Saturday, May 15, 2010

Being nasty to Nanny

Letting a stranger into your home to mind your children can be a worry, but sometimes it’s the childminders who have to be wary of what lies behind the hall door. SUSAN DALY reports from inside the nanny state.

NOTHING about childcare is as simple as A-B-C. In Ireland there is no State register of officially-vetted childminders. The best a parent can hope for is to find a nanny whose role model falls closer to Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins than Rebecca de Mornay in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.

The lack of regulation also leaves the childminder open to abuse. When two former nannies wrote a tell-all book, The Nanny Diaries, about their experiences minding the offspring of wealthy New Yorkers, they lifted the lid on how some members of the monied classes treated their children and their staff. So fascinated was the public by this peep at how the other half live that the book was later made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson.

For all their riches and privileged social position, the parents in The Nanny Diaries were emotionally neglectful of their child, and poorly treated and poorly compensated their nanny. The mum spent all her time shopping; the father was too busy with his career and his affairs to care.

A nanny who works for a well-heeled working couple in south Dublin nods sagely when The Nanny Diaries are mentioned. Her current employers treat her well but at least three of her nanny friends in the area are desperate to change their job. One is looking after a child who is physically abusive to her – “a real Horrid Henry” – and another is trying to resist an ever-increasing workload, being asked to take the dog to the vet or to stay on late without notice.

“The girls are afraid to move because of the recession,” she says, “But they are also attached to the children.” The nannies interviewed here didn’t want to be identified – some out of fear of losing their jobs; others because they have to sign confidentiality agreements with the family.

Some of the mums she knows who employ au pairs or nannies don’t actually work outside the home. “I don’t know what they would be doing with themselves during the day,” she says, “You see them swanning around Ranelagh, going to the gym and out for their coffees and their lunches.”

One former nanny who has returned to college to study teaching still babysits for some of her ex-clients. “I think some people don’t want to come home until the kids are 18,” she says. “A few years ago you could name your price and get it for babysitting. These people always had charity dinners and balls and business luncheons.”

She paints a picture more in keeping with Victorian-era upper classes of the children being brought, freshly-scrubbed from a bedtime bath drawn by nanny, to be air-kissed by Mummy and Daddy as they sip their pre-prandial gin and tonics. (The parents, not the kids).

A friend of hers was once drafted in to babysit the child of a famous Irish musician. “My friend was French, so maybe they thought she wouldn’t recognise them,” she explains. “They were nice enough to her and paid double but they left the house without saying goodbye to the little boy. He was about two and sat rocking himself in a corner all evening. She found it very weird.”

Most nannies in Ireland are live-out but the long days they work extend beyond office hours. A group of nannies working in the salubrious seafront suburb of Clontarf on Dublin’s northside tells Weekend that a 10-hour day is the absolute norm. For that, they will bring home anything from e460 up to e600-e650 a week.

“The au pairs are worse off,” says one of the nannies. “They get paid between e50 and e100 a week for working full-time for some families, when they are meant to work about 20 hours. They are a sort of mother’s help, over here to improve their English. You can spot them a mile off in the park. They are always the ones who look miserable.”

Some of the misery is down to homesickness; some is down to the fact that many au pairs aren’t that interested in dealing with children.

One of the nannies mentions that some families use young foreign au pairs as full-time childminders while both parents work. “I think there’s a real downside for younger children,” she says. She recently intervened when she saw that an au pair whose charge was howling in anguish was unable to understand what was wrong with him.

“He was trying to tell her that he had a stone in his shoe and she was making him walk on it.”

Another claims that every au pair who has been through a few families will have a “horror story” to tell. “The unlucky ones are working 60 and 70 hours a week, babysitting, laundry, cleaning, eating the cheap food bought for the au pair to eat.”

The irony is that the term ‘au pair’ literally translates as ‘on a par’ – he or she is meant to be treated as one of the family.

The Irish nannies have their own problems. One relays how a former employer expected her to walk two miles with three children to do the grocery shopping – there was no car available – because the mother wanted her to shop at a certain organic butcher and a particular “posh” supermarket.

“What really got my goat was this mother who used to go on and on about organic food
and no treats and no TV, but then at the weekends, the kids told me they were plonked in front of the TV with crisps. Then I’m Bold Nanny when I try to get them back on track on Monday.”

Hypocrisy is not just for the holidays. One live-out nanny said The Nanny Diaries really chimed with her experience of parents wanting their children to be brought up in a “cultured” manner - which they themselves were not willing to back up. Putting on a mock crystal-cut accent, she says: “I thought the part in the book was really true where the parents want the children brought to museums, or want you speaking foreign languages to them but at the weekend they do nothing of the sort themselves.”

Although tales of mean mommies abound, there seems to be less contact with fathers – a rebuttal of the celebrity example of daddies seducing their children’s nannies.

“I’ve never heard of that happening here,” says one nanny, although another relates how one father insisted on telling her every detail of the row he had had with his wife the night before.

“It made me so uncomfortable,” she says, “It’s bad enough having to be privy to these people’s lives every single day – there is such a thing as too much information.”


Amanda O’Donnell and husband Brian know that a happy relationship with their au pair is vital to family harmony. “We think these girls are very brave to venture over here on their own and it can be daunting so we try to make them feel welcome,” says Amanda.

The family has hosted ten au pairs since son James, now 5, was one. (They have three other children, Daniel, 10, Ellen, 8, and Emily, 1.) Their current au pair Laura Movella is due to return home to Spain.

“I think the time I was here, four and a half months, that is enough,” says Laura, 20. “Longer is not good for the girl and the children. It is too hard to leave.”

The live-in nature of the au pair arrangement means accommodating a person who is essentially a stranger. Amanda says her au pairs always have their own bedroom. “In the evening they tend to be in the bedroom on their laptop,” says Amanda, “They need that space, and so do we.”

For Laura, who has made friends with other au pairs in the area, this arrangement suits. “I like to go out, or I like to keep in contact with my friends in Spain.”
Amanda works three mornings a week from her home office. “I try to free up the afternoons then for the children, and Laura can head into town or meet her friends.
It is handy if you have to pop out in an emergency, to have someone here, but generally I am around.

“She sometimes meets other au pairs for a drink in the pub around the corner or goes into town but the only thing I would ask is that she ring if staying over with friends. Because these girls are part of our family for a time, we feel a responsibility towards them.”

For her part, Laura says the flexible nature of her time with Amanda and family means she has had a chance to tour Ireland – she spent last weekend in Belfast with friends.

It is also key that both the family and au pair are clear on what they expect of each other. “We have a list of their duties so they know what to do,” says Amanda, “It avoids misunderstandings. We had one girl who was obsessed with cleaning the bathrooms and we tried to tell her she didn’t have to do that – we don’t expect the au pair to do our housework. She might help with the children but not scrubbing the bath!”

Some of the family’s former au pairs are still in close contact with the family – one is returning to Ireland to attend Ellen’s Holy Communion ceremony – but Amanda says that not all are suited to the job.

“You get an inkling and you give it a week,” she says, “We had one girl from Italy who just wouldn’t talk. She shuffled around the house at weekends in slippers and I couldn’t hack it.”

Amanda insists that signing up with a reputable agency – she uses SK Dublin Au Pairs ( – is vital as they can respond quickly when a situation is not working out.

For her part, Laura says au pairs have to be prepared for the fact that living with a family is challenging. “It won’t be all the time happy and flowers,” she says, “Some people come here and they are spoiled and don’t think they should have to work. You don’t own your own life but you do it for a little while to learn your language. You get used to the family and they get used to you.”

PATERNAL LOVE: What do daddies find so sexy about their children’s minders? Jude Law cheated with his kids’ nanny; Robin Williams married (and divorced) his and Ethan Hawke got his pregnant. Rob Lowe has been accused, twice, of “inappropriate behaviour” by his children’s nannies.

TELLING TALES: There were ructions in the Brangelina household in 2008 when it was reported that a former nanny was to write a tell-all tome about how life chez Jolie-Pitt included chocolate pizza for breakfast and skinny dipping at 2am.
Suzanne Hansen lifted the lid on parenting Hollywood-style in her 2006 book You’ll Never Nanny In This Town Again about her scary boss, celebrity agent Michael Ovitz.
The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan and her husband were cleared of breaching a contract with former nanny Joy Fahy in 2004 – but not before Fahy told the court that O’Riordan was obsessed with ironing.

CINDERELLA SYNDROME: The jet set lifestyle can have the celebrity childminder up till all hours. Lisa Marie Presley’s childminder claimed last year she wasn’t paid overtime for minding Presley’s baby twins seven days a week. Two of J-Lo’s nannies to her twins also quit in record time, reportedly because of long hours.
Nanny Angela Jacobsen parted ways with Madonna last year, shortly after complaining on her Facebook page that she was being worked round-the-clock.


Friday, May 14, 2010

All bets are on

As one man is jailed for spending over e200,000 of other people’s money on his gambling addiction, SUSAN DALY finds the stakes are high for compulsive betters.

THERE is a competition currently running on a national radio station that challenges listeners to spend e10,000 in one day. If that sounds like a spree, try spending twenty times that amount in a year. It’s an easy task if you happen to be a compulsive gambler.

The jailing this week of 33-year-old events manager Patrick Brown threw the issue of gambling into sharp relief. Brown got a five-year sentence for the theft of over e200,000 in deposits paid to him by secondary school students for their debs balls. Cork Circuit Criminal Court heard that Brown had used all the money to feed his gambling habit over a 13-month period.

The question on most people’s lips would be: How could you lose that much in that relatively short space of time? It is facilitated by a betting landscape that has changed beyond all recognition from even a decade ago. Colin O’Driscoll, principal psychologist at the Forest addiction counselling centre in Co Wicklow, describes the surge in online gambling as something that brings ‘push-button’ ease to frittering your cash. A spokesperson from Gamblers’ Anonymous says that their growing number of online-gambling addicts tell them that “online poker in particular is absolutely rampant. All you need is a computer and a credit card.”

The recession has not done much to dent the habitual gambler’s passion for a punt. Bookmaker giant Paddy Power have reported that the total amount staked by their customers in the UK and Ireland in 2009 – e2.75 BILLION - rose by 31 per cent from 2008, when punters staked e2.1 billion.

“Recession aside, if someone has a credit card they can continue to dig themselves deeper into the hole of debt with gambling,” says Colin O’Driscoll. “In the past when they ran out of money, they would have had to physically leave the bookies’ shop to go down to the ATM or go beg a friend to give them a sub. When betting online and not handling cold, hard cash, the perception of the consequences are not as clear to people.”

Journalist Declan Lynch spent nine months investigating the online gambling scene for his book Free Money. He describes gambling as “a major world religion” and fears that the culture of gambling in Ireland has spread so deeply that we don’t even see it anymore.

“I think that people in the financial climate at the moment are saying, ‘To hell with it, I’d be better off gambling with it’,” he says. “An alcoholic will always be able to get a drink, and a gambler will always find a way to get a bet on.

“I have not the slightest doubt that there are hundreds of cases bubbling under the surface like that one in the courts this week,” he adds. Colin O’Driscoll cites the example of a man who approached Forest clinic last week. The man has spent e250,000 on gambling in the past 18 months. He has just come into an inheritance and knows that, without intervention, that lump sum will swiftly go the way of his previous cash flow.

The financial consequences of such gambling habits are dire but the personal toll is similarly devastating. A chief organiser for the Irish Gamblers Anonymous network says that the impact of gambling is not a new phenomenon here. He is now a middle-aged man and has never gambled online but from the ages of 12 to 43, his life was entirely consumed by gambling of every other type imaginable.

“It started with cards when I was a young fella, pitch and toss, things like that,” says Martin* (he has asked that his real name not be used). “The difference between me and the others was that when I could afford to gamble for a penny, I gambled for three pennies. I gambled for excitement.”

He says that even though most compulsive gamblers won’t appear on the news for carrying out an illegal act to sustain their habit, they are nonetheless capable of ruining their lives and the lives of those around them.

“You won’t hear amounts mentioned in a GA meeting – some will have lost pocket money and some will have lost a farm – but they will all have lost everything they could not afford to. And what’s an illegal act? Is it illegal to give your wife half your wages when she needs more than that, just because you want it for gambling? Is it illegal to open your child’s piggy bank and take their Communion money?

“I didn’t know the colour of my children’s eyes because I was so distracted by gambling. My children were all born from different addresses because we were ducking and diving and moving house to stay ahead of the bailiffs. I had a respectable job, I had a pioneer pin on my coat, but every day I woke up with a sickness in my soul.”

He insists that gambling addiction is an illness, not a character flaw. His assertion appears to be backed up by medical studies that conclude pathological gamblers can have lower levels of chemicals like norepinephrine and serotonin in their bodies. The thrill of gambling makes up for the deficiencies of chemicals normally secreted in times of excitement or stress.

“Gambling has a very strong association with depression,” says Colin O’Driscoll, “There is a higher tendency towards suicidal thoughts among those suffering from depression related to gambling than those with clinical depression alone.”

Martin knows seven people alone in his area in the south of Ireland who took their own lives because of their gambling habits. “They couldn’t live with the effects of their gambling, but they couldn’t live without it either.”

Yet it remains hard for the rest of us to entirely grasp the depth of the problem on our doorstep. The cases of celebrity high-rollers like golfer John Daly, who reckons he gambled away a e40m fortune, or snooker player Jimmy White, who blew his 1994 World Cup e150,000 runner-up prize at the bookies, seem a world away. Even the tale of Gladys Knight losing all her money playing Baccarat in Vegas has a hint of hedonistic glamour about it.

“It’s a bit like that here though - socially, gambling is acceptable,” says psychologist Colin O’Driscoll. “I find that the aggressive marketing campaigns that certain online companies run are very cynical.”

He has had patients terminate online accounts only to get an email a week later saying they’ll be given a e50 free bet if they rejoin.

“I don’t want to spoil the party but advertising cigarettes has gone, I can see a ban on alcohol ads coming and I think we should be looking at gambling too.”

Declan Lynch says the normalisation of gambling – which makes it easier for the addict to cover their own extreme behaviour – is frightening. “At the end of the reporting of every national issue big or small now, we have some bookmaker offering odds. With huge success they have made it respectable, family entertainment and removed it from the image of broken men betting their dole in backstreet offices.”

• Gamblers Anonymous have volunteer-run helplines on 087-2859552 (Cork); 086-3494450 (Galway); 01-8721133 (Dublin) and see for more information.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I'm A Survivor..ialist

Self-sufficiency is the buzzword in these challenging times, so Susan Daly gets a few lessons in fending for herself

Monday May 10 2010
No-one knows what the future holds, especially now that it's obscured by a cloud of volcanic ash. The view from here, such as it is, isn't brilliant.

Turn on the radio and TV and it's all economic collapse and climate change. Take a break and rent a DVD and you can choose between The Road (Viggo Mortensen wandering around a dying, post-apocalyptic world) or the Book of Eli (Denzel Washington, er, wandering around a dying, post-apocalyptic world).

On the bright side, some folks have never been happier. 'Survivalists' are people who firmly believe disaster, manmade or otherwise, is just around the corner and make preparations accordingly. For them, making a nuclear shelter and laying down 10 years' worth of bottled water and tinned sardines is just common sense. They're only waiting to be proven right.

Digging a bunker in the back garden might be overkill for most of us, but there are ways in which we can better prepare ourselves for difficult times, fiscally or otherwise.

Always the pessimist, I decide to deal with the worst-case scenario first. I've always wondered: How would I cope if I was plonked in the middle of nowhere without shelter or even a drop of water?

My first reaction would be to cry. Copiously. My second would be to ring up former army sergeant Patsy McSweeney (presuming my mobile still worked).

Patsy, whose hobbies include camping out in the Wicklow Mountains in snow without a tent, teaches bush craft survival courses at Loughcrew Estate in Co Meath. He takes one look at the way I'm sitting on the ground while listening to his instructions and immediately he can tell I'm a namby-pamby city gal.

"Always get something between your backside and the ground," he says, "Even if it's to sit on your heel. Otherwise, you're on the quickest route to freezing yourself."

Sir, yes sir. This is not my world, it's Patsy's, and I'm as helpless as a baby. To get me and two similarly soft pals in a more 'survivalist' state of mind, we are sent off to skim the tree tops on a sky-high zipwire. Physically exhilarated, we are then posed a number of brain challenges which force us to think laterally about our situation.

Team spirit elevated, Patsy gives us very basic tools to set ourselves up for the night. I cheat with a camping flint to start a fire. A piece of Patsy eccentricity that has been bothering me all day -- he's been picking bits of sheep wool out of barbed wire and stuffing it in his pocket as we walk -- suddenly makes sense. It is perfect kindling to get the flames jumping.

The shelter is less easy to bluff. In the event of a 'forced bivouac' -- sleeping outdoors without a tent, to you and me -- this is the first thing to be sorted.

We get the basics assembled, a large stick laid like a crossbar across two branches and a lean-to of layered pine fronds. I feel like Bob the Builder without my little digger, carving out a catch-drain in a semi-circle with a stick to lead groundwater around and away from our precious shelter. Digging the latrine downwind is, mercifully, someone else's job.

All of this is thirsty work. I am deluded from a childhood of reading Famous Five books into thinking that a nearby babbling brook should quench that problem. Not necessarily, warns Patsy. Rotting ferns or bracken can easily poison water. The test for this is to rub a few drops of the water on your lips. If it stings, you're in trouble. 'You first,' I think.

"The Indians say that running water always runs free," says Patsy. "But not if there is a dead sheep upstream it doesn't." Lovely. In the end, we establish that the best way to get water is to dig a hole in the ground, put a plastic bag in the bottom (there's never a shortage of plastic bags blowing about the countryside, sadly), put a stone on top and let water gather overnight.

Rainwater is reasonably clean, and if needs must, boiling lake water twice is an option. Little tip: A twig with the bark scraped off, thrown into water as it boils, helps draw impurities and the smoky smell from it.

Food is an easy trout from a lake, scraped out in a stream and baked over a frame of sticks but, if we're honest, we'd probably all die in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Surely the wildlife would be wiped out? In the event, nettles and dandelion boiled into tea is good for hunger pangs but that won't sustain us long.

I'm still not confident I would survive long in the open air -- Patsy left us for five minutes to sit and meditate on the sounds of the wood and I was freaked out by a cow moaning in the distance -- but I think I can do something about the food.

Back in Dublin, I look into the GIY movement (Grow It Yourself). We rely so much now on air-freighted goods that are easily held hostage to random volcanic eruptions. Gardener Peter Donegan hosts groups of novice growers at his home in north Dublin. On a bright April morning, I head up there with the knowledge that I have killed every one of those 'living herb' plants I've ever bought in the supermarket.

Peter relieves me of my plant-homicide guilt. "Those things are force-grown and leggy," he says, "They are not meant to survive beyond a few days."

Other things I learn from Peter: seeds have a shelf-life of a year, but you can freeze them just like a bag of peas; I can grow lots of things in my tiny courtyard that never sees a shaft of light (solar panels work on cloudy days -- so does photosynthesis); mint is invasive and should always get its own pot.

He also makes me squeeze a fistful of wet compost in one hand, and a dry fistful in the other. "People are afraid to get their hands dirty, but you have to get a feel for what is overwatering, and what is underwatering, the two biggest killers." It's like CSI -- Cabbage Slaughter Investigation.

Nails duly dirtied, we set about separating and pinching seedlings, planting potatoes and onions, rocket and runner beans, beetroot and pumpkins, sorrel and strawberries.

One month later at home, the onions and potatoes are sprouting, the beans are running wild and the mint is trying to take over the world.

Of course, when it comes to really fending for ourselves, the best question to ask is: What would Darina Allen do? She had an 'eat seasonally, eat locally' approach long before it was fashionable. Her most recent book, Forgotten Skills of Cooking, suggests that growing our own beans might only be the start of it. Only two generations ago, Irish people knew not only how to produce their own food but how to kill it, cook it, make shoes and pianos from it. (I may have made that last bit up.)

I'm not up for making my own sausages -- I don't exactly have room for a pig -- but I have a go at churning my own butter. Butter is like dust in our house, it ends up on everything, so it might be a good idea to have a Plan B in case creameries go out of business.

As per Darina's step-by-step instructions, I whisk cream until it collapses and separates into buttermilk and fat. There is lots of faffing about with iced water and then comes the fun bit -- squeezing the remaining buttermilk out of the fat. I thought the wet-compost test was bad but this is gross; slimy and sticky and I end up with butter behind one of my contact lenses. I now understand why Darina always wears those famous spectacles.

In the end, I'm not sure my finished product is right. It looks a bit pale and sickly, and doesn't smell very nice. Perhaps my hands were too warm. Perhaps I cheated by not getting the cream from my own cow. I just have to hope that in the event of the apocalypse, Kerrygold is spared.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Movie review: Hot Tub Time Machine

As published in last Friday's Day and Night magazine with the Irish Independent:

Does anyone really want to relive the 1980s? The disastrous hair, Maggie Thatcher and Mr Big: there are so many reasons not to go back.

Hot Tub Time Machine revels in ’80s nostalgia right down to its ludicrous, neon-lettered title. For Adam (John Cusack) and his estranged buddies Lou and Nick - all stuck in depressive, dead-end adulthood - the era of Ronald Reagan and legwarmers were the best years of their lives.

When Lou (an insanely funny Rob Corddy) almost comes a cropper thanks to a cocktail of booze, exhaust fumes and Motley Crue, Adam and Nick (Craig Robinson) decide a restorative road trip is in order. The trio travel to the ski resort of their hedonistic late teens.

Like the lead characters, the resort has seen better days and there’s a rotting dead animal in their hotel hot tub. Enter repairman Chevy Chase (funny again for the first time in decades – a sure sign we’re heading back in time), add a dash of male bonding in the titular time-bending tub and the boys are rocketed back to 1986.

There is a nod to a Back to the Future style plotline, but this isn’t the place to come looking for a treatise on the time-space continuum. This is a movie having fun with itself and the era it parodies, where Don Johnson is a style icon and tape cassette Walkmans are the zenith of audio technology.

Directed by Steve Pink, who wrote Cusack’s Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, the script isn’t what it should be, relying a lot on visual gags, some toilet humour (literally, in the case of a catheter) and pop culture references that will be lost on audience members under 30.

Saying that, there are enough laugh-out-loud moments – especially a running gag about how Crispin Glover’s bellboy loses an arm – to keep things ticking over. As for the title, like much of the 1980s, it’s so bad, it’s good.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Next-of-kin: Sallyanne and Sarah May Clark

Restaurateur SALLYANNE CLARKE and her daughter SARAH MAY
Sallyanne Clarke jokes that she has three children: daughter Sarah May, 20, son Andrew, 14, and L’Ecrivain, the famous Dublin restaurant she owns with chef husband Derry.

Sarah May nods in agreement. “The restaurant is 21 years old this year,” she laughs, “It’s like the eldest child in the family.” And a particularly demanding child at that. Sallyanne originally intended to help Derry out for just the first six months after l’Ecrivain launched. Two decades later, she is still welcoming diners at the front of house while Derry keeps things sizzling in the kitchen.

“There was us and there was the restaurant,” says Sarah May. “It’s not like we were abandoned or anything but it came first. When you’re younger, you don’t understand that the restaurant is what is clothing you and putting food on the table, literally.”

These days, Sarah May has a clearer insight into the pressures her parents were under as she works several shifts a week in l’Ecrivain while studying marketing and event management in college.

“When she was a child, we’d come home at night and she’d be sitting up waiting to talk to us and play,” remembers Sallyanne. “She was very with it, very outspoken, very precocious, very bright. She always asked questions and still does.”

Sallyanne would bring the children to school in the morning and collect them afterwards. Squeezing in a rest between lunch service, the school run and evening service wasn’t so easily guaranteed. “We would try to persuade Sarah May to have a little nap with us, and she’d say, ‘But I’ve already had mine!’

“I always remember she would be in the bed beside you in those afternoons when we didn’t have someone in to help out, she’d be sticking her fingers in your eye and pulling at your nose, trying to get you to wake up so she could talk to you. You might have had a late night and an early morning and you knew you’d have a late night again ahead of you so it was always go, go, go.”

Mum and daughter agree that combining family and work was a delicate balancing act. “It’s always a trade-off,” says Sallyanne. “But being a working mom meant I could structure my time and when we were with them, we gave them our undivided attention. It was their time, nobody else’s.”

Sunday is sacred for the Clarkes. “The restaurant is closed on Sunday so it was always a family day, and still is,” says Sarah May.
The dynamics of their relationship have changed somewhat as the kids have grown. As Andrew, who is currently in boarding school, told Sallyanne recently: “You know Mum, I think you’re missing me more than I’m missing you!”

Moving into her own place has made Sarah May realise that her childhood equipped her with a sense of independence.
“I was talking to one of my friends the other day and he said ‘I don’t know how you live on your own, I don’t even know how to work a washing machine’,” she says. “That’s ridiculous. I can’t believe how some parents baby their children. They are 20, 21 and they don’t know how to do anything for themselves.”

Now that Sarah May is moving on in life, Sallyanne notes that it’s more important than ever to make sure the family bond survives that transition to adulthood. “Outside of seeing her at work, we do a dance class on Monday night together. We usually meet up an hour beforehand, go for a coffee. It’s just one day a week but it’s a conscious effort we make to do something together. It’s brilliant fun.”

Acting the rich bitch

Even the poshest shops and most exclusive brands are quietly cutting their prices, says Susan Daly

In September last year, an extraordinary party hit the headlines. Around 300 employees of the London branch of Lehman Brothers gathered in a bar near their offices. The bank whose $600bn (€460bn) collapse triggered the global financial crisis then treated its remaining staff to an evening of expensive wine and pink champagne -- a toast of sorts on the anniversary of the crash.

Few of us non-bankers are willing to be seen swilling champagne in public but there are signs that the demand for luxury products is warming up. LVMH, the world's largest luxury goods firm, recorded a 13pc jump in sales for the first quarter of 2010. Asia is a big market now for the status symbols LVMH purveys -- Louis Vuitton handbags, Tag-Heuer watches, Moet et Chandon, Krug and Don Perignon champagne -- but the firm reported that their European sales are also on the up.

"While I wouldn't say we are out of the woods, there is a lot more confidence around," says Stephen Sealey, managing director of high-end store Brown Thomas. "The accessories business is quite strong."

Some consumer watchers say we are indulging a pent-up desire for nice things. We've paid down some of our personal debt and we're bored of deprivation.

Sealey says that his well-heeled customers have snapped up premium-price items like Victoria Beckham's clothing range without hesitation (and you won't get change from €1,000 for an entry-level dress in that collection), or to-die-for wrist candy like the Mulberry Alexa, named for celebrity clothes horse du jour, Alexa Chung.

But while Sealey says that Brown Thomas "will never go down the route of cut-price and lower-end lines", there is evidence that looking and living like a millionaire has never been more accessible for the average Joe and Josephine. Brands and service providers have been forced to find ways of drawing us back in after 18 months of starving for custom.

"I would say that 90pc of retailers are committed to special offers and extra value packages," says Alan Gilligan of, which has an online forum for consumers to tip each other off to bargain discoveries.

Brian Sargent, director of luxury holiday company Tropical Sky, says it is on track to double business this year over 2009 because punters are finding such value at the luxury end of the market. "We're talking a week in the Maldives at a four-star hotel, watersports, all-inclusives at €1,700 -- that kind of package would have been €2,800 last year," he says.

Fortune -- or saving one -- favours the bold, says Sargent.

"Many customers will now come in and say, 'What are you going to do for me for that price?' In the vast majority of cases now, you can negotiate another extra in there, maybe upgrade their hired car and so on. This year is a great one for travellers because the airlines have softened their prices and hotels are even more aggressively discounting."

Many areas of the luxury goods and services industry prefer the euphemism of "extra value" -- discounts are so crass, darling. So luxury hotels will offer extra nights of accommodation free, or include spa treatments in the overall price.

But there is no denying that in some cases, prices have simply been chopped.

Gilligan mentions one "very nice restaurant" in Dublin was recently offering a lunch deal that invited customers to toss a coin: heads, you pay; tails, lunch is free.

Golf clubs, too, the source of much snobbery and bragging rights in the Celtic Tiger years, are lobbing huge lumps off their prices. To take an extreme example, joining the exclusive Druids Glen club in Co Wicklow a few years ago would have involved finding a spare €50,000 for the joining fee. That fee has now been scrapped entirely and the annual membership costs €4,000.

An acquaintance tells me that he recently joined his local club for €5,000. His friend, who joined it in 2007, is raging because he paid €14,000 for his membership at the time. He feels like a Celtic cub who was sold a pup.

Were my acquaintance to toast his one-up-manship, he might plump for one of the many fine champagnes currently on special offer. Around Valentine's Day, a time when traditionally demand for bottles of bubbly kept prices at a premium, Bollinger was selling its Special Cuvee for a bargain €50 in O'Brien's off-licences. Bolly, one notes, is the only brand of bubbles that James Bond and Queen Victoria would allow tickle their tongue.

Pascal Rossignol, owner of Le Caveau speciality wine shop in Kilkenny city, says: "There have been some big discounts from the grands marques (the high-end champagne houses), fairly good discounts that we have been able to pass on to the customers."

We'll say cheers to that, but if you're going to look the Ab Fab part, you'll need to dress it too.

Kildare Village designer outlet opened in 2006, at the height of the spending frenzy here, but has managed to prove recession-resistant because contractually, everything has to be at least 33pc cheaper than recommended retail prices.

On a weekday morning, the newly opened Juicy Couture store there is packed with young, poker-haired women rifling through the plush velvet sportswear made famous on the pert backsides of stars like Eva Longoria, Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez and Madonna. This is not end-of-line, factory rejects stuff: Review kits itself out in a pair of on-trend, straight-leg DKNY dark denims for €69 and toys with a pair of classic Tom Ford aviators (one-third off the normal €300 asking price), as sported by the likes of Brad Pitt and Jessica Simpson.

The assistant in the sunglasses shop says that the Tom Ford line is proving particularly popular because they are understated and don't scream bling.

"People like their designer hit but they don't want to be seen flashing big logos any more. It looks fake," he confides.

And therein lies the key to tapping into the millionaire lifestyle: by all means look for the bargain but never, ever wear your labels on your sleeve.

LIVING THE DREAM: The fact that it’s a buyer’s market out there is nowhere more obvious true than in property. Belmayne, a housing development near Donaghmede in north Dublin, tried to sell itself as Millionaire’s Row in 2007 when it jetted in football star Jamie Redknapp and his wife Louise to promote their apartments and houses.
A new developer has since taken over the latest phase of Belmayne and representatives Hooke and MacDonald tell Review that “we’re not selling a dream – everything is on the ground and looks a million dollars”. Nonetheless, a two-bed apartment in Belmayne is now up for grabs for e175,000 (a one-bed cost e275,000 in 2007) and a three-bed house now costs e220,000 (it was e365,000 in 2007).
MICHELIN MUNCHING: Even Michelin-starred restaurants are having to tempt diners. Bon Appetit in Malahide is one such spot and is offering three courses and a bottle of wine for two people for e75.
If it’s the drama of fine dining that appeals, you could always head to Conrad Gallagher (he of Peacock Alley infamy) in his new Salon des Saveurs restaurant on Aungier Street where set menus start at e24.
CHEERS! Moet et Chandon’s most recent glossy campaign had movie star Scarlett Johannson balancing a champagne glass between her perfectly manicured toes. Try re-creating her pose with a bottle of the brand’s bubbly for e38 from “The same bottle of Moet was closer to e50 in mid-2008,” says wine importer Pascal Rossignol.
JEAN GENIES: A strange phenomenon of the Noughties was designers charging over e300 for the humble pair of jeans. Now, Rock & Republic denim, Victoria Beckham’s old favourite, has filed for bankruptcy. Paper Denim & Cloth brand, once worn by everyone from Cameron Diaz to the Olsen Twins, is relaunching as a reduced-rate line (around e80).
At the Kildare Village outlet of 7 For All Mankind, the ‘premium-denim’ brand favoured by Angelina Jolie, Reese Witherspoon and Ben Affleck, you can buy 3 pairs for the price of 2 (handy if you team up with two friends) and one e229 line is marked down to e69.
READY FOR YOUR CLOSE-UP? The modern equivalent of the oil painting over the mantlepiece is the photostudio session. If airbrushing is good enough for celebrity cover girls like Kate Winslet on GQ and Demi Moore on W magazine… The Photography Studio in Harold’s Cross, Dublin is offering a professional photo session for e220 (this service would have cost upwards of e400 three years ago according to
SLEEP ON IT: You might not be able to afford your own personal pillow-plumper, but Irish five-star hotel breaks are increasingly good value. The 5-star Hayfield Manor in Cork has in the past hosted the King of Jordan, the King of Malaysia, Mary Robinson and Mary McAlees, Pierce Brosnan, Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie. Now they’ll put you up for two nights B&B, plus one 4-course dinner and a e50 voucher for spa treatments costs e228 per person. The same package was e350 in 2008.
ART ATTACK: When the financial crisis hit in late 2008, the market for expensive art sagged. While a Picasso might still be out of range for most of us, Dolan’s art auctions, the biggest provincial sales house, is now conducting their auctions without reserve prices. “I figure art should be accessible to a broader spectrum of the population,” says Dr Niall Dolan, “You should be able to come in with e300-e500 and come away with an interesting painting.” Dolan’s next auction is at the Marriott Hotel, Galway on Sunday, May 16.
GREENS WITH ENVY: Is there anything as civilized as a round with the boys, followed by steak and a fine Bordeaux in the club house? Golf club membership has dropped in price sharply at all levels. Luttrellstown Castle for example sported a mid-range annual fee of e7,000 in 2007, but is now asking for only e2,500 a year and is currently running a special rate of e1,500 for membership through the peak playing months of April to September.
AFRICAN QUEEN: Forget the Seychelles. Kenya, with its mix of beach and safari activities, is particularly popular with the likes of Bill Gates, Naomi Campbell and Bono. Lest we forget, it was in a villa in the south coast of Mombasa, Kenya, where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie first ignited their passion.
A combination of lower air fares and ‘added value’ accommodation deals have knocked down prices in the last year. “It’s not that it’s inexpensive exactly,” says Brian Sargent of “but Kenya and Zanzibar are coming in at e1,000 less per person, to about e3,000 all in.”
JOIN THE CLUB: There was whining from some members of Residence private members’ club on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin last year when it was suggested that the ailing business might be offering cut-price membership deals. It is the case that many of these private members’ clubs have cut fees in a bid to refresh member numbers in the past few years. The thing to ask yourself though before trying to haggle your way past the velvet ropes is: Would I join any club that would have half the Law Library as members?


(Film) location, location, location

Film and TV companies are always scouting for new locations and your home, be it a stately pile or a semi-d, could be the perfect backdrop to the next Irish production. Susan Daly reports

Friday May 07 2010

NOT everyone has a face for showbiz, but when it comes to providing a backdrop for film and TV, even a modest family home can have real star quality.

Andrew Tighe and his wife Dara were astonished when they received a letter in the door of their three-bedroom bungalow in Sandyford, Co Dublin. It was from a company scouting locations for the BBC thriller The Silence, which is directed by Emmy-winning Irish director Dearbhla Walsh and due to air this month.

"It ended up being between us and another house," says Andrew, "but I think they picked us because there is a big car park next door for all their trucks. The other house was also further up the mountain. They have a great view of Dublin from their lounge, but the series is meant to be set in Bristol so it was probably a bit too identifiable."

Andrew, Dara and their daughters Ellen (12) and Ariane (10) had to move in with nearby family members for a month but Andrew says the excitement livened up a chilly and dreary January this year.

"The girls got great enjoyment, being able to come down and watch the filming -- they were very popular in school!" he laughs. Filming only lasted for six days but the crew spent over a week on either side painting and wallpapering some rooms to suit the strong filming lights, and then to return the house to its owners' preferences.

"I'd say the fee just covered our costs really but we got a makeover for free too," says Andrew. "In the sitting-room they did a lovely contemporary wallpaper but after a few days we asked them to come back and remove it again because it had a feeling of closing in the room a bit. They were very good about it."

The experience of the Tighes to find their 'normal' family home in a starring role is not unusual. Mags O'Sullivan, Deputy Film Commissioner at the Irish Film Board, says that there are up to 15 location managers working in Ireland and they are always scouting for a wide range of properties.

"The list of requirements is endless and depends on the project they are working on," she says. "They can require anything from a stately home to a disused property. In fact, all these empty apartment blocks lying around the place at the moment can be popular because disturbing other residents during filming is not an issue.

"And a script might call for a property not to be in pristine condition at all."

That is exactly what surprised David Wright after he was approached about the use of his state-of-the-art riverside house for last summer's RTE/ITV drama Father and Son. The three-storey Swan Lake property overlooking the banks of the River Liffey boasts some incredibly luxe features. There are floor-to-ceiling windows, underfloor heating and intelligent lighting in each room.

A dedicated cinema room is fitted with electric recliner seats and the car port houses an industrial turntable so residents don't have to bother with all that reversing malarkey when setting off for work in the morning.

"The Apprentice show had been interested in using the place but ultimately it was too small to fit all the contestants," says David. "It was between leasings when the director of Father and Son came out and saw the place and he went mad for it. They made me an offer I couldn't refuse!"

But the script for the three-part drama actually required that the property undergo a (temporary) make-under. "The story was that this guy and his wife lived here and she gets killed on the lawn," explains David. "I wasn't too sure about that bit when they first offered to me! Anyway, he comes back 10 years later and the place is all boarded up and overgrown."

The film crew "transformed" Swan Lake in a matter of days, replanting the garden and shifting in tons of earth and plants. When filming finished, they restored the garden and exterior to its previous immaculate condition. David, who currently has a tenant living in Swan Lake, says he would rent a property as a filming location again "in a heartbeat".

He adds: "They were very respectful, in and out with their blue shoe covers. And even if I won't ever be famous, at least my house has been on film."

There is of course still plenty of moonlighting opportunities for those properties at the upper end of the spectrum. The Earl of Meath, Jack Brabazon, says his family have become very used to film crews at the ancestral pile of Killruddery House, Co Kildare.

"It brings in much-needed revenue that goes back into the historic buildings and gardens," he says. "It's jolly useful from that point of view. We've been able to put a lot of new lead on the roof and put in new windows, things that would have been impossible otherwise."

The Brabazons have a longstanding relationship with nearby Ardmore Studios, which means they have hosted filming of 'The Tudors' and this summer will be the setting for new Canadian period drama Camelot. Other films to have shot scenes at Killruddery in the past range from The Magnificent Ambersons and Lassie to Far and Away and The Count of Monty Cristo.

The Earl says he's never been tempted to wander into shot. "I have one daughter, Serena, who is an actor though and she was an extra in The Tudors with a speaking part," he says. "She was a lady-in-waiting to Anne Boleyn. It's quite fun seeing parts of the garden or the estate on film."

Despite the continuing popularity of large properties like Killruddery, the Irish Film Board has a huge range of locations registered on their website, at

"We don't get involved in the negotiation of how much a property will earn for being featured," says Mags O'Sullivan, "that is between the owner and the location manager and it can depend on a film's budget, the inconvenience to the owner and so on."


Monday, May 3, 2010

Next-of-Kin: Finbarr Wright and wife Angela

NEXT-OF-KIN is a new series I have started for the Irish Independent's Weekend magazine, interviewing some well-known faces and the person closest to them about their relationship.
We kicked off with the very happy, very jolly tenor Finbarr Wright and his wife Angela...

Singer Finbar Wright has serenaded us with songs of love for two decades – but it was the siren call of his wife Angela that he found impossible to resist. The couple first met when they both attended singing classes at the Cork School of Music in the late 1980s.
“Her lesson was after mine and the routine was that she’d arrive early and sit inside the door, this gorgeous blonde,” says Finbar. “I never missed a singing lesson!”
Angela waves away his romantic take on events. “The real story is that the teacher was so enamoured with his voice that his lesson would run longer and eat into my time,” she laughs. “That’s the reason he’s a singer and I’m not!”
The couple didn’t get together until Angela went to UCC a year or so later. “Finbar tricked me,” says Angela. “He pretended he wanted access to the library to see some music scores. He had left UCC at that stage so I had to sneak him in under my card.
“It was just an excuse for him to say to me, ‘I have to make it up to you; let me take you out’!” Mindful of the age gap between them – “we say it’s ten years, but it’s nearer 12” – Angela resisted the date at first. “I remember being nervous and wanting to cancel the date the day before but I’m glad I didn’t. We just clicked. We never looked back.”
The couple’s two children are now nearly grown. Son Fergus is nearly 18 and daughter Ileana has just turned 16. “Angela was so vital to the growth of my career because she had to carry on with everything while I was away singing,” says Finbar who is celebrating 20 years as a professional singer this year with a nationwide tour. The couple also celebrate their 20th anniversary this year.
“We married in 1990, before my first album came out,” says Finbar. “Starting off and building a career in showbiz is difficult and we had lean times, certainly.”
Angela remembers one friend asking her if she knew what she was letting herself in for at the time of her marriage. “She said, ‘Are you mad? This guy is only starting down the road.’ It thought it was her who was mad. I was madly in love and there is no life unless it’s with Finbar. You can’t be in a bad mood when he’s around.”
Accordingly, the times when Finbar is away from home can be tough. “The week before he goes, I absolutely hate that,” she says. “But what’s strange is that I can’t wait until he goes because then I can physically count the days until he’s back again.”
Finbar finds that absence makes the heart grow fonder. “Definitely,” he says, “It has kept the relationship very fresh and it’s lovely coming back together. The first night I’m back, we go out to dinner and we always make time for each other.”
Angela lectures in marketing at Cork Institute of Technology. She has always worked, even with the children, and finds that when Finbar’s away she can actually get a lot done. “She studied for a PhD that way,” says Finbar, “I have to call her Doctor!”
The busy pair sometimes daydream about retreating to a little house in France. “We say that about once a month,” jokes Finbar.
“Sometimes we talk about taking a year off,” adds Angela, “but it’s all been a journey for us. I didn’t know what would happen – but it has exceeded my expectations.”
• Finbar Wright celebrate 20 years in music at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin on May 9. Dates for his other concerts nationwide are at

Grainne and GMTV

The following is not my headline, mind....

"At 36, could Grainne still make it big on British TV?"
By Susan Daly
Saturday May 01 2010

It's a brave person who mispronounces Grainne Seoige's name. From the moment she opened TG4's first news bulletin with her crisp, Connemara enunciation 14 years ago, she has been very clear about it. The name is 'Show-ig-eh'.

The male anchor of GMTV's Newshour showed no such reverence this week. Clearly unarmed with a phonetic guide to the name of the stand-in sports reporter on his morning TV couch, presenter John Stapleton breezily introduced 'Granya Soudja'.

Grainne didn't bat an eyelid or attempt a correction. This she has realised: we're not in Knocknacarra any more, Toto. These folks don't care who is topping the gorgeous Gaeilgeoir polls.

Why should they? GMTV (Good Morning Television), the breakfast TV channel owned by ITV, beams out three-and-a-half hours of programming every morning to around 13 million viewers each week, second only to the BBC's Breakfast Show.

There is good scope for a variety of presenting styles because the programme carries different segments, beginning with the early hard-hitting Newshour, followed by a core segment mixing light and topical issues, and ending with 55 minutes of chat with Lorraine Kelly.

GMTV is an attractive destination for an ambitious presenter -- it is where Belfast broadcaster Eamon Holmes began his long career in chat TV -- but is it a reinvention too far for Grainne Seoige at the age of 36?

Ageism is not alien to the competitive UK television industry. Veteran newsreaders Anna Ford and Selina Scott have been vocal against perceived age discrimination and last year there was public outrage when Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips (66) was dumped in favour of singer Alesha Dixon.

These slighted women are considerably older than Grainne Seoige, but as she told an interviewer earlier this year: "Well, I don't like to be judged myself but I live with the fact that I'm in a business that will judge me on how I look."

For now though, her recent presenting gig for GMTV from the Cheltenham races has segued into a temporary slot as the show's sports news reader. This week, it was suggested by an ITV source that Grainne has impressed to the point that she may be offered something more permanent. Her RTE contract is due for renewal this summer, and her son Conall is now in Transition Year in school: logistically, it's not an outrageous suggestion. "In terms of age profile, the GMTV crew are no kindergarten babes," says TV producer Larry Bass.

"It's a show that needs real people who have real-life experience."

Kate Garraway, regular co-host of GMTV, is 43 next week. Lorraine Kelly, who presents a self-titled slot, is 50. The other Irish female presenter who has done some reporting gigs for GMTV in recent times is Lorraine Keane, also in her mid 30s.

It's not all good news though -- Penny Smith (51) has just been given an unceremonial heave-ho in the same shake-up at GMTV that has seen Grainne get her chance on the couch.

"I would 100pc disagree that it is too late for Grainne to be making a move like that," says presentation-skills trainer Emma Ledden. "If she was any younger she wouldn't have the life experience or the credibility for GMTV.

"It's not like she was going for somewhere like MTV. At 32, even I would be too old for them now!"

Ledden worked as a VJ for MTV UK -- at the age of 20 -- when she won a competition for new presenters. She went on to present the BBC's youth show Live and Kicking in 1999 but has since returned to Ireland to run her own communications company.

In contrast to the successful transfer of a string of male Irish personalities to UK screens over the years, from Eamon Andrews and Terry Wogan to Dara O Briain, few Irish women have made a similar impact. Liz Bonnin is forging a smart niche for herself on BBC science programmes. Laura Whitmore -- 25 this week -- presents for MTV. Former model Amanda Byram hosted a number of American reality shows and is now co-hosting the BBC's Total Wipeout game show. The only other Irishwoman who readily springs to mind is journalist Olivia O'Leary, who became the first female presenter of the BBC's current affairs programme Newsnight in 1985.

Ledden feels the disparity is not just for Irish women breaking Britain. "Many of the men who have made it are associated with chat shows, and it reflects the same situation here in Ireland," she says.

The three presenters being tried out for the Saturday Night Show are men; Brendan O'Connor, Craig Doyle and Gerry Ryan.

"It's strange they didn't try out someone like Grainne for that, or Amanda," says Emma. "Are women forever destined to be co-hosts?"

It is in this context that the Seoige name has been bandied about this week. With the news that Adrian Chiles is moving from the BBC to GMTV in a £6m golden handcuffs deal, speculation has been rife that he will need a Christine Bleakley-style presenter (his former One Show co-host, also Irish, also gorgeous) by his side.

Stephen O'Leary of O'Leary Analytics analysed the media coverage of Grainne Seoige since January for the Weekend Review. He found that from Monday to Wednesday of this week, "Grainne has generated more column inches this week than any other week in 2010." This period includes much of her time as host of RTE ratings-winner, The All-Ireland Talent Show. A large part of the excitement over Grainne's modest stint on GMTV has been inflated by the hype over Chiles.

Larry Bass, the man behind ratings hits like The Apprentice and You're A Star, feels that, nonetheless, the mixture of news and lighter topical issues on GMTV would suit her.

"I'd still like to see Grainne loosen up a little more on TV. Off-screen she is incredibly engaging and smart and nice, but still sometimes on screen, she can appear a little cold."

His suggestion is that all talent needs time and good direction to evolve, and that UK broadcasters are better at recognising that. He cites the move of Dermot O'Leary from youth TV through to The X-Factor, and now interviewing political leaders in the BBC's pre-election programming.

"Like Dermot, Grainne hasn't come from nowhere. TG4, TV3, Sky News Ireland -- none of those broadcasters would have had her launch their news services if they weren't confident in her. GMTV know they are not bringing in a novice, but she is a fresh new face to the UK audience."

Another Irish TV insider suggests that Grainne has been pigeon-holed as a "shiny-floor presenter" by her stint on The All-Ireland Talent Show and a move to the UK might allow a fresh start. ('Shiny-floor' being industry slang for the type of light entertainment shows where the floor is covered in a 'showbizzy' plastic overlay.)

That's presuming that Seoige dislikes her move from hard news to a frothier agenda. During her three-year stint on Seoige and O'Shea (Seoige, in its last year), she seemed particularly enamoured of her outside broadcasts from the set of Strictly Come Dancing.

And, presuming the UK wants her full-time, who wouldn't be tempted to move to a market where the rewards for making it are sweeter?

"Not many people are on that million-dollar deal, but in my experience the money you make in presenting in England is at least two or three times what it would be here," says Emma Ledden. "It is a very well-paid job."


Nice day for a... festival

The day after I had submitted this Nightwatch column for the Indo's Day and Night festival-themed mag, I got a wedding invite for the August Bank Holiday weekend. Mark and Simone, your wedding is OBVIOUSLY excluded from the sentiments expressed here...

By Susan Daly

Friday April 30 2010

Martin King, eat your heart out. I can confidently predict this summer is going to be a scorcher. Of course it will be: it's FIFA World Cup year. Volcanic eruptions, flash floods and freak earthquakes notwithstanding, there are a few laws of nature you can set your clock by.

One is the direct correlation between the number of times Mr King winks at the end of any TV3 weather bulletin and the increased likelihood of rain. (If he winks thrice, it's time to get out the sandbags. This is a scientific fact.)

Another is the absolute guarantee that any year with a World Cup in it is a year with a heatwave. It's like nature's way of punishing anyone who insists on wearing a polyester football shirt and sitting indoors for a month.

This is the same twisted weather system that, less fairly, makes Leaving Cert students swelter inside exam halls for two torturous weeks while the rest of the country basks at the beach.

The point being that I'm convinced it's gonna be a good one -- and I'm putting my money where my meteorological guess is. This, my friends, is going to be a great year for festivals. All I need to figure out is, a) which ones I can afford, b) who I can get to go with me, and c) where I will get the time to go to all the ones I fancy. I'm thinking a spreadsheet might be the way to go.

Spreadsheet, you cry? Doesn't that go against the very spirit of festivals, of free love and living carefree for a weekend? Not in my little handbook of obsessive-compulsive behaviour, it ain't.

I'm the kind of gal who goes to these things with water purification tablets and three different SPF creams. Yes, my rucksack is huge, but I'm also the angel doling out babywipes and aloe vera burn salve to less-prepared friends by day two.

I'm also finally feeling this is the year where I have sorted out exactly which fests I want to throw my lot in with. It has taken years, but I think I have grown a radar to detect the fests being run by badly organised chancers. Not that there are many of those now: the time for thinking a one-sided lorry trailer and a burger stall justified charging folks 50 lids is over.

I don't get festival fatigue. I love having six options on a June bank holiday (not including the offer to help a friend move house -- er, no thanks). My only problem is all the other life stuff that gets in the way of me rocking out in a field.

Things like weddings. How selfish are those people? Would they not get married in February when we are really in need of a good party? The chillier weather would also carry a reduced risk of Uncle Jimmy wanting to take off his shirt to perform the Hucklebuck.

What makes me laugh is the reaction of some people to festivals. "I wouldn't have the stamina," said one. Another thought I was an idiot for paying €300 for a three-day festival.

I don't know if it's rude to point out that you are expected to spend at least that much time and effort on a wedding these days, no matter how far away from the top table you're seated.

Pre-wedding dinners and post-nuptial barbeques seem to be de rigeur. Jebus help you if you suggest you mightn't be able to spare another two days off work on either side of the big day.

Who spends less than a few hundred euro on an out-of-town wedding? Between accommodation in some overpriced B&B in the back end of Westmeath, transport, a wedding outfit and the all-important present -- well, let's just say there's no such thing as a free three-course dinner.

By all means, have your wedding on the August bank holiday. But I'll have to consult my spreadsheet.

First published here:

Tara! Home! I'll go home!

Coolmore House, the Donegal mansion that is thought to have inspired the iconic Tara in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind, has been fully restored and is on the market for €850,000, writes Susan Daly

Friday April 23 2010

WHEN Barry Sharkey first saw Coolmore House about 10 years ago it was "dark, dingy and depressing" and had been uninhabited for several years.

"I shook my head and walked away," said the Co Donegal businessman. In 2005, he took a second look and this time decided to buy and restore the Georgian mansion.

His initial cold feet were understandable. The house had never even been connected to a water supply -- the previous occupants had simply drawn from a freshwater well in the back garden.

"It was a lost property," says Sharkey, "You couldn't even see it from the road."

Even so, Coolmore exuded considerable charm. The interior of the house had not been modernised at all, a fact which Sharkey and his partner Susanna Friel found "quite wonderful".

It meant that all original features such as fireplaces, ornate plasterwork, sash windows and shutters were intact.

Friel saved samples of the original wallpaper in each room. "They were badly damaged, but I thought it would be a nice record," she says. "That file will remain with the house -- it's part of its history."

The house also has a literary history. Irish-American author Margaret Mitchell is said to have stayed there in

the 1920s when she visited Ireland to research our Civil War experiences for her bestseller, Gone With The Wind.

"The story is that she came here to do research and to look for her family roots," says Sharkey. "Coolmore was owned by the Mitchell family and she came to see if she was related.

"She supposedly got the inspiration for Tara, the big plantation house, from here. I can't say how accurate the story is!"

The project of restoring Coolmore to the grandeur Margaret Mitchell would have experienced was an epic one.

It took two years to complete structural restoration on the house, and another year to bring the garden and interior d├ęcor up to scratch. The ground level around the house was lowered to flood what was originally a half-basement with natural light. External walls were rendered and blue Bangor tiles used in extensive re-roofing.

Sharkey, who is from nearby Killybegs, describes himself as a "serial restorer", having previously returned to glory three other period properties in the area.

The interior has been sympathetically redecorated. "I had the tiles from the original fireplaces to work from so I took my inspiration for the colour scheme from them," says Friel.

Elegant sash windows dominate the main reception rooms and four airy bedrooms to take advantage of panoramic views of Donegal Bay, Slieve League and the Bluestack Mountains.

Sharkey was also keen to take a view to the future. The house has been connected to the main water supply, but also to that old freshwater supply outside the back door, a boon at a time when domestic water charges are proposed. Solar panels have been installed along with a commercial-size wood-pellet burning boiler and 600-litre hot-water storage tank.

"Insulation-wise, it has been dry-lined on the inside so it's a very easy house to heat," says Sharkey. "People are afraid of old houses because they think they can't keep them warm." There is even a prepared site for a residential wind turbine on the hill behind the house.

These facilities make the house a comfortable residence, but also open up possibilities of making commercial use of the site.

The house comes on four acres of land, but there are another 10 acres available for sale alongside.

"The site has been selected as an opportunity site for a local enterprise," says Sharkey. "We have structurally finished the outbuildings and have planning for the coach house to be two self-catering apartments.

"I could see it as a small hotel, a holistic centre, an outdoor pursuits centre."

The proximity of blue-flag Rossnowlagh beach is a fantastic amenity -- Sharkey and Friel had friends over for horse-riding parties on St Stephen's Day and New Year's Day to ride the 10 miles of perfect, sandy coastline.

"It was intended to be my permanent home and we will miss it," says Sharkey. "But we have some properties in Italy that we would like to restore and my five children are adults now.

"I have just completed the sale of my marine engineering business so now is the time to go."

It may also be the beginning of a new chapter in the story of Coolmore.

First published here: