Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Winter in the Kitchen

We live on a hilliside in Co Cork between the valleys of the Bride and the Blackwater and from our kitchen window there’s a panoramic view stretching from, on one side, a great deal of West Waterford and, on the other, a vista that extends towards Mallow and the Ballyhouras.

It’s not just the view that makes it a lovely place in which to live; we also have our own few acres of woodland, a mixture of ash, sycamore, beech and the odd Scots pine and occasional birch. The wood takes more maintenance than I’ve given in recent years: you need to keep ivy under control or trees become top-heavy and can snap in a high wind and the paths become overgrown with brambles very quickly if you don’t spend quite a lot of time out with the brushcutter. I also need to take out quite a few trees which are growing too close together or which lean the wrong way. If I get around to it we’ll have free firewood for several years,

There’s something rather wonderful about having your own firewood. Fallen branches provide about 50% of the fuel we need to keep our two stoves burning during the colder, wetter months. All we have to do is saw them into suitable lengths and let them dry out a bit.

In the centrally heated and poorly ventilated environment in which so many of us live these days, we often forget what winter is like. Last Sunday I spent in the wood dragging branches down towards the yard; hands numb, mud-spattered but happy.

After a few hours of such activity it was wonderful to come back to the kitchen, the heart of which is the Aga (oil-fired and hence an expensive luxury); to thaw out in that domestic glow as the smell of cooking – winter cooking – filled the room.

Thanks to the Aga which not just heats the kitchen and our hot water but also takes the chill off the rest of the house, and our stoves, and plenty of insulation we’re usually warm enough to want to eat salads in Winter but we keep returning to proper Winter food: casseroles and stews, slowly cooked, transforming the tougher parts of animals into something sublime.

It’s a time of year which I associate with flavours like thyme and garlic which might join together with some cheap red wine or a bottle of beer to accompany shin of beef on its slow journey to delicious, melting tenderness. It’s the season when Irish stew (with carrots and pearl barley) cooked with the spuds on top, all in one, comes into its own. It’s when fluffy mashed potato, enriched with plenty of butter and a little hot milk (never cold or even tepid) is an essential for moping up richly flavoured gravies.

It’s also a time when we return to our roots, as in carrots, beetroot, celeriac and the like. Plus, of course, tubers like maincrop potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes. Yes, by the time Spring comes around again we are gagging for fresh green things from the garden (or even from polytunnels in Spain) but for a while the heavier produce of Winter seems very apt.

Winter is also the season of spices. Not those new-fangled ones which we have all embraced so wholeheartedly in recent years: chilli, ginger, coriander and their ilk. But the ones with which many of us grew up: cloves and cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Put those together with raisins and sultanas and some candied peel and you have the aroma of Christmas.

When there’s frost outside there will be hot whiskey (with cloves and lemon and brown sugar) and hot chocolate with marshmallows on top. There will be slow-cookers working their simple magic while their owners go out to work, and an urgent, nururing need to pour hot soup tenderly into frozen children just returned from school.

Yes, it’s Winter in the kitchen and I’ll be thinking of this as I saw the next batch of logs. (ends)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Give everyone their due...


This piece first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in March 2012

Tullamore, having for decades given its name to one of the world’s most famous whiskeys, is to get its due. Or, more correctly, its Dew.

The iconic whiskey, which is second only to Jameson in the world market, has not been made in the Offaly town since the distillery there closed in 1954. At present it is sourced from the huge Irish Distillers plant in Midleton, Co Cork.

This will change within a couple of year as Tullamore Dew’s new owners, the Scottish distillers William Grant, are to build a brand new, state-of-the-art distillery on a 50 acre site at Clonminch, close to the town of Tullamore. It will be the first new distillery to be built in Ireland for almost fifty years and it’s tempting to see this as part of a renaissance in Irish whiskey.

Scotland has almost 150 distilleries and myriad whisky brands. Currently we have four distilleries. The French multinational Pernod-Ricard owns the Midleton Distillery which is home to such brands as Power’s and Jameson, Diageo have the Bushmills distillery in Co Antrim and Cooley, recently bought the the US drinks giant Beam, have distilleries in Co Louth and at Kilbeggan in Co Westmeath.

By the end of this year, that number will have risen to five, with the opening of the Dingle Distillery in Kerry and the new Tullamore one will be up and running by 2014, making a total of six.

The scope is obvious but the problem is that whiskey (we and the Americans call it whiskey, the Scots whisky) production is a time consuming process and once out of the still it has to be aged for a minimum of three years before it can be sold. This is the sort of thing that drives business accounts mad; they are used to dealing with an immediate return.
Just as Ireland was liberally dotted with local breweries a century ago, so it was with distilleries. Whiskey was regional. Dublin was all about Jameson and Power’s (Jameson, allegedly, being the Protestant spirit, Power’s with the lion’s share of the Catholic following); Kilebeggan and Tullamore were the Midlands whiskies, Bushmills was big in the North, and Paddy an other products of CDC (the Cork Distillery Company) dominated Munster. And of course there were lots of small names which have now vanished.

The twentieth century was, by and large, disastrous for Irish whiskey. At the turn of the century it had been a huge seller in the US so with the lunacy of Prohibition from 1919 to 1933 the bootleggers labeled their hooch “Irish Whiskey”. As a result, the image was ruined and Irish whiskey became synonymous with moonshine: coarse, rough, fiery. It has taken almost a century to get over this and effects still linger.

After World War II, the American market shifted significantly towards lighter whiskies; blended Scotch, already doing well after the repeal of Prohibition, was there to take full advantage of the opportunity. Irish whiskey was seen as too heavy and having simply too much flavour.

The first man to realise that things had to change in Irish distilling was Desmond Williams of the old Tullamore distillery (and whose family owned the H Williams supermarket chain). He returned from a visit to the US in the late 1940s determined to create a new style of Irish whiskey and thus was born the modern version of Tullamore Dew (which was named in honour of Williams’s grandfather, Desmond E Williams who was inclined to sign instructions  with the letters “DEW”. This lead to the legendary advertising slogan “Give every man his Dew”.

The Irish tradition in distilling was based exclusively on the pot still which looks essentially like the ancient alembic, the sort of thing we all think of when trying to imagine a still. The patent or Coffey still, ironically invented by an Irishman, is column-shaped and produces the kind of spirit which feed into the modern Scotch blended whisky brands (and some of the cheaper Irish brands too, of course). Irish whiskey aficionados tend to look down their noses at such equipment.

Ireland’s first ever patent or Coffey still was installed in the Tullamore distillery in 1947. It was a momentous occasion and an audacious attempt at modernization, which underlined that Desmond Williams was a visionary (he created Irish Mist, the hugely successful whiskey-based liqueur, the same year).

But the timing was wrong. It was simply too late to rescue Irish whiskey in general and Tullamore Dew in particular. The last truly Tullamore Dew trickled from the still in 1954. The distillery was mothballed and, in the end, never reopened. In 1965, the brand was sold to Power’s.

Within a year of this deal, things were so bad for Irish whiskey that the few producers who had managed to survive in the Republic – Power’s, Jameson and the Cork Distillery Company – merged as Irish Distillers.  But it meant that Tullamore Dew, as a brand, would survive.

Irish Distillers finally offloaded Tullamore Dew to Allied Domecq’s subsidiary C&C Group (which had originally been called Cantrell & Cochrane) in 1994. In turn, C&C sold the brand to William Grant & Company in 2010. The actual whiskey is still distilled by Irish Distillers in Midleton and is bottled by C & C in Clonmel (where they have their huge Bulmers/Magners cider facility). This arrangement will continue until the new Tullamore distillery is up and running.

Considering that Tullamore Dew is the number two Irish whiskey in the world (admittedly, pretty far behind the leader, Jameson), Grant’s got the brand quite cheaply. They paid €300million for Tullamore Dew and Irish Mist, then sold Irish Mist on to the Italian company Campari along with Carolans cream liqueur and Frangelico for €129million. So, Tullamore Dew cost the new owners a paltry €171million.

As to the whiskey itself, the policy with Tullamore Dew was, for many years, to stick with the lighter style of whiskey which is designed to be consumed with a mixer. This is what Desmond Williams had in mind way back in 1947 and it served the brand well even if Tullamore Dew was not highly prized amongst whiskey enthusiasts.

However, there are now some very serious whiskies under the Tullamore Dew umbrella, such as the Black 43, a seven year old blend aged in sherry casks and, ironically considering what Mr Williams did back in 1947, 100% pure pot still. This merely goes to show that there are fashions in whiskey just as in anything else and that the wheel does, eventually, come full circle.

Irish whiskey has, for decades, lacked the kind of sense of place that Scotch enjoys. Admittedly Bushmills has always been made in the one place, but all the other Irish whiskeys have been made in either Midleton or Co Louth.

Kilbeggan is being distilled in its home once again, rather than starting life in Louth and being shipped down there for ageing. Dingle, with its mild, moist microclimate is bound to yield a whiskey with what the French would call the “gout de terroir”, the taste of the place. And soon Tullamore will be distilling its native spirit once again.

It’s an exciting time for Irish whiskey and its potential is being recognized at last. This is underlined by the fact that all of the current brands are owned by foreign companies (French, American and British). Perhaps it’s a case of our not realizing the value of what we have until it has been endorsed by outsiders.

In any case, let’s hope that the new distillery at Tullamore is the first of many and that our proud heritage of distilling fine spirits gets… well, it’s due. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dublin in the rare oul' times...

This book review first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in December 2012

In the late Spring of 1967 Jammet's, the grand restaurant which had dominated Dublin dining since the dawn of the twentieth century, served its last Sole Colbert, dished up its final Avocado á la Russe and poured the last few drops of Montrachet. By the end of the year it would become a self-service café and the city had become infinitely the poorer.

Jammet's was not just a great Dublin institution and a benchmark for French haute cuisine and elegant eating in Ireland, it was one of the world's great restaurants. There were few Hollywood stars or international celebrities who had not graced its tables. The well-heeled of the entire nation made it their destination of choice for eating out; the merely well-off used to flock there for special occasions: engagements, anniversaries, confirmations.

I was too young, unfortunately. I was seven when Jammet's went the way of all flesh. And it was not the kind of place that my somewhat frugal and not very well-heeled parents would have frequented. But like many middle class Dublin children of those times I was often told, when my table manners failed to reach the required standard, "you'll never be let into Jammet's if you eat like that."

By the time I was ten, I did get to eat in what had been Jammet's. But by then, with relics of ould dacency tumbling like ninepins, it had been turned into a Berni Inn. I ate, with considerable relish, my first ever duck á l'orange (actually, my first ever duck á la anything at all) in what had been the Oak Room of Jammet's, though I realise that only now.

I have been wallowing in nostalgia for a time and a place I never knew, thanks to the recently published Jammet's of Dublin 1901 to 1967, by Alison Maxwell and the late Shay Harpur (who had been a sommelier in the restaurant in the 1960s). It is a feast of stories, of history and of memories of Dublin when it was smaller, poorer and a great deal more fun than it is today.

Jammet's occupied the substantial premises which now houses the Porterhouse Central pub and Lillie's Bordello nightclub, running between Nassau Street and Adam Court, the little laneway off Grafton Street.

In the good old days, it comprised the main restaurant, the grill room, the oyster bar, the cocktail bar and the back bar, plus two further areas known as the oak room and the blue room. It was an extraordinary operation and was founded by Michel Jammet in St Andrew Street, moving to Nassau Street in 1926.

Michel, originally from southern France, had come to Ireland to work as personal chef to one of the great Dublin distillers, Henry Roe, who lived at what is now Mount Anville in Dundrum. Michel then moved to the Viceregal Lodge (now Áras an Úachtaráin) and at Dublin Castle under the viceroy Lord Cadogan who loved good food and who entertained on a lavish scale. It is said that Cadogan could detect the absence of Jammet's master touch on the few occasions when he was indisposed and the cooking was delegated to lesser mortals.

On Cadogan's retirement, he encouraged Jammet to set up a restaurant and used his considerable influence amongst the local gentry and aristocracy in order to give the French chef a good start in business.

The aristocracy kept coming, right up to the end. The Hon. Garech Browne, the founder of Claddagh Records and part of the extended Guinnesty, recalls being in the oyster bar at Jammet's in the 1960s with the late Viscount Gormanston when the artist Sean O'Sullivan slumped forward, dead drunk, into his Potage Saint Germain. Nicky Gormanston rushed over and retrieved O'Sullivan's head, thus saving the artist from drowning in the soup.

At Browne's 21st burthday party in the oak room, Lady Mollie Cusack-Smith blew her nose in one of Jammet's fine linen napkins, which horrified fellow guest Brendan Behan. "Isn't that a shocking thing to do?" commented Behan to one of the waiters.

"Oh no, sir," he responded. "That's the sign of true lady."

Myrtle Allen, now the doyenne of Irish food and, of course, the founder of Ballymaloe House, first ate at Jammets at the age of 20, with her new husband Ivan who "knew his way around menus." She was very impressed with how the waiter boned her sole at the table and served it with Bearnaise sauce. "They did things properly at Jammet's," she recalls. And she would often spot ex-Jammet's staff in other restaurants for many years after it had closed, for this very reason.

Her first meal in Jammet's, towards the end of World War II, came to 25 shillings a head which was, as she says, "something of a shocker." That is roughly €3.

Prices had risen, of course, by 1967. The wine list for that year shows Krug Champagne vintage 1959 selling for 53 shillings and Blue Nun for just under 30 shillings. It's curious to think that vintage Krug these days would cost you over €200 while Blue Nun, if you could find it on a restaurant list, would be a little over €20.

Jammet's was all about excellence and this was enshrined in the thorough training of all members of staff (many of whose stories are related in this fascinating book). Strange as it may seem today, floor staff had to spend three years as commis waiters before they were elevated to the status of being a full waiter.

And Jammet's waiters were legendary for their tact and professionalism, combining, as Myrtle Allen recalls, a perfect blend of formality and friendliness. In a city and a time when many customers would have been daunted by the atmosphere and bamboozled by the menu (which was always entirely in French), they expended a great deal of energy in making people feel at home in a distinctly Irish, peculiarlly Dublin kind of way. The children of many customers now fondly recall being called "Master" this and "Miss" that by the staff, making them feel very grown-up indeed.

Jammet's food was clearly very classic. Their ordinary sounding omelette surprise was, in fact, an elaborate form of baked alaska and their specality version involved strawberry and vanilla ice cream and glacé chesnuts enveloped in Kirsch-flavoured meringue. This was then baked and set alight at the table.

Another Jammet's recipe starts with the immortal words "Take one raw boar's head. Remove the ears to cook separately..."

Steak tartare (raw minced fillet steak served with onion, capers and egg yolk) and dressed crab, on the other hand, were as simple as they were, doubtless, delicious.

Jammet's belonged to an age when great food was considered to be French by definition but it was also an era of high standards, stringent training, impeccable service and common courtesy. Jammet's was a restaurant that was vastly important in the life of the great but shabby city that was Dublin and it is good to be reminded that perfectionists such as the Jammet family ploughed their lonely but successful furrow here well before the chattering classes of Ireland ever gave a damn about Michelin stars.

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the fact that Jammet's survived 1916, the War of Independence, World War II and the despondency of the 1950s says much, not just about the people who worked there, but also about Dublin. Our capital has always been more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated in the broadest sense, than we sometimes give it credit for.

The story of Jammet's, although forgotten by many, remains an emblem of that.

Jammet's of Dublin 1901 to 1967 by Alison Maxwell and Shay Harpur is published by Lilliput Press. (ends)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Restaurant review: Hartley's

This review first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in March 2012

It’s tempting to claim that there’s no recession in the smarter bits of south County Dublin, but it’s not entirely true. There’s an outward appearance of affluence and bustle in Monkstown village, for example, but the spend is certainly well down in the local restaurants.

And, of course, the local restaurants have had to adapt to the new circumstances. Hartley’s still looks the same as it did in the boom times, occupying the vast and rather elegant site that used to be Restaurant na Mara, perched above the Dart station in Dun Laoghaire. And the customers – hordes of them on a Friday night – were much the same too. I suspect that most them live, like we do when we are in the capital, within at least vigorous walking distance.

I had been looking forward to revisiting Hartley’s after several years. It had a very sound wine list (and it still does) and the food was modern, informal, quite punchy in style.

I generally don’t mind loud restaurants. They can be fun. But the expansive hard surfaces here, when the place is busy, makes for irritating cacophony which would be forgivable if the food were really good. But it’s not. It ranges from the careless (squid), through the competent (chicken wings and beef short ribs) to the expensive mistake (fish and chips). It would take a remarkable wine list to compensate for that.

The squid starter, which comes with a kind of oriental dip, comes in rolls (which is what squid does spontaneously if cut like this). It’s tossed in seasoned flour before deep-frying but the problem is that the flour in the centre of the cylinder doesn’t crisp: squid with a soggy centre like this means careless cooking.

Actually, the food took a detour via the pointless and puzzling with a duck starter: thin slices of cold, pink duck breast served with a roasted plum, also cold) and some bean sprouts drizzled with a strange and rather indeterminate brown dressing.  I can understand something of the theory behind it; but did nobody try it before putting it on the menu? It seemed to have been thrown together.

My chicken wings were fine. They were done in the way popularized in Dublin many years ago by the Elephant & Castle in Temple Bar: crisped and tossed in a sticky, sharp chilli-hot sauce, served with celery sticks and a blue cheese dip. Hartley’s version was a true facsimile but the dip, this being the heart of south County Dublin, had become a Roquefort one. No complaints there.

I continued the American theme with beef short ribs which were generous, perfectly tender and coated in a sauce that was authentically sweet and chastely, mildly spicy. They were as good as any I’ve eaten across the Atlantic but, to be honest, this is not the greatest claim to fame. A slaw of green beans and red cabbage dressed with horseradish was very good.

Skate (or ray as most people call it in Ireland) was perfectly cooked, still a little pink just at the bone. It came with a dressing of capers and little cubes of spectacularly unripe tomato.

On the other hand, the battered halibut had been battered into submission by the simple expedient of cooking it to perdition. It had the texture of cotton wool which, as eaters of this expensive fish know, is not the way it’s meant to be. For €25, the portion was pretty mean too. And, to add insult to injury, the chips were frustratingly within hailing distance of being crisp but didn’t make it. To conclude this expensive tale of woe, we felt that the oil in the fryer, frankly, needed changing.

We decided to skip pudding in favour of Magnums on the way home. We needed a bit of cheering up.

The bill, including mineral water, a carafe of wine and a glass of wine, came to €110.50.

1 Harbour Road
Dun Laoghaire
Co Dublin
Phone: 01 280 6767

The wine list – and indeed the range of beers – at Hartley’s is exceptionally good and quite out of kilter with the food. Prices start at €6.50 for a 175ml glass and €13 for a 375ml carafe (of Domaine Marcé Sauvignon de Touraine or Gran Sasso Montepulciano d’Abruzzo). Highlights for me incude Josemeyer Pinot Blanc (€29), steely, elegant Mount Horrocks Watervale Riesling (€46) and the fragrant Finca La Emperatriz Rioja at a rather steep €34.

Friday, May 11, 2012

This review first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in February 2012

Brendan Behan used to claim that members of the Garda Siochana were recruited by luring them from the Kerry mountains with hunks of raw meat. I can't vouch for the veracity of this obersavtion as it was way before my time; but there's no doubt that the relationship between the average Irish male and the flesh of animals, is close and lip-smacking.

It's more likely that a GAA or rugby star will take to competitive crochet than veganism. Our teams have been built on meat, and plenty of it.

It is appropriate then that Jamie Heaslip has joined forces with Joe Macken (of Jo'Burger, CrackBird and Skinflint) to create not a lentil bar but a restaurant in which bits of dead animal have heat applied to them.

The cuts avoid the usual suspects. You can have onglet for €24.95 or bavette for €29.95, a flank for €34.95 or a London Broil for €59.95.

Now, I don't know what a London broil is, but the rest are cheaper cuts that require quick cooking and then to be sliced across the grain of the meat. You get chew but you get first rate flavour.

And so it proved with our massive onglet. It would have been sufficient to serve three ravenous Irish males and perfectly adequate to satisfy four normal human beings. We brought half of it home with us.

And how was it?  This monumental piece of meat was nicely charred outside and nicely rarely within, a near perfect exercise in steak cooking. Part of it could have been better trimmed (had this been New York, the stringy bits would have constituted a capital offence) but overall it was a fine piece of meat and full of good, beefy flavour. Indeed, it set one wondering why such a steak experience is so rare - no pun, honestly - in this land of ours which produces the finest beef in the world.

So Bear - this is what the restaurant is called, for no apparent reason - does a good piece of steak and at a fair price. It's a shame about much of the rest.

Jamie and Joe, I have to tell you this. Cold mashed spud mixed with a bit of smoked haddock and dumped in a jam jar is not, by any stretch of the imagination, "smoked haddock skordalia". It's unpleasant, fishy mashed spud in a jam jar and I can't imagine anyone being prepared to part with €6.95 for it.

Now lads, "toasts"? Well where do we start? You shouldn't have to be told this but there's an ocean of difference between bread (even good bread, as it is here) that has spent a few moments in a toaster and thus become tepid and, you know, toast. Crisp, er, toasted toast. Tepid bread is unpleasant.

Not quite as unpleasant as cold, fishy mashed spud in a jam jar, admittedly, but not nice. At all.

Lads, I don't know if you'e ever had actual skordalia but bear in mind that the conventional version, made with breadcrumbs, needs a lot of really good olive oil and either almonds or walnuts to make it work. They use spud in Cephalonia and they have to try even harder to make it taste good.

Your "salt and vinegar fries" turned out to be slices of fried, unpeeled potato which managed to be sweet, flabby and overbrowned (all because the wrong kind of spud was employed). They were revolting and we sent them back. "Fries" were at least chip-shaped but equally unpleasant because, again, the spud was wrong.

There are potatoes that make good chips and potatoes that should never be used in this capacity. Honestly, you shouldn't have to be told this.

Look, if you're doing really good steak at a decent price, is it too much to ask for a crisp, properly made chip? And while you're at it, what is steak withhout bearnaise sauce? You have a few details to work out, lads...

With four glasses of wine, our bill came to €77.

34/35 South William Street
Dublin 2

Oh dear, it's one of those wine lists that seem to have just happened without any reason, rationale, point... It's been a while since we saw any Bulgarian wine in Ireland. Taste Domaine Boyar Cabernet (€18) and you will understand why. It's foul.  Domaine Boisson Cotes du Rhone is OK at €25 (or €6.50/€8.50 for a small/large glass). Bear in mind that Chianti Corale (€23) is not made by Badia a Coltiuono as claimed here.

There's no arguing with the value offered by the shared grills.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

I wrote this piece for the Irish Daily Mail way back in 2007. I joined the Church of Ireland at the age of 21, having been brought up by very devout Roman Catholic parents and educated, up to a point, by Jesuits. My parents were not pleased, but took it on the chin. The Jesuits didn't express an opinion.

It’s almost a quarter of a century since I gave up on the Roman Catholic church into which I had been born and signed up as an Anglican.

The reasons for this decision were probably less complex than I thought at the time. The fuse had been lit when my mother, a wonderful woman whom I loved deeply, asked me (rhetorically) when I was 14 "Who are you to disagree with the Magisterium of the Church?"

By the time I was studying the Reformation at school, I had decided which "side" I was on. I couldn't understand the need for celibacy, was astonished that people should have their sex lives ruled by unmarried men and, much as I was enthralled by the Sistine Chapel, failed to fathom how Jesus Christ could have founded a very rich and power-obsessed Church.

Despite the many flaws in the Anglican Communion - and they are legion - it seemed like a good idea at the time to make the switch and I’m still a member of the Church of Ireland, albeit not a very ardent one; but I long ago abandoned the notion that any organisation, religious or not, has got it right. There are times when I’m more comfortable with Buddhism or Quakerism than with Anglicanism. And so, I’m neither bothered nor surprised that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a group of celibate men appointed by the Pope, has announced, yet again, that the reformed churches, such as the Church of Ireland, are not actually churches at all but mere “ecclesial communities”. Like voluntary prayer groups, I suppose.

This is because, according to the Vatican, we poor Anglicans (and Methodists and Presbyterians and so on) don’t have the benefit of apostolic succession. The Roman Catholic church is the only real church because its clergy and hierarchy have all been ordained by bishops who in turn were ordained by other bishops all the way back to St Peter. Ordination has been handed down, generation by generation, from the rock upon which Jesus is supposed to have founded his church (if you believe that he was in the business of founding churches, which I rather doubt.) Some of the reformed churches point out that apostolic succession is a bit of a red herring while Anglicans protest that we do actually have apostolic succession even if most of us never give it a thought. On the other hand, we get a bit tetchy when the Roman Catholic church says we don’t.

The present Pope and his rather more charismatic predecessor belong to that deeply conservative tradition that seems to overlook an awful lot of facts in order to believe that you can’t change church teaching. Because what was taught in, say 1200, could not possibly be wrong. The Roman Catholic church doesn’t do “wrong”. But I wish it would make up its mind. It took away the Latin Mass and now the present Pope has given it the green light again. Limbo was fully up and running when I was a child and now it seems to have been abolished. Under Pope Paul VI Anglicanism and Methodism, for example were “sister churches” but now “cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called ‘churches’ in the proper sense”. So, if you believe the Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Paul VI – not a wacky liberal if I remember correctly – was in pretty serious error.

What bothers me about all this is not the breathtakingly arrogant assumption of superiority – especially when you consider some of the less wholesome episodes in the history of the Roman Catholic church – but the sheer rudeness. It comes out of the same blundering, tactless school of Roman Catholic thought (or teaching if you prefer) that lead Archbishop Connell of Dublin to describe the Eucharist that President McAleese shared in at Christ Church Cathedral as “a sham”.

At the risk of sounding like an American evangelical (from whom Heaven preserve us) it might be a good idea for everyone to stand back and ask “What would Jesus do?” Gratuitously insult your fellow Christians? I don’t think so.

While the Vatican was doing so, something inspiring was happening in the Church of Ireland Cathedral of St Patrick in Dublin. Dr Alan Harper, the Primate, installed two non-Anglican clergy as Canons of the Cathedral, the Roman Catholic theologian Professor Enda McDonagh and the former Methodist leader Ken Newell. In Dr Harper’s sermon he referred to division among the people of God as “a permanent scar on the body that is Christ’s”. Dr Harper added “we…recognise that, in placing them here as part of the capitular body of the national cathedral, as a church we are incomplete without them.” So, who decided to appoint two non-Anglicans as canons of St Patrick’s, notwithstanding all the “arcane theological and doctrinal disagreements”, as Dr Harper called them, between the churches?

It was the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, the body that represents all Irish Anglicans, that did so. Unanimously. Of course this hugely significant event will get very little exposure compared to the Vatican’s effectively saying “sorry, but there’s only one true church and that’s us. Christian unity is highly desirable and as soon as all of you guys accept that we’re right and you’re wrong, that’s what we’ll have.” Of course, it was put in rather more elegant language but I’m afraid this is what it boils down to: “we are not only superior, we are the only real church.”

It is, of course, some consolation that most of us, Roman Catholic, Anglican, whatever, are unlikely to pay a great deal attention to what these elderly bachelors in Rome are saying. We are probably more concerned with trying to forge a system of belief that sits comfortably with the 21st century, with our natural and healthy scepticism and the fact that so much of the Bible is…let’s be honest here…just plain weird.

The Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu enchanted me when he was talking about dying (he was very ill at the time but thankfully has recovered) and how he looked forward to being reunited with many friends in heaven. He was confident of getting there because, he said, “God has very low standards”. In a recent interview in The Irish Times, Tutu said “God is not a Christian” because if he was, “he would be a very small God. If God is Christian, what was he before Christianity?”

One wonders what the Vatican would make of that? The Vatican’s God is a very cranky God, a very legalistic and unyielding God, and a God that is frankly not really interested in the spirit but in the letter. One can’t help thinking that the Vatican’s God, in the words of Monty Python, gets quite irate when Anglicans take Roman Catholic communion and vice versa. Perhaps it all comes from the notion of an all powerful, conquering king of a God. If God exists, you can be sure it is in a way that we mere humans find very hard to grasp.

I like to believe, in so far as I can, in a weak God, a non-interventionist God, a God that is in every living person.

 During World War II a Lutheran pastor was imprisoned in a German concentration camp when a boy tried to escape through the barbed wire fence. There was a burst of machine gun fire and his young body hung there lifeless. Another prisoner turned to the pastor and asked, bitterly, “where is your God now?” And the pastor pointed to the dead boy and said “there.”

That kind of God is not concerned with apostolic succession or leglastic niceties or arcane theological arguments. That kind of God, one suspects, is concerned solely with love.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The past is a foreign country

As the 1990s dawned on this misty island, condoms could only be bought on prescription and there was no divorce. It was an interesting decade in many ways and one feature of those years which gave me much entertainment was the spectacle of the more reactionary elements in society resisting changes in anything that had to do with sex.

Their mouthpiece was a weekly newspaper called The Irish Family (which later became The Irish Democrat), an organ (if you will forgive the phrase) which I was obliged to read as PR consultant for Durex at the time.

One evening, as we ate in Cooke’s Café, I told my editor, Peter Murtagh, about this curious duty and the amusement (mingled with some horror) which it brought to me.

We decided to invent a character who would caricature (not that this was always required) the outpourings of the extreme Catholic right. Peter came up with the name, and the suffix (which stands for National Teacher): Aodhghán Feeley NT. Mr Feeley channeled his thoughts through me and I wrote his Real Ireland column in the Tribune for several years during the first half of that turbulent decade.

Mr Feeley is still going strong, somewhere in the recesses of what passes for my mind, and is now a sprightly 116.

Anyway, here’s a sample of what he was saying in 1995. Nora Bennis and Joe McCarroll were, and I hope still are, real people. The rest were products of my fevered imagination.

by Aodhghán Feeley NT
The Sunday Tribiune, January 1995

As everybody knows by now, I have a bit of a "thing" about Nora Bennis of Solidarity. Whenever I hear her voice ("like the breath of an angel on your cheek," as Brother Cathal says) or see her picture, I get this funny feeling in my legs and I am reminded of that day, many years ago, when I first saw Breda over a steaming plate of champ and crubeens.

Anyway, there I was, driving home in the rain, listening to the evening news when I hear that young whippersnapper, Myles Dungan, tell a shocked nation that Limerick City is about to have a sex shop. And you could hear the sneer in his voice as he introduced the lovely Nora who has organised a fast and prayer vigil in response to the outrage.

"This is all about kinky sex," Nora began, in that wonderful voice which Brother Cathal, as he says, frequently compares to "a celestial exhalation". Now my interest was immediately aroused. Nora was very clear that she knew what she was talking about. It was kinky sex, impure and simple.

Now, as soon as I got home I wrote Nora yet another piece of "fan mail", but in this instance, I was seeking her advice. You see, at a recent meeting of Families Against Secular Humanism (FASH), held in the Macushla Room of the Pathé Hotel, Roscrea, the issue of kinky sex came up. It was my old school friend and fellow-pedagogue Labhras "Imperial Leather" Ui Laoire who cut to the core of the issue. "In order to defend the virtue of Irish women," he thundered, "it is essential that we know precisely what kinky sex is. Nora Bennis has drawn attention to kinky sex. But I, for one, need more information as to how to define what exactly it is."

A sub-committee was immediately formed, under the chairmanship of Brother Cathal, charged with the task of defining the nature of "kinky sex". They have been meeting daily, behind closed doors, in the Mostrim Arms in Edgeworthstown, for several weeks now and Brother Cathal tells me that "progress is slow, but light is dawning." Breda is acting as what he calls his "amanuensis" and while I can't put my finger on it I can't say I'm happy with this. Wasn't there a series of films called that?

Anyway, now I can tell Brother Cathal and his sub-committee that Nora Bennis can put them properly in the picture as far as kinky sex is concerned. Incidentally, I would advise Nora to initiate a local single issue group to tackle the Limerick problem: Families United in Combatting Kinky Sex is Breda's suggestion for the title, though, of course, it would be unfortunate were it to be referred to by its initials.

As many readers will be aware, I was invited to attend a seminar on "Traditional Family Values and Say No to Gun Control" at the University of Moosejaw, Idaho last autumn. It was at the behest of the traditional theologian Professor Anna L. Sphincter (a great admirer, she tells me, of Joe McCarroll's Homosexual Challenge). The Moosejaw Moral Alert Centre is where I attended a PIMPLE Program (Principles in Moral Protection and Lewdness Eradication) and was first made aware of the insidious ways in which practicioners of the Occult penetrate the sub-conscious of our young people.

Using simple equipment the PIMPLE team at Moosejaw can detect satanic messages in "pop" songs. I was so interested in this that I have set up a PIMPLE research laboratory as part of the Aodghan Feeley Foundation in Mullingar. Using my old Pye radiogram, a couple of reel-to-reel tape recorders, a large stock of HB pencils and their own piercing intelligence, a crack team of volunteers, all of them occasional contributors to the Irish Family, are screening tapes and records even as I write and we will publish the shocking interim results very shortly.

Monday, April 16, 2012


At the height of what Michael Parsons, in The Irish Times, calls the Septic Tiger, I was chatting to a friend of mine about our mutual interest in cars.

“I can’t understand why these people are driving Aston-Martons,” he said. “Why don’t they just go around with a big placard over their heads that says I’m A Fucking Builder”?

I was reminded of this the other day when I was talking to a restaurateur about – to use his words – the plague of food bloggers.

“I don’t like to piss anyone off,” he said. “And I really don’t want to piss off someone with a few followers. But the ones you notice are noticed for all the wrong reasons. They wave their cameras around and get sniffy about the table you give them. They might as well have a great big sign around their necks saying “I’m A Fucking Food Blogger.”

There you are, then. Don’t shoot the messenger. It seems that some of our food bloggers are doing what some of our restaurant critics have been doing for years and carrying about with them an aura – or perhaps something more substantial than an aura – which has the words DO YOU NOT KNOW WHO I AM? in emblazoned on it in day-glo.

Anyone who reviews restaurants needs to be careful to see the experience from the punter’s point of view as far as possible. If you are love-bombed, you have to watch what is happening to other diners and take your assessment from there. Having a fuss made of you, because of who you are, is actually just embarrassing and unhelpful.

Prior to a wonderful dinner from Richard Corrigan and Paul Flynn at the Waterford Food Festival last weekend, Matthew Fort was asked by – I think – Ivan Whelan of Cully & Sully, if restaurant critics should have experience of working in a professional kitchen before they pass judgement on the work of chefs.

Matthew gave a very elegant reply in which he recounted his experience of working very briefly in a rather grand kitchen and how it was a rather humbling experience but I think he implied that no, such experience should not be a pre-requisite.

And I agree. Ivan’s argument seemed to be that only professional cooks are qualified to comment on professional cookery. This is tosh. Only people who design cars should write motoring columns? You have to have stood in Herbert von Karajan’s shoes to be qualified to hold a view on his Beethoven’s Ninth?

No, what you need to be a critic in any sphere is a passionate, all-consuming interest in the subject, to be almost an anorak. And to have wide experience of that field of endeavour so as to make valid comparisons. To be fair, balanced, dependable and to flag up your prejudices (because we all have them).

This is a tall order and none of us critics can ever be sure that we tick all the boxes. But we have to strive to do so.

We also need to know how to write (and not all columnists do) and we must have some capacity to entertain the audience (and not all columnists ditto), otherwise readers will skip to the bottom line. Or just skip.

We also need to understand our brief, to have a specific word-count for our column and to have an editor who will, when appropriate, give us a sharp kick in the arse (or a word of appreciation if we have done well).

Bloggers who review restaurants, by and large, don’t have such constraints. The very best of them are pitiless self-editors (usually because they have long experience of being edited by others).

That’s the thing about blogging. Anyone can do it. You can blog to your heart’s content. If you want to write a 5,000 word review, there’s nobody there to stop you. You have total freedom.

And you know the trouble with total freedom? It’s take a lot of self-discipline to make it work.

I’m just glad I have an editor. Most of the time….

Monday, April 2, 2012

Gerry Haugh 1950-2011

In 2004 The Irish Times published an extract from a book of mine, and the passage they chose concerned my time at Belvedere. Not suprisingly, it also concerned the biggest influence I encountered there, Gerry Haugh.

When I told him about this, he harrumphed (if that's the word) a little and said "Remember, I've devoted my whole life to the place." As indeed he did.

In the end, he was happy with the piece and commented that the accompanying photograph of myself, sitting at the base of tree, "looked as if it was straight from Tolkien".

By then, of course, Gerry was much more than just part of Belvedere; he had become synonymous with it. He was intensely proud of the school and, when required, both defensive of it and critical of it.

I first met him when I was twelve and, I suppose, he was all of twenty-one. It was 1971 and Gerry had emerged from UCD, tall and thin. In his gown he looked like a somewhat ungainly black bird and he was charged with the uneviable task of teaching English to the lower reaches of First Grammar in a couple of pre-fabs in what was called, in those days, the Back Yard.

The late Jim Gough, who taught us history and was later Vice-Principal, gave Gerry a bit of advice about how to tackle IGB. "I told them to take out their rulers and measure the length of St Patrick's beard," he said, implying that there was not much to be done with us.

Gerry ignored this and proceeded to introduce us to The Hobbit and much more. He organised a short story competition which I managed to win with a painfully artless pastiche of PG Wodehouse; I still have the counterfoil of the book token I received, paid for out of Gerry's own meagre pocket; he was a mere HDipEd student at that stage.

The thing that I most keenly remember about him at this point was his energy and his encouragement. He sought out something in me - a way with words and a kind of thinking which was perhaps a little off-beat - and he made me feel valued.

After a number of fallow years, Gerry re-entered my life in Poetry as my history teacher. In terms of sticking to the course and advising us how to pass the Leaving Certificate, he was a glorious failure. In terms of getting us - most of us - to think for ourselves, ask questions, read widely and understand the subject, he was - in a mildly chaotic way - simply brilliant. He was also just a little subversive, in the best sense of the word.

It is hard to believe now, for anyone who knew Gerry in his last years, that he was once something of an outsider, a challenger of the status quo. By the mid-1970s he was not only displaying his contempt for rote learning and his passion for what I can only describe as holistic education, he also founded the Belvedere College Dramatic Society. This was heady, radical stuff in those days.

Whatever about his distinctive teaching methods, his insistence on producing plays - starting with Robert Bolt's The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew in 1974 - was perceived by many as a challenge to the dominance of the annual operetta which had been a school tradition since God was a boy. For many years, Gerry's plays were decidedly peripheral to the core of school activites but all the more exciting for that.

Gerry's early productions - The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Richard III, Tamburlaine the Great to name but a few - were crammed into the audio-visual room in which the audience was literally held (being separated from the only exit by the stage) for hours. His early productions were famous for their length; the late "Buddy" Campbell commented on Tamburlaine (the longest play in the English language, as it happens) that it was"a bit much when he headed off to conquer Africa at half-past-eleven".

There followed sojourns in the refectory, the old science lab and, despite ferocious acoustics, the gym. It was in the latter space that my daughter, Gerry's god daughter, aged six, was so enchanted by his production of Peter Pan that she gradually crawled right onto the stage. Gerry was equally enchanted by that; he liked to create magic.

In time, of course, Belvedere got its fine theatre ("my theatre" as he, quite correctly, called it) a mere thirty or so years after the original one was demolished. And Gerry was finally established as a kind of school treasure. It took time for Belvedere to realise that Mr Haugh was, indeed, a unique asset but, well before his 100th and sadly final production, the school had accorded him his rightful place as a devoted, eccentric, single-minded, warm-hearted, sometimes infuriating, delightful servant of both the institution and of the boys who were lucky enough to come into contact with him.

Vignettes. Gerry reading from our history textbook in a parody of Micheal MacLiammoir. Yelling "you're all being so bloody stupid!" during rehearsals. Watching his form playing pool in the Sigerson Arms in Ballinskelligs. Conducting the makeshift choir at Midnight Mass. Pouring late night whiskeys during my college days. Hiking through Wicklow with a dozen thirteen year olds before he developed an aversion to any form of exercise. Playing the piano in my parents' drawing room as we sang carols. His ability to put me down, firmly but gently. That very distinctive frown. The equally distinctive chuckle.

Gerry, of course, never married but it's wrong to say that he never had children. He had hundreds of them, including me. His love for his children was unspoken but palpable and like any good parent, he let us go but took a pride and a mildly proprietorial interest in our doings when we reached man's estate.

I think he dreaded retirement. He was wrong, in a sense, when he told me that he had devoted his whole life to the school. Belvedere, ultimately, is just a place. He devoted his life to the people he taught - oh, so much more than taught - at Belvedere. It was the people, collectively and individually, who really mattered.

He was the dearest friend I have ever known.