Meanwhile, Walsh Whiskey continues to go from the strength to strength as a standalone brand, with the release of their latest collaboration with Dick Mack’s.
Carlow & Dingle, Ireland – 15th May 2020: Walsh Whiskey has released the second in a series of collaborative experiments with the legendary Dick Mack’s Pub & Brewhouse in the seaside town of Dingle in County Kerry, Ireland. Writers’ Tears – Seaweed IPA Cask Finish is a truly exceptional creation that brings together an old Irish whiskey recipe of Single Pot Still and Single Malt whiskeys, finished in a unique cask infused with the flavour of an 8% IPA beer laced with a seaweed harvest from the nearby Atlantic Ocean.
Bernard Walsh started this ‘spiritual’ adventure in 2018, when Finn mentioned Dick Mack’s newest creation – a Seaweed IPA. A barrel used in the creation of several batches of Dick Mack’s Tóg Bog É Seaweed IPA was sent on the 298 kms/185 miles cross-country from Dingle in County Kerry to Walsh Whiskey in County Carlow. Tóg Bog É (pronounced Toag Guh Bug Ay) is a Gaelic expression meaning ‘Take it Easy’ which has come to identify Irish people’s traditional outlook towards how best to live life.
Dick Mack’s Tóg Bog É Seaweed IPA was brewed with no less than 5 kilos/ 11 pounds of kelp seaweed harvested from County Kerry’s nearby Ballybunion Beach.
On Saint Valentine’s Day 2019 the barrel was filled with the award-winning Writers’ Tears – Copper Pot, triple-distilled, premium blend of Single Pot Still and Single Malt whiskeys and laid down for 14 months to finish. It was bottled naturally, non-chill filtered, at high strength.
The single cask (numbered ‘Batch 56’) has now yielded 306, individually numbered, bottles of Cask Strength (56.3%) super-premium whiskey. The Recommended Retail Price of this unique expression is €82/ US$89/ £72, however many bottles have already been snapped up by members of The Irish Whiskey Society and frontline workers of the Dublin Fire Brigade Whiskey Club. This unique expression is already a collector’s item.
Notes re Writers’ Tears – Seaweed IPA Cask Finish:
Laid down on St Valentine’s Day 2019 for a 14 Months Finish
Natural Non-Chill Filtered
Bottled at Cask Strength (56.3%)
Barrel: Bourbon, Seasoned with Seaweed IPA (8% ABV) brewed at Dick Mack’s, Dingle in Ireland’s Kingdom of County Kerry
Colour: Golden mustard
Nose: Deep butterscotch, autumnal/mature bramble apple
Taste: Salted caramelised fruit sugar’s syrup, a touch of liquorice
Finish: Creamy mouth feel
A webcast to taste and discuss the creation of Writers’ Tears – Seaweed IPA Cask Finish, will be held on Facebook at 8pm (Irish Summer Time) on 27th May, 2020 between Writers’ Tears creator and Walsh Whiskey Founder, Bernard Walsh; Finn MacDonnell, Proprietor & Great-Grandson of Dick Mack himself; Serghios Florides, Publisher & Editor of Irish Whiskey Magazine and Peter White of the Dublin Fire Brigade Whiskey Club.
Well, at least they didn’t tell us it was hadngrafted:
Think of Scotch whisky as music, and the regions are genres – Speyside is pop, Islay is heavy metal, Islands are Soundcloud rap, Campbelltown is folk, Lowlands are classical. What then of the Highlands? Their particular ouvre lies somewhere between Wagner and polka – lots of deep bass, robust melodies – this is a region that marches to the beat of an ancient drum. But of course, this is seeing the area as a group, rather than as individuals within a genre. And what if one of those individuals suddenly started making a solo album – one with steel drums and island rhythms? Now imagine one of them was Einsturzende Neubauten crossed with Jackie Mittooo – strange instruments and tropical notes.
It has taken Fettercairn quite some time to get its moment in the spotlight – 195 years to be precise. Its founder, Sir Alexander Ramsay, was one of the first Scottish landowners to campaign for the making of whisky to be licensed, and in 1824 was one of the first to be granted permission to make whisky. Obviously, distilling had been taking place across the highlands for some time – all around the flat farmlands of the Mearns, upon which Fettercairn Distillery sits, there are valleys and nooks ideal for setting up an illicit still. It was to these highland foothills with their secret bothies that Ramsay turned for his staff, hiring the stillmen to run his new distillery. Ramsay also built a vast mansion, Fasque, which ultimately dragged him into debt, and Fettercairn was sold to a Liverpudlian merchant family named Gladstone in 1829. If that name sounds familiar, it should – one of the sons, William Ewart Gladstone, went on to be prime minister of the United Kingdom four times. Gladstone abolished the taxes on malt and the angel’s share, and allowed scotch to be sold in glass bottles for the first time.
Fettercairn changed hands many times over the years, was razed by fire, shut in 1926 as the postwar lean times bit, reopened 13 years later, doubled capacity in the 1960s, and is now owned by Whyte and Mackay, where thus far it was mostly used for blends. As an Irish whiskey lover, most of this seems completely bizarre – to have all that history and heritage just waiting to be put into action as part of a brand. They have so many stories just waiting to be told – even their distillery manager, Stewart Walker, seems like he was born for the distillery’s solo run. Walker is a native of the village and a born communicator; he says he is delighted to see the distillery he has worked in for three decades be celebrated for its many merits. After all, it is as unique as the unicorn crest suggests.
In the 1960s, workers were hosing down the stills when they realised that their work was affecting the spirit, adding an extra layer of reflux. So they had the bright idea of adding a water feature to the neck of the spirit stills. It is quite the sight to behold – water being brought in from a small reservoir of water collected from a local burn, piped into the still house, then coursing down the outside of a still neck from a brass ring, being collected and then sent back to the reservoir. According to your hosts, the only other still to feature such a bizarre contraption is fellow Emperador/W&M stablemate Dalmore, which at least had the decency to hide its strange feature under a layer of copper. Temperature controls on the neck of a still are not unknown – Blackwater Distillery in Ireland has still what are effectively grappa stills, with internal temperature controls on the neck. But Fettercairn brandishes its steampunk water feature like a body modification, out there for all to see.
Fettercairn had a stab at a solo career in the last few years – Old Fettercairn was a NAS bottling in the 1980s, and a 12-year-old single malt was released as ‘1824’. Fior and Fasque appeared ten years ago, opting for a more sleek and elegant look. But they also failed to set the world alight. Aside from these there were the usual peppering of indie bottlings, but it is only in the last 18 months that the distillery has been given a more complete offering. That said, there are gaps in the portfolio. The range jumps from a 12 year old to a 28 in the blink of an eye, then scales the giddy peaks of premiumisation with a 40 year old finished in an apostoles Sherry cask and a 50, finished in a tawny port pipe. These ring up at a challenging stg£3,000 and an eye-watering stg£10,000 respectively. But it is the space between the stg£50 12-year-old and the stg£500 28-year-old that needs to be filled – and Fettercairn has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, with warehouses on site filled with dusty casks just waiting to be discovered (even though the plundering of those same warehouses for blends is why the gap exists).
So they have the past, they have the future, they have the plans, and crucially, they have the financial backing. But how do you get folks to sit up and take notice? How do you catch the attention of whisky lovers? How do you gain purchase in the crowded hearts of the malt masses? Well, you can invite a few of them round, which is where this moves from talking about whisky to talking about talking about whisky. Please join me now as I draw back the velvet drapes and invite you into the gold-gilt world of the influencer as I enjoy 36 hours of corporate seduction in a suprasternal notch of the Scottish highlands.
Ah Nethermill House, a place trapped in time. While considerable amounts of money have been spent on the distillery visitors centre for their brand reawakening, the sizeable house adjacent to the facility itself is as yet untouched. It’s hard to put a year on exactly when it was last done up, but I would hazard a guess that it is somewhere in the late Seventies or early Eighties. As a result it is a glorious time capsule – bedrooms are done out in colour schemes, one is a pastel moss green, another is mauve, the kitchen has a serving hatch, and the loft has been converted into a games room, complete with snooker table. It is like the set of a BBC Play For Today, and as I waited for the rest of the guests to arrive I half expected Beverly Moss to sashay in and stick on some Demis Roussos.
One by one the rest of the guests arrived, and this part of junkets is always the best – meeting people whose work you admire, who you have chatted with online, but there, in real life, and now you have to talk to them despite being socially awkward anywhere but the internet. Add to that the anxiety of having to eat in front of them, as we were all whisked off to the former maltings for a posh picnic. I hadn’t eaten since a sleepy airport muffin at 5am, so I tried to control myself and descend into full wolverine mode, but after realising that I couldn’t chat amiably and eat at the same time I just focussed on the latter, with my head down, like a rodent.
After that we had a tour of the distillery itself with Stewart Walker. We strolled up the fields to visit the water source, had a ramble around the warehouse and tried some magnificent drams, and got to pick up some quality lore. One cask was bought decades ago by a Japanese couple with a view to opening it on their 40th wedding anniversary. They divorced on their 38th. The cask still sits there, now destined for their kids. Life comes at you fast, but in whiskey, it comes at you slow.
In the afternoon we had a talk from David Farquhar of IGS Vertical Farm. It might seem like a random thing to happen on a drinks junket, but in many ways it isn’t – whisky is an agricultural product, after all. Farquhar talked us through what Intelligent Growth Solutions do – they build vertical farms, effectively tray upon tray of crops all tended to by robots, all with a unique digitally monitored ecosystem guided by the gloriously dystopian sounding ‘weather recipe’. Obviously the first question asked was – does this work for barley? My inner luddite was delighted to learn that no, it does not – it works primarily for physically smaller crops. It’s an interesting concept when you consider the debates around terroir – will crops from these floating farms have less soul than those from the soil? Maybe, but if you’re starving to death, you won’t really give a fuck about what soil types it grew in.
Then we were off to Glen Dye, a series of beautiful old stone cottages which are run as holiday homes by descendants of the Gladstones. There we dined some more, drank some more, and at some point I collapsed into bed, for the following day we were to earn our keep.
What made this trip interesting was that the brand, whilst fully formed, is still in a relative infancy, so it was a rare treat to take part in a focus group. We were talked through plans for the brand, for bottlings within that 12-20 gap, and just terms and phrases within the industry – is small batch meaningless, how rare is rare, that sort of thing. I just sat there quietly, as I genuinely don’t know much about whisky, especially compared to the folks in that room – I am Jedward to their Schoenberg.
After that it was more amazing food, and off to the airport. It was a whirlwind 36 hours, but one that I have thought of often in the last few weeks as isolation and quarantine took hold. As an Irish whiskey lover, one my takehomes from the trip (apart from an insanely generous swagbag) was this: There are distilleries like Fettercairn all over Scotland, with mountains of excellent mature stock, so many that they sometimes struggle to find their voice in the market, a spot on the supermarket shelf or a place in our hearts. Irish whiskey has a long way to go to catch up; the power of the industry, the ability to hire PR firms, marketing experts, specialists in whisky comms and branding to help create these remarkable events, these remarkable identities for products. There is a massive industry in Scotland based around all this, and that is what we need to look towards – a fully functioning whisky ecosystem that creates and sustains jobs across the sector. In the meantime, feel free to live vicariously through these ten million photos I took:
When I tell people how much I spend on whiskey, they are horrified. You mean you can spend upwards of sixty euro on a bottle? they gasp. It usually leads to more questions – what is the most you would spend on a bottle, how much do you earn, what makes it so expensive? All great questions that I’m happy to answer – the most I would spend is about 120 euro; I earn somewhere around the 50k mark each year, and as for what makes good whiskey expensive, that is a heady brew of real-world elements – age, rarity, source – and more ephemeral ones – legacy, branding, prestige – all of which combine to create that most elusive of things; aura.
Super-premium is not a mode of production. It is a price category, and perhaps more importantly, it is a demographic, one which Irish whiskey has only just started to explore. Midleton Pearl was an early foray into the field in 2014, with a six grand price tag – a figure that seems modest when you consider what was coming next.
A price tag like this may seem offensive to us mere mortals, but if you earn half a million a year and want to invest, or if you earn millions and want a treat, the price tag is not that outlandish. Yes, it’s obscene, but that’s capitalism, baby – my purchase of a Redbreast 21 for 180 would be seen by many as completely over the top, so it’s all a question of perspective.
As for the 35k tag, it doesn’t even come close to what the exclusive releases from the Macallan command; nor does it even qualify for this list of the top ten most expensive whiskies. The Scots have been doing super-premium for years, and doing it well – so why not us? And if Midleton are doing it, why not Bushmills?
And so to the liquid itself; John Wilson of the Irish Times has a review of it. It’s a nice bottle, a nice box, and I’ve no doubt it is a nice liquid. Not that this matters, because all anyone needs to know about this is the price. That is the defining factor.
The series opens with a peated single malt from old Midleton. It is worth remembering that there are other bottles of old Midleton out there which you can grab at auction for less than a grand, albeit none of it malt and none of it peated. In fact, this is the first official single malt from old or new Midleton (the Method & Madness one is distilled at Bushmills), and a peated one at that. So it is something of a unicorn. I have no doubt it will sell, because, as McGuane pointed out, we need this offering.
But back to MVRSDCO, and the salient points:
Six releases. The first is a 45-year-old Irish single malt. There will be one release annually until the year 2025, ranging in age from 45 to 50 years old, all from Old Midleton Distillery (1825-1975).
The last release will coincide with Old Midleton Distillery’s 200th birthday, while Chapter One will be the first official release from Old Midleton in 16 years.
Midleton Very Rare Silent Distillery Collection Chapter One is the only release in this collection that is a peated single malt – it has been in a third-fill sherry cask cask for 45 years.
RRP: €35,000 £32,000 $40,000; ABV 51.2%; 48 750ml bottles in Ireland, UK, France and US; two bottles will be sold via ballot system on The 1825 Room, the Midleton Very Rare online members’ programme. Whiskey lovers can register their interest to be entered into a lottery to purchase a bottle from 9pm on 18th February for one week.
You can say that the price is obscene. Many would say the money we, as whiskey lovers, regularly spend on a bottle is obscene. There are people out there who are immensely wealthy, and they want a drink that reflects their status. Super-premium has little to do with how it is made and much to do with how it is sold, and who it is sold to – and in this case, it’s not you, not me, and most likely not anyone we know.
So, in summary – capitalism is bad, whiskey is good, and time is the only commodity of any value.
Carol Quinn is incredibly pragmatic – a couple of years ago during a chat about the lost distilleries of Cork, I lamented that they were knocked to make way for roads and duplexes and various other developments. Carol – IDL’s archivist – pointed out that unless buildings are being used, they no longer serve a purpose. I feel the same way about brands – which awkwardly brings me to the latest Powers rebrand. It seems like only a short while ago that Powers was reborn with a new, more modern label (it’s a little over four years) and here we are again with another, considerably less subtle makeover. I’m going to let the press release do some of the explaining here:
Powers Irish Whiskey, which is made by Irish Distillers in Midleton Distillery, has unveiled a bold new bottle design for its range of premium Irish whiskeys. Debuting on core expression Powers Gold Label in the USA from March 2020, the dynamic new look is set to attract a new generation of drinkers to one of Ireland’s most loved whiskey brands.
The design features a new bottle shape which has been inspired by the distinctive pot still silhouette from the brand’s historical home at John’s Lane Distillery. Another striking aspect of the new design is the label which is styled on the iconic Powers ‘diamond P’ – one of the first ever trademarks registered in Ireland and a link to the legacy of Powers and Irish whiskey history all over Ireland. Each whiskey in the Powers range is presented with a label in a different colour to bring to life its unique story; Powers Gold Label in red, an homage to the original red Powers diamond marque; Powers Three Swallow in blue, a nod to the feathers of the graceful bird; and Powers John’s Lane Release in metallic ink, to reflect the industrial innovation that the Powers family demonstrated at the original distillery established in 1791 on John’s Lane, Dublin.
Carol Quinn, Archivist at Irish Distillers explains, “Powers sense of identity has always focused on the diamond P; that became very clear to me as I worked my way through the historical archive. The diamond P was everywhere; on the casks, stationary, on bills and receipts, emblazoned on everything that left the distillery, and notably on the wonderful Powers mirrors that still hang in Ireland’s pubs today. Workers at the old John’s Lane distillery even took to wearing a diamond P pin on their lapel, such was their pride to be part of the Powers family. For me it’s wonderful to see the diamond P front and centre on this new label, symbolising all the history of this great whiskey since 1791.”
Following the launch of the new-look Powers Gold Label in March 2020, the new design will be introduced across Powers Three Swallow and Powers John’s Lane from mid-2020 in the USA and the rest of the world from late-2020. In Ireland, Powers Three Swallow and Powers John’s Lane will be released in March 2020, with Powers Gold Label to be reviewed in due course.
Conor McQuaid, Chairman and CEO of Irish Distillers commented: “Powers has been famous for its bold taste profile and character since the family distillery was established in 1791. We are excited to introduce this new look to the world and inspire a new generation with the unique history and personality of Powers. At Irish Distillers, we have pride in Powers as one of the world’s leading Irish whiskeys and we welcome this dynamic new chapter for the brand as we seek to continue the Irish whiskey renaissance around the world.”
New packaging for Powers Irish Whiskey underpins recent innovation for the brand as it seeks to reach and inspire whiskey drinkers including; the release of Powers Old Fashioned, the brand’s first ever pre-mixed classic cocktail; and the Powers Quarter; a collaboration between six Dublin bars to tell the story of Powers and its illustrious Dublin history.
IDL are looking for the next Jameson. They sold Paddy to Sazerac so that’s out, Redbreast and the Spots are too premium, and thus it falls to Powers. Powers has a more robust profile, far moreso than Jameson, which many of us here in the rebel county would describe as mockya. A bold liquid deserves a bold look. That said, I hope they keep the single casks in their current format – there are many collectors out there who will be hoping the same thing.
The new bottle is akin to the beautiful Chinnery Gin, while the labels are modern and fresh. The Gold Label may no longer have a gold label, and the John’s Lane release may look a little downgraded by its update, but overall, if this keeps Powers alive for another few decades, then it shall be worth it. All the heritage in the world is meaningless if clinging to it condemns a brand to death.
Sam Black says his firm’s logo has no real meaning. “It’s what the designer gave us,” he says bluntly when asked about the origins of the silhouette of a crow in flight. When pressed he admits that the image does conveniently tie his story together; he is the Black, while his wife’s maiden name was Crowley. It’s a far more fitting explanation – after all, without his wife Maud, there might not be a brewery.
Originally from the UK, Sam Black was travelling in Australia in 2001 when he met West Cork native Maud, an ortho theatre nurse. Sam, an engineer, always had an interest in brewing but it was the gift of a homebrewing set from his future wife one Valentine’s Day that made him rethink his career choices. Returning to live in Ireland in 2003, the brewing bug took hold and in 2013 they opened Blacks Brewery in the picturesque Cork seaside town of Kinsale. It was close to Maud’s home in Ahiohill near Clonakilty, while Sam – the son of a Scottish Baptist minister – had moved around a lot during his childhood and found it easy to settle almost anywhere.
The location was a smart one – as the southern start point of the Wild Atlantic Way, Kinsale has a steady tourist trade. Kinsale also harbours a thriving foodie culture, and their brewery was able to tap into both of these in its early days, when there were relatively few craft brewers in Ireland. The first few years were hard – there were no investors or backers, just their own money and determination. But it got off the ground at an ideal time as there were few competitors. In the last few years this has been reversed, with a wide array of craft brewers, as well as macro breweries pushing brands that ape small-scale operations but are not. But Blacks Brewery products are on all shelves – Tesco, Musgraves etc all carry their wares.
Then they started making poitín on a stainless steel iStill, but the rules changed, meaning you had to distill in a pot, column still or hybrid still. So they moved on to gin, and even made a spiced rum, which they make entirely in-house. But the time had come for whiskey.
Initially, Blacks released a sourced Cooley 12 year old whiskey, which they announced with zero guff:
We could have pretended that it was distilled here or even just matured here giving it some magical Kinsale provenance. We could have even created from a tale of some ancient Kinsale recipe or that it used ingredients foraged in Kinsale. But we would rather just be honest … It’s simple, it was distilled elsewhere.
They then used the whiskey casks they had after they bottled the sourced 12-year-old single malt to finish their rum in, and have since released Black Ops, a blend of malt and grain. They are currently waiting on stills – a 2,400 litre wash and 1,500 litre spirit still – from Frilli in Italy. The stills will be like Teelings’ ‘but smaller’ according to Sam. But even small stills are not cheap, so they are looking for funding through a cask programme.
There are two schools of thought on cask programmes – one, the average founders club price tag of anywhere between 5k and 7k is crazy, and not worth the money.
The second aspect to founders clubs is that they aren’t about investing in a cask, they are about investing in a dream – to feel like you are part of a distillery. This is what Dingle did so well with their Founding Fathers programme; members feel a sense of ownership. So for every person who buys one of those not-entirely-cheap casks, you have a brand ambassador who has your back. If you are looking for a financial return, whiskey probably isn’t the greatest way to get it, especially given the rate at which distilleries have been popping up here and a market that will be, if not flooded, then certainly well lubricated with whiskey casks in ten to 15 years’ time. So if you are going to pitch a founders club, make it a modest proposal, like Blacks:
We realise that many investors may not have ready funds to invest in this scheme and have developed a win- win scenario for people who still wish to be involved. We have partnered with Flexi-Fi Finance company with an exclusive offer. For example investors can take the package option for €6500 Bourbon cask. If you choose to invest this way you will of course have to pay interest on your loan from the finance company but you will still gain some cash if you exit via the Buy Back Scheme.
Package cost €6500. Total amount repayable with FlexiFi over 36 months is €7,493.12
Representative example Total Amount of Credit: €6,500 over 36 month term with 7.99% interest rate. €35 application fee, €3.50 monthly account fee. APR of 9.95%. Total Amount Payable: €7,493.12. The Buy back scheme offers a Guarantee min value via buy back scheme €7910 equal to a cash gain of €426.88.
The €426.88 is the minimum return via the buy back scheme you may also avail of any of the exit options available and maximise the potential of your investment in 5 years time.
Their stills are in the final phase of construction at the moment and are due on-site soon – once commissioned, maturation will take place at West Cork Distillers sprawling facility down the road in Skibbereen. Sam plans unusual mashbills and casks, and hopes to offer an array of releases, just as he did with his beers.
He is philosophical about the next stage: “We’re not trying to change the world, we just want to make products that people will enjoy and engage with, and stuff that we can enjoy and have fun with. We’re never going to hit Jameson levels of sales.”
We all have a journey to whiskey, but for some, it is a more winding path that guides us here. For Daithí O’Connell, sailor, pilot, and founder of WD O’Connell independent bottlers, the journey was geographical as well as spiritual.
The 40-year-old Carlow native started his career in hospitality aged just 15, working in a local hotel. Four years of that taught him that the 24/7 aspect of that was quite the burden – a 60 hour week commanded the princely sum of thirty púnts, with rent and other expenses on top of that – so he moved into the bar side of hospitality, focussing on the late bar and nightclub scene in McSorleys in Killarney. He then shifted to auctioneering, studying property management and valuation in the College Of Commerce in Cork city. He completed his studies, and found himself working in Mulligans in Cork city. Shortly after he went travelling in Australia, then moved to Denmark and worked in a concrete plant. Meanwhile, back in Ireland, the era known as the Celtic tiger was shifting into top gear – the owners of Mulligans, the Rebel Bar Group, were looking for someone to come on board as a partner in one location. O’Connell started back in Ireland with Oscar Madison’s in Kinsale, then Redz in Cork city, and then the Savoy nightclub, which he ran for four years during its heyday. In 2008, Ireland started to change – the Celtic Tiger was ailing and the economy was about to descend into a crushing recession. The Savoy hosted their last gig under his stewardship on New Year’s Eve 2008 and he moved to Australia with his partner 13 days later. Over the next four years his homeland would suffer the worst recession in the history of the state.
In Australia he trained to become a pilot, and was just shy of his commercial license when he moved to Hong Kong in 2010, where he was lured with the prospect of opening a bar with a group of Irish entrepreneurs. He spent five years there – running bars, setting up a boat hire business, and moving into prepay card systems (HK’s Octopus Card being a template). On the back of the latter business he relocated to Dubai, where his firm managed the payment systems for the Sevens, serving more than 150,000 punters across three days.
After building up that business he started looking for a new project, and whiskey was in his sights – 2012 saw the sale of Cooley to Beam and Dingle Distillery firing up the stills. By late 2015 he had a site sorted and was ready to sign contracts with distillers, still makers, maltsters and all the key components of the project. But the globe-trotting and relentless work took its toll. His marriage disintegrated, and he was forced to reassess everything he knew. He moved back to Ireland and shelved the distillery plan. Then came a succession of events – he met a half-Irish German girl named Alina and fell in love, they became parents, his father died after a short illness, and he turned 40. He started working as a consultant with firms looking to upscale, but whiskey was still on his mind. His partner encouraged him to take the risk and follow his passion. In April 2019, he quit his job and threw himself completely into becoming an independent whiskey bottler.
Bottlers are something of a rarity in Ireland – much of this had to do with the scarcity of distilleries. Bottlers need a diverse range – not just of whiskey styles and casks, but of sources. An indie bottler here over the last 20 years would be offering you the products of three distillers – Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley, and that was only if they were able to get access to stock from those three.
But in Scotland, indie bottlers are revered as being able to offer unique offerings from well-known, lesser-known and long-dead distilleries. In fact, indie bottlers are so important to Scotch whisky that the late, great whisky writer Michael Jackson said of bottlers Gordon & MacPhail that if it were not for this firm, single malts as we know them would not exist today.
It is in this mould that O’Connell sees his firm – to be the biggest indie bottler in Ireland by 2035. Working with support from Bord Bia he hired a creative agency to design his brand – with his love of flight and sailing, a compass rose forms a central part of the brand, while the rest is based around family.
Now all he needed was some stock, and this is where Dr John Teeling comes in. Dr Teeling was the original disruptor in Irish whiskey – at a time when Bushmills and Midleton were the only whiskey makers on the island, he opened his warehouses to buyers. He forced the other two giants to up their game and watch their corners, and is still doing the same with Great Northern Distillery.
O’Connell has something old and something new from Dr Teeling’s stable – a 17-year-old double-distilled Cooley single malt and a youthful, peated, triple-distilled GND single malt. The 17 was matured in first-fill bourbon for 17 years, then in Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, bottled at 46%, non-chill filtered and limited to 370 bottles. It is the first ‘PX series’ release, the beginning of a limited series of PX-finished single malt Irish whiskeys.
The GND single malt is a single cask of triple-distilled, peated single malt, matured in first-fill bourbon barrels and bottled at 47.5% ABV, non-chill filtered and limited to 306 bottles.
It is the first ‘Bill Phil’ release, the start of a series of triple distilled, peated single malt Irish whiskeys. The O’Connells hail from Mountcollins in west Limerick, a small village which has a surprisingly large number of people named O’Connell, so nicknames were required to distinguish between the different families; Dáithí’s ancestors were the Bill Phils, and they specialised in a type of turf-cutting implement named a sleán. Thus, a peated expression was the perfect way to celebrate this heritage.
So O’Connell has some stock, but an indie bottler needs more than Cooley or Great Northern to offer the punters. O’Connell’s model is a surprisingly new enterprise – there are many, many Irish whiskey brands out there which are effectively just indie bottlings – sourced whiskey released under another label. However, many are either released under the name of an as-yet unbuilt, partially built, or operational but sub-three years old distillery, or are bottlers without telling you that this is what they are. There is a paucity of brands who plainly state they are indie bottlers, who offer full info on the liquid within the bottle, where it came from, who distilled it, and how old it is. But bottlers are meant to be curators – they provide a vital piece of infrastructure in Scotland, and will be required to do the same here.
WD O’Connell Whiskey Merchants comes with a clarity and simplicity in its message – that they are going to source stock from distilleries and bottle it in small batches. The Bill Phil is a light gold liquid, with a bright, medicinal tang on the nose – light but succulent sweetness. On the palate – the youthful heat is balanced by sweet smoke, and for a barely legal dram it is incredibly smooth. O’Connell is quick to point out that the Bill Phil isn’t some smash and grab, where he releases a well-aged 17 and then throws out some firewater as a money spinner. Bill Phil was released because it is quality liquid – and because it shows the power of peat, something O’Connell is keen to explore. The PX is a counterpoint to Bill Phil – mature, deep, heavy with red fruits and dark chocolate. Both were released in tiny batches and are stocked in specialist outlets – Fox, Mulligan’s, Bradley’s – as these are specialist offerings.
Right now, O’Connell is a one-man show, chasing the highways and byways to get his product and his brand out there. Next year he is considering a March release for another Bill Phil, followed by an 18-year-old version of the PX in June, complimented by a small batch cask-strength edition. He is assembling casks from Irish distilleries, especially the smaller start-ups. Beyond that, he is envisioning a central hub, akin to Gordon & MacPhail’s Elgin headquarters, which would operate as a home for the brand. Settled for the moment on Waterford’s Copper Coast, he is still looking for the right place for a brand home. It may well be a long road ahead for Daithí or any indie bottlers – Gordon & MacPhail were founded 123 years ago, Cademhead’s 148 years, but O’Connell is looking to build something that will outlive and outlast him.
Ever the navigator, one of the reasons O’Connell loves the indie bottling model is because of the sense of adventure – finding new distilleries to source stock from, new worlds to explore, and a new chapter in his whiskey journey.
Our people carrier has gone to the great mecha-elephant graveyard in the sky. Taken from us too soon – a mere seven years old – it had lived a dozen lifetimes’ mileage in those brief few years, as my wife raced back and forth from home to school and school to home and Lidl to school to home to dentist to doctor to the drive-through, one endless ricochet, pinging into potholes, between speedbumps, up hill and down dale like a squatter, fatter Millenium Falcon.
The only people carrier that managed to be dirtier on the inside that it was on the outside, it was where homework was done, lunches were consumed, screaming matches were had, and about fifty euro worth of Lego was lost forever. Part livestock express, part coffin ship, it was only a matter of time before our elegant French-born bus was undone by fine Irish boreens. So we thought, hey, it is only a few years old, and while it has 140k on the clock, we were sure there would be somebody out there who would like to buy it as a chicken coop, although they might need to clean it first as all the rotting chips and apple cores in the door wells would probably give a prize rooster the avian flu.
So we proudly went back to the dealership that sold it to us, full of expectations that we would get a few quid for it in a trade-in. Obviously we were on the backfoot from the get-go, as we had the vehicle delivered there on the back of a tow truck, after it had expired in a ditch. A princely three grand was offered, and gratefully accepted, as we exchanged it for the more modern, less palliative iteration.
But now that she has changed her big ugly yoke for a slightly slicker, nicer yoke, I have come to the conclusion that I need to change my car too. Previously, the kids loved travelling in mine as it wasn’t like a mobile landfill and they were unlikely to catch the bubonic plague in it. Now they all want to travel in mummy’s car because it has a rear view camera so she doesn’t reverse into things any more. My sensor stopped working some time ago so I use my own natural instincts to reverse, ie, I stop when I hear the thump. There is little wrong with the old one, aside from the fact that in my mind I have now branded it ‘the old one’. It’s a mere four years old, and as my first car, holds a special place in my heart, for it was behind the wheel of this most bland of vehicles that I learned to drive and then passed my test. In my head I am telling myself that much like stabilisers on a child’s bike, I must now rid myself of my training car in favour of something with a bit more pizazz, something that makes me look less like a 44 year old father of four and more like someone that you wouldn’t instantly feel sorry for.
I deserve an SUV. In many ways it makes sense – I live in the sticks and with the worsening climate change, I need to be ready for deep, manly snows, and incredibly dramatic puddles for me to rage through at 120kph. What’s that you say – SUVs are part of the reason our climate is disintegrating? Well you’re just saying that because you are jealous of how well I have done in life. Except obviously, this is the first hurdle I have to overcome – the fact that really, I may picture myself in a beautiful Audi Q8, but I might also need to use some of my magical thinking to magic up slightly more income. Because cars are terribly expensive things. In fact, the closest I could get to any kind of SUV was one of those lame versions that look like an inflatable sofa and are only marginally larger than one. So I set the controls on the car sites a little lower, with a few more years on the road, and a few more kilometres. Still, all I can reasonably aim for is basically what I already drive. And so I had to come to the conclusion that actually, not only do I not need a new car, I also don’t deserve one. Why should I try to convince the world that I am doing better than I am? Surely at my age I should be well past such insecurities, and yet they persist – why do I want to fit in with those in the executive models, whose motivational LinkedIn posts read like an especially narcissistic chapter of American Psycho? They are not my tribe. I deserve my slightly boring, safe, dependable, ordinary car, because that I how I want my life to be – to get from A to B with minimum fuss, and almost no style.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.