Monday, December 29, 2008

Check out this website if you're bullied in the workplace

Workplace bullies destroy lives. Employers, in my experience, usually lack the courage or the will to do anything about it.

So I was really pleased to see that the Management-Issues website has put up a micro-site on this scourge.

If you're a target of workplace bullying, or if you' re a union officer or HR officer, check it out here.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Good radio from Speechification

If you're into radio, check out the marvellous Speechification blog with an eclectic selection of radio programmes, mainly from the BBC but also from English-speaking stations around the world. You can download the programmes as mp3 files. Some of my favourites include The Only Hooker in the Village, an ABC documentary about a primary schoolteacher turned sex-worker in small town in regional Australia; a BBC programme on Walter de la Mare's poem The Listeners - seems he wasn't too sure himself what it was all about; and I Was Douglas Adams' Flatmate on the early days of the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Ireland's botched bank job? I hope David McWilliams is wrong this time

I really, really hope David McWilliams is wrong when he condemns the Government's bank rescue as a botched job which "will plunge Ireland into a much longer recession than is necessary" in this post on his blog.

"Make no mistake about it: our money will disappear in the next 12 months," he warns. "Irish bank shares will continue to fall steadily as the extent of the dire loan book is revealed and we, the taxpayers, will be asked to stump up again and again."

What scares me about this is that McWilliams was right, well before the event, about our current crash. And both the Government and the financial system are still being run by the people who steered us into this iceberg in the first place.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ronelda Kamfer - a necessary voice from South Africa

I discovered Ronelda Kamfer's work on the always excellent Poetry International Web. From the age of 10 she lived in Cape Flats, a place in which getting to school involved getting past three gangs. Cape Flats at one time had 150 gangs and perhaps still has. She saw a schoolmate shot dead in crossfire outside her school.

It's unusual to find a poetic voice coming from a background like this and I really like her poetry and recommend it to you. She writes in Afrikaans and there is just a handful of her poems available in English.

She developed her poetic style by compressing sentences into a few words to stop her little sister from reading her private stuff, according to this interview with Fred De Vries. I've never heard of that method before - but it worked.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A 58 year old married to an 8 year old - bad male behaviour in Saudi Arabia

A 8-year-old girl in Saudi Arabia has been married off to a 58-year-old man in Saudi Arabia, by her father, according to this report in The Guardian.

A judge has turned down her mother's plea to divorce the two. Instead the girl will have to enter a plea for divorce when she reaches puberty - but what's going to happen to her in the meantime?

The girl's parents are divorced and it seems that this sort of arrangement is sometimes made by men to get at their ex-wives.

What does this say about Islam? What does Islam say about this?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Cloyne sex abuse scandal - who matters most, Church or child?

When I covered clerical sex abuse stories for The Irish Times in the 1990s it was clear that children who had been abused by clergy in the Archdiocese of Dublin and who later complained were seen as a nuisance and a threat to be sidelined for the greater good of the Catholic Church.

Judge Yvonne Murphy will shortly publish her report on abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese and I expect it will be devastating for the Church.

Meanwhile the latest report into clerical abuse in the Diocese of Cloyne shows that little has changed in that diocese. The response of Diocesan authorities makes the attitude clear: the Church matters more than the children.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What the Irish economy might not need: an attack on the public service

It seems to be taken for granted by many commentators that an all-out attack on the public service is needed to help get us out of the economic hole we have got ourselves into - but I'm not so sure.

If it is true that we need people to spend money to get things moving again, then how does it make sense to throw public servants onto the dole queues who could otherwise be earning and spending money?

Of course we need public service reform and we need to work out just what we can afford in pensions and other benefits in the future - but let's do it in a measured way and not in a feeding frenzy.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

'Tis the season to be narky

(This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday 16th December 2008):

WELL, THE season of peace and goodwill is upon us so stand by for lots of tension and rows in many households.

That's why I was glad to come across "10 rules for friendly fighting for couples" on the excellent Psychcentral blog.

I don't agree with all of them but even a few of them could help you move from a freezing doghouse to a blazing log fire for Christmas. Here they are:

1 Embrace conflict. There is no need to go into a three-day sulk just because you and your partner have had a row. Quarrelling is normal among human beings. Accept it and get over it.

2 Talk softly. Now, this doesn't mean scary softly as in Hannibal Lecter. It means conducting the argument, especially the beginning of the argument, softly rather than harshly. You don't change people's minds by shouting at them.

3 Make peace sooner rather than later. Dragging the conflict out, punishing your partner for disagreeing and so on is unpleasant and exhausting. Since rows are inevitable, the sooner you can make the peace the better - otherwise you are going to be spending a lot of time at war. Making the peace can mean resolving the conflict, agreeing to differ or just letting the matter drop.

4 Attack the issue not the other person. "You're such a daddy's girl/mammy's boy. Why don't you just move back home and let daddy/mammy take care of you." That's attacking the other person.

"I'd like to have Christmas dinner here and visit your parents beforehand/ afterwards." That's attacking the issue.

Attacking the issue doesn't guarantee agreement, especially over the dreaded Christmas dinner with the in-laws. But it's still a superior approach to attacking the other person which only harms the relationship.

To me, the four rules above are the important ones. The other six are:

5 Listen respectfully. Good advice but if it's a proper row you're unlikely to be listening respectfully - otherwise it wouldn't be a fight.

6 Get curious, not defensive and

7 Ask for specifics. These two very similar rules I would regard as a counsel of perfection. To actually ask for details of your partner's complaints while you are being scolded would require the saintliness of Mother Teresa and Padre Pio rolled into one.

8 Find points of agreement. Yes, very good but hard to do in the middle of a fight.

9 Look for options - ask for suggestions. Again, we are in Mother Teresa territory here. Most of us are more likely to make (unhelpful) suggestions than to ask for them in a fight.

10 Make concessions. Marie Hartwell-Walker, who wrote the piece on the Psychcentral blog, points out that even a small concession can help defuse a conflict and I would agree with her. Probably you are more likely to make a concession after the row has died down but even so, it's worth doing.

As Hartwell-Walker points out in her article at www.psych, couples in mature, healthy relationships seem to understand these principles. I suspect they learn them the hard way and that many relationships break up or are unhappy for want of following a few simple rules like these.

So take a look through the list and see if there's anything in it you can put to use. It might be the best Christmas present you'll get this year.

• Last week's piece on the often-hidden issue of eating disorders in men drew this response from Ruth Ní Eidhin of Bodywhys - The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland:

"At Bodywhys we are keenly aware of the issues that can arise around Christmas, and in fact we tend to see an increase in calls to our helpline immediately after the Christmas period from people who have had difficulty over the festive season . . . It is particularly encouraging to see the issue of men and eating disorders being addressed, as we are seeing more and more men coming forward seeking support. The more we can challenge the stereotype of eating disorders as a 'women's issue', the easier it is for other men to come forward without fear of any stigma."

The Bodywhys helpline is 1890 200 444 and is its web address.

• Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor. His book That's Men , the best of the That's Men column from The Irish Times is published by Veritas.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Hooked, even after the pleasure goes

(This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday 14th October 2008):

The term 'porn-zombie' was new to me until I came across it on addiction therapist Jason McClain's website.

McClain was referring to the way in which viewers of porn on the Internet - and I think it's fair to say the vast majority are men - lose track of time as they watch pornography for hours on end.

He takes the view that you have a pornography addiction if your consumption of porn interferes with your relationships or with key aspects of your life away from the screen.

He doesn't see it as an addiction, or necessarily as a problem, if you have a genuinely take it or leave it attitude to pornography. He is not, of course, referring here to child pornography and neither am I.

There are reasons, though, why the journey from 'take it or leave it' to 'porn-zombie' can be a quick one. Anything involving sexual stimulation has a powerful draw and when the stimulation is available free of charge, as it is on the internet, then the draw is all the more powerful.
And remember the collapse of the Internet bubble about eight or nine years ago? Very talented people in Silicon Valley found themselves out of work. Some gravitated towards that area of the web which continued to make money - pornography (the free pornography is, of course, meant to lure people into subscribing to pay sites). The result? Pornography websites became among the slickest and most sophisticated in the world. Link that sophistication with sexual stimulation and you begin to see how easy it is for internet porn, in particular, to draw people in and keep them there.

And the new browsers from Internet Explorer and Google come with what sceptics call a 'porn mode' option that allows people to surf without leaving a trace on their computers.

Add to all this the human tendency to escape into pleasure to avoid the stresses of life. By this I mean that we tend to drink too much, comfort eat, spend too much, do drugs, do pornography and so on and on as a response to emotional pain.

If you can do these things and then put them aside while you get on with sorting out your life, fine. But all too often, they become an end in themselves even after the pleasure has gone out of them.

In relation to pornography addiction, McClain identifies three stages.

The first is anticipation. Here the consumer of pornography is anxious to get people out of the way so he can get to the computer. Next is consumption where the user may well get into that 'porn-zombie' state. The third stage is self-hatred and a sense of time wasted. Then the cycle is repeated, sometimes as a way of escaping from that painful third stage - a bit like taking a drink at lunchtime to help with a hangover.

He suggests measures such as evaluating the effect of porn on your closest relationships, and maintaining an awareness of your behaviour while you are actually consuming porn instead of falling into the 'zombie' state.

He also advocates using software that doesn't allow you to go on to pornography websites. You can always disable the software temporarily but he argues the hassle involved in doing this may give you enough pause for thought to change your mind.

He recommends a free filtering system called OpenDNS, which you can find at The only problem is that it involves, according to its website, "taking a few minutes to unbundle your DNS service from your ISP's Internet connection" which would frighten the living daylights out of me.

But there are lots of filtering programs and if you can find porn you can find them too.

Final thought: people who have a dependence on pornography are not bad people. They are just people who are hooked on a very strong drug and who need to make new choices.

They could start off by looking at McClain's website at which promotes his ebook but also has a link to his blog with lots of good, free information. If you are married to somebody with a pornography addiction, you will find much here to interest you as well.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

How a German sex education film and Vatican II ruined my taste for Maltesers

(This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday 7th October 2008):

The Malteser is, I think you will agree, a jewel of the confectioner's art.

But thanks to Pope John XXIII and a movie called Helga, I can't look at a Malteser.

My tale illustrates the dangers of liberal Catholicism and of sex education - for the latter is what Helga purveyed - particularly when both conjoin.

Let me explain. The other day, a friend confided that she cannot face a Fry's Chocolate Cream. This product is another confectioner's jewel, a shining light of sophistication in a coarse world. I know this because one of my grandmothers, a sophisticated lady if ever there was one, used to give Fry's Chocolate Cream bars to myself and my sister when we were children, after she had corrected our grammar.

Anyway my friend, at the age of five, was handed an entire box of Fry's Chocolate Cream. She did what any intelligent five year old might be expected to do - she faded into the background and scoffed the lot.

The results were as you might expect. That's why she can no longer experience the joy of eating Fry's Chocolate Cream.

In psychology this is called the Garcia Effect after an experiment in, let's not go there.

Anyway, her sad tale reminded me of my Maltesers issue.

In the 1960s, a West German health minister called Käte Strobel decided to promote sex education. One of the fruits of her endeavours was a 1967 sex education movie called Helga.

Helga was special in its day because it was a mainstream sex education movie and because it featured a childbirth scene. It was also special because the film censor allowed it to be shown here.

And the Pope? Even before Ms Strobel got going, Pople John XXIII had convened the Second Vatican Council. This had the effect of liberalising the church and making us all think we lived in a new era.

A cohort of liberal priests emerged from Vatican Two and these priests were convinced that it would be a good thing for the young people of Ireland to be exposed to Helga.

Buses were organised to bring young people up to, I think, the Savoy in Dublin to see the film and be educated.

A have a dim memory of an earnest priest flitting about a bus in Naas that had been organised for the young people of the town and environs.

A major attraction of the Helga movie was that people were reputed to get sick during the childbirth scene. So we didn't go to it so much for the sex education - we knew bloody well there'd be no sex left in it by the time the censor was through - as to see if we could get through the childbirth scene without throwing up.

On the way into the movie, you will have guessed, I treated myself to an entire box of Maltesers. I'm talking about 1960s boxes here, big boxes - the sort of boxes you're meant to share.

I remember absolutely nothing about the movie. A Canadian contributer to the Internet Movie Database says that "I remember naked girls in a school shower," but it's a safe bet that the version we saw omitted this key scene.

What I remember is that I ate all the Maltesers myself while wondering if the childbirth scene was going to make me sick. It didn't but the experience created assocations in my mind with Maltesers which have prevented me from ever again eating one of those wonderful (as I recall) taste bombs.

So in the end, Helga was a let down. The church went on to implode and we all became heathens and went to hell in a handcart.

It wasn't worth it, not at the price of putting me off my favourite chocs.

The star of Helga, Ruth Gassmann, went on to make a number of movies including the 1972 Robinson und seine wilden Sklavinnen shown in the UK as Robinson and His Tempestuous Slaves and in France as Trois filles nues dans l'île de Robinson.

Now. why couldn't they have bussed us up to that one? I'd even have chanced another box of Maltesers.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Check out my Poetry Daily feature today

I'm delighted that Poetry Daily, a website I've been reading with admiration for years, is featuring one of my poems today, Saturday 4th October. The poem, The red heifer, is from my collection You've been great. Click on over there and take a look.

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Friday, October 3, 2008

'Wholly inappropriate' behaviour by the Irish Nationwide?

I just love the outrage over the attempt by the Irish Nationwide to get British investors to move money into its coffers in light of the Government's new guarantee scheme. "Wholly inappropriate" is the phrase being used by the great and the good about this attempt by a bank to capitalise on an opportunity. What did they expect? If you lock a drunkard in an off-licence overnight you are hardly in a position to bleat "wholly inappropriate" when you find him pissed the next morning. Not that I'm suggesting the folk in the Irish Nationwide take a drink. It's a metaphor.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Award-winning poems published

You've been great, my collection of 20 poems which was a winner of the Poetry Business Award 2007, is published by Smith/Doorstop. Smith/Doorstop, based in Sheffield, publishes the poetry magazine The North as well as books and pamphlets and was founded by poet Peter Sansom. The collection of 20 poems was one of four winners of the competition run by The Poetry Business which is associated with Smith/Doorstop. The competition was sponsored by the Arts Council of England and Kirklees Cultural Services. Also winning and having their collections published were Julia Deakin, Yvonne Green and Ann Pilling.

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Just Like A Man is in hibernation until September

Just Like A Man is hibernating and will be updated next in September. Meantime, there's plenty here to read. Have a good summer (or winter if you're down there).

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Billy Keogh has a dependent mother, seven employees and he's a good businessman - so it's two years for rape

Rapist a man of good character, says judge

If you're a good businessman, have employees and support your mother, you can now have all this taken into account if you're being sentenced for rape.

Businessman Billy Keogh raped a prostitute after she refused to take off his condom. According to the woman, he also claimed to be a member of the Garda (police) and threatened to throw her out the window of the Waterford Hotel in which he met her.

The Waterford businessman later offered her €30,000 compensation but she rejected it. The judge, Mr Justice White, noted that she had been threatened by phone the day she returned to Ireland to give evidence in the case.

Yet the judge went on to tell Keogh, “It is quite clear to me that you are a man of good character..."

He gave him a five year sentence but suspended the last three years, says, according to this report in The Examiner, he was impressed by how Keogh re-established himself after losing his business in 2004 and that he also had an elderly dependent mother and seven employees to support.

You may wonder what the hell these factors have to do with sentencing in a rape case and so do groups like Ruhama - which works with women in prostitution - and the Rape Crisis Network Ireland.

“Our judicial system needs to give the women the confidence to come forward and seek justice," said Ruhama in a very restrained response. "Rape, no matter where it happens or to whom, has a longstanding impact on the victim. Sentences need to reflect this and act as a clear deterrent.”

Some deterrent!

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

French-style kissing not for the Irish!

Women learn lots from kissing

This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 13th May, 2008. "That's Men - The best of the 'That's Men' column from The IrishTimes" is published by Veritas.

A year ago this month, president Ahmadinejad of Iran was accused of indecency for kissing a woman in public.

The woman was a retired schoolteacher and he kissed her hand at a ceremony and she was wearing gloves at the time but still.....

As the newspaper Hezbollah poined out, you never know what this sort of thing can lead to.

How, I wonder, would Hezbollah feel about Madonna's latest kissing escapade? Madge got loads of publicity five years ago for kissing Britney Spears in what the Daily Mail called a "steamy stunt" during the MTV awards.

Last week she grabbed a backing singer during a show in Paris and planted a kiss on her but a jaded world failed to pay much attention. That the recipient of Madonna's attentions looked like someone struggling in the grip of a grizzly bear did not help.

Since French women kiss each other - on the cheek - all the time and do it much more elegantly than dear old Madge, she may just have picked the wrong city for her display.

I might add that when you watch a bunch of French people kissing you have to wonder if a simple "Howya" Irish-style wouldn't make life a lot easier. Here in Ireland we're not much good at the kiss on the cheek thing, though. Attempts are more likely to end up as bone-crunching crashes than as exercises in European flair.

Romantic kissing between men and women is usually a more complicated affair.

Researchers on kissing - oh, yes, there are such people - suggest that when a man and woman are engaged in a deep kiss there's a lot more going on than a conjunction of lips and tongues.

Women, they suggest, are noting the taste and smell of the man as part of their assessment of his suitability as a mate. Our brains devote a disproportionately high amount of processing power to what's going on with our mouths and tongues so perhaps the suggestion makes sense.

And if a woman judges you to be a "bad kisser" she is far more likely to refuse to have sex with you.

Research conducted among 1,041 students at the University of Albany - and that's a lot of kissing - found that with men it's all more simple. We're mainly focussed on the chances of getting the female into bed. Most males in the research would be happy to skip the kissing preliminary altogether but most females insist on it.

Which adds credence to the view that with women there is some sort of assessment procedure going on that even they themselves are not consciously aware of.

This in turn suggests that women who refuse to kiss on a first date are depriving themselves of valuable information and should rethink their position.

Men are fonder than women of big, wet kisses. Susan Hughes, the psychologist who led the study, suggests that because our sense of taste and smell is less sharp than that of women, we use the saliva to help us make our assessments. Well, yuk!

And since women's breath changes during their menstrual cycle this may be mother nature's way of telling the male brain that the woman is fertile and to go for it. Not that mother nature would tell the guy upfront - it's all unconscious, otherwise it wouldn't work.

You know what? Hezbollah is right - you never know where this sort of thing leads to. Do yourself a favour and keep yer gob shut.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Death of motorcycle champion Robert Dunlop - a fatal attraction to risk?

Fans defend dangerous sport

The death of motorcycle champion Robert Dunlop reminds us again that risky behaviour has a huge attraction for people and maybe for men in particular. He died in an accident during a practice session for the North West 200 in Portrush last Thursday evening. Next day on the Liveline programme on RTÉ, caller after caller lined up to defend the sport while acknowledging the recent deaths of motorcyclists and of Dunlop's brother Joey in 2000. The basic message was that people who get hooked by the sport wouldn't want to live without it. Do they get addicted to the adrenalin rush? Following his death, his widow Louise said Robert Dunlop knew the sport would one day kill him.

"He was prepared to accept the risk," she told The Irish Independent.

"He had to be in the thick of it himself. That was just his way."

"The lights have gone out for us," she added. "Nothing will ever be the same."

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Friday, May 16, 2008

That's Men launched in Dublin

Collection of Irish Times columns published

The collection of my Irish Times columns, That's Men, was launched at a 'do' in Veritas last night. Pictured above in Frank Miller's photo for The Irish Times are Veritas publications manager Ruth Kennedy (left) who steered the ship home safely, yours truly and (right), Maura Hyland, Veritas managing director. Also launched were other books including, notably, When a child dies: footsteps of a grieving family, by Jim O'Shea. His account of the aftermath of the death of his son Cathal at age 13 is truly written from the heart. If you are involved in bereavement work in any way, you really ought to read it. If you know somebody who has lost a child you should read it too.

To order That' s Men, click here.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Prime Time Investigates - will this exposé of a collapsed child protection system have any effect?

With children left at risk, there is little hope for change

Taoiseach Brian Cowen has told the Dáil that new Minister for Children Barry Andrews will be following up with the HSE the findings of last night's RTÉ Prime Time Investigates programme on children at risk, says this story on RTÉ. (Scroll to the bottom of the RTÉ story for a link to the programme).

But the Health Service Executive and its predecessors, the health boards, have known for years and years that the child protection system is in collapse. Barry Andrews can whistle Dixie for all the good it's going to do. And on tonight's follow-up he was doing just that, informing a sceptical nation that our child protection services are 'cutting edge'. That's the HSE line and the old health board line too - all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

For as long as this amoral organisation is running child protection services we will get nowhere. The job just must be given to an independent body with its own statutory underpinning and funding. How many children must be destroyed or die before this happens?

Quite a lot, actually.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Men and cosmetics, from eyeliner to guyliner - am I missing something here?

Are more men wearing makeup than meet the eye?

This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 6th May, 2008. "That's Men - The best of the 'That's Men' column from The IrishTimes" is published by Veritas.

Is there a hidden world out there of guys who wear makeup? Or is it a not-so-hidden world? Am I completely out of touch with trends in the male world?

I have to admit that I am one of those guys who won't be seen wearing makeup this side of the funeral parlour. In fact, I would gladly declare that "I won't be seen dead wearing makeup" except that the decision will be out of my hands.

In all this, I think I'm still a member of the majority - but the world of men and makeup is changing, however slowly.

My eye was caught recently by a blog by journalist Natasha Hughes in the Sydney Morning Herald in which she expressed amazement at seeing the groom at a wedding wearing what she called "slap-full coverage foundation."

What is "slap-full coverage foundation"? I guess it's something you slap on your face and that's awfully obvious to the onlooker, especially to the sharp-eyed female onlooker.

Natasha's amazement at the groom with the foundation mirrored my own surprise at another manifestation of the interest of men in makeup. Last year on my blog I wrote a single paragraph piece under the heading Men, eyeliner and sex appeal. It was just a little link to something I read somewhere else. Since then, that headline has drawn readers to the blog day after day. Never mind my more serious meanderings on the meaning of life. No, it's eyeliner and sex appeal that gets them going.

Why? You don't see that many guys going around wearing eyeliner unless they're Goths and I don't think the Goths are big readers of mine.

Do some of us have a secret habit? Are there lots of guys standing in front of the bathroom mirror wielding the eyeliner and slapping on the "full coverage foundation" and then removing it before the wife comes home?

Well, I guess there are some, but that many?

And anyway are we reaching the stage where fellows won't feel the need to whip off the eye shadow when they hear the key in the front door?

Right now, being caught wearing your wife's make-up might result in several expensive therapy sessions - but it's all a matter of context and maybe context is changing to the point where the makeup thing just wouldn't matter anymore.

Indeed, I read that Boots has a men's makeup line and that the H&M stores stock a line of men's mascara, in London at any rate. I don't know whether they stock it in their stores here. Maybe one of the lads would drop in and check it out?

In the music world, barriers are increasingly being breached when it comes to men's cosmetics. High School Musical star Zac Efron set tongues wagging last year over his fondness for foundation. Other male stars' attachment to eyeliner has given the world the word "guyliner."

And how much money does/did Bertie spend on makeup? Is it €5,000 a day or €5,000 a month? It doesn't really matter, does it? It's the principle that counts. [Note: Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach - Prime Minister - of Ireland]

And the major question is this: will Bertie keep wearing makeup when he's no longer Taoiseach and he's not before the television cameras every day of the week?

Should a grateful nation not provide him with a small 'makeup' allowance so that he can look his best when, say, he's being filmed entering and leaving the Mahon Tribunal over the next decade or so?

You might think that this is all on the fringes and I suppose it is, but fashions have a habit of working their way from the edge into the centre.

How long is it since a man would be embarrassed to be seen buying a male moisturising cream? Not long at all - but now nobody could care less.

Actually, there is a possible use of male make-up which I hadn't come across before and which just might appeal to Irish boyos. One guy responding to Natasha Hughes' article revealed that he finds "a little concealer" is always useful "to hide those bags under the eyes after a big night."

So there you are. If a night on the tiles has left you unable to face your jumbo breakfast roll, just dab on a little concealer and make those bleary eyes vanish.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Nuala O'Faolain dies age 68

I was sorry to read of the death of Nuala O'Faolain just before midnight, 9th May 2008, last night at Blackrock Hospice. Her interview with Marian Finucane a month ago startled and touched many people. It also tore away the veil of "don't talk about it" that surrounds terminal illness. It is some consolation that she died in a hospice where the experience would have been made as painless as possible. I hope she found some peace towards the end.

RTÉ's report of her death is here.

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Friday, May 9, 2008

That Bulmers video

Here's a link to the YouTube video that got eight guys in Bulmers fired. I would have thought a bollocking in the form of a month's suspension and some mandatory health and safety training would have been enough.....

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Empathy in order for Derry family in Algarve nightmare

Ill, not drunk?

Perhaps a little human empathy is in order for the McGuckin family from Derry. Did they drink too much on the first day of their holiday on the Algarve or was one of the couple, as they claim, just ill?

Either way, it may have been an over-reaction on the part of the hotel to contact the authorities and an over-reaction on the part of the authorities to take the children into care.

Their holiday turned into a nightmare. No need to burn them at the stake as well.

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Young women becoming more violent, says study

Young women and men commit physical and psychological violence against each other

Story from AKI News: Rome, 29 April (AKI) - Young women are committing more violence against their boyfriends, according to a new study conducted in Italy.

The study of 672 adolescents found that 22 percent of young women admitted they had committed physical aggression against their male partners.

But more than 60 percent of the males surveyed said they had acted violently against their partners.

Forty-six percent of female adolescents said they had committed some form of psychological aggression against their partners, while 40.8 percent of young men said they had acted violently towards their partners.

The research in Italy was conducted by the Universities of Rome and Florence and published in the Italian daily, La Repubblica, on Tuesday.

"The violence between young couples is no longer asymmetrical like we have seen over the decades," said Ersilia Menesini, associate professor from the psychology department at University of Florence.

"And in all countries that we follow, the phenomenon seems to be linked to the growing empowerment of women in society."

Menesini, a specialist on bullying in schools, was one of several teachers behind the project which is one of the first of its kind conducted in Italy.

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Sunday, May 4, 2008

Tony - father and career alcoholic in a Manhattan bar

Also, global warming and how to look young

This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 29th April, 2008. "That's Men - The best of the 'That's Men' column from The IrishTimes" is published by Veritas.

“I am a career alcoholic,“ Tony declared.

I had ducked – alright, walked deliberately – into an Irish bar near the Ground Zero site in Manhattan to escape from the rain and a cold wind and to have a drink while I was at it.

Tony materialised beside me with a bottle of Bud in his hand and a smile on his face. He was dancing lightly to the music and he continued to dance in place as he talked.

He established my name and country of origin, introduced himself – he had what I take to be, in my ignorance, an Italian-American accent – and then made the announcement about his career as an alcoholic.

“It makes me feel good,” he declared. “What else matters?”

I agreed. He was in that state of elation which, in some people, can turn ugly in a second if you express a point of view different to theirs – especially if they have a lot of alcohol on board.

Tony was in good shape for a career alcoholic. He was fifty years old, he told me but I would have put him in his late thirties. His hair was jet black and this, he assured me, was entirely genuine and without benefit of a hair colour. He was only a little overweight and he was light on his feet. Maybe the dancing kept him fit.

It has been a while since I’d been to the barber’s and Tony spotted this. “Lose the hair,” he advised me. “It will take ten years off your age.”

He spoke very fast and with a thick sort of accent so I couldn’t figure out everything he said. For instance, I could not make sense of his explanation as to why he, personally, knows global warming is real (he had moved seamlessly from my need for a haircut to environmental issues). “See this burn mark?” he said, putting his hand to his forehead, as he explained how he knew global warming was for real. There was nothing there but I said I had seen it anyhow.

Then he moved on to his main topic for our encounter, namely his ex-wife, “the evil one”, and how she had unsuccessfully tried to get his kids to say he had molested them.

“I am telling you this because you are elder,” he said. I am definitely going to lose the hair, I told myself.

He took out his wallet and showed me photographs of his kids. All were graduation photographs, three boys and a girl, all looking happy and proud of themselves. It hurt him, he said, that their mother had tried to turn them against him.

“You’re a good listener,” he said. Not bad, I suppose, when all you’re trying to do is avoid an argument.

I was wondering how I was going to get out of the conversation and leave with politeness when two young women, maybe in their twenties, came into the bar and sat down at a table. Tony danced over to them and started to chat them up. The young women laughed it off but Tony’s attention had definitely turned in their direction.

I said goodbye and left.

It struck me that Tony seemed to have the ability to create company for himself. He was a man whose whole life was a performance for an immediate audience. Well, whose isn’t – what I mean is that Tony’s one-man show is more direct and up-front than most of us manage. Clearly, from what he told me about his wife, not everybody in his audience is a fan.

Then I remembered last Christmas Day when my wife and I went to a bar on Second Avenue for a drink in the evening. This was an Irish bar too, and their prices certainly lived up to the name. But the other Irish thing about it was the number of men who sat up at the counter, alone, drinking, talking to nobody. It was a somewhat depressing sight for Christmas Day.

They could have done with Tony in there to brighten up their evening. I expect he is still dancing in the bar in Manhattan, chatting women up, explaining global warming and showing pictures of his kids to other customers. Good luck to him. I hope the career works out.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Depression alone cannot explain murder-suicide of Flood family in Clonroche

Depressed people rarely engage in physical violence towards others

Text of my article in The Evening Herald, Friday 2nd May 2008:

Depression and anxiety are the twin scourges of our emotional world but society views each of them very differently.

It's 'alright' to be stressed out - in some settings it may even be the done thing to complain about stress on the idiotic grounds that if you're not stressed you're not working hard enough.

But it's 'not alright' to be depressed and people with the condition often keep it to themselves for that reason. Some, for instance, will not state on an application form for life insurance that they have suffered depression because they fear they will be denied cover.

That said, it is unlikely that depression, or depression on its own, could account for acts such as the murder-suicide of the Flood family in Co Wexford.

It seems reasonable to suppose that some level of delusion, perhaps including hallucinations or voices, could have provided the impulse for the tragedy.

Depression involves a debilitating mixture of low mood, negative thoughts and fatigue. The sufferer loses interest in his or her usual activities.

Depression can arise as a reaction to life events. The birth of a child, for instance, can be followed by post-natal depression. Grief can turn into depression. So can a sense of helplessness or of being trapped in an unhappy relationship.

Researchers believe depression has increased over the past one hundred years. The reasons for this are not clear but depression may be the price we pay for our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. We no longer 'work off' negative moods or feelings and we have too much time to brood which, in itself, can trigger or prolong depression.

People suffering from depression generally begin to seek help by going to their GP. The GP will probably prescribe medication and may also refer them to a counsellor. Counselling can be very effective in helping people to overcome depression and to change the thinking patterns or circumstances that may have led them to become depressed in the first place.

Depressed people are the last you would expect to indulge in violence. Indeed, some psychologists believe that people become depressed because they turn their anger in on themselves instead of inflicting it on others.

This, again, is why we need to be cautious about attributing the terrible events in Clonroche to depression in the father. As a report in yesterday's Evening Herald pointed out, it is highly unusual for a depressed person to kill someone else.

But there is, as we all know, a strong link between depression and self-harm including suicide. Sometimes this happens when the depressed person starts to feel better because it is only now that they have the energy to carry out the act. This, obviously, is a point at which counselling can be crucial.

Many depressed people also turn to self help groups such as Aware, Grow and Recovery. These can provide a real lifeline for people with depression, especially for those who cannot afford private counselling fees.

The most important step to take in depression is to seek help whether from a counsellor, GP or self-help group.

This is not as easy a step to take as it may seem. A considerable amount of prejudice against persons with mental health problems persists, as research by the National Office for Suicide Prevention revealed last year. The researchers found that 52 per cent of people interviewed did not believe people with mental health problems should be working in jobs such as medicine. One third would be uncomfortable talking to a person with mental health problems - completely ignoring the fact that they have probably talked to people with mental health problems quite often without knowing it. Thirty nine per cent thought the public ‘should be better protected’ from people with mental health problems.

We all get a touch of the blues from time to time. Very often depression lifts by itself but when it persists people should seek help - we need to make it easy for them to do so.

Aware has a helpline at 1890 303 302 and has self-help groups throughout the country. The Samaritans are at 1850 60 90 90. Grow is at 1890 474 474. Recovery can be contacted at 01 6260775.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Tragedy of Flood family murder-suicide in Co Wexford

No satisfactory explanations for murder-suicide

(This is the text of my article in The Evening Herald on 28th April)

The apparent murder-suicide of the Flood family at Clonroche has one thing in common with most other suicides.

This is that we have no satisfactory explanation as to why it happened and we are unlikely to get one.

When an individual commits suicide, the person's family may spend years seeking an explanation. But even suicide notes usually fail to give a satisfactory reason for such a drastic step.

In the case of murder-suicide, the mystery is even greater. Why would a man who, for some reason, has decided to take his life, bring his family with him? Why - if this is how it happened - did he do it in such a way that his children were left to die in a fire after their parents were dead? (Note: since this article appeared, there is reason to believe that the children were drugged before the fire began).

Gardaí have been unable to find anything at all in the background of the family to explain what happened.

A Garda source is quoted this morning as saying that there must be people who can throw light on the event. It may well be that today or this week we will find out more.

And yet a description of the events that lead up to a murder-suicide does not necessarily constitute a satisfactory explanation for it.

Studies of murder-suicides by researchers suggest, unsurprisingly, that stressful life events are often involved. These can include financial losses and marital discord.

But a great many people suffer financial losses and marital discord without killing themselves or anyone else - and we don't know whether such factors were present in the Flood family.

Depression is also a frequently found factor in murder-suicide, especially where a person kills his or her own children as well. There have been tragedies over the years in which a parent a depressed parent has taken this course of action.

But depression is one of the most common emotional problems and is something which almost all of us have experienced or will experience to an extent at least. Again, it rarely leads to tragedies of this kind.

Something additional is needed and it is thought that psychosis is often the ingredient that can turn a 'normal' depression into a murder-suicide.

Psychosis is a state of mind in which a person loses touch with reality. A person may hallucinate or hear voices telling them to act in a certain way.

Research suggests that more people hear imaginary voices than we think but that they know the voices have no independent reality and ignore them.

In psychosis, however, the person may believe the voices to be real and may obey whatever it is that they are telling him or her to do.

Paranoia, or an extreme and unrealistic level of jealousy, can also be behind murder-suicides insofar as experts have been able to deduce their causes.

Were any of these factors present in the Flood family? We may or may not find out.

Because of the devastation caused by these tragedies and because of their horrific nature, it is important that an attempt is made to establish causes.

This can best be done by a psychological post-mortem as it is called. A psychological post-mortem is carried out by interviewing everybody who might have information about the state of mind of the perpetrator in the period leading up to the event. It is quite separate to a Garda investigation or a physical post-mortem.

It is also of the greatest importance that people touched by this tragedy get psychological help, if they need it, in the future.

The death of the Flood family has left friends and relatives in shock. But when the shock wears off there will be people among them who will never be the same again.

These people need emotional support and may need it for years to come.

That is what is important now.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

That's Men - printed and ready to roll

The best of the That's Men column from The Irish Times

Veritas has just published That's Men, a collection of my Irish Times columns. In picking the columns to go into the book I threw away the ones which had a lot of preaching in them. To me, preaching is the besetting sin of writing on well-being and I'm as guilty on that score as anyone else but I believe that what ended up in the book is informative, entertaining and occasionally annoying - and that's not a bad mix. Readers of this blog will, I think, enjoy the book. A few of the columns that are in the book are also on this blog under the That's Men or That's Men for You (the old name of the column) labels. The launch is on 15th May so here's hoping for a successful run.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

School retreats, 1960s Jesuit-style

Days of silence at Manresa House

The Tubridy Show this morning featured school retreats which seem to be very pleasant affairs involving boosting pupils' self-esteem and all that sort of thing. Ryan Tubridy even mentioned allegations about a retreat which resulted in several pregnancies - and frankly I think someone was pulling the wool over his eyes on that one.

I went on a school retreat in the late 1960s when the Christian Brothers in Naas took us up to Manresa House, a Jesuit-run retreat centre in Clontarf.

All I remember is that:

(a) We were not allowed to talk for three days.

(b) Each morning at breakfast we listened to someone reading the lives of the saints on tape.

(c) Every night a gaunt man in a soutane burst into our rooms trying to catch us using transistor radios.

(d) One classmate had a crisis of some sort and was sent home. This was never explained.

(e) A priest who came in to give us a talk declared when we stood up on his arrival that "When I enter the room, boys, you don't stand, you kneel." He then went on to roar and shout about a girl in a miniskirt whom he had seen on the bus. Something to do with her tempting boys to "destroy a temple of the Holy Ghost." She being the temple, of course.

That's it. God bless you all.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sex with minors: the mess we've made of the law

What a mess we've made of the issue of sex between adults and underage children. A 15-year-old boy is charged with statutory rape for having sex with a 14-year-old girl. A 27-year-old man who makes a 15-year-old babysitter pregnant gets away with two years in jail. We need to get this confused nonsense sorted out. At least the 15-year-old boy, now 17 years of age, is challenging the constitutionality of the law which allows him to be charged while giving immunity to the girl - all part of Michael McDowell's legacy to us as Minister for Justice in 2006.

And while we're getting that sorted out, let's remember we have been promised a constitutional referendum on the rights of children in general. It would suit politicians down to the ground to confine this to the issue of under-age sex and to ignore the myriad of other ways in which the system lets down kids. Campaigners on children's rights need to keep a close eye on that one.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

From lesbian mums to multiple dads - the concept of fatherhood gets more complicated by the week

With traditional families in decline, can fathers meet the new challenges of the role?

This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 22nd April, 2008. "That's Men - The best of the 'That's Men' column from The IrishTimes" is published by Veritas.

The concept of fatherhood grows more complex by the week.

The case of the lesbian couple who were successful in the High Court in fighting off a bid for guardianship and access rights by the child’s biological father provides one example – though not a common one – of this growing complexity.

Recent stories from Britain which featured single mothers with children by several fathers provide another.

In Ireland, the significant number of births outside marriage means that, in many cases, the men the mothers in question eventually marry will not be the biological fathers of at least some of the children in the family.

Divorce, too, means that the role of father becomes blurred when new families form.

Once upon a time, it was all so much simpler. A father was a man who was married to a woman who gave birth to their children and stayed home and minded them while the father supported the family.

When people stepped outside of that basic concept by getting pregnant outside marriage, matters were put to rights either by a hurried wedding or by shipping the mother off to a mother and baby home and the baby to an adoptive family. In this case, the father remained invisible and – to outward appearances at any rate – untouched by the whole thing.

Well, that has all changed and about time too. But are fathers up to the demands of these new roles (I will get back to the issue of same sex couples later)? I haven’t had to do it but it strikes me as a tough job to take on where a man marries, or lives with, a woman who has children from a previous marriage.

Well, that has all changed and about time too. But are fathers up to the demands of these new roles (I will get back to the issue of same sex couples later)? I haven’t had to do it but it strikes me as a tough job to take on where a man marries, or lives with, a woman who has children from a previous marriage.

On the one hand, the man is not the children’s father. On the other hand, he will inevitably find himself taking on some of the “care and control” aspects of a fathering role. If a young teenager who was meant to be home at nine o’clock doesn’t turn up until one in the morning, it would be a poor show indeed if he shrugged his shoulders and declared it was nothing to do with him. Similarly, if a child from the previous marriage was being bullied at school, it would be despicable of the mother’s new partner to wash his hands of the whole thing.

Suppose we are not talking about children from a previous marriage or from one previous relationship. Suppose, as in those British cases that have been in the news, there are several children with several fathers. Is any subsequent partner up to fathering all of these children? I know there are other fathers in the vicinity, so to speak, but the partner is “on site” and the one who faces the most immediate challenges. Frankly, I don’t think any partner is up to facing those challenges in this situation unless he is an extraordinary human being. Most of us are not extraordinary human beings. Most of us would fall down on that particular job.

In same-sex couples with a child born either through sperm donation or through surrogacy (in the case of men) the situation is either more or less difficult, depending on how you look at it. In the UK, as I understand it, if the child was conceived from sperm donated through a licensed clinic, then the biological parent has neither rights nor obligations. If the child was conceived through a private arrangement, the biological parent may have rights and responsibilities – a man could be forced to pay maintenance for the upkeep of the child, for instance.

In the same-sex couple, will one partner take on the role of father in an emotional and psychological sense? I expect that is how it will work out. I hope so – if I was a bold child I wouldn’t want to have two mothers angry with me at the same time (sorry, girls). Oh alright, for the sake of balance, two fathers either.

So, fathering has become as complicated as it could get and we have a lot of work to do to figure out how to handle it. A little courage on the part of policy makers would help. And so would a determination to deal with the world as it is and not as we think if ought to be.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Oddments No. 6

Weekly bric a brac from Padraig O'Morain

Photo property of
Ellen Kent Productions

The opera: a celebration of frailty?
Two trips to the opera this weekend left me wondering if part of the appeal of the opera is its celebration of human frailty?

The operas, in National Concert Hall in Dublin were the Ukrainian National Opera of Odessa's presentation of Madama Butterfly and La Traviata in an Ellen Kent touring production.

In both operas there is a wealth of human frailty on display: lust, gullibility, prejudice, general foolishness, greed and so on. Frailty of one kind or another is displayed by most of the main characters and the consequences are catastrophic. In the end, characters redeem themselves through remorse - not something we often see happening in modern dramas.

But there is something healing, I think, about this display of frailty: it normalises what is, yes, normal human experience but which we often fail to acknowledge as such. It also undermines the notion of perfectionism which causes more trouble than it is worth.

Opera does all this sumptuously and beautifully - and these lovely productions from the Odessa opera company were no exception.

Indian texters hiding behind the burka
Young Indian guys and gals are using texting to get around strict social conventions on dating, says this fascinating story by Anand Giridharadas in the New York Times. "Young Indians, girls especially, are taught not to show any interest in the opposite sex," says the story. "The prohibition extends to such behaviors as giggling at a man’s jokes....Most young, middle-class Indians live with their parents, leaving few opportunities for trips back to 'my place.' They often share rooms with siblings into their late 20s, making it hard even to speak privately by telephone. And should they canoodle in public, they risk being found out by ubiquitous uncles and aunts and family friends, who are likely to snitch on them."

Texting helps the young to communicate without being scrutinised by family. For this reason, it has caught on, big time. In Jamshedpur, a steel company town, "the desire to text became so fervent at one all-women’s college that students began renting burqas from Muslim shopkeepers, according to a local news report," the story says. "From under the folds, the women typed amorously to boyfriends and arranged secret trysts off campus."

Imagine that - the burqa as a facilitator of illicit meetings!

False teeth - a memory from the 1960s
The messenger boy got new false teeth, too big, too white, big gawky gob on him, always hanging around, grinning to make sure everybody saw the new teeth. Then one of the guys said, "Hey, those teeth, yah know?" The messenger boy grinned a big, toothy grin. "They make yah look like shite, yah know?"

That wiped the grin off his face alright. That's all I remember.

It's my world, really, and you're all just living in it. Patton Dodd's description of an attitude of mind in Shambala Sun, January 2008.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Kissed - thanks to Ireland's smoking ban

Two women "starting again" deliver kisses in the garden

Photo by Lady_AnnDerground (Flickr)

This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 15th April, 2008. A collection of That's Men columns will be published by Veritas this summer:

It's not every day you get kissed by two women while you're minding your own business but, thanks to the smoking ban, it happened to me last week.

I was having a pint in the conservatory bar of a public house when the heat from the sun sent me out to the pub garden. Sitting in such a place is like watching a series of one-act plays as customers – ranging from the young and beautiful to those with one foot in the grave – come out for their smoke.

Among them were two well-oiled, as they say, women, one in high spirits, the other subdued. The one in high spirits was advising the other on the question of chatting up men. The subdued one did not know how to chat up men, could think of nothing to say to them and didn't know what to do about it. Her companion urged her to have a go - "All you have to do is say Hello Gorgeous" - and see what happened. Her own philosophy, she explained, was that when she was in the nursing home in her old age – “They’ll send me there to get their hands on the house,” she said of her loving family – she wanted to be thinking about the fun she had and not be marooned on a chair watching Bosco on the television. I certainly identified with her on that one: such indignities as might be inflicted by incapacity must be endured but being forced to watch Bosco counts as an act of inhumanity.

This did not reasurre the subdued one who objected that the men you meet in nightclubs only want the one thing. "Well don't give it to them," her companion advised. “That’s what I do, well, most of the time,” she laughed.

At their age - fortyish - most of the good catches were married or gay so it wasn't all that easy to get a man worth having, she added. That's why you had to get out there where you could be seen.

"Amn't I right?" she asked me, well aware that I had been listening to everything they said despite my pretence that I was absorbed in my Irish Times and my packet of peanuts. I agreed, of course – there was no future in disagreeing.

Having established that I was on the right side, she returned to the demanding task of educating her doubtful companion on how to become a woman of the world. Then the cigarettes were finished and it was time to go back.

"But I'm kissing him first," she said and bounced over to me, threw her arms around me and administered a good, solid kiss on the cheek, almost smothering me in her ample bosoms.

But it seems that her efforts at persuasion had not been entirely lost on her companion.

"I'm going to kiss him as well, so," said the subdued one when her mentor had withdrawn. She then gave me an appropriately subdued kiss on the cheek and off they both went, leaving me alone with my peanuts.

That ended my adventure but I have to say that my sympathies were entirely with the subdued lady. I gathered from their talk that they were both “starting out again” on the search for an enduring relationship.

The ebullient one may have seen it all as great fun but I suspect the subdued one has many more sympathisers among those who are separated, or dumped, or still single after all those years.

For many such people the thoughts of having to go anywhere near a nightclub is off-putting to such a degree that they just can’t face it. The same applies to chatting people up in bars. Their motto is, Never again!

I suppose they could try internet dating like the service run by and I’ve met a couple of people who were happy they took the internet route. They hadn’t yet found their soul companion but they had found people they liked.

But if you don’t want to do that, or to suffer in nightclubs or embarrass yourself in bars, you could just hang around the smoking areas of pubs minding your own business and see what happens.

I’ll be the one with the Irish Times, the pint and the packet of peanuts.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Lesbian couple with child a family, Irish High Court rules

Ireland's High Court has ruled that a lesbian couple living together in a long-term committed relationship with a child can be regarded as a de facto family enjoying rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, says this report in The Irish Times.

The ruling, I suspect, will have wider implications than are inherent in the case itself. For instance, how will it affect the position of same-sex couples, whether gay or lesbian, who have children, in relation to tax, social welfare and employment benefits? I expect this will be working its way through the system for the next few years

The court denied guardianship and access rights to the child's biological father who had donated sperm to the mother, says the Irish Times report.

Mr Justice Hedigan said there was nothing in Irish law to suggest that a family of two women and a child "has any lesser right to be recognised as a de facto family than a family composed of a man and a woman unmarried to each other".

He said the rights of a man who acted as a sperm donor were at least no greater than those of an unmarried father. In considering his application for guardianship the child's welfare was the paramount consideration, the Irish Times report says.

He believed there existed such personal ties between the couple and the child as to give rise to family rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which do not conflict with Irish law.

For more details, see this report in The Irish Independent.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nuala O'Faolain opens the way for other terminally ill people to say how they feel

This is the text of my article which appeared in The Evening Herald on Monday, 15th April 2008. Please note that many listeners found listening to the interview distressing. A transcript is here on the Irish Independent website. O'Faolain is author of Are you somebody, Almost there, My dream of you and The story of Chicago May.

[Note: Nuala O'Faolain died on 9th May 2008]Many people have wondered if Nuala O’Faolain’s interview with Marian Finucane on RTÉ Radio One on Saturday was distressing to persons with terminal illness. I would suggest that the interview was distressing to all of us but potentially comforting as well, two reasons.

The first is that we all have a terminal illness because, like her, we will all suffer death though not all of us will know about it at the time. The second is that people with terminal illnesses are expected by society to face the end in a particular way, namely with serenity, yet for many this is not the way they want to do it.

The bleakness and despair in her interview struck home particularly, I think, because it echoed that awful bleakness that a person can feel when they are awake alone in the middle of the night and the gloomiest of thoughts come to haunt them.

Nuala brought that bleakness into the light of a Saturday morning when most of us do not want to be reminded of it.

Psychologists say that one of the great crises we face in our lives is the realisation that we are going to die. We all know intellectually that one day we will die but it can take decades for us to feel the full force of that realisation. It can be triggered by the death of another person, even somebody we do not know very well.

When the realisation happens, we must come to terms with a reality that shakes us to foundations. Some people respond to the reality by denying it. They aim for eternal life on earth and take any treatment that promises to prevent the inevitable. Others become depressed or anxious or turn to drink or drugs. Most of us, I think, take the realisation of the inevitability of death as a wake-up call suggesting that we had better get on with doing the things we wanted to do in life.

In her interview, Nuala sound like somebody whom that realisation only hit six weeks ago when she got her diagnosis of terminal cancer. She is trying to cope with the realisation and the reality at the same time, an enormous demand on any human being. In saying that, I realise that I am presuming a great deal and that I may be entirely wrong.

One of the ways we deny the reality of death is to expect other people to die with a smile on their lips. Nearly twenty years ago, Therese Brady, who was then director of post-graduate training in clinical psychology at University College Dublin, complained about the expectation that people should face the death in ways that everybody else approved of. She developed the bereavement counselling service for the Irish Hospice Foundation. People who were dying were expected to do so in line with the expectations of a society which had, she said, “outlawed distress.”

It seems to me that by outlawing distress we have denied dying people the right to talk about this most significant of events. How often is the person who is dying told, when they want to express their feelings about it, “Don’t be talking like that, shure you’ll outlive us all”? What does it feel like, I wonder, to have to put up with that sort of nonsense when you are trying to make sense of your own death?

We will all face death in our own different ways. What Nuala’s interview has done, I hope, is to give permission to those who wish, in the words of Dylan Thomas, to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” to go right ahead and do so regardless of how the rest of us feel about it.

I wish Nuala some comfort in her journey.

Oddments No. 5

Weekly bric a brac from Padraig O'Morain.

Au Clair de la Lune – not Mary had a little lamb – the world’s first recording?
From the New York Times, 27th March 2008, via Cronaca: For more than a century, since he captured the spoken words “Mary had a little lamb” on a sheet of tinfoil, Thomas Edison has been considered the father of recorded sound. But researchers say they have unearthed a recording of the human voice, made by a little-known Frenchman, that predates Edison’s invention of the phonograph by nearly two decades.

The 10-second recording of a singer crooning the folk song “Au Clair de la Lune” was discovered earlier this month in an archive in Paris by a group of American audio historians. It was made, the researchers say, on April 9, 1860, on a phonautograph, (above), a machine designed to record sounds visually, not to play them back. But the phonautograph recording, or phonautogram, was made playable — converted from squiggles on paper to sound — by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

The audio excavation could give a new primacy to the phonautograph, once considered a curio, and its inventor, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, a Parisian typesetter and tinkerer who went to his grave convinced that credit for his breakthroughs had been improperly bestowed on Edison.

Full story here.

Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, on the bus
In his recent autobiography Good Times and Bad, veteran foreign correspondent Seamus Martin has this childhood anecdote about his brother, Diarmuid Martin, now Archbishop of Dublin: "My brother had no interest in football and in any case this playmates were from a diffferent age cohort, so we didn't see much of each other out on the streets. At home, however, there were elaborate motor races in which mother's clothes pegs were used as cards, and in the backyard Diarmuid's fascination with the bus routes of Dublin was indulged. He knew the number and destinations of all the buses in Dublin and drove them around the yard in his imagination and much to the fascination of his elders. One neighbour, Paddy Keller, made quite realistic-looking bus stops that were planted in the ground at suitable intevals to allow him to stop and take on imaginary passengers."

No such thing as a free lunch? Try New Orleans about two centuries ago
The free lunch is said to have been invented in New Orleans when 19th century midday drinkers were given snacks on the side. As snacks go, the free lunch was substantial by today's standards: soup, ham or beef, a potato, meat pie and oyster patties, according to Omni Hotels which claims its invention for the St Louis Exchange Hotel, destroyed by fire in 1841, resurrected and now trading as the Omni Royal Orleans.

Sleeping commuter - sign of the times?
Seen on the Luas (tram) from Dublin to Tallaght: A woman asleep, holding in her right hand her mobile phone, open and with her fingers in mid-text; in her left hand, a cup of coffee. All perfectly co-ordinated.

Waiting to cut the hay
Like me, Erica Funkhauser grew up on a farm. I, too, remember the old tractors with the metal - perhaps cast iron?- heart shaped seats. In Waiting to cut the hay here's how she writes about the tractor:

In the toolshed the best thing
is the heart-shaped seat of the tractor.
You don't have to know anything to sit in it.
You don't have to squeeze out the choke
and pump the gas pedal before you can go anywhere.
You don't have to steer the front wheel around
like the neck of a stubborn horse
in order to get out to the fields.

Read the rest here, on Poetry Daily.

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And here is the rest of it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

From sex to hot coffee - how the unconscious shapes our choices every day

This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday, 8th April, 2008. A collection of That's Men columns will be published by Veritas this summer.

Oh dear, can it really be true that those sexy images in the ads influence the behaviour of men?

I am afraid it is. But the women need not snigger. They too are prone to being influenced by attractive men in ways they might not expect.

Researchers at Stanford University showed men a series of erotic images and then invited them to gamble some money. The gambling exercise had no overt relationship to what went before. And yet the men who had viewed erotic images took greater risks in gambling than did men who had not seen these images.

But women interviewing men for jobs can find in their decisions influenced, unconsciously, by the attractiveness of the chap in the seat opposite.

Women in a mock job interview situation who were shown photographs of applicants tended to pick the more attractive looking men for the more high status jobs. They were also more generous to attractive men than to attractive women applicants.

Men in this experiment did not seem to discriminate between more and less attractive females. That surprises me given the number of guys in high status jobs who just happen to choose very pretty secretaries.

So I am not saying that these pieces of research are the last word on the influence of sex on men and women. And yet the influence of the unconscious on our everyday behaviour – sometimes in remarkable ways – is well established.

Consider this piece of research reported by Dr Christian Jarrett in the latest Psychologist (access restricted). A number of university students was asked questions, individually, by a researcher. While the questioning were going on, there were asked to hold the researcher’s drink. In some cases this was a hot coffee and in others it was an iced coffee. Later, another researcher came along and had a little chat with each of them.

The students were then asked whether they would recommend the second researcher for a job. The ones who had held the hot coffee cup said they would. The ones who held the cold cup said they wouldn’t.

So if you want someone to give you a job, buying them a hot coffee might work. This is especially so since people who drink coffee are more open to persuasion. For instance, in an Australian study, participants given a drink laced with caffeine were more likely to change their views on controversial topics such as euthanasia than those who were not.

Which goes to show that fellows who ask a girl in for a “coffee” at two o’clock in the morning are being a lot more clever than you might think.

Now, suppose you got a job from the manager who had a coffee in his hand at the time and suppose he sends you into a negotiation which you really need to win.

You take the bright new shiny briefcase your mother bought for you and you plonk it on the table, just to show you mean business, right? Wrong. If you ask two people to play cards and you place a briefcase in view, they will play more competitively than otherwise. So no briefcase, please.

Needless to say, you will offer your competitor a nice cup of coffee, though, won’t you? And if you want to be really sneaky, you yourself will just have a glass of cold water, thanks very much.

Here’s another one you can use. Getting people into a state of disgust or sadness will strongly influence their subsequent buying behaviour. In one experiment, students shown a film calculated to make them feel sad (The Champ) were later prepared to pay more for a bottle of water than people shown a film which made them feel disgusted (Trainspotting). So don’t make ’em laugh, make ’em cry and you’re on the road to riches.

And if you can’t make ’em cry, at least you can imitate them. Studies show that if you mimic the body language and mannerisms of a person with whom you are negotiating, you will end up with a better deal than if you do not. And, by the way, persons whose behaviour is mimicked are subsequently more benevolent towards others, a Dutch study shows.

The lesson? Don’t beat yourself up too much over your sillier decisions. It’s nothing to do with you, really.

Now, coffee anyone?

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Surely not another complaint about Quesia.Com's billing methods - where is Ken Lay when we need him? provides access to thousands of academic texts and newspaper and magazine articles - but you need to beware of its trigger-happy billing system which can mean that using could very easily cost more than you think.

I'll come to my gripe (and explain the Ken Lay reference) in a minute, but first some other gripes from the Net:

Sara, on complained of difficulties in cancelling a three month subscription with Questia which renewed the subscription without reference to her. Kerim, on the anthropology blog, Savage Minds, complains also about the ease with which turned a trial subscription into a recurring subscription. Here's one on about's habit of renewing people's subscriptions without telling them.

And I notice that Lansbridge University, which uses, warns students of "Questia's policy on automatically renewing subscriptions. If you decide not to keep your Questia account before your trial period is up, be sure to contact Questia to have it deactivated. Otherwise, it will automatically be switched over to a monthly billing and you will be charged accordingly."

In my own experience, I signed up for a package which they renewed at a higher price than agreed. We sorted that out a year ago, or so I thought. This March they helped themselves to $8.62 from my credit card (which, incidentally, had expired six months earlier, thanks a lot, NIB Visa) with no explanation when my subscription, which I had no intention of renewing, still had a month to run. A small amount? Yes, but I don't exist for the purpose of giving money for nothing. I could not get an explanation from them as to why they took my money - their emails when I complained largely side-stepped that issue - and, of course, I didn't get my money back.

I wouldn't deny for a minute that this company has thousands of satisfied customers but I wonder how much's renewal policy makes for them every year? I don't know but if you don't want to be a contributor to their coffers, be very careful about doing business with these guys.

And Ken Lay?

This item from a report on on in 2002 said that "In three previous rounds of financing, over $165 million dollars had been raised, including an investment from former Enron CEO Ken Lay. Lay is also on the company's board of directors." Publisher's Lunch reports that Lay will stay on the board at least for the time being and quotes Questia's Helen Wilson as saying it would be 'premature' to speculate about his future."

Well, she was right about that alright.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Annoying? Yes, but I don't mean to be so don't be mean to me

Photo by slushpup (Flickr)

The photocopier is out of toner.


You wait until all the bosses leave so you can make a hundred copies of your CV and the photocopier is out of toner.

What do you do? Some people will just shrug their shoulders and walk away. Some will swear, under their breath or out loud. Some will kick the photocopier.

What makes the difference? Everybody is annoyed that the darn thing is out of toner but only some get really angry.

In all likelihood, the ones who get really angry are the ones who believe, at some level of their minds, that the photocopier ran out of toner for the express purpose of annoying them. Or maybe it's not the photocopier. Maybe it's the gods. Maybe they're sitting up there on Mount Olympus figuring out ways to annoy people. Or it's the company. The company, which doesn't even know how badly its employees need to photocopy their CVs, has let the photocopier run out of toner so that the people who work there will be annoyed.

The essential point is that people get madder than usual if they think something that annoys them was done in order to annoy them. I believe we all think in this way far more often than we realise. The belief that people do things to annoy us is running along there at the back of our minds along with all those other beliefs to which we don't pay much attention.

It's annoying enough if the secretary doesn't type a letter on time, a delivery arrives late or the boss or waits until Friday evening to ask you to stay back on Friday evening. That, however, does not mean these people do things things for the purpose of annoying us. Similarly your teenage daughter did not paint the walls of her room black just in order to torment you. It's enough to be annoyed over the black walls without also assuming she actually set out to bug you (hang in there, by the time she's 30 she'll be a regular Martha Stewart, hopefully without the criminal record).

In the self-help movement Recovery Incorporated, they like to say that disappointments, accidents and annoyances come along about every five minutes so don't make it worse by assuming that these things are being done intentionally to get at you.

Every five minutes? Well, I've had days like that.

But how do you know that things are not being done deliberately to annoy you? Sometimes it's obvious, of course. The rain doesn't really wait for you to leave the office before it comes pouring down. You know that, however much you might grumble that it does. And it's very doubtful indeed if any supplier in his or her right mind is going to delay a delivery just to make you mad at them. In other cases you don't actually know what the motivation of the other person is. That's ok. You can just stay in that "don't know" zone instead of assuming the worst.

If you insist on assuming the worst, you're going to give yourself a much harder life than is necessary and you won't exactly be a bundle of joy for other people to be around either.

We live in a world which, almost of necessity, is largely indifferent to us. It cannot revolve around any one of us because you cannot organise a world that way. Therefore the world is full of events which don't suit any one of us. In fact it is an absolute dead certainty that our lives will be peppered with inconveniences. Some of these inconveniences we can change but most have to be accepted with grace. Otherwise we are in danger of becoming, in the oft-quoted words of George Bernard Shaw, "a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy".

Let me admit at once that I have been that clod and will probably be that clod again from time to time. But I hope to avoid cloddism as much as I can. And I think my best chance of avoiding that fate lies in repeating to myself, as often as is called for, a favourite phrase of members of Recovery Inc:

People do things that annoy me, not to annoy me.

(This article first appeared in my series The Other Side in Business & Finance magazine in September 2004).

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