Feb 022010

Image via Wikipedia

For the last seven years… give or take a month or two… I’ve been writing a weekly column for the cork based Evening Echo, one of Ireland’s leading regional newspapers.

Last week I got a call from John Dolan, the Echo’s features editor, to inform me that after a New Year review of their operations they’d decided to stop a number of long running columns from external contributors… mine included.

Given the plight of regional newspapers as they battle dwindling ad revenue and struggle to compete with ever more attractive and increasingly measurable online marketing options, this was hardly a surprise… but it was a bit sad.

If I’m honest it was something of a bitter-sweet moment for me. The column has been a part of my life for so long now that not having to write it every week will be strange… and of course there’s the fact that it leaves a hole in the monthly finances that I’ll have to plug, but I’d been feeling for some time that the column had run it’s course.

It was getting harder to sustain the momentum. When you’ve been writing on the same subject (a father’s perspective on parenting) for nearly seven years it can be difficult to break new ground… and while a good writer will always manage to keep things fresh for the reader, the process of writing becomes a bit stale. You stop enjoying it as much, it requires more effort and becomes less rewarding.

So, onwards and upwards to bigger and brighter things, I guess.

Now… anyone out there fancy paying me to write a weekly online marketing / social media column, or perhaps something on Ireland’s Wildlife.

Go on… make me an offer :-).

My very last column will run in the WOW! supplement of tomorrow’s Evening Echo (Wed 03/02/2010)… and will be posted here shortly thereafter.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Sep 072009
Carpenter school bus
Image via Wikipedia

Column for 02/09/09

I woke up early. Outside the rain, which has been such a prominent part of this summer, pounded on the window and I decided that another five minutes under the duvet wouldn’t hurt.

When I finally surfaced the weather hadn’t improved; resigned to the fact I plodded down to the kitchen for my compulsory caffeine fix before putting the girls’ school lunches together. The mind-numbing routine of school mornings was upon us once again.

The rain kept falling as the girls had their breakfast and we checked and double checked that they had all the bags, books, pencil cases, lunches, water bottles and other paraphernalia that a new school year demands. So much for my recent prediction that the start of school would bring some long overdue sunshine. If anything it just started to rain harder.

After one last check to make sure they had everything we headed out of the house to find a flood forming outside our front gate. Just as the bus pulled up I grabbed my wellies and ferried the girls across the pooling rainwater so they could climb aboard with dry feet. I waved them a hasty goodbye and ran back indoors to dry out.

Continue reading »

Nov 242008
Three 45 Mbit/s wireless dishes on top of 307 W.

Image via Wikipedia

I sat watching the depressingly slow advance of the little blue progress bar on my laptop screen. Downloading the 150 odd e-mails that had accrued in my mailboxes over the last 24 hours was taking an age… and as for checking the various websites that help keep me connected and up-to-date… forget it.

On Friday evening we unexpectedly lost our fixed wireless broadband connection. One minute it was there, the next it was gone. Like most broadband connections in Ireland it was an overpriced and under-performing beast – but it also put a wonderful world of information and connectivity at our fingertips. Now it was gone, and we were back to the excruciating crawl of a dial-up connection.

You don’t realise how much you’ve come to rely on something until it’s taken away. I can’t count how many times a day I’d look up a website, do a quick Google search to double check a fact, go online to communicate with friends, family and business contacts and to generally stay connected with the world around me. Going back to dial-up was like stepping back into the dark ages… I had to remind myself that this was, in fact, still the reality for a rediculously high number of households in rural Ireland.

No broadband… it took a while for the implications to sink in. My first instinct was to go online, do some research and explore other options, but of course I couldn’t. That’s when it hit me – how could we run our home-based businesses without internet access? The answer: not very well at all!

Everything about the businesses depends on the internet: the websites, e-mail, payments, banking, accounts. Even the business phone line is delivered online. Dial-up simply isn’t an option for us any more.

Unfortunately we live in what can only be described as Europe’s digital backwater. While Ireland has made great strides to improve broadband availability over recent years, we typically pay through the nose for much slower connections than our European peers, and an unacceptable proportion of Irish households still can’t get a broadband connection at all.

It’s curious that we find ourselves in this position as Europe’s digital poor-relations. To listen to our government you’d swear we were ahead of the curve in the technology stakes. They talk about Ireland leading the charge towards a knowledge based global economy, but while they pimp Ireland as the technology hub of Europe on the global stage, small businesses at home are struggling to compete because they don’t have access to the bandwidth they need. It’s a shambles!

And it’s not just small businesses that are suffering in this impoverished digital environment. The internet, and the suite of communication and information technologies it enables, is a vital educational resource for our children. They’re growing up in a technology centric world; to thrive and succeed tomorrow they need to engage with that technology today. Without a decent internet connection at home and at school they simply can’t do that.

The next day I rang our telephone provider, praying that our local exchange had finally been “broadband enabled”. Luckily it had! I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and signed up straight away. It’s going to take three long weeks for us to get connected, and because we’re a long way from the exchange, there is no guarantee we’ll get the connection speeds we need.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see. It’s going to be a long three weeks.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
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!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Nov 052008

03112008 “Trick or treat, trick or treat, give us something nice to eat….”

When you’re answering your own door to an assortment of miniature ghouls and goblins it’s a phrase that brings a smile to your face, or would if you weren’t trying so hard to look suitably terrified. Standing in the freezing cold on somebody else’s doorstep as the words trip from the tongues of your own band of little monsters it becomes positively cringe-worthy.

Standing begging on people’s doorsteps isn’t exactly my idea of a fun night out – but we were running late for the Halloween disco. So, I took the kids around the neighbours’ houses while my wife put the finishing touches to her own ghastly outfit (this is probably the only time of year I can describe what she’s wearing as ghastly and get away with it…).

The neighbours had been expecting us, and had all sorts of sweet goodies at the ready. By the time they’d finished, they’d managed to accrue a fairly impressive stash, despite the fact that we live in the middle of nowhere and have very few neighbours within walking distance.

I checked their bags to see what they’d got… sweets, crisps, bars, lollipops and, lurking near the bottom of each bag, a solitary apple… the only thing in the haul really worth eating.

Halloween is great fun for kids… but it’s a shame it’s become so synonymous with gorging on sweets, chocolate, crisps and fizzy drinks. It’s yet another example of “US spin” warping traditional heritage and culture and turning it into so much less than the sum of its original parts. It’s like synergy, only in reverse: more is less, as opposed to less is more.Poor eating habits can lead to obesity, even a...

Image via Wikipedia

I can’t help wondering why

we’re always so eager to emulate elements of American culture, when in so many ways they’re patently flawed. But we do it time and again in all areas of life. Take childhood obesity, for example; America has a huge problem with overweight and obese children. Now… thanks largely to the fact we’re so quick to hop on the American bandwagon… so have we.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that the annual sweet-and-snack-fest that Halloween has become is the cause of rising levels of obesity in Irish children. That would be daft. The real problem is the lamentable fact that this rubbish has become a staple of Irish children’s diets.

The National Children’s Food Survey found that far from being an “occasional treat”, sweets, snacks and biscuits now account for a fifth of the average Irish child’s energy intake. That’s a staggering figure for all the wrong reasons. Meanwhile, researchers in Dublin are beginning to uncover a correlation between obesity in childhood and the early onset of “adult” diseases like cardiovascular problems and type 2 diabetes in Irish children.

Studies, reports, think-tanks and government recommendations are all very well, but ultimately it’s parents who need to take a lead in tackling Ireland’s growing obesity problem. Looking after our children’s wellbeing is paramount for any parent, and their diet is a fundamental part of that responsibility. It’s our job to introduce children to good food and to instil healthy eating habits from an early age.

By all means let children have fun, go a bit OTT on the sweets and run riot on special occasions… just don’t let it become the bedrock on which they’ll build the eating habits of a lifetime.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Oct 292008

Door Mat Mid-term was here…. goodness knows where the weeks had gone, but gone they most certainly had! Our house was a hive of activity in the run up to the school holiday… or at least it should have been.

We were having friends over to stay for the holiday… a family of five we hadn’t seen for over three years, and who hadn’t seen our place in West Cork since we moved down here nearly six years ago. Naturally we wanted the house and garden in tip-top shape before they came, and it was going to be a case of all-hands-on-deck to get everything done.

And then the winter vomiting bug paid us a visit.

The winter vomiting bug is a nefariously gregarious little microbe. It thrives on company, likes to spread itself around, and brings all of its friends along for the party. Once one person in the family gets it… that’s it, everyone gets it. It started with one of the twins… moved on to the other one and then hit the little one and my wife. Three sleepless nights and around ten wash-loads later it was my turn.

I’ll spare you the unpleasant details, but I will comment on how well behaved the children seem to be when they’re genuinely sick. They were little angels one and all – I’m talking complete personality transplant here. There was no cheek, no back-chat and they didn’t have the energy to run riot as they usually would. So apart from the vomiting (and the ceaseless cleaning and washing that entailed) things were in fact much more serene than usual around here.

Except of course serene wasn’t what we needed… not with visitors arriving. By the time we’d recovered enough to think about it we only had a day to prepare for our guests’ arrival. Instead of “action stations” it was more “panic stations” as we struggled to shrug off illness-induced lethargy and get everything done.

It was a little fraught, but we more or less made it before our friends arrived with their three children. Six kids, one house: pandemonium reigned.

I don’t know how my mother-in-law managed with six kids for all those years. It was complete and utter chaos… but in a fun way. While we were catching up with old friends, the children were busy making new friends… which, when you think about it is kind of neat.

I’m just praying for some good weather this week – because if we can get out and about with the children all will be well with the world. If we can’t, we’re pretty much snookered.

West Cork is terribly limited when it comes to indoor activities. If it’s raining there’s very little on offer, and lets face it, for all its good points it tends to rain quite a lot here. If the sun shines there are plenty of beaches, walks and all sorts of fun outdoor places to go… but everything is weather dependent. Unfortunately the weather is the one thing you really can’t depend on!

I often wonder why on earth nobody invests in providing more indoor activities in West Cork. Surely there’s scope for something like a bowling alley in Clonakilty, an indoor play area in Skibbereen, and other things of that ilk in Bantry or Dunmanway? I’d imagine such places would be packed to the rafters on soggy weekends, of which there is no shortage.

But that, as they say, is another story. For now we’re focussing on catching up with our guests, and making sure that the girls enjoy their school holiday. With their new friends to play with at least that shouldn’t be too much trouble.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

(Photo by rbieber on Flickr)

Oct 082008
Population density map of Ireland showing the ...

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

I’m already sick of hearing about Ireland’s headlong nose-dive into recession. Between that and calamity in the world’s financial markets the doom mongers out there are having a field day.

Life as we know it is about to end apparently. Except of course that it probably isn’t. Nowhere near it, in fact.

I’ll stick my neck out here and make a shocking prediction: life for the vast majority of people in Ireland will carry on pretty much the same as before – through this recession and out the other side. Macro economic cycles come and go – and on one level, yes, they can change things pretty dramatically. But the fundamentals of life tend to stay pretty constant.

The challenges we face as a family with young children in Ireland today are, strangely enough, much the same challenges as we faced when the Celtic Tiger was in full roar. Recession or boom, families still have to juggle children, manage a household, cope with demanding jobs, make the mortgage payments, put three square meals a day on the table, cover childcare costs that are the most exorbitant in Europe, and a lot more besides. There’s always too much to do, and too little time. What’s changed?

Okay, if you’re a person who likes to splurge you may have to reign in your spending a bit, but is that really going to alter your life in any significant way? I was listening to a guest on a radio show this morning who’s recession busting plan was to stop getting her car valeted every Saturday morning. Hardly a life-changing sacrifice, is it?

Despite all the doom and gloom I suspect that for most of us life in economic recession will continue pretty much as usual. There might be a bit of belt-tightening going on… but is that such a bad thing?

As a nation we’ve been spending beyond our means for far too long, availing of the hefty credit being offered to us. Being forced to really think about what we choose to spend our money on, and training ourselves to only spend what we actually have might come as a bit of a shock to the system for some – but it’s a shock that’s long overdue.

There was a guy on a treadmill on the “Late Late Show” last Friday urging people to run for Africa. He put this recession obsession of ours into stark perspective when he pointed out that, compared to the people in east Africa he was raising money for, our concerns were pretty trivial.

Of course there will be people who are hit hard by the economic downturn, and the inevitable cuts and levies imposed by the government as they attempt to re-float a scuppered economy. The recession will bite hard for some, and that’s unfortunate. I don’t want to belittle their suffering, but the truth is that for the the majority it will be business as usual, recession or no.

I guess what it boils down to is that we worry too much – and I’m as guilty of this as anyone. We’re constantly dwelling on the past and fretting about the future, when for many of us the present really isn’t all that bad, if we’d only learn to pay it a bit more attention.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Oct 012008
Cimex lectularius, the common bedbug, from sli...

Image via Wikipedia

“Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite”! It’s a phrase I heard all the time as a nipper. Mum used to routinely say it last thing at night as she tucked us up in bed – a light hearted and innocent reference to bygone days, when this tiny pest ran amok through households across the land.

Now, apparently, bedbugs are back with a vengeance. A report in the Irish Examiner last week revealed the pests are making something of a resurgence in Ireland, and indeed around the world. “Health fears as bedbug infestations rise 66%” screamed the headline in last Friday’s paper. Apparently entomology professor Michael F Potter says we’re currently in the middle of a “global epidemic”, and blames a whole host of criteria from a fertile second hand furniture market to increased travel and global warming for the rapid spread of these unwelcome guests.

The most common locations for outbreaks of the pests are hotels and hostels, where the bugs and their eggs are carried in and out on people’s clothing and luggage… moving from one place to another and setting up house in any likely looking piece of furniture.

Hospitals, too, can be prone to infestation. All admissions to a community hospital in Co. Kerry had to be suspended last week because of an outbreak of bedbugs. Some wards were closed and patients relocated in an attempt to eradicate the pests. Apparently it will take up to a fortnight for the hospital to become fully operational again.

I’m all for more wildlife – biodiversity is a wonderful thing… bring it on I say. But, by and large I tend to prefer that the flora and fauna stays outdoors where it belongs. Flies in the kitchen, mice under the floorboards and a thriving ecosystem of mites in my mattress are all things I can happily live without.

I quite often use the “sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” line when I’m tucking the girls in at night – a throwback to my own childhood. Tonight though I think I’ll give it a miss… just thinking about it is making my skin crawl!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Sep 292008

When you’re waiting for a bus it’s almost always the case that nothing will appear for ages and then three will lurch up all at once. In the chaos of hissing air-brakes and diesel fumes you wonder why this happens. But there’s no real explanation for it… it just happens that way. It might be a bit of a cliché – but it’s also an unwritten law of human existence.

For me it’s the same thing with the cinema. I don’t go for absolutely ages, then I end up going to see three films in rapid succession. . Last week it happened again – but this time there was an unusual and quite exciting twist… this time one of the films was for grown ups!

I don’t know about you, but since the children have been old enough to go to the cinema, the only films we tend to go and see are kids films. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose: they’re adorable, cute and often highly entertaining. It’s just that sometimes you crave something a little bit darker, more edgy… just plain more grown up. The trio of cinematic diversions that I got to watch this time around delivered on all fronts.

First of all lets talk about the kids’ films: Kung-fu Panda and WALL-E. I loved Kung fu Panda, a tale of how the unlikely hero – a bungling, overweight panda with delusions of Kung-fu grandeur – perseveres and eventually triumphs where the most highly trained and talented Kung-fu acolytes failed.

The animation is great; the voice talents of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie and Lucy Liu, among others, are excellent and the action packed Kung fu fight scenes, unconstrained by the usual laws of human anatomy, physics or anything else, work particularly well.

The twins were in stitches, and even the little one, who gets bored easily, was transfixed. It’s a really well put together movie.

WALL-E was a completely different kind of film. The human race has left earth to live on giant space-going cruise liners, leaving behind vast mountains of rubbish and an army of robots to clean up the planet. WALL-E (an acronym of Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class) , by now the only surviving clean-up bot, goes about the daily task of gathering, crushing and stacking our rubbish, picking up useful bits and pieces along the way… including a bit of personality.

Wall-E’s mundane existence is shattered by the arrival of EVE (an acronym of Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a probe from the flagship space-cruise-liner Axiom, whose directive is to scan earth for plant life. What follows is an trans-galactic adventure that whisks WALL-E across space and eventually brings the human race back to Earth.

Quite how Pixar have managed to make a robot “cute and cuddly” I don’t know, but they certainly have with WALL-E. The computer animation is jaw-droppingly effective, and the romance that blossoms between the lonely little clean-up droid and the sleek, sophisticated EVE is adorable. Of course, the environmental backdrop that pervades the film is particularly topical. Lets hope that delivering it in this way can help to get the message across to children and adults alike.

While both of the children’s films were excellent, for me the highlight of this cinematic extravaganza was The Dark Knight. I’m not a huge fan of the earlier bat-man films, but this one is different. The late Heath Ledger is absolutely outstanding as the maniacal Joker, and Christian Bale’s batman is suitably dark, and brooding. It’s fast paced, action packed, dark, edgy and ticks all of the grown-up boxes that the kiddies films miss: all in all it was the perfect conclusion to an excellent trio of films.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
Sep 042008

Published on in the WOW! supplement of the Evening Echo on 03 September 2008

IMG_1552 Yipee! School starts on Monday, and for the first time ever all three of the girls are going! The little one is five… and it will be her first day of “big school”. She’s all excited about it… but, truth be told, not half as excited as her Mum and Dad!

There was a time not so long ago when we were sure sending our “baby” off to school would be a heart-wrenching experience; if ever there was a time for a tear in the eye and a lump in the throat this would be it. But a long, dreary summer with three kids on top of each other in the house, constant bickering and all out sibling warfare, to be brutally honest we’ll be glad to see the school term start.

Once upon a time the first day of school used to evoke something akin to dread in the hearts of children and parents alike… but not any more. If they’re anything like ours, five year olds all over the country are positively rejoicing at the thought of their first day at “big school”. I was reading this week that the National Parents Council used to run courses for parents whose children were going to school for the first time, but they stopped them because children and schools are so much better prepared these days. There simply wasn’t the demand.

There are open days, when children and parents get to meet teachers, see classrooms and familiarise themselves with school before term starts, and improved communication between teachers, parents and children means it’s all become less of an ordeal and more of an adventure for the children.

But what about parents? If anything, the first day at school is more traumatic for them than for children today. Sending your youngest off into the big wide world without you for the first time – even if it is only the local national school – is sure to tug at the heart strings. But trust me, the prospect of a few hours of genuine peace and quiet every day is a real mitigating factor.

The twins can’t decide whether they’re looking forward to the return to school or not… but they’re more than ready for it. They’ve been wired for the last couple of weeks, which is pretty normal for the end of the holidays. Except that this year it’s been much worse… largely, I suspect, because we haven’t really had a summer. School will at least keep them occupied, and re-establish a bit of routine and order.

We’ve been talking to the little one about her transition to full time education all summer; doing our best the lay the groundwork for the coming weeks. She thinks it’s a great idea, but I’m not convinced she realises school is an all day, five days a week, week in, week out thing. Yes it will be difficult, yes there will be tears, and no doubt there will be three tired, cranky girls to contend with on their return.

But there’ll also be a mum and dad who’ve had a few child-free hours: brief respite from the constant questions, incessant demands and the childish exuberance and boundless energy that, while delightful, can also prove oh so exhausting. We’ll be able to focus on work uninterrupted, go for walks together when we feel like it… even, perhaps, go out for lunch every now and again.

When you think about it, school really is a wonderful thing!