The 12 drinks of Christmas


Wrote this for the Examiner:


Our little nation may not have the respect for its food culture, but when it comes to drink, few nations do it better. The last two decades have seen us spread our wings, with an explosion of craft breweries, distilleries, even wineries. With all that we have to offer, this season of feasting is as good an excuse as any to celebrate our remarkable skill at making excellent booze.


  1. Craft beer – The biggest obstacle to getting into craft beer is the sheer variety – it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the array of brands, styles and increasingly unusual labels. Once you figure out the difference between an IPA, sour, saison or just what a lager is, you then have to try figure out which brand is an actual craft beer and which is brewed by a massive multinational and dressed up to look like a craft beer. The easiest thing to do is to find out where your nearest craft brewery is, and buy their produce. This way you get to call yourself a localvore, which makes you cool. Why not dip your toe into the delicious world of craft beer with one of the grandaddies of them all – the Franciscan Well Brewery on Cork’s North Mall. Their Rebel Red, Chieftain IPA and Friar Weisse are available almost everywhere (thanks to the market penetration of parent company Molson Coors, who bought the Well four years ago). Beyond that, Whiplash make some incredibly striking brews, both aesthetically and in their flavour profile – try their Drone Logic or Body Riddle. Dungarvan Brewing Company have the Helvick Gold Irish Blonde Ale, or Blacks of Kinsale’s IPA.
  2. Porter/stout – Technically a subsection of craft beers, but since our national drink is the black stuff, it deserves a mention of its own. This is the time of year for porter (made with malted barley) and stouts (unmalted roasted barley), so there are many craft brewers releasing their own variations. One perennial that is always worth a punt is the West Kerry Brewey’s Carraig Dubh Porter, the closest you will get to dark matter on earth. A dense, heavy porter, there is eating and drinking in this absolute monster of a brew. Since this is the season of darkness, there are plenty of one-off seasonal porter and stouts from the craft breweries – 12 Acres have Winter Is Coming oatmeal porter, Boyne Brewhouse have a barrel aged imperial stout, Eight Degrees have Holly King imperial stout, and Western Herd offer Night Pod vanilla porter.
  3. Vodka – Once seen as the drink of those who didn’t know what to drink, vodka is becoming more of a stand-alone drink in recent times, as we consumer more spirits on their own to savour their flavour, rather than drowned in an unpleasant energy drink. The old line about selling ice to the eskimos springs to mind when you discover that Blackwater Distillery in west Waterford make vodka for the Finnish government – but their output isn’t all shipped over to the Nordic lands. Blackwater also have their Woulfe’s Vodka in Aldi (24.99) while they also have their own Copper Pot Distilled Vodka (34.99). Then there is the Hughes Distillery’s Ruby Blue range, a potato distilled vodka, for around 38.99, or they have a whiskey-cask finished vodka for c 55. If you’re looking for an Irish Grey Goose, Kalak is a quadruple distilled vodka from West Cork – incredibly smooth, this retails for 40 – 45.
  4. Whiskey – What can we say about Irish whiskey – the fastest growing spirits category in the world, it is selling like hotcakes. Distilleries are springing up everywhere, and there are brands popping up like mushrooms. But beyond the holy trinity of Midleton, Bushmills and Cooley there aren’t that many distilleries with mature stock. So we will start with them – Midleton has Redbreast (65), an oldschool single pot still that is Christmas in a glass, with lots of notes of stewed fruits, spices and a creamy mouthfeel. Bushmills has the old reliable, Black Bush, an oft overlooked but core expression in their range, which retails for about 34, but can usually be found for less at this time of year. Cooley have the Tyrconnell 10-year-old Madeira Finish (70), a classic example of just how on-point John Teeling’s former operation could be. But hark – a challenger approaches – Dingle is the first distillery to release an independent single pot still whiskey in decades. It is a rich succulent whiskey, with notes of leather, tobacco and that heavy sherry influence, but it is more than that – it is a piece of liquid history (70). A limited release, it will sell fast. West Cork Distillers have their own stock, and a wild spirit of experimentation – try their Glengarriff series peat smoked and bog oak smoked casked whiskey.
  5. Gin – A category that has exploded, partly due to the rise of whiskey distilleries looking to generate revenue while their whiskey stocks mature – Dingle Distillery’s award-winning gin is a great example. Blackwater Distillery have released a barrage of gins, often seasonal, like their Boyle’s Gin for Aldi (24.99) and accompanying damson variation. However, they also created a perfect storm for the Irish mammy by distilling a gin using Barry’s Tea – mother’s ruin and mother’s greatest comfort in one, who would have thought of such a thing? Another excellent Irish gin with elements of tea is Patrick Rigney’s Gunpowder gin, one of the most beautiful gins on the shelf and with a liquid that equals the packaging.
  6. Poitin – Finding it in the wild is a rarity – the tradition of illegal distilling is disappearing fast, so it’s up to the modern distillers to keep the category alive. Aldi have an Irish-distilled Dolmen poitin, while there is also Bán poitín (55) from Echlinville distillery up North, which also comes in the quirky variation of Bán Barrelled and Buried (59) which has been casked and buried for a short period. Perhaps save this one for the goth in your life. Glendalough do a variety of poitins, showing the sheer potential of the category – entry level (38.99), Mountain Strength (48.99), and sherry finish (39.99). The Teeling boys also do a poitin (34.99), while the Straw Boys poitin (49.95) from Connaught Distillery is also worth a shot.
  7. Wine – Nobody thinks of Ireland when they hear the word wine, yet there are, in fact, Irish-made wines. Wicklow Way Wines is Ireland’s first fruit winery, home to Móinéir Fine Irish Fruit Wine, specifically a strawberry wine (20) – granted, not the best suited to a dank Christmas, but a welcome taste of summer in a bleak midwinter; or why not try their blackberry wine (20)? David Llewellyn creates Lusca wines in Lusk – his Cabernet Merlot (43.99) is more than just a curiosity.  
  8. Cider –  the quintessential all-season drink – with ice in summer, or mulled in winter, as advised by the good people at Longueville House, whose dry cider (4) is a beauty. Multi-award winning Stonewell from Nohoval offer some beautiful ciders, but their tawny is perfect for that festive cheese plate – a a rich, opulent and viscous cider, dark in colour and possessing complex bittersweet flavours. Also offering a solid core range is Johnny Fall Down – they’ve created an award winning Bittersweet Cider, a uniquely Irish Rare Apple Port (Pommeau), and the first Ice Cider created mainly from bittersweet varietals.
  9. Mead – With all the fuss about Game Of Thrones, who doesn’t want to live like a feudal lord and quaff mead? Naturally, being an aristocratic drink, the barony of Kinsale is home to Ireland’s latest entrant into the category. One of the oldest drinks in the world, their variations on this honey-based drink come in dry, with a refreshing citrus orange honey flavour, or their Wild Red, a melomel or fruit mead type, made from a Spanish dark forest honey, tart blackcurrants and sweet cherries to produce a zesty fruity aroma and long finish.
  10. Brandy – Not the most crowded category, it would appear that there is only one Irish brandy – Longueville House’s beautiful apple brandy. Made in the stately home, it is distilled from their cider and aged for at least four years in French oak barrels. A perfect end to your Christmas feast.
  11. Irish cream – The Irish cream category got a bad name, thanks to aunties everywhere drinking too much of it and embarrassing you. However, it is a hedonistic festive treat. The festive classic – Baileys over ice, ice-cream or in a coffee – is an oft-overlooked delight. There are of course, other Irish cream drinks – the wonderful Coole Swan, Cremor, Carolans, and Kerrygold. If there;s any left over, there’s always a Toblerone and Baileys cheesecake just crying out to be made.
  12. Hard coffee – Technically not really a category at all – until this year. Conor Coughlan’s Black Twist is single origin coffee brewed with whiskey. Don’t think Kahlua or Tia Maria – this has none of their cloying sweetness. Black Twist leans far more into coffee territory than whiskey, and is excellent over ice as a digestif, or as the secret weapon in a cocktail. Of course, this is the season to be jolly responsibly – so Black Castle Drinks offer something a little bit special so the designated driver won’t feel like a plum sipping their Red TK and raspberry cordial in the corner. Their craft sodas include Fiery Ginger Beer and Berry Bramble Sting, and are a treat for all ages.


Most of the above are available in SuperValu, your local artisan offie, or online. Almost all of the drinks are made by small, independent firms who are simply trying something new – supporting them, and our food and drink industry, really is the perfect Christmas gift.

It’s beginning to look a lot like advertorial

I wrote a few bits for the Examiner to go in a seasonal supplement on Midleton, naturally I started with the distillery, then a well-curated email interview with Ignacio, above, GM of the heritage centre, and a couple of other bits, including one on Iceland. You pay me and I will write about anything guys, anything.


There used to be two distilleries in Midleton. Everyone knows about the Jameson one on the east side of town; but at the other end of the main street, alongside the Owenacurra River, close to the Mill Road site of Erin Foods, there was once another sizeable whiskey making operation. The Hackett brothers opened on this site in the early 1800s and at their height they produced 200,000 gallons of whiskey and employed 60 people. They had an eye on the future, with an interest in distilling from sugar beet. A series of unfortunate business moves and economic factors outside their control saw them lose it all, and no trace of the distillery remains. The story of the Hacketts serves as a fitting counterpoint to the fortunes of the Murphy brothers who started Midleton Distillery. They ran a tight ship, one that made it through two centuries of choppy waters, and made Midleton the stronghold of Irish whiskey, given that at one stage the only other distillery was Bushmills in Northern Ireland.

The success of Midleton distillery is down the Murphy brothers’ choices – at the same time the Hacketts were experimenting with sugar beet, the Murphy brothers were keeping a steady eye on the horizon. They chose wisely from day one – even in their choice of location: They had the infrastructure in the form of an old mill and river alongside, giving them enough power their enormous mill wheel, and provide them with enough water to create 400,000 gallons of whiskey annually. When the Hacketts employed 60 staff, the Murphys had three times that number.

There is no trace of Hackett distillery in Midleton anymore. However, the Murphy distillery has kept the spirit alive for two hundred years, surviving the lean times from the early 1900s through periods of contraction in the industry and even a spell when the distillery was only operational a couple of days a week, such was the low level of demand for Irish whiskey. Of course, the last ten years has seen a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Irish whiskey is the fastest growing spirit category in the world, thanks largely to Midleton and its owners, Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard.

Huge investment has seen the modern distillery become one of the most modern and efficient in the world, while the heritage side of it has gone from strength to strength, expanding their tourism offerings with the Irish Whiskey Academy, which offers bespoke two-day courses for the true whiskey nerd, and the micro-distillery, which not only brought distilling back to the site of the old distillery for the first time in four decades, but has also become a space for experimentation with different grains.

Jean-Christophe Coutures, Chairman and CEO said: “Here at home we’re proud to see our Irish whiskey sales growing. We also welcomed the launch of the Irish Whiskey Association’s Irish Whiskey Tourism Strategy in late 2016 which aims to increase Irish Whiskey Tourism from 653,277 visitors per annum up to 1.9 million visitors by 2025. We were delighted with the results of our €11 million redevelopment of the Jameson Distillery Bow St., which has welcomed more than 180,000 visitors despite being closed for six months. When combined with the Jameson Experience Midleton, we welcomed over 310,000 visitors to our brand homes to experience the best of Irish whiskey this year.”

IDL experienced another successful financial year in 2016/2017 with the acceleration of the global development of Jameson and its premium Single Pot Still Irish whiskey range, which includes the Spot whiskeys, as well as Redbreast. Innovation in its portfolio has been key to the sustained growth: Recent product launches include Jameson Caskmates, which experienced 110% volume growth in 2016/17.

A sign of the growing confidence in the category is the launch of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle Club, which invites whiskey enthusiasts and collectors to obtain their own cask of Midleton Very Rare Irish whiskey from a variety of exceptional casks hand selected by Master Distiller, Brian Nation for their quality and rarity. Once members have chosen a cask that suits their personal taste, they can bottle it immediately or instead request bottles of their unique whiskey as and when required. The programme boasts an array of different whiskey styles and ages – from 12 to 30 years old – that have been matured in a range of cask types including Bourbon, Sherry, Malaga, Port, Irish Oak and Rum. By becoming a member of the Midleton Very Rare Cask Circle, guests will have access to the Distillery Concierge, a unique service that will assist members in every detail of their personal experience. From choosing their whiskey to planning an extended itinerary, allowing guests to discover the best that Ireland has to offer, from world class golfing at illustrious courses to exploring some of the most picturesque scenery in the world. Clearly, this is one offer aimed at the high rollers – the first member of the cask circle was Hollywood heavyweight Dana Brunetti, with a large number of recent members coming from Asia.

To top off a stellar year Midleton’s Redbreast 21-year-old and Midleton Dair Ghaelach were both in the top three of whisky legend Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2017. Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2018 is the 15th edition of the publication and contains taste notes for over 4,600 drams. With over 1,200 new whiskies tasted for the latest edition of the international guide, the supreme Col. Taylor faced stiff competition from European rivals to claim the top award. In third place behind Redbreast 21 and Col. Taylor was Glen Grant Aged 18 Years Rare Edition, which drops from its second-place finish in 2016. Commenting on the accolade, Billy Leighton, Master Blender at Irish Distillers said: “This nod from Jim Murray is truly heartwarming for me and everyone at Midleton Distillery who has helped to make Redbreast such an enjoyed whiskey. We are humbled by this and it’s really encouraging to see traditional Irish pot still whiskey take one of the top spots in the world of whiskeys and whiskies. When we were preparing for the launch of Redbreast 21 in 2013 and we were doing our tastings, we knew we had something special on our hands so it is great to see this appreciation shared by people across the world. This award is a testament to the team at Midleton and especially to my predecessors who had the foresight to squirrel away those casks that helped us to bring Redbreast 21 to the world.”

Midleton has outlived many other competitors – from the Hacketts at the other end of town, to distilleries all over Ireland that failed over the last two centuries. As we head into a second golden age of Irish whiskey, it will be Midleton that will guide the category to greater and greater success.


As ‎general manager of ‎The Jameson Experience Midleton, Ignacio Peregrina is in charge of one of southern Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions – perhaps a fitting career for someone who came from one of Europe’s top holiday destinations.

“I’m from Gran Canaria, an island famed for its welcome and tourism, and I wanted to move somewhere with a similar passion for hospitality. I arrived in Ireland just over 15 years ago; I came for the craic but ended up staying and building a life here. Once I met my future wife Claire I knew Ireland was the place for me. I met her within an hour of landing, my buddy picked me up from the airport and we went to a Salsa class where I met the wonderful Claire. We were married three years ago in Midleton and we are blessed to call Midleton our home.

“My path to Midleton started in Dublin. During my time there, I worked for four years in the Jameson Distillery Bow St. and I also undertook a degree in Hospitality and Tourism in DIT. I’ve always had a passion for food and drink so Dublin was a great place to explore this passion. During my time in Bow St., I built up experience across all areas of the business and that helped me to secure my dream job here in Midleton as General Manager of the Jameson Experience.”

Of course, he isn’t the only person to come from overseas to Midleton: “It is a great pleasure to welcome people from many different nations. A considerable percentage of our visitors arrive via tour operators and it’s always a good day for me to pull up at work and see buses filled with people excited to experience Midleton Distillery.

“The top five visiting nationalities, in no particular order, are French, German, British, American and Irish, with the Jameson Experience tour being our largest selling tour. However, in recent years we have opened the Micro Distillery and Irish Whiskey Academy and the craft tours we have created for these areas are proving very popular, especially with whiskey enthusiasts. Midleton Distillery offers a truly sensorial experience where you can see, hear, feel and smell a live distillery in action.”

The Jameson Experience in Dublin recently closed for a renovation, and while their new tour is all singing, all dancing, Midleton offers an insight into the processes of whiskey making: “The main difference between the two sites is that our Bow St. team focus primarily on Jameson Whiskey whilst my team here in Midleton explore all our whiskey brands – Jameson, Powers, Redbreast, the Spot Range, Midleton Very Rare and the newly launched, Method & Madness.

“My opposite number at the Jameson Distillery Bow St.  operates several great tours of varying duration and intensity so, whether you’re new to the world of whiskey, a connoisseur or a budding cocktail maker, they have an experience for you.

“Here at Midleton Distillery we also provide a range of tour experiences such as the Jameson Experience, the Behind the Scenes tour, and the Academy Experience. All are great fun and offer visitors wonderful insights into some of Ireland’s historic whiskey brands.”

The Irish Whiskey Association is pushing whiskey tourism here, and recently held the launch of their southern whiskey tourism plan in Midleton: “Ireland has great potential to become a world class destination for whiskey tourism. As the Irish whiskey industry grows, we’ve welcomed many visitors from new and established distillery attractions who are keen to learn what we do and how we do it. Irish Distillers have been operating whiskey visitor centres for over 30 years so we have plenty of experience to share. We don’t see other distilleries as competition, which of course they are, but, as one of the guardians of the Irish Whiskey industry we’re delighted to help in any way we can.

“At Midleton Distillery we’re ready to welcome anyone who would like to improve the whiskey tourism product. We have tough competition from our friends in Scotland but if the whiskey players in Ireland work together we can offer an amazing experience.”

Peregrina also works closely with the local Chamber in Midleton: “An effective Chamber of Commerce can make a significant difference to a town and we’re blessed to have such a great team here in Midleton.

“Midleton town has been home to whiskey distilling since 1825 and is our priority to work with and support the local community as much as possible. We do everything we can to make sure more people come to Midleton and leave with lovely memories that will last a lifetime.”



The bluebell flower blooms in spring of each year. Usually located on the forest floor, they burst into life as the first rays of a brighter sun touch on them, after its long absence during the winter months. Their bulbous, indigo flowers are a sign that brighter days are coming.

Opening a business in the teeth of the worst recession in Irish history would have been a brave move for any business person. But to open a gift shop in a small town in east Cork seems like absolute madness. However, seven years on and Hazell Abbott’s compact and bijou Bluebells on Midleton’s Main Street is still going strong. Of course, the success of the store isn’t just it’s selection of interesting gift ideas, but in Abbott’s background as an accountant. However, even she admits that it was a crazy idea: “I opened up at the worst time,” she laughs, “everyone thought I was totally mad.”

From Offaly originally, her husband hails from Barryroe in west Cork, so when it came to them leaving Dublin, the chose to head south. She had planned to open a gift shop for several years, but location would be key.  She and her husband – who is also an accountant – went on a reconnaissance mission to towns around Cork to find the perfect blend of a good space at a good price – and a good buzz about the place. They settled on Midleton, citing the atmosphere, the large hinterland and the fact that while other towns struggled over the last 20 years, Midleton has thrived. It is a wealthy town. After a successful few years, she expanded the shop to the rear, and took on two staff so she could spend more time with her husband and their two year old son.

While her business shifts into top gear from here to January, it is more than just a seasonal outlet – as she notes, there are always gifts needed for wedding, anniversaries, new babies and birthdays. But at this time of year her shop is busier than ever, with its selection of bric a brac and miscellania – a selection that Hazel spends some time choosing, ensuring that her offerings are not widely available in the town, dropping lines that are carried elsewhere. But at this time of year her shop is a godsend for anyone looking for that just-so item, the little thing that you haven’t seen anywhere else, that most elusive thing – the ideal Christmas gift.


Hermann Jónasson was a famously hot-blooded Icelandic politician who famously once slapped a member of an opposition party. Despite this, he is remembered as one of his country’s great politicians, which is perhaps why Malcolm Walker, a British businessman, decided to pay tribute to Jónasson – a family friend of the Walkers – when he opened his new supermarket chain. That was back in 1970, and now almost half a century later, the chain is going from strength to strength. Almost from day one the focus was on freezer food – and it upon this rock that they built their church.

Iceland initially came to Ireland in 1996, but withdrew in 2005, only to return in 2008. Since then they have gone from strength to strength, with their 18th store in the Republic opening in Shannon next month. This flurry of store openings was the result of a €12 million investment in nine new stores in Ireland this year alone. Some 270 new jobs were created across the country as part of the investment in the new stores in Tallaght, Galway, Cork (Douglas, Fermoy, Ballincollig) Letterkenny, Limerick, Shannon, and Gorey.

Ron Metcalfe, Managing Director of Iceland Ireland said “We have been back in Ireland for four years now and have been committed to expansion from day one. This new investment sees 2017 as our biggest year yet with our nine new stores opening. We’re looking forward to bringing great value and a brand customers can trust to Tallaght, Galway, and across the country this year, as well as welcoming new team members to the Iceland family. And as always, we’re looking forward to expanding and delivering the Power of Frozen to more Irish customers than ever before”.

The Midleton store opened in 2014, and brought a much-needed boost to Distillery Lanes, a Celtic Tiger era development at the east end of the town. Since then the store has thrived, offering a unique food offering to shoppers who flock there from across Munster. Iceland is home to over 2,000 branded fresh and frozen grocery products, and supports Irish with more than 32 local suppliers – in addition to being the exclusive stockist of the Slimming World range in Ireland. Iceland Midleton even offers a home delivery service, while Iceland was also the first UK supermarket to remove artificial flavourings, colouring, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and non-essential preservatives from its own branded products in 1986. In 1990 Iceland took the lead in banning mechanically recovering meat (MRM) from own brand products; and in 1998 Iceland became the world’s first national food retailer to ban genetically modified (GM) ingredients from own brand products.

Iceland has thrown off the old stigma of convenience foods, and is now a one-stop shop for the party season and beyond. With a recovering economy and the festive season ahead, it looks like Iceland are heading into their biggest Christmas yet, while the brand has come full circle in recent years by opening an outlet in Iceland itself. Hermann Jónasson would be proud.

No Pain, No Gain


Wrote this for the Examiner:


When it comes to achieving your sporting dreams, there are no shortcuts. Except obviously there are – steroids. Aside from big name busts like Lance Armstrong, there are more and more whispers of big names across the sporting world using pharmaceutical enhancements to gain an edge on a competitor. But of all the sports tarnished by steroid abuse, bodybuilding is one that seems synonymous with the practise. However, there are those within the scene who utterly reject any medical shortcuts – to an almost forensic degree.

The World Natural Bodybuilding Federation was founded in the USA back in 1990 with the aim of offering those who wanted to take part in bodybuilding in the most healthy way possible a platform for their achievements. From humble beginnings it has become a worldwide phenomenon. The Irish wing of the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation held their annual competition in the Everyman Theatre last Saturday. There among the gold gilt Victorian splendour, competitors, clad in the tiniest scraps of in velvet and sequined cloth, flexed and posed as they showed the judging panel just how perfectly defined their bodies were, while backstage there were drug tests and polygraph tests to make sure that nobody had been tempted to use steroids or growth hormones.

One of the organisers, Mark Lee, a champion natural bodybuilder, explained the motivation for this purist approach: “Bodybuilding has a stigma associated with it which is what we are trying to break.

“But you will have some people regardless who will turn up and try. We would love to test everybody who takes part, but it costs a lot of money, the testing alone costs up to 2,000 euro per show, so we need to get a lot of bums on seats here.

“You won’t see our shows as heavily attended as the other shows in terms of competitors – we have about 70, normal competitions would have about 140, because we have such guidelines and rules, people just won’t come. But we don’t want them obviously if they are using steroids.”

The Natural Bodybuilding Federation of Ireland has seen competitors start out with them and then move on to pharmaceutical enhancements – but the NBFI does not tolerate anyone who has used steroids previously in their life: “You have guys who would have gone natural who then would have moved on to other things. There are other associations out there that have a seven year rule – whereby they allow you to compete naturally in their association if you have been off any banned substances for seven years, but ours is a lifetime rule. So if you ever in your life had any steroids, you can’t take part in our events.

“For us it’s a lifestyle – our people want to eat healthy and train healthy.”


They train healthy – and they train even harder because of it. There are no shortcuts here. Take Aleksander Grynia, a 23 year old who travelled down from Wicklow for the contest. His muscle mass isn’t just for show – he works making industrial equipment and needs to be as a strong as possible. He works a nine to five job, then trains from six to nine every evening and more at the weekends. In the week leading up to the event he doubled down on his efforts, cut down on his food intake, and took bronze in the under-24 category.

From the outside, bodybuilding seems like an odd pursuit. There is a sense amongst some that improving the physique to this degree means the intellect will atrophy. But then you talk to a bodybuilder and realise that their understanding of the human body is far greater than the average person. They are like mechanics, fine tuning and boosting muscle and sinew until they achieve perfection – this is the body as machine. Unlike team sports, it is often a solitary affair, as they strive to be the best they can be: Rise before dawn, protein shake and gym. Everything is controlled, from the diet to the routines to the reps. The self discipline is extraordinary, but once people get the taste for it, it becomes a vocation.

The show itself is split into categories – based on age, height, weight and gender. Competitors are asked to do a series of poses to show certain muscles or muscle groups, and this is where genetics come into play. While some people build muscle more easily than others, some people are simply blessed with, for example, sizeable lats, so when competing they can fan them out like the Archangel Gabriel spreading his wings.

Then there are posedowns, where competitors have to freestyle a variety of poses, showing their best assets to the crowds – you find yourself holding your breath as they flex and strain to get each muscle to pop. The brown colouring they use on their skin enhances this effect – the darker colour shows the contours. But this is about something deeper than skin – it is the human form stripped bare, all muscle and sinew as visible as it would be in a medical textbook.

One person who has made a career out of capturing muscle and sinew is Shaun Barry. From Carlow, the young photographer travels the country covering bodybuilding events, and his moody monochrome portraits have become highly desirable, as they transform their subjects into classical godlike figures. Having got into photography five years ago, in the last three to four years he started to focus on fitness photography and found his niche, although as he points out there are a few more people getting into it now – to this end he pays to secure image rights on events. There is a whole micro-economy around fitness – gyms, shops selling supplements, home training equipment, clothing. As our working and home lives become more sedentary, simple things like going to the gym are becoming part of our lives, and a dedication to feeling and looking your best is less of a prideful sin and more a medical necessity.  

The Everyman was packed with families of competitors – from grandparents to infant children. Conor McCarthy travelled with his parents and girlfriend from Mullingar and was beaming with pride in the lobby. Only two years after starting bodybuilding, he took first place in the Men’s Physique (Tall) category.  While he has youth (and height) on his side, many of the competitor are in their 40s and 50s. All want to be the best, but in the small scene of the national circuit, they all know each other well. They all want to win, but they all have the same aim – to win clean. In a world that seems to be facing an epidemic of shady practises across all sports, the NRBI have shown that the most powerful muscle of all is the mind.

Another goddam hot take on the Rose of Tralee

Did this for the Examiner:


Is there anyone who doesn’t love the Rose of Tralee? The answer, obviously, is a resounding yes – there are many, many people who do not like the Rose of Tralee. There are many reasons why this is so – it is seen as an anachronism, a throwback to the 1950s era that spawned it, when Church and State worked hand in hand to create an atmosphere akin to The Handmaid’s Tale. Fr Ted may have thoroughly skewered the festival via the Lovely Girls contest, but perhaps we have come out the other side of it and can now appreciate the Rose festival for what it is – slightly awkward, relatively harmless fun.

The Rose of Tralee is a many splendored thing – here are just some of its wonders

It’s not a beauty pageant: From the outset it has never been a beauty pageant, because that might suggest humans feel desire, and that wouldn’t have gone over well back in the 1950s when we reproduced via pollination. The Rose of Tralee is meant to be more about the kind of beauty that doesn’t actually matter in the real world – inner beauty. The qualities they seek are those reflected in the song of the same name – that she be lovely and fair, like the first rose of summer. Or beautiful, as it is also known.

Escorts: Like a fringe festival of Lovely Boys, the escorts play a pivotal role by looking like they are going to a dress dance in Templemore training college, whilst making sure their Rose is assisted when alighting from buses or getting back onto buses, or that overseas Roses are taught about important aspects of Irish culture like why we hate the British, what a spicebag is, or how to sledge someone effectively at a puck-out.

The Build-Up: Even though the event is best known as a brief TV spectacle, the Roses actually have to endure a long tour of duty around the country for some awkward photo shoots. Nowhere is safe –  shopping centres, wildlife parks, self service filling station forecourts, public amenity sites, no space is too insignificant or bleak for the Roses to be herded off a bus, only to get assaulted by a llama while someone else takes 300 photos.

The host: From Gaybo, to Raybo, to Tubbs, to Dáithí, the key element to being the host is to be as awkward as humanly possible. This helps the Rose feel more normal, despite being trapped in an actual episode of Fr Ted. The secret is to be asexually bland, and not steal the limelight from the poor Rose – Ray D’Arcy caused consternation the year that he did a cartwheel across the stage as it was deemed much better than most of the Roses’ performances and almost saw him win the title.

The party piece: Some Roses are clearly destined for greatness – look at a pre-stardom Gabby Logan’s professional performance back in 1991. Then there are the Roses who look like they just found out they were expected to do a little party piece, and rattle out a bawdy Limerick or show how they can turn their eyelids inside out. Of course few can compare with the 2011 Dublin Rose, Siobheal Nic Eochaidh, whose wildly thrashing hip-hop dance routine looked like one of the scenes cut from The Exorcist.

The controversies: Somehow you would expect that this gentlest of events would avoid becoming a scene of controversies, but sadly it seems even the Rose Dome has become a sort of analog Twitter in recent years. There was the fathers rights activist who dressed as a priest and stormed the stage with an illegible sign that made everyone think it said Farmers For Justice (which no doubt got a few cheers from the Macra escorts), to last year’s Down Rose, who said the Roses were treated like animals in a circus, which was very upsetting as she had clearly never been to a circus. Those places are awful.

The Rose festival even had its very own Inception moment, when in 2013 a shot on Monday night’s show included cutlery with the crest of the eventual winner printed on them, suggesting that – shock, horror – the winner might be decided before Dáithí opens the envelope on the Tuesday night. Although it seems fitting, given that the winner is meant to have the rose-like qualities espoused in the song, and thus would need to be a plant.

The Rose Of Tralee may have its detractors – and many awkward photo ops on actual tractors – but it is still a very Irish affair. Until the organisers try to modernise it and turn it into some sort of reality TV Battle Royale, perhaps we should just appreciate it for what it is – slightly quaint, gentle fun, that is definitely not a beauty pageant.


The trouble with tribbles

I wrote a second column for the Examiner for the same reason I wrote the first. Here it is:


The London School of Economics this week published a cheerful report under the title Does Money Affect Children’s Outcomes: An Update. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the update might only comprise one word – ‘yes’ – but it goes into a little more detail than that. Reviewing 61 studies from OECD countries including Australia and the UK, the study found direct correlation between money – or lack thereof – and a child’s outcome in life, including their cognitive development.

The report comes as great news for anyone of reasonable income who opted to have a sensible number of children – a figure between zero and two – but for those of us who opted to cross the Rubicon into legally needing a people carrier, the report was a further confirmation that we have too many kids.

In much the same way a human year is seven dog years, having a litter of four kids today is like having 12 or 16 back in the 1950s heyday of Catholic Ireland. While back then it was seen as some sort of blessing from God to have more kids than you need or want, having a large family in the modern age means you lack a fundamental grasp of either biology or economics.

When I tell people I have four kids I usually have to add ‘…with the same person’ as I worry it might make me seem like some feckless Johnny Appleseed wandering the hills of Munster, casting my wild oats about in every direction. When a friend of mine heard my wife was pregnant for the fourth time he declared ‘dear God man, she isn’t a clown car you know’. But here we are, with four kids aged from 14 to two and a half, arranging to sit down together for a meal once a fortnight, an event that usually gets cancelled as one or the other of us dozes off halfway through.

Discussion of our kids with other couples is along the lines of a movie character back from a tour of duty in Vietnam, complete with thousand yard stare, whispering to themselves about the filth and horror they have witnessed. Not that we get to meet up with friends much, as going anywhere with four kids is like Hannibal mobilising his armies to cross the Alps. And of course there is no babysitter equipped to handle four kids, as not even the fastest Formula One car can shift through the gears at the rate you need to cope with a toddler, a teen and two vaguely manageable ones in between whose names you sometimes forget.

Even a trip to the supermarket – which is now classified as a ‘day out’ for the kids – goes off like the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, chaos, screaming, someone missing a teddy. Charging up the cereal aisle in Tesco like you are storming a gun turret because you have to get six weeks worth of food in 15 minutes before one or all of the kids go off like a heavy artillery shell. Then when one of them finally does snap and realises they can do what they want and you can’t shout at them, you have to endure those looks from people who have forgotten what it was like to have kids; people who have used the Mandela Effect to convince themselves that their kids were better behaved than yours.  

Before I had four kids kids I used to think the parents in Home Alone should have social services called on them. Now I watch it and think ‘this is funny because it will quite possibly happen to me some day’. Not that we will be vacationing anywhere anytime soon – I couldn’t inflict us on air passengers, they are tense enough these days without six screaming humans creating an atmospheric tension that makes United 93 look like The Love Boat.

Of course, holidays aren’t even an option with four kids, because unless you are some sort of Celtic Tiger developer or Aztec god, you won’t have the money. My only hope is that when my kids grow up they can say ‘well, we didn’t have much, but we had each other’. It will be a comfort to me when they stick me in the cheapest nursing home they can find.

However bleak the picture painted by the LSE report, there is hope: A conference in the UK late last year found that most human misery is due not to economic factors but to failed relationships and physical and mental illness, so while my kids won’t get iPads, hugs are free – and I can hug the goddam hell out of them. And the organisation behind the conference that made this reassuring announcement? The London School Of Economics.

Will work for undercooked food

So I did a column for the Examiner, as their regular guy, Colm Tobin (please note, not the award-winning author Colm Toibin) was on paternity leave. So I wrote about office social events, a topic not selected by me but by my editor, and largely based on my experience of office bashes back in 2004-2007. So basically nowt to do with where I work now, who I work with, or anything else. Here endeth the disclaimer:


Office summer party season is here again, an event that blends two fun concepts –  summer and parties – with a sphere that is utterly devoid of both fun and sunlight – the modern office.

The counterpoint to the office Christmas party, which at least takes places in the dark evenings so no-one feels weird about being hammered at 8pm, the summer office party is really all about the build-up. The list is on the wall, who has signed the list, who has not signed the list, has anyone given even one cent of the five euro for the pig on a spit, or is everyone skipping that for a chicken snackbox al fresco at 3am? There is just so much giddy expectation, because deep down everyone is hoping that this goes off like the Red Wedding in Game Of Thrones, only with a charity raffle in the middle of the bloodshed.

Of course, the secret desire of the office drone to revert to some primal form after a few free drinks is the worst nightmare of HR execs everywhere. Office human resources departments run a tight ship, ensuring that almost no trace of humanity remains in the workplace – vows of silence, chastity and poverty are all in the fine print in your contract – so the summer party is a chance to take your business off site where HR can no longer see you, in much the same way French aristocrats, when devouring rare songbirds, used to place a silk sheet over their head to hide their delicious crime from the eyes of god.

Of course, for the socially awkward among us – and that is about 90% of the population of Ireland – the idea of going out with the ‘work crew’ is in itself hell. Who came up with the idea – spending time with the people you spend most of your time with anyway, only you’re not getting paid to be around them and you are drinking warm beer and getting food poisoning from an undercooked pig cheek. Not even the automatons of the accounting department could come up with such dry cruelty.

Then there is the office Iago, sowing seeds of discord and dissent ahead of the big night; are you going, well such-and-such wants to know just in case there’s any awkwardness. Then off to such-and-such to report the exact opposite of what was said, lighting the fuse on the powder keg of simmering resentment that comes from being stuck in the same grey space with the same grey people for more than a decade.

But in the run-up to the party – a period that spans the two weeks before the date but feels like it actually encompasses your entire life – you were asked so many times by so many people if you were going that eventually you just said yes, yes of course you will be there, all the while thanking god you have kids so you can cancel plans at the last minute and nobody judges you for it. In fact, you look even better as they think you am staying home to mind a sick child, as opposed to sitting alone playing Overwatch for ten hours straight. There comes a stage in life where cancelling plans is the sweetest drug of them all, and cancelling going to the work summer party brings a rush of endorphins that you haven’t felt since Sir Henry’s shut down.

When it comes to the office summer party, it’s probably best to adopt the same policy you did for the company’s manual lifting course, hand hygiene course and alcohol addiction awareness course, and just not bother going.

Scents and scent ability

So I wrote a bit for the Examiner on the Aroma Academy’s Whisky Nosing Kit, something I had tried to buy on Master Of Malt at Christmas but it sold out. The main piece was on George Dodd, who is a Trinners educated Dub, and head of the Aroma Academy, but this was my lesser contribution:


So you’ve decided to become a whiskey geek. You’ve tried a few brands, learned the lingo (arcane terms like dram, NAS, cask-strength), the science (you know the difference between a washback and a Lyne arm) and the history (the two Aeneases, Coffey and MacDonald), and have even bought a tweed blazer in Penneys so that you look the part. But there is one part of whiskey fandom that is hard to perfect; an innate sense that cannot be trained via literature alone – your sense of smell.  

Of all our senses, smell is probably the one we value the least. If forced to pick one to jettison, it is hard to imagine someone binning their ability to see or hear in favour of smell, but it is in its subtlety that its power lies – apart from enabling us to avoid danger, evolutionary biologists suggest that it also helps us recognise family by scent, and thus avoid inbreeding. It should come as little surprise that the part of the brain that controls memory and emotion also processes our sense of smell. How we perceive aromas is often guided by our life experiences. But there are some elements of scent that we can be completely objective about – and whiskey carries many of them. As the most complex spirit in the world, whiskey can be a tough sensory code to crack. How do you train your senses to pick out the key notes? It turns out, much like you can train individual muscles, you can teach your brain to isolate and identify a few of the elements most identified with what should be our national drink.

The Aroma Academy’s Whisky Aroma Kit is a beautifully packaged set ideal for the budding whiskey enthusiast seeking to bone up on their nosing skills, or for the hardcore geek wishing to evangelise friends and family with tutored tastings. Contained within the set are the 24 vials of scent, a helpful book on how to use them, a thorough introduction to Scotch whisky, and some slivers of card that can be used to diffuse the scents, in much the same way perfumeries proffer samples of their wares.

The scents help you understand how the aroma of whisky works – what phenol is, what the experts mean when they suggest there is a whiff of decay, and yet keep on sipping, what a buttery note smells like, how to identify wet peat, solventine, rosewater, or sherry.

The vials themselves are numbered and the list of their actual aromas is contained in the notebook – tutored tastings often see the vials being passed around, with guests being asked to have a guess as to what scent each vial held. It’s a fun way to show how we all perceive reality in completely different ways – could you say for certain that what you think of when someone suggests ‘the smell of cut grass’ would be the exact same as what I think of? And what of the variables – what if you have a slight cold that impedes your sense of smell? The whisky expert Jim Murray – whose annual Whisky Bible reviews thousands of whiskies from all over the world – won’t do any whisky reviews for two weeks after a cold in case it affects his ability to discern elements.

Using the Aroma Academy kit is a great way to tune your senses into the most important elements of whisky, but more than that it gives you the confidence to start proffering opinions on what a whisky smells and tastes like. The 24 scents are some of the key aromatic components, but are also key to ‘talking the whisky talk’. Knowing them is akin to learning scales on the piano before you start rattling out Rachmaninoff. Once you know your phenol from your decay, you can start expanding your vocabulary to include just about anything. A good example of creative tasting notes are those on the bottlings released by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They never directly state what distillery the liquid is from, but instead use a  tasting panel to describe it. The results are intriguing – and sometimes baffling. Consider this, a whisky released under the title of ‘Irreverent Painter In Church’: “The nose, with the oiled wood of new church pews, exuded peacefulness and earned reverence – it also had dried papaya and mango, marzipan, lemon curd, sherbet and candied angelica. The palate was chewy and satisfying, with spritzy and zesty elements (orange and lemon jellies, tropical fruits), spiced pear and the sweetness of white chocolate and French Fancies. The reduced nose continued the citric theme – lemon sponge-cake, chocolate limes and a painter with a cigarette in one hand and a margarita in the other. The palate was juicy and rewarding, combining tangy fruits and bitter lemon with cola cubes, pear and chocolate.”

With the guidance of the Whisky Aroma Kit, and a little bit of self confidence, soon you too could be drawing furrowed brows and concerned looks from friends as you prance about in a tweed catsuit talking about whiskies as though they were the Sistine Chapel – or a cocktail of paint thinner and altar wine.

The Aroma Academy Whisky Kit costs a very reasonable stg£99.95 (many other brands cost upwards of 200euro) from

What we leave behind

So I wrote an article for the Irish Examiner about researching genealogy. I went on a bit, and they rightly cut it down. However, given that this is the unregulated, self-indulgent wasteland of blogging, I’m going to post the unabridged version for you to snooze through:


Carpe diem 

You probably remember the scene in Dead Poet’s Society.  Robin Williams’s character tries to teach his students about the importance of existing in the moment, always being aware of your own mortality. He gets them to look at a cabinet of photos of the school’s oldboys as young men – young men now long dead – and  tells  his students that they too will some day turn cold and die.

For me, the internet is like that cabinet: Old photos much like the ones in this scene regularly appear on Flickr.  Portraits from Guys in Cork often pop up on accounts around the world, uploaded with no knowledge of who the people in the photos are, or what their links to the family might be, found in a shoebox after a relative passed away, too late to ask why these photos were taken.  Were they parting gifts from Cork’s emigrants chasing a dream in the land of opportunity, forget-me-nots to long lost loves, or just a need for something permanent in lives that in a short space of time endured so much change? Their stoic, emotionless poses hint at a million narratives. Finding what those stories are, what our own stories are, can be a difficult task.

Now in it’s eighth year, Who Do You Think You Are? Live drew thousands last year, and this year it’s set to do the same, running as it does from February 20-22 in the Olympia in London.  But the TV show on which the conference is based make genealogy look easy – and in the UK it may be slightly moreso. They can move with relative ease through several centuries of records. Here, where we had an oral tradition – and a lot of conflicts that  destroyed records – it is more of a challenge. The uploading of the census from the last century is a great starting point – and beyond that, subscription websites like are an invaluable resource, offering a vast array of documents and search advice and tips, access to newspapers across the world that can be sifted through using a basic word search, or more advanced time sensitive searches if you have more of an idea of what you’re looking for. The archive helps greatly in fleshing out those official documents;  we may have had an oral traditions, but thankfully, as Arthur Miller said, a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.

When I set about searching out my distant relatives, I soon realized that having a slightly obscure name like Linnane helps – good luck sifting through the Murphy clan to find those you’re directly related to. Searching the archives of the then Cork Examiner – recently added to the FindMyPast archive – turns up quite a few stories about my ancestors and their heroic deeds – blowing themselves up, being executed by firing squads at the roadside, being smoked out of caves along the Kerry coast and then executed; it seems I come from a long line of people who were as bad at hiding their contempt for authority as they were at hiding themselves. Reading through their stories makes you realize that the birth of our nation was a bloody chaotic thing, that by the time we had finally won our freedom, every family had lost a piece of itself, and every inch of the land must surely have had some blood spilled on it.  Our great grandparents fought so hard and sacrificed so much to simply have a home to call their own it’s little wonder that we inherited a deep insecurity about our sense of place, and our need to own our land, which led to the frantic obsession with property over the last ten years.

Starker than the stories of my namesakes and their brutal struggles for freedom are the ones from the aftermath of the Famine. The Cork Examiner reacts to a report in the Clare Journal (Clare being the heartland for my family name) of a house that had to be broken into over concerns for its residents when neighbours started complaining of a stench: The sherriff broke the door down, to find the Widow Quinn, her daughter and two Linnane children dead from starvation, rotting on the floor. Rats had eaten much of them.

In an Examiner editorial of November 29, 1848, titled ‘The Palace and The Cabin’, they wrote: “Pleasure reigns in the queen’s palace – starvation and death, two grim monarchs, riots in the peasant’s cabin. Yet the British queen and the Irish peasant are – rather, were – the same flesh and blood. But the queen is surrounded by flattering courtiers, and soothing strains, and varied amusements, and pomp, and luxury, and magnificence; while the peasant-mother dies on her couch of broke straw, and lies rotting and mouldering away for twelve days in the charnel house, once her dwelling. She died of absolute starvation, though living under the protection of the proud queen of England; and three more dead bodies – of starved children – lay rotting on the same floor.

‘What a horrible tale they tell – a tale that, in a Christian land, in this age of luxury and refinement, will doubtless be received with astonishment and doubt. Four human creatures, dying in this fair and fruitful land of literal starvation! A dead mother lying for a fortnight beside her dying child – think of it ye, round whose hearts home loves have twined! Four unburied corpses for as many days tainting the air breathed by the victims famine had not claimed! Merciful Providence, could the world of human suffering produce a parallel for this fearful picture? Yet our rulers stir not – they hold not out even the promise of relief to the ears – offer no pledge, as of yore, though the boasts ‘credit of the country and means of the Treasury’ are still at their command, and in their keeping.”

The paper’s coverage is scathing – they point the finger of blame directly at our rulers. Four people lay dead in a house – the Quinn woman and her child for twelve days, and two Linnane children were trapped in the house with the bodies for eight days before they too died – in a country that was still producing large amounts of food and drink; just not food and drink that was intended for the average Irish peasant. The Famine is not ancient history – browsing through FindMyPast makes you realize that it’s only a few generations ago. What marks must it have left on our national psyche, what trauma must we all carry.

But there were also uplifting stories. Take my grandfather’s first cousin, Colonel James Fitzmaurice. Born in Dublin in 1898, raised in Portlaois and expelled from school in Waterford at 15, he tried to join the British army when he was underage but his parents discovered and he was sent home. Two years later he did sign up, and began an exemplary military career. When a clerical error meant he was sent to the Somme in July 1916 aged just 17, he saw the grim realities of war first-hand. But he still thirsted for adventure, and hated lying in the trenches.

He volunteered for any mission he could sign up for, which saw him rise to acting sergeant by age 18.  He signed up for the RAF and was soon a co-pilot on the world’s first night airmail flight between Folkstone and Cologne. In 1922 he resigned from the RAF and came home to join the Irish Air Force at Baldonnel, where he hungered for a new adventure. He set his sights on crossing the Atlantic, and after one failed attempt in 1927, on 12th April he set off from Baldonnel on the Bremen with two Germans, Captain Hermann Koehl and Gunther Freiherr von Hunefeld.

Fitzmaurice later wrote “Dear old Ireland seemed nestled in peaceful sleep as we smashed through the air on our great adventure.”

They landed on Greenly Island in Labrador on Friday, April  13, 1928. They had endured oil leaks and brutal storms, but made history for the first East-West crossing of the Atlantic.

All the papers at the time report the jubilant scenes, and how the flyers met US President Calvin Coollidge a few days later, who presented them with the US Distinguished Flying Cross. When they came home to Baldonnel they were greeted by the Government led by WT Cosgrave, who gave the trio the Freedom Of Dublin.

He was a symbol of unity – an Irishman who fought with the British forces in the Great War against the Germans and went on to make history by flying with two German pilots.

After the crossing, Fitzmaurice tried to interest the government in commercial aviation, but with no luck. His efforts ignored, he resigned from the air force, and went to America to work in aircraft design.  While in Germany in 1933 attempting to negotiate with German aircraft manufacturers, he witnessed the Reichstag building in Berlin burning down. On the same trip, he even had a meeting with Adolf Hitler.

He moved back to England in 1939 and opened a club for servicemen in London during the war. He moved to Dublin in 1951 and tried his hand at journalism, with little success. He lived in relative obscurity in Harcourt Street, not quite in poverty, but not like an aviation hero either.

He died in Baggott Street Hospital in September 1965 and received a state funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery.

He once wrote: “In Irish air transport much has been achieved and a great future develops, of which our people will be justly proud. I feel certain that in that pride of achievement, the adventure of the Bremen will be seen in all its full significance, and that my dead comrades and I, will therefore, not soon be forgotten”.

But he was forgotten, at least by descendants like me. Looking at his photo I wonder what would he think of me: Untouched by war, well-fed, surrounded by loved ones, and still finding plenty to complain about; he survived the Somme, I nearly cry when I stub my toe; he made aviation history, I complain loudly when waiting for my bags at Cork Airport.

What would any of my ancestors think of me, with a fridge full of food, perfect health and living free? I doubt they would be impressed. I think of those children in Clare, slowly starving to death for want of a bit of bread, as my kids ask me for iPads for Christmas.

Digging through FindMyPast is a sobering experience; you can hear the voices of your predecessors whispering across the centuries to you, asking what you have achieved, if you seized the day like they did. Their stories, my story, is no different than any other Irish person: We have survived brutal oppression, starvation, unintentional genocide, bloody struggles for freedom, a civil war that tore the country apart and several recessions – and yet we push on.

These archives are a testament to all Ireland has achieved, and to the strength of the human spirit, told through a million stories of heroism and tragedy that lead directly to all of us. It frames us all as the makers of history – let’s just hope our contribution won’t be recorded as a series of Facebook rants about the price of the new iPhone.