Thursday, October 29, 2009

Campaigning on the real issues

The scale and variety of what comes through my letterbox every day is astonishing. From free newspapers like ours and genuine correspondence, right down the scale to charity scams, there is always something on the doormat when I get home in the evening. But I’ve been noticing some new additions to the pile recently; leaflets from trade union groups urging me to ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ (ICTU) and outlining 7 Steps to Transform (IMPACT).
The IMPACT leaflet has a picture of a sick baby – named Laura – on the front, and says ‘Laura needs Ireland’s public services much more than Ireland needs to cut them’. When I contacted IMPACT to ask about Laura, I was told that she is a stock image , “an image that would illustrate where the campaign was coming from, very much from the point of view of a service user”.
Whether Laura is real or simply an illustration is not the core issue here. If she was real (like, for example, Jake Cloake, the 14-month-old from Enniscorthy, who is really awaiting a vital heart operation), it wouldn’t lessen the cynicism of a trade union, representing public sector workers, using the emotional hook of a sick child to persuade other workers to back what is essentially a campaign to retain pay and conditions for the union’s members.
I have no grudge against public sector workers. Like everyone else, the majority are hardworking, decent people who have worked hard to get where they are, and are dismayed to find themselves out of pocket compared to this time last year through a combination of levies and increased taxes.
However, by and large, public sector workers are reasonably well paid and have entitlements the rest of us can only dream about. Calling a pension levy ‘a pay cut’, when it still does not add up to the amount required to pay out that same pension is disingenuous at best. Public servants pay ‘towards’ their pensions; they do not pay for them.
The use of this emotional imagery – ‘think of the children’, if you will – does not say much for the integrity of IMPACT’s message. If they thought people would support calls to retain pay and conditions of public sector workers, that’s what they’d have asked for. Instead, they’ve used emotive imagery to imply that cuts in their wages will affect your children’s future.
In this week’s Cork Independent, we’ve brought you a special report (pages 10 – 12) on the front-line workers who say their livelihood is being threatened by the proposals in the McCarthy report and the upcoming Budget.
Our reporter Eoin Weldon spoke to three public servants – a nurse, a Garda and a fireman – who provide essential services for the running of the country. They are angry because they believe they’re being scapegoated for the mistakes of politicians and bankers (true) and they are afraid of what could happen to them following the Budget.
The IMPACT campaign does these workers a disservice by using shock tactics instead of explaining their reasons. Here, we do that for you, so that you can make up your own mind.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cork Jazz Festival

As you can read in last week's Cork Independent, the Cork Jazz Festival came about when then hotel manager Bernard Casey panicked after a conference cancelled on him and needed something to fill his hotel for a weekend. Necessity is the mother of invention!
Hard to believe that such a major institution of Cork life started off as a stop-gap commercial decision, but when you think about it, perhaps not.
Commercial decisions are usually made with one thing in mind - the marketplace. Supply and demand make the world go around.
At the time Cork did not have a festival, and one thing every city needs is a landmark event to draw people in who will spend money, and perhaps draw local people out to do the same. Galway has excelled at this, and, having lived there, I know it's like a merry-go-round of festivals and calendar dates that keep what is essentially a big town ticking over, and keeping it at the economic level of a city.
A lot of socially-minded Irish people - former Arts students and the like (I include myself in this, by the way) - tend to think of business as 'a bad thing', by definition of the fact that it's designed to make a profit.
For many, calling someone 'a PD' was for years the biggest insult you could give, because it was meant to imply that you would privatise your own big toe and sell your granny, while leaving the little people to starve.
Now, I'm not making an out-and-out argument for pure capitalism - obviously, there are flaws to every system and capitalism has shown us in the past year that its flaws are many and, sometimes, insurmountable.
But when pure capitalism creates something as enjoyable and as atmospheric as the Cork Jazz Festival - enabling musicians to play music not for profit, but because they love it, and enabling the public to hear free live music of all standards (and none) in a legion of venues across one city.
Granted, there were some pubs you couldn't get Beamish or Murphy's in, because it's the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. Which is annoying, I suppose. I don't drink either of those (or Guinness, for that matter), so personally I wasn't bothered. And, working for a commercial business has taught me the importance of branding, so I was willing to trade-off the omnipresent branding for the buzz and atmosphere of live music and good company.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Imaginarium of Terry Gilliam

I went to see the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus last night. Am still trying to figure out what the deal is with one of the strangest films I've ever seen!

Great performances and fantastic special effects but the narrative is rather weak, truth be told. While Heath Ledger is excellent in it (RIP), I thought Johnny Depp would have been better cast in that part. He brought the same edginess to it that Ledger brought to the Joker.

Lily Cole is excellent as the daughter of Dr Parnassus, but I thought the character was sloppily drawn, or else heavily edited. She is a totally one-dimensional, sweet teenage girl until the point where she screams "I'm a woman now! A selfish bitch!" which is a little odd as she's really shown no signs of any selfishness, apart from wanting to get off with Colin Farrell, which is just natural really.

A few Python-esque sequences stuck out a bit although the trips through the mirror were done beautifully on the whole, very trippy.

I love fantasy, I love comedy, and I love almost all the constituent parts of this film - cast, director, concept. But it just doesn't come together.

A tale of two role models

A tale of two role models

Just over a week ago – last Sunday – we heard that Boyzone star Stephen Gately had died while on holiday with his civil partner Andrew Cowles in Majorca. A sad and untimely death for the young man of only 33 years old, who had brightened up the adolescences of so many teenage girls (including this one) with his sweet face and sweeter voice.

While most of the Irish media were at pains to tell the story sensitively, with respect for Gately's family and friends, some of the tabloids took the tacky approach. Finding that he died of natural causes should have been case closed, but I stopped reading after one journalist repeatedly, insistently, questioned whether Gately had vomited in his sleep. There are certain things the public needs to know, but that is not one of them.

However, the Irish media can hold its head up high in comparison to the vitriolic, bile-filled column of the Daily Mail's Jan Moir which caused outrage over the weekend in Britain, and engendered the largest amount of complaints ever to the Press Complaints Commission there. Moir's article insinuated that Gately died because of his homosexual 'lifestyle', and further hinted that there was something sinister about his death; something police have absolutely refuted, backed by the post-mortem results. Of course Moir has the right to free expression of her opinions, but facts are facts, and Gately died of natural causes.

It's against this background – one in which there still exists hateful, disgusting views about homosexuality and homosexuals – that Cork hurler Donal Og Cusack has come out as gay.

It's purely a coincidence that Cusack's revelatory autobiography is to be released this Friday, just in the wake of the death of one of Ireland's gay icons. But the timing isn't important.

What's important is that Cusack feels secure enough as a GAA player to do what would have been unthinkable just ten years ago, when Gately came out. The GAA is highly traditional in its ethos, and sport as a whole is notoriously homophobic – there are very few openly gay players in any men's sport.

In a sign that even this most traditional of Irish institutions is moving with the times, there has been no negativity since Cusack's declaration. Far from it. His team-mates and GAA officials have been quick to come out in support of his decision, and the Cork public has backed him too.

I always think it's unfair to suggest that somebody famous is a role model solely by virtue of their fame. A talent for sport, or music, or singing, does not mean a person wishes to be looked up to, or seen as some kind of example. However, in coming out publicly and facing down the homophobes, Cusack has become a role model. He is a shining example of the marriage of old Ireland with post-Celtic Tiger Ireland – of one of our greatest institutions and of our new openness.

Cusack's move will be especially important to many young people throughout Ireland, especially rural Ireland. Rural villages are the hardest places to be gay; 'the only gay in the village' is not just a TV character. Now that rural Ireland has its own gay role model, perhaps it will make life easier for those who have yet to take the step out of the closet.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some gold amid the gloom

Every day, as I sift through hundreds of emails, I marvel at the variety of events happening in Cork every week. The doom and gloom of the recession has convinced many of us that the country is dead; that there is no money; nothing happening; and that everyone is miserable. This gloom isn't exclusive to Ireland. Twenty-three workers at France Telecom have taken their own lives since the beginning of 2008; the trend is blamed on cost-cutting at the company.

In America, just 39 per cent of workers professed loyalty to their employers in December 2008, compared with 95 per cent in June 2007. And the number who trusted their employers fell from 79 per cent to 22 per cent over the same period.

It looks like the cynicism currently being directed at Irish politicians is not an Irish phenomenon, or even a political phenomenon. Right now, the entire Western world is experiencing a comparable mood swing. John O'Donoghue's resignation comes just months after the Speaker of the English Parliament was forced to resign. Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi is probably facing fraud charges. However, we seem to be forgetting something pretty important. To go back to my emails, there are hundreds of them a day. Many of them are from PR companies, pushing products and services. More are from politicians, trying to highlight issues (or get their names in the paper). But the vast majority are related to charities, community groups, choirs, sports clubs, retired groups, and the like.

The 'third sector', which is made up of community, development and voluntary groups, has long been and remains absolutely essential in Irish life. From the early days of the GAA as the nineteenth century faded, to the Special Olympics in the infancy of the twenty-first, we have always excelled at giving up our time and effort, and giving 100 per cent, to help someone, somewhere. This week alone there are so many voluntary events – maybe not earth-shattering, but important to somebody – on in Cork that it is hard to even record all of them and notify a depressed public that there is life, Jim, but maybe not as we know it.

This life is not centred around flash cars and penthouse apartments, but ordinary people and their extraordinary contributions to others. Here are a few examples: - This week is Positive Ageing week, run by Age Action, a charity that provides help, support and advice to older people. See our piece on p12.

- The Irish Red Cross – a voluntary organisation – is teaching people in Cork to become first aid instructors. They will save lives. See our piece on p18. - Cork Simon Community volunteers will collect money for the homeless at church gates this weekend. See our piece on p15.

- A fundraising event will take place in aid of Enable Ireland and the Cloghroe Aspergers Support Group this evening. See our piece on p15. This is just a tiny sample of events around Cork City and County this week. But they are enough to remind us of what makes Irish society. Cork can get through the recession; some will lose hope, many will lose jobs, but all of us have something to gain from giving. There is some gold amid the gloom, just not the kind we're used to.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Obama

Fair play to Barack Obama. At the age of 48, he is President of the most powerful country on earth, has written his autobiography, and has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Where the hell does one go from there?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bull scapegoated

Bull scapegoated

Tuesday night’s Six One news had it all; personalities, drama, intrigue, and embarrassment. Eamon Gilmore’s Dáil performance was, as usual, very measured, but unusually, very nervous. I’ve always been impressed by Gilmore, having interviewed him a number of times since he became Labour party leader, and there was no doubt he was nervous about the magnitude of the task before him; calling on an Irish politician to resign on grounds of honour.
It could be my youth, but I can’t remember a moment like it as long as I’ve been following politics. Not in Ireland, at any rate. In Britain there is a culture of resignation and rising from the ashes – Peter Mandelson has made more resignations than most, but now occupies a position of great authority over Brown’s government as it struggles to stay in power.
Many of our politicians are fine people. Contrary to popular belief, many of them actually got into the job to help other people. However, they do not operate in a vacuum and cannot ignore prevailing moods in Irish culture; they reflect the people they represent.
We have known for a long time that our politicians were enjoying the high life. The infamous Galway Races tent is the most common example of this, and greed has been a theme, particularly over the last ten years or so, roughly matching the period in which Fianna Fáil have been in Government.
However, politicians are not the only ones who were greedy over the past few years; bankers are the best example of this, with inflated salaries to match their oversized cars; property developers bit off more than they could chew, and the list goes on. However, there’s a sense in which every sector of society reflected the pattern – at a very basic level, people got greedy. One house was not enough. Cars were not enough – it had to be SUVs. One holiday a year? Pah. We deserved more.
In fairness, this was not just an Irish trend. TV shows like MTV Cribs and My Super Sweet 16 displayed a growth in greed during the noughties that was almost obscene.
In that context, what John O’Donoghue did wrong was merely reflective of the prevailing culture; the problem for him was, he had more resources at his disposal, and those resources just happened to belong to us, the taxpayers.
I am glad Eamon Gilmore made the leap and forced O’Donoghue’s hand. The prevailing climate has changed; ostentation is no longer in vogue, and the Government has been terribly slow to acknowledge that.
But the reluctance with which the Opposition – and indeed the Government – took in the seriousness of the revelations made by the Sunday Tribune was telling.
O’Donoghue’s former role as Minister of Arts, Sport and Tourism meant he was an obvious target for the Tribune’s persistence – he was bound to have a lot of air miles mounted up. Freedom of Information requests are not cheap or easy to carry out, and the Trib was forced to choose who it would go after, to an extent.
What if it had chosen another politician? Or what if the paper had had the resources to go after the whole Cabinet? Or indeed one of the Opposition front benches? Something tells me O’Donoghue would not be the only one resigning then.
Something had to give – the country is in crisis, and this may only, hopefully, be the first step in a real series of changes.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Friends with benefits

Friends with benefits

Friends with benefits – the term came into my consciousness first as a lyric in an Alanis Morissette song (oh, the early 90s!). At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what it meant, maybe that the friend might do a French plait for you the odd time, or let you borrow their Boyzone album.
Much older, and slightly wiser, the phrase came to mind recently upon hearing a tale of unrequited… something… that had been going on for quite a while between two old friends.
He’s typically male; not always the brightest when feelings are involved, and not awfully tuned in to any type of vibes. A bit of a metrosexual himself, my friend – let’s call him John – is into the type of girl other girls hate. Glossy hair, fake tan, a face full of makeup and the latest fashion and John is falling over himself.
She – let’s call her Mary – doesn’t quite fit the image I’ve created just now of John’s ideal woman. A lovely looking girl but not cast in the Cheryl Cole mould, Mary is fun, kind, funny and warm, and has been lusting after John for about two years now.
An abandoned attempt at a kiss under the mistletoe last year seemed to be the end of something that never began, but, like a one-winged phoenix rising, wonkily, from the ashes, their relationship assumed fledgling status at the start of the summer and is still limply hovering.
A frank conversation with John last year revealed that he “definitely” didn’t fancy Mary. “She’s just not my type, like, I don’t find her attractive at all to be honest. She’s a nice girl but I really don’t fancy her.” She clearly isn’t his type; but it hasn’t stopped him getting in there while the going was good, and he shows no sign of getting out again.
A group holiday with other friends was complicated as the two of them began their ‘no we’re just friends that sometimes sleep in each other’s rooms’ carry-on, and over three months later not much has changed.
Just friends… who spend most evenings together, many nights together and who visit each others’ families together. Hmmm.
Generally, what people do in the privacy of their own bedrooms doesn’t bother me – not my problem.
But my fear in this situation is that John – as I mentioned, not the most intuitive – will take everything Mary says about them being just friends completely literally, and, one Saturday night in their favourite haunt, introduce her to Cheryl, who is “really hot”. And proceed to chat up Cheryl, bring her home, and maybe even ring Mary for a chat about it the next morning… as if she were one of the lads. Because she has let him believe she is.
Poor Mary. In fairness to her, sticking to her guns has won him over, to a point. It’s not like she hasn’t gotten some of what she wanted – company and a cheap hot water bottle. But as for an actual relationship, always something she’s wanted, not a hope. Hopefully, she’ll realise that before John does his usual bull in a china shop act, but I won’t hold my breath.

Manchester madness

Manchester: hop, skip and jump with BMI Baby

Fancy a shopping trip? A good night out? A premier league football match? Or even some culture away from Cork?

I visited Cork recently as the guest of BMI Baby and Marketing Manchester

Manchester is one of the UK’s biggest cities, with over twice the population of Dublin, and is well known for both its sporting glory and shopping potential. It’s ideal for a short break, and with BMI Baby flying regularly from Cork Airport, is quicker and probably cheaper than going to Dublin for a girls’ weekend.
With my knowledge of Manchester stretching about as far as the cobbles of Coronation Street and t’mills, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself in a vibrant, modern city that retains aspects of its industrial past but is clearly striving to become a cultural and retail destination.
Manchester is ideal for a shopping holiday. Weak sterling and the difference in prices at UK retail outlets mean that any avid shopper will bag a bargain. Now that Cork has many of the same stores, it’s interesting, and rather frustrating, to see the rip-off price differences in many of the bigger chainstores. With some of the UK’s biggest shopping centres including the city centre-based Arndale Centre and of course the Trafford Centre, there’s plenty of scope to shop ‘til you drop and naturally, we did. While many people think immediately of London, Manchester benefits from a cheaper cost of living – so food, drink and accommodation are all far cheaper than they would be in the English capital.
A trip on the Manchester Wheel (similar to the London Eye) provides a great birds eye view over the city, and is one of few traditionally ‘touristy’ experiences available. Corrie fans will be disappointed to learn that you can no longer tread the hallowed cobbles, and the lack of any Coronation Street attraction was our one complaint about the city!
The city has plenty to offer when it comes to eating out and socialising. We lunched at the delightfully quaint Mr Thomas’ Chophouse, which is located conveniently near the Arndale Centre, and serves a lot more than chops, much to my relief. Friendly service and excellent, hearty food (I had the fish and chips with mushy peas, which was fantastic) make this a must, and the old-fashioned décor is atmospheric. It’s always good to see a big lunch crowd and the mix of office workers and at least one couple on a date was encouraging.
For dinner, Manchester has a great range of options. The city’s size and diverse ethnic mix means it has something for everyone, and we visited Ning, a Malaysian restaurant in the city’s Northern Quarter. The food was among the best Asian cuisine I’ve ever tasted, and a perfectly chosen wine list complemented it well. Friendly staff and excellent service completed the experience.
As Manchester continues to be a massive centre of industry and commerce, it has a great range of accommodation to choose from. Business travellers demand a high standard, so the city is well equipped for these. We stayed at the Palace Hotel in central Oxford Street, which is well located across the street from Oxford Road Train Station, just 20 minutes from the airport. The hotel is imposing and really brings home to you just how much history Manchester has. It takes up almost a full city block and is situated in the former headquarters of Refuge Assurance, which was clearly a major player in the industry. A gothic red-brick façade, stained glass windows and a huge, pillared reception area with a glass dome in the ceiling must have made for some very intimidated life insurance customers back in its days as a financial institution. Nowadays it is a premium conference hotel and has recently been refurbished to a very high standard, with comfortable, spacious rooms and a modern, appealing décor within the rooms.
See or for more information.

Disillusionment 101

This was intended to be this week's editorial, but John O'Donoghue's resignation put paid to it! Nonetheless I think elements of it are still relevant...

Disillusionment 101

Well, that’s that. All done. And dusted. We voted yes, now where’s our prize? I seem to remember being promised more jobs. I’m happy enough with the one but at a time like this, if you’re offered more, you take them, right? And I think I was promised closer ties with Europe as well. And wasn’t there something about a Ryanair seat sale? I definitely remember Michael O’Leary giving out about something and doesn’t that usually presage a sale of some kind?
Of all the promises we’ve been made recently the only one I can think of that seems to have come true is the one about closer ties with Europe; that new H&M is lovely you know. H&M are Swedish and God knows it took a lot to get them to Cork but the Yes to Lisbon must have been the final straw. Yes to Sweden!
Forgive my cynicism but I have never felt an anti-climax like the one that followed the Yes to Lisbon vote. When two-thirds of the electorate votes for something very few understood and quite a lot didn’t really want to vote for, but felt they had no choice, it does take the ‘resounding’ out of the whole equation.
As a Yes voter from the beginning, and a supporter of the referendum re-run, I expected to feel happy about the result but somehow, the way in which it happened left a sour taste. Having beaten down all the Opposition (such as they were) and run a campaign based purely on the economy, the Government let itself down, despite the eventual victory. Although I did feel a glimmer of gladness for Brian Cowen when I saw the overwhelming look of relief on his face at the post-referendum press conference. There’s a weight off.
This Government and its term has been a lesson in disillusionment. Perhaps my feeling of being let down post-Yes is more related to the continuing disgrace of Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue, or the scandals of FÁS, or the unremitting cutbacks. Perhaps it is because I’ve just realised the frightening percentage of my friends who’ve already emigrated. Perhaps it is in relation to the unrelenting economic misery and the fact that suddenly there is conflict everywhere in Irish society; I’m afraid to talk to my own mother, a teacher, in case I’ve picked up the Pick on the Public Sector bug and she disowns me.
Irish society is in crisis. During the years of the Celtic Tiger, when all the chickens that are currently coming home to roost were but fledglings, a few people had the courage to shout ‘stop’ and were themselves shouted down. The greed, cynicism and cronyism of those years and the decades since the foundation of the State (The New Gill History of Ireland is instructive) have made this country what it is today: a wonderful country in many ways, most of them down to EU membership and a few visionaries, but also a corrupt and selfish country now facing a very uncertain future.
This week’s torrential rain would put anyone in a bad mood, but I can’t help thinking it reflects the national mood perfectly. A storm is coming, and hopefully, there will be some sunshine after it.