Monthly Archives: April 2020

ARCHIVE PIECE: Hell is learning how to drive



Instructors with BO problems, undiplomatic language in telling people they’d failed and a refusal to conduct the test through Irish: just some of 1700 complaints about the driving test received by the RSA in 2018.

Some objections were disturbing, some a bit histrionic, and at least one – the chap who allegedly lay flat on the passenger seat, thus weirding out the testee – was downright surreal. For myself, as someone who crashed and burned in spectacular fashion during my first driving test, I think my primary complaint would have been this: couldn’t you have invented a time-machine and gone back a decade to order me to learn how to drive in my teens?

You see, I was one of those people who left it late. Twenty-nine when I started learning to drive, and as anyone who’s taken up guitar after about 20 will attest, certain things are much harder the older you get.

I don’t know if it’s to do with brain wiring, muscle inelasticity or age-related laziness, but it’s a fact. Learning to drive was probably the most difficult thing I’ve done in my entire adult life.

I’m not just talking about the test, which is what most people moan about the loudest. That first fail was a horrendous experience, for sure, but funnily enough, when I did the resit 10 months later, I sailed through – by that point I’d been driving long enough, and well enough, that I knew it’d be fine.

I’m talking about the many, many times I thought (or wailed aloud), “I’ll never be able to do this!”, and really believed it. I think it was my wife who gave me the solid advice, “Everyone who keeps at it is eventually able to drive. Just keep telling yourself it’s nothing more than a serious of simple mechanical procedures.”

Which, after all, is mostly what driving entails. Turn key, depress clutch, into gear, ease off clutch and nudge accelerator, and off you go.

After a while it becomes second nature; you’re almost driving with one part of your brain while another part has a conversation or watches scenery roll past.

I do understand why city-dwellers never learn to drive: there’s no need much of the time, and it must be even more stressful when surrounded by thousands of vehicles, having to master both the car and a bewildering array of signs, lights and lane changes.

But I’m very glad I did, mostly because it gives you a tremendous sense of psychological freedom. If worst comes to worst – say there’s a zombie apocalypse, coupled with a global ebola pandemic – at least, you think, I can get into a car and move myself somewhere else. You’re not reliant on trains, taxis or getting a lift.

Anyway, now that I’ve been motoring for 15 years, I’ve learned a thing or two. So I’ve worked up five “rules of the road”: key pieces of information every wannabe roadster should know. This isn’t information that’ll help you pass the test – but once you’ve got that precious little card, please bear in mind:

  1. You will almost certainly never have to reverse around a corner. This is, for some reason, part of the test – as far as I can recall, an inability to pull it off resulted in an automatic fail – but it just doesn’t happen in real life. You’ll always be able to go forward, do a three-point (or five- or whatever it takes) turn, and bob’s your uncle.
  2. Parallel parking is impossible. I’ve driven around for ten minutes to find a space I can drive or reverse into, because I simply cannot parallel park. I don’t actually believe anyone can, it’s all a myth.
  3. Driving is one of the best ways of listening to music. Something shapeless and atmospheric is best: electronica, jazz, orchestral soundtracks. Really makes you feel as if you’re in a movie, en route to some thrilling and potentially deadly rendezvous. At the moment I’m rocking a compilation album of Depeche Mode remixes, which gives a cool, Blade Runner-esque futuristic vibe.
  4. It’s pointless getting upset or enraged at other drivers. It’s pointless shouting: you’re both encased in steel-and-glass bubbles, they can’t hear you. It’s pointless giving them the finger, they’re not looking. We still do these things anyway. And yes, the cliché is true: anyone else driving slower than you is “that idiot!”, anyone driving faster is “that maniac!”
  5. Everyone, even careful and experience road users, is prone to reckless behaviour. In the last month alone I’ve witnessed drivers overtaking on squiggly bends, closing their eyes for five seconds to win a dare, lighting a cigarette and changing the CD while steering with their knees, answering calls on their mobile, making calls, sending texts, checking the internet for weather updates, and reversing at speed without using the mirrors. Or the back window. Or looking around at all, really. Granted, that driver was me, but you take my point. So be careful out there.

ARCHIVE PIECE: Adventures in vegetarianism



Vegetarianism, and its stricter variation veganism, is all the rage these days, isn’t it? We have Leo Varadkar announcing that he’s now eating less meat for health reasons. Veganism – the pure uncut crack to vegetarianism’s cocaine – has become very cool with those ever-on-trend weathervanes of social change, hipsters and celebs.

Meanwhile the meat industry faces strident calls to transition to crops, as all those flatulent cows are blamed for contributing to climate change. (In fairness to the Irish beef industry, we should add, it’s one of the most eco-friendly on the planet, in a number of ways.)

Yep, everyone’s going meat-free in 2019. Except, that is, for your humble correspondent.

I have a rather unusual perspective on all this, you see. I was vegetarian for many years (though never fully vegan – I just love melted cheese on everything too damn much), but have recently returned to consuming animal-flesh. Yes, I know it’s doing things backwards, that’s just how I am.

I bought a mini-disc player about five minutes before they became defunct. I was wearing a man-bun (known then to me as a samurai top-knot) as far back as the millennium; you couldn’t pay me to sport one today. I moved to Japan for work literally within weeks of their economy suffering its first major downturn since the Second World War…and right as Ireland was entering an era of unprecedented growth and employment opportunity.

My sense of timing, therefore, is less than exceptional. And so it is with this whole meat-eating thing: I began my “12 Years a Vegetarian” odyssey around the year 2000, when approximately 15 other people on the entire island weren’t carnivorous, and 14 of those were Hari Krishnas.

It’s so long ago now that I’m a bit hazy on the exact whys of this decision; as far as I can recall, it was a mixture of moral queasiness, nutritional reasons and probably a soupcon of good old-fashioned contrariness. In other words, it amused me to annoy people.

And my God, annoy them it did. It’s a funny irony that vegetarians are constantly stereotyped as nags and zealots, forever demanding that omnivores justify their diet.

In my experience, I have never – not once – been harassed about eating meat by a vegetarian.

On the flipside, though, I was often attacked, assailed, assaulted and harangued for daring to forego the pleasures of a dead beast on my plate. Eventually, I began to empathise with, and even envy, the cows lining up for a bolt to the head.

Where do you get your protein! You’re just trying to be cool! You think you’re better than us! Where do you get your protein! What’s the matter with you! I couldn’t live like that! You must have a tofu turkey at Christmas ha ha ha! You must feel weak all the time! Where do you get your protein!

By the end I used to wonder if these people had shares in a meat-processing plant or something. They seemed so personally invested in what I had for dinner. Like – why do you care so much? I don’t give a rat’s ass what you eat…including if it’s actually a rat’s ass.

Anyway, around six or seven years ago, I went back eating fish. Society just wore me down, I guess.

I got tired of explaining my meal in restaurants; the one single thing I find more boring than talking about food is talking about myself. I got tired of paying nearly the same prices for vegetable- or bean-based dishes as intensive-production meat ones – it’s a total rip-off.

And I got tired of asking the waitress at weddings if the chef couldn’t possibly cook something different for me. From now on, I reckoned, at least I can say: “I’ll have the salmon.”

That led, inexorably, to a gradual reengagement with culinary corpses. Now I eat meat sometimes; I’ve added “I’ll have the beef” to my repertoire at weddings.

I hardly ever cook it myself – and I’d forgotten what a stinking mess meat makes of your kitchen, as opposed to vegetarian food – but it’s handy when you’re out and the only veggie option is “goat’s cheese tart with salad”.

Ah no, I exaggerate: in fact, after a decade-and-a-bit of enduring stir-fried veg and rice at social functions, many eateries now have a decent range of vegetarian dishes.

Which is a bit ironic, when you think about it. But it’s not the only one: after years of people hassling me for being vegetarian, I can now look forward to years of people hassling me for being a callous murderer and/or ruining the planet.

Talk about going against the prevailing currents. Then again, as Roy Keane famously said, the only thing that goes with the current is a dead fish.

Which I am about to eat with lemon and tartar sauce. Somewhere in a parallel dimension, where things took a different turn, another Darragh – still vegetarian – is shuddering with disgust, without quite understanding why.

Laughing in lockdown



If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

Clichés endure because there’s often a germ of truth, and rarely has this hackneyed old saw been more appropriate. In the midst of the most surreal, unsettling situation in memory – dread and panic bubbling under the surface, barely suppressed, and no end to the crisis in sight – what else can the normal mind do, but revert to humour?

Lockdown, isolation, pandemic, distancing, economic Armageddon, not to mention the fact that both Liverpool’s long-awaited league title and the GAA championships are now in doubt…it’s all too much. So we ignore reality and have a laugh instead.

Kidding around enables us to face things we’re afraid of: by mocking them, making them seem less serious, less (literally) grave. It’s the ultimate act of defiance, even in the face of the ultimate threat: mortality itself. You’re not so tough, Death: in fact you’re a big joke.

There’s another familiar maxim, about humour as the best medicine, which applies here too. We’re always instructed on how mental health is crucial for the body, and laughter releases happy hormones, strengthens immune systems and makes you physically stronger and more resilient.

The Bible exhorts us to “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. There’s no need to be quite so apocalyptic – most of us will come through this pandemic fine – and there’s certainly no need to remind a nation bulk-buying bread and alcohol about the importance of food and beverages.

But there’s no harm in appreciating the importance of merry-making, and since Covid-19 crash-landed into our lives, the people have played a blinder. Not just in obeying rules on social distancing, or remaining civilised – but in unleashing a whirlwind of jokes, gags, memes, gifs, tweets, puns, satire and comedy songs.

Across social media and messaging groups, in emails and texts and conversation, our spirits have been raised by this absolute, and thoroughly commendable, refusal to take Covid-19 too seriously. I mean, obviously we’re taking it seriously; just not too seriously.

The most recent Corona gags to make me chuckle included a Photoshop of that famous picture of workmen having lunch during construction of the Empire State – and a guard in yellow hi-vis telling them to observe social distancing; YouTube collections of “home haircut fails”; parodies of that hideous video of celebrities singing John Lennon’s imagine; a spoof movie trailer, starring an up-and-coming youngster called Donald J Trump, about “the world’s stupidest man” struggling to deal with a “Pandumbic”; Michelangelo’s Last Supper reimagined as a conference call; and the cartoon of a dystopian Coronation Street, with heroic Ken Barlow and sidekick Robo-Deirdre 4000 as mankind’s last hope.

It’s not just online. One of the newspapers had a brilliant spoof letter from a woman who’d set up a support group for people finding themselves increasingly attracted to Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan, complete with a perfect closing-line about “the baldy man” (ask a Cork person to explain that).

Meanwhile conversations in real-life – held at the appropriate 2+ metre separation, of course – begin with furrowed-brow discussions of “what’s going to happen” before inevitably dissolving into giggles and daft jokes about “don’t come any closer, I’m armed”.

If you’re utterly sick of Covid-19 – and why wouldn’t you be? – there’s plenty comedy to be found elsewhere. I’ve been ploughing through Netflix’s extensive selection of Jimmy Carr stand-up gigs: very funny in a clever-dumb way, with just the right edge of bad-taste to make you feel you’re flicking a metaphorical two fingers at everything during this sorry time.

Netflix also carries Archer, the best animated comedy since The Simpsons’ heyday, and I’ve rooted out DVDs of some classic series – Blackadder, Alan Partridge – and films: Idiocracy, Spinal Tap, Clueless. And Shaun of the Dead combines great gags with a pandemic setting if you’re so minded: zombies, not viral infection, but we can’t be choosy.

All of these are so good, they bear endless re-watching. Indeed, as with a cherished album or book, the pleasure is almost accentuated through familiarity.

But perhaps the biggest belly-laughs during lockdown have come from Tiger King, a Netflix documentary about the beyond-weird world of private zoos and big-cat aficionados. It’s outlandish, gripping and – albeit in a vaguely horrified way – hilarious.

And guaranteed to make you feel better about your own life: when you haven’t had to return to work just five days after getting your arm ripped off by a tiger, things don’t seem that bad.

ARCHIVE PIECE: Butt out and let people do what they like



Good man, Killian Scott. The actor best known for playing brain-damaged, fizzy orange-loving, unrealistically-sensitive hoodlum Tommy in Love/Hate has come out swinging against ridiculous criticism of his cop character’s chain-smoking in new crime drama Dublin Murders.

Newstalk went big on the story in yesterday’s breakfast show, interviewing an anti-smoking advocate who claimed that it “normalises” the habit, sets a bad example to kids and is, all-round, Something Awful That Must Not Be Allowed.

Listener texts, read out on air, generally concurred. Twitter – but of course – has been groaning under the weight of “what’s with all the smoking/was this sponsored by a tobacco company/let’s #bansmoking” messages.

Now, this is a show about murder – like, it’s there in the title. Weirdly, though, many of these sanctimonious do-gooders don’t seem too bothered by all the killing, rape, missing children, corruption, greed etc. etc. But God forbid someone smokes a fag!

It reminds me of a cartoon I saw years ago, of an American man bedecked in half an arsenal of lethal weaponry – but the surrounding crowds were disgusted by the smouldering cigarette between his lips. We used to laugh at hypocritical American puritanism once upon a time, you know.

This daft, manufactured controversy even reached the UK-based website Digital Spy – which is where Killian Scott came in. He commented, quite reasonably, “This compulsion to manicure a flaw out (of a character) is something to resist, I think.”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s all so tediously moralistic. What’s wrong with imperfect characters in fiction? Why must everything have an ethical lesson or healthy advice or some stupid political point to it?

Why must filmed entertainment be “improving” in some way? Why does it have to “teach” us something? And most of all, who the hell decided that TV shows must provide “good role models” for kids?

If you’re worried that some made-up drama might send your children over to the dark side, then you’re a crap parent who needs to up their game. It’s not TV’s job to instruct and guide those kids – it’s yours. So shut up and do it, and let telly just be telly.

Scott also argued that his character, Reilly, has “a flippant attitude towards death”, expressed through constantly having a fag in his gob. Not so amazing, surely, in a homicide detective; and not so horrifying either.

Grown adults are still allowed laugh in the face of their own mortality, right? Or has that been banned too, along with virtually everything else deemed to be bad for us by the purist guardians of society?

There’s a new alcohol law coming in. Sugar and fat taxes are inevitable. Around Budget time people were clamouring for smokers to be forced, via price hike, out of their habit – or even for smoking to be made downright illegal. Most drugs already are illegal.

Essentially, consenting adults are being instructed: you are not allowed to do something which is bad for you.

But why not? Each of us is the sole possessor of their own life. Nobody else has the right to force you to live it wisely, healthily, or even to continue living it at all. If you, as a grown-up of sound mind, wish to smoke and thus risk a panoply of unpleasant and potentially fatal ailments – that’s your choice. I really don’t feel it’s my place to lecture you about it.

One contributor to Newstalk went so far as to contend that smoking – which Killian Scott was doing on the telly! – was a “social problem”. This is just wrong. In fact, smoking is about the only drug which has no adverse social effects at all.

Yeah, it might kill you. Guess what? If smoking doesn’t, something else assuredly will. The human race continues to post a 100% mortality rate, and until they invent some immortality elixir, it always will.

Yeah, smokers are a drain on the health system. Except of course they aren’t, because they’re paying over ten euro on every pack of 20. This is literally billions a year – all of which, presumably, is going to that health service?

That is most of the point of screwing smokers with these exorbitant taxes, correct? It couldn’t be that their pariah status is being exploited to fund all sorts of things for everyone else, could it?

This all comes down to morality – a particularly mean-spirited, controlling variant. Deep down, social engineers don’t want to ban smoking to save people from themselves, irritating (albeit well-meaning) as that may be. They want to ban it because it irks them that others are choosing to do something which they personally don’t like.

There’s a character in some Roald Dahl short story – a hateful, bitter, pathetic streak of misery – who insists that his wife stop smoking. She assumes it’s because he’s worried for her health. Not a bit of it: he simply doesn’t approve.

Let Killian’s character have his smoke, you pompous bores. It’s the life of Reilly, not you – so mind your own business and, ahem, butt out.

ARCHIVE PIECE: Why “dating” is a new concept in Ireland



In one of the more unusual moments from the long and often weird history of Reality TV, Ulrika Jonsson recently appeared on Channel 4’s First Dates Hotel. It wasn’t, as you might understandably expect, the usual thing of a faded celeb pulling a stunt to catapult themselves back into the public eye.

No, Ulrika’s motives were more personal. Simply put, she’s now 52, single again after a divorce, and finds it hard to get back into the dating scene. Apparently – as I gleaned from a number of follow-up articles on the subject – this is not uncommon for people in middle-age.

The funny thing about all of this, from an Irish perspective, is that any of us in our fifties, or even our forties, who endured the misfortune of a relationship break-up wouldn’t then be “returning” to dating at all. That’s because the cultural ritual of dating didn’t really exist in Ireland when we were younger. I couldn’t imagine going on a date at the age of 46, mainly because I have no experience of this from my twenties.

Our social history in those days, romantically speaking, could essentially be boiled down to this: you went out, you had a few drinks, you chatted someone up in the pub or made a beeline for someone during the slow set in a nightclub, then the pair of you snogged and whatever else took your fancy.

If you liked each other, on an emotional as well as physical level, you might agree to meet up again. If you got into the habit of meeting up regularly, you were now said to be “going with” each other or “doing a line”. After a few years of this, you either broke up and returned to the drink/beeline/snog carousel, or you got married and settled down to a life of blissful domesticity.

Either way, the concept of “dating”, as such, was foreign to us. Literally so: it was the sort of thing that characters did on American TV shows. We’d sit there, slightly agog, as someone asked someone else out for a meal, or hey let’s check out that new band.

Sure, we did stuff like go to dinner and gigs with our sweethearts. But that was only after we’d already got into the “going with” groove. The idea of asking someone out on a date wasn’t just strange and intimidating, it was borderline incomprehensible.

The sole exception to this was if you already knew the person – through work or what-have-you – and might casually suggest heading for a few beers after work. I dunno, like, whatever you think yourself? I’m really not that bothered. Look, I’ll be in the pub anyway, so if you happen to drop in, grand.

But why was dating such an alien concept to us? Why, to be blunt, were we so terrible at it? I’ve put on my cleverest hat of all to work this out, and come up with these five reasons:


Generation X coolness.

For my generation, at least – born roughly between 1960 and 1980 – nothing was as important as being seen to be cool. You couldn’t come across as too eager, in anything. And asking someone out (on a date!) was definitively too eager. You had to pretend to be all easy-going and indifferent and coola-boola, hoping all the while that, at some point in the evening, you’d “accidentally” bump into that girl you’d been in love with since Freshers English.



Ireland was a great place in a lot of ways in the 1990s but we didn’t, perhaps, have the brashness and self-assertive confidence of yer average Beverly Hills 90210 character. Deep down, most of us probably expected disappointment. We expected to be rejected: not a good start-point for a culture of dating. One revolving around alcohol, on the other hand, injected us with bravado and a grossly inflated sense of our attractiveness to others. Booze put the “courage” in “Dutch courage”!



Hanging around your friends’ flat, drinking cans of own-brand beer and cider while watching Aliens on VHS for the 19th time, is relatively inexpensive when you’re young and penurious. Dinner for two at a decent restaurant was not so. Doing it regularly was simply not feasible.


Lack of options.

No joking, there really weren’t that many places to go on dates when I was younger. Ireland didn’t have ice-cream parlours and coffeehouses and soda fountains. (I still don’t know what a soda fountain is.) We had the pub, the cinema, and that was about it. But of those pubs, there were many…



…and the fear of being thought to have them. “Who’s your man think he is, asking that girl out on a date? Look at him there, ringing a restaurant to book a table? Thinks he’s better than the rest of us. What does he know about restaurants? ‘Tis far from dates he was reared, etc. etc. etc.”

ARCHIVE PIECE: The curse of eco-guilt



It seems to be an intrinsic element of human life that, no matter what happens, we must start feeling guilty about it shortly afterwards. Someone invented alcohol, we all had to feel guilty about drinking too much of it. Someone else invented religion to stop us murdering each other and keeping slaves, we had to feel guilty about moral failings and not doing enough to bring others into the fold. And so on it goes.

The latest phenomenon is “eco guilt”, which I’ve seen mentioned quite a bit lately. It hasn’t hit me just yet, I must say, but no doubt it will before too long. As a classically self-loathing bourgeois wimp, I’m always open to a little extra guilt to stop me getting too complacent about things.

I’ve read different definitions of eco guilt, but essentially it refers to the gnawing feeling that you could and should be doing more for the environment, but are too lazy or selfish or whatever to be bothered, and thus should hate yourself. The feeling is exacerbated by endless news reports of selfless heroes like Greta Thunberg, who basically give up their free time and worldly goods to fight the good fight on behalf of Nature.

You see Greta crossing the Atlantic in a large soup-can, paddling with her bare hands through shark-infested waters and eating nothing but dead albatrosses, and think: she’s doing all she can to save the planet. But what am I doing?

Well five minutes ago I was doing the washing up, and instead of cleaning and recycling an empty coleslaw tub – as I knew I should – I threw it in the bin because the mayonnaise makes the rest of the dishwater all oily and disgusting. Sorry, Mother Earth.

Now, this coleslaw tub situation is obviously an extreme example; indeed, I imagine Gaia would probably turn a blind eye to that one, given how mayonnaise really does leave a greasy smear around your washing up basin. Let’s face it, she’s probably done the same herself.

But there are many other times and occasions when we’re not prepared to do what’s right by the environment. Do we always separate all the recyclables from non-recyclables? Do we make sure to differentiate between hard plastic, which can be reused, and plastic wrapping, which can’t?

Be honest. When it’s late on a Monday night and you’re barrelling through the clean-up and you come across a can of cat-food: do you really clean that icky, stinky mess out and place the pristine can in the blue bin, or do you feck it into the black bag, destined for landfill?

Indeed, these domestic chores are, in a sense, small scale stuff. The real game-changers are things like travel and technology. And who among us is willing to give up their smartphone, telly and laptop, despite knowing that these devices are a massive drain on fossil fuels and rare earth minerals?

How many people forego air travel, despite the well-documented fact that flight devours energy resources at a frightening rate? We’re all fine to cycle and leave the car at home, if it suits us, and thus can feel all smug about doing our bit.

But what about taking a week to reach your holiday destination, by ship and train, rather than flying there? Not so many takers for that.

I don’t mean to sound cynical about climate activism. I think it’s fantastic that people are more mindful about ecology, and every bit of “clean” living, no matter how small, is worthwhile, as far as I’m concerned.

But if we really want to affect change – if we want to reverse global warming and save the planet, and ourselves, from calamity – we’ll probably need to do something a lot more radical, even drastic. And I’m just not sure that most people are willing to make the necessary sacrifices, whether financial or otherwise.

Also, life must go on, in the midst of all this putative change. It’s easy to lecture, say, farmers about their animals warming the globe.

Not so easy to simply switch to something more sustainable, just like that, when your own existence depends on making an income. And on the macro level, while we never put the economy top of a list of priorities, a functioning economy is what makes society possible in the first place.

So don’t feel too bad about not doing enough for Mama Nature. Ditch that eco guilt (making sure to place it in the proper bin for environmentally friendly disposal). All any of us can do is our best.

Don’t be too hard on yourself when, inevitably, you too are faced with that “saving the earth vs. repulsion at the thought of having to clean that coleslaw tub” conundrum. We’ve all been there.

As Kermit the Frog once beautifully sang, “It ain’t easy being green.” I say “once” because all frogs have now been driven to the brink of extinction by mankind’s rapacious overuse of natural resources. We’re some shower of muppets, in fairness.