Thursday, April 29, 2010


It’s the dirt that hits you first. Poverty is dirty. Poverty means rusted tin cans, broken glass, polystyrene takeaway trays and plastic bottles. They are everywhere.

Ripped, dusty shreds of black plastic salute the onlooker, whipping in the wind from gnarled bushes. Rocks litter the landscape, and dust flies up before the wheels of the four-by-four.

Galvanised metal and dirty plastic sheeting blot the vista, until you look closer and realize the brightly coloured dots beside them are people, and the rubbish is their homes. Goats can be seen tottering precariously on cliffsides, wandering across roads and foraging in deforested, dusty expanses for rubbish and stray vegetation.

Travelling from Port au Prince to Haven’s Build It Week building site in Gonaives, Northern Haiti (about 170km, a six-hour journey by bus), the landscape changes from filthy, dusty urban, to rural poor, and back. The road is rough in places and almost non-existent in others. As we travel it is Sunday evening, and there are people, beautifully dressed in their best, going to and from church.

In one village, we pass a wedding; a woman’s exquisite white dress among the churchgoing crowd draws my eye from the bus, and as we pass the church I see her groom waiting anxiously at the door, with a coterie of handsome men beside him.

The convoy of Haven volunteers – six coaches brought in from the Dominican Republic and a number of security jeeps – gets wide eyed stares all the way. Children wave and shout, while adults look weary, resigned to more interference, positive though it may be.


Before the earthquake of 12 January, Haven had committed to building 1000 houses in Haiti in the next three years.

After the earthquake, Haven’s Leslie Buckley said the charity would build 10,000 homes in four years.
The process had begun with last year’s Build It Week, when 41 houses were built in Ouaniminthe, near the border with the Dominican Republic. Since then, 150 houses have been built and there are 50 more to go.
This year volunteers will build in Gonaives, which was largely destroyed by hurricanes, floods and mudslides in 2004 and 2008. Homes were swept away and over 10,000 people were evacuated for Hurricane Ike alone, while hundreds were killed.

Kosanius Phabiua lost three children and her home in Hurricane Ike in 2008. They were swept away before her eyes.
Now, she lives with her two remaining daughters and her husband, under a tarpaulin, miles from Gonaives, in an area called Mapoue.
They have lived in this shelter – a frayed, dirty USAID tarpaulin, supported by a rusted metal bed frame, a length of rope, and some rocks – for over two years.
She’s terrified of remaining here for another rainy season, afraid to lose the little she has left. Her elderly father lives under a similar tarpaulin beside them.
Her elder daughter, Rosnika, is disabled.
Like most of the children we’ve encountered in Haiti, she jumped excitedly up and down on our approach, waving with her one good arm and squealing. Rosnika’s condition means, our Haitian interpreter told us, “she’s dumb”.
We met her just minutes before, 100m away, a couple of hundred primary school kids came out to play at lunchtime. Rosnika doesn’t go to school, because there’s no school for her.
Perfectly turned out children in white and blue uniforms, the girls with neatly braided, beribboned hair, waved us off from inside the school gates.

Nearer to Gonaives, in a slum area called Raboteau, a densely packed array of shacks greets us. The stench is overwhelming at first, but so is the welcome from the area’s brightly dressed children, who come running out to meet us, curiously studying everything from our shoes to our unusually coloured hair.
Raboteau was decimated by hurricanes and mudslides in 2004 and 2008, and over 100,000 people live there in desperate conditions. There is no sanitation, with pigs, chickens, broken glass, human excrement and playing children all sharing the same patch of ground.
Pamela Vincent, who’s 29-years-old and about six months pregnant, lives in a one-roomed shelter with her husband, Joseph, a taxi driver. He earns about $3 per day, not enough, she tells us sadly, for them to move out of the slum.
Pamela apologises through the interpreter because she doesn’t have enough chairs for us. Despite the conditions she’s living in, her dignity is overwhelming.
In another life, she’d have been an interior designer, or perhaps a fashion buyer. She is wearing a gorgeous, spotless, lace dress. A beautiful embroidered curtain hangs over the doorway to the shack, and inside, just visible in the gloom, is a hanging wreath of purple fabric flowers.
Nearby we can see a dead pig in the only visible waterway, which is murky green. Barefoot children are scampering around us, posing for the cameras and grinning at us.

Both women welcomed us to what currently passes for their homes; they will be beneficiaries of the houses Haven is building. They’ve participated in Haven’s survey which allocates the homes on a points basis; number of dependents, income levels and history all contribute to points.
Both tell us they are looking forward to their new homes. Pamela nods shyly when asked if she has plans to decorate the new house outside Gonaives; she is already imagining it.
As we leave Raboteau, there’s a minor scene when a woman who won’t be receiving a house accosts Farah, Haven’s community development worker. She’s angry and upset.
Not everyone can have one of the new homes; there are simply not enough to go around, not this time. 144 houses are planned for this phase of the development, while volunteers will build 60 of those this week, along with a playground and community centre.

To find out more about Haven’s work in Haiti or to donate, see

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Looking at the bigger picture

Yes, they make us laugh. Yes, we may have cringed a bit - ok, a lot - when they first appeared on YouTube and later on the Late Late Show. But Crystal Swing’s latest breakthrough is astonishing for a number of reasons, not least that most commentators are completely ignoring the bigger picture.

They’ve featured in this newspaper a number of times now, and Crystal Swing have managed to do something this week that really is newsworthy: they’ve reached an audience of about 4.8 million viewers in the US, and will soon be seen on TV screens across the world, in many countries where The Ellen Show is syndicated.
The family group were flown to LA for filming by Tourism Ireland, according to reports, at a cost of €3,000.
Responses from our Facebook page to the move and the reported cost included “waste of money”, “why are they famous anyway” and “why don’t we go back to the days of pretending The Quiet Man is an accurate depiction of life in Ireland to rake in the tourist dollar?”
If you’ve watched the clip of Mary, Derek and Dervla, it’s possible that you were a bit bemused as to why Mary brought Ellen a bottle of Jameson and started rabbitting on about Midleton, Blarney Castle and the sights of Cork and Dublin.
While Crystal Swing’s act may be rather old-fashioned, their instinct for PR and their use (however inadvertently) of new media to promote first themselves, and now Cork, has been absolutely spot on.
And, while our readers are entitled to their own opinions, it’s clear that this type of lateral thinking is what’s going to keep Ireland to the forefront as a tourist destination.
The naming of Cork as a Lonely Planet must-see destination has been accoladed to the heights by everyone from your local barman to the Lord Mayor, who can see the money rolling in already.
But the ascent of Crystal Swing and their canny, and very patriotic, use of the time they got – for free – on a top-rated US show is one of those lucky breaks that don’t come around very often.
Tourism Ireland’s reported investment of €3000 for a slot of about eight minutes is peanuts compared to the what they’d have paid for that same space with the same audience in advertising rates.
‘Innovation’ is one of those words the Government keeps bandying around. Innovation, innovative thinking, thinking outside the box, originality, etc, etc.
At times, we need reminding that ‘innovation’ is not an industrial sector and is merely one ingredient in making a particular sector successful or viable.
Tourism Ireland is one of those rare State agencies that actually understands the bigger picture – marketing Ireland abroad in a time when the global economy is on its way up again and ours is still in the doldrums makes sense. Reel ‘em in any way you can and then, once they’re here, show them we have more to offer than they originally thought. Lonely Planet must-sees, crystal swingers, Jameson drinkers, and lots more besides.
Appointing Gabriel Byrne as cultural ambassador may have been unnecessary… Mary for High Consul, anyone?

Rights and responsibilities

This was written two weeks ago in response to the difficulties locally with local authority workers on strike.

We live in an age where everybody knows their rights. My mother, a teacher, has come home with tales of five-year-olds who are aware of their rights, and use them as a threat. And they’re not unusual. In post Celtic Tiger Ireland we’re all very well aware of what’s owed to us, how we should be treated, and our personal dignity.
But what about our responsibilities? It’s very often forgotten that ‘rights’ is an incomplete term when the word ‘responsibility’ is omitted. We all have human rights, but equally we have human responsibilities. Most of them are based on respecting other peoples’ rights. 
At the moment, there is a type of warfare going on in Ireland in which some people are trying to assert their rights at the expense of others.
In this week’s paper, Eoin Weldon reports on the frustration being felt by local politicians at the fact that they can’t do the jobs they were elected to do. The local representatives quoted have a right to be allowed to do their work but, more importantly, the people they represent have a right to that representation. That’s a pretty fundamental right.
Also this week, Christine Allen writes about the Cork people who are being denied their legal right to passports.
Behind both stories we see the right to a living wage come to the fore – some CPSU members are having a very tough time making ends meet since the pay cuts of last year. I heard of one chap who, since the pay cuts, is earning €1600 per month. His mortgage (which he qualified for under his previous, substantially higher, salary) is €1400 per month. Nobody can live on that, and I feel genuinely sympathetic to him and his colleagues who have been put in that position.
The CPSU are right to be angry. But we’re all angry. Most of us have taken pay cuts, while many have lost jobs, or even homes.
What about the private sector workers on short hours who can’t get appointments at their local social welfare offices because civil servants are on strike? What are they supposed to do? Strike action is not going to solve their problem – they won’t go on strike, because they are glad they have a job, and they will do nothing to jeopardise it.
A social welfare officer recently told an acquaintance of mine on a three-day week that he didn’t qualify for any payments – because he wasn’t actively seeking work. Patently incorrect, but where should he go for help? His local councillor? Well, he could – but she won’t be able to get anywhere either.
What about people who have jobs, with start dates, abroad, who can’t get passports and take up their positions? Where should they go for help? The passport office? They could – but they will be so long queueing that their job will be filled by the time they get their travel documents.
As we’ve all been told by teachers throughout the ages, two wrongs don’t make a right. Equally, rights do not exist without corresponding responsibilities. Margaret Thatcher once said that society did not exist. If things keep going the way they are, soon, she might be right.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mad Hatters' Ball

Firstly, thanks to everyone who helped out with the Mad Hatters' Ball. It was a great night, with some amazing effort made by people who came along. Photos are on, but here's the winner Amy Cole:

Amy's also a model with Lockdown Model Agency and she will definitely benefit from the prize, no doubt she has a great career ahead of her!

Thanks to Cathy Lawson, Aisling Kelleher, Miki Barlok and Julie Cobbe who judged, and also to the Savoy Theatre, Dave Mac for hosting, and DJ Peter Bowles who got everyone in the mood. Also thanks to Hopkins Communications for the drinkies and to all the other sponsors.

I got my itinerary for Haiti yesterday and will post it just as soon as I get time. For now, we are working on bringing out a bumper edition of the Cork Independent with an exclusive 24 page supplement on Cork Fashion Week. I'm quite excited as it's very different to anything I've previously done, but it's looking fantastic so far.