In May 1846, a wagon train of pioneers set out for from Missouri for California, looking for a new life and the dream of fulfilling their manifest destiny. The group, led by George Donner and Armagh man James F Reed, became trapped by snow high in a pass known as Hastings Cutoff in the Sierra Nevada. They spent four months there, and with food running out, they ate their horses and oxen as they died, and then ate the bodies of their fellow travellers after they had succumbed to the brutal winter. The Donner Party, as they became known, became synonymous with the real-world cruelties of life in the American west, and a symbol of what humans can and will do to survive.
The Beast From The East is a pretty snappy name for a storm. It tells you which direction it is coming from and also that it isn’t exactly going to be a grand soft few days. In a country that loves to talk about the weather, we are starved of extreme events. Granted, there is the odd Ophelia that blows in and levels half the forests in the country, but most of the time it’s just the usual meteorological ennui of rain, grey skies and fairly mild temperatures.
The Beast From The East is different – this is some sort of hellstorm, one that means we need to cancel every journey except those from your bed to the jacks, as the whole country is going to shut down. No employer would expect you to risk the ten-minute walk from your flat to the office, because what if you slipped on the ice and someone saw? That would be embarrassing. All over the country shelves are being emptied of bread and milk, which seems a little hasty as they are among the most perishable items in the supermarket. It won’t be much of a storm if you can survive it on tea and sandwiches; this isn’t the Stations or a roadside picnic on the way to an All-Ireland – this is the end of the world, so maybe we should be buying tinned goods rather than a sliced pan that will be moldy before you get it home.
Of course, there is always the chance of everyone’s worst nightmare – that you get snowed into work. If this is a possibility then you need to start facing the grim reality that you are probably going to have to eat at least one co-worker to survive. The guy with the sandwich trolley probably won’t be in, as someone already ate him while he was waiting at the Luas stop, so you are going to need to start looking around and eyeing up your colleagues as the poorly dressed snack boxes that they are. Start thinking about flavours – this is really going to be like an episode of Ready Steady Cook, where you just have to make-do with a rubbish selection of bruised vegetables from the bargain bin. What about the guy who is always vaping – do you really need a weird menthol aftertaste after your finished eating him, sher that will be even more unpleasant than the guilt. How about Smokey Joe, he will be first to fall, as he will still have to go outside for his ten Major a day and will probably get crushed by a wooly mammoth, which will conveniently tenderise him into a mesquite burger.
Nobody is being forced to turn to cannibalism during Snowmageddon ‘018, but where is the fun in riding it out sitting on a radiator in the break area, eating vending machine snacks with a shelf life of a thousand years? That’s what you do every day for lunch. This is your one opportunity to taste human flesh, or The Chicken Of The M50, as it is known. Check up on neighbours – are any of them potential meal deals you could be tucking into? What about loved ones – who hasn’t read Jonathan Swift’s gluten-free cookbook, A Modest Proposal, and thought ‘Cronos really had the right idea’? Obviously, none of this is genuine. I’m not advocating you eat your young, although speaking for myself, my youngest child is one of those perennially chubby toddlers who is hard to look at without seeing him as a roast chicken.
The Beast From The East is a reminder of how much we love high drama. Deep down there is the hope that nature takes a massive snowy dump on us, and we don’t have to go anywhere for a day or two, as when you reach a certain age in life, cancelling plans is one of the best feelings in the world. If this storm doesn’t hammer us into oblivion, it will be really disappointing, especially for anyone who has already prepared themselves for a Donner Party dinner party. As for James F Reed, he eventually rescued his family from the mountains, and went on to become a real estate tycoon. They denied ever eating any human flesh to survive – and were also one of only two families in the Donner Party who survived intact.
Isaac Asimov loved the future. As a professor of biochemistry and prolific science fiction writer, he wrote or edited more than 500 books, along with a vast archive of correspondence. He is considered, along with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke, one of the greatest names in sci-fi. Asimov’s embrace of the future and all its endless possibilities is still heartening two decades after his death – he once wrote ‘I do not fear computers. I fear the lack of them’. It’s a sentiment we can all relate to, given how we freak out if we leave our phone at home by mistake and have to spend a working day without Candy Crush or Facebook, or if our WiFi isn’t allowing us to download every film nominated for an Oscar this year in less than five minutes.
One of Asimov’s most notable contributions to sci-fi are his laws of robotics, conceived as part of his idea of positronic robots – benevolent machines that would ultimately help us make a better world. The laws are: 1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Watching the latest video from robotics experts Boston Dynamics, you can only hope that they have those laws written in huge letters on the wall of their lab. The US company are known for releasing videos showing their latest developments in mechanical evolution – first they made an ungainly tetrapod that could run, albeit in an awkward fashion. Then they showed it going up and down stairs, which as any Whovian would tell you was the only way to avoid history’s most terrifying robots, the Daleks.
But last week’s video from the firm was their most unsettling yet. It showed one of their robots politely opening a door and letting another robot through it. This proved all our worst fears – the robots have developed manners. This is how they will get us, through simple acts of kindness. One by one your co-workers will be replaced by biomechanoid drones, and you won’t even complain as one of them made you a cup of coffee, fixed the printer for you, or bought you a pint on a work night out. ‘01001001001? Sher he’s grand, he covered for me the day I went home early with a hangover, sound lad, apart from his dead soulless eyes’.
Next thing you know the robots are showing up at county board meetings talking about how the grassroots club-bots are the binary code of the GAA, or at community litter picks where they win everyone over by virtue of having hoovers for arms. Then they will be running for a council job, promising to fix the roads by offering us all flying autonomous cars that will gets us home safe and sound after enjoying a skinful of their new alcoholic beverage Soylent Green, which tastes slightly familiar, mainly because it was made from members of your family.
I say we reject these polite robots and the terrible future they offer – let’s stick to malfunctioning printers and fax machines, or the most reassuringly awful technology in existence, self service checkouts; yes there is a bag in the checkout area you bleeping moron, I just told you it’s there, dear god where is a human when you need one?
The humans, it would appear, are still very much here. The comfort in the Boston Dynamics videos is that these robots are not completely autonomous – there is still a human within the operations somewhere.
It is in Artificial Intelligence that our quasi-luddite fears become genuine concerns. It’s not that robots will start wiping us out, a la Terminator – although some might argue that drone strikes already do that for us – but that a robot could do our job for us. The advice from the experts would appear to be – find a job that needs you to be human. Great advice for any heavy hitting earners: accountants – algorithms made flesh, medics – Dr Google, anyone?, and solicitors – settle everything with a drone strike!
In fact, it’s hard to think of a job that couldn’t be taken by a decent, polite robot. Who hasn’t sat in the back of a taxi wishing it was a Johnny Cab from Total Recall with a mute button to shut off the banter? Or dreamed of a robot stylist as your barber chats about the footie when all you wanted was to stare at your own reflection, contemplating your decaying cells as he trims your ear hair? Who hasn’t read this column and wondered if I wasn’t really written by a malfunctioning Furby, randomly rolling around on the keyboard? The robots are coming, not for us, but our jobs.
I look forward to a day when human resources departments are exactly that – a screening process to stop these chrome interlopers from taking our jobs. A trip to HR would be a lot more fun if they were all tooled-up Blade Runners, ditching their psychometric testing in favour of a Voight-Kampff machine, ready to weed out any ‘bots who got past their interviews and blast them in the head. First up they should test Barry from accounts, I’m fairly sure he is a robot as there’s something off about him, not least in the fact that he is always humming.
Asimov’s understanding of technology wasn’t what made him such a great writer, but in his understanding, like all great sci-fi writers, of what makes us human. God created us in his image, and our biggest fear is that we might do the same with robots – that they could be imperfect, damaged creations like us. If we adhered to his laws of robotics, the world might even be a better place. As Asimov said, the saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.
Wee 41 of the column and this time I get political, with terrible results.
As a portmanteau, Brexit works quite well. It rolls of the tongue, and its similarity to the word breakfast gave great material to headline writers: Full English Brexit, Brexit buffet, bed and Brexit – all potentially great headlines. Granted, none of them make sense right now, but you just come up with the snappy headline first, and then everything follows after that, much like Brexit itself, or when Elton John out on loads of weight and some wag in the tabloids ran the photos because a sub came up with the headline ‘Goodbye Normal Jeans’.
Sadly, the only part of Brexit that appears to work so far is the term itself. The tidy little quip is the only part of the UK’s will they/won’t they trial separation that isn’t a dysfunctional mess. Yet somehow, there are some who think that Ireland should adopt an ideology that neither works as a portmanteau nor as a concept – Irexit.
From the get go, this word does not work. It is clunky, and slows down your eye as you try to figure out how to pronounce it – Ire-Zit? I – regsit? Or perhaps the gallic Irezii? Surely whoever forced this term into existence could have tapped into the usual seam of rampant nationalism by offering us ‘Ourland’ or ‘Hiberniaaah go on’, with a poster of Mrs Doyle in full Nazi regalia. No, they went with Irexit instead, and even hosted a conference around this stupid theme.
I was glad to hear there was a solid turnout from that most silenced of majorities – white Christian males. They are the voiceless ones in society, they were told, and who could possibly disagree – the last thousand years of human history is devoid of any mention of this vast, annoying section of society. How many times have you offered an opinion on human rights on the internet, with no-one jumping into your timeline to tell you how things really are for the struggling gender. Where oh where are all the angry white men you wonder, as you yearn for a flood of ‘well actually…’ corrections, casual racism, nonsense logic and death threats. Who will stand up for the forgotten millions of angry white blokes? Nigel Farage, that’s who.
As a preamble to his headline slot at the conference, Farage went on Marian Finucane’s show to offer some thrilling insights into Irish history, pondering why we fought the British for our freedom only to be ‘ruled by Brussels’. It seems a little childish to bring up the 800 years of brutal British rule again, but it’s hard not to. While his ancestors standing back as we died of starvation in our millions may seem like ancient history, it’s still a bit of a stretch to compare the EU building a load of roads for us to the brutal rule of a nation that saw our people as akin to dogs. Still, perhaps Nigel’s grasp of history isn’t that great, as last September he somehow ended up talking at a far right rally in Germany after being invited there by the granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister. Surely he wouldn’t have done that if he had even the vaguest knowledge of the Holocaust, would he?
The themes of the Irexit conference were the usual smorgasboard of half-baked notions held by the angry white men of the internet – the media is silencing them (despite much of the audience on the day being journalists), the EU has too much control over Ireland (despite the clear evidence that Ireland really could have done with a lot more control in the years 2005-2007) and Nigel is the man to lead us into this glorious future (‘us’ being an army of internet weirdos).
What made the conference more remarkable was that people actually paid to go and see a man who looks like Kermit the Frog and sounds like Oliver Cromwell tell them in a plummy English accent that they should do what he says.
The turn-out at the conference was reassuringly low, but the problem with events like this is that it gives legitimacy to an ideology that is inherently wrong. No matter how I chortle at it, I know that there are people who will read the coverage and think that Farage is right, that civilisation is falling, and immigrants are to blame. The Farage Roadshow may make for a laughable affair to most of us, but there are many who find truth in his lies, who believe they are oppressed, or under threat, or are the guardians of their race. You have to question where the line is between emboldening the supposedly disenfranchised white Christian males to become politically engaged, and the sort of deranged anti-immigration rhetoric that led to Thomas Mair murdering Jo Cox in cold blood. How far do the right have to go before they are seen as a threat to democracy, to decency, and to civilisation?
Do we really need Farage and his ilk, bringing their PT-Barnum-meets-Joseph-Goebells sideshow here, trying to set up our own Alt-Right here – or Alt-Deis, to use the gaelic? We’re only just getting over a hundred years of having lads in black marching around, preaching at us about how to live our lives, and frankly, we’ve really had enough; we need to be more open, more connected to Europe and less insular. So to to quote Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets, go sell crazy somewhere else Nigel, we’re all stocked up here.
Rejoice, cheapskates of Ireland – the stars have aligned and for the first time in decades, St Valentine’s Day, February 14, is falling on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. This is a true sign from the heavens that Jesus is a dude, as now none of us have to rush out buying chocolates or booking a table for two in a fancy restaurant, because this year the Lord has directed that we make do with some dry toast and a cup of black tea (no sugar).
Even in my godless house it was welcome news, as I still like to respect traditions, especially when they share my core belief of saving as much money as possible. I’m tempted to offer my vastly better half a lovely bouquet of rosaries, or relaxing ash facial at the local church, but instead I’m going to opt for what I get her every year – almost nothing. If that fails and she gets incredibly upset (highly likely), I can just tell her that she will get her real Valentine’s gift when Lent ends on Easter Sunday, which this year falls on April 1st, meaning her actual gift would turn out to be the gift of humour, as I don’t really have any gift for her at all. April fools!
Her celebration of Nollaig Na mBan went well, despite me mistakenly telling an elderly relative who phoned looking for her that she was off out for Cumann na mBan, leading to concern among her family that being married to a struggling writer was having an ill effect on her politics. But even Agnes O’Farrelly would have been proud to know that first order of the night was that great tradition of Women’s Little Christmas – a strip show. However, this one wasn’t some gratuitous commercialisation of the human form – it was The Full Monty for charity, although I think any woman voluntarily being subjected to an undressed male is an act of charity in itself.
The charity in question was the fund for a local community playground, because of course a children’s play area is what you think of when you heard the words ‘live male nude revue’ – a sort of Full Montessori, if you will. It was all in good spirits and through hard work, dedication and a lot of baby oil, the lads raised enough (money, you pervert) for the playground to be built, which hopefully will lead to many puns about zip lines, swinging and seesaw-yer-da’s-arse. The end of my wife’s night was nearly as thrilling as the start, as she received a half decent proposal at the taxi rank. I had her forewarned that there is a special breed of man who pointedly goes out on Women’s Little Christmas – he has crunched the numbers and he realises that with all the men folk minding the kids, and all the wives out on the lash, statistically speaking his odds are way above normal.
And so it was at the taxi rank that the local lothario set his sights on her. He told her that, serendipitously enough, he had only just separated from his wife the weekend before, which sounded like a fairly lousy way to ring in the new year. It must have been like watching When Harry Met Sally while it’s being rewound. He also invited my wife back to the hotel he was staying in, which was a smooth play as it told her that he was as feckless with his wallet as he was with the rest of the contents of his trousers, whilst also letting her know that he was technically homeless, which is very chic right now.
Somehow she managed to resist his charms – and his invite to take a stroll down the darkest alley in Munster – and come home to me, so she could giddily tell me she has still got it, before guzzling an Alka Seltzer and falling asleep for ten hours.
When I worked in a local paper, there was an elderly gentleman who would write to the letters page. They were on a variety of topics, but it was the ones about his wife I remember, as they all followed the same formula. He would recall sitting on the bus or train next to this beautiful woman, they would chat, and really hit it off, they would get off at the same stop, and they would – plot twist – both go to put their key in the door of the same house at the same time, because – spoiler alert – the beautiful woman was his wife of 37 years. When I first read them I thought they were a waste of newsprint, but as the years go on I realise I am slowly becoming him. I don’t need the huntsmen of Nollaig Na mBan to hit on my wife to know that she has still got it – I tell her all the time that she is a genetic freak (in a good way) as she has somehow managed to stay the same despite me burdening her with four children, the domestic equivalent of the hobbling scene from the film Misery. She still shines like she did when I first saw her at the local fair in 1989. Of course if you lived within earshot of our house you could testify that it isn’t all smiles and sunshine. Our relationship is like plate tectonics – two land masses collide, there are angry earthquakes and sexy eruptions, but over time all the rough edges smooth away. That said, I don’t really understand how either plate tectonics or relationships work.
She didn’t need to wake me at 3am to tell me about her fun night out, as I was, as usual, lying awake waiting for her to come home. It’s not a conscious thing, but we both do it – you just don’t sleep right when you know the other one is out, because life can be cruel and fickle, and there is a sense of dread lurking within you that your little cocoon may someday go pop. Of course, it isn’t always some terrible tragedy, accident or mishap. We used to live near a block of apartments that was known locally as Bold Boy’s Corner, due to the high number of separated men living there. It was conveniently located next to a McDonald’s, and you would see the McDads there on the weekends with their kids, sad faces all round. My Women’s Little Christmas was a solid reminder that I am fortunate to have found somebody to love and who loves me in return, and who isn’t going to leave me for a fundraising male stripper or desperate single dad who lives in a hotel room. Perhaps I will just start Lent on February 15 instead.
Footnote: The chap who hit on my wife happens to be in one of these photos. Just saying this in case I end up in a landfill.
Week 36 of the column, in which I stare at myself naked in the mirror, crying:
The Rarámuri are an indigenous people who live in the mountains northwestern Mexico, in the Sierra Madre. They didn’t always live here – this is where they fled to when the Spanish arrived in the 16th Century, and their remote location kept them safe from harm and from many attempts by various agents of ‘civilisation’ to homogenise their culture. It would appear that it was a wise move as many of their customs and traditions remain intact, such as the tesgüinadas, a sort of beer festival that they hold several times a year. Much of their social activity revolves around the tesgüinadas, which they hold to ask for rain, cures, or a good harvest. They also hold these festivals to mark Sunday gatherings, Holy Week celebrations, and curiously enough, race events. Despite having a thriving drinking culture, the most notable aspect of the Rarámuri is their ability to run – in fact the word Rarámuri, their own term for themselves, means those who run fast. While they do run fast, it is the distance they can run that is remarkable, as they seem to be natural-born ultramarathon runners. In May last year a 22-year-old Rarámuri girl, wearing a skirt, homemade flip-flops with an old rubber tyre for the sole, won the Ultra Trail Cerro Rojo, a 50-kilometre race through the mountains. María Lorena Ramírez had no special equipment, just a bottle of water, and she beat 500 runners from 12 countries. The year before, the goatherd came second in the 100-kilometer category of the Caballo Blanco ultramarathon in Chihuahua. But the success of the Rarámuri isn’t just about terrain – last November a Rarámuri family were finalists in the Polar Bear Marathon in Manitoba, Canada, where the temperature hit minus 20 C.
The Rarámuri are a reminder of the role running has had in human history, how we were able to use it to run from danger, chase down prey, and now, as we slowly eat and drink ourselves to death, it could be what saves us all.
I hated running, but I loved exercise. I started going to gyms two decades ago, and since then there were very periods when I did not train at least three times a week. While most people enjoy the social aspects of team sports, I loved the solitude of the gym, with my headphones on, working through stress and calories at the same time. But running was torture. About six years ago I realised that with a young family, the early morning was the best time to exercise, and that I would need to find a way to do it that was time-efficient, and non-dependant on gym opening times. I would, I realised, have to start running.
So I would be out pounding the road at about 5am. People used to look at me funny when I would tell them this – and, to be honest, when I would encounter another runner I would often think ‘what’s that quarehawk up to at this time of the morning?’ But in running I found a peace that I never found in gyms. Out there, with no-one around, I was all alone with my thoughts, in rain or ice or snow, hammering at the roads and enjoying the loneliness of the short-to-medium distance runner. I never ran more than five or six kilometres, and if I didn’t feel great, I would run slowly (or walk quickly), like you do in the office when someone holds a door open for you but are a bit too far away to it be be more mannerly than annoying.
While running may feel like torture when you start, you adapt very quickly, as you feel the athletic abilities hardwired in your DNA kicking in. Running is part of who we are.
There’s an old (scientifically inaccurate) analogy about boiling frogs – that if you put a frog in hot water, it will jump out. But if you put it in cold water and slowly turn up the heat, it will sit there until it cooks. Gradual change doesn’t feel like change at all. And so it has come to my attention that I have put on weight. Over the last two years I stopped exercising. A change in work patterns and a slight injury to my hip saw my gym attendance and running both dwindle and eventually stop. Then, the final nail in my oversized coffin, I started driving everywhere. My relationship with food and drink changed, as sought more comfort in both than I should have. Life is like a box of chocolates – thanks to those little cards telling you what each sweet is, you know exactly what you are going to get, and if you eat too many, you’re probably going to get diabetes. I haven’t got it, but if I keep going the way I am, it’s only a matter of time.
All this has came to a head with me asking my wife if she had been using the tumble dryer more than usual as I thought my jeans might have shrunk. After she had stopped laughing and realised it was a genuine question, she pointed out that I was just getting old, and maybe it was time to get some more elasticated waistbands. Over my flabby body, I thought to myself. So it is that I face into the new year with the same resolution as everyone else – to live a little better, and a little bit more like the Rarámuri.
Christopher McDougall’s book Born To Run, in which he spends time with the Rarámuri and tries to unlock their secrets, is a good inspiration. We may not all have their innate ability, but we can certainly learn a lot from their attitude to running. They don’t do it to win, they do it because they love it. They run in groups more than they do alone – the plethora of athletics clubs here would suggest this applies to all of us – and they also love those beer festivals – anyone who has witnessed an athletic club’s Christmas drinks will know that they aren’t exactly puritans. Neither do the Rarámuri need any high tech gear – you don’t need to break the bank to get state of the art trainers. When I started running I wore a pair of trainers I bought in Heatons for less than 20 euro. When I wore out the soles in them, I went back and bought another. Granted they may seem like high end equipment to a people who run in flip flops made from old tyres, but it shows that once you have the will, a high vis vest and a bottle of water, you can go at 2018 like Forrest Gump.
Wrote this for the Indo as I am the go-to guy for middle class ennui.
There are few events in the annual calendar more middle class than Christmas, save perhaps the Grand National, Irish Open or Ideal Homes Exhibition. It is a time of year to gather round the Rangemaster in the back kitchen, earnestly discussing your fear of the hard left with neighbours you don’t really like, sipping some M&S mulled wine out of Waterford Crystal glasses wrapped in artisanal kitchen roll. No need to turn on the heating, as your own smugness keeps you nice and toasty. But wait – what if you aren’t having the most middle class Christmas possible? Here’s 12 key signs that should clear up any concerns.
Debating when Christmas actually starts – The debate over when the decorations go up is one that rages in the middle class home. The younger generation try to force a December 1st kick off, but the more traditional (which is code for religious) among us know that to do it before December 8 is a mortal sin. Granted, this makes December 8th a perfect storm – you need to get all the stuff down from the attic, source a quality natural tree (this year there is no such thing, as they are all lopsided thanks to an actual perfect storm named Ophelia), and still make it into your nearest city to bumble about attempting to get all your shopping done in one chaotic 24-hour period. Best to follow the advice of D’Unbelievables and have breakfast the night before to get a head start on the day.
Discussion of how Roses symbolise our decline – The fall of Irish society can easily be traced by one annual event – the diminishing appearance of tins of Roses. Firstly, they aren’t even tins anymore, but rather some sort of soulless plastic, which means you can’t use them as a long-term storage for leftover pudding or cake, but it is in their decrease in mass that we can see how we are failing future generations. The whole family discuss how, back in the olden times – ie, when things were great – a tin of Roses was the size of an indoor swimming pool, and there was enough chocolate to give the entire extended family Type II diabetes. Now there is barely enough for grandad to choke on, and the new wrappers should come with their own instruction manual. The whole country has gone to the dogs.
Giving Irish-made gifts – During the December 8th trolley dash, it is important that you charge headlong into the Kilkenny Design store to stock up on Irish gifts. You aren’t entirely sure how to ascertain the Irishness of the items you buy, but feel fairly certain Irish people were involved if they are vastly overpriced and made from scatchy wool that would not be tolerated by other nations. It also helps if the packaging has a picture of a dolmen on it.
The quest for spiced beef – A regional delicacy, the hunt for a good joint of spiced beef takes on aspects of a Homeric odyssey. Advice is sought from all quarters on which guilded butcher is best; do they have craft or artisan in the name? No? Well then they can burn in hell. Once the most artisanal producer is selected, the order is placed well in advance, usually the start of February, because another aspect of being middle class is being tragically well-organised. Of course, nobody actually eats spiced beef, as it is terrible.
Which turkey to buy – Bronze turkeys are better. You have no idea why, or what bronze means (Is it wearing fake tan? Is it an Olympian? Is it the bird from one of those old penny coins?), but somehow it seems superior to the ordinary loser turkey (technically they are all losers as they all get eaten) most people have. You get bonus points if you actually hand select the turkey on the farm, as this shows you are connected to the land and your place in the food chain, ie, at the top of it. If you are considering a goose, you have transcended middle classness altogether and are now ‘posh’, and therefore an exile in your own land. You probably call Stephen’s Day Boxing Day too.
Cheese board – The modern incarnation of those little hedgehog displays made from a pineapple, cheese cubes and cocktail sticks, the cheese board is really only suited to festive ads on TV, as everyone is already on the verge of a cardiac arrest and the last thing their arteries need is a solid tonne of unpasteurised lard injected into them. Nonetheless, a cheese board appears, with everyone forced to pretend they know which weird knife is meant to be used with which cheese. Later on the knives will be used by children pretending to have a Klingon honour ritual.
Midnight Mass – It’s Mass, but more traditional. It also follows the middle class traditional of preparedness, by giving you a clear run at the following day so you can baste the turkey every 15 minutes for its full six-hour cooking time. Of course, being up this late on Christmas Eve opens another can of festive worms – when to open the presents. Do you do it Christmas Eve, half cut on port, or on Christmas morning, half cut on mulled wine? Here’s a handy guide – if you do it on Christmas morning, your inner child is alive and well and is still caught up in the joy of Christmas. If you do it Christmas Eve you are admitting that you are old, that there is no magic in this world, and you have suffocated your inner child with cheese and port.
White lights, no tinsel – Tinsel is a little Eighties, n’est pas? So you subject your tree (and yourself) to a 60-yard length of fairy lights – in minimalist white only – and some 4,000 baubles. This is a great idea, as it turns dressing the tree into an extended game of Buckaroo, as you endeavour to get the baubles on the tree while a psychotic toddler, out of their head on those cherry Roses nobody eats, endeavours to knock them all off by kicking the tree like a proto-lumberjack.
Physical activity – For two days a year it is ok to sit and do nothing – Christmas Day and St Stephen’s Day. The middle classes feel chronic guilt about this, as they do about almost everything else, and so a brisk walk is needed on one or both of the mornings. This is carried out in the name of ‘working up an appetite’ or ‘working off that cheese board’, and will see the group wrap up in their new scratchy wool scarves and head out. Whilst on the walk the group will beam and greet every other walker they see as though they were long lost friends. These are the only days of the year when being friendly to strangers is deemed ‘not weird’ and is not something that should be carried through to the New Year as some sort of terrible resolution.
New Year’s Resolutions – Everyone else knows they are a waste of time. Yet each year you set yourself a new, insanely high bar – peak fitness, no more cigars, eat less cheese – and each February 1st you ditch all your big plans and just continue as normal in a general state of shame and that most middle class of feelings, disappointment.
Disappointment, the gift that keeps on giving – The middle classes understand that things are ok but could probably be better, which is why every single gift comes not just with a gift receipt but a loud declaration that the receipt is with the gift, information that is shared before the person has even got the present. ‘If you don’t like it you can take it back’ you nervously titter, as they stare in confusion at the set of Irish made cheese knives and dolmen-shaped cheese board.
Bickering – much like the centuries long storms on Jupiter, the middle class family is in a constant state of friction. It rarely hits full-on arguing, unless someone cheats at Monopoly, or denies that Liam deserved to win Bake Off, but it is always there, a constant loving hum of good-natured ribbing over what colour turkey should be, where to buy the best cranberry sauce, or who was meant to pick up the red cabbage in M&S. Then, after three long days locked in the house together, we all go our separate ways, simultaneously breathing a sigh of relief while also counting down the days until next year.
Wrote this for the Indo about everyone I went to school with, burn in hell guys.
Ah Christmas – a time to get together with old friends, when everyone comes back home and reunites, talks about how their lives have changed and gain a deeper understanding of who we really are, and the strange elliptical paths that lead us back into each other’s orbit once a year. Of course, there are also the ghosts of Christmas past who suddenly materialise in front of you in the pub, before you have the chance to run and hide – here are ten of the worst offenders:
The Wild Goose – Up until 2009, they sounded like Micheal O Muircheartaigh being possessed by a sean nos demon. But then they emigrated, and depending on whether which hemisphere they ran away to, they now either sound like Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting, or Alf Stewart in Home & Away. But it’s not the accent that makes them grate – it’s the confidence they have been imbued with, as they talk down to you about the land of milk and honey they have discovered, repeatedly mentioning the great ‘quality of life’ in a country either plagued by mass killings, or a species of spider that nests in toilets and can kill with one bite. You smile and nod and casually ask them when their flight back is, so you can count down until this wild goose takes their grey wing, jumps in the tide and effs off back to where they now claim to come from.
The Swan – The easiest way to track your own demise is in the faces of your classmates. You look at their thinning hair, wrinkly eyes, and Nineties clothing and think – do I look this goosed? The answer is a ghastly ‘yes’. But there are always those genetic freaks who seem to age like a fine wine, as opposed to the bitter vinaigrette that you have become. The Swan went from so-so extra in the soap opera of your teenage years to looking like an actual movie star, all rippling physique, Milan style and an inner glow that blinds your weary, squinting eyes. You desperately try to avoid them but are drawn to their beauty like a moth to a sexy flame. After resisting the urge to stroke their face and hair, you go home, stare in the mirror and weep.
The Success Story – They made a fortune selling their company after getting deep into either tech or something to do with gluten. You know this because not only did your mother tell you this fact repeatedly, but The Success Story is now nonchalantly telling you the exact same thing. After their 20-minute TEDxThePub talk on how great they are at blockchain (you assume it’s something to do with Minecraft), they finally get round to asking you what you do, and then offer a nondescript ‘good for you’, before you are finished telling them. They eye the room looking for fellow moguls, before offering you a business card and disappearing, much like your own sense of self worth.
The Breeders – So how many kids do you have? That is their opening line. Kids are all that matter, the validation of your entire existence. No kids means no life, right? Wrong, and they are about to get a masterclass in what it means to be alive. Just as they try to whip out their phone to show you photos of their sticky brats, you show them the tribal tattoos you got after spending six months living with pygmies in the Amazon basin, or the crocodile bite on your leg, or just the photos of your studio apartment in the city centre, which is overflowing with Bang & Olufsen kit and smells like sandalwood and lemongrass. You can tell you just ruined their evening, as they desperately wanted to feel sorry for you, to crinkle up their already-crinkly faces as they tell you ‘it could still happen’. No it couldn’t you tell them, as this planet is hurtling towards its doom thanks to overpopulation, and someone had to be the hero who wasn’t vain enough to believe their bloodline had a right to continue. Satisfied with yourself you walk away, covering up the bite mark from your neighbour’s cat and the rubbish tattoos you got on an Ibizan booze cruise.
The Ex – Oh my god, there they are, across the bar, the same bar where you first met, this has to mean something, this is deeply serendipitous, it’s basically the video for Last Christmas by Wham! It’s like the last few decades never happened, your eyes lock and you are both back in that moment all those years ago, young and wild and free. No kids, no mortgage, nothing but an open road, vodka shots and the morning after pill. Your heart is jackhammering and you think you might be about to have a cardiac arrest as your left arm has suddenly gone numb. On closer inspection your arm is numb because the actual love of your life has your elbow in the vice like grip. Through a frozen smile they whisper ‘what are you staring at?’ followed by ‘is that drool?’ You snap back to the present and the moment has passed, you are back where you are fairly sure you belong, and everything is fine, this is fine, as you are almost certain that this is happiness. On mature recollection and reflection you remind yourself that The Ex used to eat with their mouth open, read terrible crime novels and believed in homeopathy, so it probably wouldn’t have worked out anyway. Probably.
The Poor Mouther – Despite coming from the largest farm in the province, they talk as though they grew up on an allotment in the inner city. Everything is terrible, the whole country has gone to ruin, it’s all the fat cats at the top who have it all. You wonder whether you should bring up the 80,000 tax bill they got for never mentioning their plant fire firm to the Revenue, but you don’t want to ruin their Christmas by pointing out that they are actually incredibly wealthy. The conversation reaches a crescendo when they declare that we would all be better off dead, before wishing you a merry Christmas and heading off into the night to drive their poor auld 171 Porsche Cayenne back to their 800-acre smallholding.
The Who – Hey! It’s you, how are you, how is…..everything? This is the traditional greeting for the person you don’t quite recognise. You know them from somewhere – Irish college, scouts, Bebo – but you aren’t 100% sure where. One thing you are entirely sure of is that you have no clue what their name is, despite the fact that they have used yours six times in five minutes of chat, so the pressure is growing, especially now your partner is staring meaningfully at you and waiting to be introduced to your friend. Clearly there is only one way out of this – offer to buy them a pint, and never come back from the bar. The only thing worse than this particular social nightmare is being the one who nobody remembers.
The Bully – They made your life a living hell for six years, yet somehow here they are, chatting away as if nothing happened. They seem to have suffered some sort of memory loss as, not only are they talking to you, they are talking about ‘the good old days’, as though there were such a thing. Your brow furrows as you wonder if they are luring you into a false sense of security before giving you a dead leg, purple nurple or atomic wedgie, like the one that you got in 1994 which means you now can’t have children. No, they just want to chat, and you slowly come to realise that they managed to take all that anger they had in school in channel it into something more productive than giving you PTSD, as they are now CEO of a vulture fund.
The All Star – They won an All-Ireland in 1996, and somehow the celebration party is still going on. They look like they might be about to have a heart attack, as they play online poker, swill pints, and complain about the modern game, and how the young stars now have no class, before drunkenly hopping into their car and screeching off to a lock-in or possibly into a ditch. Never meet your heroes.
The Hero – Back in school they told everyone they were a Level Eight Vegan (they only eat gravel) but secretly ate a big dirty kebab every time they had a lash of pints. After school they got seriously into Facebook activism, endlessly posting conspiracy theories about how Big Oil and Big Government were secretly watching us all through our webcams, and Infowars was the only real news left in the world. Despite their strong opposition to capitalism, they actually live and work in Saudi Arabia, wiring up the homes of oil-rich royals with IoT technology, so they can watch beheadings on their tablets. The Hero sees nothing wrong with this at all, but somehow thinks Ireland is a police state, just because they got busted with a nodge of hash on New Year’s Eve 1999.
There are of course, many more contenders for this list, including old teachers, disgruntled former co-workers, cousins you don’t have anything in common with, or racist friends of your parents. While once a year really feels like more than enough time spent with any of these ghosts of Christmas past, they do serve as a reminder of how much you love your oldest friends, your family and the people you chose to surround yourself with, because Christmas is all about the present.
It turns out that I wasn’t all set for the Christmas at all. I think I was asked the question so many times that I actually lost all sense of the true meaning of being ‘all set for the Christmas’, and basically forgot that gift-buying actually takes a little bit of effort. The kids were easy – with four children I usually start the next year’s shopping on St Stephen’s Day, getting the best out of the sales while also fitting in the festive tradition of fainting in a queue in Smyth’s, or shoving someone out of the way when Next opens at 5am. However, as Christmas is all about the kids, I more or less forgot about everyone else, and by everyone else I mean my long-suffering current wife.
For the budget romantic who is as short on ideas as he is on disposable income, there is only one place to go – TK Maxx. A sort of Brown Thomas for people on zero-hour contracts, TK Maxx has it all – literally. It’s like the treasure horde of a flock of time-travelling magpies – mounds of relics of ancient and alien cultures all collected and dumped into a warehouse just off the highstreet. You want a stuffed grizzly bear? You got it. You want a leather onesie? You got it. You want a million different household decorations, all themed around pineapples? Tragically, you got it.
But even when you think you have found the most bizarre items of clothing, footwear or soft furnishing, and are holding it aloft in mild horror, you will see someone looming behind you, gazing at your find like this diamante pineapple is the final missing piece in their presumably hideous home. Tk Maxx is a reminder that everything has its place, and every ugly lamp will someday meets its ugly nightstand in an ugly house.
Few people have the stamina for TK Maxx- you need to clear your schedule, get loaded up on protein shakes and Red Bull, and go at those rails like it’s an old-style threshing, wildly grabbing items and flinging them in the general direction of your basket or possibly just the ground, arms flailing like you’re drowning. Using this technique I managed to select a range of reasonably priced gifts, including some jewellery that appeared to be made from Kryptonite she reacted so badly to it, and a pair of gloves that it turned out were for men, thus reigniting the old ‘shovel hands’ debate that has been raging since our GP passed a remark that she had big hands.
She also got a bag that by some miracle she actually liked and some other stuff that I can’t even remember as I went into one of those capitalist mate-spawn-die trances halfways through, a sort of Xmastential crisis. Long story short, she got a present, and it wasn’t the worst she ever received, which is what I would call a Christmas miracle.
Much of my Christmas was spent assembling Lego and wondering what Matt Damon was thinking. After a year in which abusive men finally started to get their comeuppance, Damon cast aside his ‘Hollywood nice guy with a high IQ’ stance to adopt the rather weak ‘not all men’ angle, where instead of condemning people like Harvey Weinstein, he said people should be celebrating the nice guys. Guys like, well, Matt Damon basically. He misread the room in glorious fashion, veering off in the direction of becoming a sweater-vested masculinist, rather than seeing serious issues at the core of masculinity itself.
His Good Will Hunting co-star Minnie Driver even wrote an op-ed about his tone deaf comments – Driver, of course, being the girlfriend who found out she was dumped by seeing him tell Oprah Winfrey that he was single. Let he who is without sin cast the first #NotAllMen.
Now that we have Christmas out of the way, it’s time to start focussing on the summer and that most special of seasons – festival season. This year there is only one gig in town, only one headline act worth seeing, and that is Pope Francis’s visit here. This Electric Popenic, which includes Mass on the main stage in the Phoenix Park and an acoustic duet with Queen Elizabeth up North, this is one show that everyone will want to see.
It won’t be divisive, like when Garth Brooks threatened to bring his accursed sounds to this land, but it will be a shining beacon of hope and positivity, like when Garth Brooks failed to get a license for his gigs. Granted, the pope’s visit is set to cost about 20 million euro, money that will presumably be wired here from the Vatican by Western Union transfer, but it will be worth it as this is the coolest pope ever – even though it isn’t that hard to be the coolest when your predecessor looked a bit like a panto villain and was once a member of the Hitler Youth.
Pope Francis is a sign that the Catholic church might actually be able to change – he is the first Jesuit pope (Jesuits being the Kraftwerk of the Catholic Church), the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first pope from outside Europe since the 8th century. He’s also the first Pope fully trained to deal with the wild atmosphere of festivals, given that before his seminary studies he was both a chemical technologist and a nightclub bouncer. The countdown to Popefest 2018 starts here, let’s just hope the touts don’t snap up all the tickets. See you in the pit.
I quite like paying taxes. This is partly because, as a low earner, I don’t pay a lot of tax. However, it is also because I have been so well supported by the State over the course of my life. In my 20s, I went from work to the dole to the back to education allowance, which – along with third-level grants – saw me through to masters level. When I took redundancy three years ago, I got a similar level of dole payment to what I had been earning for a 37-hour week, as well as full medical cards for my family and I. After eight long months I was fortunate enough to get a job, but even then the State supported me, via the Family Income Supplement (FIS). We recently got a statement from the Department of Social Protection on how much we were paid in FIS last year – more than 12,000. This is because we were a single income household with a low wage and considerably more children than we can afford. I can give you various reasons for the excessive amount of human life I have co-created, but overall I would say that economics rarely features in the romantically engorged mind. Except maybe in David McWilliams’s mind, he seems to really, really like economics.
So I pay tax, and I get support in return. From my point of view, Ireland is a good country to live and work in. I’m always slightly bemused by the various Robespierres of the hard left, talking about Ireland as though we were currently trapped in a live re-enactment of Swift’s Modest Proposal. There are things that need to change here – a quick flick through the pages of this paper will give you a dozen or more good examples – but overall I would say that I love living here, and I love my country, not in some chest-thumping, nationalist fashion, but rather in a pay-my-taxes, clean-up-after-myself way. That said, I’d always be open to finding a solid tax efficiency – or loophole as they are more commonly known.
The furore over firms using offshore structures to increase their profits and reduce their taxes isn’t all that different from me claiming credits for waste disposal or pet ownership or just about anything I can legally use. But I felt great sympathy for poor Bono, who gets the most stick for this, as though he should give all his money to Revenue and go live in a wheelie bin to be true to either his beliefs, his lyrics or his attempts to make the world a better place through whatever charity it is he has been going on about recently. At this time of year especially I think of poor Bono, getting dogs abuse for being a tax exile, albeit a charismatic one. It must suck to be rich sometimes. So tonight, as I do every night at this time of year, I thank god that it’s Bono who is the multi-millionaire tax-exile hate figure, instead of me.
Obviously all this gauche talk of money or my lack thereof is leading to the pleasing announcement that I no longer qualify for FIS as I landed myself with a second job (it’s this, my role as opinionista). This means I will now pay more tax – hooray! – and also will get less support from the State. I’m delighted. Obviously, I’m still not quite at the level of earnings of Bono, but I can at least now buy the odd treat without feeling like I am tightening the Primark corset of the ‘squeezed middle’. There is a great joy in spending money you have worked hard to earn. Except of course on Black Friday, when there is no joy in spending money at all.
I’m sure there are upsides to globalisation – having a Starbucks/Subway/Costa on every street corner, or our kids talking about sidewalks and gas stations – but Black Friday is not one of them. This is especially true of our watered-down version of it. While the Americans get to have the real fun, stamping each other to death and shooting assault rifles into the air as they try to buy a six metre wide TV for a fiver, over here it is just a big sad rip-off. This is partly due to the fact that the US is a low tax economy – anyone bleating about how much cheaper things are in the States might want to try getting sick there, or losing their job there, before they start seeing it was some economic utopia.
Yet somehow we have decided that Black Friday is something worth adopting, despite the obvious disparity between our economies. UK consumer group Which? Has pointed out that more than half of the deals offered in the UK on Black Friday last year were cheaper or the same price at other times of the year. It is no different here, but we get swept along in the hype, acting as though 15% off electronic items is worth queueing up for. It seems only a matter of time until we adopt Thanksgiving itself, holding a celebration of the arrival of the Normans in 1167 and all the awful things they gave us, such as feudalism and Dublin.
If you need a good example of how different we are from Americans, just spend a few minutes watching Fox. It’s like the TV station in The Hunger Games, if it were hosted by an animatronic Adam Smith and Libertarian Barbie. You would imagine it would take a lot to get banned from the station, given the Rolodex of the criminally insane it uses to keep its couches warm. Step forward Gene Simmons: The KISS frontman, best known for having an oversized tongue and some terrible opinions about women, was on Fox to promote his new book, which comes with the snappy title On Power: My Journey Through the Corridors of Power and How You Can Get More Power. The book, which gives expert tips on how to be more like Simmons – ie, ‘powerful’ – is actually a follow-up to the equally snappily titled Me, Inc.: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business.
After his interview on Fox Business, he burst into a Fox News meeting, shouted ‘hey chicks, sue me!’ and mercifully only exposed his chest and navel. He also took the opportunity to thump two people on the head with his book, which is probably as close it will ever get to actually stimulating a human brain. Sadly, Simmons is now banned for life from the station, which means he has one less platform for his various lessons on economics, which, unsurprisingly, are largely centred on how rich people like him shouldn’t have to pay tax to support ‘the welfare state’. So if you needed one more reason to feel pride in being a taxpayer, it is that it makes you that little bit less like Gene Simmons.
I am driving. Not as I write this – I’m not quite at that level of proficiency just yet, where I can stare down at a glowing screen in my lap while careering across lanes at 105kph. In fact, I’m not even at the stage where I can confidently pick my nose when at traffic lights. I am still at the stage of the death grip on the wheel, hands locked at ten and two and nothing else will do, eyes peeled open to a degree that would make Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange wince a little. But yes, I am generally driving, and after two decades of only using public transport and the kindness of friends, family and my long suffering wife/chaffeur, I am now an independent road user.
Things have changed out there; the last time I drove it was in a Nissan Sunny, and it was so long ago that the salesman pointed out that it had ‘electric windows’ as though he was telling us it could fly. Fly, it could not. The car was a sluggish lump of ugly metal, and the few journeys I made in it felt like I was leading a platoon of Soviet tanks into the badlands of Afghanistan. Cars today are remarkable – even my sexless Fluence drives like a hovercar from 2525 in comparison to that so-called Sunny.
Using the bus is a distant, troubling memory. It seems like a long time since I had to join the human centipede that is public transport, surrounded by the sniffling masses, listening to the tinny din of those people who don’t know about headphones and instead choose to play their music on a phone’s miniscule speakers. A lifetime on the buses and trains taught me that hell isn’t other people – it’s being trapped with other people. I quite like the human race, even with their headcolds and lack of headphones, but I like them a lot more now that I am not trapped in a metal tube with them for an hour a day.
But one thing has jumped out at me from my few months on the road: Leaner and new drivers are not the menace I thought they were, but fully qualified men of a certain age, usually mine, are. When I see someone aggressively cutting across lanes in a tunnel, running a red light, or just being casually obnoxious, it is almost always a guy like me behind the wheel. Is life this short that we have to nuzzle up against the rear bumper of the person in front like an aroused canine, or just beep at everyone over everything? What is it with blokes in cars? In fact, what is it with blokes in general?
On Saturday I was in the game shop with my son. A man in his fifties came in to buy some games. The girl behind the counter told him that since he had spent more than seventy euro, he could have a free T-shirt. Any T-shirt, he asked? Any T-shirt, she said. Can I have that one? he asked, pointing at her T-shirt. She made some flippant comment to brush it off, he got his stuff and left. I felt a mix of emotions – pity for the man, who was so tone deaf that he didn’t realise that what he said wasn’t flirty, or funny, or anything other than unsettling; embarrassment for the staff member, even though she seemed wearily used to this sort of ‘top bants’; and a general sense of shame over being a bloke.
I tend to drop kick all these aspects of men into the same cauldron of oedipal horrors – the aggressive driving, the creepiness, the inability to read the room. How did we get here? We spent so long styling ourselves as some sort of apex predator that we sacrificed essential components of our own humanity. We have devalued ourselves in this process. Look at jobs where nurturing is required: What percentage of creches staff are male? If you advertised for an au pair and a man showed up, would you call the cops right away or wait until he was gone? We just can’t seem to free ourselves from this predatory status, even though we have devalued our role as carers. Look at the concept of the stay at home dad – why isn’t that more common (apart from the limits of the glass ceiling, which is really more like a Temple of Doom-style descending stone roof with spikes in it)?
The horror stories emerging about rich and powerful men and how they treated women have led me to conduct a rather grim internal audit of my relationships. Overall, it’s been pretty bleak. I can give you a few weak reasons for this – growing up in a viciously Catholic Ireland, or just the magic porridge pot of emotional problems that is being adopted, but while there are reasons, there are no excuses. I just treated people poorly, and especially women. I try to be a better person, but it’s hard to tell if I’m a decent human being or just better than I was. This change can’t happen fast enough: I worry about my sons and the sort of men they will become. I just don’t want them to have my problems, my hangups. They may have the advantage of growing up in a more enlightened time, but they also have a father who is trying hard to overcome a cultural hangover. Hopefully by the time they reach manhood, those self-driving cars we keep hearing about will offer them some moments of quiet contemplation on the commute home to think about how to improve their relationships with the opposite sex. Or they may just use the time to give their noses a really good pick.
Being an atheist is a lonely old slog. Most people will cling to the belief that there is something out there watching over us, be it Jesus, Yaweh, Allah or whatever MechaGodzilla the Scientologists funnel their taxes towards. Few people will actually offer such a bleak world view as the true atheist – that there is nothing else out there, no higher power, and we are all alone. Of course, you don’t sell it to people in quite such a bleak way – you say that you believe people are innately good, that all religions were just an extension of that goodness, an extension that ultimately got corrupted by the power-hungry, in much the same way the leaking extension you got built during the Celtic Tiger got corrupted by lazy builders and pyrite.
Us devout atheists are few and far between, but what makes it even more isolating is the fact that we don’t have the structures of religion. There are no parish tea dances, no community hall bingo, no festive services. But in the broader sense I’ve wondered that the hell I’m going to do when I die. Being freed from the strictures of Catholic rites is great, but we still need some sort of ritual – I can’t just get stuffed into a recycling bin and turned into Soylent Green, or have my ashes chucked into a landfill. How will we say goodbye when we know there is no journey to the other side? Do we have a sacred decommissioning of our Facebook profile, a ritualised restoration of factory settings on our iPhone, or one final Instagram shot of our bespoke artisanal funeral buffet? Or just have Siri conduct a service, while Alexa paraphrases Mary Elizabeth Frye for the eulogy:
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I was cryogenically frozen, it wasn’t cheap,
So the money I owe you all I will have to keep.
The hardest part of being an atheist has been dealing with loss. The absence of an afterlife isn’t just hard to come to terms with for yourself, but for your loved ones. Since my father’s passing I have been crushed by grief, as I know that he is gone and I will never see him again. I’ve spent much of the last 12 months breaking down at inopportune moments – I meet people in work who knew him and they tell me how much they liked him, and I break down. I find an old letter from him to my mum written in the 1970s in which he promises not to drink and drive (apparently it was all the rage back then) and I break down. My son points to a photo of my father and asks me who he is, and I break down. It has been a year when I occasionally thought I was going to have some sort of breakdown, as I try to make sense of it all – this life, all our lives, and the fact that we all die. The dormant Catholic in me still sees November as the month to think on all these things, to remember all the souls no longer in existence, and the supreme importance of trying to follow the one commandment shared by all religions – try not to be a total jackass.
Speaking of remembrance and jackasses – it’s poppy season again in the UK, a time for flag-waving jingoism of the highest order, when the atrocities of war and sacrifice of the fallen is completely overshadowed by an orgy of imperialism. Where’s your poppy mate, don’t you honour our brave boys, spit on the flag is it mate, do you want to bring back Hitler, is that it? No more can UK TV presenters or sports stars quietly think about war and honour, they need to stick the biggest poppies they can find on their lapel or they are deemed to hate freedom.
I have a distant relative who fought in the First World War, Colonel Jim Fitzmaurice, and of his experience he wrote: “Dead German, British and French soldiers lay about in every conceivable position and condition—here and there a dead horse, a broken field gun. I had never seen a dead man before. I looked again at those dead soldiers — I looked at the poor dumb beasts — dead with their poor glassy eyes turned to the heavens. It was impossible to think. I decided that a very serious job had to be done, that I had better stop thinking and get along with my own particular portion of this big job — C’est la guerre.”
He was 17 when he fought in the Somme. I wonder what he would think of the obsessive poppy-watching in the UK, whereby every weatherman and celebrity chat show guest has to wear a big red poppy or be torn apart by the media; what would he say to the rising nationalism, of the UK’s plan to remove themselves from the European project? After the war Fitzmaurice made aviation history by making the first east to west Atlantic flight, which he managed with two Germans. Even though he fought in the Great War, he understood that divisions make us weaker. The poppy has become that most awful thing – a virtue signal, a way of telling people you care, whether you actually do or not. It’s like an analog hashtag, or the words of the gauche bore who feels the need to tell you about their many donations to charity. It seems a tragedy that there is a sense of relief when Armistice Day has passed, and we no longer have to endure shallow displays of remembrance.
In terms of overcoming divisions, you have to admire the gumption of the three Alliance TDs who are riding out to North Korea to try and find a resolution to the secret state’s nuclear Mexican stand-off with America. Of the three, Waterford TD John Halligan should be best placed to find some common ground with Kim Jong Un as they both have sentient hair, complete lack of belief in god, and experience dealing with difficult characters (Shane Ross and Trump, respectively). If nothing else, this could be the greatest episode of Hall’s Pictorial Weekly never made, and sher if it stops us all from dying in the Third World War, isn’t that much better than fixing the roads?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Week 26, six months of being an opinionista and nobody has threatened to kill me yet, WTF am I doing wrong?
It seems odd that I grew up in the age of one TV channel. It doesn’t seem like a million years ago, but I can still remember the excitement when Network Two launched, or waving a wonky rabbit-ears aerial around the living room in the hope of picking up some HTV Cymru Wales and possibly some post-watershed nudity, as there was little hope of any on a station that carried the Angelus.
Times have changed, and although RTE still carries the sacred ding-dongs, there is little hope of salvation for them. My kids don’t watch TV – they watch Netflix and YouTube. The concept of sitting down at an appointed time to watch any show is completely alien to them, I feel much the same way. I am happy to pay my license fee, as I think it is important to support our national broadcaster from a cultural perspective, but it’s a sad state of affairs when the most enjoyable thing to come out of Montrose in the past 12 months is a Twitter account of an unnamed, disillusioned producer who is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore.
Secret RTE Producer appeared out of nowhere in early September and started dishing the dirt. At first it seemed like it might be a Steve Bannon-esque false flag operation being used as an accelerant for job cuts, but the sense of frustration in the tweets can’t be faked. Many of them explain some of the odd decisions made in Montrose over the years (why isn’t Fair City better, what was the story with all the Craig Doyle stuff), or help shed some light on the background operations of an entity that we all have a stake in. In the two months that the account has been running there have been plot twists, grand reveals, Cold War paranoia, and even a period when the account went silent, leaving its thousands of followers wondering if the secret producer had been caught and dispatched to a North Korean-style re-education camp in the human resources department, or a just another course in media studies in Colaiste Dhulaig.
Whatever happens to the secret producer, they probably need to start making plans for life outside Montrose, because the closing scenes of this real-life drama are not going to be pretty. The public reaction from those within the RTE machine was a little depressing – where many of us on the outside saw a whistleblower, they saw a rat. Where they saw profound disloyalty to their organisation, I saw those tweets as actual public service broadcasting. But the future for all of RTE is stark – kids today don’t want The Den, they want Stampy Longnose’s inverted guffawing on YouTube, while teenagers just want Netflix and chill, whatever that means. Perhaps instead of feeling hurt by the tweets of Secret RTE Producer, the top brass at Montrose could learn from them, and make a few changes. Don’t change Nationwide though – that is perfect.
One move in the right direction was the broadcasting live from the Supreme Court for the first time yesterday. While many tuned in in the hope of some Judge Judy style shrieking and fake cases involving bruised pets or damaged flowers, it really drove home just how devoid of drama the courts are. Far from the byzantine, kafkaesque nightmare of legal jargon and people shouting latin at each other that one would expect, it was quite like a live broadcast from the queue in the motor tax office, or a dentist’s waiting room. It was like the broadcast from my local church on the internet which I sometimes found myself watching at 4am when I worked nights. You kept waiting for something incredible to happen, but it never did – yet the expectation was always there, of some divine judgement on us all. But if the broadcasting of court cases helps deter people from taking spurious insurance claims, then RTE will have justified the license fee for at least another decade.
Conspiracy theorists rejoice, for another tranche of the FBI’s JFK assassination papers are being released. While Donald Trump announced to the world that he was allowing them to be opened, they were scheduled to be opened since long before that haunted jack o’ lantern began flushing America’s reputation down the toilet. It was actually Oliver Stone’s intensely dull film JFK which prompted the US congress to order the release all the way back in 1992. Still, you have to admire Trump’s confidence, as he is basically allowing the FBI to release a ‘how-to’ guide on getting away with assassinating a president, in a nation stuffed with gun nuts. So perhaps anyone thinking of dressing up as him for Halloween might want to rethink their costume choice.
Here at home we have sizeable chunks of our own rich history being released onto the internet. Duchas.ie has released a quarter of a million documents and almost ten thousand photographs from the National Folklore Collection on their website. With a handy search option, it is a fascinating selection of myths, legends and rumours that otherwise would have been lost. Granted, some of it is pure bunkum, but when I stumbled across two transcriptions from 1938 about treasure that may or may not be buried near my house, I found myself waking in the middle of the night and googling metal detectors and the law regarding ownership of massive hoards of gold. If I do find a load of torcs, I just hope that I get to appear on Nationwide before I flog them all on eBay.
Week 25 of the column! Who woulda thunk it? Certainly not my guidance counsellor in school, who said I should be an engineer and also got my name wrong.
The worst storm that I can remember was in December 1996. It seemed to come out of nowhere and pummelled east Cork right before Christmas, ripping the roof off the local Co-Op and leaving thousands without power. We lost our power on Christmas Eve and didn’t get it back for ten days. This, of course, would not be that bad, only for the fact that we have a well, and no power meant no water – to drink, to flush, to wash. That Christmas was never going to be an easy one, as we had lost my sister earlier that year. I can remember my parents and I sitting around the fire, all trying to be strong for each other, all pretending that somehow this live reenactment of The Shining was a much more traditional Christmas, as opposed to an incredibly sad week and a half of darkness, despair and poor personal hygiene. We didn’t even have a TV to distract us from the loss, or clean water to wash away the tears. Thank god I had a massive supply of beer to keep me hydrated.
The most memorable part of the storm and its aftermath were the simple acts of kindness. People we hardly knew showed up to the door with gallons of water, hot food, and even a couple of roasted turkeys fresh out of the oven. It was incredibly touching, even though it meant I had to eat about 30lbs of turkey in 48 hours so it wouldn’t all end up in the bin. To this day that storm ranks as the worst and best I have lived through, and I still use it as a gauge for any other natural disasters – the only questions I ask are; are we all here; is everyone ok; and who wants more half melted ice cream. As long as you are safe and together, things are generally ok – although a decent supply of Febreeze and babywipes also helps.
It was disappointing to see Offaly get hit by Ophelia. The recent census figures showed that the county has the highest percentage of Catholics in the country, which I assumed made it some sort of promised land for the chosen people of Ireland. Apparently not; they got smote just like everyone else, despite being the home to important pilgrimage sites like Clonmacnoise and that Barrack Obama filling station in Moneygall. Granted, there were a few missteps along Offaly’s path to righteousness, as the county is responsible for not one but two Cowens, while they also declared war on heaven by Birr physicist George Johnstone Stoney coining the term electron in 1891 as the as the “fundamental unit quantity of electricity”, thus undermining the power of prayer, which up until that point had been fuelling the national grid. I’m sure all the poor souls without power in The Faithful County will enjoy the irony of that. Perhaps this latest testing of their faith might make them want to move to Dun Laoghaire, which not only had electricity right through Ophelia but also has the lowest number of Catholics in the country. Coincidence? Probably, yes.
I spent Ophelia trapped in Dublin. My daughter and I travelled up on Sunday to make a hospital appointment on Monday morning that was subsequently cancelled, along with all of the trains out of the city. The culchie in me felt a rising panic as I realised I was going to have to spend another 24 hours in this terrifying metropolis, trying to hide my uncool, non-ironic country ways and singy-songy Cork accent. I stood at the Luas stop for a tram that would never come, desperately trying to remember what the Five Lamps were, or how to make coddle, in case a local started talking to me. The last thing any culchie wants is to be identified as such in the Big Smoke and subjected to the hate hoots of the million or so first generation Dubs whose parents only left a bog in Mayo two decades ago. We kept the heads down and just prayed that we would make it out alive, ready to burst into Aslan songs if anyone tried to chat to us. As we walked through the city centre, businesses were pulling down the shutters, as staff got sent home to ride out what has become known as Bank Holiday Ophelia with important provisions like Netflix and cans. We passing throngs of bemused tourists who obviously failed to listen to the Nuacht warnings that the weather was going to get ufasach ar fad, as they clustered around important cultural attractions like Carroll’s gift shops, those Paddywagon places, and Starbucks. But it’s good to know that when the trumpet sounds and the fall of man begins, we will still be able to get a pumpkin spice latte and Kiss Me I’m Irish bonnet.
In the middle of the storm the new broke that Sean Hughes had passed away. Aged just 51, he was one of the great surreal comedians of the Nineties, but more than than, he always seemed like a nice guy. There was something loveable about his witty misery, his love of indie music, and his wet, sad Irish eyes. One of my favourite quotes is his thoughts on religion, of which he once said “I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a man or because I was brought up a Catholic. But sometimes I find the whole idea of sex repulsive and at other times I’d gladly stick my penis up a drain.” Hopefully when he gets to the pearly gates they will see the funny side.
Week 24 of the column and I finally get around to talking about my ass. Also, check out that layout up top: They used my name, like you would with other important thought leaders like David Quinn, John Waters, Ronan Mullen, or any of those other great guys who I am totally friends with on Bebo.
There are many pleasant occurrences at the changing of the seasons – shorter days mean the awkward among us breathe a sigh of relief as they slump into social hibernation, while the drop in temperatures means we get to light a warming fire and then use it as a mini-incinerator for everything from broken toys to pink Roses.
But there are some things that happen at this time of year that are less welcome – the mass migration of giant spiders into our homes and, presumably, our hair; or having to pretend you care about the budget beyond diesel and pints. But the least welcome seasonal occurrence of all has to be the return of the Norovirus. It is better known as the winter vomiting bug, in itself a complete misnomer as ‘the ebola of the arse’ would be a more fitting title. It may be simply a side effect of age, but I just don’t remember this bug being around when I was a child. I don’t recall the horror of when it takes hold of a family, spreading from person to person like wildfire, forcing violently unwell parents to chase nauseous toddlers about the house with a basin, like some deranged medieval parlour game, or if Caligula directed an episode of It’s A Knockout. I can remember measles and mumps, even the odd demonic possession, but not this. It seems like a very modern bug, one that preys on our very modern belief that just about everything is going to kill us. True, it does make you want to gather the children and bid them farewell, or even just to curse them for bringing it home from playschool, but as actual illnesses go, it does little real damage to healthy subjects, apart from helping us shift a half stone just in time for the Halloween treat binge.
One virus that definitely needs a rebrand and relaunch is influenza, a life-threatening bug that we have become so blasé about that we don’t even call it by its full title, instead opting for a rubbish nickname – ‘flu. In fact, we are so blind to just how dangerous the ‘flu actually is that we now use it as an umbrella term for anything from a nasty cold to the shame-filled endgame of a bad pint. If only it had the caché of new kids on the block, bird flu and swine flu, who went truly viral in the last five years. Even the uptake of the influenza vaccine is poor – because hey, it could never happen to me, and even if it does sher I’ll be grand. This year, however, is different. There is a particular strain of it that has hit Australia with punishing ferocity. Where previously it was a serious threat to the elderly or those with underlying conditions, now it is a threat to the young as well – three children are among the casualties already. Influenza has always been dangerous, but it would appear to be getting moreso. So for those of us who previously thought we were invincible, this is a wake up call. At the ripe old age of 42 I now have to accept that I quite like being alive and the chances of me staying that way are diminishing day by day, so the onus is on me to actually get the vaccine. It’s a sad sign that I am both getting older and getting sense, and I worry about what comes next – pension plans? College funds? Minding my cholesterol levels? Dark nights in front of the fire watching The Great British Bake Off whilst enthusiastically discussing flans are my MDMA now, prompting me to ponder – was it for this that the wild geese spread? Yes, it probably was, as we are living longer, freer, and better than ever. So off I go to get the jab and try not to die. Now if only they could come up with a vaccine for the Norovirus.
Spare a thought for local mom n’ pop food chain McDonald’s, who seem to be struggling to produce that most basic of foods – condiments. Inspired by the hit adult cartoon Rick And Morty, Maccie D’s decided it might be fun to reintroduce their long gone Szechuan sauce for just one day, but in very limited supplies. They seem to have underestimated the demand, as some outlets only got 20 sachets, while there were scenes of screaming children and angry adults shouting at slightly bemused staff. In some outlets, the police were called to deal with irate customers. Within hours, three packets of the sauce went on eBay and sold for US$280 each, while Twitter went into its usual meltdown over the fiasco. The facts are clear – McDonald’s are running out of food, and we are all doomed. Either that or it was a cynical marketing ploy to create buzz, which backfired spectacularly. Still, given that this was America, let’s all just be thankful that nobody got shot.
The campaign to make Michael D Higgins President for life starts here. His tenure in the Aras has been a huge success – from his compassion, to his communication skills, to his general je ne sais quoi. You just get the sense that were you ever found yourself lost in the Burren, he would emerge from a dolmen to teach you how to read ogham and show you which mushrooms to eat, before guiding you back to civilisation by the stars. He has done such a great job, it is easy to forget the also-rans from the 2011 campaign. While he didn’t just win by being the best of a fairly uninspiring lot, it was a pretty poor line up. There was the Uncle-Fester-in-Louis-Copeland guy, the sad eyebrow guy who looked like ALF, I think Enya was there, and some others that I don’t recall. Michael D won because he is both a man of letters and someone who knows how to deliver an intellectual headbutt to those who deserve it; listening back to his surgical takedown of American right wing radio host Michael Graham – in which D uses his keen intellect to eviscerate him and also manages to call him a wanker – will make you want to declare him president for life. And if that role isn’t possible, let’s just stick a throne on Tara, give him a couple of wolfhounds and make him high king of Ireland. All hail King D.