Tuesday, October 31, 2006

From the In-box

Berta Hern bishopbertie@gmail.com to me
More options 28-Oct (3 days ago)

Ehh! I was takin to me dauter Cecilia and her mates Paul and Art last night and they were tellin me dat you put dis ting about me up on da net. Dey were surprised cause dey said dat they tought I had ehh crossed my bridge over troubled water last month, Da liffey

But now ya bleedin scoucer are draggin it all up again. Ehh do you know dat I can talk about the church from an informed basins! I have a parish of me own, ehh its called Saint Luck's. In fact ehh I'm the bishop of it! Do ya know wat I mean? I look after the lucre, I mean the money de ehh people give me for my de parish pension election fund.

So my don't ya keep yer own beak out of my business! I don't go ehh riten about yur bleedin lecters in watever school yeh bleedin sleep in!

Get on yer boat and paddle home, were yer belong!


Dear Bertie, or should I say ‘your grace’?

Glad to see the elocution lessons are paying off at last. Now all you need to do is invest in some spelling classes. It’s S-C-O-U-S-E-R, you divvy!

Anyway, I’ll do a deal with you. I won’t write about you anymore if you won’t lie to the turnip heads on the opposition benches anymore. I know a man of your undoubted intellect will appreciate a deal like that.

I know it would probably be wiser of me to make a discrete donation to the parish poor-box, but funds are a bit tight right now around Greenslade mansions what with the cost of the Port Tunnel, the PPARS system and all these tribunals we’re after having. They ain’t likely to improve much now you’ve put yer man Cullen in charge of the new Metro system, either.

Anyway I’m saving up to buy a paddle but in the meantime, best regards to you and the rest of the extended family.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

Death of an 'Englishman'

This week in the criminal court a troubled young man from Tallaght was found guilty of the manslaughter of 'Englishman', James Burke, in a drunken argument after a bout of drinking. The Central Criminal Court heard that the two had a row and that the accused’s girlfriend claimed it was because the deceased was English.

James, described by his uncle Michael Sheehan, as ‘happy go-lucky guy,’ who had moved to Ireland ‘to be near family and to make a change in his life. It turns out it was the wrong turn to take.' Uncle Michael wasn't kidding about that.

The thing that struck me most about the tragic and brutal killing of one young man by another was the constant reference to the victim's Englishness. Even the normally PC Irish Times succumbed, captioning a picture of the accused leaving court 'after being found guilty of killing an Englishman'.

Call me paranoid, if you like, but the connotations of killing an Englishman in this country are quite different than say those of killing an Arab or a Frenchman or an African, or almost any other national group you can think of. Connotations of Kevin Barry or Sean South, of the valiant struggle for the emancipation of the four green fields from beneath the Saxon jackboot. They might be our nearest neighbours in the EU, but in our heart of hearts, they are still the Tans and we love to see them bate at soccer or rugby.

Now I don't know how James Burke labelled himself, but I'm guessing like many children of the Irish in Britain, he probably thought of himself as Irish. I expect he supported the Republic of Ireland in soccer and had more than couple of verses of The Fields of Athenry and Whiskey in the Jar in his repetoire. I also suspect that the row which led to his death began with some chance remark about him being English rather than Irish.

I claim to know these things because, like James and I'd guess many other 2nd generation Irish returnees to the motherland, I've been in situations like the one that led to his death.

My first week living here I went for a drink after work with a Polish colleague. We were discussing some recently released Irish film when we were joined by a former student of his, a Dubliner. After about five minutes I noticed him staring at me silently but aggressively. I didn't like it. He kept it up and I could see the aggression in his eyes was turning into outright hatred. Being from Liverpool I decided to make an intervention. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Where I come from, if you look at someone like that it means you want to fuck them or fight them.

Him: Silence and more staring.

Me: Well I've never fancied the strong silent type, so I guess we better step outside and get this over with now.

Him: What gives an Englishman the right to talk about my country like that?

Me: Search me boss, Ní Sasanach mise, is Éireannach, agus tu féin? Cad as duit?

I could see the switch into Irish confused him. It was supposed to. As he struggled to come up with a reply in his own language, I pressed home the psychological advantage.

Me: Are we going to sort this nonsense outside now or are you going to stop sulking like a páiste mor?

At that point my colleague changed the subject to more drinks, and me and yer man began an earnest, if not altogether amicable, discussion of the consequences of emigration on Irish identity.

I had so many encounters like that in my first couple of years here. They ranged from the deeply patronising ("You're not Irish, you poor thing you wouldn't understand"), the mildly patronising ("Ah now, you're from Liverpool, that's almost as good as being one of our own") to the outright aggressive ("Who the fuck do you think are, you Tan bastard?").

Working mainly in the Irish community, I'd had them in England too. One of my favourite moments of the first type came when I was giving the journalist Tim Pat Coogan a guided tour of Irish Liverpool. As we left the Roman Catholic Cathedral he turned to me, quite unprompted, and said "You can tell you're not Irish, Liam. You lowered your voice when we were in that place." At the time and since, I'd never have thought of talking loudly in church as a marker of ethnic or national identity for the Irish or anyone else.

Not being English myself, I have no problem with Irish people giving the Brits a hard time what with 800 years of oppression and all that. What I do object to is the oft jumped to conclusion that everyone with an English accent is just that: English.

A friend of mine once said that the problem with the children of Irish migrants was that they were too Irish for the English and too English for the Irish. He was right.

If you were of my generation, growing up Irish in Britain presented its own set of identity problems. Apart from having to live with the inevitable stereotypes about being mad, or stupid, or both, we also were part of a suspect community. People were regularly disappeared under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (which at the time only applied to the Irish) and everytime a bomb went off our community centres and pubs were attacked or vandalised. We were told that we should be ashamed to be Irish and some of us were deeply affected by such things.

Unlike our parents, we couldn't just keep our heads down behind the parapet of the church or the Irish centre. We were part of British society for better or for worse and they had earned the right for us to be there. Equal but different and entitled to the same right to respect as any other citizen.

To be told, then, on your return home by smug little islanders that you aren't Irish goes beyond the merely offensive. It can be positively disabling in some cases and fatal in others as it was for poor James Burke. If we wouldn't lie down and take it over there then there's even more reason why we shouldn't put up with it in our homeland. No one, anywhere, at anytime, has the right to define someone's identity for them and even if they did, the possession of a brogue is not a useful criterion, to be sure, to be sure.

Over my years here I've watched many 2nd generation returnees go through this kind of treatment and I've witnessed it come to blows on a number of occasions. These days, I no longer take it on board. If someone has a problem with my identity, as a social psychologist I know it's because they have more of a problem with their own and unless they're paying 60 Euros an hour for a therapy session, it's not my job to take it on. I know this might be a spoilsport attitude to take but it works for me and saves bruises all round.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

De man who put the D (for duplicity) in Drumcondra

He might sound funny, with his quaint Nortside blas, but as Charlie Haughey once described him "He's the most clever, the most cunning, the most devious of them all". De Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern has been up to his own style of duplicity again this week.

Having successfully deflected recent accusations of improper conduct in accepting a financial dig-out from his mates while he was Minister of Finance back in the day, Bertie managed to pull off another victory for his particular brand of Drumcondra double-speak this week. In a response to questions in the Dail regarding the case of Louise O'Keeffe (more of her later) he managed to mislead (a euphemism for baldly lie to) the house on no less than 3 occasions.

Ms O'Keeffe is currently being pursued for court costs of half a million Euro resulting from her failed attempt to sue the state for the systematic sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her teacher in a Cork primary school in the 1970s. The High Court found that the state was not responsible for the actions of her teacher and awarded costs against her. The 300,000 Euro she won in an action taken against her abuser was effectively a 'paper award' since he has no resources to pay her. Unfortunately, for Ms O'Keeffe, the same is not the true of her situation vis-a-vis the state. She could lose her house.

Ever de man of de people, champeen of de plain folk of Oirland, and de country's last socialist (someone inform Joe Higgins of his own demise, please) Bertie assured the Dail that there was no question of Ms O'Keeffe having to sell her home to pay the costs of the case. Well no question right now since there is a stay on costs pending her appeal to the Supreme court. If I was her I'd start planning to move my assets somewhere warmer. The Cayman Isles is an old favourite amongst the fiscal cognoscenti in these parts.

But back to Bertie's weasel words.

A couple of years ago the Government negotiated a deal with the Catholic church to cap the congegations' liabilities for compensation in the thousands of cases of abuse suffered by children placed in institutions under their control. The Church's liability was limited to 128 million Euro.

How this figure was arrived at I'm not quite sure, but I think the formula might have been based on the following principle: What's the least we can get away paying without looking like begrudgers and still keep a few bob in the kitty for the robes and the incense and the odd trip to the Vatican,lads? 128 miliion? Not a bother. God bless you, my son and have an indulgence. You'll need it later for shaking on this deal.

Current costs of compensation are now up to 1.3 billion Euro (the price of a couple of LUAS systems, one and a half Dublin port tunnels, or 10 percent of this year's health spend). They are likely to rise further because only about half of people eligible have applied under the compensation scheme. Meanwhile the clerical cashbox has coughed up as much as it ever will. An amount, ironically, almost precisely a tithe of the present bill.

Now I'm not suggesting that any other administration would have handled it differently. The fact is it probably wouldn't. Despite the current rush to secularisation in Ireland, the gap between Church and the minds of the current generation of politicians isn't that wide. The waters might be a bit choppy these days, but the alliance between priesteens and politicians which has guided the ship of state since the establishment of the Free State still has a hand on the tiller to a large extent.

This week in the Dail, Bertie defended the arrangement on the grounds that the Church couldn't afford anymore. He couldn't possibly know that because no-one ever asked the brothers in black what they were worth. This is what us plain folk call a porky pie, a whopper, a huge big fib, a lie.

Pausing only to extinguish his trousers, he then went to suggest that the precise cost of compensation couldn't be calculated because no-one knew how many people had been in these institutions of abuse. This was another porky. Precise details of the fees paid to the religious orders for the upkeep of their unfortunate victims have been maintained since the 1930s. Unless, of course, he's suggesting that the orders were guilty of padding the numbers in their flocks like a Monaghan sheep farmer come EU subsidy time.

Finally, he stated that the State would have been jointly liable for compensation had cases come to court. This is opposed to being 90 percent liable as it seems to be at present. Not only is this a poor defence of the arrangement, it's patently untrue. A decision in 2003 found that the State was not liable because it merely paid the bills and didn't manage the schools.

I wonder how many people in currently jail for hiring a contract killer wished they'd been up before a beak like the one that thunk that defence up. The irony is that Ms O'Keefe is living in fear of homelessness precisely because this judgment was applied in her case against the State.

Apart from me and Mary Raftery in yesterday's Irish Times, no-one seems to be making much of a fuss about this. It speaks volumes for the standard of politician we get in this country. I don't wonder how they can't sleep at night. It's because they do all their dozing in the Dail.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Life in the fast lane....

I've decided not to write anymore about XXX for a while. I imagine the point has been made and as therapy it wasn't really working for me. As a form of anger management, it was about as effective as a 1 legged man at an arse kicking contest. I've decided to turn to matters less self-centred, but no less symptomatic of modern Ireland, from now on.

This weekend another 7 people lost their lives on Irish roads bringing the total of road deaths so far this year here to over 300. Every time there is a cluster of deaths on the roads, and it occurs with sickening monotony, breasts are beaten, solemn ministers promise stricter legislation and the media people ask what the garda are doing.

When I first came to live in Dublin I realised that being a road user here in any form carried with it certain hazards not typical of other European societies. The most apparent thing was that there seemed to be two kinds of red lights on traffic signals. The first kind said 'Stamp on the accelerator and plough right through. Go on yeh boy yeh' the other kind said 'What? You mean I'm supposed to bring the car to a halt here? That's cat that is. Are you sure I have to stop? Reeeealllly?'.

The other was that most people, pedestrians or drivers, seemed to be so lost in thought on our highways and by-ways that mere questions of personal survival paled into insignificance beside what Ciaran texted to Cliona on the mobile.

They say that for a healthy heart, you should do something that scares you at least once a day. After eight years of cycling around Dublin I expect my heart to keep beating long after the rest of me has been reduced to the dust that is the fate of all things mortal. Survival as a cyclist or a pedestrian here requires, as they say in Liverpool, eyes in the back of your arse, not to mention the clairvoyant powers of a seventh son of a seventh son from a long line of gypsy fortune tellers.

It's not so much that Irish drivers are bad (They are, though) it's just that they are relatively unregulated and as a consequence many drive with the gay abandon and devil may care of a teenaged joyrider auditioning for the next Mad Max movie. A lot of the others seem to have unresolved issues with their vehicle about who is actually driving whom. Is the car in control here or am I? Oh bollix, now look what you made me drive into....

A large part of the problem lies with the failure of the state to tackle the problem of driving tests. Ireland is the only country in the EU where, to my knowledge a learner driver can drive him or herself unaccompanied to a driving test, fail it and then drive away. I know people who only have a full licence because the Government declared an amnesty due to waiting lists of such magnitude that they wouldn't be reduced before internal combustion was replaced by cold fusion as a means of vehicular propulsion.

Something like 20 percent of all full licence holders here have never taken a test and a huge number of provisional licence holders have no intention of ever doing so if they can get away with it. The current waiting list for tests is 137,000 and grows by 1500 a month. It can take 62 weeks to get a test in some parts of the country. In the fast moving, I want it yesterday culture that is modern Ireland, no politician worth the title of gombeen man is going to render him/herself unelectable by restricting the driving habits of that many voters.

Another factor that renders life on the roads here as exciting as a game of russian roulette in a fall of Saigon late bar is the absence of adequate traffic policing on both major or minor roads. I have driven from Dublin to Cork on numerous occasions and failed to clap eyes on a single blue uniform on the lookout for moving violations. Last year I drove to Donegal. The only police presence I saw was on the road into Letterkenny where the Comhaltas National Fleadh was taking place. They appeared to be stopping and searching vehicles on the way into the town lest they might be carrying non-traditional musical instruments, like banjos or, God forbid, didgeridoos.

Unlike many people here I don't actually blame the Garda Siochana for their laxness in this respect. They might be overpaid but they're certainly under-resourced when it comes to traffic enforcement. And when they do enforce matters, the judiciary tends to let the side down. In a recent case a man stopped for travelling at 127 kph in an 80kph zone had his case thrown out because the judge didn't think a charge of dangerous driving was merited. Where is the encouragement to drive responsibly if you know that even if you do get caught the likelihood of conviction is minimal? Moreover, even if you are convicted and banned, short of a prison sentence there's nothing to stop you just driving yourself home from court.

In Ireland our rulers pass legislation at the drop of a hat (or preferably a brown envelope stuffed with Euros) and I have no doubt that before long, newer more draconian laws will be passed targeting the speed freaks and the boy racers at the centre of this week's moral panic. It won't, however, make a blind bit of difference. There's no point in passing laws which, a few weeks after the dust has settled and the knees have stopped jerking, will be not so much unenforceable as merely unenforced.

You see we don't care too much for any old legislation in this country. In terms of compliance the most succesful laws in the last few years have been the smoking ban in pubs and the plastic carrier bag tax which imposed a levy on the supply of carrier bags by shops to customers. What both of these had in common was the onus they placed on bar owners and shopkeepers to enforce them. The old rebel spirit was quashed overnight when the pockets of the petit-bourgeois were threatened, no question. And not for the first time in the history of this country.

There's a bank holiday weekend coming up soon and these are normally an occasion for mass carnage on our roads. The events this past weekend will probably induce some calm and possibly a reduction in the number of deaths. But that will be it. A few weeks will pass and then it will all start again as the national characteristic of comfortable complacency resumes its course back on the road to God knows where....

Sunday, October 22, 2006

More adventures from the whiteboard face

Earlier this week, having failed conspicuously in my attempt to obtain a library card I decided to try for a computer username.

After reciving the now familiar set of instructions from yet another kind fairy on the recepton desk in my department I duly set off to acquire my password etc., and walked the 3/4 mile to hunt out the secret grotto that is Computer Services. I knew of course, on the basis of prior experience with the library and human resources, that it was a fool's errand and I was right. I will have many miles to walk before the holy grail of a college computer account comes my way.

I presented my staff card, which seems to have no function other than to bear my photo and the college logo. The smiling techno-gnome at the desk looked at it and spoke words I could have scripted before trekking across the many windswept concrete piazzas of the campus. "We can only process a request that comes from the school. You need to go back and ask them to send an email on your behalf." I muttered something about Kafka. He, I and his gnome-clone colleague at the next terminal shared a nervous giggle.

I turned back and walked another 3/4 mile back through cloisters of concrete, reflective glass and red-brick cladding to find a different kind fairy (they are all kind fairies on the reception desks here, except the gnomes at computing and the troll maidens of the Library). She was busy conducting an impromptu inventory of the stationary supplies and studuiously ignored me for what seemed like hours. I coughed politely and shuffled my feet but she was intent on the brightly coloured forms and continued to ignore me. Eventually after an outburst of coughing that almost deposited my right lung on the counter, she acknowledged my presence.

Inevitably, she had no idea who I was or what I was talking about.

I produced my Staff card and she looked at it and then at me as if my photo had suddenly developed 2 heads. I realised that a kind of reverse Dorian Grey effect had taken place in the 7 days between the photo being taken and today. The face on the card was dark haired, confident, healthy and smiling. The face that she saw on the punter's side of the glass was an old man's; pinch cheeked, sallow and grey-haired with stress.

She dutifully copied down all my details onto a post-it note and said she would pass it on to someone. Who, she wasn't quite sure but she would ask. Another someone possibly might know. I didn't ask whether the someone who might know might be the same someone who might send the email, or just someone who knew someone who might accomplish that task. Or even what it was. It was, she explained apologetically her first day on the job. I consoled her by saying that she was being as helpful as any of her colleagues who had many more years service than she did.I'm not certain but I think she recogised the ironic tone in my voice.

This is the 3rd or possibly 7th time my details have been recorded on a post-it note by a kind fairy at the School office in the past 3 weeks. I stopped counting some time ago. In a perverse way I'm looking forward to the next time which no doubt will come when I request a new white board marker or possibly a pencil. They are kind fairies indeed, but their magic powers seem somewhat limited in scope.

2 days later I received the following email:-

"Dear Liam

You will need to contact the relevant faculty office to arrange this - if you don't know what office you are attached to, please get in touch with any other admin. person you have been dealing with thus far. The reception area where you made your initial query is for the School only.

I hope this is of assistance to you."

Not really.

I indulged myself in a small outburst of intemperance by way of reply. I presume my response was passed up whatever bureaucratic chain exists in the fairy glen and the following day I received a slightly apologetic email from another kind fairy inviting me to phone her to discuss my needs. Needless to say I have been conned by the 'phone me' stratagem before so I restricted my response to emails. Within two days I received a college computer user name and a password. Progress indeed. I haven't tried it yet, but I imagine I will have to undergo some esoteric initiation
ritual before I can make use of its technological bounties.

Meanwhile I received an email from the library. Apparently I had made the mistake of putting my staff number on the pink form. I should have put another number on it. With the aid of a magnifying glass powerful enough to meet the demands of Sherlock Holmes I located this other number and duly emailed it back. The following day I received an email from my department informing me that there was some post being held for me in the school office. I collected said post on my next visit. There were 2 items: A small white card liberally covered in barcodes and no explanation as to what it is or might be for. The second was my pink library application form which was returned to me because I had put my staff number on it not the other, microscopic one.

I resisted the tempatation to tear up the form and instead tugged out a few strands of my now thinning hair. I'll deal with it on Monday perhaps if by Monday I haven't given up the ghost and taken a job delivering pizzas.....

Friday, October 20, 2006

Life at the whiteboard face.

One present I received for my recent oh-no-not-another-one-already-birthday was the offer of some teaching work at a college here. Like all colleges in this country it is known by its initials, which can be pretty confusing for the outsider, particularly in Dublin where the 't's and the 'd's can often sound the same in the local accent.

Discretion being the better part of valour and to avoid confusion with other institutions using similar permutations of the same three letters I will not name my current employer. We shall know it merely as 'XXX'.

I want to write about it for a number of reasons. First because it typifies the 'fur coat and no knickers' ethos of much of life in modern Ireland and second because my anger management counsellor suggested that writing might be a more adult response than arson.

I am now about to enter my 5th week of teaching and to date I have yet to receive a library card (always useful for compiling reading lists etc) or access to the college computer system (again often useful for teaching purposes). These lacunae in my academic toolbox have not occurred for a lack of effort or interest on my part. Quite the contrary. I have tried on a number of occasions to procure said items but have been faced with responses ranging from the baffled that I should be after asking to 'I don't know who you are, but it's not my job anyway'. These responses have invariably delivered by smiling faced colleens, hereafter referred to as kind fairies or troll-maidens, depending upon my mood at the time of writing.

In the second week of term my contract of employment arrived. On the strength of this I was able to procure a staff card, although the kind fairy in the office of people who possibly work here, maybe (otherwise known as HR) wasn't sure if I could be trusted with a token so powerful (it opens the portals of Car Park No2 apparently). I asked about library and computer facilities. 'That's for your department to arrange' she said and dismissed me with a wave of her wand.

I went back to the department and asked another kind fairy about library facilities. 'You have to arrange that with the library' she said and she too dismissed me with a wave of her wand.

I have worked in lots of different places of learning over the years and a good guide to how suinstitutionsons see themselves is in the location of their libraries. In colleges which regard themselves as vested in education and the transmission of knowledge the library is nearly always at the heart of things. Right in the middle and as near to everything as it's possible for one building to be without breaching the laws of physics. In places which see themselves as in the business of producing duly certificated young people for the white collar labour market, libraries tend to be pushed out of the limelight and tucked as far down one end of the campus as it is possible to go. No prizes for guessing which kind of establishment XXX is.

As the crow flies, from my department to the library is about 300 metres. Unfortunately, the XXX campus was not designed by crows but by some coked-up bastard off-spring of Richard Rodgers and the eejit who designed the new Port Tunnel 4 inches too low for most of the lorries that will use it. What should be a short stroll becomes a major trek past grey steel and reflective glass edifices the size of aircraft carriers which cannot be cut through and have to be walked around.

These are the kind of modernist 'statements' which would induce apoplexy in Charlie Windsor in two shakes of an architect's tail. What the statement might be I'm not sure, possibly something like "Be humbled before us, feeble human' or words to that effect.

Some hours later I arrived at the library and was greeted by another kind fairy. No my staff card wasn't any use. I had to fill in a pink form and carry it back to my department where someone would have to sign it. I could then return it to the library. Its forbidding portals would open before me and I would be granted the awesome power to borrow books!

I retraced my now weary steps back through the architectural graveyard to my department. I handed over the pink form to yet another kind fairy who looked at it, looked at me and then disappeared into the back office. She returned with another, less than kind, fairy, who interrogated me regarding my purpose and my lineage as if asking for library facilities was an attempt to inveigle her into a criminal conspiracy. Eventually after all my details had been confirmed, I was allowed to return to the library, pink form in hot pink hand.

The first kind fairy at the gate of the library had been replaced by another, who definitely had more than a hint of the troll-maiden about her. She looked at the form and said 'The elf who takes care of this has left for the day. I'll pass it on to her and you should hear in a year or two.' (or at least that's what I think she said)

I left sore of foot and heavy of heart and abandoned my planned quest to the far reaches of the campus where lies the enchanted kingdom of Computer Services.