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.

All to play for

A recent conversation between my Dad and his brother-in-law turned to the GAA, as conversations involving my Dad often do.  

My uncle had come to our house for one or two beers before he headed off to the UK for work. 

And Dad, who has been spending the early part of lockdown mostly in the company of me, Mum, and his cattle, unleashed GAA anecdote after GAA anecdote on his brother in law who, in fairness, seemed interested. 

Dad has such an encyclopaedic knowledge of the GAA that he will tailor his anecdotes depending on where the person he’s talking to is from. Throw any random local club name at him and he’ll talk the hind legs off you about some local lad who used to play for them and then made it to county before doing his hamstring in an All-Ireland semi-final in 1989.  

Not for my Dad the tragedies of Shakespeare; to him, a tragedy is the scenario I just described. A talent wasted. “He almost made it.”  

On the night my uncle, who is from Charlestown in Co. Mayo called over, Dad was on fine form talking about Mayo GAA. Sometimes when he got too bogged down in sundry detail, my Mum would half-heartedly tell him to give us all a break, but he was unstoppable.  

Names of players who hadn’t seen the inside of a club hall in donkey’s years were mentioned. Webb brothers from Charlestown. So-and-so did his cruciate and Dad had advised him not to play county but he did and Dad received a phone call from him the next day to say he would be out for six months due to injury.  

There was more, and a lot more, but I must admit I rarely listen to my Dad when he talks about GAA, or his other love, farming. Some details in the above hastily related anecdotes might be incorrect. So-and-so might have been off for six weeks instead of six months and the Webb brothers might have been from Corofin, or Killererin, or some other GAA stronghold. 

How am I supposed to know; I can’t stand the bloody GAA.  

The reason I endured it at all was that I am old enough to appreciate it when somebody speaks passionately about something that interests them. And my Dad is passionate about GAA. One might even say he’s cracked for it.  

All of my Dad’s teachable moments were communicated to his children via GAA metaphors. This used to make my brother and me roll our eyes and my Mum to say “Ah for god’s sake…” like an editor willing Dad to reconsider his audience.  

But while we rolled our eyes at his mawkish metaphors Dad always got his point across. I might not have liked it but the GAA is quite conducive to teaching teenagers values. (Please, nobody tell him I said that; like all sports fans he has a tendency to gloat).  

The most thing I learned from Dad’s GAA sermons over the years is that you can love and respect somebody even if you don’t have any interests in common with them.  

When I was a teenager, I used to say to Dad, “Why can’t you be a musician or something; if you were any good, we might have money and connections.” 

He only laughed at me and I deserved it. Another thing I learned from my Dad is to be yourself and don’t change for anyone – especially not a snotty teenager.  

In my defence, this outburst was probably a response to him telling me I should be more disciplined in my studies like whatever star mid-fielder he was training at the time.  

I was never going to be disciplined any more than he was going to suddenly join The Rolling Stones. It has taken a few years and a few rows but we have both come around to the idea that neither of us will change.  

He has, of course, missed the GAA terribly this Summer and he is delighted at the news it will resume in July sometime. I’m bracing myself for the Sunday afternoon I’ll walk into the kitchen for my breakfast and a quiet read of the papers only to find Dad stretched out in front of the TV blaring The Sunday Game. He always has it on optimum volume partly because he’s a bit deaf and partly because he loves subjecting everyone else in the house to the not-so-dulcet tones of Joe Brolly.  

I have PTSD-like flashbacks every time I hear the now-retired Kerry man Micheal O Muircheartaigh on the airwaves. (Then again, I’ve never been good with Munster’s more, shall we say, regional accents…)  

Over the years we’ve learned to filter the noise out. We’re happy to see him sitting down for longer than it takes him to eat a few sandwiches; the amount of farming he does – even on the weekends – would make one feel quite slovenly for spending Sunday mostly on the sofa with the papers and coffee. 

A few years ago, after he had his heart attack, or cardiac arrest, as he pompously – okay, accurately – calls it, he got a defibrillator fitted to minimise the effect of any future “arrests” should they happen. Dad put the thing to the test one day at a particularly exciting hurling match in Pearce Stadium. Galway was playing Kilkenny or Tipp or one of those teams and it might have been the Connaught final or something. Dad came home with a big, red head on him and told us his defibrillator was activated at a crucial moment in the game. He felt like he’d been “kicked in the chest by a horse.” We were concerned. Mum said he might have to give the matches a miss for a while. “Ah, but it was an exhibition of hurling,” he said, eyes glowing like two hot coals. 

He isn’t just a spectator; he’s a trainer as well – an All-Ireland winning trainer, as he might like me to point out here. In 2008 he brought his parish’s intermediate team to victory in Croke Park, where they beat Dublin’s Fingal Ravens team. Don’t ask me what the score was; I was 13 and habitually mortified at being from Moycullen. I played on my Nintendo DS for the whole match, although I do remember bursting with pride and love when Dad ran out on to the pitch after the final whistle was blown. He was leaping like a child. Perhaps he was crying tears of joy. (Mario wasn’t jumping on mushrooms anymore.) 

And of course, I didn’t fully comprehend what this victory meant to him then but I think I get it now. He loves the game and he cared about the lads who played the game. They won the final, not him or any of the selectors or the physio. Dad cared about the lads who played for him, even if it didn’t sound like he did when he’d ring them up in the evenings and give out to them. I used to hear him sometimes almost roaring down the phone at lads who let him down on the training pitch. Beer, laziness, and college lifestyles were usually to blame for lads missing training sessions or not being match-fit. Dad’s policy was he wouldn’t play them if they didn’t put the hours in at training, no matter how good they were. He’d do anything for the “good lads” – the sound lads who worked hard, had a bit of respect and were honest both on the field and off it. He is a fair man. 

He doesn’t train teams anymore because it’s too time-consuming to do on top of the farming he does. There are no more hour-long gossip sessions with his selectors or notebooks with formation diagrams scribbled inside them lying around the house. But the Sunday Game is still a ritual and all the many, many friends he has made over the years through football still remember him. I used to hate going into the village with him when he was training the parish team because he’d be forever getting stopped by people talking football at him. “That was so and so’s mother”, he might say when she eventually left him alone after talking about her sons for twenty minutes in the middle of SuperValu. He knows everyone and everyone knows him.  

He still measures time in the most abstract way. Every major event in his life is recalled alongside a parallel universe where only GAA exists. His wedding, the births of his children, the time he had the flu in 2014 – all can be traced back to whatever was going on in the GAA at the time. You’d wonder if he would forget everything that ever happened to him without it. It’s pathetic but somehow remarkable. He is indeed blessed and obsessed to paraphrase the title of an autobiography one Christmas. He doesn’t read fiction but he did read Mick O’Dwyer’s autobiography. 

To an outsider, the GAA is a brotherhood of bad shorts, a sisterhood of bruised shins. It is its own unique kind of theatre, featuring the kinds of “characters” Spike Milligan himself couldn’t dream up. It has its own decades of iconography; the flask of tea and the sandwiches eaten in the stand, the bottle of Lucozade sport, the proud matriarch screaming dog’s abuse at an oblivious referee. All these things we associate with the GAA.  

It’s a part of our country and a part of our country’s people just as Ulysses and Guinness and rain are. You can’t call yourself an Irish nerd until you’ve been whacked in the skull with one of those distinctive white footballs. I’ll never forget the first time I was hit in the face with a ball by Dad when he’d taken my brother and me out to the garden for a kickabout. I don’t think he meant the ball to hit my face; he was never a very skilful player. Once, I asked him if he was disappointed that I gave up training when I was eleven. “Ah, no,” he said without looking up from the sports section of the paper, “Sure, you were shite anyway.” 

Ah, ref. 

Terms & Conditions

I’ve a few conditions. I won’t list them today as then I would have to get into terms and I don’t want to be writing about terms and conditions.

But anyway one of the conditions I have is very bad. Absolutely chronic and although it’s not terminal for me, it can make other people around me feel as though something terminal is imminent for them.

I suppose, in a way, it’s quite a handy condition. There’s worse.

I’m not the only one who has RBF – it’s been written about before – but I’m not sure if it’s ever been pointed out by fellow sufferers that it’s a sneaky syndrome because it tends to interact with other afflictions. (RBF – that’s Resting Bitch Face, btw, is a chronic condition that flares up in me when I’m feeling a bit shite)

Unlike RBF, there is a clinical name for “feeling a bit shite” but I don’t care to use such terms when describing MY conditions.

There’s too many labels around these days I think. I go to bed for a while and shut up.

Usually, when I emerge from the bed and re-enter society I can be a bit green around the gills for a few days afterwards. In other words, I have a fierce bad case of RBF and if you didn’t know who I was and you passed me on the street you might say: “Jesus yer one looks miserable.”

You’d be half right.

Sometimes people cross the road my RBF is so bad. I can’t help it mostly.

Yesterday I went into town after a few days of Ts&Cs and I hit for the bookshop for a bit of retail therapy. It was a fine afternoon spent in one of my favourite shops browsing quietly and ignoring absolutely everybody except the books whose blurbs called to me. Trouble was too many of them started calling to me and I have only a finite bank balance so I went to pay before I let myself get tempted by yet another rogue tome.

Even in full health, I wouldn’t be known for my quick reflexes so when the nice man behind the till called “next please” I hesitated for a few seconds and a woman darted in front of me with a great welcome for herself.

And what a welcome. She was a loud type and I might have looked at her askance on account of it. Ok, I probably glared at her (accidentally) and she possibly felt the burn of my stare (even with the mask) like the branding of two hot coals on her back, because it suddenly dawned on her that she had skipped the queue.

“Oh dear I skipped the queue I think,” she breathed, all clammily chummily at the nice man behind the desk, “I can feel I’m getting daggers here!”

Well, I can tell you the RBF ramped up by about 500% when she came out with that. We RBF sufferers cannot stand passive aggression in any form.

The nice man told her she was “entitled” and, of course, she agreed. He meant it positively.

Not two metres away, I stabbed my PIN 1-2-3-4 on the cash machine, purchased my books, and left without looking at her purchase pile – probably self-help books; she looked the type.

I’ve no doubt she got a receipt.

One can never be too careful of the Ts&Cs.

Country roads, take me home

Another dawn, another day waiting for whatever emails I sent the day before to bear fruit. Somewhere between 2 pm and 3 pm I decided I wasn’t going to hear back from The Guardian about the pitch I’d sent them so I checked my emails again – only to find this time a rejection from the HR department of a shoe-shop I’d applied to.

“Well, feck them!” I said to myself in that good-natured way people who are used to such rejection emails do in order to conserve their sanity. Some of us don’t have a lot to spare in the first place. In case you’re wondering why I, an entry-level nobody, pitch to such illustrious outlets like The Guardian, it is because that’s what I do instead of playing the lotto. I like to write and I don’t have much shame – ergo, I pitch to lots of editors routinely (BUT NEVER AT THE SAME TIME because they don’t like that). Most have been very constructive and kind in their “thanks but I’ll pass on this” emails which gives me heart that someday my pitch will land.

While I wait for my pitch to land/prince to come, I’ve been trying to get a regular retail job to keep me going until something else comes along, but that’s not going so hot either. On the day I got the rejection from the shoe-shop I didn’t react like I sometimes do – take to the bed – instead, I didn’t let it faze me and I went for a long walk through the country-side accompanied by the dog, who wouldn’t reject a wretch like me.

I’d made the mistake of taking what my phone’s forecast app said verbatim and I went out dressed in long-sleeves and a rain-jacket. Despite it being 14 degrees and sunny out, my phone said it would rain soon, and sure enough, the sky was boiling for showers, as they say. By the time I’d reached the end of one road still dry I insisted to the dog we’d go down the next one. She was having none of it. She froze on the spot and wouldn’t respond to my pleas; I felt like the husband of a sherry-drunk wife making a scene at an English dinner party. I picked her up and hefted her a metre or two across the road. She got the message; “There, I’m stubborner than you,” I panted.

We walked on until we met a man we’d seen before on another day when he’d glared at us from his garden after one of us made his dog bark. On this occasion he was on neutral territory, walking on the lane-way. In my best diplomatic tone I stated: “Howya doin'” as we passed him – this has become my standard countryside greeting over the past few months. It’s obviously inspired by Joey Tribbiani, and a smather of Miley from the Riordans. The man clearly didn’t appreciate that because he just grunted “uh” at me for having the temerity to walk past his farmland. I knew then looking at him that he’d be the type that wouldn’t think twice about putting a bullet in my head or the dog’s head, either, for that matter. (And she didn’t even say anything to him.)

We walked on, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit dejected, like I’d been rejected by HR all over again – only this time HR was one contrary ‘aul lad wearing filthy clothes and the disgruntled expression (and huge swollen stomach) of someone with a seriously advanced case of GERD. Either that or he was in the final days of trying to beat the record set by the Malian woman who’d given birth to nine kids in one go.

My fruitless encounter with the unfriendly farmer got me thinking about the importance of first impressions. Clearly he was impervious to the standard “Howya doin” which works on everyone else I meet when I’m out walking. The trick is, I think, to state it rather than say it; country people have no respect for a pushover or a mumbler. You have to say your chosen greeting out loud and proud and then move on quickly lest you make a fool of yourself. If it’s your neighbour you might stop and have a word about the weather, a subject of endless fascination.

I haven’t fully gotten the hang of first impressions in a professional interview setting yet. When the dog and I eventually reached home, I pondered that as I tucked ice under my armpits and checked my hide for bullets. Maybe it’s my glasses, I thought to myself; maybe they think I’m an intellectual who’s hopelessly unsuited to customer service. (Only the second part of that sentence is true). If they gave me a job I’d be able to save for laser eye surgery, or at least a less pretentious pair of specs. I like the ones I have but they do make me look as if I’m about to define postmodernism at any second. I swear to god I barely even know what postmodernism is and I wrote a thesis on it; I just want to make a living wage. Ironically, when I apply to customer service jobs I lie about my education, because having two Master’s degrees and no job makes you seem like a mad scientist on paper. At my lowest I’ve thought of leaning in to the way my face looks and doing a PhD, but I’ve decided it’s slightly less mad endeavouring to get work in my area while also trying to make a quick buck or two working for people who think my lack of enthusiasm for serving customers means I’m secretly fantasising about postmodernism. I’m not, I’m thinking about a holiday in France just like everyone else. At this stage though, I’d settle for a by-line or even a howya from the peevish country-man with the quintuplets in his belly.

5 Simple pleasures to look forward to when hope returns

Hope is returning.

– Micheál Martin AKA Taoiseach

Only a politician could manage to make the words “Hope is returning” and “Summer is coming” sound like a threat and a promise at the same time.

Already, I see some ninnies complaining that today’s announcement by Martin is too hasty, too optimistic and that we should all stay indoors getting madder and more institutionalised by the day. But let the ninnies complain from behind their double-layered masks. I’ve got a life to live, and so do you, dear reader/my mother.

Over the past few months – is it twelve or thirteen? – I’ve been depressed, angry, bored, sad, and unfulfilled. Not all of the time, but more than usual. I suspect this is the same for most people. I’m not optimistic by nature, but the promise of re-opening and the thought of getting back to doing my favourite things with my favourite people is keeping me somewhat positive. Here’s a list of simple pleasures I’m looking forward to indulging in very soon…

1. Drinking coffee from a cup in a café, watching the world go by

There’s no real pleasure to be had from drinking a clandestine takeaway coffee in your car or on a bench freezing your particulars off, but this is what we caffeine addicts have had to endure during lockdown. I don’t smoke, but I’d imagine it’s the difference between having a fag standing in the pissing rain in wet shoes versus having one while lounging on a verandah in a warm, midge-less country watching the sunset. Good coffee, too, is contingent on a good atmosphere, and cafés are some of the most relaxing places on earth for me. My favourite café has all my favourite things about café culture – that’s good coffee, nice staff, late opening hours, relaxed vibe – and I am counting the days until I can seek refuge in its rickety chairs once more.

2. Eavesdropping

If you’re as nosy as I am, you’d miss listening to people’s conversations – a luxury greatly diminished in pandemic times because nobody is gossiping with their friends/family/FWB anymore. Well, they are, but they’re not doing it where I can hear them. Hopefully, that’s about to change, and I’ll soon be hanging around corners, empty gin glass in hand listening for juicy tidbits of gossip pouring from the mouths of strangers.

3. Bookshops

I love and miss independent bookshops so much and I am not alone. Amazon is not the same; indie bookshops are so beloved because they allow us bookworms to immerse ourselves in the lovely rituals (see above) we associate with browsing bookshelves for the next great bargain, bestseller, or whatever you’re having yourself.

4. Lovely pints, pub crawls, the craic

While I’m not a Guinness lover, I feel very sorry for those who are. It’s impossible to recreate a proper pint at home without the charming ambience of a dusty, old pub that hasn’t had its interior changed in any way since 1999. We’ll have to make do with table service and beer gardens for now, but the Irish pub as we know and love it will return because, after all, ’tis hard to kill a bad thing. Sláinte.

5. A haircut

Before we begin going out and about and enjoying the Summer – weather permitting – it is absolutely essential that every single one of us gets a good haircut. A follicular deforestation, if you will. I was one of the unwise people who didn’t get my hair cut last time the hairdressers opened, so my head is currently a mess of split ends and negative thoughts. It won’t be long now, though.

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…

Running Bores

Every hoor and his mother is out running these days. I don’t know whether it’s a passing lockdown fad or the continuation of the extremist health culture that has waged a fruitless – for fructose is the devil – war on slobs like the rest of us for years. It is a global war, hastened by capitalism, although its origins in Ireland can be traced back to the introduction of the smoking ban in 2004 that set a precedent for the health obsession which has since gripped our nation.

Like most people with big appetites and guilty consciences, I’ve dabbled in healthy stuff. I’ve modified my diet to include less junk, coffee, and alcohol (sometimes) – but I draw the line at veganism. To me, that is as extreme as heroin, which is on the opposite end of the spectrum entirely. Both would ruin your life, but at least you’d get a thrill with one. No, I couldn’t be a vegan.

Recently it occurred to me that I might start running. Do you ever get these kinds of notions? I saw everyone talking about how amazing running is for their mental and physical health, particularly since we went into lockdown – and I thought to myself, I want a piece of that.

I tried it – the running – one day when I was out for my daily walk. I just did it – as the good people at Nike say. But I wasn’t very good at it. So I stopped, and I walked instead. I tried it again once or twice, but it was too hard and not one bit enjoyable, so I gave up. I have since come to terms with the fact that I am not, nor will I ever be, a runner.

I have to blame someone for this – it’s a pattern I’ve fallen into over the years, which helps me sleep at night and late into the following afternoon. So, I blame my Dad. More specifically, his genes. If I hadn’t inherited his broad shoulders and height, I could be a wonderful runner.

Running hurts 😦

I’m too tall to run. My legs are long and skinny and not very muscular; they can’t possibly support the top half of me, which is quite burly by comparison. I don’t have the ‘under-standing’ that running requires, and I’m always concerned I’ll injure my knees or my hips if I run more than a few hundred yards. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Sure, I could do a load of squats and get strong legs and a dump-truck backside, as is the fashion nowadays thanks to Kim Kardashian and other Fat-Bottomed Girls, but I am not convinced that would make me any better at running. It also sounds like an awful lot of hard work to do in order to do even more hard work, and I can’t be arsed – literally. I’ll only squat for a barstool.

I maintain those born runners are either wiry, bottom-heavy, or small. The closer to the ground, the better the under-standing is my thinking. I’m none of those things. Then again, neither is the fastest man alive, Usain Bolt – an anomaly so irritating I wish he would just retire or come out as what we all know him to be: 150 super-fast hamsters in a man-shaped trench coat.

Hamsters theory aside, Bolt’s phenomenal success as a very tall, muscular runner is probably his sex. It certainly couldn’t have anything to do with perseverance or hard work. I might as well just say this plainly; it is difficult to run when you have boobs – and I mean anything over an ungenerous B-cup. Alas, I cannot blame my poor Dad’s genes for my own two appendages, which are just big enough to be an inconvenience – or an excuse, depending on how you look at it. Usain Bolt does not have boobs, but if he did, he would be a lot slower. I guarantee it. If he does have boobs, we all need to know what sports bra he wears…

There is still something in me that would like to be able to run, despite both my loathing for it and my lack of physical suitability. So much so that whenever I see someone out running, I am often overcome by jealousy, which I disguise by making scornful remarks like “Would they not be as fast walking?” I’m filled with envy whenever some young wan has the audacity to overtake me. I have that very human desire to exact revenge on anyone younger, fitter, and better looking than me – a considerable portion of the population; feel free to disagree – and I am not afraid to admit it.

I hate runners. And I shouldn’t say it because I know lovely people who run. But for the hour or so that they are running, I hate them. What I hate most of all are the people like myself, the non-runners, who praise them as though they are little sweaty gods and goddesses. “Oh, fair play to you, I don’t know how you do it!” and “You’re so fit, I wish I could do that.” The runners love to hear that kind of thing; their smug, sweat-stained faces just light up. I’d never praise a runner; I just couldn’t give them the satisfaction.

For as long as the pursuit of running evades me, I will always maintain that nobody, in truth, actually enjoys it. Its disciples say things like, “It’s so good for your mental health.” To which I say, ever heard of Prozac? Seeing runners is actually bad for my mental health, as they inspire such raging feelings of inadequacy in me. Others talk gush about endorphins and how good exercise makes them feel. They do actual marathons for fun.

Marathons? For fun? I do not understand it. That’s the definition of mental illness. The time I tried running, I did not have fun at all; there was no endorphin buzz or feeling of euphoria or any of the other reasons runners give for their bizarre behaviour. Instead, I got sweaty, breathless, and dizzy. Black spots appeared in front of my eyes as I walked home, slower than I normally would.

If golf is a good walk interrupted, then running is a good walk forfeited for the sake of vanity. While not a fan of running, and that’s putting it mildly, I do love walking. A fast walk is a tonic for both body and soul; it’s a rare day I don’t go for a walk these days, and I feel wonderful when I’m outside looking around me. There are exceptions, I’m sure, but the runners I see on my walks never look as if they are enjoying the fresh air, or indeed the exercise. Some go so fast they see nothing of their surroundings; others labour so much they look like they’re re-creating the Passion of Christ – only they’ve got sweatbands instead of a crown of thorns.

This cultural obsession with running only appeared relatively recently. Did anyone run in Ireland in the 1990s? Sonia O’Sullivan, the sole Irish runner of the pre-smartphone era, has a lot to answer for. She made it look easy, and she won stuff – like medals and international acclaim. Thirty years later, Ireland is full of runners who seem to be chasing a variation of O’Sullivan’s dream. They may say they’re doing it for their “mental health,” but then they go and post their run times on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – i.e “Today’s run: I did 10 miles in 90 minutes. Managed to successfully outrun my self-loathing, fear of death, and fear of putting on weight! Until tomorrow…” You get the idea.

I will try not to be led astray by such ostentatious lycra-clad displays of rude health in the future. My resolve was shaken during lockdown, sure, but I know now that running is never a trend I’ll embrace – and not just because I’m embarrassingly terrible at it – but because it’s just so bloody boring.

Pre-Christmas jitters, defrosting Michael Bublé

Oh, the weather outside was… briefly not frightful, so we decided to venture into town en famille, as they say in Europe – although Dad pulled a Boris and disappeared, as he didn’t have to go shopping, get out of the house, or get his hair cut.

I had all my Christmas shopping done since the second week of December, if not the week before. I’m not trying to brag, but I’m a very efficient shopper; every last browse is done studiously, and with intent – either to purchase or reject. The Secret Santa is sorted, the friends’ presents are ticked off, and I even managed to buy a few things for myself in the process. Most of the time, my shopping is just window shopping because I don’t have the disposable income of Paris Hilton, for example. I prefer to spend money on social stuff or on my stomach, so I find the mad Christmas shopping rush a bit of a shock to the system.

Shopping for the sake of shopping is depressing; it’s like eating your greens because you were told to, because that’s what’s “good for you”, instead of being taught to appreciate the slightly nutty taste of perfectly cooked broccoli, or indeed maturing to appreciate the look on someone’s face as they unwrap something genuinely unexpected and thrilling from you. Nobody can tell me capitalism doesn’t “hit different” during these moments. Those few golden hours with family – if you are lucky enough to have them – make the whole nauseating build-up to the 25th worth it. It is really only then that consumerist xmas becomes Christmas.

My family has a tradition that involves the four of us going into town to either look at the lights or do a bit of last-minute Secret Santa shopping a day or two before Christmas Eve. This year was different, and not just because of NPHET’s/government’s shock announcement mere hours before the big red fella was due to arrive that Christmas was cancelled. I was gutted. Not Christmas! We had to cancel our family dinner on Christmas Eve afternoon in town, which was only feasible in the first place because my brother wasn’t working that day. Granted, we weren’t as badly hit by the new restrictions as some families were, but it was still bloody lousy. Critics of our dear neoliberal government were complaining that xmas wasn’t cancelled as shops were allowed to stay open, thus propagating the consumerist agenda and, god forbid, saving the economy. (Has it occurred to any of these people that we are the economy? Or at least we are what’s good about it. I wonder when will the penny drop…). Like good little slaves to the machine, Mum and I ventured into the city and the shops for one last look before Christmas. “If cases keep rising at the current rate, we’ll have everything locked down in January,” said my Mum prophetically. As I write this, shops have all closed again, so we didn’t even get to January.

As a family, we have all coped with these cyclical lockdowns in different ways over the past year. Just like everyone else, we have had no choice but to mould our lives around lockdown. My brother still works, my Dad invents pet project after pet project in the garden/farm, and my Mum has started a course and learned how to use Zoom. I have done nothing; I am the same as I was last year, no worse and no better. Hopefully, this year will be different, but hope is not a currency I am particularly rich in at the moment – not that I’m rich in any of the currencies. My MA ended abruptly, and my classmates and I were left without contact teaching hours to do our final projects. I was hoping that doing a final project on journalists and academics working through lockdown might help me on my way to becoming a journalist, but I was stuck at home for most of it, and so I’m more confused about the industry now than I ever was. My interviewees were definitely concerned too, and I had very interesting conversations with them about their work, but, looking back on it, I should have chosen a lighter topic like “Puppies!” or “If It’s Not Good News I Don’t Want to Know About It” or even something less depressing to me personally, which still would have left room for all those grisly topics journos love – like war, murder, violence, how cow farts are killing the planet, abuse, white-collar crime, Mayo losing another All-Ireland…

Or I could have copied my Dad, who has taken a recent special interest in ridding our driveway of moss using the rather unorthodox method of pouring box after box of washing powder all over the drive until it resembles a Winter Wonderland. He’s out there every day sprinkling scented snowy powder murdering moss and lichen alike as happily and ruthlessly as a culchie Pablo Escobar. The garage is full of evidence; piles of used powder boxes stacked high like cartel coffins. I don’t know why he doesn’t just let the moss live. If it survived 2020, it can surely survive Dad’s notions.

He has Mum adding “washing powder x 3” to her shopping lists, and she goes out into the big, bad, pandemic-ridden world to source it for him, a dangerous mission but she is a good mule. Her car even has tinted windows. I went along with her on one of these powder-buying trips recently – it was before the Christmas but still well into xmas, so town was mad busy. We agreed we’d split for a while so she could go incognito for culchie Pablo. I met up with her again in a second-hand clothes shop down the town. Mission abandoned, she was ferreting in the shop’s far corner by the time I eventually fought my way through crowds of cheerful shoppers to get to her. I was in, by my own admission, a bit of a fouler, thanks to xmas. Grumpily, I put on my mask, and my glasses fucking fogged up the minute I entered the shop. “I’ll wait for you out here, I can’t see a thing,” I told her and made for the door, but it was too late; she had ferreted something out and wanted my opinion. “For you maybe?” she said, and I looked through the one bit of fog-free lens I had at what she had in her hand, to humour her, like. It was a bit meh – a grey pinafore thing that a geography teacher might wear.

“Mmm,” said my mother, thinking aloud, “Might be a bit slim for you… No, I’ll put it back.” I snorted my disapproval underneath my mask. “You don’t like it?” she said innocently, turning to follow me out of the shop. Well, not anymore I thought, this time adding to my initial appraisal that not only was it the sort of garment a geography teacher might wear, it was also the sort of garment that a geography teacher who never ate carbohydrates after 6pm unless she was “being naughty” would wear. I couldn’t be doing with that. We went home; somehow, she managed the drive with her foot in her mouth. The backseat was laden with boxes of washing powder, and the two of us, xmas’d out of it, were probably wondering how on earth the four of us would get through the covid-Christmas.

We are through the other side now, ready to face into 2021 in lockdown. Our driveway will be moss-less, but at least my wardrobe is thankfully pinaforeless. It’s time to stick Micheal Bublé back in the freezer until next xmas and declare a nationwide moratorium on Dry January. Happy New Year, I think…

5 Ways to prevent early-onset madness in lockdown

Here’s a few things I did to cope with lockdown over the past year…

Learn how to insult your loved ones in several languages

Some blog writers might recommend you be productive with your time spent in lockdown. They might say: “Get up at 8 am and do thirty minutes of Spanish on Duolingo every day because learning new skills is a great way to prepare yourself for the job market.”

I say b******s to that. Especially the getting up at 8 am bit. What kind of nutter gets up that early unless they’re being paid to? I’m currently unemployed – despite my best efforts to secure a job, any job – and I’m having a great time learning how to slag my family members off in an array of exotic tongues.

So, instead of relying on a needy green owl to teach me how to ask for directions to the train station in French, I’m learning skills I actually need for the kind of life I lead at the moment – i.e a life lived at home with my family, who occasionally get on my nerves.

I use the notoriously unreliable and inaccurate Google Translate because it’s all free, and there are no “daily reminders” – perfect for those of us with commitment issues who want to call their brother a smelly poo in German.

Teach your dog the safe cross-code

What do you mean your dog doesn’t know the safe cross-code? If you have a dog and you’re in lockdown, you’re most likely bored out of your skull at least one day a week… Go and walk your dog; you have no excuse not to. My dog’s legs are being worn to butts she’s being taken out so often these days – not that she minds the extra bonding time with her humans. And she’d certainly never let a bit of rain stop her. Since the winter set, in we’ve both gotten absolutely drenched together more times than I can count as we wander the quiet country roads near our house. Ruby empties her bowels, and I empty my head.

Neither of us particularly like the dog-lead – one of us resents having her freedom to sniff curtailed; the other prefers her arm in its socket, thank you very much. We both accept that leads are a necessary evil for roads with cars and dangerous bends, though. It took one of us, in particular, a very long time to get used to not acting like a complete thick whenever a car ambushes us. In my defence, Ruby doesn’t respect me or my authority very much, so if we do find ourselves crossing the road when it’s busy it becomes a power struggle in which the biggest bitch wins. But only just about.

After one too many near-brushes with doggy death by Skoda Octavia, I decided I needed to get a bit stricter, for both our sakes. We’ll start working on the safe cross code any of these weeks now.

Don’t be mindful™

Is there anything more boring than mindfulness? Somebody talking about mindfulness, perhaps. There’s an app you can download on your phone that tells you how to meditate. It’s called Headspace, and it sounds very stressful – what if I wasn’t good at mindfulness? Would I be able to handle the shame? I’d rather remain a head-case than find out I’m bad at something else.

Whenever we as a society go through a traumatising period, someone inevitably writes a smug newspaper column or blog post about mindfulness and how important it is “to be present in our suffering” – or some shite like that. Go and iron your yoga pants, you silly sausage.

Nine times out of ten, the rest of us are too busy getting on with it to be mindful of anything except what’s for dinner. (It’s beans on toast again because what’s the point?).

Purchase exercise equipment for ornamental purposes

At the start of Ireland’s second lockdown, which was six weeks ago at the time of writing, I got a sudden notion to start circuit training. I thought it would be a nice way to increase my woeful upper body strength as well as keep me occupied in the evenings.

I went on Amazon to look at exercise equipment, and then I bought what I thought I needed on an Irish website. I got two 4kg dumbbells and an ab-roller, which I tested out straight away. The ab roller was so easy to use I thought, ‘I must be doing something wrong here,’ so I haven’t used it since because I don’t trust it. It lies forlornly on my bedroom floor, and I keep meaning to have another go, but I’m afraid that if I do use it correctly, it will hurt ferociously. It’s just easier to think I don’t need it because my abs are already so obviously shredded. Not.

I’m having a bit more success with the dumbbells, but they are so heavy I can only use one at a time, like a kettle-ball. I tried to do an exercise called a bent-over row, and I nearly broke both my arms off. So, the dumbbells are lying on my bedroom floor also, and I take it in turns to use them so they don’t get jealous of each other. My advice to anyone thinking of taking up circuit training in lockdown is: don’t. And if you do buy exercise equipment, make sure it matches your curtains.

Treat lockdown like Lent

I’m pretty sure every religion has something like the Catholic tradition of Lent, a period during which people deny themselves of basic pleasures like biscuits to prove to their God that they are worthy of salvation.

Practicing Catholics observe Lent for six weeks every single year until they eventually die, and, one would hope, after all that self-denial, get their Heavenly reward.

Hopefully, we won’t have to do lockdown for six weeks every year – or twice a year – until we die, but it mightn’t do some of us more materialistic folk any harm to go without for a while. I’ve been treating lockdown like Lent – which I’d never do ordinarily – and it’s been working out fairly well for me. That might just be because as I write this, Ireland is about to open up most of its pubs, cafes, restaurants and shops. I’m aware that I sound smug to people in countries still dealing with restrictions and lockdown, but this last tip has genuinely helped me survive the past few weeks.

Bear in mind, too, that Lent doesn’t mean you have to give up everything you enjoy; it can be an opportunity to take up new hobbies and adopt better habits too. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest. I’ve swapped my nightly Netflix binge, which was getting out of hand before lockdown, for reading. I’ve just finished reading a brilliant book called ‘Shantaram‘, which is set in 1980s Bombay. It’s as far from Ireland lockdown 2020 as possible and a welcome change from 1990s American sitcoms, too. It’s a hefty tome at over 900 pages, but it was so enthralling I found it wasn’t half long enough. Perhaps I’ll end up feeling the same way about lockdown…

Summer is ruined but at least we’re living through history

The one way of making people hang together is to give ’em a spell of the plague.”

Albert Camus – ‘The Plague’

Before coronavirus changed everything, my friend and I had made tentative plans to go inter-railing around Europe for the Summer. We had agreed on a route; Prague to Krakow to Budapest – and we had agreed on all the locations and sites we absolutely had to visit in each city.  

I remember the evening we spent planning it in our favourite French-style café, which we were both regulars at pre-corona.  

How lucky I am that the only things I mourn in this lockdown are my holiday that never was and sitting in my café drinking strong coffee and listening to other people’s conversations.  

The streets are quieter these days and everybody keeps their distance, because nobody knows when this will end – or if it will.  

As doctors, nurses, politicians, emergency responders, police, supermarket workers – ie. the select few the government has decided are “essential workers” – try and keep going, the vast majority of people are grateful enough, and smart enough, to do our part and stay the fuck inside.  

My housemates fled back to their parents and I, too, returned home after a few days of going slowly mad by myself in my rented house in Galway city.  

It’s better at home; I walk the dog in the countryside, I do housework and I don’t clean my room. Every day at 9pm I watch the news with my parents.  

One day I was talking to my Mother, telling her about my aborted holiday plans. “I suppose I’ll go next year,” I said, because I not optimistic or stupid enough to believe I’ll be leaving Ireland any time soon.  

Mum shrugged her shoulders and said “You are living through history.” 

She was right. She’s always right – I am living through history. We all are. 

The people who lived through the 1918 pandemic started popping up in our family’s discussions about coronavirus. We can read about the 1918 pandemic online; we can read as much or as little as we please.  

History never looks like history when you are living through it.”

John W. Gardner

We might be living through history, but with the internet and all the other technology available to us, we have the benefit of hindsight. There is a lot of grumbling about technology and how it is destroying us and making us less sociable, but I think that even its doubters have begun to come around to the idea that in times like these our screens can act as windows to a world we cannot move freely in any more.  

It is a small mercy, too, that even though we are on lockdown and we cannot see friends and family or go to work, we have this incredible resource at our disposal to record our experiences.  

In a hundred years’ time, let the record show what we did and how we lived – and survived – this pandemic.  

There’s the sourdough bread baking crack of dawn risers doing yoga in their front rooms. There’s the cereal for dinner at 1am Netflix bingeing head shavers. There are the Leaving Cert students waiting for an answer on when their exams will be. There are people in nursing homes who can’t see their families. There are bored children driving their addled parents up the walls. And there are heartbroken people who can’t grieve properly for their loved ones dying from this virus. 

None of us know when this will all be over; all we can do is wait and hope and do what they tell us.  

By “they” I mean the people we find ourselves reliant on to keep us safe. From the security guard in your local supermarket who enforces social distancing, to the nurses run off their feet in hospitals all over the world, we must respect and appreciate the sacrifices they are making for us.  

Many frontline workers have already paid with their lives, and yet there are some incredible dumbasses out there who shout abuse and spit at these men and women who are only doing their best in a bad situation. And believe me, their best is good enough. I hope they don’t let the bastards get them down.  

History won’t look on the bastards too kindly.  

As for the rest of us? We’ll have a pint and an ice-cream when it’s all over..