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Prague Postcard – A torturous wonderland

Morning session

I start the day with some lovely coffee courtesy of our host. The troops are slow to get roused this morning but have slept well. We catch the Tram at Andel, alight near the Charles Bridge (Karlov Most) and walk across through the throngs. We really must do this crossing again at a quieter time of day (or night).

First cultural stop is the Museum of Torture and if anything proof that modern law enforcement is gone a bit ‘soft’. We learn some interesting facts, such as, execution by garrotting stayed on the Statute Books in Spain until 1975! I read this on the wall in the museum and haven’t bothered cross-checking that.

The torture tools have very romantic names – the ‘Virgin of Nurnberg’ is basically a sarcophagus with inward facing spikes, all mercifully positioned to avoid the victim’s vital organs – while simultaneously turning the prisoner into a human sieve. One recorded internee was inside this thing for three whole days. Another grapelike tool on display is called ‘The Spanish Tickler’, apparently it was useful in peeling skin off people who were unwilling to admit to doing stuff they probably never actually did. There was also the famous limb-pulling Rack and a medieval version of a water board. Most appear to have been reserved for witches and heretics. After this gruesome display we decided the only course was to repair, as quickly as possible, to the nearest Starbucks and once there we appreciated our iced macchiatos with new-found relish.

The Virgin of Nurnberg

We wandered around the old quarter through its narrow streets now housing mostly kitschy souvenir shops and over-priced cafes. The Old square is dominated by the Town Hall. It is a beautiful space if only it was devoid of the plague of tourists inhabiting every square inch of it, says me the tourist. The Town Hall dates from 1338 making it one of the oldest still in use in the world. The building has had many changes and expansions in the meantime and been lovingly restored since its last significant damage in the Second World War.

One of the most popular past times of the burghers of Prague in medieval times was chucking people out windows. These events are better known as the infamous ‘De-fenestrations of Prague’. Plural because there were several. The first one occurred in 1419 when a group of reformists (now as the Hussites) marched through the city towards the Town Hall. As they were doing so some clown threw a stone from one of the upper windows of the hall and struck the leader. Apoplectic with rage (one of my favourite words that) the mob / rabble / angry crowd stormed into the Hall. Harsh words were exchanged, and it appears things got even more rowdy and out of hand, to the extent that some sensible soul decided the only way of settling things was to eject the Burgomaster and several members of the City Council by the nearest exit. It should be pointed out that elevators had nit being invented yet, so the nearest exit was in fact the windows of the main hall. The unfortunate council members soon found themselves briefly airborne before coming to a shuddering halt on the hard-cobbled street below. These violent actions started a long and bitter conflict in Bohemia known as the ‘Hussite Wars’.

The next famous defenestration in Prague took place almost two hundred years later at the Bohemian Chancellory. This time two catholic lord regents and a secretary were thrown out a window by some irate protestant nobles. The falling men survived the 70-foot fall. To their Catholic supporters this was a miraculous example of divine intervention. To the Protestant chucker-outs the intervention was believed to be a fortunately placed dung-heap. The event served to highlight the political & religious pressures in central Europe at the time which would soon lead to the Thirty Years War, (so called because it lasted 30 years).

Back to the present – Huge crowds are gathered under the famous astronomical clock awaiting the famous figurines to come out of hiding on the hour. We walked a bit further into the newer areas around Wenceslas Square before deciding that this was enough for today’s first cultural walkabout. We got the underground from Mustek back to Andel. The metro system is impressive, and transfers are easy to master. Tickets are relatively cheap at less than one euro for an adult and half that for children for one 30-minute trip.

The Astronomical Clock

Cultural Tip – If you do happen to have a disagreement with a Czech citizen please make sure to do so at ground level, you’ve a better chance of surviving the fall (highly unlikely I should add – they are lovely people, really).

Afternoon session of great cultural learnings expedition

Klementinum is not some newly discovered mineral on the periodic table. It is in fact a sprawling complex of buildings covering 2 hectares right in the centre of Prague. The place started as a Jesuit College before becoming merged with the Charles University in 1654. The place is famous for numerous reasons but the most interesting for me are the Observatory and the Baroque Library. On a tour you are limited to a small group which is great and useful as there are some very tight stairs to be manouvered later.

When it advertises a tour of the Library it is not exactly accurate. The Library is a UNESCO site and although still technically in use its not the type of library where you can borrow some books on Yoga & Mindfulness for a month. Many of the books here are first editions going back hundreds of years old. The Vyšehrad Codex is also here – it is a Latin coronation Gospel Book, considered the most important and most valuable manuscript kept in Bohemia. It was probably made to honour the coronation of the Czech King Vratislav II in 1085.

Now the “Tour” of the library is really only a glimpse into it. A door is opened and four or five of the Group are allowed into a cordoned off area for circa two minutes to savour one of the most beautiful rooms in the world. For Kultur Vultures this is the equivalent of Hamleys Toy Store on Regents Street for kids. The ceiling has amazing frescoes created by Jan Hiebl with the temple of knowledge at its centre symbolizing the raison d’etre of the library. The floor contains numerous globes including one map of the heavens. Two minutes is not enough to savour the grandeur and style of this place but on with the tour.

Next we all squeeze up (well I squeezed others just ascended gracefully) up into the Observatory Tower – the second part of the Tour. The Astronomical Tower has been here since 1722 and is adorned with a statue of Atlas holding the celestial orb. From the 1750’s the Tower began to be equipped with astronomical instruments. The penultimate floor has a meridian line passing through it which was used for determining the Prague High Noon – which was announced to fellow Praguers by the waving of a red flag – cue lots of gentlemen removing pocket watches from waist coat pockets and nodding approvingly.

From the top floor the panoramic views of the City are stunning. I took a few snaps as you can see – I think they look alright and do the city of a hundred spires justice. For €15 I would recommend this Tour for a brief glimpse at the amazing library and the awe inspiring city views from the top of the Tower.

It was too early to head back so I managed another quick visit to the mind curing Wallenstein gardens. Got a few snaps of the Peacock as well.

We ended up eating noodles in Smichov washed down by thirst destroying homemade lemonade. Quick change and refresh at the Apartment before a final evening stroll. Regretting didn’t get some concert tickets – lots of choice earlier. So much to do, so little time … krásná Praha

The Titanic’s Sister

On this day in 1916, the Hospital Ship ‘Britannic’ sank off one of the Greek islands. The Britannic was a sister ship of the famous Titanic which was sunk on her maiden voyage in 1912.

Britannic was requisitioned as a hospital ship in November 1915. Much work had to be done to prepare her ready for her new role, this included the installation of extra davits capable of holding even more lifeboats and repainting her hull white. She also sported a horizontal green stripe and three large red crosses down each side. The first class dining rooms were converted into operating theatres and ‘B’ deck would be home for the medical staff.

Her Captain, Charles Bartlett (known as ‘Iceberg Charlie’ to his crew) was on the bridge on Tuesday 21 November, just after 8am, along with Chief Officer Hume and Fourth Officer McTowis, when a loud explosion was heard – something had hit the ship on the starboard side, near the bow between the second and third cargo holds. Damage to a bulkhead meant that the first five compartments would become flooded. The timing of the explosion was to be fatal: watertight doors between boiler rooms were open to allow shift changes to take place.

Bartlett ordered the ship to be abandoned at 8.35am, just twenty three minutes after the explosion. Over the next half hour, the 600 crew and 500 medical personnel clambered into thirty-five lifeboats or swam for their lives away from the fast-sinking ship.
Incredibly, there were three people on board who had survived the sinking of the Titanic.

Violet Jessop, a nurse, was on board one of the two lifeboats that were destroyed by the propellers. Realising the danger just in time, she dived clear and was sucked below the waves. Coming to the surface, she hit her head on the keel but was rescued by another lifeboat.

Violet Jessop

Also surviving both the Titanic and the Britannic sinkings was John Priest, a stoker.

The third survivor of both sinkings was Archie Jewell, the lookout. He was to be less fortunate when he was drowned off SS Donegal in April 1917.

Of the 1,066 crew and medical staff on board, only 30 (21 crew plus one officer and eight men of the RAMC) were to lose their lives; most of these were probably in the lifeboats that drifted into the propellers.

Survivors of the Brittanic

Credit – Western Front Association


Hunching into the crook of his arm to light his cigarette. The high heathery bank stretches off desert-like behind him, on towards Drumhanny and Drumcolligan.  ‘Bugger’ he says, after short gust of wind quenches his match. ‘Did you ever see what it was like after they bombed Birmingham?’  I ask quizzically. No response, at least not immediately, a cloud of smoke suddenly billets up from the overcoat and he is lit. ‘Birmingham’ he says ‘No, no I didn’t’.

He stoically surveys the black rows of turf footings, our mornings work. I look at him as he inhales deeply, his ruddy, gaunt birdlike face, his long fingers, varnished by decades of tobacco smoke. He won’t chat. Two more drags on his cigarette, more silence. I watch a blue, shiny dragonfly hover and zip along the surface of the dark boghole surface. ‘Terrible thing to do’ he finally says. ‘Cowardly’. I look up but now his attention is on the plantation of birch that marks the boundary of the bog and the small garden meadows beyond. ‘Were you there that time?  I ask.  ‘No’ comes the swift reply. The reply is so adamant, so instant and so sure in itself.  He looks studiously at his company watch, the reward for thirty years of punctuality from Massey-Ferguson, then takes another long drag on his cigarette. From the acrid cloud of smoke around his head some words emerge, slowly, ‘but I was not far away, I was in Coventry. Yes. You had to keep your head down if you were Irish that time’.  

Carefully he squeezes the tip of the cigarette between forefinger and thumb, like an altar boy quenching a candle after mass. The black ended butt is placed securely in his breast pocket. It will emerge on his next smoke-break in half an hour. The fag-breaks in the factory must not have been long enough to smoke a full cigarette. ‘We wouldn’t even speak to each other if we met at a bus stop, in case someone heard the accent’ he turns towards the ordered rows of turf, ‘unless you wanted trouble’.  Back to work it is for man and boy, backs bent low on a turf bank in Leitrim in early June.

My grandmother once told me that he had worked on the building of the reservoirs in Wicklow, high up near Blessington and Poulaphuca. It was 1938 and the first chance her youngest brother had to earn a pay packet. Within two years he was in London working with her and two other brothers. He stayed after the War and found work in the midlands and settled in Coventry. Every year he comes home to help on the farm. Not much of a holiday I think, making hay, rearing turf. My brother and I stole some of his cigarettes last night and smoked them in the byre. It was a tip less John Player and we both felt dizzy and nauseous after. The granduncle won’t talk while he works, and he stays with his back bent low the whole time. I pop up every minute or so like a cormorant coming up for air. An ocean of unturned turf lies ahead of us, at least another week of hard labour, my annual penance.

‘What was it like in the Blitz?’ I ask. He sits now, cross-legged, his coat spread under him to keep the pismire ants from stinging his arse. Slowly he opens the bottle of sweet milky tea. ‘That’s a long time ago’. I pretend not to hear him and press on, ‘Did you ever hear the doodle-bug?’ He takes a swing from the bottle ‘Oh aye, you could hear it plain, rattling across the sky and I saw it too’ .  Wow! I replied excitedly ‘What did it look like?’ I had only seen it this secret weapon missile in comics like ‘Victor’ and ‘Warlord’. ‘I can’t remember’. ‘But You saw it?’ I ask curiously. ‘Didn’t I just tell ya I saw it’. I open the biscuit tin and unwrap the napkin covering the sandwiches. I offer him one and he takes the egg and onion one in his bony fingers.

‘Did you ever hear the V2’ I ask. ‘Yes…. if you heard that one you were alright …… it meant it had passed you by and some other poor bugger was going to get it. Ah yeah. I heard a few of them. Loud bugger too’. He is finally opening up I surmise, ‘They are supersonic that is why you would have heard them even though they had passed’. He looks at me through his narrow eyes, weighing me up. I feel the need to continue, to explain, to wash away his doubts about me, ‘you see that’s why you hear them after they’ve passed, they are travelling faster than the speed of sound’’. ‘Who told you that?’  he grunts.  ‘It’s science, it was travelling more than the speed of sound, that’s more than 800 miles an hour’. He pulls the cigarette butt from his pocket and lights it. ‘I don’t think so’.

Slowly he gets up, picks up his coat and begins to pat it, dusting it down. ‘I saw one over Croydon you see, and it wasn’t going that fast’. He stubs the butt out on the bank and begins to turn back towards the long runs of turf. As he does, he mutters, ‘Ya had better work like the speed of sound, there’s rain comin’

Far from the maddening crowds – Galway 2020

I had an appointment in Galway yesterday and took advantage of the good weather to take a stroll around town and visit my alma mater. It was comfortable to walk around in the absence of the usual throngs of this time of year. It was also a bit eerie. The city should have been buzzing. It was chosen as the 2020 European City of Culture and many were hoping to reap the bonanza such an award brings. Instead many business premises are using the lockdown to redecorate their premises. You can get a takeaway coffee or a gelato in town but that’s about it. I hope they all survive as I’m sure many are tied into big rents and paying big rates. When you’re giving unto Caesar there is often very little grain left for your own cupboard. Sin sceál eile.

The last time I walked down Shop Street in summer was several years ago. It was like scrambling to get into Croke Park ten minutes before throw in. It was probably worse. Over-tourism destroys many places; I’m thinking of postcards of Trevi Fountains and Bridges of Sighs; yet when you get to these places they are like anthills. Am I a curmudgeon? I don’t think so. I guess we all just want these places for ourselves. Galway is in the same category.

I had a lovely walk by the canal from Jurys to the Salmon Weir Bridge. Small groups of people were sitting out on the embankments.  Social distancing was adhered to also, which was good to see. Plenty of cans and bottles in hands but no sign of any litter. An odd guitar strummed too. I’ve never made my mind up about the Cathedral. Some days I like it and others I think it’s a monstrosity, but if Galway is to be a city, its skyline needs a Dome and the Cathedral has a great Dome. The University is looking well. The grounds are beautifully maintained. There is a lot of concrete and steel squeezed in between the Newcastle Road and the Corrib these days. Somehow the excellent landscaping blends everything in. I turned at the Quincentennial Bridge and came back along the very pleasant river walk. Almost on cue a couple of skulls passed by on the river their blades shimmering in the light as they cut the dark water. The grass verges have been left like almost meadow which is great for the bees. Nothing worse than an over manicured lawn for the fauna. For all the beautiful new buildings, each of sound architectural merit, the Quad is still the jewel in the crown on campus. Satisfied that my Alma Mater is in sound hands I strolled down Canal Road and headed for the West End.

On the opposite bank with its high wall I was hoping I might see one of the Poor Clare nuns abscond in an East Berlin type dash for freedom. It didn’t happen. I made a few detours to see old flats and houses I once called home. The Connacht Laundry is now closed. For years this place put hard earned pounds into students’ pockets, notes that would very soon be resting in neat rows in Mick Taylors till. Monroe’s looks well, pints and pizzas will return soon.

There is always a bit of breeze in Galway no matter what time of the year. As I walked back to town along the Eglinton Canal the wind was playing havoc with my lockdown locks. If only there was a barber shop open. In College days I liked to spread my non-existent loot around, so I went to three barber shops. A very odd time I went to a lad on Abbeygate Street, just behind Lynch’s Castle. He certainly gave a good haircut but wasn’t much into conversation. You need conversation in a barber shop.

Barber shops these days are all hot towels and beer fridges. There are some great ones, but you sometimes think many are all fur coat and no knickers. These establishments used to be a lot more puritanical, functional, unpretentious, friendly fiefdoms of masculinity. There were two other great barber shops in Galway that I remember fondly. Both could easily straddle either the traditional or the modern era. Tom Nally is still going in his shop between Griffins Bakery and the Kings Head. A tall, lean greyhound of a man always dressed very suave, a great man to talk GAA. If you had any talent and were unaligned Tom wouldn’t be long getting your name on a transfer form. Before you knew where you were, you’d be signed up for his beloved St. Michaels out in Shantalla / Rahoon.

When I lived over the West End I used to go for the chop to ‘Chick’ Gillens. I only found out today his real name was Michael John. Chick was a great character. I can still see him in his white coat, dancing around his customer on the balls of his feet. Like any good boxer he had great feet. If it was GAA that ruled in Tom Nally’s, Chicks place was a shrine to the Pugilist. The walls were adorned with all sorts of boxing memorabilia and the man himself had an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. It often felt like you paid for the tales and anecdotes, but the haircut came free. There was something very manly about that shop and that man.

One day he told me a story about a young lad from the Claddagh called Tony who was very bright. He won a bursary to the University in the early 1960’s. The young student found the first few weeks in the College very difficult. The rest of his classmates seemed to be from privileged homes, and he was from a humbler background. Chick said he spotted there was something up. One evening as he was closing up he spotted the young lad walking by on his way home. Chick called him over. They had a good chat and the lad began opening up to him about his feelings. Chick said I’ll give you a haircut while you’re here and they chatted more in the relaxed environment of the shop. In the heel of the hunt the young lad didn’t drop out of University; in fact he went on to have a great career, one which crossed paths with my own. I never told Tony what Chick had said. It’s a bit of a parable but Chick was only doing what he had done for decades in his boxing clubs, giving young men guidance, self-belief, confidence in their own abilities. It was Chick who spotted an eleven-year old traveler boy at a tournament in Ennis and took him under his wing. It was the start of a collaboration that led to that young boy carrying our national flag at an Olympic opening ceremony. It might not be Selma, Alabama but it’s still an iconic moment.

Michael John ‘Chick’ Gillen died last week at the age of 87 and you can’t help but feel that a little piece of Galway died with him. The city that he loved will survive and prosper.

Chick Gillen photo credit Oisin Browne twitter

The Virginian – Farewell

James Drury ‘The Virginian’

Middle aged, floating somewhere on the middle deck of this ship of life, somewhere between an older traditional Ireland and screen hugging modernity. Maybe most people feel this way in middle age. They find themselves providing two similar yet opposite information functions – explaining to their offspring about the past and to their elders about the present (and occasionally the future). Its an important role to be this conduit but its not very well remunerated.

One thing that struck me in recent weeks was the obsession my parent’s generation had with the Western. I was reading a great book by John Connell from Ballinalee, County Longford about life on an Irish suckler farm. Johns father, of a generation that grew up in the 60’s and 70’s in rural Ireland, loves nothing better than a good Western. Then last night I was getting through another self-isolating evening watching YouTube. I came across a video of the wonderful bawdy Dubliners song ‘The Mero’. One of the lyrics goes ‘Bang Bang shoots the buses, With his golden key’. This is of course reference to a well-known and much-loved street character who carried a large key and spent his time shooting people around the city with it. Bang Bang was what they used to call a Duine le Dia, but he kept himself busy mimicking his favourite gun men from the Wild West.

Our local Cinema was in its heyday in the 1940s and 50s and Westerns were the staple on the Billboard. Comics contributed to the cultural colonisation. Through these mediums Ireland learned about life on the Great Plains and the High Chaparral. We crossed the Rio Grande, took the Oregon Trail and sadly some of us ended up in Boot Hill.

By the time I came into the world so too had cowboy suits for Christmas. It wasn’t unusual to meet gangs of young lads running amok around the town in Chaps and Stetsons. Rows broke out over important matters such as who wore the sheriff’s badge. Or it could be finding the renegade who stole your ammo (your ‘caps’) leaving you inadequately armed with a revolver that made a harmless click when you pulled its trigger. The Milky Bar kid was the coolest man on telly, dishing out endless bars of chocolate goodness to his posse. The airwaves told us all about the Wichita Linesmen, The Cowards of the County and the Gambler imparted excellent advice on how to play your hand in poker.

The 1960’s was the Golden era of the Western TV series. The three biggest were Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Virginian. Between them these shows produced over 1,300 episodes and captivated an entire generation. They continue to be syndicated around the world to this day. Gunsmoke was set in the wild town of Dodge City where the battle to maintain law and order was a constant struggle. LA Times columnist Cecil Smith once wrote: “Gunsmoke was the dramatization of the American epic legend of the west. Our own Iliad and Odyssey ..”

Bonanza was set in the high ground of Nevada, close to Virginia City, on the famous Ponderosa ranch owned by the Cartwright family. The Virginian was in the middle of the other two, in Wyoming, on a ranch called Shiloh – homage to the famous bloody Civil War battle that made the name of General Grant and wrestled control of the Mississippi from the Confederate South. The lead character as his name suggests was also a Southerner. The Virginian was played by James Drury who although been born in New York City, spent a lot of his youth on his mother’s ranch in Oregon. The role was that of a tough ranch foreman. He commands authority and respect. We never get to know the Virginian’s name nor much about his past which is shrouded in secrecy. He is a constant presence though – only Drury and Doug McClure were present in all the seasons the show ran. Drury was inducted into the Great Western Performers Hall of Fame in 1991. He is in good company there with the likes of Gary Cooper, Gene Autry, Clint Eastwood & John Wayne.

Drury’s grandfather, also James, left Kingsland, Boyle, County Roscommon and the farm of his birth in the 1890’s for New York. About ten years ago The Virginian arrived back in Boyle in his Stetson. There was much fanfare in the town. There was a band to meet him and local dignitaries clamoured for photographs with the returning son. By all accounts Drury was very patient and polite. There were quiet moments too when he met his cousins and visited the west of Ireland ‘Ranch’ where his grandfather was born. He lowered his Stetson as he said a quiet prayer over the graves of his ancestors. The big wheel of life had brought him back to the land of his forebears, where his roots ran deeper than on the plains around Medicine Bow. Drury was visibly moved by his visit. The following year he even helped fundraise for the local Alzheimer’s charity. One of the prizes was a ten-day trip to Texas that included spending time in the Cowboy’s company. I know many people who would consider that trip a dream come true.

James Drury, The Virginian died on Monday last at the age of 86.

James Drury 1934-2020

Nero tweets as Rome burns

I am going to fall into the trap. The trap that has been set so often now by Donald Trump, the one where you cannot sit in the middle, you are either with him or against him, you must show your hand.

There have been many comparisons recently between the crazy Emperor Nero and the current occupant of the Oval Office. One just has to substitute the word ‘Fiddling’ with ‘Tweeting’ to see that it is not wild comparison.

Nero apparently in the midst of an epidemic had has personal physician Andromachus, drum up a miracle cure called theriac. The modern equivalent of this ancient drug is Hydroxychloroquine. Most people never heard of this drug until recent weeks. A charlatan with dodgy credentials appeared on Fox News and mentions a test in France. Trump runs with it, it’s a “great little test” and “a game changer” he exclaims. The President shamelessly promotes the unproven drug, without any clinical trials. In so doing he completely undermines his country’s leading expert on infectious diseases Dr Anthony Fauci.  The eminent Doctor’s position remains unchanged, stating that there is no conclusive evidence or study to support using this drug as an effective antidote to Covid19.

This is a person who has sacked decorated Generals because he says he knows more about fighting wars than them, who casts government  officials aside and denigrates their competency and loyalty to their country, who grants pardons to his buddies because experienced Judges, in his amazing legal brain, obviously made an error. This person is the first omniscient President the US has ever had. There is no subject he doesn’t know more about than anyone else despite his childlike vocabulary. This is not normal. This person is a dictator in all but name. Everything that exists is there for his political manipulation and the Corona Virus is no different.

I fall into the trap. I think like many observers that I know America. I think this for numerous reasons but mostly because I feel I am a stakeholder. I even have ancestors that shed blood in Tennessee one hundred and fifty-seven years ago to save this glorious experiment in democracy. What has happened to the new Rome? The answer may be in the old Rome when the enlightened and respected Emperor Marcus Aurelius was succeeded by his son, the brutish and tasteless Commodus.

The alternative might be that America was never going to be the New Rome, (the old one wasn’t so great for most citizens anyhow) that despite its adoption of French Republican ideals at its foundation, it has never really embraced true liberty, real equality and the rights of the individual always trumps (no pun) fraternity. This is an society that encourages extreme individualism and less altruism, that despite its huge bloc of religious conservatism, the God universally worshiped is always Mammon. This is a place where the right to have access to a gun is seen as almost inalienable, even when set against the right to life itself. For the majority of the ideal of the American dream is in reality an illusion, blocked off as they are from real opportunities of advancement through lack of money. This is a land where only those who can attract huge financial backers can ever attain the highest office, where elite robber barons protect their wealth and influence in subtle but effective control of the political, fiscal and education systems, where foreign military misadventures that kill millions of people worldwide are portrayed as exercises in spreading ‘freedom’. This is a country where uniforms and flags are worshiped dissent and the cultural myth of doing ‘your service’ is raised to the highest virtue, but don’y dare ask who you are serving? Although not unique it is a place where all discussion is rendered useless by hyper-partisanship and misinformed noise.

It is not that unusual then that an Emperor who will protect the elites, who loves to stand and fight with his detractors in the Coliseum that twitter, is attractive to so many citizens.  Is it really such a surprise that a spoofing conman with a narcissistic streak is so popular in such a society? Is it it not a good fit to have a myth-making leader who measures his accomplishments by his ratings rather than substance. There is something rotten in the State I love and yet it’s hard to see anything but its re-election in November. The tune from this Emperors fiddle is just too sweet for too many.

Fear is a virus in itself – Addressing the Nation

We are all aware of what a cesspit social media can be these days.  Idiots spending hours sparring with each other, lambasting everybody from politicians to public bodies, institutions, banks, businesses, airlines, food companies and just about anyone that they feel like having a go at. Its so easy to do, to rant and rave. The one consistency is the ranters all think they are right. It must be great to live in a world of such confident certainty and never be wrong. If challenged we become like them – they can also give it but they cannot take it. When you argue with a fool all anyone sees are two fools arguing. We are all guilty at some point of venting but some people take it to new lows and specialise in vicious, personalised, ill-informed rants on subjects they know nothing about.

In this time of Global Crisis we must adopt a more conciliatory attitude. We need to smarten up and start looking out for each other. I have not been a huge fan of Leo Varadkar the outgoing Taoiseach or his party. This is based on their policies over the last 9 years now and problems such as the lack of affordable housing, homelessness and policies that do nothing to stem rural decline.

However, parking that aside over the last week the said Leo and politicians like Simon Coveney have shown great leadership. Others have not – they continued to play the game they have become used to. Everything exists to be exploited for political advantage. Now many have gone quiet. After the split election we just had last month anyone would see the Taoiseach’s Office as a poisoned chalice.

I sat down last night to watch Leo’s address to the nation. To be honest I was expecting some announcement of new restrictions and measures but instead it was a general, broad address pointing out where we are and where we are heading in this Covid19 crisis. There were no big bangs just a calm, reassuring tone and much more empathy than he has shown since he assumed office. This is what we need right now. We need to know that there is someone in charge, that they are doing their best and that we will come through this. This was Roosevelt and his fireside chats, it was Churchill calling his people to arms. Sure it was cliched mix of “never have so many depended on so few” , “ask not what you can do for your country” and “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. Perhaps it is finally dawning on people what a Nation is. We the people are sovereign, the Government don’t have all the answers and it is up to us, each individual, the parts that make up the sum, to stand up and do what is right. We are at War and we need to mobilise.

It is sad then to peruse social media last night and this morning and see stinging criticism of Varadkar. I’m not going to repeat these moron’s angry tweets and posts. I am not and never have been a supporter of Fine Gael but that speech last night was probably a defining moment in Leo Varadkar’s political career. It is worth therefore repeating at least part of the message –

“I know many of you are feeling scared and overwhelmed. That’s a normal reaction. We’ll get through this and we will prevail. We need to halt the spread of the virus, but also the spread of fear. Rely on information from trusted sources. Fear is a virus in itself”

Missing the Parade – St. Patrick’s day 2020 keeping the faith

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‘Stand where St. Patrick did, as you take a spiritual journey like no other…’ a bold declaration that appears on a website about climbing of the holy mountain of Croagh Patrick in Mayo.

Today is our National Holiday and there is unlikely to be one like it ever again. No Mass to go to, no football, no hurling, too wet to go for a walk. Most of all though there is no Parade, either in town or on the telly. The vintage car and tractor brigade must keep their pride and joys locked up safely in their sheds for now.

A few years ago I overheard an elderly man in our local telling his neighbor how taken aback he was by all the groups there was in the local parade

Sure we had nothing growing up’ he exclaimed,  ‘Now there’s boy scouts, girl guides and there’s even ould bucks hanging out a couple of nights a week in a bloody shed’. What do they be at?’ asked the neighbor. ‘I don’t know in the hell, breaking things and fixing them again, mostly breaking’. After a pause he takes up again ‘There a new group the young crowd are going to in the Hall called ‘Thigh Can do’. The neighbor looks puzzled ‘and what do they do?’. The neighbor doesn’t blink ‘They kick lumps out of each other’.

One thing I remember as a kid was the arrival of the American marching bands. I don’t know when they started coming over. They added a bit of exotic flair to the day with their tans, clear sun-kissed skin, beautiful big white teeth and even bigger smiles. They all looked like mini Kennedys. How could anyone be so happy walking around in the wet cold, Irish spring weather. They came from Savannah, Georgia and High Schools from places like Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. Either they were great actors, smiling so much or they genuinely enjoyed being here, the truth is likely somewhere in between. Later bands were better prepared coming with rainwear, ponchos and customized covers to keep instruments and music sheets dry.

A relation, who spent many years toiling in the US, gave me this advice when I was going to work in New York – ‘You can fool a yank once, possibly twice but he’ll come back at you strong’. I found it to be sound advice. They are a very innovative race, sure they even invented the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the first been held in Boston in 1737 and later started in New York in 1775. We native Irish are real latecomers to the party yet feel incumbent to tell our yankee friends and relations that is a sacrilegious sin to ever call our national holiday St. Patty’s.

St Patricks Saltire

Now I’ve a sneaking suspicion the marching band tradition in the US may have evolved from the combined musical and walking habits of our Orange brethren from this island. But thankfully St. Pat, Patrick, Patty or Padraig is embraced by all groups of our complicated society. As Fr.Ted said “that would be an ecumenical matter”. So even Orange can be Green on the 17th of March (even though St. Patrick was traditionally associated with blue and his flag is red and white.

The circumstances surrounding St. Patrick’s Day 2020 provide a great a time to reflect. For me this reflection has been enlightening. I have been a vocal critic of the Irish Government but I have to say I think they have done a tremendous job thusfar. There was no panic in the decision making. There was a sense conveyed that decisions were made based on calm dialogue with experts and not knee-jerk reactions. Hindsight will no doubt show there are some things that could have been done differently but there has been firm leadership and this in turn has created an air of calm and encouraged compliance with the steps advised. This is responsible Leadership.

This is in contrast to Bumbling Boris in the UK and the irrational demagogue known as ‘God’s guy in the Oval Office’. Trump trying to buy the research and proto-vaccine from the German company CureVac, exclusively for the US, is disgusting yet so typical of the POTUS. The rebuff by Dietmar Hopp is reassuring and might come as a shock to Donald that not everything can be bought. “If we hope to soon be able to develop an effective vaccine against the coronavirus , this person should be able to reach, protect and help not only regionally but in solidarity around the world,” said Hopp.

Thankfully after initial dithering the US is now starting to take appropriate measures but those lost days cannot be got back. Meanwhile Mexico is left disappointed that Trump has not built the wall.

Social Media has assumed greater significance as people start to self-isolate and physical social interaction decreases.  Sure there are plenty of loonies and ignoramuses who think this virus is from a lab in China, designed to overthrow the West etc. This crisis is grist to the mill of the flat earth conspiracy theorists. Me, I’ve gradually learned to ignore them and pity them without engaging. I’m sticking with the science.

This crisis has also once again proved that Charlie Darwin was on the money. If the young, fit people emptying every supermarket shelf last week doesn’t prove the theory of Survival of the Fittest I don’t know what will. But that’s for another day. Such acts are easily countered by all the random acts of kindness we’ve also seen where people care for each and reach out. Humour is in better supply than hand sanitizer – laughter is always a great coping mechanism at times of stress.  Our inboxes are full of clever gifs and memes making us smile.

So, on this day dedicated to the patron saint of Ireland, we must, as the website proclaims ‘Stand where St. Patrick did, as you take a spiritual journey like no other…’. for if our favourite Welsh man, who was a Roman, and who preferred Blue over Green, could survive forty days and nights in isolation, alone on the side of a mountain, then why can’t we.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh

The St. Patrick’s Day Junket – our modern day missionaries

I read with interest that a County Councillor in Laois is unable to attend the St. Patrick’s Day celebration in New York this year because he is too busy with cows calving. People from a farming background will empathise. Farmers find it hard to get help at busy times but they are also terrible delegators.

A fellow councillor in Laois expressed the view “I believe these trips never amount to any extra tourists or jobs into the county from international companies. We would be better sending Homer Simpson of the Simpsons cartoon to represent us”. Firstly, I didn’t know that Homer had roots in Laois but that wouldn’t surprise me and secondly the debate about the merits and benefits of sending politicians local and national abroad at the time of our national holiday continues as it has now for decades.

In 2011 nine government Ministers travelled to eight countries. In 2019 the Fine Gael-led Government sent 37 representatives to 57 countries. Add in the County Council contingents and this is quite a logistical operation.

These trips suffer badly from the portrayal of them as junkets. Many Irish people might have a trip to New York or Chicago on their bucket lists but alas that is where they will remain. What the ordinary Irish person sitting in the M50 car park (who has a visceral hatred of politicians on junkets) might not realise is that most of these ministers and council chairpersons are accompanied by members of the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and business people who are promoting Ireland as a place to do business and a destination. The problem is that our carbon foot printing reps in the process of selling Ireland on these far-flung shores are failing miserably at selling the concept at home.

Maybe the message is falling on deaf ears and there might be dose of begrudgery involved also – who wouldn’t envy a compatriot heading off to Australia at this time of year and getting a bit of sun on their neck.

We have heard all the soundbites about connecting with our huge diaspora, using our well-known national festival to market our little country etc. However, it’s getting harder to sell this when our entourages are visiting places like Addis Ababa and Asunción. Last year Damian English TD even visited East Timor where I’m sure he was warmly greeted by the local branch of the Roscommon Association.

There needs to be some semblance of a cost-benefit analysis done to appease the scepticism of much of the taxpayers in Ireland. For the record I support these initiatives. My support is grounded partly on the economics but partly nostalgic. Coming from a County on the Western Seaboard I am acutely aware of the role far flung networks of county associations helped their newly arrived compatriots settle into their new country. These fraternities provided a home from home, a knowledge base, a comfort. Now they were also at times insular houses that perpetuated prejudice (my experience) but on balance they did more harm than good.

I recall a friend and fellow scribe pointing out that Mayo People cling together so much that they even had to create a Mayo Association in Galway. There was even a Leitrim Association based in Sligo.

Now when an invitation arrives addressed to the chairperson of a County Council from such a group, I think it is incumbent on the recipient to do their utmost to attend. It is imperative these bonds are maintained – this is the St. Patricks day junket at its micro level. One can never underestimate how much the presence of the chain of office of a county’s first citizen boosts an emigrant’s event. I believe these bonds will slowly dissolve but we should let them die naturally. One day that invitation will fail to arrive.

On the macro level we have our modern-day St. Patricks, missionaries proselytising all around the World proclaiming low corporate taxation in the emerald isle. The Word is Ireland Inc is open for business. Good luck to them if it brings some good. If there is wastage in Government, there are worse culprits. I just wish they could sell their message at home first.

2020 Blindness – Leo Varadkar and the RIC Commemoration

The Taoiseach has somehow, needlessly, pointlessly snookered himself. “Apologists for the Black and Tans” –Is there a worse insult that could be thrown at Fine Gael? This the party of Michael Collins, the man who devised the strategy of undermining local policing which in turn led to the coming of the infamous auxiliary police force in 1920.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) is one of the last nettles that needs to be grasped in our coming to terms with the tumultuous events that led to us finally shedding the shackles of Empire. What we’ve learned in the last few days is that such nettles will not be clutched any time soon, not necessarily never, just clearly not right now.

Fianna Fail were quick to smell blood, Cllr Cathal Crowe the Chairperson of Clare County Council was one of the first out of the traps, going full Republican and announcing his decision to absent himself from the proposed Commemoration event. Cllr John Sheahen the current Lord Mayor of Cork soon followed. How could the current office holder possibly attend an event that would celebrate those that burned his city and murdered his predecessor, “I could not commemorate [the RIC] and then commemorate Tomás MacCurtain’s death a few weeks later… it would just not be appropriate.” Michael Martins comments were more measured. Mary Lou didn’t hold back.

The trickle of anger became a stream and now a torrent of opposition politicians are straining for column space to expound their abhorrence of this celebration of Black and Tannery. Social media is ablaze, as hot as any Australian bushfire in. How exactly has Leo, the proclaimed King of Spin, got this so wrong?

Was he blindly led to the sacrificial altar of social media or was it just a case of not having his eye on the ball? Is the whole affair symbolic of revisionism, the gospel of Irish historical academia, the word according to the evangelists Moody and Dudley-Edwards, gone completely awry? The assertion by Diarmuid Ferriter that the Expert Advisory Group (EAG) for the Government’s ‘Decade of Centenaries programme’ did not recommend this event suggests this was simply a huge political gaffe. Even Donald Trump couldn’t tweet his way out of this one but it didn’t stop the Taoiseach trying.

From a historiographical viewpoint we are in a crucial decade, with so many centenaries of events that have shaped the modern island we live on. The outcome of that seminal decade a century ago was the creation of two separate states, one devoutly Catholic, one distinctly Protestant and the genesis of all the necessary creation myths that were needed to provide the foundations for both.

As the revisionists would say “subordinating historical truth to the cause of the Nation”. In the face of such myths how can we know if we really possess the historical truth? For all those who in recent days have attacked “apologists for the black and tans” there is also a need for the people of this island, on all sides, to liberate themselves from the “mental servitude of myth”. Has revisionism by professional historians failed in this regard? Has it contributed to what Minister Charles Flanagan described today as the “disappointing response” by the public to the proposed event? Or is the real disappointing response that of the Government?

For at least forty years now revisionism has been the accepted orthodoxy of history and has produced some amazing tomes. No respectable domestic bookshelf in this country is complete without containing publications such as F. S L Lyons “Ireland since the Famine”, JJ Lee ‘Ireland 1912-85 Politics and Society” and of course T. W Moody’s “New History of Ireland” series.The production line continues. Irish History is thriving in the academic sphere, but what is it having any effect on the general populace, many who are often unwilling to accept the re-writing of “their history” and are more than willing to take to the keyboard (as I am – the irony is not lost!) to protect the edifices of their Nationalist or Unionist mythologies. The message for revisionist politicians is that you cannot tear down an edifice without replacing it with something equally sturdy. These last few days have clearly illustrated how enduring the Irish Nationalist narrative is. It is the accepted truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth of the struggle for independence and the formation of the modern Nation. This narrative gives this Republic its Title Deeds, its legitimacy, its sovereignty.

This is a great little country for Commemorations, from the 12th July up North to Arbour Hill, to Bodenstown to more modest annual gatherings at republican plots in local graveyards. These events are important in reaffirming the myths and creation stories, the heroic sacrifice and the struggle, “Lest we forget” as they say in a neighbouring jurisdiction.

This Commemoration is something an increasingly unpopular administration should not have engaged in on the eve of a General Election. We will find out in a few months the extent of the damage caused by this act of Hari Kari. Such incompetence should not completely condemn or derail what is a kernel of necessary reflection and a conversation worth having, but in a week where one of our worst flu seasons choked up an already malfunctioning and over-stretched health system, where homelessness continues to rise and affordable housing non-existent, this has been an extraordinary political own goal.

Political Gaffes do affect Electoral success. One of the most infamous occurred in the early years of the impoverished State, when Ernest Blythe reduced the old age pension. The move is credited with giving impetus to the newly formed Fianna fail at the 1927 election. “When the devil you know was notorious for cutting a shilling off the old-age pension, many voters decided to take a chance with the devil they didn’t know, or at least didn’t know that well”.

The Taoiseach this morning took to twitter suggesting that we should “be mature enough as a State to acknowledge all aspects of our past”. This comment only added fuel to the fire with its implication that we are not mature enough to have a commemoration of a body that did harmless stuff like collecting the census, taking weather readings and prosecuting inebriated men for having no lights on their bikes. My own great grand uncle spent most of his career breaking up Poitín stills in Connemara. That benign RIC is fine and dandy, big, strapping youngest sons of farmers could not be faulted for choosing respectable, pensionable positions when such opportunities were very scarce. But the peelers were also the eyes and ears of Dublin Castle and therein lies the problem. They played a crucial role suppressing the Fenian rebellion of 1867 (which earned the prefix “Royal”), they were Royal and Loyal. This without getting into their role in the revolutionary years. But what about all the many RIC men who turned their backs on their pensions because they could not side with the Empire against their neighbours and friends. At full strength in 1921 only about a fifth of those rostered were from the original pre 1920 force. It was the decision of these thousands of men to reject the crown atop their badge that necessitated the Black and Tans recruitment. Like everything in Ireland all is never as it seems.

Now Taoiseach this is not the time to cajole the Nation, now is not the time to talk down to people. Perhaps we are just not yet ready for this conversation. Pointing that out to us is not going to assist our conversion.

The “disappointing response” has now led to a deferral and doubts as to whether it will ever be held in the future. The toothpaste is out of the tube and it can’t be got back. Fianna Fail have been handed a gift horse to restate their Republican credentials, Sinn Fein have been energised, the radio waves and news feeds are abuzz, #NotMyTaoiseach is trending at number one.


Q. Former Inspector General of the RIC, Colonel Sir Neville Francis Fitzgerald Chamberlain invented what game?

It is a question befitting any Table Quiz. The answer is of course Snooker and it also hints at how the Taoiseach must feel right now and not the place his party candidates want to be either with the election on the horizon.