About Donal O'Keeffe

I'm still not sure I have anything much to say that I couldn't fit in a tweet over at @Donal_OKeeffe but I suppose let's see how we go.

Evening Echo News Feature: An interview with Sheila O’Byrne, Mother and Baby Home Survivor

Sheila O'Byrne“I think it’s disgusting,” says Mother and Baby Home survivor Sheila O’Byrne of plans to build an apartment block on the site of the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in Cork’s Sunday’s Well. “When a dog dies, it’s treated better and it’s buried better.” By Donal  O’Keeffe.

Sheila O’Byrne lives in a lovely house off Blarney Street. A Dubliner who has made Cork her home for 30 years, Sheila’s walls are covered in photos of family and friends, certificates and documentation of her considerable achievements, and samples of her poetry.

Sheila was 19 when she was sent to St Patrick’s Mother and Baby Home on Dublin’s Navan Road in 1976 for the crime of being pregnant. She hasn’t seen her son since he was a little baby, taken from her arms and sold by the nuns. He’d be 41 now, wherever he is. Sheila never married, never had any other kids. “Not after what was done to me,” she says.

“I was at a dance and went back with friends of ours, back to their place. It just happened. Nobody told us about the birds and the bees! When I found out, I was in shock. My Da idolized the ground I walked on, but he went mad.”

Sheila was sent to live with a family in Greystones, but she wasn’t happy there.

“You had these private couples who would take pregnant women in, and they were paid by the State. The mother of the wife was a midwife, and the plan was she would take my baby.

“This was arranged by the Monsignor in Sandymount. The medical, the religious, the State, all in it together, like one big co-op.”

Sheila sneaked out and cashed in mineral bottles for the price of her bus-fare. Then she discovered the buses weren’t running, due to a bad storm, and she had to walk the 20 miles from Greystones to a friend’s house in Clondalkin.

“I walked through fields and fields till I got there. When my friend opened the door, I collapsed in her arms with the exhaustion.”

From there, Sheila was sent to St Patrick’s on the Navan Road.

“Where else had I to go? I couldn’t go back home. There were no choices! Your family wouldn’t take you back. You were like a leper. A landlord wouldn’t take you in.

“You weren’t told that you had a right to keep your baby. They never told you. Just sign here.”

In St Patrick’s, Sheila had a little friend called Joyce, maybe 15 months old.

“I can still see her little polka-dot white and navy dress. The nurse came in to take her away, and Joyce was screaming my name. And I watched Joyce go, and I was telling her ‘It’ll be alright, Joyce.’

“And the nurse said ‘This’ll get you ready, Sheila, for when it’s your turn. Off you pop now, back to your work.’”

Sheila says she stood up for others, and got a few scars for it.

She recalls a young woman who came in, covered with lice. Sheila went looking for the woman who worked as an overseer in St Patrick’s, but couldn’t find her. So Sheila went into the kitchen and got a matchbox. Into it, she put two lice from the young woman’s head.

“Up I went to Sister ‘Rosaleen’ with the lice in the box, and do you know what she said to me? ‘They should be glad that we took them in.’ She never mentioned they were subsidised by the State, or they wouldn’t have taken us in at all.

“‘Go back to your work,’ says she, ‘I’ll see to this.’

“So the next day, I came down from the nursery. I used to get the food, because I’d look after the babies. I’d go into the kitchen and the only thing I was allowed say was ‘I’m here for the food’. Nothing else.

“And she comes down, (the overseer) and she says ‘Who went above my authority?’ She went into the kitchen and she grabbed the slops bin and the rubbish bin and she mixed them together and threw it on the floor. She started slapping me around, and smacked my head off the wall. Kept smacking the side of my head off the wall.

“I was pumping, my nose was pumping.

“She kept punching me. She said ‘You’ll pick that up off the floor’. I said ‘I won’t’. She said [of the blows] ‘You’re making me hurt myself.’

Eventually, two other women picked the rubbish up.

“We worked from dawn till dusk, from seven in the morning straight through. The only time we got a break was for Mass on Sunday morning.”

Looking at photographs of St Patrick’s, Sheila points to the chapel, the residential section – “Look at the bars on the windows” – and “the reject ward” where disabled children were kept. “Bring that to the reject ward.”

When Sheila went into labour, she was to “walk around the grounds. I was lucky the sun was in my favour and it wasn’t raining. I was left on my own. I could have died.

“One nurse, a real villain, she said to me, ‘You’ll pay for your sins now’.

“The doctor had to be called, I was having difficulty. Forceps. I was lucky I didn’t die. There was no anaesthetic, no ante-natal care, nothing.”

Sheila’s baby was born, and she wasn’t allowed to touch him.

“The only time I was allowed touch him, the nurse brought him up into the chapel for his christening. Just to hold him in your arms once, and then he was taken.

“My Daddy gave me the money to pay for the christening. And then do you know what Mr Priest says?

“He said to me, ‘Well, Sheila, if you haven’t got the money, there’s other ways we can sort this out’. And he reached over and he touched my left breast.

“I said ‘You’re alright, Father, I have my money. I’m paying in full.’

“And the nurse came straight in and took my baby off me. ‘Back to your work.’”

Sheila’s father signed her out, after a complete year. “Only for my Daddy, I’d never have got out.”

The last time Sheila saw her son, he was three months old. After she came home, she went to visit him in Sion Hill, in Blackrock. She wasn’t allowed to touch him.

“I said ‘I just came to say goodbye to you, and I hope everything will be alright. I can’t do anything.’ I was in bits.

“When I came home, it was back to normal. Nothing was mentioned.”

30 years ago, Sheila moved to Cork. For a time, she struggled with homelessness, working six days a week in CIT yet sleeping in parked buses.

Sheila has a replica of her old uniform, a white apron over a brown smock dress. She wore it at a demonstration in Tuam. Sheila has made it her life’s work to be a support to her fellow survivors. She says she’s outside Leinster House every Friday for the Tuam Babies, and the Magdalene Laundry and Mother and Baby Home survivors.

Sheila lives near the former Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in Sunday’s Well, and feels the women in the mass grave there should be exhumed, identified by DNA, and given a proper burial. She says she is sickened that a place of such horror might be concreted over and have an apartment block built on it. She thinks it should be put to better use.

“I’d like to see flats for our Magdalene survivors, so they’re not living in squalor, or homeless. I’d also like to see a centre there, a training facility, and a museum of the experience of Magdalene survivors. And flats for the elderly and the homeless.”

Originally published in the Evening Echo on Thursday 18 January 2018.

Evening Echo feature: Library remains a Grand place to visit

At the heart of Cork City is a village all of its own, an oasis of calm, a haven of reflection and a shelter for anyone who wants to come in and sit down and read or just rest. Cork City Library is open six days a week and it’s free to anyone who calls in.

By Donal O’Keeffe

“The Library is the last democratic space in Irish society,” says Tina Healy, senior executive librarian in Cork City Library. “Where else can anyone – regardless of their wealth or social standing – just walk in and sit down and read for free a paper or a book?”

If you walk in off of the Grand Parade, you’ll feel immediately at home in a place which is open to everyone, which welcomes everyone, and which is owned by everyone.

To the left, as you enter the Library’s security doors, is the Children’s and Teens’ Library. Inside, you’re struck immediately that this is a bright, airy space, with small coloured tables and chairs arranged below beautiful, cartoon lampshades. The shelves are vibrant with the multi-coloured spines of different sized books. The Librarian’s desk is adorned with pictures coloured by visitors. One particularly eye-catching picture is of Cowboy Woody with his horse Bullseye, coloured by Clara, aged 8.

Seventeen children from First Class in St Mary’s of the Isle are visiting. They are accompanied by their teacher and classroom assistant and they seem thrilled with the books they have chosen. The kids are well-behaved but at the same time bubbling over with excitement. Every day sees a different classroom visit, says librarian Eibhlin Cassidy, and she stresses that you’re never too young or too old for the library.

The shelves are crammed with familiar childhood names like the Mister Men, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Tintin, Asterix, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and newer names too, like Derek Landy, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Horrible Histories.

Librarian Mary O’Leary says literacy owes JK Rowling a debt of gratitude, because Harry Potter led so many children to The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and so much more, making committed readers of them.

Through the main doors, past busts of Seán O Faoláin and Frank O’Connor, is the main library. This is the largest, and busiest part of the building. At the main desk, librarian Sorcha Fogarty says it’s great to see so many people still borrowing books.

“It’s a very friendly, welcoming environment, and it’s great to see people still like to come in, just to have a chat. We have some regular visitors who face challenges in life and we try – and I hope succeed – in treating people with dignity and equality.

“People love the New Fiction shelf. Audiobooks are hugely popular, as is the Larger Print section with our older readers. The majority of visitors use the internet here.”

Down the centre of the library, the pillars on one side are decorated with quotes from Frank O’Connor, and on the other WB Yeats quotes translated into a variety of languages. To the back is the Rory Gallagher Music Library. Outside is a display cabinet containing a carved stone plaque depicting Gallagher. The plaque was donated by Gallagher’s biographer Marcus Connaughton. Across the way is another display cabinet, this one containing a replica of Rory’s Fender Sunburst Stratocaster.

The way into the Rory Gallagher Music Library is decorated on one side by further Rory memorabilia and on the other by a long notice-board advertising upcoming gigs and concerts, guitar lessons, cello lessons, violin lessons and a course in making and repairing musical instruments. From within comes – appropriately – the sound of the Blues.

The music played here is chosen democratically, says librarian Bernard Cotter, by librarians and from suggestions from the public. Looking at the shelves, every taste in music seems to be catered for here. From Folk to Rock, Classical to Pop, Opera to Sean Nós, every genre is represented. Sorcha Fogarty says Cork’s music library is recognised as the finest in Ireland.

On the first floor is the Reference Library. This is a large, open room, at the centre of which are long tables. Today, perhaps thirty people sit around, reading, studying and working. Each desk is custom-built with charging ports for phones and other devices, thanks to the foresight of former reference librarian Peggy Barrett.

Librarian Eileen O’Sullivan says the library regularly hosts talks and presentations, and every day, people come in to study, to read newspapers or just to bask in the library’s sense of peace.

“You can read a vast array of journals, from the RTÉ Guide to Studia Hibernica. We cater for everyone. We index articles from journals and newspapers, to make them available to people working on projects, and we offer free digital magazines and online courses with your library membership. We offer free membership in all seven branches of Cork’s library service.”

On the library’s top floor is the Local Studies Department, where librarian Stephen Leach is on duty. Here, in the stacks, is where daily and weekly history is lovingly bound in huge leather volumes. Every Evening Echo back to 1961 is kept here in hard copy. Editions prior to that, all the way back to the paper’s foundation in 1892, are available in digital form. Every Examiner back to 1980 is here in print, and digitized right back to 1841. Here too are bound copies of the Cork Constitution from 1838 to 1923, and local papers like the Corkman, the Avondhu and the Imokilly People.

In the Reference Library, Tom Clarke is working on his laptop. He’s 56 now and he’s been visiting the library regularly since he was nine. He’s passionate about this place.

“This is a vitally important part of our city,” he says. “It’s all too easy to eliminate the idea of public spaces, and it’s very important that we don’t allow public spaces to be diminished. It’s vitally important for our democracy that we retain our commitment to the concept of a shared public space.”

The Library Service’s own long history mirrors the story of modern Ireland

Cork has long loved its library, and is this year celebrating 125 years of the Library Service. Cork was the first Irish city to adopt the Public Libraries (Ireland) Act of 1855, but it wasn’t until February of 1892 that Cork City Council empanelled a committee to establish a public library service for the city. Cork’s first City Librarian, James Wilkinson, served from 1892 to 1934, through the tumultuous times which would shape modern Ireland, from the reign of Queen Victoria, through the Great War, the War of Independence and the Civil War.

Cork’s first public reading room opened in December 1892 in the Crawford Municipal Buildings on Emmet Place (now the Crawford Art Gallery). The reading room was instantly popular, in its first year seeing as many as five hundred visitors every day. The reading room began a lending service in July 1893, and this service was so popular the library committee reported its greatest difficulty was “the inability to provide books in sufficient numbers to meet the demands of borrowers”. The reading room also held Ireland’s first library collection of children’s books.

The library service moved to Anglesea Street in 1905, to a purpose-built facility financed by the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In December 1920, the Carnegie Free Library was destroyed by arson attack by Crown Forces during the Burning of Cork. Everything not out on loan was lost to fire. Within days, James Wilkinson had issued an appeal to the public for the donation of books. “Our books are now in a heap of ashes; our Library but four bare walls.” By September 1924, Wilkinson had established a lending service in Tuckey Street, and by September 1930 the library – its collections rebuilt – had moved to 57-58 Grand Parade, its home to this day.

Originally published in the Evening Echo, Wednesday 27 December 2017

Evening Echo feature: ‘Helping Hands helped me turn my life around’

Outside Cork City Library on a cold Friday night, volunteers are unloading from vans and cars boxes of donated clothing and food. At a trestle table, two volunteers, wrapped-up against the cold and their breath steaming in the night air, hand out teas, coffees and sandwiches to anyone who calls up. Perhaps twenty volunteers from the ‘Helping Hands Homeless Action Group’ mill around, chatting and joking with homeless people. It’s a friendly and enthusiastic gathering, even if it verges at times on the disorderly.

‘Helping Hands Homeless Action Group’ was founded in 2016, and Fermoy man Luke Heffernan, its head, explains how it works: small groups of volunteers patrol the city by foot, following designated routes, and talk with any homeless people they meet.

The volunteers bring dignity bags – containing essentials like toiletries, tooth paste and brushes, underwear, socks – and food and hot tea. If they come upon someone needing a jacket or shoes, or a sleeping bag, each group has a walkie-talkie with which to call back to base camp. A volunteer will then drive out to them.

By the back of the Clayton Hotel, a man and woman are bedded down under sleeping bags. Volunteer James White gives them food and tea. Up the street a bit, a man is asleep in a door. By now, the street is freezing. James radios back for a sleeping bag and some warm clothing.

“We go out every second Friday night,” Heffernan says. “We’re here at the City Library, or once the Big Wheel goes up, outside the Ulster Bank. We alternate with the Christian group ‘Hope for the Homeless’, so the Friday we’re not here by the Library, they’ll be down by Brown Thomas. We’re out Tuesday nights too. There would be an overlap between the two groups, in that we would have volunteers who help with both.”

Luke Heffernan says kindness and decency are the principle motivations of all volunteers.

“Everything that we do is funded by donations, and every single person in ‘Helping Hands’ – myself included – is a volunteer.

Behind the train station, one patrol ventures into derelict, deserted warehouses. They meet no homeless people here tonight, but bottles and cans lie scattered beneath the dripping, broken roofs, and beside a derelict couch and a free-standing toilet bowl full of human waste, a rat the size of a family dog darts from an abandoned sleeping bag.

One volunteer is very happy to praise ‘Helping Hands’, and he has very good reason. He says they helped him turn his own life around.

“It was around this time last year I found myself sleeping on a bench in a field,” says Fionn (not his real name). “I had been living with my partner and our kids. Our relationship fell apart. She kicked me out and threw out my clothes. I left because I wanted to spare the kids the sight of us fighting.

“I said to myself, ‘Where the eff am I going to go?’ I had nowhere to go. I ended up sleeping on a bench eventually. I just wandered around then for a couple of days till a buddy of mine helped me get into a hostel.

“Living in a hostel was not good. It’s good to have a bed, and a roof, obviously, but I would say maybe 70% of people in the hostel were addicts. If they weren’t using drugs, they were drinking. I had addictions in the past – before I was in a relationship – and they do say if you’re in recovery you need to stay away from people who have addictions.

“Now,” he is quick to add, “the vast, vast majority of people in the hostel are very good people. They just have a bad addiction.

For Fionn, help came very quickly and unexpectedly.

“I saw the ‘Helping Hands for the Homeless’ on Facebook and I went into their old office on George’s Quay and whatever I needed, they provided. They gave me clothes, socks, underwear, shoes, deodorant, toothpaste, you know, basic stuff to make you feel like a human being.”

‘Helping Hands’ helped Fionn find a new home.

“I have such good time for them. They have no Government funding. The Government gives them nothing. It’s all up to the generosity of the public.

Luke Heffernan concurs, saying people are extremely generous and all help is very gratefully received.

“We take anything we can get. Last summer, after the Indiependence festival, ‘Helping Hands’ were delighted to get from the debris 75 pairs of Nike runners and 70 or 80 tents.”

Heffernan says ‘Helping Hands’ has now secured new premises on Hanover Street, and it is there they intend to offer trauma counselling, drug counselling and support services for the families of those in crisis.

“I don’t know if I can express to you how lucky I am,” says Fionn. “There are young fellas, auld fellas, young ones, auld ones, kids even, sleeping in fields, in tents, in doorways and whatever else. I only had to do that two or three times. That’s how lucky I am. Now I have my own place, I have somewhere to shower, somewhere to wash my clothes.”

Fionn says he and his former partner are now on better terms, and he sees his children fortnightly and sometimes more often than that. He says he is hopeful he’ll be able to have Christmas dinner with them.

“A year ago, I was on the streets. Now I’m getting my life back. I credit a lot of it, an awful lot of it, to ‘Helping Hands’ and Gillian in the Haven Café and ‘Hope for the Homeless’.”

Eileen Gleeson of the Dublin Region Homelessness Executive recently said long-term homelessness results from years of “bad behaviour” and could not be solved by volunteers.

“[W]hen somebody becomes homeless it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years of bad behaviour probably, or behaviour that isn’t the behaviour of you and me.”

She said volunteer groups which gave only food and clothing to the long-term homeless were allowing them “to continue with the chaotic lifestyle they have”, highlighting the need for other interventions.

“Yeah, I heard all that,” says Fionn, when asked about Gleeson’s comments. “Listen, homelessness can happen to anyone. And it can happen in days. Back then, a year ago, when my relationship fell apart, I was clean. I wasn’t using or drinking when my life fell apart. Honestly, homelessness can happen to anyone.”

As for volunteers allegedly not helping the homeless, Fionn is emphatic.

“Of course volunteers are helping. Look, if you’re sleeping in the doorway of the Savoy, you’ll be sleeping there either way. Get rid of volunteers and the homeless person will still sleep in a doorway regardless. The only difference is without the volunteers, they’ll sleep hungry.”

Asked what advice he would offer anyone in homelessness, or on the cusp of homelessness, Fionn seems taken aback. He begins hesitantly to offer advice to those in relationships, and then decides against it. He then starts to talk about staying clean before deciding he is no-one to offer advice to anyone.

“Look, if you’re someone facing homelessness, I honestly wouldn’t know what to say to you. Except maybe ‘Can I help you?’”

‘We need more housing if we are to get to grips with this’ 

Cork Simon Community provides emergency beds for an average of 53 people per night, every night of the year. The start of November saw the opening of their winter night shelter, which will offer an additional 15 places per night in Cork Simon’s Anderson’s Quay day centre.

Speaking at the launch of Cork Simon’s annual report last month, Cork Simon director Dermot Kavanagh said the winter night shelter is one of a range of initiatives it is undertaking with the support of Cork City Council.

“It’s not by any means a place to call home but it will at least offer people warmth, shelter and some breathing space from life on the streets. What we really need is homes.”

In the past year, Cork Simon has provided housing to 28 new people, which was “a most welcome start” for those people, Kavanagh said.

“But we clearly need much more housing if we are to get a grip on the crisis.” Kavanagh said that Cork Simon plans to increase its own housing stock to 100 units by 2019. Cork Simon has also started an empty houses campaign, urging people with empty residential properties to consider selling or renting those properties to the charity, which would could acquire them so with the aid of Government funding.

The average length of stay in Simon’s emergency service has increased by 38% over four years. In 2013, the average length of stay was 38 nights. In 2017 the average stay is 54.

“The longer-term impact of the homeless crisis is beginning to show with people stuck in emergency accommodation for much longer periods of time because they simply have nowhere else to go,” Kavanagh said. “The number of people long-term homeless increased for the third successive year.”

Addressing recent controversial comments by Eileen Gleeson of the Dublin Region Homelessness Executive that homelessness is caused by “years of bad behaviour”, Kavanagh said he was “very shocked” and would hate if the impression of “deserving and undeserving categories of homelessness” was given.

“Everybody is absolutely deserving. A right to a home is fundamental to having a level playing field in society. You haven’t a hope of making your way in life if you haven’t the basics of a place to live in.”

The Cork Simon winter night shelter will remain in operation until the end of March.

corksimon.ie Cork Simon Emergency Shelter, Anderson’s Quay, Cork. 021 4278728

If you feel like living, do give a Christmas box…

In 2011, Cork Penny Dinners served approximately 100 meals a week. In 2017, they are serving roughly 2,000 meals a week. Founded in Famine times, Penny Dinners has a simple policy: no-one is ever turned away. Anyone calling in is offered a meal. “There’s an open door and a warm welcome. We never judge. We serve.”

Christmas is always a busy time in Penny Dinners’ Little Hanover Street premises, and this year promises to be as busy as ever. This Christmas, the good people in Penny Dinners are appealing for donations of ‘Christmas Boxes’. They make suggestions of ‘Men’s Christmas Boxes’, ‘Women’s Christmas Boxes’ and ‘Children’s Christmas Boxes’.

For men’s Christmas Boxes, Penny Dinners suggest practical things like socks, underwear, hats, gloves, scarves, toothpaste, razors, combs and moisturizers.

For women’s Christmas Boxes, similar items are required, with an added appeal for toiletries, hairbrushes and warm clothes.

The same suggestions apply for gift boxes for kids, except with one request. If you’re kind enough to think of homeless children this Christmas, please remember to specify on the box the age of the children for whom you’re catering.

If you’re putting together a Christmas Box of any sort, please bear in mind that a book or two might go a long way in amongst the other gifts. If you’re putting together a Christmas box for children, please remember kids nowadays love stories and magic every bit as much as we did. A few books and comics would mean the world to a small person.

Donations of tents, sleeping bags and flashlights are always very welcome.

Cork Penny Dinners are also appealing for donations of non-perishable foods, tinned foods, kitchen cleaning products, toilet paper, kitchen rolls, refuse sacks and tin foil. All donations are very gratefully received at 4 Little Hanover Street, Cork. Donations can also be dropped at Cinderella’s Closet in the North Point Business Park, or to Marie at Douglas Post.

€1 from each Irish Examiner/Evening Echo “Times Gone By” 2018 Calendar sold will go to Cork Penny Dinners.

Christmas Dinner of turkey and ham and vegetarian options will be available in Cork Penny Dinners to anyone who needs a dinner this Christmas Day. Staff from the River Lee Hotel and Penny Dinners volunteers will work hard – and be there before dawn – to put those dinners on the tables and to make this Christmas special.

Originally published in the Evening Echo on Friday 22 December 2017.

Evening Echo feature: Looking back at Cork’s year in music

John Creedon looks ahead to a busy 2018

John Creedon has had a busy year. As well as his week-nightly show on RTÉ Radio One, he has presented on TV “Creedon’s Shannon” and also the Fleadh Ceoil. He’s also working on next year’s TV show, “National Treasures”. A National Treasure himself, John spoke with us about his year in music and his hopes for the year ahead.


Among Creedon’s most memorable gigs this year was seeing Fat Freddy’s Drop, “a Kiwi Jazz/Funk/Steely Dan-like 9-piece”, headlining their homecoming gig “as the sun sank on a balmy 25 degree day” in front of 25,000 in the natural amphitheatre of a dormant volcano crater in Auckland, New Zealand.

“Other highlights included Karl Blau playing to less than a hundred people at Cork’s Cyprus Avenue … a wonderful presence, with a watertight country band featuring the
sweetest and loneliest slide guitar you’ve ever heard. Gonna be huge.

“The quality of playing by the youngsters we filmed for our Fleadh Cheoil tv series in Ennis this August! They just keep raising the bar every single year.”

Creedon only got to one Marquee gig this year, Elbow, but says Peter Aiken should be given a civic reception for his efforts over the years.

“In terms of Cork’s musical and commercial well-being, the Marquee has been invaluable. However, just where is our Concert Hall or event centre?  Have to say I’m getting tired of it.

“Before we know it, Limerick will steal our thunder and we will become a musical backwater. All the other venues around the city and county are to be commended for their on-going efforts in a really high-risk game. We need to support them.”

Creedon laments the loss this year of Walter Becker, Fats Domino, Tom Petty and many other fine musicians. Becker, Fats and Petty “have a special place in my own musical

Locally, Creedon says he is really impressed by recent Cork releases from Tootawl with Mide Houlihan.

“John Blek released a solo album, composed for the most part while in his hospital bed. He’s better again, and the songs are even better still. Hope is Noise is a powerful Cork
band. Driving rock, strong lyrics, no prisoners. Check out ‘Speak Over You’ and

“Great to see The Frank & Walters back on tour and still turning out fab songs. Sorry about all the great bands, venues and gigs that slipped my mind. been a busy year!”

Marlene Enright eyes collaborations

2017 saw Marlene Enright release her first solo album, ‘Placemats and Second Cuts’.

Marlene Enright“The album has been received really well, I feel very grateful for that. I think no matter what, I would always make music, but to have your work critically well received is the
icing on the cake! I’m sure I’ll look back at when I’m old and grey and realise what a lovely thing to have been able to do.

“I’ll be putting out a song and a video from the album in January and that will be the last release from the album. I’ll also be following up with some live dates in March including a London show. I never really stop writing but the frequency with which I write varies and I definitely feel I’m in need of getting a few songs out! I’d like to put some new material out toward the end of next year but let’s wait and see what happens! Some collaborations might be in order!”

A year of landmarks for Hank Wedel

2017 was a busy year for veteran Cork singer-songwriter, musician and native New Yorker Hank Wedel.

Hank Wedel“I spent the year attempting to make people aware – in Ireland and abroad – that I put out an album in September, 2016, entitled ‘Living In The Land Of Love’,” says Wedel. “I had a really great and illuminating time performing gigs in Europe. But it was also a year of anniversaries and landmarks for me. I celebrated 30 years of working as a professional musician. My wife, Eileen and I celebrate 30 years of marriage and it was our first year of being grandparents.

This Christmas brings two big Cork City gigs for Wedel, with the Deadication Blues Band in Charlie’s on St Stephen’s Night, and with the Beetle Peyote Experience in the Oliver
Plunkett on Friday 29th December.

“I hope to travel even more in the year ahead, and spread the word about my album, ‘Living In The Land Of Love’,” says Wedel. “Also, I wanna start recording and releasing a whole new buncha songs.”


Elva MacGowan inspired by the new year

Following the launch in the National Concert Hall last year of her excellent debut EP, “Close Your Eyes”, Youghal-born jazz-singer Elva MacGowan is looking forward to the launch of her debut album. The album will feature the talents of The Elva MacGowan
Ensemble, featuring Dave Fleming on double bass, Bill Blackmore on trumpet and
Drazen Derek on guitar.

Elva MacGowanThey recently played Bagots Hutton Dublin as part of their Bagots Hutton Live series and the album will feature their interpretation of American folk rock classics by Neil Young,
Linda Ronstadt, Roy Orbison, Fred Neil, James Taylor and more. “I am hoping to tour the album next summer around Cork and Kerry in various pub venues,” says MacGowan. “I’m lately listening to a lot of country, blues and old time music and a huge inspiration to me is singer Rhiannon Giddens who I just saw in Vicar St., an incredible musician and singer. Inspired for 2018!”

John Blek found inspiration from hospital bed

“My 2017 was similar to most years with their ups and downs but this time around both the highs and lows were a little more extreme,” says John O’Connor of John Blek and the Rats.

John Blek And The Rats

After four solid months of touring, O’Connor came into January exhausted and fell ill, spending February and March in and out of hospital.

“To maintain my sanity, I wrote a collection of 10 songs while lying flat on my back in hospital. I recorded the new music that would go on to become the album Catharsis Vol.1. It was an incredible experience with results that I’m incredibly proud of.”

“In early October I released the new album. I’ve taken it a little easier this year as I’ve grown aware of the fact that I can’t just destroy my body and exhaust myself again.

“For me this year I recognised my own limitations musically and financially and worked with them  to create the new album which to be honest is the album I’m most proud of. It’s stark and simple but lacks nothing when it comes to intensity and poignancy. It was done in two days keeping costs low but not compromising on quality. This approach of working quickly and keeping arrangements sparse will not suit every musician but it works for me right now and I’m glad I discovered it as an avenue.”

Year of note for Síle Ní Dhubhghaill

Síle Ní Dhubhghail is into her fourth year of running her music school, the Lee Valley Academy of Music, where she teaches too. This has been a busy year for Ní Dhubhghail, who  has two choirs at her school and who became the Social Democrats’ local area representative in Macroom.

Sile Ni D

“I’ve also been added to the board of the East Cork Early Music festival – my favourite music festival!” she says. “I took up the cello recently with a view to eventually learning the viola da gamba, because of my interest in early music. I’m working on some songs that I’m hoping to record on harp and harpsichord and other baroque instruments, on the subject of womanhood and power.”

‘Silvery’ worth its weight in gold for Cormac Ó Caoimh

Cork singer/songwriter Cormac O Caoimh marked 2017 with the release of his fourth, and most successful, album, “Shiny Silvery Things”.

cormac o caoimh“All 12 songs have received airplay and reached over 4 million listeners,” O Caoimh says. “And the singles ‘Second Hand Clothes’ and ‘Silence and Sound’ have reached more
listeners than any of my previous songs. These days it is hard to say that a
song is a hit. No one buys physical singles anymore, so for me the only way to
judge if  a song is a hit is by radio play and the listeners reached. Both my singles this year reached over 1 million listeners, so I’m calling them hits! Finally some songs for a greatest hits collection.

“This year was also full of lovely gigs. And I love playing with Martin Leahy. The full band gigs are him and me. What else would you need. The plan for 2018 is to release a
third single from Shiny Silvery Things and take some time to write and record the next album. And start all over again.”.

Deep South… with One Horse Pony

The band One Horse Pony promise on the tin “original blues roots music from Ireland’s Deep South”. Rob Foley, AKA The Rev Rob Hercules, says this was the year they pulled out all the stops, returning to the Glebe Gardens in Baltimore, featuring alongside Lisa
Hannigan and Wallis Byrd. The festivities began at sunset and went long into
the night.


“Two great shows at Electric Picnic ’17 was another highlight, for two specific reasons; the first was the massive Cork contingent among the performers, and the fact that on by Sunday, the stage we were set to play had collapsed. Luckily, the lovely Cathy Davey heard about our plight and gave us a slot on her stage.

The year was made up of a thousand wonderful moments (not least of which was appearing on the front page of the Echo). As always, the support we receive has made 2017 a productive and positive one to remember. In that spirit, One Horse Pony wish the people of Cork the very best of everything in 2018.

Mary Hickson plans next move for ‘Sounds from a Safe Harbour’ 20129

This year’s ‘Sounds from a Safe Harbour’ festival, the second such event, was a triumph. It was co-ordinated by former Cork Opera House CEO Mary Hickson and Bryce Dessner of US band The National, alongside playwright Enda Murphy and Cork-born actor
Cillian Murphy. It was just the latest success on Hickson’s impressive CV.


Sounds from a Safe Harbour was curated by Mary Hickson, Enda Walsh, Aaron Dessner, Cillian Murphy and Bryce Dessner

“I remember 2017 mostly for ‘Sounds from a Safe Harbour’ and the absolute magic that happened in Cork over that weekend,” says Hickson. “When I look back sometimes I wonder if it was all a dream… The best dream ever! My favorite quote of the weekend was by Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) ‘This is not a festival, it’s a spiritual f**king thing’. It really did feel like there was a special atmosphere around what we were doing. Cork City is the perfect playground for an event like this. We want to occupy more of its
nooks and crannies next time.”

Since the festival, Hickson is managing Bryce Dessner and they are working on new projects together. Among them, ‘Music Now’ in Cincinnati, ‘Eaux Claires’ in Wisconsin, ‘Haven’ in Copenhagen and a special project in Berlin.

“All of these projects will hopefully feed into and inspire ‘Sounds from a Safe Harbour’ 2019. We thrive to be inclusive and borderless, with no VIP access to anything. If you want to experience it then you invest in the time to get there and queue with everyone else. We are all in it together.

“The festival was lauded to have broken the festival mold, starting a new wave of how festivals should be.  We certainly hope so. It was a lovely surprise to be nominated as 2017 Best Festival in the Irish Times Ticket awards.

“Cork has a wonderful DIY mentality in the arts sector but we struggle to achieve our ambitions fully,” says Hickson. “It would be great to see more support from the corporate sector towards these bold projects. Creating SFSH17 was a financial struggle as an independent not-for-profit venture. We wanted to achieve so much more but could not due to lack of funding.

“The more support we get the bigger we can think and the louder the resonance of these great projects is going back into the world.  There is no doubt that we will have huge international interest in Sounds from a Safe Harbour 2019 and we need help in achieving something bigger and better.”

Originally published in the Evening Echo 20 and 21 Decembr 2017.

Evening Echo feature: The people we bid farewell to in 2017

Kathleen O’Sullivan

“I won’t survive another winter on the streets,” Kathleen O’Sullivan told volunteers from ‘Helping Hands Homeless Action Group’, almost exactly a month before she died. The night she said that, she was lying on cardboard in a doorway behind Cork’s Clayton Hotel, a doorway in which her aunt died seven years earlier – to the day – and in which she would die too.

Kathleen O'SullivanTwo weeks before she died, Kathleen called to the ‘Hope for the Homeless’ tent outside Brown Thomas and asked volunteers if they could give her pyjamas. None were available, but she told one volunteer that she was being hospitalised for a medical procedure and she was looking forward to spending a week in warmth and comfort, in a decent bed and getting regular meals. The volunteer said Kathleen seemed close to tears of happiness.

Kathleen O’Sullivan was found dead around 11am on Wednesday December 6 on Lower Oliver Plunkett Street, yards from the Simon Community shelter on Anderson’s Quay.

“She was very well known to Cork Simon and to us as well,” Christina Chalmers of ‘Helping Cork’s Homeless’ told Joe Leogue of the Irish Examiner. “She was very nurturing. She never took more than she needed from us and often contacted us about
someone else in need.

“If there was someone new on the scene she would bring them to us and introduce them.”

Chalmers said Kathleen, a native of Togher, was grieving the loss of her son, Anthony, in recent years and had been suffering from pleurisy, emphysema, and a number of other severe health issues, which were exacerbated by years of living on the streets. Chalmers said she was concerned Kathleen would become “another statistic” as more and more homeless people die on our streets.

Chalmers said Kathleen “once shared a room with a girl with mental health issues and suicidal tendencies, and contacted us immediately.

“She was a kind, caring, soft-spoken lady. I don’t want her to become another statistic. She had her demons, as do we all, but she was a lovely lady.”

Kathleen O’Sullivan was 44 years old. She was predeceased by her son, Anthony, and survived by her son Edmund and by four siblings. She was laid to rest on Saturday 9 December, in St Michael’s Cemetery, Blackrock. That morning, the doorway in which Kathleen, and her aunt before her, died was occupied by another homeless woman.

Dave Roche

It was the early Spring of 2015, ahead of Ireland’s Marriage Equality Referendum, when Dave Roche addressed the inaugural meeting of the Avondhu branch of Yes Equality Cork in the Blackwater Room of Fermoy’s rand Hotel. This was his home town, and at the end of the meeting, the supremely confident Dave suggested those attending the meeting might like to pose for a photo.

As the group stood in front of the room’s ornate white marble fireplace, this writer noted aloud that the fireplace’s centrepiece features a pair of angelic, nude and anatomically-specific male cherubs with their arms around each other. It probably wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that Dave Roche’s laughter could likely be heard from outer space.

Dave Roche Fermoy

David John “Rosie” Roche was born into a supportive Army family in Fermoy on February 4. 1964. He was blessed, given that he lived in an Ireland where homosexual acts were actually illegal until 1993. For Roche, gay rights became both a lifelong commitment and a full-time career. Dave was a founder member of the Cork LGBT Pride Festival, the CEO of the Cork Gay Project, a board member of the National LGBT helpline, and a driving force behind the Yes Equality Cork campaign and LGBT Awareness Week. He died from a heart attack while working on a DIY project at home in Terelton, near Macroom.

In the wake of Roche’s death, Senator Jerry Buttimer said Cork had lost an “inspirational advocate of courage” who challenged us all to think differently and to act accordingly.

Dave Roche was 54, and is survived by his partner, Paul, mother Phil, brothers John and Michael, sisters Michelle, Margaret and Bridget.

Mary Moynihan

Mary Moynihan was a talented dressmaker and member of the Deaf Community. She was a pioneer of Irish Sign Language (ISL) in the 1940s. She was a gifted communicator and taught ISL to her nieces, nephews and hearing siblings.

Graham O’Shea, Cork Deaf Club Chairperson, described Mary as having “a strong character, and she was great company… she was a great storyteller and (experienced) life as a deaf woman growing up in 1940s/50s Ireland.”

Mary Moynihan

Mary was sent to St Mary’s School for Deaf Girls in Cabra when she was seven. She left in 1955 when she was 16 years old. Mary’s brother Jim was also deaf, and he went to St Joseph’s Deaf School for Boys, which was only a mile from St Mary’s. Both schools were boarding schools and very strictly-run. They were forbidden from seeing each other, except at summer holiday times. Despite this, school was a happy time for Mary, and she made lifelong friends there.

In later life, Mary and her brother Jim would be inseparable, sharing a home together until Jim passed away in 2006.

When Mary finished school, she returned to Cork, to a job as a seamstress in St Marie’s of the Isle. Mary didn’t like the strict routine, and quit after two years, finding more enjoyable work as a dressmaker.

Mary and other deaf women would meet at a café at the Queen’s Old Castle. They were careful no-one saw them as they signed to each other because then it was considered taboo to sign in public.

When Mary grew up, family members were not taught or encouraged to use sign language. Instead, Mary communicated mostly via writing and gestures. Over the years she taught nephews, nieces and hearing siblings to use ISL.

Mary was a long-time member of the Cork Deaf Club, which meets on MacCurtain Street.

In December, Ireland officially recognised ISL, meaning deaf people can access State services in their own language. There were cheers from the public gallery as the Bill passed all stages in the Dáil, and deputies signed to the visitors.

Leas Ceann Comhairle, Pat The Cope Gallagher, looked up and gruffly said “It’s not usual, but you’re very welcome, and you’re welcome to interrupt proceedings, because it’s an historic Bill”.

Mary would have been delighted.

Mary Moynihan died tragically in a fire at her Model Farm Road home on Monday 6 November. She was 89.

Noelle Feeney

Noelle Feeney was –  by any definition – a superfan and, as many tributes described her, she was a mother to everyone at Cork City FC.

Noelle Feeney was the public face of Cork City FC for many years, and she famously carried a bottle of holy water with her to give the players luck before big games. She was a director of the club for a time.

noelle feeney

The devoted Cork City fan was a figurehead of the Leeside club for decades since she first joined the Cork City Supporters Club in 1988, just four years after the club was founded.

Long-time City fan Gerry Desmond once wrote that Noelle Feeney had the honour of being known by one name. He likened this to the many talented footballers we’ve seen from Brazil over the decades. Noelle was also named one of the 10 most influential women in European football by the Sunday Times in 2005. The Sunday Times said she was seventh out of 10 of the most influential women in football in Europe. That’s some achievement.

At Noelle’s removal, and later at her removal, every mourner had their own story to recollect about Noelle, aka Mrs Cork City, aka the First Lady of CCFC. She was beloved as the heart and soul of Cork City FC.

Noelle Feeney passed away in Marymount Hospice on Monday 5 February after an illness. Former Cork City player Neal Horgan paid tribute to her, describing her as, “Our Edith Piaf in the Evergreen. “Win or lose, she’d sing for her boys. Noelle Feeney. Simply the Best.”

Philip Leahy

Philip Leahy was a popular, witty, kind and friendly young man who in 2016 captained the Ballyhooly Junior GAA Football team to its first ever county final victory.

Philip was on a J1 visa to the United States when he got into difficulty and suffered
a cardiac arrest while swimming at a beach in Ocean City on 2 August.

Philip Leahy

In the immediate aftermath of Philip’s hospitalisation, a Go Fund Me page was set
up to raise funds for his medical treatment. It described the Leahy family as the cornerstone of the Ballyhooly community, and raised over €93,000.

Philip passed away at Maryland General Hospital on Sunday 6 August in the presence of
his mother Anne and his brothers William and Patrick. He was a young man very much in the mold of his father, Philip (Philly), who passed away two years earlier.

Philip’s loss devastated the lives of his vast circle of friends.

Philip was due to attend his conferring at CIT in October having received an honours
degree in business.

Philip Leahy was 22.

Jennifer Dennehy

Jennifer Dennehy was originally from Blackrock. She was found unresponsive by her partner in the tent they shared in Gillabbey Park on Friday 1 September. Jennifer had only been evicted from her apartment days earlier.

Christina Chalmers, of Helping Cork’s Homeless, said: “She was only on the streets since last week. She wasn’t accustomed to sleeping on the street. It can happen to anyone so quickly.

“She wasn’t your classical stereotypical homeless person on the streets with addiction.”

Jennifer Dennehy was 30 years old. She was a kind and decent person and a very talented writer. She was very good with children, and she was someone who deserved a full and very happy life.

Her funeral Mass heard that Jennifer had a big heart and always had a smile and a willingness to help others. Jennifer’s eulogy said: “She believed everyone was equal and all she wanted was to help others.
She was strong and courageous.” Sadly, and entirely predictably, Jennifer Dennehy
would not be the last homeless person to die in Cork in 2017.

Owen O’Callaghan

Owen O’Callaghan, who died in January aged 76, was one of Ireland’s most successful property developers and, over four decades, he reshaped the streetscape of Cork City through a succession of commercial, retail and housing developments.

owen o'callaghan

Born in Ballincollig in 1930, O’Callaghan was educated at Presentation College and Farranferris College. He qualified as a chartered surveyor in 1964 and went to work with a local engineering firm, later becoming a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Building.

He set up his own house-building company based in Youghal in 1969, and later established O’Callaghan Properties Unlimited, which continues to this day with his long-time associate John Dean and his son Brian as directors.

O’Callaghan’s biggest development was on the West Dublin Quarryvale site, which became the Liffey Valley Shopping Centre. This development led to O’Callaghan becoming embroiled in allegations of widespread bribery and planning corruption with which his name would be forever associated, allegations which became a major part of the Flood and later Mahon Tribunal.

Mahon found that O’Callaghan made corrupt payments to the lobbyist Frank Dunlop to influence politicians in their rezoning decisions. To his dying day, O’Callaghan rejected this finding, challenging it first in the High Court – which he lost – and the Supreme Court – which was still pending when he died.

It is no exaggeration to say that Owen O’Callaghan changed the face of Cork City. His influence can be seen in Opera Lane, in Paul Street, in Half Moon Street, in North Main Street, in Merchants Quay, in Lavitts Quay, in Mahon Point and in many other parts of Cork.

He was one of the few property developers to survive the cash largely unscathed, with only a few of his properties ending up in NAMA.

During his lunchtime, Owen O’Callaghan liked to stroll the streets and lanes of the city he loved.

Originally published in the Evening Echo on Saturday, December 30, 2017

Evening Echo Interview with John Creedon 2017 #CreedonsShannon

CreedoIt’s the summer-time, and in what is now an annual tradition, John Creedon is out and about, but this time without his vintage 1967 Volkswagon van, “An Sean-Bhean Bhocht”. This year, Creedo is taking to the water.

“I’m tearing around again,” he laughs over a coffee in Cork’s Imperial Hotel. “No Sean-Bhean this time. I’m on a boat – boats – and I’m hitching and hiking and thumbing and driving boats and passengering and paddling and rowing.”

Following his success with RTÉ TV programmes like “Creedon’s Cities”, “Creedon’s Weather”, “Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way” and “Creedon’s Epic East”, the veteran Cork broadcaster is now tackling “Creedon’s Shannon”.

In the opening episode, Creedon visits the Shannon Pot, the tiny pool on the slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain in County Cavan where the Shannon officially rises – or does it? As Creedon asks, “Is the Shannon actually fourteen kilometres longer than we were taught in school?” To find the answer, he ventures north of the border and meets with hydro-geologists. All will be revealed, he promises, in the first programme, which airs on Sunday the 23rd of July.

Down through Lough Allen, Lough Ree and Lough Derg, and as the river swells and narrows, “Creedon’s Shannon” looks at how the Shannon has shaped and influenced Ireland. Over the course of three episodes, Creedon travels 360 km and twelve counties aboard cruiser, barge, yacht, gandalow, ending in the Shannon estuary, where Ireland’s mightiest river meets the broad Atlantic.

Creedon describes his television shows as “snapshotting Ireland”. He says he feels refreshed and energised by his encounters along the Shannon. “I know the word is overused, but I really do feel humbled – and terribly lucky too – to meet so many lovely people,” he says. “I love their accents and the welcome I get.

“I was only thinking recently I would find myself listening to maybe nine or ten news bulletins a day and I ask myself, is there any reason I’m stressed? If you were to consume enough news, you wouldn’t trust anybody! Whereas my life experience is that ninety-nine point nine-eight percent of people I have met are actually sound and don’t actually want to kill me! So this is a very life-affirming experience.”

“Creedon’s Shannon” sees Creedon visit the Arigna mines, recreate the lost city of Clonmacnoise and make poitin on Lough Derg. Along the way, he meets island folk and river people.

“I love it,” he says of exploring Ireland and the Irish character anew. “I remember that world very fondly from my aunties and uncles in West Cork, collies and big old horses in hayfields, or even corner-boys in Cork, you know, ball-hopping and humour and language and all the rest of it.”

Creedon talks fondly of a 91-year-old man he met on the shores of Lough Allen – Jimmy Furey – and says he is heartbroken that his interview didn’t make the cut in the finished show but it will feature on RTÉ’s Player.

“There I am,” he says, “on a Tuesday afternoon, when the rest of the world is at work, and I’m sitting by a turf fire talking to this fella about eel-fishing, which is how they made their living.

“They had about eighteen acres of bad land, they had four or five cows, they used to bring a churn of milk to the creamery alright, by donkey and cart, but yet they had to go to Mass by boat. He used to bring his mother to Mass by boat when she was in her eighties or nineties across Lough Allen. And catch eels. And sell them to a dealer who would send them on to Billingsgate Market or to France and I’m kind of going ‘Okay, I know rural Ireland too, but there was no eels, and there was no going to Mass by boat. Hang on a while, I’ve got the meadow bit, but –‘”

Creedon says he is blessed to have found a way to explore his interests in folklore, archaeology, history, wildlife, tradition, language and people.

“My own natural instincts have lead me over this direction. It was never the plan – there was never a plan – but here I am. I was always a gun for hire and I always had a family to provide for, but now I get to do this.

“I’m really lucky,” he says, segueing to his beloved football team. “It’s like having Cork City playing the way they’re playing at the moment, with that swagger, banging in goals for fun, fans you can be proud of, full houses, loyal support, chartering jets to get to our European matches and there’s no fantasist with a sheepskin coat telling us what colour to wear.

“I love that club to bits, and I love that band of boys and girls and men and women. It’s an honest endeavour, it’s a joint venture between all of us, there’s maybe 1,500 shareholders. We all threw in our fifty quid or a hundred or whatever and we’re trading nicely and it really gives me great joy.”

Creedon says his hugely-popular 8pm weeknights RTÉ Radio 1 show is second nature to him after thirty years as a broadcaster. “‘Tis zipping along grand. ‘Tis aisy! I liken it to being in my den with my friends. And the graph is going in the right direction, thankfully, up another 9,000 (listeners) in the latest JNLR.”

As he leaves the Imperial and heads off to the RTÉ Cork studio on Father Mathew Street – stopping every few yards to chat with people – John Creedon reflects again that he’s a lucky man.

“If my younger self was told ‘D’you know all those records you love playing? Well, you’ll still be playing them when you’re a grand-dad and d’you know something, you’ll earn your living playing them!’

“I would never have believed I could be so fortunate.”

Creedon’s Shannon begins at 6.30pm on Sunday 23rd of July, on RTÉ1. The John Creedon Show airs at 8pm, Monday to Friday, on RTÉ Radio One.

Originally published in the Evening Echo, Tuesday, July 18th


An open letter to the Irish Times


Dear Sir,

I buy a copy of the Irish Times every day. Over a week, it costs me €12.90 and I usually consider that to be money very well spent.

I am saddened that you chose to publish online an article written by – but not identified as – a member of the white supremacist “alt-right” movement. The article contained racist phraseology and was published even as its author was tweeting racist comments about refugee children.

This is not to suggest for a moment that the Irish Times should ignore the so-called “alt-right”, but neither should you publish their propaganda as clickbait.

This week I will not be spending €12.90 on the Irish Times but will instead take that sum, top it up to twenty quid, and donate the money to the Irish Refugee Council.

Please consider this my small protest against a very bad decision on your part.

Yours sincerely,

Donal O’Keeffe

A walk through Fermoy’s garrison past

The small gravestone still reads “Sacred to the memory of Jane, daughter of Edwd. and Maria Jennings, 39th Regt, who died Jan 31st 1869 aged 2.”

Across Fermoy’s military cemetery – behind Fermoy Soccer Club and the Famine graveyard – other children are remembered. “Bertie Gordon, Died 28th July 1898, aged 2. Thy will be done.”

“Sacred to the memory of William James The beloved son of Emily and Willm. Babbington 2nd Connt. Rangers Died 15th March 1885 Aged 16 months.”

“Emily Helena (indecipherable) Daughter. But O for the touch of a vanish’d hand.”

“Infant mortality would have been astronomical then,” says Dr Aoife Bhreatnach, “but what is doubly tragic is that a military family might bury a child here and then be posted to the other side of the Empire.”

Bhreatnach is a historian specialising in garrison towns and she shares a wealth of knowledge as we walk what was once Fermoy’s British Army barracks, and what is now sports grounds.

Fermoy’s modern history dates from 1791, when Scots businessman John Anderson purchased lands once belonging to the old Cistercian Abbey.

France’s failed 1796 invasion of Ireland terrified the British Government, and it sought land for military bases. Fermoy was an ideal location and Anderson offered them a free site.

In 1807 Rev J. Hall described Fermoy as “rising fast into importance and containing about two thousand inhabitants, besides barracks for as many soldiers. A few years ago, Fermoy consisted of only a few miserable huts.” At the height of Fermoy’s time as a garrison town, 3,300 troops were stationed there.

Bhreatnach paints a fascinating picture of life in a garrison town, with uniformed soldiers part of everyday street life. Troops paraded to Sunday religious services, marched to and from train stations and performed manoeuvres and reviews in public parks.

The British army was a vital part of the town’s economy. Barrack quartermasters purchased wholesale alcohol for the officers’ and soldiers’ messes, where copious amounts of wine, beer and spirits were served.

“Approximately half the accounts of McAuliffe’s public house on Barrack Hill were with the military,” Bhreatnach says.

Bhreatnach notes that from 1893 to 1903, 30% of the customers in Hickey’s, Fermoy, were military officers and senior NCOs. Hickey’s also supplied garrisons in Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Kerry. The laundry of those clothes also proved a valuable source of income for charitable institutions such as Fermoy’s Presentation Convent.

In recent years, Fermoy Sub-Aqua Club recovered from the O’Neill Crowley Quay riverbed a quantity of pocket watches. They date back to an incident during the War of Independence. In September 1919, Liam Lynch and a column of Cork No. 2 Brigade I.R.A. – including Michael Fitzgerald – ambushed a group of British soldiers on their way to Fermoy’s Wesleyan Church (Now Avondhu Motor Factors).

One soldier, 20 year old Private William Jones, was killed, and another, Private Lloyd, was injured.

Private Jones was – reputedly – the first British soldier killed in the War of Independence.

Today, there is a monument where Private Jones died. It remembers Mick Fitzgerald, who died a year later on hunger strike in Cork Gaol. Fitzgerald’s death – and the subsequent deaths of his fellow prisoners, Joe Murphy and Terence McSwiney – brought global attention to the cause of Irish independence.

British forces sacked the town in retaliation and in reaction to the coroner’s inquest, which recorded a verdict of ‘Accidental death, unpremeditated’. The soldiers’ actions were highly co-ordinated but it was claimed “the men” had acted spontaneously.

Lieutenant Colonel Hughes-Hallett, posted in Fermoy at the time, recalled: (They) “proceeded to every shop or place of business of the coroner and the members of the jury… the jeweller’s (Barber’s), the Boot Shop (Tyler’s) and (Lombard’s) and the foreman of the Jury, etc, were all faithfully dealt with. Trays of rings and watches were soon being flung into the river. A chain of men… smashed bottles on the pavement, and drink flowed in a stream down the gutter.”

The Irish Times reported a later town meeting and a bitter exchange between Colonel Dobbs – representing the British army – and Mr Kelleher, vice-chairman of the Urban Council. Dobbs agreed to a request that he confine the troops to quarters, but – angered by the jury’s verdict – warned that he would not be responsible if they got “out of hand” again.

Dobbs: “You have not the pluck to say that (Private Jones) was murdered.”

Kelleher: “There is pluck enough in the town.”

Dobbs: “Why didn’t you come forward to assist, when the men were shot? Not a man, woman or child had the pluck to come forward and give assistance.”

Kelleher: “No one came near us when our windows were broken.”

Dobbs: “Damn the windows! You have got no industry, you are simply living on the army and but for them you would be taking in each other’s washing. When this thing happens and you lose a few hundred or a few thousand pounds, you come and cry for protection.”

The British army left Fermoy in Spring 1922. In August, in the midst of the Civil War, the Barracks were torched. Afterward, a member of the Urban District Council complained that the local authority lost £3,400 in rates and an additional £450 in special water rates. The financial loss devastated the town, especially in the first economically-depressed decades of the new State.

Post-Independence, Bhreatnach says, Fermoy used street names to put its garrison past behind it. “Barrack Hill became Oliver Plunkett Hill, Mess House Lane was dubbed Colmcille Street; New Barrack Street became Sheares Street and West Barrack Street was renamed Bridget’s Street.

“Erasing the military associations gave the town an opportunity to assert a particular form of cultural nationalism, prudently focusing on uncontroversial early revolutionaries (the Sheares from 1798) and ancient saints. Erasing one past allowed local communities to pay homage to another image of Ireland.”

Almost a century later, walking with Dr Bhreatnach across Michael Fitzgerald Park, Fermoy’s GAA grounds, formerly the British Army New Barracks, I’m struck how close to us and yet how far away our history remains.

Dr Aoife Bhreatnach tweets as @GarrisonTowns. irishgarrisontowns.com

Originally published in the Evening Echo, 29th December 2016


Direct Provision is no place for these families

“I do not tell him about Santa,” Cindy (not her real name) says, lowering her voice so her three-and-a-half year old son doesn’t hear.

“He hears about Santa from other children but I have to keep his expectations low. The presents he will get will come from charity.

“We are very grateful for the kindness but he cannot get his hopes up. I do not want to break his heart.”

It’s just before Christmas. Cindy and her son have met me for a chat in a hotel lobby in a Munster town. Over the fireplace, Christmas lights wink on and off. Cindy’s son, Aaron, shouts “Broken! Fix!”

Cindy stops him from going at the lights and tells me that she, her husband and Aaron have lived for the past two years in a Direct Provision centre outside of the town. Most locals are barely aware of the centre.

“Christmas Day is the same day as every day,” says Cindy. “The staff will not be there, so we have cold food they leave for us and the day is very long.”

Cindy is South African. Her husband, Joshua, is Nigerian. She was a supervisor in a marketing company in Johannesburg and her husband was a businessman. She says they came to Ireland because they faced persecution as Joshua was a non-national. She says they were attacked and threatened with murder.

Cindy and Joshua chose to come to Ireland because they didn’t need a visa and came here because they are Catholic and liked Ireland. On arrival, they applied for asylum. Their application was rejected because South Africa is not recognised as a conflict zone. They appealed the decision and their appeal was rejected. They have appealed again.

The cycle of rejection and appeal is a common story, although it is unusual for asylum-seekers to actually pick their destination as Cindy and her husband did. Most asylum-seekers are smuggled here and have no idea where they even are when they arrive in Ireland.

Cindy says that she is shocked at the levels of violence in the Direct Provision centre.

“There are a lot of fights. Gardaí call all the time. It is always women. These are desperate women suffering from boredom and depression. ‘Are you looking at my husband?’ Stupid stuff. ‘What are you looking at?’ Sometimes we fight over food. Like animals.”

As we chat, Cindy’s son shouts and runs around, ignoring Cindy as she tries to calm him. She is mortified by his acting out but then she tells me she is worried about his behaviour.

“He goes crazy here because he usually has no space. Because he spends all his time with us. One small room. This cannot be healthy.”

In another Direct Provision centre in the south, later the same day, I speak with a number of women who tell me that Christmas Day will be for them and their children “A nothing day. Less than a nothing day”.

Like Cindy, “Katherine” too is from South Africa. Similarly, she says her husband being a non-national led to their having to flee to escape persecution. She has two small children, a boy of four and a one-year-old girl. She alleges that the food in her Direct Provision centre is very poor.

“If we have chicken today, we have the same chicken tomorrow and the next day the same chicken in Uncle Ben’s sweet’n’sour sauce. Or if it’s beef on Monday, the same beef on Tuesday and beef stew with the same beef on Wednesday.

“Are we animals? Are we dogs that you feed scraps?”

She says she has not made a formal complaint for fear of being moved to another centre. Bad as she says things are, she fears her family being uprooted again. She claims that when the Reception and Integration Agency – the State body which oversees privately-run Direct Provision centres – inspects the facility, food quality improves dramatically.

I asked the Department of Justice – which is ultimately responsible for RIA – for a comment. I was told:

“RIA has a complaints procedure.. which resolves to deal with problems quickly and efficiently.

“RIA oversees a comprehensive and detailed inspections system of asylum seeker accommodation. Inspections are carried out by an in-house inspectorate within RIA and also by an independent company with expertise in fire and food safety.”

The problem is that people in Direct Provision have deportation orders hanging over their heads and most are terrified to complain.

Katherine’s friend “Jennifer” tells me to call her that, “like Jennifer Aniston”. She’s a young Muslim woman from Pakistan who fled her home because she married outside of her caste.

She and her husband fled under threat of a so-called “honour killing”. Jennifer has two boys. A three-year-old and a newborn.

Jennifer and Katherine are both Muslim and say that Islam doesn’t celebrate Christmas. However, they say they live in a country that has Christmas and they’d like their kids to enjoy that. “We want to belong in Ireland,” says Katherine.

“I have to ask,” I say, “because if I don’t, someone else will say I should have, but how did you both end up on an island that’s the last stop before America?”

“America?” says Katherine, misunderstanding my point. “We would not go to America!”

“Oh no,” says Jennifer, eyes wide with horror. “Not with what is happening there now!”

As they realise their misunderstanding, the three of us crack up laughing. It’s a rare moment of levity in grim surroundings. (Jennifer says she and her husband were smuggled here. Katherine and her husband came here from South Africa.)

“At the end of November there were 1,098 children in Direct Provision. The average length of stay in Direct Provision is around 2 years 9 months,” says Nick Henderson of the Irish Refugee Council.

“The Irish Refugee Council, along with various different organisations and individuals including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the Special Rapporteur for Children, Geoffrey Shannon, and most recently Minister Katherine Zappone have called for an end to Direct Provision. In the interim, living conditions should be improved.

“We need a system that embodies the best interests of the child, allows for self-determination and privacy, is based on care and not profit, identifies and supports individuals with special needs and vulnerabilities, allows for independent complaints mechanisms and provides for the right to work.

“Saturday 10th of December, International Human Rights Day, was the anniversary of the direct provision allowance being introduced in 1999,” notes Henderson. “That allowance, €19.10, hasn’t changed since, despite inflation and the considerable increase in living costs. The Christmas bonus for people in Direct Provision was just €16.23 for adults and €13.26 for their children. Christmas can expose existing poverty in our society, not least for people living in Direct Provision.”

‘Temporary shelter’ is damaging people

Direct Provision was originally planned as a temporary solution to provide shelter for asylum-seekers for approximately six months but many people spend years in conditions which have been condemned by the United Nations and international human rights groups.

Direct Provision gives asylum-seekers their bed and board and it prohibits them from working. Asylum-seekers get €19.10 a week. Children get €15.50. Asylum-seekers are not eligible for free third-level education.

Currently we have 4,300 people in 34 Direct Provision centres across the State. A third of them are children; 55% have been here for five years, 20% of that for seven years or more.

Direct Provision centres, which include former hotels, hostels and a mobile home park, are run by private contractors who receive about €50 million per year in State funding.

Until now, parents have not been allowed to cook for their children and many say they have lost their sense of independence. Sue Conlon, formerly of the Irish Refugee Council, notes that some children in Direct Provision – crammed into close proximity with adults (and not just their parents) – are seeing things they should not see and are replicating behaviour they should not understand.

“We have created a system which infantilises adults and sexualises children,” she says. “This is a recipe for horrors.”

Ireland has warehoused asylum-seekers in Direct Provision centres since 1999. Direct Provision was introduced as a temporary, six-month, solution at a time when annual asylum applications were 10,938. Applications peaked in 2002 at 11,600.

Last year we had 1,448 asylum applications.

In EU terms, Ireland has a lower than average number of asylum applications per head of capita. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Ireland received 1.4 asylum seekers per 1,000 population between 2010 and 2014. The EU average is 3.5 per 1,000 and, over the same period, Sweden received 24 applications per 1,000 population.

Ireland only accepts approximately 5% to 6% of asylum applicants upon first application. The European average is somewhere between 26% and 28%.

Ireland remains the only country in the EU, other than Lithuania, that does not allow asylum applicants access to the labour market at any stage during the asylum process.

A number of prominent figures, including the former Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, have predicted that a future Taoiseach will end up standing in the Dáil and publicly apologising for damage done by the Direct Provision system.

We should demand dignity, kindness and respect for all

In August of this year, an asylum-seeker from Korea, a woman in her thirties, took her own life in the Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre, which houses 200 or so people. She was the mother of a six-year-old boy.

“She lived in the same block as me,” one woman, a fellow asylum-seeker, told RTÉ’s Brian O’Connell in the wake of the tragedy. “Lovely lady, very private, and didn’t choose to mingle with people. It was obvious that she had issues, but she chose to remain private about them.

“Lively. A real live wire,” she says of her late neighbour’s son. “He interacted very, very well with other children. Very sweet and loved his mum dearly. And she loved him as well. You could see. When it came to her son, you could see how much she loved him.”

That little boy is now an orphan and in the care of Túsla.

“Depression, sometimes, is within and you carry it wherever you go. Certainly your circumstances can and might exacerbate a situation you already have,” the dead woman’s neighbour told Brian O’Connell.

Brian O’Connell points out that 90% of asylum-seekers will have suffered from some form of depression. O’Connell notes that sixty-one asylum seekers, including sixteen children under the age of 6, have died in Direct Provision centres between 2002 and 2014. That is, he says, out of an asylum-seeker population during those years of just over 50,000.

If, like many of us, you don’t know the Kinsale Road Direct Provision centre, it is – as you drive out to Cork Airport – on the left-hand corner immediately before, and beside, the Bull McCabe’s Bar. If – as an Irish citizen – you are interested in meeting our guests, the men, women and children living in Direct Provision, the residents on Kinsale Road are always delighted to get visitors.

All you need to do is call to the gate and talk to the security guards. Tell them that you’d like to meet some of the people who are living in our country as our guests. If they turn you down – and they almost certainly will turn you down – then ask to make an appointment.

(The usual excuse is “privacy concerns”, which is an interesting line of argument when some asylum-seekers are forced to share bedrooms with total strangers.)

Please think about bringing gifts of toys or books when you call. Santa will always do his best for the kids in there, but Santa never turned down a kindness either.

As Irish citizens, as tax-payers, we all pay for the Direct Provision system and – as we are responsible for it – we surely have a duty to make sure that our guests are treated with dignity, kindness and respect.

Originally published in the Evening Echo 28th December 2016

Christmas in Cork Penny Dinners

No matter the day of the week or the time of the year, there’s always a welcome at 4 Little Hanover Street. That’s the home of Cork Penny Dinners and the welcome is never warmer than on Christmas morning.

There has been a Cork Penny Dinners for 170 years or so. Its website says “Our aim is a simple one – to give everyone who calls to our Centre a hot nourishing midday meal. In addition, our clients get sandwiches and fruit to take away as an evening meal. There’s an open door and a warm welcome. We never judge, we serve. We are open 7 days a week all year including Christmas Day.”

This Christmas will be a special day in Cork Penny Dinners, with a hot dinner given to anyone who calls in. The day begins – like every other day – at 6am when the volunteers arrive and begin to get everything ready. Officially, the door opens at 8.30am but nobody calling earlier is ever turned away.

Catriona Twomey, Penny Dinners’ co-ordinator, says that until recently Christmas dinner was prepared – like every other meal – on the premises by volunteers, but demand has become so intense recently that the River Lee Hotel has stepped in to help, supplying the dinners ready-made.

“Last Christmas Day, we served well over 200 Christmas dinners,” says Catriona Twomey. “This year, we’re expecting the figure to be even higher. Ruairi O’Connor is the general manager of the River Lee Hotel, and he and his staff have been absolute lifesavers. We’ve reached the stage now where we really couldn’t manage without their kindness.”

It’s not only at Christmas time that Penny Dinners sees an increase in demand for its service. In 2011, the charity was supplying approximately one hundred meals per week. In 2016, that figure is closer to two thousand meals per week.

What’s more, Penny Dinners volunteers say they are now serving meals to people the charity never saw before, not “just” homeless people or “just” those with drug or alcohol dependency. Now they are feeding people who have jobs, families with small children, people just about meeting the rent or paying their mortgage and who can’t afford food.

Penny Dinners also supplies a weekly shop to several households, literally to put food on the family table.

Add to that our spiralling homelessness crisis, and it’s little wonder that the charity finds itself under unprecedented pressure. Cork Simon Community reports that since 2011, the number of people sleeping rough in Cork has increased ninefold from 38 people in 2011 to 345 people in 2015.

In October, Cork Simon’s Outreach Team met 90 people sleeping rough in Cork. Year-on-year, that’s up 90%. On a nightly basis, an average of 20 people per night slept rough in Cork during October, year-on-year up 110%.

Cork Simon also reports that during the week of October 24th-30th there were 240 adults in Emergency Accommodation in Cork – a year-on-year 17% increase.

During one week in October, there were 36 families homeless in the South West (Cork and Kerry). Year-on-year, a 63% increase. There were 98 children homeless in the SW, year-on-year, that figure has more than doubled.

This is the second Cork Penny Dinners Christmas since its premises were refurbished from top to bottom under the supervision of celebrity hotelier Francis Brennan. The entire operation was filmed by RTÉ’s “Room To Improve” and shown in last year’s Christmas special.

The refurbishments were paid for by donations from local businesses and members of the public. Francis Brennan called the response from tradesmen and the public “incredible”, saying they had all helped bring Penny Dinners’ premises into the 21st century.

“The people of Cork supported us beyond belief,” he said. “The old building was stuck back in the 1940s. Even the floor was squishy, it went up and down when you walked on it.

“But the new building now is just so lovely. The kitchen is fully modernised. There’s a 1,000 years of a difference.”

What was before a narrow, cramped kitchen was replaced with a new state-of-the-art industrial kitchen and walk-in cold room. The dining area too has been overhauled and repainted, new floors have been laid, a new roof was built, and the entire Little Hanover St building has been insulated. With more light and air, the place feels bigger, brighter and even more welcoming than before.

On Christmas morning, Penny Dinners volunteers will drive all around the city – and further afield – to collect clients who cannot travel to the party. Those who are homeless and living in emergency accommodation in hotels and B&Bs are also very welcome to call in.

Santa Claus is expected to arrive at midday, fresh off the Cork Penny Dinners Polar Express to Kent Station. Mr Claus, a regular visitor to Little Hanover Street, promises to have gifts for all. He will join the Penny Dinners Christmas party, which promises to be an occasion of great fun and joy. Music this year will be supplied by special guests Jack O’Rourke and by the High Hopes Choir.

There will be presents for everyone and all those who call will receive a household hamper. Care packs will also be distributed to all who need one. Each pack will contain hats, gloves, scarves, socks, toiletries and magazines.

“There’s always a good atmosphere here every day,” says Catriona Twomey, “but I suppose this is about trying to restore Christmas for people. It’s a big honour for us here to be part of that and, really, nobody gets as much out of this as we do.”

In Penny Dinners, Catriona says, class and creed end at the door and nobody judges anyone here, not the volunteers and not the clients.

There’s a real respect here for the dignity of each person who calls in and that’s reflected in the informality of the place and the first-name friendliness shared by all.

There is sometimes a blurring of the lines between who is a client and who is a volunteer. Often, Catriona says, those who once needed a meal return to help those walking that same road now.

Everyone gets a chance and everyone gets to feel a little bit better about themselves.

In the heart of the city, Cork Penny Dinners offers a warm, friendly and non-judgemental environment for one and all.

For anyone who needs a bite to eat, for anyone who needs a place to catch their breath and for anyone who needs a reminder that there is still good in the world, there’s always a welcome at 4 Little Hanover Street.

Allieviating “the great distress which exists amongst us at present”

Cork Penny Dinners is one of the oldest charities in Cork, dating back at least to 1888 and possibly to Famine times. Local legend says it was founded as a soup kitchen in the 1840s by the Quakers.

The name “penny dinners” dates back to then, when a penny was the price of a quart of soup and half a loaf of bread. In February 1847, the Adelaide Street soup kitchen served 1,400 quarts of soup per day. So great was the demand, fires could not heat soup fast enough. Instead, stem was piped from Ebenezer Pike’s adjacent shipyard and blasted into the vats of soup, cooking it much quicker.

The Cork Examiner of the 15th of March, 1888 reported the formal beginnings of Cork Penny Dinners, saying “the zeal of charitable ladies” in Cork had been harnessed at a meeting in the Imperial Hotel and a decision had been taken to establish a facility at 5 Drawbridge Street, where tickets costing one penny would be sold to allieviate “in a safe and very effectual way the great distress which exists amongst us at present”.

128 years later, that “great distress” exists amongst us still and Cork Penny Dinners is still helping. In 2011, Penny Dinners served roughly 100 meals a week. In 2016, that figure is close to 2,000 meals a week.

Penny Dinners is not currently looking for new volunteers, but donations are always very welcome.

One innovative way in which businesses can help is to sponsor a day. A donation of €500 will pay for food for a day and Penny Dinners will name that day after your business.

One organisation doing so this Christmas is Fermoy Golf Club. Secretary Manager Denis Twomey told the Evening Echo: “We do a charity draw every year and this year we wanted to help this great cause. Members contribute €5 and all proceeds go to Penny Dinners.”

Please think of putting together a small box of gifts and dropping it to 4, Little Hanover Street, any day before 2pm. Some things are always needed. Here’s a short list of suggestions.

Fresh fruit and veg. Tea towels. Tin foil. Cling-film. Hand soap. Brilllo pads. Refuse bags. Washing-up liquid. Domestos. Tea. Coffee. Tinned fruit. Sugar. Custard. Peas and beans. Biscuits. Butter. Dilute orange. Gravy granules. Breakfast cereal. Tea. Coffee. Salt. Soup. Jelly. Custard. Toilet paper/kitchen rolls.

Cork Penny Dinners: 021 4275604 www.corkpennydinners.ie

High Hopes and Jack O’Rourke

This year’s Cork Penny Dinners Christmas party will feature musical guests of honour the High Hopes Choir and rising Cork star Jack O’Rourke.

The High Hopes Choir was first established in 2014 by David Brophy, former conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and is Ireland’s first choir for homeless people. Working with the Simon Community, Saint Vincent De Paul and Focus Ireland, Brophy initially worked with two choirs, one in Dublin and the other in Waterford. A year later, the project expanded to include a third choir, this time based in Cork.

“Every song tells a story,” High Hopes co-ordinator Glenn Alexander says. “And every single member of the High Hopes Choir has a story to tell – a story that may contain unfathomable loneliness but it also contains courage. It’s also a story that conveys remarkable hope.”

Last year, all three choirs united, their combined voices carrying the message of homeless awareness to the highest office in the land, performing for President Michael D Higgins at a garden party in Áras an Uachtaráin.

Fresh from their triumphal performance at the 28th Sligo International Choral Festival, the Cork High Hopes Choir headline the entartainment at this year’s Penny Dinners Christmas Party. In Penny Dinners, the members of the Cork High Hopes Choir are local heroes and they’re sure to enjoy a rousing reception this Christmas morning.

Jack O’Rourke’s debut album “Dreamcatcher” was released earlier this year to critical acclaim, entering the Irish charts at number 19 and rising to number 5. The album was awarded first place in the lyrics category of the International Songwriting Competition. The adjudicating panel included Bill Withers and Tom Waits.

“This is a seriously good album from a seriously good songwriter. **** ” – Tony Clayton-Lea, The Irish Times.

“Musical, coupled with O’Rourke’s expressive, supple voice, this makes for a highly accomplished debut” – Lauren Murphy, The Sunday Times.

“Jack O’Rourke’s music has a grace and a glory to it that will stop you in your tracks and make you forget where you were going! ‘Silence’ is one of the songs of the year for me.. ‘I’ll Forget You In The Morning’ took me away too …. Beautiful honest songwriting delivered with a transporting musicality that will take you there… wherever you are going!’ – Fiachna O’Braonáin, RTE Radio 1.

Jack O’Rourke is currently touring and his album “Dreamcatcher” can be downloaded from his website. www.jackorourkemusic.com

Originally published in the Evening Echo 13th December 2016