A broad in Belgium

They called it an Innovation Council Summit, but it was more like a sort of Eurovision for business people.

Except instead of latex leotards and Lordi, there was pinstripes and pencil skirts. In the end, it all seemed little more than a song and a dance.

For two days in late November 2021, several hundred of Europe’s smartest, most productive and most capable people gathered in a motoring museum (yeah, random right?) in Brussels.

And who was in the thick of it all but myself!

I wheeled up outside the rather unorthodox venue having been escorted by my aunt (more on her later, as she said she reads this blog occasionally) – I’m nothing if not well connected.

This being continental Europe, the people here were well organised, multi-lingual, mostly tall, slender and beautifully dressed. The seniors weren’t dinosaur crocks either; they had grey hair and gravitas. The youth weren’t callow and track suited – they were dressed for success. Everyone meant business moving around the area with intimidating efficiency, ignoring the cars which looked to me like glitches in the Matrix.

I didn’t know where to go. A nice man took my temperature at the door. “You’re a bit hot,” he said, concerned. “But go ahead.”

I proceeded through the main arena like Kate Moss at a cattle mart. After a stare at all the vintage cars and an unsuccessful eavesdrop for Irish accents I made my way upstairs to the stage where a beautiful man was raving about innovation.

He held a microphone and walked back and forth, commanding the stage. I’ll have whatever he’s having I thought. After some panel discussions about innovation and tech, I plucked up the courage to get a drink of water. The only problem was the damn machine was automated, and I couldn’t get the water to stop. I must have looked like Father Ted when he got lost in the bra shop. Luckily the water stopped before there was a noticeable flood.

At lunchtime I went outside to a park bench and ate the sandwich I had made that morning at the hotel. I had made it in full view of the dining room as I ate my breakfast. Over the course of my two day trip, I pilfered shamelessly from my hotel’s breakfast buffet. Sandwiches and pastries wrapped up in a napkin did me for lunch and dinner. I was determined to make the ‘all expenses paid’ thing stretch as far as humanly possible. Was this how it felt like being from Cavan?

As a rule, when the Irish go abroad they always meet other Irish. I was no different. Right before I was due to arrive at Business Eurovision I phoned my aunt after successfully ordering a decaff americano – served in a glass!! – and told her I was a short walk away from her house. Would I call in? An offer she couldn’t refuse… (or an offer she couldn’t turn down). This was my first time in her house as an adult, a beautiful townhouse typical of the Europeans. Not Irish Europeans, the Continental ones. The stylish ones, which I was seeing everywhere on the Brussels streets with their muted palettes and sharp tailoring. My aunt gave me a lift to the venue (after we bade adieu to my uncle, a retired journalist) during which she had to dodge several e-scooter riders. “These things are everywhere. People just pick them up, use them and leave them in the middle of the street,” she gestured around. Us Irish people are more for your analogue pleasures – a bike, or a simple walk. It doesn’t matter how assimilated an Irish person becomes in Europe; nothing beats a brisk walk up the Booster hill. (That’s a reference for my aunt who says she reads this blog sometimes when she’s putting off doing the hoovering.)

In the evening, I dodged the hoardes of speedy e-scooters to go back to my hotel and file some copy. Ideally, the byline would have said “by our girl in Brussels” but that might have been over-egging it. Me getting free stuff was not the story here. I made a cup of tea and went to sleep ready for an earlier start the next day.

The following morning I checked myself out of the hotel and legged it back to Business Eurovision where I was informed I would be meeting with a real-life Irish MEP. OMG! When I eventually got face to face with the MEP I tried not to stare at her like she was a sea lion doing a very impressive trick with a ball on her nose. Getting starstruck by politicians isn’t a good quality in a journalist but I can’t seem to not stare at them whenever I meet them in the flesh. I spent most of the interview internally shitting a brick, which is as uncomfortable as it sounds.

I can’t remember whether or not I shat the brick in the end, but I did decide to venture further into the city centre of Bruxelles in the hope of finding a quality waffle. My bosses said I should try a waffle and as they’d never steered me wrong before I added it to the list of ‘must dos’ – after the actual Business Eurovision which I was being paid to cover.

It being continental Europe, I was expecting sustainable, efficient public transport networks with stops all laid out in such a manner that even I, an eejit, could understand and follow. My experience with the electric buses of Brussels was… mixed. I hopped on one going right to the centre, which took around 30 minutes from where I was stationed in the thick of European society. My stop was the last one and I must have been doing a bit of gawking out the window because I was rather unceremoniously told to get off the bus by an invisible Brusseler bus driver (busseler?) who roared “Zhe Ter-min-oo!” for my benefit. That was me told. I was too shocked to say anything other than “Sorry, shite, I’m sorry,” as I poured myself and all belonging to me on the street.

Abrupt bus drivers aside, I spent a very nice few hours walking around the cobblestone streets behind the Big Palace with the Lion head statues on the pillars. I think a king lives there but I couldn’t be sure. He didn’t come out to receive one in any case. Fine by me. I declined to put my snout to the gates as there was some guards standing around waiting for something. (Anti lockdown or mask protestors I guessed). I got took some photos of funny statues and got a waffle from a man of Maghrebi extraction who offered me a choice of toppings: Nutella or caramel. Oh, the dilemma! It was Hamletian! To be or not to be… I went for caramel. For a change. It was delicious; I ate it in the street and I normally consider myself too delicate and too Patrician for such indignities. (I’m much more comfortable using automated water machines around dignitaries.)

Later on, it was touch and go getting the bloody bus to the airport to check-in for my return flight. Buses don’t all arrive on time, even on the continent. A valuable lesson learned there. As I folded myself into the plasticy seat on the Ryanair flight home I thought of all the highlights of my brief little journalist’s sojourn: my name was misspelt; I met interesting people; I ate bread; I drank coffee; I had a waffle in the winter air; I was continental; I saw my aunt; I didn’t put my hand in my pocket; everyone and everything was nice to look at.

All in all? Douze points.

Barking mad: rules of engagement for classy canines

Like most people obeying the lockdown laws, my world has shrunk and I haven’t had as much human contact as I’d ordinarily like. Luckily, my covid bubble, or family, includes a dog, German-Shepherd Rottweiler cross, Ruby, who has proven herself an excellent companion on 5 kilometre walks – even if she does take a few too many toilet breaks.

Our preferred route on which to stretch our six legs is fairly remote, but we usually meet a couple of trucks on their way to the nearby quarry as well as some other people out walking their dogs. Once or twice we’ve even met dogs walking their humans.

A few months of not being able to gossip freely with my friends has clearly affected me; I am now reduced to judging people’s dogs based on how they interact with my own. Yes, we’ve tried Zoom and long walks and al fresco coffees, but our brand of misanthropy requires …. never you mind.

For now, I’ve no choice to accept my fate of living vicariously through my dog.

I’m not sure where she got it from, but Ruby is a frightful snob. Most members of the canine community are, as I am discovering. It might have something to do with nominative determinism; people seem to give their dogs names they would be mortified to give their children. Then they wonder why their beloved ‘Coco’ won’t sit when she’s bloody well told. I’ve never met a Coco that wasn’t an absolute brat. Ruby was a rescue who was originally named ‘Bee’ for her colouring, but we changed that to Ruby because we thought naming a dog after an insect might cause some identity problems when she grew older. Now we have a dog with a stripper’s name and a Hollywood actress’s sensibility.

As you can probably imagine, sparks fly when Ruby meets the the local Coco and co. Despite her breed’s reputation for aggression, Ruby’s a pretty genteel girl who doesn’t want to cause trouble with the neighbourhood bitches, but that doesn’t mean they can mistake her for a pushover either. Ruby’s worst enemy is a black-and-white puppy named Mia, who has the audacity to be the village’s beautiful young ingenue. Recently, Ruby met a more mature white labrador whose name, Phoebe, comes straight out of a 90s sitcom.

I know the dog’s name is Phoebe because her owners yelled at her to come back to them as soon as they came upon us when we were out for a walk one day, but it was too late; Phoebe bounded towards Ruby completely oblivious to her owner’s increasingly futile pleas to “heel, Phoebe, heel.” He was so worried that something untoward would happen that I did my usual trick of half-heartedly brandishing the lead at Ruby, even though I knew she’d just pretend not to hear me. Sometimes I watch her retreating into the middle distance with barely concealed glee and I wonder where she learned to be such an anarchic bitch. Perhaps it is my fault; my Mum is much stricter with her.

But my Mum indulges her too. Recently, our laissez-faire lead policy came under review when Mum and Ruby met a lady out walking who was not shy in disclosing her fear of dogs. “Please put that dog on a lead,” she trembled, as her companion – a human male – tried to reason with her. Mum said after the incident that she was shocked a woman could go through life with such a debilitating fear of something as ordinary as a dog. I agreed. Who could be afraid of Ruby running through the woods with her ears back and her tongue hanging out for adventure?

Plenty of people it seems. In fact I used to be one of them before I met Ruby. She changed me. Our family first met Ruby at an adoption day for puppies set up by dog rescue charity Madra. We held tiny chocolate coloured labrador pups in our arms, but it was at the perimeter of the pen housing the slightly older puppies that our lives were enriched. Funny story: it was my brother who noticed her first because she was, as he said, eating the other puppies’ poo. He thought this was hilarious, and as he was the designated family dog person his vote won.

As far as I know, Ruby has matured beyond the need to eat poo, although she will eat almost anything else.

More of a gobbler than a gourmand, she was nearly fatally poisoned a few years ago. Luckily, she made a full and miraculous recovery after a few days of TLC at the vets.

We think she’s in her teen years at the moment because she’s gotten into a bad habit of answering back. No, really. She follows me around some days vocalising that she wants to go for a walk, like, right now. She pesters me at my laptop when I’m working and barks loud tantrums during meetings, a classic attention-seeking behaviour.

There’s a litany of manuals for dealing with pets and dogs, but Ruby prefers to do things by the bark than the book – I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s better than a sister and only slightly smellier.

The Italian job

“It’s amazing how interested they get when there’s a few punt involved,” my Mum said to my Dad (showing her age).

The two of them were having a good laugh at my expense, as they do whenever the opportunity presents itself. Today’s opportunity was my uncharacteristic embrace of the Euros and soccer-spectatorship.

It was only a brief embrace – it started around 8pm and it definitely won’t last until midnight because Belgium’s bowing out of the competition at the quarter-finals stage means all bets – or all my bets, at least – are off.

It was fate and a fiver that brought me and Belgium’s soccer team together tonight. I drew the team in a sweepstakes competition at work, which involved me paying a fiver ‘for the craic.’ It wasn’t a very high risk payout so I went for it, all in.

Drawing Belgium, my better informed colleagues informed me, was good because Belgium are good at soccer. Well that’s good, I thought, I won’t pay them any attention for fear I might jinx them.

But I had to watch the quarter-finals didn’t I? The television was on and I stretched in front of it, sealing Belgium’s fate and waving farewell to my fiver.

The game progressed and those Italian feckers got their goals, and some lad from Belgium also got one – when I wasn’t paying attention incidentally – although that could have been about 85% of the game so they can’t use that excuse.

I began to get invested in the game-play. (Game-play is an expression I can imagine Eamon Dunphy coming out with in his lovvaly broad Dubbalin brogue). And not just financially.

The language got a bit colourful. Numerous four-letter words were associated with the Italian people, who on mature reflection, are a fine bunch who have contributed so much to the world like pasta, pizza, coffee, fashion, Leonardo DaVinci and those Renaissance fellas, myths, flirting, opera, Dolmio days, and who could forget bunga-bunga.

(What has Belgium done? Colonised the Congo and Rwanda, chips with mayonnaise, posh chocolate, the European Parliament. Meh.)

Thoughts of these Italian greats didn’t dissuade me from shouting abuse at the Italian goalie who delayed his kick outs stalling for the final whistle to blow. The same goalie, who I’d been feeling sorry for a few minutes earlier when he’d taken an elbow to the ribs. In my defence, I thought he was the Belgian goalie and was showing some solidarity.

(How are you supposed to know which end is which? It’s all the same field to me.)

Anyway, I was quickly disabused of any notion I was to feel sorry for this Italian diving goalie when the camera showed the Italian manager, a neat man with a two-tone badger hair-do, who looks like a Tory who cheats on his wife, acting worried.

It was all over then, a few seconds later. I’ll never forget my time in the trenches with Lukaku (me auld flower), Doku, and the other one who looks like Prince Harry. I wish them well. I still don’t know which one the goalie was, but I bear him no ill will despite the fact his two mistakes cost me a fiver and my reputation, which is only a little bit cheaper.

Allez les Belges! Our Dolmio day will have to wait.

Gwyneth Paltrow: Bread & Circuses

Yesterday was a great news day for the subset of the population that likes to comment “HOW IS THIS NEWS?” underneath lifestyle articles on everything from endometriosis to what Mariah Carey wore to the toilet on a cold night. (There’s definitely a gendered slant to their sneers. I never see them doing complaining about the new-worthiness of whatever it is MMA fighters do to justify their existence).

I can’t be sure how this social grouping of discerning, angry news junkies came into being, but I think it might have been around the time The Guardian joined Facebook. They are happiest, after all, in the Guardian’s Facebook comments section playing games of whataboutery and excoriating the news media in the vain hope that someday they’ll be listened to.

Yesterday was not that day, however. The Guardian gamely posted a puff piece about celebrities documenting their personal pandemic rockbottoms, and, it’s safe to say the HOW IS THIS NEWS? people’s generally fairly prominent forehead veins were busting out of their brows by noon.

Spare a thought for Gwyneth Paltrow, though. The offending article’s lede told of Gwyneth’s terrible admission she ate bread during lockdown, which, she said was her personal low-point. Understandable. I eat two pieces of bread for breakfast every day and look how deviantly disgusting I am. (In an interview, Margaret Thatcher famously admitted to denying herself her favourite ‘guilty’ pleasure: marmalade, toast and butter; and look how wonderful she was.)

Like most of the HOW IS THIS NEWS? people, I didn’t read the article and I’m not letting that stop me from commenting. I might also point out (like my HOW IS THIS NEWS? friends would do) that the violence taking place in Palestine should take precedence over literally anything former actress and current businesswoman Paltrow says, but I’d be missing the point. It might be possible that Gwyneth was joking or being ironic; people do that, still. And it might be possible that The Guardian, knowing what sells, and wanting people to pay for journalism, simply report what they think we want to read. Poorly informed outrage is the best kind of outrage – and that ain’t news, baby.

9.5 Things all former presidents need to know when starting a blog (or how to make it beyond the sandpit)

As former President of my Preschool’s Sandpit, a dominion I ruled with a clenched and sandy fist, I’ll have you know, I know a thing or two about how it feels when you’re eventually deposed and moved onto the finger-painting section, where dreams go to die. Donald Trump was recently shunted out of the White House by goodie-goodie Joey Biden, and, like all of the other former presidents turned finger-painters, he has decided to start a blog. Amazing. Like I said, I only know a thing or two about transitioning from president to blogger, but I think with a bit of bluffing I can stretch it out to 9.5 things. Anything for a struggling friend.

  • Tip 1: Um. Bluffing is tip one. Talking through the seat of your pants is literally the most important thing to know about blogging. How good you are at bluffing is how good you are at blogging. If you can’t bluff, you can’t blog. Do you see what I mean?

  • Tip 2: It’s all about content. Here’s where the bluffing comes in. That’s all I really know about blogging, but I kinda promised Trump 9.5 whole tips, poor guy, so I better keep churning ‘em out. 

  • Tip Three. Think positive! Be consistent! I know from my experience, I didn’t get BIGLY engagement with my content when I first started blogging about, oh, twenty years after the incident which saw me relegated from the sandpit to the finger-painting table. I won’t go into it here, but let’s just say if sandpits had constitutions I would have been impeached. Luckily for me, they don’t, but the kid who got sand in their eyes was not so lucky. I’m lying; he’s probably got a mortgage by now. Think positive! 

  • Tip 4: Ask your family to read your posts and share them on social media to increase the chances of one day getting BIGLY engagement. Maybe then you can monetise your content? I see Trump already has a contribute option on his blog which is really impressive for a novice. Either he is so good he didn’t need his family to help him out or he’s not confident they care enough to share his musings on whatever he’s musing about these days. Probably ‘Murica.

  • Tip 5: Your blog should reflect what you’re passionate about. For me, that’s random funny things that pop into my head; memories from a childhood spent fighting other children for the right to remain in control of my own sovereign sandpit, mostly. My campaign slogan was ‘I dig democracy’ and I did press myself, talking into a shovel that doubled as a microphone. Trump can probably skip all that indignity as he’s a little bit more famous than I was.

  • Tip 6: If you’re doing it for fame, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Actually, that’s kind of a trick tip. I don’t think there’s any right reason to start a blog, because only deeply disturbed people who have reached the nadir of their careers start blogging… But if there was a right reason it wouldn’t be fame.

  • Tip Sevfvenn: Drink covfefe. Maintaining a blog is hard work. There’s a lot of bluffing involved and that can be tiring, even for experts like Trump and I. Caffeinated drinks help you catch spelling errors too.

  • Tip 8) Be pleasant in your interactions with other bloggers even if you don’t agree with them, or they’re crooked or they cry when you throw sand in their eyes.

  • Tip Nine: Promote your blog. Nobody will know you have one unless you tell your family and friends. Or Fox news. You never know, the posts you write could one day end up getting read by loads of people and you might get another job, a job that’s even better than being president. 

              …AND 9.5: There’s this micro-blogging platform called Twitter that bloggers and presidents and former presidents alike use to promote their bluffing/content/musings on ‘Murica. It’s like the sandpit of the blogosphere. If you get banned from that you’re finger-painting forever, which is even more shameful than being impeached. Twice.

No more sports ban; good for man, but not for Fran.

With a still stubbornly plague-ridden Ireland set to implement a phased re-opening, whatever that is, in the coming weeks, we’ve all been sitting in our homes speculating as to what that might look like.

And now we know.

Ireland’s April re-opening will feature a lot of balls in the air, only instead of metaphorical balls in the form of county-by-county case numbers and vaccination rollout statistics, NPHET has decided to introduce footballs into the mix of things it is juggling by allowing people to play sport outdoors.

This is great news for people who like sport, but for everyone else, it’s business as usual. Not even the promise of a haircut or a pair of new shoes for the childer.

Writer and broadcaster Barbara Scully raised the point that the new measures appeared to be a little sexist.

Now, I know that in this enlightened age women love sport just as much as men and blah, blah, blah. But I don’t, and neither does New York’s best sit-down comedian and essayist, Fran Lebowitz, who is delightfully abrasive about the male-centred world of sports:

The reason sports are so central is because men are in charge… if women were in charge of the world do you think there would be professional hopscotch?

Fran Lebowitz

I would prefer there be more women in congress and fewer playing football

F.L.

Fran somehow blagged a ticket to one of the (alleged) greatest fights in history, Muhammed Ali versus Joe Frazier, (yawn). She said “It was a very wonderful fashion and cultural event; unfortunately there was a fight in the middle of it.” What a scream. Imagine her at a Junior B semi-final in the pouring rain in Roscommon…

I’ve hated sport with a passion ever since primary school when I had the misfortune to be in the same class as a gang of girls who played sport with the boys every single lunchtime while I wandered the perimeter of the football pitch with my hands in my pockets and my head in the clouds.

I was very good at social-distancing when I was a youngster, and my experience as a playground loner stand to me these days because I’m used to endless waiting — I was always picked last for P.E teams.

This is one of the reasons I’m glad I’m not a girl now because when I was in school girls didn’t have to play football because girls didn’t have to play sports and that was the upside of being a girl

Fran, again

Indeed. Fran sounds like someone I would have gladly shared my scented gel-pens with in primary school — not that I want to go back to the ’50s.

Like my fellow ladies of leisure, I’m waiting patiently for the hair salons to open in late Summer. Hopefully. In the meantime, I’m very happy for all of Ireland’s bald GAA fans who will have a great April if the weather holds up.

St. Patrick’s Day: after a year in lockdown Ireland celebrates its national day stiff, sober(ish), and socially distanced

The sight of Professor Philip Nolan sat in front of a large bottle of hand sanitiser as he ruefully warned the nation’s assembled TV cameras that people were not to engage in customary St. Patrick’s Day behaviours such as “drinking,” or worse, “gathering” was enough to send me into a spiral of cognitive dissonance.

Then I remembered that Prof. Nolan could have a swig of sanitiser if he felt the need — as most good sanitisers like the ones used by Professors would certainly contain a lot of alcohol. Delicious. That was reassuring, both for Philip and for myself too as I hate to see anyone deprived. I can only assume the good professor is similarly pissed off that we have managed to mark our second St. Patrick’s Day in lockdown.

And it’s not even that I really care about missing out on St. Patrick’s Day; it’s no big deal really — although try telling that to the anti-lockdown patriot protestors… Although it is their right to protest, the snakey, not-so silent minority.

But even on a regular, non-pandemic March 17th, I wouldn’t be disgracing myself around the town, parading green-faced into a sea of fellow green-attired people all up to no-good glugging Guinnesses. I don’t even like Guinness!

Ireland sober is Ireland stiff

James Joyce

I do, however, enjoy St. Patrick’s Day because it represents the start of the long Summer evenings. My friends and I usually gather in a little group around St. Patrick’s Day to shed off our winter cobwebs and embrace the nicer weather we sometimes get, and, yes, sometimes we have a beverage or seven. Alas, not last year and not this year either. What harm.

The reason we are disappointed and fed up this St. Patrick’s Day is because some of the more significant things in our lives have been put on hold for the past year or more, and that sense of apathy and disquiet has had a cumulative effect, and on some more than others — as we’ve seen in action on the streets recently.

This year I will walk the dog (again) and send some emails (again) and try not to lose hope (again). It will feel like every other day in lockdown, except slightly greener on social media, that famous arbiter of normality.

In the gulf of time that has passed between this March 17th and last March 17th a lot has happened and nothing has happened. My career didn’t take off like I’d hoped as getting jobs is hard during a pandemic, would you believe, and I have moved back in with my parents in the countryside.

I’m looking back on a few notes I jotted down for a Patrick’s Day blog post I was too dispirited to make last year and the gulf between that and March 17th of two years ago is actually far greater. Apparently two years ago today, I was dancing and drinking and gathering with close contacts all over the shop. It was orgiastic by comparison to this year, no offence to the dog.

Talking of dogs, they were the only ones out last year when, avoiding then Taoiseach Varadkar’s first lockdown speech, I went out for a night time walk around Galway city. Shout out to the fluffy Pomeranian who cheered me briefly as I crossed the Wolfe Tone bridge. The rest of the city was deserted, holding its breath I now realise — or listening to Leo. Some silly string and shaving foam daubed all over Shop Street was the only evidence of the usual St. Patrick’s Day scoundrelry. One restaurant remained open; most others had shut in accordance with what were then only recommendations.

Mannequins standing in shop windows were for the most part my only company. Thankfully, these days our streets are more populated — with actual humans — and we have adapted to “the new normal.” (Hey, New Normal, if you’re reading this go home, you’re drunk and nobody likes you). I suppose for this year we might as well just soldier on, alone together until we can actually go back to the old normal, which, all things considered was pretty great — puke-filled streets not included. I’m quite sure we’ll be back in high spirits again soon. On last year’s lonely walk I spotted a man whistling ‘Wrap the Green Flag ‘Round Me Boys’ and a tourist couple gamely making the most of their predicament, both of them festooned with tri-colours down by Jury’s Inn under the beginnings of soft rain. I’m sure the likes of them are somewhere to be found this year too.

I’m not going to a distant world. I’m of Ireland, and I’ll stay in Ireland until I die.

Tom Cruise as Joseph Donnelly in ‘Far and Away’ (1992)

I doubt very much that Cruise’s character would have been content in a boring, romantically sterile, pandemic Ireland with its restrictions and 5k rules. Nary an ounce of craic in sight. Even NPHET are sickened. Nothing to be done really only stick a straw in the hand sanitiser and go to town…

Love in a cold climate — AND a global pandemic

Some of us aren’t getting it anymore.

Some of us weren’t really getting it before.

That Valentine’s Day is happening in the middle of a pandemic when touching and intimacy and even emotional closeness are verboten/ unsafe is, dare I say it, a tad dystopian.

Maybe for some people it’s a special day, but for most it’s just another Hallmark holiday — because true love is 24/7/365, ya know.

So, let that comfort or depress you on these long, lonely, locked down nights of the soul.

Also, my parents have been married for nearly thirty years. Yesterday at dinner, a conversation about eye colour prompted my Dad to say to my my Mum: “What colour are your eyes?”*

We laughed at him, and my Mum said: “They’re red when I’m annoyed and they glow in the dark.”

But when I think about it again, isn’t it nice that he still wants to know?

There’s hope for us all yet ❤

*P.S: Dad, if you’re reading this… they’re greeny-blue; you’ll have to spend a few more decades staring into them to find out for yourself…

When cows fly

My Dad’s a bit deaf, so we have to be very careful with our diction when we’re talking to him, especially if he’s driving or distracted or even being driven distracted.

He mishears a lot of things.

For instance, if I was chatting to him in the car and I said something like, “Hey, Dad, have you heard the song ‘When Doves Cry’?” he might say back to me, “What? Did I hear that cows fly?” Those who know my Dad IRL know that he’s mad about cows, and has most likely never heard of Prince, so on this imaginary occasion at least, his mistake could be attributed to a phenomenon known as selective hearing, which he actually does suffer from also – as most men do.

Let’s park the imaginary Father faux pas for the moment because I did ask him a question in the car the other day, and it was about cows flying. “Dad, have you heard they’re flying cows on planes now?”

“Ha?” he said, so I repeated myself and then I elaborated a little further, “Well, I’m after reading somewhere that Ireland plans to fly 900 cows out to Belgium in 2021.”

I thought this was madness – imagine one cow on an aeroplane, let alone 900. I couldn’t do it. The plane would have to be massive to fit all of those cows… I pictured them on a Ryanair flight, just for my own amusement, thundering up and down the aisles, tails swinging, shite spattering against the windows, the smell, the chorus of cacophonous moos mingling with the noise of the engine – no, cows on a plane would not be a good thing.

Dad’s more realistic take on the whole thing brought me back to earth with a bang. “They fly cows in and out of Ireland all the time,” he scoffed, “and especially now with Brexit, they’ll be flying even more, oh they would.”

“But not 900 cows on the same aeroplane, Dad? Surely that’s impossible. Don’t you find it hard enough moving six cows up the road from one field to the next?” He heard that alright. Dad is very aware of my disapproval of his cow-moving techniques and the lack of forward planning that goes into them. It would honestly take an entire separate blog post just to explain how woeful he is at communicating to his human helpers – his children/wife/brother-in-law/sister/neighbours – which gap they must stand in to prevent the cows going off course.

“They have special planes for them,” Dad said in the same kind of excitable, high-pitched tone he uses to have football-related discussions. I’d hit a nerve. “They build the planes ‘specially, and it’s only calves that are a few days old that are sent over because they need them on the continent for breeding…”

“Yes, but why don’t they put the cows on a big ferry or something, you know, like an aircraft carrier? They might be less afraid, and they’d have more room.” I thought I was being very reasonable; I like to think of myself as a sort of Temple Grandin figure for Galway cows. (Google her; she’s like a cow choreographer, a savant engineer, and pioneer of kinder, more modern cattle-farming transportation techniques.)

In my opinion, one of the greatest animal-welfare problems is the physical abuse of livestock during transportation…. Typical abuses I have witnessed with alarming frequency are; hitting, beating, use of badly maintained trucks, jabbing of short objects into animals, and deliberate cruelty.

Temple Grandin

With one dismissive hand, Dad waved away my grandiose, Grandin-esque notions, “Will you stop, sure the cow isn’t afraid. It doesn’t know it’s on a plane!” He might have rolled his eyes, but I was looking out the window forlornly thinking of all the cows who would be forced to make that stressful plane journey to Belgium in the new year.

Teagasc, the Irish Farmer’s Association, and my Dad might think it’s a fine idea to fly hundreds of cows across a continent in a metal box, but I think it sounds like a recipe for disaster. I just hope that ‘Operation Moove,’ as it’s been dubbed, doesn’t give Michael O’Leary any bright ideas. If he had his way, there’d be a 500 lb Friesian sitting behind you on the redeye from Shannon to Seville. I don’t think the farmers would like that.

The kids are alright in Carlow, but what about the rest of us?

It’s not often you see Carlow in the news, so when I saw it trending on Twitter the other day, I raised an eyebrow and thought to myself, hmm, either they’re after getting electricity there, or someone’s after creating a terrible scandal. Then I thought about Saoirse Ronan, Carlow’s most famous export; maybe it’s something she’s done. Has she rowed back on her preference for Tayto crisps over the superior Walkers? (Somebody has to say it, and if Saoirse doesn’t, I will. Tayto are shite.)

As it turns out, the reason folks were carping about Carlow was actually far more interesting. And it had nothing to do with Hollywood, Mr. Tayto, or the ESB. No, it was quite the opposite; a small-town scandal – the type that gets everybody’s knickers in a twist. But let’s not talk about knickers, as to do so would be unseemly according to the good people of Carlow. The focus of all the attention has been a school whose staff allegedly warned its female students not to wear tight clothing to PE (Physical Education) as it might distract the male staff members. (Distract being a euphemism for sexually arouse). Anyway, relax, please, there are no pedophile teachers in this case. The journalists who broke the story were misinformed thanks to Facebook – not a reliable source – and one has since deleted tweets she made relating to the incident. But the damage was done.

The resulting outcry produced enough steam to power a small train. The hot takes included: “Those teachers are body-shaming young girls,” “Those male teachers are pedos if they’re aroused by the bodies of teenage girls,” “Those girls shouldn’t be wearing tight clothes anyway,” “Why are we sexualising children?”, “What about the women teachers and the boys?” “Boys don’t wear tight clothes”, “What about the lesbian teachers and the gay teachers?” “Is it any wonder girls feel discouraged from playing sport if their bodies are policed in this manner?” “We are promoting shame in young women and their perception of their bodies,” and “THOSE TEACHERS ARE PEDOS!!”

On and on it went; millions of opinions squeaking into the void like the tired axles of a locomotive. And most of them were expressed as dodgily as that metaphor I’ve just used. Some have expressed concern that the teachers’ side of the story was not told, but I’m more interested in the drama and how it was created – because it was created. A storm in a tea cup, that was all about making everyone feel good about themselves for loudly denouncing some (innocent) teachers in Carlow, who, as it turns out, probably didn’t even say the girls’ clothes were making them uncomfortable, as pedophiles.

Ever since all that business with the Catholic Church and Jimmy Savile & co., pedophilia has become the standard allegation for one group to smear another with. Extremists love calling people they disagree with “pedo scum.” It could be argued that the allegation has lost its meaning. But not only is pedophilia a very serious crime, it is also one of modern society’s few taboo subjects. Sexual attraction to children is taboo, and acting on this is a crime, which is precisely why it is such a powerfully insidious accusation to falsely throw at someone. The Carlow controversy has nothing to do with pedophilia and everything to do with moral panic and people jumping to conclusions based on social media reporting. Twitter is not a court, and our instinctive responses to taboo subjects are not judge, jury, and executioner.

One could definitely accuse the school of being clumsy with their messaging, but to be fair, they never imagined this would be all over the news. All they did was hold an assembly telling students to wear their uniform instead of leggings. When I was a teenage girl, I got rebuked for wearing a scarf that was not part of my uniform by my secondary school principal. If she had asked me why I was wearing the scarf, I might have told her that the school was so fucking cold I could hardly feel my fingers most days. But she didn’t ask because she didn’t care, just like the teachers in Carlow probably don’t care that, for a lot of girls, leggings are more comfortable than big, flappy tracksuit pants.

I wear leggings almost every day of my life; they are comfortable, elasticated, and they look “respectable” (enough for your Ma, like) if you cover the arse of them. The problem is that lots of people don’t cover their arse when they wear leggings, and, because leggings are very tight, everything you have can be seen. That doesn’t mean that people have to look, however. If you’ve got an arse like Kim Kardashian, you’re going to want to show it off – of course you are. Without going into too much detail – this is a family blog – my arse is actually concave, so it looks pathetic if I don’t cover it when I wear leggings, and that’s why I cover it. It has to with self-expression and personal choice, and whether a person likes tight clothes or loose clothes is none of anybody’s business.

The thing is, however, nobody really cares when boys and men wear tight clothes. There’s no moral panic at inches of flesh on display or semi-exposed appendages peeping out innocently from behind strategically designed pieces of fabric. What men wear is not policed as strictly as what women wear. Ironically, a woman in a revealing outfit – one in which you see more than her elbows and knees – is seen as a threat or a trap to men. Some people think that men are incapable of seeing someone they’re attracted to and having a normal, non-savage-caveman response. That’s an oversimplification that’s insulting to everyone.

The best way to avoid confusion, miscommunications, storms in teacups involving schools, moral panics involving social media, and, most importantly of all, stupid controversies over what teenage girls wear or don’t wear is to talk to your kids. If a child reaches double figures and doesn’t know the basics about sex, there’s something amiss somewhere. Most kids have to figure out for themselves that although we are an advanced intelligent society, we are still descended from apes, and we have primal urges which we have to be taught to manage or ignore in order to fit into “polite” society. Social media complicates things further – there are all breeds lurking there. I feel very sorry for teenagers growing up nowadays. I managed to escape all social media until I was eighteen, but these days it is a constant Orwellian presence in the lives of children who partake in it – often while not fully understanding its power. Teenage girls behave like legal, grown women because nobody has told them in terms they understand that they don’t have to – but you can bet the people selling tight leggings have told them they do. Who can blame girls for getting confused when their appearance suddenly causes Mammy and Múinteoir to get a dose of the vapours? Why are we shocked when it is revealed that naked pictures of underage girls have been circulated on the internet by leakers? That’s how girls think relationships work; a boy asks for a picture and they strip, snap, and send. And there’s no point blaming teenage boys – they aren’t taught properly either. Nobody says “Don’t watch pornography because you’re an eleven-year-old child, and it’s unwise for you to freak yourself out learning theory when you haven’t done the practical”.

Some people are happy enough to let teenagers do whatever they want sexually, as long as they’re “safe.” And that’s all very well, and nice and liberal if everybody respects each other, but adults need protecting too. In a society in which pedophilia is the ultimate taboo, even looking at someone under eighteen can be enough to get you “cancelled.” Of course, the problem is that a fourteen-year-old can easily pass for nineteen or twenty if she wears enough make-up and dresses strategically. You don’t need a brilliant imagination to realise that in that scenario, the girls actually are a trap – for themselves and others – because it’s impossible to know what age they are. I’m always reading about women my age who earnestly claim they were taken advantage of by “men” when they were teenagers – ie. They had consensual sex with somebody around their age when they were too young, and now they wonder why “all men are trash.” All men aren’t trash, your parents are cowards who didn’t sit you down and teach you how this stuff works, and it’s a minefield. A minefield that no teenager should be expected to negotiate without guidance. Calling people who are often barely over eighteen themselves “pedos” for having sex with supposedly advanced sixteen-year-olds does not help rectify the situation. It just reinforces the moral panic and ensures that nobody will ever be brave enough to tackle these anxieties our so-called liberal society has around teenagers and sex.

As the daughter of a teacher, it is no surprise to me that it was the parents who were responsible for creating this hullabaloo in the first place. Parents are idiots, and they will do anything to blame teachers and schools for trying to do what they as parents are neglecting. Perhaps instead of posting angry diatribes on Facebook, parents could actually try talking seriously to their children about this stuff. Whatever discomfort they may feel about talking to their son or daughter about sex is nothing compared to the horror of being falsely accused of pedophilia.