My second book of poems – with some short stories added – is now available. It is entitled “AFTER SUNSET” and is available direct from myself at present. Cost €15.00 plus P&P.
Contact email@example.com or 087 2801234.
My second book of poems – with some short stories added – is now available. It is entitled “AFTER SUNSET” and is available direct from myself at present. Cost €15.00 plus P&P.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 087 2801234.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE EVENING ECHO. 27TH FEBRUARY, 2018
“Anois teacht an Earraigh
beidh an lá dúl chun shíneadh,
Is tar eis na féil Bríde
ardóigh mé mo sheol.
Go Coillte Mach rachad
ní stopfaidh me choíche
Go seasfaidh mé síos
i lár Chondae Mhaigh Eo.”
Raftery, of course, when he penned those lines that we all learned at school, had only his native Kiltimagh and Mayo in mind. It still is quite apt for me even though Mayo is the farthest place from my thoughts. My mind, instead, is focussed firmly on the Seven Heads, at the eastern end of West Cork as I gaze out towards the sea, across the lush green fields and the few brown ones scattered here and there since the crop they grew through 2017 was harvested.
Being a ‘town-boy’ I don’t know a lot about farming except the bits and pieces I picked up on visits to the farms of uncles and aunts; from watching the livestock fairs as they spilled over from “The Fairfield” onto the streets of our small market town; observed the weekly market every Friday; the annual flax market and the comings and goings to the local mill, which was very much part of our street. The regular parade of horses (sometimes donkeys) and carts every morning to and from the creamery played a part too.
The farmers and their wives and families came to town for whatever business they needed to attend to in their ponies/horses and traps or carts but there were no parking areas for such vehicles as there are now for cars. Instead the animals were tethered to convenient ESB poles or telegraph poles, railings or even the branches of trees overhanging the streets from gardens that were, usually, invisible behind high walls. I’ll put it as politely as I can; one was almost as certain of standing in ‘smelly stuff’ as one crossed the street just the same as if one was crossing a busy farmyard.
With the little knowledge that I have I have been eagerly anticipating Spring. From the front door of my house, which is on an elevated position, I can see to the sea about 1.5 km. away. I have a vista of almost 180 degrees. Within that area I can see about 150 fields of various sizes, different fertility and different colours, though the colour is predominently a vivid, rich green. I tried to count the fields recently but soon lost count and my count is now partly based on that effort at counting and a rough estimate. I can see at least 30 homes and several clusters of farm buildings. Within the area of my view there are a number of dairy herds.
As Winter approached the landscape became very quiet. With the few crops harvested there was very little work going on on the land. Sometimes on rare occasions a tractor would appear in a field and make its way round and round, spreading artificial fertiliser. Some farmers seemed to take a cutting of grass much later into the year than I had expected and in one field, close to the village, barley that had been badly ‘lodged’ was finally cut but the straw was left to deteriorate into the ground on which it lay. For those who don’t know, ‘lodging’ is what happens when adverse weather and crop conditions result in the bending over of the stems near the ground level in grain crops, which makes them very difficult to harvest and can dramatically reduce yield.
Gradually the animals began to disappear from view and by the 1st November none were to be seen, both beef cattle and the dairy herds. They were all gone indoors where they would shelter from the harsher elements of winter and where they would be fed with whatever feed the farmer had harvested or bought in. Ocassionally I could see a tractor moving a few large bales of silage but apart from that there was little activity.
The changing weather brought other kinds of activity. On fine days a big flock of crows (I refuse to use the collective noun “a murder” because it makes no sense.) would fly in the first daylight from the east, over my house, and in the evenings they would drift back again in smaller flocks. Wet or even just damp weather brought the seagulls and the availability of anything they could possibly eat brought a couple of magpies.
The magpies chattered and hopped about and when hit by the occasional winter sunbeam their beautiful coats shone in various shades of dark blue and black. Why do people hate them? I think they are quite beautiful. I know, I know, I know; “One for bad luck …..” etc but if you see one then just look around and you will almost always see another.
Best of all I love to see the goldfinches and here I can accept the collective noun because they are indeed “a charm”, just to see then fly in in undulating flight, rising and falling as they search the fields for thistles or other plants with abundant seeds. The red heads are indeed a beautiful feature but the yellow of the wings, expecially in flight, are like spun gold.
Since I moved to West Cork, however, I have discovered the buzzards. I reckon there are maybe three or four of them around my area, hardly enough to be termed “a wake” I’d say (another daft collective noun) but really interesting to watch as they swoop low over the fields and then perch motionless for long periods on a convenient fence post. It is believed that buzzards, which disappeared from here in the 19th century, started to come from Scotland to Northern Ireland in the 1930s, with others following later from Wales. They are now found in many parts of Ireland and mostly eat rabbits and rodents, but will take frogs, large invertebrates and the chicks of ground-nesting birds. They do not, I am given to understand, take lambs and the late Dick Warner has written that there’s no record from anywhere in the world of the common buzzard killing a lamb. He reminded us, however, that they eat rabbits, rats, mice and the odd magpie or grey crows. Rather than declaring war on the buzzard then farmers might welcome them.
The last couple of months in this area a new phenomenon has been revealed to me. That is the starling murmuration near Timoleague. It has been some marvellous sight to see in the last hour of the day before nightfall – though I am told it occurs at dawn too. I have seen it described on the Internet as little more than “a mass aerial stunt – thousands of birds all swooping and diving in unison”. It’s completely breathtaking to witness. It is thought that starlings do it for many reasons; grouping together offers safety in numbers – predators such as peregrine falcons find it hard to target one bird in the middle of a hypnotising flock of thousands; They also gather to keep warm at night and to exchange information, such as good feeding areas and they gather over their roosting site and perform their wheeling stunts before they roost for the night.
It is all beginning to change and I am surprised by the sense of excitement I felt on Wednesday last, 21st February, when I saw one of the dairy herds back out in a field behind a milking parlour. It was only for a few hours but it was great to see – I can only wonder how excited the cows were to feel grass under their feet and taste fresh grass on their tongues. The day before, I had watched a tractor towing a tanker around a large field as a large fan-shaped emmission flew out from the rear of the contraption. Slurry spreading.
I would have expected to have seen a lot of ploughing before now but none at all. The fields are, of course, quite saturated and the land is not conducive to good ploughing. Perhaps as the weather improves the fields will dry out and tractors will be working late into the night to get the land ready for sowing the 2018 crops.
The Barryroe area generally is well recognised for producing some of the best potatoes available anywhere. Perhaps it is the open sandy soil that provides good drainage. Even I know, from my gardening days, that early potatoes should be in the ground by St. Patrick’s Day but with that hallowed feast-day only a little over 2 weeks away there doesn’t seem to be much chance of that now.
It is an exciting time of year in the countryside. Perhaps the fact that I have been largely confined to the house – or to a sheltered corner outside, away from the wind when the sun comes out – because of a heavy cold and chest infection, has made me stop and look around me at what I see every day but often don’t really notice. I’ll have to leave it to Raftery again to explain where the charm of the countryside in Spring comes from:
Tá cur agus treabhadh
is leasú gan aoileach
Is iomaí sin ní ann
nár labhair me go fóill,
áitheanna is muilte
ag obair gan scíth ann,
Deamhan caint ar phingin cíosa
ná dada dá shórt.
First Published in The Evening Echo, 20th March, 2018
We may well ask who is Cardinal Kevin Farrell. From what I can ascertain it seems that even though he is Dublin born and reared and was brought up speaking Irish, most of us never heard of him before.
The Cardinal went to school to the Christian Brothers in Drimnagh and entered the novitiate of the Legion of Christ in 1966. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Salamanca in Spain and earned a Master’s degree in Philosophy and Licentiate in Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. This was followed by several other studies and qualifications.
He had been the seventh Bishop of Dallas, as well as the Chancellor of the University of Dallas and was appointed the Prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, effective September 1, 2016 by Pope Francis. He was created a Cardinal the following year. Until he moved to the Vatican Kevin Farrell served in various roles, as priest, educator and bishop, within the Catholic Church in the U.S.A.
He is clearly well schooled and intelligent but I hesitate to use the phrase “well educated” because it seems clear to me that the education he received streamed him towards the more conservative and traditional church views and failed to open up his mind to more progressive thinking. It is, therefore, easy enough to understand why he took the unreasonable stand he did in relation to refusing to approve President Mary McAleese as a speaker at the “Voices of Faith” event. That event has taken place inside the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV, headquarters of the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, every March for the past four years to coincide with the celebration of International Women’s Day.
Mary McAleese wasn’t the only speaker who failed to get the Cardinal’s approval. Ssenfuka Juanita Warry, who runs a non-profit organisation advocating for L.G.B.T Catholics in Uganda, was also deleted from the list.
I can never understand the continuing pre-occupation of the Catholic Church with matters sexual. Given the awful history of sexual abuse by clerics and the high proportion of clerics who are reported to be homosexual one would think that the hierarchy might soften their stance on the issue.
Homosexual clergy and homosexual activity by clergy are not exclusively modern phenomena but date back centuries. In Donald B. Cozzens’ book The Changing Face of the Priesthood it is estimated that the percentage of contemporary gay priests ranges from 23–58%, suggesting a higher than average numbers of homosexual men (active and non-active) within the Catholic priesthood.
Practicing homosexuals have also reached the highest level within the hierarchy and the ‘Princes of the Church’ and the existence of gay bishops in the Roman Catholic and other Christian traditions is a matter of historical record. As far back as the eleventh century, Ralph, Archbishop of Tours, had his lover installed as Bishop of Orléans, yet neither Pope Urban II, nor his successor Paschal II took action to depose either man. Going to the very top, a number of Popes are believed to have been homosexual or to have had male sexual partners. These include Pope Benedict IX, Pope Paul II, Pope Sixtus IV, Pope Leo X, Pope Julius II and Pope Julius III.
Cardinal Farrell’s actions reminded me of the little boy who set up a lovely football pitch in his back garden and asked his friends over to play but when they declined to ensure he was on the winning team he wouldn’t let them play in his garden.
It reminded me too of a minor event in my own life. Away back in the early 80s, when I was active within the Catholic Church, we were celebrating the centenary of the parish church. A committee was formed, of which I was one, and ideas were sought as to what would be a fitting memorial of the occasion. Many ideas were submitted by parishioners; stained-glass windows, a carillon in the church steeple and several others. The then parish priest (who had, of course, to be on the committee) listened to them all and then quietly suggested that the best memorial would be a collection to set up a bursary for the education of a priest for the diocese. That was the end of the discussion and to my annoyance a bursary it had to be.
In due course the money was collected. I forget the figures now but I think the goal was £20,000.00. We collected a good bit in excess of that amount. I was then on a sub-committee to draft the text of the recital when the money was to be handed over the then bishop, who was due to administer Confirmation in the parish later in the year. I got the job of drawing up the first draft and, being clever as I thought, I drafted it in such a way that the sum of £20,000.00 would form the main fund and the rest of the money should be invested in such a way that any interest earned would be added to the capital as a hedge against inflation. I thought it was a good idea.
In due course I presented my draft and the following day I received a visit from the parish priest who said he was aghast that we would presume to instruct the bishop on how to conduct the business of the diocese. I suggested we all need advisors for one aspect of our lives or another. I argued my view but the final word from the P.P. was, “If that is going to be included in the gift then it will not be presented in MY church”. I quickly told him that it wasn’t his church; that he wasn’t ever a native of the parish, that he was the caretaker of the church and that it had been the church in which I had been baptised, got First Holy Communion, Confirmation and all the other Sacraments throughout my life. My view didn’t prevail, however and when we met at the next committee meeting the priests view was accepted without demur by the rest of the committee. Only an idiot like myself would contradict the clergy in those far-off days. That was the last we ever heard of the fund.
I, for one, cannot find fault with what Mary McAleese said. How could I? Exactly half of my children are female; I could never consent to half of my children being regarded as second-class members of their chosen church.
As far as I can see there is no theological basis what-so-ever for excluding women from the priesthood. Those who argue in favour of their exclusion will quickly point out that Jesus chose 12 men to be his apostles or disciples. That is incorrect. History has decided that there were 12 apostles but the number 12, like so much in the Bible, is merely a symbolic number. The meaning of 12, which is considered a perfect number, is that it symbolizes God’s power and authority, as well as serving as a perfect governmental foundation. It can also symbolize completeness or the nation of Israel as a whole. For example, Jacob (Israel) had twelve sons, each of which represented a tribe begun by a prince, for 12 princes total. Ishmael, Abraham’s son, also had twelve princes.
Jesus had very many female disciples and without them there is every possibility that the church would never have succeeded as it did. Pre-eminent among all the disciples was a woman, none other than Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene has been the victim of the greatest defamation since time began. She was not a reformed prostitute. This preposterous idea was first put forward in the 6th century by Pope Gregory The Great (sic – for the “Great” part). So much for Papal infallibility!
The question has to be asked too, where were all the men when Jesus was put through his torture and death. The remaining 11 (after Judas hung himself) were hiding in “an upper room” in a pub some place. Meanwhile it was the women who stuck with Jesus through his passion and stayed with him at the foot of the cross.
In fact, such was her stature within the fledging religion that according to all four evangelists Mary Magdalene was the first person to whom Jesus revealed himself after the resurrection. For that matter 3 out of the 4 evangelists suggest that the next two were also women. Mary the mother of James, and Salome, according to St. Mark. Luke agrees that it was Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James but the third was Joanna and Matthew suggests it was just the two Marys. In John’s Resurrection account Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone.
Mary Thompson, adjunct professor of religious studies at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York suggests, “Unquestionably and clearly, Mary of Magdala was the primary witness to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and our whole Christianity depends on that”.
Who can deny, therefore, that there is a good basis for Mary McAleese’s ascertion that, “the patriarchy, misogny and homophobia of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church “has drained respect” from the Church as an institution and also threatened to drain respect from the gospel itself.”?
It has been suggested that her “empire of misogny” comment was over-the-top; I don’t believe so. “Codology” or “theology”? I’m with “codology”.
(Contact Michael at email@example.com)
First published in The Evening Echo, 13th March, 2018
It is important to point out that even though I have changed my mind about many things – things that I once held firm and fast views on – I have not changed my opinion of abortion and I am as firmly against it today as I was over 35 years ago.
Away back in 1983 I played quite a prominent part in my own area in promoting the 8th amendment of our constitution. I hosted meetings, I spoke as a guest at debates hosted by both sides of the debate and I canvassed, day and night at times, for votes in favour of inserting the protection that the voiceless little children needed. This time round I am trying very hard to keep out of the debate. I am trying to keep out of it for a number of reasons but mainly because I am too old now to bear the pain that the very idea of slaughtering an innocent causes me. I have decided also that because I have the great privilege of sharing my opinions in this page, on any thing I wish to write about, I should not abuse that privilege by trying to foist my opinion on my readers on such a controversial matter.
With that declaration out of the way the following comments, though closely related to the abortion issue, are much more about adoption than about abortion.
I read a letter – from a regular contributor – in my daily paper of choice, The Irish Examiner, about a month ago. I’m not easily shocked but that letter truly shocked me. It shocked me to the extent that I didn’t allow myself to respond until I had steadied myself. In the meantime I have debated with myself whether I should republish some, or all, of the letter in question. I have reached a point now where I feel that the tenor of the letter is such that very few people, if any, who have any connection with the issue of adoption, would accept the views expressed.
The letter in question was headed, “Adoption not better than abortion”. The following views were expressed:
Adoption is a curse forced on unwanted children by those who handed off children to complete strangers they do not know, who must live their lives with people which are not their own. Their lives are covered and clouded in mystery, intrigue, and ignorance. Adopted children are buried under a cloak of secrecy and lies told to them by their parents and social workers to protect those who did not want to have children.
Legions of adopted people are out there living in an alienated situation not of their own making. Adopted people are treated like second-class citizens who live in their own alienated world forced upon them by the indifferent and those who have been inconvenienced because they had no abortion services. Abortion is far better than having thousands of people walking around who do not know who they are and struggle each day in a world where they are alienated from their real families and the truth about who they are. Adoption is not a better option than abortion when this is taken into account.
I wonder how did the letter-writer reach those conclusions. How well does he know people who were originally adopted; how well does he know any family or families who have had adopted children; has any person who was adopted as a child come to him and suggested that he/she would prefer to have died in an abortion clinic than to have lived?
As far as I’m concerned I do actually have a right to take up this issue. Of my 8 children – they are all grown up now, some with families of their own – 3 were adopted. They were not adopted because we didn’t have children – in fact the first adopted child is the 5th in the family. They were adopted because they were children who were available for adoption and because my wife and I were in a position to not just offer them a home but to offer them a whole family to blend into. They grew up as brother and sisters to the other children and to this very day they relate to and interact with all of their siblings, both adopted and otherwise, just like any other children in any other family.
While I do accept that many aspects of our lives can be inherited genetically I personally believe that “nurture” provides a much stronger influence on how we live our lives than does “nature”. The nature versus nurture debate is about whether human behaviour is determined by the environment, either prenatal or during a person’s life, or by a person’s genes. The expression “nature and nurture” in English has been in use since at least the Elizabethan period. Shakespeare referred to it in his play, The Tempest, and the 16th century poet, Richard Barnfield, once wrote:
Nature and nurture once together met
The soule and shape in decent order set.
Nature is what we think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance and other biological factors. Nurture is generally taken as the influence of external factors after conception e.g. the product of exposure, experience and learning on an individual.
Because I have adopted children of my own I naturally prick up my ears when I hear of other adopted children and I listen with great interest to their stories when I get the opportunity to hear them. It wouldn’t be fair of me to my children if I were to go into their own personal experiences but I can say that each of them has made attempts to trace their birth parents once they came to adulthood.
Some of the attempts to make contact had some success and at least one didn’t really work out. The latter one did cause a fair amount of pain and disappointment when it didn’t bring about a meeting but the child, with the support of a loving and supportive partner, her siblings and us, her parents, got on with it and is living a very happy and productive life. I know this because she is the one who lives closest to me and is first to me if I need anything.
There were no great surprises for any of them because, contrary to the letter-writers statement that, “Adopted children are buried under a cloak of secrecy and lies told to them by their parents and social workers …..”, our children always knew they were adopted and as they grew up any relevant information we had was shared with them.
One child of ours had a natural father from the MiddleEast/Asia and, more especially when he was a boy, that was obvious enough from his colour and appearance. That was never a problem at home, of course, but from the moment he started school it seemed to be a problem with other children. On his very first day at school the child with whom he shared a desk went to the teacher crying because he “didn’t want to sit with the African”. It would appear, therefore, that the ‘ignorance’ the letter-writer refers to is much more grounded and obvious with those who know nothing about adoption. Some have passed on such ignorant attitudes as that other child, in his absolute innocence, displayed to their own children. The little lad who was afraid of “the African” didn’t pick his racism up off the ground. It was clearly ‘dinner-table talk’ at home. That was the tip of the iceberg; much worse racist bullying followed through the years.
There is no doubt but many – indeed maybe all – adopted children have an inherent sense of rejection. For a small number it can cower over them for a long time like a permanent shadow behind them. Who is to blame them? They eventually learn to live with it, however and, like the sunflower turning to the sun at the dawn of day they turn to the love and support that sustained them from early childhood and they grow in love and confidence and achieve their potential in due course.
Most of them reach a point where they yearn to know more about their natural roots. When that happens there is help and co-operation there for them. In fact they are no different to those of us who were not adopted. Family-tree research is hugely popular now; so is voluntary DNA testing to determine our roots. Non-adopted children are just as curious about these things.
To the letter-writer I say that your view of adoption is very sad; it is quite erronious and I wish you would try to investigate the reality.
When it comes to choosing adoption over abortion I picture my three adopted much-loved children standing side by side and, a bit like in the novel and movie, “Sophie’s Choice”, I wonder which of them I could give up or how many of them might never have been born, to gladden my heart, had abortion been freely available.
I don’t think I need to spell out the answers.
(Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org)
First published in the Evening Echo, 14th February 2017
I wrote last week about the murder and mayhem that follows the illegal drug trade in this country. I said then, and I repeat it now, that everybody who is an end-user of an illegal drug has blood on his/her hands. That applies to the down-and-out in the back street or lane as well as to the “smart-young-thing” in a professional or quasi-professional job having a Friday Night party in a chic apartment on “the right side of town”.
I explained that the blood I refer to includes the blood of young Anthony Campbell, the young plumber murdered in cold blood in 2006, as well as the 10 people – some of them completely innocent, some not so innocent – gunned down in a gang war that has raged in the streets of Dublin, as well as places farther afield, over the last year.
I woke up early one morning last week and, as is my habit, turned on the radio to catch the news. What caught my attention first was the reported proposal from the government to introduce supervised “injection rooms” for the users of illegal drugs.
The same news bulletin dealt extensively with the fall-out from an “RTE Investigates” TV programme the evening before that revealed the huge statistics for those waiting for hospital treatment for terrible afflictions that are causing intense pain and suffering to thousands of Irish people, adults and children alike. Some of the suffering people featured in the programme included young children, their bodies still developing and not yet fully grown, who are suffering from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine that is both intensely painful but also contributing to what can only be called deformity in young bodies that will be part of their lives for as long as they live.
Supervised injection sites, sometimes called fix rooms, or medically supervised injection centers, if introduced here, will be legally-sanctioned, medically-supervised facilities designed to reduce nuisance from public drug use and provide a hygienic and stress-free environment in which individuals are able to consume illicit recreational drugs intravenously.
The first supervised injecting facility (SIF) was opened in Switzerland in the 1980s and they have grown steadily in number since, particularly in European countries including Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg and Denmark. Canada and Australia are also developing them.
They are promoted as part of a harm reduction approach towards drug problems. The facilities provide sterile injection equipment, information about drugs and basic health care, treatment referrals, and access to medical staff. Some, it is suggested, will offer counselling, hygienic and other services to homeless and impoverished individuals. Most programs already in use in other jurisdictions prohibit the sale or purchase of recreational drugs. (What a relief, I say, with my tongue firmly pressed against the inside of my cheek.) Some restrict access to local residents and apply other admission criteria, such as only allowing injection drug users, but generally in Europe they do not exclude addicts who consume by other means.
There is a European Monitoring Centre for Drug Consumption Rooms and they have calculated that in Germany 100 dependent heroin users, cumulatively injecting 100,000 times a year (Work it out; that is 3 “fixes” every day.), would statistically have 2 overdose fatalities annually thus leaving 10 expected fatalities averted by the entirety of injecting facilities across Germany.
In the same news bulletin I have already referred to it was reported that it has been calculated that up to 350 people in Ireland may lose their lives in one year because of the “hospital trolley crisis”.
Out of that 350 how many lives would be saved if the resources to be committed to the drug injection rooms were channeled instead into our understaffed hospitals?
I have tried to find out what these facilities would cost to run but have been unable to come up with a figure. It doesn’t take a lot to make a ‘guesstimate’, however, and I cannot imagine that the facilities would be in any way effective unless they were open 24 hours a day. A drug user craving a “fix” would be unlikely to keep to a 9 to 5 schedule. I would presume, also, that the “supervisors’ in these facilities would be medical professionals, nurses at least. That would mean that each facility would need 3 nurses each day as well as relief staff for vacations, sick days and other eventualities, all running on a 7 days a week basis. Would I be wrong, therefore, in estimating that each injection facility would require at least 6 medically qualified supervisors as well as management, support services including doctors, counsellors and security staff?
Meanwhile the operating theatre in Crumlin Childrens’ Hospital is idle two days a week because they haven’t the staff, including theatre nurses, to man it.
Meanwhile 350 sick and law-abiding citizens may die each year because we cannot provide adequate hospital facilities.
While all this is happening the fact remains that the drugs that the users are injecting, inhaling or imbibing by whatever means they can imagine are illegal substances, the possession of which is a criminal offence and the hard-pressed taxpayer is paying so that law-breakers can be assisted by professionals TO BREAK THE LAW.
In other circumstances this would be considered to be aiding and abetting the commission of an offence and that, in itself, would be an offence punishable in the same way as the primary offence. Will the staff in the injection centres be given immunity?
Meanwhile young growing bodies are racked with pain, getting scant enough comfort from prescribed drugs and their bodies are being mangled whilst they await that elusive operation that would give them some quality of life and save their ravaged bodies from further deformity.
Meanwhile, also, their parents are going out to work, returning in the evenings, already tired from a full days work and from commuting, to care for their sick children, all the time paying their taxes, both direct and indirect taxes, but they cannot get for their ailing children the medical attention they need. The taxes they paid, however, will be readily used to give comfort to the drug users who, as I have already pointed out, can be seen as people who have blood on their hands.
How many of these “safe injection sites” will be needed anyway? Maybe a couple in Dublin, one in Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, Kilkenny, Sligo? Where will it stop? What about Mullingar, Athlone, Dundalk, Letterkenny, Tralee, Ennis, Killarney or Mallow? To borrow from the phrase commonly seen in America now, “country” lives, just like Negro lives, matter too.
If all of these are to be opened and manned that is, by my crude calculation, up to 100 “medical professionals”. Yet genuinely sick people are denied medical treatment because of a “lack of resources”. If they cannot get medically qualified personnel or enough money to open up the locked unused wards in existing hospitals; if they cannot raise sufficient money to build much needed hospitals wherever they are needed; if they cannot raise the capital to build extensions to hospitals that are too small and inadequate to cater for the sick people in the areas they were designed to cater for, where will the money come from to acquire, fit out, equip and staff these safe injection rooms?
Has insanity become endemic in our little country?
But it will all be alright, won’t it? We are mollified and consoled by the Minister for Health coming on television and looking downcast and sad and telling us he is “ashamed and heartbroken” by the situation revealed in the “RTE Investigates” programme.
We don’t want to hear your excuses, Minister; we want something done about it.
Meanwhile 350 sick and law-abiding citizens may die each year because we cannot provide adequate hospital facilities.
Will anybody ask where the drugs to be taken in safety and comfort came from? Even more to the point, will anybody ask where the money to buy them came from?
Will there be any “safe and comfortable” facilities made available for the grandmother, a victim of crime, who was walking home with her meager €220.00 pension, who was attacked and hauled to the ground while her handbag was snatched. Will she have to sit on a hard chair in an A & E for 6 or 8 hours with her broken arm and two black eyes?
What facilities will be provided for the battered and bruised old man, another victim of crime, found unconscious on his kitchen floor, his life savings gone, after being savagely attacked and beaten by a drug-hungry criminal. Will he have to lie on a trolley in a hospital corridor with his shattered bones and split skull while his attacker is comforted and counselled in a warm and comfortable “safe injection facility”.
Who will help the diligent student, yet another victim of crime, whose laptop was stolen, to be sold at a fraction of its worth, to pay for a drug fix. A laptop he/she worked for and saved for and on which there was a whole years work, lecture notes and projects?
I’m not without sympathy for unfortunates who have drifted into drug abuse but when it comes to prioritising I know who has to head the list. I wonder if the Minister and the mandarins in the H.S.E. do.
You’ve probably guessed, I’m MAD as Hell.
(Contact Michael at email@example.com)
First published on the Evening Echo, 7th February 2017
It is a year now since the shooting at the Regency Hotel in Dublin when a six-strong gang carried out a shooting at a boxing weigh-in and during which one man was killed and two of his friends were injured.
It is said that the dead man belonged to a gang run from Spain by and Irish gang and that he had been a chief target of specialist garda units and was suspected of narcotics smuggling. He was also suspected of being involved in a 2006 murder but was cleared of involvement in another attack in 2008, during which a 20-year-old man was shot, in Ballyfermot.
In the coordinated attack two of the gunmen carrying AK-47 rifles and wore military-style helmets and Garda insignia, including E.R.U. markings on bulletproof vests.
The rest of the story is well known at this stage. That awful event triggered a wave of savage killings – up to 10 at this stage, I believe – including some innocent people who have been murdered just because they were related to one of the gang leaders involved or maybe only looked like him.
Most harrowing of all, however, when recordings of the event are played on the news media, is the voice of a young child cutting through the screams as she pleads: “Daddy, help me… Daddy, Daddy, hold on.”
At least that is the way I have heard it any time I have heard it played. Some newspapers reported it as “Daddy, help me… Daddy, Daddy, what was that?” Whichever way it was, the words cut through me and if I consider them for any length of time, they virtually haunt me.
I have never made a secret of the fact that I abhor boxing. The proponents of that activity (I just cannot call it “sport”.) can defend it ‘till the cows come home but the fact remains that the object of it is to hit and hurt another human being. I’m just talking about boxing in the traditional sense. I won’t even go into that abomination called mixed martial arts (MMA) or the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) that, to me, represents a serious slippage in civilised behaviour.
I know, I know, I know it is hugely popular and has thousands of followers but they can take heart that my objecting to it bears no weight, carries no influence and is as likely to put an end to it as a snowball is to last a whole day on the warmest day of the year in the month of July.
For me, therefore, it is almost incomprehensible that a young girl should be brought to an event such as the one at the Regency last year. If the parent who brought her there had any idea who the other attendees were likely to be then it is only more incomprehensible that he should have brought her there.
Whilst any loss of life must be condemned the gangsters and hoodlums who engaged in this gang war must regret it now. They have drawn the Gárdaí onto themselves and as a result millions of Euro worth of illegal drugs, as well as cash and firearms and ammunition, have been seized and put out of reach of these would-be killers.
As a result of one successful raid by the Gardaí and Customs last week over €300,000 in cash and another €150,000 in various accounts has been identified, which the authorities believe to be the proceeds of crime. The cash was hidden in homes and attics.
As well as that, forensic examinations were carried out for fingerprints and DNA on 15 firearms and 1,400 rounds of ammunition seized at the warehouse in the Greenogue Business Park in Rathcoole. The weapons include nine revolvers, four semi-automatic pistols, a submachine gun and an assault rifle.
A few days earlier Gardaí had seized a €37.5 million Euro cannabis haul, understood to have been hidden in farm machinery on board a ship, which docked in the city at Dublin Port. A subsequent search resulted in the seizure of 1,873 kilos (4,129 lbs.) of herbal cannabis. The controlled drugs seized were said to be destined for the Irish market.
What, exactly, is ”the Irish market”. It is simple enough to understand. It is every cannabis cigarette that is smoked in Ireland; it is every line of cocaine that is inhaled in pubs, clubs, flats, apartments and Irish homes; it is every heroine concoction that is heated in spoons over gas lighters and injected into arms already ravaged by drug taking. It is every pill that is popped into foolish mouths and every powder that is mixed with another agent and imbibed.
Who, we may ask, constitutes “the Irish market”. Of course it is the relatively small number of people one may encounter on city street, with their dead eyes and slurred speech; it is the student who will willingly boast that he does his best work after he has shared, or taken by himself, a self-rolled “joint”; it is the smarter-than-you youngster who has foolishly spent his/her money in what are called “Head Shops”.
The “Irish Market”, however, is more than that; It includes the smart-young-things in their business suits, collars and ties, maybe the women toting Prada handbags and the men talking loudly into the latest iPhone as they make their way along the South Mall in Cork or Merrion Square in Dublin. I would bet that, if it could be calculated, the value of what disappears up the noses of the professionals or would-be professionals would far out-weigh the value of what the down-and-outs we see in the back streets would use. Smart parties in the best apartments, celebrations in the best clubs and foreign holidays very often include the use of some or other illegal product.
Before somebody brings on a heart attack from indignation I must explain that I am not for one second saying that all such gatherings include drug taking or all the people who take part in them are drug users but I do stand by my assertion that a number are. It may not be popular to say it – but then it is well known that “popularity” has never been my driving force.
Some of the 10 people who have met violent deaths in the 12 months following the Regency shootings were not involved in the drugs trade or in any other illegal activity. They were innocent people who should be alive and enjoying life as the Spring of 2017 emerges. They are not the first innocent people who have lost their lives because of the criminals around us.
Who remembers the innocent young plumber caught in the middle of a gangland assassination and who made a final desperate attempt to fend off his killers before he was callously shot dead. He was Anthony Campbell, aged 20, from Smithfield in Dublin and he was killed in December, 2006, by a single bullet fired at close range from a semi-automatic handgun. He had both arms raised above his head in a defensive posture when the bullet passed through his left arm before entering his head, killing him almost immediately.
Anthony Campbell, an apprentice plumber, had the misfortune to be working in a house in Scribblestown Park in Finglas, Dublin, on the morning of his murder when gunmen arrived to kill the notorious Martin ‘Marlo’ Hyland. Mr. Campbell had been due to carry out a quick repair job on the house, owned by Hyland’s niece, Elaine, the previous night. It appears he was too tired after a busy day’s work and moved the job to the following morning. Anthony and Hyland were alone in the house at the time of the shooting and it is believed the young plumber opened the door to his killers. Hyland was shot six times as he lay sleeping in an upstairs bedroom, before the gunmen turned their attention to Mr. Campbell downstairs in the living room. Nobody has been charged with the murders but it is commonly believed that the shooting of Hyland was drug-gang related and poor Anthony just got in the way.
The killers, of course, have blood on their hands. The gang bosses who ordered the shooting of Hyland have blood on their hands, everybody who had anything to do with the drug trade that led to the shooting has blood on his/her hands. I would, however, go much farther and say that everybody who uses these drugs has blood on his/her hands too.
None of the shooting, stabbings, killings and maimings that happen because of drug turf-wars, drug debts or other drug-related activities would happen if the end users didn’t buy the stuff from the street dealers – or from the cleverer dealers whose phone numbers are know by the “smarter-than-thou” set who use the products. Every “spliff” or “joint” or “reefer” smoked contributes to the death and violence that follows the trade. Every pill popped or line of white powder inhaled is the same and whether one likes it or not everybody who hands over a grubby few Euro for these products is left with blood on his/her hands.
Anthony Campbell should never be forgotten. Indeed I am surprised that nothing has been done to remember him fittingly because if any reasonable person who might be tempted to “try out” a drug of some sort could be reminded of Anthony Campbell I’m convinced the/she might think again and maybe desist.
First published on The Evening Echo, December, 2011.
My name is Rachel and I am six rears old. I live with my Mammy and Daddy and little brother, James, at 6, The Downs, outside Cork. I have a goldfish now and his name is Nemo. I used to have a puppy named Bob but something happened to him and Daddy got me Nemo instead. Mammy doesn’t work in Daddy’s big shop in town anymore. That is where she went to work when she was a girl just after leaving school. Mammy says that Daddy was a lovely boss and he smiled a lot and was great fun. Then they fell in love and he bought Mammy lots of flowers and things and all the lovely rings and bracelets that she has in her big leather box on her dressing table. Sometimes she lets me play with them if I promise to be careful. I love that. Sometimes she wears her sunglasses, even in her bedroom, and stays at home all day. I am happy when she is at home but sad when she stays in bed and cries a lot. When I ask her can I play with the rings and things she tells me to go and play in my room with my dollies. I don’t like that at all.
I have really been very good all year, except the one time, when I told Granny that Mammy was crying very often and then Daddy got very cross. That was awful. I thought he kicked my Bob who landed into the fire and got all burned and smelly but Daddy promised me it was an accident and I know now it was ‘cos Daddies don’t kick little girls’ puppies. When Bob could not come home from the animal hospital Daddy got me Nemo when I couldn’t stop crying. That was a kind thing and I do love Daddy very much ‘cos he does lovely things like that sometimes.
Even though I was very good I don’t really want much this year except some stones and trees for Nemo’s bowl and a small surprise. Instead can you bring new presses for our kitchen? If they don’t fit down the chimney you can leave them on the porch and my Uncle Denis, who is a builder, will put them up for us. Uncle Denis lives with Granny who is Mammy’s mum and he often comes to help Mammy with things – especially when Daddy is away on business. I know Mammy will be delighted to get them ‘cos she told me the old ones are dangerous ‘cos she keeps hitting her face off the doors of them. Then Daddy gets very cross with the doors ‘cos he bangs them and punches them a lot and I can hear all the noise. Mammy screams at them and Daddy shouts at them. When I hear it I get very afraid and put my head under the clothes so that I can’t hear it but I always do and sometimes when it goes on for a long time I wee in the bed too ‘cos I can’t help it and then I feel awful in the morning.
Sometimes Mammy and Daddy play games. I don’t know what the games are but one of them must be something like “SNAP” ‘cos Daddy keeps shouting the same word and I’m sure he always wins ‘cos he keeps telling Mammy she didn’t win. He shouts “You cunt, you cunt, you cunt.” I asked Mammy one morning what she couldn’t do and she asked me why I asked her that and when I told her that I heard the game she just cried and cried. I don’t know why she cried that time.
Sometimes I think they play “CHARADES” or something like that and that Mammy always wins ‘cos Daddy starts shouting at her when he can’t guess who she is. He shouts “Who’re you? Who’re you? Who’re you?” I think they only play that when he is drunk ‘cos I can hear falling and things. Once I asked Mammy why James and I couldn’t play Charades with her and Daddy. She asked me how I knew they played Charades and when I told her she started crying all over again. I hate that about Mammies. They are always crying. When I grow up I am not sure I would like to be a Mammy ‘cos I would not like to be crying. Anyway I don’t think I would like to play Charades with them ‘cos I don’t like Daddy’s voice when he shouts. It is kind of cross and it makes me afraid and when that happens I am afraid I will wee in the bed again.
Mammy hates when Daddy is drunk ‘cos when it happens she cries all the time and stays in bed and stays in the house and wears her sunglasses again. One time I saw her in the bathroom and her face was all a funny colour; kind of black and dark blue and yellow at the edges. When I asked her what happened she told me she slipped on the stairs. Maybe you might be able to get a new carpet for the stairs too so that Mammy won’t fall down the stairs again but if that is too much maybe you could bring it next year.
Daddy did get very cross with me one other time. I think it was before the summer. Mammy was gone to Dublin for the week-end with Granny and Auntie Evelyn and Daddy was minding us. He said he had a lot of work to do and that he would do it at home in his study. He rang one of the girls who works in his office to come over and to bring the papers for him to look at but when she came she only had a small bag. She was real tall and very thin with long white hair. More silvery than Mammy’s golden blondie hair. She had very long nails and very high heels. I thought she wasn’t very nice. She was like the Ice Queen in the Wardrobe story. Mammy reads that to us sometimes when she is happy. She says it is her favourite story. Daddy put on a DVD of the Lion King and when that was finished he put on another DVD but my eyes were tired and I can’t remember now what it was called. He stayed in the study all day with Samantha. That was her name. That day Daddy sent out for pizza and we had a yummy dinner. I love pepperoni. At bed-time Daddy said Samantha would be staying in the spare room ‘cos they still had lots of work to do but when I got up for a drink of water in the night I saw her going into Mammy and Daddy’s room and she had Mammy’s bathrobe on.
Next day when Mammy came home and we were all getting ready for bed I told her that her bath-robe looked nicer on her than on Samantha. She forgot to say our prayers that night and she looked very funny when she went down stairs. I was going down to tell her about the prayers and when I was half way down I could see into the kitchen. Mammy must have hit the cupboard doors again ‘cos I heard Daddy banging the furniture and Mammy screamed. Then I saw Daddy had the teapot in his hand and it must have slipped ‘cos all the hot tea went over Mammy’s hand and I could see all the steam. Mammy was really crying then and I ran back upstairs. It must have woke James ‘cos he ran into my room and jumped into my bed and he was making funny noises. When I got into bed we put our arms around each other very, very tight and when we woke in the morning we were still the same way and the two of us had weed in the bed.
It was very quiet down stairs. I got up and tried to take the sheets off the bed. Auntie Evelyn must have come for a visit ‘cos she came in and hugged us and said it would be alright. I love Auntie Evelyn. She smells nice. She said Mammy had an accident and was in the hospital and would be back later. Daddy, she said, had to go away on business and she didn’t know when he would be back.
That was a long time ago. I don’t know how many weeks it is. He used to phone every day at first but now he only phones sometimes. When I go to bed some nights I close my eyes very tight and I try to see his face. Sometimes I can’t see it and then I have to get out of bed and look at the photographs in Mammy’s room and then I can remember him again.
When he went away first he used to send Mammy big, big boxes of chocolates but Mammy just threw them in the garbage. Every single box. Tons of them. I think she should have given them to us for a treat but she said that a rat was at them and they would make us all sick. I think the post people should be more careful and shouldn’t let rats at peoples’ letters and parcels.
I love you, Santa, and I am glad you are my friend and that I can tell you things and you won’t tell anyone and you won’t be cross with me for telling like some grown-ups would be.
James will write his own letter but I know he wants a play-station. Mammy says you will do your best but we don’t have as much money now as we used to have. But I know you will try really hard to get it for him.
One other thing, Santa. Will you, please, please, please bring Daddy home for Christmas? James and me miss him very much. Mammy hardly ever wears her sunglasses now. She is sad sometimes but she doesn’t cry any more and that is nice too. And I didn’t wee in the bed since the summer.
First published in The Evening Echo, 13th November, 2012
Friendship isn’t about whom you’ve known the longest. It’s all about the friend who comes and stands by your side in bad times.
I came across that quote on somebody’s Facebook page the other day and it got me thinking about all the different qualities of relationship we humans go through. We talk about love, loyalty, dependability, supporting, trustworthy, attentive, adaptable, caring, accepting, forgiveness, patience, empathy and several more too. While there are one or more of each of the different qualities in all of them, the one that stands out is “friendship” itself. It stands out because friendship includes each and every one of all of the others. In that way it is unique.
I’m sure most, if not all, of us have fallen in love at one time or another and we have experienced the deep intensity of feeling that accompanies it. That intensity is never as strong as when the object of our love doesn’t reciprocate and this causes deep heartache. In a very small number of cases, unfortunately, that heart-ache causes people to do some very foolish things and can generate to a jealous rage, leading to very violent actions, including self-harm or even murder.
That is where “love” is truly distinguished from friendship. In the vast majority of cases love demands some kind of response and has a high degree of selfishness attached to it. “If I love her why can’t she love me”, is often the abiding thought. Sometimes the lover accepts the absence of a response from the loved one but the desire for reciprocation stays. That does not arise with friendship.
The poetry of Yeats is so full of self-pity because of his supposed unrequited love for Maud Gonne that it can sometimes be a little tiresome. I must admit, however, not to me. Because of the beautiful way he uses language, and the poetic forms in which he expresses it, I can easily overlook the almost puerile feelings that inspired him. If I have a complaint about Yeats it is only that he seems to have used up almost all the great poetic images and beautiful poetic language, leaving only the crumbs for later poets. But I digress.
On the other hand true friendship endures and even though at one time or another a friend may disappoint this will not normally kill that friendship. It may even deepen it because at such times the true friend will put his or her own feelings aside and come to the side of the other person to support and comfort.
Love, of course, is a great feeling and mostly a positive one. Without this attraction, which we identify as love, many of us would not end up with our life’s partners. But that is usually, though unfortunately not invariably, only the beginning and as relationships progress the love of a couple, one for the other, deepens into friendship and when that happens the relationship, or partnership, or marriage, whatever one wants to call it, really endures for a lifetime. Many, including myself, have been lucky enough to experience that progression and there is nothing as satisfying as a quiet time, in the sole company of one’s life partner, sharing interests, maybe just chatting or sometimes not needing language to communicate at all; just the company of the other.
Great friendships exist outside marriage/life-partnership relationships too. Very few of us have more than one or two friendships of that quality but when we do they are a great joy and can be a great comfort to us. And I don’t mean “friends” as it is used on sites such as Facebook where people claim to have many hundreds of “friends”.
About fifteen years ago I met a man, through a common interest, from another county and within a few days we had formed a firm friendship. That friendship has endured through all the years that have followed and I just know that whatever I would ask him to do for me he would do it. We don’t communicate through the modern social media; we don’t exchange texts or even telephone one another very often. In recent years we don’t even meet very often but when we do it is like we met every second day and we resume our friendship with an ease that is uncanny. This ability to take up a friendship where it had been left off is something I have seen before and it has always fascinated me. To me it is the mark of real and true friendship.
I heard from him recently that he had been unwell – as they like to say in the country, ‘his nerves were at him’ – and so I headed off to see him. We spent about four hours together and talked about everything. He had no difficulty in opening up to me about what was troubling him, the worries that were getting him down and the disappointments he had suffered. I don’t know what good our conversation will do for him in the long run but when I dropped him back to his home I knew, both from what he said and how he looked, that his burden had been lightened and that he would think seriously about suggestions I had made to him.
There is no particular credit due to me for that. In fact I was only repaying what my friend had done for me over the years. When I was ill a few years ago his concern and caring were more than obvious. When I retired he travelled a long distance to attend my retirement “do” and to be part of the celebration. But that, as he would say himself, is what friends are for.
I am glad to say that same kind of friendship is not unique. I have observed, as a third party observer, the same kind of loyalty in others around me. When somebody close to me became quite ill I have seen close friends of the sick person rally around in a quiet but deeply meaningful ways. Little tasks performed without fanfare of any kind; attending the hospital to sit with the patient through treatment; little items cooked and delivered; cards or letters arriving in almost every postal delivery. All these things are done, not out of duty but in response to a deep caring that has grown out of many years of sharing and mutual respect.
Religious persuasion or teaching has little to do with it. I have observed it in people of all faiths and of none. I have seen that kind of thoughtfulness emanate from people with whom the patient had scarcely more than a nodding acquaintance beforehand. I am no longer surprised by the kindness of people and though cynical in lots of ways I have a strong conviction that there are far more good people in the world than there are unsavoury ones.
There are other words for friendship too. ‘Amity’ and ‘camaraderie’ are two of them that I like but most of all I like the idea of ‘neighbourliness’. In times of stress the kindnesses and thoughtfulness of neighbours can bring great joy and comfort and I have been lucky enough to have experienced that too. Some people say that the decision to buy a house is one of the most important decisions we will make in our lifetime. That is quite true from an economic point of view but I have lived long enough to have learned that even more important than the house itself is where the house is located because that will dictate who one’s neighbours will be. We can go on for years sharing little things with the people who live near us, having polite conversations when we meet in the local shop or at church or over the garden wall but when something goes wrong, such as illness or misfortune, neighbourliness will be tested and in most cases will prove true. I have experienced that too and don’t have words adequate enough to express my gratitude for it.
Some people seem to be able to classify friendship. I have heard people called “friends”, “good friends”, “great friends” and very often “best friends”. I have heard Louis Walsh on The X Factor refer to so many people as “best friends” that it is laughable. To me one cannot classify friends; a person is either a friend or not a friend. There can be only one “best” in anything. To call one person a best friend is really saying that other “friends” are less in some way. It is a contradiction in terms.
(Contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(From The “Evening Echo”, 30th April 2013)
On a visit to London some time ago I was hardly off the plane and settled in my hotel when I went off to visit my very favourite shop in the entire world – as much of the world as I have visited anyway. The shop in question has been in Piccadilly, they claim on their packaging, since 1707. Long enough for me anyway. The shop is Fortnum and Mason and they sell tea. They sell other things too, mainly to do with foods and dining but they are most famous for their tea. And, I may as well declare it now, I love tea.
Coming through the door I knew from many previous visits that the tea was to be found on the left-hand side. And there it was, stacked on shelves in tins and packets in orderly form. Along two walls in an L shape was a long wooden counter manned by very proper looking young gentlemen in formal morning suits and young ladies in similar but a little more feminine attire. Behind those counters were several shelves with large canisters of different teas from which the counter assistants weighed out any quantity the shopper may require. There were teas of every kind. Fruit teas like Rose Pouching, Tea with Apple and Elderflower and Bitter Orange Tea. The strong teas were on one shelf. They included the mysterious sounding Assam Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, Queen Anne Blend and Assam Superb. There were Fruit Infusions, Herbal Teas, Garden Teas and Green Teas. On the highest shelf they had what they called Rare Teas. These included teas with the most intriguing of names; Uva Shawlands, Lung Ching Dragon Well and Rolling Clouds being but a few. But I knew what I wanted and there it was. Ranked among the Light Black Teas was my own personal favourite, Ceylon Orange Pekoe. I thought about the Yunnan, the Patio Blend and the Russian Caravan but I always came back to the Ceylon Orange Pekoe. “Packets will do”, I said, “I already have plenty of empty tins at home.” ‘No tea-greenhorn me’ I clearly implied as I watched the huge tin being taken down from the shelf and carefully shaken into a special scales with built-in funnel for pouring into foil-lined packets without even a single leaf being spilled.
Twenty minutes later I made my way back to my hotel through the throngs of Friday evening commuters and week-end visitors like myself eagerly anticipating my long-awaited taste of my favourite brew, the rich warm smell of the Far East and the deep red hue as it is poured into a china cup. Not for me the black dust which passes for tea and the bleached whiteness of a muslin bag in which it is enclosed.
If there is anything we in Ireland can thank Britain for it is tea. Forget the English language; we have a perfectly good one of our own. Forget the Common Law; we had a great set of people-focussed Brehon Laws for many centuries before Magna Carta. Who needs to dance around a may-pole when any Irish traditional musician can give you the Cashel Set? But the tea; where would we be without it? First thing in the morning and last thing at night and at any time in between. When we get good news we run to the kettle and put on the water to boil. “A cup of tea to celebrate”, we say. When misfortune strikes and we are comforting a loved one, “Sit down there love and I will make you a nice cup of tea”, we say in our most kindly voice. We even put it in confectionary. Would any of us refuse a nice fresh slice of Tea Brack, thickly spread with butter and, of course, a nice cup of tea at any time of the day? Some people like it with lemon whilst others like it with sugar. Some like it with milk and many prefer it black. For some it cannot be strong enough. “Until you can trot ducks on it “, they say. “Weak will do”, others say, “I like to be able to see the bottom of the cup.”
I have always regarded the making of tea, the serving of tea and the drinking of tea the one thing that made the English noteworthy. I thought the introduction of the tea-bag dented that but still tea was tea and even though I don’t think of a pot of tea with a thread hanging out from under the lid as acceptable, many do. Though I could never really come to terms with a mug of hot water and a tea-bag bobbing around in it, at least it had the semblance of tea. For me tea must be of the loose variety, made in a pot which has been scalded twice and the water brought back to boil and poured, bubbling, spluttering and steaming, into the pot where it is left, under a tea-cosy if possible, for at least five minutes.
Imagine how I felt then on the Saturday morning of my visit when I came down to breakfast in my central London hotel which overlooked the famous Oxford Street and from which I could see Marble Arch. I knew I was going to have ‘The Great British Breakfast’ of course. But whilst I waited I eagerly anticipated my first cup of tea for that day in the great city and great land of tea drinkers.
“Tea or coffee”, the waitress with the Eastern European accent enquired.
“One tea and one coffee please”, I replied, taking control of the situation, in true macho manner, for my wife and myself.
“The tea is for me”, I added with a slight and secret sense of self-satisfaction.
She departed, only to return seconds later with two large stainless steel pots, one in either hand. She poured the coffee from the pot in her left hand and I didn’t mind because it was only coffee and coffee didn’t matter. Then she lifted her right hand and made to pour some of the contents of that large stainless steel pot into my cup.
“No, no”, I exclaimed, “I’m having tea.”
“But this is tea, sir” she said and went to try to pour it into my cup again.
“But I want it in a pot, please”, I managed to be mannerly despite my panic.
“We don’t do pots, sir”. She explained without any understanding of the effect this was having on me and before I could protest further she managed to pour the dead black tepid liquid which passed for tea into my breakfast cup.
Then she moved onto the next table, taking her stainless-steel pots with her. I closed my eyes momentarily and I saw huge breakers rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea and I saw the mainland of Britain slowly sink beneath the waves. I knew too that that part of the world which was once known as Great Britain was now, for as long as it existed, merely Britain. Britain, it was clear, had lost its greatness.
I received another package through the post last week. Just like the one I acknowledged a couple of weeks ago it was again sent anonymously. I don’t know why my “benefactor” wishes to remain anonymous but I would like to be able to say thank you directly. Comparing the writing, I believe it was the same person who sent both.
The contents of the latest package were about the late Harper Lee and included the eulogy delivered at her funeral by her friend, Wayne Flynt, Emeritus Professor in the Dept. of History at Auburn University, Alabama. It is a wonderful tribute to the author of one of the great books of the 20th century, “To Kill a Mocking Bird”. The eulogy is worth seeking out and reading and I’m sure can be tracked down on the Internet.
With it, my anonymous donor sent me a copy of a letter sent by the now deceased author to Oprah Winfrey in May of 2006, 46 years after the publication of her famous and popular novel, on the subject of reading and her love of books. I found it fascinating. Mainly because, I think, it reflected my own experience and that of my siblings as we came to learn to read, to choose books from the local library and to whet our appetites for knowledge by reading everything we could get our hands on from comic books to the classics.
All of this came to mind one night last week when I was watching a news programme on TV. The item featured was the 1916/2016 exhibition recently opened at the G.P.O. in Dublin. A young boy, I doubt if he was even yet a teenager, standing in front of a screen and a keyboard, was heard to say, “If you had to read that in books it would be boring.” I was astonished; to my mind the word “boring” never existed as long as there were books around.
The way Harper Lee described, in the letter, her background caught my imagination right away and the similarity to my own childhood experiences were striking. “In my hometown”, she wrote, “a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read.
Books were scarce. There was nothing you could call a public library, we were a hundred miles away from a department store’s books section, so we children began to circulate reading material among ourselves until each child had read another’s entire stock. There were long dry spells broken by the new Christmas books, which started the rounds again.”
In my hometown in West Cork, a couple of decades later, things weren’t quite as bad as that. Unlike Monroeville, Alabama, where the author was born, we had a library. The local newsagent in our town did stock a very limited number of books and we had a cinema. Some of us, however, had a problem that, it would seem, the Lee family didn’t have; we didn’t have access to much money, therefore buying books was out of the question and even the 4 pence for the cinema on a Friday night was hard enough to come by.
Before we joined the library, however, we had found another way to get our hands on reading material. The 1950s (and, perhaps, the 1960s too but by that decade I had grown out of them) was the golden era of the comic book. Those of us who had relations in America were particularly lucky because we would, from time to time, receive a small consignment of ‘Dell’ comics in the “Parcel from America”. Once we had them read we would set out on the ‘swapping’ trail.
Within a short time we became part of a regular group and we traversed the town with our bags of comic books to meet other members of our informal group for a swapping session. A couple of nights, at least, each week there would be a knock at our door – often while we were still at our dinner – or we would be the callers at some other door and an exercise in hard bartering would follow.
“Superman” was very popular. “The Lone Ranger” was a particular favourite of my own and everybody loved the Walt Disney characters. My late father would, of course, be an avid reader of them too and we would hardly be back home, or had closed the front door, when he would be rifling through our new acquisitions in search of his own favourites. I remember he was particularly fond of “Little Lulu”.
Different sorts of comics had different values and some that were printed in black and white only would have lesser value than some of the bigger American comics, especially the “bumper” issues. In hindsight, not only were we advancing our reading skills but we were learning valuable lessons in trading as well.
Before long, however, we graduated to membership of the library. We were lucky in that the local branch of Cork County Library was just around the corner – less than 100 yards from our house. Shortly after we became members it came even closer to us, to the upper floor of the Town Hall, almost directly across the street from where we lived.
During my time there were only two librarians, one in succession to the other. John O’Donoghue was the first one and even though he had a somewhat severe appearance he was, in fact, a kindly gentleman who couldn’t have been more helpful. Sometimes he would remember that we may have been looking for a particular book and when it was checked in he would put it aside, knowing that before long we would be in for our daily fix.
Maureen O’Leary followed him. She held the job for very many years and by the time she retired I was well gone from the town. Maureen was equally kind and as we grew older she would stretch the rules a bit and even though we weren’t quite old enough for the “adult section” she would allow us browse there and would allow us, provided she thought it was suitable, borrow from that section.
Sometimes we would visit the library more than once in a day. On a day when the school was closed we would be watching out for the librarian in the morning (or the early afternoon) and we would be across the road before the shutters enclosing the bookshelves were even opened. Then, unless the book was particularly a thick one, we would be back home and reading as quickly as we could so that we could dash across the street again, just before the library closed, to get another book for the night.
I made some mention of this in a little poem I wrote a few years ago. It is, I think, self-explanatory.
In my mother’s workroom
we vied with one another for space
on the ragbag in the corner
where we curled up on wet days,
taking second-hand heat from Santrys’ fire
at the other side of the wall.
There we soaked up second-hand ideas
from borrowed books
from the library across the road.
Second-hand books, so to speak.
The ragbag was filled with snippets
and remnants my mother had gathered
over her dressmaker years
when she shaped and sewed
her fashion creations of cloth and thread
and moulded us to her pattern.
Sometimes she rummaged in the ragbag
and a fragment of chiffon
from a society ball-gown
became the repaired pocket in the
local coal-man’s Sunday suit.
From that library we brought home books on every subject. My sister and I had less interest in sport than my brothers had and so reading became our most constant occupation. Even though they did participate in sport too my younger brothers were no less avid readers.
From that local library we brought home everything from “Treasure Island”, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, the various Dickens novels and even my own particular favourite to this day, “Wuthering Heights”. The adventures of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” had our imaginations in turmoil. In between we read “Billy Bunter”; “The Saint”; “The Toff”; the various adventures of the ace-pilot, “Biggles”; the teen-age detectives, “The Hardy Boys” and we ‘rode the purple sage’ with Zane Grey.
One of the few hard-cover books I actually owned was “The Opal Seekers”, written, I think, by Ray Harris and not to be confused with a book of the same name published in the 1990s. I know I still have it somewhere; the trouble being where to find it.
To quote again from Harper Lee’s letter, though I wouldn’t be as intolerant of computers and the Internet as she appeared to be: “Now, 75 years later (maybe a bit less in my case) in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.
And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up — some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.
Hi Ho, Silver, Away!