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.

 

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.