Twilight of the gods

First, a death. Aleck Crichton, above, passed away recently at the age of 98, an impressive age for anyone, but especially for someone who led a tank battalion through Normandy in the aftermath of the D-Day landings. Somewhat ominously named after an uncle who died in the Great War, Crichton was badly injured in 1944. Returning home to Ireland, he took up a role in the family business – Jameson. He was part of the team who engineered the merger between the last big distilleries in Ireland, an act which most likely saved our industry from extinction. Part of that difficult transition meant that, in 1984, the decision was made to concentrate on Jameson – a decision that has paid off some three decades later. Richard Burrows, speaking to Ivor Kenny in 2001, noted how this singular focus was difficult because the family members of the original distillers were still on the board: “They paid lip service to marketing – they may sound harsh, but I believe it’s true. Their interest was whether their Jameson, or their Powers, or their Paddy was getting the promotional money.”

Crichton was also chair of the Yeats Society, fitting given that his parents were friends of Yeats’s, a regular visitor to their home on Fitzwilliam Square. Crichton’s memories of Ireland’s Most Emo Nerd were thus: “I would play tag with his children on the square and we were always getting into trouble,” he recalled.

“I don’t remember him ever actually talking to us but he didn’t ignore us either.”

“He always dressed impeccably, always wore a bow tie and silver buckles on his shoes. My father and mother were huge friends and he was often in our home for tea.”

Good old poets – loads of money for shoe buckles, none for buying their own tea.

The foundations laid by Crichton and the rest of the board of IDL are being reaped in the Irish whiskey boom of today – just look at Mark Reynier’s Waterford Distillery, who recently got a rather large chunk of investment cash. Sez the press release:

Phase 1 of our project was the purchase of the Guinness Brewery from Diageo in December 2014 for €7.5m. We then spent €2m during 2015 converting it to a modern distillery; developed a unique barley supply chain; distilled 1m litres of new spirit traceable to 46 farm terroirs by January 2017; and established a bespoke warehouse complex at Ballygarran.

Phase 1 is now complete, on budget and on schedule. The quality of the spirit is first rate supported by both taste and analysis.

We now move to phase II, as outlined in our plan, the total focus of building up stock volumes to 5m litres.

Distilling is an expensive business. And with no revenue stream (deliberately) at this early stage, all the more so.

It is a testament to the strength of the company – the Facilitator, people, shareholders and spirit – that it has secured €20m new funding for Phase II with the investment of €5.8m from BGF (Business Growth Fund) and a €14.4m debt facility with Ulster Bank.

At the same time as the Ulster facility, BGF was invited to make their first investment in an Irish business. We’re delighted to have them aboard.

This €20m funding of whisky stock leads, inevitably, to Phase III, the exciting bit, bringing the whisky to market. Roll out those barrels.

Another snippet of news also came from Waterford Distillery around the same time – the departure of one of the key members of the team. Lisa Ryan had worked on site when it was Diageo’s Guinness brewery,  and was head brewer after Reynier took over (her father also supplied some of the barley for their whiskey). So this came as something of a surprise:

Ten years ago you either worked for Cooley, Bushmills or IDL or you didn’t work in distilling. Now we have a growing industry, and a desperate search for staff with experience. Staff being able to move from distillery will be good for the industry and for the category. People will do good things with a brand and get headhunted, and a knowledge economy will be created. So the future is bright – even Diageo are back in the game. They jettisoned Bushmills not long ago and now are building a distillery in their Dublin campus. You can peruse their plans for the St James’s Gate Power House on the DCC site, but here are a few snippets:

There is a really insightful analysis of the move by Louise McGuane here, which explains the smart business of getting rid of one distillery only to build another. Diageo have resurrected the George Roe brand for a sourced blend, presumably from Bushmills, although who knows – with Irish whiskey it’s never exactly crystal clear. The issue of transparency is one that rapidly becoming an unhealthy obsession for me. It’s like Tesco’s fake farms that they use in branding their meat – they say consumers don’t care, and perhaps they are right. But I think that if you stood at the checkout and explained to people that they have no idea where their food came from, and that the shop selling it to them had to invent a place to make that fact seem less unsettling, then they might be less inclined to buy that giant chicken for three euro.

The same goes for whiskey brands – here’s an example of food marketing: This is the pre-release image of The Whistler, a sourced whiskey from Boann Distillery –

And this is what the label actually says:

We can argue semantics all day, but changing from bottled to crafted suggests the hand of marketing. It’s disappointing, not least because I had a few of the Boann whiskeys at Whiskey Live Dublin and thought they had a very strong product. Boann are legitimate distillers who are building a brand while stocks mature – so why bother with the use of the term crafted? It is a weasel word, and the category would be better off without it.

However, it isn’t entirely fair to single Boann out – after all there are other independent bottlers who are using far more misleading tactics – but the entire category is going to have a credibility issue until this sort of behaviour is abandoned. Yes, we only had three distilleries for the last few decades, and yes we have hundreds of brands from those same three sources, all trying to create their own identity – but our image abroad will not improve unless we call a halt to the theatrical flourishes of food marketing firms.  There are few sights more depressing than Americans tweeting at independent bottlers to ask them about opening times of their non-existent distilleries – and it is happening. Consumers will end up disillusioned when they discover that the brand they love has endeavored to convince them that their whiskey comes from a distillery that does not exist, and our grand plans for whiskey tourism will be for naught.

And it isn’t just small bottlers sending out confusing signals, the biggest of them all is guilty too, as every bottle of Jameson carries the address of ‘Bow Street, Dublin’ proudly on the label, as though the liquid contained within is actually made there. The liquid is made in Cork, the IDL HQ is in Ballsbridge, and while Bow Street is the tourism HQ, when it comes to the whiskey itself, that address is a phantom limb.

As the interest in Irish whiskey grows worldwide, I am seeing more and more chatter online about the issue of transparency – I don’t want us to be seen as some sort of snake oil tricksters, slinging whiskey distilled in Fidder’s Green by the magical folk, when it all comes from one branch of the holy trinity of Cooley/Midleton/Bushmills. Supply deals may include a privacy clause, but brands can still be more honest – do it in small print on the back label, the geeks will appreciate it and everyone else won’t care enough to read it. The IWA aren’t going to enforce this – one member told me as much when I asked them about false provenance. They told me copyright was basically all they were concerned with right now. It is understandable: The IWA is just an industry body – the consumers’ best interests are not their top priority.

However, I was pleased to see the Irish Whiskey Society are holding a night on this topic soon. Here are the details:

On May 25th, the Irish Whiskey Society will be inviting 8 of the industry’s most vocal movers and shakers for a panel discussion on the liquid identity of our national drink: its making, its labelling, its sales, and its spirit. From startup indies to growing global brands, the panel will include brand builders, critics, distillers, and publicans – for a look at the liquid as its trickling off today.

If there is change, it will be the geeks and the indies who lead it – they understand that if you make transparency and honesty the core of your sales pitch, you can’t go wrong.

There was more good news recently for the orphan of Irish whiskey – Bushmills. I find it frustrating to see this brand languishing as it has, and while I was optimistic that the new owners would bring some fresh thinking, I haven’t seen much evidence yet, from the poorly-received Steamship series to the woefully titled Red Bush. They must have some incredible stock there just waiting for the right treatment – gives us some single barrel, some quality age statements – after all, the place is actually doing quite well:

Northern Ireland’s best-known whiskey maker enjoyed a bumper year in 2015, according to its most-recently filed accounts.

Part of the 18 months in the accounting period covers a period under the ownership of Mexican drinks giant Jose Cuervos, after the sale of Bushmills by Diageo.

The brand’s new owners filed a planning application for a major expansion of the Bushmills facility in a bid to double production capacity. It plans to build a £30m expansion to its current distillery and has now been given permission for the facility which, it says, will “effectively double production capacity”.

It’s also planning to build almost 30 huge warehouses to mature its world-famous Irish whiskey. A strategic report filed with the accounts says its new owners are planning to develop the company through expanding into new markets and increasing sales.

Increase the sales by all means but please increase the quality of the releases while you’re at it. That place deserves to shine.

As titans like Bushmills meander, there are of course numerous challengers approaching. There’s Cape Clear Distillery and the man behind it, Adrian Fitzgibbbon, a financier who was one of the leading lights in the Irish wing of Sachsen LLB.  Mr Fitzgibbon initially aimed to set up a distillery and visitors centre on his own property, Horse Island, a small chunk of land about 800 metres off the coast of Skibbereen. Designer Terry Greene, who is behind the neo-celt aesthetic of Barr An Uisce, did some sterling work on the brand:

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When that was refused, Mr Fitzgibbon moved his attention to the nearby island of Cape Clear, where the plan has been accepted and is now the funding stage. Here are the plans:

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Again, Terry Greene is working on the design:

Cape Clear is beautiful, and one would hope that with Fitzgibbon’s background in finance, they will have no trouble whipping up the cash to make it the dream a reality.

Another Cork resident with a background in finance is Michael Scully, a farmer turned property developer, the latter part of which you can read more about here. He is behind the Clonakilty Atlantic Distillery, which is dues to be built within a unit set up for Ulster Bank before the economy tanked. It later became a gaelscoil. Here are some visuals:

There’s also Gortinore, who have plans for the old mill in Kilmacthomas, Tipperary Boutique, who are forging ahead with plans for a grain-to-glass operation near Cahir, Sliabh Liag up in Donegal – there are many planned distilleries and it is going to be interesting to see who makes it to market in five to ten years and who falls by the wayside. It is going to be an interesting decade for Irish whiskey, but my own two cents are thus – all the mentoring in the world isn’t going to ensure integrity. The financial collapse in 2008 showed that there is no ‘invisible hand of the market’ which guides best practise, and that humans will generally do whatever suits them best – even if it means lying to the public. The whiskey business has had a tolerance of subterfuge that needs to be ditched so that we – consumers and producers – hold our heads high and make Irish whiskey great again.

 

 

Authoritarian

I did a steaming hot take on the Clinton/Patterson book for the Indo, and here it is: 

 

When it was announced that Bill Clinton was writing a book, most people assumed it would be a cross between 50 Shades and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Sadly, our hopes of a steamy memoir about Slick Willy Clinton polling the electorate were dashed when it was announced that human bestseller machine James Patterson would be co-authoring. Patterson is what you might call box office, one of the most successful – and richest – authors in the world, even if he has his critics – as horror maestro Stephen King bluntly put it, Patterson is a terrible writer but he’s very successful.

So the book will be a hit, no matter what, even if the title – The President Is Missing, which according to the publishers is about a president that goes missing – doesn’t suggest a gripping, unputdownable page-turner. But not every politician has had success when dabbling in the creative arts.

Painting – Churchill painted to alleviate depression, Hitler was a failed artist, and Franco was  better than you would think. But beyond all those were the paintings of George W Bush, whose portraits of world leaders – and himself in the shower – were startlingly poor. Of course, art is completely subjective, but when a 14 year old entrant in the Texaco Art Competition makes W’s works look like a potato print, it is time to retire the easel. However, he did exactly the opposite – he released a book of portraits, this time on a subject that meant nobody could criticise his work: War veterans. Frankly it was the least he could do after starting a war himself.

Acting – It should set off alarm bells for all of us that so many actors become highly successful politicians. Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Glenda Jackson; it is a surprisingly smooth transition from pretending to be someone, to being a politician. Perhaps the oddest transition was that of Illona Staller, known by her stage name la Cicciolina. The Hungarian-born model (and porn star) stood for the Green Party in Italy and served one term, one of the most memorable moments of which was when she offered to sleep with Saddam Hussein in return for peace in his country. Perhaps if George W had painted that scenario he might sell a few more copies of his book.  However, he would have to compete with the talents of conceptualist artist Jeff Koons, who married Staller and created a series of massive portraits of he and his wife engaged in explicit sexual acts. So politics isn’t all paperwork.

Music – Wyclef Jean ran for president of Haiti, Youssou N’Dour ran for office in Senegal, Sonny Bono became a US congressman, and our own Bono seems to have more influence with world leaders than our politicians do. It’s not surprising to see idealistic musicians attempt to turn their lyrics into actions. And then there’s former TD Paul Gogarty, who brought his baby to a Green Party press conference calling for a general election, and on another occasion shouted ‘f**k you’ across the floor of the Dáil at Labour TD Emmet Stagg. If he was to record music, you would assume it would lie somewhere between The Sex Pistols and the theme music from In The Night Garden. But Gogarty’s project, His Sweet Surprise, is a very sweet surprise – synth-heavy pop songs with catchy choruses. His time in politics may have been brief, but his music (and swearing) definitely made more of an impression than his party colleagues, such as the lightbulb guy or the other guy, you know, the one who cycled everywhere.

Writing – Clinton’s foray into writing is unusual in that it is a work of fiction. Most former presidents just churn out a memoir or three, along with several impassioned books on how they could make the world a better place if only they were still in charge. The only previous work of fiction Clinton was affiliated with was the Chinese counterfeiting of his memoir, the imaginatively titled My Life. The Chinese version of it – which came out before the book was actually released – featured countless anecdotes of Clinton talking about how great China was and how their technology was vastly superior to America’s. It also included a scene in which Bill informs Hilary this his nickname is Big Watermelon, which somehow seems entirely plausible.

But when it comes to forays into the world of creative writing by politicians, few come close to our own Alan Shatter. His one novel, Laura: A Story You Will Never Forget, shot to prominence when a complaint was made to the censors office about it. Fittingly for a man born on Valentine’s Day, Mr Shatter included a few scenes of the protagonists engaging in the physical act of love – which is what they called sex back in 1989 when the book was first published. After the complaint to the censors board and subsequent furore, the book was republished, proving that the old adage of ‘no such thing as bad publicity’ is true in the arts, if not in politics.

While Mr Shatter is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant minds to have graced Dáil Éireann in modern times, one does have to wonder if the much talked-about sex scenes in Laura would have been better if he was a little less brilliant – perhaps a little less mind and a little more body would have turned his well-written, sterile prose into top-notch filth. He does, however, get bonus points for including this classic Irish chat-up manoeuvre:  “She knew that she had been foolish for not taking the necessary precautions herself, but Brannigan had assured her that he always withdrew in time and that she was not at risk.”

It was either that or tell her his nickname was The Big Potato.

Cities, Eurovision, giant rats

Column Watch – week three. The mood is tense. Somehow it hasn’t been cancelled yet, but this one might do the trick: 

 

We are flocking to cities. According to the data provided by Census 2016, nearly two thirds of the population of Ireland now lives in an urban area, with 25% of us living in Dublin. Perhaps it is the lure of The Pale’s high quality broadband,  Starbucks and Subway on every street corner, or the fact it has every mode of public transport short of a monorail, but we are heading in our droves towards its bright lights. However, there is a downside.

The Japanese understand the negative effects of too much time spent in cities, as the greater Tokyo area is the most populous metropolitan area in the world. The Japanese  have a word for healing the soul through a return to nature – shinrin-yoku. Its closest translation is ‘forest bathing’, or simply the medicinal benefits of taking a walk in the woods.

It is one of many Japanese words that have no direct translation into English, another being Shogania  –  or ‘a situation that can’t be helped, and also is out of our control’, much like our epic losing streak in Eurovision.  

Japan aren’t in the Eurovision – but it can only be a matter of time. The presence of Australia in the competition is an open door to all of planet Earth (and much of our solar system) who fancies having a go at music’s zaniest song contest. This year’s spectacle even featured a streaker, draped in an Australian flag, baring his backside, presumably as an allusion to a nation from the arse-end of the globe taking part in what is theoretically a European event.

The culprit turned out to be a Ukrainian who has made a name for himself in the worst currency of all – pranks. The ancient art of pranking had died a well-deserved death until YouTube came along and made upsetting children/the elderly/cats into an actual career for the chronically annoying. But Vitalii Sediuk, the man behind the behind, made a rookie error – he chose to try and make his mark on a TV event that looks like an explosion in a fireworks factory. For all his ‘hilarious’ efforts, he ended up a vanilla also-ran on a night of giddy, deranged cabaret.

But beyond the buttocks, dancing Harambe and yodelling, the most striking thing about the competition was how eerily familiar the songs sounded, from Germany’s take on David Guetta and Sia’s Titanium, to Moldova’s Saxobeat-aping take on the sax solo from My Lovely Horse. The winning act, a young psychology graduate from Portugal, made a plea for ‘real music’, which would suggest he didn’t take much notice in college when they covered passive aggressive behaviour. Salvador Sobral’s lofty stance was a bit rich, coming from someone who came seventh in Portugal’s version of Pop Idol, singing a song that sounded like a knockoff from the soundtrack to LaLa Land. However homogenised the music seemed, it was nice to hear Sobral singing in his native tongue, especially for some Portuguese speakers who have taken up residence in Ireland.

The awkwardly titled coypu is native to Brazil, but has settled right into the grassy savannahs of the Lee Fields on the edge of Cork city. Also known by the less appealing name of ‘swamp beaver’ (or the terror-inducing ‘giant river rat’), they have a thick, dark pelt and bright orange teeth, much like a 1970s TV presenter.

The coypu have fit right in Cork – AKA Ireland’s Brazil –  with its subtropical climate, passionate footballers, lilting dialects and oppressive Catholicism. While the coypu pose no direct threat to humans, and are noted for being friendly – or as friendly as one would want to be with a giant river rat – they have caused extensive damage in other countries, devouring aquatic plants, collapsing riverbanks and generally freaking people out by virtue of the fact that they are, as already stated, giant river rats. Although if building on swamps and collapsing banks is their forte, they could always go into property development.

The important news about our newfound fauna is, of course, that they are edible. Their meat is low in cholesterol and they are bred for food markets in countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan as ‘a poor man’s meat’, which is really only a negative if you consider how poor the average person in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is.

A recent upsurge in their popularity (as food, not friends) has been noted in Moscow, where a hipster restaurant has put them on the menu as burgers and hotdogs. The meat is described as being ‘somewhere’ between turkey and pork, a flavour description so vague that it is somehow less appetising than the entire concept of eating a giant river rat.

But Cork tastes are exotic. Thus, given the Rebel City’s love of tripe and drisheen washed down with Tanora and Beamish, chowing down on a massive rodent should be no bother, especially when it is cost effective. Like most city dwellers, Corkonians have a crippling addiction to dining out and overpriced coffee, leading to a state that the Japanese call Kuidaore – or to have bankrupted oneself buying good food and drink. So the next time you go wandering the banks of your own lovely Lee in pursuit of some shinrin-yoku, it might be an idea to bring some condiments with you.

 

Communion: A True Story

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So my son made his First Holy Communion. He goes to a Catholic school, was baptised, and we generally operate within the structures of Catholic Ireland – simply because it is easier than trying to operate outside it. There are few non-religious schools, and to be honest, I went to a minority faith school and always felt like a bit of an outsider in the community, although that might have had something to do with my Camus-style existentialist angst. Nobody needs a guy quoting Nietzsche on the sidelines of a hurling match. Community is as much about who is excluded as who is included. Much of Ireland operates on this level – who ‘we’ are not.

The pic above of us at the Communion without the youngest two kiddies just makes me wonder WTF happened to my jawline – I look like Earthworm Jim.

Also, fans of terrible writing – and if you’re reading this I assume you are – will note that the post title was taken from Whitley Strieber’s tale of how he was abducted by aliens, which is 30 years old this year. I love this from Wikipedia:

Following the popularity of the book, the author’s account was subject to intense scrutiny and even derision. Some disparagement came from within the publishing world itself: Although published as non-fiction, the book editor of the Los Angeles Times pronounced the follow-up title, Transformation (1988),[12] to be fiction and removed it from the non-fiction best-seller list (it nonetheless made the top 10 on the fiction side of the chart).

“It’s a reprehensible thing,” Strieber responded.

“My book is a true story … Placing this book on the fiction list is an ugly example of exactly the kind of blind prejudice that has hurt human progress for many generations.”

Personally, I believe that challenging non-scientific nonsense is the only hope we have of saving ourselves – and that includes made-up aliens and nonexistent gods.  Anyway, I wrote some nonsense about religion – it’s worth noting that there were many takes on religion here the week, a notable coming one from maverick distiller Peter Mulryan in the paper of record. But here’s my lukewarm/not-that-funny take on it all:

 

First Holy Communion season is here again, or ‘Loan Shark Week’ as it is also known. It is a special day in a young Catholic’s life, when boys get to wear their school uniform on a Saturday and be given enough money for a PS4 Pro before they have left the church, while the girls get to wear a miniature wedding dress, as though they were about to enter an arranged marriage with a 2,000-year old carpenter from the Middle East. If they’re very lucky they might also get a silk umbrella, which would come in very handy if there was a chance of sun, which, as with any special occasion in Ireland, there will not be.

At our son’s ceremony we were informed that we should respect the sacred rites and not take photographs during the Mass. However, the good news was that the guy with the massive video camera and lighting rig in front of the altar would be selling DVDs of the day later in the week. Obviously my son’s teacher hadn’t been schooling him in the ancient traditions of Ireland, as he turned to me and whispered ‘what’s a DVD?’ Naturally, I cleared my schedule for the afternoon to teach him the audiovisual catechisms of my youth, from the old testament’s primal sin of not rewinding VHS tapes before returning them to the store, to the one commandment of DVDs, ‘thou wouldst not steal a car, so why wouldst thou pirate a DVD?’. It was a day of revelations for my son, who concluded that the olden ways are weird. Just wait until he learns that the Irish State was considering taking a blasphemy charge against the Cheshire cat from Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland.

While it seems odd that Stephen Fry’s comments were broadcast at all, given that they aire on a station that still considers the Angelus a valid part of its daily programming, it is curiouser and curiouser that they were on a show titled The Meaning Of Life – surely a fair warning that there would be a discussion of all aspects of human existence. Fry’s comments on what he might say to a god, were he to meet one, weren’t even directed at Catholic Jesus, but rather all Jesuses everywhere, including the tax-efficient sci-fi laser Jesus of Scientology.

Perhaps Fry’s comments would have been less hurtful if they were made by an Irish person, who had served their time here in the dour days of the Eighties and Nineties, being dragged from holy well to moving statue, and from Novenas to Knock, in pursuit of enlightenment. But anyone who did go through that period would tell you that it is almost impossible to discuss religion without offending someone. It is much like the sporting world – get fans of two opposing teams to discuss whose team is superior and watch as it descends into a screeching match of such escalating frequency that only Roy Keane’s beloved dog Trigger can hear them – and Triggs has been in doggy heaven for five years now. Or he might be in doggy hell, it really depends on how he felt about Saipan, in which Keano was either a fearless messiah or a blaspheming heretic, depending on your own personal beliefs, or whether you are from Cork or not.

The whole Fry blasphemy debacle has been slightly embarrassing, not least because the laws themselves are so incredibly vague that Jesus Himself would probably have to show up to get a prosecution. And I’m fairly sure he is busy giving sending DMs to televangelists.

The Irish blasphemy laws also garnered a large amount of pointed throat-clearing and eyebrow-raising from atheists, as the statutes do not categorise as a religion ‘any organisation that employs excessive psychological manipulation of its followers’, which is really a description of all religions, as well as the GAA, various weight loss groups, sci-fi conventions, and those National Lottery ads that suggest you might want to buy an island.

For anyone who does wish to go back to the good/bad old days in Ireland, when were weren’t allowed to question faith at all and Fr Ted was considered highly sacrilegious, there is good news from religion’s arch nemesis – science. Mathematicians from the University of British Columbia and the University of Maryland have published a study this week which proposes that, mathematically at least, time travel is possible. Great news for anyone wishing to head back to the more innocent days of the early Nineties, when the abortion debate was raging in Ireland, America was at war in the Middle East, and Johnny Logan was writing Eurovision winners for us. Just remember to bring your XtraVision card.

 

The Weekly Bill

So I am now an Irish Independent columnist, which is great as I think the whole world needs to listen to what I have to say right fucking now. This is my first lash at it, which ran in last week’s paper. It is a series of Christmas cracker jokes disguised as a news digest/OpEd from hell. Enjoy!

 

It seems hard to believe that Brexit, AKA The Great British Bunk-Off, is still rumbling towards its inevitable unpleasantness. The meal at 10 Downing Street between Juncker and May, held to thrash out some of the more awful possibilities of Liminal Britain’s Series Of Unfortunate Events, sounded like a moody teen telling their parents that they were moving out of home and thus would need 60k pocket money a week and full access to the fridge and WiFi. All the occasion was short was Theresa May turning into Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, fashioning a sculpture of the white cliffs of Dover out of mashed potato, whispering ‘strong and stable’ over and over while her alarmed dinner guests exchange concerned looks with each other. A full account of the feast of awfulness was carried in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAZ), fitting given that many read it whilst enjoying a feeling best encapsulated by a very German word – Schadenfreude.

Schadenfreude was the word of the week, after the disaster of Fyre Festival, an exclusive event on a private Bahamian island that collapsed into disaster for its wealthy, exclusive clientele. Like Cinderella after midnight, their luxury cabanas turned out to be disaster relief tents, while the culinary delights they were promised transformed into a salad leaf and what might have been bread. Pop punk deities Blink 182, who are apparently still going, cancelled their headline slot outright. It brought to mind a festival disaster I attended in the late Eighties. Lured with the prospect of a once in a lifetime experience to the exotic location of Medjugorje, I was startled to find our luxury accommodation featured blocked toilets and en suite snakes,  while the headline act, The Virgin Mary, failed to show up at all. The whole debacle was so embarrassing for host nation Yugoslavia that they broke up a year later. Mind you, it wasn’t as disappointing as Electric Picnic 2006, when I went along to enjoy The Rapture, only to discover that it wasn’t the ascent into heaven of true believers and purging of the sinners, but rather a band of the same name. And apparently, this wasn’t grounds for a refund.

Confusion over titles also brought some much needed levity to our criminal justice system, when a jury selection was held up by a barista being mistaken for a barrister. It was the sort of whimsical nugget served up at the end of the news bulletin, like petit fours after the main course of war, famine and plague. In fact, it was exactly the sort of light hearted japery that usually adorns café chalkboards. It’s hard not to feel sorry for the barista tasked with coming up with these daily quips. Being paid a mortgage-defying wage to rise at 5am to make frappucinos for depressed millennials, whimsy must be a foreign land to the average barista. Yet they persevere, scratching out witty messages about hamsters being mixed up with hipsters, trying to convey the warmth and humour of their establishment in just a few short words, as like barristers, they become experts in reducing sentences.

Bealtaine finally arrived on Monday, the ancient pagan feast marking the start of summer. Celebrated in some areas with bonfires – usually depending on how much green waste there is lying about the garden – it is a reminder of our pagan past. The past of the Pagan Federation Of Ireland was also resuscitated recently, when a viral post of theirs resurfaced on Twitter. Responding to a request that they provide an American odinist couple with an officiant who did not perform same-sex or mixed-race handfastings, they politely declined before closing with the ancient celtic farewell of ‘f**k off’. It made you think that maybe we should give the pagans another shot – would it be so bad to hand over the running of a few hospitals to them? Who wouldn’t want a flatlining loved one being tended to by Gandalf, bellowing ‘you shall not pass’ as he warms up the defibrillator? Of course the greatest bonus to getting them to run the hospitals is that it would end all fears about nursing numbers, as druids always come with a very large staff.

Battle royale

So the Indo asked me to write a bit on the royal visit to Kilkenny. Naturally I completely misinterpreted the brief on the piece and had to rewrite it; the final printed version is here, while this is the original:

We have come a long way as a country. The announcement that HRH Prince Charles was going to be visiting Kilkenny was greeted with a national shrugging of shoulders, a sign that we have moved on from the angry young nation we once were to a more mature approach. We now see a royal visit as being like Christmas drinks in your house with neighbours you don’t especially like, but need to keep onside in case you need to borrow a generator at some point.

In fact, it might even be acceptable to say that it would be nice to have our own aristocracy. Sure, we have our own version of royalty, like Queen Miriam O’Callaghan, ruler of the airwaves, pirate king Johnny Ronan, snatching up gluten-free princesses and whisking them away to his north African hideout, or the Dauphin Nicky Byrne, whose increasingly complex riddles saw his Million Euro Challenge show marched to the guillotine. If only he had listened to his father in law, Emperor Bertie, he would have known that the plain people of Ireland care not for complex mathematics, nor even rudimentary bookkeeping.

So we have our own yellow-pack royalty – but it’s not really the same. There is something entertaining about watching genuine aristocrats go about their business, like a cross between Teletubbies and Game Of Thrones. All that pomp and circumstance, the pageantry of it all, the zany names and goofy accents. The only real royalty we have is Puck Fair’s King Puck, a terrified goat in a cage, dangling 50 feet off the ground like a hairy David Blaine.

Kilkenny was the perfect choice of venue for a royal visit, for it was King James I who granted it royal charter as a city in 1609, which led to centuries of confusion as visitors pointed out that it really is just a large town. Anyone suggesting this heresy might want to do so in private, as Kilkenny was also home to one of the first witch trials – and subsequent burnings at the stake – in Europe. Held in 1324, the trial involved Dame Alice de Kyteler and her servant Petronella de Meath. Part of the charges claimed that Alice had a demon as incubus ‘by whom she permitted herself to be known carnally’ and that he appeared as a cat – something that should sound familiar to any poor hurler who had the arse ridden off them by the Cats in Croke Park over the last two decades.

The two were found guilty of the crimes, and while Petronella was flogged and burnt at the stake, Dame Alice fled to the UK. Aristocrats – a great bunch of lads.

It is Kilkenny’s rich medieval history that has drawn Charles to the city, according to Chris Hennessy, the head barman at The Dylan Whisky Bar.  Chris said that the rumours of the royal visit started some months ago, but were confirmed in the last three weeks. Asked how the news was greeted by locals, he says “People were just glad that something was happening outside Dublin”.

While there are two definite stops for the couple – Rothe House, a 17th century merchant’s townhouse, and the stunning Kilkenny Castle – The Dylan might appear on the itinerary. As the number one whiskey bar in Leinster, it is entirely possible that a whisky enthusiast like Charles might pop in for a quick dram. The Prince is a keen supporter of whisky producers, having given a royal charter to Scotland’s Laphroaig, a distillery whose fire-and-brimstone whisky would go down a treat with the Kilkenny puritans who flambéd Petronella de Meath. So if HRH should pop in for a liquid lunch, what would Chris serve him?

“To start I’d go with an original aqua vitae. This was the drink that later became what we know as whiskey, and the first recipe for it comes from the Red Book of Ossory, penned in 1324 by Bishop de Ledrede at St Canice’s right here in Kilkenny. We have recreated it from that original recipe, so he could start by tasting whiskey’s ancient past. Then I would serve Redbreast 12, to show the traditional Irish style of whiskey, and finish with the new Teeling Brabazon, to give a glimpse of the future.”

Chris points out that the visit really does seem less about publicity – of which there has been little – and more out of the royal couple’s genuine curiosity about the Marble City. Asked if the bar had considered any ways to cash in, he says “We did think about getting in cardboard cut-outs of them, but we were worried we might get a visit from the secret service agents.”

While the royal visit – and subsequent boost in profile – should be of great benefit for the city, it really is a shame that some of the younger royals don’t make a trip across the water before Brexit makes it a bit of a nightmare to get through immigration.

Charles and Camilla’s visit may be the biggest thing to hit the town since the Black Death touched down in 1348, but who among us wouldn’t like to see Will and Kate bringing the kids over for a weekend? Who wouldn’t want to bump into them stocking up on shorts and T-shirts in Market Cross Penneys, as their kids rip the place to bits? Or witness Harry and Meghan loudly arguing outside Joe’s Takeaway at 3am whilst spilling garlic chips down their tops? Imagine the boost in Kilkenny’s tourism profile if little George was seen in a miniature Kilkenny kit, swinging a hurlóg at passers-by, while his dad struggled to get a slab of Smithwicks into the back of a horse-drawn carriage.

In the absence of a monarchy of our own, maybe it’s time we simply accepted the royals back into our bosom – after all, they are practically related to us, for both Kate’s family and that of Charles and his sons, can be traced back to the High King Of Ireland, Brian Boru. Boru’s lineage can also be traced to JFK, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and even our own Baronet, Ryan Tubridy. In fact, Boru’s sprawling family tree shows that when it comes to producing devil-may-care aristocrats with complex marital relations, we really are up there with the best of them.

 

Snakes on an astral plane

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So the Indo asked me to write a bit for Paddy’s Day. It was meant to be 17 signs you’re Irish, or alternatives way to mark the day, so I got confused and ended up with something between those two. Of all the things I wrote for the paper this was the one I stumbled over the most. Thus, it ended up being a somewhat overwrought and overlong 1,200 words on whatever the hell this is: 

 

I want to tell you a story. A story about a young man from a country far away, who yearned for a better life. Lured here with promises of a great job and excellent working conditions, he found himself forced into slavery, working in filthy conditions and surrounded by animals. No, I’m not talking about Brent Pope, but of our patron saint, Patrick. Like all young men growing up in Wales he dreamed only of playing rugby in a coal mine with the rest of his choir, but after spotting an ad in the local ogham stone looking for young talent to work overseas, he signed up and was shipped off to Ireland to herd sheep. Granted, it could have been worse – he could have been forced to work the late shift in a Spar on O’Connell Street, and while he really ought to have heard alarms bells when the recruitment agency was run by a man named Niall Of The Nine Hostages, his fate – and ours – were forever entwined thereafter.

 

He did escape eventually, but after a brief interlude back home, presumably working as a roadie for Tom Jones, he spotted a gap in the market back in Ireland for guilt. Our national identity has been linked – for better or worse – with the Catholic faith ever since, but perhaps now is a good time to think about all the things that make us who we are.

 

  1. Form a disorderly queue: Few things capture the essence of Irishness like the depressing mayhem of our attempts to queue. Having been raised with the horizontal battlefront queueing system in pubs, our transition from jostling pintbabies to confused pintmen and pintladies every time we are expected to form a straight line is something to behold. Like a particularly drug-addled horse at the start of the Grand National, our restless spirit won’t allow us to simply stand in a line waiting our turn for anything, be it to board an Expressway bus, select from a breakfast buffet, use self-service checkouts, or attend a removal.  
  2. Do what thou wilt and that shall be the whole of the law: For a country with so many zany self-imposed religious rules, we really struggle to comply with some of the more basic statutory ones. Any rule we don’t like becomes John Bull’s Law, and thus is to be ignored until we become four green fields once more. This list includes TV licenses, any and all avoidable taxes, picking up after your dog, and a whole host of others. This St Patrick’s Day why not celebrate our innate lawlessness by parking in in a junction box, walking in a cycle lane, cycling on a footpath, or simply wandering into a random queue at the halfway point.
  3. Avoid confrontation: We love a good donnybrook, even going so far as ironically naming a well-to-do part of Dublin after our beloved mass brawls. But those are collective affairs – we are the fighting Irish, not the fighting Irish person. One-on-one, we are terrible at standing our ground. You can point to any number of historical reasons for it, but we are completely incapable of asking someone to stop cycling on the footpath, or to not skip the queue, or to stop spitting their gum onto your shoes. Even when we do try to confront an issue, it ends coming out as a series of increasingly apologetic ‘sorrys’. So when some giant stands right in front of you at the parade, or a sleeveen slithers in to get served ahead of you at the bar, swallow that anger down, and store it up for the next donnybrook. On Paddy’s Day you shouldn’t have too long to wait.
  4. Talk without speaking: We are a nation of talkers, and we love nothing more than chewing over the important issues of the day, such as potatoes, rain, or the effects of rain on potatoes. Just as the Inuit have a veritable blizzard of words for snow, we have a dozen flowery words for potato and more than nine million for rain, but they all carry deeper layers of meaning. Here are a few translations to get you started:
    ‘Tis fine out’ – I am filled with a sense of doom.
    ‘The forecast is for rain’ – All is right with the world.
    ‘Are these the new potatoes?’ – I no longer love you.
  5. Is there anything to be said for another Mass: Most of us are products of the Catholic education system, where the central tenet, as Billy Connolly once noted, was ‘Jesus is dead and it’s all your fault’. St Patrick may have helped wrap our national identity in the shroud of the holy Roman Catholic empire, but there are other faiths in this world and this land, and we could do with learning a bit more about them. As a country that venerates Foster And Allen, Gerry Adams and Daithi O Se, we should have no problem understanding any religion that worships lads with beards. Which is basically all of them.
  6. An béal bocht: Apart from the Belle Époque of 2006-2007, during which we pretended to be rich, nothing satisfies us like pretending to be poor. Everything is a struggle, we tell the person seated next to us on the flight to Mallorca. We are finding it so hard to make ends meet, we tell the car dealer as he hands over the keys to a 171 ozone killer. When will John Bull stop his insane tax laws, we ask the bank manager as we remortgage our third home to buy another. The poor mouth is an integral part of our identity, and even with big ticket purchases we go to great lengths of humblebrag about how they were the deal of the century, despite everyone knowing full well that you didn’t get that Fabergé egg in TK Maxx.  
  7. Demonic possessiveness: Our grasp of history may not be the sharpest, given that 90% of our schooling was given over to Catholic Guilt 101, and what we do know mostly relates to John Bull and his cockamamy laws that we refuse to abide by. However, woe betide anyone from another country try to claim something Irish as their own. All we need is to hear a simple phrase like ‘award-winning British actor Michael Fassbender’ and we turn into a nation of Wolverines. Granted, Fassy was born in Germany, but when he emotes as Professor Mutato in X-Men, or expresses anguish in that film about Copperface Jacks, Shame, and the Kerry accshint comes out, it is as stirring to us as listening to A Nation Once Again whilst eating a bowl of lovely floury pops on a grand soft day atop Carrauntoohil. Anyone who thinks they can lay claim to him, or any other Irish success story – be it whiskey, Olympic boxers, or the cure for leprosy – can pull themselves a nice cold pint of cop on.
  8. Be pernickety about St Patrick’s Day: The American use of the four-leaf clover in place of a shamrock is annoying enough (who does the fourth leaf symbolise, Colonel Sanders?), but it’s their cheerful use of ‘St Patty’ that seems to get under our skin the most. Perhaps this is because at any one time there are about two million Patricks in this country and not one of them is known as Patty. But sher as long as they keep mislabelling 50,000 of our lads over there as ‘undocumented’ as opposed to ‘illegal immigrants’, they can call him whatever they want.
  9. Pessimistic optimism: The Irish carry in their hearts the sense that things are fairly terrible, but they could always be worse. We like talking about our ‘Third World health/education/transport system’, despite the fact that it is now known as the developing world, and despite the fact that we have clearly never been there. The same mind that can spend 25 minutes describing a crater-sized pothole will eventually grudgingly admit that there are probably worse potholes in Alleppo and that what’s happening there is actually pretty bad and, to be fair, this really is a great country if only they could build a roof over it, and that postman in the Blue Stacks said our summer will be so hot that the earth will slam into the sun, so everything will be grand in the end, we can’t go on, we will go on.
  10. Make and do: Whether it be poetry, music, human life, or sovereign debt, the Irish create at an exponential rate, and our cultural impact on this planet is something to behold. We somehow managed to consensually colonise much of the civilised world, peddling craic and multiplying like Tribbles. What other country has a national day of celebration that the whole world wants to be part of? The UK talks of a special relationship with the US, but it’s a relationship where date night involves invading Iraq. We roll up to the White House once a year with a bowl of small weeds we dug up in the back lawn and somehow the entire month of March is given over to a celebration of us. To be Irish is something of a little miracle, a nation of dreamers that weaponised charm and spread out across the world like a cheerful green mold – and that is something worth celebrating, even if it is by standing in the rain watching a parade of disco dancing toddlers and tractors for two hours. Sher where else would you be?