Music from Ireland

It’s St. Patrick’s Day week so I thought I’d share some of my favourite Irish bands.  They’re in no particular order and I’ve decided not to include some of the really big stars (such as Thin Lizzy, U2, and others).  I’m sure you can buy most of these band’s albums online if you like the sound of them.

Luke Kelly – On Raglan Road


Tychonaut – Steel Wheels

Dogs (feat. Suzanne Purcell) – Out In Cover

Róisín Murphy – Dear Miami

Joe Chester – Maybe This Is Not Love

The Gloaming – The Pilgrim’s Song

The Cast of Cheers – Animals

Little Green Cars – The John Wayne

Gemma Hayes – Back of My Hand

Beta 2 – Crystal Meth

Bell X1 – Eve (The Apple of My Eye)

My Bloody Valentine

Creative Control – Bloodrush


One Point Two Billion – Quick Review



Mahesh Rao  width=

Daunt Books (2015), 240 pages

A Christmas Present

One Point Two Billion is a fascinating look into the multiple worlds that occupy modern India.  The thirteen short stories in Rao’s collection cover India’s diverse geography, cultural mores, economic status, and social roles.

Rao’s strongest stories are those with the more understated plots.  The opening story, Eternal Bliss, features Bindu, a woman who struggles to cope with her anxieties while working in a yoga centre.  Rao highlights the uneasy interaction between Indians and foreign visitors and pokes fun at both sides.  He also uses the arrival of inspectors from the Department of Culture to highlight endemic corruption.  Rao’s Joycean epiphany is fantastic.

Personally I was not so keen on the stories, although well written, with more shocking endings.  The subtle approach of Eternal Bliss, The Trouble with Dining Out (two wealthy couples struggle to cope with the underlying sexual tension), Suzie Baby (about an ageing Bollywood star), and Fizz Pop Ah (which follows the fortunes of an Indian cola company and a family that worked there) were more to my liking.

One Point Two Billion deals with multiple issues; corruption, westernisation, attempts to conceal the mistreatment of Dalits, army abuses in Naxalite areas, the rise of the super rich in India, and censorship in Kashmir (in the excellent Minu Goyari Day).  Rao’s book covers a lot of ground and offers the reader thirteen little windows into the lives of some of India’s one point two billion people.

Related Post

The Indian Express review

The Emperor – Review


Ryszard Kapuściński 

Penguin Modern Classics (2006, originally published 1978), 192 pages


The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat  looks back at Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie’s downfall through the eyes of his courtiers.  Selassie had gained popularity when he challenged Italian attempts to colonise Ethiopia.  He did instigate some reforms but as the years passed his primary concern was to keep himself and the semi-feudal system he presided over intact.  Neal Ascherson, in his introduction, makes the point that tyrants, “…tried to use “Development” as a substitute for political and social reform” (p. viii).  When tyrannical or colonial regimes begin to see their power slipping they will try and introduce the minimum level of change that can still insure that the overarching system doesn’t change (“Killing Home Rule with kindness” in Ireland in the late 1800s was an example of this policy).  Ascherson also notes that The Emperor can be read as a parable of Kapuściński’s communist Poland.  The Polish dictatorship, despite claiming to represent the people, was a foreign system which had become disconnected from the people (whether it was actually ever connected to the people is debatable) and, like Haile Selassie’s regime, was doomed to collapse.

Haile Selassie was updated on his subjects’ movements through his system of informants.  When Kapuściński interviews Selassie’s courtiers in secret after their master’s downfall the new system is equally paranoid.  Haile Selassie met his ministers everyday.  If a minister achieved something Selassie took the glory, if a minister messed up then the minister took the blame.  In the palace there were three groups; the aristocrats, the bureaucrats,  and the people personally selected by the emperor.  The aristocrats were ultra-conservative, the bureaucrats were the most liberal (many had a higher education), and the personally selected people who were fiercely loyal to Selassie.  The emperor micromanaged all of his appointments to give the illusion of total control, “Listen here Mr. Journalist, not only did the Emperor decide on all promotions, but he also communicated each one personally.  He alone” (p. 31).  Likewise Selassie approved all financial expenditure, even a repair to one of his 27 cars.  The Ethiopian state was centred on its emperor that it failed to function properly when its figurehead was absent.  When Selassie was on one of his many trips out of the country his palace virtually stopped functioning.

Haile Selassie’s concern for his own people was also an illusion, “…His Majesty paid the salaries of foreign engineers but showed no inclination to pay our own masons after the construction of the Imperial Palace called Genete Leul” (p. 39).  The Emperor does not look at Haile Selassie’s reign as a whole.  It focusses on the period leading up to his fall. Kapuściński’s book does however mention some of Selassie’s reforms; he forbade extreme punishments such as the cutting off of hands and legs, he introduced a court system, he abolished slavery, he  set up a postal system, and he sent some people abroad to study.  It was this final reform that proved dangerous to Selassie’s rule.  Young people who were educated abroad quickly saw the lack of freedom and economic development in their home country.  Education was a double edged sword.  Ethiopia needed educated people to run the state but too many educated people could result in the overthrow of the state.  Germame Neway came from an aristocratic family and was sent to be educated in the United States.  When he returned Neway was made the governor of a region in southern Ethiopia.  Much to the horror of local nobles he began to build schools and allegedly gave land to landless labourers.


Haile Selassie’s deposition. He is humiliated by being forced into a Volkswagen Beetle, a less luxurious car than one of his 27 limousines. Credit: Wikipedia

As Selassie realised that his position was being undermined he began to turn his attention to his greatest threat – the army, “These generals, with His Gracious Majesty’s help, arranged such a good life for themselves that our Empire, which contained thirty million farmers and only a hundred thousand soldiers and police, agriculture received one percent of the national budget and the army and police forty percent” (p. 93).  The Emperor was dependent on the top strata of society for survival but with increasing levels of education this section was growing.  Graduates were placed in the state bureaucracy but these their increased numbers were placing a strain on the budget.  In order to pay for the increased cost of bureaucrats it was decided to raise taxes on the peasants.  It is here that the feudal nature of Selassie’s regime is most apparent.  The peasants rebel against paying taxes without any benefit to themselves.  Anger with the regime begins to overcome internalised subservience and fear of the security forces.

As with British rule in Ireland it was a famine that was the final nail in Selassie’s rule.  Jonathan Dimbleby’s documentary Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine (unfortunately I haven’t been able to find this documentary online) exposed the heartlessness of the Ethiopian state.  The juxtaposition of images of starving people with pictures of Haile Selassie feeding meat to his dogs and feasting on champagne and caviar.  The film wasn’t shown in Ethiopia but it’s contents began to filter back to the country.  The Emperor doesn’t look at the ethnic divides that contributed to the Ethiopian state’s lack of concern about the death of up to 300,000 of its people (presumably because the courtiers that Kapuściński interviews are Amharic like their emperor) but famine was used as a method of control by Selassie and the subsequent Dergue regime.  Shamefully one courtier (A.A.) defends the lack of response to the famine on moral grounds, “…it is not bad for national order and a sense of national humility that the subjects be rendered skinnier, thinned down a bit” (p. 112).

Haile Selassie’s regime was eventually overthrown by the brutal communist Dergue.  Life under the Dergue was, for many, worse than living under Haile Selassie.  But Haile Selassie’s failure to create a just society paved the way for future death and destruction. Many of  Haile Selassie’s courtiers talk with a sense of nostalgia for the Emperor’s rule but, as Kapuściński points out, “One could talk about it with sadness and indulgence, were it not for the fact that H.S. – he and his people – took millions from the state treasury amid cemeteries full of people who had died of hunger, cemeteries visible from the windows of the royal Palace” (p. 160).

Related Links

Article on the 1973-74 famine

The Constant Gardener – Quick Review


John le Carré  China.png

Hodder & Stoughton (2001), 512 pages

A Present

My Dad had a spare copy of this book (I think a neighbour gave it to him) which I received at least three years ago.  It’s sat on the shelf glaring at me for those years so I eventually thought I’d bite the bullet and read the thing.  I enjoyed the film, starring Rachel Weisz and Ralph Feinnes, so I knew the general plot.

The Constant Gardener has a plot that goes deeper than the conventional thriller.  Issues such as the power of pharmaceutical companies in Africa, the role of former colonisers in post-colonial states, and the unaccountability of government bureaucrats are all covered.

While there is plenty of action, spread across Europe and Africa, Le Carré’s great skill is to create believable characters.  The characters are not merely tracks along which the plot runs.  They shift  and twist in the breeze of changing circumstances, memory, and new revelations.

The Constant Gardener does not have a happy ending.  If you are looking for the cathartic effects of justice you will be disappointed.  However if you want to look look into a dark immoral world where money, power, and corruption intersect then The Constant Gardener is a novel for you.


Melancholy Witness – Review

Witnessing Troubles

Seán Hillen  

The History Press  Ireland (2014), 120 pages

The Winding Stair Bookshop – €10 (second hand signed copy)

Melancholy Witness: Images of the Troubles is a collection of artist Seán Hillen’s photographs of Northern Ireland between 1979-1990.  Hillen, a native of the border town of Newry, was perfectly placed to capture the violence, fear, and occasional black humour that pervaded Northern Irish society.  Hillen is better known for his photomontages which take a wry look at modern Irish society through the mythical lens of John Hinde postcards.  I might look at his photomontages in another blog post.

Hillen’s photographs cover more than scenes of violence.  There are photographs of Twelfth of July parades, a religious pilgrimage, people going about their daily business.  But there is an almost constant undercurrent of violence, the possibility that something unexpected will happen.  Policemen or soldiers are present in many of the photographs, heavily armed and twitchy.  What look like building sites are the aftermath of bomb attacks.  There is constant government surveillance, the army, the police, security cameras, army watch towers, the knowledge that your phone could be tapped, your post opened, that you could be talking to an informer.  This oppressive surveillance was often ineffective.  You lived with of the psychological effects government oppression (even if often meant to prevent violence) but seemingly without the benefits of government protection.  In some cases the forces that were supposed to protect you ended up killing you or causing horrific injuries with “plastic bullets” (like Bloody Sunday or the numerous instances of State collusion with terrorists).

Hillen Photo

Newry, c. 1985

I visited the North shortly after the Good Friday Agreement with some Dutch friends.  The watchtowers were still on the South Armagh border hills, bristling with antennae and cameras to watch the local population.  Some were IRA members and supporters but many were not.  There were “Sniper at Work” signs and “Free the Colombia 3” graffiti.  Hillen captures the architecture of a chronic conflict.  As an outsider all of this seemed extraordinary but to the local population this became normal.  Talking about the helicopters that buzzed across the sky (in many places it was too dangerous for the British army to travel by road) Hillen notes that, “…the noise of the helicopters became so familiar that its absence then became strange.” (p. 86)  In Northern Ireland I visited Crossmaglen with its large army base that dominated the centre of town.  It had the busiest heliport in Europe, it was far too dangerous for soldiers to travel by road.  There were no police (or tax collectors!) allowed into the town.  The army base was seen as an occupying presence.  When footballs from the local GAA club dropped into the army base they weren’t returned.  Local resentment (especially Catholic republican resentment) at the inbuilt discrimination, poverty, and lack of equal civil rights often overspilled into protests, violence, and riots.

Some of Hillen’s most effective photographs are of riots (see cover photo above).  He successfully captures the adrenaline, the anger, and the game of rioting.  Poverty, boredom, resentment, and (in some cases), a desire to kill British soldiers and police were all motivating factors in riots.  The rioters were virtually all young men.  Like many conflicts the Troubles was primarily fuelled by young men; rioters, terrorists, police, and soldiers.  These young men were often guided by older men, invisible from the public but the guiding hands behind the conflict, moving their pieces across a deadly chess board.


A colour version of an image from the book.  “Taken through the window of my sister’s car; a teenager is seen being dragged to a waiting police car after some questioning.” (p. 92)

Melancholy Witness is an excellent collection of photographs.  Hillen’s local knowledge adds a depth to the accompanying captions.  What comes across most strongly is Hillen’s empathy with his subjects.  He does not distinguish between Catholic or Protestant, rioter or policeman – they are all trapped in a situation which they have little control over.  They are striving to live their lives, to make their lives better, and to overcome the circumstances that surround them.


Related Links

Irelantis – Irish photomontages by Seán Hillen

John Hinde Postcard Archive – A major influence on Hillen’s photomontages.

Eggshells – Review


Caitriona Lally China.png

Liberties Press (254 pages), 2015

Book Launch, €12

VOTE FOR EGGSHELLS! – Eggshells has been nominated in the Best Newcomer category of the Irish Book Awards.  Please vote for her here (scroll down to the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year section).  The winner is decided by a combination of the public vote and a judging panel.

It has been an incredibly strong couple of years for debut Irish fiction (I’m thinking of Colin Barrett, Sara Baume, Gavin Corbett, and a few others) and Eggshells is another exceptional debut.  The novel follows the path taken through life by the idiosyncratic Vivian.  Vivian is an outsider who does not fit in with society’s ideas of how a person should behave.

Eggshells is a love story but not of the traditional kind.  Vivian loves people but struggles to connect with others.  Her search is not for romantic love but for the love of genuine friendship.  She doesn’t want to be alone.  Eggshells opens with Vivian talking to imaginary people on the chairs in her dead great-aunt’s house.  Vivian starts writes letters to the people she finds in her great-aunt Maud’s address book.  She plans to post them some of Maud’s ashes.  Vivian sees nothing strange in posting people she doesn’t know her great-aunt’s ashes.  This bittersweet humour permeates the novel.  Eggshells is both hilarious and sad at the same time.  Vivian attempts to make sense of a confusing world through words.  She notices street signs (especially defaced ones), shop names, museum tags, and she is an inveterate list writer.  Vivian’s relationships with people are, at best, awkward.  Her neighbours look down on her, her sister is ashamed of her, and her interactions with bureaucrats and shop workers are painfully funny.  It is not surprising that Vivian’s attempt to find a friend takes the form of a written poster.  A poster is safer than trying to meet someone face to face.

Eggshells offers the reader a chance to walk the streets of Dublin with Vivian.  She walks around the city taking in its sights and sounds.  I won’t mention the U word here as Lally didn’t read James Joyce’s most famous work until after she’d written Eggshells but the novel offers a unique vision of contemporary Dublin.  There is magic in Lally’s writing and Dublin becomes a portal for Vivian’s imagination to connect with another world.  Like Haruki Murakami, Lally succeeds in making the ordinary transform into the extraordinary.

Some reviewers have tried to identify Vivian’s mental illness even though it’s doubtful she is mentally ill.  She is different, yes, maybe strange at times, but her strangeness is no different from most people’s.  Vivian is simply more open about her thoughts, she doesn’t feel the need to hide her feelings. She overshares in a way which is acceptable on social media but somehow forbidden in the real world.  Perhaps the character most similar to Vivian is Christopher in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Christopher is presumed to have autism or Asberger’s syndrome but Haddon has said that he never intended to label Christopher in such a way.  Likewise labelling Vivian, even if she does have some form of mental illness, is reductive.  Vivian’s warmth and humanity, and her desire for basic human friendship means she has much more in common with us than we might realise.

Vivian’s relationship with her sister is strained.  Vivian’s sister is also called Vivian.  Her sister is like a socially acceptable version of herself.  Sister Vivian is judgmental and overly concerned about other people’s opinions.  Sister Vivian has no time for her strange sibling.  Vivian has no hope of love and warmth within the traditional family unit.  Her quest for portals to a different place is actually a quest for friendship.  Apparently one publisher was interested in publishing Eggshells but only on condition that Lally changed the story into a traditional male/female romance. It is wonderful to watch Vivian and Penelope’s relationship develop. Thankfully Lally refused to go down the mainstream route and used the pressures felt by Vivian to create a literary diamond.

Related Links

Caitriona Lally article on writing a novel while unemployed in the Irish Times.

Irish Times review

Irish Independent review

Guardian review

Totally Dublin review

Niamh Boyce interview with Caitriona Lally

Dublin Marathon 2015 Review


I found this post in my drafts  box and thought I’d better finish it before the 2016 one!  The 2015 Dublin Marathon was, as always, excellently organised.  The random allocation of numbers on the day of the Expo seemed to reduce queues (in the past you received your number before registration and then your name was crossed off a list).

My previous best Dublin Marathon time was run last year in just over 2 hours 56 minutes.  I had tried to beat 2 hours 55 minutes three times.  I ran the Dubai Marathon in 2014 and blew up!  I finished in over 3 hours 12 minutes.  I wasn’t fully trained, was over my ideal running weight, and relatively high temperatures (for an Irish man the finishing temperature of over 20 degrees in January was too much) all contributed to my performance.  Also there was little support on the incredibly boring course.  Basically though I wasn’t fit enough and went out too fast for my fitness level at the time.

In Dublin last year I was better trained and ran a more sensible first half.  The weather was a major factor though.  It was very windy and surprisingly humid and warm (around 17 degrees) for the end of October.  I was very happy with the race but spent a bit too much time on my own and had decided, if possible, to try and stick with a group this year.

I ran the 2015 Limerick Marathon in under 2 hours 58 minutes which was off my 2 hours 55 minutes target.  It wasn’t as well organised as Dublin (especially registering at the expo and post-race) and hillier than I thought it would be.  I went out a bit too quickly but was trying to stay with a group of three other runners.  Unfortunately the group split (one was slower and the others were too fast for me) and I spent most of the second half on my own.  You went into the city centre but came out again up a very tough hill towards Thomond Park.  I really suffered in the last miles and even though I was under 3 hours and less than 2 minutes slower than my best time I was shattered by the end.  Like in Dubai I couldn’t even manage a final mile surge!

So after Limerick I decided to concentrate on getting my 5km time down.  I didn’t run much more this year but ran harder when I did run.  I wanted to get my 5km time below 17 minutes and managed to get it down to 16:14.  This made a bigger difference to my longer runs than expected as I could comfortably run 10 miles at 6 minute mile pace.

My real surprise was when I ran the Dublin Half Marathon.  I was sort of aiming for under 1 hour 20 mins but finished in under 1 hour 16 minutes.  I was very surprised but managed to get with a fast moving group and stay with them.  I left them with about 4 miles to go, overtook another 4 people and finished in the top 20.  I was quite shocked as I finished very strongly and it showed me that, given the right conditions, I was capable of a fast time.

Another key factor was that my partner’s brother had managed to do a superb sub 2 hours 50 minute run in this year’s London Marathon.  We are of very similar ability but before his result I never thought it was possible for me to go sub 2 hours 50 minutes.  He showed that with the right training and a solid group of runners around you it was possible to go quickly over the entire course.  The increase in pace from a 6:52 per mile pace for a sub 3 hour marathon to a 6:29 pace for a sub 2 hour 50 marathon is quite a big one.  But the Dublin Half Marathon showed I could achieve my goal if I had a bit more belief and the right conditions on the day.


I read up on the carbo-loading sections of Advanced Marathoning (kindly given to me by my other half’s brother last Christmas!) to make sure I was taking in enough carbs in the days before.  I drank beetroot juice the week before.  I’ve no idea if this had any effect at all!  And I hoped the weather would be okay.  Everything went to plan except for the weather.  I awoke on the Sunday night to hear the wind howling outside.  It was still quite windy when I got up at 5.45am for my last meal and it had been raining overnight.  I went in a bit earlier than normal as I cut it a bit tight last year and this year had a record entry (with over 12,500 finishers).  I dropped my bags and didn’t have to queue for the toilets so had about 40 minutes to warm up before the start.  Thankfully I brought an old fleece and a disposable poncho to keep me warm and protect me from the light rain at the start.

It was windy enough but my plan was to be sure to be in a group as we went into the Phoenix Park so that I could shelter from the strong headwind.  My start  went to as planned.  Once we left the park for the first time (we’d re-enter it later) I knew there would be a tailwind so used this to build up some time.  I joined a group with the leading Irish woman in it.  This began to splinter by halfway when you face the headwind again but without the benefit of a larger group to absorb some of the wind.  I was just under 1 hour 22 minutes at halfway.  Ideally I wanted to be about 1 hour 21 minutes but was feeling okay.  I saw my parents at about  17 miles which was a bit of a boost.  I felt fairly strong although I began to feel the first real struggling at about 18 miles.  Luckily it passed and I managed to keep roughly under 6:20 per mile pace.  I felt surprisingly okay as I went up the first “heartbreak hill” in Milltown.  For the first time I actually remember going up the second “heartbreak hill” at about 22 miles on Roebuck Road.  I was in such pain in previous marathons that I never remember running up it!  My lungs and legs felt quite good but I made a mistake by running down the steep hill at Foster’s Avenue at too high a pace.  My lungs were good but the hill was too hard on my calves.  I was with two other runners but as I crossed the flyover at UCD I couldn’t follow them by hopping up the kerb because my calves had the dreaded cramp twitches – push too hard and I was risking full blown cramps.  I eased off a little but managed not to let my legs cramp up.  With about a mile to go the finish line reduced any pain and I managed to do a very pleasurable sprint for the last few hundred metres.  I was about half a minute outside my 1 hour 45 minute goal but was still delighted as I was over 9 minutes quicker than my PB and finished in the top 100.

It’s less than a week to go to the first ever sold out Dublin Marathon (with 20,000 entrants it is now the fourth biggest marathon in Europe) and I’m looking forward to trying to go under 1 hour 45.  To be honest I don’t feel quite as fit as last year but will give it my best shot!