With great powerlessness comes great responsibility

Gary Larson


ANSWER this honestly: When you find yourself seated in the emergency row of an aircraft – and you have to be able-bodied, over 14 and willing to assist in an evacuation to be allowed to sit there – do you fantasise about what would happen if the plane were to crash-land?

If so, how do you cast yourself in the drama? Are you the first one to dive screaming for the exit, leaving nothing behind but a whiff of urine and Something Worse? Thought not. No, you’re the hero, aren’t you? You’re the one guiding grateful elderly passengers to the exit, squeezing the hands of grown men as they whimper in fear, leading the children in a bracing song, bolstering the mascara-streaked crew, who will afterwards sob to the media, “If it hadn’t been for so-and-so I don’t know what we’d have done.”

Actually why stop there? The plane has been hijacked! Drawing on your two weeks of karate training, you must disarm the hijackers with one deft move!… The pilots have collapsed/ lost their wits/ turned rogue! You will have to seize the controls and land the plane yourself!

That is more or less what happened this week, when a passenger on a Lufthansa flight from Newark to Frankfurt had to help land a Boeing 747 at Dublin airport because one of the pilots had become incapacitated. Hero!

Well, more or less… On closer scrutiny the story lost some of its lustre (as all stories tend to do, dammit). What happened was the co-pilot developed a migraine, so the crew issued a mayday call. I’m not an aviation expert (no, no, I’m not, I don’t care what anyone says) but does that strike anyone else as playing fast and loose with the term mayday, a little bit? ‘Mayday, mayday, the co-pilot has a boo-boo’?

Also, the passenger who stepped in to help was an off-duty pilot and so – unfortunately for the sake of the dramatic tension of the piece – probably knew how to land a plane without the aid of a pep talk from a character played by Leslie Nielsen.

Perhaps mistakenly, you tend to imagine that pilots don’t indulge in air crash heroism fantasies. Bit of a busman’s holiday, really. But if they did, they would almost certainly not fantasise about landing a plane uneventfully in Dublin after having to take over Mr Diddums’ duties as co-pilot.

No, they would more likely fantasise about ditching a stricken Airbus in the Hudson River, saving all 155 souls, as Captain Chesley Sullenberger III did in 2009, when a flock of Canada geese struck his plane.

The geese do add something regrettably comical to Sullenberger’s story, but otherwise it’s a perfect heroism fantasy for a pilot – the sort of thing that would make other pilots jealous, and would lead to a two-book publishing deal and a lucrative career on the speaking circuit.

Doctors might engage in the odd air-crash heroism fantasy too, but it’s unlikely that a doctor daydreams about vaulting over restaurant tables to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre to another diner. Likewise, firefighters probably don’t fantasise about rescuing puppies from burning buildings. It’s just what these people do.

So the world of vivid heroic fantasy is left to those of us who don’t have heroic careers, such as mime artists, panel beaters, certain kinds of journalists (‘Emergency? Say no more. I’ll throw together a whimsical comment piece in a jiffy’), and forklift drivers.

And yet a forklift driver can become a hero too, if he’s a ham radio enthusiast. Benny Young from Co Tyrone intercepted a mayday call from a United Airlines Dublin-Boston flight last month when the pilot could not contact air traffic control because of Hurricane Sandy. (Now that’s what I call a proper mayday.) Benny was able to relay the pilot’s communications and the plane was safely diverted.

Not knowing much about what it means to be a ham radio enthusiast, you do tend to assume that it consists of a lot of sitting around in converted sheds, murmuring “niner, niner” into the indifferent silence. This might be unjust, but nevertheless ham radio enthusiasts are among the very last people you would think would ever get to see a heroic fantasy come true.

It seems ham radio enthusiasts themselves think much the same thing. Terry Whyte, secretary of Strabane Amateur Radio Society, of which Benny is a member, remarked: “This kind of thing is an amateur radio man’s dream”, and added – tellingly – “everyone else is jealous”.

It goes to show, you never know when you might be called on to be a hero. Keep in practice by rescuing stranded spiders, and three-legged kittens, and doomed, flightless birds, and you never know, you might be lucky enough to be in a plane crash some day.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Tao of jelly tots


IT WAS revealed this week that 24% of children are more worried about the economy than about anything else. The news was greeted by a certain amount of hand-wringing, though really there’s nothing to stop us looking at it in a more cheerful light, should we choose to.

Yes, one in four children is obviously seeing too damn much of Paul Krugman, but this means three out of four are not, which suggests that the fine tradition of Keeping Things From The Children has not yet been allowed to slide, in 76% of cases at least.

The statistics were contained in a report, launched on Wednesday, entitled ‘Life as a Child and Young Person in Ireland’. In 2010, desperate to know what children think about every little thing, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs established “an oversight committee” to devise this study. (As a matter of interest, is there anyone else left in the English-speaking world who remembers what “oversight” actually means? No? Sigh.)

Every school-going child in Ireland was offered a questionnaire containing three questions – what’s the best thing about being a child in Ireland?; what’s the worst thing about being a child in Ireland?; and what one thing would you change? There were 66,705 respondents, ranging in age from four to 23. (Hang on, 23? Don’t 23-year-olds have the vote, and hence the same delusions of political influence as the rest of us adults?)

Apart from the news about youngsters fretting over the economy – which could mean you can’t afford schoolbooks or simply that your Nintendo needs are not being met – the other revelation concerned attitudes to education. Both primary and secondary school students said they believed the education system is the best thing about Ireland.

You can almost hear the teachers’ voices in this. “Now boys and girls! What do we like best about living in Ireland? Hmm? Anyone? What about SCHOOL? Aren’t we all glad we’re able to go to school every day? What did Father McCluskey say last week about the children in Africa who aren’t able to go to school? And what about teachers’ pay? Ciúnas! What are you laughing at, smart fellah?”

Coincidentally, the children surveyed also agreed that education is one of the worst things about Ireland. And yes, similarly, they were of one mind when it came to the thing they would most like to change. You’ve guessed it: education.

At the risk of appearing insensitive to nuance, doesn’t this rather highlight the futility of canvassing children’s opinions? It isn’t so much that they can’t give you a straight answer; it’s that they are absolute strangers to cognitive dissonance. The best thing about life in Ireland is jelly tots, as it so happens I have a wad of them in my cheek. Conversely, the worst thing about life in Ireland is jelly tots, because once I swallow them they are gone. The extent of my control over the availability of jelly tots is what I would most like to change.

Another of children’s top dislikes is the weather, although again for competing reasons. Dublin boy (9) complained there isn’t enough snow; Cavan girl (9) complained there’s too much. This is like the Goldilocks of sociological studies.

And all the ancient, festering divisions are there too, in microcosm. “The best thing about being a child in Ireland is that there are sports like tennis and hockey,” said Dublin boy (9). Contrast this with Cork boy (10), who said: “The best thing about being a child in Ireland is that we are the only country in the world that plays GAA”.

One ten-year-old girl in Co Wicklow must have been relieved at the chance to ventilate what was clearly a backlog of grievances. She cited: “Not being part of Britain. School uniforms. People driving too fast. Hard, boring subjects. People being mean on the school bus. Unfair games at PE, also boring games. School starts too early. Church being ages away. Ruthless, mean kids”. Grow up quickly, child. Liveline needs you.

By contrast, other children in the survey are made of the sort of stuff that will guarantee their happiness in perpetuity. “There is a lot of space in the country… There is a lot of things to do, like fishing. The people are nice,” said Taoist Mayo boy (13).

It will take a lot more than an economic slump to ruin the contentment of Taoist Mayo boy, and others like him. But if they could change one thing (apart from the education system), the children all agreed they would put an end to the recession. That’s an aspiration that, while we all earnestly share it, is a bit like wishing you could persuade Mum and Dad to stop handing over all your jelly tots to unsecured bondholders.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 11 November 2012

It’s not us, it’s them


IT’S the first week of winter, and we’re feeling a bit unloved. Turns out no one wants a bit of paper saying they’re Irish, which is like being dumped by 70 million people all at the same time. So we’re holed up on the sofa, tucking into a vat of brown-bread ice-cream and watching Darby O’Gill and the Little People on a loop. ‘Sod you then. We’re too nice for you anyway. And there’s plenty more fish in… oh.’

Demand for the government’s Certificate of Irish Heritage – that prop of countless photo ops which gets presented to any international dignity gracious enough to mention (or careless enough to let slip) that they have an ancestor from the old sod – has proved “disappointing”. Since its launch in September last year, only 1,042 certificates have been issued, it was reported this week.

The Irish-American news site Irish Central interviewed Irish Americans to find out why, and the respondents reportedly said the procedure involved in acquiring a certificate was too complicated. You see, in order to claim an Irish ancestry certificate, you had to be able to prove you had an Irish ancestor.

That must be what’s been getting in the way. It isn’t that no one can be arsed acquiring a certificate of Irish heritage. It’s that millions and millions of people would dearly love one but they just don’t want to be put to any trouble about it. It’s all instant gratification with these people. They lack commitment. It’s not us, it’s them.

“I settled for a ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ t-shirt instead,” Irish Central quoted one Irish-American as saying. (They probably keep a small stash of ‘typical’ Irish Americans in Irish Central’s Manhattan offices, so there’s always one on hand to deliver a twinkly pull-quote.)

In truth, you can probably pick up a ‘Kiss Me I’m Irish’ t-shirt for €10, whereas the price of a Certificate of Irish Heritage, which is about as useful, is quite a bit higher. It’s billed as costing €40, but that’s because the government has turned all Ryanair about hidden costs. Once you add in shipping and VAT, it actually comes in at €55.35, unframed. And let that be a lesson to those who persist in saying Michael O’Leary should be running the country.

Anyway, because the procedure was regarded as too onerous, it has been relaxed in recent months. The burden of proving your Irish roots has been lifted. So your correspondent has done some investigating (not at all, don’t mention it, that’s what I’m here for) to establish just how complicated it now is.

In the interests of research, I pretended to be an Irish American. (For what it’s worth, I felt instantly more prosperous and more strident in my opinions about how both Ireland and America should be governed. And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.)

The procedure now is that you have to know your own name and the name of your Irish ancestor. Easy-peasy so far, no? Then you have to answer two of the following seven questions: What town or parish in Ireland did the person come from? What year were they born? What year did they leave Ireland? What was their port of departure? What was their port of arrival? Where did they settle in their adopted country? What was their occupation?

Hang on a second, is anyone actually going to verify this? And if not, then why hold back? Isn’t that just the sort of small thinking – the unpretentious ambitions, the dread of getting notions, the chronic fear of ridicule – that’s been keeping this country down? Let’s see…

Ancestor: Dalton Silvermoor; emigrated to New York in 1830; became an interpretive dance critic and a celebrated wit; had children by seven different men, at least one of them a serving president; made a heroic stab at the Northwest Passage; oh, and got embroiled in one of the South American revolutions. Hey presto, yours truly suddenly has an interesting pedigree.

Ancestor: Falmouth Kearney, labourer; left his home in Moneygall in 1850, bound for Americay; had 10 children and settled in Indiana. Bingo, I’m on Barack Obama’s Christmas card list.

The whole idea of this sort of genealogical vanity is that you turn out to be more important than you – and more importantly, everyone else – thought you were. And this may be what’s putting people off buying a certificate of Irish heritage.

No one would be inclined to boast about being the descendant of some worthless alcoholic farmhand in County Roscommon. Poor ancestors are fine but they have to be Worthy Poor. And ideally we’d prefer to be descended from Daniel O’Connell or Granuaile. Why spend €55.35 to show everyone that you’re not?


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 4 November 2012