Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Man's World - Carry on working for good health

My column A Man's World on

Padraig O'Morain advises people facing into retirement to take on some kind of part-time work; there are plenty of health benefits, both physical and mental, and you can earn a bit of extra cash.

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Time to invest heavily in a little generosity

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 17th November 2009:

THAT'S MEN: If you're trying to impress a mott, dig deep and throw a few bob about. Could be the best investment you ever made, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN 

PEACOCKS' TAILS, giving to charity and mating – they don't seem to have a lot in common, do they? But if that's what you think you'd be wrong and if you're a man you might be missing out on some useful information about snaring a woman's heart.

Giving money to charity is an altruistic act but if you do it publicly, it can serve the same purpose as the peacock's tail which is to attract a nice peahen.

It works like this. Charles Darwin wondered what was the point of peacocks having those beautiful tails. All they did, so far as he could see, was to attract predators and make it harder to run away.

But then he wondered if the purpose of the tail was to attract peahens and if this made up for the disadvantages. If so, then the peacock tail played its role in the perpetuation of the peafowl species.

Since then, people who research this sort of thing have established that peahens actually favour the males with the best tails. Why? The males with the best tails are the healthiest and strongest and more likely to pass on "good" genes.

Darwin also wondered about altruism. Being generous to your children is understandable – each child carries 50 per cent of your genes, so your generosity increases the chances that your genes will be passed on.

If you don't have children, then being generous to blood relatives such as nieces and nephews also makes evolutionary sense because every niece and nephew carries 25 per cent of your genes – be nice to them and they'll pass them on for you.

But why, Darwin wondered, would we be generous and kind and giving of ourselves to people we have nothing to do with and who are unlikely to play any role in passing on our genes? Why, to take a modern example, would we give money to save lives in Africa?

What if altruism for men is as the tail is to the peacock? What if being generous actually attracts women? Suddenly the whole thing makes sense.

And, according to a fascinating article by Wendy Iredale and Mark Van Vugt, from the University of Kent and VU University Amsterdam respectively, in the current issue of The Psychologist , that's exactly what's happening.

We like to show off our generosity. For instance, if a man is walking along the street with a woman when he is approached by a female beggar, he is likely to give her more money than he would if he was alone. Why is that?

The clue might lie in the fact that men in the earliest stages of a relationship with their companion are far more likely to put their hand in their pocket and give something to a beggar than men who are in long-term relationships. If displays of generosity attract females, then such displays are likely to be more ostentatious in the early stages of the relationship when the chase is still on.

And displays of generosity do, indeed, attract females. In one study, men who were described as donating blood regularly and as volunteering to help out in a local hospital were rated attractive by women.

Why would women be impressed by altruistic acts? Researchers suggest that generosity in a man implies that he is a good bet for investing in a relationship and in his offspring and is more likely to stick around to do so instead of going around sowing his seed hither and yonder.

For immediate short-term relationships, women are quite impressed by heroic acts. But for longer term relationships, it's kindness and generosity that floats their boat.

So if, like me, you're not the heroic type, go for kindness and generosity. That phrase, nice guys finish last, just isn't true when it comes to the mating game.

Christmas is coming up. The choirs will be out on the street trying to part you from your money. Forget your inclination to growl Bah! Humbug! and walk past. On the contrary, if you're trying to impress a mott, dig deep and throw them a few bob. Could be the best investment you ever made.

  • Padraig O'Morain is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, That's Men, the best of the That's Men column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

How fear can point us in the right direction

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 10th November 2009:

THAT'S MEN: Fear should act as a catalyst for action rather than instil a feeling of paralysis

FEAR IS all around us. Even Harry Crosbie of The Point/O2 fame said on the radio the other day that for the first time in his life he has the feeling that "it's dangerous out there", or words to that effect.

I thought it refreshing to hear a man in his position acknowledging the fear that so many feel.

Then I read an article on fear by one of my favourite Buddhist bloggers, life coach Sunada Takagi, on the Wildmind website. What she wrote is worth repeating because with the Budget, Christmas and the bleak month of January coming towards us, we are not short of sources of fear.

The Buddhist approach to fear and other discomforts is to turn towards what is happening instead of running away from it.

If you were a primitive man strolling through the jungle and you came across a fierce tiger you would run away as fast as your little legs could carry you. That's not running away from fear. That's running away from the tiger. Fear in this case has done its job.

Fear today, of course, is more likely to be related to money problems, threats to a job or a business, health issues or challenges in relationships than to tigers.

Back to that primitive man. Fear can save his life if he happens to meet a tiger. Even if he doesn't meet a tiger, though, fear of meeting one means that he is mentally and physically alert.

As Sunada puts it: "He's in a state of readiness – not to the point of hyper-anxiety – but a clear, focused alertness that can respond intelligently to whatever comes his way."

That's a different take on fear. If a person defines fear as bad and as something to be got rid of, he or she may run around like a headless chicken, snort cocaine (not easy if

you're a headless chicken) or become paralysed. I should add that these examples are my creation – as she is a Buddhist, talk about headless chickens would not go down well with Sunada.

Instead of running from fear, she writes, "if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it's 'bad', we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world. It also has the potential to draw out our inner resources that we may not even be aware of. It's a force that can move us forward."

To experience these benefits, "when the fear temperature rises, stay with it. But don't fight it or indulge it. Recognise any doomsday thoughts that come up for what they are – just thoughts.

"In that moment, with your heightened awareness, look for what's really calling for your attention. What's one step we can take to move forward?"

Since I read her article I've been experimenting with this approach. When the fear stirs, instead of lamenting that fact, I ask what the fear is telling me I need to do. It helps me to prioritise and to get on with doing what needs to be done.

I have to confess that when I'm feeling lazy I sometimes opt to have the fear instead of getting up and running away from whatever metaphorical tiger is baring its teeth at me.

Still, this approach to fear brings a clarity to how I see things and there is a relief in just being afraid of what the fear is about rather than also fearing fear itself.

"I've grown to see fear as my ally," writes Sunada. "When I listen to it, it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go."

Afraid of the expense of Christmas? Well, what's your fear telling you? That now is the time to start lowering your kids' pre-recession expectations? That you should forget flying to Lanzarote on the 27th (hey, remember that?)? That you should put a realistic limit right now on what you're going to spend?

Isn't that approach better than going around shouting at people and drinking too much cheap wine to calm your nerves?

You can find Sunada's article at

  • Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, That's Men, The Best of the That's Men Column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

Plan early to avoid tension at Christmas

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 3rd November 2009:

THAT'S MEN: Separated parents shouldn't leave it until the season itself to decide what will happen with the kids

THE EARLY arrival of Christmas advertising annoys many of us, but if you're a separated parent it brings an extra twist of anxiety.

I am sorry to add to the talk of Christmas, but if you are a separated father – probably living apart from your children – then you need to start thinking about and planning for Christmas now.

Christmas itself tends to stir up all sorts of emotions, including anger and loss, so don't leave it until the so-called festive season itself to address the question of parenting and what will happen with the children. Deal with it now, while emotions are calmer.

Hopefully you can talk to your ex about this. If you cannot talk to your ex, perhaps there is a mutual friend or family member who could act as a go-between. If not, then you will have to do the best you can yourself. If possible, try to keep solicitors out of it – an exchange of vicious solicitors' letters really isn't going to make for a happy Christmas for anyone.

Christmas is very problematic for separated parents because it is full of details, each of which carries an emotional charge.

For instance, what presents will the children get? Who will buy what? If one parent thinks junior shouldn't get an iPhone is the other parent willing to respect this?

How and when and where will the live-apart parent give presents to the children? Is it possible to agree that both parents will be there during the opening of the presents? If one of the parents has a new partner should that partner be there?

Suppose Christmas day is not one of the access days granted by the court? Can both parents agree that each of them will see the children nonetheless?

What about grandparents and other extended family? Can the extended family on both sides get to see the children over Christmas? How will that be done?

One way to address the situation, especially if you are newly separated, is to ask what sort of Christmas the children had in the past? What did they do? Where did they go? How much of this is it possible for the children to have this Christmas?

Are the children now in a "blended family"? In other words, are they living with half-brothers and half-sisters because of the break-up and a new relationship? If so, when giving presents can you avoid jealousy between the two groups of children, which could have repercussions after Christmas is over?

Many families have a tradition of visiting graves on Christmas day. Can this be done this year? And if so, how?

What will be the role of either parent's new partner? Should they be brought into the Christmas planning? Should they be there when the live-apart parent delivers presents?

You will notice that I have answered none of these questions. That is because there are no neatly packaged answers that will satisfy everyone.

Parents are going to have to do their best and to muster what sensitivity they can in dealing with what can be a painful time. It can be especially painful in the absence of sensitivity.

And friends and relatives also need to remember that this is no time to ratchet up the stress between separated parents.

I know there are parents out there who will use Christmas as another battlefield in the ongoing war against the absent ex. If you are that absent ex, you need to get yourself through this painful experience in a way that leaves you in as good shape as possible, for the sake of your future relationship with your children.

Most separated parents are more reasonable than this. But because Christmas is an emotional minefield, they need to start planning for it now. I would like to acknowledge that most of the sensible ideas in this article came from a conversation some time ago with workers in the Family Mediation Service, which is part of the Family Support Agency ( Those ideas that are not sensible came from me.

  • Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book That's Men, The Best of the That's Men column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

The minefield of political correctness

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 27th October 2009:

THAT'S MEN: I've been taken to task over my comments about gender issues in last week's column, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN 

LAST WEEK'S column has brought accusations that I insulted nuns and wrote "balderdash" about entry to medical schools.

I began by saying that after I left High Infants I never again saw a female teacher and I went on to suggest that now it is males who seem to be vanishing from the system.

I noted that all my teachers in Junior and High Infants were nuns and, I said, "they didn't really count as females. They were a higher and more scary order of being."

"What kind of language is that for a counsellor, who is dealing with both genders, on all levels of society, to use?" asks reader Meabh Ní Uallacháin.

"I don't care just what point you were trying to make, it is a total insult to the many good, gentle and caring women religious, who down through the years have made the Irish educational system what is, and the hospital system also and it's only when they are no longer visible in both, that their true worth as women will be appreciated . . . and they were 100 per cent women, with all the strengths, weaknesses, gifts and struggles that all women have . . . why demean them with that insult?"

Nuns did many great things in education, health and social services, but I would maintain that to schoolchildren at the time they were not ordinary women like our mothers or aunts but had a special and daunting status of their own. And I don't think I'm insulting anybody by saying that.

Michael Kane, professor emeritus of physiology at NUI Galway, suggests that the pressures of writing a weekly column account for "a piece of balderdash" in last week's effort.

In it, I mentioned that the proportion of women in the medical profession is increasing all the time. I then added, in brackets (and this was my downfall), "though the lads have now introduced a personality test for entry to medical school which they blatantly laud as boosting the proportion of men in the profession – how did they get away with that?"

Prof Kane points out that the HPat test is not a personality test but is supposed to evaluate one's ability to use knowledge rather than just learn things off by rote without understanding.

I should have known that, he says. Actually I did know it but lazy writing let me down. My substantive point remains, though. The medical establishment expressed great satisfaction this year that the test boosted the number of males entering medical school.

If the owner of a corner shop introduced a test to boost the proportion of males behind the counter, how long do you think it would be before he or she was up before some authority or other and fined for discrimination? Not long at all, I believe.

Prof Kane defends this aspect of the test. "It seems true that to some extent, perhaps to a major extent, one object in picking such a test was to give a more even balance of student genders entering medicine," he writes.

"If you are genuinely PC, then you should feel that is laudable. If you are pseudo PC, then you might feel the opposite."

If one believes that men and women are equal in intellectual ability, then selecting on the basis of the Leaving Cert alone, with females making up about 70 per of entrants to medicine, "was actively discriminating against male applicants", he adds.

Finally, Seathrún Mac Éin reminds me that in his book, Speed Write in Exams , Joseph F Foyle MA drew attention to the fact that women often have more nimble fingers than men do. Thus they can write far faster, which is an enormous advantage in nearly all written exams. . . Males in a hurry frequently tend to press so hard on the pen that they plough furrows in the paper, which can be felt by running a finger over the underside of the sheet! This actually slows them down. Females, on the other hand, tend to use a light touch – barely skimming the paper."

Well, my poor fingers have been soundly rapped already – so no speed writing for me.

Padraig O'Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, That's Men, the Best of the That's Men Column from The Irish Times , is published by Veritas

Rising status does little to stem abuse

My Irish Times That's Men Column published 20th October 2009:

THAT'S MEN: Despite women appearing to be more powerful, domestic abuse is still a huge problem for many, writes PADRAIG O'MORAIN

AFTER I completed High Infants and got sent off to the Christian Brothers in Naas, I never encountered a female teacher up to and including secondary school. Recently I read that almost two-thirds of children in fifth class in primary school are taught by females.

This seems to mean that men are in as much danger of becoming as a rare an event in the classroom in the near future as women were when I was going to school. I wonder what this will mean for males' view of females, especially where the boy is raised by a single mother and taught only by women?

I said at the start, by the way, that I had not encountered a female teacher after High Infants. However, all the teachers in Junior and High Infants were nuns and they didn't really count as females.

They were a higher and more scary order of being. So even before I went to the Christian Brothers, the concept of being taught by a female who wasn't a nun never entered my head.

Of course, there have always been female teachers, especially in the national schools, so my experience may have been unique. Nor were all these women necessarily soft and gentle females.

My grandmother went to a two-teacher school. Both teachers were women. She was lucky – she got the kind teacher. The children in the upstairs classroom got the cruel one, and she recalled hearing them begging for mercy as they were beaten. In a two-teacher school, you were stuck with the same teacher from the day you arrived until the day you left, so life was hard on children who got the harsh teacher.

Boys at that time, though, were living in a male-dominated world. Today, they are more likely to live in a world in which, to their eyes, women are not only the equal of men, but in which there may be no man around or at least not living in the home.

As today's children grow up and go to schools in which male teachers are the odd ones out, how will this mould their view of women and of themselves?

And why did we hear in the past week or so that between 2007 and 2008, the demand for services for women suffering domestic abuse rose by 21 per cent, according to Safe Ireland?

Somehow the increasing status of women in the schools, home and workplace seems to me to be contradicted by this rise in abuse in the home.

This is happening in a world in which women, on the surface, are increasingly more powerful.

An ESRI report a couple of years ago forecast that women would make up the majority of business, financial and legal professionals by 2012. The report forecasts that more than two out of five managers throughout the whole workforce would be women by that time.

Increasingly, men who go to the doctor, an authority figure to most of us, will be seen by a woman (though the lads have now introduced a personality test for entry to medical school, which they blatantly laud as boosting the proportion of men in the profession – how did they get away with that?).

On one level, then, the environment in which boys grow up has shifted dramatically. The concept of never encountering a female teacher from the age of five onwards would be seen strange to the point of being unhealthy.

And a woman is more likely to be the sole authority figure in the home. Most of the students in many third-level courses are female. Many of the colleagues and bosses at work are female.

And yet there is that rise in domestic abuse. Change in the relationship between the sexes, is, it appears, messy and unpredictable. And domestic abuse seems to have increased with the recession as financial troubles bring stresses into relationships.

As women progress in education and the workplace, are the genders lagging behind in how they handle their emotional conflicts? And shouldn't we be teaching boys and girls more about that subject in our schools, regardless of whether the teachers are male or female?

Friday, October 16, 2009

No longer sure if PSA screening for possible prostate cancer is such a good idea

Irish Times That's Men Column published 13th October 2009: I used to think it a very good thing to go off and have a PSA test done every year to screen for prostate cancer. Now I'm not so sure. Doctors seem divided on the value of the test for screening. Some suggest it could do more harm than good when used on men who don't already have other symptoms.

PSA stands for prostate specific antigen, a protein produced by the prostate gland. Higher than normal levels of PSA in the blood can indicate the presence of prostate cancer.

Screening for PSA levels involves a simple blood test - and it has seemed to me that if you are a man above middle age it's wise to get it done every year. Now I read of research reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine which raises all sorts of questions in my mind, some of them unpleasant.

One study at the University of Sydney found that screening 1,000 men every year between ages of 40 and 69 reduces the number of deaths from prostate cancer by two - yes, two - by the age of 85. Meanwhile, about 640 will have died from other causes. Kirsten Howard of the University of Sydney made the remarkable statement to HealthDay News that men who are screened are two to four times more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than those who are not screened - yet the death rates for both groups are similar.

The difficulty is that the PSA test cannot predict which prostate cancers are agressive and need to be treated and which are developing so slowly that the patient will die of other causes long before the cancer kills him. Because of the uncertainty, people may be treated who don't need to be treated and this can have side effects such as impotence and incontinence.

That's scary.

The dilemmas posed by the PSA test have surfaced among Irish doctors too. In a letter to the Irish Medical News earlier this year, Dr Ray O'Connor wrote that  "PSA is a far from ideal screening test and its general use in asymptomatic men is a very questionable practice, I feel."

Professor Tom Fahey in a letter referred to "the ongoing dilemma of how best to treat men with localised prostate cancer - watchful waiting, radiotherapy or radical prostatectomy, because of the substantial trade-offs involved in terms of improved survival versus common side-effects such as urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction."

Last March, the Irish Medical News reported on a symposium organised by the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in association with the National Cancer Screening Service (NCSS). Dr Alan Smith, consultant in public health medicine from the NCSS told the symposium that population screening for prostate cancer could do more harm than good, the newspaper reported. Population screening  involves screening everybody in a particular group in the way that Breastcheck, for instance, offers screening to all women aged 50-64 in 17 counties.

While population screening for prostate cancer "would undoubtedly identify more cancers in men, it is also likely that a population approach to screening would expose the majority of men participating in such a programme to unnecessary harms. Unnecessary biopsies and the complications of treatment can cause side-effects including impotence and incontinence."

I have quoted the views of doctors at some length here because it is the fact that these views are coming from doctors - including doctors in respectable research institutions - that impresses me.

If you are thinking of having a PSA test I suggest you discuss these issues with your own doctor who knows more about this than I do. Those men whose lives were saved by a PSA test would certainly think it worthwhile, whatever the findings mentioned above.

Work is currently being done by the Prostate Cancer Research Consortium to find a more accurate test to address these issues. The consortium includes Trinity College Dublin, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin City University and the hospitals linked to these institutions.

Meanwhile, I think we need a debate on this topic and I hope that medical and non-medical people will now weigh in.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Money worries make women spend more

Our services for children are still a disgrace today

A single act of suicide can destroy many lives

Lack of inspections leaves thousands in care vulnerable to abuse - groups

DISABILITY GROUPS: DISABILITY GROUPS have warned that hundreds of children and thousands of adults in residential care are vulnerable to abuse because of the Government's refusal to introduce independent inspections or care standards in the sector.

At least 400 children are in residential centres. A further 28,000 adults are in residential settings which are not subject to standards or inspections.

Independent inspections and standards for such residential centres have been discussed at Government level for the past decade.

However, last week the Minister of State for disability John Moloney announced he did not have the funds to implement the plans.

Carl O'Brien The Irish TImes 23rd May 2009. Link [Expires after one year]

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Husband has no right to stop use of embryos, court told

A man cannot prevent his estranged wife from using frozen embryos created during their marriage because of the right to life of the unborn, the Supreme Court heard yesterday, says this story in The Irish Independent.

The claim was made on the opening day of an appeal by a mother of two against her failed High Court action aimed at having three embryos implanted in her uterus with a view to becoming pregnant, against the wishes of her estranged husband, it says.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Irish priests engaged in sexual abuse in the United States - a cancer that spread from the West

It wasn't always a desire to spread the Gospel that drew priests from Ireland the US over the years. I recall an American priest calling to our school around 1960 to persuade a class of 14 year olds to join the priesthood in the States. He talked about money, cars and the good life a lot more than he talked about spreading the word of God. This article by Donal Lynch in the Sunday Independent provides a good background to, and outline of, the abuse of children by by Irish priests in the US over the years. I'm sure most priests who went to the US from Ireland did their job as honestly as they could but Lynch argues that a disproportionate number of clerical abusers were Irish.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Violence and coercion by teenage partners

(This is my That's Men column from The Irish Times, Tuesday 27th January 2009): School programmes on dealing with physical or emotional abuse from a dating partner might seem a step too far.

Yet a number of states in the US have required schools to introduce such programmes. In some cases, the legislation followed the murder of a teenager by a jealous ex.

The fact is that controlling behaviour and abuse occurs between teenagers as well as adults.

That teenagers would stay around to be abused may seem highly unlikely - but the cycle of abuse for teens is no different than that for adults. I will explain more about that cycle later.

First, look at the story of one teenage boy as told on the Teens Experiencing Abusive Relationships (TEAR) website.

He went for a night out with the guys and with his best friend Marie. He was flattered when Angel, their pretty waitress, slipped him her phone number at the end of the night.

He rang, they met, they dated and he fell in love.

Then Angel began to get jealous of his best friend Marie. If he loved her, she told him, he would end his relationship with Marie. So he did. She still went out her friends, both male and female, but he accepted that. Angel liked him to keep in touch with her so that she knew where he was at all times. Soon he was spending all his time with her except when she was with her friends.

Once, when she met him after being out with her friends she flew off the handle because she found out he had called Marie. She screamed at him, slapped him, pushed him, punched him and kicked him. Then she walked out.

Next day she was back, full of smiles and they kissed and made up. Then the jealousy and the fighting started again. But, at the end of his story he states that he can't break the cycle "because my love for her would always be stronger than that."

The website includes stories of teenage girls who went through the same sort of experience with their boyfriends.

The cycle of abuse has three stages which can be thought of as the green, orange and red stages.

In the green stage, all is well and the relationship is enjoyable and loving. In the orange stage, one partner is making escalating demands on the other, controlling the other, perhaps threatening him or her. In the red stage, the abusive partner explodes, into physical, sexual or emotional violence.

And the next stage? The next stage is the green stage again, the hearts and flowers stage as it is sometimes called. The abusive partner apologises, is loving and romantic and swears it will never happen again.

In all likelihood, it's the return to that green stage that keeps the cycle going until the person at the receiving end realises what is happening and gets out.

But teenagers? A couple of years ago, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the US surveyed 15,000 tens on the issue of abuse. Ten per cent said they had been hit or slapped by a romantic partner. Nearly one in twelve said they had been forced to have sex. (CDCP Factsheet - pdf).

If it happens there I think we can assume it happens here. What's behind it? In the case of the abuser I suspect it's a fear, even a terror, of abandonment. That terror of abandonment leads the controlling personality to put extraordinary and intolerable restrictions on the other person.

And why does the other person put up with it, even for a time? Partly out of love, partly because it takes time for the penny to drop, partly out of fear of the consequences of trying to leave (a justified fear in too many tragic cases) and partly because the return to that green stage, the romantic stage, keeps the person trapped.

The TEAR project is based in New Jersey and was started six years ago by four teenage girls.

Their website contains lots of useful information for teenagers trapped in this sort of situation. Actually, it contains useful information for people of all ages.

If you're being controlled by another person or if you're worried about someone in this situation, take a look at it. It's at

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Roscommon child abuse case - what we need to know

The Health Service Executive has appointed Norah Gibbons of Barnardos to head an independent inquiry into the Roscommon child abuse case. Few people in child protection work in Ireland have higher credibility than Norah Gibbons. She is nobody's fool. I wish her well.

Below is my article from The Herald of Friday, 23rd January, 2009 on the questions to which we need answers:

The history of child protection is signposted by a series of inquiries.


Each inquiry marks a failure. Each comes too late for one or more children - such as the inquiry into the death from extreme neglect of 15 year old Kelly Fitzgerald in 1993. She died even though when she moved to Co Mayo, West Lambeth Health Authority warned the Western Health Board of its worries and sent its child protection files to the WHB.


And now we have the Roscommon case and another inquiry inevitably on the way. In a sense this inquiry is different from the others because this case marks such a widespread failure on the part of the whole social system that surrounded the children.


Here are questions to which we need answers:


- Court evidence suggests there were concerns about child welfare in this family since the birth of the first child in 1989. What was done about this?


- Why did it take until 2000 for an arrangement to be made to put the children into the voluntary care of a maternal aunt and uncle given that further concerns had been raised  in 1996?


- Why did the High Court prevent this arrangement from going ahead and who helped the mother to take the case?


- The court heard that a "Catholic right-wing organisation" had helped the mother to seek the injunction. A social worker stated in court that he suspected the involvement of Mína Bean Uí Chroibín in the application. Who are these people and what was their involvement, if any, in the legal process?


- The health authorities applied to have the High Court order lifted in 2001 but was told it should stay in place until a child care order was made by the District Court. Why? Did the health board seek such an order? If not, why not?


- The children went to school in a condition which made it obvious they were being neglected. What did the school do about this?


- Were these children seen by doctors of nurses during their childhood? What did they see?


- An official Garda investigation began in 2004. Did anybody make a report to Gardaí in the years prior to that?


These are just some of the questions to which we need answers about this specific case. There are wider issues too.


Legally it would appear that social workers can only take a child into care on a compulsory basis if there is a serious and immediate risk to the child. Is this too restrictive and should it be changed?


Where is the promised constitutional referendum on the rights of the child?


Is the health board/HSE system capable of running an effective child protection system or is it time to give this task to a separate, dedicated agency?


A statement from the Irish Association of Social Workers this morning gives a strong impression that other children may be at risk of the same sort of neglect and abuse in other families. Let's get to work.




Let's hear it for the lazy guy

(This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 20th January 2009): I have hinted more than once in the past that when I was working for a salary I was far from being the most diligent employee on the floor.

That's when I was on the floor. More often than not I was to be found wandering around bookshops in the city centre, looking for the answer to everything.

Now that I am self-employed I actually have to work in order to get paid. Unfortunately the HR Department neglected to mention that little point when it put up a voluntary severance package that had 200 of us charging out the door.

Now that the jobs are vanishing and we're all going to live in caves, emerging now and then to be heckled by David McWilliams, I'd like to celebrate the world of the not-very-good worker.

I came across a few examples the other day in reports of a heartening survey by an American management consultancy called Caliper (now there's a name to conjure with).

One woman, on her second day in the job, was found fast asleep in the CEO's office. Anybody can fall asleep on their second day at work but to do it in the CEO's office takes a lot of class.

Actually, women can be a bit of a pain in the neck about doing a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. We men are better at slacking off so I'm a bit disappointed that it wasn't a man who chose the boss's office for his nap.

But fair play to the guy who, after starting work, looked for a week off for a trip to Florida. The employer said no so he went sick for a week and came back with a tan. I bet this man remembers his week in Florida with more fondness than any week in the office. Good luck to him.

Then there was the new guy who came to work late and went home early, explaining that he was going to be sick tomorrow. He has many brothers and even some sisters here in Ireland.

What is heartening about the Caliper survey is that it found that most managers will keep a worker who is not very good because they don't want the hassle of hiring someone new.

Nearly seven out of ten managers said they would persevere with an existing worker, according to a report on

Thank heavens for that, whether you're an underperforming bishop, bank manager, politician, or drone.

By the way, Caliper don't necessarily think this is a good thing, judging by their website which contains frightening sales pitches like "Get the most out of every interview and hire more people like your top performers." Tell you what - I wouldn't be too keen on seeing those guys walk in the door.

Talking of interviews, one of my most dispiriting tasks as an employee was sitting on interview panels. Somewhere around Day Two, the thought would hit me: If I was applying for this job, against this opposition, I wouldn't get it.

Assuring myself that all job candidates exaggerate their energy, dedication and commitment to the point of fantasy did not help to dispel the dark cloud that would hover over me until I finally escaped back to my bookshops and my long lunches.

I like the attitude of Alexander Kjerulf. He speaks all over the world about making people happy at work and, I suspect, makes a happiness-inducing truckload of money out of it.

On his blog, Chief Happiness Officer, Denmark-based Kjerulf suggests bosses tell their new employees: "My most important priority is your happiness and productivity at work. If there's anything I can do to make you happier and more efficient - tell me right away. This isn't idealism, it's good business, because happy people are more productive."

I couldn't agree more and don't be bothering about measuring productivity either.

"Life is more than work," he suggests new employees be told. "If you're regularly working overtime, you're just making yourself less happy and more stressed. Don't join the cult of overwork - it's bad for you and the company."

This great man has a book called Happy Hour is 9 to 5. It's available in many languages including Chinese. Laid-back Chinese workers - now there's a novel idea.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fatima Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto - no love lost

Well, there's no love lost between Fatima Bhutto and her late aunt, the assassinated Benazir Bhutto. According to this article by Fatima in the New Statesman, Benazir's tomb has become a tawdry, Disney-like monument designed by herself and the Pakistani people are deeply unhappy about where their country is heading. Good read.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A people neglected - Tony Gregory's North Inner City Dublin

(My article on the North Inner City in the 1970s and 1980s appeared in The Evening Herald on 7th January 2009 in a feature marking the death of Tony Gregory TD):

To many people today, Dublin's North Inner City is characterised by the Irish Financial Services Centre and the O2 concert venue.

Neither existed in the North Inner City which, in the 1970s and early 1980s, shaped Tony Gregory's subsequent political career.

The main public building of note, more dreary then than today was the still-dreary Busaras.

In the 1970s, when Tony Gregory was a teacher and community activist working his way into local politics, families lived in dreadful conditions.

At the time I lived in a flat in Upper Sherrard Street. My journey home each evening brought me past old Georgian tenements from which you could smell and sense utter poverty and deprivation.

Fr Peter McVerry, speaking at a Combat Poverty exhibition in 2007, explained far better than I can what conditions were like only 30 years ago:

"I went to live in the old Summerhill flats in 1974.  They were just awful.  They were small, the only heating was an open fire in the sitting room, Dublin Corporation had obviously never been told that sound-proofing had been invented, and the place was crawling with rats, rats the size of little kittens and immune from every poison ever invented.   Parents would tell you of waking up in the morning and finding a rat on the baby's cot.  

"Some blocks of flats had to share an outside toilet and the children had to be washed in the local Sean McDermott St swimming pool, as they had no baths or showers."

While the poor had the same rights as everyone else on paper, these rights meant little enough in practice, as that extract makes clear.

I remember Gregory as a community activist coming in to borrow a few minutes' use of our photocopier  in the National Social Service Council in Leeson Street. Needless to say, our masters in the Department of Health knew nothing of this.

Today, community bodies have their own photocopiers and staff but at that time this rarely happened. To pursue community activism in places like the North Inner City as people like Tony Gregory, Mick Rafferty and Fergus McCabe did, you had to have immense faith in what you were doing because little or no encouragement came from official Ireland.
At the time, the National Social Service Council was establishing what are now called Citizens Information Centres to tell people about their rights. I still remember the protests from one puffed-up minor official in the North Inner City because women, living in the conditions mentioned above, were now actually looking for their entitlements. Far better, he argued, to tell them nothing - that way they would look for nothing.

In this scenario of depressing poverty people turned, in too many cases, to drink or drugs. The heroin epidemic of the 1970s ravaged the North Inner City with precious little being done about it by officialdom. A social worker who tried to alert his boss to what was going on had his report thrown back at him. There is nothing I can do about this, he was told, so don't be sending me reports about it.

The outside world seemed to care about this area of poverty and unemployment only when people's property was robbed from their cars while they were sitting at traffic lights.
One has to wonder how many of the crime problems of today can be traced back to that indifference and to the failure to help families lost in poverty.
Nonetheless, the 1970s was also a period of social optimism and people like Combat Poverty and Kilkenny Social Services (Sr Stanislaus Kennedy was a leading influence in both) raised awareness of the need for change.

"They demolished Summerhill and Gardiner St. and Sean McDermott St in 1980," Fr McVerry recalled in that speech to Combat Poverty. He moved to Ballymun and it says a lot about the grinding poverty and dreadful conditions in the North Inner City that "after Summerhill, the Ballymun flats were paradise."  
But the North Inner City was no paradise. Poverty and unemployment remained high and in the 1980s the country entered a decade of cutbacks as it tried to cope with a frightening national debt.

When Tony Gregory was first elected to the Dáil in 1982, he held the balance of power. Charles Haughey, determined to form the next government, came looking for his support, the outcome was the Gregory Deal.

Tony Gregory could have looked for, and would certainly have got, a junior ministry - a terrific prize for a newcomer to the Dáil.

Instead he looked for, and was promised, a range of measures which included specific numbers of jobs and houses for his constituents.

But Haughey's government didn't last and so the Gregory Deal fell by the wayside.

Yet the people knew Gregory was on their side and they knew he was absolutely genuine. That's why they voted him back in election after election. He was as far removed as you can get from some of those politicians who strut about their constituencies with little or no appreciation of what life is like for many of those whom they claim to represent.
Gregory remained involved with the North City Centre Community Action Project, founded in 1978 and one of the oldest such projects in the state.

He brought a sense of pride to an area which could so easily have slid into a depression. He lived through a second heroin epidemic. He got deeply involved with local efforts to boost education, training and jobs. He was as much a part of the area as a brick in the wall. If you wanted to meet one of his right hand men such as Mick Rafferty you didn't have to seek him out: you would probably bump into him walking down the street.

The North Inner City still has many problems but there is no doubt that these would be immeasurably worse, and the area's capacity to deal with them weaker, but for Tony Gregory's relentless work since the 1970s.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Who let the dogs out? Top Dog, Bottom Dog and your New Year resolutions

(This is the text of my That's Men column in The Irish Times on Tuesday 30th December 2008)

Are you working on your New Year resolutions in the hope of creating a bright and shiny new you for 2009?

Heed my advice and take the whole idea with a pinch of salt.

We can all do with making some improvements in how we treat ourselves and other people. But all too  often we think the old self has to be shoved into the black bin and left outside to be taken away to the nearest landfill. In its place we look for a completely new self which will win the admiration and even the applause of all.

But this doesn't work, and here's  a doggish explanation as to why not:

In Gestalt Therapy there is a concept called 'Top Dog/Bottom Dog'. Top Dog is that part of your mind that knows what you ought to be doing with your life, how much you should weigh, how much exercise you should take, what you ought to eat, what time you should get up in the morning, how efficient you should be at work, how much you should be earning and so on.

Bottom Dog doesn't really want all this and resists the demands of Top Dog. Bottom Dog will have sausages and rashers for breakfast rather than a healthy bowl of porridge; prefers wine to water;  snuggles in bed on a Saturday morning instead of getting up for a jog around the park; and has a to-do list with uncompleted items stretching back to the time of Tutankhamen.

Bottom Dog is very good at what he does. In fact Bottom Dog usually wins.

So what you want to watch out for is that it isn't just Top Dog who is sitting there writing out the New Year's list of resolutions.  Leave the job to Top Dog and you can be pretty sure Bottom Dog will get busy sabotaging the whole thing.

I said above that we can all make improvements in how we treat ourselves and other people. Top Dog won't settle for improvements – he demands perfection. Bottom Dog knows better.

Top Dog would have you join the gym for a year.  But you would do better to try it out for a month because that's about all the time Bottom Dog is going to give you on the treadmill.

Top Dog would urge you to cycle to work regardless of the weather. Bottom Dog would encourage you to leave the bicycle at home when it's cold and wet, and maybe even when it's warm and dry so don't go spending €500 on a new bike until you've tried out a second-hand banger for a while.

Top Dog would have you eating a grapefruit for breakfast, a few leaves of lettuce and a tomato for lunch and a sliver of chicken for dinner.  Bottom Dog will tempt you with a Full Irish, a hot beef sandwich with chips and a half roast chicken with loads of gravy, so devise a human diet rather than a Top or Bottom Dog one.

 Top Dog wants you to get to work an hour early and leave an hour late in Bill Cullen style.  Bottom Dog thinks getting to work an hour late and leaving an hour early is the way to go. Actually, I'm with Bottom Dog on this one as all my former employers know.

You might be getting the impression that I like Bottom Dog more than I like Top Dog. Well, Bottom Dog has more fun than Top Dog in the same way that Catholics have more fun than Presbyterians (as I was born a Catholic I am entitled to make remarks that are mildly insulting to the old religion).  But Bottom Dog suffers from a bit of Catholic guilt over his behaviour. He is motivated partly by anxiety at Top Dog's demands and he's not quite as laid back as you might imagine.

So when making your resolutions, don't let Bottom Dog dictate them or you'll go to hell in a handcart. But don't let Top Dog dictate them either because Top Dog's plans inevitably collapse.

Go for something that might work for a human being with human faults.  Go for a middle way, in other words, and let sleeping dogs lie.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The torture that makes 14 year olds smile for sex tourists

"The abolitionist cause simply hasn't been completed as long as 14-year-old girls are being jolted with electric shocks — right now, as you read this — to make them smile before oblivious tourists," writes New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof in this article. Kristof rightly sees forced sex trafficking as slavery. In the article he outlines the horrors to which young girls in Cambodia are subjected to make them comply with the demands of the brothel owners and of the men who pay to have sex with them. Most of these men, I assume, do not know what has been done to these young girls. One such girl was Somaly Mam who later escaped and started the Somaly Mam Foundation to rescue the victims of this slave system and to campaign for an end to trafficking around the world. She was named by Time Magazine recently as one of the most important people of 2008.