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?

Dad shaming

So the Indo asked me to write a piece on RTE’s sports reporter Des Cahill – Ireland’s most likable journalist – and his star turn on Dancing With The Stars. I don’t watch TV, nor do I have any interest in of knowledge of sport, but I do have a passion for paid work, so here we go: 

In the late Eighties, the Voyager I spacecraft had completed its tour of our solar system and was about to leave it forever for the vast emptiness of outer space. At a distance of about 6 billion kilometers from Earth, the NASA team controlling it from Earth gave an order for it to take a photo of its home planet before it disappeared from sight. The resulting image, taken on Valentine’s Day 1990, became known as the Pale Blue Dot. It inspired Carl Sagan – one of the team who gave the order to capture the iconic image – to write a message of hope under the same title, pointing out that in the great void of space, perhaps we should all learn to get along a little bit better on this pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known.

Our own opportunities for philosophical stargazing these days are limited by street lights, hoodies, Ireland’s cloud onesie, and that digital heroin, our phones. So thank the stars for Dancing With The Stars, and – specifically – the celestial Des Cahill. In a panorama of twinkling little twinkle-toed stars, Des is like Jupiter – a solid physical presence that makes all others seem like gaseous clouds, or possibly heavily-tanned asteroids.

His reassuringly physical form sweeps into our skies once a week to delight and enthrall us with his slightly elliptical and erratic orbit around Karen Byrne. Des’s performances have scientifically proved, once and for all, that the dadbod is the most desirable (and apparently aerodynamic) physique for the modern man. But this isn’t something that happens overnight – it takes decades of training.

Being a sports journalist, Des would have been at an early advantage, having attended many GAA supper dances in his career. Like the rustic, horse-dealing half-brother of a dinner dance, the supper dance is ideal for laying the groundwork for the dadbod, featuring in its late stages a motion that may be mistaken for dancing, but more importantly, a healthy dose of fried chicken and chips served in a tinfoil box.

If a big occasion is being celebrated such as a Junior B final being won, then some Asian fusion may be added via the addition of a large ladleful of curry sauce, most of which will end up on the ground, to ensure a rigorous movement of the legs and thorough stretching of the groin muscles. How else could Des have prepared for last Sunday’s salsa, which saw him nail The Dessie Swim – a more relaxed version of The Worm that saw him dragging his velour-clad posterior across the floor whilst being straddled by his dance partner. God be with the days when the most erotic thing on Sunday nights on RTÉ was Theresa Lowe asking a family of Leitrim sheep farmers if they knew where in the Czech Republic the town of Bendova was located.

Apart from supper dances, a well-balanced diet is intrinsic to achieving the dadbod. Too far one way, you achieve the less-than desirable deadbod – this about giving in, not giving up completely. Too far the other and you end up plain old fit, which isn’t what you want at all. Fitness – like sports cars, designer furniture and kale – is for the young. The dadbod is more about comfort – like the mini-van, well-worn sofa, and cake. Ask yourself this; if attempting a Dirty Dancing-style overhead lift with your dance partner, which would you prefer to fall on you – a human sideboard with rock hard abs, or a loveable bean bag?

Exercise is another key element, and it is important that this is carried out in the most low-cost way possible. The dadbod is topped off by the dadbrain, a kind of supercomputer solely designed to prevent any money ever being spent on anything.  Thus, no money will be wasted on gym membership when there is a dog literally crying out to be walked instead. Twice a week the family husky – a breed that, unlike its owner, has evolved to cover vast distances – will be taken for a brisk ten-minute stroll around the estate, with the duo returning triumphant and breathless from their Jack London-esque adventure, ready to reward themselves with a dinner of steak (trim the crispy fat for the dog, he’s earned it), mash, gravy and fried onions. If a game of fetch was enjoyed during the walk,  a slice of gateaux can be added to the menu, because you read somewhere that Michael Phelps eats 50 pancakes for breakfast and sher look at him he’s like an eel.

As with any planetoid mass, the dadbod is all about the core. Sit-ups can be performed anywhere – while attempting to get out of a sofa, bed, low office chair, or almost any position other than a perfect vertical. Everything becomes a sort of ab crunch, complete with huffing and puffing, or possibly a whispered ‘ah jaysis’ at some point. But you push through the pain, because the dadbod is all about endurance – if it could endure Christmas with the in laws, it can endure some mild to severe lower back pain. And that’s it – the training is complete, and the dadbod is ready to take on the world, if it has time, because it still needs to varnish the back wall of the shed or the rain will get in.

Des Cahill’s turn on DWTS has been such a success it’s hard for the viewer not to turn into Alan Partridge’s dictaphone, spitting out random ideas – Parkour with Des Cahill, Potholing with Des Cahill, Peyote with Des Cahill. And what about all the other sports commentators and their possible hidden talents – MMA with Michael Lyster, BDSM with Marty Morrissey, Hamilton the Musical with George Hamilton.

Des Cahill’s determination to give virtually any zany outfit and goofy dance move a lash is a solid reminder of how surprising people can be, how interesting we all are, and how hidden worlds turn inside us all. We can only hope that if Voyager I ends up in an intergalactic fenderbender with some alien craft a billion light years away, when they come looking for compo (or our annihilation), they are confronted with the sight of Des, dressed as a bullfighter, flapping his cape like a man possessed, and that they pause, and think ‘ah lads we can’t blow this place up, look at yer man’ – and that they will leave us to continue our strange little lives, hopping around on this pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known.

Dickhead for hire

The Indo asked me to write a bit on men’s fashions, so – after a breakfast pint in the wonderful Welcome Inn and on a bus ride to Walsh Distillery in Carlow, I wrote this:

The sight of Bono dining out with the Obamas this week raised some profound questions for the Irish man. Obama was in full style mode, ditching his brown leather bomber jacket and mom jeans in favour of a smart black suit and crisp, open-necked white shirt, offset by his 50 shades of grey hair. Bono, who clearly got a load of All Saints vouchers for Christmas, looked like Bono. But it did make you think – how stylish are Irish men? Back in the Nineties, Paul Costelloe made the shock announcement that Irish women didn’t have style. We were horrified. Apparently A-line skirts and twin sets were not the most fashion forward items one could wear, and there was horror around the country as Irish mammies realised that Paul wasn’t their fashion messiah, but rather a very naughty boy. Things did improve after that, with a steady transformation from ICA chic to MILF (Mammy I’d Like To Fornicate). But their male counterpart has stalled in his fashion evolution. The younger generation has taken a giant leap forward in the fashion stakes, being born in an era with the confidence to wear espadrilles to a ploughing championship, but for many Irish men, we are still making some basic errors. Let’s start from the ground up.

Shoes: In much the same way that sports clothes are really for sports, trainers, as the name suggests, are for training. Despite this we have expanded the concept of exercise to include sitting at our desk in work for eight hours a day, going to the pub, and fine dining on date night.

The average Irish man’s idea of dress shoes are some sort of chunky boot, as you never know when you might need to dig a ditch or cross several miles of rough terrain on foot, even though you are an accountant at a breakfast briefing in a four-star hotel. Our problem with shoes sums up the entire dilemma – not knowing how dressy is too dressy, or what dressy actually is. Do we dress like a slick tech billionaire, like Obama did, or do we just show up to events dressed like a gothic trawlerman, like Bono did? For most of us, the latter is the safer option. You don’t want that most dreaded of reactions – ‘who does yer man think he is?’ Thus you think those Rockports from 2003 are just the ticket for your wedding day, which is why you are still single.

Jeans: Even Obama, America’s Coolest President, makes mistakes in the jean department, having been photographed several times in his mom jeans – high-waisted, shapeless, saggy mom jeans. Irish men would never make such a  mistake, wearing as they do a pair of bootcut jeans in the style of 1996. Bootcut jeans, with their slight flare at the end, are a great idea in a country that is 90% puddle. This enables your knees to keep hydrated as the water seeps halfway up your leg. They come in a variety of options, from dark denim – ideal for the afters of a wedding or the funeral of someone you didn’t really like – to the classic stonewashed, which makes you look like a vacationing Russian oligarch (you hope). Most important is that you wear them one size too small, so the world knows that you’ve still got it. ‘It’ being ‘a large arse’.

Belts: You’ve had the same one since birth, and see nothing wrong with the fact the buckle is a confederate flag. So two reasons for you you to not tuck in your shirt.

Shirts: A shiny Ben Sherman shirt is a handy way of telling the world that you are past your prime. Nothing says ‘larging it in 1999’ like a well-washed shirt with flaccid collars, open to the sternum. You call it your lucky shirt, because every time you wore it out you somehow got home safely. You think it makes you look a bit like Gary Lineker, but with its bright colours and your large gut, it really makes you look more like a spinnaker.

Polo shirts: Polo shirts look great on mods, and make everyone else look like a creatine-riddled rugby fiend, who has to pop their collar to show where their neck used to be and thus makes their massive head look a little bit less like a thumb.

T-shirts: T-shirts are for the under-25s and those with superior physiques. For the rest of us they are like the flashing age alarms in Logan’s Run, highlighting our muscle wastage and the grim passage of time since we bought the T-shirt at the Something Happens Irish Tour (it spells a swear word!) in 1991. Something did happen – we got old.

Suits: There is a vast chasm between what the Irish male considers ‘well-dressed’ and ‘actually putting on a suit’. Most of us still suffer from PCSD, or Post Confirmation Suit Disorder, where we will do anything possible to avoid putting on a suit. Heightening this is the modern trend of the fitted suit. Most suits we own are fitted, as we bought them ten years ago and wore them twice – to get a wife and a mortgage, in that order. Fitted suits are great for the fey flaneur, wasting away from galloping consumption as they exist on a diet of free jazz and Proust. The husky Irish male was not born with skinny genes, so when Daniel Craig dons his shiny, tiny suits which look like 007 accidentally washed them at 700 degrees, we are under pressure to try and shoehorn ourselves into a glistening cocoon of polyester. Try to stick with classic fit, which along with classic rock, classic cars and golf classics are all signs that you will soon be dead, and nobody wants to be buried in a suit that makes them look like a black pudding that got stepped on.

Hats: These are varying degrees of ‘no’.

The trad cap: You will either look like a Healy Rae, never taking off the cap even as they battle hordes of Triffid-like rhododendrons, or you will look like a tourist, and thus get overcharged for taxis and pints, which, frankly, is more than you deserve.

The stylish hat: You think you look ‘fedorable’ but instead you look like someone who talks during movies and doesn’t wash their hands after using the bathroom.

The baseball cap: You look like Larry Murphy.

Hopefully trailblazers like Paul Galvin – who show that it is possible to be both brutally Irish and fabulously stylish – will inspire us all to make the grumbling move from pints of porter to pret a porter.

Local man starts working for Irish Examiner, takes back everything he said about them

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Is there any news softer than rich, creamy advertorial? There is not, and I can write the softest, most meaningless advertorial of all. I got the chance to do some on a few businesses in Midleton, so here they are.

All hail Midleton

Midleton is a prosperous town. You can feel it when you walk down the street – there is a buzz there that many other town of similar size have lost over the past decade. Even in the teeth of the recession, Midleton was doing well. Set in a valley between the low rolling hills of east Cork, the town is surrounded by lush farmland, and has been the marketplace for their produce for centuries – a tradition carried on since the establishment of the local farmers market, the first of its kind in Ireland. Allowing farmers and smaller food producers to sell direct to the public,  a visit to the market is a Saturday morning tradition for many locals, picking up delicacies from Belvelly Smokehouse, Ballyhoura Mushroom or Woodside Farm. The market reestablishes a connection between consumer and product – the producers happily chatting with the customers about the food they are offering.

Next door to the market is the town’s multi award winning SuperValu, owned by the Hurley family.

Another key to the thriving main street is the local shopping centre. Rather than locating it out of the town, as has happened in many places around Ireland, Market Green SC is a short five minute walk from the main street, meaning shoppers can easily access both for their weekly shop. This has avoided what is known as the ‘doughnut effect’ – whereby the main street becomes hollowed out as the footfall is drawn to an out of town shopping centre. Market Green sits on the site of the old town mart, and anchor tenant Tesco draws the crowds that keep other outlets on the premises alive – opticians, pharmacies, health shops, barbers, hairdressers and a large branch of Heatons.

East Cork has built a brand around excellence in food and drink – a fact reinforced by the annual food festival, which sees tens of thousands of visitors descend on the town for a day of the best Cork has to offer. One of the main sponsors of the event is also one of the town’s main employers. For the last 200 years there has been a distillery in the town, one that is currently the home of Irish whiskey, producing the vast bulk of what is now the world’s fastest growing drinks category. Jameson, although associated with Dublin, has been flowing from Midleton for 40 years, and the presence of the distillery has contributed much to the success of the region, being an excellent employer. When other towns in the region lost big companies overseas, Irish Distillers committed to Midleton, giving the town confidence in its economic muscle. It’s not hard to see the firm’s influence on the town, from the whiskey displays in the recently opened JJ Coppingers, to the counter made from whiskey barrels in the award winning Sage restaurant.

One example of the distillery’s importance in the community came at a recent auction of farmland close to their current facility. Initially offered in several lots, IDL bought the entire package and then entered talks with the other bidders and a local sports club about disposing of some of the lands to them, showing that the distillery works with and for the local community.

Close to the old distillery, now the busy Jameson heritage centre, lies the recently developed Distillery Lanes shopping complex and multi storey car park. The 30m development is home to a number of retail outlets, as well as Asian street food vendor Ramen, but the largest and best known tenant is party food specialists Iceland – an essential supplier to the Christmas season. East Cork is spoiled for food and drink – from excellent restaurants like Sage, Raymonds and The Granary, to Ballymaloe House and Garryvoe Hotel; there is something to suit all tastes. The town is also home to artisan bakers Cuthberts, and O’Farrells Butchers, a mainstay in the town for more than half a century.

As an indicator of the economic strength of a town like Midleton, their property market survived the recession better than most, with well-known local auctioneers Colbert & Co, Hegarty Properties and Cronin Wall all thriving during some lean years. A sure sign of green shoots is in the opening of Factory Carpets on the main street, while other home improvement outlets such as Lakewood Furniture and Midleton Gates are helping homeowners apply a little TLC to their abodes.

In the 1880s, a British journalist named Alfred Barnard toured the distilleries of Ireland for Harpers magazine. He was very impressed with Midleton, speaking glowingly of the vale as a healthy and fertile country, and the town’s two rivers full of salmon. Two centuries last little has changed – the whiskey still flows, the land is still fertile and the people still as welcoming and prosperous as those who greeted Barnard. The town has a perfect blend of rich countryside, excellent facilities and a population who appreciate the finer things in life: It’s a success story worth toasting – slainte!

Let there be lights 

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Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier each year – but in Midleton two years ago, there were concerns that it might not come at all. Or rather, the town’s festive lights might not. The local traders group had ordered new street illuminations from a firm in Spain, securing a 50% reduction on a market price of €120,000. However, due to a delay in the order, it was into December before they were up and running. So were they worth waiting for? According to Joe McCarthy, the municipal district officer for the region, they most definitely were. Mr McCarthy is quick to point out that the firm they used for the lights is one of the best in Europe, and many of large European cities use them for their festive illuminations.

But Midleton deserves the best: “Midleton has always been a very strong trading town – the offer in the town is very diverse,” Mr McCarthy says.

To illustrate the town’s draw, he points out that when the town was bypassed, rather than taking business away from the main street, it actually made it a more pleasant experience for shoppers, alleviating traffic woes. Mr McCarthy also says that businesses are helped by the town being in the rare position of having more than enough parking spaces in the vicinity of the street, including two large car parks and a multi storey.

The old lights were a decade old, and had endured the extremes of winter storms as well as the big freeze in 2009 and 2010, so they had served the region well. The new town lights had a similarly rough introduction to Irish weather, having endured the violent storms last January, which saw part of the town flood. Mr McCarthy says they are currently being repaired by technicians from the parent company in Spain, and are due to be in place and ready for the switching on on November 26th, with the lights outside the courthouse and along the Babys Walk already in situ. Mr McCarthy is quick to pay tribute to the town’s traders who helped make the Christmas lights a success, including Fergus McCarthy of McCarthy’s Newsagents and Rachel McCarthy of Ina McCarthy Flowers, who were both drivers of the project.

Mr McCarthy says that a key to Midleton’s success is its sizeable catchment area – stretching from Ballycotton to Dungourney, Leamlara to Garryvoe, people in the region see the town as being theirs – it’s where they go to shop, to dine, to socialise, to spend. Midleton’s economic might is such that Mr McCarthy wants to share their success – as part of the Ancient East tourism initiative, new signage at the entrance of the Jameson Heritage Centre in the town will encourage the tens of thousands of visitors there to explore the region further. Mr McCarthy is also pushing ahead with plans to reopen the Youghal-Midleton rail line as a greenway, as has been done to many rail tracks around the country with great success.

The message is clear – Midleton is a commercial powerhouse in east Cork, and as Ireland emerges from the worst recession for decades, it looks like this could be the best Christmas yet for traders in east Cork; a real light at the end of the tunnel.

Christmas seems to start earlier and earlier each year – but in Midleton two years ago, there were concerns that it might not come at all. Or rather, the town’s festive lights might not. The local traders group had ordered new street illuminations from a firm in Spain, securing a 50% reduction on a market price of €120,000. However, due to a delay in the order, it was into December before they were up and running. So were they worth waiting for? According to Joe McCarthy, the municipal district officer for the region, they most definitely were. Mr McCarthy is quick to point out that the firm they used for the lights is one of the best in Europe, and many of large European cities use them for their festive illuminations.

But Midleton deserves the best: “Midleton has always been a very strong trading town – the offer in the town is very diverse,” Mr McCarthy says.

To illustrate the town’s draw, he points out that when the town was bypassed, rather than taking business away from the main street, it actually made it a more pleasant experience for shoppers, alleviating traffic woes. Mr McCarthy also says that businesses are helped by the town being in the rare position of having more than enough parking spaces in the vicinity of the street, including two large car parks and a multi storey.

The old lights were a decade old, and had endured the extremes of winter storms as well as the big freeze in 2009 and 2010, so they had served the region well. The new town lights had a similarly rough introduction to Irish weather, having endured the violent storms last January, which saw part of the town flood. Mr McCarthy says they are currently being repaired by technicians from the parent company in Spain, and are due to be in place and ready for the switching on on November 26th, with the lights outside the courthouse and along the Babys Walk already in situ. Mr McCarthy is quick to pay tribute to the town’s traders who helped make the Christmas lights a success, including Fergus McCarthy of McCarthy’s Newsagents and Rachel McCarthy of Ina McCarthy Flowers, who were both drivers of the project.

Mr McCarthy says that a key to Midleton’s success is its sizeable catchment area – streathcing from Ballycotton to Dungourney, Leamlara to Garryvoe, people in the region see the town as being theirs – it’s where they go to shop, to dine, to socialise, to spend. Midleton’s economic might is such that Mr McCarthy wants to share their success – as part of the Ancient East tourism initiative, new signage at the entrance of the Jameson Heritage Centre in the town will encourage the tens of thousands of visitors there to explore the region further. Mr McCarthy is also pushing ahead with plans to reopen the Youghal-Midleton rail line as a greenway, as has been done to many rail tracks around the country with great success.

The message is clear – Midleton is a commercial powerhouse in east Cork, and as Ireland emerges from the worst recession for decades, it looks like this could be the best Christmas yet for traders in east Cork; a real light at the end of the tunnel.

Pubs

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East Cork owes a lot to the monks. The largest town in the region, Midleton was founded by Cistercian monks, a fact reflected by the Irish name which means ‘monastery by the weir’. Then there was the monks’ love of ale and spirits – they kept the tradition of brewing alive in the dark ages and brought the Moorish practice of distilling back to Ireland, which in turn lead to whiskey production – another factor in the success of Midleton.  

Somehow it seems fitting that the place where the monastery by the weir once stood is now a bar named the Mad Monk. And if that didn’t seem serendipitous enough, it also happens to be a bar that specializes in craft beer and whiskey – two of the biggest success stories in food and drink in Ireland in the past decade.

Manager Joe Philpott is quick to point out that they can’t simply rest on their laurels – they host guest beers from around the country and around the world, and also are one of the few pubs in the town serving food in the evenings. After 35 years working in the trade, Joe has seen the changes the last 20 years have brought and know that there has to be something more than just a pint – even if people are slow to change their perceptions of what a pub should be. During the summer months they hosted live music four nights a week, and they also cater to a large Czech population living locally, importing the best beers from their home country and posting updates on social media when a new beer has arrived from Eastern Europe. They also stock many Alltech beers, and even received a visit from Alltech’s founder, agritech billionaire Pearse Lyons, at the start of the summer.

There is also a craft beer link to the town’s newest pub, located at the other end of the main street. Owned by the family behind the famous craft beer pub The Cotton Ball, JJ Coppingers is named after a local man who fought in the American Civil War, whose family owned a brewery next door to where the pub now sits. The building itself has quite a history, having been designed by Gothic Revivalist architect AW Pugin, who designed much of the interiors of the British Houses Of Parliament.

Although owned by the Lynches, Coppingers is run by the same team behind The Castle in Glanmire and The Elm Tree in Glounthaune. A surprisingly cosmopolitan bar, no expense was spared in renovating the premises earlier this year. Set for their first festive season in the town, the venue has a packed schedule of live gigs to keep the punters happy – reflecting the modus operandi of all business owners in the town; you have to diversify. In fact, Coppingers also has an upstairs space that has the potential to offer space for a full kitchen down the road.

Across the street sits Wallis’s Town Hall Bar, the other late bar in Midleton. A staple of nightlife in the town for decades, it boasts a booming daytime and nighttime trade, with the late crowds drawn in by a commitment to live music – from DJs to rock bands to string quartets on Sunday afternoons – owner Seamus Cunningham has diversified to suit a changing market and changing tastes.

Across the road is another business that has changed many times – McCarthy’s Newsagents. Originally a grocers back when it opened in the 1960s, it later became solely a newsagents and book store, but owner Fergus McCarthy knows that you cannot rest on your laurels; they branched out to offer coffees and ice creams in the shop and have seen great success. However, however they have modernised the business, the family still carry on one old tradition – that of living over the shop, making them about the only trader in the town who does so. An enthusiastic ukulele player, Fergus organised the music for the switching on of the Christmas light last year, while his wife Susan is also heavily involved in the community, as she is the local county councillor. They prove that in business as in life, the key to success is having more than one string to your bow – or ukulele.

Midle chords 

The hills of east Cork have long been alive with the sound of music. Back in the heyday of Tony and Charlie Moore’s iconic Meeting Place bar, musical icons like Christy Moore used to come play candlelit gigs to a rapt audience. In more recent times local viral sensations Crystal Swing rocketed to fame and a guest spot on Ellen thanks to their star quality. The town also boasts a very active brass band, officially titled the Midleton Holy Rosary Brass & Reed Band at their outset in 1951, they now operate as Midleton Concert Band, and have a busy festive schedule ahead.

But there is one music group in Midleton that sums up the best in both community and festive spirit – the East Cork Music Project. Started in 2011 by youth worker Claire Seymour, the courses they run have helped more than a hundred kids in the area express their creativity through art and music whilst also building important life skills.

Ms Seymour’s background was with another socially aware music project, the Cork Academy Of Music, where she saw how young people who might not necessarily be the sporty type, or the academic type, or might struggle to fit in, were able to find their voice through music. Inspired by this, she decided to bring a project to Midleton that would offer formal and informal training to young people, to keep them off the streets and out of harm’s way. So she applied for funding – and things happened faster than she thought.

“Our funding comes from Cork Education Training Board and our sponsors are Cork Diocesan Youth Services. Before I had a premises or anything I applied for funding, so I was in for a shock when a call came through telling me I had two weeks to get a space for classes – and pupils.”

Ms Seymour started with the basics – just asking young people if they would be interested in learning a musical instrument. Soon she had her first class, and after a move or two they found a home in Midleton Community Centre. There she and other tutors teach 25 kids in two music centred programmes – a FETAC Level 4 and a Level 5 that also teach employment skills and personal development. The skills learned in these courses have helped graduates go on to study music further in Cork’s School Of Rock, Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, and to gain employment in Midleton. The project gives them a chance they might never have had otherwise – as exemplified by a recent trip to Sweden, when Ms Seymour took 25 of her students on a cultural exchange programme to a similar group of students. The two groups came together and created music and art over five days under the auspices of Léargas – a trip of a lifetime for many of the participants.

The students also share their creativity with the local community in east Cork – they recently engaged in an art project with residents of the community hospital to create a large scale mural in the grounds of the community garden. The project’s contribution to the town has not gone unnoticed, with people in the locality donating musical instruments to the students, whilst a former janitor of Midleton Community Centre donated a car to the project. There has also been fund-raising for them – An Teach Beag pub, known locally as Banners, held an all day music marathon for the East Cork Music Project, raising €2,500, while a local choir has donated €1,000 raised through concerts they held.

But for all the musical creativity the project has inspired in the participants and the wider community, Ms Seymour says that the real rewards are seeing the kids communicating: “What we do here is create a space for the students to communicate and participate in something creative. It helps teach them to find their voice – to express how they are feeling. The greatest reward at the end of each term is seeing a student who has found some self belief, who has found some confidence in themselves and their own abilities and creativity.”

The East Cork Music Project is an example of the best of community spirit – creative, inclusive, educational, enriching. Plato said “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.” At a time of year when people celebrate the child, Ms Seymour’s project and its participants are a shining beacon of hope for a better tomorrow – where no child is left behind.

-To donate to the project, or to just see some of their work, you can contact them on eastcorkmusicproject@gmail.com, or at  https://www.facebook.com/Eastcorkmusicproject/.

Local man starts working for INM, takes back everything he said about them

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Via a series of most fortunate events, I have recently written a bit for the Irish Independent, Ireland’s biggest selling newspaper (by some distance). It’s nice to be back writing, especially the stuff for INM, which is more like the blog and less like the po-faced stuff I often did for print. Basically, I get to make obscure references and dick jokes, and get paid for it. It’s all good – especially since I recently spoke to a person who asked me the depressing question ‘so are you just a whiskey blogger now?’ I felt like crying.

That said, I’m not entirely certain how to describe myself – ‘writer’ sounds too pretentious, while ‘journalist’ is an outright lie, so really ‘word whore’ is the most accurate. Anyway, here is some of my waffling –

 

An Ode To The Middle Classes

It’s been a rough few years for the middle class. When Bertie Ahern stood up on April 2, 2008 to tell us he was standing down, it marked the end of a golden age for Ireland’s noblesse au premier degré. It was their JFK moment, a magic bullet that snapped their politics back and to the left. Over the following months, financial institutions fell to the ground like toddlers in a supermarket aisle, and the weary middle classes were expected to pick them up and dust them off. Suddenly they were the squeezed middle, crushed with debt to a point that they were forced to compact words into nonsensical portmanteaus – a wet weekend in Leitrim was a ‘staycation’,  while being eaten alive by midges in a medium-sized tent was ‘glamping’. Harsh lessons were learned, like where the local Aldi and Lidl were located, along with the startling revelation that ‘Primark stuff is actually alright, actually’. But they survived, and lived to tell the tale of those cruel years; an Angela’s Ashes for a generation that sees iPads as a basic human right.

But things have been improving. There have been – whisper it – green shoots. Few people want to admit it, but things are not all that bad. So maybe it is time for the middle class to waken from their financial hibernation, dust off the debit card and reach once more for that capitalist rainbow of Having Nice Things And A Nice House. In case they need guidance, William Hanson, one of the UK’s leading etiquette experts, has compiled a list of 16 items that mean that you are, in fact, middle class.

Thank the lord for Mr Hanson’s list, as the portion of the brain that controls middle class urges, or HyggeThalmus, has grown dusty during its cryosleep. You can barely remember how to correctly pronounce quinoa, not to mind what it actually is, and no longer know for sure if Nespresso is more Fair Trade-y than fresh ground.

These are the middle class problems you now face. Ten years ago your problems included getting mild hypothermia whilst queuing overnight to pay 250k for a two bed apartment in a village that didn’t even have a Spar. Now your problems include the dilemma of being this moment’s greatest monster – a private landlord. But who needs that mud slung at them when there is AirBnB? No longer are you 2016’s version of Charles Boycott, now you are that middle class aspirational figure – The Perfect Host. You are Beverly and Tim from Abigail’s Party, welcoming guests from across the world to your beautiful bespoke two-bed flat in a village with no Spar, telling them about the many amenities in the surrounding area (including a Centra in the next town, a short five mile walk) and trying to figure out what exactly they plan to do in your (Primark) Egyptian cotton bed linens.

The cultural theorist Mary Douglas says that dirt is matter out of place – shoes on the floor are fine, shoes on the table are dirty. And so when your guests check out, you don the Marigolds and become a crime scene investigator, figuring out what matter went where, scrubbing away the general ickiness of Other People. But Other People are also your target demographic – you want to impress them, to fit in, to belong. You spend countless hours fretting over what shade of Le Creuset goes best with a stainless steel Rangemaster – the aquamarine or the bastard orange? You don’t want to discredit your kitchen, which cost a small fortune in 2007, an era in which having your domestic space designed by Porche somehow made perfect sense, as did the four clocks on the dining room wall giving the time zones in London, Tokyo, New York and Mullingar.

The must-have list for the struggling class, as compiled by Mr Hanson, is as follows:

  • 1. Smart TV

A curveball straight from the get go. If you had been asked to guess, most people would have said ‘a bookcase’ would top the list, or, if they were being honest, ‘a dusty bookcase’. Because why would you ever need to open a book when even your TV is smart?  

  • 2. Dyson vacuum cleaner

A €600 vacuum that looks like it was designed by the doozers from Fraggle Rock, with clear plastic so you can see several dozen pieces of Lego rattling around it at 5,000 RPM.

  • 3. Barbecue

A telling trait of the middle classes is their belief that things will somehow be ok. Tied into this vague optimism is the belief that barbecues are a thing that actually happen in the real world, not just in unrealistic Richard Curtis-scripted romcoms. This is a false belief that is as corrosive to the soul as Irish rain is to your B&Q kettle BBQ. But at least the spiders have somewhere to shelter from the rain.

  • 4. Vinyl records

You tell everyone they sound better, but you really don’t know anymore in this world of FLAC and Beats by Dre. But there are people here for a dinner party, so they might be impressed by your ironic use of Demis Roussos to soundtrack the frantic smashing of avocados in your Porche kitchen.

  • 5. iMac

You secretly love your iMac more than you love your kids.

  • 6. Nutribullet

Don’t call it a blender. It’s so much more than that. How much more? Two blades more. That is your line and you are sticking to it.

  • 7. Antler or Samsonite luggage

Strictly for the carry-on – the rest of your belongings are stuffed into bin bags in the hold, where nobody can see them.

  • 8. Wood burning stove

Wood, newspapers, sweet wrappers, nappies. Anything flammable really. Those pine logs are really more for display purposes.

  • 9. Spiralizer

Who hasn’t looked at a courgette and thought ‘what this watery mess needs is to be served in ribbon form, to drag the experience out even longer’? You, that’s who. But somehow you still own a spiralizer.

  • 10. Mulberry bag

You secretly love your Mulberry bag more than you love your iMac and your kids combined.

  • 11. Matching coasters

Cohesion. Order. Control. Constant judgement. Constant disappointment. You know: Matching coasters.

  • 12. Boiling water taps

Taps that spit out boiling water – what a time to be alive. Tea has never been so unsettling, and your hands have never been so sore. If only science would hurry up and invent a cold tap too.

  • 13. Hot tub

This is where Mr Hanson’s list starts to move away from the good old Irish middle class and into the realm of Hollyoaks and that episode of Grand Designs where they stuffed a hot tub and pampas grasses into their tiny back garden. Hot tubs are expensive, tedious and will never shake off the whiff of dubious activity, no matter how much chlorine you dilute the (mostly rain)water with. You may see yourself as a suburban Dorian Gray, but atop the Stira to your attic, that portrait is riddled with Legionnaires Disease.

The middle classes are meant to be repressed – nobody went for dinner in Lord Byron’s house because they were scared of what he might have done to the food. Please tone it down.

  • 14. Aga range cooker

Like a Range Rover you park in the kitchen, this is borderline upper-middle class, as are having an actual knowledge of wine, or owning a small blowtorch just for caramelising the sugar on your creme brulee. Keep going on like this and it’ll be wax jackets and clay pigeons before you can say ‘formers morket’.

  • 15. Smeg fridge

Presumably taken from the Swedish word for smug, you don’t need to tell anyone you got this hulking beast on the first day of the January sales for a mere ten euro, because your smirk has broadcasted it to every coffee morning in the parish. Everyone hopes it falls on you some day.

  • 16. Brompton bike

The fact they can be folded away means they are easier to steal. You will never see one of these anywhere other than on DoneDeal or in the Liffey at low tide.

That is Mr Hanson’s complete list, which failed to mention piano lessons, blazers, knowing a European language and owning a memory foam mattress. However, the most egregious omission was that of the most middle class trait of all – the fear that you might not actually be middle class.