Saturday, December 26, 2009

Reflections on a Forgotten First Anniversary

Hard to believe until I checked back that I missed the first anniversary of my blog entirely - that was on 22nd December and in the run-up to Christmas it went completely unnoticed. So now I am saying belated congrats to myself - and to all of you out there in the blogosphere who read and/or commented on the blog over the past year - thanks a lot! I really enjoy reading your comments and responding to them and at the same time I feel I don't devote a lot of time to the blog compared to some of you more diligent bloggers.

At the same time I am delighted to have had a chance to vent steam on issues that annoyed me over the year, as well as sharing some good times and events with you, and also posting recipes in what I hope was a user-friendly format for those of you into baking. I know I tend to use it myself when I am baking as it is as handy and accessible as a cookbook!

Some stats - I posted 70 times in the past year, and have 37 followers. My profile page has been viewed 820 times and the blog's been viewed 3694 times according to one counter and 4353 by another - who to believe? I don't really mind their accuracy as I don't want to start obsessing on my blog's popularity - it's good enough for me that people read and enjoy it and most of the comments have been positive. I have a listing on Irish Blogs and Blogarama -which might increase exposure, though they are a bit like vanity publishing - you apply to be on these listings - and I am following 48 blogs. This isn't a lot but as I find it hard to get round to reading all the posts these generate on my dashboard it's probably more than enough.

What do I like about blogging? It's relaxing; it brings me into other people's lives which is heaven for the innate curiosity I have about people without feeling intrusive (satisfying my nosiness some would say!)and it gives me a random record of my year which I would never get around to committing to paper. It is a format for musing or ranting/commenting on current affairs which exercise me, and a nice way to archive photos and videoclips that I have enjoyed or those I have made and shared via YouTube. I get to read recipes from around the world and try them out, and get a buzz from knowing some of you have tried and tested my recipes - and enjoyed them!

I have been a guest blogger on Niamh's Writer on the Way Home blog, and I have enjoyed interacting with all those who have commented on my blog or on whose blog I have commented. Some are incredibly talented and entertaining and if I was competitive there's plenty out there to aspire to! Lynda's blog from Tanzania was the first I followed as it spoke to me so personally - having lived in Tanzania for years I could identify with a lot of her posts and it was a great nostalgia buzz for me. There were many more that dipped in and out of my blogging life during the year and they showed me how we are all global citizens and if anything positive could ensue from blogging it would be to unite the world, unlike so many of our politicians and governments who seem to thrive on conflict and division.

Blogging feedback is generally polite and respectful - I don't really like the sometimes confrontational debate that ensues on some boards or chatrooms especially where contentious issues are debated, as it can quickly descend into abuse. Facebook is preferable for the hot topic debate where there are groups to opt into if the mood takes me.

So that sums up a few reflections on this relatively new hobby - one I never imagined doing a few years ago but which has given no end of enjoyment - long may it so continue.

Here are some of our Christmas Day photos -family and presents, the garden dusted in frost, and the Crib which is over 50 years old from my late father.

Happy New Year and Happy Blogging for 2010 to all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Happy Christmas 2009 - the Round Robin comes bobbin' along


Here is the complete text - with photos-of our annual Christmas letter to friends and family at home and abroad - it goes global by snail mail, email and now I am posting it on the blog.

It's a tradition that began in 1989 in Tanzania and has continued to date, at the request of many of the recipients/victims, so you are getting a summary of what's in a lot of the blogposts throughout the year. It's a bit long - very long in fact - so you may not have the stamina to stay to the end, but if you don't lose the will to live but persist, then congratulations are in order! Thanks for your patience and I hope you enjoy it. The photos you may have seen before as some were in old posts, but they were in the print version so for authenticity I'm including them here! (The photos are of the family taken last Christmas, Jan and me at a wedding, Maeve's 14th birthday, Spain holiday, BBQ in the rain, the boys at parties, and at Immrama 2009 with the speakers.)

Dear Friends,

It’s that time of the year again, when the Rotte family Christmas newsletter is wending its way to a letterbox near you. Be it email, snail mail or blog, there is no escape from this annual update from Lismore, so you’d better brace yourselves for the Recession Rant Roundup of events in and around our lives over the past year. It’s been such a rollercoaster year since our last communiqué this will probably just skim the surface and not cover a fraction of events at a local and wider level. I don’t feel at all Christmassy yet; the tree has yet to go up, or perhaps it’s that I’ve done a lot of shopping online – thank you Amazon – tantamount to economic treason, according to the Minister of Finance!

The country is in turmoil – a real winter of discontent. Industrial unrest abounds and the church is convulsed with the fallout from the clerical cover-ups over the sex abuse of children in Dublin and the institutional abuse over decades. Half the country was under floodwaters last month as a result of bad planning and building on our floodplains, and we have just had the most divisive budget in my memory. The government has deflected public anger at the bank bailouts by vilifying the public sector which now has pariah status. As this is the season of goodwill I will try to be restrained and suffice to say I took part in my first strike last month, and the mass protest march back in February in Dublin, and there’s palpable anger at the inequity of last week’s budget. Social welfare and the public sector have been targeted for cuts to recoup the extra €4 billion the government needs to run the country – never mind that the bank bailouts cost €54 billion. I am down 14% this year as a public servant, and resent being singled out – if it was across the board cuts like tax increases it would be more palatable. To ostensibly stem the flood of cross-border shoppers, the budget reduced the price of drink. Maybe we can now afford to drown our sorrows but reinforcing negative stereotypes doesn’t do much for us internationally.

Enough government-bashing for now – time to move on to the family news. It has been a momentous year for us, especially as we heard from Spain that we will become grandparents in February 2010 when Shayne and Jany’s baby girl is born! We are all delighted and the good news is that they have decided to move to Ireland – and did so in November. So far they have been very lucky – after three weeks here Shayne got a job with Concern based in Cork, in direct fundraising around Munster – signing people up for donations on the street – and it is going well. It is not the dreaded “chugging” or charity mugging of some agencies, who work on commission, as he is on a salary which is not contingent on sign-ups. He has a real understanding of what Concern is all about, having been a Concern kid for most of his life overseas, so it’s ironic that he has gone full circle – almost a homecoming!

Jany’s pregnancy is going well though she is very tired at 32 weeks now, but that is par for the course and hopefully I can be a useful midwife to her at this time as well as when I’m a doting granny, and not be an interfering old bat! I am enjoying digging out all the baby stuff hoarded for years and revisiting Mothercare. Right now they are staying in Cork with our old friend from Tanzania days, Sohaila, and as she will be away for a few weeks they will housesit for her. They are busy house-hunting in Cork city so the best of luck to them – it’s less than an hour from Lismore so we won’t have too far to go to visit them – or vice versa!

Martin graduated last year and spent a few months at home trying to get work without much luck in the graphic design field – so he has gone back to study for his Masters’ in DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology), and he is really enjoying it. He had some summer work with a local printer in Dungarvan which helped with the fees – postgraduate study isn’t cheap and he wasn’t eligible for a grant as he had lived at home after his degree when he was job hunting. He comes home at weekends once or twice a month and will be here over Christmas with all the family.

William is in final year of his PE and Geography degree in Limerick University, and has been doing teaching practice in Lismore for this semester, in Maeve’s school but not her class – she couldn’t get used to her pals calling him Sir! Hopefully he will get what he wants when he graduates in the summer, whether it’s teaching at home or abroad, or taking a break. This time last year he was just back from a semester in Tennessee where he had a ball and that probably reignited the travel bug that must be ingrained in all the boys from their nomadic childhoods. He had intermittent summer work in Lismore but the recession certainly had an impact compared to other years, and he didn’t even get away for a holiday, poor lad.

Maeve has just had her 14th birthday and didn’t have a party as it coincided with some of her friends’ birthdays – so she will probably just invite them to our planned New Year’s Eve party instead! She is very grown up and taller than me; she’s in 2nd year now and seems to be getting on fine academically, while maintaining the requisite teen apathy about school. She has joined the local Foróige youth club and they are going to entertain the residents at St. Carthage’s Home with Carols next week. Alána, her friend, and herself went to England for a holiday to Alána’s aunts and cousins and had a ball. She auditioned for a part in next spring’s production of the local Dramatic Society, “Wiz”, and was in a great show last May – excerpts from 4 musicals – Grease, Hairspray, Mamma Mia and High School Musical

In July Maeve and me went to Spain for a short holiday to see Shayne and Jany in Malgrat, and it was great timing that Anne, my old friend from student days and her teen girls were in Barcelona when we were there. We spent nearly 4 days together between Malgrat and Barcelona and had fun catching up. First time since backpacking around India, Nepal and Sri Lanka when we were in Bangladesh 30 years ago, and it was great to see we still can pack in as much in a day’s sightseeing as we did back then! We spent two full days on the Barcelona Bus Turístic and had great fun playing tourists to the max. It’s a beautiful city and I surprised myself by loving the cable cars over the harbour and at Montjuic, with my fear of heights! True to the recession we didn’t go to the costly and well-worn attractions of yesteryear like Port Aventura and Marineland, but Tibidabo – with rides from 1929 – suited us fine. We stayed with Shayne and Jany in Malgrat, and enjoyed the beach and pool, eating in and out, and wandering round the shops and markets. We also got acquainted with Migo their dog – he is still in Spain, until his anti-rabies quarantine is up in March, when he’ll move to Ireland.

Jan and me are fine even if we are apoplectic at the state of the nation. He is still active in the Labour Party and was Mayor of Lismore until the end of his first term in June. Then he had the local elections and we were all thrilled when he was elected to the Town Council – it was his first election as he had been co-opted to the council initially. He was featured on a national radio programme (Newstalk’s Global Village) on the immigrant candidates just before the election. He was one of only 4 non-Irish candidates elected from 44 in the elections. I enjoyed the tense atmosphere at the count centres, and still don’t understand it all. No, don’t ask, as I am not going to even attempt to explain the arcane system of transfers and surplus redistribution that operates here in elections. We both went to the Labour Party Conference in Mullingar in March, and I went to the Labour Women’s Conference in Dublin in October for the first time, with other Waterford Women delegates, and spoke to a motion against the reversal of the proposed cervical cancer vaccine programme.

Jan also went to Mozambique with Concern for a week’s field trip as a Concern Council Member (not to be confused with the town council!). He had a wonderful time, with a trip up the Zambezi bringing back memories of our 1994 trip on that river in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I think he would go back to Africa in the morning if circumstances allowed – as would I! We were both saddened by the death in October of our old friend and co-founder of Concern, Fr. Aengus Finucane. He was my boss in Bangladesh and CEO of Concern for all our time with the organisation in Tanzania and Laos. He helped make Concern the organisation it is today, as was evident in the huge funeral and the international acclaim his passing brought. The funeral was like a reunion of Concern over the past 4 decades, as friends going back to his days in Biafra were present.

The Immrama Travel Writing festival in June was another resounding success – Kate Adie and Fergal Keane captivated everyone with their accounts of reporting from frontline conflict zones in Africa and Asia, and Manchán Magan amused the breakfast audience in Ballyrafter. Jan continues as administrator for the festival and planning is underway for 2010 – so watch the website for the line-up in a few months at

I am still the Public Health Nurse in Old Parish and Ring, and I love my day-to-day frontline work with patients. I have been involved in the Swine Flu Mass Vaccination Clinics and enjoyed meeting new people. I was profiled in the current HSE staff magazine in the “getting to know you” section – my 15 minutes of fame! I went on my first strike last month – it was a one-day stoppage by all public sector workers to highlight the unfairness of the proposed cuts. I was organiser for the PHNs as I am rep for the INO in the area, and it was a steep learning curve. All went well, despite the weather – it was at the height of the recent flooding and monsoon-like rains, so not a great day for picketing. I went to the INO conference in Killarney in May, and as ever it was an enjoyable busy few days in a beautiful setting, and I came home via the scenic route of the Lakes, Torc Waterfall and Kenmare.

Life is very busy with work and family commitments, and my mother is still being well cared for in Dungarvan Community Hospital, at the ripe old age of 94. She is fully bed-bound dependent now, but still knows me, and though it is so sad to see the shadow of her former self, it is lovely to see her every day I am at work, and she enjoys the chat even if she doesn’t remember it afterwards.

On the relaxation front, I still read as much as ever, and have started a blog in the past year, which many of you may have seen. I called it “Dispatches from the Deise” at It has just been added to Irish Blogs which might increase its exposure. Hard to describe it except to say it’s pretty eclectic. From political rants to personal ramblings, with recipes on the side, and some travel pieces, nothing’s off-limits!

We enjoyed visits from various friends during the year and love to reconnect with old friends from our days abroad as well as those of you closer to home, and we enjoyed a lovely wedding in August, and have another to look forward to (sister of the first bride!) just after Christmas. Otherwise our social life was quieter than other years – sign of the times or is staying in the new going out!

I am coming to the close of the letter now and I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas with your loved ones. If you are in the Lismore area on New Year’s Eve then welcome to our party! Let’s hope that 2010 will see us personally achieving our dreams and goals and that the country and the world will emerge from the global recession and start to really recover economic stability and peace. Have a wonderful Christmas and to paraphrase the former NI minister’s unparliamentary language (not unlike the recent Dáil outburst by Green TD Paul Gogarty) – don’t let the recession get you down!

Love from us all, Catherine, Jan, Shayne and Jany, Martin, William, Maeve and Ben the dog Blog:

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Poor or Public Sector? Unparliamentary Language in a Post-Apocalyptic Budget 2010

This has been a bad week for the Irish public sector worker - we have been collectively hammered in the harshest most divisive budget in my memory at any rate. With taxpaying workers, it solely targeted the public sector for cuts, and despite the one day strike on November 24th and subsequent attempts at resuscitating union-government Partnership talks - which broke down at the 11th hour - there was an inevitability that nothing would make a difference and the decision on slashing pay was a fait accompli. There has been an increasing divide and rule fomented by the right - government and the employers bodies like IBEC and think tanks like the ESRI - in recent months to drive a wedge between the public and private sectors. As Joan Burton TD, Labour's finance spokesperson, said in her response to the budget, the low-paid public sector cleaner will constantly be reminded they are lucky to have a job and no doubt we'll all be reminded of this fact frequently in the future. Do we have to be grateful and not demand any more than the crumbs that fall from the private sectors' conspicuous absence of pay cuts? There was no increase in income tax which meant that the private sector felt no pain in the area of pay cuts, only the same as the rest of us in the carbon tax and other general increases like the drugs payments. All this to raise €4 billion, a fraction of the €54 billion given to bail out the banks but this time falling on those unable to circumvent the blow.

The budget targeted not alone the public sector for this unfair and unbalanced hit, but also hit the most vulnerable - social welfare recipients, child benefit, and carers - all had cuts to their payments except for the pensions paid to over-65s. The government learned to their cost last year that hell hath no fury like a pensioner with a grievance after they tried to remove the universal medical card for the over-70s in October 2008 budget - arguably the worst PR move since Garrett Fitzgerald's Fine Gael collapsed the government in 1982 over the proposed VAT on children's shoes. The jobseeker's allowances (dole) has been halved for the under-21 year olds, and reduced for under-24s. Those on disability and other long-term benefits will all be hit, and the universal child benefit paid to mothers - historically to give them a payment in their own right back in the days when women were chattels and had no right to own anything in marriage - has been cut by €16 per child. The excuse that we have generous social welfare rates is no reason to be so brutal in cutting these payments - hitting the captive audience of those on social welfare is a low blow as the cost of living is way higher here than in many other countries.

All in all, I will be down about another 6.5% direct pay cut on my gross salary. I know this will be slightly less when net income is calculated as I will have less tax and PRSI and levies to pay, but it is a real hit when you realise the public sector were hit with an obligatory pension levy back in May - for me, a 7.5% levy on my gross pay. So this year I have effectively had a 14% pay cut, which is draconian by any measure outside the IMF - in fact some of us feel the IMF taking over the government coffers would hardly be worse in their structural adjustments than the present Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition. The IMF is trotted out like the bogeyman whenever there's outrage and uproar from people over the budget cuts, and the government thinks it can get away with anything as a result of this fear - along the lines of - if you think this is bad, what do you think would happen if the IMF took over? Well, some say 15-20% pay cuts across the public sector would result - hallo, what have we had in the past year? With income and pension levies, and this pay cut, that's exactly how much we have taken. So I am inclined to say - bring it on. At least it might weed out the corruption and pandering to vested interests we see in the current budget. Publicans, the motor industry and the private sector are the winners in this budget.

Did I mention the biggest joke of all? The excise duty on alcohol was reduced in order to make booze cheaper! No, this is not a clip from Father Ted or a letter to Santa written by Father Jack -it is for real - the budget saw a drop with immediate effect in the price of drink and the justification is to stem the flood of shoppers trekking to the North Face of Newry every weekend (and every strike weekday!) That the government thinks that knocking 60 cent off a bottle of wine will keep patriotic shoppers at home shows how far removed they are from reality. People shop in the North of Ireland for overall cheaper prices as Tesco, Lidl and Ikea are all cheaper there than in the south. As for the motor industry - that would be car showrooms and sales outlets - a scrappage scheme was introduced in the budget which will give a €1,500 trade-in on cars over 10 years old when a new low-carbon emissions car is bought. As most people can't afford new cars with that scrappage it will probably be totally ineffective but the car dealers are happy.

The only bright spot in an otherwise abysmally depressing week on the news front was the diversion in the form of Green Party publicity hound TD Paul Gogarty lashing out at Labour's Emmet Stagg yesterday in the Dáil in an unparliamentary outburst. He took exception to Stagg and other Labour TDs accusations of hypocrisy at his statement that the budget was unfair but he was voting with it nonetheless. It is best watched in the YouTube clip above - but you have been warned, there is no beeping out the unparliamentary expletives! Of course it lightened the day a little and he achieved his goal of yet again hogging the limelight as is his form - he has shown similar form in the past and relished the spotlight, but is generally viewed as a prat by the media and by most of the electorate at this stage, and his hectoring and heckling in the Dáil was becoming tiresomely predictable - until yesterday's meltdown brought him to a new level nearly as low as his rollover in front of Frances Fitzgerald.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

My Christmas Cake - a variation on a traditional Irish theme

It's the end of November and time to bake the Christmas Cake - in fact it is a bit late and all self-respecting "housewives" have been stressing for weeks already about the Christmas preparations. Not this one - I haven't even made the cake yet nor have I all the ingredients to hand - but that will soon be resolved once I put my mind to it and blitz Lidl or my local supermarket - I don't scrimp on quality for this once-in-a-year cake but I don't equate quality with expensive and I hate feeling I've been ripped off - so I have no problem sourcing quality fruit and nuts at the discount German stores as well as the bargains on offer in the Irish multiples competing with them.

So in the true spirit of all good TV cooks - from the how-to-cheat-at-cooking Delia (who has spent Christmas at Sandy Lane resort in the Caribbean according to some stressed out wannabe-perfect-Christmas-cook on the radio this week who felt this was treachery!) to the uber-sensuous Nigella and Ballymaloe mother-and-daughter-in-law duo Darina and Rachel Allen - here's one I made earlier!

The photos you see here are from the cake I made last Christmas and I have no qualms of conscience putting them up here for you to enjoy as it gives those of you who may wish to try the cake plenty of time to brace yourself for a bakeathon -the preparation and baking will take you over a day including the soaking of the fruit in whatever spirit of Christmas you fancy, be it whisky or whiskey (it's all Uisce Beatha or Water of Life!) brandy, rum or Cointreau.

Be warned - it's not for the faint-hearted, as it is not alone time-consuming but a bit costly. However, it is well worth it and it can last for a year or more! A similar recipe is used for wedding cakes and the top tier is traditionally kept for the Christening of the first child!

You need the following items:

10-inch/26cm round cake tin, preferably Springform (Loose-bottomed!)
Grease the tin, and line with 3 layers of greaseproof paper or baking parchment and wrap brown paper round the outside tied with string - this stops the cake from burning at the edges.
(Tip: Cut circles to fit bottom of tin, then frill the side liners at the edges to keep them neatly tucked under the circles. This is clearly seen in the photo below.
(Imperial with nearest Metric equivale
12oz/350gm raisins
12oz/350gm sultanas
12 oz/350gm currants
6oz/175gm chopped mixed peel
60z/175gm washed halved glacé cherries
3oz/75gm dried apricots - chop and soak in water
6oz/175gm chopped or flaked almonds and/or chopped pecans
Juice and rind of 1 large orange/2 small ones
8 tablespoons/120 ml Cointreau/Whiskey/Brandy/Rum (pick one!)

Mix all the above and soak in the spirits and orange juice for at least 24 hours - covering the bowl in clingfilm.

Other Ingredients:

12 oz/350gm brown sugar
12 oz/350 gm butter - softened at room temp.
6 eggs - free-range preferably
1lb/450gm plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1tsp cinnamon
1tsp ground nutmeg
1tsp mixed spice
6oz/175gm ground almonds
NEXT DAY: Preheat oven to 170 degrees Centigrade/325 degrees Fahrenheit/ Gas Mark 3.


1. Cream butter and sugar with electric mixer or wooden spoon if you feel like some exercise!
2. Add beaten eggs gradually, still beating mixture.
3. Sieve all dry ingredients (except ground almonds) and add to mix while still beating at slow speed
4. Add soaked fruit mix and stir well with wooden spoon, until thoroughly mixed up.
5. Put dollops of cake mix into prepared tins and smooth surface with your (clean!) fingers dipped in cold water.
6. Bake in preheated oven. After half an hour reduce temp. to 150 degrees C./300 degrees F./Gas Mark 2. Bake for 3 and a half hours or until centre of cake top is firm and a metal skewer/knitting needle stuck into centre of cake comes out clean and dry.
7. Leave cake in tin until completely cool - a day or two.
8. Remove from tin, wrap in several layers of greaseproof paper, tinfoil and clingfilm, and store in a cool dry dark space - ideally for a few weeks.
9 For added flavour and potency, unwrap weekly, pierce base of cake with knitting needle a number of times and pour a capful or preferred spirits - Cointreau, whiskey, rum, brandy, whatever you fancy - over the base. Rewrap and store until ready to Ice.
(you can buy ready-made marzipan or better still make your own)


8oz/225gm icing sugar
8oz/225gm caster sugar
1lb/450gm ground almonds
2 eggs
1 tsp almond essence
1 tablespoon sherry (optional)


Mix all dry ingredients together and add beaten eggs and essence/sherry to make a firm paste.

Knead well on caster sugared worktop to prevent sticking.

Roll out and cover cake - use warmed apricot jam or marmalade to stick almond icing to cake.

Tip: Roll out large enough to cover cake in one go, having placed cake on its final resting place - a nicely foil-covered cakeboard or a large plate.

ROYAL ICING (The real icing on the cake!)


2lbs Icing sugar
4 egg whites
2-3 tsps lemon juice


Whisk egg whites and mix in half icing sugar, beat till glossy. Add remaining icing sugar and beat well. Add lemon juice and beat again.

Cover cake with icing as you fancy - can be smoothed over with knife in hot water or roughly slathered on and peaked with knife edge - looks great either way!

See the photo at the top of the post for the finished look - cheesy Santa figure acceptable or a more sophisticated sprig of holly or some calligraphic lettering if you prefer - anything goes and kitsch is definitely de rigueur at this time of year.

Store the finished cake in a tin or covered in tinfoil once cut to prevent it drying out - and most of all ENJOY with all your family and friends over the Christmas holiday season. Happy Christmas 2009 to everyone and Happy Baking!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

My First Strike - Picket Lines and the Public Sector

Today was a red-letter day for me as I went on strike for the first time in my life. I spent the day on or around the picket lines at Dungarvan Community Hospital which was our designated local workplace for picket duty and it was an absolutely filthy day weather-wise. It was cold and windy and rained from about 11 o'clock onwards.

The strike was the culmination of a joint effort by all the Trade Unions in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) to galvanise the public sector against the government's unfair targeting and villifying of the civil and public sector workers in the current recession. It was not an impulsive or petulant action - rather it was the result of frustration at the intransigence of the government to listen to or engage with the Union leadership in any serious negotiations on proposals to cut pay again in the coming budget.

We are prepared to do our patriotic duty as Brian Lenihan called it last year in his Budget speech but we are not prepared to be sitting ducks for slash and burn cuts and back-door hatchet jobs on our pay, while the banks are being bailed out and many of the self-same bankers that bankrupted the country (apt word that) are wondering how soon they can bring back their bonus payments and lift the cap the government imposed on their CEOs. €500,000 was the cap set just in case any of you were wondering how heartless it was to expect a bank CEO to survive on a pittance pay cut - now that's down from the €2.9 million that the (former) head of Bank of Ireland was paid last year and his response at being asked whether he was taking a pay cut last year was to say that he too would be earning less than €2 million this year! A joke that spectacularly backfired as the opprobrium of a nation poured down on his hapless head and he slinked out the door - followed by a fat pension. That's falling on your sword Irish business style while the nurses, gardai (police), civil and public servants are getting unilateral levies of approx. 7.5% imposed on their pensions and mileage pay cut by 25% without any consultation last May. So that's the background to today's day of action and strike.

I am the local representative for the INO (Irish Nurses' Organisation) Public Health Nurses and I ended up organising things for our members in the Waterford area. This was mainly communicating and liaising with everyone and ensuring that everyone knew what to do, as well as finalising picket duty rosters. This meant everyone was expected to do a two-hour stint on picket duty and they had to sign in as well, so that the union will know who participated. There is a strong moral obligation on members to fulfil their role as union members by taking an active role in a strike or any industrial action and thankfully most INO members recognise that and showed up and did their patriotic duty today.

There is a real sense of grievance at the treatment and perception of the public sector that is promulgated by the right-wing media and by the government which will lead to further unrest and probably more strike days. There is a real divide and rule approach pitting the public and private sector against each other which is detrimental to both, and yet it is very hard to stay silent in the face of such vilification. Many in the private sector are of the opinion that we should be grateful to have a job and perceived job security and put up or shut up.

As someone who worked in both the private and public sector I can appreciate some of the frustration of those poorly paid private sector workers who are now in very vulnerable situations and at risk of losing their jobs but the country needs solidarity not division right now - the vitriol towards the public sector is unfairly tarring everyone with the same brush - we accept the need for restraint in public spending and that's why we can't understand why there isn't a higher tax band for high earners as proposed last year by Labour, and why the TDs (MPs) are able to draw down their pension after 10 years services while we wait 30-40 years to retire on a half salary, or why the low paid are always being expected to contribute disproportionately. Mary Harney told people to shop around - now when they go to Newry and other Northern Ireland towns to shop they are accused of economic treason by spending their money outside the state!

This will go on - but for now I am stopping. We may be back on the pickets on December 3rd if the Union-Government talks are stonewalled.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

November Rain - Floods in Cork and Lismore

This week has seen the worst flooding in years and possibly living memory in some parts of Ireland. I took some photos of the local flooding in Lismore and the overflowing River Blackwater. You can even see some daring Kayakers paddling about on the flooded Inches on the river floodplain.

There is more bad weather forecast for the weekend and storms later today and tomorrow. Whether this is down to climate change or not is moot, I don't think November Rain was a misnomer whether it's the song or the normal weather in Northern European countries. I always associate November with rain and wind and storms, as I do January. So we shouldn't get carried away by climate change alone, though I am sure that the increased flooding is due to man-made factors totally removed from environmental causes. Towns in Ireland like Clonmel have seen terrible flooding in recent years and it is solely attributable to building on floodplains leaving nowhere for the run-off that would normally result from the River Suir overflowing or bursting its banks - when there are houses and concrete all over what should be a floodplain that's the result.

I was in Cork on the day the flooding began - two days ago. Jany had her first booking ante-natal visit at the wonderful new Cork University Maternity Hospital and we drove up in filthy weather through lashing rain and gale-force winds. Walking from the car park to the hospital after dropping the parents-in-waiting off at the main door was a major challenge and one cheap tattered umbrella later I joined them soaked to the skin with drenched jeans and leaky shoes.

After three hours reading a book in the waiting area as the hospital banned partners due to swine flu fears we went across the road to Wilton Shopping Centre for lunch and hit Penneys, where I got fluffy socks and fake Uggs (Fuggs?) for a fiver and felt like a teenager but they were deliciously furry and warm and I am now sharing ownership with my 13 year old daughter who has already borrowed them! We then went to visit a friend in a suburb near the River Lee and found a number of access roads closed off due to flooding. We finally parked the car and splashed the last 200 metres to her house, and left within a half-hour as her daughter rang to say she was leaving the city centre as the Iniscarra Dam was being opened -controversially - to relieve the flooding upstream on the River Lee and Cork would be inundated when the tide peaked in about two hours. We were glad to get home safely as the M8 to Fermoy had awful cross-winds and surface water, and Fermoy is one of the worst towns in the country for flooding. The road from Fermoy was OK but the River Bride at Tallow had burst its banks and the floodplain was like a lake.

Lismore Canal after the deluge

Yesterday Lismore was cut off to the east - the N72 to Cappoquin was closed and I had to drive up the Vee Road towards the mountains to get to work - a major detour that doubled my 14 mile journey. I had the same detour home last night even though there was no rain yesterday, but the river rose all day as the tides came back and there were more roads flooded. Tallow, 5 miles west of Lismore, was closed off and kids couldn't get to school.

Today the weather was dry and tonight has already had a flash hailstorm which flooded our patio. The rest of the country is in bad shape with Cork's water supply cut off to 18,000 households due to possible contamination. The city has practically shut down - no tap water means the army have been drafted in to supply tankers of water for household needs and bottled water for drinking and cooking.

The River Blackwater in flood today

I went down to the river (unintended homage to Bruce there!) today with Jany to take some photos of the floods around Lismore and you can see some of the results here and a few video clips. The rest of the country is in much worse shape - Ballinasloe in Co. Galway has been hammered with the overflowing of the River Suck, and many other towns have been affected adversely.

So I guess we are just lucky here that we escaped the worst of the floods and the ensuing havoc - being delayed and diverted en route to work is a small price to pay compared to what many others are enduring and the misery they will have up to and beyond Christmas. We are very lucky - we have our family all safe and well and we will all be together for Christmas again this year, with the joyful prospect of out first grandchild in February - a real cause for celebration!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

From the Personal to the Political - in a Winter of Discontent

I haven't blogged for weeks now and wondering why, I guess it's that I've been very busy as it's been a time of flux in a lot of ways. Swine flu vaccination has started at work and I am on the first designated team, which has been active for the past week. It is very busy and a new experience for most of us as Mass Vaccination Clinics are a rare enough occurence in Ireland. I would have encountered them overseas particularly in developing countries where they are a staple of UNICEF programmes, and are very effective public health initiatives. I may come back to this in another post.

Meanwhile, back to more personal issues. Our oldest son Shayne and his partner Jany have moved to Ireland from Spain where he has lived for the past seven and a half years. They are together for the past year and a half and are expecting their first child and our first grandchild in February!

Here they are with Migo the dog (who is in Spain until he can come here next year)

We are delighted they are going to be living in Ireland as we miss our kids when they are away even if they can drive us mad when they are around all the time. That's the dilemma of parenthood, isn't it? We spend years waiting for them to grow up so we can reclaim our exhausted suspended lives and then when they leave for college we miss them more than we imagine. The empty nest syndrome is pretty real and I suppose we won't have it for another five or six years as our daughter is only 13 - it'll be some time yet before we can go on holidays in low season to avail of cheap flights, hotels and everything.

That's if we can afford holidays in the gloom and doom that's predicted with the global recession and depression that Ireland seems headed for with the deflation that's happening - no-one is spending as everyone is terrified of what the budget will bring next month - so there is a greater problem here than in other countries.

The country's headed for a winter of discontent - the public sector is becoming increasingly militant as the government seems determined to exact its pound of flesh inequitably from the public servants who are deemed sitting ducks with secure jobs. It is true that we have better job security than in the private sector where profit drives everything, unlike services that are more nebulous to quantify financially, but it is thanks to strong trade unions that this situation prevails.

We have a government who has already hit the public sector with a pension levy averaging 7.5% since April which I wrote about here, and mileage has been cut by 25% for those of us - like me - who use our cars for our jobs. My petrol bill is increasing as the price at the pumps increases and also my service bill is enormous as I do such high mileage that my costs are no longer covered, and the wear and tear on the car is huge.

There was an Irish Congress of Trade Unions-led protest march held in a number of cities and towns yesterday - the one in Waterford attracted about 8000 from different unions whose members were off duty and could go. I was working so only there in spirit. On the 11th November there is a protest by the 24/7 Frontline Alliance to the Dáil in Dublin. This is all part of the ICTU campaign in the run-up to the Budget next month.

Frontline Services Alliance from DCTV on Vimeo.

They comprise the public sector union members who work shifts and whose premium payments are under threat of being cut or abolished as recommended by the McCarthy report, also known as the Bord Snip Nua report) which I referred to in another post. Most nurses, gardai (police), prison officers and army depend on premium payments for unsocial hours and shift allowances to bring up their generally poor basic pay. If these are cut they will be severely affected, as many have mortgages that factored in their premium and shift payments, and they are effectively considered core pay. Even though I don't qualify for these allowances as my job is 9-5, Mon-Fri, we are all showing solidarity with our hospital colleagues, as are most union members.

There is a strong perception that government and the employers bodies are trying to drive a wedge between the public and private sectors but the thing is everyone is angry that the bailouts for the banks seems to be no problem and yet people are being told they need to sacrifice and that €4.2billion must be shaved from the public pay bill and social welfare payments. We are being told to tighten our belts - even though no one is using that phrase as it has too much baggage, harking back to the Haughey days when he was enjoying a lavish lifestyle at public expense while enjoining us all to make sacrifices. That and the recent ex-Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) John O'Donoghue expenses scandal has only added fuel to that whole fire - one law for the rich and another for the proletariat - the rest of the world according to the elites .

Implementing the recommendations of the Bord Snip Nua report would be political suicide for any government and I can't see even the current Fianna Fáil/Green coalition having the stomach for it, especially since it was dissed by none other than the Tánaiste Mary Coughlan TD who seems to open her mouth only to change feet, so frequent are her gaffes; the best being the reference (in a speech to the IDA) Einstein's theory of evolution.

The next protest is the strike action planned for 24th November,; the unions are currently balloting members and we will know in the INO by midweek as our ballot closes on Monday. Most of the other unions have voted for industrial action and we will probably follow suit. No one wants to strike but we want to be fairly treated and not have to undergo further cuts in the budget while NAMA - the National Asset Management Agency - will provide safety nets for the banks which will have us indebted for years to come. Maybe we are trying hard to keep the IMF wolf from our door but there is no guarantee this will work in the long-term with the current measures. I hope that the Lisbon Treaty's ratification by the Czech Republic last week will boost European unity and enhance mutual support and cooperation - we are not like Iceland cut adrift outside the Eurozone and the EU and thankfully our recent ratification of Lisbon will ensure our place at the European table into the future.

Meanwhile, I look forward to the birth of our grandchild in 2010 and it will certainly be a light on our horizon and shorten what otherwise promises to be a winter of discontent. It will remind me to keep things in perspective and that family and friends are what matter. Although it helps to have financial security and stability, we'll get through this recession like we did before, by showing solidarity and resilience in the face of adversity.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Spot the Difference - homophone headaches

First there was this sign...

...then there was this one...

Can you spot the differences? Answers in the Comments box please!!!

These two wedding signs caught my pendantic eye some weeks back so I thought I'd share them with you. I know some of the readers of this blog are grammar and spelling anoraks like myself, always ready to gripe over a grammatical gaffe or spelling slip-up. I have already ranted here and here about language mangling and some hilarious posters.

These were obviously spotted fairly quickly but not before a costly sign had gone up by the hotel entrance. To spare their blushes I won't reveal their identity, and in all fairness they have resolved the problem quite quickly.

It was noted by a few people who commented on it, but I have seen mistakes like these homonym and homophone errors so often lately that may creep into such common usage to become acceptably interchangeable. It will probably continue to be a pet peeve and put me up there (or their) with Lynn Truss and John Humphrys in the language policing stakes.

Apart from these glitches, the venue is great and I have no doubt that it offers good value. The total package is around €5,000 for what's listed, and I think this is reflecting recession times for all you wannabee brides out there.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Champagne Socialists on the town - bargain-basement fine dining

I had a very enjoyable day at the Labour Women's Conference last Saturday, and I have already blogged about it in my previous post here. After all the hard work was over, and the delegates left the Mansion House, those of us in the Waterford delegation who were staying in Dublin decided to head for a bite to eat. Half jokingly we said how about somewhere like Marco Pierre White's - and found that research had already been conducted which revealed that as it was Dine in Dublin week, we could actually afford to eat in places we could previously only have dreamed of eating in!

What this meant was that dinner in a posh place like this was discounted to €20 or €30 for a four-course meal with tea or coffee. Now that was more like it. I rarely eat out at night, and at most would eat lunch in a bar or restaurant with colleagues once every few weeks. I usually bring a sandwich and fruit to work and occasionally have something from the Naked Lunch van at the Dungarvan Farmer's Market on Thursdays - they have spicy lamb burgers to die for and their sausage rolls are equally tasty - but that's weather permitting when you can sit out and pretend you are on some continental terrace instead of in the square in Dungarvan!

We were shown some of the wonderful reception rooms in the Mansion House by our hosts for the day, the Labour Lord Mayor Emer Costello and her husband Joe, who's a Labour TD (is he the Lady Mayoress, we wondered?) We got a glimpse into the somewhat surreal life of the Lord Mayor, who receives visiting dignitaries in these imposing rooms, including all visiting ships' captains - as the head of Dublin Port. There is a Lady Mayoress's drawing room where Joe can hang out.

Back to posh dining. We had left it way too late to book and didn't think we'd a hope of a table, but the recession must have left its mark as we were immediately shown to a table on the terrace which was cosy and warm with lots of wall heaters, and nice ambient lighting. Our corner table which was perfect for people-spotting, and we had a lovely dinner, with plenty of variety on the menu.

I had the gravadlax starter, posh fish'n'chips with mushy peas and a delicious sauce and Eton Mess for dessert. The latter was new in name for me, as it's simply meringue, strawberries and cream mixed together in a sticky, crunchy melt-in-the-mouth...mess. We found the service good and the staff friendly and professional, which is infinitely preferable to the snooty aloofness that can be found in uber-pretentious eateries that have got a bit above themselves from their celebrity chef links.

The Waterford Labour women were out for an enjoyable evening and we had good "craic" (which is not what it sounds for the uninitiated) and took some funny photos of each other as well as the food. After coffee or tea we headed off to our different destinations.

I got the bus back to "de Nortsoide", home of the Spire, with its myriad witty nicknames, and Big Jim Larkin on the photos. It's also that pariah state that's such anathema to the fictional Southsider Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, as well as home to our former Taoiseach and wannabee Presidential candidate, Bertie Ahern, the self-proclaimed Socialist.

We certainly put the social back into Socialist last weekend.

Photos show Jane, Dee, Lorna and me enjoying our night out, and the menu, and my dishes, as well as the Spire and Big Jim Larkin

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Labour Women's National Conference - and Waterford Labour Women's Collective Debut.

Last Saturday I went to my first Labour Women's National Conference in the Oak Room of the Mansion House in Dublin. This is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, a post which is happily currently held by not only a Labour Lord Mayor but a woman, Emer Costello, who is also a Dublin City Councillor. So the conference was on home ground with a political colleague, who is active in Labour Women. We have recently formed a group of Labour women in Waterford, from different branches in the constituency, and we held our inaugural meeting last month. We sent five delegates to the Conference, and proposed three motions which we felt were relevant to women's issues at this time.

Waterford Labour Women with the Party Leader. Back row: me, Cllr. Ciara Conway, Deirdre Jacques; Front row: Lorna, Eamon Gilmore TD, Jane Jermyn

One of the motions was on the proposal to cut child benefit to save 20% on its annual cost, as recommended in the recent Bord Snip Nua/McCarthy Report along with other swingeing cuts that will impact unfavourably on the poor and vulnerable in our society. Such a retrograde step would be hugely negative given that it is the only universal payment to women that keeps them financially independent and ensures equality for all children.

The Mansion House, Dublin

Another motion concerned the new childcare funding that replaces the annual payment for all children under six - it is inadequate in that it doesn't fund sufficient hours of childcare and it does not reflect the real cost of childcare in a registered creche, which is where the grant must be allocated. This sector has already been hit by cuts in subvention to poorer women and children in back to education and training schemes, and this grant will not help if its subvention is inadequate.

Dee speaking on election to the National Women's Executive, with Sinéad looking on.

Our final motion was one proposed by me - one I feel passionate about as it concerns women's health - on the government's unilateral withdrawal in November 2008 of the planned cervical cancer vaccine that was proposed in August 2008 for all 12 year-old girls in the State. This was hugely emotive and caused outrage, particularly as it was already too little too late, given that we were way behind other civilised countries in having no cervical cancer screening programme until last month.

Also, the recommended cervical cancer vaccine catch-up programme for 13-15 yr old girls was not taken up by the government, despite the UK having implemented a catch-up programme for all 13-18 yr old girls. The total cost was a paltry €10million annually for the 12 yr olds, and the catch-up would have cost a once-off €29.2million. But this was deemed unaffordable in the current climate.

Cllr. Ciara Conway speaking

In fact the Revised Programme for Government agreed by the Greens at their Party Conference a week ago talked about expansion of the Cervical Cancer Vaccine “at the earliest opportunity, in accordance with clinical priorities” - I wonder how you can expand something that doesn't exist already? Shows their priorities and skill at double-speak.

What led to my proposing this motion was the recent announcement of the plan to introduce postcodes to all households in Ireland, at a cost of €10-15million, and juxtaposed against the cervical cancer vaccine withdrawal it seemed obscenely inappropriate. Ireland may be the only country in Europe not to have postcodes, but our quaintly unique townlands address system has worked for years and could surely ride out the economic crisis. This was another Green plan, along with (to add insult to injury to the women of Ireland) the plan to stop badger culling by - you guessed it I'm sure - vaccinating them! The Greens must have lost all sense of irony that they didn't see the ridicule this would heap on them by even the most ardent animal-rights activists, and indeed they tried to downplay and even deny that they were pushing for badger vaccination, just an alternative to culling. This would seem to be the only alternative, though, as how else would you stop badgers being a TB hazard to cattle?

Joan Burton TD, Deputy Leader, addresses the conference, with Ivana Bacik seated
Below: Coffee break - Dee, Jane and Lorna

So that gives you an idea of our input to the Conference. It was a very interesting day, with a lot of good speakers, and an address by the man of the moment and hopefully Ireland's next Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon Gilmore, the Labour Party leader. The theme of the Conference was parity in political life - how to increase women's representation and presence in public office, how to increase the number of women candidates for election and how to strengthen our current position of having the highest proportion of women TDs of all the parties, at 22% compared to the Dáil (parliament) with 14%. So this generated a lot of heated debate, with diverse opinions on a quota system promoting a gender-proofing "affirmative action" type plan. It was all very positive and the format encouraged open debate and contributions from the floor, indeed it was well structured but less formal than the main conference partly because of the numbers and the intimate venue.

Eamon Gilmore TD, and Sinéad

Joan Burton TD, Deputy Leader and party spokesman on finance addressed the gathering, as did Senator Ivana Bacik, both formidable women with a long history of activism and advocacy on feminist and family issues. The guest speaker was well-known writer, journalist and commentator, Susan McKay,currently head of the National Women's Council of Ireland. The outgoing Chair of Labour Women, Sinéad ní Chualacháin, presided over the Conference. We could have filled the day with debates on the various motions from all the contributors, and there was plenty of networking and a chance to meet with the other delegates at the end of the day.

Ivana Bacik, Susan McKay and Sinéad ni Chualacháin

All in all, it was a great day and I am really proud to be a member of a party and a group of women with a level of conviction and moral outrage as was shown at the conference at the injustices in today's society. Contrary to Margaret Thatcher's assertion that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families, most people want to live in a society. Yet it is hard to escape the feeling that right now we live in an economy; we are being shown by the present government that their priority is solely focused on economic recovery, irrespective of the cost to society and the people of the country.