cc licensed Burns College, Boston College.

cc licensed Burns College, Boston College.

Often enough, both in real life and social media, I come across people who lament the past. “Ah, we were much more free back then, we could do as we wanted, and weren’t we all so happy”. This kinds of “och ochon” sentiment makes me want to puke. I’m not doubting that they had mostly happy childhoods, but implicit in their writing is that current kids cannot possibly be as happy as they were back then. To which I call bullshit. The only thing they are demonstrating are the massive defects in their memories. So here are just a few things that are much better now in Ireland than back then.

The Litter

It might be hard to believe, but Ireland was a much filthier place in the 70’s and 80’s. The plastic bag levy had not yet been imposed, so we used to hang them on any available tree. It was a long time before businesspeople took action to name and shame town councils and villages into making even half an effort. There was no such thing as separating rubbish – everything went to landfill. I remember finding a dead calf in the ditch on the way home from school once. We are still a filthy nation, as David Norris recently said, but relative to decades past, there are signs of hope.

The Corporal Punishment

Until 1981, teachers could belt kids with fists, sticks and leather straps if they got out of line. The only psychological diagnosis for kids who stepped out of line was that they were “bold” and the only remedy on offer by the teachers was 6 of the best in front of the class. Slapping kids was a great way for teachers to release their endorphins, but fuck-all use besides this. It didn’t make classes more disciplined (they weren’t) and it didn’t stop us being extraordinarily cruel toward classmates when the teacher’s eyes were looking elsewhere – leading by example and all that.

The Roads

Road journeys were a nightmare when I was a kid. Apart from the Naas Dual Carriage Way, no roads in Ireland even came close to being adequate. Hardly any town had a bypass, so the road trips were a continuous succession of bottlenecks and queues, exacerbated by the atrocious parking in every small town you passed through. And Ireland was pothole central – full of gaping voids into which cars might disappear forever. We think nothing of a 2 and a half hour trip from Cork to Dublin. Not long ago that would have been the stuff of science fiction.

Sunburn

The day after a sunny day in Ireland, intense pain would grip the nation. The whole country was filled with people with tomato red faces, necks, arms and that soft bit behind your knees. A few days later and we were all peeling like snakes. Misguided by the notion that a sunburn would “set the foundations of a good tan”, we would strip off and let the UV go to work on our skin cells. It’s not that sunscreen didn’t exist. It did, but nobody really saw the point of it. Better to dab on that useless aftersun lotion later on, in a vain attempt to ease the agony.

The Cars

Ireland only introduced a National Car Test in the 1990’s. Before that, our roads were full of the most ancient, crapped out bangers you could possibly imagine, all contributing to those nightmare road trips. Seat belts were either absent or optional, and most kids spent their journeys lying on the flat area beneath the back window of the car, or sitting on their mammy’s lap in the front passenger seat. And it’s not like people didn’t pay badly for this fecklessness. 600 people used to die on Irish roads each year during the 1970’s – over 3 times as many as now. Those who lament the freedom were not the victims of this carnage. They were just lucky.

The Radio and The Telly

When I was a kid, we had just one radio station – Radio Eireann. It was talk radio with a good daubing of religion, sport and traditional Irish music. The full Catholic Mass was a mainline program on the radio every Sunday morning. TV was not much better. Radio Luxembourg and pirate radio stations were wild, lawless and frowned upon. Younger people only got their first music radio station in 1979, a full two decades after rock and roll kicked off in America and Britain.

The Racism

We all looked the same too. Everywhere you looked, it was the same pasty faced (and occasionally sunburned) people in every town, in every locality. If you looked different, it’s likely you would have been stared as you walked down any street in Ireland. Casual racism tripped off the tongue and people wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Sure they were all grand, but you wouldn’t want one living next to you. Of course we were all into the black babies god love them, but it was far from an egalitarian view – underlying it was a sense that they weren’t able to cope as well as the rest of us.

The Troubles

Like a constant drumbeat, the news from “The North” used to keep us in an almost permanent state of depression. Every day there was some interjection of hatred, some killing and bombing, some fucking godawful atrocity, to remind us that we Irish were a screwed up lot. True, “The South” was a quieter place, but there was a sense that this was a particularly Irish problem, with our religious differences and our 17th Century animosities, still boiling away like a volcanic rupture that could never be healed. And you dare not say anything about the IRA, lest the word got around. Of all the shit things about growing up in Ireland, this was among the worst.

The Clergy and the clericalism

What more needs to be said? Princes and privilege and power and that total arrogance that enabled every single thing to be swept under the carpet until it all came vomiting out in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Awful, awful, awful. And what’s worse, is they still haven’t yet grasped the lessons to be learned from it. Some of them still think they are kings of the hill.

The Inferiority

Though Ireland was technically part of the First World, there was a sense where we knew this couldn’t possibly be true. While many European countries had got their shit together, we were still rummaging around, looking for it like it was gold bullion. There was no money for anything, we had a particular breed of clientelist politician, the weather was awful and anyone with a bit of get-up-and-go had got-up-and-gone. Gay Byrne once famously said that we should contact the Queen of England to ask her to take the country back, while apologising for the state we had left it in. A lot of people would have nodded their heads about this.

So, you know, it’s better now. Not at all perfect, but better. Kids have more choices and more opportunities to engage with people who are different to them. They are safer. They don’t have to live through that atmosphere of barely comprehendible hatred that we all just took for granted. They don’t need to feel they are lesser beings than anyone else. Despite all it’s faults, I prefer the Ireland of today. I really do.

Barring a major incident, Chris Froome is now safely on course for a second Tour de France win this weekend. Apart from his extraordinary performance on the first day of the Pyrenees, he has played an intelligent long-game, keeping a close eye on his greatest rivals while handing the daily glory to an array of less threatening competitors. The only chink in his armour came yesterday, when Nairo Quintana finally escaped his clutches on the last mountain climb, chopping 30 seconds off his 3 minute winning margin.

If only he could confine his challenges to the fearsome courses and competitors. Froome has been subjected to quite intense media speculation and rumour over the past few days. He has been spat at, had urine thrown at him and is regularly the subject of obscene gestures from spectators on the roadside. Throughout the tour, and particularly since his Stage 10 win, he has had to defend himself against those who believe he is winning, not by effort alone, but with the help of performance enhancing drugs such as EPO.

I am of the camp that believes that Froome is innocent of these charges. Without a doubt, cycling has been tainted enormously by the scandals of the past 17 years. It is therefore reasonable to ask if something untoward is happening when a rider puts in a huge performance nowadays. However I think that on the whole, the sport is much cleaner than it used to be, particularly for the top General Classification contenders.

The pressure to clean up the sport has never been stronger. The sport needs money and nothing scares off sponsors more quickly than allegations of drug taking. Sky, a company in an industry where perception is everything, would have a hard time explaining how much they knew, or were aware of, should a major drug scandal erupt within their team. Furthermore, given Team Sky’s publicly stated views on doping, they would be exposed as dreadful hypocrites should the reality belie their words.

Official testing has improved greatly in the last few years. The standards are more stringent, the testing processes more robust and unannounced tests are common in order to catch the cheats. There are also serious repercussions for competitors who miss a drugs test. Not perfect perhaps, but at least they place a determined cheat under greater pressure not to be caught napping.

More importantly, there are the many other ways the story could get out. A GC competitor has more than just officials to worry about. The cycling press are a hardy lot, and as the Lance Armstrong story demonstrated, unlikely to be fazed even when extreme intimidation is applied. If they hear a sniff of a scandal, they won’t easily be diverted from uncovering the truth. So far, they have remained relatively quiet on the subject of Froome. If anything, it’s a sign of health.

Cyclists also need to be on the guard for other cyclists, both competitors and team mates. Although cycling is a team sport, it is also fiercely individualistic and competitive. Game theory applies. While there are alliances, there are plenty of incentives and opportunities for defections. Cyclists change teams all the time. Enmities between competitors are poorly concealed and even within teams, riders can’t fully trust other cyclists. The incident where Rafal Majka’s communications “stopped working” at a crucial point in Stage 17, thus depriving Alberto Contador of much needed support, doesn’t lend itself to impeccable trust between team mates.

Within this atmosphere of regulation, suspicion and media scrutiny, I also wonder how some of the top players might view their legacy. Do they want their record to stand among the greats of cycling, or their names to be uttered in the same sentences as Armstrong and Virenque, particularly when the possibility of being caught out as a top-tier rider is enormously high? Surely the risks are now too great?

It’s possible I am wrong, and in that case I will gladly accept, once again, that I have put far too much faith in human nature. In the meantime, I remain on the sidelines, urging Froome on and wishing him the very best as he races down the Champs Elysées on Sunday.

Source: vaccine.gov

Source: vaccine.gov

A BBC news report today reported that a woman in the US died from an attack of the measles. While the measles does not normally kill, a small percentage of people who get it can die; others will be left with serious health problems for the rest of their lives. If you are a rational person, measles is not something that you and your children should ever have to deal with.

Measles is one of the three diseases, along with Mumps and Rubella, that the MMR vaccine is effective in preventing. Vaccines like MMR act by priming the immune system with a weakened version of the virus. This allows your body to create antibodies, so that when the real disease comes around, the body is ready to defend itself. The mechanics of how vaccination works is not new: it was pretty much understood by the 1940s, and as the graph above shows, it has proven itself over and over again to be highly effective against the types of diseases that destroyed the lives of so many people throughout history.

The woman who died was immunocompromised, which means she was unable to take any vaccines because of a health condition. Small babies and people like this woman depend on vaccinated people to stay free from these diseases.

The choice to remain unvaccinated is therefore not a simple personal choice. If you or your children do not take vaccines, you put people such as this woman at greater risk of being exposed to the measles. While measles might be unpleasant for you, you could be directly harming their lives. This goes beyond personal choice. It makes you a menace to public health. Expect lawsuits to arise in this case against the people who put this woman’s life at risk by not vaccinating. If they had been more responsible, she would be alive today.

You will see a lot of websites, alternative practitioners and some celebrities preaching the benefits of not taking vaccinations. They are wrong. The studies they use to support their beliefs are poorly thought out, incomplete, and in a few high profile cases: fraudulent. They have confused the idea of personal choice with what is good for society at large. They condemn “big pharma” and the “sickness industry” while forgetting that executives and employees of these organisations get sick too. They talk about poisons while conveniently forgetting that almost everything is a poison – it’s the dosage that matters. They cherrypick from anecdotal information and they exaggerate the dangers in order to frighten parents of small children. Not one major medical organisation agrees with them. Not one. They are manifestly wrong and they are putting lives at risk.

Ultimately, vaccines are a lot safer than the diseases they prevent. Less than a hundred years ago, people used to die, routinely, from smallpox, tuberculosis, bubonic plague, cholera, polio, tetanus and diphteria to mention just a few. Nowadays nobody does, or at least they shouldn’t. The reason is vaccines. While there can be side-effects to taking vaccines, they are usually minor and transient.

If I could recommend one link to take a look at, it’s this one: it shows clearly the difference that vaccines made when they were introduced. The evidence could not be clearer than this.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Source: Wall Street Journal

The bottom line: if you are scared by all the scare stories out there, talk to your doctor. Vaccines are safe, effective and help save lives; not just yours, but others who need vaccinated people like you to keep them alive.

Other resources:

Up to the time I was 21, I was very religious. I never missed Sunday Mass, contemplated the priesthood once or twice, and I tried to live my life according to the words of Jesus. I believed, fervently, in the power of prayer. Then, in what seemed like an instant, it all came apart. Suddenly, it didn’t seem so rational that our souls went somewhere else when we died. The idea of a God of the Universe caring much about the goings on of some obscure species on an obscure planet now seemed rather bizarre. And then there was the problem of suffering and why a loving, all powerful god would permit evil to happen in the first place. My worldview changed overnight, but I have never looked back.

I had an agnostic phase, then an atheist phase, but nowadays, I think of myself as humanist. I am still an atheist, but this word is an inadequate description of who I am. My atheism informs how I look at religion, but that’s about it. I self-describe as a skeptic, but this also is only part of who I am. It has made me appreciate the value of science and evidence and I see it as a useful tool, helping to evaluate the claims people make. I am a secularist in that I believe a secular state, that is indifferent to religion, is better for everyone, religious and non-religious alike. I am agnostic in that there is much I don’t know, yet I am not willing to accept that just because I’d like something to be true, it therefore must be so.

Humanism is something more. It informs how I feel about things. It brings in important values such as compassion, integrity, honesty and friendship. It says something very profound to me. That I am here for a short time, and while I cannot personally change many things, there are people around me who affect me and whom I affect in turn. That there is a world here that should be respected, as it is our only home in this Universe. That our enthusiasms and loves and hobbies and friendships are something to be cherished. That others may not be so lucky and that we should strive to make life better for everyone, not just a fortunate few. That education and healthcare and control over our bodies and freedom from oppression should be our birthrights.

These are universal aspirations that are shared by many, non-religious and religious people alike. Some people base this common understanding on their theology. I arrive at it because I realise that life is short, and the people around me are important and deserving of respect and compassion.

I often think I have not changed much from the time I was religious, but humanism has opened my eyes to others and their differences. When I was growing up, “Protestant” meant “them”, “Catholic” meant “us”. Being “Irish” was different to being “English”, as was “American” or “Nigerian”. “White” and “black” and “asian” all carried different meanings – not always benign. Sexuality was spoken about in hushed tones. Similar distinctions could be made regarding disability and mental illness. Humanism has helped to blur these distinctions. It’s more important that we relate to people, not because they are Christians or Irish or Americans, but because they are humans like ourselves. Likewise it’s important to acknowledge differences, but to realise that siblings from the same family are often more different than two people from different backgrounds and different continents who happen to meet, have a laugh, and fall in love with each other.

As a humanist, the greatest distinction I make is between people who want these things, and those who want the old orders to prevail. I am not sympathetic to those who advocate for theocracy, the exclusion of women or the suppression of sexuality along narrow lines. I oppose those who believe the world is to be exploited with little thought for long term consequences. I am appalled by traditions of mutilation and ostracisation that still prevail, despite the misery they wreak. People who put their ideologies ahead of universal education are a danger to us all, no matter how well meaning those ideologies are. Our shared humanity should always trump the thoughts that are in peoples’ heads. It’s people that are important – not their beliefs.

On World Humanist Day, I’m celebrating my humanism and the amazing fact that I can share a tiny sliver of time on this planet existing with other wonderful and fascinating creatures, some of whom also happen to be humans. I long for a day when this sense of belonging, humility and cooperation is shared by all the governments of this world. Unfortunately we have a long way to go.

Lots of people around the world do not take any homeopathic treatments. Lots of people do. Both groups tend to live to similar ages and are largely prone to the same conditions as they go through life.

You can think of it as a kind of thought experiment. On one hand, you have people who tend to see illness as something to wait out. Most illnesses – sniffles, coughs, pains, lows, wheezes – they come and go. It’s often a matter of tolerating them until they eventually die down and disappear. Maybe an analgesic, if necessary, will temporarily ease the symptoms. On the other you have people who, at the first sign of a cold or an ache, it’s off down to the homeopath for a dose of oscillococcinum, or whatever you are having yourself.

This intrigues me, because as far as I can see, in both cases the outcomes are pretty much the same. It’s just that in one case, there is this persistent belief that some kind of external remedy needs to be taken. This belief is always confirmed once the symptoms die down, as they normally do.

That’s why I regard homeopathy as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. You see, every time it’s called on, it seems to work. The prescribed remedies actually seem to do the trick. Until one day, they don’t.

The normal, non-homeopathic person will then trot off down to the doctor to find out what’s going on. The homeopathic person has so much invested in their beliefs that they will wait it out, possibly consulting their homeopath a few times, thinking they need something else. All the while, time is ticking away. The old reliable sheep has suddenly revealed itself to be a wolf, and yet the patient is oblivious to this. They convince themselves, until they have no choice, that the growl they hear is just a new kind of bleating.

I don’t think this is healthy. Homeopathy, because it appears so successful for lesser ailments, works against people when they actually need to go to the doctor. It works against their pets, their kids and other family members. Not only do you have to contend with a change of health, you have to deal with a change in your belief system, and that might just be too difficult to accept.

Better, I think, to leave the pills out. It’s not true to say they don’t do anything. While they certainly don’t do anything good, they have the strong potential to make situations worse.

I’m not sure if there is a bigger contrast between these photos from East Cork and Shanghai, but both have their charms.

Just click on any of these photos to enlarge.

Here is the scene that met me a few days ago as I was preparing to go to work. I jumped out of bed and ran down the road to take a few snaps before the ever changing weather stole the view from me.

P1060936

Another photo, this time by Garryvoe beach. the island in the distance as a mother coaxed her child to keep pace with the rest of the family.

P1060908

And this one I took yesterday, with my boys.

IMG_9371

Three different days, three completely different weather conditions. That’s Ireland for you.

Shanghai is a city of endless fascinations for me. I was transfixed, even before the plane touched down – staring out at the strange landscape below me.
IMG_8819The only real free time I had was on my first day there. Still exhausted after the long trip, I took a short walk down to the river, taking in the immensely tall skyscrapers, the brown river dividing Pudong from Puxi, the Oriental Pearl Tower and sunset beyond the Bund.IMG_8909 Version 2 IMG_8980

The following picture gives an idea of the immense size of the city. Shanghai is like a forest, except the trees are made of concrete. It’s a city in need of more public parks and open spaces. It seems every spare metre of ground has been developed into a tall building or skyscraper.
IMG_9160On my last day there, as the sun was setting, I took this photo of the Jin Mao Tower.

IMG_9186

It all comes down to this. Do I want to live in a country that is accepting of people at a fundamental level, or would I prefer a place that is happy to continue a historical tradition of intolerance for those people who don’t quite fit?

For decades, Ireland was a country blemished by unhealthy attitudes towards those who couldn’t live up to standards that a comfortable majority had set for themselves. For those who did not conform, or could not do so, the realities of life were quite incredible. Wider society treated them with contempt – the orphaned, the unmarried mothers, the mentally ill, the sexual misfits – for them, our country was a barely more than a prison. Little wonder that many took the boat as soon as they had half a chance. Maybe it was the Famine that made us like this, or the Catholic Church, or the excessive nationalism of our country’s early years – whatever the reason, our recent history is obscured by shadows and skeletons.

This is not the Ireland I see around me today. Despite the trauma of our past, my gut tells me that we have grown as a nation. I like to think that our country has gone a long way to accept difference, whether that be religious, cultural, national, mental, racial or sexual. There is much humour, much love and much intelligence in our culture. We aspire to a fairer society that treats everyone as equals. Maybe I’m wrong, but I have a sense that I should be proud of this little nation. Hopefully, this impression can be copper-fastened on May 22nd.

If the country votes Yes, we will be the first country on the planet to give gay people the right to marry by popular mandate. It will send a message to the world that is much wider than the issue at hand. It will tell everyone that we really are a nation of a hundred thousand welcomes, and that’s no bad thing.

In opposition to this notion are people whose idea of a future Ireland is also much wider than the issue at hand. To them, extending marriage to gay people is just one more step in the secularisation of Irish society. Sure, they use fancy words and nuanced rhetoric, but I remember well the divorce and abortion referendums of the 1980’s and 1990’s, and I can tell you that their approach is always the same. It’s all just a big smokescreen, designed primarily to inject fear and suspicion into middle Ireland. It’s progress they are against and they will fight with tooth and nail every attempt to introduce positive changes to our society. Why else would they mount such implacable opposition to a legal change that will affect such a small number of people in our country?

I want Ireland to be open, accepting society that embraces change and difference. A positive outcome will be a massive step along the way. I am voting Yes.

Quiet now.
A spider’s web lies broken.
Behind this gossamer mask
A poisonous bite awaits.

Flickers of moisture.
The spit of a wretched cat
Gnawing a wound
She will not let heal.

Those first wet gusts.
The baying of a tethered dog
Wishing to be free,
Her teeth chewing bone.

Screaming with rage
The banshee is now unleashed.
Blow follows blow follows blow,
She seeks my weakness for herself.

Now drunk with vengeance
The tiger rises up
All claws and jaws and hatred,
All fury and bile and lashing venom,
Sundering
With grim delight,
The threads of my being.

I will hide from this storm
For it will not last
And she will not listen.

Quiet now.
The tiger has retreated.
The spider mends her web.
For silent are the drops
Of poison anew.

“I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do”

Confetior

The debate over the upcoming Marriage Referendum in Ireland continues to fascinate me. The NO campaign is largely driven by bishops, priests and spokespeople linked to the Irish Catholic church. In principle, the Church calls itself a beacon of humanity and compassion in the world. The utterances and actions of recent weeks belie such lofty aspirations. In doing so, they wilfully ignore a historic injustice they had some part in propagating and prolonging.

The past few centuries have not been kind to homosexual people. They have been bullied, scorned, laughed at, imprisoned, threatened with violence, assaulted, killed and gassed. Up to very recently, society saw them as deviants and predators and censured them accordingly. There was never any recognition that homosexuality was something you were born with; something you had little control over. The authorities at the time felt compelled to repress it and push it under cover. In doing so, countless lives were destroyed. We were driven to fear the enemy within.

Even to this day, governments around the world have laws against homosexuality. In Russia and Malaysia, gay people are routinely thrown in jail. In Uganda, legislators are trying hard to impose the death penalty for homosexuality. These malignant injustices are here with us today and, presumably, for a long time to come.

Surely this is a cause we should all support: for all members of our society to be given a chance, to be treated the same, to have past wrongs acknowledged and prevented. Unfortunately – despite the lip-service they pay to human rights – we are not seeing this from the elders of the Catholic Church.

You would think that any organisation professing to defend the downtrodden and the oppressed would see this referendum as an opportunity to provide positive leadership, but no. They have come out as dismissive, reactionary and uncaring; using precisely the same Jesuitic rhetoric in 2015 as the defenders of past injustices did back in years past. In all this debate they have forgotten whose side they should be on, preferring instead to champion ancient prejudices.

Not just one, but two generations have been alienated by such pronouncements. What we have is an organisation arguing itself into obsolescence, not caring about the consequences or how such views will be perceived by future generations. Not in our name, we say. Some day in the future, a pope will issue an apology for these wrongs, but by then it will be far too late.

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