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.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Fear of mass protests and the 'sinister fringe'

“If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Malcolm X

They still don’t get it, do they?

With all the bickering there has been over the water charges in recent weeks, leading to today’s virtual u-turn by the Irish Government, it seems that the true anger of a mass movement of people has still not been fully understood by our leaders.

Yes, they do realise that 250,000 people marched against the charges, in what used to be one of the most passive countries in Europe. That sent fear through the ranks of back-bench TDs who were already worried about holding onto their seats in the next General Election.

And, today, the new Minster for the Environment admitted that mistakes were made. Alan Kelly is from the Labour Party, who once promised they would not bring in water charges.

Minster Kelly could not even get the u-turn right, as he ran out to a press conference instead of hearing the views of the opposition TDs in the Dail. He reduced the charges, instead of realising that people wanted the entire quango to be abolished, for him to "rip it up and start again".

What the Government don’t seem to get is that people have had enough of austerity after eight years. People are sleeping in cars or crowding out homeless shelters because they can’t afford to pay the rent any more.

Two weeks ago, I experienced for myself what it's like to lie in a hospital trolley for more than 24 hours. There is something seriously wrong with a country which prioritises bankers over the health of ordinary people.

People have faced job losses, losing friends and family members to emigration or suicide, and had their pay packets decimated by the property tax and the wonderfully named Universal Social Charge (USC).

Even though we all know that these new taxes were invented because the Irish Government did not have the balls to burn the unsecured bondholders.

We have seen the bonus culture of the chosen few with the right connections who have risen to the top of Irish Water.

Thanks to social media, we have seen videos of Gardai and contractors confronting peaceful protesters in their own driveways.

These contractors are not looking for leaks in the system, they are installing meters for a private company without the consent of the landowners. And guess who owns the company which is installing the meters?

So a couple of protesters have thrown bricks or abused Gardai and an entire movement has been denigrated in the mainstream media. Thousands of citizens who marched in opposition to the charges have been associated with a “sinister fringe”.

But nowadays people have Facebook and Twitter and You Tube. They can see the kind of footage which does not make it onto our TV screens.

They can see that people are angry, but mostly peaceful in their protests, up and down the country.
Malcolm X lived in an era when there was no access to social media, when elite corporations could control the access to information of virtually the entire population.

When people see that the news on their TV screens or in the papers does not reflect what they have seen on YouTube or with their own eyes, they have a right to be angry.

It’s the injustice of charging people a new tax for water – something which they are already paying for through other taxes – which has galvanised people a lot more than the prices which were reduced by the Government this afternoon.

People attended the water protest in Galway on November 1 who were never previously at a protest march in their lives. And that's what is really scaring the FG-Labour coalition, who are not too bothered when a few hundred march in solidarity with the people of Gaza or the victims of sexual abuse.

These water charges appear to be the final straw for many people who have been fed up paying for the sins of a tiny elite for six years at this stage.

While the people at the top are contriving to make a mockery of the 1916 commemorations, they have done everything in their power to discredit a mass movement which, to them, must seem quite frightening.

The Taoiseach has claimed that democracy is under threat from the “sinister fringe”.

Others might argue that the real threat to democracy we have seen in recent weeks has come from Gardai pepper-spraying peaceful protesters, hurling a young woman to the ground, or contractors “squaring up” to protesters in their own driveways.

That’s not to excuse those who have engaged in violent acts against the Gardai, Government Ministers, or contractors. It was simply wrong to trap the Tanaiste, Joan Burton, inside her car in Jobstown, just as it was wrong for one teenager to throw a brick at the Gardai afterwards. 

But it's ridiculous to blame a huge protest movement for the misdeeds of a few.

Social media posts and videos have shown us the real truth about the Irish Water protests, in a way which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. 

Unfortunately for Malcolm X, there was no Facebook or You Tube in his time. Unfortunately for Enda Kenny and his Government, videos which have gone viral have exposed the truth in a way which makes people question the "spin" they have been exposed to for far too long.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Keeping the wolf from the door ...

One of the most amazing things about quitting work has been the amount of chance encounters I have had with old friends in recent weeks.

It seems that, doing the 9 to 5 routine, it’s much harder to bump into friends by chance than when you actually have time on your hands.

There are so many old buddies still living in Galway who I literally have not bumped into in years.

And a few chance meetings have resulted in two hour cups of coffee and wonderful conversations about our lives.

After my four days in hospital, I have been given a chance to take stock. I felt a huge sense of liberation the evening I was discharged from University Hospital Galway (UHG) and my surgery reminded me to take stock of all the good things in my life.

I also never wanted to see a hospital trolley again, after 26 hours of lying in a corridor at UHG.

Every day, for three to four weeks, I have to attend the clinic in Shantalla to have my wound dressed by a Public Health Nurse. Throughout the past week, the nurses have been super efficient and never left me waiting for long.

Appointments were over and done with in just ten minutes, in contrast to the awful inefficiencies and hours and hours of waiting I’d experienced in the hospital.

I’ve had to slow down and it’s made me question my eagerness to rush back into a working life after more than 20 years in the same job.

Suddenly, I realise I can do whatever I want. I can go back to Nicaragua and volunteer among some of the poorest, but most welcoming, people I have met in my life. Or work as a divemaster in a tropical island again, enjoying an amazing lifestyle.

Instead of rushing out to find a new job in the Galway wind and rain.

This morning, walking through Shantalla, I met an old childhood friend who I literally had not seen in ten years.

A carpenter by trade, he was hit hard by the economic downturn, but he did not want to emigrate when the crisis hit home in 2008.

These days, he’s finding huge fulfilment in a community employment scheme. He hasn’t got much to live on, but he is enjoying the camaraderie of working in a small group and learning new skills. He relishes attending the course three days per week.

Yesterday, I met another old friend who recently left his job. A man with a number of third level qualifications, he took a job on a factory floor in a medical devices company simply to pay the bills.

Frustrated, but with a decent pay cheque, he ended up staying with the US multinational for almost ten years.
He knew, and his employers knew, that he was overqualified for the job. But sometimes needs must ... 

And today I read a blog by a much younger man, in his late 20s, who had to give up on what was, for him, a “dream” job with an organisation he respected, simply because he could not afford the rent in Dublin. 

It was one of those Job Bridge schemes, where his dole would have been topped up by €50. Sadly, he realised that he was better off in Galway and staying on the dole – or looking for a job which did not suit his skills, because at least it would cover the bills.

On the Salthill promenade, I met a former neighbour who has experienced both a redundancy and the break-up of his marriage this year. He’s mad keen to work, but he has spent months looking for a job without any luck.

I know another old neighbour who has had to go to the Middle East for work, while leaving his wife and young family at home. He got sick of trying to make ends meet in a business which just wasn’t working any more.

This week’s main story in the Connacht Sentinel brought plenty of good news, showing that the jobless rate in my home town had reached its lowest figure in almost six years.

It’s fantastic that the number of people on the dole is now 13% lower than this time last year.

But these few chance encounters in the space of a couple of days have made me question how much the jobless figures hide the true extent of emigration or the numbers of people getting by on Job Bridge and community employment schemes which barely pay the bills.

How many people are going through the motions just to keep the wolf from the door? How many families have been forced to live apart just so that one of the parents can provide a decent wage?

There is still an awful lot of unfulfilled potential out there. There are still so many people struggling to get by on courses or schemes which don’t match their skills.

No wonder there is so much anger and fear out there that people will soon have to start paying for water, to a private company, in one of the wettest countries on earth!

Ireland might be coming out of recession, but an awful lot of people still have an awful lot to offer in the work place in a way which is not being reflected in either their day-to-day jobs or how much they get paid.