The Minister’s Real Speech (2021 remix)

Minister Norma Dolores Foley-Umbridge

Hem, Hem. Hello, is this turned on?

Good afternoon my dear teachers, my colleagues. I know that you were unable to invite me today, and that’s such a pity, because I have such good news to share with you.

I know this is a one way video, and also that my twitter machine only seems to work one-way, but I can just imagine all of your smiling faces looking up at me as we have such fun at conference.

Well, it is lovely to be back at conference, and there are a few messages that I’m sure you’ll be delighted to hear.

We at the Ministry care about education. We encourage innovation and change.
Sometimes, we like change for change’s sake, so long as it doesn’t cost us too
much. Sometimes, we need to prune. Especially if you’re up to something too
expensive for our tastes.

First, Schools Are Safe™.
I know that this is true because Micheál has told me. That nasty virus does not
affect our Wonderful Children so you know that you can be safe when you’re in
school.

We have done everything in our power, that we’re bothered to do. We’ve told
you to open the windows and have given you permission to turn on the heating
for more than five minutes a day. We’ve told you just what kind of mask we’d
recommend that you buy from your own money.

Oh, I have heard rumours that some of you think that smaller class sizes
would help. This is not true, and if I hear any of you repeating it, then you
will have detention – and will be expecting you to write out “I Must Not
Tell Lies” until you get the message.

So really, listen to all I’ve said and then just do what I say, not what I
do in that lovely Convention Centre. Soo much space.

Second, You Will Get Your Vaccine
Again, this will happen when we’re good and ready, or have our stuff together,
or when we can be bothered, whichever is later.

Now, I can almost hear the trouble-makers say that the government has
changed the vaccination schedule. Piffle, I say. The vaccination schedule is as
it always has been. There have been no changes, and if you thought it was going
to be May, or June, then you surely realise that we actually meant August or
September (or possibly later)

I honestly don’t know what the fuss is because, as we all know, Schools Are Safe™

Now, I have Exciting News!
Our latest ICT grants have come out, and you’ll be delighted to know that we
have allocated lots of money to ICT. Now, it may look like we have cut it by
about half, but look at my smile, and listen as I tell you how much you did
get! It’s wonderful!

Extra good news because we have been able to secure magical machines that
won’t need replacing in a few years, so in the year 2035, you’ll be able to
(expected to, even) keep working with the machines we’ll let you buy in
September.

Now, you may not be able to get them all in one go, but you could always
bake up an industrial quantity of rice crispy buns and sell them to each other!

Apparently, there have been some ruptions about support for children who
have , hem, hem extra needs. Apparently Josepha got in trouble for using the
word ‘normal’ so I’d better tread carefully.

Anyhoo.

As I said, I am firmly in the corner of these children.

I will stand by their needs and be fully aware of their needs. However, that
doesn’t mean that I’m actually going to DO anything. Changing the way that
things are done is not why I got in to politics.
But, I cannot stress enough that I’m for those children. I’ll use lots of words
to say so, (but just don’t go expecting anything like extra funding, more SNAs,
allocations for next year and the like)

So that’s it from me for now! Remember, the Ministry supports you, and if you have an issue please see me for detention once we’re back in school.  I’ll ask you to keep your distance from me.  Oh, and do bring a quill.

The Poorer Relation

Education in Ireland has had a few rough years.

There are a number of issues to contend with:

  • Large Class Sizes
  • Historical underspend in infrastructure
  • General poor funding of the education sector
  • Political ill-will towards teachers and our unions
  • Poor relationship between the Department of Education and stakeholders in general

There are, of course, many more issues that would raise the blood pressure of the very many of us who care about how education happens in this country.

A key issue – a measurable issue, is the financial value that the State puts on the Education Sector. On this measure alone, we can see that the Government, the Minister, and thus, the Department, severely undervalue education.

The World Bank shows that, of the OECD countries, Ireland spent 3.5% on education in 2017. The same year Norway spent 7.9%, while Sweden spent 7.6%. The OECD average that year being 5%. (Source here)

The evidence of this lack of funding is everywhere. We have numerous schools where classes are in permanent prefabs; we have chronic underfunding of initiatives; we have higher class sizes than most other European Countries. The chart below from the C.S.O shows that, in 2016, there were 22 European countries with smaller class sizes than us at Primary level. At Upper Secondary level that number rises to 30.

Yes.

30 countries in Europe have smaller classes at second level than us. (CSO Data page here)

This is all happening in the context of rising numbers of students each year. Our schools are bursting at the seams, and any chance of expanding buildings or opening new schools are tied up in labyrinthine paperwork and applications.

And yet despite all of this chronic underfunding, our students still manage to do well on standardised tests. (Not a fair metric, but they do have the advantage of being measurable)

To be clear, this success at tests has happened despite the chronic underfunding. In Ireland teachers have regularly filled the gaps and put in that extra effort to help their students. What the chart above does not reflect is the level of pastoral care provided in our schools. The time spent in relationship building, the voluntary out-of-school activities that take place, the school shows, the matches, the tours.

A friend of mine now teaches in Ireland after a number of years teaching in the UK. One of his earlier impressions was just how little funding there is in schools. We are all familiar with the Windows 7 machines being held together with good will and wishful thinking. This is not sustainable.

As the population grows we need to look at how to fund education properly. There are a few aspects that need to be fixed:

  • The abhorrent two-tier pay system whereby anyone employed after 2011 is automatically on an inferior pay-scale
  • The cuts to capitation that have never returned to pre-recession levels
  • Proper infrastructure funding – buildings, broadband, computers

With regard to the last point, yesterday’s announcement by the minister for a further investment of €200 million for ICT between now and 2027 is ambiguous. Is that ‘further investment’ simply picking up where the last round of funding ended. In which case the €200 million will work out as an annual reduction on ICT spend.

Unfortunately, despite my wishful thinking, I believe that the current government has no intention of fixing any of these issues as they do not want to put any more money into our schools.

So yes. We have had a rough few years, but they are likely to continue for a while yet.

The Debacle of Calculated Grades

Today the big news is that of the ASTI withdrawing from talks about the Leaving Certificate 2021.

“Why would a Teaching Union withdraw from such important talks?” I hear you ask.

The line from the ASTI is that the primary option being discussed was that of Calculated Grades. (or “Predicted Grades” as we called them until we were told not to)

The simple fact is that Calculated grades are unfeasible for the class of 2021. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • This cohort of students will have missed approximately 25% of their school time since last year
  • They have not sat full-scale formal exams since Christmas 2019. It’s now 2021. Yes, you could say they had this year’s Christmas exams, but they were managed in an unusual way, and the implementation varied greatly from school to school. They will have had no 5th year Summer exam (Yes, some did, and this is important. Not everybody had the same access to online exams due to their own disadvantage)
  • There is no parity of access to education during the pandemic. Students who are at home largely rely on their families resources to do well. Think of trying to work on a phone versus a laptop; having fibre broadband or patchy mobile coverage; Rural Vs Urban access to the internet. Having your own room where you can work versus a busy family in a small house

The class of 2020 had a profile behind them. Whilst their education was severely disrupted with the lockdown in March, they had a reservoir of grades and progress from which to predict/calculate a grade for each student.

The class of 2021 does not have this same resource. For that reason Calculated/Predicted grades would be an unfair burden to place upon them.

There is a secondary issue I have with calculated grades.

Last year the Department issued circular 0037/2020 which laid out the process of calculated grades.

As the Summer progressed, a number of the procedures in this circular were ignored or bypassed.

For example:

  • on page 33 of the procedures teachers are instructed NOT TO RETAIN parts A or B. This was later changed
  • We were told that the ranking order would not be released to the public. This was changed as reported here.

The whole process was fraught.

  • Students were concerned that their work would not be effectively recognised
  • There were numerous concerns regarding grade inflation
  • There were concerns as to what this meant for college applications and college places
  • Grades were adjusted by the department, famously in this case of these twins, where one lad had his grade reduced
  • There was no real appeals process. A student could only appeal the process, not the result.
  • By the time the grades were released the department had still not finalised plans for written exams – the students who had lost out would lose a year of college.

And this is the system that was being proposed today is not what was implied in this statement from the department.

bilateral discussions with Department officials to progress work on two distinct processes for Leaving Certificate 2021: planning for examinations and scoping out a corresponding measure, different to examinations that can also be offered to students.

https://www.education.ie/en/Press-Events/Press-Releases/2021-press-releases/PR21-02-05.html

The clear emphasis was on planning for examinations, with the ‘corresponding measure’ in second place.

Enough time has been lost, and the minister has failed our Leaving Certs. It’s time she and her department started taking this seriously and put real plans in place for our Leaving Certs.

Squaring the Circle

After months of speculation we had an email from the Minister on Friday revealing the plans for the Leaving Certificate of 2021.

Well. No. We didn’t. What we had was an email that was somewhat high on ambition but was ‘yet to meet expectations’. Sigh.

Unfortunately, I’m in danger of giving out too much. I would like to try to be constructive, so…

What could the Leaving Certificate Certificate, 2021 look like?

First up, what are the limiting factors?

Top of the list has to be the most up-to-date health advice. Based on the advice for running schools, one scenario is that exams will be limited to two hours.

Curriculum gaps. This year’s cohort of students have lost a huge amount of time of their class contact. In 2020 they were out of school from mid-March until the Summer. They have now been out for 4 weeks. The most deliriously optimistic guess would have us back on 22nd February. It could, however be St. Patrick’s day or even after Easter before this year’s Leaving Certs will be back in a classroom.

These students will have missed out on 16 – 19 weeks of in-house tuition. With the school year being 33 weeks, that’s approximately 25% of tuition gone. (That’s not even taking into account the fact that the last few weeks are for revision.)

Yes, you say, we have been working hard with distance learning. And yes, I agree. However, not all students are able to engage with online learning. There may be factors such as access, mental health, etc, that prevent the student from engaging with digital platforms. In the interests of fairness, this needs to be recognised. Students cannot be put at a disadvantage if they cannot access the curriculum.

Curriculum Balance. There is no real template telling teachers how to teach their subjects, and in what order the syllabus must be covered. Some practical subjects may have projects finished by now, planning to cover theory using online learning if this situation were to materialise. Other may have focused on theory earlier, following the traditional way of working on the practical afterwards.

In short, it’s impossible to shorten the curriculum at this point, as this will disadvantage one cohort of students.

And a possible solution?

Choice. Choice will have to be a foundation characteristic of how to address the various issues.

  • As a general structure, take most papers and make them of a two hour duration
  • The paper will need to cover the range of the full syllabus, as students may have covered any area of it in their school time.
  • But, with the general structure known, students can be directed by their teachers to focus on the areas that they have covered in class. Maybe shorten some of the questions so that the maximum spent on some of these areas will be 30 minutes (2 hour paper, remember?)
  • In the cases there there is an external component there will need to be a balancing act
  • Has the school completed this component?
    • If yes, how do you account for those marks
    • If not, how do you avoid disadvantaging those students
  • One potential answer here would be to add a page to the exam paper. If the student fills out that he/she is being graded with the external component, then their time in the exam is cut slightly shorter, and they answer one question less.

This would be one really impressive balancing act to pull off, but it would be a good way to allow fairness for students.

Now, I’d never consider myself an expert in curriculum planning, but we need a starting point for any solution. Take ideas, trash them out, and trash them if needs be.

Our Leaving Cert students are hurting. Many of them are extremely anxious with the continual wave of leaks and kites that bounce different theories and scenarios around.

I sincerely hope that the Minister, the Department and the SEC can get around a table with our representatives, the Unions, and figure out a solution that will be fair to our Leaving Certs.

Dear Norma II – This Time It’s Personnel

Dear Norma,

I know that you’re busy, what with being a minister and all, so I’ll forgive you for not writing back.

But I needed to write back to you, Norma, because truthfully, I’m worried, concerned, angry.

You see, Norma, you are wedded to the idea that schools are safe. And that is diametrically opposed to what the vast majority of teachers believe.

In support of your argument you, and your agents, have referred to ideas such as;

  • Children don’t spread virus
  • Schools are safe™
  • Teachers are mostly young and therefore not as vulnerable to the virus

This last point in support of keeping teachers further down the priority list for vaccination.

Children Don’t Spread Virus

Anybody who has ever spent time in school would laugh at the idea of children not spreading a virus. I would love to tell children this. The idea that just wistfully getting a virus to stop spreading amongst children is wonderful. Think of the treatment regimes for Norovirus, the Common Cold, HEAD LICE!

In case you’re not aware, Covid 19 is spread by airborne transmission. But, Don’t take my word from it. The W.H.O outlines the transmission mechanisms here

Children do get ill with Corona. And thankfully many of them do not present with serious complications, but enough do for them to be tested, and this data from Gov.ie clearly indicates that Covid is rampant across younger age groups – 63% are under 45. No magic wishful thinking will prevent children from getting it.

Source – Gov.ie

Schools Are Safe! ™

One of the greatest pieces of propaganda from your department has been the line that “Schools Are Safe™”

And yes, this may have been the case in September to December when the maximum number of cases was 1,284 on 18th October.

However, we are in a radically different position now. Community transmission is rife, and our 7 day average is 3,601. Did I mention that we have stopped testing close contacts because our system is already overwhelmed?

Did I mention that we have no real capacity left in our hospitals, that there are currently over 2,000 people in hospital with Covid, and 200 in ICU?

Did I mention that 6,400 health care workers are currently out due to Covid?

Did I mention that YOU, Minister, have cut the PPE budget for schools, and that those 6,400 health care workers were wearing correct PPE, and were presumably trained in its correct usage?

So no. Forgive me if I disagree with your assertion that schools are safe. In fact it is you who should ask for forgiveness for such a brazen lie.

Teachers Are Mostly Young and Not as much At Risk

Finally, Norma. Teachers are mostly young?

When did you last step into a staff room?

As with any profession, teaching has a range of age groups. To blithely state that they are mostly young is a nonsense.

To then go on to assert that those teachers are not as much at risk? That is sheer recklessness. Going on this chart, Ireland has had 174,843 Covid cases diagnosed so far. Of those, tragically, 2,616 have died. That’s a mortality rate of 1.5%

So, for every 1,000 cases we can expect 15 people to die. Think again of our 7 day average of 3,601. That’s about 54 deaths a day.

So, Norma. You are happy to put teachers into over-crowded, poorly-ventilated classrooms for 6 hours a day, with a 40% cut in PPE, and then claim that ‘Schools Are Safe’?

No. That is not acceptable. As the Minister you have a responsibility around the Health & Welfare of teachers and students. You are failing in that responsibility. You are happy to put us in harm’s way, with a cut in PPE grants.

At what point do you accept that this course of action is wrong? What will it take for you to recognise that this isn’t safe?

It’s time for a serious re-think on this policy.

Dear Norma

I don’t believe that we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. But rather than wasting time with the (inevitably) one way introductions, I’d like to bring a few matters to your attention.

People are scared

In the past few days the pandemic has escalated on a scale beyond anyone’s worst fears.

  • January 1st – 1,574
  • January 2nd – 3,394
  • January 3rd – 4,962
  • January 4th – 6,110
  • January 5th – 5,325
  • January 6th – 7,836
  • January so far? 29,201

The mortality rate for Covid 19 is approximately 1.9%. That’s based on 121,154 cases in Ireland with 2,299 people dead. (Info from Worldometers.com)

So based on that, of the 29,201 who have contracted Covid in the past 6 days, approximately 550 people will die.

It is in the face of this explosion of numbers that you keep insisting that schools are safe. That may have been the case when the national situation was of the order of 100 cases a day. We are now in a radically different situation. You have not recognised or accepted that fact. It is, however, a reality that is very stark for thousands of teachers and students across our country.

I know that you’ve worked as a teacher, but you may have forgotten the realities of classroom life.

  • Many of our schools are old and poorly insulated/ventilated/heated
  • Our class sizes are among the largest in Europe (ours is 25, average in Europe is 20 – Irish Examiner)

Wasted Opportunities

We are just a few days away from the 10 month point when Leo stood at a podium in the U.S, and announced the first lockdown.

One would have hoped that in the intervening period you, and your colleagues, would have taken the opportunities to plan for the worst.

Instead you decided to hope for the best. Government policy over the past few months seems to have involved a large degree of optimism that some form of Irish Exceptionalism would keep the virus at bay.

In the intervening period you and your colleagues

  • Allowed travel to continue into Ireland
  • Removed Summer lockdown restrictions faster than had been recommended by NEPHET
  • Ignored NEPHET advice at the start of December
  • Failed to implement a comprehensive Contact Tracing System so that in the Autumn those diagnosed positive had to inform their own close contacts
  • Failed to plan for an inevitable increase in cases. Specifically – there was no plan ‘B’ when it came to reopening schools, let alone a plan ‘C’.
  • Cut the PPE grant for schools by 40%.

Where does all this lead us?

We are now in a crisis that is the result of a Virus but is compounded by political ineptitude.

You, minister, and your colleagues have failed us. You have failed teachers, you have failed students, you have failed families.

When it became apparent that the national situation was rapidly deteriorating, you were absent.

The ‘Plan’

Even with the situation deteriorating rapidly, and with the CMO warning of the worst to come, it took days for the Cabinet to meet and decide what to do.

You ask students to return to school for 3 days a week but have not given any reassurance that this is approved by NEPHET. There has been no plan for child-minding for teachers of young children, there has been no plan or strategy for managing distance learning. There has been precious little investment in ICT.

You and your government are failing us.

Eulogy for Finbar

Two years ago, on February 6th, we found my younger brother had died – of a heart attack as we found out later. Pretty shocking for a 46 year old, fit man.
What follows is the eulogy I delivered for Finbar. I tried to give a flavour of just what a character he was, and how much he was loved by so many people around him.

I’ve held this for a while, but I wanted to share it on Finbar’s second anniversary.

May he rest in peace.

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Before I begin, I have some words here from Jenny in Australia.

We just can’t believe you are really gone Fin. I will never forget all the magical times we shared. So much adventure and so many gorgeous memories. So many times you brought laughter to us all, and fun and music. I still think of you whenever I hear Garth Brooks or Neil Young or Thin Lizzy, your incredible singing voice and your infectious laugh. So blessed to have been able to call you a friend. So incredibly sad we won’t be able to meet again from across the seas. What a void you have left in all our hearts. I will miss you until the day I die also. Yours truly. Jenny.

I would like to begin with a few ‘thank yous’, and some apologies in advance.  I’m going to name a few people here, where I can remember the names. To those whom I have left out, and there were so many of you who helped – I’m sorry that I have left you out.

From the moment we found Finbar had died, people have been amazing.

The guards who arrived to the house were considerate, patient, understanding and kind.  They helped us start a difficult journey that has brought us to today, and a journey that has been filled with the thoughts, prayers, and kind moments of so many people.

I’d like to thank Dr. Motherway who came out as soon as he could after we contacted him on Tuesday morning.  

Within hours, a group of Finbar’s friends had travelled to the Council yard in Killeagh and liberated a trailer load of tarmac, found a low-loader, a lot of shovels, and plenty of willing hands to fill the pot-holes in our road, clean the place up, and make the difficult journey to meet Finbar, and all the rest of us, that little bit easier. 

I can’t begin to name you, gentlemen, but your kindness and generosity has been special.

Deckie Lee, Pat Walsh, Liam Fitzgerald.  Finbar was so close to you and would be delighted that you were so much a part of the past few days.

Thank you to the council, they provided a road sweeper and helped make the yards good enough for parking all the cars that passed through.

I don’t think the home farm ever had staffing levels like it did in the past 4 days.  Thank you so much lads – what you did eased the burden on Mark and Dad.

Inside the house of Mark and Maura generosity abounded.  Christine brought a burco boiler and an industrial volume of cups.  One of Finbar’s friends arrived with trays of sandwiches. People brought candles, cakes and plenty of crazy stories of the kind of things that Finbar got up to.  Elaine has been a star in the kitchen

Trish has been wonderful, taking care of all of our children for hours at a time.  Others were willing to provide beds for strangers who had travelled. People have been willing to be taxi drivers, people were willing to just stand patiently and be a shoulder to cry on.

What you all have done is wonderful, and a tribute to just how many lives Finbar touched.

I’d like to thank Colin Bullman and the staff from Egan’s funeral home.  They have been so patient, sensitive and calm – a huge help to us trying to figure out what to do next.

I’d like to thank Canon Browne who came out to us on Tuesday.  Canon, your sensitivity and care was very much appreciated. I’d like to thank Barry Fitzgerald for organising the church, chairs and mats, to Ann Keniry for the flowers.  I’d like to thank our musicians today. St. Augustine said ‘Who sings once prays twice’. Finbar loved music, and would have been very grateful for what you have done to bring beauty and music to our day.

I’d like to thank Fr. Tim who has been a friend for years, and who has helped us over the past few days.  I would like to thank the other priests who are with us today. Fr. Pat, Canon Browne, Fr. Damian, and Fr. Eamonn who has been a friend of our family for a number of years. 

I would like to thank the hundreds of people who came to Mark & Maura’s house over the past 3 days.  I’d like to thank all of those of you who travelled to be with us and support us today. A special thank you to those of you who travelled long distances.

In our thoughts today are those who can’t be with us.  Patrick O’Donoghue, Helen, Breda, Anthony, Nora and Josie.  We know that we are in their thoughts, just as they are in ours.

We think of those who are in far countries who would have wanted to be with us today.

And so.

Finbar, the King of Youth, Peter Pan, aged, 46, 36, or 26.  Finbar was full of life and full of light. The man with that smirk, always ready to play.

He was a light that shone brightly, and brought joy, laughs and fun to a lot of people’s lives.

How do you sum up a life like this?

In the early 1990’s Finbar joined the Killeagh Exodus to Australia with the working visa scheme. What may have been the high point of this was his short career on a ranch as the only fella working alongside a load of women.  Finbar worked from horseback, minding the cattle, and developed a love of going up in the helicopter any time he could.  

While in Australia he bought a touring bike, with the intention of a big tour and shipping the bike back to Ireland.  An accident with a random Kangaroo put an end to the trip, the bike and the kangaroo itself. 

Finbar ended up in hospital.

A sign of the friendships he built is that Marty & Liz, new lifelong friends from Australia, flew to where he was in hospital and brought him to their home for recuperation.

This accident was only one of a series of broken bones.  I think the count we came up with was 18 breaks in total.

Morris O’Connor says he and Finbar used to compare x-ray sheets for a while.  

He didn’t allow the accident  to cut his trip short, Monica flew out to visit – he and she had a very close bond.  

As part of the trip they flew to New Zealand and back.  As part of the trip, things were going so well that they decided to announce to the cabin crew that they had just got engaged.  Of course the newly engaged couple were treated to free champagne for the rest of the 4 hours of so of the flight.  

The results were predictable.

Back in Ireland Finbar never lost the wandering bug.  Mark tells a story of one time Finbar knew someone who was relocating from Spain and had 2 bikes that needed to travel with him. Finbar flew there so they could make a road trip of it together.

Finbar loved travel, and regularly collected little things from the different places he had been.  His house has loads of little souvenirs and relics of the places he has been.  

I mentioned how Finbar built friendships.  One of the things that struck me was that a common thing people have said over the past few days is that ‘Finbar always had time for people’.  He always took time out to phone ( and he liked to make phone calls…), to visit, or to stop on the road.  

As with Dad, Finbar went to funerals.  Not because he had to, but because he cared.  He cared deeply about people, and would go and spend time with them.  No words were needed. Just being there was a help.

Finbar was a gent who never bad mouthed people, and didn’t bear grudges.  He loved animals, and the relationship with Rufus the Goat is going to become the stuff of legend.

If you haven’t met Rufus, he’s about this high, and will eat pretty much anything.  He likes to buck, and has scared more than a few walkers in his time. Apologies to Ann & Noreen Power.

Rufus would follow Fin around the farm, and Louise has a photo of Rufus putting his head on Finbar’s shoulder, looking at him.  Both with a similar beard.

Finbar would try anything.  I have a memory as a teenager of Finbar & Mark replacing the rear axle on an old car we had.  No instructruction manual, just the two of them figuring it out as they went. Mark & Finbar were closer in age than the rest of us, and as kids they were inseparable, except for the times when they wanted to kill each other.

I was saying he’d try anything.

There’s a photo somewhere of Finbar rodeo riding in Australia. He tried paragliding, bike racing, kayaking, shooting, deer cooking, swimming, cycling, guitar, anything.  With Micháel Fitzgerald he got to act in a little film. He even sang if you were persuasive enough and had the right liquid bribery handy. He lived life to the full.

But, what ever story you tell about Finbar, it always comes back to the relationships that he built.  He wasn’t always a positive influence – Breda Budds had to have words with him after keeping Therese and Irene out until 6AM one morning.  He spent many late nights in the company of the Kenirys, he loved Louise and was a great fan of her voice. 

Finbar didn’t worry about going to mass every week.  However he did have a very deep spirituality. He would say the Rosary, and he never failed to bless himself passing a graveyard, it was just one of the ways he showed a connection to something deeper that affects all of our lives.

Finbar adored Thomas, Lena, Andrea, Daniella and Molly.  And, they loved him. He was the uncle who was larger than life for them. He was generous and playful to a fault.  Try and get a small child down from the high from playing with Finbar and you’ll know what I mean.  

I started by saying that Finbar was full of light.  2 ½ years ago that light shone ever brighter. Louise, Finbar loved you, he adored you.  You brought so much joy to him that he shone more brightly still and it made all of us so happy that you were part of his life. 

The journeys you made together were good for both of you, and we all loved seeing you coming down to visit.  I know from speaking to your dad, Seamus, that your family loved Finbar as well, and saw just how much he loved you.

He was, though, more practical than romantic.  

Girls love bags.  So when it came to Louise’s birthday, Finbar got her a tool bag.  She now has a wide range of tools, but nowhere to keep any makeup.  But, Louise, being the special person she is, saw the joke and loved him still.

Finbar had one of his dreams come through last August.  He & Louise hosted a mini-festival down the glen behind our house with the Eirball charity campervan run.  It was an amazing success. Yes, we all got soaked a dozen times over with the wind & rain and Yes, many people had to be towed out of the fields. 

But, a night of music, snacks and drinks with friends around a series of barrel fires and sheltering under gazebos made the night incredible & memorable.  It was brilliant.  

Louise, you have been a light in our lives for 2 ½ years, and know that you will always have a place in our hearts and in our homes.

So.

Finbar lived a full life.  It was a life packed with fun, with chat, with friends.  

He was a light in our lives, and our lives are that bit poorer without him.

But our faith teaches us that that isn’t the end of Finbar’s story. 

We believe that Finbar has gone to God, to be with mam.  And, as Maura said, she may have a few words for Finbar when he gets there.

And so.

As we gather today, and in the days ahead we will share stories of Finbar.  We’ll remember him sometimes with tears, and sometimes with laughter. And as sure as night turns into day, our lives will become brighter again with the memory of the special gift that was my brother Finbar.

May You Rest In Peace

And may your soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace

Amen.

After we leave the church today we will head to Killeagh. We are going to park the cars outside Killeagh Church.

We will follow Finbar as his friends carry his coffin to the new Graveyard on the Cork Road and Finbar will be laid to rest beside Mam.  

Afterwards, I would like to invite you all to the Walter Raleigh Hotel in Youghal where we have food provided.  Please come, and bring stories of Finbar. We would love to spend time with you.

We will have cards and pens on each table, and would love if you could write down your little stories of Finbar for us to share and keep.

That will be the end of the official stuff.  But I’m guessing the Mt. Uniake could get a bit busy this Friday evening.

I’d like to finish with a prayer that I have always liked.

O Lord support us all the day long,
until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes
and the busy world is hushed
the fever of life is over, and our work is done.
Then Lord, in your mercy give us a safe home
a holy rest
and peace everlasting
Amen.

The US Marines & Me

Waay back in the 20th Century I worked for a while with the banquets in Bunratty and Knappogue castles. It was a great job. I was one of the butlers there, and got to spend every night eating good food, singing, and spending time as part of a brilliant team.

Not me, but this is basically the outfit I wore. You don’t get the tights in this image though…
Image from the Shannon Heritage Website: www.shannonheritage.com/‎

In September of 1998 President Bill Clinton was in Ireland and attended an event in Limerick. The day he flew back to America his transport detail were allowed a bit of down time.

And enter the Marines! You’ve heard of Marine 1. The Helicopter that flies the president on shorter trips. Logical really, but to bring that helicopter means you need to bring a whole support team of mechanics & crew. Along with a security detail. Every one of these men were either marines or ex-marines.

After a few days of almost zero sleep and being on duty, they were given a night out in the castle. And did they make the most of it.

As a butler I got to do my share of serving the food, getting to work the tables with the marines. They were a VERY fun loving lot – though a few had a bit too much of a fascination with my outfit (requiring the put down of “Just how long have you been away from land, sailor?”)

One of the features of the banquet was that each night one person had to be put in the dungeon for some various infraction of decorum. (no shortage of candidates, then). That night the man we picked was the pilot of Marine 1, call-sign “growler”.

So, into the dungeon with Growler, and he had to sing to earn his freedom. So, dutifully he stood, and said “I’d like my bretheren to sing with me…” and he launched into the Marine anthem. Instantly all the marines in the hall jumped to attention and roared the anthem at full volume. Every jaw in the room dropped.

They weren’t done yet.

Part of my duty was to bid farewell to all the guests, being at the door as they filed out.

The Marines had all perfected what we referred to as the Bill Clinton Handshake. Shake with your right hand while giving a solid pat on the shoulder with your left.

Thirty something marines later and my shoulder was definitely none the better for it. Tenderised would be a good description.

Anyway, I went home at that point, but missed the next bit…

The Ladies Of The Castle went out in Limerick for the rest of the night with a group of marines. Talking about it the following night, it appears that each of them was a perfect gentleman. I think there was a hint of disappointment in their voices.

One Year On

This day last year we got the news that my younger brother, Finbar, had died suddenly.

I was at work when I got the phone call, and rushed home to see what had happened. Arriving at his home to find two guards and my sister in law waiting. Other family and friends arriving, in shock and in tears.

Finbar had died peacefully, though it took until June before the coroner’s report came back that it was a heart attack that killed him. At the time there was some comfort in that. There still is.

The rest of the day was a blur. Phoning the rest of our family to let them know. Gathering at the table to figure out what to do next. Food and lots of tea appearing by the magic and grace of wonderful neighbours and friends.

The next three days were more of a blur. Preparing for the dreaded funeral, whilst at the same time trying to make sure it would be a fitting tribute to the life and character of Finbar. Getting friends, family and neighbours involved in the mass. The ceremony itself went well, with a huge turnout, and lots of people gathered to celebrate the life of Fin.

But time passed, and we moved into the period after the funeral.

Following the Month Mind mass things changed. Now that the frenzy, the busyness of the funeral was over, we had to adjust to life without Fin.

I sometimes think that things were a bit easier in a different era. A time when there was an official period of mourning, and a person could visibly display or wear the uniform of grief.

There are times over the past year I could have done with that…
“How are you?”
“Fine.”
Yeah.

The thing is, we often expect people to be fine. To be OK.
A friend of mine had a great phrase based on one of the self-help books from the 80’s. “I’m OK, You’re OK.”
His take on it? “I’m not OK, You’re not OK, but THAT’s OK.”
That’s an important message. It’s OK to not be OK sometimes.

There are definitely plenty of times over the past year that I’ve not been OK.
Times when the loss of Finbar has struck more than others.
Times when I’ve cried for no discernible reason.

But today.
The simple fact that it’s one year today that we found out.
Today is a day that will stand out for years to come.
Maybe today, and the anniversary next Sunday, will be the start of a greater healing.

As a post script, if you are ever in a position where you would like to help another, take into account a great bit of advice I received once.
We normally say something along the lines of “If there’s anything I can do, let me know”
In reality, a bereaved person often feels powerless, and is unable to ask for help, or unsure of what to ask.
A more powerful way to help is to offer something solid. “I’ll look after the kids for a day”, “I’ll cook dinner”, “Take the afternoon off, I’ll cover”
Something, anything.

Finbar on a fishing trip to Knockadoon.
I only realised later that this photo was taken on mam’s anniversary, 15th September.

Bloody Teenagers

I live near a lovely village in East Cork called Killeagh. It’s a small village that’s blessed with a public woodland tucked in behind it.  The wood is full of walks, and a great playground for younger kids.

The playground was the work of a local committee who managed to source the land, the funding and the goodwill to get it built.  We’re quite proud of it.

And this year it was vandalised

Not too long after there was a meeting.  Unfortunately I didn’t make it.  However, I heard after that someone was arguing for a higher fence to be installed, so as to keep out the anti-social element.

It strikes me that this is a particularly curmudgeonly way to a) view the whole affair and b) fix the problem.  I kinda doubt a few extra feet of fence would keep out anybody determined.

I suspect this man was at the meeting
(From the brilliant pen of John Connolly – The Wolf in Winter)

The whole affair got me thinking about the mindset of the individual(s) concerned, and how they view teenagers. 

You can see the arguments develop, can’t you?

 And yes, teenagers do get involved in risky behaviours:

  • Teenagers can be moody (shocker)
  • Some teenagers drink too much
  • Some teenagers smoke
  • Some teenagers engage in self-destructive behaviours
  • Some teenagers engage in risky sexual behaviours
  • Some teenagers can engage in anti-social behaviour

But you know what?  Teenagers are amazing

  • Teenagers sleep out every year in Dublin to raise money and awareness for homelessness.
  • On the quiet, many teenagers help out at home in a big way.  They visit grandparents, they help care for others in the family.  They take on a role far greater than we usually know about.  And they do it without any great praise.
  • Teenagers help charities.  How many teenagers go through the mammoth fundraising task of going to India to help street children?  That’s incredible!
  • Teenagers help out in local clubs, committees and societies.  They do this not for any pay, but because they enjoy it, and see it as a good thing to do.

So, whenever I hear the begrudgers giving out about teenagers, I tend to think of the generosity of spirit and the goodness that I’ve seen in the many teenagers I’ve had the privilege to know.

Headlines are easy.  It’s much more challenging to look beyond the drama of that, read further into it, and come up with your own conclusion.

Bloody Hell. 
Teenagers Are Amazing