Mutton Island at dawn

Mutton Island at dawn

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mods and rockers in 2014




It might seem strange that a person who wrote his own music column for 15 years might need to be reminded of the power of music, but two gigs over consecutive nights did wonders to lift my spirits this week.

My life, post-redundancy, has not exactly gone to plan. I’m still seeing the Public Health Nurse every second day after undergoing surgery on my shoulder six weeks ago. Dreams of travelling the world or finding the perfect new job have had to be put on hold. It’s not easy to be virtually laid-up, unable to swim in the pool or go to the gym, in Galway at this time of year.

The cancellation of my former work-mates’ Christmas party allowed me to join a couple of old friends at a wonderful gig at the Roisin Dubh, before I hopped on a bus to Dublin for a show which brought me way back in time to my teenage years.

Ah yes, mods and rockers. In my teenage years, the two tribes did not get on. But, as you get older, you realise that good music is good music no matter what the genre. It pains me to recall that I didn’t appreciate The Who, The Specials, or The Jam when I was a kid, just because I was a ‘rocker’ and they were ‘mods’.

Back then, before I discovered the joy of punk at about 16, I used to go around in a denim jacket, with badges and long hair. Bands like Thin Lizzy, Metallica, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden provided the soundtrack to my life.
Sleaford Mods at the Roisin Dubh


When you are in your 40s, you don’t care about labels any more. And I have to admit I got a great thrill out of seeing a ‘mod’ band I knew very little about at the Roisin Dubh.

On a wintry Thursday night in December, it was great to see Sleaford Mods attract such an eclectic crowd. The audience reminded me of what a vibrant place Galway is for a city of just 75,000 souls, even in the depths of winter.

My friends, Hugo and Brian, were already enthusiastic fans of the two piece from Nottingham. And so were many others, by the look of things, judging by how warmly the audience greeted the duo from the moment they took to the stage. Many seemed to recognise each and every catchy, minimalist track, and some even sang along with the words.

After six years of austerity, it was refreshing to see a band rant about dole queues, corruption, and all the trials and tribulations of modern life. Singer Jason Williamson had the spleen of a Johnny Rotten or Mark E Smith, while his partner in crime, Andrew Fearn, conjured up some pretty hypnotic, if minimalist, beats.

Williamson’s lyrics address issues which few artists seem to touch these days. At a time when there is so much anger about the place, it was startling to see a lead singer with the courage to take on political issues on tracks such as ‘Jobseeker’ and ‘Black Monday’.

Sleaford Mods have seen their career take off over the past year and yet they remain a small, cottage industry. After the show, the band members sold their CDs and merchandise themselves. They mix punk, mod, and hip-hop influences, and travel light. I met them in Dublin with just two small cases on Saturday.

They got me thinking that Ireland needs a lot more artists who are willing to take on controversial, topical issues, at a time when people are up in arms over water charges, bailouts, property taxes, and bankers.

On the following day, given the all-clear by the nurse, I boarded a bus to Dublin for a nostalgic trip to see a band I worshipped at the age of 14. People can laugh all they want, but veteran metal act Saxon put on a phenomenal live show.

Sleaford Mods were in Dublin the same night but, given that they slag off rockers in one of their songs, they would not have been welcomed at this particular show.

Saxon will always have a place in my heart, because I used to headbang to their music with my two little sisters in the 1980s. Their music signified rebellion and freedom in the midst of a strict, Irish Catholic childhood.

When my sister Cliona died at 16, one of the songs took on a significance which has stayed with me for a quarter of a century. I still treasure how we used to rock out to ‘Strong Arm of the Law’, playing the track at full blast when my parents were out of the house.

I saw Saxon live in Dublin a year and a half ago, just before a trip to Spain, and was blown away by the power and melodies in their show.

On Friday night, they didn’t disappoint. They rocked the Academy with songs like ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’, ‘Wheels of Steel’, ‘Frozen Rainbow’ and ‘Motorcycle Man’. 

Saxon live at the Academy, Dublin
It was truly uplifting to look around and see rockers aged from 20 to 60 going wild for a band who have been on the road now for 35 years.

Looking up at the stage, it was amazing to see the joy the band members themselves were getting from the gig. Rarely have I ever seen anyone who loves their jobs as much as the members of Saxon, still rocking after all these years. If only everyone could get such fulfilment from their careers.

Seeing the smiles on their faces, while a jubilant 60-year old metal head bounced up and down beside me, reminded me of the importance of just having fun.

Afterwards I met a couple from Milan who travelled to Dublin especially for the gig. There was a joyous atmosphere in the hall and the powerful, loud music seemed to banish my anxieties about the future.

Sometimes just shaking your head to loud music is the perfect tonic when too many of us are overcome by financial concerns or worries about what lies ahead.

(Just don’t tell the cynical Sleaford Mods that I went to see a bunch of old metal dinosaurs!)

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Treasuring the simple things




“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”
John O'Donohue

Over the past couple of weeks, I have taken to making midweek arrangements to meet up with two of my former colleagues who left work on the same day as me at the end of September.

It gives a focus to our days, to meet up in Salthill once a week, enjoying a walk along our city’s wonderful seafront promenade, before adjourning for a leisurely lunch to swap information and share our experiences of joining the ranks of the newly unemployed.

The one hour walks along by the seafront have flown by, because we have so much to tell each other about how our lives are progressing since we opted for voluntary redundancy.

As one who has complained bitterly about Irish winter weather for way too long, I have been delighted by how much I have enjoyed our weekly walks in the cold and the chance to share our fears and hopes for the future.

Today, Galway Bay was flat calm. There was a serenity and peace about Salthill, which made me appreciate how lucky we were to have our health and to have such stunning scenery as a backdrop to our conversation.

Sometimes, it really is a good thing to focus on the simple things in life.

Both of my former colleagues, both younger than me, have inspired me with their positivity and desire for change.

Whereas I have faced the future with a degree of anxiety and dread, both of them have embraced change with an enthusiasm which has lifted my spirits during our weekly meetings. One of them has opted to return to college, while the other is in the early stages of setting up a new business of her own.

All three of us have helped each other, in terms of how we have dealt with bureaucracy or new clients now that we are out there in the big, bad world.

When you are in the same job for a long time, you don’t realise what is involved in seeking new clients or pitching for work. You learn that people can make promises and then let you down. 

And small companies tend to give very little support to departing workers even though a redundancy can become one of the most stressful events in a person’s life.

Both of my former colleagues have given me enormous support, and excellent advice, and I hope I have been able to reciprocate in my own way. We are learning from each other and, surely, that’s what life is about . . . learning, growth, and change.

Both of them have embraced change with open arms, causing me to question why I am so fearful of an uncertain future after leaving my job of 22 years. 

The weekly walks along the prom have taught me the value of celebrating the simple things in life, such as beautiful scenery, the benefits of a brisk walk, and the joy of good conversation over a cup of coffee.

Normally, after a hard year’s work, I would be soaking up the sun and scuba diving in Thailand, Egypt, or Nicaragua – on holidays – at this time of year. 

It probably still hasn’t sunk in yet that I can go wherever I want or opt for any one of a myriad of options as I face into an uncertain 2015. 

But, thanks to my colleagues, I am seeing new possibilities open up and I’m beginning to realise that I have confused excitement with fear.

Life changes every day, but too many of us grasp for the familiar and even hurt ourselves by resisting change. For me, this process of moving on or changing career might allow me to follow my dreams or passions in the long-term.

Each of us has a magic spark within us, but sometimes it seems hard to dance, or play, or live life to the full. It can seem impossible to turn our dreams or passions into rewarding lives or well-paid careers.

Too often, and for obvious reasons such as mortgages and young families, we settle for the familiarity of the 'comfort zone'.

But my two former colleagues are well on the way to finding the magic and today I found just a pinch of fresh inspiration as we talked along the familiar promenade I have walked 10,000 times. 

Even though I still have a way to go before I learn to live "like a river flows"!






Thursday, November 27, 2014

Farewell to The Sentinel



It was almost poignant this week to see the final edition of the Connacht Sentinel hit the newsagents – just months short of the Galway paper’s 90th birthday.

For as long as many of us can remember, The Sentinel was part of the fabric of Galway life every Tuesday.

It was the first paper of the week in the city throughout virtually all of those nine decades and attracted a loyal following thanks to its heady mix of weekend sports reports, lively columns, and up to date reports from the previous day’s court sittings or local authority meetings.

Since 1925, the tabloid attracted a loyal following. But its demise was almost inevitable after ten of the Connacht Tribune staff opted to take voluntary redundancies, due to difficult trading conditions, two months ago.

With a reduced staff, and a vastly changed media landscape, management have opted to concentrate on their two main titles, the Connacht Tribune and Galway City Tribune.

The Sentinel was a key part of Galway life for so many people for so long. In school, back in the 1980s, I remember the paper being passed around from student to student at Colaiste Iognaid.

There was a great thrill if a freelance journalist singled you out for praise from an U-16 soccer game which was sometimes given the importance of an FA Cup Final in the following Tuesday's report on the Sentinel’s sports pages.

Front page of the last Connacht Sentinel
Rowers, rugby players, and boxers, too, would be delighted if their sporting achievements were recognised in the  local tabloid. You would bounce home from school because your goal in a Sunday morning soccer game had been written up with such enthusiasm in the paper.

There was a voyeuristic side to readers, too. People love to gossip and there was a sly satisfaction in noting what neighbours got up to if they were unlucky enough to end up before Judge John Garavan at Galway District Court. 
By the time I began writing for the paper in the early 1990s, Judge Garavan had received legendary status across the city. Even the hardened criminals seemed to love his quirky sense of humour.

Sometimes he would have the entire District Court, including Gardai, defendants, solicitors, witnesses, and journalists, howling with laughter as he brought a rare human warmth to what was undoubtedly an intimidating experience for many people.

“Don’t quote me on that!” he would roar over at the young journalist in the press box, who was mindful that the occasional outburst from the bench would get both the esteemed Judge and the newspaper into deep trouble if it was reported accurately in the following morning’s Sentinel.

I can remember one colourful character welcoming a new Garda Inspector to the District Court “on behalf of the criminals of Galway”, a gesture which was met with surprising charm and warmth by (the now late) Judge Garavan.

Because of The Sentinel, Mondays were always busy in the Tribune office. We would either be writing up the sports reports (for me, Galway United or the Galway hurlers) from the weekend markings or telephoning politicians and people in authority in order to “chase down” stories.

The Tribune used to print its own three titles in those days, so it was possible to type up a piece early on a Tuesday morning – just an hour before it appeared on the news-stands.

That meant that when Galway won the All-Ireland football title for the first time in 32 years, I was able to attend the 4am homecoming at the Cathedral car park and, buzzing with adrenaline, managed to have both a front and back page piece written up for the following morning’s edition. I bounced into work at 9am after sleeping for just three hours.

The whole city and county seemed to be on a high that night in September 1998 and it was hugely rewarding to be able to put all the excitement, all the drama, into a few hundred words.

City Councillors and officials used to marvel at how much coverage their Monday night meetings used to get in the following morning’s paper.

It was “normal” to get back to the office from a local authority meeting at 11pm and then spend two hours writing up five or six stories which would be on the editor’s desk when he came in the following morning.

For a young reporter, there was a real “buzz” about churning out so much copy in such a short period of time – and I always preferred to get the Council meetings covered in the early hours rather than rush into the office early the following morning. The boss didn't mind as long as the meeting was covered in full.

All of that changed, though, when the Tribune closed down their own printing works in 2008. The din of the printing machines, such a feature of life on Market Street every Tuesday morning for almost a century, gave way to an eerie silence as a group of happy workers (who always seemed to be laughing and joking) lost their jobs.

I used to park my bicycle in the empty works in more recent years and was sometimes haunted by the memories of all the wonderful people who had worked there down through the years.

The printing of the paper transferred to a new plant in Cork, which meant it was no longer possible for reporters to “write up” late stories on Tuesday mornings. Instead, the Sentinel was printed at 4am and in the shops before most of us made it in to work on Tuesdays.

In recent years, the lively tabloid had adapted to changing times. My colleague, Dara Bradley, set up an irreverent political column which had the local TDs and City Councillors fretting with fear at times. Mind you, in some cases our politicians would prefer to be mentioned in a negative sense than not to be mentioned at all.

In the hugely popular About Town column, the rest of us could rant about poor service in restaurants or bars or celebrate new discoveries we had made, or delights uncovered, around Galway over the weekend. 

Peader O Dowd celebrated the heritage of Galway, while there always seemed to be a competition among older readers to see who would win the acclaimed Sentinel crossword.

Editor Brendan Carroll always gave great scope to his reporters and, on Mondays, would welcome stories from me about protests in solidarity with the people of Gaza or the victims of sexual abuse whenever I would attend demonstrations in Eyre Square at the weekends.

He was delighted when reporters generated their own "stories" and there was a wide mix of interests and personalities across the newsroom.

For a small paper which essentially took just one day to produce, the paper had a fantastic mixture of news and sports reports, lively and challenging columns, and feature articles.

The paper’s demise has hardly come as a shock, given that newspapers all over the world are closing down, but it was still sad to see it on the shelves for the last time this Tuesday. 

It will be missed.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The final straw



Exactly four years ago this week, I was working as a volunteer in Nicaragua. I was having the time of my life, working among some of the poorest people in the Americas when, all of a sudden, everyone started talking about my home country.

In the volunteer house I shared with a mixed bunch from the US, Holland, and Germany, it became quite a shock when my country’s woes began to dominate conversations.

Ireland’s financial meltdown had become the main story on BBC World News, CNN Espanol, and even the local Nicaraguan TV channels.

The country’s leading newspapers, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, speculated that Ireland’s financial collapse could bring down the whole European Union.

In my city centre office, it was surreal when German and Canadian volunteers suddenly began sympathising with me about the state of my homeland.
On the street, a neighbour who had no English told me he’d heard that my country was in ruins.

On the day of the EU-IMF bailout, I gravitated towards Granada’s only Irish pub.

All five of the city’s Irish residents, plus us two long-term volunteers, sat around Tommy Griffin’s TV set at O’Shea’s pub on the city’s main thoroughfare as we watched the Troika come to Dublin.

It was humiliating.

But in their own way, the lovely group of people around me summed up what a failed state Ireland has been, more or less, since its foundation.

There were the older lads in their 50s and 60s, who never imagined that their homeland would give them a living when they grew up in Kerry, Cork, or Dublin; before heading off for new lives in the United States and, later, Central America.

There was the man in his 40s, who had been made redundant from his job in Dublin before opting to buy a little hotel so far from home.

There was the journalist, delighted to be taking a career break because my firm was under pressure due to the economic downturn.

Or the teacher in her 30s, who was travelling for a year because it was impossible to get a steady job back home.

And the publican, in his 70s, who had failed to settle down back home after a lifetime of running bars overseas.

As we sat around the TV screen in O’Shea’s, we wondered what it would take to awaken the Irish people – to stop them from voting for the kind of politicians who put the rights of bankers, speculators, and developers over those of ordinary people.

We watched the coverage of the bailout and we were stunned.

As I looked around, I realised that all of these emigrants had a great spirit of adventure but, in terms of options and careers, Ireland had let them down. I’m the only one of that bunch who has returned home.

A few months later, I was back in Ireland to cover a General Election in which Fianna Fail suffered a meltdown.

FF and the Green Party have been replaced by FG and Labour; people have seen their spending power evaporate further due to a household charge, property tax, and the Universal Social Charge.

Four years on, people are wondering if the Government which replaced the party which caused the mess are any better. It seems that they have become embroiled in one scandal after another and ordinary people are still paying the price for bailing out a tiny elite.

In recent weeks, the mobilisation to oppose the Irish Water charges has been amazing to behold. 250,000 people have marched across the country to say that enough is enough. Many of them would never have attended a protest march before.

Some commentators have expressed bafflement at the campaign.

They wonder why the same people were not on the streets in 2008, when the last Government made the ill-fated bank guarantee.

Or why there were not massive protests two years later, when the Troika came to town and forced the Irish Government to secure the bondholders, while crippling the Irish people with debts for decades to come.

The interest on our bank debt is €1.6 billion per annum.

By way of contrast, they argue that the water charges are a relatively minor issue.

Perhaps they are.

But for many people these latest charges have come as the final straw.

They could not see the senior bankers, bondholders, or speculators who brought this country to its knees, but it all becomes more tangible when contractors begin to install unwanted water meters outside your home.

After six years of austerity, pay-cuts, and job losses, people simply feel that enough is enough.

They get angry when they see the bonuses being paid to senior Irish Water staff and angrier still when protesters who take to the streets are described as a “sinister fringe”.

The wonderful Irish emigrants I met in Nicaragua four years ago asked me why there wasn’t a spark of rebellion in the people who stayed at home. Some of them had not lived in Ireland for 30 or 40 years, but they still cared with a passion about what was happening to their island.

In the past few weeks, I think we’ve seen a sleeping giant awaken. People have been inspired by the mass protests on the streets and they have seen through the official “spin”.

Finally, after six years of hardship which was not of their own making, many people are not willing to put up with austerity any more.

The kind of mobilisation we have seen over the water charges could be seen as a good thing. People do care about the state of their country and want to ensure a better future for their children.
The vast majority of the protesters have been very well behaved.

They did not take to the streets to oppose the bank guarantee or the terms of the bailout, but in the last few weeks they have shown the kind of spirit and determination which was lamented by people who had long since given up on their homeland four years ago.