Jan 292010
Photo by Dave Bunnell of a caver traversing a ...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve never really understood the attraction of intentionally putting yourself into a damp, cold, dark place to defy death in pursuit of fun and discovery.

Call me boring, but I can get all the damp, cold and dark that I’m likely to need in a lifetime on a typical winter’s day down in West Cork. The prospect of gearing up from head-to-toe in an array of protective clobber, donning a headlamp and descending into the bowels of the earth for the privilege doesn’t exactly fill me with glee. But it does some people, evidently… like the members of the Speleological Union of Ireland (SUI), or cavers to you and me. These are people who routinely give up their weekends to go pottering about underground… voluntarily… for enjoyment.

On their very impressive website (www.caving.ie) they court potential recruits with this enticing opening gambit:

Caving is the exploration of natural underground spaces. It is an adventure sport with inherent risks; many caves are cold or wet or muddy, or all three.

Sorry, you haven’t managed to grab me there… try again.

Technically potholes are caves that include vertical drops and therefore require the use of ropes and or ladders…

Nope… sorry, still not really getting it.

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Jul 222009
Brian Lenihan (Irish minister of finance)

Image by nerosunero via Flickr

Sometimes, even in this hyper-connected age of instant communication and networked everything, the world outside my little bubble passes me by. It happened again over the last few weeks.

Busy rising to the daily challenges of the working parent, I somehow managed to miss the speculation, commentary and excitement on the “An Bord Snip Nua” report and the recommended public spending cuts it contained.

It might have something to do with the ludicrous name. No matter the gravity of the Special Advisory Group’s proposals, calling an advisory body on spending cuts “Bord Snip” makes it very hard to take it seriously.

But there’s no doubt the cuts the group advocate are deadly serious. One of the recommendations that’s causing particular consternation among parents is the proposal to universally cut child benefit. The An Bord Snip report says: “Further savings of €513m should be achieved by effecting a 20% reduction in the Child Benefit payments.”

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Jun 232009
WASHINGTON - APRIL 17:  Pope Benedict XVI spea...

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So the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, has said "it is no longer tenable" for the Catholic Church to manage 92% of all primary schools. What a revelation! And it’s taken the Church until now to work that out?

Dr Martin, of course, is furiously back-peddling, squirming to try and salvage some form of "face" in the wake of the damning Ryan Report into what it described as "endemic" child abuse by clerical institutions in Ireland, and the public backlash that has ensued both here and abroad. But there’s no face to be saved… the Church’s reputation is in tatters. Any parent worth their salt will tell you that its involvement in even 1% of our primary schools should be more than "untenable"… it should be absolutely criminal!

Those are emotive words because, quite frankly, when it comes to the safety and security of my children I am emotional!

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Jun 152009
Second round of the French presidential electi...

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Voting is important!

Democracy is something that people all over the world have fought for tooth and nail… it’s something people are willing to die for, and in parts of the world they still do.

We tend to forget that having the right to vote is a remarkable privilege that we should all exercise whenever we get the opportunity. It’s a chance to make our collective voices heard, and to let our public representatives know what we really think. It’s our chance to have a say in who governs us, to put competent stewards in office who will steer this nation’s course to future prosperity. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Democracy is at the very core of the freedom we experience every day of our lives. So it’s curious that exercising the right to vote in the local and European elections last week felt like such a waste of time. I went along, naturally… but it was more out of a sense of obligation than a genuine belief that by voting I could make a difference.

Am I the only one who finds it discouraging that voting has become an exercise in selecting the best of a bad crop rather than struggling to choose between truly exceptional candidates? Maybe it’s just that, like a big chunk of the Irish electorate I’m disillusioned by the ineptitude of government at local and national level, by a farcical and frankly completely un-viable opposition and by the relentless petty sniping of party politics on issues that should transcend political point-scoring.

We took the children with us to vote… it’s important to expose them to the democratic process… although explaining the intricacies of it to eight- and five-year-olds is a bit of a minefield. I think it’s vital for them to realise early on what voting is, why it’s important and what our public representatives do… or at least what they’re supposed to do… on our behalf when elected into office. They were fascinated by the procedure… the registration, the voting booths, and especially the ballot papers — complete with miniature photographs of the telephone-pole-politicians they’d come to recognise over the weeks running up to the election. If they could they would have taken a few sheets with them for "art".

While on the one hand I recognise the value of teaching children about democracy early on, I can’t help feeling that it’s steeped in more than a dash of irony. Parenting is not, after all, a particularly democratic process.

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Jun 042009

They’re back!

It’s election time again and the country’s lamp posts and telegraph poles have been festooned with an assortment of dodgy-looking mug-shots that do little to improve the view.

Let’s face it, by and large pictures of politicians aren’t pretty. Even the polished practitioners of national politics struggle to look good when their faces are blown up to poster-size and put on display. Local wannabe councillors have no chance.

One such unfortunate suddenly appeared on the telephone pole outside our house recently. When I went to bed at midnight the pole was bare… the following morning at 7am there he was, grinning down at the house like some voyeuristic lecher. Was this supposed to inspire me to vote for this man? Think again! It makes you wonder who’s giving these people their marketing advice.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I can’t for the life of me work out how poster politics is supposed to work. Yes, it raises public awareness, but more often than not it’s the groan-and-cringe kind of awareness that does nobody any favours. And let’s be blunt here, on balance your typical local election candidate isn’t particularly pleasant to look at; it’s no beauty contest, that’s for sure. So what do you have? Just a bunch of ugly mug-shots sullying the Irish landscape, and for what? Do they tell me what these people stand for? Do they tell me what they plan to do for me, my family and my community if I help elect them? No, they just distract and irritate me, and if anything have the opposite effect.

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May 062009

I woke up this morning to find this monstrosity cable-tied to the telegraph pole outside our front gate:

Now, while I’m sure there’s a large portion of the Irish electorate who’d love to see the heads of certain Irish politician’s on a pole, I don’t think this is quite what they had in mind!

I’m sure Cllr. Adrian Healy is a lovely man… but do I really want to look at him every morning while waiting to deposit the munchkins on the school bus? I don’t think so! Incidentally, this poster wasn’t up when I went to bed past midnight last night (I know, because I had to pop out to the car for something), it was surreptitiously positioned in the dead of night by the election poster wraiths.

These ethereal creatures of the darkness are mercifully scarce, but the population explodes rapidly  pre-election, and left unchecked can quickly reach plague proportions. Sneaker than a malevolent super-sleuth, they could certainly teach the CIA or MI6 a thing or two about moving around undetected. They’re practically invisible: we only know they exist at all because of the conspicuous trail of unflattering mugshots they leave in their wake to torture the general population.

Stop polluting our countryside with poster politics and start tackling the issues!

POLITICIANS: you’re not that pretty!

Stop trying to win our votes with banal posters and start tackling the issues — show us what you believe in, what you stand for, and what you’re going to do for our community if you want our votes.

All these posters do is sully the view, generally annoy the electorate and add to Ireland’s growing waste mountain.

See some sense… please!

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Jan 102009
Batt O'Keeffe
Image via Wikipedia

With the excitement of Christmas and New Year behind us the kids are gearing up to going back to school. Their partly looking forward to seeing their friends again, and partly mourning the fact that the holidays are coming to a close.

I can sympathise with them, in part because I still recall the conflicting emotions of going back to school after the Christmas break from my own childhood… but mainly because of the clash of sentiments it causes for me now as a parent.

Back to school means back to routine: getting up early, making school lunches (a personal pet peeve of mine), organising the kids, getting out of the door on time. The return to school imposes structure on the fluidity of life… and on one level that’s a good thing. At the same time structure and routine are always going to be more boring and mundane than disorder and spontaneity, and part of me riles against the conformity of it all.

But back to school they must go… and while spending lots of time with them over the holidays has been wonderful, for the most part I’ll be happy to reclaim the bulk of my working week as we head into what promises to be a very challenging year.

Talking of challenging years, I guess I should be grateful that the children have a school to go back to in 2009, given the cutbacks our esteemed Government is imposing on our education system. Faced with the cost-cutting initiatives spearheaded by Cork TD and Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, financially embattled schools across the country are facing a very tough 2009 on the fiscal front, and will no doubt be looking to parents for fundraising and direct financial contributions. The Government will bail out the banks, it seems, but bailing out the schools falls to mums and dads.

I’m all for parents getting involved and raising money for schools — but for my money (if you’ll pardon the pun) such funds should surely go towards equipment, facilities and resources over and above those demanded by the standard national curriculum. Schools should be adequately funded by Government to cover all of the basics. When parents have to raise money to subsidise things like the school’s heating bill there’s something seriously wrong with the system.

Nobody questions the need to cut Government spending in the wake of the economic downturn, but the approach the Government has taken speaks volumes about the character of those we choose to lead us. When the going got tough, they  chose to target the most vulnerable in society: the very old and the very young, or to put it another way, those least likely to fight back. Of course they underestimated the backlash (they seem to underestimate most things, with the notable exception of their own competence to govern).

The irony here is that health and education are probably two of the last places a Government should look to reduce funding: the first is vital to maintaining a healthy and productive workforce today, a workforce that will help our beleaguered economy push through the recession; the second is the foundation stone on which all future prosperity will be built.

Now, Mr O’Keefe, perhaps you can explain to parents, teachers, and most of all to children, how undermining the stability of that foundation could possibly be considered a good idea.

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Nov 122008
the 44th President of the United States...Bara...

Image by jmtimages via Flickr

On the 4th of November 2008 Barack Obama made history when he was elected as the first black president of the United States of America. It’s an achievement that is remarkable for a lot of reasons… and one that has far reaching implications not just for Americans, but for people around the globe.

One of the most striking things for me about Obama’s election has nothing to do with race. It is the overwhelming impression I get that here, finally, is a politician who has been elected into office on merit. That may not sound like such a revolutionary a concept – but here in modern Ireland it’s practically unheard of. Our incumbent administration endures because a large chunk of the electorate has zero confidence in the competence of the opposition to govern. It really is that simple.

Back across the Atlantic (I refuse to call any ocean a “pond”) you could argue that the same thing applied last week. The alternative to the Obama / Biden ticket was hardly a compelling proposition. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could convincingly dub John McCain a dynamic force for change, and as for Sarah Palin… well, I think enough has already been said on that score.

But despite the fact that Obama would probably have won the election anyway, through lack of viable opposition… I’m still left with the very strong feeling that he won the votes of the undecided masses largely on the merits of his policies, and the overwhelming belief that here was a man who had the best interests of the American people at heart.

That last point is an important one… but one that seems to have been overshadowed by the “Obama Mania” that’s gripped the world over the last week. Buoyed on a wave of euphoria that spread from its epicentre in Chicago to engulf the globe, people seem to have lost sight of the fact that Barack Obama is, in fact, President Elect of the United States of America. He is not President Elect of the World at large.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Mr Obama will make an excellent president. His biggest obstacle will be the incredible burden of anticipation that now weighs heavily upon him. People expect incredible things from this man, and I’m sure he’ll prove a force for long-overdue change in the US. The knock on effects of that change will ripple out to impact many nations around the world – our little island state included. Much of that impact will be positive; some of it won’t. Whatever changes the new president decides to implement, you can be certain of one thing: those changes will be driven by policies forged around the best interests of the American people. The wellbeing, economic or otherwise, of Ireland, Europe and the rest of the world, simply won’t factor into the equation.

I always find it amusing when blockbuster Hollywood disaster movies – the likes of “Independence Day”, “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Armageddon” – portray the rest of the world waiting with baited breath for America to save the day, save the planet and save humanity. The truth of the matter is that, despite the hype surrounding this election, we are not beholden to the US or any other nation.

The US president is not, in fact, the “Leader of the Free World”. The independent nations that constitute “The Free World” are, and always have been, free to make their own decisions, based on what’s best for their own people. What it ultimately boils down to is this: Barack Obama will do a great job of looking after America’s best interests… here in Ireland we’ll have to make do with Brian Cowan!

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Oct 252008

Just spotted these Kronomy timelines after following links from Guy Kawasaki’s “How to Change the World” blog.

As a Welshman living in the South West of Ireland, I have to say I’m paying only cursory attention to the US election antics, but I wanted to share these timelines here because I think they give those of us who are distant from the front-line of the campaign a quick, convenient and entertaining snapshot of both candidates’ backgrounds.

Here’s Obama’s timeline:

And here’s McCains:

This is the first time I’ve encountered Kronomy… and I have to say it’s pretty cool, and looks incredibly slick. I haven’t played around with setting up a timeline of my own yet… if you have let me know what you think in the comments.

Oct 212008

Picked up a link to this photo on Twitter (click on the image for the original image on Twitpic) it’s a shot taken by @clodaghkelly at her local SuperQuinn.

Superquinn do their bit for the over seventies :)  on TwitPic

Sums up the government’s medical card fiasco so more eloquently than anything I could write… no further commentary required!