Thoughts on Ireland from an Emigrant in 2013

January 2nd, 2013

After deciding to write this piece earlier this afternoon, I thought it would be nice to head to a café or pub to work. It would be better, I said to myself, if I could relax with a drink and earwig a bit. It would be better than the bedroom in my parents’ house, anyway.

I’ve spent the guts of two years abroad, spending roughly a year in Montreal and the same stretch in New York. We’ve gone from Bertie to Enda via Biffo, in doing so trading the dregs of one side of a pointless near century year-old civil war for the other. We’ve said goodnight for the last time to Anne Doyle, but Miriam, Dobbo and the ageless Sharon Ní Bheolain are still there every evening to confuse us to oblivion. We’re fucked, says one. No we’re not, says the interviewee. Sure we’ll be grand.

The local cafés with free internet were either closed or about to be and so, after a quick search, I found that one of my local pubs was listed as having WiFi. In I went, armed with one laptop and two questions: Can I get a cappuccino, and do you have internet? It was then that I realised I might be the problem with modern Ireland, and I felt dirty. Oh wash me, yore . . . drench me in mucky pints of Beamish and poke me with overcooked chicken goujons while smothering my face in ham sandwiches.

“We did have internet, but we took it away because people were cheating at the quizzes,” said the barman. An Irish solution to an Irish problem. That’s a phrase we have to describe this kind of mish-mash hodge-podge effort at resolving matters, and this is a good example. A classic example, quite frankly. Yes, it is amazing how many people can suddenly know the name of the storm that just passed through Tuvalu or which Bulgarian city is designated European Capital of Culture for 2014, but there is a better way of arresting the onset of cheating at table quizzes – we agree to stop being arseholes. But no, instead we’ll just get rid of what was once the only public WiFi zone in the entire village of Glasthule.

And here I am, all internetless but writing, just like they did, and did well, in the last century. My plan for a good earwig (eavesdrop) hit something of a stumbling block when I looked around and saw there was nobody else in the entire pub, save one man at the bar drinking cider and watching Premier League Years. For those uninitiated, this show tells, over the course of two hours, the story of a football (soccer) season of times past. It’s the sort of show that you catch by accident and watch for twenty minutes while coming up with something better to do. Nobody thinks ‘God I must rush home to catch Premier League Years!’ and absolutely nobody goes to the pub to watch it by design. The other TV is showing Barrow against Hereford in the FA Cup. That’s two teams ranked somewhere between 100th and 200th place in England, so both TVs are showing absolute rubbish. And that’s coming from a football fanatic. The music has gone from Mariah Carey to AC/DC by way of Westlife and some Christmas classics, because we all know that’s what people want to hear on the 2nd of January.

The limited bar taps offer the usuals (All Hail King Diageo!) plus a new offering called ‘Smirnoff Mojito’ that comes from a tap and looks like it could kill you. We’ll have Joe Duffy telling us in no time that he met a woman whose son died because of a badly cut Mojito. I hear they have Mojitos on the streets now. They’re dangerous, those Dublin streets, but not as dangerous as a Smirnoff Mojito.

Alas, I might not be the problem with modern Ireland. Maybe modern Ireland has neglected to keep up with modern kind. We can be pretty demanding and, by Zeus, if you don’t offer us a bit of internet and some thought and nuance behind your playlist, we’ll get you back by buying your coffee and writing on the internet with deadly sarcasm.

But I’m being harsh, cynical even – that’s what you’re saying. Perhaps I am. My Canadian girlfriend and I just got home from a few days in Galway and the pubs were savage. (Not savage in a Jack the Ripper way, but savage in a Jimmy Rabbitte from The Commitments way. You know, savage, as in deadly. And not deadly in a . . . oh forget it.) Not only were the pubs great, but we went to a cocktail bar in a city centre hotel and they gave us shots on the house because it was her birthday. That was after having tasty, well-mixed and thought-out cocktails made by an affable, I would go as far to say charming, barman. Galway in general was a joy, but then again that town rarely, if ever, disappoints. Not a Premier League Year or Smirnoff Mojito to be seen. St. Patrick must have chased them all out of the west and over to The Pale for the jackeens to enjoy.

Venturing west and then north a bit into Mayo before coming back, I kept seeing signs and references to ‘The Gathering’ – the official effort that is being made to get the Irish diaspora to visit the island in 2013. It’s weird, because in New York and Montreal – two cities with massive Irish diasporíní– I never heard about it nor saw it advertised. And yet I get home and I’m asked ‘Ah would ya not head home for a bit?’ while feeling as though somebody is trying to recruit me into a new religion, using rashers and strong tea as bait. Why are they only after me here? Why are they only advertising it in Ireland? We’re already here.

Why are we here? Socrates and his mates asked the same question over 2,500 years ago, but I don’t think they were thinking of Ireland in the year 2013. Why the feck are we here? A video that went semi-viral this week attempted a reply to that question with a thousand answers, counting as positives the existence of Bewley’s Café and the possibility of getting badly sunburnt in May, but I think we can do better than mediocre hot beverages and a trip to A&E.

For one thing, we’re now being offered good quality food in restaurants and at a fair price. No longer is the Irish style of cooking to boil the bejaysus out of anything that came up out of the ground and fry the fuck out of anything that ever breathed. We’ve introduced tone and forethought, dare I even say flair, into our cuisine. And we’re washing it down with some better quality, locally-produced booze. I was in my local pub (not the one I’m sitting in now) recently and saw that they’re stocking bottled beer made by a brewery called ‘Trouble Brewing’ – three lads I interviewed for Scope Magazine two years ago who took out a loan and stuck a load of shiny tanks in a barn in a field in Kildare and who, at that time, were struggling to get their product out on the market. That’s a good story, whichever way you look at it. The majority of my generation will probably skip the delicious beer and stick to Coors Light and Smirnoff Mojito, but hopefully enough people shop around a bit and stop consuming rubbish.

Those three men did something that Irish people are never formally told to do. You see, in Ireland we’re taught that the goal of education is to train to get a job. You go to school and then either do a trade or go to college, then apply for jobs. But if we’re passionate enough about something we can get that job, and on our terms, by creating it and investing time and effort in it.

It’s striking, however, how many of my fellow Irish emigrants are doing exactly that, only abroad. My brother is a web designer and multimedia producer in Berlin, two of my best friends in New York are Munster men with their own self-made Smartphone app that allows you to reserve time slots at sports clubs, and I have another school friend in Amsterdam with a startup company that’s trying to coordinate carpooling across the continent. Without wanting to sound all junior capitalist sitting in the corner, there is much to be said for entrepreneurialism as part of a solution to our collective and individual woes, and a lot to be said for eschewing the kind of conservative thinking that pervades within the Irish education system.

It’s inspiring stuff, and a reminder that getting up off your hole and not watching Premier League Years can lead to wonderful things. I have an idea – let’s get all these tech savvy, industrious emigrants back for a while to inspire those at home while spending a bit of money to help our ailing economy. We can call it ‘The Jamboree’ or even ‘The Get-Together’. We can even put Smirnoff Mojito on special offer while they’re all here. If only someone would organise such a thing.

GrannyKiller

January 30th, 2012

I have become involved with a new project with three journalists with whom I worked with on Scope magazine called GrannyKiller. It will be an online magazine of sorts, with interactive feature articles, live blogs and the like. We’re temporarily hosting some stuff on a tumblr site. I have one piece up there about Occupy Congress, but expect some more developments soon. Peace!


God is deciding who to pick as President of Ireland . . .

September 7th, 2011

Place:    Earth Politics Committee Boardroom, Heaven

God:      Order! Okay, thanks for coming everyone. I’ll cut to the chase – I have to choose a new Irish President. Suggestions?

Moses (wistfully):          How long has it been since we did this?

Jesus:    14 years.

God:      14 years without a Presidential election? Ha! They call themselves a democracy, you know.

Everyone laughs

Jesus:    I suppose you want us to throw out some names, yeah?

God:      That would help. I can’t remember any decent candidates.

Moses:      You’re supposed to know everything!

God:      Ah Moses, give it a rest. My reputation precedes me and I’ve had a long day. So, any names for me?

Jesus (looking at a laptop screen):            I’m just looking at the odds here and they reckon this lad Higgins is going to get it. He’s got the right attributes – he’s got that dodgy Irish haircut going on and sounds awful strange. They’ll like him. He’s getting on a bit though, so you’d have to ask St. Peter how long he might stick around for.

God:      Hmmm . . . Anyone else?

St. Peter:        A Senator by the name of Norris has been mentioned. But you’ll be happy to hear he’s pulled out of the race.

God:      Why should I be happy about that?

Moses coughs and fidgets nervously, then looks at St. Peter

Moses:     Well, are you going to tell him?

St. Peter:      Never mind.

God:      Never mind what? What’s wrong with this Norris fella?

Jesus (sighing):     You know . . . he kicks with the other foot.

God stares back blankly

St. Peter:       He’s very effervescent . . .  joyous, frivolous, fabulous, Sapphic . . . Do you know what I mean?

God continues to stare back blankly

Jesus:    He bats for the other team.

God is still staring back blankly

Moses:       God, he’s gay. Do you understand?

God:      Oh right. Do the Irish people know this?

Jesus, Moses and St. Peter:        Yes.

God:      Hmmm . . . well we can’t be having an openly gay President just yet. This is a very weak field. Maybe we should somehow tell them to shape up a bit?

Noah (eagerly):        Can we have flooding?

God:      You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Okay, throw in some flooding, but nothing too drastic. Limit it to basements and ground floors in the more pointless counties – Tipperary, Laois and Offaly in particular. Oh! And Kildare. That will teach them for building too many houses on floodplains.

Moses:      That’s a bit Old Testament, isn’t it?

God:      Maybe a little, but a leopard doesn’t change its spots. I don’t mean go Pakistan on them, just have a few rural folk crying on the evening news while an RTE reporter wearing overalls stands waist deep in water, okay? The usual scenario, like last time.

Noah:    How about some fear thrown in too? Maybe have the insurance folks say they won’t pay out?

Jesus:    Not enough sandbags is always a good one!

God:      Erm, okay. But no deaths, you got that? Let’s keep our eye on the ball here – we’re trying to get a half-decent president for these people, not kill them.

Moses:      They had this man called Lenihan who would have been a solid president, but St. Peter only had to go and let him in early.

God (to St. Peter):           Did I ever tell you that you’re a fucking idiot sometimes?

St. Peter:       Sorry God, my bad. I didn’t realise how popular he was; I don’t even have the excuse that I was on holiday and forgot to leave someone in charge.

Moses:        What happened the last time you forgot to leave someone at the gate while you were gone again?

Jesus (interrupting):       JFK was assassinated!

Recalling his past errors, St. Peter looks at the ground and lets out a deep breath

Moses (to St. Peter):       Man, you really are an imbecile sometimes.

God:      Okay gentlemen, let’s leave him alone for a minute. Any other options for Ireland then?

Moses:       How about a joke candidate, like your man from Libertas or one of the Jedward twins?

Jesus:    Wasn’t Jedward punishment for Bertie Ahern sticking around so long?

Moses:        No, I’m thinking Jedward was punishment for taking the Eurovision song contest seriously for so long. Steve Staunton managing the football team was punishment for Bertie Ahern.

Jesus:    Then what was Bertie Ahern punishment for?

Moses:      Nothing. That just happened. They kept electing him without our help.

Jesus:      Are you serious?!

Moses:      Deadly serious.

Jesus:    I find that hard to believe, the gobshites. Anyway, doesn’t Bertie have a daughter who writes books? What about throwing her in as president?

God:      And why should I do that?

Jesus:    Well, last time you sent someone’s kid – your own – to do an important job, it worked out alright. Just a thought . . .

God:      Two points here, son. Are you comparing me with Bertie Ahern, and are you calling the Presidency of Ireland an important job? Because if you are, you’re off your rocker.

Jesus:    I was just sayin’

God:      And now you’ll just shut up, okay?

St. Peter (clicking his fingers, hip hop style):        Ohhhhh did you just go there?

God:      I went there.

St. Peter:       Hi-ohhhh!!!

Moses:      This meeting is getting out of hand. Might I suggest a parting of the ways and we can reconvene later?

Jesus:    You’re always suggesting a parting of the ways, Moses. It’s your solution to everything. Get a new trick already.

Moses:      And I suppose you’ve got loads of tricks, yeah? Oh look at me! Look at me turn this water into delicious wine! Prick.

Jesus:    You’re a prick.

God:      You’re both pricks and if you don’t shut it I’ll cancel the holiday and send you two to Satan for a week! Do I make myself clear?

Jesus and Moses (sheepishly):     Yes, God.

God:      This meeting is over. We’ll reconvene tomorrow. Moses, you bring the morning’s Irish Times and Jesus, you get me the latest paddypower odds. St. Peter, stop taking the few decent candidates and Noah, get things ready for the flood. We’re going to get these clowns a decent president.

On the Cloyne Report, Somalia, and Anders Behring Breivik

July 26th, 2011

A rebuke, a hidden cause, a massacre – it has been a tough week for God. Or more specifically, for the parties of God.

Ireland

By admonishing the Vatican in a Dáil speech last Wednesday in the wake of the Cloyne Report, Taoiseach Enda Kenny – a relatively conservative-minded Catholic – has effectively pressed the reset button on the Irish state and its relationship with the Church. The unfathomable master-slave relationship that has existed is now seemingly confined to the dustbin of history and, more importantly, Kenny and the wider Irish body politic do not appear to be seeking a reversal of that relationship, where the state would become master, but rather a separation or divorce. Ireland is dragging itself, kicking and screaming (and I choose this metaphor because that is what the pre-pubescent victims of rape at the hands of priests were no doubt doing), into the twenty-first century. While the state is rapidly losing its economic sovereignty, it is at least finally asserting its social and cultural independence from the vapid, corrupt and at times sadistic institution that is the Holy See.

What is particularly significant about this week’s events in Ireland and the Church is that, like the leaders that went before him, Kenny is aligning himself with middle Ireland – the mass of slightly conservative Catholics that make up a huge proportion of the electorate. The tipping point that made this speech possible is tripartite: firstly, gross crimes had to be undertaken and covered up by the Church; secondly, these had to be disclosed by a non-ecclesiastical party or parties; lastly, and most importantly from a political point of view, it had to be clear that at least half of the voting age Irish people had to be publicly affronted and sickened by what was disclosed. It is a sobering reflection to note that without that last part, it is unlikely that Mr Kenny would have delivered the speech, at least not in such bold language, no matter what his private feelings on the issue. It was not so much that Mr Kenny was being courageous – and we should not doubt that his feelings are sincere – but rather that the Irish people have finally given a government the opportunity to scorn the Vatican without negative opportunity cost.

A final thought; given what has come to light in recent days, months and years, one can only shudder to think what was happening during the centuries where the Church was above all criticism. How many Cloyne Reports were never written? We should not delude ourselves into believing that the Church’s rape-and-torture policy towards children (and, given the protection afforded to rapists, calling it a “policy” is quite legitimate terminology) was solely a twentieth-century phenomenon.

Somalia

The United Nations has now declared famine in parts of South Somalia, a tardy declaration that has already cost lives. But what is famine? Its effects are more obvious that its causes – the most chilling being children with oversized heads sitting on wasted bodies, waiting to die. But famine is not something that suddenly comes upon a community, nation or region; rather, it is often as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning.

Media coverage and political responses to famine – and Somalia is no different – usually portrays famine as a natural disaster, but natural events are not so much a cause but a catalyst of famine. Drought, flooding or a bad harvest cause famine and its associated starvation and mortality, or so we are told. But that is rarely, if ever, the case. Al-Shabab, the Islamist fundamentalist group that governs – or more correctly, oppresses through a deliberate policy of mass death – large swathes of Somalia, is now blocking the attempts of secular NGOs who are trying to get food and medical supplies to millions of people who are presently at the point of no return.

About two-thirds of the starving are thought to be unreachable due to the presence of Al-Shabab, a theocratic party of God that is now launching a strategy of mass killing by starvation; starving people to death in the name of religion. (Note how much easier it is to kill innocent people when you believe you have God on your side, as the third and final segment of this article will further show). Previous famines also had political as well as natural causes, notably in Ireland, where the British government initiated a policy of negligence as part of its then Empire wasted and fled, but Al-Shabab has exceeded that level of callousness by actually becoming an agent in bringing about famine. While Western donors give aid, as well they should, they ought to know that without dealing with the political and religious problems that have exacerbated or caused this present famine, they will be asked to give more again when the next one comes around, as it inevitably will. The West may want to help Somalia and Africa, but it can’t do so without learning about it. The traditionally great powers have no further use for the continent. It can be left to rot and crash.

A final thought; during all your years of education, from pre-school through to third level, how much time was spent in the classroom or lecture theatre on African matters, save for the imperial scramble of the late nineteenth century? Answer: probably none.

Norway

Media coverage of the Utoya massacre in Norway is now four days hence, but few outlets and commentators are addressing one of the most unpalatable truths – Anders Behring Breivik is a Christian and a very conservative one at that. For Christians to disown him is moral cowardice and reveals a glaring double standard: if the 9/11 hijackers represent, at least in some part, a strand of Islam, then why does Mr Breivik not represent Christianity in some form?

It is clear from police and eyewitness statements given by survivors of the ordeal that Mr Breivik would not have stopped shooting at unarmed adolescents with the intention of killing them until police arrived on the island. He would have killed 3,000 people, given the opportunity. Why can it be said, as it has been repeatedly, that Mr Breivik is not a Christian, yet the 9/11 hijackers and their ilk are not only representative of a certain type of Islam – the fundamentalist fascistic type – but representative of Islam as a whole?

A final thought; if Mr Breivik has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour, do Christians by and large believe that he will go to heaven regardless of his actions on Earth? I often think it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for people like him to go to.

Given the events of the past week, it is clear that one of the defining arguments of the twenty-first century will be between secularism and the separation of church and state on the one hand and theocracy and fanaticism on the other. One should never miss an opportunity to celebrate the Enlightenment and admonish those who believe that they may do as they wish because a deity commanded them to do so. That is the solace that we may take from the events of the past week.

The Liberal Party of Canada and Fianna Fáil

May 18th, 2011

This spring that we are soon to exit from has been buttressed by two elections; firstly, in the land of my birth and family, Ireland; more recently, in the land where I now reside, Canada. To borrow Francis Fukuyama’s oft-used phrase, both of these elections were viewed, to some extent, as “The End of History” – moments in which institutions that were regarded (and more tellingly, regarded themselves) as part of the political furniture in their respective states were vanquished.

Around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Fukuyama wrote that the advent and perceived success of Western liberal democracy might well signal the end of humanity’s sociocultural and geopolitical evolution. Things have not panned out exactly like that, with the post-9/11 decade signalling that history is not about to reach its conclusion without some unexpected hiccups.

The Irish and Canadian elections of this spring saw two parties – Fianna Fáil and the Liberal Party, respectively – humbled beyond what their most vicious nightmares might have foretold. Their hubris was to believe, within their individual states, that they had reached the end of history and had become their nations’ natural governing parties. The Liberals even went so far using “natural governing party” as a synonym for themselves, but the party was reduced to 34 seats in a 308-seat legislature two weeks ago. That’s not the work of a natural governing party.

The most commonly used translation of Fianna Fáil – Soldiers of Destiny – reveals an intrinsic sense of self-worth and belief in manifest destiny within the organisation from the outset. Pride is an essential component of any successful party, but there is a fine line between pride and hubris.

Fianna Fáil and the Liberals both more or less occupied, or attempted to occupy, the political centre within two-and-a-half party systems. Ireland might legitimately be seen as more innately conservative than Canada, which explains the generally more populist right agenda of Fianna Fáil. For the Liberals, the very word – then as now – is something of a blank canvass onto which individuals, political parties, nations and continents can paint a fresh meaning. In the United States, to be liberal is to be firmly on the left. In most of Europe, to be liberal is to be a cheerleader for free market economics while holding progressive social views. In Australia, the conservative centre-right party is called the Liberal Party. When somebody asks, ‘are you liberal?’ I usually answer based on the origin of the person who asked the question.

And so Canada, with a population largely drawn from the old world but an address in the new one, got a chance to create a fresh liberalism, defining it positively as pragmatic centrism with a liberal (excuse the pun) glazing of diplomacy abroad and help for the needy at home, and negatively as ‘not conservative’. The modern mistake of the party comes in two parts: believing that its domination of the 1990s was because it was loved and believing that pragmatic centrism, as defined above, was the permanent will of the majority of Canadians. Now, with a Liberal Party based in the East of the country (12 of the 34 Liberal MPs take their mandate from the smaller Atlantic Provinces) and a conservative government whose strength lies in Ontario and the West, the Liberal Party is also geographically removed from the Canadian centre.

After the 2002 and 2007 elections, Fianna Fáil gave the impression that it believed its version of liberalism was here to stay. Immediately after the 2007 election, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern entered RTE TV studios and essentially stated that the party was now the natural choice for Irish people. And to some extent, he was correct, but the folly was to consider this to be a permanent state of affairs. Fianna Fáil, along with the Catholic Church and the Gaelic Athletic Association, completed a trifecta of loyalties that largely defined twentieth century Ireland. They will not define the twenty first.

And neither will the Liberals, unless they stop tweaking things at the top and think fundamentally about how to become a governing party again, and not necessarily a “natural” one. The roles have been reversed since the consolidation of conservative forces in 2003 and the rise of the NDP in 2011, perhaps making the Conservatives – if anybody has a claim to the title – the natural governing party.

Montreal Four Months In; Ireland Four Months Out

May 5th, 2011

This is a list of 10 things I like about Montreal, Quebec and Canada and 10 things I miss about Dublin and Ireland. They are discussed alternately, beginning with something I like about this place. Let’s go…

 

Montreal/Canada: Pubs open ‘til 3am, even on a Sunday

“Have you no homes to go to… Can you finish up there please?” The usual GTFO call of barmen at about midnight where I grew up. When my cousin visited here, she left Toronto at about 6pm on a Sunday and set out on the six-hour drive. We still had time to meet up after midnight and get merry. With nobody forced to concentrate their drinking and socialising into narrower time periods, fewer people throw a load of alcohol into their bodies very quickly.

 

Dublin/Ireland: The Sea

Look, just look! Where I grew up, if I kicked a football from my garden gate it would – after a few hops and a little help from our friend gravity – end up in the salty goodness otherwise known as the sea. Obviously I never did kick a ball into the sea, at least not on purpose. Rivers are a poor substitute, especially when they’re frozen five months of the year. I miss the smell, the sounds and the visual beauty of the sea. And I miss swimming in it. The last time I enjoyed swimming in a river was in Ghana, almost two years ago.

 

Montreal/Canada: Integrated public transport at less than $3 a day

You have a card that cost $6, once off. You pay $72 per month or $22 per week to use four metro lines and all public municipal buses. That’s under $3 per day or around €2, cheaper than a single journey ticket from Dun Laoghaire to Dublin city on the DART. The LUAS lines in Dublin do not even meet up and you can’t buy integrated bus-rail tickets. The Montreal metro comes every five minutes or so except for the wee hours when it’s about every ten minutes. Did I mention it runs into the wee hours?

 

Dublin/Ireland: Living in a place where people like football

At the pub in which I work at weekends, the kitchen staff finish their preparation work at around 10.30am, leaving a good hour for us to sit and watch the football from England on the TV in the bar before opening. They don’t have much of a clue though. Say, for example, it’s Bolton versus West Brom, they might ask: “Is this Champions League?” Or maybe it’s Man Utd against some other lot: “So does Rooney score all the goals for Manchester?” I suppose I’m the same when I watch (Ice) Hockey, but I miss watching football with people who know what is going on.

 

Montreal/Canada: A walk in the country in the city

Montreal, as the name suggests, has a mountain (more like a large hill) smack bang in the middle of the city. My former housemate used to bring her skis on the walk to school in winter, and the walk up the south slope through the snow is a lot of fun. I can’t vouch for summer yet, but it seems like a perfect short hike to walk off a hangover. Few cities have such a wonderful natural amenity in their city centre.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Taking the piss out of each other

If one stereotype is true about Canada, it’s that people are nice. Frustratingly so. Let me make my point by way of anecdote. About two months ago I went to Quebec City with a friend that I had met for the first time three days previously. We had got along well but we both knew that there was a giant elephant in the room – neither of us actually knew each other much at all. When we got out of the car – a rideshare – my new friend went searching for his money in his bag. A slight panic set in when he could not find the $200 he swore he put in there before leaving. It was a large enough bag packed with loads of things and I had seen him put the money in there earlier, so I was sure he would ultimately find it. “Ha! Man, you are useless!” I said. What I was suggesting here by saying this was that I now felt comfortable enough in his presence to be able to take the micky out of him. It was me saying ‘we’re friends now’. Unfortunately, he took it as me being frustrated and nasty, meaning that I had to explain that in Ireland, friends spend their whole lives telling each other they are useless or fuckin’ eejits. Canadians do not do this.

 

Montreal/Canada: Respect for cyclists

450km of cycle paths. A public bike system with over 300 stations. Cyclists generally rule to roost here and, as a reluctant driver and four-time driving test failure, I think this is great. Now that the snow has disappeared I can get out and cycle to work and around the mountain.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Proportional representation

Ireland should not be held up as a beacon of leadership in how to compose a just electoral system, but this first-past-the-post thing over here is slightly ridiculous. Take for example this week’s federal election; a slight national shift to the left has resulted in a more solid right-wing government. How does this happen? The centrist Liberals lost ground to the centre-left NDP as well as some votes moving to the centre-right Tories. With vote splitting occurring between the Liberals and NDP, the Tories won more seats and a majority government without significantly increasing their vote. Counter intuitively, the Tories were delighted with a surge in support for their ideological opposite, and that’s just wrong. In Ireland the makeup of Parliament is proportionally closer to the will of the people.

 

Montreal/Canada: Classified ads

North America has realised before any part of the world that classified ads are now free to post and offer a new way of getting stuff done. If I need a lift (“ride”) to another city, it’s cheaper at short notice to get a rideshare from someone on craigslist than to get a bus from a bus company. And you can also buy THINGS. So far I have bought a lamp, a microwave and a teapot through classified ads, at a much reduced cost.

Dublin/Ireland: Playing football on grass, outdoors

With snow guaranteed to cover the ground for five or six months of the year (I just watched the weather forecast and there were snow warnings. In May.), football is played on synthetic surfaces, usually indoors. There seem to be no grass fields for football anywhere near the city. I suppose that, with land value being higher, having a piece of land redundant for half the year makes no sense. That said, I really do miss playing on soggy grass fields in Ireland. And old habits are dying hard; I’ve got cuts on my legs from slide tackling on synthetic grass. Indeed, going in for a slide tackle – one of my favourite things to do during a game – is seen as a bold move here that instantly gives the tackler a degree of respect among other players. ‘Watch out lads, this fella is prepared to bleed to get the ball back.’

 

Montreal/Canada: Tense political atmosphere being played out without violence

In case you did not know, about 40% of Quebecers want to separate from Canada. This is naturally a sensitive area and, unless invited into a conversation on the subject, I generally avoid the issue while in social settings. Comparisons with Ireland are made, and I have been asked how I can explain the perceived double standard of supporting an independent Ireland as well as Quebec’s continued role within Canada. Whatever the case, I’m just glad – if not a little impressed – that this tension is carried out on a political level through democratic means. The number of dead during “The Troubles” in Ireland is measured in the thousands. The last time that a politically-motivated death was directly due to Quebec’s constitutional status was in October, 1970, when a provincial cabinet minister was kidnapped and murdered by the FLQ. I find it amazing that extreme violence has not resurfaced since then.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Dairy products

The butter here is tasteless and white-ish and the fat content of milk is measured in low percentage points, the highest being 3.25%. I miss fatty churned goodness.

 

Montreal/Canada: Choice of beer in bars

When it comes to booze, the Irish are probably the most unwaveringly loyal and conservative bunch in the world. Walk into a pub and you see Guinness, Smithwick’s, three or four very similar lagers and maybe, if you’re lucky, one other choice. The pub I work in here has something like 22 different beers on draught and the bottles we keep in the fridge are different to those available at the taps, making about 30 in all. This is standard. Most pubs will also stock some local beers as well as imports, and there is a healthy respect for micro-brewing that sadly does not exist back home.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Being able to use Irishisms with impunity

Ireland is more like a big family, more so than its inhabitants realise. Like the best friends or siblings that have in-jokes that nobody else gets (“we see things they’ll never see” /Live Forever – Noel Gallagher), Ireland is full of euphemisms and lines that cheer us all up from time to time. Towards the end of the winter here I trained with a local rugby team, ostensibly to keep fit, but really to try and make some friends. (The latter mission failed and, after going to a wedding in March, any fitness benefit was soon lost.) The men’s team trained after the women and, as is normal with a group of men, conversation came around to which (if any) of the ladies were attractive. “She has a nice ass,” said one of the Canadian lads and, like an unconscious reflex, I said “they all have lovely bottoms”. Perhaps they hadn’t seen Father Ted, and perhaps it’s no surprise I didn’t make great friends there. Another phrase I use more consistently is to ‘give out’ to someone, meaning to reprimand them. Here, among certain people to ‘give out’ means to pleasure someone orally. Oops.

 

Montreal/Canada: Gay marriage

I’m not going to get into my argument for gay marriage here because that’s an essay in itself. Suffice to say I support it, and passionately so. It’s not an issue here, because it exists. When I was born, homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Ireland. Take note, however, that this is not a Canada-wide thing. Same-sex marriage is only legal in Yukon, B.C., Ontario and Quebec. Vive le Quebec.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Spring

It just arrives far too late here. Snow all through March and, as I said above, snow warnings for tonight. At least summer is meant to be longer, warmer and more reliable than Ireland.

Montreal/Canada: Music, shows, gigs

Young people go to gigs here en masse. And not to Justin Bieber or Coldplay, but to small gigs in dingy little places. People take each other’s recommendations and check stuff out. And it’s cheap. A lot of the stuff here at the moment seems to be electro and dubstep, a genre I can’t get into despite my best efforts, but there’s other stuff going on too. And lots of it.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Knowing where to go to get stuff

A haircut, for example. Anyone who has ever hung out with me knows that I like to take care of my hair. It’s my not-so-secret succumbing to vanity. A week before I went to my brother’s wedding in March, I went to get a haircut. Not knowing where to go, I went to a local barber. I asked him to use scissors and he ran a razor over me. I asked him to leave my sideburns and he cut them to the top of my ear. Then he ran a straight line across the back of my neck at the hairline with a raw blade. The cut was all wrong and, when I got home, one of my friends said ‘you need to find yourself a new barber.’ Two things came out of the ordeal: I took to wearing a hat and it was the only time I have not tipped for service since I got here. A few hours before returning to North America, I went to a barber in Limerick and asked for a rescue mission, which was successful (note: Johnny’s in Annacotty). I’m due a haircut very soon and am trying to find a place that won’t fuck it up. (Note #2: the place that DID fuck it up was ‘Athens’ on St Laurent, photo below.)

 

Montreal/Canada: Proper debate over healthcare

We’re too passive back home about the state of our health system. Canadians and Quebecers demand more and, with healthcare ultimately being a political issue, they usually get it. Fair play to them.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Tea, being offered tea, and being served tea in an appropriate fashion

I drink a lot of tea because it’s delicious. When you go into someone’s house in Ireland, you’re offered tea. This is one of our strongest and most brilliant national traits, and long may it continue. When I enter a home here, I might be offered juice or water. I want tea! Restaurants and pubs are worse; they serve you a vessel – sometimes a glass – of non-boiling water with a tea bag on the side. Two things: the water should be boiling and it should hit bag, not the other way around. Otherwise you have to squeeze the bag to within an inch of its life (figure of speech, people) for five minutes in order to get a weak cup of tea. When I was in Quebec City, I asked for tea in a cafe and was served green tea. ‘Do you have any black tea?’ I asked in French. ‘Earl Grey? Breakfast? Anything?’ Nope.

The ballad of Colonel Kenny (Two of us riding nowhere spending someone’s hard earned pay)

February 18th, 2011

It was just after my 11th birthday when I first became acquainted with the banalities of political campaigning. “Vote Enda Kennaaayyyy, that’s Enda Kennaaayyyy number one,” slurred some man through a megaphone out of the back of a van. Or maybe it was a tractor. Or a car. I can’t really remember. The important thing was that our short family holiday to the beautiful Achill island, off the west coast of Ireland, was constantly being interupted by this chump trying to get locals to give their vote to a man called Enda Kenny. It was the long bank holiday weekend just before the 1997 general election and it occured to me that Enda is a funny name. I still think it’s a funny name, and that’s coming from a Hugo. Enda also likes his ice cream.

A dozen years later I was on my way to Accra, Ghana for an internship with the Ghanaian Times. The Dublin to Accra flight route has, strangely enough, never been too popular or commericially viable, so I had to make a stop in Tripoli, Libya. The first thing that you see on landing is this:

Well isn’t that nice? The Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Muammar al-Gaddafi (I’ll stick to this spelling solely for consistency purposes rather than Qaddadi, Gadhafi, Qadhafi, Kadafi, etc.), welcomes visitors with a smile and a message. If the gold-bedecked 7.5% owner of Juventus Football Club, 100% owner of an all-female bodyguard unit, pitcher of tents in Manhattan and general doer of wacky things wants to say ‘hi’, what’s the harm? But then you go inside the airport building. Revolutionary slogans adorn the walls and The Guide is now leading with a stick rather than a carrot with images that seem to suggest ‘Don’t mess with me’. This photograph is from the arrivals terminal:

I’ll give him one thing; he’s a lot cooler looking than Enda with an ice cream. Tripoli airport, however, is the most awful airport I’ve ever been in. There are two check-in desks for the entire departures area and the bathroom was a tiled floor covered in human excrement. Actually, I can’t be sure it was all human; there may have been bat or bird in there as well.

A couple of weeks later in Ghana I was attending a press conference in Accra as a Ghanaian Times reporter. The press briefing was supposed to announce details of an imminent visit from Gaddafi. A group of West African Chiefs had invited him down for a conference, and the story goes that at the last minute he cancelled because his request to be crowned “King of Kings” would not transpire. A more likely story is that the Ghanaian government begged the Chiefs not to have Gaddafi in town two weeks after a visit from Barack Obama; Investor confidence and all that. Hence, I never actually saw Gaffafi either in Libya or Ghana, just a lot of images of him and words about him.

And this brings us neatly back to Enda. This time next week Enda will be Taoiseach or Prime Minister of Ireland, but his party, having tried to get rid of him last summer, are now merely trying to keep him as inconspicious as possible. Enda did their work for them by refusing to attend the first leaders’ debate last week and saying that the empty chair would symbolise the emigration of Irish youth. Really? That surely has to be one of the dodgiest ad-libs I’ve ever seen. It can’t possibly be the case that he sat down and plotted out that line with his fellow Fine Gaelers. It’s like 1997 all over again, but instead of having a man shouting out of the back of an automobile on his behalf Kenny is doing all the weird stuff for himself. When I was 11 I asked myself, ‘surely this sort if thing doesn’t really make people vote for him.’ and now, after the empty chair-emigration thing, I’m asking myself that all over again.

One thing I noticed in Tripoli airport was how bored all the airport staff looked, how many of them there were, and how little they seemed to be doing. Most of them were born after Gaddafi came to power in a 1969 coup, so for many of them it must seem like Libya and Gaddafi are synonyms. This was 2009 however, when Gaddafi was the meat in a Ben Ali-Mubarak sandwich between Tunisia and Egypt. Now that it Libya an island of repression in a sea of revolution (please rate my metaphors on a scale of 1 to meta-metaphorist), those same workers are becoming more active.

Gaddafi is a leader whose political career began in 1969 and whose leadership, for want of a better term, is starting to crack. Kenny has been in the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, since 1975 and will now become leader of his state for the first time. One of them has been trying for decades to stay in power, the other to get into power. Both are now on the brink of changes in career direction that are largely out of their hands. Do you know what we need? More images of Gaddafi eating ice cream and more giant paintings of Enda wearing sunglasses in Dublin airport.

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup

February 14th, 2011

There is a hilarious short scene in an old Simpsons episode where Bart is interviewing Homer for a school project. ‘Dad’, asks Bart, ‘do you wear boxers or briefs?’ The assumption is of course that every man wears one or the other. Homer looks into his pants and says ‘no’.

I use this reference by way of introduction due to a text message that I received from somebody in Ireland yesterday. It read: ‘How is Ireland – in its current state – viewed by your average Canadian and also by the press?’. The assumption in this instance is that the press here actually has a view of Ireland. But it does not.

On the Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen, National Post and Toronto Star websites, only one article dealing primarily with Irish political, economic or social life was published during the last week and a half. Other than that, the only Ireland-related articles were on the plane crash in Cork airport four days ago. In ten days the Republic of Ireland will hold a general election, an election in which a party that has won a plurality of the popular vote in every election since 1932 will be heavily walloped. If ever Ireland is to be newsworthy outside of Europe, it is now. Egpyt might have had something to do with a lack of international news about Ireland, methinks.

Let’s start with the Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest-circulation national newspaper. On their very user-friendly and comprehensive website, the freshest non-plane crash stories to be found are from February 1. One is titled ‘Irish PM dissolves parliament, calls early election’ and the other ‘Next Irish government faces dire economy’. Stories that made it into the paper this week ahead of anything related to Ireland included: ‘Prince Harry to be best man, Pippa Midleton maid of honour’ and ’3 women honored in Italy for best letters to Juliet’.

The National Post, a more overtly conservative publication than the others, has an AFP sourced article dated January 24 with the headline ‘Ireland in tatters as coalition falls apart’. The word ‘tatters’ is so ubiquitous at the moment that a group of my friends has taken away a syllable so that it becomes ‘tats’ (for example – “my car’s brakes are in tats”). Another article published online on January 24 is titled ‘Stagflation looms for Ireland’. There is perhaps no more scary verb in the English language than ‘to loom’; almost always used in a negative context, it gets the idea across that the sword of Damocles is hovering just above the scalp, ready to be released by some malign agent. Stagflation is the free market supporter’s idea of hell, the nadir of possible outcomes.

The Toronto Star’s most recent non-plane crash Ireland story is dated January 22 and comes with the headline ‘Irish prime minister resigns, plans to stay government (sic) until next election’. The fact that the paper missed the word ‘in’ in the headline probably shows how long it spent on the story. Stories that made it in this week ahead of the Irish election included: ‘Google unveils ‘Map your Valentine” and ‘First photograph of Prince Philip revealed’.

The only newspaper of the four to carry a story on Irish politics and economics was the Ottawa Citizen, which two days ago published an article titled ‘Irish parties pledge to re-negotiate EU-IMF bailout’. The article is accompanied by a rather sad, frustrated and lonely looking Brian Cowen.

And there you have it. Ireland really does not matter much at the moment. Our election is probably seen, if at all, as either boring or insignificant. Hence, it does not ‘make good copy’, as they say.