Today in ‘Things I Wasn’t Invited To’

A quick post about The Irish Whiskey Awards: All of my internet friends were there, and yet somehow my e-vite failed to make it through the firewall on my dial-up Windows 95 PC. Ah well, I couldn’t have gone anyway as I had a previous engagement – sitting watching it unfold on Twitter whilst crying.

Here are the details:

Gold Medals for Jameson at this year’s Irish Whiskey Awards

Jameson scooped a number of gold medal accolades at last nights Irish Whiskey Awards. Jameson Black Barrel and Jameson Crested won 2 gold medals in the Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of less than €60) category and Jameson The Distillers Safe and Jameson The Blender’s Dog won 2 more gold medals in the Irish Blended Whiskey (RRP of €60 or more) category. Teeling Small Batch and Midleton Very Rare won the overall awards in each category respectively.

The Irish Whiskey Awards, which are in their fourth year, recognises the excellence and innovation from indigenous producers and distillers. The awards spanned a total of 20 categories, including recognition of the best in Irish gin, Irish vodka, Irish liqueur, craft beer and Whiskey Bar of the Year.

Ally Alpine, Managing Director of Celtic Whiskey Shop and the Irish Whiskey Awards, said: “Each year the Irish Whiskey Awards have gone from strength to strength and with over 100 entries to this year’s awards, it made the competition tougher than ever. We are proud to have this platform to showcase the very best in the industry.”

The winners of the Irish Whiskey Awards will be celebrated at Ireland’s premier whiskey tasting event, Whiskey Live Dublin in The Printworks, Dublin Castle, Dublin 2, on Saturday the 5th of November. The showcase will be divided into two sessions (13:30-17:00 and 18:00- 21:30), tickets are priced at €42 plus booking fee with the Celtic Whiskey Shop donating €10 per ticket to Down Syndrome Dublin. Masterclass tickets are an additional €5, with all money donated to Down Syndrome Dublin. Visit for more details.

And the full list of winners:

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And in related local news:

Gif reaction:


Seasonal affective disorder


The Dungourney river on its slow approach to Midleton.

As part of the Midleton food festival each September, there is a tasting in the Jameson Heritage Centre in the town. It’s usually a ridiculously cheap five or ten euro for four premium whiskeys – but the event used to be completely free. However, one year at the end of the tasting, a little old lady went around and poured all the leftover drams into a little plastic bottle. When confronted and asked why, she said ‘it’s for the Christmas cake’. After that, they started to charge. But it’s hard to argue with the lady’s common sense approach to all that leftover whiskey. To many, it is the Christmas drink – we use it to flavour the cake, torch the pudding, liven up our coffee or just warm the blood during the darkest season in Northern Europe. But what do whiskey drinkers in warmer climes drink? Well, one option is to have something from the ready-to-drink (or RTD) category; Jameson comes in a variety of pre-mixed variations in Australia, including Cloudy Apple, Raw Cola and this:


Because when you’re drinking in a desert, you need a little more than 35cl of hard liquor to quench your thirst. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Jameson would launch a whiskey in South Africa before anywhere else; but that’s exactly what they did with what we call Black Barrel, then known as Jameson Select Reserve.


Still known by that name in one of the big emerging markets for whiskey, Kenya, the spirit itself is a bit of an oddity, being a blend of pot still and mixed-mash barley spirit from a column still. You can read the full breakdown here on Liquid Irish. The Black Barrel tag came from the fact the barrels are double charred. The result is a sweet vanilla dram reminiscent, to my mind, of the more American styles. When I try to badger my wife into drinking whiskey, it is this I opt for – ‘it’s kinda like Jack Daniels’ I pitch. ‘Except it isn’t and it’s is a lot nicer’, I think to myself.

While the African market is a growing one for IDL, so too are almost all others – the distillery in Midleton may be capable of creating a vast array and amount of whiskey, but they need more space to grow. To this end, they recently bought a farm that lay adjacent to the site. It went to public auction, the previous owner having passed away. There is a full write-up on the Independent, which makes for interesting reading. Initially being sold in lots, IDL and one other bidder wanted the lot – and IDL, being a very large firm )with a substantial parent firm in the form of Pernod Ricard) won the day.

Some of the land purchased by IDL.

Some of the land purchased by IDL.

What is interesting is how community focused IDL they are; beyond being the best employer in the area in terms of salaries, conditions and general vibe, they also have engaged with some of the bidders to make deals on the smaller lots they don’t need – one of those being the GAA club, which is currently located at the other end of the town. Access there is a nightmare, whereas the land IDL have just bought has planning for a new access road – which would also take their deliveries out of the town itself.


When I heard the distillery bought a farm, I immediately assumed they were going to use it for grain for the microdistillery, or just as a lovely prop for the whiskey academy, but it seems more likely they will use it to expand their operations – and possibly also to create flood defences, as earlier this year there was extensive flooding upriver from their site. I’ve written about this before, and made the point that some people locally laid the blame on the distillery, despite it being there for four decades with no flooding. You can see from this video that some of the warehouses were affected, but also that the floods spread miles back along the river.

In fact, the area that flooded is the part of the site that is zoned for industry, so I’d imagine IDL have plans for serious flood defences before they start any new building work.

All of this tells you two things – first, IDL are important to the community here. For a small town like Midleton, this kind of employment forms its economic backbone. Without the distillery, we could have gone the way of Youghal – stripped of large businesses over the past 30 years, currently Youghal’s largest employer is the State-run St Raphael’s care home. 

IDL also support various community projects here, including the recently developed youth centre, something worth considering next time you hear someone droning on about the demon drink and how it is ruining society. 

The second piece of information to be gleaned from the farm purchase is that IDL know that they are going to have a lot of competition in the next ten years, so now is the time to flex those sizeable muscles and expand lines as well as the plant itself. I was in Scotland when I first heard about the new Green Spot expression, earwigging on a conversation between Sir Colin Hampden White of the ultra-lux, invite-only Whisky Quarterly magazine and Mark Gillespie of the ever-popular WhiskyCast, who were both off to the launch event the following week. The single pot still whiskey is finished in wine casks from Château Léoville-Barton, a merging of Irish and French cultures that appealed to me, as it was French monks from the Burgundy region who built the monastic settlement that later became the town of Midleton (update – this is massively incorrect; thanks again, Wikipedia. See comment from local historian Tony Harpur below). 

Green Spot Whiskey 2015

Green Spot Whiskey 2015

But there is another Irish connection here: Thomas Barton, of Barton & Guestier, left Ireland to find his fortune in Bordeaux in 1724, starting a shipping company there before becoming a very successful wine merchant. Barton kept his Irish heritage, buying Grove House, a stately home and estate near Fethard. Known as ‘French Tom’ to the locals – despite being from Fermanagh – the family are central to the history of the town:

Thomas Barton was succeeded in Grove by his son William. William Barton also played an integral part in the life of the local community, he was sovereign in the years 1816,18,19,21,23 and 29.He gave the site for the present Parish Church and also had greeted the public pump on the Square. The pump was being used up to the mid thirties. It became part of Fethard folklore when the rallying cry of old time Fethard football supporters was “Come on the two streets and a pump”.

So what of the whiskey itself – on the nose there is a little menthol, cut with green fruits, but with a real deep rich plummy note from the wine finish. On the palette there is a lot more of the traditional Green Spot tongue-smacking astringency and less of those velvety wine elements. The front is where it’s at, with a rich caramel flavour that passes all too quickly. I feel like I do about Green Spot generally – I like it, but I’m not going to sell my soul to get a bottle. At €69, this is a good whiskey – but not one I would be shouting from the rooftops about.

Redbreast Lustau

Redbreast Lustau

One whiskey I do shout from all surfaces about is Redbreast. When people ask me to recommend an Irish whiskey, it is the one I always fall back on – it was my first foray into the upper echelons of whiskey, and is one I will always have a special place in my heart for. So expectations are even higher for their latest release in this line, the Lustau Edition. Here is some press release:

Redbreast has introduced a new, permanent expression to its decorated Single Pot Still Irish Whiskey family; Redbreast Lustau Edition. Finished in hand selected, first-fill sherry butts that are seasoned with Oloroso sherry from the prestigious Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, Spain, this release celebrates the iconic sherry influence found throughout the Redbreast range.

Matured initially in a combination of exceptional ex-Bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks, Redbreast Lustau Edition has been wholly finished for one year in prized sherry butts from Bodegas Lustau in Jerez, the sherry capital of the world.

So what of this one: This has a real, rich fruit element to it that is fantastic – on the nose it has fruit and nut dark chocolate, sherry trifle, a hint of incense. Like they always say, Christmas cake in a glass – on the palette, beyond the stewed fruits, marzipan and lots of salted caramel brittle, but like all the Redbreasts this is just liquid silk. Incredible mouth-coating, oily gush with a snap, crackle and pop as the flavours go to work. I would still favour the 12, but that is simply that I am an ageist. One of the things I love about whiskey is the idea that you are buying time – this drink in your hand lay sleeping in a cask for a decade or more, and when you drink it you are consuming all those years, all that time. As I get older and ever closer to the inevitable maw of the wolf of oblivion, this is important to me; if I drink the waters of life, I want to know how many years I am consuming. Make it NAS and I just spend my time wondering how old it actually is (in this case, 10-13 years). That’s not to take from this whiskey – age statement or not, it is excellent. I’m not saying that the Green Spot is a child of a lesser god – I just prefer the profile of the Redbreast. Green Spot is lighter, to me, it’s a summer whiskey; great with ice or even a mixer. Redbreast is winter, rich food and warm fires, short days and long nights of sitting about like an especially lazy emperor, darkness and comfort. If I had to recommend one over the other, it would obviously be the Redbreast Lustau sherry edition, but bear in mind that this is the recommendation of someone who got drunk for the first time at age 12 on an especially potent sherry trifle, so my opinion may be skewed (and my brain damaged).

Thank you to the good people at Burrell PR for the bottle of Black Barrel, and the samples of the Green Spot and the Lustau.

Holy waters


As monks go, St Columba was pretty rock ‘n’ roll. A great-great-grandson of High King Niall of the Nine Hostages, he once started a war over a copyright issue and ended up narrowly avoiding excommunication by exiling himself to Scotland. He sailed past Islay, where Irish monks introduced distilling to the Scots, and set up a Christian outpost on Iona, from where he set out to spread his faith.

But he is also remembered for being the first person recorded to have an encounter with the Loch Ness monster. He came across some Picts burying a companion who had been killed by a ‘water beast’ in the loch. Columba ordered one of his followers to swim across the loch and bring back a boat on the other side – but the man was only halfway when a fearsome creature appeared.

Invoking the name of God, Columba formed the sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.”

The monster fled, but despite the fact that 1,500 years have passed since that account, and although Columba has largely been forgotten, Nessie’s legend shows no signs of diminishing. Loch Ness still seems a magical place, where the walls between our world and some fantasy kingdom are crumbling, where anything can happen. No wonder then that a family who have lived on the banks of the loch for 500 years have decided to try and capture some of the magic of its waters.


Lorien and Kevin Cameron-Ross, above, the founders and directors of Loch Ness Spirits, hand pick their own ‘black gold’ juniper and local botanicals from their land on the shores of Loch Ness.  They then combine it with the water of the glen to create the limited edition ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin. Just 500 bottles of the first batch of ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin have been distilled.   

Already an award winner, achieving a gold medal in ‘ultra-premium’ category and silver medal in the ‘London dry’ category of The Global Gin Masters Competition in June, ‘Real and Rare’ Loch Ness Gin was described by the judges as “A sparkle of juniper mixed with earthy angelica and aromatic pine blossom.”

Co-creator Lorien: ‘Inspired by a local gin tour and noting how rare and precious juniper was, we got to thinking about the juniper around us when we walked the dog at home.

‘It has been a steep learning curve and we have worked extremely hard to hand pick the juniper and other botanicals, but we have made it, and are desperately proud of the result.

‘The family has been working the rugged shores of this loch for 500 years and this is just the next stage in that tradition of working the land. I probably shouldn’t say this, but it could be the most delicious thing we have produced in half a millennium!’


So what of the gin – it has a freshness on the nose that I wasn’t expecting, a real light air of lemongrass, with hints of fresh-cut fennel bulb. There is a definite menthol element that really lines it up as a palate cleanser – citrus notes, but with a hint of brine. The mouth is definitely a big departure  – lots of cotton candy, a slight medicinal sweetness, leaving more of that initial citrus in its wake. A refreshing gin, served with too much tonic water and you might drown out some of the more hidden depths. I took this neat, then with ice, then tonic, and favoured a weightier measure of gin and less of everything else; like the beastie in the loch, it is an elusive sip that definitely needs more exploration.


As for Nessie, her enduring myth was revived recently by Ian Bremner, a distillery worker who took this photo:


Speaking after, Bremner said: “I suppose it could be seals – but I’m not so sure. The more I think about it, the more I think it could be Nessie” – proving that from St Columba to the Cameron-Rosses, all you need to make the waters of Loch Ness magical is a little faith.

A good death


Working in an emergency department changes the way you see the world. My nine months working in CUH ED taught me compassion and gratitude in equal measure, but it mainly taught me that my dad’s old adage of ‘your health is your wealth’ is tragically accurate.

After the first few months working there I realised my dad was an incredibly healthy man for his age – but I also realised that that could change in the blink of an eye. I saw older people full of life, suddenly laid low by a fall or a broken bone – there are no simple injuries at that stage in life. It meant decreasing independence and less freedom to do things like go on holidays. So I started badgering my dad to go on a holiday, telling him he needed to seize the day while his health was good.

In May he went to Lanzarote, and spent a week eating steak, swimming in the sea every day and walking a few miles to and from the beach. When he came home, he told me he had bought a tablet in one of those electronics shops the tour reps warn you about. I could tell he didn’t quite know what he had bought, or even why he had bought it. But the worst part was what he had paid – 1,000 euro for something worth about 50. He had been all over the world, and was a streetwise traveller, but had been ripped off in spectacular fashion on a sun holiday to an island he had been to dozens of times. That was the first sign that something was wrong. Soon his speech was affected, and he became quiet as he realised he was struggling to form coherent sentences. A trip to the doctor turned into a trip to hospital, where scans revealed lesions on his brain and tumours migrating from his lung to his ribs. It was the beginning of the end.

As your parents get older, you think about their passing more. I had always assumed dad would go in the blink of an eye, via a stroke, cardiac episode or falling into a lawnmower (he has a big sloped lawn). He had always claimed his family went quickly down through the generations. But his older sister died last year after a prolonged and cruel battle with cancer – so not everyone got such a clean exit. Her battle haunted him after his own diagnosis, how she wasted away to almost nothing, how her love of life disappeared as chemo ravaged her. But he knew that chemo meant more time on earth, so he opted to go for it. But by the time it came to deciding on whether to press ahead with treatment, he was too sick, weak and confused. They decided against it. As we left CUH the cancer care nurse told us he could stop taking the vitamin B injections. There was no need to be healthy anymore. We were in our last days as a family.

I had dropped everything – my wife, my kids, my job – to move in with dad. My family were due to move in, but we soon realised that he was too sick to be around us – with four children our family makes slightly more noise than a thermonuclear detonation – so we decided to wait. We knew it wouldn’t be long. The medics and carers all thought I was pessimistic when I said I would be surprised if he made September and that there was no way he would make October. But they hadn’t seen him in full health – they didn’t know the transformation, the toll it was taking on him, the shock of sudden illness after a life of almost perfect health. He was crumbling.

My time with him settled into a simple routine – I’d cook and clean, he would potter about from room to room, often becoming confused by simple things, or agitated by others. The steroids used to control the inflammation on his brain caused sleeplessness, restlessness and made a difficult situation even harder for him to process. They also exacerbated the shake in his hand, meaning he couldn’t write a letter, or even drink a cup of tea properly. Technology, never his strong point, became a complete vexation. One day the phone was ringing; I could hear him answering it, but it kept ringing. When I went downstairs to investigate, there he was, shouting ‘hello? hello?’ into the Sky remote. He became completely confused by mobile phones, portable landlines, TV remotes and even the electric shaver I got him for Father’s Day, a gift inspired by his inability to use a razor with the shakes in his hand.

He used to joke about being sent off to Dignitas if he started to go ‘gaga’, and here he was, struggling with the basics. He hated it – hated the dulling of his mind, the confusion. But he carried on and even tried to be optimistic about the cancer, telling me that he really thought he was going to beat it. I told him it was good to have a positive outlook. He also claimed his GP told him he had a year to live, and started telling people this fact, usually while I stood behind him shaking my head at them. Because they needed to know that he didn’t have long left – don’t put off calling up, we won’t be there long; don’t talk loosely about meeting up at Christmas, because he won’t see Halloween.

Living with him wasn’t all sweetness and light and Wonder Years-style dewey-eyed anecdotes about love and life; a lot of the time he simply wrecked my head. But that is one of the defining features of family – do they wreck your head? Yes they do. Are you still going to stay in touch with them? Of course, yeah. The inescapable irritation of the people who know you better than anyone. But for the most part dad and I got on fine, especially given that we hadn’t lived together for 20 years or more.

Having this time together meant we were able to talk about what he wanted when he was gone – specifically his funeral. He told me he wanted the cheapest coffin money could buy, one of those wicker ones if possible, or maybe a cardboard one. He also said there wasn’t to be any meal after, sandwiches at best. His reasoning for this was to save me money, but I joked that I was going to have a viking funeral on Garryvoe beach, complete with roasted venison and fireworks display. He was unfailingly generous to me throughout my life, but was frugal when it came to himself. All he had he gave to me – the least I could do was bury him in something that resembled wood. We laughed about all this stuff – what else could we do? As Voltaire said, life is a shipwreck – but we must not forget to sing in the liferafts. So we laughed when we could, and waited for the end.

Soon the cancer ate deeper into his ribs, and the pain got worse. At this stage we were in the care of the Marymount Hospice palliative homecare team, who decided that ten days respite in the hospice might help with pain management. Or at least, that was how it was pitched to dad. But I felt he wasn’t going to be coming home. He hated the idea – he wanted to stay at home, and – if possible – die here. But his medical needs were growing steadily, and my terrible lasagne and nightly pints were not going to ease the pain of a rib being ruined by disease.

At this stage, I was burned out. I had spent three months trying to be the strong one, ditching my wife and kids to care for my dad, feeling more and more like a stranger to them. It was like going through a separation, except without the Ukrainian girlfriend and Ed Hardy pyjamas. But this was my cross to bear alone – there was no one else who could or should have to do it. When my sister was sick, my parents cared for her; when my mother was dying from brain cancer, my dad cared for her to the bitter end; now it was just me left to be there for him. I’m lucky I was able to – if my career had been more stellar, if I lived farther away, if I had stayed the angry young man I used to be, I possibly wouldn’t have been able to do any of it. But I did, and I am proud to have done it.

Once he went into Marymount, he started to quietly accept that he wasn’t going to beat the cancer, or live a year, or see Christmas. In the space of three days he went downhill fast. His mobility decreased, mental functions slowed, and – perhaps most tellingly – his appetite decreased. This was remarkable because he always had a huge appetite, and also because the food in the hospice was great; in fact, most things in the hospice are great, including the Wi-Fi.

Cork people have this intense feeling for Marymount, because almost everyone has been touched by their work at some stage. When I worked in the Evening Echo we used to run a Christmas charity appeal, setting a target of about 70,000. One year we chose the Simon Community and we raised about 50,000. The year we chose Marymount we brought in 260,000, and people were still coming into the office in June the next year with bags of coins they wanted to donate. Marymount is how the whole health system should be – a place of peace, dignity, and incredible care. My dad’s time there was short, but memorable – one day I was there when the drinks trolley came round. He had a G&T as we sat in the corridor outside his room. You could hear the mood change along the halls as patients had a drink – the murmur of voices grew louder, there was more laughter, and for a while the future was forgotten.

Towards the end of his ten days of respite, he really began to wane. He asked for his friends to visit, and I called family and told them to bring forward their trips down. He had a gang of pals who used to meet in Midleton every morning after Mass and share a big pot of tea and all the gossip they could muster. They came to see him on the final Saturday; five of them  – all with various ailments – shuffled into the room. He opened his eyes, shook their hands, closed his eyes, and never woke again. They said their goodbyes, and a prayer, and left.

Dad’s breathing in those final 24 hours was ragged with mucous and secretions from the tumours. The nursing staff checked on him every 40 minutes or so, adjusting his medication and moving him in the bed so he would be comfortable. They made up a cot bed for me on the floor next to him, and I stayed the night. Convinced I would wake to find him gone, I was surprised to sleep soundly and then awake to the same ragged breathing. But in the morning as I lay there wondering what to do for breakfast, something changed – the ragged, rattling gurgles changed to quiet little gasps. Nine years ago I held my mum’s hand as she died, and listened to the same change in her breathing. I got out of the bed and sat on the chair next to his bed. The gasps got quieter. I sat on the bed and held him. More and more space opened between the gasps, as though he had stopped taking in air altogether and his body was just going through the motions. This was it – 85 years of life was about end. I put my head on his chest and let the grief devour me. He stopped breathing and that was it, he was gone. My safety net, my panic room – my one phonecall from a police cell, the person who would always catch me when I fall. This was the end of everything; all his years of life on earth, the incredible things seen and done, all now lost, like Roy Batty’s tears in rain.

I spent a good five minutes sobbing, drooling, snuffling and croaking incoherently. I knew that once I pressed the call button, the nurse would come and the great gears of mourning would clank into action – suddenly it would be death notices and coffin catalogues, prayers of the faithful and funeral suits. So he and I had those last few minutes, and no more. The nurse came and called it at 8:11.

Clonakilty in west Cork used to be home to a notoriously awful workhouse. When travellers would meet along the road and ask where they were headed, if the destination was Clonakilty, the reply would be ‘Clonakilty? God Help Us’. To my dad’s age-group, it is still known as Clonakilty-God-Help-Us. I used to say it to older patients in the emergency department when they were checking in, as it was a handy way of saying you had family links to the place. I’d meet people who went to school with my dad or one of his siblings, as Clon was a small place and everyone knew everyone else. But there weren’t many of that generation left, and those who were often ended up in emergency departments talking to me.

Clon always seemed like another world. I spent my holidays down there, nearly drowning in Inchydoney, getting nipped by lobsters in Ring, listening to my dad’s zany stories about the place: The WWII warplane coming down in the marsh outside the town, and the monkey mascot being buried behind the hotel, the airmen’s Lucky Strikes being passed around by the altar boys after one of them nicked a carton from his father, the local garda. Dad used to talk about the glory days of Clon GAA, usually cursing Nemo Rangers in the same breath, as he saw them as some sort of GAA Boko Haram, stealing away west Cork’s sporting talent with the promise of the (relatively) bright lights of Cork city.

After school he joined the bank and worked all over Ireland and had stories that ranged from the terrifying (from the North usually) to the ridiculous (everywhere else). He told me a while back that he thought money was a grubby commodity to be dealing in. I asked what he would do if he could have his time over again. He said ‘I’d like to own a pub’, before cheerfully adding, ‘but I’d probably be dead and broke’.

He was assistant manager of the BOI in Midleton, and I’ve met a few people over the years who told me they would wait until the manager was on holidays before they would go to my dad and get their loans and mortgages. It wasn’t that he was some feckless Anglo Irish style banker – he did the math, but he always wanted to give people a chance. He saw the best in people. He saw the best in me: He was ridiculously proud of everything I did. He kept a collection of cuttings from articles I had published, photocopying them and sending them on to relatives – even the one about getting a vasectomy. He believed in me to a level that was almost frightening – his faith in me was unshakeable.

A while back I wrote a piece about him and whiskey, and it ended up in this month’s Irish Tatler Man. I had hoped to show it to him, as the first piece I had published by the Irish Examiner was also about him and about whiskey. By the time I got a copy, he was gone.

He had 85 years of good health. He had his losses, and endured the tragedy of losing a child, and then losing his wife, but generally he had a good life. He loved us, and we loved him in return. He was a big part of our lives, a fact acknowledged by us naming our youngest child Daniel (although with four kids we had basically just run out of names). I joked with him in the days before he died that I was glad we had finally got around to naming one of our kids after him, but felt bad that it was the worst behaved one. Dad assured me he wouldn’t always be like that. Maybe he was thinking of me – a mess for half my life, and a slow recovery thereafter. Here’s hoping.

I feel sad, but I know that this is as good as it gets – someday I will face the same fate, and I hope my kids are as happy as I am in life, or that they love me like I loved him. Loss is the high price of love just as death is the high price of life. I’ve seen sad deaths in my work, the bodies unclaimed for a week. To be able to stand on the altar at a funeral and say ‘I love you and I miss you’ is a wonderful thing. Why would I want him to hang around? He hated being sick, and he had to go at some point – what sort of son would I be if I had tried to keep him here, to watch him wither and die just so I could put off the inevitable?

I’m still at the stage where the phone rings and I think ‘oh that’ll be dad’ or ‘is that him at the door’. Eventually I will accept he is gone. Life will go on. I return to work in a couple of weeks, not to the emergency department sadly, as I had to be replaced once I took leave. In the meantime I’m sifting through his life, reading his love letters to mum, finding photos of him with women whose names I will never know, trying to pull together all the loose strands of his time on earth so I have something to tell my kids about who he was. The best I can do to honour his memory is try to be a good dad and a good husband, because I only became a good son at the very end.

Dad loved the beach – all those childhood summers on Inchydoney left their mark on him. Even after mum died he still went south for sun holidays on his own, coming back with a camera full of images like the one above – blurry landscapes with nobody in them, save the odd thumb. Any time we would go to the Canaries together, he would invariably head off to the beach for the day, and lie there like an iguana. When I think of him now, it is like that – on a beach somewhere, with poorly applied suncream, ill fitting trunks and a faded Munster Rugby towel, dozing in the heat.

Dad left this world as he lived – gently, peacefully and with dignity. It was a good death. I miss him, I love him, and I am happy. 

Weapon of choice


What is a baseball bat? Is it a piece of sports equipment, used by athletes the world over, a symbol of the unifying power of team sports? Or is it a weapon, used by thugs the world over, a symbol of gang violence? Is it the embodiment of America’s national pastime – or is it something you use to smash a lackey’s head in, a la Al Capone in The Untouchables?


And speaking of being beaten over the head with a blunt instrument, this metaphor is pretty weak – but there is a better one.

The 21st amendment to the American constitution, passed in 1933, repealed Prohibition – the nationwide outlawing of alcohol – but some states still had the power to restrict or simply ban the sale of booze in all its forms. The last state to give up total Prohibition was Mississippi, which stayed dry until 1966. As a result, for those 33 years, alcohol was a hot topic for all Mississippi politicians. However, only one of them is remembered for a speech he gave on the subject.

Noah S. ‘Soggy’ Sweat Jr got his nickname from his mop of hair and its resemblance to the sorghum top, or sugar cane tassel, rather than his physical reaction to the oppressive heat of the deep south.  In his life he was a judge, a law professor, and, briefly, as a young man, a state representative in Mississippi. In 1952, towards the end of his term, he gave a speech on the floor of the state legislature concerning alcohol sales, and specifically whiskey. At this stage he was used to being badgered by the Prohibitionists (the ‘drys’) and the repeal side (the ‘wets’) to give a solid opinion on the topic, and had spent long enough wrestling with the subject to come up with one definitive stance.

What he said became known as the ‘If By Whiskey’ speech and it came to symbolise how difficult a subject alcohol is for public representatives to discuss, as it also captures how we can hold two opposing views at the same time. Here it is in full:

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

The speech is witty, poetic and moving. It sums up the pleasures and sorrows of alcohol and asks big questions about how we think about the issue – how often do you hear politicians talking about about the scourge of alcohol, as though the liquid itself was to blame? We talk about the negatives it as though ‘the drink’ takes control of us, like some sort of demonic possession, and exonerates us from any wrongdoing, and erases all choice we might have had in the matter. Yes, it diminishes our ability to make sensible decisions – but we choose to drink it knowing that. In fact, its ability to release us from the pressures of life is one of the things that makes it so important; but, like anything else that gets abused – drugs, food, sex – it does damage. It is in the abusing that all harm is done.

In Ireland we still wring our hands about alcohol abuse, despite the fact that our consumption of it is falling. According to Ireland’s Revenue Commissioners alcohol consumption in Ireland is down 25% since 2001 with consumption of beer and spirits down 40%.

There is always that moment of surprise when you see a table of nations and their alcohol consumption – we are rarely even in the top ten (it’s okay though, we are still higher than the UK).

So we are not the nation of alcoholics we sometimes like to think we are; booze plays a large role in our society, but that is changing. Consumption of alcohol in pubs is down 35 percent in the last decade. Against those figures, wine consumption is up, as we move towards drinking at home, a choice guided as much by the crackdown on drink-driving as it is by changing tastes.

There are bleating voices on both sides of the debate around alcohol – from the industry there is the usual cry of ‘blessed are the job creators’, as they roll out all the economic contributions they make to the State.

On the other side is the health campaigners, who bemoan the costs to our health service and to our society.

Like the If-By-Whiskey speech, both arguments are right – alcohol contributes huge sums to the economy, not least in taxes. Ireland has the highest priced alcohol in the EU, with the the second highest taxes on alcohol in the EU, according to Eurostat and the EU Commission. In 2014, the exchequer received €1.42 from every pint costing €4.64, (or 30.6% of the price) consumed in bars; €16.41 or 68.4% of the price of a €24 off-licence bottle of whiskey; and €4.50 or 64% of the price of a €7 off-licence bottle of wine. So it is already quite expensive to drink here, without even considering the flawed model of minimum unit pricing, itself a blunt tool that is effectively a class-based prohibition.

So taxes are high here, but the argument that ‘you can buy whiskey cheap in America so why not here’ is a facile one – try losing your job in America, or getting sick, or testing the state supports in any capacity before you praise their taxation regime. Booze has always been the taxman’s whipping boy – the very first tax ever levied by the American government was on whiskey, and it lead to what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. But the tax stood, and it was used to build their then fledgling nation. Taxes on alcohol are high in Ireland, but we have a high standard of living here – as someone who spent eight months on the dole last year, I was startled at just how generous the state was to my family and I.

Also, for the consumer to assume tax cuts would equate to price cuts is naive – particularly where whiskey is concerned, as like Stella Artois (before it went for sales volume over value), the average bottle of triple-distilled liquid silk is deliberately ‘reassuringly expensive’. And to those who say that the whiskey taxes are killing the industry here, the distillery boom we are seeing in the past four years show that high taxes on whiskey are no barrier to business.

So taxes are high, prices are relatively high, yet some people still drink too much – so how do you stop them? This is where the real issues surrounding alcohol come into play, and where Soggy Sweat’s words really ring true, because alcohol, like the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, is an angel to some and a demon to others: It all comes down to choice.

National drug and alcohol policy is often based around the broad premise that substance abuse is about pleasure, rather than pain, or rather the escape from pain – subsequently, legislation often deals in broad strokes, such as minimum unit pricing or curfews on sales. These laws are a simplistic way of dealing with an incredibly complex issue, because – as pointed out in Ken Burns’s masterful documentary Prohibition – you cannot legislate for morals. You cannot outlaw dysfunction, you cannot go into every home and ensure that everyone has sufficient coping mechanisms to not fall into some sort of addiction.

A republic has to allow its citizens to make poor choices, even if those choices affect those around them and society as a whole. Walk the main street of any small town in Ireland and you will see just how good we are at making bad choices – chippers, pubs, offies and bookies; all offering products or services that are fine in small doses, but which can ruin lives.

My parent never drank much, my dad did a bit, my mum not at all. Like many Irish kids I was given a drop of whiskey for a sore tooth now and again, but generally I grew up in a pretty dry, intensely religious household. I started secretly drinking when I was 13, and was a frequent binge drinker by the time I was 15. I would steal money, go to Cork and buy flagons of cider and sit in Bishop Lucey Park drinking with a rotating cast of crusties, new age travellers, the destitute and the deranged. When I left school I worked in a kitchen, as cheffing was an industry where you can drink yourself into oblivion and nobody would take much notice. It is a period of my life I don’t look back on with any pleasure – it was a relentlessly grim cycle of broken relationships and self destruction. There was no joy, and if it had continued I have no doubt I would be dead now.

But things changed. I went back to college and although I still drank, it was in a fun, social way. As I got older my outings got rarer and rarer, and nowadays I just love a whiskey of two at the weekends.

Since I’ve been living with my dad and looking after him, I’ve been drinking more – in fact, almost every night. I spend my days looking after him, making his food and helping him about the house, managing hospital visits and dispensing his medication. It’s all straightforward stuff, and I am happy to do it; I’ve been looking after him for three months, he looked after me for about 40 years. My wife and kids had planned to move in, but we soon realised that the cacophony of our family would be too much for him, so I am here alone, watching him slowly die. His mind is starting to go, and I can feel him slipping away from me. Most days I just spend staring at him, missing him even though he is still here.

At night I go upstairs and open another one of the bottles I had been saving for a special occasion and have a good cut off it. And after the first few sips, I can feel the weight of sadness lift slightly, and I relax, even for an hour or two, and I drift from where I am. I watch a few Norm Macdonald videos or goof off on Twitter, and it takes me away. As Judge Sweat pointed out, whiskey enables me to magnify my joy, and my happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, one of my life’s great tragedies.

There are many who would point out that I am committing that terrible act – using alcohol as a crutch. But I need a crutch. If I don’t have something to quell my mind before bed, I would spend hours lying there, mentally drafting eulogies, occasionally sobbing. Whiskey is a salve on my emotional wounds. If I didn’t have that, I would be doing a lot worse than I am.

In my youth I used alcohol to harm myself – now I am using it to heal. But it is often used in this manner – in many hospitals alcohol is prescribed. I spoke to a doctor recently who told me that as a junior doc with the NHS in the early Nineties he used to regularly prescribe sherry, whiskey and Guinness to patients.

A physio told me that when she trained in a London hospital there was a patient in intensive care for a long period of time. His mood dipped and so he was prescribed a whiskey each evening. It worked, and his mood lifted. It didn’t stop him dying, but it made his demise that little bit more bearable.

In fact, Marymount Hospice – where my dad is headed soon – has a drinks trolley for patients, where you can have a pint or a whiskey of an evening.

Alcohol is a bridge from our own profane humanity to a divine plane where our troubles are diminished. For some, their troubles are such that they never want to return. For the rest of us, it’s simply a welcome few hours of escape.

Like a baseball bat, alcohol is a weapon if you choose to use it that way. Used right, it is one of life’s great joys, a thought reflected by the American baseball star Tug McGraw. After signing a lucrative contract, he was asked how he would spend his money. His reply was: “Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey. The other ten percent I’ll probably waste.”