Won’t somebody please think of the statues.

It was only a matter of time before the ‘tear ’em down’ cohort turned their attention to Ireland and her statues.

Of course, nobody had really noticed how offensive many of the world’s statues were until the weeks after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The murder of black people – men especially – by US police is too common. It has happened a lot more than once, which tells us that the police have a problem with race, or that they are racist.

When the Black Lives Matter movement was set up after Trayvon Martin’s murder, it helped draw attention to the fact that the police were failing to “serve and protect” adequately. This was news to a lot of white people, myself included.

George Floyd’s murder was similar to Trayvon Martin’s in that it shook the world out of its comfortably complacent attitude towards institutional racism. There were protests; there were riot police. There was a lot of anger. People began to look at things with new eyes – and something they began to focus on, for whatever reason, was statues.

There were conversations about slavery and removing the evidence of it in our society; in the UK, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was filmed being torn down by protesters. They rolled the statue to a nearby harbour and pushed it into the water. This display of anarchism made some people feel uncomfortable.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and we appear to have reached the ‘tear ’em down’ phase in this country too. I’m pretty sure the Shelbourne case was a first for Ireland. As with other incidences of people pulling down statues without consulting health and safety, legality, etc, there has been some mixed reaction.

The Shelbourne’s American owners were initially alerted to the possibility of the statues depicting female slaves when an Irish-American blogger brought it to their attention. (Them bloody bloggers are never not stirring shit.) In the days following their removal, an art historian has said that, actually, the statues do not depict slaves.

The Irish Georgian Society lodged a complaint with Dublin City Council and some politicians like Senator Michael McDowell and Green MEP (and architect) Ciarán Cuffe said the owners should have followed correct procedure in removing the statues. Cuffe, McDowell, and others are understandably concerned about erasing Dublin’s past. The statues were sculpted by a Frenchman, Mathurin Moreau. (I have no idea who that is.)

Dr. Ebun Joseph has spoken in favour of removing the statues; debating Micheal McDowell on Prime Time, she said that whether the statues represent slavery or not is beside the point. “They represent white opulence. They represent white privilege, black servitude.” Ebun Joseph is an expert in race relations, racial stratification, and the labour market. She teaches on a Black studies module at UCD and, as she said on TV to McDowell, she believes in removing statues like those so the next generation doesn’t have to see them.

She failed to turn Michael McDowell’s head from the past and she angered a lot of similar-minded people who also love Georgian architecture, Dublin, and the Shelbourne Hotel.

To be quite honest I do not see the point in removing statues. I agree with McDowell and Cuffe and some of the others who have written about them. They are a part of history and should not be taken down, and certainly not without careful consideration. People of all backgrounds should know the history of slaves, and they should know why and how white people have profited from black people’s suffering for centuries.

Having said that, I have honestly never ever, not even once, walked past the Shelbourne and thought to myself, “Jaysus, them are some lovely historical looking statues there.” I have never noticed them before in my life; I’m usually too busy gawping at the real-life people walking in and out the hotel’s doors to be bothered looking at statues. I may be wrong but I’d guess that, apart from a few art historians and their corduroy-trouser wearing friends, nobody has ever really noticed the statues. Would they be missed terribly if they were gone? Would it be as though the city lost a limb, or something else valuable, like, I don’t know, Sam Maguire?

Ironically, now that I know they’re there I’m ever so slightly worried about the statues. I hate throwing things away – especially beautiful, valuable things. While I’m not sure I agree with Dr. Joseph on the statues debate, I do know that Ireland, like most countries, is racist. All you have to do – if you are white – is listen to what black Irish people say about the things they experience every day to know that we are a racist country. Nobody likes to hear that about their country. Imagine not feeling wanted in your own country? An ESRI report said that 49% of Irish people would not like to see more black people here – which must be damn hard to hear if you’re Irish and black, as Ebun is.

For want of any better solutions, perhaps we should go and ask the statues what it is they want. If none of us flesh and blood people can decide, maybe they can. I think if I were a statue, I would want to be taken inside the Shelbourne and put somewhere more comfortable. Maybe at the bar with a big bottle of Möet Chandon or Middleton… I wouldn’t ask for much, like. Those four statues have been out in all weathers for more than a hundred years now and I’m sure they’ve worked up a fierce thirst. So, I’m appealing to the good people at the Shelbourne, boot some of your rich patrons out, and let the statues in to rest awhile. There won’t be a peep out of them; let them fade into the background once more and let Ireland concentrate on making her actual people feel safe and loved. Ending direct provision would be an idea, for starters.

Coronavirus: to mask or not to mask?

To wear a mask, or not to wear a mask, that is the question…

I don’t know why I’m paraphrasing Hamlet here, when we all know that Denmark’s infamous dithering prince would most likely have upped and died of coronavirus had he dawdled that long – five acts of an entire play – to decide between wearing a mask or not. (Medicine wasn’t so advanced back in Shakespeare’s day).

Lucky for Hamlet, and Shakespeare fans, the dilemma faced by the Dane was more interesting and complicated than the present mask debate. All Hamlet had to do was decide whether he should kill his usurping uncle or not. (I studied the play for Leaving Cert, and I remember thinking that if Hamlet wasn’t such a damn pussy about claiming his birthright then the play could have been a lot shorter. Just a little editorial note for Mr. Shakespeare there, since “brevity is the soul of wit.”)

Whether or not one wears a mask has become the latest ‘question’ to split the ideologues. The libertarians aren’t pushed and the liberals are pushy. It’s enough to make one become a hermit – which is actually what is recommended to stop the spread of this dreaded virus. It’s an option which I consider more and more each time I hear someone attempt to politicise wearing a mask.

No matter what side of the mask ‘question’ you are on, I think everyone should take a step back and remember what this is all about. And it’s about wearing a mask. That’s all. Very simple.

Just do it Hamlet: wearing a mask is easy

Scientists recommend that we should wear face masks to curb the spread of coronavirus. I’m no Einstein, but this seems reasonable to me, so I wear a mask on my face every time I go into a shop or a crowded place. I didn’t always – mainly because it took me a while to get a mask, but now that I have one, I wear it, and I will continue to. Also, my godmother made me a cool one, so that helps with any aesthetic reservations I’d have.

But how you look is kind of beside the point; if you’re wearing a mask, you’re preventing the spread of a killer virus. That’s a sensible thing to do, and sensible isn’t always sexy. (Take it from me; I always took care to submit my Hamlet Leaving Cert English essays on time). As the doctors and nurses working on the frontline say: how stupid do you think you’d look hooked up to a ventilator?

Even if you don’t listen to scientists – and as a humanities graduate, I get it, scientists are smug a-holes sometimes with their big STEM salaries and their high falutin’ molecular splittin’… Ignore the scientists if you must, but for decency’s sake, listen to the nurses and doctors who see people dying every day in our overwhelmed health system. Would it kill you to wear a mask?

5 Reasons political correspondents deserve our love and understanding

Further to my recent ramblings on the fallibility of our politicians, I wish to add a special little article dedicated to that most controversial of journalistic professions. I’m but a babe, fresh out of journalism college, but even I can see that the job of Political Correspondent (or pol corrs, as they are known in the trade apparently) is a tough one.

Now, I’m not saying pol corrs are perfect, fabulous, wonderful people – that is a job for their long-suffering spouses. But it would be remiss of me if I didn’t jump in to defend them at a time when a lot of them have been criticised for feeling sorry for Éamon Ryan after he was outed on social media for sleeping during a vote.

So, here are 5 reasons why pol corrs deserve our love and understanding.

They NEVER sleep.

Unlike a lot of politicians, pol corrs don’t have the luxury of falling asleep in their chairs. They spend long hours in government buildings every day listening to politicians. And as we know from their media appearances, politicians are a noisy bunch; they speak out of turn, they shout at each other, they drone on and on and on and on about obscure pieces of legislation that, more often than not, nobody really cares about. It’s the pol corr’s job to sit in the uncomfortable press box all day and listen to these Dáil sittings just in case anyone says anything newsworthy. Or falls asleep, as Éamon Ryan did. (He isn’t the first to do so, and he certainly won’t be the last). Even if a poor sleepy pol corr was tired enough for a nap, they wouldn’t be able to sleep on the wooden benches in the press box. Perhaps it’s just as well. But it’s not just Dáil sittings, pol corrs are essentially like baby monitors for politicians; if there’s a hint of trouble or scandal you can bet everyone in the country is logging into Twitter to check what their fave pol corr is saying. This brings me to the next reason why the cratúrs deserve our understanding…

Their job is VERY competitive.

Perhaps the main reason pol corrs don’t sleep is politicians are so damn unpredictable. They have no discernible schedule for doing something idiotic. That, coupled with the 24-hour news-cycle (thank you, internet), means pol corrs are expected to be permanently on the ball waiting for whatever the next big political scoop is. They compete to tell us all the news like teacher’s pets in school, only the teachers in this scenario are newspaper editors, and the pets are, yeah, the pol corrs. Journalists are usually hoors for a bit of gossip so, in times of scandal, the sports desk, the culture desk, etc will be deserted in a newsroom as everyone gathers around some glee-ridden pol corr’s screen. After the scandal is reported, whichever lucky pol corr has been lucky enough to break the story will be inundated by tweets. A lot of these will be from fellow journalists congratulating them, but most of the buzz is generated by the public who can’t resist indulging their schadenfreude tendencies.

It’s thankless work.

You’d think that people might be more grateful – or at least more well-disposed towards political correspondents, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. These past few days I have noticed some pol corrs get almost as much abuse as the politicians they’ve been reporting on. We’ve been through how little sleep these guys and gals get, but despite the fact they probably get about five hours kip a night if they’re lucky, they are not lizards. They are human beings, and it is sometimes difficult to be both human and a journalist at the same time. The same goes for using Twitter, but that is another story for another day. It is natural for pol corrs, who have more insight into the lives of politicians than you or I, to sympathise with the plight of a disgraced politician. Expressing compassion for someone who falls asleep in the Dáil is not a hanging offence, as many would have it. It is simply a tired journalist expressing their valid view that sometimes politicians do dumb things. Take it from someone who has seen it all.

They have seen it all.

Senior pol corrs work very closely with government ministers, and lots of them have direct lines to people working in government. Don’t freak out; this is how news gets reported. But while they are close to politicians, pol corrs can never be too friendly as it is their job to hold politicians to account. This must be very strange for both the pol corrs and the politicians, but it’s a relationship that has evolved to work, however (dys)functionally over decades. A lot of the things pol corrs know to be true cannot be reported or released into the public domain for legal reasons. Ireland has very strict defamation laws, for instance. Pol corrs know the difference between rumour and journalism, and they are always very careful never to confuse the two. This cannot be said about some so-called civilian journalists who think they can do the job better than the pol corrs. Leave it to the professionals. They’re not biased; they just appreciate that good reporting takes time and deserves nuance.

They know stuff.

Do you remember the by-election of 1962 in West Clare when two sheep with a surfboard tried to get into the polling station causing national outrage? No? Well, there’s a good reason for that which I’m sure you can discern, dear reader, but humour me. I’m trying to make a point here. Pol corrs would remember that; they could tell you who was running, what number SPF sunscreen the sheep were wearing, how the people voted, what President de Valera said about the whole ordeal. (He said nothing about the sheep by the way, what a prude…) Pol corrs have an encyclopaedic knowledge of our political system. Not only do they understand the very intricate workings of the system, but they also understand the reasons why it is the way it is – ie complicated – and the psychology of the Irish electorate. Next time you are at a party with a pol corr, ask them to explain PR-STV to you and your guests. Hours of entertainment will be had. You’ll be nodding off into your vino faster than Éamon Ryan was a couple of days ago. Maybe then you’ll understand, which is exactly what the pol corr wanted all along…

That’s politics baby: politicians are human too.

Stop the presses. It may come as a surprise, but our elected representatives are only human. They mightn’t always show it, but every single one of our politicians – whether liked or loathed – has a soul, a family, feelings, and a reputation.

And politics is a profession that can seriously hurt all these. When Oscar Wilde said “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” he was not thinking of an Irish politician.

The first rule of Irish Backbenchers Club is you’re in deep doo-doo if your name is all over the news. Even the Taoiseach is probably happiest when ignored – although Micheál Martin does seem like an exceptionally sociable chap.

No, Irish politics, no matter what level you’re at, is a difficult system to work through. No matter how cynical one may be, we have all seen talented public representatives at work; they are usually in it to try and make the country a better place. Theirs is often a thankless job, and yet they persist.

They persist even as they see their fellow politicians, who may only be in it for the money, the glory (hah!), the prestige, progress on through party ranks to ascend right to the top. That’s not to say, however, that all senior politicians are money-grabbing envelope pushers. It depends on the person.

Some are in it for the power and the salary and some aren’t. I would hazard a guess that 50% are in it because they genuinely want to represent their chosen cohort of the Irish population – whether that’s anti-vaxxers or pro-higher-taxes, every voter’s interests need representing.

Not every politician’s policies are going to appeal to everybody. There are so many politicians I would never vote for because their positions on important issues are completely different from the stances I’d take. For instance, Jack Chambers, Fianna Fáil’s Chief Whip and Minister for Sport and the Gaeltacht. I’m mystified as to why a young man his age would be so vocally anti-choice; he campaigned against the repeal of the 8th amendment and he got quite an amount of hate online for doing so.

Well, he’s in government now and seems to be popular among conservative FF backbenchers – who are arguably a little suspicious of more liberal Micheál Martin, so people like myself who wouldn’t vote for him just have to suck it up. That’s how democracy works.

From other quarters, Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill were criticised heavily over their attendance at IRA member Bobby Storey’s funeral. On one level, they shouldn’t have been there because of the pandemic travel restrictions; on the other, they made people feel uncomfortable because they attended a terrorist’s funeral.

Mary Lou McDonald said she would have attended even if she was Taoiseach, which was a rare piece of honesty from a Shinner if you ask me. I see no problem in her attending Storey’s funeral; the two were good friends and it is normal to go to a friend’s funeral. (Whether it is normal to be friends with a terrorist is a question for another day and one which Sinn Féin seems intent on evading… not that most young people care, which is a bit worrying.)

Bobby Storey might have been a criminal to me and those who think as I do, but he was a person and a friend, and his death was sad for his family and friends. They deserve to mourn his loss with dignity.

Speaking of dignity, let us move not so swiftly, but definitely soberly, on to the case of Barry Cowen. Taoiseach Micheál Martin was shocked to discover his newly appointed Minister for Agriculture was banned for drink-driving a few years ago. Cowen, understandably eager to keep his job, was a bit slow to furnish the Taoiseach with the full details so, Martin sacked him.

Political journalists were having a field day on Twitter at Cowen’s expense to the extent that I kind of felt bad for him. I mean, I relate to a man who had a few pints but never bothered to get his proper drivers licence far more than I relate to some of the holier-than-thou Greens who like lecturing us about compost heaps and eating beef.

I mean, feck off!

There are some relatable Greens though, not least, Éamon Ryan, the party leader who is hanging on to that title by a hair. Rather hilariously, Ryan fell asleep during a voting call on a bill proposed by the Soc Dems on increasing the living wage.

A piece of video footage, which was like something written by the writers of The Thick of It, showed Éamon being called by Jack Chambers several times, before he eventually woke with a big sheepish grin on him.

Ryan, like Cowen, was widely condemned by everyone. It seems no voter in this country has ever made a mistake, and poor Éamon must be wrecked what with the new ministerial portfolio and his leadership of the Greens being contested by Catherine Martin – who was wide awake by the way.

The thing is Ryan voted against the motion to increase the living wage, which was ironic because he was asleep on the job himself. Irate tweeters were quick to point out the hypocrisy of him earning €100,000 while the workers he was supposed to be representing might be lucky to earn a quarter of that.

The lesson there for Éamon is if you’re going to have an accidental nap, at least have the decency to vote for a wage increase, man.

The lesson for Jack Chambers is to let sleeping Éamons lie for jaysus’s sake.

In the scheme of things, dodgy friends, bad driving, and sleeping on the job are sins a lot of people are guilty of. Is it right that we hold our politicians to such impossibly high standards? They can’t maintain them as we have learned time and time again. It isn’t doing anybody any good getting outraged every time one of them fucks up so why don’t we give them a break?

Yes, holding our elected representatives to account is important, but why can’t we do that on polling day instead of bitching about it after the fact? Politicians themselves are also the biggest mud-slingers of us all; the lefties hate the centrists and the Shinners hate the Blueshirts and on and on it goes.

Perhaps it’s futile for me to wonder why we can’t all just agree to disagree. It’s just not in our nature. As Dwight Schrute from the US Office said: “That’s politics, baby!”

Lingua franca

I love language and accents. If you have a different accent to me and I know you quite well – or well enough to know you won’t be offended or freaked out, I’ll probably ‘do’ your accent – especially if there’s a gin and tonic or seven involved. It’s my party trick and arguably less offensive than my singing.

Here’s a list of how native European language speakers sound when they speak.

Connemara, Ireland/Irish: You are explaining to your daughter-in-law how you peel a spud using as many vowels as possible. You are doing your best morose chicken impersonation.

France/French: You have something lodged in your throat but you’re continuing with the philosophy lecture if it kills you. You’ve just kissed someone and their moustache has gotten in your mouth.

Italy/Italian: You are loudly trying to make a decision and to delay time you are adding an extra vowel to the end of every word. You are having a breakdown because your espresso machine has broken.

Spain/Spanish: You are trying to blow a bubble with some bubblegum but you are failing so the letters b and p just keeps coming out of your mouth frantically. You are competing against your fellow Spaniards to see who can say the most at once.

Germany/German: You are describing the mass murder you have just committed in forensic detail using as many consonants as possible. You didn’t like the play you just saw and you are forcefully trying to get your money back.

Portugal/Portuguese: You’ve spent your whole life being compared to the bubblegum chewing fast talking people and you are sad. Really you are a mixture of romantic sweetness and philosophical lecture with as many z sounds as possible.

Sweden/Swedish: You’ve been caught in bed with someone else by your partner and you find you don’t care even though you are trying to drunkenly explain yourself.

Poland/Polish: You greet your friends nasally and with vodka. Everything you say seems to be prefixed with a sh.

Holland/Dutch: You manage to sound both surprised and stoned all the time. The secret is in your excessive use of vowels.

Scotland/English: You sound like you are spitting but you are really just remarking on the weather. It’s shite. Everything you say sounds like an absurd, beautiful limerick.

North England/English: Your mouth is so full of chewing gum Alex Ferguson has nothing on you. You might be drunk it’s hard to tell.

South England, Wales/ English: You thought you’d get more done if you shoved a generator up your rectum but you sound insane. Otherwise you’re pretty chill.

Posh English: You have an ice pick up your back passage and you like it.

Yorkshire English: The foreman has caught you asleep on the job and you are trying to pretend you are very very awake. You are trying to hold a conversation on a rollercoaster and succeeding.

Cork English: You speak in the manner of a fly buzzing because you don’t know what real people sound like.

Kerry English: There’s a h in everything. You are drunk and your mouth is full of soil and song.

Dublin ‘D4’ English: You tried to get an ice pick up your back passage but it melted so you are a bit sore and your vowels are all elongated, roooight. You’ve been making us culchies feel inadequate since The Celtic Tiger was a kitten.

Dublin inner city English: You want to have a friendly fight. You are ideologically opposed to the letter t. Speaking of t it’s Lyon’s, thanks.

Ulster, Ireland/Irish: You have just been given an electric shock and it is the most fun you’ve had in years. Go dté mar atá tú?

Donegal/English: You fell asleep happy and woke up sad. You are a human ukulele.

Costa del Penneys, hun

I’ve forgotten what phase of lifting coronavirus restrictions we are meant to be in – is it two or three? – but I know that shops and businesses have begun to open again. There are more people out and about and the town is almost back to its old self, which is heartening to see.

The only indication that we haven’t fully emerged from the corona-Matrix is the abundance of mask-wearing folk queueing carefully, if slightly impatiently, outside shop premises. That and the amount of hand sanitiser stations businesses have hastily erected to comply with the government’s orders. If capitalism is to survive corona it must be a capitalism that is caring and compliant – and clean. Squeaky clean.

Penneys (aka Primark) kept everyone waiting for its reopening, which happened late last week – once again I don’t know the exact date because all the days are bleeding into one at the moment.

It might have been a Friday. Whenever it was it was a momentous occasion and one that will certainly go down in Irish consumer affairs history. For those who don’t know Penneys, it is a shopping institution for Irish people – young and old. It’s cheap and does nice clothes, shoes, home decor-type stuff, and cosmetics. And we love it. Penneys is dependable, affordable, and, for many people, including myself, it allows us to access high street fashion on a low budget.

Forget your Chanels, your Guccis, your Dolce & Gabbanas; Penneys can always be relied upon to stock cheap rip-offs of the trends we lust after on the catwalks. It has democratised fashion in a sense by making it so easily accessible, and we didn’t realise we had a good thing going until it closed all its branches when coronavirus came calling.

Now that the popular franchise has reopened all its stores people are flocking to them in, perhaps unsafe, numbers. With that in mind, the Irish Times despatched consumer affairs correspondent, Conor Pope, to vox pop those brave first few hundred Penneys customers.

His vox pops which were done outside one of the franchise’s many Dublin shops formed an article that was an amusing portrayal of Irish consumers. Most of the people Pope spoke to were women, and, unsurprisingly, they were all hardcore Penneys fans.

To Pope’s dismay, most had been queueing outside the shop since the small hours that morning. (The article is available on the Irish Times website – you’ll have to go through the paywall – but, fear not, you’ll be charged less than the cost of a pair of socks from Penneys to read it, and others.)

I got the sense – and I could be wrong – that Pope isn’t a hardcore Penneys fan. If one could measure such a thing as love for Penneys, I’d say Pope might be a 2 or a 3. He’s ambivalent. The people he interviewed would be all 10s or 11s. I’m a five; I like the place and I buy most of my clothes and other “bits” from it but would I drag myself out of bed at 5am in the middle of a pandemic to queue for it to open? Not a chance.

From the looks of things, most people agree that anyone who did queue the first day was a bit bonkers. By “the looks of things,” I mean Twitter, of course, which is where I read all the takes on Penneys reopening.

The computer-bound commentariat was saying all manner of things about the crazy queuers, most of which revealed its own craziness. Some people were getting mad about the classist tone to some of the comments; others were castigating the shoppers for their “selfishness” and lack of adherence to social distancing rules. Most people were simply taking the piss.

It’s easy to take the piss out of the Penneys huns, but where will these piss-takers be when its the weekend before they’re finally allowed to return en masse to their offices? Why, in Penneys, of course. They’ll be eyeing up the shirts; they’ll be stocking up on hosiery, and they’ll have that dazed look on their face – a look that says I don’t remember the last time I felt so ordinary.

Perhaps then it might dawn on them that they have been taking Penneys for granted all these years pre-corona. For some, Penneys is just a useful one-stop-shop kind of place to pick up socks and jocks, but for others, it is an enjoyable place to spend time in. They wander around looking and rifling through crowded rails for a bargain or they make a beeline for that black t-shirt that they need for work, perhaps stopping to pick up some extra bits on the way to the checkout where an automated voice calls “Cashier number four,” and so on, ad nauseam until the queue is gone.

I suppose our enduring love of – and reliance on – Penneys is a laughing matter to some. You might call them classist snobs, or, perhaps, Dad. I certainly smiled more than once at the jokes being made at the expense of all the people queueing outside Penneys shops around the country last week, but some took the jibes too far.

We are all looking forward to different once-familiar experiences on emerging from lockdown, and, to a lot of people, Penneys is one of these experiences. So, yeah, Penneys is a franchise that relies on cheap labour from poorer parts of the world to supply stock to us greedy consumers but it is not the only franchise that does this – and one can hardly place the blame for this on the shoulders of the several thousand queuers last Friday (or whenever it was).

They were just ordinary people excited to be excited about something normal for the first time in the months since the pandemic changed their lives. Who would begrudge anyone the chance, now a privilege, of picking up “a few bits” in town now we’re doing better? Nobody’s going anywhere else this Summer, after all.

See youse in Costa del Penneys – the panacea for what ails us.

Come what May

“April is the cruellest month, breeding 

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing   

Memory and desire, stirring  

Dull roots with spring rain.”                                  

That’s the first few lines of T.S Eliot’s famous poem, ‘The Waste Land’, which was published in 1922.  

If you are an uncultured swine like me you are probably thinking “wow, this Eliot fellow doesn’t sound like much fun.”  

If you aren’t an uncultured swine, what are you doing still reading? 

Maybe it’s lockdown induced madness, or maybe I’m getting sentimental, but I think Thomas Stearns Eliot is actually a tad more relatable than I’d previously given him credit for being. 

Relatable: T.S Eliot

‘The Waste Land’ was written for times like these; it’s an epic poem about loss, frustration, despair, and self-denial.  

These first few lines are more than likely a slightly more poetic version of the thoughts most of us have been having recently while in lockdown. It’s unnatural to be cooped up inside during April – especially an April as fine as the one we’ve had.  

April is the second month of Spring; it is a time of re-birth and renewal for flora, fauna, and folks like you and I. It is supposed to be a happy time during which we emerge from our Winter hibernation to enjoy the long evenings and fine mornings. The word April comes from the Latin verb ‘aperire’, which translates as ‘open’.  

T.S Eliot was a really smart guy so he probably knew about the etymology of the word April and thought to himself, ‘Hey, I should write a poem about misery and despair and set some of it in April just as the lilacs are blooming – yeah, that’ll show them!’  

The actual story of ‘The Waste Land’ and how T.S Eliot came to write it is more complicated.  

He wrote it while he was on a few months’ leave from his bank job following a nervous breakdown. Luckily, I have never had a nervous breakdown – but I have been nervous and I have had breakdowns. Most people have at some point in their lives.  

I can only imagine that April’s blooming flowers and blue skies taunted Eliot, and in his depressed state, he resented nature and its ability to carry on as normal, when his mind was in turmoil.  

The beautiful April weather we have been experiencing during lockdown has sometimes felt like nature is taunting us. The beaches are out there untouched because we can’t leave our homes. The mercury is climbing sometimes to nearly 20 degrees and we can’t meet our friends in our local beer garden. Children – big and small – can’t lick 99s and go haring around the park with their pals. Holidays are on hold. And yet the sun still shines on oblivious. 

T.S Eliot’s problems were more severe than mere boredom; he spent time receiving treatment at a Swiss sanatorium and it is well documented by his numerous biographers that he was a disturbed individual. His first marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood was troubled and much of ‘The Waste Land’ is informed by repression and troubled relationships.  

Hyacinth girl: Vivienne Haigh-Wood in 1920. She was Eliot’s first wife

In a New Yorker article about T.S Eliot’s love life – or lack thereof – Louis Menand begins by asking: “T.S Eliot’s sex life. Do we really want to go there? It is a sad and desolate place.”  

I don’t mean to be rude but Eliot doesn’t sound like he was an easy guy to get on with, unless you were Ezra Pound, the person to whom ‘The Waste Land is dedicated’ – and great friend and mentor to Eliot.  

Menand’s piece tells us that Eliot and his wife Vivienne were both insomniacs. They slept in separate rooms and she was having affairs when she wasn’t suffering from debilitating health issues. By all accounts, they were a mismatched couple and probably didn’t even like each other.  

I know that being locked inside your mind because you are mentally ill and being locked inside your house in order to curb the spread of a pandemic are two different realities, but Eliot’s poetry – in particular, ‘The Waste Land’ – is somehow relatable for people in both situations. (I also know that these realities are not mutually exclusive).

The language is evocative and the imagery is depressing one minute, and almost mystical the next. Eliot conveys very well how it feels to be utterly miserable while surrounded by beauty.  

The first stanza is called ‘The Burial of the Dead’. Yikes. Right before that, there’s the Latin epigraph which acts as a little taster of bleaker things to come. This fed-up myth lady, Sybil of Cumae, is longing for death she’s so bored.

"With my own eyes I saw the Sibyl of Cumae hanging

in a bottle; and when the boys said to her: 'Sybil,

what do you want?' she replied 'I want to die.'"

I’m sure that longing has occurred to at least some of us during lockdown, no matter how superficially.

‘The Burial of the Dead’ features speakers lamenting lost love amid imagery of nature decaying. (That’s where the “April is the cruellest month” business come in…)

Stanza Two, ‘A Game of Chess,’ continues with more vignettes of despairing people, most of whom seem to be lamenting a lack of communication between themselves and their paramours.

 "'My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. 

'Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. 

'What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
 
'I never know what you are thinking. Think.'"                  

Chess playing is an allegory for an emotionally insecure relationship or something. I don’t know, I’m not a Yale scholar. The above quote is how I talk to a dog, not a boyfriend. Perhaps that’s why I’m still single.

"And we shall play a game of chess,

Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door."

Oh, wait, no. That’s why. Also, I’m shit at chess.

With ‘The Fire Sermon’ Eliot starts to lose the run of himself a bit. Stanza number three takes its title from a sermon given by the Buddha on achieving enlightenment through self-denial. Here, I put my biscuit down and say fuck this I’m out. I suggest any fellow uncultured swine still reading do the same – we all know the cultured folk stopped reading some time ago. They’re probably off listening to opera, or something.

Stanza Four, ‘Death By Water’ reveals the death of one of the characters referred to earlier in the poem. Phlebas the Phoenician dies by drowning and his body is devoured by the sea. It’s unclear whether or not T.S Eliot is jealous of this Phlebas fella’s fate.

Judgement comes finally in ‘What the Thunder Said’ thanks to more imagery of nature decaying and people being miserable. Eliot’s star quickly ascended after the publication of ‘The Waste Land’ and he left his bank job in 1925 to work in literature full time.

Some types think the poem was inspired – in part – by his work at the bank, as well as his neurotic, nervous tendencies.

Back in Eliot’s day, the public was a bit ‘on edge’ after World War 1, so maybe, to paraphrase Father Ted’s friend Mrs. Doyle, they liked the misery of ‘The Waste Land’?

Reading ‘The Waste Land’ is a bit like tripping balls. For a fella suffering nervous exhaustion, Eliot didn’t have any qualms about putting the reader through the wringer; the poem’s 434 lines are divided into five stanzas – each featuring multiple characters and landscapes.  

It’s a heady, modernist mess, but it’s easily read, understood, and appreciated in about thirty minutes, unlike that other modernist masterpiece some of us have yet to tackle. I refer, of course, to Ulysses, which I’ve seen multiple people declare that this lockdown is as good a time as any for them to eventually get through it.  

But lockdown is hard enough without forcing yourself through a book you feel you should read because some boffin said it was genius. Save Ulysses for a flight or the train and read something shorter.  

Then go for a walk – if you want to. Because it is May after all, and, fingers crossed, we will slowly be able to get back to normal – whatever that is.

Come May 18th I will think about arranging to meet a small group of my very best friends in sub-groups of one or two.

There might be cans by the canal in the fine weather with friends spaced two metres apart. And then there will be days of wishing this could just stop already.

I will hug my asthmatic friends sometime before Christmas and I’ll remind them that I love them more than the pub. (T.S Eliot was never able to show such affection for his wife Vivienne.)

The serious conversations about the far-reaching impact this will have on society will continue for many months. April 2020 saw a surge in death rates like Ireland has not seen in years, according to a study done by Maynooth University.

That all these deaths happened just after Easter, a time of rebirth, resurrection, and Spring renewal in the Catholic tradition, shows that life imitates art. Or is it the other way around?

Either way, the purgatory of April is passing and so we must dust off the cobwebs and keep going, trawling through the wasteland of whatever the future might bring with this virus hanging over us. A sad, beautiful, weird poem might help.

"Frisch weht der Wind

Der Heimat zu

Mein Irisch Kind,

Wo weilest du?"

Going Viral: The difference a century makes

So far, 2020 is terrifying. 

Amid the near-constant talk of coronavirus since the year marking a new decade began, it is perhaps a small comfort to know that our ancestors endured another pandemic in 1918-1919 – and in much more difficult circumstances.  

In May 1918, shortly after the end of World War One, the ‘Spanish Flu’ hit Ireland and devastated us. By then it was already devastating other countries; to say nobody was prepared is an understatement – many of these countries were only beginning to recover from a major war.  

Ireland, while neutral during the war, was perhaps even less prepared for such a public emergency. We were a backward country still trying desperately to be fully rid of British rule – albeit with little success. Our location in the middle of the Atlantic – right beside the UK – left us vulnerable and isolated away from our European friends on the continent.  

Unsurprisingly, the 1918 pandemic killed over 20,000 people in Ireland alone. Worldwide, the figure was closer to 100 million.  

One of my grandfathers was born in 1919. He died just after the new millennium in 2000 aged 81, having lived through what was arguably Ireland’s greatest period of transformation.  

He was a toddler when the Irish Civil War began; a young man during World War Two; a middle-aged man with a large family to support when Ireland finally began to modernise during the 50s and 60s; and an old man by the time the tech boom arrived here in the 1990s.  

His wife – my grandmother – lives in a nursing home not far from the house they spent their lives in. She is in a high-risk category for coronavirus; residents of nursing homes and over-70s account for something like 90% of all coronavirus-related deaths in Ireland.  

‘Nanny’ – for that is her name to me and all her many other grandchildren – has had no visitors for weeks on end now.  

My aunties bought her a very basic mobile phone so they could call her and talk to her remotely. Nanny is almost 90, and while she is as smart and sharp as she was when she was younger, she will never be one of these ‘tech’ people.  

The internet came too late for my grandparents; they didn’t and they don’t understand it. Nor do they wish to. “Everyone has one of them phone-ens,” Nanny often says if she catches one of us furtively checking it in her company. Although she has been forced to admit our phones are useful when we Google the time her favourite programme is on TV.  

Her children all have smartphones; my Dad is in his early 60s and would not be without his. He uses it for work emails, Facebook, and WhatsApp. He’s a demon for funny videos, which he watches on full volume without earphones.  

I have had a smartphone since the age of about 15, but the age parents are willing to give children internet access is getting younger and younger.  

Most parents of small children will probably think nothing of their little ones playing on i-Pads or playing other console games to keep them quiet during the lockdown.  

It is remarkable the difference a generation makes. 

Compare the present lockdown to the response of Irish people over one-hundred years ago. Not many people knew about viruses in 1918; hygiene standards were poor and medics didn’t have any of the resources we have today.  

It is a testament to our ancestors and their strength and forbearance that they managed to survive the 1918 pandemic and have children that continue to live through this pandemic. Their children will survive it, too, if we treat our elderly with the respect they deserve.