Thursday, July 29, 2010

Secret life of Cork

Living in the city centre, I thought I knew everything that was going on in Cork. On my doorstep, I have the English Market, Opera Lane, Patrick’s Street, historic Shandon, the Docklands, the genteel business district of the South Mall, all waiting to be discovered. And I have explored all of them numerous times.
But, like a lot of people, I don’t go outside my comfort zone too often – mostly, I go out to the same places, buy my groceries in the same shops and take the same shortcuts.
This is the first week in what’s known as ‘the silly season’. We’ve been lucky this year - it usually starts in July - but the economic conditions have meant there’s plenty of news even if most of it is bad. It’s the time of year when journalists quake at the thought of filling 96 pages – no council meetings, no Dáil, very little crime and no courts – and everyone else is on their holidays. Nobody answers the phone and nobody calls you back, and that dog that plays football in the neighbourhood is suddenly front page material.
With the Opera House closed, the majority of summer festivals over and done with, and schoolchildren starting to count down to the dreaded 1 September, it would be fair to assume that Cork has shut down for its summer holidays.
A colleague remarked to me during the week that even the streets seem to be dozing in these warm, heavy evenings. Pockets of buzz illuminate the hotspots, but by and large, Cork is quiet.
But it’s those pockets you have to watch out for. Where you see four or five, or ten people huddled outside a building, smoking and chatting, it’s worth finding out what’s going on.
This week, I’ve been having my own private Arts Week.
On Monday night, I went to see Cork playwright Conal Creedon’s two one-act plays, When I Was God & After Luke, at the Cork Arts Theatre.
Right across the river from the sleeping Goliath that is the Cork Opera House, the Cork Arts Theatre is like a brave, busy David, merrily toiling away with a packed schedule of lunchtime theatre (€10 – bargain) and short, tightly produced shows with Cork actors and production.
Creedon’s plays were marvellous – they capture Cork beautifully and with human themes that have appealed universally, as far away as Shanghai and New York. Whatever about the Lonely Planet, I bet there are a few Chinese theatre fans who are counting down the days until their trips to Cork.
On Tuesday, it was the turn of the Everyman, the grand old lady of Cork theatres, where the Cork premiere of Druid’s production of Penelope, written by Enda Walsh, was showing. The theatre was sold out, and the buzz – all ages, shapes and sizes of people – was impressive.
Despite some rather intimidating reviews in national papers, most of the crowd seemed to enjoy what is essentially an expose of human nature and its brutality and passion, wearing the clothes of a demented comedy. Well worth a watch, with an open mind.
Today, I hope to take in some art – but I’m not sure where to go. The Crawford Museum? The Cork Vision Centre? The Glucksman? Or maybe the exhibition of the adult education art classes at Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa, the invite to which popped into my inbox as I was writing this.
My point is this: The city may appear to be sleeping. But there are still plenty of people here who are dreaming, and the dreams are open to all of us. Step outside your comfort zone, and dare to dream.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fertile ground

Fertile ground

For a fertility feature we ran in the paper a couple of weeks ago, I spoke to leading Cork fertility expert, Dr John Waterstone, about the hows, whys, and whos of fertility treatment.

The interview reveals some interesting things. You can read it here... I wonder if anybody else will come up with the same queries and misgivings I had in relation to some of those statistics.

Dr John Waterstone is probably Cork’s best-known fertility expert.
Co-founder and Medical Director of the Cork Fertility Centre, his interest in helping couples conceive arose when he worked with the now world-famous fertility doctor and television personality Robert Winston, now Baron Winston, in London. He currently works as a Consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at CUMH, and as a gynaecologist at the Bons Secours, as well as his work at the Cork Fertility Centre.
An energetic, fast talker, Dr Waterstone is clearly passionate about his subject. Fertility treatment, he says, is “magic” when it works, but when it doesn’t work it can be heart-wrenching.

Changing profile

Although the clinic only opened in 2002, there have been major changes in both Irish society and its operations, in its short life.
While the clinic originally dealt only with couples, and Dr Waterstone was “uncertain” how staff would feel about dealing with single women or lesbian couples, an increase in approaches from these groups led to a change in policy.
In the past 18 months, about 50 per cent of the couples seen at the clinic have been lesbian couples, a dramatic change to the previous dynamic. This is despite the lack of a legal framework for gay parents. Single women are also a huge group.
“It’s striking, we see so many single women who are heterosexual, very personable, good looking, with good jobs, it makes you wonder what’s wrong with Irish men, and why these women haven’t been snapped up,” he says, sounding genuinely baffled for a moment.
The clinic’s typical clients are couples who have been trying to get pregnant for a year or more, have seen their GP with concerns, and have been referred on.
“We tend to see older women rather than younger, often the women are in their late 30s or older,” explains Dr Waterstone.
“The average age for IVF treatment would be about 37. It’s unusual to see women in their 20s, and we sometimes don’t see people if they are too old; we would have a cut off age of 45.”
The clinic doesn’t recommend IVF treatment for women over 45.
“If women are over this age they often go abroad, where they can get egg donation as old as 49 or even 50. Where they want to use their own eggs [here in Cork] the cut off would be the conventional age, 45.”

When should I worry?

But when, or how, should women go about investigating their fertility, and how do they know when to start worrying?
Age is incredibly important, says Dr Waterstone.
“How old are they? If the woman is young, in her 20s or early 30s, there is no mad rush. I would be concerned if the woman was in her late 30s or 40s, because that’s when you have to move fast as the time is limited, and she could miss the boat.
“Speed is important depending on how old the woman is. The perception of this very basic issue really varies, some women waltz in at 42 and can’t understand what the problem is, while you get some in their early 30s who are very worried.
“Women can be blissfully unaware that this is such an important issue.
This is not necessarily covered in biology classes, and people just don’t get it,” he adds.
Other issues include a basic lack of knowledge about when conception is most likely to occur, he says.
“A lot of women don’t know that ovulation happens in the middle of the month,” he says, “so trying just before ovulation is the best time. Sometimes you’ll get people trying every day for a year but not realising that there is a best time.”

Men’s problems
Of course, there are problems on the men’s side too.
“There can be problems with men, but you don’t know that until the sperm analysis.
“Once you get to the GP, that is one of the first tests done, so before they come to us we already know, immediately, if that’s the issue.
“Quite a chunk of the couples we see have this problem, maybe a quarter have problems with semen quality,” explains Dr Waterstone.

Apart from regular IVF treatment, the clinic is one of only two in Ireland to offer egg donation treatment. Because of the lack of legislation in the area the clinic only offers this to women who already have a donor. However, if women don’t have a donor and need to go abroad, the Cork Fertility Centre can offer a support service for that.
The lack of legislation covering IVF is worrying, says Dr Waterstone.
“The biggest stress factor regarding legislation is uncertainty regarding donor sperm or eggs. Who are the legal parents of the child, that can have a bearing on inheritance, and other things.
If you speak to lawyers working in the area, they will tell you it’s quite complicated to introduce legislation, but there is certainly a need for it.”
In the UK, legislation deems that the woman who bears the child is the legal mother, but here, although there has never been a test case, it could be quite different.

It’s not an easy job.
“It’s fantastic when it works, when you treat a couple who’ve been trying for ten years, and bingo, there’s a baby! But it doesn’t always work. When it does, it’s magic.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

They’re at it again

They’re at it again. Pesky politicians.
Politicians across the very narrow spectrum of Irish politics are incredibly predictable. We’ll go through them, and you’ll see what I mean.
Fianna Fáil. They’re lying low. Brian Cowen was off in the States recently proclaiming our economic recovery, and fair dues to him. He’s more likely to get a friendly reception almost anywhere than in Ireland these days. In fairness to him, it’s important for the economy that we’re seen to engage with the international markets… It’s just an unfortunate coincidence that Moody’s downgraded our credit rating the day after his Wall Street visit.
The rest of them, despite great posturing over different issues such as, variously, dog breeding (hello, Christy O’Sullivan and Denis O’Donovan), stag hunting, and civil partnership, have disappeared since the Oireachtas went on holidays. Everyone needs a holiday, of course, and I’ve no doubt they will be busy in their constituencies once they’ve done their two weeks’ penance somewhere. Speaking of holiday homes, another, er, Cork Fianna Fáiler who’s been in the news lately is Ivor Callely. His reasons for being newsworthy? Living in Cork – apparently – and claiming outrageous and dubious expenses. So, more of the same from Fianna Fáil. Is it me or is there a stench of the 1980s off all of this?
And now to Fine Gael. Let’s see. A botched leadership challenge, an ideological/geographical/generational divide, a social event where the opposing groups lined up at either side like an old fashioned dance, allegedly, and now a young TD criticising the ‘cute hoor’ culture of Irish politics, not just within the Government party, which would be ok, but within her own. So far, so 1980s. The Fine Gael curse has struck again, despite the valiant efforts of, among others, our own Jerry Buttimer to convince the outside world that everything is fine.
Labour. Eamon Gilmore says, like Pat Rabbitte and Dick Spring said before him, that there is no chance of him joining Fianna Fáil in Government after the next election. Rumours that a Fianna Fáil rep in South West Cork is about to jump ship to the new ‘populist’ party, and talk about a ‘Gilmore Tide’. Now we’re up to 1992!
While the Greens were but an embryo at that time, it’s pretty clear that history is repeating itself in Irish politics, and their parliamentary party has something of the endangered species about it; think of the Workers’ Party, the Democratic Socialist Party, etc. Parties with genuine policy positions and ambitions of real change rarely get very far in this country.
More of the same and plus ca change; is it any wonder we’re bored?
There’s a lot of rhetoric about ‘change’ going around, and the MacGill summer school in Donegal was full of it. But we’re well known for rhetoric – blarney, waffle, and spin are all readily identified with the Irish – and rhetoric isn’t going to get us out of this trough.
One of the most depressing radio items I’ve ever heard was a panel discussion on Radio 1 on Saturday in which four young politicians discussed their reasons for getting into politics and joining the parties they’d joined. While they were all very pleasant and articulate, they were all careful not to alienate anyone, careful not to offend each other, and careful to kowtow to their party lines.
And so, the cycle continues.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Making our own good news

The news today about McElhinney's of Athboy is really heartwarming. Unusual for business news to be "heartwarming", but this is a through-and-through good news story.

I'm not too acquainted with the finer points of the deal, but from what I gather, after going into voluntary liquidation, the company did a deal with another Irish company - Flairline - allowing it to reopen the store and rehire its 56 employees.

McElhinney's is a well-known brand and occupies a place in the consciousness of a lot of Irish people. Of course, they will never be forgiven for that appalling TV ad "starring" Rosanna Davison. Here it is, just to remind you:

.. But we won't hold that against them.

Today's news is really encouraging, and shows that a bit of imagination and a a really solid brand can provide an escape hatch for businesses that don't appear to have one.

It's particularly encouraging given the number of small businesses that are closing around the country.

Living in a city centre, I have a bird's eye view of businesses closing and opening, and at the moment there are certainly more doing the former than the latter.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking past the Spectra photo shop on Patrick Street when I noticed they were having a sale, at 70% off. Unable to resist that when I needed photo frames for some prints I bought recently, I went inside, and only then realised that it was a closing down sale.

As I was buying a few knockdown frames, from the very small selection that remained, I had a most depressing chat with the owner.

Online destroyed him, he reckoned - that and the cameras in his shop just couldn't compete with the big multiples. He was obviously a keen photographer himself and I'm willing to bet the level of expertise you would get shopping there would have been second to none.

It wasn't all bad - he himself was moving to a job with a former competitor - something like the McElhinney's story. But the shop that he obviously loved was gone, and it was with something like shame that I left with my not-quite-ill-gotten gains.

That same week I was food shopping, and dropped into my local vegetable shop, which is located in a shopping centre, near a large supermarket selling all the same produce it sells.

Chatting to the owner, I got the same sense of despair from him that I'd got from the Spectra man. Except that he was still in business, just about. He couldn't understand why potential customers were walking past his - cheaper - fruit and veg to get to the supermarket at the end of the shopping centre. Neither could I, to be honest. It was clear that he loves his shop, that profit margins are extremely tight, and that he doesn't know how long more he can keep going. When I called in, it was after closing time, but he was staying open during sweeping-up time just to catch the last few stragglers. I left with lots of fruit and veg, my week's supply, for about €7, and without the pain of traipsing through a supermarket.

Those two experiences made me really, really think about what small, local retail means, to both owners and customers.

It's about pride, and personal achievement, and 'buy-in' and genuine 'ownership', literally and metaphorically, for the owner. For customers, it can be as important as a social network, a valuable source of advice and information, and just one part of the glue that holds a community together. Economically, it's about jobs, and keeping money circulating locally, and a rising tide lifting local boats. But, lest we all get carried away, economics are only a part of it; the human side is just as important.

I've always paid lip service to shopping locally, but since then, I've been determined to try. I'm doing my best to buy in small local retailers and to buy what I need from them, even if it's a bit more expensive, rather than going to a big supermarket and buying a load of stuff that I don't need and that will go off anyway.

The McElhinney's news is brilliant for their staff, for the company, and for the locality. Let's try and make sure there are some more good news stories like that.

Monday, July 19, 2010

2000 years

'I will put enmity between you and the woman...' 3:15

No, that's not a quote from Joseph Ratzinger at 3.15 this morning.

It's a quote from the Bible, a compilation of hearsay, rumour, innuendo, misogyny, fairytale, legend, biography, social history and advice written by various men over a period of a few hundred years.

The Bible has largely been the same since it was agreed upon as a fundamental part of the Christian Church, over 2000 years ago.

The world, however, has not.

None of this is news; none of it is even that outrageous. The quote above, put into the context of a 2000-year-old society, could even be considered enlightened, in that it doesn't place the blame on women for the enmity.

What is outrageous is the reliance of the Catholic Church under Ratzinger on the ancient tradition of misogyny within its teachings.

Ratzinger - I know he's the Pope, but part of my problem with the Church is the edification of its officers through mystical titles, robes and glittery accessories - has, during his tenure, taken the Church back many years. And it was already quite a bit behind.

The latest release from the Church, including the 'sin' of ordaining women priests in a list which mostly focussed on the 'grave' sin of child abuse, is almost mind bogglingly stupid, ignorant, and short-sighted.

I've been putting off writing this post since I first read of this last week, as I was afraid I'd merely spew expletives.

Contrary to some reports, the news from the Vatican did not precisely equate women priests and those who ordain them, with paedophiles.

They made the unfortunate mistake of including the new rules on ordaining women priests in the same document as the new rules on paedophilia. At least, that's their line on it.

It shows just how clueless the Church is when it comes to the gravity of paedophilia. It's like including late payment of your TV licence in the same legal provision as murder. Even if you believe they didn't mean it that way, it shows an astonishing lack of political nous, something that would be surprising, given its proud history as an Italian city state and how it got there.

But that's optics. It's well documented that the Church has no clue how to tackle paedophilia, and for a long time, didn't really care. I will give Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and some of his colleagues the benefit of assuming that now, they do care.

The part of this that really and truly astonishes and angers me is how the Church, after 2000 years of progress in almost every other sphere of society, can still believe that women have no place in its structure.

My relationship with the Church was a big part of my childhood and it was exemplified almost 100% by nuns, teachers (all female), priests' housekeepers, my granny and all the other old ladies who went to mass and kept the place going.
Women who cooked and cleaned for the Church and its many tentacles, who grew and arranged flowers for the Church, who sang at Church, who did readings at Mass, who visited the poor and the sick for the Church's charities and who arranged fundraisers and trips to Lourdes and the 'tea and sandwiches' part of the funeral. In the midst of this a priest wandered in, had his dress put on him by some overawed kids who spent an hour handing him things, ate and drank what he was given by the women, and went for a pint.

I am not saying all priests are lazy or that all priests or bad; I am not even saying all priests are like this. But every support service that I can remember ever seeing in the Church was carried out by women.

When I visited the Vatican a number of years ago on a trip to Rome, I became incandescent with rage and had to leave St Peter's Basilica. I've written about this before, and I won't go into it in detail again.

But as we wandered around between statues of 'holy' men, crypts (of men) with nuns beating their heads off the ground and wailing in front of them, pictures of men and astonishing wealth, held by men, we walked past nuns cleaning, and of course ended up in the gift shop. Where, if we'd bought anything, we'd have been served by nuns.

It was the biggest and wealthiest clubhouse I had ever seen and they did not want me in the club.

I have been raised to expect that I am equal to anybody. I know that I am equal to anybody. And yet, there is no chance that I or any other woman, can ever be in a position to change the Church. Because change has to happen on the inside, and we are not on the inside.

We are tolerated as tea makers and cleaners and mothers (to a point - only in marriage and only if we eschew contraception and impure thoughts and enjoying any sexual contact not designed for procreation). We are tolerated as 'handmaidens'.

Now, when the Church is in the throes of the biggest crisis since the Reformation, when it is desperately seeking vocations and forgiveness from the thousands, possibly millions, it has wronged, in one foul publication, it shuts out the 50 per cent of the population that has not been proven, over 2000 years of administration, to be completely misguided and wrong about how we do things.

I am not religious. But I feel some of the disappointment and shame that the Church's female adherents must be feeling now. There is a movement for women priests, and it is quietly supported by quite a few male priests.

It's time for them to raise their voices. Schism is an old-fashioned word, but it looks to me like the concept has never been more inviting.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


 Image (c) Tony O'Connell Photography

Cork City Manager Joe Gavin this week said goodbye to the city he’s taken charge of for the past ten years.
Mr Gavin leaves with a considerable list of achievements under his belt, for which he was widely applauded at Monday night’s City Council meeting.
A vox-pop of our readers carried out on Facebook and on the streets suggests that the majority of Corkonians recognise these achievements.
The regeneration of St Patrick’s Street and the Grand Parade; the inception of the (some day, hopefully realised) Docklands Development Plan; the Lapps Quay and Opera Lane developments were all mentioned at Monday’s meeting. Councillors spoke at length about the infrastructural developments I’ve mentioned above, as well as others.
Mr Gavin praised developers, including Cork’s own ‘fugitive’ Greg Coughlan, of Howard Holdings, whose vision produced the Lapps Quay and Boardwalk development.
And then he said something else that proved just how little we have learned in the two years – so far - of this recession.
There were five cranes visible on the Cork skyline when he arrived, in 2000. At the ‘peak’ of his tenure, there were 28. This is how he measured his achievements, watching the skyline from his upper-floor office in Cork City Hall.
This statement – from a man who has done so much work for the people of Cork – just proved that we have learned absolutely nothing from the past two years of crashes, revelations and toppling of pedestals.
When will we learn that progress is not about buildings, but about people?
While all of the developments mentioned above are important and welcome, creating jobs and improving the city’s appearance, they are still just buildings.
At Monday night’s City Council meeting, it was also revealed that the number of homeless shelter beds in Cork currently meet demand, for the first time.
That is a wonderful achievement, and hats off to Cork Simon and the other services that continue to fight against homelessness. No matter how badly off we are as a country, one thing we are not short of is houses, so homelessness is a particularly ironic, and unnecessary side effect of this recession.
That, to me, is a major achievement, and I’m sure it is not the only human progress made in Cork since 2000.
Cork City Council has had its share of ups and downs under Mr Gavin; the St Mary’s Road Library move, which has been the cause of some confusion among councillors as to who voted for it, and when, is one negative that will be remembered from this year; the extensive flooding another.
While it will be a long time before Mr Gavin’s legacy can be assessed accurately, and from an objective distance, the legacy of the economic crash should already be teaching us that progress is about people.
Perhaps the next City Manager, Tim Lucey, when he takes over in August, will measure progress differently, while carrying on the good work of his predecessor.

Monday, July 5, 2010


I've been on the radio a couple of times lately - on Newstalk's Lunchtime Show on Friday, for example. Listen here (from about 40 minutes):

Inside Out

An email I received yesterday morning from a US radio show interested in speaking to me about an article I wrote (Cork Independent, 3 June 2010), called ‘Turning corners in a maze’, only served to highlight that there is more debate on the state of this country outside it than there is inside. 
In recent weeks, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Economist have all written about Ireland’s financial woes and the measures the Government is taking to counteract the recession.
So, to be fair, have a lot of Irish commentators, but the fact remains that there is no real debate here; inside the mire, it can be hard to have perspective on an issue that affects all of us. We all have an axe to grind, and most of us are finished grinding, because nobody is listening. And when they do, our centrist politics mean that real alternatives are very thin on the ground.
While Fine Gael and Labour oppose the spending cuts, they have no alternative. They are both so busy lining up for Government that policy positions are a sideshow, and the fact that they’ll more than likely be in coalition after a General Election means they can’t commit to anything. These two parties, anywhere else in the world, would be the least likely bedfellows – can you picture Labour and the Conservatives in the UK going into coalition? 
Fine Gael have spent a lot of time working on policy documents like their NewERA programme, but they are well aware that they won’t be in Government for a little while yet; they may as well watch Fianna Fáil hang themselves through unpopular spending cuts, rather than commit Alan Dukes-style hara kiri by repeating the Tallaght Strategy, for something as nebulous as ‘the common good’.
Labour, meanwhile, have taken the road most travelled; oppose everything, suggest nothing, and keep your powder dry until you actually have to do something. In the current situation, we have no idea how Labour would cope, or what proposals they would come up with to save our skins from the IMF, the EU and all the other bogeymen out there.
Perhaps it is the collective lack of ideology among our politicians (never forget that Labour were the first to promise tax cuts before the last General Election), and among the people who vote them in (yes, that’s us) that is to blame for this consensus.
Yes, consensus-building is good, but that usually means compromise, changing position slightly, making a few tweaks. In this situation, there has been very little questioning of the policy of reducing the deficit.
US commentators have pointed out that recessions become depressions when spending cuts are introduced and the budget is balanced. They point out that governments should spend when private companies don’t. Maybe they’re right; I’m not an economist, I don’t know.
But in the week when we’ve learned that we are officially out of recession, and also, that 5,800 were added to the Live Register in June, it’s worth reopening the debate on whether the cuts being made are really working, and, this time, making it a real debate.

Listen to me on KCRW: