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.