Dear Enda…. about IRISH WATER

Yesterday on the Twitter machine, Dearbhail McDonald, Legal Editor with the Irish Independent posed the following question.  “If @irishwater were to somehow start all over again, what advice would you give to the government?”  140 characters were not enough. 
Dear Enda
There is little doubt that Irish Water a complete mess and a PR disaster.  This is the result of rushing at it like a horny bull at a gate into a field of attractive cows, whose eyes are only on the prize, in your Government’s case – the tax revenue.  Remember what your mammy taught you – “fail to prepare, then prepare to fail.”
But the Government has a bigger problem.  The imposition of yet another tax on the beleaguered people of this country has finally pushed us to boiling anger.  And this anger is not just, as some commentators would have us believe, because we live in a soggy country where it rains all the time resulting in our having some kind of psychological reluctance to pay for the very stuff that often makes us feel damp and miserable.
We are angry because we have had enough.  We are angry because this is a tax too far.  We are angry because we now know that in two years time most of us; especially those of us who live in urban centres are going to be fleeced with the unfair property tax that is calculated on value of our homes as opposed to square footage.  
We are angry because this is how we are repaid for our compliance with all the austerity that has been forced upon us for debts that we didn’t incur.  It is the people who have allowed your Government and the previous one, to enforce the cuts and taxes that have given you great kudos abroad.  Ireland’s so called recovery is not your triumph – it belongs to the people of this country. 
But we are now saying enough is enough.  We have no more to give.
But let’s park the anger for a moment.  There is obviously a case to be made for the payment of water and the treatment of waste.  In principle I would imagine most of us would accept this.  So here is what I suggest you do.  If, that is, you really are planning for an infrastructure project that will serve this country and our people for the next number of decades and not (as most of us suspect) you are just seeing Irish Water as another way to raise more tax Euros in the short term.
Streamlined, small efficient company
Irish Water should be in the first instance a small and very efficient company.  It should not be a retirement home for workers who previously have been employed by the local councils. There should be no talk of bonuses or whatever other terms have been used to describe same.  Ditto with car allowances and other nonsense.
Fix the leaks
In the first instance Irish Water should be charged with fixing the leaky system.  And don’t give us the line about how will they pay for it?  If Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council can spend €33 million on a monster library, if the GAA can secure €30 million for the redevelopment of Pairc Ui Chaoimh, money will be found.  How much have you spent on the other ill fated project currently on the table, the Children’s Hospital?  This year we will pay in the region of €4 billion in that other awful austerity tax the Universal Social Charge.  As usual in politics – there is always the money – it’s a question of priorities. 
Grants for rainwater harvesting and other water conservation measures
If water is as precious a resource as Irish Water have tried to tell us it is and if we are serious about changing our attitudes to water then it is vital that the Government introduce incentives to allow people to invest a little now in measures that would conserve water in the future.  To me this is a glaring omission to the current plan for introducing water charges.  Bringing in such incentives would also have a positive PR bounce as it would give the impression that instead of being ripped off we are all in this together.  See how we took to recycling?  We can easily do similar with water conservation.
Install meters
Once the company is seen to be fit for purpose and the leaky system has been brought into the 21st century, then Irish Water can begin the process of fitting meters.  But could I suggest that most people would like a meter that they could read easily – similar to the ESB or Gas Meter and not something that exists solely under the ground at the end of the driveway.  We have never paid for water as a separate utility before and most of us have little or no idea about how much we actually use.  It is vital to build trust so a meter that is visible to householders I think is essential.
When all of the above has been completed then it is appropriate to announce a date for billing to start.  I would suggest no earlier than 2020.
Finally – once we are paying for water – there should be no talk of call out charges.  If there is a gas leak – do we have to pay the Gas Company to attend? 
I know that as Taoiseach you are surrounded by advisors that cost me and the rest of us plenty money.  You might like to review their input Enda.  Because Irish Water is rapidly going to go down in history as the biggest government mess ever – eclipsing the E Voting machines and Children’s Hospital and Incinerator messes that have preceded it.
Once you start bullying your electorate Enda you lose them.  This project needs to be completely reimagined.  Irish Water needs to be completely overhauled before you can do anything.  Then slowly, bringing your people with you, there might be some chance of success.  And your legacy may just survive… and I know that’s very important.  Not to us… but to you and your fellow Ministers.
Sincerely

Barbara Scully

P.S oh and by the way Enda, tinkering about with allowances etc is not going to quell the anger… in fact it may do exactly the opposite.  We know you are on the ropes on this one… it’s time for time out and a total rethink and redesign.  

WHAT ARE WE AFRAID OF?

I am afraid to watch the television news at the moment.  I am afraid of what I might see.  I am afraid of the nightmares that might result.  I am afraid of images that will burn into my brain and resurface at some time in the future.  I am afraid to confront the reality of what is happening in the Middle East.  I can’t seem to process what I am hearing and reading.  I don’t know how to react or what to do about the horror that seems to be spreading through the region.
I don’t understand the politics of the area beyond the most simplistic outline of recent history.  I don’t pretend to have any particular insight into the cultures of the Middle East.  But what is going on right now in Syria, Gaza and Iraq in particular is beyond politics.  It is beyond reason.  There can be no excuses, no justification for the cruelty and the barbarism that has become rampant. 
It began with the killing of children in Gaza.  How can there ever be a reason to bomb a school?   And it happened not once but at least twice.  Day after day, week after week, we saw photos of these broken little innocent bodies as they lay dead or dying.  This destruction not caused by some madman on a solo rampage but by a sovereign nation’s army.  Big, well armed men, killing tiny children.  How can that ever, ever be justified?  It was evil when it was done by the provisional IRA bombing campaigns and it is wrong now.  No matter what history has done to a people, no matter what injustices have been perpetrated against them, killing and maiming children is a war crime.
There is little worse in my mind than killing babies but the depravity of the violence in Iraq in recent days is just beyond comprehension.  It’s like hearing the story line of some very violent and sick movie.  I have skimmed reports that have mentioned crucifixion, beheading, and dogs feeding on bodies. I have seen reference to a photo of a young boy, the son of a fighter holding the head (just the head) of a man – the enemy.  He is another young child who is lost to war.  I have read about women being taken in large numbers to be sold or raped.  I can’t do more than skim the reports because the detail is too shocking, too sickening, too upsetting.
And if that sounds like a very wimpish and, dare I say it, girly response that’s because it is.  
The countries of Syria, Gaza and Iraq are populated by ordinary families and by women who are far more like me than they are different.  Women who are mothers too and whose lives revolve around caring for their families and particularly their children, feeding them, loving them, educating them and protecting them.
And it is these women and their children who are increasingly haunting my dreams.  I see the fear and the horror in the eyes that stare at me from the appalling images that are carried on news bulletins and in the press. 
Somehow I feel that these women, who have suffered appallingly, who have lost children and loved ones, who live with the threat of rape, know that I know what is going on.
And I am struck dumb by not being able to process these stories.  I have taken weeks to try to even write this blog post.  I can’t articulate a response to this horror.  Anything I say or write seems wholly inadequate.  But yet to do and say nothing is to ignore those eyes I know are looking at me. Looking at us.  Wondering when we are at least going to say something, to condemn what is patently immoral.

Our government didn’t represent me when they chose to abstain from the UN vote on Gaza recently.  If any country on this planet should be able to identify with injustice, violence and the need to broker peace it should be Ireland.  So it is doubly shameful that we chose not to stand up, to speak out.  Our President has spoken only informally on this matter, stymied as he is by the constraints of his office.  Perhaps he is also afraid to watch the news, afraid of what he might see.  What the hell is wrong with us?

Not Such A Great Little Country After All

I have tried and failed about three times to write this post.  It has been really difficult to work out my feelings about the revelations concerning the treatment of mothers and babies in Ireland in the very recent past.  As a woman and a mother and indeed as a former single parent myself  there is something deeply unnerving and disquieting to learn that your country, the place you live, the place that is rooted deeply in your bones, the place that defines so much of you has been hiding such dark and cruel stories for decades.
I took my youngest daughters to see the movie ‘Philomena’ when it was in cinemas some months back.  They are 13 and 15 and their usual choice of movies is a mix of fantasy and American pop culture… Philomena was something very different.  But they were both moved and disturbed by the story.  What bothered them most was that this was an Irish story and a recent one too. 
It is often remarked on how we still love to be told we are great.  Only on an Irish chat show will the first question asked of a visiting superstar be “and how are you finding Ireland, do you like it?”  Which has to be the stupidest question ever because what do we honestly expect a visiting movie star on a PR trip for their latest movie to say?  “Well actually I am very disappointed.  I find your country dirty and the standard of service is appalling.”  No of course not.  They all say “oh I love it.  I hope to come back soon and spend more time here.”  Our sense of our own wonderfulness established, the interview can continue.
It would be easy at this point to heap all the blame for the cruelty of how single pregnant women and girls were treated at the feet of religious orders.  The orders certainly carry a huge burden of responsibility and their callousness should be recorded for posterity.  They must be held to account and their track record of intransigence and tight fistedness should not be tolerated for one day longer. 
But we must also accept that we all bear responsibility for this dark chapter in our history.  It was the families and communities in which these women and girls lived that sent them into the arms of the nuns who were clearly overwhelmed.  And it is this complicity, our complicity that will haunt our sense of ourselves for decades to come.
There is little we can do from this remove to heal the hurt caused to the thousands of women whose babies either died or were taken from them for adoption.  We cannot rewrite history.  But if we don’t learn from it we are likely to repeat the mistakes, the injustices and the cruelty over and over again.
Right now in Ireland adopted people are still having great difficulty in accessing their birth information.  We must pressure the government to amend this situation immediately.  Today in Ireland Traveller babies have a higher mortality rate than the general population and many Traveller children are living in appalling conditions.  Funding to Traveller services was cut by 80% during this period of so called austerity.  Next month lone parents are facing another cut in their payments when their youngest child turns seven years of age.  Today there are thousands of immigrant families caught in ‘direct provision’ which is having a detrimental effect especially on their children.  What are we doing about all these children?
I love this country.  We have produced great writing and great music.  We have a unique sense of fun and invented ‘the craic’ which is beyond explanation.  We are masters of irreverence and have an interesting relationship with authority.  We have some of the most stunning scenery on the planet.  We have much to be proud of. 
But we also have much to be deeply ashamed of.  For decades I think our history of colonisation, of being a victim of British dominance has defined us.  We were this little nation whose influence has spread all over the world; this little nation who after centuries of failed attempts finally shook off our oppressor and gained our freedom.  Weren’t we just wonderful altogether? 
We are now coming to terms that we are not quite as wonderful as we thought.  Our treatment of Mothers and Babies for most of the twentieth century is surely one of the most shameful episodes in any countries history.  And we have no one else to blame.  We, as a nation facilitated the church in its abuse of these young women and their babies.  Right now we are again turning a blind eye to many injustices which are impacting Irish children.  Are we content to continue to allow our Government to unfairly target groups that are vulnerable in the pursuit of financial stability?  Are some children once again worth more than others?
The last three weeks have changed fundamentally how I feel about my Irishness.  I am still proud to call myself Irish.  But I think that feeling of smug self confidence in my nationality, that one that Irish chat show hosts love to reinforce is gone.  I can only assume that this is a good thing.

THE MAGIC OF A GOOD TEACHER

So the teachers of Ireland are having their annual get-togethers as I write this and there seem to be two things that are engaging the nation as a result….well those who are on Twitter anyway. 
Firstly there is the idea that Ruairi Quinn floated about ‘defeminising’ primary teaching by introducing a requirement for candidates to have honours maths.   Leaving the ‘defeminising’ element aside because that would be an entire column in itself, the idea that potential teachers of four to 12 year olds should have honours maths to me shows a worrying lack of what it is that makes a good teacher of  very young children.  Some individuals more cynical than I assumed that this daft idea was merely to deflect the debate away from the Junior Cert mess and other issues. 
Twitter was also consumed with lecturing the badly behaved teachers who showed no respect for their Minister by their heckling, use of a megaphone and slow clapping.  If I saw one I saw ten tweets to the effect that teachers should be providing better example to their students by behaving better.  Mmmmm…  I have a sneaking regard for rebels and strongly believe in the need to make our voices heard when we passionately disagree with something that is being implemented.  I still believe that most teachers have the welfare of our children at heart so I can understand their anger.
Let us not underestimate the power of teachers on our lives and on the lives of our children.  On receiving her Fellowship Award at the last BAFTAs earlier in the year Dame Helen Mirren talked about teachers.  “My journey to this place, right here and right now, began with a great teacher”, she said.  She went on to reference Alice Welding who taught her the power of literature and who alone encouraged her to become an actor.  Ms Mirren asked her audience how many of them remembered a great teacher who had “opened the gate that led to the path that led you here”?  She asked for a show of hands.  “That’s a lot of teachers”, she remarked.
We are lucky if we have had one great teacher in our lives. We are truly blessed to have had two or more.   And these great teachers may or may not have been actual teachers.  My first great teacher was a teacher.  Her name was Mrs Nellie McGloughlin and she taught my class in Oliver Plunkett National School in Monkstown.  When I was 7, I thought Mrs McGloughlin was old.  She had grey hair and wore comfortable shoes which she kicked off one at a time as she warmed her foot on the heating pipe in the classroom on chilly days.  She was one of those brilliant teachers who didn’t force us to learn but rather opened our young minds to endless possibilities, endless stories, and endless interesting facts. 
Mrs McGloughlin also seamlessly shifted from Irish to English and back again, right throughout the day.  She read us poetry – in both languages – not so that we could understand the concepts being articulated but rather so that we could develop an appreciation of the beauty of language.  She encouraged us in ‘creative writing’.  She even gave us advice on how to find a good partner in life. 
We were incredibly lucky in that Mrs McGloughlin taught us from second to sixth class.  When myself and my classmates made the transition to the local convent secondary school our oral Irish marked us out as the girls from Oliver Plunkett.
My second teacher came into my life shortly after I had turned 30 years of age.  I was not in a happy place for lots of reasons, the lack of a job I liked being one of them.  I was ‘temping’ at The Alzheimer Society of Ireland and the Chairman was an amazing man called Michael Coote.  Michael had just turned 80 years of age but was one of the most creative, positive, energetic people I have ever met.  But more than all that, just as Helen Mirren said, he saw something in me and he gave me an opportunity. 
He offered me the newly created role of PRO for the fledgling charity.  For the next couple of years he mentored and guided me.  He taught me so much; about selling, about motivating volunteers, about ensuring your message was heard.  He was simply inspirational.  Just like a good teacher should be.

I hope the cynics are right about Minister Quinn’s motives for introducing the mad idea of primary teachers needing Honours Maths.  Because the teaching of young children is as much about magic and endless possibility as it is about reading and writing and adding.  If teachers should require an honour in anything it should be in magic and perhaps another in creativity.  And thankfully some are born with just that.   

That Cool Guy – Mandela

Nelson Mandela.  Madiba.  Father of South Africa.  Peacemaker. Visionary.  Leader. Husband. Father. Grandfather.  Humanitarian. Activist. Politician. Prisoner.
I am relieved that Nelson Mandela’s life has finally come to an end.  I feel sure that the last months could not have been easy.  Although most of us die in hospital, most of us aspire to finish our days in our own homes, with those we love.  Madiba achieved that, which is fitting for a man who achieved so much.
It was during the 80s that the situation in South Africa started to seep into my consciousness.  I was aware of the furore caused rugby teams from these islands who continued to play in South Africa when many sporting teams were boycotting the country in protest against apartheid.   I was aware of the young girls of my own age who had lost their jobs in Dunne’s Stores for refusing to handle South African fruit. 
But it was the late 80s before I became aware of this man, this Nelson Mandela.  This was due mainly to the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and the 70th Birthday Concert which was organised in London, featuring some of music’s very best acts including Dire Straits and The Eurythmics.  It was a kind of political Live Aid.  So I thought this Nelson Mandela must be a pretty cool guy.
A few years later, in February 1990 I was glued to my TV as this ‘cool guy’, Mandela, who up until that point was just a silent, invisible figurehead, walked out of prison, hand in hand with his wife Winnie.  He was an old man, albeit an elegant one who walked very erect and slowly presumably savouring sweet freedom.  I, along with everyone else got my first real look at this man we knew but didn’t know at all.
Since then we have all watched this elderly man as he led South Africa into a new dawn of peace.  His presence was welcomed all over the world as he shared his wisdom and his crusade for peace and freedom.  And that make us so very lucky. 
Our children and our children’s children and their children will learn about Nelson Mandela.  They will watch videos of him and they will read his speeches.  We however, have been given the privilege of watching Mandela’s journey and that of South Africa in real time.  And for that I am so grateful. 
Mandela was a visionary leader.  He was a gifted orator.  But he also had wisdom borne from a deep self knowledge, which I assume came from the long years he spent incarcerated.  He was the physical embodiment of that famous Gandhi quote – “Be The Change You Want To See In The World.”  Mandela walked his talk and did so with grace.
Along with his wisdom was the inner peace of a man at ease with himself and his shortcomings.  “Don’t make me a saint”, he said, “I am no saint”.  But more than this, what made Mandela outstanding as a statesman was his humour.  He was quick to laugh and he poked fun at himself regularly.  He wore his greatness lightly.  And only the true greats of politics have conquered their ego sufficiently to not take themselves too seriously.

The world will wait some time to see his like again.  Thank God for Madiba.  May he rest in peace. 

THANK YOU FOR THE MAGIC….

I am not a big fan of science fiction.  I don’t like Dr Who or Star Trek.  I don’t understand black holes and the concept of a huge infinite universe melts my brain completely.
But a fiery sunset can take my breath away.  A rising creamy moon spills magic onto my world.  There is little quite as beautiful as a shimmering tent of stars overhead on a dark night.  These things speak to my soul.  They tell of wonders that exist just beyond my understanding and comprehension.  They never fail to move me and remind me that there is so much beyond this world; that our journey is far more than we can see or feel or touch.
On the 20th of July 1969 Neil Armstrong took his ‘giant leap for mankind’ onto the surface of the moon.  For decades it seemed to me that this was the pinnacle of man’s achievement in space.  Nothing has ever come near to wonder of that first space walk.
Sure, I am aware of probes to Mars and the fact that we have a Space Station hurtling around us where all kinds of experiments are carried out.  My twitter feed for the last few years has occasionally told me about ISS passes and what time it might be visible over Dublin.  I think I saw it just once.  It was not much more exciting that knowing the aircraft overhead is a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to New York. 
Then on the 5th of January a tweet appeared in my Twitter timeline with this photo.  The caption read Tonight’s Finale: I’m not quite sure! Ireland, Wales or England, through a gap in the cloud. Where is this port town?
The tweet had originated on the ISS and was sent by a Commander Chris Hadfield.  Commander Hadfield had found Dublin and Ireland was just beginning to find Commander Hadfield.  More stunning images followed including the one below of the moon setting over the Earth.
Who knew Canada had astronauts?  But they do and to borrow a line from a famous ad… If  *insert beer name* did astronauts, they would do Chris Hadfield.
Commander Hadfield is exactly what I thought an astronaut wouldn’t be.  He is creative.  His photographs show a remarkable eye for composition and the words he chooses to accompany these pictures are beautifully crafted and carefully chosen.  But more than that, as I quickly discovered, Chris Hadfield is an accomplished musician. 
In February he posted a video of his accompanying a children’s choir from Canada, singing a song called “Is Somebody Singing” … you just have to listen to the words…. It captures beautifully the magic of looking at our world from 240 miles above in space.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvAnfi8WpVE
I was hooked.  Hadfield posted photos of cities and towns and landscapes, as we had never seen them before.  We saw amazing weather patterns and sometimes con trails from aircraft far below. And we saw moon rises like never before.
On the 18th of February he posted a magnificent night time shot of our capital city with the words Tá Éire fíorálainn! Land of green hills and dark beer. With capital Dublin glowing in the Irish night.  And an entire nation fell in love.  Irish in space – imagine that.
He sang Danny Boy for St Patricks Day, he made videos explaining life without gravity but most of all he captured the magic and wonder of our little blue planet.  He showed us a little of what he could see from his ‘tin can in space’. 
There have been many nights in the last six months when I have gazed skywards.  I could have been putting something in the bin, or locking the car or calling in the cat and I have smiled, knowing that up above my head somewhere was the charismatic Canadian with a guitar.  An astronaut with the heart of a poet and the soul of sage. 
Commander Hadfield, a man of science, sees the wonder and the magic of our universe and of our planet.  But more than that, he knows exactly how to capture it for us so we can get a taste of the magic, the beauty, the wonder back here on earth. 
I would dearly love to have five minutes some day to interview him.  To hear him speak of this wonder, to hear if it has changed him, to know how it feels to see life from 250 miles above this little blue planet….  And to know what he is going to do next….
Thank you Chris for sharing… it’s been wonderful.

MY GATHERING CYNICISM

A placard at the recent protest march following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar read “How About This For A Gathering, Enda!”.  Without wishing in any way to trivialise the outpouring of anger and sadness following this death in Galway, that placard highlighted perfectly what a gathering should be and what ‘THE Gathering” is not.

When the idea of this national push to attract visitors and particularly those with Irish heritage back to Ireland was first mooted I thought “brilliant… finally we have someone thinking creatively about solutions to our economic crisis.”  I looked forward to seeing how the campaign would develop and what innovative elements Failte Ireland would put in place to make a trip ‘home’ worth doing in 2013.  To coin that modern phrase which I hate… I was curious to see how they would ‘add value’ to a trip to the auld sod.

As marketing momentum built I took a look at The Gathering website  as I was having difficulty in working out exactly what was going to be happening during 2013

A tour of the site made it clear that this was a kind of DIY deal.  We, the people of Ireland, most of whom are at the pin of our collar making ends meet, are expected to invite long lost relatives to visit and lay on an event or entertainment as required.

Suddenly Fionnuala Flanagan’s guttural uttering of ‘The Gathering’ morphs into a young boy wonder marketing executive selling his brilliant idea to the board of Failte Ireland….
“You see, he says, “the beauty of this idea is that other than the marketing, developing a website etc., there is nothing to do.  We just need to put the idea in people’s heads and hype it up a bit.  Irish people love a good excuse for a party and so they’ll go ahead and organise whatever event they want – school reunions, family clan gatherings etc. We can then invite them to let us know what they are organising and we will list it on the website. It’s pure genius.”

Oh yes, Marketing Boy Wonder is right.  The Gathering is genius alright.  But, although I agree that we Irish love a party and a get together, I think that in our Post Celtic Tiger landscape Irish people also like to feel they are getting good value for money, don’t like to be patronised and have a very keen radar when we are being taken for a bit of a ride!  And that holds true for the Irish Diaspora too, as articulated recently by the gorgeous poetic Gabriel Byrne (and yes, I am a woman of a certain age).

But to me there is something missing from The Gathering.  Surely there should be a real hook, an offer of something more tangible than just “we are issuing an invitation, so come on over”.  Why have we not offered perhaps a discount on hotel rates or into some of our national attractions or extra air miles if you are flying into Ireland and staying for more than a week?  Maybe I am wrong but on closer inspection The Gathering seems, to me, like a half baked idea.

Last week I got my glossy ‘The Gathering’ (remember hear it a la Ms Flanagan) postcards so that I could invite all and sundry kind of long lost relative home for a visit next year.  You know what… if I wanted to entertain guests in 2013 I would probably opt for taking a foreign student or two, who would require little entertaining and for whom I would get paid.

Now, please don’t get me wrong.  I love my country and think it really one of the best places in the world to visit.  I think we have lots and lots to offer the tourist be they with or without Irish roots.  And I think Failte Ireland has done a great job in promoting Ireland as a destination.  But I am with whoever held up that banner at the Savita protest.  A proper Gathering has to have a reason, has to have soul and meaning.  For me, the only Gathering I am having does not require a postcard invitation.  Like hopefully many, many other families in Ireland my only ‘Gathering’  will be when I welcome home my eldest daughter from Perth to spend Christmas with her family!  If she spends money while she is here, great… but wouldn’t it be better if she, like thousands others, were here paying tax.. every week and not just for Christmas!

The Gathering, much like that bloody book 50 Shades of Grey is yet another example of the triumph of hype over substance!

What do you think?

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE IRISH….

I have a love hate relationship with Paddy’s Day for many reasons, not least of which is that I hanker after the simpler way in which we celebrated our national day when I was a child… but that could be just my age. I may be incubating my inner ‘grumpy old woman’.

Given that we are approaching the day of national celebration and the fact that some of my unease stems from disconnect or gap that exists between what is really is to be Irish and how the Irish are portrayed, last night as we sat having dinner we decided to explore this huge question. What does it mean to be Irish?

Taking part in the conversation was husband, who is English and the two youngest daughters aged 13 and 11. We came up with a list of what it really means to be Irish…. This is our family view and I present it for your consideration and entertainment.

Being Irish means you talk a lot… This is something that particularly affects our family but as we regularly compare Irish families we know with British families we know, we think that this is definitely an Irish trait. The gift of the gab is apparently more than just a tired cliché. We see this as a positive.

Being Irish means we are sweary… Yeah, this is fair enough. We are great at swearing and even break up words to stick a swear word in the middle – abso-bleedin-lutely. This is probably neither positive nor negative. But we are kind of proud of this dubious aspect of our Irishness too.

Being Irish means we do a lot of slagging…. This is probably one of the most useful Irish traits and one that often other nationalities don’t get. And the secret of good slagging is that nothing is sacred. Irreverent slagging – brilliant.

Being Irish means we need to know everything about everyone… Again we think it’s the height of bad manners not to be interested in other people. Some nationalities might see this as being nosey but we think it should be taken as a compliment if, when we meet you, we interview you too.

Being Irish means we are loud… Well, we feel there is no point in talking if no one can hear you.. So yeah, loud and proud of it too.

Being Irish means the tricolour… Now this was interesting. I asked my girls if they knew the significance of the Green, White and Orange in our national flag. Oh, they sure did. It is not quite the meaning I was taught but in this era of peace and tolerance perhaps it’s very appropriate. Here is the new meaning of the tricolour.

Green – is for the fields of Ireland

Orange – is for the red heads

White – is the colour of our skin.

Being Irish means drinking… We had a long debate about this one and in the end conceded that yep, Ireland has probably earned her reputation as drinkers although we do feel that the reputation is actually larger than our drinking. But we are proud of Irish pubs which are now found in almost every corner of the world.

Being Irish means ‘the craic’….. We think that only Irish people truly understand what having the craic is about. It’s fun, it’s slagging, it uproarious, and it’s the ultimate feel good. We think it’s one of the best things about being Irish.

Being Irish means we are very connected to our spirituality.. Not all of us of course but these are all generalisations. We think that (in general) Irish people are very spiritual. From the good Catholics and CofI’s to the pagans we think there is a high degree of believing we are part of a bigger picture in Ireland. We also have some wonderful ancient pagan monuments and of course we own Halloween. This is almost as good as the craic. We like this very much.

Being Irish means we are cool… I was so thrilled to hear my children (13 and 11) announce that being Irish meant we are cool. In these days of depression and recession, our children are still proud to be Irish… that’s just bloody great!

Being Irish means (like it or hate it) we have Paddy’s Day For us the most interesting thing about Paddy’s Day is that it is so widely celebrated all over the world.

Being Irish is all about being a small country with a long reach…. we are all over the world once again.

So wherever you are, whether you are Irish or not can we wish you Happy St Patrick’s Day… curse away, have a jar, plenty of craic and then interview someone you don’t know very well!

With thanks to Roisin, Mia and Paul

IS BARACK ALL JUST BLUSTER?

After a remarkable few days, yesterday I found my brain reeling from all the visual images and the ‘sound bytes’ which have dominated our media for the last week or so and which culminated with the visit of US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. But whereas the visit of the Queen was entirely satisfying and, dare I say it, moving, the visit of Obama was not in the same league at all. Did it suffer by the comparison with one of the most important events to have taken place in the last century in this country? Or (shock horror) is President Obama not quite living up to his own ability to communicate and to generate PR for himself?

On arrival at Aras an Uachtarain I was struck by Obama the Showman, as he yelled to the assembled media “Good morning, how are you all doing?” But perhaps he was just doing what many Americans do naturally – oozing confidence and informality.

His trip to Moneygall, which was one of those towns you sped through on your way between Dublin and Limerick and were never tempted to stop, was different. Here I thought he was most himself. Clearly relaxed and seemingly very taken with the fact that his third great grandfather (who rejoiced in the very unlikely Irish name of Falmouth) had come from this little town. He was in no hurry as he held babies, received hugs and shook what looked every hand in the town.

Then he adjourned to the pub in the usual piece of staged PR for Diageo. Like Clinton before him – he drank the Guinness, waving it towards the photographers and roaring Slainte! Then it was back to Dublin for his speech to the Irish. I was someone who stayed up into the small hours to watch him being elected in 2008. I am a big fan and so was tempted to go into the city to listen to this man who carries not only the hope of Americans but of the free world with him.

But having braved thousands in Dun Laoghaire for the Red Bull Flopfest the previous day, I’d had enough of crowds and so decided to watch from my sofa instead. As I listened I kept waiting to be uplifted. To hear something I could hold onto. To feel that my faith in this man was going to be rewarded with even just an insightful comment which would make it clear that he understood modern Ireland and our current situation. But instead what I got was a speech that seemed to me to have been cobbled together on the flight over, taking more than a little inspiration from both Kennedy and Clinton before him but without the context that both of these predecessors had. Kennedy was addressing a relatively newly independent Ireland and Clinton was marking the Peace Process.

Obama is a consummate communicator and a great performer. There is no doubt about that. But is he a statesman, a visionary, a great leader of our time? Not yet he ain’t. As I watched him on TV, I laughed and smiled and felt good. But within minutes of it ending, I was left feeling pretty unsatisfied. It was like eating a McDonald’s meal – tastes great but shortly afterwards you realize you are still hungry.

This was no visit, official or otherwise. This was a ‘dropping by’ on his way to bigger and more important business in Europe. His few hours in Ireland provided a bit of R&R for all concerned. And the opportunity to tell us we are a great little country who helped build America; a little island who has had its fair share of dark days but who always overcomes adversity. Had no one told him that only a few days beforehand, in her clipped and formal tones, Banrian Eilis a Do had signaled Ireland’s coming of age and along with our own President Mary McAleese set our faces most definitely to the future.

Grown up Ireland should expect far more from the President of the United States, than a photo opportunity with a bloody pint of Guinness and the same old speech telling us we are great. No, there was no vision of Ireland’s role on a world stage, no creativity of thinking, just same ole’, same ole’. Not good enough anymore. No siree. A definite case of could do a whole lot better!

Postscript: There was one highlight of the visit though and this is really for the benefit of my American readers.

We had all heard about the huge entourage of both people and vehicles that travel with the President. The most impressive of these is the presidential car (of which there is in fact at least two). This car, known as the beast is bullet proof and bomb proof and weight tons. It is truly a magnificence to behold. While waiting outside Aras an Uachtarain (Presidents Residence) it was polished by an aide. The Americans are rightly proud of The Beast. It took a ride over a security/speed ramp outside the American Embassy in Dublin to put The Beast out of commission! The clip is hilarious – listen for the noise of the cars hitting the ramp and then the hilarity of the Dubliners who were watching! I believe the dead beast was finally towed to Dublin Airport yesterday and is now back in Washington for repair.

"Where has all the money gone?"

7 Billion, 24 billion, 35 billion….
Bail Out,
ECB,
Bond Markets,
Ollie Rehn,
Front loaded adjustments,
Budget deficit,
Blah Blah Blah,
Gobbeldy gook
It streams from my radio.
It jumps from the pages of my newspapers.
It scares me to death and yet it is meaningless.
Intangible.
Words, totally unconnected to my day to day existence.
But yet words that are part now of the soundtrack to our lives.

Before these words became common language, long, long ago, at the very beginning of this recession, my daughter Mia, then 8 years old asked me “Mom, where has all the money gone?” At the time I smiled at her innocent grasp of the new financial reality. “Yes, child” I answered her “wouldn’t it be great if the Government could just print some more money for us all.”

I was recounting this anecdote recently to a friend when I thought again of her question “where has all the money gone?” The question stayed with me all day. Yes, where indeed has all the money gone?

Our current financial meltdown was triggered in large part by the property developers. The men who paid hugely inflated prices for parcels of land on which they had ambitious and unimaginative plans to build houses and apartments. We all know what happened next. The property market collapsed. The land became almost worthless and the developers couldn’t pay back the huge loans they had borrowed from greedy and clueless bankers.

So, Mia innocently asked “where did all the money go?” Someone got paid the large sums borrowed from the banks, which we are now effectively paying back! Surely there is a case to be made for an investigation into those who were paid the hugely inflated prices for their land. I understand that this is how land and property speculation works. But it is morally right that this modest cohort of people, whose bank accounts now bulge with possibly millions of euro, should be allowed to hold onto it? Meanwhile our Government considers reducing the Old Age Pension, Children’s Allowance and other benefits, our young people emigrate in thousands and our economy collapses all around us. We in effect are paying for their financial windfall.

To go after this money, would take courage and determination. I know that it wouldn’t solve all our problems, but it would go some way towards restoring a sense of fair play to the rest of us who profited only very modestly by comparison and then only by working hard during the Celtic Tiger’s roar. At the very least surely some kind of extra tax could be levied on the millions paid for what are now useless fields of dreams.

My daughter has a point – “where did all the money go”. We know where a lot of it went, and we seem happy to pay it back in order to protect some principle of a free market economy. I don’t think that Mia, now 10 years old, would consider that to be very fair. And neither do I.

BACK TO THE FUTURE 1963

The 26th of June 1963 was my mothers 28th birthday. On that evening she stood in the front garden of our house on the Swords Road in Santry with her 18 month old daughter in her arms and together they watched as one of the most glamorous and charismatic leaders the world had ever seen, swept past in his motorcade on the way to Aras an Uachtarain.

I don’t know if the fact that I saw President Kennedy from my mother’s arms explains my fascination with his story. I think most people, particularly us Irish, find the story of JFK compelling. It has it all – power, glamour, wealth, success, Hollywood legends, conspiracy and the ultimate tragedy of a life cut short. To this day and no doubt into the future, JFK is the President many leaders, particularly American Presidents aspire to. Clinton and Obama made no secret of their admiration for the 35th President of the United States and the Kennedy family’s endorsement of their campaigns, was a key element in both their elections to office.

What was it that made John Fitzgerald Kennedy so special? Watch old film of this attractive man, who was 43 when elected, and his charisma is still evident today. Charisma, no matter what your role in life is, is a very useful commodity. JFK had it in buckets. He was by all accounts very charming and had the ability to make people like him. His self deprecating sense of humour also won people over. He was a leader whose two most powerful tools were charm and charisma. Coupled, no doubt, with a sharp intellect and innate understanding that politics is all about people, combined to make him a very effective statesman.

He understood that to connect with people, be they your countrymen or not, was essential. He arrived in Dublin on that June evening in 1963, straight from Berlin where he had made his famous ‘Ich bein ein Berliner’speech. JFK knew how to connect with people alright.

But connecting alone is not enough. Kennedy also knew how to communicate very effectively his vision of the world. He used big broad brush strokes when painting that vision. Many years later, African American poet Maya Angelou said “… people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And when he came to visit us in Ireland, Kennedy made us feel good, good about ourselves and good about this country we live in. What a precious gift.

When he addressed the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas on the 28th of June, he delivered one of his trademark, powerful orations. It was full of references to Ireland’s proud literary tradition, stressing our relatively new independence, and the role he saw for Ireland in working towards World Peace. Probably the best known passage from the speech that day was when he quoted George Bernard Shaw’s approach to life :”other peoples see things and say ‘Why?…. but I dream things that never were – and I say: Why not?”

Kennedy went on to say
“It is that quality of the Irish, the remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination that is needed more than ever today. The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?”

These words, delivered directly here to us in Ireland, inspired our country almost 50 years ago. We listened and we believed. Why? Because they were delivered by a charismatic leader, who had a vision to communicate to us and who ultimately made us feel good about ourselves. To me, this is the very essence of leadership.

We should be grateful to Ryan Tubridy for putting the spotlight back on those momentous days of 1963. Because buried among the newsreel footage, the anecdotes and the sheer excitement, is Kennedy’s speech to the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas. It is a speech that is as relevant today as it was on the day it was delivered. Almost half a century later, his words are still a wonderful gift to us. As we flounder from one financial crisis to the next, in a vacuum devoid of leadership and of vision, let us remember that the 35th President of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy told us we possessed a remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination. And let us hope that he was right!

CALIFORNIA DREAMIN’

Regular readers will know that I have been (virtually) very quiet this week as I was away with the family on holiday in California. It seemed like a long way to go for a week, but eldest daughter, who works in travel, got us a great deal which was too good to pass up. And although we spent 24 hours travelling each way, it was well worth it and not half as difficult as I thought it might be.

We had a busy schedule of things to do and we feel like we have been away for a month. It is like having an amazing dream and on waking, finding out that you were only asleep for ten minutes. But then again, many of us already know that time is elastic and not the straight line we perceive it as being!

I will refer you to Mia’s Room for a flavour of what we got up to. Mia can capture the spirit of our holiday much better than I. And if you visit – do leave her a comment. The excitement when she gets a comment on her blog is pure joy echoing through the house.

For me, suffice to say that I love America. We in Europe (and particularly in Ireland) could learn a thing or two about service from our neighbours on the other side of the ocean. And once again I have returned wondering how the Irish got the reputation of being the friendliest nation on earth. My experience of America has always been that they, in fact, are far worthier than us of this particular accolade.

And so from the sunshine and palm trees and fantasy of Hollywood, we return to Ireland which seems to be reluctantly moving into autumn. And one of the great things about travelling abroad is that it provides us with fresh eyes coming home. And as our flight sank through huge layers of grey cloud at Dublin Airport, we were greeted with the greenery and the autumnal colours of the fields of North Dublin. It’s great to get away. And it is also wonderful to arrive back home. Home, to the unbridled joy of Dylan and the more subtle welcome from the four moggies. Home to where we can feel complete, to where we belong and to where our hearts are. And home to begin to dream about where we might be able to travel to next.

What do you think? Do like returning home after holidays?