Tuesday, 27 February 2007

Gathering my bits

Yesterday, Ike pinged to say I'd shown up on her blog stats - a LiveSearch for me - sent me the link for the results. I was happy to see that Essays from Ireland still top the bill - almost a decade on. But ever-organised Ike was unimpressed by the trail of writings I've abandoned on the web.

My goal for now is to gather my scribbles, revisit some, and write some more. Until I figure out the clever nav widgets, and the templates, finding your way around here is a task. I'm working on it.

About larger goals and boundaries - step one first. This task requires me to research my web detritus and gather it back, to structure this diverse information in a useful manner, and then I can deal with the task of how I can share my learning in a cheap and cheerful way.

My ultimate goal is to participate in innovative projects to deliver best practice for sustainable enterpise and society. This blog will focus on positive ways to ...

Monday, 26 February 2007

Jaded by power

Published September 2002

Those in power get jaded, deluded, and seduced by power itself. The hunger for absolute power and, more to the point, the abuse of power, are part of human nature.

This quote from Clint Eastwood begs the question: How can an individual in society protect him/her self against abuse of power by the institutions that are designed to manage and protect that society? On all sides, in all arenas, we find compelling evidence of the truth of Eastwood�s remark.

Elected officials

Politics in the so-called democratic countries of the west rely on electoral rigging, gerrymandering of constituencies, media spin-doctoring and manipulation, corporate donations to political groups . . . While politicians scratch their heads in supposed wonder at the apathy of the electorate, a frightening proportion of people living in the west do not vote and have virtually disenfranchised themselves.

Selected officials

So much for our elected officials, what of those who are selected, the career civil servants whose job it is to administer state services? With rare exceptions, the delivery of state services is unwieldy and unfriendly to the individual � even the handful of civil servants that aren't obsessed with promotion and career breaks find themselves tied to the bureaucratic nightmares of form-filling, rubber-stamping and paper trails.

Brown paper envelopes

In recent years Irish taxpayers have funded a spate of costly legal investigations into dishonesty in high places, including one investigation that focused specifically on collusion between politicians, planning officers and private property speculators. In these tribunals it emerged that hundreds of thousands of anonymous pounds were being passed around in brown paper envelopes. For the individual the brown paper envelope usually contains a demand for money. In the corridors of power in Ireland that same receptacle came to represent a gift of money.

The brown paper envelope is endemic, not only in Ireland, but in western society as a whole. Already victim of the consequences of immoral collusion between state (elected and selected) and private sector, the hard-earned money of the individual taxpayer is further frittered away on outing the perpetrators? Media spin doctors are paid (more tax costs) to reassure us that reform is now in hand (further tax costs). The individual is paying, time and again, to perpetuate the cycle of abuse, funding corrupt institutions and individuals to reinvent themselves every time they are caught out.

This reinvention delivers a lexicon of political correctness - words such as "openness", "accountability", "participative democracy" - the spin doctors make a fortune from coining them and training their clients to use them meaningfully. There was I, since my childhood, thinking that these concepts were cornerstones of a truly democratic society. Well, thought made a fool of me! Brown paper envelopes and double standards are the true cornerstones I fear.

The libertarian proposition

Which brings me back to Clint Eastwood, who is a self-professed libertarian. Taking its founding principles from the likes of Thomas Jefferson, a growing libertarian movement is emerging in the US. This movement sees itself as occupying a separate space in a separate dimension from the traditional left-right divide represented by political parties in the west. The left-right divide has its origin in the post-revolutionary governing assembly in France in the 1790s. To avoid violence in the assembly, monarchists were seated on the right, republicans on the left, with armed guards positioned between them.

For whatever reasons, the two-dimensional, left-right divide has dominated western political thinking since. To suggest that this concept has outlived its usefulness is a profound understatement. Do young people not vote because they are lazy or because no candidate addresses their issues, speaks with their voice? Are they apathetic, disillusioned, or downright skeptical?

The diamond model

Such is the crisis of western democracy that the people who pay for it do not believe in it but it's such a beast they can't even contemplate fixing it. Where to start? The libertarians (who need a spin doctor to work on that awful name) propose a new model for political (and social and economic) science. This model proposes four dimensions, theoretically in a diamond formation. At the top of the diamond is the libertarian and, at the opposite pole is the authoritian. To the right is the conservative who favours economic freedom and moral control. And opposite is the leftie who favours moral freedom and economic controls.

diamond model of political structures by David Nolan

This grid is the brainchild of one David Nolan, a political science graduate of MIT, who first presented the concept in 1971. The model offers a number of opportunities for re-evaluating our political perceptions. For example, rather than placing Marxism in the left and Stalinism in the right, it places both in Authoritarian - the former to the left of the grid, the latter to the right. This process recognises the fact that both have more in common with each other than with their respective political outfielders.

Unjading the jaded

Some crucial issues emerge when you view how societies organise themselves using the diamond model. Rather than addressing fundamental questions about state control vs. freedoms, western democracies only address right-left issues. Apply some healthy skepticism and it becomes apparent that those that currently control our societies have a vested interest in and imagine the degree of political and institutional control you wish to pay for. Hey presto - maybe the self-disenfranchised (or can we call them conscientious objectors?) will find something worth voting for.

Blog stream

Published July 2002

I was bogged down writing this story until I came across a piece by Simon Tisdall in the Guardian about linking. I thought it was going to be another of many current stories on the great internet deep linking controversy. Having almost forgotten that there was such a thing as a non-hypertext link, I was almost shocked to read about another form of linking. The linking game described in the article, puts imaginary people together linking concepts and events to arrive at some crazy conclusions. David Eyke (remember the shell suit?) links magnificently when he tells all about the illuminati.

Thinking about linking brought me to thinking about lateral thinking and Edward de Bono. He's top of the de Bono list at google, above U2. His site description says

Edward de Bono is regarded by many as the leading authority in the
world in the field of creative thinking and the direct teaching of thinking

He's the daddy of lateral thinking and I think he has a pad on an island in west cork. Which might explain why his website has that ghostly gone away feeling. Back in the heady 90s he was going for it: touting for 5 million members for the Edward de Bono Creative Team - note the trade mark. He also started TOPP, a web-based political party - acronym can mean Tired Of Politics Party we're told. He had lots of specific projects on the go, including Bonto which publishes poems in a creative exercise set by de Bono. Copyright credit for each of the four line poems is Author and the Edward de Bono Creative Team. The team is the sole owner of emails on the TOPP project, which is quite a bizarre archive.

But the poems and the emails stopped in 1999. That's about the time when people started drifting from the party - ecommerce wasn't going according to plan and there was no plan b. The net was getting tacky with email spam and pop up adverts and viruses - and very cluttered. Surfing was harder work for less return and maintaining a site was costly and time-consuming.

The Napster movement kept some of the buzz alive while people shared music files with each other over the internet. The music industry fought back and it's now illegal to share your favourite sounds online. If you want to have a weep, visit the napster site - the day the music died. Be interesting to know where Don McLean stands on Napster.

Napster was silenced but they're finding it harder to stop the individual who flout the law and carry on regardless. So now the record companies are threatening to sue individuals. It seems they're going to hang out in chat rooms and newsgroups to flush these arch terrorists out. Creepy.

Today the bloggers are running with the baton of a free and independent web. In place of music, bloggers share web logs (hence blogs) of links and personal opinions. The logs generate a stream of consciousness flow of dynamic content that races around the web via a rapidly growing network of self-publishers. With the internet going bankrupt, blogging is growing at the speed of light. According to an article in The Economist, a year ago there were about 30,000 people at it, now it's estimated to be 500,000. I did the sums and they support the claim of a growth rate nearing 25% a month. Scary numbers.

Bloggers are re-inventing the web which was (maybe still is) on the brink of collapse. A vast body of knowledgable, articulate writers is creating and distributing a new channel of free dynamic content. Let's call this content the blog stream where stories flow as well as gossip, rumours, tech talk, medical talk, you name it. One recurring theme is about why we blog. Everybody describes it as addictive. Blogging is doing for the art of writing what the Harry Potter books did for the art of reading - reawakening people's delight in airing their views.

Every minute of the day, 24/7, hundreds, maybe thousands of writers are scouring the web for content and streaming it onwards, driving readers to stories through hypertext links. News sites gain traffic, but with advertising sales down, traffic doesn't translate into cash.

Big news sites are expensive to run and money is as tight there as elsewhere. Venture capital is gone, share issues are meaningless and nobody's buying advertising. The print trade has always been an economic litmus test. When times are tough printers are the first to go out of business. That being the case, those news sites that are online arms of paper publishers are under additional pressure, because sales are down across the media board.

News sites must increase revenue and they are trying different approaches. The Financial Times offers readers a mix of free and subscription material but all stories for the past week are open to all. Other newspapers require you to register and supply personal details before providing you with free access to information. This process can be adapted to gather payment information if the publisher opts to become a subscription only service. In most cases the switch to subscription brings about a sharp decrease in readership, with a limited increase in revenue, but less appeal to advertisers if they ever come back.

It goes against the grain for a publisher to turn away readers - reaching readers is their spiritual mission in life. Lose readers they will for sure, if the Danish Newspaper Association acts on its right to ban a search engine from deep linking to stories on its website. The publishing world watched last week while they took their case to the Danish courts, and won. Presumably, they intend to act on the verdict and force the search engine to point links to all pages on the site to the address of the top page. Just maybe, the search engine will prefer to remove all links, period. Either way, I guess there�ll be a lot less people reading their stories.

Continuing with the process of erasing their website, will the Danish group next turn their attention to bloggers. Like the record company police prowling in chat rooms, will Danish journalists be found lurking in the blog stream, pouncing on these dangerous criminals. So people will stop linking to them and, sooner or later, the job is done, the website is wiped from the web. Somewhere or other there's a server storing their content but it has no traffic because nobody knows they are there, or cares.

Hypertext links are the web, the core of HyperText Markup Language. A site that bans deep linking is defying the nature of HTML. At dotblog Richard Giles is running a list of sites to boycott because they are anti-deep linking. Dave Winer on Scripting News thinks it's an oxymoron to oppose deep links and is disgusted by the whole affair. He's also been blogging the Janice Ian story that's hitting the headlines. Here is Janice Ian's ripping attack on the music industry. After you read it, sign her guest book in support. I did and got a personal email in response. Now that's good marketing. I've never had an album of hers but now we're on personal terms maybe I'd like to know how she sounds.

Janis Ian isn't running a blog yet but she's ideal for it � I shall suggest it. Her opinions would be appreciated on the blog stream, where there's a strong music undercurrent. Adam Currie, a founder of MTV, runs a very active blog with a lot of music talk. Today Adam is plugging the Northsea Jazz Festival. He's prolific - probably comes from being a DJ.

Blogs are as much about reading as writing, and bloggers become increasingly well informed. I have no great interest in Microsoft's plans for the future � I resigned myself to their inevitable control some time ago - but the blogs are full of stories about Palladium. As a result, I know a lot more about it and have developed an opinion on the matter. And on the Palladium trail I discovered more interesting bloggers to get to know.

Can you remember how you communicated before email? Not only did you do less of it but you did it in a different, more formal, way. In a few years time you'll be asking yourself how you communicated before blogging and you'll find yourself to be better informed and more articulate.

Racial tensions flare in Europe

Published June 2002

Not so long ago, Europeans migrated to the US, either legally or illegally, off in search of a better quality of life in the land of the free. With an estimated half million people entering the EU illegally every year, the tides have turned, and immigration is becoming the hottest political issue in the union. They come overland and by sea, sandwiched like beasts in container trucks, or clung to the underbellies of trains, or risking life and limb to swim it, from countries throughout Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia. The mind boggles at the social and economic conditions they leave behind, if life in a refugee camp in Europe seems preferable.

European governments seem unable to develop a coherent policy in the face of the tidal wave. In Ireland it only seems like yesterday when emmigration was the big social problem - as recently as ten years ago it was the main option for school leavers. And then overnight a refugee problem emerged and became the subject of hot media debate. In the 90s Ireland went from being one of the poorest countries in the EU to one of the richest. The massive, endemic unemployment of the previous four decades gave way to a brave new era of labour shortages in the low paid sectors: catering, agricultural workers. The new, affluent, well-educated Irish youth were not going to work in a kitchen or in the fields. The boom attracted economic immigrants from many countries but farbeit from the Irish government in its wisdom to match jobseekers to the available jobs. They were illegal so they must be maintained by the state, not allowed to work, while awaiting the lengthy and cumbersome legal procedures that would decide that the vast majority of them must be returned from whence they came. Meantime, boom time or not, in the streets of Dublin and other cities, great pockets of poverty and social deprivation continue to exist, increasingly unacceptable in the face of the flamboyant wealth in neighbouring communities. And in the classic spirit of divide and rule, the blame is laid more and more at the door of the asylum-seekers. Poverty and ignorance are fed a media diet of stories about the refugees that arrive dripping in gold, being provided with first class accommodation and not even having to work for a living.

If I were fleeing a cruel and unjust regime I'd try to get my valuables out as well - only thing between me and starvation perhaps. Many jews that were lucky enough to escape Hitler's Europe carried what wealth they could with them in the form of gold teeth and hidden diamonds. For some this secreted wealth was what bought them passage to safety. The second issue is one of accommodation. Ireland had never experienced immigration in any great numbers until the 90s. When the Irish go to London, or New York, or wherever, they will find an Irish community where they can find help and support. Irish cities didn't really have the equivalent - no Latin quarter, a tiny chinese community, no greek sector . . . As people arrived in increasing numbers the government decided to deal with the accommodation crisis by buying or leasing hotels around the countryside under a policy of "dispersal". At the same time they rescinded the right for asylum seekers to enjoy standard economic supports available until then to all as a right in Irish society. Instead of money, asylum seekers were provided with food in their accommodation and given a meagre 15 pounds per week (about 20 euro) in cash. It is difficult, if not impossible, to develop a relationship with the host community if you can't afford to spend money there - buy a newspaper, a pint of Guinness in the local, go to a football match or hear some live music - all of these things sum up the Irish experience and the immigrant groups were economically barred from participation.

In small rural towns and villages a hotel full of people that has no money to spend and can't speak the language creates a huge social imbalance. And, furthermore, the loss of the hotel as a source of tourism business is an economic blow to everybody in the community. It doesn't take long before blame for all petty crime is laid at the doors of the asylum seekers. Feeding these local fears is the emergence of an Irish national movement that has nothing to do with the traditional northern conflicts but focuses on Ireland for the Irish. A lunatic fringe issues paranoid and apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of immigration. They may not be gaining ground in the polls yet but their very presence is enough to ensure that the media bites get more and more strident.

The story in England is quite different, where racism has been a hot political topic since long before Enoch Powell's infamous Rivers of Blood speech. I've lived in the heart of the East End of London where chirpy cockneys are among the friendliest people on earth if you're white. Over 250 languages are spoken in London where racial tensions can be very high between different immigrant communities as well as with the host community. I recall my horror at the racism of one Irish woman I met who was angry because her children were not allowed to celebrate St Patricks Day at school but were expected to learn Urdu. From what I could gather, this was a fault of government policy rather than of the individual children in the school. For many years government in England went a little bit crazy about equality. Every job advert seemed to prioritise applicants from ethnic, racial or sexual minorities - which really got up the noses of the many English people, men in particular, who felt automatically barred by virtue of their birthright. This policy encouraged rather than diminished racial division - discrimination is discrimination whether you call it positive or not.

The latest from the Blair government is that they intend to build massive new holding centres for asylum seekers throughout the UK. This effective prison camps are intended to create an inseparable divide between illegal immigrants and the host community. Why any person that has any value on life and liberty would want to be incarcerated in such an environment I cannot fathom. For many of these immigrants, English is the "mother country", the country that stripped their assets during colonial times and now closes its doors to them. Many in England are appalled by these measures but their voice seems to be increasingly less effective - and they wonder why young people are turning their backs on politics!

Recently I arrived in France to witness the horror on the ground when Le Pen ousted Jospin from the second round of the presidential elections. For the next two weeks there were demonstrations and riots on the streets of the cities against Le Pen. As in Ireland and England, the issue of immigration has become a huge political football. While they worship their immigrant Zinadine Zidane they complain and protest about the drain the "sans papiers" (without papers) are on the social system. France is rightly proud of her fair and equitable education, health, and retirement system - but is becoming increasingly less generous about sharing it with others that may need help. Appealing to people's greed it is easy for cynical politicians to blame higher taxes on the weakest element of society. In the end of the day the french voters closed ranks against the extremism of Le Pen and opted to give a massive power base to a coalition of the less extreme right. It's fairly safe to assume that this new grouping will place reduced taxes high on their agenda which will place the social system under increasing pressure. In this environment it is also fair to assume that there will be increasing intolerance for any additional drains on the system - look out asylum seekers.

Over the mountains in Austria we are hearing scary stories about Hader. Perhaps the scariest is that he has successfully introduced legislation for a two-tier education system. There's one set of schools for the native-born and another for outsiders. When we arrived in France we went down to the local school and signed up for our children to start there the following Monday. From day one they went into a French classroom where they had to sink or swim. They hadn't a word of french when they started but that didn't stop communication with the other kids and they were immediately integrated in the playground. How long would it take them to get to know the locals in Hader's system?

Europe's success leads to new problems. Creating a common currency is a major step towards economic integration and increases its attraction as a destination for economic migrants. It's a fact of life that if you're a wealthy country, or federation, you are a magnet to poorer people. With a diversity of cultures and political regimes within the wider borders of the EU, developing a common imigration policy and the methods for policing such a policy is a political minefield. Within Europe different countries have traditional loyalties and relationships with a range of non-EU members. The UK has a special relationship for example with Australia and makes special provisions for Australian workers. However, Spain has no such relationship with Australia - maybe a compromise could be arranged. But if you compromise on Australia, what about all the other compromises.

This debate occurs against a backdrop where there is a drive to tear down the internal borders within the EU. If you remove customs checks at internal borders it makes for easier passage of European citizens throughout the union, but how do you spot the wandering Australian , or Nigerian, or Latvian if you don't have such border controls? I think we need to accept the right of individuals to live where they want so long as they respect the legal and social mores of that country. While we tolerated and encouraged the globalisation of corporate entities that showed no respect for our laws or institutions, we became increasingly intolerant and discouraging of the globalisation of the individual. In light of the financial scandals emerging in the US, perhaps it's a good time to take stock of our priorities and to focus more on the human rights and freedoms of ordinary people who seek a better life.

Poor diet is a crime

Published July 2002

I listened to a report on the BBC world service (go here http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/health/newsid_2063000/2063117.stm for the full story) about the findings of a study carried out at Oxford University on the impact of diet on crime. The study found that when prisoners in a high security prison in Buckinghamshire where provided vitamin and mineral supplements in their diet that their reoffending rates dropped by a massive 25 per cent. The study is now being extended to the general population and it points to the possibility that crime may be less about poor parenting and more about poor diet. Makes sense when you think about it.

Over the past few months, as something of an outside/inside observor in France during the presidential and legislative elections, much of the hype that led to the rise in the right related to security and crime. Seems like the whole world is becoming paranoid and scared of the next door neighbour. Fear is fed by cynical politicians, insurance companies and people dealing in security devices. Meantime, in one of an infinite number of vox pops carried out in the South of France during the election campaigns, a market trader in Le Pen country was asked about crime and security - he smiled lazily and said "what crime?". And that's about the plain truth of it. Living here over the past couple of months I feel I've arrived in one of the safest, least menacing societies ever. No need to lock doors or windows except of course for the insurance company. No need to feel scared walking down the street or to dance around your handbag at the discotheque. No need to put your children on reins for fear somebody might whisk them away. Kevin returned to the car at the supermarket one day to find a queue of people rushing up to him to tell him that somebody had dinged the side of the car. The perpetrator of this "major offense" had stayed around and also approached him, full of apologies and offers to pay for what was a mere scratch - pas de probleme. I grant you that we live in a rural area, far from the social, economic and melting pot presssures of big cities, but instinct tells me that we are living in a country where criminals are the exception rather than the rule.

I used to assume that the high crime rates in the US were down to the gun laws - putting temptation in the way of angst people. However, there's guns a plenty where I'm living now - you can't drive down the road of a Sunday without seeing the chasseurs about their weekend sport. But they don't seem so quick to turn their guns on each other. And what's the best known secret about France - they live to eat rather than eat to live. Even Macdonalds french style is more civilized, serving real coffee, nice ice cream, salad with everything, and beer! They may get wound up but then they have a nice leisurely 2 hour meal and the worries of the world are absorbed, digested and minimised. And, as the world's biggest consumers of anti-depressants, or so I'm told, if the food doesn't do the trick, they take a pill. Beats beating up on your neighbours, or attacking the schoolyard in a fit of teenage annoyance.

So, the moral of this story - get up early enough to have some breakfast, take at least 2 hours for lunch and eat lots, and spend your evening eating - you won't have the time or energy to fall out with the world. Buy your food at the market - prod everything, smell it, savour the flavour. Then teach your children to do the same thing because, at their core, food is a hugely important part of a child's existence. They may shriek for Macdonalds and pizza and chicken nuggets - it's up to us to help them to explore the world of food, to introduce rituals such as laying the table, having multiple courses, trying new flavours, cheeses, breads . . . It's a lot cheaper than taking them to a fast food restaurant every time you're feeling tired. And, once you get into the swing of it, it strengthens family bonds and becomes a pleasure. Where I grew up they used to say the family that prays together stays together - a load of old poppycock if you ask me. I'm now discovering the french secret - the family that eats together is happier together.

Buying a house in France

Published July 2002

When I was considering moving to France I did some online research and found a number of Websites that offered advice about the legal and financial issues. Some proved useful; others did not but, for all of this research, nothing prepared me for what I eventually encountered. Here is a personal account of our experiences, where we ignored all the prevailing advice and dived on in regardless. If we had been more careful we might have had a smoother passage but I'm not sure whether we'd ever have completed the process.

Pinning the tail on the donkey

The first decision to make is "Where do we look?". If price is your highest priority, north is cheaper than south and rural is cheaper than coastal or cities. All pretty predictable, given that it's warmer down south. If weather is your highest priority then they say you must go south of the Loire. South west is cheaper than south east but then it doesn't have the same appeal to the Eurotrash that like to see and be seen around Nice, Antibes and Cannes. The south east is also more accessible as it's on the TGV (train grand vitesse) network and you can shoot down there from London or Paris in no time. There are pockets on the atlantic coast that seem to offer exceptional value for money but then we hit lucky and mapped these against a map nuclear power installations and the mystery was explained.

Aside from price we had a second priority - access to work. Ideally I would continue teleworking from home as I've done for the past 10 years. It is notoriously difficult for a foreigner to gain the confidence of a French employer so it was important to keep our options open. So we opted for the north where prices were accessible but where we could also telecommute to London or perhaps Brussels or Amsterdam as necessary. We decided against Brittany which is rapidly going down the road of mass tourism that we wanted to leave behind us in West Cork. Eventually we cast our eyes on Mayenne, next door to Brittany, in the northern part of the Pays de la Loire region and within striking distance of Rennes, Le Mans and Nantes.

Having a look see

Our next step was to go and have a look. We booked ourselves into a gite just over the border in Brittany which is owned by an English couple with four children. These would be company for our children and I reckoned that English-speaking hosts could be very helpful in our quest. We came for 2 weeks around Halloween and spent the first week playing hookie from our responsibilities and just driving round having a ball. The weather was great, people friendly and the countryside was wonderful and, given the time of year, empty of tourists. During our second week we did the round of estate agents (immobiliers) and visited a number of properties. We saw one wonderful place which comprised two enormous buildings big enough to be the centre for a logistical/distribution business. But it would have taken several modest fortunes to do all the necessary work and I chickened out. A couple of days before we left we viewed the property we eventually bought - a house and another small house surrounding a private courtyard with a modest back garden. Here we ignored conventional advice which is not to buy the first place you see. It was affordable and we'd have enough left over to do much of the necessary renovations - the roof was in a state and the floors needed doing, as well as the usual wiring, plumbing . . . Here we ignored the second piece of conventional advice - make sure the roof is sound.

Making an offer

When we got back to Ireland I emailed the immobilier and made an offer which was about 10 per cent less than the asking price. Communication was pretty poor overall. My patchy french wasn't up to detailed negotiations over the telephone and the immobilier relied on his secretary to prepare responses to emails - delays, delays, delays. Between one thing and another, after a couple of weeks they had accepted our offer although I wasn't sure whether it was at our price. All very vague. Next thing was we had to make another visit to France to sign the Compromis de Vente (promise to buy) and pay the deposit. Language presented a further barrier when I couldn't explain to the immobilier that I needed their bank details to transfer the deposit electronically. So we ended up flying to France at the end of a November with an envelope full of cash that we paid almost 10 per cent to convert into Francs.

Signing the Compromis de Vente

The Compromis de Vente is the first of two binding legal documents that you sign before you purchase a property in France. In it you have to stipulate any conditions that will allow you pull out of the process without forfeiting your deposit, such as getting a mortgage, getting necessary planning permission etc. It is also at this point that you have to consider french inheritance laws which seem bizarre to say the least. We inserted a clause that gets us around the local inheritance laws that would give my property, after my death, not only to my children but to my nieces and nephews and grandchildren and god knows who - probably the family cat. I'm sure it's all very sensible in french eyes but I couldn't make head or tail of it. Only time will tell whether we made a mistake here - hopefully my command of french will have improved by then.

For the signing appointment we flew to Paris on Friday morning and then enjoyed a really smooth ride on the TGV from Paris to Laval. Witnessing French engineering at its best reassured me again that we were doing the right thing. We arrived in Laval with half an hour to spare and took a leisurely stroll down the town to the immobiliers office. And then it got really weird. We were ushered into a fairly small office that was soon crammed with people because, unlike anything I've ever encountered before, both the buyer and the seller have to be present. In our case there were two sellers, the two of us, the immobilier and his assistant who had a smattering of English. We were all given a copy of the Compromis de Vente which contained about 15 pages of legalese which had been rather haltingly translated - at times it was hilarious. The immobilier then had to read through each word of this document and we all had to agree the content paragraph by paragraph. Then we had to hand over all manner of personal documents - passport, bank details etc. etc. which were duly copied and added to the paperwork, and then every one of us had to initial every page of the document as well as dating and signing it in several places. I began to wish for a shorter name.

What seemed an eternity but was actually two hours later we emerged from the stuffy room and went to the pub for a drink with the sellers, a brother and sister. Wiped out from the paperwork, I still couldn't get over my surprise at looking the sellers in the eye before paying over the money. I was also a bit gobsmacked because the final price on the document was lower than we had offered - in this round the language barrier worked for us. We spent a very pleasant hour with M. Majecki, the seller, who was very pleased to discover that we were not buying a holiday home but planning to live here - commenting that we were embarking on "une grande aventure". If only we'd known just how grande it was going to be!

We arranged to meet M Majecki at the house the following morning to plan out some redivision in the garden. Before that we tried to open a bank account but, although some banks were open on Saturday morning, it was impossible to open an account until Monday when we were returning home. We spent time at the house and then met up with M Majecki and his wife and little girl for a drink - we reckoned that even the most hard-nosed of conmen wouldn't bring along the wife and child if they were planning to rip you off - so we felt more comfortable with our decision by the minute.

Also that day they lit the Christmas lights in Laval and I was smitten. It's a small city, population 55,000, built on the River Mayenne which flows into the Loire. It's a fine, proud river and it was decorated with flowing cascades of light down from the medieval castle and dotted with boats with masts all illuminated. We walked across the main bridge under a canopy of lights and I marvelled at the subtle elegance and style of the french, wow. No plastic santies or garish rudolphs but a simple enhancement of the natural beauty of the location. Everyone in the town was out promenading en famille as is the french way - over and back across the bridge and around the square before retiring to a restaurant for lots of fine food.

Monday morning we hit the bank, almost literally. Turned up with all our papers and justicatifs (proofs) to be informed that we'd need an appointment. We explained our predicament - that we were leaving that day and needed to be able to transfer money to buy the house. Finally they relented and three people devoted the next twenty minutes to completing, checking and double-checking the paperwork. Another hurdle surmounted we thought - but thought can make a fool of you as we were to learn.

The waiting game

Back in wet and windy Sherkin Island, Christmas almost upon us, we had to bide our time. It takes about three months for a house sale to be processed in France - all manner of title searching and the like is carried on by the notaire behind the scenes. The Compromis de Vente gave us a date of 28 February but we had things to do before that.

We began by emailing the mairie in the little village where we were buying. This was necessary to establish relations generally as well as to enquire about necessary planning permissions and connecting to the local sewage system. They began to send me volumes of formulaires (forms) for applying for planning permission which were intimidating to say the least. Nor did it help when the cover note said you probably don't need to do these just for your info. Did we or didn't we???

We decided we'd rent a place for a few months so that we could get essential work done on the house before moving in. The immobilier couldn't help - standard lets here are for 3 years and short term lets seem to be unheard of. Eventually we got on to Gite de France and booked ourselves into a gite. Read Chateau living for that story. We decided to travel a bit early so that we'd have time to speak to people and sort out about planning permission before the sale was completed. From what we could gather, because there was a clause about it in the Compromis de Vente, even if we waived our rights nobody could sign off on the thing without satisfying this condition. Caught between a rock and a hard place perhaps.

We went to see the mairie in mid-February who immediately provided the name of a dessinateur (turned out to be a cross between an architect and a project manager) who'd do our planning application. Another day I'll write the stories about the planning and M. Raimbaud (pronounced Rambo with a handshake to match). For now it's enough to say we threw money at the problem and it went away.

February 28 came and went and no meeting set for signing the Acte de Vente (act of sale) and the final deed. I began making phone calls to the auctioneers and M. Majecki and was told that there was a delay because the notaire (notary) lacked a paper. The notaire is a highly-qualified lawyer that oversees all property transactions in France. They are supposed to be impartial, representing buyer and seller equally. Another piece of advice we ignored was that we should have brought in our own notaire to represent our specific interests - this was definitely a mistake - impartial I don't think so. For almost two months the thing dragged on with people beginning to climb willingly behind the language barrier to avoid awkward questions. We were beginning to despair. We extended our stay at the gite to buy time but prices were climbing and we were nowhere nearer completion.

Despite communication difficulties it began to emerge that there were problems with loans on one of the properties. Unlike in Spain where you can buy a property and discover that you owe a fortune on it because of the borrowings of the previous owner, this type of behaviour cannot happen in France. The notaire could not allow us to buy the property until she had authenticated details of all monies owing against the property as well as agreement from creditors about repayment from the proceeds of sale. Nobody wanted to spell it out in detail to us because they were afraid that we would invoke our right to pull from the deal because of the delays. Finally, in desperation, I contacted the Maison d'Europe in Laval and asked for contact info for an English speaker that might be able to help us to understand what was going on. As luck would have it they put me on to somebody from my own home town who runs a language school here. He brought me along to a notaire friend of his the following week and stayed to translate. Between one notaire and another we got our answers quickly. There were 5 hypotheques against the little house which belonged to M Majecki's sister. To my disbelief I learned that it was perfectly believable that she had signed the Compromis de Vente without being aware of this. I had mistakenly believed a hypotheque to be a mortgage but no - it is a judgement. If you owe money to somebody in France and they cannot get it from you they take this information to a central administrator of debts where they investigate your assets and place a judgement against them - all this can be done without informing you. The hypotheque doesn't force you to sell these assets but merely gives the creditor first option on proceeds of sale - an insurance policy. Meantime, however, you could make an arrangement to make stage payments on your debt and might pay off 90 per cent over the course of a year. But until the debt is cleared the hypotheque shows the full amount that was originally entered. What a tangled web.

Anyway, things progressed more quickly after we consulted the second notaire and a couple of weeks later we were all gathered together, this time in the notaire's office, for another signing. Because M. Majecki's wife was part owner of the garden we now had 3 sellers assembled, as well as the immobilier who'd come to collect his fee, and a translator. Guess what, we hadn't been provided with the text of the Acte de Vente in advance, although the translator had received it weeks ago. This time the core document ran to over 20 pages which the translator tells me is the longest she ever saw, itemising in detail every penny that had been owed on the house. I felt that I was party to an incredible intrusion in somebody's privacy - I was just buying a house and didn't want to know the dull, sad story of the sellers financial difficulties. We also discovered that there was an unforeseen right of way issue that nearly brought the whole proceedings to a halt. However, we decided to go for it at the end of the day and there followed the same painstaking initialisation and signing of reams and reams of pages by all present, including the translator for some peculiar reason.

And then we all went to the pub for a celebratory drink.

And it's ours

The following morning we went to the house and collected the keys from M. Majecki. While there a couple of his friends dropped in with a bottle of Muscadet and we all had une petite verre of welcome standing around the courtyard discussing the renovations. One of the visitors was astonished to hear we wanted wooden doors and windows - pvc is your only man - too much work painting every year otherwise. This on a house which is hundreds of years old, and if you use good quality varnish it should survive more than one year.

Lessons learned

  • Don't be in a rush or you'll get ulcers.
  • Expect problems.
  • Get your own notaire. All the english sites recommend you find an english -peaking notaire but unless you're buying in Brittany these are rather thin on the ground.
  • Look for a local translator right at the start.
  • Speak to the mairie before you sign anything.
  • Everybody will tell you it's pas de probleme - don't believe them - this is an aspiration rather than a statement of fact.
  • Learn to love detail and paperwork.
  • If you can survive all of that, you can expect a warm welcome.

Chateau living

Published July 2002

Our first home in France was a gite I booked through Gite de France. I stipulated that I wanted a house that was big enough for us (2 adults, 3 children), in the general neighbourhood of the house we were purchasing, with a telephone line. Only one property fitted the bill because phones are not regarded as a requirement for summer accommodation it seems. Picture my surprise when I arrived, tired from travelling, at a great big chateau surrounded by massive woodlands and roses. The gite was a converted stables a stones throw from the chateau, bright and airy with a massive open fireplace in the cuisine/sejour (kitchen/living room). The house was a hive of activity when we arrived, and the greeting party included Madame from the chateau who, reassuringly, spoke wonderful English. Also in the welcoming committee was the housekeeper from the chateau and the next door neighbour, Maria. As always, I was struck by the civilisation of the french - all shaking hands and wishing us welcome and showing an interest.

Maria and her husband Jose are a portuguese couple that moved to France about 30 years ago. They work on the grounds of the chateau, Maria tends the flowers, the kitchen garden, and the poultry and hunting dogs, while Jose is forever wandering about with chain saws and strimmers, cutting things down. They were the kindest of neighbours. We were hardly in the door and Maria arrived with a basket of fresh eggs "pour les enfants". Over the months Kevin developed an unusual friendship with Jose in a mixture of pigeon French and Jose's pigeon English. They had common ground in the world cup which was looming on the horizon. It rained a lot for the first 6 weeks (we arrived mid-February) and Kevin was convinced we had traded wet and windy Ireland for the wettest and windiest spot in all of mainland Europe. But the sun shone in April. Even on the most blistering hot day Jose was still to be seen clad in at least 2 jumpers.

Things did not go smoothly with the house purchase (do they ever?). The summer season was coming and the gite was booked up so we had to look for alternative accommodation. Renting in France is done on a 3-year basis which we found a bit weird but, eventually, a week before we were to become homeless, we took the plunge and answered an advert for a house in the same neck of the woods. We went into the agent's office and, after the customary formalities, drove with him to view the house - guess what, in the grounds of another chateau. While he went off to get the keys Kevin said "just tell him we'll take it". So we did - not before we had supplied about 3 thousand items of identification and "justicatifs" and the lord alone knows what. And here we are, in our second French home, surrounded by fine trees and roses, in another huge, rambling barn conversion. C'est la vie. We're on the edge of a small village that has a part-time shop, a bar/restaurant that is very good, the prerequisite communal park and fishing lake, and a mairie of course. The kids are making friends and will start school locally after the summer holidays. Don't know when and how we'll get our own house renovated but I'm in no rush - I could get quite used to the good life chez le chateau.

Up and airborne

Published August 1996

Setting up a web site for the arts in rural Ireland

No matter how organised, imaginative and idealistic you may be, it seems there are always stumbling blocks to realising the simplest of dreams. There is a curious mentality which gets the grants, convinces the money folk, persuades the backers - this does not describe me, unfortunately. An inherited snobbery, perhaps, causes me to distance myself from the tedious demands of form-filling and small-minded, cautious penny pinchers. What masterpieces would Da Vinci have produced if he had spent his days producing business proposals? James Joyce's "Ulysses" would hardly have seen the light of day if the author had been constrained by feasibility studies. While I may not aspire to these levels of excellence, I subscribe to the view that creative endeavour has an intrinsic value that often suffers from too close an eye to the market economy.

As a returned immigrant, I chose to live in rural County Cork, relying on considerable experience of the ways and means of publishing, and the potential for remote working presented by modern technology. That was my first mistake. Technology there may be - getting your hands on it is another matter, and making it work for you is yet another hurdle.

Despite the fact that the warehouses of the world are full of mouldering Apple Macintosh computers, a seeming conspiracy prevails against the small purchaser. On my first shopping spree I went, armed with necessary financial arrangements, to a dealer or, in the euphemistic language of Mac world, an Authorised Apple Reseller.

Delivery took a couple of weeks, even though Cork is the European assembly centre for Macintosh computers. I tried to load lots of goodies from floppy disks - the disk drive didn't work! Many phone calls and a couple of afternoon long trips to the reseller, found me with a replacement computer.

Paper publishing was the game and I began to tout for business. Very soon the shoe string budget had to stretch to a fax/modem, as the nearest accessible fax machine was some miles away. These things cost a lot more here than in the USA - a 14,400 model costing me over $500. I was delighted with the immediacy of communication, despite the fact that most fax machines I was dealing with seemed to be of the hand-cranked variety.

Electricity supply in Ireland is in the hands of a monopoly, whose high-quality engineers are regularly on contract outside the country, while local supply is left in the hands of an ageing and top-heavy management. We have a notoriously dirty power supply, a situation exacerbated in rural areas by sharing lines with large farms, with regular drops and surges at milking times. A few weeks after the fax/modem arrived, down it went in a power surge, Act of God (what a helpful guy!) and we're back where we started.

Thanks to a Taurean streak of stubborness, I persisted in the face of this setback and things progressed on a one step forward, two steps backwards pace. The first major project was a fortnightly, tabloid newspaper that carried arts, literature, technology, environment and entertainment features, and comprehensive listings of music and other events.

Distributed free we developed great reader loyalty, but advertisers, our sole source of income, were slow to depart from safe (some might say boring) media. We poured every penny and ounce of energy into the project for almost a year and a half, always with the carrot of acceptance by advertisers just around the corner. The money got tighter, the advertisers remained, largely, intransigent, so we abandoned the exercise and turned our attention to the world wide web.

In the meantime, due to a small smile of fortune in the guise of a modest legacy, I upgraded equipment, adding a power macintosh, 600dpi printer a scanner to the hardware spec. The Authorised Apple Reseller couldn't arrange print samples, despite regular reminders, over a three month period. I approached an unauthorised wheeler dealer, who promised the earth and delivered computer minus ram upgrade, a hard disk weighed down with unsolicited games, extensions and unwanted clutter, corrupt scanner software and a delay on the printer. Various hiccups but the Taurean streak came to my aid again, and we got operational.

Hooking up to a service provider was easy, getting what you want from them is another story! There is fierce competition among service providers in Ireland at present and I opted for a company that offered free service until the end of the year for the payment of a small set-up fee. Enter my partner, Kevin, who had entered the world of publishing with little experience but great enthusiasm. Having mastered the niceties of cut and paste artwork and preparing photographs for the smudgy, murky world of cheap printing techniques, he was finally realising his dream of dragging us into the 1990s and a global medium. He had a little programming experience and took to the keyboard to self-learn HTML

In the meantime my education was more concerned with unlearning all of the wonderful capabilities and typographical refinements of Quark Xpress, returning to the far cruder capabilities afforded by HTML. We browsed, downloaded guides and tutorials, bookmarked, sent some email and prepared for lift off.

The few web sites based locally had virtually closed the door to advertising revenue - a curious misapprehension prevails that to advertise on the web is a one off exercise - matters such as reach, penetration and relevance haven't emerged yet. The content of these sites focused on selling Cork as a tourism destination, portraying a conventional image of 'leprechaun' Ireland.

We designed a format based on the LIST, our abandoned newspaper, focusing on the cultural wave that is surging through Ireland at present, but not ignoring some of the more obvious barriers to our emerging 'Age of Enlightenment'. Rather than seeking to fund our site through advertising, we looked to direct marketing of quality goods that are being produced in the area.

In the midst of a cultural renaissance, every bush and hill hides a creative talent, beavering away at making things, doing things. Many of these artists, writers and musicians produce extremely desirable material, but the local economy cannot sustain them. Most cannot afford to market themselves beyond the locality, where their unique vision and output is more likely to find a market. The internet is a cheap medium and we embarked on a plan to offer free access to suppliers, working on a commission basis on orders received.

A simple idea, works well for everyone, you say. Not so. More hurdles. The international banking community is no great lover of innovation, and credit card suppliers here are cautious about entering into financial agreements with us when we aren't putting major investment into stock. While home shopping may be a young child in North America, it hasn't even reached the stage of infancy here.

An Irish solution to an Irish problem emerged (i.e. work around things rather than taking them on), and we are now negotiating Associate Gallery and Store Membership for outlets with existing mail order facilities. It may not be the ideal solution - the works of the small craftworker or the self-published author can only be paid for by cheque - but it will get us up and running and, who knows, with a trading track record, the financial institutions may be more considerate to our proposals.

We prepared some test material and contacted our service provider to arrange FTP access. Despite three phone calls over a period of two weeks, when we came to launch time, the server didn't recognise us. Why? Because the webteam, who don't work on weekends, hadn't made the necessary arrangements. Spending an entire weekend on the phone to technical support, who were frequently one page ahead of us in the manual, we got our access and up we went. With a most peculiar URL address, and the discovery that two servers were in operation and we were being shunted over to the 'B server'.

This couldn't be rectified until the webteam came in on Monday. Transfer to the 'A server', which allows easier accessibility, required payment of regular fees - so much for a free service - so the cheque was paid and the order form faxed with instructions to complete necessary transfer arrangements prior to the weekend. You'll never guess, come Saturday, what do we find? The web team has gone home and the arrangements haven't been made. Here we are on Tuesday, our access is now arranged, but we can't afford to launch the site proper until the weekend.

The final, and least surmountable hurdle, is telecom charges. Living in the land of free local calls, and fast, efficient telephone lines, the scenario that exists here is, perhaps, unimaginable. Because Ireland upgraded its telecommunications so late our technology is world class, our engineers are among the best in the world. But the telecom providers are another monopoly, although European legislation is set to change this in the next few years. Like the electricity providers, the management hasn't moved forward, still operating on the basis of turning the handle, picking up the headset and waiting for the operator to answer.

Although I am less than 5 miles from Cork City local zone, I pay trunk rates to call there. Off peak charges, on weekdays, see me paying almost 10 times as much to call my service provider as people living in Cork. A cybercafe in Cork can offer commercial access to the internet cheaper than I can receive it. Only at weekends do rates fall sufficiently to allow me to go online for longer than the momentary sprints I make to collect and post email.

I contacted Telecom to see if I could negotiate reductions - it took three days to get a number for customer relations and I may as well not have bothered. Billing analyses have encouraged various employees to sympathise with my situation, recognising the anomalies, but not offering any resolution.

I emailed every politician I could find online - most of my post was returned, undelivered, something about sites being upgraded! The one response I got was from a member of the Green Party who sympathised but, basically, it's none of his business. We are due a general election here next year and I am now pinning my hopes on it becoming a platform issue - a long shot but the best I can hope for. In the meantime there are reports of frightening population shifts of businesses moving back into overcrowded cities in an effort to overcome the commercial imbalance created by telecom charges.

In the light of the bumps and ruts on the road to the superhighway, it is sometimes all too easy to lose sight of the goal. The buzz of getting pages up first day, only to realise that few, if any, would ever find them. The buckets of stories, information, ideas just waiting to be aired, only to find online time bogged down with server inadequacy. If we can survive long enough to streamline and overcome the difficulties it will be such fun and so rewarding to carry discussion of how we live, and why, to an infinite forum.

The most real concerns of people, the issues of quality of life, are global as much as parochial, and I believe we can all learn from other communities. The World Wide Web has the potential to empower and transform the lives of the meek, the humble, the disenfranchised and we will persist in our efforts to participate in that transformation.

Published in
Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - August 5, 1996.

The Michael Collins story

Published November 1996

... until the conflict of partition is overcome
the ghosts of Collins and Dev will never be laid to rest

On the day the Michael Collins movie, written and directed by Neil Jordan, premiered in Ireland, it was impossible to avoid the media hype. Since its earlier release in the U.S., the media was churning it out - the crits, good and bad, the historians, the begrudgers, they all had a go. It created as much copy on political pages as on entertainment or arts sections. The jury is still out.

What is so fascinating about Michael Collins? He was handsome, clever, at the centre of political and military intrigue - a raw country boy who was sent to Westminster to negotiate treaty terms with the might of the British Empire.

How did he find himself in this position? Did he get the best terms possible? Were there any alternatives? These are the questions that history has never answered, and that fascinated historian Neil Jordan, who spent over 12 years working to develop the film.

What we do know is that the Treaty led to a bloody Civil War that divided communities, even families, through the length and breadth of the country. We also know that it led directly, as Collins had predicted, to his death. We may never know the full truth of the period, but the film brings Collins firmly into the mainstream of historical investigation, in from the cold where he had resided for more than half a century. In 1966 Eamon de Valera, then President of Ireland, said that history would come to recognise the greatness of Collins, at his expense. The general consensus on the film is that the prediction has come true, and definitely at Dev's expense.

History is full of what might have beens, but they serve little purpose in the art (or is it science?) of historical analysis. What did occur, as a result of the Treaty, was a bloody Civil War, and an aftermath that is still felt. Growing up not far from Collins' family home, I can testify to the legacy of secrecy and division that prevailed. The politics of the new nation were dominated by Civil War divisions, and the two main political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, developed out of Dev and Collins camps. It is only with the passing of the Dev era, in the last two decades, that Irish society has begun to move away from Treaty politics. The two main parties are still entrenched (Nora Owen, Minister for Justice is a niece of Michael Collins), but an increasingly young electorate has indicated that Civil War divisions no longer concern them.

Queen Elizabeth I put forward the theory that imperialism should be based on the principle of divide and rule. Thereby she established the world's most powerful empire. Time and again, history has shown, that divisions remain long after the imperialist departs with his booty. The bloodbath that greeted Indian Independence, the bloody and starving mess on the African Continent, the collapse of Eastern Europe, perhaps even the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland, all speak of layers of ethnic conflict that strike at the heart of society. It is arguable that the Irish Civil War was unavoidable, given the apartheid system that was introduced in the plantation of Ulster. It is also possible that the subsequent dominance of our politics by these issues was unavoidable, a mere blip on the road to national identity. It might be argued, however, that until the conflict of partition is overcome the ghosts of Collins and Dev will never be laid to rest.

Published in
Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - November 23, 1996.

Pushing the limits ... of our credibility

Published June 1997

Push Technology, Free Speech, and the World Wide Web

Big money and big resources are being devoted to the development of server push. If you have managed to avoid the countless column inches devoted to it, server push is the means whereby information gatherers push content out to subscribers, rather than waiting for them to visit. A number of large newscasters are interested in the concept which dominates development discussion at major trade shows.

Lazy Man's Load

The push concept appeals to the busy executive, who wants up-to-date information but can't spare the browsing time to seek it out. S/he can visit a large push site, such as the Pointcast service, and subscribe to have various categories of information delivered directly to the client computer. The service has its attractions but is of limited value to users who aren't online all the time, and subscribers often report dissatisfaction with the level of useless information that travels in with key items. Like the lazy man's load, information overload can be the result of this bid to cut on browsing time.

Pushing Push

Given the hype, it is reasonable to assume that there is strong vested interest in pushing push. The technology to deliver the service is not cheap -- estimates put it as high as half a million dollars - so there must be significant promise to entice developers. Pushers can offer guarantees on circulation and usage statistics. This in turn makes their services attractive to advertisers and content generators, who will pay willingly to be carried by the service. There is also a potential market for paid subscription to push services, particularly in specialist categories. So, for commercial information providers push offers a pathway to guaranteed circulation which has, until now, been lacking on the internet. This is what the marketing wizards and the admen want - to revert to what some might regard as outmoded marketing classifications. (That is another story and another day's work).

Of, perhaps, greater concern is the appeal of push to the media moghuls. Until now, the real delight of the internet for many has been its freedom and equality. A guy with a story in Small Town, Nowheresville, armed with the basics of html, had as direct an access route to readers as Mr. Big Editor from the Global Planet Controller. The increasingly homogenous face and voice of international media was pleasantly disturbed with the onset of online communications. Now cheque book journalism has within its grasp the potential for controlling content in yet another media frontier. Whence free speech and politically unpopular opinion. Are push services poised to present another face of mainstream media, while the remainder of the web is sidelined as a limited interest alternative, with low readership and revenues? Or will we be optimistic like James Gleick, and assume that the spirit of independence that underlies the internet will overcome and bear fruit?

Side by side with push push is shove shove, with the proliferation of dynamic news pages on many smaller sites (such as my own!). This simple, cost-effective method of news publishing offers a small voice response to the roar of the giant pushers. But here, also, there are inherent dangers. I recently was drawn to a small news site which offers a ticker tape news service, nicely presented with quite a lot of up-to-date information. But one of its sources was pulled in from another site, also offering ticker tape journalism. There is a danger that we will lose sight of the source of information, in an increasingly complex route from publisher to reader.

Somebody once told me that the consummate liar cloaks his lies in a vast armature of truths. The more complex the route the information takes, the less likely it is that we will identify its source. And we know what happens with gossip, rumours and hearsay.

Published in
Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - June 9, 1997.

Drom Chraoí - Trom Chraoí

Published July 1997

A Commentary on the "Marching Season" in Northern Ireland

Heart of the Mound - Heavy Hearts

About a mile or so outside the village of Inchigeelagh is a Mass Rock, where mass was celebrated from 1640 to 1800. Picture the scene, the priest facing a pile of stones which functions as a makeshift altar, evicted from his church which has been handed over to a protestant minister, hiding like a criminal, in fear of his life, surrounded in the clearing by a gathering of loyal parishioners, many of whom hadn't been overly concerned with religious matters until their spiritual freedoms were threatened.

Religious division dominated European politics for all of the seventeenth century. The shift from the hierarchical catholic church, in favour of more "democratic" protestant denominations was reflected in a similar shift away from feudal values and autocratic monarchies. Whatever the motivation, religious fervour and puritan values took a fierce grip on the imagination - preparing the ground for the vigorous work-ethic that was so vital to industrialisation.

Although Ireland is now one of the world's most prominent catholic countries, the medieval Irish church was quite easy-going and relaxed. The early Christian settlers had adapted comfortably to Celtic spirituality, incorporating many of their feast days and celebrations into the Christian calendar. The Norman invaders were also Christian, and had integrated well with Irish society. The march of Lutheranism had little impact on this remote corner of Europe and religion remained a rather casual affair until the troubles of England and Europe were imported under the reign of the Stuarts.

Legislation was put in place in Elizabethan times requiring uniformity of religious practice, under the Church of England, however it was rarely enforced in Ireland. In the early seventeenth century there were small pockets of protestant settlers in the country, but most of the wealth and power remained in the hands of the old Catholic settlers, who remained loyal to the Crown. The young Stuart king was happy to keep military costs at a minimum and to work to enlarging the protestant interest in a piecemeal fashion. On the odd occasion a zealous administrator would move to uphold the law and priests might be expelled or churches confiscated. This is probably what happened in Inchigeelagh. However most of these actions were overturned on direct appeal by the catholic settlers to the Crown.

The Ulster Uprising, which began in 1641, changed the course of our history. Old settlers joined forces with the Irish, undermining the Stuart position which was already under attack by the puritan faction in parliament. When power went to the Cromwellians the face of Ireland was changed for ever. The Cromwellian plantations were extensive and effective and the puritan ethos came to dominate political establishments. Pockets of protestantism gave way to bastions of bigotry, and, banished from their homes, robbed of their freedom and dignity, the Irish found in their religion a rallying point for their nationalism and sense of aggrievement.

The Stuart restoration gave some respite, and catholic wealth and position were partly restored, but the impact of the Cromwellian period was profound. James II (known in Irish as Seamus a Chaca or James the S**t) began to strip protestant power in England, allying himself with the French court. This was a European war and it was inevitable that English protestants would seek the help of William of Orange, James' son-in-law, to help them in their plight.

When William arrived in Ireland he found strong support in the Cromwellian settlements and an ill-trained and ill-equipped opposition under the leadership of a weak James. The Irish had their heroes, such as Patrick Sarsfield in Limerick, but the battle was lost long before the Boyne.

The Irish had entered the seventeenth century an easy-going if somewhat harried race. They went out of it victims of some of the most repressive religious and social legislation in the world. In the course of the next century the penal laws discriminated against their every right - the right to worship, congregate, own property, to speak their language - every vestige of dignity was stripped away and the groundwork was done to ensure that the famine of the 1840s would claim more than a million lives. In these dark days people turned to a religion that hadn't figured hugely in their lives before, finding in it, perhaps, a philosophy that helped them cope with their martyrdom.

It is ironic that, by the time the famine struck, Catholicism had become so central to Irish life, that many starved to death rather than renouncing their religion for a bowl of soup. By now the penal laws had been repealed (largely because they had achieved their purpose of sinking the native population into a condition of poverty and abject misery) but many soup kitchens were opened offering famine relief on the condition that the recipients espouse the protestant faith. How so many remained adamant in the face of starvation is a mark of how deep-rooted religion had become in the Irish psyche. As a child I remember the venom in my benign grandmother's voice when telling me that a neighbouring wealthy family were "soupers", i.e. they had taken soup and renounced their faith during the famine. The same lady wasn't even born until 50 years after these occurrences, but such was the hatred in the locality that it is doubtful whether these people will ever be fully forgiven.

Southern Ireland has become increasingly secular in its outlook, particularly in the last 30 years. This may be part of the reason why we have such difficulty in coming to terms with the continuing sadness and struggle in Northern Ireland. Its divisions are rooted in the European wars of the seventeenth century and its sectarianism echoes the religious extremes of those times. The imponderables facing the peace talkers derive from centuries of mistrust and hostility and they will need more than political will to achieve a good solution.

Perhaps some divine inspiration!

Published in
Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - July 13, 1997.

A confident culture sharing its treasures

Published August 1997

Last weekend I took a casual stroll into the hidden Ireland, plunging headlong into the wellsprings of our cultural psyche. I was drawn to Inchigeelagh on a sunny Thursday morning on a reccie for some live internet coverage I was preparing for the weekend's Daniel Corkery Summer School.

I met with Joe Creedon, proprietor of the hotel and organiser of the school, and, over pots of coffee, he wove a tapestry of the colours and hues of his place, his neighbours and his history. An engaging and instinctive story-teller, his tales banished deadlines, the rhythmic words unveiling submerged memories of childhood and earlier.

I was back on Saturday, complete with computer, modem, digital camera and a journalist and photographer who were interviewing me for an Irish-American magazine. Sheila, the writer, grew up in Boston, but made frequent visits to her father's home in Longford during her youth and came to live in Dublin in 1991. As a first generation Irish-American, I was eager to see her response to Joe's stories. He spoke of the Brehon Laws, of the matriarchal tradition, of badges of respect in the community, of art and literature and the Irish language, and of course of Daniel Corkery. The writer's pen was frequently stalled by the flow of words, the fluent music of the oral tradition - still thriving in Inchigeelagh and Uibh Laoire - which had drawn Daniel Corkery to establish the first summer school in the village in the 1920s.

Daniel Corkery was a teacher, writer, dramatist, artist, and critic, whose views on Irish culture were to have a profound impact on his followers. As a primary school teacher he inspired students like sculptor Seamus Murphy and writer Frank O'Connor with his eclectic cultural vision. Writing articles for "The Leader" in Cork he began to develop themes that were recurrent in all his future writing - plays, short stories, novels and critical and academic texts. He was concerned that anglo-Irish writers such as O'Casey and Yeats were writing for an international audience, and that their work did not portray Ireland as it really was. He believed that our writers should be true to their culture, in order to establish an identity unique to Ireland.

Brought up in Cork City he had little exposure to the Irish language as a child, but he came to view the revival of the language as crucial to filling the cultural void that borrowed heavily on the English language. He feared that if the basic elements essential to national identity, especially language, were to disappear then Ireland would be seen as no different from other areas in Britain. He visited the last remaining Irish-speaking areas in the region, and became a frequent visitor to Inchigeelagh and neighbouring Ballingeary, finding in this tranquil spot people who were still closely connected with their own Irish culture.

Listening to Joe, we were transported back, from the days of local overlordship by the McCarthy clan, to the walk of tears during famine times, to his childhood when carloads of visitors would be despatched to the beach in convoy, armed with calor gas and picnic in the boot. By now Sheila was suggesting that we include sound files in our coverage of this event, to capture the magic of this consummate storyteller. That is the work of another day and, in the meantime, Joe is young and full of lore.

Sheila had to leave to travel back to Dublin, and it's a shame that she missed the sing-song that rounded off a busy weekend, where singers in the sean nos joined balladeers, tenor voices rose in arias and thoughtful american folk songs told a more distant tale - here is a confident culture, sharing its treasures and enriching itself. Daniel Corkery would have revelled in it.

Published in
Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - August 10, 1997.

Negotiating terms

Published October 1997

Dramatis Personae:

  • Bertie Ahern - Leader of Fianna Fáil Party and Taoiseach (Prime Minister)
  • Ray Burke - Fianna Fáil Party, former Minister for Foreign Affairs
  • Charles Haughey - Former leader of Fianna Fáil and former Taoiseach
  • Albert Reynolds - Former leader of Fianna Fáil and former Taoiseach
  • Dick Spring - Leader of the Labour Party, former Tánaiste (deputy Taoiseach)
  • John Bruton - Leader of Fine Gael - main opposition party - former Taoiseach
  • Mary Harney - Leader of Progressive Democrats - a break-away from Fianna Fáil, present Tánaiste

Last Tuesday, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ray Burke, resigned his office and Dáil seat, as a Tribunal of Enquiry is due to investigate his financial conduct. Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, accused the media of hounding and harrassing Mr Burke, but he is more concerned with his own political survival. His minority government, Fianna Fáil, will have to win a bi-election against a backdrop of the public unravelling of the tangled legacy of his political predecessor, Charlie Haughey.

Déjà vu. In 1994 a terrier-like Albert Reynolds was ready to go get 'em at the peace talks, with lawyer, Dick Spring at his side. Their path seemed clear to being able brokers for a better Ireland, to write their names into history, our men of destiny - new celtic heroes for a new celtic age. Then Albert was uncrowned and the battle lost, and the peace process staggered, reeled and ignited.

Dick Spring remained on the chariot of state, joined by John Bruton of Fine Gael, an amiable farmer-statesman, whose party has traditionally been "softer" on the North. Basking in the dawn light of the Celtic Tiger, government trundled along at a stately if unheroic pace until the democratic machine kindly intervened. Huge swings and roundabouts swung Bertie Ahern into the hot seat, joined demurely by Mary Harney's chastened PDs.

But Bertie, the loveable gurrier, despite high personal popularity, is rattled by the past sins of his party. Bertie's possible collusion in these sins is being called into question. Serious matters indeed. Another, equally serious matter is the cause of the crisis. As with the 1994 crisis which toppled Albert Reynolds, the trail to disaster was triggered in the media, and the source of the initial leak remains a mystery. It could have come from anywhere: Dáil opponents, dissatisfied ranks within the Fianna Fáil Party; British Intelligence; a Unionist organisation. Politics is a dirty game.

There is a danger that we all lose if Bertie's fragile government collapses. He shares the same terrier-like qualifications for Treaty negotiation as Albert had (Lloyd George in an anorak). His party's presence at the peace table is a source of great reassurance for Sinn Féin negotiators. With the United Kingdom in the midst of dismantling itself, Unionist negotiators are arguing from the weakest position they have ever faced. Mo Mowlam, Northern Irish Secretary under Tony Blair's New Labour Government in Britain, a woman of steely determination, is optimistic that preliminary settlements can be reached this year.

We face a dilemma in Ireland. We all agree that those in public office should be within the law in their actions. However, present difficulties are rooted in activities of a decade and more ago. If we sweep things under the carpet negotiations can progress, but we show scant regard for democratic morality. If we pursue the moral high ground, we jeopardise what may be the best opportunity we will get for peace in Ireland.

Published in
Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - October 13, 1997.

The worldwide classroom

Published August 1997

We should be ensuring that our educational system takes full advantage of the learning potential of the new technologies

Whither education on the superhighway? The internet is a huge information resource, an infinite pool for learning, but is it being welcomed into educational institutions? I fear that, in Ireland, where there is no stated government policy on adoption of internet technologies in schools, that progress is being made in a sadly piecemeal fashion. Developments are subject to the whims and vagaries of commercial sponsorship and individual teacher enthusiasm.

This is a sorry state of affairs, where no central leadership is being given to educational establishments whose members are frequently confused and bemused in the face of rapid change. We pride ourselves on the quality of our educational system, and often hark back to our traditional self-image of the island of saints and scholars. Yet many of our educators have never sat at a computer terminal or manipulated a mouse, let alone explored the global learning resource at the end of a modem. Like many key figures in our community, too many educators are being allowed to hide their ignorance of the medium behind luddite expressions of distaste or indifference. Meanwhile the "online" world races into the next millennium with a different vision of the future, laying the foundations for new and deep social divisions.

Education is the key to the future, is the future. If we are to believe any of our own platitudes about making the world a better place for children, we should be ensuring that our educational system takes full advantage of the learning potential of the new technologies. While preparing an introductory seminar on the internet for teachers I researched a number of educational web sites. Some were exciting, some were not, but most were built for educators, not for learners.

This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter. While the world wide web is a welcome forum for educators to explore questions of policy, direction and philosophy, education has more to gain from the medium than academic discourse. The internet, in its very essence as a global information resource, is an educational tool. Its true pedagogic worth is in its ability to lead learners out from narrow physical confines, to traverse new and ever-branching paths to knowledge - true distance learning.

In the '70s a great debate raged in education on whether or not to stream. It was argued that children in low streams were discriminated against in terms of quality of teachers and facilities, and that it encouraged labelling and poor self-image. In favour of streaming were many teachers who found it difficult to raise the level of learning beyond that within the grasp of slower learners - the principle of the lowest common denominator. Related issues such as class sizes, better facilities and a review of the examination system were largely ignored - these were the given circumstances, the unchanging picture of the educational establishment. Reformers often address symptoms, not causes.

What harm - streaming may become a non-issue. In the classroom of the future, children of mixed abilities, and with varied interests will benefit from a more fluid type of learning. New technologies will liberate students to explore what inspires them, at their own pace, and teachers will be freer to spend time with students who need individual attention. There is limitless scope for collaborative, interdisciplinary projects in the worldwide classroom, fostering cultural links, team abilities and eclecticism. We learn with our children - parents know this intimately, some teachers do. The internet is a hub for life-long learning, less like going to the library, more like a window shopping trip to a shopping mall - where you can find designer info, cheap tack, plastic relaxation areas, green zones . . . the whole panoply of life - we need never be bored at school again.

In some societies the classroom of the future is very close, and many innovative Irish schools are on the road (there's even a planetarium at the community college near the remote Mizen Head). The Irish are adept communicators with a vast, dispersed community - we have lots of friends in the world to meet and greet. Our children are poised to become pioneers on an endless trail of friendship and knowledge, they should fly with our blessings.

Published in
Essays from Ireland in In Motion Magazine - August 27, 1997.