Could Scottish independence realign Ireland, North and South?

imagesnpWhat a difference a century makes. In 1912 Ireland’s constitutional future seemed irrevocably bound up with that of Scotland. That year the Government of Ireland Bill was introduced by Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, shortly to be followed by a similar home rule measure for the Scots.

The rest, of course, is history. The first World War put paid to Irish and Scottish hopes of self-government within the United Kingdom. By the time the conflict was over, Ireland was fighting a war of independence. Scotland was only granted devolution in 1997.

Today, Scottish nationalists frequently adduce Ireland in their arguments for a Yes vote. On everything from sovereignty and citizenship to currency and border controls, Ireland is often held up as a model of how to sever a British union.

If the SNP view of Irish self-determination tends towards the Panglossian, official Ireland’s take on what is fast becoming “the Scottish Question” appears rather myopic. Recently Irish Government Ministers were told to be “very careful about expressing views” on Scottish independence. Hopefully this public reticence does not extend to the backrooms of Leinster House. Because regardless of which way Scotland votes, constitutional change looks increasingly inevitable.

In the North, nationalists have been similarly muted about the possibility of what Tom Nairn termed “the break-up of Britain”. Some excitable unionists have warned that a Yes in Edinburgh could spark a return to violence in Belfast.

Surely the prospect of a country roughly the same size as Ireland – one that is only 12 miles away at the shortest point – becoming an independent state could elicit a bit more than this curious mix of silence and shrillness? Scotland and Ireland share a long – and at times difficult – history; might they share a closer, more productive future, too?

The idea of an informal “Celtic alliance” encompassing Scotland and Ireland, North and South, is hardly revolutionary. The 6th century Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada, which stretched from Argyll to Antrim, was settled, according to myth, by Irish king Fergus Mór mac Erc.

Creative centre

The origin legend’s veracity aside, Dalriada was unquestionably a lively, creative centre that flourished across the Sea of Moyle. It was, as Neal Ascherson writes, “a Gaelic-speaking Atlantic world connected rather than divided by the sea”.

These connections did not end with the demise of Dalriada. During the Middle Ages, the almost independent Lordship of the Isles exerted power and influence on both sides of the Irish channel.

The Lordship of the Isles effectively ended when the clan Macdonald forfeited their estates and titles to James IV of Scotland in 1493. But three centuries later, United Irishman Henry Joy McCracken could still write gushingly that: “The Scotch and Irish friendly are/Their wishes are the same.” Our relations with Scotland, however, have not always been so amiable. The Ulster Plantations were a disproportionately Scottish affair: between 1650 and 1700, anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 Scots left for the north of Ireland. The hundreds of thousands of Catholic Irish migrants to Scotland from the mid-18th century were often met with bigotry and discrimination. In 1923, a report entitled Menace of the Irish Race to our Scottish Nationality was presented to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. But Scotland is a very different place from the 1920s. Orangeism has long faded as a political force. In 2002, the Church of Scotland apologised for “any part” it played in sectarianism.

Scotland’s Irish Catholic community has changed, too – not least when it comes to politics. At the 1974 general election the SNP won 30 per cent, but less than one in 10 Catholics voted for the nationalists. Historian Tom Devine believes Catholics are now more pro-independence than any other group in Scottish society.

Scottish nationalists

Northern Ireland, with its strong links to Scotland, has provided inspiration for Scottish nationalists, too. The Belfast Agreement demonstrated to many in the SNP’s upper echelons that moderation and pragmatism could produce seismic change.

Raasay-born poet Sorley MacLean envisaged Gaelic Scotland and Ireland as part of a single cultural continuity. The twin Gaelic cultures drifted apart for many years, but are arguably closer now than at any time since the 1940s. Perhaps the time has come for Dublin and Edinburgh to learn from this rapprochement.

Even a Scottish No vote in September is unlikely to signal the end of the constitutional story. Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy and Scottish Tory Murdo Fraser are among those who have recently taken to uttering the dirtiest F-word in British politics – federalism – in polite society.

A new settlement for Scotland would pose practical questions for Ireland. Edinburgh could look to compete on corporation tax, and to usurp us as the cuddly Celts on the edge of Europe.

But political change in Scotland could also be a unique opportunity for Ireland – North and South – to forge a stronger relationship with its closest neighbour. A new Dalriada anyone?

This piece originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Irishman’s Diary: TP O’Connor

‘HIS PEN could lay bare the bones of a book or the soul of a statesman in a few vivid lines”. These words were written in praise of the man who founded the Sun newspaper: journalist, politician and Irish nationalist, TP O’Connor.

The inscription appears, etched in brass, below a bust of a hirsute O’Connor on an easily missed plaque, halfway down Fleet Street, in central London. The Royal Courts of Justice, where the proprietor of the current incarnation of the Sun (no relation), Rupert Murdoch, has been defending himself at the Leveson inquiry, is just a couple of hundred metres down the street. Between O’Connor’s statue and the courts stands “The Tipperary”, formerly the Boar’s Head, reputedly the first Irish pub outside the island.

O’Connor established the Sun in 1891. As he later admitted, in his Memoirs of an Old Parliamentarian, the paper was started with “insufficient capital” and quickly degenerated into a “Frankenstein of a monster”.

O’Connor “got rid of the struggle and the agony by selling the Sun” a short time later. Despite this setback, O’Connor’s life, and work, had a long-lasting influence on both British journalism and the UK’s Irish community.

Thomas Power O’Connor (better known as TP or Tay Pay) was born in Athlone in 1848. He was the eldest son of Thomas O’Connor, a small tradesman, while his mother hailed from the minor gentry; his second name was in honour of her father, Capt Power, who served with Wellington. A gifted student, he won a scholarship to Queen’s College, Galway, graduating at 18 in history and modern languages.

After a spell at the Dublin daily, Saunder’s Newsletter – which he described as “a good old State-and-Church full-blown Protestant organ” – O’Connor left for London, and Fleet Street, in 1870. That year war broke out between France and Germany; O’Connor’s linguistic skills landed him a lucrative job as a sub-editor on the Daily Telegraph.

A quarrel over money led to a premature exit from the Telegraph. O’Connor spent the next seven years scraping a living as a freelance until, in 1880, his biography of then prime minister Benjamin Disraeli launched an unlikely career as a politician and newspaper owner. In the general election that same year Disraeli was heavily defeated by Gladstone and the Liberals – aided by O’Connor’s critical account of the Tory leader – with TP winning a Home Rule seat in Galway by just six votes.

Five years later, as Parnell won “every seat in Ireland outside eastern Ulster and Trinity College, Dublin”, O’Connor was returned as the Irish Parliamentary Party member for the Scotland division of Liverpool. O’Connor, the only Irish Home Rule candidate elected in England, held the seat continuously until his death, in 1929.

In 1888, at the age of 40, O’Connor founded the paper that made his name: the Star. The rationale behind the paper was simple: “The cause of Home Rule was without any advocate in the evening press of London; I conceived the idea, half in hope, half in terror, that I might start a journal myself in favour of the views of myself and my friends”. Within weeks he had convinced friends and benefactors to invest £40,000 in the new publication.

The halfpenny Star was no partisan Home Rule sheet. Inspired by the “New Journalism” of the American newspapers, O’Connor, a self-styled “radical”, assembled a stellar team of writers and editors: George Bernard Shaw began his career as a leader writer on the Star (although political quarrels later necessitated a move to musical criticism); Henry William Massingham went on to edit the Morning Chronicle and the Nation; Gordon Hewart was later lord chief justice.

Writing of his time at the Star, O’Connor later complained, “some of our biggest things in life turn to bitterness and futility”. Indeed, TP lasted only three years at the newspaper’s helm – staying up late at the Commons, rising early to write leader articles – but he made his mark on Fleet Street. O’Connor was arguably the first newspaper owner to appreciate the power of human-interest stories; his “Mainly About People” proving a huge hit with the Star’s ever-increasingly readership. It was a technique imitated by many of his competitors.

While the fortunes of the Irish Parliamentary Party fell, O’Connor remained a popular Irish voice in the Commons. He became “Father of the House” during the first Labour government and was a columnist for both the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times, another publication now owned by Murdoch’s News International.

A crafty operator, O’Connor was not above journalism’s dark arts. After being erroneously identified as Jack the Ripper by an injudicious Star sub-editor, an East End man known universally as “Leather Apron” demanded £100 in compensation.

Under O’Connor’s permiture, he was given £50 and told where another £50 could be easily found: by approaching another Fleet Street paper that had repeated the Star’s insinuations. “Leather Apron” accepted the offer and took no legal action.

This Irishman’s Diary appeared on July 17.

Sean O'Casey in Tahrir Square

In 1936, Robert Merton published a seminal paper entitled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” in the American Sociological Review . Seemingly minor events, the then 26-year-old argued, can have profound, unanticipated implications. The “law of unintended consequences” was born.

Mohammed Bouazizi was the same age as Merton when he provided the digital age’s most iconic demonstration of the sociologist’s maxim. On December 17th 2010, Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor frustrated at his treatment by a local policewoman in the town of Sidi Bouzid, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. Inadvertently, what we now call the Arab Spring was born.

Just over a month later, on January 25th, the Egyptian revolt began, as tens of thousands gathered in Cairo and in town and cities across the country to protest against Hosni Mubarak’s brutal regime. One year on, Egypt’s revolution remains unfinished.

Clashes between protesters and the now-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) have become a regular feature of daily life, particularly in Cairo, in recent months. The spark for the latest confrontation, last month, was a football inadvertently booted into the grounds of the Egyptian Cabinet Office near Tahrir Square. An activist who climbed in to retrieve the ball was badly beaten by guards.

Protesters responded by setting fire to cars in a nearby street. The situation escalated from there with portentous speed.

Following similar violence in November, many Egyptian protesters swapped the wide, open (and easily infiltrated) spaces of Tahrir Square for the narrow confines of the Magles El Shab Street, abutting the Cabinet Office. As I watched the shocking scenes of repression at the self-styled “Occupy Cabinet” protest on YouTube recently, one of my first thoughts was of Sean O’Casey. Not that the jerky camera-phone footage bore any resemblance to the playwright’s stage directions but because it reminded me of Ahmed.

I met Ahmed at Occupy Cabinet. The afternoon prayer, Asr, had just finished across Cairo – one of Mubarak’s last acts as president, although no one knew it at the time, was to synchronise the muezzin in the city’s 4,500 mosques, putting an end to centuries of discordant prayer calls – and I was sitting among a group of young men in a makeshift tent outside the Egyptian Cabinet Office’s filigreed gates.

Noiselessly, a tall, balding figure, slightly older than the rest, appeared by my side. Ahmed.

During a lull in the heated conversation about the mendacity of the Scaf, I introduced myself as an Irish journalist. Ahmed’s dark eyes lit up. “Ireland, you’re from Ireland.” It was more a declaration than a question, delivered in clear, faultless English. “Do you know Sean O’Casey?” January’s revolt against Mubarak’s kleptocratic rule was motivated, in part, by Egypt’s dire economic situation. Around half the population live on $2 a day or less. Despite the Nasser-era laws to the contrary, even a university education is no guarantee of a decent job – unless you have wasta, connections.

Growing up in Mubarak’s Egypt, Ahmed had no wasta. After graduating in science, like many ambitious Egyptians, he left his homeland for the Gulf. He found Sean O’Casey while working as a hospital porter in Dubai.

“One of the doctors on the ward was an Irish man, he gave me a book of his plays,” he explained. “After that I read more and more.” Now almost 50, Ahmed returned to raise a family in Egypt, but struggled to find a steady job. Having enthusiastically joined the street protests in January he was, like the vast majority I met in Tahrir and Occupy Cabinet, disheartened by the slow pace of change and the army’s tightening grip on power.

What, I asked, was his favourite O’Casey play. “ The Plough and the Stars, ” Ahmed replied, after a moment’s consideration. “I like the language but also the message,” he said, shouting a little to make himself heard above a rousing chant that had broken out among the several hundred strong crowd. Behind us self-appointed revolutionary guards policed the barbed wire entrance to Magles El Shab Street, while relatives wept in the wan light over mock coffins representing those killed by police during November’s rioting. Just before he left, Ahmed translated the protesters’ shouts for me: “We will get our rights or we will die just as they died”.

All across Cairo I found unflinchingly demotic political discussions.

About where Egypt is and where it should go. Doubtless O’Casey would have approved, although given his disdain for nationalist fervour, it’s less clear what the committed socialist would have made of the machinations of Egypt’s rolling revolution.

The Plough and the Stars opened in the Abbey on February 8th 1926. During a performance just three nights later the audience, angered by the treatment of the Easter Rising and egged on by the widow-martyr Mrs Sheehy-Skeffington, rioted. Consequently, intentional or otherwise, O’Casey went into exile soon after, where he remained until his death in 1964.
This piece originally appeared as the Irishman’s Diary, in the Irish Times January 16, 2012.

Easter in Alicante

Feature on the spectacular Easter celebrations in the Costa Blanca from todays Irish Times.

IT’S ALMOST midnight, but the street lights are off in El Barrio. Thousands of people line the narrow backstreets of this part of Alicante, creating a din of excited chatter in the warm evening air. The scent of fresh flowers and burning incense hangs heavy while, in the distance, bugles sound and drums beat.

Pressed hard against an aged stone wall by the weight of the crowd, I can see only the empty street immediately in front of me. Then, from around the corner, a troop of men in cloaks, like Klansmen but with blue instead of white capriotes , or pointed hoods, emerge, followed by a parade of ostentatious floats so large they take 16 men to carry.

First there is El Cristo Gitano (the Gipsy Christ), then El Descendimiento (the Descent) and, finally, more penitents in pointed hats. The whole procession lasts an hour and a half. It’s only Holy (or Spy) Wednesday, but already Alicante’s traditional Easter festivities are well under way.

If merely passing through the arrivals hall qualifies as a visit, then Alicante is one of Ireland’s favourite destinations. Each year tens of thousands of us, sombreros, shorts and factor 15 in tow, thread through the city’s international airport. Most head straight for the apartment blocks and sandy beaches of Benidorm, but less than 20km from the terminal building lies a vibrant city teeming with culture, history and, at Easter, some serious celebrations.

Between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, processions ranging from the flamboyantly colourful to the darkly solemn are a daily occurrence in the Costa Blanca’s capital, but it is Holy Wednesday and Maundy Thursday that mark the pinnacle of the Holy Week calendar.

On Wednesday La Procesión de la Santa Cruz (the Procession of the Holy Cross) begins in the working-class district of the same name that hugs the lower slopes of Mount Benacantil, the imposing mountain that dominates the city skyline and atop which sits the dramatic Castillo de Santa Bárbara.

From Santa Cruz colourful floats and banners, accompanied by sombre brass bands and hundreds of priests and cloaked penitents, move slowly through the 20,000-strong crowd sandwiched into the Barrio’s streets.

If the procession is reasonably reserved, the festivities that follow are anything but. No sooner have the floats and on-lookers dispersed, around midnight, than the Barrio’s legendary nightlife kicks into gear.

Calle Labradores, the old town’s main thoroughfare, is home to myriad bars offering €2 cocktails and trashy Euro-pop, but venture a little farther along the quaint stone streets and you’ll quickly stumble on something a little more civilised. Spanish clubs are renowned for starting late and finishing even later, and Alicante is no exception: by 4am the entire neighbourhood, bulked out by the city’s sizeable student population, is thronged, mostly with under-25s. A friendly barman assures me that the discos keep going until the sun comes up. With one eye on Thursday’s parade I hit the road long before last orders.

The next day, the city beach at Playa Postiguet is the perfect place to relax in the April sun before heading on to Piripi (Avenida Oscar Esplá 30, 00-34-965- 227940, noumanolin.com), one of Alicante’s top tapas bars, for a Maundy Thursday dinner: the arroz con sepionet con alcachofas (baby squid and artichokes) is a local delicacy.

Then it’s out on to the street again for the imposing Procesión del Silencio (Procession of Silence), a candlelit – and largely quiet, save the odd rap of a kettledrum – prelude to the Crucifixion. This short parade features two of Alicante’s most iconic Holy Week figures: Nicolás de Bussi’s 17th-century carving of Jesus, El Cristo de la Buena Muerte , and the 18th- century Virgen de las Angustias by Francisco Salzillo.

Given its long (and often bloody) religious history, Alicante is a fitting spot for such dramatic Easter celebrations. The Moors arrived in the eighth century and built the present-day settlement. Their influence is still woven through the city’s fabric, from the truncated street patterns of the Barrio through to the town’s name: legend has it that the Moorish king’s daughter, Cantella, threw herself into the sea when her beloved, Ali, failed to gain her father’s permission to marry. Ali did the same, and the city was renamed in honour of the two doomed lovers.

Now the city is overwhelmingly Catholic. As if to emphasise the point, the Easter Sunday procession of the Virgen de la Alegría takes place among the swaying palm trees on the majestic waterfront esplanade. Alicante’s Holy Week festivities are finally over – and I still haven’t bumped into anyone from the flight.

Could Direct Rule be the Answer to North's Problems?

This comment piece appeared in The Irish Times on Thursday 4 February. It was intended as an attempt to start a discussion about what needs to be done to move Northern Ireland forward. In it, I advocate a possible temporary return to direct rule as it existed during Stormont suspensions over the last decade. But it certainly got a few folks hackles up, judging by the vitriol in my inbox….

Politicians are often traduced for being out of touch with reality, but rarely has the charge rung so true as in Northern Ireland today.

Early last month, the North’s finance minister, Sammy Wilson, announced cuts in government spending totalling £367 million (€420 million) in the coming fiscal year. Since then the putative leaders of the Stormont Executive have spent the best part of a week and a half locked in discussions about policing and justice, parading and the Irish language. Not exactly core economic issues.

Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists, the main protagonists in the protracted farce at Hillsborough, are playing gesture politics at a time when what is required is a bellyful of bread and butter.

But then again, in the three years since devolution was restored, neither party has proved particularly adroit at quotidian politics. In education, Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane dedicated significant amounts of time and money to abolishing the controversial 11-plus exam. The move was highly divisive, bitterly opposed by unionists and ultimately futile: the transfer test for children from primary to secondary schools has been retained by a growing number of rebel grammar schools.

Ruane – or whoever inherits her portfolio if the current talks break down – is unlikely to be in a position to indulge such whims again. The education budget for next year has been slashed by more than £73.3 million. Over in Michael McGimpsey’s health department, the situation is even bleaker. Northern Ireland’s already understaffed health service is being asked to achieve spending reductions in the region of £113 million.

There is a relatively straightforward solution to the hole in the Executive’s budget – water charges. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, residents in Northern Ireland pay regional rates instead of council tax. At present, these rates are, on average, 50 per cent lower than in England. The introduction of water charges, which have been deferred for next year, would add an estimated £210 million to the treasury’s purse. Doubtless such a move would be met with resistance among sections of the electorate, but in times of crisis elected governments need to act collectively and decisively – two qualities absent among the squabbling Northern Executive.

There is, however, a large breach in Northern Irish society that cash alone will not solve and which neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have shown any willingness to address. Sectarianism remains a serious problem in many working-class communities: since the peace process started in 1994 the number of peace walls in Greater Belfast has trebled.

Remarkably, Northern Ireland currently has no anti-sectarian policy. It did – A Shared Future, which was launched by then direct rule minister, Des Browne MP in 2005 – but on reaching office in 2007 both Sinn Féin and the DUP decided to abandon the policy. Instead, a draft of a new strategy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, was circulated – and almost as quickly forgotten.

On leaving office last September, Hugh Orde, the outgoing chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, criticised both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness for their “lack of a coherent and credible strategy” for tackling sectarianism. Ruffled, Sinn Féin quickly published what was effectively a retitled, cut-and-paste version of Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, while the DUP responded by simply reissuing the original strategy.

One document, no matter how well intentioned, will not eradicate generations of sectarian division, but the coalition partners’ inability to even agree on a policy is indicative of the stasis that has gripped Stormont.

Of course, the current crisis is hardly unique in the intermittent history of the North’s devolved administration. In 2007, when Sinn Féin and the DUP argued over the various sections of the St Andrews Agreement in advance of Assembly elections, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland Peter Hain issued both parties with an ultimatum – reach agreement or face a return to direct rule.

Direct rule has long been used as a stick to threaten the North’s unruly devolved assembly, but perhaps the time has come to seriously consider it as an option.

Since devolution was restored in 2007, Northern Ireland has either stood still or gone backward in many areas. The bickering and brinkmanship that have characterised Stormont’s current incarnation have fuelled a growing apathy, especially in civil society. The North is not going back to the dark days of the Troubles, but neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have been able to articulate any coherent vision for the future.

Under direct rule, career politicians appointed from Westminster overseeing (reasonably) impartial civil servants would replace the present ineffective, bipartisan administration. The benefits of the switch are manifold: policies would be produced and actually enacted; water charges could be implemented, going some way to solving the North’s budget crisis; and, probably most importantly, Northern Ireland would finally be in a situation where decision-makers are no longer hamstrung by a divided Executive.

As the arguments continue to rage at Hillsborough, a return to direct rule – at least temporarily – might be the reality check that the North’s political classes need, and its general public deserve.

Lough Rynn Hotel, Mohill

This review of the Lough Rynn Hotel in Mohill appeared in The Irish Times on Saturday 16 January ’10.

I first visited Lough Rynn well over 20 years ago. It was the day of my first communion. We squashed into my mother’s blue Renault 5 for the half-hour journey north from our Longford home to spend a sepia-tinged afternoon roaming around the adventure playground (myself and my brother) and the two-century-old big house (my parents).

The Victorian manor house once belonged to arguably Ireland’s most notorious landlord, the eviction-happy third earl of Leitrim, William Sydney Clements, who was murdered in 1878.

The swings, slides and climbing frames that I remember from my last visit have disappeared, and this ancestral pile has been transformed into a four-star hotel. Opened in 2006, it sits on 120 hectares of green lawns, Scots pines, manicured gardens and lake-shore paths.

With the Arctic winter blowing a gale outside, and a queue at check-in – we were there for a wedding – I took refuge with a hot toddy by the fire burning in the enormous inglenook fireplace in the high-ceilinged baronial hall.

When we were led up to our bedroom it was difficult to avoid feeling pretty privileged – if not quite like Lord Leitrim, at least like one of his more favoured guests. The amiable porter gave us a whistle-stop tour of the room – is it just me or are hotel televisions becoming increasingly difficult to switch on? – but left just as I was getting out my wallet to tip her. Lough Rynn’s staff clearly weren’t trained in the US.

The dark-wood theme from downstairs continued in our room, although a mahogany writing desk, full-size standing wardrobe and large TV unit left what should have been a reasonably spacious double room feeling cramped.

A pair of upholstered chairs provided the perfect spot for savouring the room’s best feature, a spectacular view of Lough Rynn; swans were sitting on its frozen surface as the sun set.

A marble floor gave the spacious en-suite bathroom a pleasingly opulent feel. The good-quality toiletries and powerful shower, with its wide metal head, were just the thing to revive us for the wedding reception. The trouser press came in handy, too.

Suited and booted, we made our way to the meal, past walls lined with all manner of golf memorabilia, from vintage tees and scorecards to putters and V-neck jerseys. Unfortunately for golf enthusiasts, the hotel’s vaunted Nick Faldo-designed course is still being built; it is not expected to open until the end of next year.

The estate’s stables and pheasantry have been converted into additional suites. A long glass corridor leads past these rooms to a new banqueting hall and bar. The views are stunning.

After plenty of eating, drinking and dancing we finally headed for bed after a nightcap in the intimate Dungeon Bar. Ignore the name: with its underfloor heating, it is the hotel’s cosiest bar.

It was a pity to arrive upstairs to find our room vibrating to the whirr of the air conditioner. It might be great for those balmy Leitrim summer nights, but I had to call reception to figure out how to turn it off.

Peace restored, I slept soundly in a very comfortable bed, heavy purple curtains ensuring I was undisturbed by the early-morning sunlight.

Breakfast was passable at best. The continental buffet was well stocked with fruit and cereal, but poor sausages and black pudding let the cooked breakfast down. Pots of tea and bottomless glasses of orange juice helped soothe any lingering disco aches and provided fortification for a refreshing stroll around the hotel’s majestic grounds. The walled gardens, with their ornate fonts and ponds, are particularly impressive, and the nature trail is well worth exploring.

Looking out across the frozen lake on a beautifully clear, if bracingly cold, morning, Lough Rynn felt as familiar and as striking as ever. A few days later my girlfriend received a kindly-worded automated e-mail from the hotel management, asking us to come again.

Next time I’m looking for a classy break in the heart of rural Ireland, I certainly will.

Where Lough Rynn Castle Hotel, Mohill, Co Leitrim, 071-9632700, loughrynn.ie.

What Four-star hotel in Victorian manor house overlooking Lough Rynn.

Rooms 43 rooms and suites, plus six houses available for rent on the estate.

Best rates Rooms from €79. Specials include Winter Warmer of BB, plus dinner and a bottle of wine, from €85 per person sharing; and two-night St Valentine’s break, with bed, breakfast and dinner one evening, plus a bottle of champagne, for €185pps.

Restaurant and bars Sandstone Restaurant, Cocktail Bar Leitrim and Dungeon Bar.

Amenities Excellent John McGahern Library, broadband internet, beautiful walks, boating.

An Irishman's Diary

In response to the awful fire that ripped through St Mel’s cathedral on Christmas morning I wrote this piece for An Irishman’s Diary in The Irish Times. The piece appeared 04/01/2010.

‘THE ONLY thing the town has had to be proud of is gone”. This terse comment, left on the internet forum Boards.ie, said it all: for the people of Longford, St Mel’s cathedral is not just a place of worship, it is an iconic landmark, a repository of history, and a symbol of the self-less devotion of an impoverished nation.

Nevertheless, the fire that tore through St Mel’s on Christmas morning has eviscerated one of Ireland’s best known cathedrals and cast a shadow across the midlands market town in whose life it has been central for over 150 years.

Like many in Longford, I was awoken on that morning not by the sound of excited children opening presents or family members enjoying Christmas breakfast but by the anxious voice of a neighbour. The call came just after 8am, by then St Mel’s had already been on fire for around three hours. Half asleep, I stood at the back window of my mother’s kitchen staring in horror as – less than a mile away – bright orange flames danced across the cruciform cathedral’s outstretched arms and thick black smoke bellowed into the sky. A few hours later, the building was still smouldering – the walls had survived the conflagration but almost everything inside was destroyed.

Christmas Masses did take place in Longford, although in a nearby community centre, not the town’s magnificent neo-classical cathedral. Given that fire services were tackling the blaze throughout the morning, it was remarkable that the traditional ceremonies were held at all, but that they were speaks volumes for the indefatigable spirit that has characterised St Mel’s from its earliest days.

St Mel’s cathedral was the brainchild of Bishop William O’Higgins, a native of Drumlish, in north Longford, and a fervent supporter of Daniel O’Connell and the Emancipation movement. Even after 1829, Catholics in the midlands continued to face persecution, strengthening O’Higgins’s resolve that the diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise needed its own purpose-built cathedral.

Educated in Paris, O’Higgins found inspiration for his new cathedral in the City of Lights’ famous Madeleine cathedral, as well as the Pantheon and the Basilica of St John Lateran. On May 19th, 1840, more than 40,000 parishioners as well as clergy from a far afield as Australia and the United States were present as the foundation stone, which was taken from the ruined 8th-century cathedral of St Mel in Ardagh, Co Longford, was laid.

It is impossible to overestimate the psychological import of St Mel’s cathedral for the people of Longford and surrounding counties, particularly in its early years. Longford in the middle of the 19th century was a poor market town, the majority of whose inhabitants lived in mud huts and thatched houses, but from the midst of this squalor the cathedral’s massive Doric pilasters began to rise. The local economy also benefited: most of the limestone used in the construction came from west Longford and Knockcroghery in Co Roscommon.

Since opening in 1856 – building work was suspended during the famine – St Mel’s has housed practically every item of historical interest or significance in county Longford. As well as the 10th-century crozier of St Mel and various reliquaries, the Holy Family Altar, which had been rescued from a Roman church that was sacked during the Garibaldi campaign, was lost in the fire.

I left Longford many years ago – had the tragic fire not happened during the holidays I probably would not have been around to witness it – but, like so many others, St Mel’s was a vital presence in my life. It was first and foremost a religious place – I made my communion and confirmation there, and celebrated countless births, marriages and deaths within its now fire ravaged walls – but my strongest memories of it are cultural: almost every trip home incorporated a pit-stop to admire the finest works of art in Longford, the remarkable Harry Clarke windows that adorned the cathedral.

The stained glass, like so much else in St Mel’s, is irreplaceable, and the estimate of €2 million worth of damage quoted in the media has caused dismay on the streets of Longford. As one St Stephen’s Day reveller put it to me, “It will cost that much just to get the cathedral to the point where you can spend money repairing it.” The real cost of repairing St Mel’s is likely to run into eight figures, but in Longford town I found a genuine determination to see the cathedral rebuilt. History is on its side: in 1838 Bishop O’Higgins travelled to all 41 parishes of the diocese, raising £2,000 from ordinary people for the new cathedral.

O’Higgins’s contemporaries have many difficult questions to answer but, for many in Longford and across the Midlands, restoring St Mel’s is about much more than religion.

Hotel Chelsea, New York

This review of the (in)famous Hotel Chelsea appeared inThe Irish Times on November 21.

Few hotels have influenced popular culture like the Chelsea. Jack Kerouac stayed here when he wrote On the Road ; Brendan Behan, Jean-Paul Sartre and Frida Kahlo are among the countless artists and bon viveurs who, at one time or another, called the Chelsea home; its faded glamour inspired Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Even punk rock has a claim on it: Sid Vicious was arrested for the suspected murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in room 100.

The hotel’s bohemian heyday is now firmly in the past: rock stars and artists are less-frequent visitors, and, with maximum stays recently reduced to 21 days, many of its long-term residents have moved on. Today the Chelsea – 12 storeys of red brick and wrought-iron balustrades in the heart of Manhattan – appeals primarily to out-of-towners, like me, who want to experience a New York institution without decimating their holiday budget.

CHELSEAThe Chelsea may have been taken over by ambitious new management in 2007, but it has not yet morphed into the well-oiled boutique hotel many patrons feared it would become. Rooms with shared bathrooms are available from €89 (€60) a night, and, as my yellow cab rounded the corner on to West 23rd Street, I was relieved to see the neon lights still flickering intermittently on the iconic Hotel Chelsea sign pinned to its front.

Inside, happy anarchy was the order of the day. The narrow marble-floored lobby was decorated with an eclectic collection of quirky art and even quirkier individuals, at least two of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Bob Dylan circa 1975. “Bear with me,” implored the overworked receptionist as he fielded phone calls, signed for deliveries and placated a pair of irate guests before eventually finding my booking.

“It’s crazy, man. I’m the only one here,” Pete the portly porter said with a laugh, sweat dripping off his forehead as he carried my bag from the old-fashioned elevator to a third-floor double room at the back of the hotel. “But it ain’t always like this.” If he was trying to sound convincing he was failing.

The room was an interior designer’s worst nightmare. Nothing matched, from the rendition of Malcolm X in red and black paint beside the door to the garish green walls and mauve flower-patterned drapes. Worse, it had the distinct air of an undergraduate’s unloved bedsit: an empty fridge in the middle of the room; an out-of-date copy of L, the listings magazine, on the scuffed dressing table; only two working lights.

The en-suite bathroom looked passable if cramped. Closer inspection proved less forgiving. The pastel ceiling was decorated in bluish mould, the combined bath and shower unit did not drain and, most egregiously, the toilet overflowed after just one use.

Judging by the phlegmatic reaction on the other end of the phone, blocked pipes are par for the course at the Chelsea. Within five minutes a gruff workman appeared with what might have been the world’s largest plunger. It did the trick – the toilet flushed without fail for the next two days – although he made no attempt to mop up the dirty water that sloshed around the bathroom’s tiled floor.

Of course, you come to the Chelsea for the ambience, not the opulence. And in that regard it did not chelsea2disappoint. The hotel is an art lover’s paradise, with murals, abstract paintings, modernist sculpture and photographs lined along the majestic brass-railed staircase that dominates the centre of the building.

My fellow guests were equally colourful: birds chirped excitedly from the room across the hall, while the smoke that crept underneath my neighbour’s door was unlike that from any tobacco I’ve ever smelt.

Location is the Chelsea’s other great selling point. Best known for its art galleries, the area is one of Manhattan’s most vibrant neighbourhoods, and the theatres of midtown and the Meatpacking District’s trendy bars are all within easy walking distance.

The Chelsea does not serve breakfast, but the Empire Diner – once popular with Bette Davis – is just one of a number of great places to eat within a few blocks of the hotel.

Unfortunately, owing to a paucity of sleep, I found myself in constant need of a cup of strong coffee during my short stay. The bed was of reasonable quality, but its starchy sheets were as uncomfortable as they were ancient.

I left the Chelsea longing for a night in a conventional, well-run hotel. They say you should never meet your idols. Perhaps the adage holds true for hotels, too.

Review of Hotel Missoni, Edinburgh

From Irish Times 15/08/09:

‘I’D WORK here just for that jacket,” my girlfriend declared after we finished checking in. As I’m a man who shops twice a year, and even then does it under duress, the receptionist’s sartorial style had passed me by. “Yes, it was very, eh, nice,” I lied, badly. “You didn’t notice it at all,” she said, guessing correctly. “It had some of most lovely, elegant patterns I’ve ever seen.”

This may be the Missoni fashion house’s debut foray into hotels, but it has not abandoned its trademark brightly coloured and patterned designs.

The first of a planned 30 luxury hotels across the globe, the striking Edinburgh Missoni opened in June, on the corner of George IV Bridge and the Royal Mile, in the heart of the city’s picturesque Old Town.

Fashioned out of curvaceous gold stone with wavy black-and-white patterns, the hotel’s exterior reflects the brand, but the full flamboyant effect has been saved for its customers. The entrance opens on to a coruscating cocktail bar that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Studio 54’s disco heyday, all glittery floors, revolving chairs and blues and purples so bright they should have come with a UV warning.

If the dark, functional foyer was somewhat understated, the long corridor that led to our room, on the fourth of the hotel’s six storeys, was anything but: a combination

of black-and-white striped carpet and alternating pink and red walls was so overpowering that I felt rather disorientated by time we reached the end.

There is certainly a love-it- or-hate-it quality to Hotel Missoni’s decor. So far I was ambivalent, but our wooden- floored and air-conditioned double room left me in no doubt.

Luscious floral motifs on the bed, cushions and chairs, and pleasingly muted green and blue walls, gave the room a clean, contemporary feel.

A heavy glass door slid across to reveal a spacious bathroom with a tiled sit-in shower and matching dressing gowns.

The Jacob Jensen telephone, Bang Olufsen TV – with free films on demand – and De’Longhi coffee machine cast aside any lingering question marks about the hotel’s five-star pretensions.

“You’re a man, so you won’t notice these things, but the fabric is immense,” my girlfriend purred, petting an upholstered chair as I attempted to connect to the free wireless.

Thankfully, no such gender bias prevented me from appreciating the room’s best feature: the view of the city’s cobbled streets and the majestic Arthur’s Seat from the full-length windows.

Despite its city-centre location, only the sound of a lone piper ever got past the room’s excellent insulation.

We skipped the hotel restaurant in favour of a pre-theatre menu around the corner on Victoria Street.

After a drink in the nearby Bowery Bar, an edgy homage to the Lower East Side complete with Brooklyn Lager and shelves stacked with biographies of Nixon, Reagan and Ford, we returned to our room, which had been freshly made up and its free minibar restocked with Peroni beer and Lurisia water. Delectable shortbread had also been left by our bedside.

Breakfast was first rate, cooked to order and served by a phalanx of brown-robed waiters among yet more amazing textiles and patterns in the bright, airy first-floor restaurant. The menu was pleasingly varied, and the eggs Benedict – perfectly poached yokes in the lightest of hollandaise sauces – were the finest I have eaten, though anyone looking for a full Scottish would not have been disappointed, either.

An elaborately laid-out buffet offered fresh fruit, cereal, nuts and, for those who like to kick-start their morning with a sugar rush, an assortment of pastries and cakes.

Staff were extremely friendly, obliging and pretty much ubiquitous, which was to be expected given how quiet the hotel was. These are difficult times for hotels, new and established, but I’m sure Hotel Missoni’s owners – the chain belongs to the Rezidor group, which has licensed the Missoni name, and also owns the Radisson and Regent brands – would have hoped to attract more than the solitary couple I spotted during our stay.

Given its splendid location, it is ideal for a luxurious break in this most charming of cities, and should prove particularly popular with this month’s festival-goers.

According to a brochure in our room, the entire hotel was scented with a unique Missoni fragrance. My less than sensitive nose failed to notice this nuance. I think I’ll have to go back next time I’m in Edinburgh, just to make sure.

Where Hotel Missoni, 1 George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland, 00-44-131-2206666, www.hotelmissoni.com.

What Fashion-conscious five-star hotel in the centre of the city.

Rooms 136.

Best rates Rooms start at £135 (€160) per night, excluding breakfast. Bed and breakfast from £210 (€250). Dinner, bed and breakfast from £280 (€330).

Restaurants and bars La Cucina restaurant serves Italian-influenced dishes. Bar Missoni.

Access Two wheelchair- accessible rooms on each floor.

Amenities Car parking, gym, express check-out.

Racist attacks on Roma are latest low in North’s intolerant history

ANALYSIS: Can recent violence towards immigrants in Belfast be linked to the BNP’s success in European elections, writes PETER GEOGHEGAN. (The Irish Times 18/06/09)

WITH ITS new, purpose-built Chinese centre, popular Asian supermarket and plethora of speciality shops, the Ormeau Road is Belfast’s most visibly diverse and multi-ethnic neighbourhood.

roma1On sunny days, nearby Ormeau Park resonates with a myriad of accents and languages, but yesterday summer revellers were nowhere to be seen. Instead, as the rain poured down, the air was filled with the sound of children crying and car boots slamming as the O-Zone leisure complex became impromptu home to more than 100 beleaguered Romanians, members of that country’s Roma minority. These are the latest victims of racist violence in Belfast, living proof that while Northern Ireland may be “post-conflict” it is not yet post-intolerance.

Before being forced to flee their homes, the Romanians, some 20 families in all, had lived in the affluent (and reasonably mixed) Lisburn Road area of south Belfast. It was here that police received their first report of an attack on one of their properties last Thursday, with further racist incidents the following night making local news bulletins.

Sympathetic residents responded by organising an anti-racist rally on Monday night, but this show of solidarity was met by local youths throwing bottles and chanting slogans in support of the British far-right group Combat 18. Less than 24 hours later, the Romanian families were sheltering in a church hall near Queen’s University, having spent the previous night all huddled together in one house, genuinely fearful for their lives.

Shocking as these events are – and even British prime minister Gordon Brown has weighed in with condemnation – where pernicious racism is concerned, Belfast has a record.

In the winter of 2003, Chinese homes in the Loyalist Donegall Road area of south Belfast suffered a sustained series of attacks. This grizzly episode, which included the circulation of a leaflet to schools and homes warning of the dangers of “the yellow peril”, led to many leaving their homes and to the BBC bestowing on Belfast the unwanted sobriquet of “race hate capital of Europe”.

Far from being isolated incidents, these attacks set the tone for a sustained rise in racist violence. The PSNI recorded a two-fold increase in manifestations of racism between 2003 and 2007, with south Belfast recording the worst reported levels in Northern Ireland (over 125 racist incidents in 2006-2007 alone). Although figures for racist violence have continued to climb, in the last two years the increase has been markedly less steep. The issue of racism has, until now, been out of both the local and national press for some time.

The lack of any substantial far-right presence has been held up as proof that, far from being the most racist city in Europe, Belfast is now an accepting, welcoming place for migrants. Events of the last few days have shattered this myth. Only a few weeks after the success of the British National Party (BNP) in the European elections, youths on Belfast streets are shouting fascist slogans and attacking immigrants.

Coincidence? Seems unlikely.

In targeting the Roma, these latest attacks have also hit at an easily identifiable and particularly vulnerable group in Northern Irish society, and one which is currently suffering increased persecution throughout Europe.

While there is no evidence of the involvement of neo-Nazi groups such as the National Front or Combat 18 in the latest attacks, that pages from Mein Kampf preceded the bottles through the Roma homes suggests that far-right ideology is gaining a foothold in the minds of disaffected white youth.

Links between the far right and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland have often been overstated, and the veracity of denials of involvement issued by both the UVF and UDA have been widely accepted. Nevertheless, Jackie McDonald, de facto head of the UDA, was refused entry to the O-Zone complex yesterday and was forced to issue his condemnation from the rain-sodden car park.

McDonald would have been better speaking directly to the perpetrators of the attacks, youths from the nearby Village area, a run-down network of loyalist terraces where unemployment is high, union flags limp from lampposts and faded red, white and blue paint adorns every kerbstone. With an abundance of rental accommodation (a byproduct of the Northern Ireland Office rolling out Margaret Thatcher’s “right to buy” policy in the 1980s), the Village has been very popular with new migrants coming to Belfast, particularly those from eastern Europe.

In recent years, racist incidents and protests against “drug-dealing” eastern Europeans have not been uncommon in the Village. However, tensions ratcheted up further earlier this year following bloody exchanges between local gangs and Polish hooligans before and after a World Cup qualifier between Northern Ireland and Poland.

In the wake of this violence, many Poles were forced to leave the area.

That youths from such areas are turning on a nearby Roma population is both shameful and all too predictable in a society where violence still plays a major role in some sections.

If there are nuggets of comfort to be taken, it is the unanimous condemnation that has quickly followed and the decision by Minister for Social Development Margaret Ritchie to rehouse the displaced Roma.

Many have said they would rather return home, an understandable reaction under the circumstances