Tuesday 18 December 2007

Horror Street

The experience of Bean Thomaltaigh and I in two Dublin hospitals before and after the birth of our son four months ago confirms the general perception of the Irish Health Service. The medical staff were friendly, professional, and effective throughout. With few exceptions, clerical and administrative staff ranged from the incompetent, through indifferent, to downright rude. For an outside observer the combination of dire communication, pitiful information management, and lack of direction would be comic. For patients in long queues, often worried or distressed, it is nothing short of horrific. A few examples will suffice.

On the day of our three month scan at Holles Street, pregnant women queued standing on a stairway after first cramming through a tiny, stuffy prefab at the rear. We had seven separate interactions with five staff members, three of whom were clerical. We were asked the same set of questions four times (Yes, I counted). Is this your first baby? How many weeks? Have you diabetes? And so on. Then we’d pass to the next person who again started from scratch as if we’d just walked in the door. At one stage we filled out a form with all of these questions. No one wanted it later, they just kept on asking the same questions. A nurse pointed us down a corridor but there was confusion about which doctor would see us and where. During Bean T’s medical examination a woman burst in the door before anyone had time to answer her one-touch knock. So much for privacy. She then grabbed an enormous bundle of dog-eared files from a table. So much for technology. Thankfully we had no specific medical problems that day. Otherwise the warlike chaos would have completely broken us. As it was, like others, we just raised our eyes and sighed.

On the the night Bean T’s waters broke, while waiting in the foyer at Holles Street, a woman in the early stages of labour burst into the bleak Victorian reception area with her partner. The woman was breathing heavily and while in no immediate danger of giving birth, the couple expected to be reassured and directed towards some kind of hospital care. Instead a porter in a woolly jumper nervously asked “how often are they coming?”. When the woman said “every 10 minutes”, the man turned away and said “take a seat, you’ll be alright”. The couple looked at each other in bewilderment wondering whether they had arrived in a warehouse or the National Maternity Hospital.

A few weeks ago my son needed a lactose intolerance test. Bean T brought him to Crumlin Childrens hospital and provided the sample as instructed. As she headed out the door the receptionist must have noticed something was missing in the discharge forms. She shouted after Bean T “Come ‘ere, sorree, come ‘ere, ya need ta…”. So much for manners. Worse still, after weeks without word from the test Bean T phoned to be told in indifferent tones that the record of the test had been lost. Well well, what a surprise. Perhaps a dog-eared file was whipped out the window by a thieving breeze. When Bean T persisted, asking for a double check, she was eventually told that no, in fact the results hadn’t been lost, but there was insufficient material in the sample for proper analysis. We obviously weren’t going to be informed about this until we came looking. How utterly depressing. I really feel for those undergoing more serious testing or treatment in this gruelling environment.

These are but a handful of instances which back up the perception that the entire system is a shambles. Organisation, direction, and accountability are absent. Instead of compassion, patients get contempt, by the shovelful. For sure there are many decent people working hard at all levels. But whether through lack of resources, lack of moral, or otherwise, a culture of shameless indifference to the patient has taken hold. It really is the medical version of Fawlty Towers and it’s a national disgrace.

Thursday 13 December 2007

We Are All Smarter Now

I read an article in the New Yorker lately which showed how much smarter we are now than a couple of generations ago. Essentially a social scientist in New Zealand called James Flynn studied IQ test results from all over the world and discovered that IQs are rising by about 0.3 points per year. The rate may seem insignificant but the cumulative change over a few generations is striking. It means for example that the average 20 year old today is way smarter than his grandfather was when he was 20. Perhaps this seems obvious, but it challenges the entire concept of IQ and of how intelligence is measured. It was believed until recently that IQ measured an innate intelligence level, but this cannot be true: obviously humans cannot evolve a higher mental capacity over two generations. So what does IQ measure?

The authors of the piece cited the American biologist James Watson who landed himself in deep trouble recently for saying that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" as "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really." Even if tests show that Africans have lower IQ than Europeans, that doesn’t mean very much. It all comes back to the question, what does IQ measure?

The answer given in the New Yorker articles seems emminently sensible. How we process information depends on how we relate to the various parts of the information in our everyday life. For urban, educated people today, the relationship between dog and rabbit is ‘both are mammals’. For a 19th century farmer the relationship was ‘dogs are used to hunt rabbits’. IQ therefore, measures not so much how intelligent we are, but how modern we are. Innate intelligence is just one variable among many of which IQ results are a function. To conclude the piece drives home the point by saying “I.Q. measures not just the quality of a person’s mind but the quality of the world that person lives in”. It applies as much to the difference between the wealthy and the deprived in Dublin as it does to the difference between America and Africa.

Tuesday 4 December 2007

Tea or Coffee?

I love a coffee in the morning, but throughout the day I'm a tea man. Tea is more subtle - its flavours are slowly coaxed from the leaf by infusion while the essence of coffee is blasted from the bean by force. And tea is lighter and more refreshing. Listen to the hypnotic jingle of the stirring spoon: in tea it is high pitched, sprightly and musical; in coffee, monotone and serious. Tea is pleasure, coffee is business.

Of a heavy, tired morning, I simply need coffee. I like mine with lots of milk and just shy of being hot. I take large mouthfuls and swirl the liquid around my mouth, inviting the lactose and caffeine to contest their differences over my tongue. Lactose is a strong starter but the drug always prevails. The result is delightfully bitter-sweet. Best of all, the dutiful caffeine sets to work immediately. It conquers lethargy and defeats gloom, allowing colour to seep back into the office greys.

But if coffee is necessary to launch the day, tea is required to sustain it. A cup at three is the mainstay of my afternoon. On the odd occasion when I have to miss it, my whole day collapses. After lunch the lazy clock runs slow , and tea at three gets it moving again. On particularly long days a second cup is needed after 5 to repel the plodding soldiers of tedium.

At home tea is king because it can be made to perfection. Tea tends to get set in its ways and hates change. A new tea pot or an extra minute can destroy it. The pot must be scalded and I heat the cups as well to make sure. I give the flavours enough time to timidly emerge from the leaves and I pour each cup half way first and then top up in reverse order. This guarantees consistency.

It is easy to understand why the Japanese developed a ceremony based on tea. You see, making tea is a ritual. While coffee is individual, tea is social. It brings people together and kicks off the conversation "do you like yours strong or weak?". "Milk or sugar?". Before the first sip strangers are on talking terms.

In some ways tea feels older because, especially in Ireland, it came way before coffee. In that sense tea is nostalgic. When I think of perfect tea, served repeatedly throughout the day, I think of home. It brings me back to an earlier time. While the latte is unashamedly modern and chic, tea remembers tradition.

In coffee I have found a necessary acquaintance, someone to meet for a time to bridge the gaps. I have no loyalty to it. If I gave up work tomorrow, coffee might well be jilted too. But tea is a soul mate. It deserves - and gets - my respect. The passion is heartfelt. Coffee may well be a phase, but tea is for life.

Tuesday 27 November 2007

The Eyes of the Child

We adults often forget how different our world is from that of young children. We think their world is simple and their worries trivial. We forget that they are subject to many of the same emotions and fears as are we. The only difference is that we are often better equipped to deal with them. If we are to understand one another in our different worlds, we adults need to imagine the world as children see it, for they will never be able to grasp our world. A friend of mine, Tomislav, told me the following story about his childhood and his father. It is true to a word, save the name which I have changed.

Tomislav grew up in one of the huge, high rise estates in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. One year, when he was a little boy, he came home from school at the end of term and showed his father his results. He proudly handed his father the little slip of paper which showed he had made an average grade of 4, the second highest level. Without looking at the sheet of paper, the father praised the young boy and then made a promise. He promised to buy Tomislav a new bike the following year if he made an average of level 5.

Tomislav was thrilled and decided he really loved his father very much. He was now determined to work harder the following term. And he did. He wasn't a swot by nature but he imagined joining his friends on their bikes in summer as they rode away from the crowded, noisey estates, leaving behind the towers with their stairwells and shadows, and heading for the fresh breeze and open emptiness of the countryside. Now he began doing his homework before going down to play soccer in the street. He even revised for his exams, sometimes pausing during study to take an imaginary trip on the bike that would soon be his.

Tomislav did very well in the exam and almost cried with joy when he saw his average was 5. He ran the whole way home. His father took the piece of paper and asked for his glasses. He studied the little sheet. "But you only got 3 in Serbian and English" he said sternly, looking over his glasses. Tomislav was shocked, but managed to reply that they had agreed an average of five. "No, no" the father said "five in each subject, the average is nothing". He took off his glasses and said "but next year you can get five in everything". Tomislav felt his little heart retreating in his chest. He went to his room and cried until no more tears would come.

Tomislav never again told his father or anyone else about his results. Nor did he ever tell anyone about the broken promise.

Years later, when Tomislav had grown up and had children of his own, his father fell terminally ill and was confined to bed. Tomislav was at his bedside and they were reminissing about his boyhood and how his father used to bring him up river to bathe on the banks of the Danube. And how they enjoyed going to matches at the stadium nearby. Then Tomislav recounted the bike story, and how it broke his young heart. His father began to cry, then burst into sobs as his son finished the story. Tomislav had never before seen his father weeping so inconsolably, and he flung his arms around the old man and hugged him tightly.

Wednesday 21 November 2007

Primal Snobbery

What is that thing within us that makes us strive to feel we are better than our neighbours? What is it that burns inside, driving us to compete with others? Which urges us to plough a huge part of ourselves into the endless race to show the superiority of our taste, our children, our capacity, our worldliness?

Whatever this force is - let's call it our 'primal snobbery' - somehow it thrives in our post-industrial, supercapitalist society. When our material needs - food, shelter, security - are met, all else is relative. As productive capacity passes a certain point and if certain structural (democratic?) properties are present, capitalist society falls into a hierarchical state where all members lie on a relative scale. In this condition, our entire purpose in life is to move up the relative scale. But it is not merely to move, but to be seen to move, for primal snobbery is not just about acquiring a level, it's about acquiring it with swagger.

Thinkers such as JK Galbraith and Fred Hirsch have said that when we enter the 'primal snobbery' state, that is, when society has for the most part met the material needs of its citizens, our focus shifts from the desire to enjoy social and public goods to the desire for what economists call, positional goods.

Positional goods are products (and services) whose value is mostly, if not exclusively, a function of their ranking in desirability in comparison to substitutes. The extent to which a good's value depends on such a ranking is referred to as its positionality. [wikipedia]. Ownership of these goods are markers of ones position in the social hierarchy. The location of one's home, branded handbags, or a table at a michelin restaurant are examples. So too are the size of one's car, the school attended by one's children, and where one goes for holiday.

Economists are increasingly concerning themselves with the issue of happiness and collective welfare. (In some ways this is a return to base. In the 19th Century thinkers such as John Stuart Mill debated the concept of utility). Many have come to the conclusion that our current obsession with the production and consumption of positional goods does not in fact increase our collective welfare. In fact, over time, it may even decrease our welfare.

An example is owning a house in suburbia as opposed to the crammed city centre. Once the status value of moving to the burbs became established, it became essential for middle class people to acquire the positional good. It's not that they needed the space materially, they wanted it as a status symbol. The herd followed the primal snobbery instinct and made its way to the burbs. Soon the burbs became crowded and their residents still needed to work in the city. The result was commuter chaos because, obsessed with the need to acquire the positional good, no-one prioritised the public good of transport infrastructure. In the end, as people sat in traffic, their net welfare diminished.

Here too is an example of market failure. The fact that my usage blocks the road for others is an externality. I'm only one user, "I won't make any difference". The benefit to me is living in the burbs, and the cost of the painful commute is borne by all users.

'Primal snobbery' then can triumph over the collective will in ways which reduce the total welfare. Clearly there is a good argument to rebalance society and the underpinning economy so that public goods are given more weight. This would involve an admission that part of the problem is the priority given to positional goods over public goods by way of reduced taxes.

Ironically, a better provision of public goods - such as schools, cancer services, and trains - would make a huge material difference to our lives. Yet we are loath to surrender the tax reductions which have allowed us to gather a plethora of positional goods in the form of status symbols. Unfortunately, we cannot have it both ways. If we really want better public goods, we need to control our 'primal snobbery' and forgo just a few of our status symbols.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

The Blue of the Night

The Blue of the Night is a wonderful evening program on Lyric FM. I'm not sure when I started listening to it first, but I think it was when my girlfriend, now my wife, moved to Japan in the late 90s for a year with work. I began listening to radio again, something I hadn't done for years. Back then I listened to two things - Tonight with Vincent Browne on Radio 1 and The Blue of the Night on Lyric. The first of these disappeared a few months ago (funny enough I was an audience member on one of the last shows before I knew it was coming to an end). Today I learned that the presenter of The Blue of the Night, one Paul Herriot, has also moved on. I had suspected it for a while - there has been a long series of stand ins for Paul over the past few months. He would only present the show about half of the time. I was kind of waiting for the bad news. And it is bad news. I will use first name terms here for a voice I feel I know so well - Paul's voice is smooth and calming with a hint of the North about it. On The Blue his every word was intoned especially for the pillowed ear. There was always just enough emphasis, or even playfulness, to make you want to hold back from sleeping for another track. And here was the main beauty : Paul played a delightful selection of triple plays that took us from the renaissance to modern jazz. From innovative trad to English folk. It was Paul who introduced me to Jacques Loussier who plays Bach with jazzy improvisation. To Liam O'Flynn the finest living piper. To Kate Rusby the sublime Celtic-English folk singer. To the magnificent harp strings of the great Andrew Lawrence King. And dozens more. This was always sweetened by occasional plays of my other favourites such as jazz scatter Kurt Elling and standards from Davis to Simone. Wonderful wonderful music. A serene and delightful way to retreat from the world at end of day. But alas, Paul has moved to a daytime classical slot. The voice of Carol Corcoran takes over at the Blue. Corcoran is another Lyric gem and I'm sure the Blue will continue to surprise and delight.

Thank you Paul and all the best.

Oh and that's Kate Rusby there in the pic, not Paul :-)

Cold November

Because Autumn was calm and mild
Cold November took me by surprise

I wriggled my fingers on the handgrips
to deter the nibbling frost

That is surely when it fell
My gold ring among the golden leaves

Monday 12 November 2007

Has Rural Ireland a Future?

On a recent visit to a rural area in East County Galway I had a conversation with a local about how things were going in their part of the world. Not too bad, was the initial response, quickly qualified by the remark that "we didn't see much of the tiger down here". Can this be true?

Below is the text of a short piece I wrote about a year ago, in which I claim there are certain black spots in rural Ireland which have some of the characteristics of deprived city areas.

It is difficult to believe, but a particular kind of poverty flourishes in pockets of rural Ireland. It's the kind of poverty that cannot be detected by purely material indicators such as disposable income, access to housing, or the availability of food. Communities which suffer from it are identified by unusually high levels of the social problems that are common in the deprived areas of our cities : teenage pregnancy, poor educational achievement, functional illiteracy, alcoholism, marital breakdown.

These are communities where, through lack of education, many people find it difficult to fill out a census or a tax form; they are not good at finding out about and applying for their entitlements such as college grants or tax rebates; they find it hard to communicate their problems to councillors or TDs. People in these areas are frustrated that they are disconnected from the rest of Irish society. And a worrying contempt for authorities and institutions has taken root: the guards, the tax man, and the government are not merely criticised but despised.

One handicap that affects people in this unhappy state is the inability to recognise the root cause of the problem: lack of education. Often, they fail to encourage their own children to stay in education as long as they can. I know several parents who actually persuaded their kids to leave school early! The result of such blindness is more early drop-outs and another dysfunctional generation. It's a kind of "capability trap": people don't have the capability to identify a way out, and their children will inherit the same problem.

I know for sure that the problem I describe afflicts parts of the Border and West region (I hate the term BMW for poorest region in the country). And I know that nothing is being done about it. In cities, where deprivation is more concentrated and more extreme, government projects have to some extent started to make an impact. But the deprivation in rural areas lies below the radar and is not detected, let alone tackled. Local government is mainly concerned with the big towns - where single projects can make an impact at the polling booth. The parish and the small village are forgotten.

This matters because these communities are paralysed and dependent. They cannot muster the ability to act together, to agitate for a better school, to organise events for the children, to tidy the village, or to light it for Christmas. Instead they curse the authorities and ask why the magic "they" cannot do something about x or y. A culture of reliance has taken hold in these communities. In a connected world they feel cut off; in an era of mass communication, they are voiceless.

All this is troubling because it happens at a time when rural Ireland needs innovation, energy, and solidarity to fight for its very survival. In many parts this is happening, but certain black-spots have fallen into what are akin to rural slums. And it is sad too that so many people are not enjoying a much fuller life in one of the richest countries in the world.

I stand by my remarks but please note that I emphasised "black-spots" and "certain areas". Like the city, development in the country is very uneven and the ability of a particular community to latch on to the coat tails of the tiger depends on many things from local employment prospects (which vary greatly between say South Donegal and the outskirts of Galway) to community leadership.

I am convinced, however, that for the most part residents of rural Ireland have enjoyed the fruits of the celtic tiger just as plentifully as their city cousins. Remarkably the comment from the Galway resident flies in the face of the visible transformation in the community where she resides. Perhaps it's an Irish trait to play down one's fortunes. Or perhaps there is a sense of collective amnesia about the state of rural Ireland 15 or 20 years ago. Either way, apart from the blackspots I mention, rural Ireland has changed utterly since the beginning of the boom.

The most solid evidence is jutting out of the landscape itself - a proliferation of new houses. Regardless of your view on one-off housing, the fact is that until the recent decline in output, about 17,000 of them were being built per year. In rural areas and on the outskirts of villages every second or third house you see is not just new but huge as well. Typically there are five or six en suite bedrooms, numerous living rooms, and the de-rigeur conservatory. Stone finishing on the front has also become fashionable.

These new homes are a sign that prosperity has made it to the greener parts. They are a sign too that people are placing faith in their rural origins. The dramatic difference in price between city and country means that these magnificent homes often cost less than a basic terraced dwelling in Dublin. Yet the people I know who built new homes in a rural area near where they grew up were not merely trading proximity to urban life for square metres. They were moving home because they genuinely want to live there. Rural life remains attractive to many for the slower pace, the sense of belonging, the space, the family ties, and the strong sense of community.

Dig deeper and more evidence emerges. Some rural bars have succumbed to the tougher driving rules and changing drinking habits, but many are resilient and are being sustained by car sharing, local minibuses, and the growth in the surrounding population. A generation ago, these bars would have been empty apart from over Christmas, when emigrants returned from London or the States. Now they are vibrant on a Saturday night in November.

GAA clubs are thriving. New facilities abound in parishes across the country. Churches have been refurbished. Villages are competing in tidy towns competition or 'pride of place' initiatives. Rural schools shrank in the 80s, then consolidated, merged, and stabilised. Many are now growing. For contrary to a popular perception, the population of Rural Ireland is growing not shrinking.

Like many industrialising countries, in Ireland the percentage of rural dwellers declined rapidly, but it seems to have stopped at about 40%. There was little change in that percentage between the census of 2002 and that of 2006. Since overall the population grew substantially, this means that the rural numbers grew as well. (we currently have almost 1.7m rural dwellers)

Despite the concerns about the sustainability in terms of energy, transport, and other services, the single dwellings continued to dot the landscape in large numbers. It's a reality we are going to have to live with.

The big question is employment. Many rural areas have been sustained by small farms, which are still in decline and are likely to disappear in greater numbers when the current round of Eu subsidies is renegotiated in 2013. Another high employer is construction and its derivatives - from builders to decorators, from ironworks to stonemasons. This too is on the cusp of a downturn. Furthermore, as manufacturing declines, work in the mid sized towns may be harder to find, particularly for those who are not well qualified.

Already many in rural areas are commuting long distances - up to an hour behind the wheel on the way to work in a city or town. Even middles size towns now have significant rush hour traffic.

Rural areas need to do more to diversify their income base. Tourism, heritage, and high end food production are among the alternatives now being explored, but these remain underdeveloped in many areas. One example is South West Donegal. Recently big employers such as multinational Hospira or the famous clothing company, Magee, have shut down or offshored most of their operations. In a region blessed with a stunning landscape and coastline, the tourism industry remains curiously understated. Services there are pitiful. Public transport is skeletal and broadband is available only in patches. So much more could be done.

All things taken into account, I think rural Ireland is thriving and crucially a new generation believes it has a future. They now need to persuade our city-centric government to give them the tools to build that future.

Tuesday 30 October 2007

Music for Patriots

Relax, close your eyes, and listen ....

A young man in a farmyard is screaming, begging for mercy. The dark hearts surrounding him reply in expletives punctuated by thumps. Now, in perfect sync, the yelps keep time to the thud of metal on flesh. Then, the whip of nailed cudgels attenuate the wailing. Body music carries the movement - a sinew tears from kicking, a bone cracks under iron, and flesh sucks the puncturing nails. Towards the end of the performance, a diaphram-gasp, as life itself is chased from the body.

Friday 26 October 2007

I gCuimhne ar Shéamas Mhicilín Ó Cualáin (1923-2006)– Múinteoir agus Cara

Chuir mé féin aithne ar Shéamas Ó Cualáin i bhfómhair 1992. Sa dara bliain in Ollscoil na Gaillimhe a bhí mé san am agus rún agam freastal ar ranganna Gaeilge. Ní raibh agam ach Gaeilge lag agus chuir sé imeagla orm bheith ag dul isteach i rang nach mbeadh ach an Ghaeilge á labhairt ann. Chuaigh mé chuig an chéad rang le mo chroí i mo bhéal. Séamas Ó Cualáin a bhí ina bhun.

Cé gur labhair mo mhúinteoir nua go breá soiléir, bhí deacrachtaí agam é a thuiscint in amanna, de bharr a laige is bhí mo chuid Gaeilge. Ach bhí stíl ar leith múinteoireachta ag Séamas a chuir ar mo chompórd mé gan mhoill. Faoi cheann roinnt seachtainí bhí mé tugtha don Ghaeilge agus níos fearr fós bhí cara nua ar m’aithne.

Ba chumasach agus b’éifeachtach an múinteoir é Séamas. Bhí plean leagtha amach aige do na ranganna i gcónaí is bileogaí úsáideacha réidh aige. Dhírigh sé a aird ar cibé lochtanna a bhí ar chumas an fhoghlaimeora. Ní ba thábhachtaí fós ab ea an caidreamh a bhí aige leis na mic léinn. Bhí meas ag daoine air cionn is gur thuig siad go raibh eolas a cheirde aige. Ach thar aon rud eile bhain daoine sult as na ranganna. Idir scéalta grinn agus chuile chineál diabhlaíochta, bhain sé gáire as a chuid daltaí i dtólamh.

An bhliain dar gcionn thosaigh mé ar an Dioplóma sa Ghaeilge. Bhí Séamas ag teagasc in Áras Mháirtín Uí Chadhain, An Cheathrú Rua, ar dhianchúrsa a bhain leis an dioplóma sin. Le himeacht na haimsire d’éirigh mé mór le Séamas.

Thugainn cuairteanna air ina theach cónaithe ar an Spidéal. “Glór na dTonn” a thug sé ar an teach atá suite ar an chladach ar bhruach an tsráidbhaile. Bhínn ag súil go mór leis na cuairteanna céanna. Nuair a bhí sé i mbarr na sláinte, chuireadh sé fáilte romham ag an doras agus é gléasta go slachtmhar. Thráchtamar ar chuile chineál ábhair – cúrsaí polaitíochta, stair na hÉireann, agus ar ndóigh, cúrsaí peile. B’iontach an bród a bhí aige as imreoirí na Gaillimhe – peil agus iomanaíocht, cé go gcreidim gurbh fhearr leis an pheil í gcónaí. D’fhreastail sé ar na ‘trí cinn as a chéile’ a bhain na Gaillimhigh sna seascaidí. Ach b’iomaí uair a thug sé cuairt ar Pháirc a Chrócaigh roimhe sin, agus dar fia, b’iomaí uair ina dhiaidh. Bhí spéis ar leith aige i liathróid láimhe, cluiche a d’imir sé féin ina óíge, agus de réir mar a thuigim ba bheag nár bhain sé craobh na hÉireann nuair a bhí sé i mbarr a réime.

Nuair a chuireadh sé tús le caint is le scéalaiocht ba dheacair stop a chur leis! Is iomaí bus soir ón Spidéal a chaill mé cionn is gur fhan mé ró-fhada ag éisteacht leis. Bhí tíomaint aige an uair sin agus thabharfadh sé isteach go Gaillimh mé sa ghluaisteán dá gcaillfinn an bus. Roinnt blianta ina dhiadh sin, chaill sé an cumas tíomana, ach shiúlfadh sé amach chuig an gheata i gcónaí le slán a fhágáil liom.

Fuair mé cárta Nollag uaidh chuile bhliain. ‘Céad slán le Béal Átha Seanaigh mar ar rugadh is ar tógadh mé’ a bhíodh scríofa aige ar chlúdach na litreach. Leagan Gaeilge de dhán Allingham. Is i mbaile dúchais an fhile seo, Béal Átha Seanaigh, a chuaigh mé féin ar scoil. Bhíodh nathán ag Séamas do chuile ócáid.

Bhuail tinneas é cúpla bliain ó shin agus chuaigh sé in olcas i dtús shamhradh na bliana a chuaigh thart. Chuir mé scairt ar an chréatúr tamall beag sular bhásaigh sé agus bhí sé soiléir go raibh sé ag fulaingt. Ní raibh an greann le cluinstean ná an fuinneamh le mothú.

Chuir sé brón ar mo chroí nuair a chuala mé gur shleamhnaigh sé amach ar shlí na fírinne ar an 26ú lá de Lúnasa na bliana sin. D’fhulaing sé cuid mhór sna míonna deireannacha, ach choinnigh sé leis go cróga. Fear cráifeach ab ea é - rud, sílim, a chuidigh go mór leis nuair a theip ar a shláinte.

D’fhreastail mé ar a shochraid ar an Spidéal – bhí cónaí air faoi fhad urchair chloiche den Séipéal. Aifreann álainn a bhí ann. Bhí pobal mór i láthair, idir óg is aosta, idir lucht na Gaeilge is lucht peile, idir iar-mhic léinn is iar-chomharsana. Aithním Séamas go cruinn i bhfocail an tsagairt le linn a sheanmóra: fear uasal agus fear dílis, fear a roinn a chuid eolais agus a chuid ama, go fial flaithiúil. Chuirfinn féin cúpla focal leis sin: greann agus daonnacht.

Tar éis an aifrinn, siar linn go mall go dtí reilig an Indreabháin áit ar leagamar ár gcara i gcré Chonamara. Tá an suíomh go hálainn - cois farraige ar bharr cnoic. Má tá saol eile ag spiorad Shéamais, faoi mar a bhí ag na mairbh i scéalta Uí Chadhain, beidh sé lán sásta ag amharc amach ar chontae an Chláir is ar na hoileáin Árann is é ag éisteacht le Glór na dTonn.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Monday 22 October 2007

A Word to the Shy

I have always been shy. I remember at primary school the teacher used to occasionally ask a few children to come to the top of the class to read out their homework. I hated it. For a few seconds the teacher's gaze floated round the class like a searchlight. I would do everything childishly possible to go invisible for what seemed an eternity. Mostly I gasped in relief as another name was called, but occasionally my own name rang into the head like a siren. My heart accelerated as I walked, warm-collared to the top of the class, all eyes piercing my back. Then from the ankles up, as I turned to the class, I filled with heavy dread as a million faces appeared in front.

Secondary school was worse. I felt like an outcast because I was the only person from my primary school who went to the Christian Brothers school. Timidity is to making friends what amputation is to long distance running. I found it hard to break into established groups. As Autumn turned to Winter I used to grasp the radiator by the window and watch forlornly as the other boys enjoyed a game of soccer cum horseplay in the yard. One boy told me later that he had thought I was a haemophiliac and that this must have been why I stayed inside at breaktime. Eventually, however, I got used to this particular group of boys and I slowly turned silences into short conversations which grew into acquaintances. It was as if, over a period of about 6 months, I gradually faded in from a previously invisible state. Of course, this didn't mean I had become confident. It meant, however, that I felt alive, acknowledged, present, accepted. As the years went by my confidence grew, but only at school. Academically I was one of the brighter students in the class, and I think this helped blow off the cloud of inferiority which had enveloped me in the beginning.

While I mastered my self-doubt at school, however, I remained shy inside, and infuriatingly timid in any new environment. It would often feel like being more or less back in the first few days at school. This is exactly what happened at college. The same pattern applied. Shy and withdrawn at first, then slowly moving out of that horrid introverted shell.

When I would start a new job, again I'd spend the first 6 months as a shadow. Moving about in obscurity, forever listening but saying little.

Those who are assertive and confident probably don't understand the burden that shyness places on those who toil under its cruel yoke. The shy person makes the best point of the meeting a dozen times - but only in her head. All the while the cocky waffler is clocking up credit for merely opening his mouth. Eventually someone who is modestly clever clinches the bonus points by saying what the shy person knew but couldn't bring herself to air. The shy person leaves the meeting feeling defeated and robbed of the acknowledgment she deserved. And all this is often accompanied by a tinge of self-loathing for letting another opportunity, the millionth, pass.

A shy person accepts the shortest straw, settles for the smallest room, gives gratitude where none is due, responds to arrogance with submissive silence, gets paid less than the crank, misses the sweetest opportunities, fails to pluck romance when it dangles ripe before him, and always, always regrets his inability to change.

Where does shyness come from? The experts reckon it is partly environment and partly hereditary. This sounds like the long winded way of saying, we don't know. But I personally back the genetic theory. My father is deeply diffident. His unassertiveness has become a legend in our family. Probably his biggest fear is the prospect of being refused something he asks for. His defence is to never ask. If his daily bread depended on him having to ask for it, as opposed to work for it, we would have starved! I hasten to add, that in all other respects he is a wonderful man and an excellent father. But did he inherit this complex from his father too? Undoubtedly. My grandfather was known locally as being 'very civil'. Which meant he was submissive and incapable of protest or public anger. And I think that inability to make one's anger public, especially when justified, is another form of shyness.

But stop, you brash assertives! You are asking why on earth can we not just "get over it"? Well, if it were that easy, there wouldn't be many shy people left. How many of us are there anyway? What percentage are we, 10, 20, 30? One study suggested above 40%. How different would the world be if we were suddenly to change. If we, the shy, were to hurl our demands firmly and confidently on the world, perhaps life would be a much more contested space. Or, perhaps our addition to the collective quest for better and for more would help push out the boundaries of human endeavour. Who knows.

One thing is certain, though. Society offers us little help. Perhaps we are too timid to ask! But maybe it's just that shyness is not recognised by society as the real problem it surely is. I am tempted to think that a huge chunk of the population live, to varying degrees, diminished lives because they cannot overcome their timidity. If that is the case, our failure to help the shy is both a tragedy and a terrible waste.

Over the years, however, I personally managed to drag myself in from the shadows. In part a reserve of confidence began to build up naturally within me. And in part I made a deliberate effort to kick off the shackles of timidity. For example, speaking in front of a crowd remained for a long time the most fearful thing I could imagine short of being trapped underwater. Eventually, however, I summoned the confidence to take public speaking classes. It turned out to be a crucial turning point in the evolution of my self belief.

I am now quietly confident in most situations, though at times, in a moment of weakness, little pockets of doubt creep in around my feet. Perhaps timidity, like an addiction, is so central to our being that it cannot be cured, merely managed and overcome. But that's ok. For even if the destination of unshakable self belief is unattainable for the shy, the journey towards it is worthwhile. If you are shy, it's a journey that just must be made and it will take you through fertile valleys and over rugged peaks to horizons you could only imagine but never visit.

Friday 19 October 2007

The Myth of Choice

David Quinn has begun to worship a new deity: choice (Indo 19th Oct). At the centre of this creed is the belief that choice should be the core value in society. That is why it teaches that it is sinful to curtail the freedom of parents by not expanding the private school system.

Proponents of 'choice first' claim they believe that the market mechanism delivers the optimum results. Open it all up, they say, and the market will work its miracles. Have faith, they beg, and the market will apply the magic of its invisible hand to lead us to salvation. Social ills such as inequality, poverty, and misery are the price we must pay for the promise of freedom.

But like most religions, 'choice first' is a sham. In the promised land, happy parents choose their school like picking a new car. In reality, under an extended private system, parents have no choice at all. Your children will be schooled in the best school you can afford. If that means the free one, so be it. And if you are rich, you choose the best school. How can this be choice when there is no decision to be made?

When we try to reach them, the Arcadian fields, where contented children sing and frolic, recede into the mists. Choice is a myth and is no more than a clever way to dress the divisive tyranny of the market in the garb of freedom.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

A Blue Note

I always considered myself a lover of jazz - not all jazz, but certainly the standards. I would include some less mainstream genres among my favourites - scat, electro-jazz, a touch of fusion. But I'm not a jazz cat, not an aficionado. Which must be why a recent concert by a big name left me utterly baffled. Without giving too much away, let's say the artist's name rhymes with Pain Torture. I had listened to, and enjoyed, some of this saxman's earlier work. He was billed as one of the greatest living jazz-men.

In the theatre before the gig I was buzzing with excitement: this would be a treat. The Torture Quartet appeared on stage to a burst of applause. A silent anticipation fell upon the hall. The odd string was plucked, the piano man tapped a key. It was ten minutes into the first track when we realised this was too long for a sound check. I got that sinking feeling that the wanton dissonance would continue for the duration. And it did. Now I love improvisation, innovation, new sounds. But this was naked randomness. A sax note here, a piano chord there. I forced myself to try to get it, but I drew a musical blank.

The tracks were brutally long, over half and hour - and it felt like more. And no amount of facial contortion on the part of the bassist can make me like his ten minute solo. Then the sonic masturbation - a handful of improvised notes, repeated over and over and over. But alas, no climax.

I found only comedy in the ridiculous courtship between bassist and pianist as the one echoed the other's simple phrases ad nauseam. There seemed to be an idea of working towards unity near the end of marathon-long pieces, but for me it was mostly a jarring dissonance. Time and again the drummer smashed a more delicate movement with a sudden, frenzied attack on his kit. And then he'd relax and smile: I wondered had he reached a higher level of being, or was he merely revelling in our bewilderment. At one stage we had entered a state of inharmonia so perplexing that I wondered if four people, wholly untrained, would produce a sound more forgiving on mind and ear.

When Mr Torture refused to play a least one older, more palatable track to relieve our suffering, the odd punter began to file out of the hall. At the end of each long, cacophonous track, there was indeed a certain amount of one handed applause - but surely more out of relief or sympathy than appreciation. The whole experience was, well, torturous.

End to Fee Paying Schools

I welcome Minister Hannafin's decision not to provide state funding for any further fee-paying schools. It is true that capping the supply of these schools while demand rises will drive prices up and enhance the elite status which these schools already enjoy. Since there are so few of these schools, however, the distortion which they apply to the principle of equal opportunity is very limited.

The consequences of an expansion of the system are far worse. If private schools were to become as widely used as private health insurance, then half of all students would attend them. This would result in a very stark and widespread divide between those who can afford private schooling and those who cannot. Every community in the country would have its own little enclave of snobbery.

Worse still, people all across the country would be struggling to get their children into these schools. In effect, the private fees would be an additional tax which you could pay for extra quality - if you could afford it that is.

Another factor would come into play. For a whole set of complex reasons, children from poor backgrounds get less support in the home for their studies. And they rarely get the opportunity for grinds. These children would be schooled in the public system. Clearly a two tier system would emerge. This would be morally wrong, economically wrong, and bad for communities.

A perplexing question is why the Education minister is blocking the emergence of a two tier system while her colleague in Health is pressing ahead with precisely such a system. Have we two governments or one?

Monday 15 October 2007

HSE Cuts: Right or Wrong?

When the HSE announced cuts in its budget a few weeks ago the media went into overdrive. Health is always a great story - particularly if it gives the papers a chance to put the words patient and suffer in the same headline. In all the hsyteria, the real issues around the HSE cuts got very little coverage.

The first is that the HSE has genuine issues around its budgeting. Apparently it always works off a yearly budget which means that it is very hard to smooth out a the demand function which varies a great deal from season to season and also from year to year. Then there are random spikes - say a flu epidemic or just by chance a clustering of demand for hip operations.

Demand is easier to predict in say houses because the economic model for doing so can be soley based around the price signal. If taxes decrease or wages go up, demand will increase, and so on. And trends in these drivers are easier to establish.

But no granny I know chooses to slip off the chair when hanging up the curtains. And I cannot recall an of my relatives deciding to go into cardiac arrest : it just happens. These are events that happen randomly. Over a certain time period a distribution appears to take shape, but the volume on a given day or month is bursty with peaks that often jump far from the average. It's like watching traffic on the M50. You know that statistically 3000 cars per hour will pass. But it's hard to predict how many will pass in any 10 second period.

Similarly with illness. And so the HSE definitely should not be working to a yearly budget but perhaps a 3 year budget. Perhaps some aspects of the budget might even have a 5-year envelope.

Even so, the HSE needs to put better systems in place to help predict and manage spikes in demand. But the media aren't interested in such mundane matters.

The second issue relates to the fact that even if the HSE had better management, certain hospitals would overspend. In these cases the HSE cannot, as the media and many punters would have it, simply write a cheque to cover the increased costs. It is a plain truth that any system will sprout further inefficiency if its managers know that when it overruns, it simply has to shout for more.

Anyone who has seen work practices in our hospitals knows that, to put it kindly, we need to work on efficiency. This can never happen unless the HSE stands firm against demands from hospitals which have overrun their budgets. If they do anything else, the cost base will run off the graph with no real return to patients.

This is not a debate about the overall health budget - that is another matter. And as Mary Harney has pointed out, it is often difficult for the person in the street to understand the complexities of managing the biggest single orgranisation that the state runs. We are talking about a hugely diverse complex system that consumes a budget of 14 billion and which employs over 100,000 people. It is massive.

But sadly the media will do little to help bridge any gap in understanding. The last item I saw on RTE had a clip of Mary Harney with a voice over about the cuts. There followed contributions from hospitals, health employees, patient focus and finally a typical opportunistic response from FG - all with an interest in opposing the cuts. But no HSE spokesperson. No objective media analyst. In short no debate about health, merely alarm about cuts.

The Death of the Irish Language II

The CSO have recently published the results of the Irish language portion of the 2006 census. The total number of people who claim they can speak Irish has increased a little though the figure has decreased as a percentage of the population. I want to comment however on the numbers relating to daily use of the language.

In particular I will dwell on the numbers who speak the language daily outside the education system. I think this is a valuable approach because those who use Irish inside the education system are doing it to earn either a living or a diploma which, in my opinion, is a vast misrepresentation of the state of the language. (In fact that's why the Census people decided to make that breakdown to begin with).

The figures show that some 53,471 people in this state speak Irish on a daily basis outside the education system. That's 0.4% of the population. If you can draw a positive picture from this figure, you must have followed a very different stats syllabus than I did. To me, this indicates that the language is hanging not by a thread, but a micro-fibre. It's beyond me how the Irish language body, the government, and enthusiasts of all sorts can pass over this figure without rushing to the belfry to sound the bell.

Looking at the figures for the Gaeltacht is scarcely a cause to raise our glasses either. In the Gaeltacht 17,687 people speak the Irish daily outside the education system. That's less than 20% of all Gaeltacht residents. Surely it's time to question the entire Gaeltacht policy if more than 80% of residents don't really speak the language daily in any meaningful way. The tax payer funds Gaeltacht programs to the tune of hundreds of millions per annum yet no linguistic cost benefit analsysis is ever attempted. Even if we agree that the government should fund the language at all, surely the money could be better spent elsehwere. At the very least the whole Gaeltacht project needs to be reassessed or reformed.

Looked at another way, a full two out of every three people who speak the language daily outside the education system now reside outside the Gaelteacht. Why then does the Gaeltacht deserve special status? A status which has singularly failed to stop the decline of the langauge on the western seaboard.

These figures, however shocking, will draw no debate. One reason is that the government doesn't want to be seen to offend a reasonably powerful Irish langauge lobby. And second, perhaps more important is that the said lobby willfully ignores the parlous state of the language. It is as if the movement is afraid to take that first critical step towards introspection, afraid to peer into its own soul, afraid perhaps to take a look at all, terrified that when it does there will be no soul to inspect.

Thursday 4 October 2007

Musical Journey : Short Version

I went to post a short reply about a review of indie-poppers Los Campesinos over at disillusioned lefty and the music I'd listened to over the years wanted to tell its story. The orignal poster lauded the screaming of Los Campesinos and I felt compelled to identify. I only had time for a snippet, a comment. Perhaps the LP version will come later! Anyway, here's the comment in full:

I know where you're coming from with the "fringe, erratic screaming". My musical journey began with Iron Maiden's Piece of Mind. In their live material, I used to love Bruce Dickinson screaming at the top of his voice on songs like the Prisoner or Run to the Hills. From there I moved to bands such as Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine - both genre-making. But my journey was always conventional, never straying off the track into the harsh fringes of heavy rock. I used to loath death metal. I found it morbid and repetitive - though with hindsight much of the stuff I liked was the same in milder form. Along the way I detoured through softer indie stuff like the Happy Mondays, though to be truthful, it wasn't music led me to down the path to the Happy Mondays but a rather innocent and badly handled teenage crush. There was nothing happy about it, but that's another story.

I think I was growing out of all my old stuff when my musical journey was altered abruptly when a flatmate bought Kind of Blue, the Miles Davis standard. It was like I had just entered a new world. It hastened the retreat of metal from my musical life - but I still like the odd screamy anthem. Whatever about lyrics or musicality there is something envigorating about the high octane, energy-driven, racy vibe of heavy or alternative rock.

But I grew into jazz like nothing else. Jazz for me was less transitional. It runs deeper. It holds. Of course the world of jazz is as varied as life itself, but my favourite genres are scat, electro-jazz, and perhaps a touch of fusion. And of course, the standards never go away.

My favourite artist is Kurt Elling - best known for his scat and vocalese. His voice is rich and grainy and he has a bewildering tonal range. In live performances during an extended scat, he sometimes seems entranced, wholly absorbed in and carried away by his own harmonics, and then he hits the top, in a controlled but sustained scream, and just then some chord vibrates deep within me, as if something layed down years previously has suddenly been touched.

Bad Teachers : Part I

"Dóchas Linn Naomh Pádraig" I sang, hopelessly out of key. Whack. Another smack on the bottom. "Your people all had music. Start again" my teacher growled. This was about 1981 and I was in second or third class.

My teacher, let's call her Mrs Heavyhand, was unspeakably incompetent. The amount of learning that she imparted in the three years I spent in her chaotic classroom was almost nil. She spent most of her time literally running after her pupils in a caper that was mostly comic, but often violent.

The central plank, so to speak, of her teaching practice was the stick. Her arsenal was formidable. The standard issue was the ruler, mainly used for minor infringements such as talking. Next came the metre stick - employed with ferocity for any act of throwing or shouting and against noted trouble makers at the back of the class. Her nuke was the broomstick. She called on the broom-shaft for general breakdowns of order and to punish capital offences such as fighting or climbing on desks.

Many parents were aware that Mrs Heavyhand was both violent and incompetent. And a few parents were bold enough to complain to the parish priest. But their protest fell on ears that were as deaf as they were conservative. Nothing happened. Mrs Heavyhand continued to ply her brutish version of Irish schooling until the day she retired, by which time hundreds of children had passed through her boorish and incapable hands.

In all her time she taught a single but valuable lesson: Ireland must find a way to deal with bad teachers.

Monday 1 October 2007

Irish Books III: Leabhair Ghaeilge III

Bit by bit I'm gathering a better picture of the world of Irish language publishing. The latest figures I have concern the total number of titles published in Irish per annum. The figure is 130, of which 50 are books for children. These figures tell us a few things.

First, the number is pretty small. I found it hard to find a figure for the total number of books published in Ireland (checked CSO, national lib, ClÉ, and other sites). I found an EU chart which showed titles published per capita among a list of about 18 countries. Ireland was absent. But if I took the lowest EU figure, for Greece at .4 per 1000 population, and extrapolate for Ireland I get roughly speaking 2000 titles per year. I picked the low figure because a recent discussion in the Irish Times revealed that we publish a much lower number of books per person than the Eu average. The reason is the UK. Many Irish books get published by UK publishers (there's an interesting discussion going on at the moment about why Irish publishing houses are losing so much ground to their UK counterparts). We consume perhaps more books per head than other countries, however. And it is reasonable to assume that when books published in the UK but sold here are accounted for, we at least match the EU average for titles going on sale per year. That would take us to at least 10,000 titles per year. (probably still a conservative estimate - the UK is way over 100,000 per year). So of our 2000-10,000 (conservative) titles released in ireland per year, fewer than 200 are in Irish. Surely this says something?

The second thing is that nearly 40% are childrens books. Given that the king of Childrens books, the UK, boasts no more than 10%, the figure for Irish is extraordinary. I believe it says more about the dearth of adult reading than it does about our childrens market in Irish. Though on the positive side, it does show that children may be getting their needs met.

So that leaves us with 80 titles for adults. Now remove the self-referential works - i.e about Irish language, learning materials, etc, which hold a bloated position in Irish publishing. Again, this is natural for a minority language and one heavily promoted / compulsary. (for an indication of the self-referential phenomenon visit the front page of the rather excellent on-line Irish language shop, litríocht.com. Five of the six featured titles are about the Gaeltacht, Learning Irish, or Irish usage).

What remains then is a minute number of titles, fact or fiction, published in Irish for adults about that vast mysterious thing called human life. In other words, Irish language publishing is in a parlous state. But the only irish word that captures this state of affairs, namely géarchéim, never gets uttered. Where is Bord na Leabhar Gaeilge?

I argue that the dearth of literature, research, analysis and debate through Irish, on anything from from Climate Change to Crossdressing, bolsters my case that we have no national discourse in Irish. No separate world view is represented in the language, and therefore its claim to be culturally central to who we are is vastly inflated.

And yet I know these words, far from spark a potentially useful debate, or even a single opposing argument, will do nothing but draw sparks from the live wire of blind fanaticism that runs through large parts of the Irish language lobby.

Thursday 27 September 2007

Chores : is this life?

Why are household chores so excruciatingly horrible? Like most people I just hate chores. The sight of a wash basket makes me creep. When I'm putting out clothes I try to rush it in order to minimise the duration of the experience.

The thought of some chores hurts something deep within my being. It's as if I'm mopping the floor and asking: can this be life? And rather like a life sentence in prison there is the added tyranny of repetition. "I'm washing this floor now. I will need to wash it again. And again. In fact this cannot end until I get rich (the equivalent of escape from prison) or die".

Some tasks are bearable: the dishwasher isn't so terrible, it's more like bad sex - in, out, done. But most are devastating. There are few sounds in any home which distress the ear more than the scream of the hoover. It seems singularly designed to torment. For chores of any length, like mowing the lawn, I sometimes wear an ipod or portable radio. But the hoover kills that angle for soothing the mental pain. It allows no escape.

Ironing too is annoying, but my solution there is a combination of buying clothes which don't require much ironing and learning to live with the crease. My wife and I have an agreement that we never iron anything for one another. We detest it equally and think it unfair to ask another human being to do it on our behalf. The other chores at least have the merit of being for mutual benefit.

Dusting is a particular abhorrence of mine. The returns seem so pitifully small against the effort of lifting and shifting so many little fidgety items that you passionately feel aren't needed anyway. I eagerly await the invention of the dusting machine and I envy those with wives who are committed minimalists when it comes to ornamenting the living room. Photos should remain where they belong - in albums. You know, there really is no need to display all of those birthday cards. And what about the little shells and a million other little uninteresting things which I cannot even name.

Nothing though, but nothing is as bad as the bathroom. As you plumb the depths of un-enjoyable activities, cleaning the bathroom is, if you pardon the pun, at the bottom. It stinks. After donning the gloves and wielding the horrid brush, who would not be humbled. At a certain dark level it can be a positive experience, for somehow, the bathroom reminds us of the fragility and arbitrariness of what it means to be human.

Instead of an obscure tract called "Being and Time", I wish the German Philosopher, Heidegger had given us a tome on coping with the angst of household chores. He might have called it "Being and Toilet".

Monday 24 September 2007

Poll Dubh sa Chíbear-spás!

Is fada na réaleolaithe ag caint ar dhúphoill (réalta marbha a bhfuil an domhantarraingt chomh láidir orthu is nach féidir leis an solas féin éalú amach uathu). Dá dtéadh duine isteach faoi thionchar na domhantarraingte seo, ní thiocfadh sí (nó sé) amach chuiche. Níos measa fós, fiú amháin dá mba rud é go raibh an té sin fós ina beatha ní bheadh sí in ann scéal a scaipeadh amach chugainn - ní éalódh aon chomhartha raidió ón dúpholl. Ar bhealach, tugann an dúpholl meafar réaltach dúinn don bhás féin.

Ar an chaoi chéanna, creidim féin go bhfuil dúphoill sa chíbearspás. Agus is éasca go deo titim isteach iontu. Titim féin isteach intu go minic. Ní bás an choirp a bhíonn i gceist ach bás an chroí. Bás na meanma más mian leat. Seo an chaoi ar tharla sé domsa.

Tá clár raidió ann gur breá liom go deo é. Gorm na hOíche atá air. Éistim leis go mion is go minic. Tosaíonn sé ag 10.30pm is leanann sé ar aghaidh go dtí 1.00am. Meascán de cheol clasaiceach, de shnagcheol, is de cheol traidisiúnta a bhíonn ann. Ach na rianta roghnaithe ag Paul Herriot agus iad roghnaithe go snasta. Éasca agus álainn ar an chluais. Bíonn an nua ann agus an sean. An rud coitianta is an rud iontach. Tugann Herriot leis thú ar thuras ceoil. Ar thuras anama. Ardítear do chroí in amana. Uaireanta eile bíonn brón uafásach an tsaoil ag cur imní ort. Ach tríd is tríd cuirtear go mór leis an eispéireas saolta in do chroí istigh.

Is iomaí uair a chuala mé Paul ag léamh amach teachtaireacht a seoladh chuig an chlár sa ríomhphost. Fáilte roimh cheist ar bith a bhaineann leis an cheol ar seisean, ní go hannamh. Sheol mé cúpla ceist. Bhí mé ag fiosrú píosa ceoil éigin a d'ardaigh mó chroí. Ach freagra ní bhfuair mé. Uair eile, sheol mé ceist eile. Tada.

Uair eile, bhain mé sult as clár iontach spóirt ar RnaG. Thug mé cuairt ar an tsuíómh idirlíon le tréan áthais le buíochas a ghábháil (agus ceist bheag a chur). Dhoirt mé amach an méid a bhí i mo chroí faoin chlár seo. Chuir mé mo mothúcháin ar fad i bhfoirm focal is sheol mé iad go sásúil. Ach freagra ní bhfuair mé.

An rud céanna le ceisteanna a sheol mé chuig fiche comhlacht eile, idir áisínteachtaí stáit is chomhlachtaí príomháideacha. Tada. Ní hé sin le rá nach bhfuair mé freagra ar bith riamh - ach go minic thit mo chuid iarrachtaí isteach na dúphoill dhamánta úd.

Céard a tharla? D'imigh na ríomhphoist ó mo ríomhaire féin i bhfoirm leictron. Amach ar na sreanganna i dtreo croí-lár an chíbear-spáis. Ach áit éigin ar a mbealach thit siad faoi thionchar dúphoill. Dúpholl cíbearspáis. Tarraingíodh isteach iad agus tá siad i sáin anois in adamh, áit a mbeidh siad go deo na ndeor.

Nach iontach is nach trua é go meallann an teicneolaíocht sinn is go ngéillimid go soineanta. Cuireann sí snaidhm ar ár gcroí, is tarraingíonn sí isteach muid. Spreagann sí ár n-aigne is meallann sí ár gcroí. Agus dóirteann muid amach ár mothucháin go léir, agus súil againn go mbeidh duine éigin ag éisteacht. Ach cur i gcéill atá ann - mar tá an dúpholl ag fanacht, amach sa chíbearspás.

An chéad uair eile a scríobhann tú litir leictronach ag scaoileadh imní nó lúcháir do chroí, cuimhnigh go bhfuil tú mar a bheadh spásaire ann, ag titim isteach i ndúpholl agus í ag scairteadh ina diaidh.

Thursday 20 September 2007

Taoiseach Abducted!

In a dramatic development in the Mahon Tribunal today, the Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern confessed that he had been abducted by Aliens. In the face of tough questioning from Tribunal Lawyer Des O'Neill, Mr. Ahern went motionless and his gaze floated to the middle distance. Mr O'Neill pressed Ahern asking "why did you as Finance Minister take bags of cash from businessmen in the 90s?". Mr Ahern became confused and stammered "the aliens". An incredulous O'Neill interjected "I'm sorry?". "The Aliens" Mr Ahern repeated, still dazed. "They made me do it" he continued. A stunned public gallery heard Mr Ahern tell the full story of his Alien abduction.

It was a Saturday, in early November 1993. Mr Ahern had won 200 quid at the races after backing a horse called CJ's Boy. That evening he popped over to Fagan's to buy a few rounds for the locals with his winnings. The craic was good so Bertie gulped a few more pints of bass than he should have. He left just before closing and staggered off up the Drumcondra Road.

He wanted to hail a cab but desperately needed to relieve himself. He stepped into a side alley and unzipped. As he finished he noticed a strange eddy whirled about him blowing the weeds in a magical dance. He felt funny. Not nauseous or drowsy, just a funny sensation in his chest and a tingling in his limbs. He thought it was a bad pint, but just then, after zipping, he turned towards the road and saw the Orb. A bright, shiny orb floated before him. He was stunned but somehow, not afraid. It was twirling. He was enveloped in silence. Then a surge of ecstasy rushed through his body as the orb neared and brightened, closer and closer, until it touched his mesmerized forehead.

Mr Ahern recalled how he awoke in a bright room. He thought he was in Beaumount hospital. He must have had an accident. Then he saw the Orb. He felt paralyzed, and faintly afraid. He tried to look around when a humanoid approached. Ahern was seized by a terror that he hadn't felt since the heaves against his former Boss in the 80s.

The humanoid quickly injected his captive with a yellow serum which banished his fear. Mr Ahern recalls that he now felt comfortable. He said he was confused and may have asked the humanoid if this was a Fine Gael set up. He couldn't recall an answer.

The alien then explained that his planet, Yehguah, was being destroyed by LICE - Ludicrously Implausible Currency Exchanges - and he had come to earth to find a cure. All over his planet political leaders were neglecting their duties in order to indulge their addiction to wads of cash. Most of them had become entirely consumed by their obsession with currency that they were prepared to rubber stamp any proposal, no matter how preposterous, if it came with an envelope of cash. Then they would rush off from one bank to another converting the sum into ever decreasing bundles of foreign exchange. They would change the money hundreds of times, sometimes frittering away the entire sum in commission.

Not even the greatest minds on their planet could cure this contagious and utterly destructive pathology. But they had identified a neuro-virus, FF77, which seemed to be the cause.

Mr Ahern's kidnapper told him that life for his people was now miserable because infrastructural projects were built at random, instead of linking up. Great Bridges spanned over perfectly flat, dry plains. Railway tracks criss-crossed the landmasses, but there were no trains. Magnificent highways were built that lead nowhere. Giant housing projects sprouted miles from shops or factories. Vast new hospitals lay overstaffed but under-equipped, while old ones were overcrowded and understaffed. Nothing it seemed worked right anymore.

Desperate for a solution they came to earth. And their high powered Gene Scanner found that certain members of Fianna Fáil might be immune to FF77. If only they could provde it and identify the gene. They would test Mr Ahern's resistance to LICE by injecting him with minute amounts of FF77. If he didn't develop the full blown pathology, he might be their saviour.

They would pre-progam a number of businessmen to inundate him with brown envelopes for apparently no reason. And friends would show up with cash for houses which hadn't been bought. The idea was to see if Mr Ahern would question the gifts. His kidnappers fervently hoped that he would, so that his genes might be a clue to save their civilisation.

And so he was returned to earth and the experiment began. He woke up at daybreak, in the alley near Fagan's. He brushed himself down, but felt exhausted (they told him later he had travelled a thousand light years) so he skipped over to St Luke's to nap.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Two years later he was abducted again in similar circumstances. He had tried so hard to suppress his previous experience, by tucking it back with other hidden traumatic memories, that he had almost forgotten. But here again was the orb, the lights, and his alien abductors.

They told Bertie in downbeat tones that the experiment had failed. He wasn't resistant. He had accepted the cash. Left, right and centre. No offers were refused, no matter how the circumstances seemed to breach normal ethical codes. Worse was to come. They told him that he had developed an advanced strain of the disease, which they called Accute Monetary Amnesia. Not only had he ran around the banks changing currencies, but of this he had retained only the vaguest memory.

The aliens would now have to continue their search by visiting another planet. As for Bertie, he would be released unharmed in Drumcondra. But there remained a risk that he would spread the horrid contagion to others and that earth too would succumb to the misery which ravaged Yehguah.

A silence fell on the hearing room as Mr Ahern concluded his story. He bowed his head. A handful of supporters in the public gallery began to applaud.

Wednesday 19 September 2007

Standards in Public Office Commission Ok With Ahern Cash

Apparently the SPOC has stated that it finds "no basis on which to initiate an investigation [of Aherns cash payments] under the Ethics in Public Office Acts 1995 and 2001." Their statement was short and came without explaining why.

As I wrote in a previous post, the wave of public interest in political integrity has long washed over. In its wake it leaves nothing but apathy and indifference towards the whole question of ethics in office. This is why the opposition parties covered their eyes during the election campaign when Bertie's cash story reached farcical levels of implausibility. And I suspect that the SPOC have noted the public pulse on the issue and have decided they too just don't want to go there.

For it is indeed extraordinary that SPOC have nothing to say about a finance minister who received bags of cash from a businessman a few days before he expected to become Taoiseach. The most common line you hear in the street about Ahern is that he is as dodgey as Haughey ever was. Personally, I don't think that is anywhere close to the mark, but it illustrates that his actions, and his lack of clarity surrounding them, have undermined public confidence in Irish government.

How can the SPOC remain silent when the code of ethics which they are established to police says this:

1. Members must, in good faith, strive to maintain the public trust placed in them, and exercise the influence gained from their membership of Dáil Éireann to advance the public interest. (my emphasis - clearly Ahern in breach)

2. Members must conduct themselves in accordance with the provisions and spirit of the Code of Conduct and ensure that their conduct does not bring the integrity of their office or the Dáil into serious disrepute. (my emphasis - clearly Ahern in breach)

11. Members must co-operate with all Tribunals of Inquiry and other bodies inquiring into matters of public importance established by the Houses of the Oireachtas. ( through selective amnesia, changing his story and holding off info, clearly Ahern in breach.)

The allegations against Ahern aren't that he did favours for money. But they do compromise his own integrity and that of the office he held. Yet he can joke about Man U tickets at the Tribunals, turning the whole thing into a charade,

But SPOC are holding their counsel. They know that after a brief spell in retreat after Beef and McCracken, the Irish weakness for the odd wink and nod has grown back like a noxious weed. . Something in the Irish pysche renders us immune to the argument that effective democracy requires transparency and integrity. Some little fault in our hearts leaves us with an incurable soft spot for cute hoors and brass necks - precisely the kind of vermin that are thriving again in Mayo, Tipperary, and, in all probability, the very core of our political system.

So SPOC, please. When you return to your offices tomorrow bring a stash of boxes, and pack up your files and your gear, for you are wasting your time and, worse still, our money.

Airline Economics at Dublin Airport

David McWilliams has observed, both in the Indo and in his new book, that Dublin airport is remarkable that it is a place where all classes mix. Rich and poor, both are there sharing the same endless queue. In fact, this phenomenon is typical of airports in all developed countries. The more interesting question is why is this the case? Why has the air transport market not adapted to customer preferences for varying quality levels at different prices?

Some might argue that in fact that this has already happened. There are business class seats and airport lounges for those who pay more. But for short routes many airlines, such as Aer Lingus, have dropped business class entirely. The success of low cost airlines has pushed the likes of Aer Lingus to streamline and mimic their rivals. Why then has the low cost, no frills option been so successful?

Is the air travel market mostly made up of individuals whose primary concern is price? Clearly this is not the case. Mr McWilliams talks of rich and poor at the airport. The wealthier travellers are what economists might call infra-marginal consumers, who would be prepared to pay a higher price than the current market price if they could be guaranteed a higher quality of service.

For short trips, however, the key component of higher quality of service is not a free meal but a service which avoids painful delays at the airport. The trouble is that the level of service would have to be guaranteed, not sporadic. Many of the factors which cause delay -- bad weather, air traffic control, busy runways, badly run airports -- are outside the control of the airline.

Worse still, the spillover effects from other less punctual airlines can hurt an airline which tries to do better. Another factor is that the higher load rates and higher aircraft utilisation, pushed to the limit by low cost operators, mean there is less availability in the system to 'borrow' a plane when one of your own fails. All of these mean that an airline would need to bloat its costs significantly to attempt to provide a better service.

An airline which differentiates itself on punctuality would have to market itself as such, but owing to factors outside its control, it couldn't really guarantee a better service. The market will not tolerate a high end product unless it is consistent. In the end, therefore, the Airlines revert to the no frills model and everyone is bunched together. Hence the extraordinary diversity on view at Dublin airport.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

"Sonnano Kankeinei" arsa Bertie-san

Sonnano Kankeinei is a Japanese term I came across in a New York Times article about the Japanese prime minister who has resigned amid allegations of financial misdeeds. It means "so what? I don't care". It struck me as perfectly apt for the attitude of certain other premier who was asked about the money he admits taking from businessmen in the 90s. Far from acknowledging the damage done to his democracy by cash flowing from business to ministers, the PM in question, said if he'd known it would cause him so much grief he'd have preffered a few season tickets to his beloved Man U. No hint that he saw what was wrong in principle, he went on to ask, what was a few tens of thousands to a finance minister anyway? His way of saying Sonnano Kankeinei.

Friday 14 September 2007

Pleaaaase Wrap up these 'kin Tribunals

For a long time I was a fan of the Tribunals. I was in the camp which claims that, though costly, these fora are purging our democracy of the vile blight of corruption. But as the Mahon Tribunal gears up to celebrate its 10th anniversary on 7th November, the twin burden of fatigue and disillusionment has gotten the better of me.

First it was beef. Goodman. Burke. O'Malley. Reynolds. Export Credit Insurance. Tax payers money effectively flowing into Goodman's Pockets. Then it was planning. Then it was communications. Later it was the Gardaí. Then it was planning again. McCracken, Mahon, Barr, Moriarty. Dunne, Haughey. Remember all that?

And it went on and on and on. Meanwhile the lawyers laughed their way in and out of Dublin Castle daily, heaping one fortune upon the next. Thousands per day, even when they aren't around to do anything. And one Tribunal spawned another like some horrid bacteria. And still the Lawyers came, and spoke in stern tones, and laughed their way to even more extraordinary wealth than before.

The cost of these inane circuses is clear enough, it is huge. But the benefits amount to little or nothing. The political class, wounded for a while, has recovered its utter contempt for accountability and transparency. The initially reasonable Freedom of Information Act was gutted once confidence returned. Party funding went on the agenda then quietly slipped away. And the likes of Flynn and Lowry powered home to massive majorities. Bertie and his FF cronies have neither an ounce of humility between them nor a shred of integrity. And sadly, Tribunalled out, the public have given up and want nothing more of government than their taxes cut. So low was the public appetite for discourse around integrity that opposition parties looked away when the Taoiseach's money bags crashed out of the wardrobe a fornight before the general election. And now he's back dithering and forgetting and hesitating.

Even if Bertie Ahern did nothing wrong, and even if he was merely going along with the culture of the time, he could at least be expected to stand up and say, well, I did nothing wrong but I affirm my belief that integrity is central to high office and transparency is the lifeblood of democracy. As we move forward we will see to it that safeguards are put in place to prevent the kind of rot that has dogged our body politic in the past.

But the effectiveness of the Tribunals can be guaged by this: can you imagine those words being spoken by the man we have just elected as Taoiseach for the Third time? (yes I know we don't select Taoiseach but he was party leader).

In the final analysis, the real beneficiaries of the Tribunal were the lawmen, the media, and, more tragically corruption itself. For it will blossom now among a politcal class who knows that the Tribunals have defeated our embryonic attempts at pouring domestos into the political system. From here on, the scum can thrive.