Saturday, December 27, 2008

Post-Christmas relaxation

We are just back from a lovely bracing walk in the freezing cold of a perfect clear sunny winter's day, the like of which occurs so rarely in Ireland of late that it seems "carpe diem " was invented for just such an event!
Four of us - Jan and me, and our oldest son Shayne and his partner Jany who are home from Spain for Christmas - went to Mahon Falls in the Comeragh Mountains, in the heart of County Waterford, and enjoyed the spectacular scenery in all its sparse beauty.
There's a shale path to the actual waterfall from the car park, and there were plenty of family groups and lots of dogs getting some mandatory exercise after the Christmas excesses. The wind was icy and the sky was brilliantly clear with wonderful shadows cast by the low winter sun.

We were all well wrapped up, and felt refreshed and invigorated after the walk. There was an abundance of feelgood factor at actually getting out of the house and doing something active after Christmas spent indoors playing Monopoly and National Geographic's Global Trivia. We don't go to Mahon Falls often enough, it's a breathtakingly beautiful natural landscape on our doorstep, and when we take visitors there and see it through their eyes we appreciate it all over again.

Here are some of the photos of our trip to the falls. This one of Jan, Jany and Shayne shows a somewhat disconcerting leaning to the right!
Hopefully it's just the camera angle, or maybe it's the Magic Road on!
One of the must-do things on a trip to Mahon Falls is to experience the "Magic Road", which is not presently signposted, as the sign is a very coveted article, probably in far-flung "Irish" bars!
After you enter the boundary gate of the Falls, the road appears to slope downwards. You drive along this stretch of road for a couple of hundred feet and then cut the engine, put the car in neutral gear and wait...the car will start to coast - backwards and apparently uphill! This is a very weird sensation, a bit like being in a carwash and having the sensation of moving when the brushes are whizzing around the car. Everyone has an opinion but some kind of optical illusion with the various horizon lines seems to be the most logical. But then who wants logic when you're having a laugh!
We drove home via Clonmel, Newcastle and Mount Melleray in the Knockmealdowns, but it was dusk by then and we didn't see the Monastery at its best - we'll come back to that another day.

Mahon Falls, Comeragh Mountains, Waterford.
Jany and Shayne - on the rocks!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas 2008 Newsletter from Lismore

The family photo on Christmas Day!
Yes, it must be Christmas again if this newsletter is winging its way to your mailbox – via email or snail mail – yet again. Its time for the annual round up of the goings on in the Rotte-Murray household, and it’s become a bit of a cliché to say what a year it’s been but in the case of 2008 it certainly has been a roller coaster on all fronts, domestic, national and global. No need to rub it in at this supposed time of cheer what a grim state the economy has got itself into, but there’s no point in going all Grinch and Scrooge-like and think about cancelling Christmas either.

If anything we need to have something to distract us from the recession, the R-word that dared not speak its name until about a month ago in Ireland when the Government in its wisdom brought forward the budget in what had to be one of the most misguided moves in the State’s history. The fallout is still pretty radioactive all round us, and the peasants are definitely revolting. There have been mass demonstrations and marches of every demographic from preschoolers to pensioners protesting at the swingeing cuts in healthcare and education, two of the most emotive areas to hit the vulnerable. It was almost Pythonesque to see the rage of the older generation at the budget’s removal of their automatic eligibility to a medical card from age 70, and they did themselves proud with their street protest – you could tell they cut their radical teeth in the 60’s anti-war and other protest movements. The outcome has been much back-pedalling on the more controversial cuts but there are still shameful residues which the government has no intention of rowing back on, like the cancellation of the cervical cancer vaccine for 12 year old girls that was announced on a good day to bury bad news, the day of the US election results. That move has incensed people as the saving is a paltry €10 million, paling into insignificance compared to the banks bailout of billions, with no apparent penalty clauses.

The health cutbacks for next year are horrendous, with planned savings of €900 million sought, and we all wait with trepidation where next the axe will fall. I hope my job will be secure, though we are on a pay freeze until next September, and there are noises emanating from the Dáil (parliament) to review pay talks, which may scupper the current partnership agreement. Frontline services should be exempt from cuts but nothing is sacred in the current economic climate. (This jargon of the moment seems to have displaced “going forward”, a teeth-grinding annoyingly redundant assault on the English language.) And that’s just Ireland – everyone says it’s just like the 80’s, which we missed as we were in Africa for most of the decade, apart from a student life in Wales where you expect to live in penury anyway. This time round it seems to affect most of the world economy, and economists are revelling in the doomsday scenario. It has spawned a lot of black humour and given satirists a field day, as anyone listening to Nob Nation on Irish radio will know (check the podcast on RTE 2FM website).

The government changed leaders in mid-waltz back in May for reasons way too complex to go into in this letter; suffice to say tribunal thumbscrews were being turned on Bertie to the detriment of his governing credibility. He fell on his sword and was replaced by former finance hatchet man Brian Cowen, known universally as Biffo – an acronym you can probably Google!

The only bright light on recent political horizons has been the election of Barack Obama and the optimism and euphoria it generated across the world, We were all delighted at the prospect of a new era in American politics that will generate hope for a better and more peaceful world in the future, with a knock on impact on whatever is needed to get the world economy back on its feet again.

I think that’s enough of my annual rant, I seem to be turning into a grumpy old woman where the issues of the moment incense me hugely! Anyway, time to move to news of the family, as we all grow another year older and maybe even wiser. Jan and myself are fine, and the kids are all well. We are all looking forward to being together for Christmas again, as we missed Shayne last year. This year we not alone have Shayne here, but also Jany, his lovely Dutch girlfriend, is home for a month over Christmas with him. History repeating itself with the younger generation, keeping the Dutch connection in the family! They are together since March, and she moved to Spain in April - we had email contact before we met her on our holiday in July. They are still in Malgrat de Mar near the Costa Brava, and keep busy all summer during the season. Shayne is back in Melias internet cafe, as the Dutch bar wasn’t viable. This year we brought Alána, Maeve’s friend, on holiday with us, with peer company being infinitely preferable for a 12 year old than undiluted parents! It worked a treat, as Alána is practically one of the family already and everyone enjoyed the holiday, even if it wasn’t as extensive as last year’s grand tour of Europe. We did the usual trips, to the water parks and Port Aventura theme park and Barcelona, and just having nice warm sunshine in the middle of what was one of the worst summers in living memory in Ireland – nicely matching the economic climate for misery – made for a great holiday!

Maeve started 1st Year in Blackwater Community School in Lismore in September and seems to be getting on fine, making new friends and very blasé about imminent Christmas exams. Her 13th birthday party passed without major incident two weeks back, she had a slumber party for 14 friends, slumber being the greatest misnomer for such an event where staying awake all night seems to be the goal, effortlessly achieved in this instance! Thankfully the sunroom doubled nicely as a giant dormitory, and equipped with enough DVDs to stem any boredom and food and drink to stock a siege, they got through the night. She has grown up and is nearly as tall as me now, must be something in the water that the kids are all taller than their parents. She still does Speech and Drama and played camogie (hurling) in the All-Ireland Under-14 final in Portlaoise in June, where Lismore were beaten by a club from Northern Ireland.

William is in 3rd Year in Limerick in the PE/Geography teaching degree, and he went to America in August for a semester exchange, which seemed to have been a great success from a social perspective (and no doubt academically as well!) judging by photos and news updates. He will be home December 21st and we are looking forward to having him home for Christmas. He had some teaching practice in Kilkenny in the spring and has had a pretty hectic travel schedule this year, as he went to Amsterdam twice, Krakow, Paris and Barcelona with the lads on two different trips, before he hit the States. He did a fair bit of travelling there too, with Colorado for Thanksgiving and trips to Washington and Boston. He went to a college in East Tennessee and it was an amazingly historic time to be in America with the Obama presidential campaign and election. He was very lucky to have had such a fantastic opportunity to go to college there and we had regular Skype and webcam contact with him over the past months. Much thanks to Anne, Kevin and family for looking after him so well in New Jersey on arrival and departure.

We had Martin’s 2nd conferral this November when he graduated from CIT with an Honours Degree in Design Communication, now he’s a fully fledged graphic designer. The student life is now over and it’s a pretty awful time to be entering the job market, with such a mega-recession underway. He is still at home, lovely to have him about the place, and he is job hunting after working for the summer in the Heritage Centre here in Lismore. He gets some freelance work he can do from home and plans to work in Dublin in the New Year on a voluntary basis for a charity, keeping up family traditions there! He went camping in Kerry and had a trip to Cambridge a few months ago to visit college friends there, so his carbon footprint is eco-friendlier than most of us. We enjoyed his conferral in Cork; doesn’t he look smart in his gown, beard and all like his father!

Jan and myself are fine and have a very busy life. Jan has the honour of being Mayor of Lismore since June, a post he will hold for a year until the local and European elections of next June. He will run for election to Lismore Town Council then, having been selected as the local candidate for the Labour Party. He enjoys representing Lismore at the various official functions that go with the position, and he has been in the local papers almost every week wearing the chain of office. He is getting very used to making speeches now. We were both invited to the National Pride of Place awards in nearby Cappoquin last month where President McAleese was the guest of honour, and it was a lovely night. It was held in recognition of community and voluntary groups nationwide.

Not long after Jan was elected Mayor a fire broke out in an abandoned recycling centre in the next road, and the area was evacuated as there was asbestos in the roof. It got a lot of national coverage as it is a real eyesore in a heritage town. The environmental hazard of asbestos has added to its newsworthiness, and responsibility is being tossed around from pillar to post among the authorities. He was also on the WLR-FM (Waterford Local Radio) Saturday Show for an hour long interview with his music choices in August. It was like Desert Island Discs, and he is getting high profile as the first Dutch mayor of Lismore.

He is involved in various community groups and national committees, and had an enviable trip to Reykjavik in February for an international festivals conference, and went to some amazing places like the original Geysir hot springs in the midst of the snow! He started racing cycling and took part in the Seán Kelly 100km Challenge in August, a charity fundraiser around Co. Waterford which had about 2000 participants, so that was a great achievement for him, and he might even do the 160km challenge next year! We both went to the Labour Party conference in Kilkenny last month, and wondered when there might be another general election!

Concern held its 40th Anniversary reunion in Dublin in September, and we loved meeting all the old friends from all over the world, particularly Laos, Tanzania and Bangladesh where we lived. There was a fantastic atmosphere there and it is great to reconnect with old friends linked by a common bond of humanitarianism. Jan was elected to the Concern Council this year, and is delighted to be involved at that level with our favourite NGO; one that has played such a major role in our lives over the past 30 years. To cap his year he graduated in UCC last weekend after completing a Diploma in Credit Union studies, and enjoyed the ceremony; he missed his MSc conferral 20 years ago as we were in Africa, and it’s great to have a pictorial record of this achievement.

I am still at the public health nursing in the same Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) area of Ring and Old Parish, and even did a conversation Irish course to try and revive my dormant language skills! Nothing really different from last year except the cutbacks and recruitment ban have been renamed the Orwellian-esque “cost-containment with derogation”! Need I say more? I am still active as a rep in the INO (union) and went to the annual conference in Cavan in May. Despite all the moaning I actually love my work, as it is frontline in the community and patient-focused, and I have a lot of autonomy on a day-to-day basis. My mother is still in Dungarvan but is totally bed-bound, has little recognition of any of us and has got so frail it is heartbreaking to see her as a shadow of her feisty former self. She is 93 and is getting great care in St. Joseph’s Hospital from all the staff and I see her almost daily as I work near Dungarvan. Our dog Ben is nearly 4 and has had a good healthy year, keeping me exercised walking him nightly.

We had a great weekend in June with the 6th Immrama festival and the theme was close to our hearts – Africa. We had some great writers who were very entertaining, and the festival is gaining iconic status at home and abroad. George Alagiah from BBC news and current affairs spoke of his life from Sri Lanka to Africa and England, Christina Lamb who has written extensively about Africa among other conflict areas, Redmond O’Hanlon who has done some eccentric travel in remote parts, and Tim Butcher, who wrote Blood River, about a safari along the Congo in the footsteps of Stanley. We read the book for our book club and I reviewed it on my Facebook site only to discover he had read it, much to my excruciating embarrassment. We had a good laugh about it and it hasn’t made me censor my reviews! Yes, we have both succumbed to the Facebook phenomenon after being introduced to it by Shayne and we love it as a means of keeping in touch with friends and family at home and abroad, as many of you already know.

Waterford hurling kept our morale boosted right up to the All-Ireland Final in September when they were beaten by Kilkenny who got a three-in-a-row. The whole country was on the side of the underdog as Waterford hasn’t won an All-Ireland since 1958 – I even remember the bonfires then – and it kept our minds off the dire state of the nation to wrap the county in a sea of blue and white. The wave of euphoria kicked in after the semi-final which we went to in Dublin, and lasted for the next month.

That’s about it for the round-up for another year, we are hopeful as ever of meeting many of you over the Christmas – we are planning a Recession Party for New Year’s Eve with a frugal repast – rice and dal perhaps? You are all welcome if you are around that evening, from 8-ish to late-ish! Let’s hope that things get better from now on and that we have reached the turning point of the recession, time to take stock and re-evaluate our lives, perhaps Christmas will be less frenetic than usual, though if you see the houses lit up all over the place you might think otherwise – maybe they are all into low-energy fairy lights!

We wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a good year ahead, may it fulfil all your dreams.

Love from us all, Catherine, Jan, Shayne and Jany, Martin, William and Maeve