Luther, and other stories

Puffins billing and cooing, etc

Puffins billing and cooing, etc


IF you could choose any superpower, which would you wish for? Some people choose invisibility or mind-reading (which both seem disrespectably sneaky if you ask me). Others would like to be able to speak in all languages (a good one, especially if you could also get bonus teleportation). But most people pick flight.

Humans seem to share an indefinable sorrow about being earthbound. It’s a mourning for some imagined paradise lost, and aeroplanes don’t make up for it. Being able to fly would be a recurring dream come true.

Someone once hijacked my flight fantasy by asking, well, how far would you actually fly, if you could fly? You’re hardly going to hazard a solo run to Farranfore, are you, let alone chance anywhere interesting? So what are you going to do, if you gain the ability to fly? Look at your house from above?

It’s true – who’s fit enough to fly south for the winter? – but yet… the wish persists. It’s a gift we’ve never had, the ability to control the influence of gravity by ourselves. It’s freedom. And yes, is the answer: Looking at your house from above would be a start.

At least part of the preoccupation with observing wild birds, and the wish to protect them, comes from that bittersweet flight envy. It seems improbably lucky, having started out as a dinosaur, to end up as a bird. Many of them can’t even walk, but they move in three dimensions, whereas humans are so doggedly attached to two that, even in imaginative escapades like Star Trek, you’ll notice the spaceships never fly upward or downward…

At the age of about nine, I borrowed a pocket-size hardback from the school library called Bird Spotting, by John Holland. At once I began to fancy that I was seeing impossibly rare breeds in my inauspicious west of Ireland suburb. I wrote a fourth-class essay on the song thrush, and its habit of assassinating snails by smashing them against a stone. It was the beginning of an enduring, arm’s-length flirtation with birdwatching, and the start of a lifelong career of not returning library books. I still use the same copy of Bird Spotting today.

A few years later, I was given a present of a book of Audubon’s illustrations – matchless, detailed paintings of birds. Then I discovered Audubon’s method: first he shot the birds dead and then he propped them up with wires to draw them as if in motion. It was a common enough practice in Audubon’s day but, oh, the betrayal, the juvenile sense of wrongness it provoked. It was enough to put you off birdwatching for life.

In truth, though, it wasn’t watching birds that was offputting, it was the thought of becoming a Birdwatcher with a capital B – possessed, insanely competitive, and badly dressed. One problem with serious birdwatching is that other people’s birds quickly become more interesting than one’s own. Birders would rather travel 500 miles to catch a glimpse of some foreign LBB (little brown bird) than sit in their own garden lazily observing the commonplace rituals of a goldfinch.

Happily, where I now live on Loop Head, you’re spared the trouble and expense of travelling, because other people’s birds come to you.

You wouldn’t suspect it at first glance. The place doesn’t look promising, being all but treeless but for a smattering of stunted, wind-pummelled half-trees that reach yearningly towards the east, giving every impression that they would rather be someplace else.

But Loop Head is a pilgrim site for birdwatchers. Every year, hundreds of them alight on the peninsula in their autumn plumage, standing around in the rain for hours and poking their binoculars into people’s gardens.

They record the passages of migrant seabirds which use Loop Head as a stopping-off point on their way to and from impossibly faraway places. One year they came to take notes on a little Canada Warbler that had got blown off course. It perched shyly in a neighbour’s shrub, implausibly yellow and tragically doomed.

It would be outrageous – ungrateful – not to develop your interest in birdwatching in a place like this. It would be like living on an Alp and not skiing, or living in Los Angeles and forgoing plastic surgery.

And so your calling as a novice birdwatcher takes flight. One Arctic Tern is perhaps all it takes. Arctic terns can live to be more than 30 years old, and they mate for life. This is the bird with the longest known migration, travelling about 20,000 kilometres from the Arctic summer to the Antarctic summer and 20,000 kilometres back again, stopping off at Loop Head on the way. Before the birds begin this formidable journey the entire colony falls silent. This is called the ‘dread’. Imagine it.

Grey Phalaropes are also seen here – little duck-like waders that have subverted traditional gender roles for some reason. The female, who is prettier, competes for a mate and then aggressively defends him. Once she’s laid her eggs she takes off southward, leaving him to incubate the eggs, raise the young and generally shift for himself.

We also get guillemots here, kittiwakes, shearwaters and great black-backed gulls. We get puffins, who rub their beaks affectionately with their mates’, known as ‘billing’. We get storm petrels, the smallest of all seabirds, named after St Peter for their appearance of being able to walk on water. We get gannets, which have binocular vision and can dive into the sea to fish from heights of 30 metres, reaching 100kph when they hit the surface. We get skuas, brigands of the skies, who live by stealing the catch of other seabirds, even those that are much bigger than them.

But no matter how dazzled you are by the sight of exotic and rare species, the affection for common garden birds doesn’t wane. It’s a daily satisfaction, for instance, noticing starlings making room for each other on a telegraph wire, or watching sparrows taking a communal bath, like Ancient Romans. And every gardener makes friends with a robin.

And there’s so much to be said for the crow family, even though they tend to arouse suspicion, perhaps because they’re wily enough to build a nest in one of your ears and rent out the other one. Crows have the largest brain relative to body size of any bird. Ravens have been shown to be as clever with tools as chimpanzees, while crows can recognise and distinguish human faces. And magpies, which so many people unaccountably loathe, well, magpies are simply beautiful.

Apart from the enchantment of seeing birds, there’s the ambient thrill of their music (and it may be all you get, considering how reclusive many birds are): The mellow piping of a blackbird, the exuberance of a skylark giving its all, the able mimicry of a starling. Mozart reputedly had a pet starling that could sing the first few bars of his piano concerto in G. It’s said that whatever you’re doing when you first hear the cuckoo is what you’ll be doing all summer. (Unfortunately, as often as not you’re hanging out washing.) Then there’s the clicking-whooping soundtrack to summer, which falls silent in September when the swallows take their leave, saddening everyone.

Birdwatching brings a new vocabulary too. You learn unfamiliar, softly percussive words like passerine, pied, pelagic… A colony of collective nouns builds nests in your memory: a murmuration of starlings, an exaltation of larks, a charm of finches, a parliament of rooks, a tiding of magpies, an unkindness of ravens…

Birds are always hungry, they spend half their time looking for love, they put everything they’ve got into making a home, they’re vain in their grooming habits, they prefer not to suffer alone, and they’re always worried about dying. No wonder we identify.

Two summers ago, my cat cornered a juvenile magpie in the hedgerow by my house. Magpies are notorious for taunting cats, and are usually the victors, so this was a rare turnabout.

There was no choice, as I saw it. Risking bramble scratch, beak strike and the anger of an indignant cat – perhaps, with some exaggeration, the way mothers have been known to show superhuman bravery to save their children – I swooped up the magpie and carried him to safety indoors.

The magpie – I’m still half-embarrassed to say I named him Luther – had a damaged wing. For some three days, he lived in the sitting room, at first flapping uselessly about in terror but then gradually becoming friendly. He graciously accepted cat food from my hand, placidly surveyed the outdoors from the windows (or perhaps admired his hint-of-purple reflection), and crapped wherever he liked. Then, when his flight seemed to have recovered, I carried him, perched on my finger, to the nearest tree. Before long his parents were hovering above, calling him. When he was ready, he flew away. Like a mother whose young have flown the nest, I have nothing but the photos to prove I was ever necessary to him.

I understand wildlife experts might take a poor view of this. But what apology can you make to the sort of people who keep filming while an animal flails about in desperation and hunger, who believe that the best moral stance is not to get involved, to let nature take its ruthless course – and who believe, moreover, that they’re doing you a service by making you watch?

This year I sawed a limb off my sycamore tree because a starling was trapped in it. He was dangling, panic-stricken, from a branch, attached to a shred from an accursed plastic bag. Seeing him fly away was a fine moment, an exalted moment.

The human identification with birds, the wish to safeguard their freedom, is a reflection both of our higher selves and of our realisation that, unlike them, we are prisoners of the flat earth. So we watch them, and marvel at them, and protect them, and sometimes meddle in their tiny lives, and it makes us feel better about ourselves.


Published (edited) in the Irish Daily Mail, 27th April 2013

Survival of the fattest


Low-paid workers are pawns in a game whose rules are being decided elsewhere


IT’S supposed to be the private sector that’s a dog-eat-dog world. In the public sector – union-defended and sheltered from market forces – the strong are supposed to shield the weak, because they can and because they should.

But now the Croke Park II deal, which protected low-paid public servants against pay cuts and safeguarded their jobs, has been rejected by the very unions that are meant to uphold fair play. In the public sector now, like everywhere else, it’s a case of survival of the fattest.

Public servants have to be paid for by the state one way or another (at least until the last public service is privatised). This means they’re not subject to the upsides or downsides of free enterprise. They can’t flit from job to job, demanding sweeteners wherever they go, as the rest of us were allegedly doing all through the boom. It also means most of them are guaranteed a job till retirement, recession or no, and a pension at the end of it.

To private sector workers, who know not the day nor the hour when their jobs might go, that seems more than reasonable compensation for not enjoying the perk of playing paintball with your 23-year-old boss in some bonkers corporate team-building exercise.

To those on zero-hours contracts, where you’re expected to be available for work whether there’s work or not, and be paid – or not – depending, a guaranteed 39-hour working week would be a godsend.

And to those who are flailing and sinking, jobless in a jobless job market, any position that pays looks like luxury, never mind a position you can’t be sacked from. Don’t like the thought of having your increments frozen? Tell that to a Job Bridge intern.

I worked for one private sector company for over 20 years. Unusually, I didn’t have to take a pay cut, but that was simply because I didn’t receive a pay rise at all between 2000 and 2011, despite a prolonged period of raging inflation. There were no “increments”, let alone increments completely unrelated to performance.

It wasn’t because of the recession, and I flatter myself it wasn’t because I was worthless. It was because I worked for a small, loss-making outfit to which I was unfashionably loyal. Then, in 2011, the company closed and its stranded workers were not entitled to a penny. That’s the system, out there.

Naturally the temptation is to tell public servants what most commentators have been telling them biliously in recent days: “You have a job. Now shut your trap.”

In reality, though, most public sector workers are not doing that well. Some 82% of them earn less than €60,000, and almost half of them, 45%, earn less than €40,000. The vast majority are comfortable, not rich, and Croke Park II acknowledged that. Now they can be thrown to the wolves.

Government is looking for €1bn in savings on public service pay by 2015, and €300 million this year, and it must get them, because those are the orders of our paymasters in the EU and IMF.

“Croke Park II is dead. That is democracy,” said Siptu president Jack O’Connor, suggesting that he has, well, let’s call it a quaint view of democracy.

Unions are now threatening industrial action, and some are pledging not even to talk about this again. So the union line is hardening. More significantly, and despite the illusion of unity in Wednesday’s result, the union line is splitting. An ideological fissure has been exposed.

Impact, which voted in favour, has said it “won’t accept a situation where Impact members face a worse package in order to appease members of other unions who have voted to reject”.

In a circular to members on Thursday, the union pointed out: “you can only make things more acceptable for one group by making it less acceptable for another.” There’s the rub.

Given that people earning under €65,000 were protected under this deal, we can conclude that those who thought it was a bad idea were those earning over €65,000. And the other union members who voted against it did so because that is the union way. You back up your co-workers. In other words, the low-paid have protected the high-paid.

Of course the vote also reflects an all-purpose anger about austerity and burden-sharing. Nobody is happy about having this whole business adjudicated by our overlords in the Troika. Nobody is happy that Ireland has paid 42% of the cost of the European banking crisis, or that the banks seem to be carrying on as if nothing happened, or that the accountancy firms that audited those banks are still advising Nama, or that property developers are still living large despite being supposedly in the red, or that overpaid politicians are still sitting in their warm ancestral seats, many of them claiming multiple pensions. Then there are the unsecured bondholders. And Seanie Fitzpatrick. And Bertie Ahern. If even half a dozen disreputable shysters had been cooling their heels in the slammer this week, Croke Park II might have passed.

Look what’s happened instead. Public sector workers now face a 7% pay cut across the board, together with other nasty measures such as compulsory redundancies, and the unions have ditched the protection that Croke Park II afforded to low-paid workers against this.

And where else is there to go? The unions want the money raised from a wealth tax, which might be all very well if the government had any influence over how to go about saving €1bn from the public purse. Clearly the unions think Enda Kenny is in charge; behold Jack O’Connor’s old-fashioned notion of democracy. But we’re all public servants now, in the service of propping up the euro.

Kenny told the Dáil this week that any move to tax high earners would fail, as Croke Park II failed for the very reason that it proposed to cut high earners’ pay. He neglected to mention, though, that outside of the public service, you don’t technically have to ask people first.

And if the unions do strike, how much sympathy do they anticipate? The public reaction to any action, especially by teachers, who would have some trouble scheduling a strike around their 18 weeks of annual holidays (there, I’ve said it) might shock them.

The unions are strutting like kings here, but they must know this game plan is being decided a long way away from Croke Park. The next move could checkmate them, and the pawns – the low-paid – will be hurt the most.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 21st April 2013

Travelling light


Airlines would practically have to pay Tom Cruise to fly


FINALLY, after threatening it for years, one airline has begun calculating its fares based on passengers’ weight, so the heavier you are, the more you pay. This is very good news for certain people who’ve felt hard done by in the matter of air fares up to now: Revenge of the 50-Kilo Woman, you might say.

Samoa Air claims, though not altogether convincingly, that its decision makes for the fairest possible means of charging passengers for air travel.

“The airline industry has this concept that all people through the world are the same size,” said Samoa Air chief executive Chris Langton, positively bathing in the sudden wave of free publicity. “Anyone who travels at times has felt they have been paying for half of the passenger next to them,” he added.

The idea is that passengers will be charged per kilo, having  declared their own weight at booking. Yes, you declare your own weight. Heh heh. However, you’ll also be weighed at the check-in desk, so fibbing won’t be… Wait, hang on. You’ll be weighed at the check-in desk? In front of everyone?

This calls to mind those fairground ‘I Speak Your Weight’ machines from the 1930s, in which you insert sixpence and then stand on the machine, aghast, as details of your excess tonnage are revealed to all and sundry. The alternative, ‘Pay Me Not to Speak Your Weight’ machine was  a much better idea but for some reason it never took off…

Nevertheless, despite this and other reservations (forgive the pun), the concept has on the whole been greeted favourably, though not necessarily because it’s actually a good idea or anything. One reason it’s been received with interest is that no one ever seems to mind it when overweight people are held accountable for their perceived failures – or even demeaned because of them (though that would properly be the subject of a whole different column).

Another is that hardly anyone has been able to resist wondering, with a sort of horrified fascination, how this practice might work out if Ryanair were to adopt it.

How might it be policed? Would you be railroaded out of the queue for check-in and asked to squeeze yourself into a metal cage, to see if you fit?

Would you be constantly being sized up by shrill Ryanair flight attendants, who are themselves so compact that they could be comfortably stowed in twos and threes in the overhead lockers (which would probably make for a pleasanter flight for everyone on board, but I digress).

In considering this, it must be borne in mind that men will, generally speaking, be worth more to airlines than women, which will surely cause trouble, while fat people will be worth more than anyone else.

Chris Langton didn’t mention the fact that Samoa is the fourth-most obese country in the world, according to the World Health Organisation, so Samoa Air probably isn’t running the risk of having planeloads of skinny malinks running the company into bankruptcy.

Take a Lilliputian creature such as Tom Cruise, for instance. An airline charging by weight would practically have to pay him to fly (except in so far as he adds value by transporting various thick-set Scientology types around with him at all times).

And skinny people generally will represent very poor value to a cost-conscious airline. After all, it takes a lot of effort to stay fashionably thin. A great deal of nice chow must be sacrificed. That sacrifice is often balanced by a lot of shopping for a lot of nice clothes that show your skeleton to its best advantage. What you save on carbohydrates you spend on Karl Lagerfeld.

Consequently, thin people tend to pack almost everything they look cute in, using up the entirety of their luggage allowance, rounded down to the nearest nanogram. Then they sit through the entire flight, with their hands dangling abstemiously in the gaps between their bony thighs, saying no to all the beer and hotdogs.

Fat people, by contrast, can never find anything to fit them, so they travel light, thus reducing the aircraft’s payload despite having paid more than anyone else for their tickets. And of course they famously can’t go more than ninety minutes without a snack, so even short-haul airlines get to offload their entire stockpile of money-making meatball subs before they expire (though in truth, a meatball sub doesn’t so much have an expiry date as a half-life).

In view of this, Ryanair would have to think up inventive ways to lure the more profitable obese travellers on board its flights. You dread to imagine what meretricious advertising the airline might employ to do this. Just how low might it stoop? You dread it, and yet you cannot help wanting to see it.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 7th April 2013

Mayo speaks its mind



TENTATIVE plans to erect a 100-foot statue of St Patrick on top of the patron saint’s sacred mountain have had to be dropped. To put it delicately, Mayo said no.

A Canadian sculptor inauspiciously named Timothy Schmalz was behind the idea. He compared it to the Statue of Liberty, and claimed it would have attracted millions of tourists every year at a cost of only €10m.

Schmalz planned to depict St Patrick in a sort of action hero pose, with one arm aloft and pointing aggressively at a shamrock, while four serpent-like creatures writhe cartoonishly at his feet.

Local paper the Mayo News took the liberty of canvassing Mayo’s opinion of the statue. To paraphrase the people of Mayo: “We’re deeply obliged to you but we must respectfully and regretfully decline your offer.” To quote the people of Mayo accurately: “Feck off for yourself with your 100-foot statue. Go on. Go on. Feck off out of that.”

Thank you, people of Mayo, for making your feelings so plain. If only we’d all been given the chance to be so forthright on the subject of public art, there wouldn’t be half so many revolting sculptures thrown up in town centres all over the country.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 31 March 2013

Silent majority… very silent indeed

taoiseach & helen mcentee

IN a death-defying leap of logic, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said Helen McEntee’s by-election win in Meath East proves there is a “silent majority” that backs Fine Gael in Government.

“There is a big silent majority here in Co Meath which voted for what is being put out in front of them and that’s the truth,” Kenny was quoted as saying. Then, finding himself suddenly marooned in the middle of his own sentence, he panicked and added, in a bewildering non sequitur: “there is no alternative to the truth and in that sense, by-elections are always worse to adjudicate on beforehand…”

Admittedly, the taoiseach could hardly call this result what it was – a victory for human sympathy – but still… Let’s have a closer look at that silent majority of his.

Helen McEntee was elected with 11,473 votes, of which 9,356 were first-preference votes. The total electorate in Meath East consists of 64,164 people, but there’s no getting around the conspicuous problem that only 38% of those people expressed any preference at all in this election.

This means that McEntee was the first-choice candidate of slightly under 15% of the electors of Meath East. She won, therefore, because the runner-up, Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne, was the first choice of only 12.5% of electors. She didn’t even reach the quota.

That’s our exemplary democratic process at work, there. Certainly, there’s a silent majority in it somewhere, but it doesn’t seem to be made up of people who voted Fine Gael.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 31 March 2013