Coastal flooding and the labour of Sisyphus


PIC: Carsten Krieger (

ISLAND life. That’s what the Loop Head peninsula has been like, on and off, since this ferocious year began less than six weeks ago. Island life, but without the grants, or the social welfare bonus, or the NCT exemption.

Loop Head is a pretty peninsula, svelte enough to show off the sea on all three sides at once. It’s green and pastoral and quiet, but it feels at times like the wildest place on earth. Two scrawny roads lead to it, and both of them have been obliterated by the sea twice so far this year, cutting us off from the rest of Ireland.

At the beginning, it’s like the first few hours of a power cut – all pre-industrial novelty. “When was the last time we played Cluedo by candlelight?,” you say cheerfully, as if forgetting that actually you’ve never experienced the slightest temptation to play Cluedo at all.

In the first 24 hours after being marooned, people get a quick kick out of disrupted routine – lighting big fires, running around to friends’ houses with baked goods, catching up on their correspondence, laughingly declaring a republic. Community spirit – always strongest in remote, weather-beaten places like this – makes everyone feel better. The locals gather rubbish, clear stones, sweep up kelp, check on their neighbours.

In the following few days, disaster tourists begin arriving in their cars to stare into the sinkholes that divide us from them, and to commit the scene to their cameraphone’s memory, if not their own. Hyperbole is thrown about like flotsam – “disaster”, “tragedy”, “devastated” – though nobody died. Yellow county council machines move things around inscrutably. Still no road. Gradually the worry grows from a niggle to a panic. How long are we going to be left like this?

Even in view of the wreckage, twice over, of local infrastructure since the start of this year, probably the worst thing to happen to west Clare was the flooding of Cork this week. Once a city has fallen, that’s it for the rest of us. Cork is at once deluged with promises of hundreds of millions of euros, and the people of west Clare fear being left tiptoeing through the seaweed in perpetuity.

In its report to government last month, Clare County Council estimated that the January storms did €23.7m worth of damage along the Clare coast – almost €3.5m of that here in Kilbaha village alone. Then last weekend happened. Meanwhile, environment minister Phil Hogan has allocated €15m for flood relief nationally.

The R487 (as absolutely nobody calls it) veers too close the sea on the south coast of Loop Head at Kilbaha, and was turned into rubble by Storm Christine in January. The county council spent hundreds of man-hours crudely patching it up so the stranded inhabitants of the western end of the peninsula could get back to their normal lives. And we did, briefly.

But in the storm and high tides of last weekend, the sea simply reclaimed the road in full. The only signs of human endeavour left on Sunday were the remains of the council’s temporary concrete barriers, tortured and broken to bits as they tried to hold back the waves.

Similarly, along the north coast of the peninsula, the thoroughfare was made impassable by beach stones and gabions – the rock-filled cages that are supposed to keep the sea away from the road and are now instead strewn all over it.

No one is asking how much money and time have been spent already on the Sisyphean task of repairing all this damage. No one really wants to know, because it has all come to nothing. What people do want to know is how much more money we can honestly expect will continue to be thrown at this problem in the vain hope of making it go away.

It’s worse elsewhere, of course, which isn’t helping. In Kilbaha, there are two public businesses (our only two) close to the water line, but very few houses, most villagers having settled on higher ground at least 200 years ago. But east of here, an estimated 1,200 acres of land are under water, and there is worse to come. Meanwhile, Limerick city, submerged and angry, is deeply and vociferously regretting the property tax. Then there’s Cork, still at a loss over whether to blame this government, the last government, or St Finbarr.

Clonmel, meanwhile, is dry – at least for the present. The town that suffered the worst flooding in recent years is now the proud owner of a €40m flood defence scheme, completed in 2012. By happy coincidence, Clonmel happened to be in the constituency of the then minister with responsibility for the OPW, Martin Mansergh. He has professed himself very proud of the flood defence system, and understandably so. Local paper the Nationalist reported this week that only one town centre home was damaged by rising water.

The government had been working on plans to spend €45m nationally on flood defences, but is now considering increasing that sum to €100m over the next five years. Bear in mind that a capital investment of €100m would just about cover the long-talked-about flood defence system for Cork city.

“By comparison with other European countries, we are not as well prepared,” said Brian Hayes, junior finance minister with responsibility for the OPW, when asked about flood defences this week.

Hayes is at pains, though, to make us understand that there isn’t enough money to do everything. “The idea that we can protect every acre of land in the country is a lie and a pretence and that has to be struck on its head,” he told RTE Radio 1’s Today with Sean O’Rourke this week.

So we can’t all be saved. We probably all knew that already. What we don’t know is who gets the right to decide who is saved and who isn’t. Choices are going to be made, but who is going to make them, and on what basis? Who has the strongest claim on those rapidly dwindling funds?

Meanwhile, back here on the Atlantic seaboard, communities are bracing themselves yet again as another angry mob of low-pressure systems makes its way eastward to beat us up next week. And in many of those communities, people are quietly starting to wonder if maybe things would be better for us if they were worse.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 9 February 2014

It’s tourist season, yet you’re not allowed to shoot them…


‘Tourists II’ by Duane Hanson

THIS despatch comes to you from the Loop Head peninsula, a wild, salty, blue-and-green retreat that time – and, until recently, people – never bothered with much. We had the place to ourselves and could spend our days unmolested, striding the windy cliffs, cooing over dolphins, getting ice-cream headaches from the freezing Atlantic, searching the rockpools for constellations of starfish, and talking amongst ourselves, about our own affairs.

Then, late last month, Loop Head was voted the Best Place to Holiday in Ireland. This news was meant to be greeted ecstatically by one and all, and not just because it sat well with the justifiable sense of civic pride we all share here. No, we are supposed to be overjoyed because it will lead to a big influx of tourists, and it’s thought that there’s nothing a rural-dweller likes better than the sight of another busload of unwary Americans lumbering past their house, making their windows rattle and flatulating diesel fumes all over their herbaceous borders.

“Tourism is the march of stupidity,” said the writer Don de Lillo. “You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travellers acting stupidly.”

Yes, it can be refreshing to see new faces in your home place, and to hope for novel conversation, but on the whole, tourists are annoying. They wear shorts in the rain. They expect to be fleeced wherever they go. They have worse road sense than a deranged border collie with a grudge against cars. They persist in filming stationary objects. Somehow they can never get the hang of manual transmission. Mistakenly, they thought it would be a good idea to cycle 50 miles in one day. And they complain about everything – the weather, the prices, the facilities, the roads – until you find yourself standing up for Ireland like an idiot, bursting lustily into a few bars of ‘Follow Me Up To Carlow’ and wishing to God they’d take you up on it (sorry, Carlow).

Then there’s the shocking amount of fossil fuels they burn up getting here, but let’s just let that bandwagon trundle past for the moment… there are too many people on it already.

Now that the farmers of the west of Ireland have been marginalised and its fishermen all but criminalised, tourism is presented as the great white hope for the rural economy. “Tourism is one of the ways we can fight depopulation and emigration,” said Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, when Loop Head’s win was announced.

It seems such an exaggerated claim, when you scrutinise it, but this is the prevailing orthodoxy. Indeed, the idea is so firmly established that rural tourism is aggressively promoted without even the need for prior consultation with those whose day-to-day lives will be affected by it. Naturally you must want more tourists. Why wouldn’t you?

Dissent is unacceptable, an embarrassment. And any opposition is especially unwelcome when it comes from a blow-in, who is not dependent for a living on the endangered regional industries of agriculture or fishing and who therefore has no right to complain.

But everyone is affected by this – not just privileged blow-ins cribbing about no longer having the beaches to themselves. Everyone is forced into compromises, whether they like it or not – farmers trying to complete their tasks while the caprices of time and weather are in their favour, commuters (yes, we have commuters) trying to get to work, parents worried about road safety and their children.

Tourists tend to begin and end their journeys in towns, whizzing dangerously past your house on their way to the next beauty spot, so they can say they ‘did’ it. If you’re not providing an amenity, you’re invisible to them.

Tourism brings congestion, litter, local price inflation, traffic, and even crime. At its worst, it leads to insensitive development, especially when you bear in mind the number of sociopaths that seem to populate county council planning departments. And because it puts an intolerable burden on infrastructure that was not built to cope with it, it can cause chronic air and water pollution.

In 2011, tourism accounted for 4.1% of tax revenue, according to Fáilte Ireland figures. For every euro spent in tourism, 24.5 cent is generated in tax. That would be a nice little earner for rural areas if the government were to spend 24.5 cents out of every rural tourist euro providing some basic services and facilities, or upgrading the infrastructure to cope with the strain that tourism places on it.

Around most of the Loop Head peninsula, the roads are wide enough for only one car, let alone two tour buses meeting grille to grille. There is no public transport. Until a few years ago, there used to be a lone bus that left on a Friday morning and, comically, didn’t return for seven days. If you left by bus, you had to plan to stay gone a week. But even that has now been cancelled.

The water comes from a group scheme which is disastrously overtaxed, annually, by the massive influx of tourists to the nearest town, Kilkee. Power cuts are a regular occurrence. There is no public sewage system. The broadband network is so inadequate – and so expensive – that teleworkers are at a serious disadvantage, and many local businesses don’t even have websites. The nearest Accident & Emergency unit is 70 miles away. You have to drive 100 miles round-trip to the cinema, or the tax office, or the NCT centre.

We have all the disadvantages you’d expect to find in a remote rural location, in other words, but now with added crowds. “You’ve got tourism now,” says the government. “What are you complaining about?”

Rural tourism is a very high-profile business, celebrated unquestioningly for its regenerative effects. But realistically, how many people can expect to benefit from it?

Of course increased tourism is good news for local tourism businesses. And of course you want the people who run those businesses to succeed. They work nightmarishly hard all summer, forgoing any chance to enjoy the area themselves at the very time when it’s at its most beautiful. Many of them continue working though the long dark months, when there’s hardly anyone about – not least because so many people have had to emigrate – and they get little reward for the hours they put in. These are not tax-dodging international business conglomerates, they’re neighbours, they’re friends.

Of course you wish them well, but you neither expect nor hope to benefit from their success yourself. You would want to be a slavish disciple of trickle-down theory to imagine that the profits from one neighbour’s prosperous B&B could lift another impoverished neighbour off the breadline.

Tourism generates low-paid employment for unskilled or low-skilled workers – not sufficient to persuade anyone that their prospects wouldn’t be better in Australia. And tourism businesses do well only during the summer. They and their employees must find some other way to supplement their living for eight or nine months of the year. It’s at best a sideline, for almost everyone involved.

And even in the unlikely event that your hardworking neighbour becomes as rich as Croesus off the back of his tourism venture, there’s nowhere for him to spend any of his money except in town. So the much-vaunted ‘multiplier effect’ takes place elsewhere, not benefiting anyone in the rural area.

Tourism is – or can be  – good for those enterprising people who stand to gain from it. Those with nothing to gain are obliged to put up and shut up while their quality of life deteriorates for what is described, questionably, as the greater good.

The solution, according to the dominant rural tourism ideology, is for as many people as possible to become – that hateful word – ‘stakeholders’. Fed up with tourism? Get in on the action yourself. That’ll sweeten it for you.

Theoretically, the barriers to entry are meant to be low. Any hard-up farm family can consider the opportunities presented by tourist bed nights, and take a few free courses so as to learn how to position their rashers and their polyester sheets in the global marketplace. And what about putting up a Wall of Death in the back acre? At least, that’s until they run into a Gordian knot of red tape to do with planning permission, environmental impact reports, Fáilte Ireland specifications, public liability insurance, health and safety standards and fire regulations.

Worse, though, that sort of mentality can transform the whole culture of an area for the worse. Rural dwellers have always tended to have a way of getting along with one another, because we have to. But with tourism, competition develops where there was none before. The inhabitants potentially become a colony of eager little capitalists with euro signs in their eyes, vying with one another to plámás the Yanks, and commodifying and “exploiting” everything they own and everything they stand for. The indigenous culture is replaced by one that is amenable to tourists, and so tourists end up destroying the very thing they’ve come to see. Think Killarney.

Loop Head is beautiful – I’m proud and happy to live here – but many other places are just as beautiful and moreso. The one thing that Loop Head has always had going for it – its one truly outstanding natural advantage – was that it was completely and utterly unspoilt by tourism…

The thing is, every last one of the people involved in the tourism industry on the Loop Head peninsula also desperately wants the area to remain as it is. Low-impact, sustainable tourism is the goal everyone shares here. But who gets to decide this? Who gets to shout stop? And when? Before it’s too late, or after?


Published in the Irish Daily Mail, Saturday 8 June 2013

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

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



STARBUCKS, it was reported this week, is considering introducing electronic displays so customers can play Angry Birds, the world’s most popular mobile game, while they sip their macchiato.

Perhaps this tells us something about the evolution of social mores. Recently enough it was bad manners to use a mobile phone in a cafe; now you can use your mobile to fire birds out of a slingshot at enemy pigs, while the other patrons in the cafe look on and maybe even, on the happiest of days, applaud.

Angry Birds has been downloaded some 350 million times, so this is probably just a simple matter of majority rule. Even British prime minister David Cameron is reportedly a fan of Angry Birds, which will be a comfort to those who look to the Bullingdon club for guidance on proper behaviour in polite society.

It’s funny, then, the way having an interest in actual birds is still so very uncool. It’s that time of year again, when the birdwatchers arrive in south-west Clare. You forget all about them from one autumn to the next. Then one morning you wake up and ten men in nylon jackets are leaning over your garden wall, looking through binoculars and pretending they can’t see you.

This is a place so windy that what few trees we have are all reaching longingly toward the more temperate east. Nevertheless we have birds which, like proper locals, we don’t appreciate. For many of us, there are really only three species of bird – ones that look like crows, ones that look like seagulls and ones that look like sparrows. The latter group includes robins; everyone knows robins.

“Oh look, there’s a kittiwake,” say friends who come to visit. “What? Where? Oh, you mean that seagull thing?” we reply.

One year a Canada Warbler got blown off course and ended up here by mistake, and apparently this is no place for a Canada Warbler. Bird-watchers flocked from all over the world to see it. This was an event so momentous in bird-watching circles that it even brought about a relaxation of the stringent rules governing birdwatcher/non-birdwatcher interaction. Customarily, when they see you coming, birdwatchers fly away, or attempt to make themselves invisible in the hedgerows, but the beatific presence of a stranded yellow bird led to a social breakthrough. They actually let us look through their binoculars.

There it was, a tiny yellow body sitting motionless on a low branch. The excitement was palpable. “Wilsonia Canadensis, you say? My word, how interesting.” The birdwatchers preened, visibly pleased at having impressed us. A new mutual regard became a possibility. Maybe this birdwatching lark had something going for it after all. Better go home and lock the cats up.

Then it emerged that nobody had a rescue operation in mind – nobody, not even the birdwatchers who had flown in from Canada, and so, you would think, might have been in a position to give a doomed Canada Warbler a lift home. Birdwatchers don’t interfere; nature has to have its way; the bird must die; they simply observe it in its last wretched hours and write what they see into their wretched notebooks.

It is at moments like those that you realise you will never be a birdwatcher. You can, however, become a birdwatcher-watcher. Why do they all have the same plumage? Is there a shop that specialises in navy rainproof clothing for birdwatchers? Except that one there, look – do you think that high-vis vest is an attempt to attract a mate? Shh, don’t laugh, you’ll startle them. Why are so few of them handsome? Is that why the handsome ones stand out so much? Why do none of them have young? Come to think of it, where are all the females?

Sometimes the bird-watchers arrive in such great numbers that the experience calls to mind wading through the pigeons on St Mark’s Square. Only by clapping your hands sharply can you get them to move out of the way. To their credit, though, it must be said of them that they leave very few droppings.

At night, tired and thirsty, they make their way in V formation to the local cafe bar, where they sit for two-and-a-half hours with one half-pint of Guinness, thereby subverting years of carefully-placed propaganda about the benefits of tourism to the rural economy.

Meanwhile, back in the real economy, the man behind Angry Birds will fly into Ireland next month. Mikael Hed, chief executive of the game developer Rovio, is attending the Dublin Web Summit on 27 and 28 October, which may be of interest to people who follow the migratory patterns of tycoons. This could be a chance to pitch him the Angry Birds spin-off – Angry Birdwatchers.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 25 September 2011