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In Ireland, the Celtic Salmon Stirs

first published in The New York Times (Intelligence Column), April 2012.

 

Despite encouraging signs of a slow but steady return to a healthier economy, the recession still haunts Ireland.  It slouches with Yeatsian dread around our ghost estates like a nasty emission left by the so-called Celtic Tiger.  The boomtime branding – borrowed from an Asian buzzword – was never an accurate or lasting symbol for Ireland.
 
A more appropriate one might be the Salmon of Knowledge, or an breadán feasa.  In the ancient Celtic sagas, Fionn MacCumhaill became a great warrior by acquiring the pure knowledge of the salmon, which gave him the skill and wisdom to defeat his enemies. 
 
Today, Ireland faces the challenge of emerging from its slump in a fickle global economy that is more competitive than ever.  How can a salmon compete with a tiger?

Young, entrepreneurial Irish are picking up fast on the potential of new online opportunities.  The cost-effective tools offered by cloud computing, marketing fuelled by social media and accurate analytics can all help small business grow. 
 
With this in mind, Innovate Wexford and FUSE, two local organisations in a relatively small business community, set up ‘Techovate’, a conference that took place last month at the Wexford Opera House, in the southeast of Ireland.
 
To add star power, Techovate brought in senior executives from the Irish diaspora who now work at Microsoft, Google, IBM, Facebook, Cisco and LinkedIn to advise local entrepreneurs.
 
“The Techovate Conference is not so much about the technology itself,” said Brendan Ennis, its main organiser, “but how small and medium-sized businesses in Ireland use that technology to drive business growth and to expand the outlook abroad.”
 
Mr. Ennis pointed out that they have little choice in the matter.  “Let’s face it,” he added.  “If they don’t – they’re going to be left behind.”
 
One goal is to transcend the heady buzz of the conference chambers and reach Ireland’s more traditional mom-and-pop concerns, which are often surprised to find themselves in a world transformed by technology.
 
Wallaces’ general store in Wexford has been in business for more than 70 years, located on a rural river bend at a junction between three major towns.  Its family-run drapery, food and hardware departments have thus far thrived on local shoppers, and a traditional marketing policy heavy on regional radio and print media. 
 
“These days, your competitor is no longer the shop in the next town,” notes Chrissie Wallace, a family member running the store, “but the Website two continents over.” The family invested in a consultant to develop a comprehensive online strategy for the store, which will include a more social-media-focused website, cross-platform campaigns, a community focus section and Facebook and Twitter presences.
 
Lorna Sixsmith has embraced the new media with IrishFarmerette.com, her popular blog that brings the business of Irish agriculture to life online. 
 
“All business people should be blogging, no matter what their industry.  We should be showcasing to potential buyers abroad the fact that our animals are mostly grass-fed, that they are outside for much of the year,” Ms Sixsmith said.
 
“It would do so much for the sale of Irish food abroad if readers could identify with the real story behind the food they are buying and see the pictures,” she added.
 
Seán Kiely, a farmer, uses social media to combat the isolation of his work.  “I’ve rigged up my iPhone to my tractor, in order to stay in touch on Facebook or Twitter through the day,” he said.  Elsewhere on the farm, cloud technology helps him keep track of animal births, deaths and movements, and a small virtual weather station provides crucial facts about the soil and the weather so that he knows when to fertilise or plant.
 
The lessons that Irish companies, shopkeepers and farmers are learning about navigating and taking advantage of the world of technology can be applied by their struggling counterparts in Greece and Spain, Portugal and Italy, and beyond.
 
If the boom’s fallout has left countries across Europe flailing in murky economic turbulence, Ireland’s ancient salmon of knowledge may provide inspiration yet.  A symbol of wisdom, skill and determination, the salmon rarely fails in its journey upstream. 

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“Open the pod bay doors, Hal…”

quiet sunny beach

So, spending some quiet time in a coastal haven courtesy of friends (currently abroad), is an amazing gift. Here, I can look at the beautiful sea at any time of the day or evening. The song of the waves down on the shore makes its way up the hill and through the upstairs window where I read, or the downstairs conservatory where I work.  

Having this space, breathing out and into clear air with an open sky above and clear  sea water to dive into and swim through is a rare privilege, and one I’m very grateful for. Conversely, my intention this month is not solely to “retreat” but to attempt a re-boot, and to re-connect. I confess to deliberately backing out, during and post-Covid, from the digital world. Some used it as a chance to digi-up and Zoom into new screens we never even imagined before, others read Matt Haig’s Notes On A Nervous Planet and decided it made sense.  But as one friend (thanks, Des), said, “yeah, people did that, but you really disappeared!”    

Thus, while we all know the warnings about screen time, cybersecurity and how the Masterverse has actually brought down small nations, to  deny this new digital existence is a different kind of cop out, like it or not. I hate it.  I still write actual letters, make greeting cards and send them in the post. But unplugged, not only do we cut ourselves off from news and current developments, lose work opportunities and are unable to even call a damn taxi – let alone balance our current account – more importantly we lose contact with friends, family, artists and colleagues that we love and have spent time with. It just happens by default.  I mean, who decided that to phone people and actually talk to them is rude (among other things).  But while we are all still human, if friendship has been forced to adapt in this way, then at some point we have to adapt or lose out.

So getting back with the proverbial programme is my Spring 2023 experiment. So far, it’s pretty funny. I can’t even work out the new Facebook interface and why it’s not letting me see my messages.  In my defense, I’m not a Luddite. In 1997, I co-created a website in raw code (Banshee.info) when the Internet and its nit-picky, painfully slow hand-typed HTML commands were pure magic and not terrifying; an algorithm was an obscure mathematical term and a cloud was a fucking cloud.  In my freelance work down the years, I’ve created over two dozen websites, two indie publishing imprints and sigh a BLOG (and yes, this is my first new blog post: feck the begrudgers!)  

Yet, navigating my way into my brand new MacBook Pro, Apple ID, iCloud interface, Adobe Creative Cloud Suite and even the Office 365 apps, I feel like Basil Fawlty attacking his 1967 Austin 1100 with a tree branch.   

Starting with a photo or video per day, for now, I’m just going to take this calmly, step by step.

But, HELLO, HAL – do you read me?  Can I just ask WHY humans have apparently lost all fear of the machines? I mean, Jesus, lads, did nobody see ‘The Matrix’?  

Eh – no wait – sorry.  Ahem.  I am calmly and systematically going to embrace and enhance my digital and virtual challenges.  Step by step.  If you’d like to ease this project by re-connecting with me and “liking” or “sharing” or whatever, all feedback, advice and old fashioned emails (or even, shock horror – phonecalls) are very welcome.

A different Side of the Irish

first published in The New York Times (Intelligence Column), December 2010

 

It may take the 21st Century Irish some time to get up out of their armchairs, but when they do, they have a strong sense of purpose and drama.
 
Despite one of the coldest November days on record in the Republic of Ireland, a massive crowd of demonstrators marched on November 27 across the River Liffey toward the city’s General Post Office building, carrying protest banners and demanding the ousting of the government.
 
The symbolism of their destination was unmistakable. The building was where, in 1916, revolutionaries who were fighting to free Ireland from colonial rule read the original Irish Proclamation of Independence.  This time, the nation was protesting an international economic bailout, seen by many of its people to be a modern blow to its sovereignty.
 
An Irish friend who is now working in Ethiopia for an aid organisation said that she understood how intently the world was watching the Irish crisis when a farmer in Somaliland casually asked her:  “How’s your bailout going?”
 
The international news media, which has been seen on every corner of Dublin over the last few weeks, saw a different side of the Irish that Saturday – the fighting side.  The roaring passion, size and diversity of the crowd (officially estimated to be 50,000 people, but thought by the news media to number up to 1,000) had not been seen on Dublin streets since the human rights marches of the early 1970s.
 
It took a lot to get the Irish en masse into the streets. We laughed at the first of the economic jokes (“What is the difference between Ireland and Iceland? One consonant and six months.”) We watched as the Greeks burned cars and destroyed shops on the streets of Athens.  We never really thought it could happen to us.
 
The depth of the current economic trauma is one that the ordinary Irish man or woman has found hard to accept, let alone fully comprehend. 
 
During the “Celtic Tiger” years, when everything turned to gold, and its citizens entered into a sexy spendfest of glamour and luxury, the country could do no wrong.  Today, the dizzy ramparts of success have crumbled, generating a spectacular fall from grace.
 
It is perhaps the scale of the descent – and the undeniable element of greed – that overwhelmed the country’s banks, businesses, developers and citizens during the boom, which, until now, has had the Irish living in a partial state of denial.
 
Small but significant voices of protest were heard regularly. In October 2008, senior citizens – some with walkers and wheelchairs – massed outside the government buildings to protest cuts in their medical benefits.
 
In September this year, the population made a popular hero of one Joe McNamara, a bankrupt builder who rammed his cement truck into the gates of the same government buildings to protest his plight.  He was seen as the voice of the “working man” against the powers that be.
 
Once the true extent of the crisis had sunk in, with its public spending cutbacks and its black hole of job losses and negative equity, the Irish people felt swamped by despair and confusion.
 
In the last couple of weeks, this metamorphosed into emotions running somewhere between terror and fury.
 
Anger goes beyond what the people perceive as a shameful request for a bailout. The inevitability of the draconian austerity measures needed to repay loans is seen as a betrayal by the Irish government to salvage the banks’ bondholders and the well-heeled developers, at the Irish people’s expense. 
 
The last twist of the knife came at the end of November, when officials from the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund arrived in Dublin, and, as one radio commentator put it, they were “not here to do their Christmas shopping … “
 
While not many people in Ireland are laughing these days, they have at least attempted to make a move towards change.  Traversing the freezing white ground of Dublin’s streets in protest, it was as if the collective Irish psyche had found its voice, and had begun to make it heard.
 
It remains to be seen, however, how much louder they will have to shout to make their government – or the broader eurozone – hear that the people are tired of those who led them into this quagmire and are demanding a fairer deal from their Christmas guests.
 
Helena Mulkerns is a writer and freelance journalist living in Ireland.

 

 

 

 

Sinead O’Connor Interview

Published in Hot Press Magazine, December 1990:

 

Sinead Cover-bord-blog

Pic: John Francis Bourke

Due to overcrowding in JFK and strong headwinds, the plane is late touching down in LAX. Although the inevitable tinselly Christmas decorations are in evidence all over, it hardly feels like Yuletide to photographer John Francis Bourke and me. In New York we shivered in the icy winds belting down Broadway as we waited for a cab, here we roll down the car windows and laugh at the palm trees. Bikers zoom along in open jackets, helmetless. At the “Cat and Fiddle” on Sunset, people are eating at tables outside on the patio. In December.

The splendid, glittering tackiness of the West Coast boulevards at night is countered the following day by a pristine, cloudless sky and unusually hot sunshine, which scalds into the hotel bedroom where we’ve scheduled an interview with America’s favourite diva, Sinead O’Connor. Or just “Sinead”, as they’ve taken to calling her. Americans have even finally succeeded in pronouncing it properly, a sure sign of acceptance. LA Weekly has a centerfold spread advertizing “RED, HOT AND BLUE” that lists the performers on the album: “U2, Sinead O’Connor, David Byrne” etc. Sinead is at the very top of the list, as she has been on most lists in the U.S. for most of this year. Until the January release of “Nothing Compares 2U”, she was respected high-cult Princess, the prized choice of the connoisseur. With the subsequent smash hit of the single, video and album “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got” she went straight up there alongside Madonna and Whitney, outclassing and outselling both.

Having decided against something brashly rock’n’roll like the Sunset Marquis, the small Ermitage Hotel tucked in behind Sunset Boulevard is perfectly anonymous and very friendly. Maria at the reception desk smiles without fuss as Sinead comes in, and apart from one man who nearly drops on the spot when he runs almost straight into Sinead in the elevator, all is comfortably low key. By 9:00 am, we’re camped out on the bed, Sinead, Ciara and Hot Press – fuelled with Cappuccinos and toast. We chat a bit, an amusing starting point being the discussion of the fact that it’s still very much taboo for women to curse in America – a habit Irish and particularly Dublin women are addicted to. Sinead seems in fine form, having passed her driving test the day before and in the process of buying a car so she’ll be able, finally to drive around her newly adopted city. (more…)