Friday, November 20, 2009


It seems our front page story was unusually prescient - things are crazy in Cork this morning. Very sad reason for the flooding; the dam at the Inniscarra reservoir was kept shut in order to search for missing student Brian O Tuama in the river, but they had to free the water or risk the dam bursting.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fail to prepare...

This week we learned that Cork could be submerged under water if flood defences are not adequately prepared in time for the real onset of climate change. According to a new report by the Irish Academy of Engineers, Ireland's major cities, all built on the coast and also on river estuaries, could be submerged within the next century as a result of climate change.

The report – 'Ireland at Risk' – also claims that the traditional one-in-a-century flood could happen every five years if measures are not taken to combat climate change and to prepare flood defences. And many areas of Cork are at serious risk.

Somebody tell that to the people in Passage West and Glenbrook who saw wholesale destruction of their property last week. Serious flooding occurred in Glenbrook, Monkstown, Rochestown, Carrigaline, Shanbally and Minane Bridge, and residents in Glenbrook in particular were devastated at the destruction of homes and vehicles. However, the crucial part of this tale of woe is that local people had been seeking flood defence works for years. Not huge ones; merely the unblocking of gullies. And why didn't they happen? Not urgent, according to Cork County Council.

In fairness to Cork County Council, they're not operating in a vacuum. Irish attitudes to preparation are at best optimistic and at worst apocalyptic. Make hay while the sun shines… it might never happen… sure we'll manage.

Nothing is urgent until the worst happens. That's how disaster strikes. And climate change, as this report shows, is coming at us at full speed. I'm not an expert on the environment. But I believe in what I can see, and even I can see that the weather is changing.

At the moment, the country is like one of those cartoon characters whose eyes are following the prize, while the anvil plummets towards them at speed. We are focussing on the finer points of bankers' salaries and tax rates and even on Jedward, and the Breffmeister. Some of these things are merely much-needed entertainment, while others may be directly relevant to our daily lives and wellbeing.

But issues like last week's flooding in Passage West and Glenbrook show us that we cannot afford to put climate change on the back burner. Waiting until we've dealt with the economic crisis is simply not good enough; the economic crisis could continue for the next twenty years.
While real long-term change needs to happen from the bottom up, the Government must lead on this, and introduce a flood defence programme immediately. We cannot stop climate change. But, while it might take a sea-change in mentality, we can do our best to prepare for and cope with it.

- For pics see or

*UPDATE: Cork is practically underwater today, one day after writing... wasn't aware I was psychic!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Seanad vacancies

Interesting to see the choices of Seanad nomination to fill two vacant seats (the third will come in due course).

I must say I'm glad to see the Greens' Niall O Brolchain nominated for a seat - he is more suited to national politics than local and I think the current activity level in the Seanad will suit him. (Declaration of interest: I know Niall but only professionally, and I am quite sorry not to be in Galway to cover this story!)

He lost his seat in Galway City West in July, and it seems to have been quite the rollercoaster ride for him to this point - from being the Greens 'next big thing' as their first mayor in 2006, to being the face of the Galway Water Crisis in 2007, to missing out on a Dail seat later in 2007, losing his council seat in July and now getting that long-sought Seanad nomination. I wish him the best of luck.

By 'level of activity', I mean that the Seanad appears to be quite a hotbed of intelligent debate these days. Since abolition became a running topic it seems some Senators have really pulled the finger out and are out there doing the business.

The sad thing about the Seanad is that some of the best brains in Irish politics are stuck in it due to their 'unelectability' as TDs or general bad luck. I have great time for celebrity Senators Shane Ross and David Norris but I've also come across some very intelligent, lower profile Senators who are wasted in the 'talking shop' of the Oireachtas.

The Seanad is a lot more diverse than the Dail and seems to have real debates, rather than the sham ones that usually involve an FF backbencher mumbling over his notes to the 'rhubarb'ing coming from the Opposition benches. The Seanad can be quite entertaining, but is often the only place a lot of legislation gets discussed.

But back to the nominations. It's interesting to note that Labour's candidate (token, I presume, since they are unlikely to win the poll among sitting Oireachtas members) is James Heffernan of Labour. Another declaration of interest: James is the local councillor where my parents live and I knew him growing up. He is a first time councillor and ran a surprisingly strong campaign for the Dail in 2007. Labour have clearly earmarked him for greatness and it says a lot that he has been chosen as a Seanad nominee, token or not.

Now, I haven't heard of FF's James Carroll, but a quick google reveals him to be easy on the eye, at least. That's not everything but it helps; just ask Eamon Ryan!

*Update - Sen David Norris emailed me after seeing this post:
"Do you know the entire electorate numbers 226. Its confined to members of the Seanad and Dail. That lot castigated the University Seats with constituency numbering 55,000 in the case of Trinity and over 100,000 in the case of NUI for being undemocratic. What a laugh."

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Emperor has no clothes

I've already written here about how supportive I am of the arts in general - particularly writing, theatre and music. I can appreciate other types of art generally, but don't have such an engagement with them.

But I am always willing to be educated, and with that in mind I went to the opening event of Art Trail last night at the Savoy Theatre in Cork. A lovely event, not your usual launch, very few of the launch-heads around. The free cocktails and nibbles went down a treat with the arty types, many of whom fulfilled the starving-in-a-garret stereotype perfectly.

The opening speech was mercifully brief, and in a very sweet attempt to get people to participate, a copy was handed to everyone in the audience to read aloud simultaneously. A friend and I started to join in but soon realised nobody else was, and as someone else pointed out, it did feel a bit like Mass. I respected the effort though - if people had bought in, it would have made the speech relevant and inclusive, something very few speeches are. So far, I get it.

A drink or two later we were wondering what, if anything, was coming next, when everybody started moving towards the screening room. So we, naturally, followed. This was the video installation mentioned on the press release.

But it wasn't. I think. At least, if it was, there's a serious case for a charge of false advertising.

What we were treated/subjected to was a 25-minute long chant by a woman in a white CSI-type boiler suit, standing in front of a screen on which the words of her chant were projected. But they weren't words, I think. Well, maybe they were words in Finnish or something - a lot of umlauts and a lot of strange constructions. Every time there was an ebb or a flow in the chant, there was an audible intake of breath and posture change as people got ready to applaud and run.
But no... about seven times this false dawn appeared. There were no chairs... after about ten minutes most people were sitting on the floor.

Discussing the thing at work this morning, one of our graphic designers explained to me that in conceptual art (apparently that's what this is) there are three roles: the artist installs, the critic gives it meaning, and the collector gives it value.
(Graphic designers do go to art college, so I'll presume he knows what he is talking about).

People questioned the validity of Tracy Emin's 'My Bed' which was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999. And in one sense they were right to - after all, everyone has a bed. But in another, that's exactly the reason it was art - everyone could relate to it, everyone would interpret it differently, it spoke to people and it raised questions (even if they were just questions about the artist's personal hygiene). So, although I'm not a huge lover of modern art, I see the point of that.

Likewise, on a visit to the Tate Modern a couple of years ago, I was disgusted by an installation involving childlike outlines of industrial buildings painted on a white wall, with two (real) dead crows pinned above them with arrows. I thought it was a) disgusting and b) not very imaginative. It was easy to interpret though - industrialism, destruction, modernity v nature, etc.

But this? What the hell was this about? Call me a philistine, but... the Emperor had no clothes on. Under the boiler suit. Obviously.

The Road

As part of the Corona Cork Film Festival, the movie version of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel, The Road, was shown at Cork Opera House on Sunday evening. The movie followed the festival's closing reception at the Pavilion, and an after party took place at the same venue.
I hate to say it, but they probably couldn't have chosen a worse movie to close the festival.
Not that The Road is a bad film. It's an incredibly good film, actually. It's beautifully shot, well edited, and features deep, involved performances by Viggo Mortensen, Charlize Theron, and the young Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is surely cursed with that name.
But boy is this film miserable. It's an unrelenting 119 minutes of absolute, gut-wrenching fear and misery.
I read the book. It's one of my favourite books, the type that leaves an impact on you for a long time afterwards, and leaves you thinking, questioning and slightly afraid of the dark. And also of not recycling - there is no reason given for the state of the world in this book, but you do get a feeling that it was the fault of humankind.
Whatever the impact of the book, the film certainly has punch. It leaves you reeling, gasping for air at times, and in need of a stiff drink!
There is a level of humanity in it that was most reminiscent, for me, of the scene in the Grapes of Wrath where Rose of Sharon breastfeeds the dying man - absolutely human and primal and somehow alien to modern sensibilities.

A brilliant film but have the brandy out for when you get home!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The winner takes it all

The winner takes it all

While it has been a perception of the civil service for years (largely thanks to the TV show Yes, Minister) that mediocrity is to be rewarded and cultivated, the celebration of mediocrity in wider society is something that hasn't really been noted, except by a small coterie of academics who bemoan the quality of university entrants each year.

This week Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown were drawn into a debate on the 'reality' television show X Factor, and the relative merits of different contestants. Showing off a particularly parochial attitude, An Taoiseach was minded to defend Irish twins John and Edward Grimes against the jibes of his UK counterpart.

"I hope they go all the way," the Taoiseach is quoting as telling a national newspaper. He was speaking from Berlin, where celebrations were ongoing for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall (surely nothing compared to the twins beating Welsh contestant Lucie Jones in this week's X Factor).

Cowen, a man who has been known to hold a note himself, is certainly listening to whichever PR adviser is telling him to 'get down with the kids' and show his fun side. And, true to his Fianna Fail roots, patriotism is his priority in this case. John and Edward were not alone in being discussed on the airwaves or in the Cork Independent offices this week.

Breffny Morgan, Cork's foremost Harvard graduate, is still in the running for Bill Cullen's Apprentice despite his bumbling manner and perceived slowness. Many people are now seeing Breffny as the danger in the long grass, a typical cute Corkman who is playing the rest of them for fools. And maybe that's the case.

I don't always agree with my colleague Neil Prendeville (page 12 of this week's Cork Independent), but I'm certainly of one mind with him in preferring 'the Breffmeister' over Jedward and the Cowell-directed circus that surrounds them.

The sad thing about all of it is that both Jedward and the Breffmeister have garnered huge public support simply because they both seem so… stupid.

When did idiocy become a qualification?
The example of Jade Goody is always trotted out in these cases but it doesn't apply – Jade Goody did not enter a talent competition. She entered Big Brother, a show that, of its nature, promoted those with a comic level of stupidity.

However, both Jedward and Breffny are contestants in competitions in which the other participants are a lot more deserving of the eventual prize. Jedward are taking part in a singing competition, and clearly can't sing. Breffny is taking part in a business competition, and clearly knows nothing about business.

And both are being supported massively by the voting public.

It does make one wonder whether the culture of 'it's the taking part that matters' has damaged the very definition of achievement. If every participant in a Sports Day egg and spoon race gets a medal, what is the point?
In any kind of competition, for most people, it is not the taking part that matters. You don't do a job interview 'to take part' – you do it to get a job.

It's winning that matters in both X Factor and the Apprentice - the contestants know that winning is the difference between being set on the path to success in their chosen careers, or being left on the scrapheap.

And the justice of giving Jedward a recording contract (my ears hurt already) or Breffny a €100,000 job (I'm probably jealous) is questionable. The winner takes it all, after all.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Arts attack

Over the past number of years, we in Cork have learned to expect the very best. A city of jazz, film and midsummer madness, City of Culture in 2005, and now one of the world’s Top Ten Cities to visit, Cork has never had it so good in many ways. But we learned yesterday that Ireland as a whole must get used to a lower standard of living. According to the OECD, a lower standard of living will become the norm over time due to the huge imbalance in the public finances. Even those who are still in work are finding cutbacks affecting them in small ways – grumpy staff in shops (pay cuts), nobody answering the phone in call centres (lay offs) and longer queues almost everywhere.
On Tuesday night I went to see the classic Ibsen play ‘A Doll’s House’, directed by Alan Stanford (that’s George from Glenroe to most of us) at the Everyman Palace. The play is a literary classic and features on the Leaving Certificate syllabus. The Everyman was, I would estimate, about one-quarter full. The play was fantastic. Beautifully produced and directed, fantastic actors and a thought-provoking storyline. But so few people were there to see it that I wondered how the theatre and company could afford to tour.
We are accustomed now to hearing that practically everything (farming, the public sector, the Catholic Church, schools, newspapers, the health service etc) is ‘in crisis’. And the arts are no different. With cutbacks threatening practically everything, supposedly unprofitable lines of spending like the arts – like ‘A Doll’s House’ - are first in line for the chop.
A new group, the National Campaign for the Arts, is gathering momentum in its campaign to retain funding for key parts of cultural infrastructure such as the Irish Film Institute, which supports about 6,000 film industry jobs, and Culture Ireland, which promotes Irish drama, music, art and writing abroad.
The group held a meeting in Cork recently which was strongly attended, and artists and arts workers across all regions have come out to voice their concerns. While much of their concern is of course for their own employment prospects, part of what understanding art is about is seeing the bigger picture.
The bigger picture is that, while you can’t do a straightforward cost-benefit analysis of our investment in the arts, it sows economic seeds from which the country reaps enormous dividends.
Ireland is known internationally for its writers, theatre, music, poetry and even film, and our reputation abroad as a cultural Mecca is well established. Cork’s stint as European City of Culture 2005 contributed massively to the city’s arts scene, not least by giving a confidence boost, which was noted in the Lonely Planet guide.
Being able to see a literary classic done by a top notch company, at a reasonable cost and just five minutes’ walk from home is just one of the reasons I love living in Cork. Dublin does not offer the same proximity, and none of the other regional cities offer such variety.
And how was I able to do it? Because of the support given by the Arts Council to venues like the Everyman, and to artists like those in Second Age Theatre Company.
Protecting and nurturing our domestic arts scene is the only way that the money-spinning international artists of the future can learn their craft. The arts provide the only international platform on which Ireland is genuinely respected and influential. They bring a huge volume of high-spending tourists here (€5 billion annually), although our cultural exports are more difficult to quantify, with Irish artists having won Grammys, Tonys, Oscars, and the Man Booker.
As the only Irish city in the Top Ten, and the only Irish City of Culture, Cork has an obligation to support what has made it great.
So get online, to, write to your politicians, and make sure that the near-bankruptcy of the public purse does not leave us culturally bankrupt as well.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Modern messages

I'm not a Mass goer. I eschew all things Catholic and have been known to sneer inadvertently at the very mention of religion - until I realised what a personal insult that was to millions of people, not least my own other half, who is religious.

A trip to the Vatican a couple of years ago left me crying with rage at the exclusivity and arrogance of the Catholic Church - one of the world's biggest clubs still to treat women as second-class members. St Peter's Basilica is cleaned by nuns, and the gift shop in the Dome is (wo)manned by them. Have you ever seen a priest clean anything, apart from the chalice the communion wine comes in?
Having worked in Development I also object to the ostentatious wealth of the Church, particularly when it is preaching against condom use in AIDS-afflicted communities.
I digress, but the scene is set: I'm not into religion, for a whole host of reasons.

Yesterday, I found myself at Mass in Ennis Cathedral, with my Granny, who is 86. I went because she'd have been upset if I didn't go. And I would rather feel like a hypocrite than upset my Granny.

Ennis is located in the Diocese of Killaloe, of which the Bishop is Dr Willie Walsh, who was a close friend of my late Grandad. I have positive feelings towards Dr Walsh, some of which come from this personal link, but many of which are related to his position as the only maverick bishop in this country.

"Maverick" may be too strong a word - he still made it to Bishop, so he couldn't be that liberal. But he is pretty out of the ordinary, and one of the few figures of religious authority to put his money where his mouth is - he is well known for offering his lawn to local Traveller families when the council refused to provide a halting site, something far closer to the message of Jesus than most of the Church's actions these days.

And his Diocese shows it in spades. It was the most interactive Mass I've ever been at (although I don't go these days, I was in a church choir as a kid and went every week for years).

There are banners around the Church that say things like "A good deed is worth a thousand prayers", and "Dream of tomorrow, live for today, and learn from yesterday". All very cheerful, positive, practical and pragmatic.

And the parish newsletter that I picked up had some very interesting reading: a meeting for anyone affected by the recession; charity fundraising initiatives, and calls for volunteers.

The congregation was invited to sing along with all the hymns - I could hear plenty of tuneless warbling, but it somehow made the whole experience a lot more interesting. Likewise, there was a call for a few more Eucharistic ministers, and up popped three or four people just out of nowhere. At one point those listening in at home on the parish radio were mentioned. And at the end, the priest had a chat about the weather, before telling a joke and wishing everyone safe home.

While many people in Ireland never really bought into religion 100%, almost all of us used the Church as a linchpin of the community. In fact, I don't think I heard the word 'community' until I was an adult - it was all about the 'parish'.

And, while a lot of the Church's message has been lost in scandal, indifference and irrelevance, my experience in Ennis yesterday showed me that the Church can be relevant, and it can still provide an outlet and a network for people who are struggling.

The Cathedral was almost full. A cynic would relate this to the recession, and maybe that's part of it. But the Diocese of Killaloe has managed to keep up with events and with people's lives, and to stay relevant.

I wouldn't say I'm converted - my issues around religion run deeper than that. But I'm impressed.