Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ex-Irish Premier Bertie Ahern's spectacular fall mirrors Ireland's

Former Irish Prime Minister
Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern's name is mud. The former Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) was named and shamed in a report published last week by the judge who headed the 15-year-long tribunal into corruption in the planning process here. Since then Ahern's name has been more spat out than spoken.

All of this would have seemed almost unthinkable a few years ago. Then Bertie Ahern was feted as a political genius. He was the pragmatic deal-maker who helped bring peace to Ireland. He was the efficient manager orchestrating Ireland's economic surge. He was the longest-serving Taoiseach since Éamon de Valera was running the country in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

There were no airs about Ahern. He was comfortable in his skin and the people were comfortable with him. He loved his sports, loved being seen out supporting his teams, here and like so many Irish soccer fans, in England watching Manchester United. He drank in his local pub and was a proud Dub (person from Dublin). He had an everyman's Dublin manner of speaking. Yet he was admired across the island: north, south, east and west.

There were frailties too. Before he became Taoiseach he opened up on a TV program about the problems in his marriage. He was separated from his wife. Yet from what we could see his relationship with his two daughters was about as good as any separated father could want.

When his girlfriend began accompanying him on foreign trips it was hardly even a talking point. He was a true representative of the new Ireland, the one shorn of the rigid social strictures of the past, but confident in business and management.

Bertie – he was always Bertie to the people – was loved. Sure there were detractors, but as far as any high-ranking politician can be loved, Ahern was. Even people who didn't vote for his Fianna Fáil party liked him personally.

His smiling face more than any other was the human face of the Celtic Tiger. He was a success. We were a success.
Read More:

Former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern gave false evidence says Mahon Tribunal investigation

Clueless Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen handled Irish economy like 'drunken joyriders'

Bertie Ahern quits and leaves a divided legacy---Celtic Tiger collapse and North peace

Unfortunately for Ahern he more than anyone else in Irish politics is held responsible for the terrible turn of fortune over the past four years.

Today Ireland is a failure; it's hard-won sovereignty lost when the EU and IMF came in to oversee our elected leaders' work. Irish people are leaving in droves and those who remain are seeing massive cutbacks in public services along with punishing tax increases. Ahern's smiling face now looks to the Irish people like he's smirking, like he got away with something and we're paying for it.

None of this was in the Mahon Report, but it's the underlying context for the animosity now being directed at Ahern. I doubt anyone would be paying too much attention to the allegations against Ahern if the economy was still flying high.

The Tribunal found that Ahern had been untruthful in his testimony, was evasive about the source of payments he received. He was completely bizarre and unbelievable when he said he had no bank account.

I have no time for corruption in politics so my sympathy for Ahern is near nil. The only thing that bothers me is that unlike Ireland's other corrupt leading politicians, Ahern doesn't seem to have any of the trappings of a wealthy life. No island, no yacht, no 3 houses, no "insatiable appetite for money." The tribunal said Ahern got £165,000 (approx $275,000), which in the early to mid 90s was not a bad sum. What then did Ahern do with that money?

I guess it doesn't really matter now. His 'good name' is in tatters. Everyone is jumping on the anti-Bertie bandwagon, including many of those in his party who owe their political positions to him. Those people I hold beneath contempt because they're now pleading that they 'had no idea' when everyone in Ireland knew the Fianna Fáil way of doing things consisted of a nod and wink to the rules, the law. They should all get out of politics and see if a younger, untainted Fianna Fáil can revive the party.

You know what else is bothering me? We all knew. We didn't know the specifics, but we all knew that Fianna Fáil had this element to it – the shady operations, the 'look-the-other-way' method of enforcing the law when it came to their pals. We went along with it because despite (or maybe because of) that slick used-car-salesman approach we thought they were the best at "getting things done."

Now, thanks to the fact that what they got done was our undoing we want not so much justice as vengeance. We must have our pound of flesh and Bertie's flesh looks more tempting than all others right now.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ireland needs to "drill baby drill"

Tony O'Reilly Jr, head of Providence Resources,
which discovered oil off the Cork coast.
Last week we had the delicious news that an Irish oil exploration company had found a commercially exploitable oil field off the south coast of Ireland. The high price of oil and new technologies used in the discovery and recovery of oil make this oil field 30 miles off the coast just the first of what is hopefully many Irish oil fields.

It's exciting news, but I can't say I'm shocked by it because it always struck me as a little strange that the seabeds off the coast of Scotland should be full of oil and ours barren. Not barren, however, just a little trickier to get at. Presumably that's all changed now and Ireland is about to go into the oil production business.

One of the least discussed factors in the rise of the Celtic Tiger was the low price of oil in the 1990s. Ireland is heavily dependent on oil. Our small population means most of what's produced here has to be exported and there is also a high level of imports. Transporting goods in and out of our small island is a very oil-dependent exercise. In addition, tourists all have to travel here on fuel-hungry jets and road transport is the primary means by which people get to and from work. All modern economies are dependent on oil, but Ireland is particularly so.

The Celtic Tiger ran on cheap oil. It's no coincidence that our economy weakened as the price of oil shot up during the the last decade.
Read More:

Massive Irish oil find as company hits major well off Cork coast

Dublin oil find may upset U2, Enya, top Irish celebs

Ireland is green, but her people are not

Sure I know. We are heading towards 'peak oil' and we're all supposed to be planning for a future without oil. Great, fine. If that's true, then that makes last week's news all the more exciting because for too long the cost of oil has been a one way street here. When oil was plentiful and cheap Ireland boomed. Now that it's scarce and expensive we're in deep trouble. What last week's find possibly heralds is that Ireland can, at least, hope to cushion the blow of rising oil prices by (a) cutting imports and (b) maybe even selling some oil on the open market. That would be special.

The same company that made the Cork discovery, Providence Resources, wants to explore the seabed off the east coast of Ireland, four miles off the coast of Dalkey, Co Dublin to be more exact. That too must happen, although the drilling will be a lot closer to the shore.

The usual the forces of 'No' can count on the support some of the wealthiest people in Ireland in their bid to prevent the drilling. Dalkey is a millionaires' enclave and many of those who own mansions with see views worry that their views will be spoiled by the sights of oil rigs along the distant horizon. "C'est la vie." My interest in their view is less than minimal.

As my mother used to tell me whenever I mentioned Ireland's beauty, "You can't eat scenery." Too true and if oil really is going to continue to get more expensive then it would be nationally irresponsible at best not to get from the surrounding seas what we so badly need: oil. A few rigs dotted along the coast will be a small price to pay.

A rendering of what the view of the Irish Sea will be like with
an oil rig on the horizon.
Besides, how spoiled will the view be? I remember a few years ago someone called to me door asking me to sign a petition against a massive wind-farm proposed for the waters off Wicklow, where I live. Our view would be ruined. I remember the look of horror on his face when I told him that I loved looking out over the sea, but it was really more interesting when there was something to break the monotony of the endless sea: something like a ship or a lighthouse. Then I added "or a wind-farm or even oil rigs." He scurried off without saying good-bye.

I won't mind the sight of oil rigs on the horizon and that's with me being skeptical that they'll be as unobtrusive as they're rendered in the oil company's prospectus.

I know the green folks are going to rant, rage and scream bloody murder. Their shrill voices will ring out in desperation, pleading with us to install solar panels in our roofs, to eat only locally produced produce, and to travel by bicycle. In other words, they want us to live the lives that the subsistence farmers enjoyed here in the 1950s.

Well, you know what? There's a good reason why that lifestyle was shunned by the very people who were living it: it's hard. Most Irish people prefer the variety, the comforts and the opportunities that our oil-based economy provides. If there is oil off the coast of Ireland and this oil can help maintain our lifestyles then there is only one thing to do: drill, baby, drill.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ireland needs a "Cooperstown" for St. Patrick and Americans can help

St. Patrick - Hill of Tara, County Meath
St. Patrick's Day. A world-wide festival celebrating all that's great about being Irish and Ireland. It's upon us again and that's no bad thing. St. Patrick's Day puts us in a good mood. Heck, it puts the stock market in a good mood.

When you think about the size of Ireland the "brand awareness" of St. Patrick's Day is incredible, although the loud, celebration-style St. Patrick's Day is an American invention. In Ireland St. Patrick's Day was traditionally a Holy Day - the pubs were closed and Catholics were obliged to attend Mass*. In recent years St. Patrick's Day has turned into something of a nation-wide party in an attempt to steal some of New York & Boston's thunder.

St. Patrick's Day. If you break the name down you realize it's a day named after a person - Saint Patrick. There are very few people in Irish history who are better known than Saint Patrick, other than the four members of U2 of course. (Yes, I'm ignoring St. Patrick's Welsh birth, etc.)

St. Patrick is an important person in Irish history. He brought Christianity to Ireland and the Irish took to it like ducks to water. Not long after Patrick's death the Irish were sending out missionaries throughout Dark Ages Europe, bringing the faith and learning to the peoples of Europe and saving civilization.

So Patrick was, as it turns out, crucial to all of Europe, not just Ireland.
Read More:

Top ten locations for St. Patrick's Day

Belfast pulls out all the stops for Titanic anniversary

County Down

Given all that, wouldn't you imagine that somewhere in Ireland there would be a mega-center catering to all those who want to know about St. Patrick? Don't you think there'd something touristy to appeal to the keen and, more importantly, the vaguely interested?

I have no solid ideas right now, but I'm not talking about something sedate and high-minded. I'm talking about something that will attract a lot of people. For this to work I think we'll need a lot of American input because let's face it Americans know best how to turn the teeniest bit of history into a mega tourist center. (If you don't believe me, go to Cooperstown, NY and then read the truth about Abner Doubleday and his role in the development of baseball.)

That to me is the model - "Cooperstown" devoted to St. Patrick, only one that's easier to get to than Cooperstown is. A place completely committed to telling the story of Patrick and and all the knock-on effects his mission to Ireland has had.

So the need for "Patrickstown" is established, but where?

There are places all over Ireland that can claim some connection to Patrick. There's Tara, Co Meath where he stood up to the pagan powers that ruled Ireland and won them over to Christianity. There's Armagh, where he established his main church. There's Croagh Patrick in Mayo, where Patrick fasted for 40 days. And then there's Downpatrick, where St. Patrick is buried.

"Whoa!," I hear you yell. St. Patrick's grave is known? Well, it's one of those things where you don't want to look for too much by way of evidence, but yes there is a grave in the grounds of Down Cathedral that is (supposedly) St. Patrick's grave. That gives Downpatrick a solid claim to be the host of the St. Patrick mega-center, but I think it's really too far off the beaten path like Cooperstown.

{There is a Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick. I was there last November. What's it like? Well, I'd like to tell you it was great, but I can't. I can't even tell you it was terrible because I couldn't get in. It was closed. It's only open part of the year—not what I have in mind.}

St. Patrick's grave - Downpatrick, County Down
Deciding where to locate the St. Patrick mega-center is another issue where American input can help. Any official attempt at developing a St. Patrick mega-center is going to lead to some heavy-duty lobbying for the various contending locations. Oh, and there's the whole north-south thing too. No harm having an independent American perspective given that complication.

We need a big solution to a big hole in our tourism offering. We need help from people who are indifferent to the pleadings of a dozen possible locations and tuned out to the problems associated with the border. All we really need is a proper business proposal and business plan for the creative attraction that respects the truth and real history on as far as makes sense for the project. The St. Patrick mega-center needs America.

* It's still a Holy Day of Obligation here, probably one of the better observed Holy Days.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Time for alcohol pledge to be dropped from Confirmation

Pioneers Association abstinence from alcohol
pledge is made by Irish Catholics
at Confirmation
In Ireland there is a tradition that children making their Confirmation take a pledge to abstain from alcohol until they're either 18 or 21 (they choose). It's a tradition that goes back to the 19th century, but "The pledge" is in decline. I can't claim to have a great understanding of The Pledge nor its history, but I really don't like it. I never understood the need to raise the topic of alcohol as part of the Confirmation ceremony.

First of all, it's weird to ask children to promise to avoid something that they don't fully understand. They know it's alcohol and they know it's "forbidden," but not much more than that. Lots of things are forbidden to children at the age of 12, which is when most Irish children are confirmed. Why should alcohol be singled out? No other pledges are included as part of Confirmation.

To me The Pledge sullies Confirmation. In times past The Pledge was in the actual Confirmation ceremony. Now it's incorporated into The Service of Light.

The Service of Light is a pre-Confirmation ceremony, which has been added to the Confirmation preparation process in recent years.  The Service of Light is generally held at night a few weeks before Confirmation. Although I'm not much for newfangled ideas, I like the Service of Light. The key part of the service is when parents hand the lighted Baptism candle to their child as an acknowledgement that the child is now ready to be a responsible Christian.

It really is a nice ceremony, but then comes The Pledge, and the discussion of alcohol. To me it just lowers the tone of the whole ceremony. I remember when it came up with my oldest daughter I was really annoyed. I knew there was an abstinence pledge in my daughter's future, but I didn't realize it was going to be right in the middle of the ceremony. I thought it was something they just did in school around the time of Confirmation.
Read More:

Dublin Archbishop tells lapsed Catholics to leave the Catholic Church

Irish nun who inspired Cardinal Timothy Dolan thought she’d never see the day

Ireland's Catholics rebuff media

I understand the motivation. Ireland has an issue with alcohol and teenagers, maybe worse now than ever. But if that's true then shouldn't the whole abstinence pledge at age 12 be rethought?

Getting a group of 15 or 16-year-olds to publicly pledge to avoid alcohol would be a lot harder, I know. Yet maybe those who make such a pledge would actually honor it in a way no 12-year-old can.

There's no denying faith can play an important role in helping people stay on the straight and narrow and avoid the sort of trouble alcohol causes for so many. I don't see any harm in introducing the idea of alcohol avoidance to kids when they're 15 or 16. I just want all of that kept separate from my child receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Belfast pulls out all the stops for Titanic anniversary

RMS Titanic at the dock in Belfast - 1911 
Did you know this is the 100th anniversary of the maiden voyage and sinking of the Titanic? If you have recently been to Belfast, where the Titanic was built, there is no question that you would know because Belfast is going all out to mark the Titanic anniversary.

This is in stark contrast to how Belfast has dealt with its Titanic legacy for most of the past century. In fact, unless you knew before-hand where the Titanic was built, you would have been hard-pressed to find any sign at all that the great liner spent most of its short life in Belfast. The ship's sinking, the collapse of the ship-building industry generally in Belfast and, of course, 'the troubles' all took their toll. Memory of the Titanic wasn't so much swept under the carpet as allowed to rust and decay, much like the shipyard where it was built.

Even after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, when the atmosphere of Belfast was transformed and the city sought to bill itself as a tourist destination, the Titanic was ignored. This was despite the fact that James Cameron had boosted the Titanic from fading tragic memory into a cultural icon, a romantic tragedy thanks to his massively successful movie.
Read More:

New Titanic tourist attraction will exceed expectations

Titanic commemorations will be bigger than the Olympics, say Fodor's

Titanic tourism - opportunity for Belfast, all of Ireland

That's all changed now. This year Belfast will host a two week Titanic festival starting March 31. The city is going all out to celebrate its links to the most famous passenger ship in history. The itinerary includes: talks, exhibitions, plays, concerts, and Titanic the Musical, which I'd never heard of, but which won five Tony awards back in 1997. And, of course, there is Belfast's new Titanic Visitor Experience, which opens on March 31 and which I'm hoping to get into sometime in April.

There literally is 'something for everyone.' In fact, so wide-ranging are the various events that they're a bit jarring. On Saturday, April 14 there is a concert in St Anne's Cathedral titled "Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic." To me the Titanic is so far in the past that anything with the word 'requiem' in the title seems a bit of a stretch. Yet, maybe there are others - children and grandchildren of those who built it, perhaps? - who feel the Titanic's loss still and for whom a requiem is appropriate. It doesn't suit me, but it's not inappropriate either.

Titanic Building, which will host the 
Titanic Visitor Experience
Photo – Feb 2011
However, the night before the St Anne's concert there is going to be an outdoor MTV concert at the place where the Titanic was built. I don't know about this one. I know it'll appeal to the younger generation (presumably - no line-up of acts is available yet), but 1,500 people did die on the Titanic and despite the fact it was a long time ago an MTV concert is knocking on the door of tackiness. There is definitely a disconnect between the series of commemorative events on offer and this MTV show, which will have to feel like a celebration more than a commemoration if it's to be a success.

What's ironic is that as James Cameron giveth he may also taketh away. Cameron's latest Titanic project is to get to the bottom (sorry about that) of what happened to the liner. On April 8 Cameron will present a two-hour special on the National Geographic Channel that Cameron describes as the "ultimate cold-case investigation into the tragedy."

Cameron will have a team of experts going through all the latest evidence as to what happened to the Titanic, what went wrong and, threateningly, who is to blame. I say threateningly because unless Cameron has unearthed something completely different he will be most likely talking about the quality of the metal used to make the rivets.

If that is Cameron's conclusion then the effect of his program will be to place the blame squarely on the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the Titanic was built. Although it's always been muted, the attitude of Belfast has long been that the Titanic's sinking wasn't 'their fault,' summed up by the usual refrain of "She was fine when she left here." The truth is she may not have been fine when she left Belfast and it may stick in the craw of those whose fathers and grandfathers built the Titanic. They may hope this is the last they hear of the Titanic's Belfast connection.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Galway's shameful proposal to honor Che Guevara

The most famous image of Che Guevara -
by Irishman Jim Fitzpatrick.
Galway City Council wants to erect a statue to Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara. Che, who was born in 1928, had Irish roots going back to the early 18th century. Che's distant ancestor Patrick Lynch was from Galway, which is the City Council's justification for wanting to erect a statue to a man who spent one night in Ireland, accidentally, thanks to fog at Shannon Airport. He never set foot in Galway.

Che's father did once try to explain his son's revolutionary ways saying the "blood of the Irish rebels" flowed in his veins. That is a load of hooey, as I'm sure Che's father knew, but that doesn't stop those Irish people who admire him from latching on to him as one of their own. Che's one night in Ireland was spent in Kilkee, Co. Clare, where last fall the townsfolk honored the memory of that one night with a 3-day festival. Galway obviously feels cheated that its 300-year-old link to Che is not getting the proper recognition, hence the statue proposal.

According to the Galway Advertiser the idea for the Galway statue came from a member of the City Council, Labour's Billy Cameron, who is "an ardent admirer of the revolutionary." Cameron is hardly alone. Che shirts and posters have been de rigueur for the hippest, coolest protesters and revolutionary-wannabees for decades. However, you're supposed to grow out of that phase. Cameron clearly has not.

Read More:

Galway plans to build monument to Che Guevara slated by local millionaire

Irish politician a “puppet of U.S military”

Obama slaps ban on Irish musicians traveling to Cuba

The proposed statue has not made much news in Ireland, but one man, businessman and sometime political campaigner Declan Ganley, has been on a mission to scupper this plan for the past week. Ganley (@declanganley) is a Galway man himself and worries that such a statue would damage Galway's reputation, especially in America, hurting the chances of investment and putting Americans off visiting the city.

That seems a bit of a stretch to me. I doubt too many tourists would know much of Che beyond recognizing his face and, well, business is business.

However, yesterday, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Ileana Ros-Lehtinen issued a press release asking Galway City Council to reject the proposal to erect the Che Statue. "The romanticizing image that this monument would portray would serve to diminish the brutality that was committed by Che and the painful suffering endured by many Cuban-American families and his other victims far and wide."

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Cuban-American and Cuban-Americans know far more about Che than the average American and, I daresay, than the average Irish revolutionary wannabee. And they don't like him, not one bit. Whereas the average American may not take much interest in whether Galway honors Che Guevara, people from South Florida and other Cuban enclaves may take a keen interest.

Galway City Councillor - Billy Cameron,whose idea
it was to erect a statue ofChe Guevara
The Cuban government has pledged to help pay for the statue so I guess Galway's Councillors can rest easy knowing Fidel's on their side. Whether the Cuban people admire Che as much as Councillor Cameron and the rest is impossible to say because, as Representative Mario Diaz-Balart put it: "Galway is a city where people have the right to vote, the right to worship freely, the right to speak freely, and access a free press -- all of which 'Che' Guevara and his murderous associate, dictator Fidel Castro, ruthlessly suppressed."

There's no way that Councillor Cameron or anyone who shares his views will take that seriously. They know better than those Cuban-Americans just like they knew better than to listen to all those exiles from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, etc.

There's a part of me that half hopes the statue goes up and is defaced and damaged by Cubans who live here in exile. There are some. Or, better yet, I'd like to think that when Cubans do finally shake off the shackles of Castro's rule some of them will find their way to Ireland and pull the statue down and curse those who put it up. It's a dream.

The proposal is hideous, but I'm not surprised by it. It suits the mind-set of a small segment of the Irish people. I'd love to know what Ireland's President, a Galway man too, thinks of the idea. I suppose I should just consider it fortunate that no one ever found any Irish link to Lenin or Stalin or Mao. Honoring one mass-murderer is enough.

{Photo of Cameron from Labour.ie}