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ARCHIVE PIECE: The curse of eco-guilt

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD SEPT 2019

 

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.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Great Irish telly controversies

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 4

 

So does Lottie Ryan have an unfair advantage on Dancing with the Stars? A nation wants to know.

Genuinely – the nation really does want to know. I know, I know, you’d think we’d all have better things to be worrying about than whether or not the 2FM presenter is actually a “trained dancer”.

But we don’t, it would appear, and you know what? I don’t mind that. In fact I’m very find of this sort of daft controversy, which erupts on Irish television regularly.

Any type of scandal or row, involving reality TV, sport, the Eurovision, the Rose of Tralee and similarly enjoyable but ultimately meaningless things – they really add to the gaiety of the nation. You get all the drama of current affairs, but none of the depression and horror of real current affairs.

This current DWTS snafu is but the latest in a long and inglorious line of Irish telly controversies. And I remember, and love, them all. Here are some of my favourites – beginning, appropriately enough, with Lottie’s famous dad Gerry…

 

…and “Lambo”. In 1987, the 2FM powerhouse travelled with a group to the wilds of Connemara, as part of a proto-Bear Grylls kind of “survival” stunt. On their return, Gerry claimed, on The Late Late, to have killed and eaten a lamb to survive, thus earning him the aforementioned nickname. (Stallone’s Rambo movies were huge in the 1980s.) Although it later turned out to be a hoax, people were up in arms over this wanton act of animal cruelty…presumably while tucking into a nice lamb kebab.

 

Staying with the Late Late, a decade later one Siubhan Maloney, from Donegal, won the show’s antiques competition – yes, this was a real thing – with a renovated regency library armchair. Beautiful work, indeed, but unfortunately, not hers. Antique shop owner Joshua Duffy had rejuvenated the famous chair, a fact subsequently acknowledged in court.

 

And still staying with the LLS, 2014 brought us a dinger of a row between Linda Martin and Billy McGuinness. Two second-tier stars of Irish entertainment, screeching at each other on live TV – could it get any better? It sure could: they were arguing about Ireland’s proposed entry to the Eurovision, an event of such non-importance that it makes the proverbial “two bald men fighting over a comb” look like World War III.

 

Speaking of Eurovision, our 2003 entry, Mickey Joe Harte, got into a kerfuffle after allegations that We’ve Got the World Tonight was a copy of Denmark’s 2000-winning song, Fly on the Wings of Love. The storm raged on Liveline for days. Two genial Danish songwriters rang in to say it really wasn’t a problem. And Mickey Joe survived it all – to come 11th.

 

Fellow Reality TV alumnus Nadine Coyle was poised to join long-forgotten Irish popsters Six in 2001, until she inadvertently revealed that she’d lied about being over 18. The show – Popstars – dropped Nadine like a hot spud, but the tale had a happy ending: Six flopped completely after one dreadful single, and she went on to massive success with Girls Aloud.

 

The Rose of Tralee has provided some delicious controversies, including: the 2016 “Rose Cull”, when contestants were ejected from the final on live TV; New Orleans Rose Molly Molloy Gamble refusing her boyfriend’s offer of marriage about a dozen times (dry those tears, incurable romantics, they did get hitched in the end); Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins annoying even pro-Repealers by hijacking the Rose to deliver a lecture on reproductive rights; allegations that the 2013 results were “fixed”, after the prize was engraved with the winner’s name two days before the event; and the “Father’s Rights” protestor who stormed the stage – dressed, for some obscure reason, as a priest.

 

Joe Brolly is also deserving of an entire section of his own. The firebrand GAA pundit has been in hot water for labelling Rachel Wyse a “Baywatch babe”, slagging off Marty Morrissey for being “ugly”, questioning Sean Canavagh’s bona fides “as a man” and provoking the ire of Kieran Donaghy, David Gough and his fellow panellists, to name but a few. RTE finally let him go last autumn. He’s now with the subscription service Eir, after literally years of decrying GAA games being on subscription services. Ah, genius does what it must.

 

Eamon Dunphy famously threw away his pen in disgust after Ireland’s abominable 0-0 draw with Egypt at the dismal Italia 90 World Cup. He also said, “I’m ashamed to be Irish after watching that” – except, of course, he didn’t. What Dunphy actually said was the far more reasonable “We should be ashamed about the way we went about the game.” Did us rabid fans take that into consideration? Did we hell. I still remember a pal’s tee-shirt which read “We kicked ass on Italian grass” over a cartoon of Jack Charlton mowing the lawn…using Dunphy’s head a mower.

 

In 2007, Michael Healy-Rae – not quite as omnipresent across our media as he is now – took part in reality show Celebrities Go Wild (also set in Connemara). His magnificent triumphed, decided by a public vote, was marred somewhat when, four years later, it was revealed that thousands of votes had been phoned in from Leinster House, costing the taxpayer more than two grand. Michael pleaded innocence, but munificently pledged to pay the money back.

 

And we haven’t even touched on Tweetgate, Boyzone’s first Late Late, Boyzone’s most recent Late Late, Brian Lenihan’s “mature recollection”…


ARCHIVE PIECE: Why can’t we have Storm Terminator?

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 13

 

Storm Dennis is on the way, with high winds, low temperatures and Amazon Basin-levels of rainfall promised/threatened for the weekend. And all I can think is: why do they give storms such uncool names?

Dennis! In all fairness. That’s a name for the man who bleeds the radiators in your office. Dennis is the driver of the mini-bus that brought you on a day-trip to Ballybunion last summer. Dennis is that guy you play five-a-side soccer with, the big lanky fella who hasn’t much of a first touch but is a good man to get on the end of a cross.

Dennis is simply not a cool name. The only rock ‘n’ roll Dennises in history were Dennis Rodman, Dennis Bergkamp and Les Dennis. And frankly, that’s not enough.

Previous weather events had far more attention-grabbing monikers. Storm Darwin: I love it. It speaks to us of the pitiless fury of nature, red in tooth and claw, how all life is defined by a never-ending battle for survival in the great game of evolution.

Storm Ophelia is good too: in referencing the tragic character from Hamlet, it reminds us of man’s mortality, how we are mere whispers on the breeze of chance, here for a brief moment then washed away by the Biblical “flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven”. Ooh, spooky.

And The Beast from the East? That speaks for itself.

But now we have Storm Dennis. Pah. Even calling it Dennis the Menace won’t cut it, I’m afraid.

We need to give these terrifying, ferocious forces of destruction much better names: cooler, more dangerous-sounding, with a bit of edge and a bit of flash. An unapologetically macho moniker like Rick, Dave, Butch or Thor The Mighty Hammer would do the trick, and could give hysterical weather forecasters on satellite channels the chance to show off all those wild gestures and manic outbursts they learned in broadcasting school.

“HURRICANE BUTCH is on its way!! It’s BIG, ROUGH and SCARY!! Just like the guy I met IN A BAR LAST NIGHT! But that’s enough about MY LOVELIFE!!! The forecast is…LOCK YOUR DOORS!! Because BUTCH is on his way!! And HE’S ANGRY!!! GRRRR!!”

I’d definitely tune in for that. Sadly, it won’t happen for at least another 11 months, as names for the 2019-2020 “storm season” have already been decided by a meteorological brains trust in Ireland, the UK and the Netherlands. Still, I’d like to see #StormButch trending as soon as possible on Twitter, just to get everyone ready.

Speaking of getting ready, one other problem with effete, limp or uncool storm names is that we don’t take the threat seriously enough. If Storm Terminator was forecast, I’d be bunkering down in the basement with a rifle and a thousand cans of spam six months ahead of time. For Storm Feeble, Storm Pretty Flowers or Storm Hozier, not so much.

I’ve been looking at the still-unused names for this storm season, trying to work out a likely threat level. Storm Francis will surely be timid enough, relatively speaking, after the famously gentle saint beloved by birds and small woodland animals.

Hugh reminds me too much of Hugh Grant to get stressed. Iris is named for a flower – nothing to worry about. Ellen, Liam, Maura, Olivia, Willow and Róisín are all too nice.

As for Storm Kitty? Ah here. You might as well name it Storm My Little Pony.

On the other hand, Gerda puts me in mind of the doughty heroine of The Snow Queen: one of the most terrifying stories ever brought forth into creation by the fevered subconscious of humanity, and furthermore, it’s all about bad weather – freezing winds, wild snows, the whole world turning into a melancholy, doomed palace of ice. Now that’s a goddamn storm.

Noah brings up thoughts of the Old Testament flood – not the kind of thing you want to be considering just as you discover that the hardware shops are sold out of sandbags and buckets.

Jan has a hard Nordic edge about it; Piet has a hard Dutch edge. Samir, while not exactly scary, at least sounds exotic, and thus cool (ish).

Tara, then, reminds us of the old High Kings of Ireland, for whom the weather was not an objective meteorological event, which could be mapped and understood, but the fierce, dreadful eruptions of the angry gods. So that’s one to stay indoors for, just in case our forebears were right.

Finally, we come to the pick of the bunch. Storm Vince – now that’s what I call a proper name. Vince: he could be a 1950s rockabilly hero riding his motorbike down the dark highways of the soul; he could be a fat Mafioso wheezing as he drinks espresso and listens to Nessun Dorma.

In this case, he/it is a potential storm, but either way, it’s a cool, tough-guy name. Vince is worthy of our fear and respect.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Why WhatsApp is basically Irishness in tech form

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD JANUARY 30

 

The GAA has urged clubs to stop using WhatsApp, apparently over concerns about data protection, privacy and child safety. This is, I think, very bad news.

That’s not because club members now won’t have any way of letting each other know who can’t make training tonight or what time the Under-10s blitz is on this Saturday – there’s always texts, emails, phone-calls or, God forbid, face-to-face conversation.

No, it’s bad news because Irish people, including the half-million or so GAA members, absolutely love WhatsApp. It’s almost as if this messaging system was specifically invented for us, so neatly does it dovetail with the national character and modes of behaviour.

WhatsApp is essentially a pub conversation moved online: one of the greatest contributions this nation has ever made to the well-being of mankind. Graham Norton wrote a hilarious section in his 2015 memoir, Life and Loves of a He-Devil, about Irish pub conversations. The bit about a group sitting around the table, discussing farm gates under various sub-headings, will have you wiping away tears of laughter and then nodding in proud recognition.

WhatsApp is an online version of that, only better because this one never ends and there’s no danger of it degenerating into rancour, regret or slurred incomprehensibility, as is the way with many actual pub conversations.

That’s the problem with them, ironically: the drink. Initially it loosens tongues, removes inhibitions and makes everyone feel happy and friendly and, most of all, loquacious. Should it go on too long, though, it can get boring, spiteful, pointless or depressing, leaving you with a physical and metaphorical bad head the next morning.

But WhatsApp circumvents all that unpleasantness. It removes the negative effects of alcohol and leaves you with only the best, core elements of a great Irish pub conversation: people talking shite about everything and nothing.

To demonstrate the diversity and breadth of WhatsApp conversations, recent ones I’ve been involved in have included: Catherine Noone; the 17th century Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor; why slackers were so lazy back in the 1990s that even sitting around smoking dope seemed like just too much work; the Corona virus and/or germ-masks; when did words like “moron” and “idiot” move from being medical terms to more-or-less socially acceptable ways of describing, well, morons and idiots; Paw Patrol; fiftieth birthdays; the Tipperary man who co-founded Boca Juniors football club in Buenos Aires; the death of Elizabeth Wurtzel; an upcoming christening; the tractor rally in Dublin; Nicolas Cage’s first appearance on British television; and why Margaret Atwood would ironically be displeased by the cult-like groupthink which has sprung up around her most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale.

It’s brilliant. In fact, it’s basically the only reason I finally upgraded from a Nokia “dumb” phone to the slightly-less-dumb new version, which has WhatsApp installed (if little else commonly found on a proper smartphone).

Of course, it’s not all perfect. Or rather, people aren’t perfect, and many of us have tics and habits and propensities on WhatsApp which seem fine to us but might be really bloody annoying to everyone else. There’s an unspoken and unwritten etiquette about how to behave, but of course the problem is that, when something is unspoken and unwritten, not everyone gets the message.

So one person’s oversharing, for example, is another person’s “I feel the need to be honest and tell my story”. What one user considers a reasonable number of messages to post every day – say, four or five thousand – may seem a mite excessive to friends and family.

And what about the awkwardness of leaving a WhatsApp group? Everyone else in the group can see that you’ve gone, and now they’ve started discussing why…ugh, ground swallow me up, please.

Or the mild embarrassment of deleting a message? It could just be that you made a typo or your hand slipped and pressed Send before you’d finished, but others don’t know that. They think that you’d posted a horrific tirade in support of barbed-wire, booby-trapped fences along the border or something, and are now reconsidering your suitability as a member of the “Jane Austen & Afternoon Tea Appreciation Society” WhatsApp group.

And let’s not even start of sending a message intended for your brother or friend – a foul-mouthed but funny Richard Prior clip on YouTube, say – to the local church committee or flower-arranging club that you’ve recently joined.

Possibly the single most irritating WhatsApp habit is when someone – for instance, the hurling coach – gives details of an upcoming event, and specifically requests that only those who can’t make it reply to his post. Cue the flood of messages with smiley-face emojis, thumbs up graphics, redundant “Thanks Joe” comments, and someone asking is this where the Jane Austen & Afternoon Tea Appreciation Society arranges their next meet-up. What?

For all that, though, WhatsApp is the best thing to hit Ireland – and the most Irish thing to hit Ireland – since sliced bread dipped in Guinness, served by Dermot Bannon, while a U2 song plays in the background. Send me a message only if you agree with this.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Dream a little dream of the perfect job

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 24

 

It really is a job that’s out of this world: NASA is calling for applications from budding astronauts. The Artemis programme aims to put people back on the moon as early as 2024, and it’s open to everyone – well, sort of.

Successful candidates will have a master’s degree in a STEM subject, along with 20-20 vision, excellent physical and psychological health, US citizenship and at least two years of “related professional experience” or a thousand hours piloting a jet-plane.

Some of those would rule me out, I realise now. Actually, all would rule me out.

My degree is in Arts and not a master’s, I wear glasses, I’m unfit, I’m not American and I’ve never flown any plane not made of paper. On the plus side, I a decent Michael Jackson-esque moonwalk – never know when that might come in handy on the lunar surface – and I’ve always liked the thought of going into space. That counts for something, surely?

I’m probably not along among my generation in dreaming of life among the stars. We were raised on comic-books such as Dan Dare and 2000AD, TV shows like Buck Rodgers and Battlestar Galactica, and a welter of sci-fi movies about space, rockets, aliens and laser-guns that fire out a sort of green pulse and make a noise like someone is pressing all the keys on a synthesiser at once.

We were also raised just after mankind first walked on the moon, so we assumed that, soon, everyone would be jetting off to Neptune on business or spending their holidays touring the rings of Saturn. Astronaut, therefore, was one of those dream jobs for my generation. Not the kind of thing anyone really expected to do, in truth, but a possibility all the same.

An exciting, glamorous, exotic possibility, filled with cool technology, sexy alien babes, a hell of a lot of chrome fittings, and most important, the chance to say stuff like “Engage warp drive!” and “Multi-phase blasters set to exterminate!”

Other dream jobs of my youth included, at various times, movie star, private detective, secret agent, shape-shifting inter-dimensional assassin, immortal vampire who also fights crime, and Kim Basinger’s boyfriend/sex-slave/whatever.

I wanted to be the frontman in a heavy metal band. I wanted to take over from Batman when he got too old for the gig. I wanted to be the main striker for Liverpool FC; failing that, any position on the Liverpool team; failing that, any position at any decent club. I also had vague, but nonetheless committed, plans to basically steal Axl Rose’s entire existence.

None came to pass, as you might expect. For one thing, Ian Rush was still banging them in like billy-o at Anfield, and Axl Rose was acting increasingly edgy and paranoid, as if he was onto me somehow.

I’m unsure how many of these would still be on young people’s professional wish-lists, though. Does anyone under 40 want to be an astronaut anymore?

Rock music is dead for modern-day youth. Movies have been superseded by the internet. Vampires were rendered forever uncool by Twilight. Secret agents are now considered amoral tools of the ruling kleptocracy. Batman is too male, pale and stale.

Professional football remains a desirable destination for kids, but even there, I presume a generational shift. My dream was to win games and lift trophies; today’s soccer-wannabes dream of huge endorsements, their own jewellery range and a million followers on Instagram.

The ultimate dream jobs for millennials, and the generation that came after, seem things like YouTube star, Reality TV contestant, social media personality/influencer/content-provider, activist, advocate, tech start-up, app designer, hard-left or hard-right online provocateurs, or a combination of them all.

A few want to be professional video-game players or package-openers. Others want to be full-time couch-surfers. Still others hope to monetise the fact that they had a baby, or bought something, or thought something, or basically just exist and are special and so the world should pay them for it.

A surprisingly large number, meanwhile, recently applied to run a hostel on some wind-blasted island off our Atlantic coast, which would have amazed their forebears who were stuck on similar islands for generations, with nothing but seaweed and their own unending misery for nourishment.

It’s enough to make us older folks scratch our heads and wonder what the hell is up with kids nowadays. But I won’t be doing that, because I realise that every generation thinks the succeeding one is daft and has the sense of a toilet-brush. We’re all equally stupid and equally to blame.

I can only imagine my parents’ reaction, for example, when I announced my ambition of playing for Liverpool while also filling in for Batman, squiring Kim Basinger around town and being a vampire who fights crime. “I’ll give you Batman – on top of the head! Now eat your seaweed.”

Nowadays, of course, I’d be filming myself eating that seaweed, and extolling its virtues in exfoliation, colon cleansing and charkra-realignment. Feel free to use that one, YouTubers.


ARCHIVE PIECE: The past is never dead online

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 18

 

Social media is once again in the headlines, and the dock, as its often-pernicious influence is debated. The tragic case of Caroline Flack has seen calls for legislation, or at least tighter controls by companies providing this service, against abuse.

Meanwhile some newly elected TDs are learning a lesson already painfully absorbed by celebrities: the internet is immortal. Whatever you put up there stays there, forever.

Several big-name stars were fired from jobs, or dropped from awards ceremonies, after eagle-eyed members of the public trawled back through their tweets and posts for material deemed offensive, bigoted or otherwise verboten.

In some cases, it doesn’t matter if the sentiments were considered acceptable at that time. In an ironic twist, the users of this immortal medium are obsessed with contemporaneity. If a celebrity’s thoughts jar at all with the prevailing mood in February 2020, they’re toast. Welcome to “cancel culture”.

Now this digital archaeology has been extended to politics, though in that case, the concept has more validity. Indeed, one could argue that, in putting yourself forward for election to the national parliament, you’re not only exposing your past to scrutiny – but the public, and the system, have the right and the duty to examine it.

These are, after all, the people who will be shaping our country, drawing up legislation, making changes, forwarding one development and preventing another. They carry a hell of a lot of responsibility (and are rewarded for it very well).

So, yes, if you tweeted five years ago that Israel was responsible for bringing down the Two Towers, that’s probably relevant when the new Taoiseach is deciding whether to make you Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Actually, Israel was the subject – big surprise – of one of the more doolally post-election social media messages which got new TDs in trouble. In this case, the politician didn’t actually reiterate that old “the Jews caused 9-11” racist canard; she merely blamed “dirty tricks” by Mossad for hobbling the chances of Jeremy Corbyn last year. As one respondent dryly pointed out, it’s perplexing how this sinister, all-powerful organisation somehow allowed her to get voted in.

There have been other social media boo-boos, from candidates victim-blaming Mairia Cahill to anti-vaccination conspiranoia to unwisely triumphant chest-beating after victory. In perhaps the oddest – and most quintessentially Irish – instance, a politician got embroiled in a Twitter spat with Rory Cowan off Fair City and Mrs Brown’s Boys.

They say in public life that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. We can now update that to: if you’re slagging off the likeable Rory Cowan on social media, merely for supporting the similarly likeable Noel Rock, you’re definitely losing.

Our politicians have been caught with their pants down online in other, more recent ways. Just think of those viral videos of winning candidates lustily belting out rebel songs; hollering “Up the ‘Ra”, as if they have the slightest idea about the reality of The Troubles, having grown up in the pampered peacefulness of our republic; or crowing about “breaking” the “Free State bastards”.

Eh? The Free State? Hey, 1922 called – they want their political references back.

But it’s the sins of the past which increasingly come back to haunt public figures. Only a complete moron will keep tweeting their deranged effluvium once they’ve been elected – I know, there are a few – and most politicians will tone it down, in public at least, from here on.

As I say, though, the internet never forgets. If you typed and hit send, any site and any time, those words are now stored on a hard-drive, somewhere.

Deleting is pointless; once you’ve been rumbled, the first thing everyone else does is take a screenshot. This compounds the original crime: people now think you’re engaged in a cover-up. Which, of course, you are.

The internet is immortal. And in a strange and slightly eerie way, it makes people immortal, not just their words. People die but their online presence sometimes lingers on, a kind of digital ghost.

During the election campaign, I searched on Twitter for mentions of Noel Whelan, the brilliant psephologist and political analyst who died last year, whose contributions was sorely missed in 2020. It was a bit of a jolt to see that Noel’s Twitter page is still up. So too is that of Keelin Shanley and the aforementioned Caroline Flack. Marian Finucance’s remained online until recently.

It seems a bit weird, even unsettling, but then you think: well, what’s to be done about it? Twitter et al may feel they don’t have the right to delete someone’s digital existence, and nobody else but the person themselves can take it down. So there it remains.

Should we nominate someone to delete our social media if we die, then? Should that form part of a will? Should Twitter do it automatically once a death is registered, and how would that even work?

Oh, the complexities and confusions of modern life, where the technology of the future keeps us ever looking backwards. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


ARCHIVE PIECE: Why I stopped voting for Sinn Féin

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 10

 

There’s nothing worse than being a prophet who’s unrecognised in his own time. But that, sadly, is the position I find myself in.

Oddly enough, for a man who is in many ways an unreconstructed dinosaur, I actually have form for being ahead of my time on certain matters. A few examples: I was wearing those “Buddy Holly” glasses years before they became popular with hipsters; I had a beard years before they became popular with every male on earth; I was vegetarian for years before it became the done thing for environmental or health reasons; I was reusing, recycling and being eco-friendly for years before it became socially and legally mandatory; I was into Korean movies for years before one of them became the first foreign-language film to win the Best Picture Oscar; I was doing feminism-friendly “women in GAA” special editions as editor of a Gaelic games magazine years before the 20/20 campaign.

My life, in some regards, has been a broader version of the guy at a music festival, pointing at the wildly successful band on-stage and snottily declaring, “Yeah, well, I was into them before it was cool.”

And like that guy, I sometimes lose interest in something, as it reaches the critical mass of being loved by Joe Public and Mary Housecoat. Which brings me, sort of, to Sinn Féin.

Their remarkable election results – I’m officially obliged to use the word “surge” here, under various journalistic bylaws and sub-regulations – have propelled the party into the first division of Irish politics.

Sinn Féin have secured the highest number of first-preference votes. They’ll almost certainly be involved in the next government, despite all the “oh no they won’t” pantomime protestations from others beforehand. They’ve shattered the old two-party system. Even some fervently anti-republican commentators have had Pauline conversions and now clasp Sinn Féin to their bosom.

They’re definitively major players in the current Game of Thrones. And my main takeaway from all of this is: if only it had happened five or ten years ago.

I can’t take any real happiness or satisfaction from Sinn Féin’s rise, you see, because I no longer vote for them. From young adulthood up to a few years back, I only voted for them and the Green Party. “Green and green”, I would wittily reply when asked who I’d gone for in an election.

I was seduced, probably, by the glamour of “revolutionary chic”; the edgy, vaguely disreputable air surrounding people like Sinn Féin, Che Guevara or Leon Trotsky is attractive to callow minds. They feel like rebels, and when you’re young, that’s all you want to be. Smash the system, man!

I was also pretty nationalist in my inclinations. Not quite to the point of condoning murder and torture, but certainly more than willing to contextualise it and argue that, sometimes, armed “resistance” is justified.

So had Sinn Féin delivered this spectacular election result when I was in my thirties, I’d have celebrated like, well, a crowd of yahoos roaring Come Out Ye Black and Tans at a count centre. I might even have been one of those yahoos.

Unfortunately, at some stage over the last decade, the love died for me. There are various reasons, not least the continued association with an unelected, secretive and, let’s be honest, rather terrifying militia sequestered in the Badlands north of the border. Call me a boring old fuddy-duddy if you must, but there’s something undemocratic about that.

And there were other reasons. Sinn Féin always seemed to be criticising everything, but never proposing practical solutions to problems. They’re hideously anti-Israel, an automatic minus-point for me. They spent decades moaning about the EU, urging a No vote in every referendum, yet when Britain chose to leave they suddenly transformed into the EU’s biggest fans. That stupid three-year stand-off at Stormont.

What really broke the camel’s back was the – have to be careful here – alleged cover-up of alleged sexual assault of women and girls by IRA members. For a party which has traded heavily on identity politics, including feminism, when it suits, there didn’t appear to be a whole lot of #MeToo and #IBelieveHer going on in that instance.

Anyway, that’s where it lies: I was a strong Sinn Féin supporter when few other people were, and now that everyone loves them, I’ve jumped ship. Contrarian or what?

There’s also a quandary for anyone seeking an alternative to the political mainstream. Who do you vote for, if you want to stick it to the Man? Sinn Féin now are the Man, and will likely soon be in power.

Labour seem pointless, as do the Soc Dems. The various socialist mini-parties are laughable. A lot of Independents seem daft, and besides they have little influence. There’s always the Greens, of course, but other than that, options for proper protest voting are slim.

Sinn Féin. I preferred their earlier stuff, man. Before they sold out and went all commercial, you know?


Cocaine users are just a few steps from killers

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD JANUARY 21

 

When did cocaine use become so socially acceptable? I’m genuinely asking, because I’m genuinely bewildered. At what point did we, in the western world and specifically Ireland, decide that this, of the “harder” illegal drugs out there, was okay for “regular people” to regularly consume?

It used to be that drink and fags were considered fine, ethically speaking, because they were sold by legitimate vendors. A puff of a joint or magic mushrooms were alright too, don’t get caught by your parents but no real harm done.

Meanwhile acid wasn’t easy to come by but I don’t recall it having the fierce social stigma surrounding illegal drugs, possibly because it was – still is – sometimes used in a therapeutic setting.

Cocaine, alongside the likes of heroin or speed, was seen as dirty, dangerous, scummy. Apart from the risks, short- and long-term, to health, finances and quality of life, coke was recognised as coming from some of the world’s worst people: narcotics traffickers.

Buying it was handing money to the criminals. Every twenty quid hoovered up your nose was twenty quid for these animals to purchase more guns and wreak more horror on their enemies, communities and countries.

And guess what? It still is. You’re literally two or three steps away from the psychopaths who chopped up a 17-year-old gang member and scattered his body parts around last week.

The gangs have no power, no anything, without money. By giving them your money, you’re handing them that power to bring down ruination and misery.

Not to mention that you’re indirectly – but not too indirectly – contributing to the absolute hellhole situations in the source countries of these drugs. Mexico, Colombia, Afghanistan: they’re essentially ungovernable because comparatively rich westerners hand over billions annually to cartels.

Yet cocaine is now A-OK with the cool people. Apparently use in Ireland has surpassed even the deranged Celtic Tiger era, and is seen across all social classes and locations. And age demographics: one report yesterday said kids are now sorting out coke for their Debs balls.

As I say, I find it absolutely amazing how this drug is now so acceptable. Apart from everything else – and there’s a lot of everything else, as documented above – there’s a rank hypocrisy.

The same people who’d look down their noses at the poor misfortunates hooked on heroin or crystal meth have no problem using cocaine. But is there any real difference between either choice?

Indeed, if anything, the world would probably be a safer place if people took heroin rather than coke. The former puts you into a drowsy stupor of bliss and indifference; the user is pacific, only a threat when they need money to buy more heroin. Cocaine, in sharp contrast, makes people obnoxious, abrasive, reckless and, in some cases, violent.

Yet one is anathema to all “right-thinking people”, whereas the other is just hunky-dory. I’ve been offered coke twice in my life, and was agog and speechless each time.

Once was at a house-party, late on in the night: it felt a bit surreal, to be honest, but at least this was that “let’s do something a bit wild” part of the evening. The other time was in a pub, having a few post-work pints – at half-six in the evening.

I remember thinking, “What the hell? Home & Away hasn’t even come on yet, and here’s some guy asking me if I want to do coke in the pub toilets.”

Could you imagine someone enquiring as to whether you’d like to come smoke some heroin at tea-time? Hey, let’s nip into the bathroom and do a little crack. Go on, it’ll be fun.

This mental disconnect is utterly mystifying, and it’s not the only one. Cocaine users seem incapable of drawing that line between the powder on their table and the murderous cabals who sold it to them.

It’s always bought off “a friend of a friend” or “a guy I know, he’s grand, he’s not a criminal, he just has access to it”. Yeah, he may not be a criminal – but the person he bought it off certainly is.

Maybe the next time they’re wringing their hands about gangland crime, they should ask themselves: what am I doing to enable all this horror? It really is that simple. No buyers means no money means no power for the gangsters.

People are pretty good nowadays for ethical consumerism: they’ll boycott companies with poor conditions for their workers, insist on Fair Trade coffee, demand more accountability and higher taxes for corporations. All well and good, very admirable.

They might think about also applying these principles to the underbelly of the capitalist structure. Narco-traffickers are corporations, just not legally recognised as such; and we, the consumers, have the wherewithal to hobble their reign of terror.

Personally, I think drugs should be decriminalised, as the only way to wrest power from the gangs; until that unlikely day, maybe consider just saying no.


ARCHIVE PIECE: Why must everything now be done in public?

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD DECEMBER 2019

 

The first thing that struck me about that row between climate change hero Greta Thunberg and German rail network Deutsche Bahn was a memory. I looked at that by-now-viral photo of Greta sitting between carriages, surrounded by rucksacks, gazing out the window, and thought: that’s exactly how every train journey I took as a student went.

There were never enough seats during Friday evening and Sunday night rush-hour on the Cork-Dublin line in the 1990s. Never. You didn’t expect to get a seat.

What you expected was to sit in discomfort, smoking to while away the time and kill the boredom (you were allowed smoke on trains back then – the past wasn’t all bad), and forlornly hoping that the cute girl with the nose-ring, sitting with her own rucksacks across the way, might notice the copy of Kierkegaard or Wide Sargasso Sea that you were ostentatiously pretending to read, and then initiate conversation.

Today’s young ‘uns clearly expect more from life, though, as Greta took to Twitter with a mild critique of the situation. Deutsche Bahn clarified that she did, in fact, have a seat for much of the journey, as did her team/staff/whatever, finishing with a slightly petty query as to why she didn’t compliment their staff on how nicely they’d treated her. Greta countered the counter by saying that she didn’t mind sitting between carriages, it wasn’t necessarily meant as a critique, and anyway isn’t a packed train a good sign that humanity is moving away from airplanes and roads.

Who’s in the right here? I couldn’t say, and more importantly, I couldn’t care less. My main takeaway from the whole farrago was: is this the way it is now, forever? Must every disagreement be hashed out in the klieg-light glare of social media?

No celebrity, politician, footballer, artist or other public figure is now capable of engaging with someone in an argument, unless it’s across the hell-blasted electronic pages of Twitter, Facebook and wherever else.

Donald Trump has practically started World War III on social media, for God’s sake. EU apparatchiks seem to be forever getting in sly digs on Twitter about those annoying Brits and their pesky desire to leave. Recently here at home Twink, with her spiteful words about Shane MacGowan, came perilously close to kicking off a second Civil War against the Tipp legend’s many devoted followers.

The situation has reached a sort of metaphysical crescendo, which we can express in a question: if two people have a row but they don’t splash it across Twitter, has it actually happened?

I can half-understand your Hollywood stars and mouthy musicians and Reality TV oxygen-thiefs constantly revving up rows online. Part of their job description is keeping themselves in the public eye, and what better way to do that than slag off a rival?

I can also half-understand us lumpen proles doing it. Let’s face it, most of us don’t have anything better to do with our lives; might as well count down the clock to impending mortality by screeching at random strangers about abortion or Lisa Chambers or why they’re sub-human scum for liking some movie that we didn’t like.

But politicians should be above that. Public servants should be above that. The US President and EU negotiators and business leaders and the great and good of society should all be above it.

Dammit, Deutsche Bahn should be above it too. And so should Greta Thunberg. If she’s old enough to address the United Nations, she’s old enough to show a bit of decorum when things go mildly askew.

There’s something depressing about the way these matters are now played out on the internet. Nothing is handled in private anymore, in a sober, responsible and grown-up way.

I guess it’s all representative of how “public” life has become. Nothing matters in 2019 unless everyone sees it happen. Notions of privacy, tact and discretion have been made redundant by the accursed demi-gods of the digital age.

The stiff upper lip is derided. Holding things in is considered a symptom of some deep-rooted mental illness. Not talking about every single goddamn thing, all the time, in public is now considered the sign of a suspect, and possibly deficient, personality. Everything must be vomited forth for literally anyone on the planet to read.

But maybe I’m wrong, and it was always like this. We didn’t have the internet, of course, until shortly before the millennium. But maybe disgruntled politicos and celebs and German rail companies were at each other’s throats regardless, only back then it was done via the newspaper letters pages or splenetic TV interviews.

It may even go back further than that. For all I know, some pharaoh of Ancient Egypt had abusive remarks about his successor chiselled into the stone on his terrifyingly immense burial shrine. Then the next guy would hit back with some shade of his own when he died and they were building another pyramid.

That’s the human condition, really. We’re idiots and we always have been. #TutankhamunIsALoser


What we want to say to election candidates . . . and what we actually say

Published in the Herald January 14

 

The secret ballot is the best invention in human history. It means we can all be honest in our votes. We don’t have to worry about what others think of our choice at election time, about potentially losing work or friends because our politics are deemed somehow faulty. In some countries, indeed, the secret ballot can save your life and liberty.

And let’s face it: we’re all complete cowards anyway. As the first general election in four years looms on the horizon, I am reminded again of the vast chasm between what we want to say to politicians when they come canvassing for votes – and what we actually say.

Maybe it’s the in-built Irish terror of any sort of confrontation – urgh, the awkwardness! – but personally, I now can’t imagine tearing into any candidate to their face over the next few weeks. Which is sort of a contradiction, because for the last four years I’ve been doing exactly that: imagining all the caustic, hostile and uncomfortable things I’d say to them when they knocked on the door.

You know yourself: any time something goes wrong with how this country is run, the default reaction is something like, “Wait until any of that shower come asking for my vote! I’ll give them a piece of my mind!”

You picture the scene as it will undoubtedly unfold: the hapless politico and band of supporters cowering in shame and terror as you impersonate Atticus Finch with a brilliant and devastating “j’accuse!” of their many failings. How satisfying it will be, you tell yourself. Years of pent-up anger and frustration unleashed in one almighty yawp of condemnation.

In reality, I open the door to, say, a member of the government party and instead of launching into a diatribe about the ongoing snafu in housing, health or broadband that’s slower than a lame turtle taking it nice and handy on his morning walk around the park, I’ll mutter a few banal words along the lines of “Uh, okay, yeah, I’ll give you a tick, no bother.”

It doesn’t even have to be a Fine Gael TD. The local Fianna Fáiler could come a-rapping on my door, and rather than metaphorically rip their head off over bankrupting the state in 2010 and generally being a cabal of sneaky weasels lining each other’s pockets for the last 80 years, I’ll nod and hum and promise to maybe think about giving them a vote.

Am I being dishonest? Ah, yeah. I’d have to admit that. But what can you do? As I said, it’s an Irish thing. Most of us are simply not programmed for any level of confrontation.

Presumably Germans, Americans, Poles and other races who tend to be more direct in their conversation don’t have a problem with critiquing politicians in person. And I’d imagine that the candidates, in turn, don’t mind too much being reproached by voters.

For us Irish, though, even the thought of it brings on a cold sweat. And canvassers would probably feel it was a bit “bad form” of you; that’s just not the way we do things here, like.

I can imagine their hurt little faces as I ask what the hell they’ve achieved for the area since the last general election, or test them on their policies, or demand they do something about whatever issue has been grinding my gears since 2016.

“Why is he being like this?” you can almost hear them thinking. “Doesn’t he know that Irish people never say what they mean?”

Ah stop, it’d be like torturing a puppy. I simply can’t do it.

Actually what I’d really love is to have the brass neck to ask a series of surreal, bizarre, abstract and irrelevant questions of each politician at my doorstep. Forget about the usual “what can your lot do for us” or “you promised to bring such-and-such to this town the last time and now where is it” type stuff.

Far more amusing – to me at least – would be questions such as: what is the meaning of life? Does God exist, and if so, is he/she/it interventionist or non-interventionist? Where do you stand on the time-honoured Marx-v-Hegel philosophical conundrum?

How will the county’s hurlers go this year? Should a man always wear a watch with a suit, even if he doesn’t normally wear one? What’s the best way to get blood out of a top if it needs to go on a low-temperature wash? (Asking that one for a friend.)

Have you seen John Wick 3? Follow-up question: if yes, what did you think of it? Follow-up to the follow-up: do you not feel that the franchise has jumped the shark a bit and they should have stopped at John Wick 2?

I won’t be doing any of that, though. I’ll stare at the ground, accept their election pamphlet that I won’t even look at before throwing it in the recycling, and assure them that, yes, I will most certainly give you an ould vote. Oh, I hate myself sometimes.