Thursday, September 30, 2010

Magic Mushrooms, Cowboy Capers and The Greenore Train

When I looked out my bedroom window the other morning to assess the general autumnal climate, I was greatly surprised to see what appeared to be two very large mushrooms at the edge of the compost heap in the garden below. On later inspection in the garden itself, I found that two mushrooms had appeared magically overnight. This you might think is hardly surprising for this time of year but in fact we have never had such mushrooms growing in our garden before and these ones proved a catalyst for the lifting of a ‘mushroom cloud’ from my earliest childhood memories. You see gathering mushrooms was a particular focus of my family’s adventures during the Autumn months of early childhood and in so doing marked a significant shift in the perception of our father’s status in our family life. However, in an attempt to explain this change in the family, I first need to refer to the ‘western’ context which imbued the pastimes of teenage boys at that time.

In the absence of our own television in the home, the greatest treat that my twin brother and I could be offered was a visit to the Cinema to see a Western, with John Wayne movies being a particular favourite. My earliest childhood cinematic memory though was ‘High Noon’ and although I considered at that time that the film itself had not enough gunfights and Indians in it, nevertheless for some time after I thought of my father as a kind of Garry Cooper figure who would protect us from all harm. This western role for our father was soon surmounted however by a radically different perspective in the next few years when, as in his attempts to ‘keep the law’ as we grew older, we began see him more as a cowboy Marshall than a benign life saver. More disturbing to us was my father’s inclination to live out the Marshall’s role by barking orders at us. Such behaviour always came to a head during a fishing trip or indeed mushroom hunt with him.

Thus, each autumn he would organise a special day out to collect mushrooms in the countryside near Greenore on the shores of Carlingford lock. Bicycles would be hauled out of the shed and quick repairs and cleaning executed while my father hurried around us complaining about the way we kept the bikes and why we could never locate a simple bicycle ‘pump’ when needed. My mother, as in all good westerns of the time, fulfilled the female ‘interest’ role in this soap opera, by making us sandwiches and hot drinks, locating coats and endeavouring to cool my father’s iridescent temper. My youngest brother, aged about three at the time, was given an opportunity of riding ‘shotgun’ on my fathers bike where he was perched precariously on a small saddle on the cross bar with his feet on metal shoes just below the handle bars. After my father deemed that our bicycles were suitably loaded like ‘pack mules’ for the journey ahead, he would roar out the order to proceed and we would set off on our 18 mile round trip journey on the Greenore trail with John Wayne leading from the front.

For the most part these trips were actually good fun for us as we had long become adept at reading the Marshall’s moods and we were careful to avoid a ‘shoot out’ with him. However, there were also some times when our cherished inclination to mimic what we considered ‘Apache whoops’ would drive him to distraction and he would threaten to see us in ‘Boot Hill’. Nevertheless, we had some sympathy with his predicament as we were all well versed in the John Wayne dictum that ‘a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do’.

When we reached the pasture fields near Greenore, we would tie up our bicycles to a fence like horses to a coral. Then, we would scour the fields for mushrooms and set out eagerly into the chosen one despite risking life and limb from bulls, goats or potentially wild horses. When we asked our father what was ‘magic’ about such small white mushrooms, he explained that they would appear magically overnight and hence that you had to be up early to collect them before they ‘disappeared’ again. No wonder some people in Ireland still believe in fairies!

We always made time to visit the old Greenore railway station and the derelict old red brick hotel which now seemed so incongruous as it was surrounded by industrial port machinery and product and its heyday was only a distant memory. My father told us how we had once travelled to Greenore from Dundalk on the now abandoned railway but he never shared a secret memory which we only learned after his death. Seemingly, his own father had been employed on the old West Clare Railway and had been killed in a shunting carriage accident. This had resulted in his family having to leave their small railway cottage and had made their lives greatly impoverished thereafter.

As I recall, on our way back from one such a trip, we were almost killed by a Morris Minor car speeding on the wrong side of the road and driven by a local priest. Our father luckily called upon his John Wayne persona and waved us to turn off into the grass verge quickly. We ended up in a state of some distress wedged up against a rusty garage door but otherwise unharmed. My father though let out a stream of abuse at the ‘heavenly’ driver which you would be unlikely to hear even in the most violent ‘spaghetti’ western and did not let up even when explaining the incident to my mother on our return home. When my mother tut tutted his language and suggested that the ‘poor man’ may have been on an urgent sick call, this simply added to my fathers ire and he added that he would certainly be in need of a ‘sick call’ if he had got hold of him. As you can see being a ‘ranch hand’ on the family homestead was no easy task.

When we grew older and left the ranch for good as it were, we would visit our small terrace house on occasion and reminisce about such mushroom trips. At that time my brothers and I had grown so much that we resembled the ‘Sons of Katie Elder’ in that we seemed too big for the roles allocated to us and our aged father had assumed a new air more reminiscent of Ben Cartwright of Bonanza than any previous gunslinger role. However, though our memories seemed carefully screened to edit out any previous discordant note, they were nevertheless vividly embraced by all.

Thus, even now when I see a humble mushroom in a compost heap, I cannot but recall the distant memories of the Greenore Train run and although some of these memories may in reality represent more of a toadstool than a genuine mushroom sentiment, the value of their recall is always MAGIC to me!

PS: visited Greenore on 12th Oct 2010 and the the Hotel is gone!!!!!!

Written as a humorous part fictional memory only!

All comments and musings welcome!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Nostalgia and Norwegian Wood in Tigh Neachtains Bar!

I have a special fondness for Neachtain’s famous old traditional Bar in Galway. One reason may be that we both have a long ‘association’ with each other dating back some thirty years or more involving the consumption of copious pints of the ‘black stuff’ on the premises. Another reason may be a certain pride I take in the small design input I provided as an architect to its owners when they were renovating the upper floor restaurant and struggling to adapt such an historic old building to meet stringent and very inflexible fire safety standards.

However, it is memories associated with my family connections with the place that gives me the fondest feelings of pleasure. You see my wife and I were first introduced to the place by a friend when it had all the hallmarks of a Chicago ‘Speakeasy’ in its operation. At that time you had to tap on invariably closed doors and hope to be allowed into its hallowed interior if you were known and trusted. You entered a smoke filled atmosphere of ‘serious’ drinking and ‘non’ serious but lively and often impromptu music playing and singing. The bar was very compact, with a series of interlinked small cramped spaces and a small number of treasured ‘snug’s (for those unfamiliar with traditional Irish pub interiors, a snug was a small fully or partly enclosed cubicle where one could imbibe the pleasures of the ‘dreaded’ drink in relative privacy).You invariably had to come early (coming the previous day might even be advisable!!) to gain entry to a snug and invariably a small group of drinkers hovered within your personal ‘comfort zone’ hoping that you would leave and thus give them an opportunity to occupy the treasured space. However, the unwritten rules of pub ‘etiquette’ normally applied (except of course by the tourists who were often unaware of them) in that when you ‘fought’ (in the nicest sense of this word) through a surging throng to get to the toilet, your seat was often ‘taken’ in the snug but would be given back on your return. This was understandable as such a call of nature could take up to a half hour or more as although the distance was finite and small, the human and furniture objects to be negotiated were many and anyway one was usually ‘waylaid’ by a person with a story to impart or a song to sing for your ‘benefit’. Thus, trips to naturally dispose of the human residue of the black stuff required a ‘stoutness’ of purpose and indeed I often had to turn back and go next door to relieve myself.

Another object of dubious value depending upon your time of arrival was a roaring turf fire which occupied a prominent place in one of the small recesses and which of course was a welcome source of heat and comfort on a cold winter’s night in Galway. However, as the pub became ever more crowded as the night progressed, one usually became aware of the amazing sight of people trying to retrieve a pint from the bar while simultaneously trying to avoid being roasted like chestnuts against the raging inferno of the turf fire alongside them. I often think that it was only the thought of carefully balancing the need for both inner and outer well being that made people run to/from that bar counter past the fire with a pint clutched to their chest in case the precious liquid would spill.

Of course, these halcyon days of blissful pleasure were soon interrupted for my good wife and I by the arrival over a couple of short years of two little ‘dotes’ in the form of our little offspring. We soon replaced the exigencies of the bottled black stuff with that of the white stuff associated more with Cow and Gate milk that the St. James Gate (brewery) with which we had previously been more familiar. So for a few ‘dry’ years we only made the journey into town to Neachtains Bar when we could combine it as a night out with a visit to the Druid Theatre and when we had our precious offspring being minded by a tried and trusted babysitter. However, as I worked just a short distance from the pub and as the children grew older, we began to develop a ‘habit’ of calling in for a pint after work on Friday with our two girls ‘in tow’ before heading home for the evening. We would give the girls some money for sweets and they would go across the street and view the toys in the Wooden Heart Toy shop. (I noticed at the weekend that this lovely shop is still going strong although almost 20 years have passed since this time). For a while we thought this to be an ideal solution and money saving exercise as we did not need a baby sitter so often. The girls were always welcome in Neachtains until 7 o’clock in the evening, so we would spend about a half hour there before we left for home. However, our little illusion was soon shattered when our youngest daughter wrote an essay for the teacher on her ‘best weekend ever’. She described how her Daddy & Mammy gave her lots of money to go to the shops to buy sweets and toys while they went to the ‘PUD’ (she had trouble writing ‘b’ letters) and then her Mammy came go and took the tea out of a brown bag! Needless to say the teacher was a little alarmed by the picture painted by our eloquent daughter and we had to assure her profusely that our little darling had a ‘fevered’ imagination at times. However, just to be on the ‘safe side’ and to avoid a visit from child protective services, we decided to restrict our Friday visits as a result.

Many years have passed in the meantime and my wife and I have continued our valued association with Neachtains Bar. However, having had to close my Galway city based business office because of the recession some two years ago, we have not been accustomed to visit as often or as easily as previously. Thus, it was with a little trepidation that we went there for a drink after our Culture Night celebration in Galway on Friday last. It proved to be a wonderful experience and in a sense was like ‘coming home’. There was a wonderful atmosphere of camaraderie and fun and in the corner playing beautiful traditional music were four musicians from Sweden and Finland called ‘Café Minor’.(CD is called Northern lights). I hasten to add that their music may have been ‘Café’ in style but was certainly not minor in quality. They played a lovely tune called ‘Inis Oirr’ which they associated with a ferry to Inisboffin Island and it would bring tears to your eyes such was its intense beauty of expression. However, the rendition of the song that most surprised and amazed me was their take on the Beatles song ‘Norwegian Wood’. Some of the lines in this song are: ‘she asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere, but I looked around and found that there wasn’t a chair’. These lines in a packed Neachtains seemed appropriate to the place at the time but like the song itself they find an echo of memory in the heart and melody in the soul.

So in finishing, may I saw that it is good to be back in Neachtains again and to still feel a close affinity with the place? I think that it is Tony Bennett who sings that ‘he left his heart in San Francisco’. Well, for my part, I left my ‘Wooden Heart’ in a lovely shop opposite Neachtains in Quay street but part of my emotional heart will always be located in a small snug at the back of Neachtains Bar with a little girl whispering in my ear that she wants another wooden toy NOW!

Motto: Children and Neachtains never stop toying with your Heart!

All comments and musings welcome!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Culture Night in Galway-Charlie 'Byrne' after Reading?

In the economic desert like atmosphere pervading the social life of Galway City in the last two years, the bookshop being run by Charlie Byrne and his staff remains an oasis of mental sustenance and a beacon for renewal of the human spirit. The shop not only provides a huge range of new and second hand books covering a very diverse range of subjects but also acts as a forum for authors to read from and publicise their works at public readings. Thus when my wife and I visited on Friday last as part of a Cultural Night experience in Galway, I was particularly gratified to listen to a very wide range of new and established writers reading short stories and poems. To my surprise, they also had some people reading non fiction works with subjects ranging from an Irishman’s prophetic early warning of Nazi influence in Poland prior to the Second World War to a history of ASTI, the secondary school teachers association. However, while you listen to these authors you are also given an opportunity to enjoy a glass of wine and to explore the vast number of books on display in the shop during your visit. I must say that I came away, not only with a deeper appreciation of the quality and commitment of a number of Galway writers that I previously had no knowledge about, but also acquired four diverse and interesting books during my Friday visit.

On a light, but important note nevertheless, I discovered a slim volume on ‘The Right Way to keep Chickens’ (those following my blog will know how important it is to keep my Rhode Island Red Chickens happy for good egg production), a very interesting and beautifully illustrated book on Irish Names (which lead me to realise for the first time why I had been called COLM, it being the Feast Day of that Saint on the Day of my birth, but still leaves me bemused unfortunately about the source of my twin brothers name- perhaps just an afterthought, I having been born first), and two books of short stories. The first book called ‘The Wind across the Grass’ is by Nuala Ni Chonchuir, whom I know from both her Twitter site and the fine newspaper reviews of her work. I had been promising myself for some time that I would read one of her books and was glad of the opportunity of acquiring it on Friday last.

However, the biggest and most thought provoking surprise to me was the book of short stories called ‘The West’ by Eddie Stack. On flicking through the slim volume I could see that his work was likened to that of the author Myles na Gopalean (a favourite of mine) by one eminent reviewer. Furthermore the cover artwork, showing an artistic painting of ‘Blake’s Corner’ in Ennistymon, Co. Clare also struck a cord with me as I had taken some photos there of my two children some twenty years ago and I had both cherished photos and indeed memories of that place. So when I got up the following morning I read a few of Mr Stack’s stories and found them to be beautifully written and wonderfully human and comic in tone and expression.

I was so impressed by his writing that I managed to contact him on Twitter to express my admiration at his achievement and to wish him well in any future endeavours. I must say that I returned to Charlie Byrnes on the Sunday afternoon where I was able to acquire the CD mentioned in his book blurb which includes not only Mr Stack reading four of his short stories but also accompanying music by the renowned traditional Irish musicians, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill. The CD is simply called ‘The West’ and is promoted by Tintaun records, in County Galway.

So if you think that a ‘Night at the Museum’ can make an interesting film or two, you should not underestimate the pleasure that can also be gained by a ‘Night at the Bookshop’, particularly if it is organised and run by Charlie Byrnes Galway staff!


1) The title of this little blog owes a gratitude to the wonderful Coen Brothers movie:

'Burn after reading' which is highly recommended also.

2) I love the sentiment of the poster for Kenny's Galway Bookshop by Gertrude Dagengardt;

'It's About Time to have a Good Time'- too true!!
All comments and musings welcome!

Riding on a Sea of Emotion with Druid on Culture Night

As part of the Galway Culture night my wife and I visited the newly renovated Druid Theatre to view a screening of a film showing the Druid production of ‘Riders to the Sea’ by J.M.Synge. The short 30 minute film tells the story of a mother’s struggle against the forces of the sea on the West Coast of Ireland, which tragically takes the life of all her six sons over time. The play dates from 1904 and George Moore, the famous Irish writer, is quoted as describing this one act play as “an experiment in language rather than a work of art” and went on to state that it was its language was in his opinion principally “a discovery of style, a vehicle of expression”. Certainly it has none of the vitality and animal vigour characteristic of Christy Mahon and his fellow islanders in the more famous Synge play ‘The Playboy of the Western World’. This may be due in part to the restrictions inherent in a one act play for the development of facets of the central characters. However, the Druid Theatre Company under the direction of Garry Hynes could give added dramatic weight and depth of realisation to even a TV soap opera and the acting, set and camera angles used all give heightened affect to the plight of a hapless mother in the face of the often tragic influence of the sea in the life of the Aran Islanders. Thus, although some of the language used in the play appears somewhat dated and contrived when viewed at a century removed from the time of its first writing, there is no doubting the acting skill of Marie Mullen in particular as the agonised mother, which gives it’s a very strong emotional impact.

Finally, it was wonderful to see the building which housed the original Druid Theatre having been restored and renovated in such a fine way while still retaining the intimacy of the core stage/seating auditorium. Here’s hoping that Druid Theatre focus on the provision of a wonderful and insightful dramatic experience in the artistic life of Galway City will continue to grow and prosper even in these hard economic times.

The Druid Theatre celebrated 35 years in Galway last May and I must say having lived in the city for all of this time and seen most of their productions, that I have never seen a bad play by Druid. Perhaps the highlight for my wife and I was the time we travelled to Inismaan Island (Aran) to see Druid's production of the Playboy of the Western World in the very place where it was set originally. We will never forget the magic island setting and a wonderful never to be forgotten dramatic experience.

So if any readers get a chance to see Druid either in Ireland or abroad, please do not hesitate to go and see them.

All comments and musings welcome!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Judging a Wine by its Label, Sour Grapes?

They say that you shouldn't judge a book by it’s cover but in reality the cover graphics of a book jacket often tell you a lot about the inner contents, if only in an indirect day. I mean we are hardly likely to mistake the outside cover of the latest chic-lite pot boiler with a treatise for example by Stephen Hawkins on the origins of the universe. Although when I come to think of it, some of the factual theories behind such later works may have a similar fictional ring of conviction behind them. However, my own particular tipple here is more fluid than fiction based. You see that I am fascinated by the thousands of different wines which are marketed in an ever-increasing number of producer countries without much attention at all being given to the wine label presentation and or indeed to the description of its contents. Simply stated I don’t feel that I can reasonably bottle up by concern with this perceived deficiency much longer.

There are of course a vast range of wines available to the discerning customer and even a greater range available to the non discerning one. Think about it! Most people when choosing their favourite or indeed experimental tipple, will be guided by the country or region where it is produced, by the kind of grape used in the wine, by the reputation of the producers for quality or even by the extensive guide books available to rate the more established wines. Although in the current recessionary climate the overriding consideration could well be the price of the wine itself. However, when the average amateur wine buff visits his local wine shop or supermarket franchise, he is still likely to be faced with a daunting display of alternative choices! Arguably the greatest recommendation for the selection of a fine wine is its taste of course and its nose, or smell! However, I have rarely been offered an opportunity to sample either of these in the average local winery. Thus, the potential of another dominant sense is largely ignored in the presentation of the wine product to the consumer. This is of course the visual attraction of the wine label and how readily the information on the wine type, grape and taste expectation is presented on this label.

During the summer I had the distinct pleasure of visiting the Tuscany region of Italy, for example, and in even the most basic winery was faced with a daunting task in attempting to distinguish between the wines on offer. However, some are very creative and admirable in depicting local artistic achievements on their wine bottles to imply extra refinement to the wine. I wish to applaud the Brunello di Montalcino Winery for the wine labels illustrated in accompanying photos. One depicts the great Leonardo Da Vinci on the bottle and claims that the wine which is made from Sangiovese grapes is regarded as the “King of Italian Wines”. Modesty forbids me from commenting on this claim but the label is certainly well presented. However, my own favourite is the CastelGiocondo Wine label showing a depiction of the famous fresco in Siena allegedly by Simone Martini of a famous horseman passing through the barren hills of the Maremma. Who could resist these wines, especially as a tourist?

However in recent years my fascination with wine bottles and labels has begun to get a little out of hand. Simply stated I have developed a serious drink problem. I hasten to add here by way of explanation, that this is not so much a drinking problem but a storage problem. You see, I have begun to collect wine bottles, even empty blue one for their coloured hue in sunlight, and full ones like those described earlier. I have now added ‘celebrity’ wine labels to my collection including Marilyn Monroe (Merlot on the label), Elvis Presley, Che Guevara and Napoleon along with some lesser known mortals. This wine fixation has not gone down well with the ‘good wife’ who has begun to ‘whine’ about the clutter in the house occasioned by my bottled up emotions. She has suggested that I drink the wine, through away the bottles and put the wine labels in a display booklet. However, I for my part feel that this is only sour grapes on her part as she does not fully understand the aesthetic integrity of wine, bottle and label being appreciated as one design entity. No indeed, wine to her is just something to drink pleasurably! It’s enough to make one see Red, as it were. However, we have as usual over our long years of happy tippling together, hit on a compromise solution. I have promised in a written agreement signed in red wine (or is that blood?) that I will no longer pine for long sought after wine labels and she in turn will not whine about the banality of collecting labelled bottles.

We have opened a fine bottle of Italian Sangiovese wine to celebrate our agreement but if I said that it was one of my treasured ‘designer’ bottles, I would indeed be telling a White lie!

All comments and musings welcome!

Cherished Memories of Lost Souls set in Stone

There would appear to be a dichotomy prevalent in modern social practice in our relative difficulty in coming to terms with the manifestations associated with the rituals accompanying the death of loved ones. The late Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue has written and indeed spoken profoundly in his book/CD called ‘To bless the Space Between Us’ about the absence of ‘rituals to protect, encourage and guide us as we cross over into the unknown’. I do not intend here to attempt to improve upon John’s wonderful life affirming insights into the world of healing and personal affirmation but I would just like to relate a little story which John was also fond of telling about the importance of and association with the memories of those who have died, or in modern terms passed, belonging to us.

One of my first commissions some 27 years ago as an architect was to renovate and restore the small rural church at Ros Muc in County Galway. The newly appointed parish priest was horrified to see that the little existing stone walled church, which had been perched on a hill overlooking the sea for centuries, was scheduled for demolition and replacement with a modern concrete edifice. He asked me if I could review these plans as he explained that the local people had a very strong personal identification with the old church over many years. Indeed the church was even referred to locally as ‘Teach on Phobail’ which translates as the ‘House of the People’. I’m glad to relate that I were able to come up with a restoration proposal which integrated new and old elements into the overall building while replacing the rotten roof and restoring the fabric of the existing stone walls and stained glass windows. We even managed to arrange for the construction of a new stand alone cross outside the main entrance made from large roof timbers taken from the old roof. The parish priest was very pleased by the completed works as he felt that they symbolised the continuity of the church’s spiritual role and physical presence in the local community.

However, there was one final work task which we both felt would provide a final affirmation of this newly restored identity. He wished to place an old stone cross retried from a shed on a large circular rock at the base of the hill so that when visitors arrived they would know where to enter the church property. Our problem was that it was very difficult to obtain a suitably large stone in the immediate area on which to sit the cross. Although the landscape of Connemara is of course covered with a vast numbers of stones of all sizes, it was proving difficult to find a stone of the right size and shape. However, after much searching in the immediate area, I was elated to find such a stone in a field nearby. As I knew that the church restoration was proving to be very popular with most locals I was confident that the owner of the land would agree to let us use this stone.

However, when I asked for his permission, he refused outright. Seeing the surprise and confusion on my face he explained in simple terms to me that ‘the souls of my ancestors lie in the stones in that field’. I was completely stunned and looked again in detail at these stones. To my great surprise, I realised that the field contained, what at first sight I had thought to be a random pattern of loose stones, but what I now saw to be the remains of old stone cottages and outbuildings. These probably dated back to the great famine in Ireland in 1845 and to this man they still represented a sacred place. I thanked him and explained humbly that I now saw and understood his dilemma and assured him that I both appreciated and respected his view. I’m glad to relate that we were eventually able to get another stone elsewhere which is illustrated in the sketch accompanying this article.

In some respects, this little story reminds me of the saying that a butterfly’s wings when flapped can have an impact world wide. Thus, when I sometimes read in Irish newspapers of hooligans desecrating graves and gravestones, I often still think of this man and his affirmation of the importance of acknowledging the continuity of life’s human memories of all who have died belonging to us. This spiritual affinity has similar strength of feeling to that associated with the sacred burial grounds of the Native American Indian and in some ways reflects the intensity of emotions felt by many American families towards the rubble left after the 9/11 atrocity in the USA.

Although I feel that a ‘place’ association is very helpful in acting as a focus for our intense feeling at the lost of a loved one, this place association can take the simple form of a picture or indeed even a small stone object and does not need to have to take the form of large symbolic edifices so prevalent in our older graveyards. I myself love the Greek habit of leaving small oil lamps lighting in graveyards at night. However, if one cannot find a suitable physical space or object, I’m sure that anyone with true feeling can find a place in their heart for such memory association.

Therefore, for all people who have died or ‘passed’ over, whatever the saying, let us respect our dead, cherish their memory and know that their influence continues in our lives and through our children so long as human life continues on earth. As you can see from this little discourse, they can even be found in a collection of random stones in a small field in Connemara.

Note: This blog is dedicated especially to the memory of my wonderful nephew, Donagh O’Riain who died in August on this year aged 29 years of age and who was and who will continue to be a treasured memory in our lives.

All comments and musings welcome!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Have Fun but Wipe that Smile of Your Face!

I must confess that I don’t have much time for many current stand-up comedians as I find most of their material and delivery contrived, offensive and more importantly not particularly funny. However, I really enjoy Ireland’s Dara O’Briain and Scotland’s Billy Connolly because much of their humour is based upon exaggerated perception and the highlighting of ordinary human experience. Hence I was pleased to view again ‘An Audience with Billy Connolly’ on TV on Friday night, where he entertained a celebrity crowd. During his hour long monologue he referred at length to his childhood growing up in a tenement in Glasgow as a Catholic. Although I myself also grew up as a Catholic in a small terrace house in Ireland, the behaviour of his mother and children at the arrival of the local priest for a visit struck a particular cord with me. His description of one such visit is worth retelling here.

His mother told the children to go into the bedroom, stay in bed and keep quiet when the priest arrived. It was bitterly cold in the tenement at that time of year so she spread a heavy coat over the bed to keep them warm. However, the two boys kept fighting with each other and she roared at them that if they didn’t stay quiet that she would ‘wipe the smile to the other side of their face’. Billy stressed how ridiculous this expression was and then proceeded to attempt to show in hilarious fashion how this might somehow be ‘physically ‘achieved. This reminded me of a similar expression that my own father used to my twin brother and I when we teased and giggled when we were very young instead of eating our food as quickly as he thought desirable. He would shout at us and warn us that he would give us a ‘clip’ so and wipe the smile of our face! Looking back I also had visions of my father getting a face cloth in the bathroom and in a gesture favoured by my maiden aunt attempting to wipe the smile as it were from my face!

In Billy’s story the priest duly arrived and was served tea, crumpet and special biscuits while the bedlam continued in the boys’ bedroom. One of them called out to his mother that the other guy was keeping most of the ‘coat’ to himself on the bed. Of course, his mother was aghast at the idea that the good priest would think that they had to spread a coat on the bed. She cried to them that ‘she was finding it difficult to hear herself think’ with the noise and assured the priest that all the coats were of course in the ‘cloakroom’. So, while proffering more ‘custard cream’ biscuits to the priest she cried out to the boys so that the priest would understand: ‘Silly boy, that is not a coat, it’s called an eiderdown, so stop your fighting and go to sleep’. However, after a few moments of relative quiet, the boy shouted out again: ‘Mum, it’s him again, he putting his feet into the sleeves of the eiderdown’.

Brilliant! I love it as it reminds me of my own mother throwing a coat on ‘rare’ occasions over our bed as children when we too complained of the cold at night! And despite our small house being occupied by 2 adults and 4 small children, we had a room set aside during the early years of our life for ‘visitors’, which seemed to include a visit from the local priest more than anyone else. How Ireland has changed despite the recession and Billy Connolly’s little monologue brings back these memories in a humorous and insightful way.

It is true what people say, that humour is the salvation of the soul especially at times of stress!


1) This section of his monologue can be seen on YOUTUBE under ‘An Audience with Billy Connolly’ -8/12: Enjoy!

2) The cartoon is from one of our daughters and seeks to highlight the respective image they have of G/Dad and Granny on Twitter!

All comments and musings welcome!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Modern Life, Michelangelo and Angel Delight Chocs!

Modern living as experienced by many people in the early part of the 21st century has become increasingly complex, stressful and dysfunctional, due partly to the ever intrusive technological invasion of even basic daily activities and a restricted role specialisation which makes employment change difficult. This process has been accentuated by the current devastating economic crisis which has resulted in a severe restriction in the exercise of personal choice in life styles with a consequent instability in social organizations and community structures. As a result our media is dominated by discussions of analytical and procedural assessments of our economy by a limited number of financial ‘experts’ while the social professions which give tangible expression in qualitative terms to the human values of this society are largely treated as a severely challenged by product of the economic malaise.

Stability in society is more likely when achievement and aspiration run parallel, as was generally the case during the recent ‘Celtic Tiger’ cycle of sustained economic growth in Ireland. Thus, in the current situation of sudden national and worldwide economic decline and energy scarcity, there is obviously a distinct tendency for achievement levels, and in some cases the basic need to maintain even a family home, to be severely constrained. However aspirations, particularly among the young who have never known any other situation, continue to demand satisfaction in a manner with which they were previously familiar. Inherent in such conditions is instability, conflict and potential social disorder.

The scope and composition of basic communities are key determinants of social stability. However, the dynamics of any community organisation are associated with work opportunities, social values and physical environmental influence as they change over time. In Ireland at present, over 550 thousand people are denied any meaningful work experience through unemployment, their social role is marginalised and their economic use value so reduced as to make the retention of even basic living accommodation extremely difficult for them. Is it any wonder that the overriding impression in Ireland at present for many people is a sense of great anxiety and even despair leading to suicide in some cases?

I believe that any solution to Ireland’s problems must channel the needs of social, physical and economic factors affecting its entire people into a common purpose. All people who are allegedly ‘cherished equally’ at present under our constitution, should in fact be guaranteed a basic ‘home’ shelter , should be given a defined ‘work’ function in their local community and the stigma of ‘unemployment’ and inadequacy should be removed permanently. There should also be a clear objective in government policy to maximise the involvement of people in the Arts where their cultural ‘value’ can be given tangible expression for the overall benefit of their local community.

Thus, the current concentration on ‘negative’ endless economic analysis should be replaced by positive social and cultural initiatives geared to enhance community fusion. The key matrix for a successful community identity is activities, resources and relationships and economics is necessarily central to only one of these. The current excessive economic perspective does not offer enough opportunities for a life lived to its true potential. Art, music and the appreciation of beauty are not dependant on a booming economy.

Furthermore, we need to throw off the shackles of the narrow perspective of our educational and professional upbringing. We can find inspiration here in the lifestyle of artists such as Michelangelo Buonarroti. The wonderful artist was a sculptor, a painter, an architect and a poet and he had even a wonderfully musical sounding name! He was ambitious and often ill tempered and enjoyed the company of popes and princes where he was often very frustrated in achieving success and finality in his various endeavours. I’ve read that he was generous, caring to others and a man of integrity while he liked good company, good food, fine clothing and handsome men. Indeed it could be said that his life was a work for art while his art has become a work for life for millions over the intervening centuries. When my own humble artistic efforts hit the bumps as it were, I am heartened by the example of such men. I may never aspire to achieving their artistic skills, but I share their inspiration for personal fulfilment in times good and bad.

This finally brings me to the Angels Delight! There is a lovely local market in my village each Friday and they have a range of tasty foods to ‘die for’. As my good wife is away for the weekend visiting our grandchildren, I thought that I would surprise her on her return with a couple of Angel Delight Chocolate Minicakes! They may not quite reach the artistic excellence of the Sistine Chapel, but I feel somehow that Michelangelo Buonarrotti would approve.

Sound Byte: (from Michelangelo by Klaus Ottmann)

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote verse. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, he lived.”

Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968)

All comments and musings welcome!
Note: I'm told there is a tech fault with this blog and comments cant be left! Trying to fix but sorry in meantime!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Home Sweet Home in an Era of Social Semantics

There is an old Gaelic language proverb which runs: ‘Nil Aon Tintean Mar Do Thinean Fein’ which translates into English as ‘there is no Hearth like your own Hearth’ or more succinctly: ‘there is no place like home’.

While dusting off an old town planning thesis (dating back to Edinburgh 1977) this week as part of a rather late ‘spring cleaning exercise’, I was flicking through the bulky tome and wondering if it’s contents had any relevance to today’s times. Perhaps as a little exercise in wish fulfilment, I decided to extract a few ideas from this thesis and to link them to a few current observations to see if I could construct any interesting hypotheses from them. Thus, this little blog may be appear somewhat academic compared to most blog entries of mine but I hope that any readers will indulge me this one time. The original planning thesis dealt with Personal Choice and Environmental Change as a basis for Housing Policies, but I would like to concentrate here in a more limited perspective on the definition and association of ‘Home’ both as a place association and active resource in the new era of rapid technological change.

It is perhaps inevitable in an age where the ideal of progress is so often projected as the optimum goal for social aspirations, that the artistic dimensions of modern life should suffer as compared with its technological and scientific aspects. Thus, despite our advanced technical ability to process information in ever increasing aspects of our daily lives as a basis for controlling decision making and infiltrating ordinary social intercourse, there would appear to exist a disturbing counterbalance of severe disenchantment with the quality of this life and its consequent manifestation in social malfunctions in human relationships. Arguably, the core malaise of modern life is the increasing divergence between art and science, values and technology in modern life. Simply expressed, the stimulus for science and technology is the perceived redress of a deficiency of knowledge, whereas the stimulus of art is the communication of refined and ordered expression to our emotions and our latent desires.

By structuring the World into domains defined by ‘natural’ directions, ancient man gained an ‘existential footing in the world. Such a structured environment depends upon our ability to recognise it, that is, on the existence of relatively invariant places. However, place is no longer the primary source of diversity, for mobility both physical and technological, has stirred the pot so thoroughly that the important differences between people are no longer place related. Commitments are shifting from place related structures (nation, city, and neighbourhood) to those (profession, friendship network) that are themselves mobile, fluid and for the most part, place-less. We have only to consider the huge impact on our daily lives of Facebook, Twitter and the Semantics domain in general, to see the profound impact of technological innovation on our lives, a process which through the integration and increasing sophistication of the place-less influence is likely to increase over the next few years.

Although a definite, limited territory is of great importance for human development, the quality of such a relationship and its influence on human behaviour is primarily symbolic. However, a place can symbolise social groups in quite different ways for different individuals. Each person has a certain ‘base of operations’ for his behaviour which is accommodated by a particular ‘radius of action’ within fixed limits. Thus, for example, if people always meet, converse or work in the same place, that place tends to symbolise the social relationships which occur in it. Hence, man is motivated by stimuli in the environment to which, through psychological conditioning over the years, he has learned to react. Objects only become symbols in social and communication processes. The very permanence of the material environment itself means that groups are liable to rediscover their collective memories in surroundings which at the same time they have themselves moulded.

Any activity has spatial aspects, because any activity implies movements and relations to places. Thus, the expression or character of the environment is neither something subjective within man nor something to be found outside, but an aspect of man’s being in the world. Character, therefore is determined by concrete things, such as a simple object like a fireplace while quality is determined by such abstract variables as their functional relationships. Which brings us right back to the Tintean (hearth). It is not for nothing that this Tintean became the focus of this special Irish phrase.

Thus in our brave new world of instant messaging and constantly updated news feeds through our wide array of communication tools, we should not loose sight of the importance of place relationships. The problem of social intercourse is the problem of intentions and attitudes of the human being faced with the reality of ever increasing dynamic change. The success of this social interchange depends not just on the rapidity or sophistication of the technology which provides a means to an end but more importantly on the continued renewal of a shared system of values which give this end meaning in itself.

So in summary what lesson has this little discourse for the Twitter addict? I would just say that the average little Tweeting Bird in his Twitter Nest should perhaps not give exclusive thought to the composition and dissemination of an endless stream of little social bleats. Rather he should also give some thought to the character and artistic realisation of his own little nesting place and its association with others in his ‘local’ community however defined in physical, social or cultural space. Otherwise, he runs the risk of eventually end up singing a bizarre solo refrain with technological wizardry in a social and artistic vacuum!

May I end therefore by quoting John Houriet from the foreword to my old humble thesis:

“Nothing- no person, no atomic particle –exists complete in itself, unaffected by the viewer. This is a fact of both physics and journalism. Reality is relationship”.

All comments and musings welcome!

No Cross Words for Sudoku a Good Sign of the Times!

There is no doubt that we live in troubled economic times in Ireland with our newspapers offering a daily dose of dire articles accompanied by dissertations, charts & explanatory data analysing the cause for our current malaise and offering dire warnings of our impending financial meltdown as a people and indeed as a nation. In this extremely gloomy environment, one could be forgiven for dispensing altogether with the news media and even adopting the age old Irish solution when faces with cruel reality, namely ‘taking to the bed’. However, my wife and I have found a small but significant antidote to this perilous panic by adopting a form of positive thinking, as opposed to thinking positive, which is even beyond us at the moment. This process, I hasten to add, does not involve recourse to any drug induced stupor, a withdrawal into a state of transcendental meditation or even passive yoga like contortions. Simply stated, we have begun to regularly do the Simplex crosswords and the 3 no Sudoku puzzles in the daily Irish Times. By firmly concentrating on achieving a satisfactory solution in these pleasurable puzzles, we can both shut out the dark forces of economic gloom while at the same time stimulating the mind. In this way we can block out and negate the influence of even the most menial matters by adherence to simple mental modes.

Of course, the adopting of this new mental health work out regime is not entirely without its drawbacks. For instance, while my wife and I would seem to share a generally similar educational and social background, our creative ‘performance’ in finding a solution to our puzzling paradigms would seem to differ significantly. Simply stated, my good wife seems much better than I at completing the crosswords (I have in shame had to refer to the dictionary on many occasions to get me over a difficult word blockage) while I would seem to have the greater facility when competing the Sudoku puzzles (my wife sometimes has an endless stream of numerical notations on the border of and sometimes even within these puzzles). Perhaps this is a left brain, right brain thing? Thus, we can face a minor irritation or two in achieving a satisfactory resolution to our pursuits of puzzles or should that be our puzzling pursuits! However, I’m glad to relate that after a spell of relationship counselling, not to mention the adoption of proven anger management techniques, we have completely resolved our differences. Yes, our egos have landed satisfactorily as it were.

In our finally agreed ‘word’ document, I am allowed to ‘look up’ the dictionary on occasion provided I acknowledge this in writing to the other party before doing so. My wife in turn has agreed to absolutely confine her numerical experimentation in the Sudoku puzzles to numbers between 1 and 9 and not to exceed the allocated numbers within each block. Thus, in a resolution which could be a prototype for others with similar ‘small’ marriage difficulties (why are there no marriage easies?), we have now no cross words over our puzzles and our Sudoku endeavours are normally ‘blessed’ with joint success.

Perhaps others could adopt a similar response to the nation’s woes as I firmly believe that such efforts, if encouraged by reference to our most famous Irish National Newspaper, could truly prove to be a positive sign for our Times.

Warning Note: This blog entry is for comic purposes only and it should in no way be considered as reflecting adversely on my fine wife’s ‘alleged’ shortfall in numerical skills. (See chapter 4, subsection 1.02c of our written agreement)

Monday, September 6, 2010

Home,Home on the (Free) Range! La! La!

It has always seemed strange to me how the behaviour of many pet owners comes in time to resemble that of their pets. Who among you hasn’t noticed some elderly person walking down the street with a rambling gait very similar to the dog accompanying them on a lead? However, this tendency for owners to acquire many of the characteristics of their long cherished pets, is not confined to those with dogs. I have to admit that I have also become aware of some very strange cat like behavioural tendencies, not to mention those commonly ascribed to pet birds and even reptiles. Of course, I have usually viewed such behaviour with a superior if not wholly condescending attitude. Although I myself have an aging domestic cat outside the house, I am certainly not aware of any tendency however slight to mimic her behaviour. Indeed, I may be thought of as the ‘cats pyjamas’ by some of my friends but that is certainly where any cat association ends.

I was certainly shocked therefore to see my wife studying me surreptitiously at the computer one evening only for her to suddenly announce that I am beginning to exhibit serious ‘hen’ like behavioural characteristics, especially on twitter. I was a little taken aback at first but then realised happily that she must be referring to the way I puff up my chest and proudly ‘cluck’ away at my little blog treats. I was therefore ‘cock a hoop’ with pride for a while and thanked my good wife profusely for her kind insight. However, she soon dissuaded me from this viewpoint when she stated that although she did not wish to ‘ruffle my feathers’, she firmly believed that I was imitating our Rhode Island Reds in the way that I scratched about on the twitter site constantly foraging for tweeds (tweet seeds)!
Needless to say I was aghast. I can only say that I felt (de)based and barbecued in one foul sweep. HENce I have decided to be extra careful in my tweeting behaviour from now on. I have had to stop humming ‘Home, Home on the (free) range’, (where nothing is heard of a discouraging word), I only go on twitter when there are no family 'Hens' about to criticise me and I have decided to accept the contents of even the most ‘poultry’(paltry) blog as interesting! Well, with good wife constantly ready to ‘cook my goose’, as it were, what more could you EGGspect!

Warning Note: This blog entry is for light ‘comic’ relief only so I should not be considered a hen pecked husband as a result!

P.S: This blog is best appreciated while listening to the song ‘Home on the Range’ which I believe is the state song of Kansas! Good grief!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Greys' Anatomy-A Hair Raising Shock?

It is surely a welcome sign of progress in modern life with the conscious decision on the part of many people to embrace the advantages of natural processes and organic produce in particular in their daily lives. This new outlook has been adopted by both men and women alike and is symbolic of a new healthy outlook in determining the quality of their daily lives. However, in the case of many men, this new zeal seems to be more characteristic of their heart than their head. Simply stated there would still appear to be a ‘grey’ area affecting the perceived perspective on their fearsome follicles which encourages men in later years to ‘dye’ rather than submit to any trace of greyness in their manly manes. I’m told that there may in fact be a whole television series devoted to this problem called Greys’ Anatomy but as I have not yet seen the programme, I’m sure you’ll forgive me if some of my comments should overlap with those set out in that programme.

The vanity of the male appearance was long regarded as a virtual ‘no go’ area for many years with a dash of ‘Brut’ or a splash of ‘Old Spice’ being deemed sufficient for any male to overwhelm the sensory organs of even the most recalcitrant of female acquaintances. Now however, thanks to the power of the advertising media and the prominent emergence of the waxed and waned, bare chested whippets of the younger generation, the older male has had no option but to replace the old ‘no go’ philosophy with a new ‘wash & go’ one in order to safeguard his role as the leader of the pack. Thus a whole new industry has emerged to rub, shrub and tub the poor male so that he may be ‘fit for purpose’ and not an olfactory and visual embarrassment to the opposite sex. While I am quite willing to acknowledge the scope for and even the real need to improve the general sensory perception of many males, I would question it’s wholesale application to the ‘head’ of the species. Indeed I have formed a small committed band of head hunters who wish to save the traditional identity of the elder male and whose motto is ‘Dandruff may be tough but a basic shampoo may be enough’.

However, the greatest betrayal by the US media in particular of the elderly male is seen in the near hysteria portrayed in the female ‘slender model’ perspective occasioned by the sight of gray hair on the male scalp. Thus most pop stars and film actors in their mid sixties onwards are portrayed as having not only ample but free flowing locks of ‘natural’ hair with not a gray hair in sight. Furthermore, young people who show any signs of thinning hair are immediately encouraged to shave their heads so that any sign of ‘awful’ baldness can be immediately eradicated by removing all hair! Poor old Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas must be turning in their graves! ‘Who loves ya Baby’ would no longer suffice for a bald Kojak. Yet in Italy, as indeed thankfully in some parts of Ireland, many men valiantly fight against such media hype and proudly proclaim their manliness with ever greying locks. Indeed ‘Your mani’ (Irish slang) Armani is rightly famous for his elegant gray hair and black attire.
Perhaps it is indeed time to concede that the infamous ‘comb-over’ has had it day. It was indeed the only hair cut where in a light breeze, one could simultaneously wave hello and appear to proclaim the advantages of electric shock treatment, with a small movement of the head. However, I would assert that the present pressure to put an end to grey hair in males of advancing age is not a ‘cut and dry’ case and the pernicious attempt to replace grey hair by ‘natural’ looking hair is distinctly ‘off colour’ in its approach. Thus, for my fellow old grey lions, the sight of a few grey hairs will continue to be cherished despite the media hype and for us at least their will always be a welcome for a grey day dawning!

Warning Note: This blog entry is for light ‘comic’ relief only although it may be considered as a ‘cut above the rest’ when compared to similar hair products. However, it is not necessarily ‘Just for Men’ in its potential appeal.

P.S: This blog is best appreciated while listening to any music by David Gray.