Now we’re ALL going to play Charades

A crushed saxophone, not necessarily Bill Clinton’s

PARTY-GOERS in London lambasted Bill Clinton for throwing the “worst party ever” this week. This might not be the first time Clinton has been accused of being less entertaining than promised (outside the Oval Office at least – oo er missus), but it’s surprising all the same.

The event was a fundraiser for the Clinton Foundation’s Millennium Network, which is a rather vague outfit but seems to be all about “improving global health, strengthening economies, promoting healthier childhoods, protecting the environment and swimming with dolphins”. (Spot the bit I made up.)

Bill was there with daughter Chelsea. Also present were Princess Beatrice, Will.I.Am, Lily Cole and Gwyneth Paltrow. In other words, guests had their pick of insufferably glamorous people to be made to feel inadequate by.

So what could go wrong? Did Bill play the saxophone, or fail to play the saxophone (depending on where you stand on saxophones – personally I stand on saxophones wearing concrete boots)? Did he have that notorious buzz-killer Al Gore with him? Was he, heaven help us, handing out cigars?

Well, no. The problem was just that the revellers had to wait a long time to get in, and the room was very crowded, and a bit whiffy, and the walls appeared damp. And Clinton spoke for only a couple of minutes (which is something like that restaurant complaint that goes, “the food was terrible and there wasn’t enough of it”).

Note to self: never invite any of these people to a party: they’re obviously impossible to please. Worst party ever? Hardly. There is a near-infinite list of parties that have to be worse than the Clinton event.

There’s the average office Christmas party, for a start. Then there are hen parties, where you’re expected to laugh uproariously at chocolate willies or be thought (probably not unjustly) a prude. What about a Murder Mystery Party where someone actually got murdered? That would be a bit more of a conversation-stopper than damp walls, wouldn’t it?

For worst party ever, I nominate any party at which someone whips out a guitar and sings ‘Ride On’. (In fact any party that includes a singsong gets my vote.) Also in contention is the party hosted by a control freak, who claps her hands (I’m sorry but they’re nearly always women) and shouts, “Now we’re ALL going to play Charades.”

Other nominees: Any party where the host shows photos of their trip to Machu Picchu. Any party where there are non-drinkers, sitting there the whole evening quietly taking it all in. Any party where the hosts have clearly had a row just before you arrived, and one of them is banging pots and pans around in the kitchen with a face on them that would stop a clock. Any party that features a conga line.

Consider Kim Jong-Il’s 69th birthday party last year, when he broke with his custom of handing out gifts and the long-suffering people of North Korea got nothing? That was a bad party. You’d think if your birthday was a national public holiday, and you were the “eternal leader”, and you had so much power that you could actually control the weather, that at least you could stump up a jar of bath salts.

Maybe competitive children’s birthday parties are the worst, with parents feverishly outdoing each other on the entertainment front. Life seemed easier when no one could afford a bouncy castle and parties just meant red lemonade and something involving desiccated coconut.

But really, the worst bad party is the one you throw yourself. You invite 40 people and only ten show up. You put too much of yourself into the cooking, so that by the time the guests arrive you’re exhausted and irritable and wish they’d all go.

When you finally finish with the food preparations, you return to your guests in the sitting room, only to find that all ten have somehow ended up sitting in a wide circle, mutely listening to slow jazz.

One guest refuses the food: she never eats beef unless she actually knew the cow. You think to yourself: how did I end up inviting into my home someone for whom knowing the cow beforehand would be a good thing, rather than a bad thing?

One couple arrive late – they couldn’t find a babysitter so they brought their two-year-old with them. Having thereby ruined your party, they give it up as a dead loss and leave early to go to the pub, taking the last few interesting guests with them.

Eventually no one is left except one person whom you actively despise, who gate-crashed, and who at 4am is still there with a huge welcome for himself, drinking wine by the neck and singing ‘Wonderwall’.

Give me a conga line with the Clintons any day.

Published in the irish Mail on Sunday, 27th May 2012

The serge of Loop Head


YOU could tell a lot about a lighthouse keeper by his clothes. If you were around in 1934, when James McGinley was principal keeper at Loop Head Lighthouse, and if you were in a position to give him the once over, you might have been able to form an opinion as to the character of the Taoiseach’s grandfather, and hence maybe of the Taoiseach himself.

Among the rules and regulations for Lightkeepers, a stern 53-page document issued by the Commissioners of Irish Lights in 1934, are the following stipulations with regard to lightkeepers’ uniforms.

Each lightkeeper was allowed either a fine serge reefing jacket suit and one pair of trousers only, OR a rough serge reefing jacket suit, together with two pairs of trousers.

This goes to show that, perhaps not all that surprisingly really, there were two kinds of lightkeepers – those who favoured aesthetics and those who favoured practicality – and the Commissioners felt it necessary to make allowances for both kinds.

There is no knowing now, all these years later, whether James McGinley preferred the elegance of a good quality serge jacket to the convenience of having a spare pair of trousers. But looking his grandson up and down in a hypercritical manner almost 80 years later – taking note of the unsophisticated pinstripe, the insubordinate hair and that reliable but archaic Nokia that he’s forever being photographed with – you can’t help concluding that this is a family that doesn’t rate appearances too highly.

Enda invoked his grandfather’s spirit on his visit to Loop Head lighthouse last Friday – and not for the first time. James McGinley is one of the recurring motifs of the Taoiseach’s speeches. He mentioned him at that memorable Fine Gael ard fheis in 2007, just before he amazed his party by losing another general election to Fianna Fáil; he mentioned him in his St Patrick’s Day speech on Capitol Hill last year; he mentioned him at his mother Eithne’s funeral mass in Mayo last November; and he mentioned him before a gathering of politicians, schoolchildren and local onlookers at the most westerly point in Clare last week.

“In a way, I feel I have come home here to Loop Head,” he said. “I feel a very strong spirit connection here because my grandfather served here as a lightkeeper but my late mother ran around this patch of grass and my uncle was born here so there is a very strong family connection in that sense.”

The uncle in question, Patrick Joseph McGinley, was also present. It was his first visit to Loop Head since he left the place with his family in 1934, when he was six months old. And in truth, before the lighthouse opened to the public last July, not many people visited Loop Head at all, barring those select few who stayed in the lightkeeper’s cottage, beautifully restored by the Landmark Trust and available for rent at €480 for a weekend.

That has all changed now. There were 17,000 visitors to Loop Head Lighthouse last year, which is very much a mixed blessing for the inhabitants of the peninsula. Those who own pubs, restaurants and B&Bs are glad of it. The rest of us survey the speeding cars, fuming buses and mounting litter and wonder yet again about that much-vaunted “rural tourism gain”.

Such were the numbers last summer that people frequently had to wait up to an hour for a tour of the lighthouse. They were often a little cranky already, by the time they reached Loop Head, having had no idea just how far out it was. They promised the kids a trip up the lighthouse; now they’ve driven 40 miles west of Ennis, the kids are fighting in the back of the car and there’s still no sign of this godforsaken R487 coming to an end. Remote is too small a word for this peninsula, and it’s not often that the story comes to us, as it did on Friday, when the Taoiseach arrived together with the ghost of his lightkeeper grandfather.

There are no lightkeepers any more, of course. The career was made obsolete when the last manned lighthouse in Ireland – the Baily at Howth – was automated in 1996. The last lightkeeper at Loop Head, Brendan Garvey, left in March 1991. And the history of the lighthouse, sadly, is itself a story of forced obsolescence. Loop Head Lighthouse once saved lives; now it makes money. Where once there were lightkeepers, now there are now caretakers, and county council officials, and tourists, and tour guides.

Your tour, presented by a superannuated former Loop Head lighthouse tour guide, starts here. Technically there has been a lighthouse at Loop Head since around 1670. In those days it was merely a signal fire in a brazier on the roof of a cottage (which still stands in the lighthouse complex).

The current tower dates from 1854. It is only 23 metres tall but, because of the towering cliffs on which it stands, its height above mean high water springs (MHWS) is actually 84 metres, and its range is 23 nautical miles. (Note to landlubbers: A nautical mile is a little longer than a mile.) Its character is Fl (4) W 20s, which means it’s a white light, flashing four times in 20 seconds. This, together with its daymark, is how mariners know it’s Loop Head.

The problem is that mariners know it’s Loop Head anyway, because they have GPS. For almost all of the many ships plying the Shannon estuary – from pleasure boats spotting dolphins to massive container vessels carrying cargo to Moneypoint power station and Aughinish Alumina – Loop Head Lighthouse is just for decoration. The lighthouse goes on flashing out its benign communication during all the hours of darkness, and it is benignly ignored. The message makes no difference to anyone.

Towards the end of his speech on Friday, reasoning perhaps that Loop Head was as good a place as any in which to torture a metaphor, Enda introduced the subject of the austerity treaty. “Just as this white light sends out the signal of hope and safety and confidence, may your vote on the 31st be the white light of hope and confidence for the future,” he said.

Then, after high-fiving the local schoolchildren, for all the world like someone who models himself on Barack Obama, Enda quickly surveyed the lighthouse exhibition and then ventured up the tower itself.

It was not clear enough to see the Twelve Pins to the north. Enda gazed south instead, towards the Dingle Peninsula, Mount Brandon and the Blasket Islands. Among those islands is Inishvickillane, once owned by Charlie Haughey – a man who, like Enda, preached austerity but who, unlike Enda, somehow managed to get away with it. This despite the fact that Enda is clearly wearing the worsted, whereas Haughey, had he been a lightkeeper, would have had the fine serge and still somehow finagled the second pair of trousers as well.

Published in the Irish Daily Mail, Tuesday 22nd May 2012

Up the garden path

Illustration from a collection of fables

The hare was not found


Certain mysterious events took place over last weekend, events which have not been and indeed are unlikely ever to be accounted for. At any rate, soon after these events took place, our hero disappeared amid a hum of speculation.

Before long, social media was buzzing with rumours and jokes as to his whereabouts and his intentions. Could his people really have lost him, after four decades? Was this the end of a generations-old tradition? Could he be dead to them now?

Then, a day or two later, having led everyone up the garden path and down again, he emerged – looking a little soiled but otherwise acting normal – from the hole he had dug for himself. His beady eyes blinking in the inadequate sunlight, he revealed he was perfectly satisfied with his current circumstances and had no intention of leaving.

Reactions to the news included relief, bemusement, embarrassment and mirth, but our hero was oblivious to all that. After he’d had a nice meal, he merely waited serenely for an invitation to go on morning radio.

You think this is about Eamon Ó Cuiv, don’t you? In fact I’m referring to Florentine the 100-year-old tortoise, who vanished from his home in Rathgar, south Dublin, at the weekend, or so his family thought. They notified the gardaí of the disappearance, put posters up about the place, and launched a campaign to find him on social media.

This was only a moderately good human-interest story but, partly because it presented an unmissable opportunity to pun (‘shell-shocked’, ‘shell-ebrity’ etc), and partly because everyone wanted to know exactly how far you could get in Rathgar at 0.17 miles an hour, the story grew legs, as it were.

Soon the hashtag #rathgartortoise was a top trend on Twitter, and the item had been covered by most major news outlets. Another 24 hours and someone would surely have reported seeing a hare snoozing somewhere in Dublin 6, just to provide the fable with a second act. That or some boffin might have explored the James Joyce connection. Joyce was born just around the corner in Brighton Square; that “tortoise napecomb” he mentions in Ulysses could have come from one of Florentine’s luckless relations, and Florentine might have been bent on melodramatic revenge.

Anyway, the yarn was cut short by events, or perhaps even by Saint Anthony, who knows? There are agnostics who swear by Saint Anthony’s ability to locate lost things. On Tuesday it was reported that Florentine had been found safe and well, covered in muck, in his own flowerbed, having never gone anywhere. (Allegedly. By all accounts there was no sign of a hare in the garden at the time. The reader is invited to draw his or her own conclusions from that. But I’ll wager they didn’t call them ninja turtles for nothing.)

Florentine was given a celebratory (gamely resisting the temptation to say shellebratory there) meal of lettuce, followed by a pudding of strawberries, and was taken more or less immediately to the RTE studios to be photographed with John Murray.

‘Ireland breathes sigh of relief as 100-year-old tortoise found!’, exclaimed the BBC, even though we’ve asked the BBC a thousand times not to exaggerate.

“I will continue to work from within, to serve the party,” said Florentine. Oops, sorry, silly me, confused again. Of course he didn’t say that. He was, however, photographed looking a bit daft. I’m not confused on that score. It’s something he really should be more careful about, as he is by no means as daft as he looks.

Florentine’s family were understandably mortified. “We were amazed by the speed and extent of the coverage,” Cliona Eogan, one of his owners, was reported to say. “We are very grateful, if a little embarrassed given the outcome.”

Don’t say another word about it. Pets are inherently embarrassing, as anyone with a dog (‘I want to sniff your privates’) or a cat (‘I want you to sniff my privates’) will tell you. The wonder is that Florentine has lived with the same family for 40 years and yet never embarrassed them before. There must have been countless ways to embarrass a 1970s Dublin family if he’d only used his imagination.

Anyway, everyone understands how it feels to make a big fuss about something that turns out to be nothing, or to indulge in a spot of attention-seeking and then regret it. Developed a bunion and assumed it was cancer? Lost your temper about something that was your own fault? Imagined yourself insulted? Took a principled stand about something – an austerity treaty, say – and then had a change of heart?

Step forward, anyone who has never been a bit of a drama queen. Where do you think you’re going, O Cuiv?

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 13th May 2012