Friday, January 29, 2010

Beckett Bridge – an upbeat statement in a gloomy city

I went for a walk yesterday around a neighborhood near where I used to work, but I hadn't been to before. I can't remember what used to be there, but derelict is the word that comes to mind.

Now it's full of new, not quite finished glass office buildings and apartments and open spaces near the end of the Grand Canal. It's the type of place that was designed to be teeming with people on warm summer evenings.

Yesterday, however, all I could think about was who is ever going to occupy all that office space? {And, why is that white building so ugly?}

I get this feeling a lot lately. Everywhere I look I see office buildings nearing completion, but when as of last July we already had a office vacancy rate of 20% in Dublin, I can't help wondering how many years will these new offices be empty? Or how many other buildings will have to be emptied in order to fill these?

It can get you down, walking around.

That's why I was probably more heartened than I should have been when I came to the River Liffey and found I was right near Dublin's newest bridge, the Samuel Beckett Bridge. The Beckett Bridge officially opened last month and it's beautiful, even on a miserable, gray, cold, windy day like yesterday.

The architect of the bridge, Spaniard Santiago Calatrava, says his design was inspired by the harp on the back of Irish coins, which I can kind of see when I look at it from the side. However, when I was right in front of it, looking straight up at it, it looked a lot more like an arrow pulled tight against the bowstring, poised to fly into the sky.

Two or three years ago such an image might have struck me as another sign of the hubris that had infected this city and the country as a whole, but now with the hubris well and truly knocked out of us and the country practically in the fetal position fearing another blow, Dublin unveils a piece of functional infrastructure that is inspiring to behold and pointing us in the direction we must go.

I really liked it. The bridge makes such a confident statement at a time when talk of confidence can seem unreal. Maybe it was the cold and wind affected my thinking, but I was kind of lifted when I saw the bridge, although I was brought down a notch when I had to make my way back through the alleys surrounded by empty offices.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Irish media obsessed by America's guns

Irish people are both horrified and fascinated by America's gun laws, or as it's generally put, 'America's love of guns.' Therefore, no Irish journalist who goes to America for any period of time can resist the lure of guns and those who own them.

Generally speaking all of what's known as 'red state America' has this effect on Irish journalists, but the guns are the most attractive.

Case in point: on Monday night Ireland's national television channel, RTE, aired the first part of a two part documentary chronicling their Washington correspondent's first year in DC. During the hour long program Charlie Bird had a number of discussions on guns, including a longish chat with a group of hunters in West Virginia.

These guys were right out of central casting for a program on second amendment devotees. They seemed like nice enough men, rural people with no interest in having the central government dictate to them how they should or could live their lives. Their interests are not mine, but I wasn't shocked by them. Bird (photo - right) looked and sounded incredulous as he spoke to them.

In some ways I can understand it. Irish people are very America-focused. American culture and news from America are a constant.

The gun laws here, however, are very tight, which makes of the lax laws in America of great interest. Very few Irish people own guns and those who do have to obey strict guidelines on where they can store and use their weapon. {Legal} Handguns are unheard of. Just adds to the sense of mystery, that America is a place everyone knows, but nobody understands.

Regardless Charlie Bird's program was good tv. Near the end of his chat with the hunters Bird asked them if they would use their guns to protect their families. The 'Yes' answers were predictable, but when one of the men stopped Bird to ask him if he would use a gun to protect his family Bird hesitated and looked a bit taken aback when he realized the answer was 'Yes.'

{I don't know if the program will play outside Ireland, but I doubt it. Here's the link if you want to try.}

Monday, January 25, 2010

Irish Church needs African missionaries

An article I stumbled across at got me thinking about the Catholic Church in Ireland. The article says that Ireland is known as the "Land of Saints and Scholars," "but it would welcome a lot more of the latter." That's probably true, but I doubt too many people would object if we had an influx of saints as well as scholars.

For generations the Catholic Church in Ireland sent priests and nuns to America, Britain, Canada, Australia, and just about anywhere English was spoken. The Irish Church also produced thousands of missionaries who went to Africa (mostly), South America, Asia and other places. Their success can be seen in parishes and dioceses in Africa and elsewhere. And now, maybe here too.

Yesterday I went to a different church, not my own parish. The Mass was said by an African priest. It was obvious he was not there just for the week seeking support for the Church in Africa as would have been the case years ago. No, this man is based in this parish. Our own parish also had an African priest until very recently. I've seen other African priests in and Dublin as well.

What's going on here? Well, I don't know. I can only guess. I know the priest who was at our parish was in Ireland to complete his PhD. Maybe all these priests are the same - pursuing higher education opportunities. Or maybe they're here simply to improve their English.

Regardless their presence is, for the moment, interesting but it could prove crucial in the years to come if the Church is to recover after all the recent scandalous revelations. The average Irish priest is old and seems tired and burdened. Who can blame them with so many people willing to tar them all with the same brush? These days it seems the phrase 'pedophile priest' is just everywhere.

The African priests are, in contrast, young, energetic, enthusiastic and unburdened by the Irish Church's problems. These men seem to relish being here and, from what I can see, the people in the pews love them.

Although these African priests are not officially missionaries - at least I don't think they are - they are really on the missions in Ireland. Sure they might leave with a degree and with a great deal of goodwill for their work back in Africa, but they could be the spark that relights the Church in Ireland.

At the moment with so many churches only half full of mostly gray-haired people, the energy and the joy of these men is completely off the scale from what most Irish people experience in a church these days. Even teenagers and younger children seem more alive in the church when these men are on the altar smiling and speaking and singing - often badly, but loudly.

I presume the Church in Africa can't spare any more of these men, but if it's at all possible the Irish bishops should seek out more of them. The Church needs these 'missionaries' here in Ireland. They can come as scholars and do a saint's work while here.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ireland needs a 'Tea Party' movement

On Wednesday night BBC's "Newsnight" did a segment on the Tea Party movement in America. I'd heard about the Tea Party-ers, but only as a vague protest movement. The other night the BBC put a human face on them, interviewing a small gathering in someone's home in Washington, MO.

When it was over I thought to myself, "nothing like that would ever happen here." I don't know why, but the scene I was witnessing just seemed so American: people in a small town getting together to discuss what they could do to affect national politics. They seemed so determined to make a difference, to influence policy and - they stressed - to ensure that they weren't used and/or abused by one party of the other.

Ireland is only 1/100th the size of America, yet I think most Irish people feel a greater sense of frustration that there is nothing that can be done, that what 'they' (politicians) get up to is out of our control.

Ireland's issues and Irish voters are not the same as America's, so the Tea Party goals would not suit Ireland. Yet, the manner in which the Tea Party movement has channeled frustration with politicians among a segment of the electorate is a model that could be useful here.

The biggest source of anger in Ireland right now is the banks and the government's support for them. The Irish economy is on its knees, barely treading water. The NY Times recently mentioned Ireland as possibly having to default on its obligations, so great are the debts the government has taken on to shore up the banks.

Needless to say, many people are hopping mad that all of us taxpayers have to stump up to save the bankers, all of whom seemed to be coining it during the Celtic Tiger years.

This past week the government announced that they were going to hold an inquiry into what happened with the banks, but the inquiry is going to be held in secret. No tv cameras, no press, no nobody other than those who the government appointed inquiry head asks. The inquiry is expected to be complete by year's end.

There's a general cry out 'whitewash' across the country as everyone knows that the banking problem was a result of bankers' greed (and/or stupidity), developers' greed, regulatory bodies ineptitude and government indifference (or worse) until it was too late. Despite the frustration at the banks, politicians and developers the closest we've come to a protest movement here was when, in a widely applauded move, a man threw eggs at the chairman and chief executive of Allied Irish Banks last May.

If there was a Tea Party type movement Irish people might be able to use that anger to better effect, instead of simply stewing or calling and texting talk radio programs.They might just, perhaps, get the public inquiry and maybe even a banker or two on trial.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Irish government should not pass snow-shoveling law

During Ireland's recent cold-spell the Irish government was regularly criticized for doing nothing. So now they want to do something - make a law to force people to shovel in front of their homes or businesses.

I'm all in favor of people shoveling - I practically begged people to shovel their sidewalks earlier this month - but I think this new law is a bad idea. Far better for the government to simply ask people to shovel, to be good citizens, to help their elderly neighbors.

I don't know. Maybe people won't respond. Maybe only the threat of a fine will convince people to get out and clear the sidewalk out in front of their homes.

Before we give up on the civic duty ideal and send in the snow police can't we just try it? Try a PR campaign that emphasizes what's to be done in snow? Maybe the media could promote good snow etiquette? They could even mention it's good exercise. It might work.

One thing I realized this month is that most people around where I live simply had no idea what to do. I saw some people throwing table salt on 2+ inches of snow, but it didn't seem to occur to them to shovel the snow away instead.

When people saw me shoveling they thought I was just a crazy Yank, compelled through some instinct to perform these winter rituals. Honestly, I felt like I was a feature on 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom' such were the looks I was getting as I shoveled. "Notice how the American grabs his shovel to attack the fluffy white invader ..."

I'm probably naive, but I'd like to believe that if people were asked to spend 10 minutes shoveling the inch or two of snow we get that they just might. The people might just respond without having to be brow-beaten into it.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"Friends" star Kudrow's new series inspired by a night of TV watching in Ireland

Lisa Kudrow, star of "Friends", was in Ireland filming "PS I Love You" a few years back when, according to one of the Sunday papers here, she was inspired to take on a new project - to produce a new television series, which will be broadcast in America starting in March.

Now, you might think to yourself that artists being inspired by Ireland is hardly something new, but Kudrow (photo) was inspired while inside watching t.v., not out admiring the beautiful rocky, green landscape. Kudrow's inspiration was an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are," a BBC program that RTE has adapted for Ireland.

The basic concept behind WDYTYA (#WDYTYA on Twitter) is that someone the public knows will research their family tree and we the audience get to experience their discovery. It may sound dull, but it is usually far from that. You may even remember I wrote about this back in July and described WDYTYA as 'must see t.v.' (That post is now lost to the site, but I've reproduced it below)

For many of the featured celebrities it is an emotional experience as they learn about the hardships or tragedies that their grandparents, great-grandparents and further back had to overcome. Some of them get visibly moved and, although they're generally showbiz people and capable of putting it on, anyone who's researched their own family history can relate to the emotions on display - you feel closely connected to people you've never met simply because you know their blood runs in your veins.

Something you have to realize is that not knowing who the celebrity is doesn't matter. Some of the best episodes I've seen have been ones where I had no idea who the celebrity was. In fact, the episode I wrote about in July was about a British radio DJ who I'd never heard of before.

From the first time I saw WDYTYA I thought it would suit America to a tee, in fact better than any other country for the simple reason that Americans all have the immigrant stories that are generally the best ones to watch. And even if the celebrity is a bit stuck on themselves, that usually fades as they learn little truths about their family's past. (And, it's amazing how often bigamy comes up!)

The American series of WDYTYA premiers on NBC on March 5. I just hope the American series is as entertaining as the British and Irish versions. If it is, it will be well worth watching.

Originally Posted July 22, 2009

Genealogy as Must See tv

There are times when I love the BBC. Tonight was one of them.

I just finished watching Who Do You Think You Are? and, honestly, it was riveting. This is a series that has been on for years, and it's often been riveting in the past. Tonight was one of the best.

The idea of the series is that basically we watch some semi-well known person research their roots. Tonight it was Chris Moyles, a DJ on BBC radio. I knew nothing of him before tonight, but that didn't hinder my enjoyment of the show.

Anyone with Irish roots would enjoy this program. All of Moyles' family was from Ireland and they all came from extreme poverty. There are a couple of twists in his family story that would probably differ from that of most Irish-Americans - like the grandmother from the slums of Dublin, always more likely to head to Britain than America - but I still think people of Irish descent anywhere would find the story moving.

My only regret is that the BBC doesn't allow people outside the UK to watch their shows online. If they did, I'd highly recommend it. If they show this series on BBC America, look out for the Chris Moyles episode. It's worth it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Florida's Glazer is the most hated American in Ireland

I firmly believe Malcolm Glazer is the most hated American in Ireland. You might imagine that it would be former President Bush or some American corporate big shot who's recently sucked the lifeblood out of an Irish city - Michael Dell anyone? - but I don't think so. No, I'm pretty sure Glazer is the most hated.

And I do mean hated.

You won't find his name reviled in letters to the Irish Times or Irish Independent nor will you see street protests denouncing him nor find public representatives spewing venom about what a reprobate he is so it could easily pass you by. However, if you wander into a pub - particularly a pub in working class area of one of Ireland's cities - and you ask a few red-scarfed locals what they think of Glazer (photo) the air will quickly turn blue.

Why red-scarfed? Well, not any red scarf, but the red scarf of Manchester United, "the world's biggest football club" and the most popular English Premier League team in Ireland. Glazer is the team's controlling owner and, well, fans are not too keen on his modus operandi.

Irish fans of United are not alone in their detestation of Glazer. English, Scottish, Welsh, Norwegian, and so on fans all feel the same way. They hate him. Oh and not just him, his whole family, especially those who are closely involved in running the club. Unfortunately some of the hatred has spilled out of the tank of logic and some of these fans have extended their hatred to all Americans, or more, typically "f***ing yanks."

If you'd like to get a sense of the depth of feeling Glazer and his family have engendered in the fans of Manchester United a few minutes reading at (and there are plenty of other such web sites) will give you a taste. It's not for the faint-hearted or the easily offended. An R-rating at a minimum.

Funny thing is you may not have ever heard of Glazer before. He owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which he bought eight years before he got control of Manchester United. Another funny thing is, unlike the Buccaneers, whose on the field performance has varied from mediocre to Super Bowl champions to mediocre to joke during Glazer's time, United has been almost spectacularly successful since Glazer bought the club, which begs the question: why do the fans hate him so much.

Well, the fans credit the club's legendary manager, Scotsman Alex Ferguson, who is a sort of gruff version of Joe Torre. During Ferguson's 23+ years managing United - the Yankees of English soccer - the club has won 11 league titles, a couple of European Champions League titles, FA cups and other trophies. That is, they were wildly successful before the Glazers got involved and have remained successful.

The on the field performance - so far, this year's looking shaky - is not at the root of the fans' problems with the Glazers. What bothers the fans is the club's finances. You read that right.

The Glazers' acquisition of Manchester United was financed with debt - lots of it, now estimated at $1.145bn. Immediately the fans were on edge fearing - rightly - that the new owners would have to raise ticket prices to pay down what they owe. That's only a small part of the problem, however.

The press has been full of stories lately about the precarious financial position at United. Credit crunch and all that. Fans see the Glazers' financial troubles in the club's failure to go get a big name player to replace Portuguese glamour boy Christiano Ronaldo, who left United at the end of last year to play for Real Madrid. They believe the club is being driven down by the Glazers' debts.

Today's Irish Independent says the club's recent bond prospectus provides for all sorts of income to revert to the Glazers at the expense of the club, something the fans have foreseen since the Glazers first took control. The message boards and blogs are already afire with this latest revelation.

Last weekend fans called on Ferguson (Sir Alex as he's known on British t.v., as he's been knighted by the Queen) to resign in protest, something that he seems unlikely to do. Regardless, the Love United Hate Glazer Facebook campaign will not be going away any time soon. Glazer will continue to be a source of anti-Americanism, just when it looked like things were getting better for us 'Yanks'.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Treaty Stone of Limerick is not going to Atlantic City

The Treaty Stone is not being sold to an Atlantic City casino, says the Limerick Leader. The Treaty Stone, which is nearly sacred in Limerick, will remain right where it is. And rightly so!

Now I know, but people around Limerick don't seem to know, that other than the most committed Irish enthusiasts in America, nobody there has heard of the Treaty Stone and no casino would want it. It would interest too few and require too much explanation for an American audience.

The Treaty Stone (photo) is the stone upon which the 1691 treaty was signed between the victorious forces of King William and the defeated army of King James, led by Irishman Patrick Sarsfield. That treaty called for Catholics (gentry only) to be afforded rights to own property and bear arms, but was only honored for two years before anti-Catholic "penal laws" were imposed on Irish Catholics by their English rulers. By that time Sarsfield and thousands of his followers had honored their end of the deal and left Ireland and were fighting for France.

You may wonder why the people of Limerick would hold the Stone in such high regard when its associated with such infamy, but Sarsfield signed the Treaty and he's still a hero here, especially in Limerick. The thought of selling such a piece of Limerick's and Ireland's history is too fantastic to entertain.

{By the way, Sarsfield is a direct ancestor of the Union Army's General Michael Corcoran, who was court-martialed for refusing to lead the NY 69th out to honor the Prince of Wales during a pre-Civil War visit by Queen Victoria's son.}

So from where did this supposed idea to sell the Treaty Stone to a casino in Atlantic City come?

Well, it looks like it's a spoof. Earlier this month someone set up a Facebook page advocating that the Treaty Stone be saved. Nearly 1,700 people have joined the campaign since then.

The Facebook campaign contends that an Atlantic City "casino/Bar" has made "a significant offer" for the Stone and that Limerick City Council "is poised to sell the stone" to raise money. The Leader says there's no substance to the story, which is just as well because I really can't believe anyone in America would be all that interested.

Now, maybe, just maybe, if the people of Blarney were a bit hard up the story might be different. I'm sure someone in Atlantic City or even Vegas would be willing to buy the Blarney Stone, Blarney Castle (photo), the whole shebang and ship it over brick by brick, a la London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, AZ.

Maybe I should start the "Save the Blarney Stone" Facebook page.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Three American soldiers buried in British WWI cemetery

As you know if you've been coming here regularly I love visiting the WWI sites around Ieper (Ypres), Belgium and northern France. I was back there last week, visiting cemeteries and experiencing the region in winter. It was pretty cold and the thought of living in a trench in such weather is way below unappealing.

One of the planned stops on the tour was Lijssenthoek Cemetery, which is near Poperinge, Belgium. It's a British Commonwealth cemetery, but as soon as I walked through the gate my eyes were drawn to a sight I hadn't expected: three graves with American and Belgian flags.

Three Americans buried in a Commonwealth cemetery with 10,000 graves. Why? Who were they?

Although most of my interest in WWI has centered on the Irish involvement, the American in me couldn't ignore what I was seeing. I noted the names of the three men and went looking for their stories over last weekend.

One of the graves was Sergeant David Stanley Beattie, who was killed on August 31, 1918. He was from Troy, NY, which is not far from where I grew up. His regiment - the 105th Infantry - was one of the first American units in Belgium. He was killed on August 31, 1918 and buried in Lijssenthoek, but at his family's request he was left in Lijssenthoek and not moved to an American cemetery.

Lieutenant James Pigue from Tennessee is also buried there. He was killed on July 18, 1918, presumably leading his men out of the trench. In 1921 Pigue's father traveled to Belgium to visit the grave and after being assured by the British authorities that they would "care for the grave in perpetuity" he asked that his son's body not be disturbed.

The third grave was Pfc Harry King and his story was the most intriguing, but also the saddest because inscribed on the gravestone was, "Best of Sons and Brothers, Also Reggie Buried Close By." I couldn't see any other American graves and didn't know what to make of that bit about his brother Reggie.

However, it turns out Harry was originally from England and emigrated to America. His brother also left England, but for Canada and they both ended up in the war and both died. (Harry of pneumonia, Reggie killed in action). Their mother asked that Harry's body be moved from the American Meuse Argonne Cemetery to Lijssenthoek so that the two brothers could be together again.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Getting the weather forecast right

An article in this week's Drogheda Independent made me smile today. The paper interviewed a Boston woman living in the area, keen to learn what she thought of the snow and the reaction to it.

Predictably she said that if schools in Boston closed for as much snow as we had this past week, nobody would ever go to school. She was forgiving, more forgiving than most Irish people have been, willing to accept that investing in the kind of equipment necessary to keep things moving in snow and ice might not be a good investment.

Then she changed tack, saying how much she enjoyed listening to the Irish weather forecasters on t.v. She described them as "optimistic," which I suppose they are, but mostly they're understated and always tentative.

Their use of language is so artful that I'm not sure I can fully describe it, but failure to understand what's being said can catch out the unwary tourist or new arrival. A few examples might help.

As Bostonian Erin McVeigh mentioned, winds are often described are "fresh" or "freshening." To Americans a fresh wind is a gentle sea breeze on a hot day. Not here. If you hear the forecast say winds will be "fresh", make sure everything's tied down tight, put weights in your children's pockets because a "fresh" wind is one that would do the city of Chicago proud on its best day.

Forecasters love to use the word showers too. "Rain, clearing to showers" is a favorite, but my all-time favorite is "showers merging to give the appearance of longer spells of rain." 'Give the appearance'? The soaking is all the same.

As for the tentativeness, the most common is "mostly dry." In other words, we think it's going to be a nice day, but if it rains on your barbecue well, didn't promise anything. "Odd passing shower" is another one. It's a very rare day when they say it will be dry everywhere for the day (and it's a rare day when that happens too). They don't deal in percentages like America's weather men and women. You don't hear anything like a "60% chance of rain."

I should add that the tentativeness only arises when they're predicting good weather. Their footing is much more assured when they're calling for rain. Predicting rain or no rain, as anyone who's spent even a few hours can tell you, the Irish weather is very unpredictable anyway. A little uncertainty in the forecast is probably a good thing.

This past weekend, however, the national met service (Met Eireann) forecasters seemed to throw caution to the wind. Time and again we heard them on RTE television and radio telling us that we were going to get a lot of snow and ice, especially on Sunday. There was none of the typical doubt and uncertainty about the forecast. I suspect they let the excitement of the unusual weather get to them.

They're so comfortable calling for rain that they took their eye off the temperature. The precipitation came in large volumes as they warned, but it came as rain rather than snow because the temperatures were just above freezing rather than right around or below as they expected.

A small, but telling error and one not quickly forgotten by a people that loves talking about the weather. We don't have a weather channel here, although I'm sure Irish people would love it, such is their keenness to engage in weather conversations.

Then again, maybe not because I think they like talking about the weather more than they'd like to watch it. And in Ireland there's a sameness to the weather from winter to summer and back again that maybe wouldn't make great t.v. No, the only great t.v. is the quirky language and the unaffected personalities of RTE's meteorologists who present the weather to us.

Barry O'Callaghan - from billionaire to employee in two years

"River Deep Mountain High," sang Tina Turner. It must be a song weighing heavily on the mind of Irishman Barry O'Callaghan, head of the publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Yesterday O'Callaghan declared that the company's investors are "under water", sunk by a mountain of debt. Quite a blow for the man who two years ago was labeled as Ireland's youngest billionaire by the Sunday Times thanks to the value put on his share of the publishing company.

In fact, O'Callaghan's company was originally called Riverdeep, but in 2006 he ditched the name when he bought a new name along with one of America's largest educational publishers, Boston-based Houghton Mifflin. He followed that highly leveraged acquisition with another, this time grabbing Orlando-based schoolbooks publisher Harcourt. The two deals combined left the company owing $6.7bn, which has now proved to be too great a weight.

O'Callaghan has always come across as the clever boy. He floated Riverdeep on the NASDAQ back in March 2000, just before the dot com bubble burst. Two years later he arranged for management (including himself) to buy it back after the share price tanked.

He spent a few years restructuring Riverdeep until the company was ready for the reverse takeover of Houghton Mifflin in 2006. In 2007 he moved the the company's corporate home from Ireland to the Cayman Islands, to take advantage of the Cayman Islands "greater flexibility" in distribution money to shareholders. He was able to raise hundreds of millions from investors, most of whom are Irish, who trusted in O'Callaghan and his vision for the educational publishing industry.

It was in April of 2008 that the Sunday Times ranked Barry O'Callaghan as the 7th richest man in Ireland. At the time O'Callaghan owned 47% of his new publishing group. A year later things had taken a turn for the worse. O'Callaghan dropped to 21st richest in Ireland and was no longer a billionaire. Moody's and Standard & Poor put health warnings on his company's debt as the credit crunch began to bite hard.

Yesterday's announcement wasn't surprising, but it probably sounded like a death knell to all those investors who trusted in O'Callaghan and have now lost their shirts. O'Callaghan says that he himself has lost more than anyone.

So, O'Callaghan is down, but not quite out. The company's not going out of business, but restructuring again. Those who are owed billions will be the new owners and, wait for it, and O'Callaghan will stay on at the helm.

The chief bond holder is hedge fund manager John Paulson and he led the push for this deal. Paulson says he has "great admiration" for O'Callaghan. So O'Callaghan lives to fight on - for now, although as a paid employee rather than as the owner/manager.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ireland is experiencing serious water shortages

The hills are covered in melting snow and lower down rain and wet snow has been falling for 24 hours. Some places are experiencing flooding. Yet, the biggest story is that all over Ireland water has to be rationed because it's running out. Incredible, ain't it?

The problem is pretty straight-forward: Ireland is awash in leaky pipes, if I can use such language. Some of the cities' water pipes date back to the 19th century and those pipes are notoriously leaky. Some of the pipes in Ireland's new suburbs are also leaky due to Ireland's notoriously lax building codes being ignored. On top of all that, in many places the pipes have burst due to the 'extreme cold' the country has experienced.

That extreme cold consisted of a couple of weeks of temperatures below freezing (mostly). We're not talking about weeks of sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures. I'm not entirely sure what it is about Irish pipes that they can't withstand temperatures that big chunks of Europe & North America experience annually with no problems at all, but there you have it.

Our pipes are bursting due to the cold. A failure to bury the pipes deep enough in the ground is the only rational explanation I've heard so far.

The fact that pipes have been bursting has only served to encourage other people to waste water by leaving their water running around the clock (water is unmetered here). Now, just to be clear, it's not that our reservoirs are out of water, but rather the water that has been treated and labeled ready for human consumption is being lost before it arrives in the homes and businesses throughout the country.

We can't treat all the water fast enough to compensate for all that's being lost through the leaking and broken pipes. Rivers are bursting their banks as I write this, but regardless, our pipes have created a water shortage. Large areas of the country have no water or a very limited supply. The rest of the country is only experiencing a fall-off in pressure and being asked to conserve, conserve.

It's almost laughable, really. Ireland has few natural resources that it can claim to have in abundance, but water is an exception. This little island is a large sponge. Water is simply everywhere. It shouldn't be so difficult a task to get water to people's houses.

It doesn't matter, however. The deluge goes on, but we're asked not to run the dishwasher ... maybe avoid using the washing machine too ... Do you really need to shower? ... Surely, one cup of tea is enough for you? 'Water, water everywhere' and all that was never so apt as today across Ireland.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Yes! The Time is now for Fr. Doyle Square

Following the publication of the Murphy Report into clerical child sexual abuse Dublin City Council wants to change the name of Archbishop Ryan Park. Okay, changing the name away from Archbishop Ryan is appropriate, but changing the name to honor "one of the city's famous writers," as suggested by one councillor, is wrong. The park remains a gift to the city from the Catholic people of Dublin and, therefore, an Irish Catholic should be honored.

The park should be named after someone who lived a positive Catholic life. Matt Talbot would be more than fitting, even Daniel O'Connell would be fine. Naming the park Fr. Mathew Park would be even better. Fr. Theobald Mathew's crusade against drunkenness in the 19th century is a bit of inspiration that our modern Ireland could use.

However, my first choice to replace Archbishop Ryan in the park's official name is Fr. Willie Doyle. It's only 4 months since I called for a Fr. Willie Doyle Square in Dublin and now that exact opportunity has presented itself. Fr. Doyle - a great Catholic and hero of the Western Front - is the perfect choice for this park. This is a man whom all of Ireland can celebrate. Catholic, Protestant, Unionist and Republican, as commenter chicagoaoh pointed out back in September.
My Mayo grandfather (who was of age in WWI but joined the IRA instead) had a 1920 copy of Alfred O'Rahilly's book "Father William Doyle, S.J." throughout his life. My grandfather said it was one of his favorite books... Doyle's was a unique story of courage and faith.
Fr. Willie Doyle was an heroic figure admired by thousands, perhaps millions, of Irish men and women, but who is now only remembered on a cold wall in Tynecot cemetery in Flanders, Belgium. The time is now to right that wrong.

Roll out the carpet for America's bankers

Back in early December, economist David McWilliams stated that the changes to British banking laws represented a "gilt-edged opportunity" for Ireland and our struggling economy and underemployed young graduates and workers.

Today's NY Times confirms what McWilliams said last month. The Times reports that British based American bankers are not prepared to accept Britain's new laws on bankers' compensation. The British government wants to restrict banks' and other finance houses' bonus policies and has imposed a limit of £1m for a bonus, beyond which only 40% of the bonus can be used immediately. This change, coupled with Britain's new 50% tax on bankers' bonuses has made American banks unhappy.

As McWilliams says, it's not hard to sympathize with the British motives, but that doesn't change the fact that those disaffected American banks could be a real boost to our small and weak economy. If they can be enticed here the banks would boost the government's coffers with corporation tax (even at 12%, the amounts would be large) and income tax on those bankers' salaries.

We have the space, there are many, many empty corporate offices in Dublin now, we have the telecommunications infrastructure, we have the unemployed college grads,we have frequent flights to NY or anywhere in Europe and Ireland is English-speaking.

It's a no-brainer. I'm sure the Industrial Development Authority is already on the prowl, but if you happen to have the ear of any bankers over there, you might point them in our direction. A hundred thousand welcomes awaits them.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Enough government incompetence to go around

What government Minister or state body will be the 'great freeze' headline maker tomorrow morning?

Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey, who was in Malta for the week when all forms of transport were grinding to a halt in the face of our complete weather shut-down?

Or maybe Met Eireann - the national weather service - after they clearly blew the forecast for this weekend. We were supposed to be digging out from 10cm! (that's 4 inches!!) of snow today, but instead it's raining. And it's going to go on raining. There'll probably be no ice or snow left on the roads by the morning. - based in America - called it right, but our local meteorology experts got it totally wrong.

What about the Dublin Airport Authority, which twice in the past few days has had to close the airport after falls of snow totaling less than one inch?

Or what about any of the local roads authorities, all of which were found wanting in the face of very minor snow totals?

But despite all those respectable choices, my vote goes to the Minister for Education, who first of all did nothing and allowed some schools to open when they shouldn't have, then in the face of some criticism panicked and announced - on Friday - that all schools would be closed this week until Thursday. Snow closures should always be day-to-day, especially in a place like this where you can never rely on the weather.

Thanks to the Minister's decision, thousands of working parents have to figure out how to have their children looked after while they're at work because there will no reasonable excuse for not getting to work tomorrow.

I expect all the roads to be cleared, thanks to God's intervention. The Minister either has to backtrack or live with the inevitable headlines showing empty schools and snow-less roads and sidewalks.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

If people could only deal with the snow

Okay, now the snow's getting annoying. First of all, it doesn't snow like it does in America. You don't have a weather system move in dump 6-10 inches and move on.

No, the snow in Ireland is just like the rain. It snows and it stops. It snows and it stops. It snows and it stops. On again off again the past few days. No great amounts at any time, but just enough to keep the already icy, untreated roads & sidewalks slippery.

Yesterday my neighbor couldn't get her car out of her driveway. She's a widow with young children and she'd been holed up for a few days, but she was running low on food and milk, etc. So, I had to shovel her driveway clear, which was pushing my week's exercise beyond my endurance levels. It's not easy to shift this post-Christmas, over-fed and under-utilized body to daily (twice daily, actually) physical labor. I'd be slimming down these days if I hadn't upped my rations to maintain my less than svelte figure.

Truth is, yesterday wasn't really that bad. Clearing my neighbor's driveway wasn't nearly as bad as today. A few months ago my daughter had booked a trip to America for today. At the time I never imagined that the winter weather issue would be on this end.

We rose early because we have been advised to "allow plenty of time for our journey" and we left at 6:15 to make the 25 mile journey to the airport for her 11am flight. Plenty of time.

And it was. There was no bad weather and the highway was clear all the way. Arrived just after 7. Then it started to snow. Not really that heavily, but it looked like snow. For a while anyway, maybe 40 minutes. Then it tapered off to what I'd call light snow followed a while later by flurries. Total accumulation was maybe an inch? Maybe?

I thought little of it, but I thought I'd wait a bit just to be sure. Around 9:30 she called from the Gate to say the flight wasn't going til 2:30 because the runways were closed. She sounded a little down about all the hours she'd have to spend at the gate, but it wasn't a biggie. The Americans on her flight were really surprised. They could see that there wasn't a whole lot of snow out there. Eventually, when all looked good, I headed home.

I was nearly there when I got the call. Flight canceled. Now my daughter was really disappointed. The American passengers were incredulous. It was 'only a dusting,' they said. And, they were right. Her flight wasn't the only one. The airport was pure chaos.

I had other things I had to do so she had to make her own way home. She made it eventually, but we have the treat of trying it all again tomorrow morning. The forecast is for more snow overnight and tomorrow. ( says it will all be rain. I'm not sure which is preferable.)

Actually, now that I think about it, it's not the snow that's annoying, but people and governments' (local and national and other state bodies) inability to deal with it. I like looking at it and wouldn't mind if it stayed a while. The hills around my house are really pretty these days. But, if we can't deal with it then better it should vanish and pronto.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Free the elderly from their ice-bound prisons

'Many elderly people are trapped in their homes by the snow and ice.' I've heard that on the radio many times the past couple of weeks as wintry weather has descended on the country. Today, however, I had a flash of insight into the problem.

When I'd heard that announcement during Christmas week I thought the problem was mostly that rural elderly people couldn't drive down to their local town or village to buy the basics, that the roads were bad. However, after yesterday's 2+ inches of snow & ice around our area I realize that old people in towns and cities are also trapped in their homes.

Why? Because nobody - and I mean nobody - shovels the sidewalk in front of their house or business. I can't understand this. I heard people on the radio today talking about the failure of the Dublin city council to clear the "paths" (sidewalks) in the city. Well, is it too much to ask people to get their shovels out to clear the paths? Clear in front of their own homes and businesses and maybe take a few minutes to clear the walk in front of their elderly neighbors? Is that too much to ask?

Of course it isn't.

The weather forecast says the cold snap is going to continue for another week to ten days. So that ice that older people dread so much is going to be there a while. If everyone had simply grabbed a shovel yesterday evening and cleared the snow, there'd be no ice there now.

Looking down the street from my house this afternoon.

Similarly, nobody clears their own driveways and businesses don't clear their parking lots. I really can't figure this out. I had my driveway clear before the sun was up this morning. It was hard work, but it would have been much, much easier if I'd been home yesterday evening to shovel the little bit of snow we had before it was compacted down and then frozen into a bigger job.

Yet still nobody else in the neighborhood has cleared their driveway or sidewalk. Twenty-four hours after it fell and we're still waiting for God to come take it away. We may have a long wait.

Get men with shovels to clear roads

It snowed again yesterday, more this time than on New Year's Eve. Probably 2 inches or so. I was out of the country and only flew back last night. Our flight was delayed by 2-3 hours because Dublin Airport had been closed during the snow.

Landing was fine, but getting home from the airport was more difficult. Some of the roads had a fair amount of slushy snow. I had to drive very slowly (I wish I had studded tires or better yet chains. Can you still get chains in America or they no longer acceptable?) and take my chances with all the morons out there who didn't alter their own ridiculous driving habits.

Traffic was light and the temperature was falling so it didn't take a genius to work out that the slushy snow would be ice by morning. Of course, there were no plows on any roads other than the highways (and I'd been warned by text not to use the main highway to my house as it was a parking lot) so this morning the roads are sheets of ice.

And today the airwaves are full of complaints about the lack of gritting and how we're actually running low on salt. I can imagine. There seems to be a great resistance to just dumping sand on the icy roads - even just near intersections, please? - and because nobody plows the roads the whole cycle will repeat tonight. The snow that's melting a bit in the traffic today will refreeze tonight and the roads will be like sheets of ice again early tomorrow. Already the schools have announced they won't try to open again until Monday.

We have to get that snow off the roads. We don't have enough plows to clear the roads, I know, but what we do have are legions of unemployed young men in this city and throughout the country. What if the government promised them a bump-up in their unemployment benefit to come out and join work crews to clear the snow? Just imagine it: men with shovels moving snow off the roads.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Only true grit will get us through the 'snow'

You may not believe this, but Dublin has a lot in common with Birmingham, AL and other big cities in the southern states. Okay, before you wear yourself out trying to figure out how, I'm talking about weather. Winter weather, actually and how Ireland's biggest city responds to winter weather to be precise.

I've never been to Birmingham in the winter (or anytime in truth), but my brother lives there and his description of Birmingham's reaction to snow sounds a lot like what we experience here.

On New Year's Eve it snowed in Dublin. It snowed so hard that Dublin Airport had to close until 10:30am New Year's Day. The airport's official spokesman said, "snow was falling quicker than we could clear it," but, as the Irish Times reported, the national weather service's station at the airport recorded only 1cm of snow. That's less than half an inch.

The airport authority wasn't the only state body that appeared to be frozen in fear in the face of a few snow flakes. Many of Dublin's roads were impassable and the police warned people not to venture out. The city's buses ground to a halt and even the train service was severely limited. Dublin was at a standstill.

While most of the locals either got angry or simply shrugged their shoulders, those of us who've come to Ireland from cooler climes adopted the smug, condescending tone that every race of people loves to witness among their immigrants and/or visitors.

We told them about our experience of 'real snow' - I grew up north of Albany, NY where we sneer at New Yorkers who complain about winter - and how the local authorities in our hometown would plow the roads clear even if there was a foot or two of snow. Salting and sanding are standard and Dublin's dusting last Thursday night wouldn't have registered.

Yet, there's no doubt the roads were like a sheet of ice on Friday. I'm not quite sure why so little snow can have such an effect, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that it's never really dry here. So, when the temperature dips below freezing for a stretch all that dampness freezes, and combined with the scrap of snow, creates real danger on the roads.

Of course a dose of sand or salt would relieve these problems, but Dublin (and Ireland generally) isn't equipped to deliver sand or salt to roads. You'll hear people talk about 'gritting the roads' - I'm not exactly sure what grit is, but we're assured there's a plentiful supply - yet I doubt there are more than a few trucks of the sort that I remember plowing and sanding the roads in my hometown. I've never come across one, but obviously there are a few.

I've never seen a plow like this in Ireland.

But you need a whole fleet to treat all the secondary roads and it's really just not worth the investment. Despite the fact that our summers can feel like winter, we really don't have much of a winter. At least, not winter as I think of it. Temperatures below freezing are infrequent enough (see what I mean about being like Birmingham?), but it's very rare that the low temperatures combine with precipitation. Winter in Ireland usually means rain, wind and more rain. Snow's rarely an issue. Temperatures are usually in the 40s F.

These past few weeks constitute the coldest stretch of weather in decades, but local governments can't make decisions based on a few freakish weeks of weather, especially not in these straitened times.

So, we'll have to just grin and bear it. We'll have to continue to adhere to the old adage that, 'God put it there and God will take it away."