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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
In 1974, the film-maker George A Romero was invited by an acquaintance to see a shopping centre he ran in Monroeville. Romero was fascinated by the mall – the way people ambled around the halls, staring blankly into windows, buying things they most likely didn’t need. He was bemused by the strange blissful state that people were reduced to, shuffling along white-tiled, glass-roofed cathedrals to capitalism.
As a result, Romero set his next film, the zombie horror Dawn Of The Dead, inside the Monroeville Mall, seeing the building itself as a kind of architectural zombie, slowly digesting the consumers that shuffled along its various wings as though they were moving through a digestive tract; the consumer as consumed.
This lengthy, po-faced preamble is my way of telling you that I don’t really like shopping centres. I think of Dawn Of The Dead every time I find myself being dragged to a sprawling retail park, and I approach them with the same sense of dread one would the end of the world. These are places without soul, as thanks to the virus that is globalisation, one out-of-town shopping centre is much the same as the last. Chain shops, chain cafes, chain restaurants and chains of us poor fools, wandering around trying to find our way out.
The greatest horror of these places is that once you have kids, they become a regular port of call, because they are so gloriously safe. A city centre is a vibrant, buzzing place, with a sense of adventure and discovery. Independent cafes, independent book shops, independent thought – the city centre has it all. Granted, it also has a vape shop every three steps and loads of the units are boarded up, but still – it is an organic, cultured place, where you can just sit back and delight in the hustle and bustle. It is also home to the constant threat that one of your kids is going to get clipped by a wing mirror or force you to listen to a busker playing The Fields Of Athenry on the pan pipes, as danger is everywhere. Shopping centres are not like this at all – there is no danger here, unless you count being brushed by a passing Little Tikes car as being worthy of a compo claim, which given our world today, seems highly likely.
A trip to your local shopping centre is a way of quietly admitting that you no longer want surprises – you want convenience, and ample parking, and predictability. Sure, there is the occasional moment of mild confusion when a new donut shop opens where the old donut shop used to be, but that’s about it. Everything is the mostly the same, forever.
I find myself becoming like one of Romero’s zombies when I go to our local shopping centre – you get that dead eyed stare from looking at products that you don’t need, and eventually you start staring at other people in the same mildly-interested way. It’s like when you go to the zoo and find yourself staring at a family eating a picnic in much the same way you stared at a lonely rhino rolling in dung.
Aside from the somnambulist state I find myself slipping into every time make a pilgrimage to one of these places, the most depressing thing about them is the message they bring – that excitement is currently out of stock in my life, and may actually have been discontinued completely. Sometimes we go there without really needing anything – this isn’t a shopping trip, it’s a day out. We are drawn to their offerings of shelter from both the rain and the sound of pan pipes, the predictability of chain restaurants and knowing exactly what the kids will and will not eat off the menu, the ability to park our bloated people carrier without causing structural damage to the inside of a multi-storey, and the quiet acceptance that I am the zombie now, standing outside Zara with my mouth hanging open, brain operating on about 3% of its functions, wondering if that donut place is open so I can shove some pink gelatinous goo into my face. As for the Monroeville mall, last year a local filmmaker crowdsourced enough money to erect a bronze bust of George A Romero on the main thoroughfare of the centre, and it sits there, broadly smiling, as the undead shoppers of America amble past.
What is single pot still whiskey? Is it the past, is it the future? Is it a uniquely Irish style of whiskey, an Irish Irish whiskey, a category within the category? Is it our secret weapon, or is it a marketing trick? Is it a common style, found around the world, a simple mixed mash spirit, a dumbed down single malt? It is a bastard malt, a mongrel? Is it a testament to Irish ingenuity and a spirit born of oppression – is it a flower that grew from ruins? Is it all these things or none, and, most importantly, is it the next step?
When I think single malt, I think of Scotland. There are many exceptional single malts from around the world, and many mediocre ones from Scotland, but it is still there – a century of marketing has linked the concept of the single malt to one nation above all others. But once upon a time they used a mixed mash too. As single pot obsessive Willie Murphy noted, there is this quote the second edition of Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing:
Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the tax on ale, beer and whiskey (which was still referred to as aqua vitae in all statutes of the period) was essentially doubled, and it was estimated that this provision would yield £384 000 in revenue (Statute 1661, Car II, c.128). To raise this huge sum there must have been several large legitimate stills in existence, such as those of John Haig & Co., who claim that a Robert Haig established their business in 1627 (Anon., 1914). What is interesting, from a technical viewpoint, is the fact that these taxes were imposed not only on malted barley but also on spirit ‘not made of malt’. Other chronicles of this period similarly allude to spirit being made from a mixture of grains, such as oats, barley and wheat (Smith, 1776) as well as malt. So even from the earliest times some whiskey was being distilled from unmalted grain, and not all malt was made from barley. The malt tax introduced in 1701, for example, states that duty shall be paid: ‘upon all Malt, ground or unground, whether the same shall be made of Barley, or any other Corn or Grain whatsoever’ (Statute 1701, 12 &13 William III, c.5).
That Smith they are referencing is none other than the father of capitalism Adam Smith, him of ‘greed is good’/Gordon Gekko fame. In the brutal tome more commonly known as The Wealth Of Nations, Smith notes:
Malt is consumed not only in the brewery of beer and ale, but in the manufacture of wines and spirits. If the malt tax were to be raised to eighteen shillings upon the quarter, it might be necessary to make some abatement in the different excises which are imposed upon those particular sorts of low wines and spirits of which malt makes any part of the materials. In what are called malt spirits it makes commonly but a third part of the materials, the other two- thirds being either raw barley, or one-third barley and one-third wheat.
Smith wrote that back in 1776, and then there’s this from super sleuth Charlie Roche:
So before single malt knew what it was, it was a mixed mash whisky not unlike our own supposedly uniquely Irish style.
Single pot still can never compete with single malt, but it can become something else. There are obviously obstacles, because it’s not just a complex whiskey, it is also a complicated one. Referring to it as a mixed mash whiskey is actually a welcome simplification – single pot still is a confusing name, as it reflects not the style, nor the key element of the mashbill, but rather the device used to distill it. Also, as they are not allowed to call it ‘pure pot still’ anymore, it now sounds like it is only distilled once, or made using only one still. For consumers approaching the SPS category for the first time, there is a lot of baggage to get your head around. Then there is the requisite explanations of the corn laws, because every whiskey should come with a history lesson that focuses on taxation of grain. But SPS has genuine heritage, and this is where it gets even more complicated.
Peter Mulryan knows a thing or two about whiskey. He went from writing books on the subject to being the public face of Irish Distillers Ltd SPS promos and is now the driving force behind Blackwater Distillery. Mulryan has blogged about his dissatisfaction with the technical file – the document that controls what Irish whiskey is and how it is made – and has started making pot still whiskey from old mashbills, as the more recent rules mean that SPS is what IDL say it is. Mulryan notes that in all the old historical SPS mashbills he has come across, not one meets the standards set out by the technical file.
Published five years ago, the technical file was written by the large whiskey producers in Ireland at a time when a boom was looming and the finer points of the category needed to be locked down. The result is a document defining SPS to suit IDL’s in-house style – imagine if Diageo legally declared that Guinness is the only style of stout allowed by law, which, quite frankly, sounds like exactly the kind of thing Diageo would do.
You can read the file itself here, or David Havelin’s excellent dissection of it here and here, but IDL’s influence is all over it, including references to SPS being made ‘usually in large stills’ and even allowing for a little bit of column still distillation in there, which is clearly a gob in the face of history. But SPS as a style was resuscitated and kept alive by IDL, so little wonder that they felt such a sense of ownership over it that they simply went ahead and redefined it.
And just so I can play devil’s advocaat, I would make this point – it has been five or six years since the big producers sat down to write the tech file, and a lot has changed. Grain has become a major talking point, with words like provenance and terroir becoming part of the global discussion, so one more question before I launch into an actual whiskey review – is it not possible that IDL themselves would change the technical file definition of SPS, given how restrictive it is? Are their hands not tied by the file, now that they have a micro-distillery where they can compete with the likes of Blackwater? Would they not wish to loosen the ball-gag on SPS and let it breathe a little? Is there not an archive filled with old mashbills in Midleton, recipes for pot still whiskeys of yore that could be resurrected and released in tiny batches, little pieces of history brought alive and offered to the world as part of a celebration of our heritage? Perhaps, perhaps not. But until they do, we have Midleton’s interpretation of SPS, ahistorical as it may be, and hey, it isn’t all that bad.
At a Redbreast masterclass at Whiskey Live Dublin in 2017, attendees were given a gift – a sample of Redbreast 21-year-old bottled at cask strength. I, being both antisocial and impoverished, was not in attendance, but John ‘Whiskey Cat’ Egan was there, and through a circuitous route that involved Omar ‘That’s Dram Good’ Fitzell smuggling the sample up from Kerry, I managed to get my paws on a generous portion of this fabled whiskey (a 100ml sample of it sold at auction for more than a hundred euro earlier this year).
And so to some notes on this rarest of birds:
Nose: Hello again, chocolate, tobacco, leather, raisins, and for SPS Redbreast bingo, Christmas cake in a glass, complete with marzipan and brandy butter. Pear drops and camphor, roasted banana, flambé crepe with Nutella. It’s cask strength, but you genuinely wouldn’t know it – this is about flavour, not strength.
Palate: Really reminiscent of the Dreamcask, so much so that it should really become an annual, relatively affordable release – flog 300 of these for 250 a pop one day a year, g’wan. Up front there is more fruit, those JR ice-lollies from the Eighties, rhubarb crumble, bread and butter pudding; it is dark, rich, deep, like meself. There is a lot of toffee, fudge, dark chocolate, hot chocolate with a drop of Baileys in it.
Finish: That zesty snap of the SPS spice fades slowly, and again a lot of notes reminiscent of the Dreamcask, that bergamot, the sweetness, the leather and tobacco wafting. A beautiful whiskey, and one that deserves to be shared with the world (stocks permitting). Is it automatically better than the standard 21? Not really. It’s great, but to me that 21 is the gold standard for Irish whiskey, SPS or SM or SG or blend or vatted malt or anything. It is accessible, widely available and an absolute beauty. That said, the 21CS could easily be the match of the Dreamcask, especially if it was released at a reasonable price and in a fashion that didn’t become a flipping free-for-all.
Aside from all my grumbling about the technical file, and the fact that it could do with some significant edits, if there is a way to open hearts and minds to our unnecessarily complicated indigenous style, then Redbreast is it. Forget the youthful SPS of Dingle, Teeling and impending ones from Great Northern, or even the multiplicity of well-aged Powers single casks, ain’t nobody got time for that. To hell with the Spot family, beautiful as they may be, because they are an even more confusing pitch than Redbreast. The smart money is on the priest’s whiskey. Redbreast was my epiphany, and look at me now, friendless and alone, writing sprawling thinkpieces on a minor category of whiskey. So here’s to our grains of future past, and to single pot still whiskey, whatever it once was, and whatever it may become.
After the passing of Dr Pearse Lyons of Alltech a year ago, I wrote this tribute piece for FFT.ie:
Dr Thomas Pearse Lyons was a man who looked beyond the surface. Many business empires are built on marketing and spin, but Dr Lyons, a consummate scientist, spent his career looking deeper into animal nutrition, brewing and distilling. His death on March 8 left behind a vast empire, with a business that employed more than four thousand people in ninety countries and spanned agrifoods, brewing, and distilling – a fitting legacy for a man who had an endless thirst for knowledge, and a mind like a razor.
Thomas Pearse Lyons (1944-2018) grew up in Dundalk. One of six children, his mother ran a grocers, and it is she who he credits with his drive and entrepreneurial spirit. Aged just 14 he started working in the laboratory of the local Harp Brewery – his parents were both teetotallers, but on his mother’s side he came from five generations of coopers to the great distilleries of Dublin.
On the insistence of his mother, he studied biochemistry in University College Dublin. Later, in 1971, he received his Phd in Biochemistry from the University of Birmingham, after which he worked for Irish Distillers, playing a pivotal role in the design of the new Midleton Distillery, a facility that was to become central to the battle to save Irish whiskey from annihilation during the lean years of the 1980s.
But while his education and experience in Ireland and the UK laid the groundwork for his success, it was in America that he achieved his most remarkable feats.
Emigrating to Kentucky in the 1976, he worked with local ethanol distillers to help improve their processes. After four years, he finally made the move that would define his life’s work, and, using a loan of 10,000, he started a company in the garage of his house.
At this stage he was married to Deirdre, and they had two young children, Mark and Aoife. It was a risky move for anyone, but especially someone who is married with a young family. The company, Alltech, specialised in animal nutrients, and in its first year it turned over a million dollars.
As the value of his company soared, he diversified into brewing and distilling, as well as authoring a number of texts on the subjects. He became involved in philanthropy, building laboratories for schools, and helping Haiti recover from the devastating earthquake in 2010. While he was a well-known figure in the US, back home he was less well known, save for appearances in annual rich lists. It seemed a shame that one of our great success stories was not as celebrated in his native land as he was in the US – but all that was about to change.
The Irish whiskey category was booming, and Dr Lyons stated to consider bringing his brewing and distilling skills back home. In 2013 he started to search Dublin for somewhere to build a distillery. His choice of location show just how he was able to see beyond the surface – a dilapidated church in the Liberties, the spire of which had been removed. Although the site had a rich history that went back centuries, in recent times the site had been left to decay, with the church itself being used as a lighting showroom. There were other site he could have chosen – places less expensive to build, with less heritage and fewer complications – but he did not shy away from a challenge. A complete rebuild and restoration of the church and its surrounds saw the billionaire spend some 20 million euro creating the Pearse Lyons Distillery At St James’s, complete with stained glass windows showing the saint after which the church was named, and one of Dr Lyons’s cooper ancestors. Opening last September, it is a fitting monument to a man who blazed a trail in the sciences and in his many philanthropic work.
As with any business leader, it can be sometimes hard to get a sense of who they are. Dr Lyons always cut a dash, with his dickie bows, sing-songs and boundless positivity. For a man who was able to look beyond the immediately visible, his death leaves you wondering what drove him to achieve all he did.
There is of course, a very simple answer: Family. His family was built into his success from day one – Alltech takes its name from his daughter, Dr Aoife Louise Lyons, while its signature colour was chosen by his son, Dr Mark Lyons. Mark and Aoife are senior members of the firm. Dr Lyons’s wife Deirdre is director of corporate image and design, and even designed the stained glass windows in St James’s, while she also oversees Alltech’s philanthropic works worldwide. Speaking about his wife upon the opening of the distillery, Dr Lyons said: “The builders said that they loved working with Deirdre because she never changed her mind. Never. She has the vision of what she wants to do. I think this is what makes us a formidable team. It’s telling our story. It’s history.”
Dr Lyons’s death on March 8, 2018 from a heart problem, marked the sudden end to a remarkable life. His son Mark said in a statement: ““He saw farther into the horizon than anyone in the industry, and we, as his team, are committed to delivering on the future he envisioned.”
Dr Pearse Lyons will be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to science, to business, and to making the world a better place. But beyond the empire he created, it is his dedication to his family is the most inspirational aspect of his life – he looked beyond the horizon, but he never forgot that family was life’s most important work.
Life in the media isn’t all a joyless grind of deadlines, changing the ribbon on your typewriter, and checking under your car for explosives – sometimes even part-timers like me get invited to the odd event. So it was that I found myself at a drinks launch, with several other, younger, more successful and attractive media types, all stylishly dressed and deep in free libations. Naturally I was trying hard to convince them that I was somebody of note. I have a column, I slurred. What do you write about, they asked. It’s kind of like Death On Credit crossed with The Simpsons, I said.
Given that they were all young and out enjoying life and building careers, they were curious to know more – what’s it like to have a load of kids, is it wonderful, like Cheaper By The Dozen, is every day like The Wonder Years. Yeah, I mumbled, kinda. And then I gave them The Talk – a long and tedious speech I wish I could give my twentysomething self, about how much responsibility actually comes with being a parent, the pressures, the shame, the guilt. Obviously there is wonder, and magic, and even some of those fireworks Hollywood relentlessly promises you, but there is also a lot of just cleaning urine off the bathroom floor, loading and unloading various household appliances, loading and unloading a people carrier, and realising that self care and mindfulness are luxuries that you can no longer afford. It was possibly because I hadn’t been out in a while that my chit-chat went so dark so fast, as at some point I transformed into a reverse Jacob Marley, moaning at them in ghlastly tones about how they should focus on their careers, and spend more time at the office. Don’t end up like me, I whispered.
One of the journalists broke the silence by saying he was thinking about never having kids, and I chirped, good for you. Don’t be enslaved by Nature’s deranged recruitment programme, don’t end up conscripted into the human assembly line, stay strong and don’t let About A Boy convince you that life sans children is somehow empty. I have friends who don’t have kids, and while our lives are different, I could hardly say that somehow my life is a rich banquet and theirs is a microwave dinner for one, shared with a cat. If your life didn’t have meaning before you had kids, then cranking out a load of little dependents isn’t going to fill that void.
I didn’t always think like this; I can remember when we first became parents, thinking that this was it, the greatest thing a human can do. I can even remember saying to people without children that they should have them. If I could go back I would throw a pint in my own face, because to make the assumption that the sole reason for human existence is to create more humans is really quite sad, and pitching it to others like I’m selling a shady time share deal is obnoxious and insensitive. I know that having kids has been an incredible experience for my wife and I, but that doesn’t mean it is either easy or the sort of thing you would recommend to all and sundry.
One journalist told me he couldn’t do what I do, that to write about family as I do would feel like an act of betrayal. I thought – is that what this is? Am I some sort of Judas, taking my thirty silver pieces and the odd invite to a drinks launch as payment for detailing my family’s life? Probably, yeah – but I’m also aware that without my wife and children, I wouldn’t have anything to write about, because I’m not sure I could crank out 600 words about male grooming and brunch spots. They are my muse, and while I gnash my teeth and occasionally suggest the mass sterilisation of the entire human species, my relentless complaining is part of the love, and there is never a moment when I ask for this chalice to be taken from me, not even when, the morning after a drinks launch, little people wake you at 5am to drag you out of bed for another day of inspiration, joy and cleaning urine off the floor.
I live in fear of taking down the Euromillions. Upon hearing the 175 million was won in Ireland, I had a moment of terror where I tried to remember if I had done it or not. What if I had won the lot? What then? What would become of us?
I often joke with my wife that it isn’t love that kept us together, but poverty. Breaking up is an expensive business – there’s the legal fees, splitting of assets, securing two new properties from the proceeds of the sale of one, botox for her, Ed Hardy jeans and highlights for me, not to mention the high cost of being single again and trying to appear affluent whilst using a medical card to get treatment for my fungal toenail. A relative lack of money, and not having enough income to follow through on heat-of-the-moment threats of divorce meant that we were forced to work things out. It is very much like locking two arguing children into a room until they sort out their disagreement, and it works, in a clunky kind of way. So we have yet to test the richer or for poorer part of our marriage vows, as for the most part our life together has been spent occasionally buying milk with a credit card and borrowing from the kids’ credit union accounts.
I grew up listening to my dad telling me that money isn’t happiness, a funny motto for someone who worked in a bank. He had seen how money could ruin people, through either not having enough, or having too much, or simply through their own obsessions with it. He wanted me to have enough, and a little extra, but not much more. So at least I didn’t disappoint him by either earning loads or winning 175 million euro, and ruining my own happiness.
There is a theory in popular psychology called the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation. It is our remarkable ability to return to a relatively stable level of happiness after major events, both positive or negative. In short, whether you win the lottery or almost die in a car crash, your levels of happiness will be much the same as they were before the event. A famous study in the late Seventies looked at the relative happiness of lottery winners and paraplegics a year after their big win or the accident that paralysed them. The authors of the study noted that “In general, lottery winners rated winning the lottery as a highly positive event, and paraplegics rated their accident as a highly negative event, though neither outcome was rated as extremely as might have been expected.”
That report also became the subject of one of the first TED talks, when Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert used the 1978 study as the basis for his talk on happiness. The study has been shown to be scientifically weak, but further studies since that effectively say much the same thing – that, as Darwin noted, it is not strength that allows us to survive, but an ability to adapt to change, be it good or bad.
Over the last couple of years my wife and I have had the usual run of mixed fortunes that come with life on earth – losing people, kids being diagnosed with things, and the aforementioned money struggles – but I would still say that I am relatively happy. I’m sure I could be happier, and there are days when I feel immensely sad, but overall I would say I am clocking a solid seven on a one to ten happiness scale, where one is the guy in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and ten is Joseph Ducreux in his self portrait, Portrait de l’artiste sous les traits d’un moqueur. One hundred and seventy five million euro isn’t going to raise that figure any much, although during the lean times over the last few years, I would say I slipped to a five or below on several occasions, partly due to money worries. But I get by, happiness stabilises again, and the treadmill keeps running.
To suddenly be immensely wealthy, to have no want you cannot fulfil, to never work again, sounds like a kind of hell. As Gilbert noted in his later works, “A little money can buy you a lot of happiness, though a lot of money buys you only a little more happiness.”
So congratulations to the Euromillions winners, and if any of them wants to put my kids through college, that would be great.
I have some terrible, distressing news – I have succumbed to Cool Dad Syndrome. It hit me out of the blue, as I had only gotten over a severe bout of Smug Dad Syndrome, which I caught after I brought my kids to both an art gallery and a bookshop within the same 24-hour period. However, Cool Dad Syndrome, or CDS, to make it sounds official, is a much, much sadder affair. I suspected I was predisposed towards it as I liked to think of myself as being liberal and open minded in my approach to parenting, allowing my kids to play video games online, or my daughter to go to teen club nights (even the fact I don’t call them discos shows how cool I thought I was), but I’m afraid that I have recently gone full blown by allowing my daughter to go to Longitude, or, if I am to give it its correct title, ‘Longi’.
She began her campaign of lobbying around the upcoming festival season last summer, telling me all the amazing acts that were playing everywhere and how her growth as a person and her standing socially were both being negatively affected by my refusal to allow her to go on her own to Glastonbury for a week. If I loved her I would let her head off to the UK like Dick Whittington with a bindle full of cans and head full of idiotic teenage dreams about how great life probably is beyond the cocoon of your family home.
Eventually she wore me down, and I agreed to let her go to a festival. But I wore her down too, from her demands of a one-way ticket to Burning Man, to a one-day ticket for Longitude. I even tried to buy the tickets for her, but as an old man who has never bought a ticket anywhere other than the murky depths of Sound Cellar on Nassau Street, I couldn’t figure out how the online ticket selection process worked and gave up just before all-caps message came through that ‘someone had secured tickets’. Luckily there was another parent on the case, or, to be more specific, every other parent in the east Cork region, because it would appear that this year’s Longitude is going to be an unofficial school trip. So while I briefly basked in the warm glow of CDS because I was allowing my daughter to go to a festival for one day, it would appear there are other parents who are afflicted with a far worse strain of the same problem. According to my beloved first-born, there are swathes of girls in her school who are decamping to Dublin on their own for three days. Apart from the fact that for us delicate country folk, our nation’s capital appears to be twinned with both Gotham and the Interzone from Naked Lunch, the classmates aren’t even staying in a nice house as they would in Irish college, with a bean an tí to clip them round the ear if they show any signs of independent thought. No, they are all staying in apartments, the least moral of all human dwellings. I was horrified – what a dereliction of parental duty, letting their kids head off to a festival on the tear, sher it’ll be like Lord Of The Flies but with glitter and Orchard Thieves.
However, my daughter was quick to point out that while she is just turning 16, most of her class will be 17 by the time Longi swings round, and are therefore adults, or at least beta versions of adults. So this is how it starts – festival season is now where they spread their wings, leap from the nest and smash headlong into mud. And so it was that my sudden outbreak of CDS slowly morphed into Despondent Dad Syndrome, when you realise that the day they leave you is fast approaching, and you wonder if you have prepared them for life, if they have learned from your mistakes, if they are the better versions of you that you always tried to mold them into, or, at the very least, if they have the good sense to bring earplugs and toilet paper to a festival.