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.

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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

High Time For Equality In Our Pay Scales

A few weeks ago the TUI voted to accept the government proposals in relation to pay-scales for newly qualified teachers.  A lot of teachers I know feel cheated by this vote, they feel that it is a missed opportunity in the ongoing battle to restore pay for anyone who took up employment after 2011.

By the way, isn’t it getting a little ridiculous to refer to the colleagues who started working with us up to 7 years ago as being ‘newly qualified’? It’s almost as if the language we use is suggesting that this inequality will be a temporary thing.  

That’s simply not true. Unless we are willing to fight the government there will be no equality for our colleagues.

The longer that our ‘newly qualified’ colleagues are on an inferior scale, then the easier it is for successive governments to put the issue onto an ever-longer finger.  

In fairness, it’s easy to see where the government is coming from.  If you can get away with paying newer teachers thousands of euro each year FOR THE SAME JOB, then why wouldn’t you?  Multiply this across the education sector and the government is saving millions each year.

Each year that the government delays pay equality is a year that the government hangs onto millions of euro.  For the sake of our colleagues, we simply cannot stand quietly by and hope that in a few years things will be ok. 

So. What do we do?

The INTO recently voted to reject these proposals.  Media is reporting that they will next ballot members on industrial action. The exact form of this action is not yet decided, I believe.

As a member of the ASTI I have voted against these proposals. If you haven’t voted yet, then do so. We are asked to promote mental health in schools. Our Junior Cert curriculum promotes wellbeing. This is only lip-service as long as we don’t back up our colleagues.

If the ASTI vote against the current proposals, then the INTO & ASTI will be looking to ballot their members regarding industrial action.  I honestly believe that we need to be willing to act strongly in order to make the government realise that enough is enough.  

Debating the 8th

We now have less than one week to go until we vote on the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution.  The amendment currently outlaws abortion in Ireland, except under circumstances where the life of the mother is under imminent danger.

Anytime I have debated the issue of abortion I try to keep a few guidelines for myself:

  • I do not know if the person to whom I am speaking has ever had an abortion, or suffered a miscarriage.  Therefore, I need to be mindful of the hurt that others carry
  • My views on religion are not always shared by others –  and I do not have the right to force those views on others

This has been a difficult campaign, with some campaigners spreading vitriol and venom: personalising attacks on those who hold a different viewpoint to themselves.  This is as sad to watch as it is understandable. This is a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ issue. There is no maybe.

However, there is one hard truth to be faced:  In 2016 a total of 3,265 women gave Irish addresses at abortion clinics in the UK.  That’s 9 women and girls a day travelling to the UK for an abortion.

Abortion happens in Ireland, whether we like it or not.  We just export it at a great cost to the women who travel. The cost is not just financial, it is in terms of health. The risks inherent in getting a medical procedure with no follow-through or back-up available afterwards mean that some of these women suffer mental and physical trauma as they journey home afterwards.

One argument against abortion is that we should be able to do better as a country and look after women and children.  It’s a lovely idea – but not a reality that we are likely to see happen anytime soon.  Just look at this country’s history in protecting the vulnerable, we seem to be far better at protecting institutions.  If we truly care about the life of the unborn, then we need to do more to change the world that our children are being born into.

I think that Sr. Joan Chittister put it very well.  We need a broader conversation about what pro-life really is.  But until that Utopian moment arrives we need to deal with the reality of the struggle that so many women go through each year in Ireland.

 

Over the past few weeks I have heard a number of stories and read a number of accounts by women who have had abortions in traumatic circumstances.  Women who carried children who could not survive birth; women who felt they could not care for a child due to poverty or an abusive relationship; women who were not women but children themselves when this all happened.

Many on the No side have not shown respect towards women in crisis. I personally find a number of the posters distasteful, insensitive and occasionally emotionally abusive. That some do this in the name of their faith displays a faith lacking in compassion.

Whether abortion is legalised or not, I’m going to leave the last words to a friend of mine:

“The place of the Christian outside the abortion clinic is not shouting at those going in but holding and loving those coming out”  Scott Evans – Closer Still

A ‘Thank You’

A little over two months ago the lives of me, my family and friends were hit by the sudden loss of my brother Finbar.

The days and weeks that followed were a blur; with plenty of crying, frustration, sadness and some aimlessness.

A thing that struck me so strongly from the first day is just how good people are. The day Finbar died we had neighbours and friends out fixing the road, preparing the house for the wake, looking after the farm, and caring for us and those that travelled to be with us.

It was such a comfort that friends and neighbours were willing to take charge. We didn’t need to worry about any practical things. We were fed, watered, kept warm. Our children were minded, our visitors were cared for. People were just amazing.

Friends travelled from all across the country to be with us. People drove from Dublin, Galway and many other corners of the country to join us for the funeral, and then took the long journey home again. An incredible gesture of support and humanity from so many.

When he died, Finbar was in the middle of renovations of his house and some of his friends decided that they would finish the renovations and have the house ready for his Month Mind mass. (For anyone who doesn’t live in Rural Ireland, this is a Mass held about one month after someone dies – usually a more gentle get together than the jolt of a funeral mass).

The next month was inspiring. This group of men came up to Finbar’s house on their free weekends and evenings to do plastering, electrical, plumbing, flooring, painting and general cleaning up. It was a humbling display, exercise, of generosity. It was so touching to see so many lads who’s lives were touched by Finbar, and who wanted to do something to pay tribute to him.

Equally valuable were the visitors. My dad is 87 now, and having people come and sit with him has been a huge comfort. I’ve developed a new appreciation of how important my own friends are in my life, and so glad for all those who have taken time to come and visit.

Last week we had a fun chance to get together. One of Finbar’s friends had made a short film based in the Star Wars universe, and we were invited to the premier in Mitchelstown Caves. It was a great evening, and the film was dedicated to Finbar, so that was very touching. (Read This if you want a bit more on the film)

Years ago I heard a great piece of advice: “When someone is hurting, don’t just offer ‘if there’s anything I can do, call’. Instead offer something concrete, and take that burden off of them”. Without being told to do so, it’s what hundreds of people have done for me and my family over the past few months.

For that I am deeply grateful, and can never fully repay that kindness. If you’re reading this, thank you.

DSC01816

Finbar. May you rest in peace.

Pesky Public Pensions

Those pesky public sector workers.  Them and their pensions are costing us money, and we need to sort it out.

Of course their unions are going to stand up for them, they are entitled to do so.

So runs the core of the argument by Paschal Donoghue, the minister for Public Expenditure.

It is now nearly nine years since the infamous bank guarantee, and we will be paying the cost of that mistake for years to come.  That mistake, on top of a property bubble and a global financial crisis created a financial crisis in Ireland that has cost us in an obvious business level, but also cost Ireland as a society: one just needs to look at the trolly crisis in hospitals, the cutting of resources in the Gardaí, in schools, in the broader public service.

It may have got old to say this by now, but the people being made to pay for the crisis were not the ones who created it.  The ongoing cost of the bank guarantee alone was something like €60 billion euro, with the interest costing approximately €1 billion every year. And yet, despite not being the ones to cause this crisis (it’s not over as we’re still paying the costs), members of the public service are still expected to suffer penalties.

For a while now the Fine Gael line has been that the public service bill is too high, and was part of the problem. And so, the public sector took some brutal pay cuts and changes to conditions in order to help the country as a whole deal with the mess that we, as a society, were in.

That cost has proven to be huge.

  • People have died while waiting on trollies in hospitals.
  • A&E units are swamped, leading to longer waiting times with greater stress on patients and medical staff
  • School resources cut and pupil/teacher ratios increased leading to poorer outcomes for many students
  • Longer working hours across the public service, less pay, and even less pay for those unfortunate enough to get their jobs after 2011
  • Wives and partners of those serving in the Army forced to protest because the pay is so poor

And yet, even with all this, the minister decides to push the idea that the public service costs too much and that he needs to cut where he can – with pensions the focus of today’s agenda.  Yes, we’ll finally reduce the pension levy, but must find a different way to get you to pay for the pensions.  So, um, get rid of the levy so long as we can keep the levy?

For me, there’s a premise behind all of this.  That the public service is a low-value cost, that should be cut where possible.  It’s a premise that I refuse to accept.

The public service is an integral part of Irish society, and is an excellent investment.

Just look at the work done by so many people across so many different parts of the public sector.  

  • Look at how hard our nurses and doctors work
  • Look at what teachers bring to and from their students
  • Look at the pride our navy has brought us from its mission in the Mediterranean

Fine Gael has managed to dominate the discussion of public sector pay by simplifying it to basic numbers.  An effective and healthy public service is more than a simplistic stating of the blunt cost.  The cost must be understood in context, and the value of what is achieved by the public service.  There is great value in the work being done, and it is Fine Gael that is devaluing it.