Monday, August 30, 2010

"My mother blamed herself till the day she died."

Last week, a Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman's report on the bombings in Claudy of 1972 accused the Catholic Church and British Government of protecting Fr James Chesney, a local priest suspected of involvement in the massacre. I met some victims of the car bombing for the Irish Independent's Review last Saturday, including Mark Eakin (above) whose 8-year-old sister Kathryn died beside him.

The month of July 1972 had been an idyllic one for Mark Eakin and his sister Kathryn. They had whiled away the hot summer days at the family caravan in Castlerock, a seaside resort on the Derry coastline. On Sunday, July 30, their mother Merle told the children that it was time they headed home to the inland village of Claudy, where the Eakins ran a shop.

The family arrived back in Claudy early the following morning, July 31. At 10.15am, the first of three car bombs detonated on the main street of the village. Kathryn, aged eight, was killed instantly while cleaning the front window of the family shop.

"My mother blamed herself till the day she died for taking us out of Castlerock that day," says Mark Eakin, who was 12 at the time of the bombings. "She could never put it to bed."

This week, Mark joined other survivors and relatives of Claudy bombing victims to hear the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman's findings. After the report was made public, it was alleged that the British Government, the RUC and the Catholic Church had colluded to protect Derry priest Fr James Chesney, who was suspected to be part of an IRA gang that planted the bombs.

The revelation has not brought peace to those for whom the Claudy atrocity is still an open wound.

Going to this week's meeting was "like going to a funeral", says survivor Mary Hamilton.

Now a UUP councillor for Foyle, Mary was seriously injured when one of the bombs exploded outside the hotel she owned with her husband Ernest in Claudy. She was 31 at the time. "I was so sad on Wednesday because I knew I would be re-living that day," she says. "I felt so bad I dressed in black."

Her memories of that terrible morning are still vivid. When the first bomb went off, she and a neighbour who had just come into the hotel rushed on to the street. "I saw a lady lying without arms and legs, on fire -- she'd been covered with petrol from one of the cars. Another lady, Mrs McLaughlin, who owned the cafe, she was lying with blood pouring out of her head and her daughter saying to me, 'Mary, Mary, help my mother'. Unfortunately, I couldn't help her."

Mary and the other shocked villagers were ushered away from the bomb site -- not realising they were walking straight into the path of the second and third bombs.

"We met the boy of the Temples [William] down the street, it was his first day at work, and he had hurt his hand in the first bomb. A few moments afterwards, he was blown to bits," she says.

"My legs were injured. I still have metal in one leg, it's too deep-seated really, and I suffer every day with it. But I'm here. Saying that, there shouldn't have been bombs. The sights I saw that day, they are sights that never leave you. A good friend of ours, David Miller, was just blown to bits literally beside me."

The second and third bombs had detonated almost simultaneously, one outside the post office and the other outside Mary's hotel, the Beaufort.

"We were given no warning. They had forgotten that two weeks beforehand, they'd blown up the telephone exchange and no one could get through."

For Mark Eakin, too, the smallest details of that day are etched deeply. He was just three yards from Kathryn when the first bomb went off. While she died from a fragment of shrapnel that pierced her brain, he escaped with some minor cuts.

"I had actually just walked past Kathryn," he recalls. "We were messing about, you know, brother and sister sort of stuff. She nearly had the window cleaned and there was a bottle of Windolene sitting on the window ledge beside her. So I lifted it up and skimmed a bit off the top and scooted it along the window.

"I remember she was standing at the top of a set of steps and she was roaring and shouting at me and then the explosion just went off."

The psychological fallout of the bombings remained long after the shattered buildings were patched back together. Mary Hamilton found that for a long time afterwards she would cover her ears with her hands when she walked past a parked car, always afraid that it would blow up.

Mark and Kathryn Eakin's parents, Merle and Billy, both passed away in the last two years, within six months of each other.

"They were never the same again. They never had the same love of life. They had their good days and their bad days, but there were more bad days than good."

On a purely economic level, businesses and homes had been devastated by the three car bombs. Custom was slow to return to the village and both the Beaufort Hotel and Eakin's shop suffered. The Eakins eventually had to sell up. Their structurally frail building was pulled down and new apartments and a few small business units stand in its place.

The compensation packages offered by the British government/Northern Ireland Office at the time were not of much help. "It was a struggle to arrange that compensation," says Mark Eakin. "My father wouldn't settle, he argued, argued, argued with them. But the bank rates were going up, interest rates were sky high, and the whole thing just crippled him and he just had to take it."

The people of Claudy were left to support each other. Five Catholics and four Protestants died in the bombings and the mixed community tried to scramble back to some sense of normality.

"We were very good friends," says Mary Hamilton. "Quite a lot of us had to live in caravans afterwards and if you had a stool you didn't need, you'd give it to whoever did. Claudy is a small community and we all worked together. I felt for the Catholic people of Claudy after the report."

Mary intends writing to British Prime Minister David Cameron to appeal for further investigations into the bombings but she isn't hopeful.

"They said after the Saville Report [into the Bloody Sunday killings in Derry] that there were not going to be any more big investigations. But I think that the government and the church and the hierarchy of the police have to tell us everything they know."

Mark reiterates that all he is asking is that one person will stand up and be counted. "Those responsible are going to be heading towards their 70s, what's the point in putting that man in jail? He's going to be in his own jail soon enough. They have a chance now to make their peace with God at least."

Peace is something that still eludes him in the house at Castlerock his parents moved to after selling up in Claudy. He is reminded of the bone-shattering impact of the bombs by pottery saved from the rubble by his mum, now super-glued back together.

In the past few years, Mark sought the counselling that he didn't receive as a young boy. He has two daughters now, Rebecca and Samantha Kathryn, his eldest. He feels the counselling has brought him closer to them. "I would find it very hard to say to someone that 'I love you'," he says, "I always put a bit of distance."

"That apparently is due to a lack of getting proper counselling at the time of the bombing because I lost so much that I cared about."

The girls are 13 and 11, somewhere around the age Mark was when his family was ripped apart. "My oldest girl is named after Kathryn and she's constantly asking what happened. 'But why Daddy, why did they kill Kathryn?'" He has no answers for her.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The grey matter

My piece on the vogue for dyeing hair... grey - from the Indo's Weekend mag last Saturday.

Elizabeth Taylor, hair still blue-black into her 78th year, has not got the memo that grey is in vogue. Stars such as Helen Mirren, Jamie Lee Curtis, Diane Keaton and Emmylou Harris have been noticeably growing old grey-cefully in recent years and earning applause for it.

But the appearance of gunmetal and silver shades is no longer the preserve of the ageing. For some young hipsters, going grey is something to dye for. Pixie Geldof traded in her trademark peroxide crop for grey, saying: "I'd been blonde for three years and fancied a change." Kelly Osbourne looked lovely in mauve earlier this year, and pop star Pink has been tinting her platinum locks silver-grey.

As style fads go it's an interesting one, not least because fashion normally rejects anything that suggests ageing -- and because it doesn't seem to be going away.

The August edition of US 'Vogue' sported a photograph of a model with waist-length silver-grey hair, sleek as a cat in polo neck and pencil skirt, suggesting that grey will be good at least into autumn/winter 2010.

Supermodel Kristen McMenamy has just done a shoot for cutting-edge fashion and culture mag 'Dazed & Confused', long grey locks rolling over her shoulders.

The notoriously fickle world of high fashion has even been showing some consistency on the grey matter. Two years ago, silver-haired models began to appear on the Parisian catwalks for Givenchy. This year, Calvin Klein sent out a model with a slick salt-and-pepper ponytail to showcase its autumn/winter collection. Designers Giles Deacon and Gareth Pugh also turned their models' hair the colour of concrete for their 2010 shows.

As Meryl Streep's Anna Wintour-esque fashion mag editor explains in 'The Devil Wears Prada', trends work on a trickle-down basis. First they appear on the catwalk, then on the back of some wealthy haute-couture client, then get mass exposure from influential celebrities before finally winding their way down to the woman on the street.

The celebrity advocates have surely now reached tipping point. Two huge trendsetters on either side of the Atlantic have been at the toner bottle. In the US, Ashley Olsen reinvented the blue rinse by sporting blue-grey highlights in her tousled hair, while Kate Moss got skunk streaks to launch her collaboration with Longchamps.

As with her skinny-jeans-tucked-into-boots combo, are we next?

Sharon Rice, stylist with cutting-edge hair and beauty salon Brown Sugar in Dublin, says: "Things like that do catch on. It's different from when we've had people in the past who were going grey and coming into us looking to enhance it rather than hide it. Or someone who has short blonde hair, they might add tones of silver.

"We haven't seen younger people coming in yet actively looking to dye their hair grey, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happens and we would welcome it because we love doing adventurous stuff."

This slightly rebellious idea of turning one's hair grey when so many in the world spend a fortune on covering their natural greys is key to why the trend has taken off. Pixie Geldof, for example, was not worried that she'd be mistaken for her badger-headed dad Bob, saying of her grey 'do': "It was rad".

When younger people experiment with grey, they wear it with the confidence that it won't make them look prematurely old because they don't have the wrinkles to match. This was especially true of a fashion blogger called Tavi (her surname is Gevinson, but the 'biz' is so in awe of her that she's been given the first-name-only respect).

Tavi is remarkable for many reasons. She's only 13, but she always bags front-row seats at major catwalk shows because her blog is so influential. She also stood out when she turned up at New York Fashion Week sporting a short, grey hairdo. She dyed her hair a soft baby blue a few weeks earlier so that it would have faded to the correct tone of granny-chic grey by the time she appeared front row at the shows.

Sadly, the grey trend doesn't mean that the fashion and beauty industry is suddenly embracing the ageing process. Barack Obama was accused (falsely, of course) in the early days of his US Presidency of adding grey to his hair for extra gravitas. No one would ever accuse a woman of the same. Men get the 'Clooney' and 'distinguished' tags when they start to go silver at the temples; greying women are more likely to face insinuations that they have let themselves go.

Saying that, this wouldn't be the first time grey has had its go on the fashion merry-go-round. Men and women alike went crazy for dove-grey locks in the 1700s, sometimes wearing wigs to get the full halo effect. Otherwise, they powdered their hair white, oiling it to make the powder stick. It was messy, it was smelly and it ruined expensive clothing, but it was de rigueur for the fashionable set.

Marie Antoinette, the trendsetter of her time, loved wig powder to the point of losing her head over it. Her liberal use of the powder was condemned as another sign of her extravagant tastes as the rest of 18th-century France struggled with poverty. There was her country suffering through the Flour War of 1775, and there she was using enough flour in her hair each morning to feed a large family.

By the turn of the century, the English had laid a heavy tax on hair powder and the grey days of Marie Antoinette were over. One hundred years later, in 1907, L'Oréal founder Eugène Schueller had created the first synthetic dye. By this stage, the average life expectancy had increased from around 37 years in 1800 to 47 years in 1900. The appeal of going grey for fashion was considerably lessened by the fact that people were living long enough to see their hair fade naturally.

Now that home hair dye is readily and cheaply available -- it's a €3 billion industry in the EU alone -- perhaps going grey has a chance for a comeback as a fashion statement because it is a choice, not an inevitability. Rod Stanley, editor of 'Dazed & Confused', said it "remained to be seen" if grey was here to stay. "The trend for younger people dying their hair grey is a different thing in many ways but, of course, that could make people more receptive to naturally grey hair in images." Or as Kristen McMenamy puts it herself: "You can get older and still be rock'n'roll."

Here's hoping Pixie Geldof is still rocking a head of granite highlights in her 60s.


We're notty snotty yachties

Susan Daly finds out that it's easy to join the wet set in Howth as they gear up for one of the most prestigious events in the world's sailing calendar.

Saturday August 21 2010

Something big is coming to the salubrious harbour of Howth this week. Huge roadside signs welcome the Etchells World Championships 2010 at every few kilometres on the approach to the north Dublin village. The sailing event, which starts this weekend, is one of the most prestigious on the racing calendar and attracts the world's top sailors.

The only way to get to Howth Yacht Club without being shouted at by one of its bold, bright blue billboards is, ironically, to arrive by water.

It's clear there's something afoot in the newly expanded boat yard. Marine staff in high-vis jackets scurry between a line of gleaming white fibreglass hulls, propped up delicately on cushioned rests. One man is buffing a patch of hull to perfection with an electric polisher. These are the 30ft Etchells, racing machines so precious that they spend more time in dry dock than in the water.

Some have been shipped in containers from as far as Australia. "To take these boats around the world, it ain't cheap," says Graham Smith of Howth Yacht Club.

"There are a fair few who do this who are independently wealthy. Some sail for sailing-industry sponsors, who might even employ them because they have sailing skills and then can showcase the company's equipment at such an event."

If this was horseracing, this regatta would be the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe -- it boasts some of the world's fastest racing boats. But unlike the Parisian horse race, its location changes annually and this year intense lobbying by the Howth Yacht Club brought it to Ireland for the very first time. Another difference is that the prestige of winning it isn't matched by a whopping cash prize. The winners get a perpetual trophy and are obviously attractive to future sponsors but it's not really about the money.

"It's the Corinthian ideal," says a sailing insider. "Some of these guys have full-time jobs and no longer sail professionally. They do it to say they competed in one of the world's toughest races."

Whatever has happened to the 'wet set', to the gentle clinking of Pimms on the deck of one's yacht and dining at the Commodore's table?

"Oh there is still the salmon-coloured pants brigade around if you want that kind of yacht-club experience. You can get your Essex blazer, with your gold yacht-club buttons on it," says one club member, "but you're on the wrong side of the bay for that." He winks in a southerly direction.

Graham Smith mentions a few Irish clubs where swag-and-tails décor and shirt and ties after 7pm still reign. "There is that element in sailing for sure," he says. "My wife and I were in Monaco last year and I had to have my photo taken outside the Monaco Yacht Club. I walked over that threshold very gingerly, I can tell you. That's on a different social level altogether."

Howth chairman Berchmans Gannon never wears a tie unless he happens to come straight to the club from work. "You can always find people who don't agree with a dressed-down code. But they'd be the same people who would invite you to dinner in their house and expect you to wear a monkey suit."

Nonetheless, the local Chamber of Commerce is banking on the descent of landlubbers attracted by the perceived glamour of the Worlds, as the sailing fraternity calls it. They are organising a 'Howth is Magic' festival in tandem with next week's race schedule. Local high-end restaurants and hostelries are expecting to do serious business.

"We would expect some of the visiting sailors and their supporters to head for the very nice restaurants like King Sitric's and Aqua," says Smith.

While Howth Yacht Club is now housed in a utilitarian 1980s building with nautical-themed balcony overlooking the boat yard, Aqua has taken up residence in the original 1895 stone-fronted clubhouse over on the west pier. A floor-to-ceiling glazed extension allows punters to take in the sunset over Ireland's Eye and Lambay Island while keeping one eye on their dinner in the restaurant's new lobster tank.

Directly across the car park from Howth YC is Ivan's Oyster Bar and Grill House where diners can plump for fresh halibut for €28 per 200g, or retire to the oyster bar for half-a-dozen Clarinbridges for €12.50.

"We are anticipating being busier," says an Ivan's employee. "whenever there is a sailing event, it tends to make things busier anyway. People like to sit at the tables outside with their fruits de mer and champagne or glass of Guinness."

Smith adds: "It's not all competitive sailing. Some boats here might never leave the marina. Their owners might like to sit on them on a Sunday and have their glass of wine and invite their friends on."

The more fairweather fans might include the 'racer chasers', a breed of young women who apparently love sailors as much as they do sailing. "SWAGs," one young yacht club member dubs them in a hopeful voice.

Howth will be bracing itself for a sea of 'Dubes' (Dubarry deck shoes), Helly Hanson rainjackets, Musto khaki trousers and -- dead giveaway of the aspirational yacht hanger-on -- Hunter boots. Designer Jimmy Choo recently collaborated with Hunter to produce a pair of €300 waterproof boots.

"It wouldn't be as bad as the football WAGs," says Laura Dillon, one of about three women helming one of the 44 Etchells in the coming World Championships. "But spectators and supporters are always welcome."

There is more than a general air of welcome in the sailing set these days. Howth Yacht Club this year dropped its hefty joining fee -- membership of what is the largest yacht club in the country is now around €800.

"That's lower than most golf clubs," says Gannon. "We did see a rise in membership but it was because the publicity made people realise they could be a member. We had people come and say, 'I thought you had to know someone to get in'."

Gannon himself is not from a sailing family. "My kids introduced me to it. They were doing lessons with their classmates and my wife said to the club that they should do adult lessons and we both did them."

Former Olympic sailor Dan O'Grady is the top qualifier for the Etchells and one of 12 Irish helmsmen in the 44 competing next week. "There is a presumption that you have to be second or third generation but my parents didn't sail," he says. "My brother did a bit and I kept it up."

Laura Dillon says it's not necessary to be rich to set sail. "Typically it does cost money to own a boat but those owners are always looking for crew and there's a huge opportunity to get sailing that way. I typically sail on a 40ft boat every Wednesday night that needs 10 to 12 people to crew it."

James O'Callaghan, performance director of the Irish Sailing Association's Olympic Programme, points out that the ISA and the Sports Council have put a lot of money into national training programmes for children. "You have hundreds of children in these sailing summer camps," he says. "And for coastal areas, they're just like GAA camps. We have people on our top squads now whose parents never sailed. It's not elitist."

Sailing might well win over the general public if O'Callaghan's charges carry on as they have been and bring home an Olympic medal. Last week, Irish youngster Peter O'Leary beat 10 former Olympic medalists in the highly competitive Star keelboat class at the Weymouth London 2012 venue.

Dan O'Grady and his two crew, Paul and Andy, took me out in his zippy Etchell for a friendly club race. It is exhilarating, it's hard work -- and it's about as far from sipping G&Ts in a deck lounger as you're likely to get.

O'Grady noticeably wore a very battered pair of soft runners to sail in.

"If I was trendy, I'd send off to England for the Hunters," he laughs. He does not own a pair of salmon-coloured pants.


Que Cera, Cera

My interview with Michael Cera - star of Juno, Superbad and now, Scott Pilgrim vs The World. From Day and Night mag in Irish Indo.

Geek hero
Sharp-witted Michael Cera breaks out of the supernerd mould and beefs up for his latest role, writes Susan Daly, who chats to him about school, being cool and coping with fame.
Friday August 20 2010

The first thing you notice about Michael Cera are his glasses. They are thick, plastic-rimmed and out-sized: the perfect accessory to hide behind. I've been told to expect Cera to be a reticent interviewee.

He's been dubbed the nerd-next-door, the king of Generation Y geekdom for his note-perfect gawky teen roles in Juno and Superbad. This could be an awkward half-hour.

"Well," he points out reasonably, "I was a teenager when I made Juno and Superbad." He's 22 now and oddly mature. He says he's "shy, but not painfully so" -- after all, he's been working as an actor since he was nine. He was already a cult comedy figure by 14 when he played George Michael Bluth in black TV sitcom Arrested Development. George Michael was a smart, straight-laced teen, vaguely horrified by the carry-on of his dysfunctional family.

The TV series was prematurely axed after three series, but it laid a blueprint in comedy fans' heads of Cera as a clued-in but slightly oddball kid. His breakthrough movie roles as bewildered baby daddy to Ellen Page's whip-smart Juno and a high-schooler on the margins in Superbad cemented this image in 2007.

In fact, Cera's not a nerd and neither were those characters, not really. Paulie Bleeker in Juno was awkward but not angsty. As Evan in Superbad, he was quiet but thoughtful. When he followed up the next year with Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, Cera made the earnest indie kid a plausible romantic lead.

Cera has no truck with tags such as geek and nerd. "They are just words," he says. If anything, he gently opted out of the trials of being labelled a jock or a swot, the science nerd or the class clown.

"I went to high school for a year and got the gist of it," he says wryly. "It was nice, I had my friends and we all played poker at lunch and got in a lot of stupid trouble. Oh my gosh, just tried to survive -- it's scary going to public school; there are some scary characters."

And for a minute he does sound like any vulnerable teen worrying about making it through the battleground of high school. As it turns out, he's being quite literal.

"A kid was murdered in my high school the year I was there," he says unexpectedly at the end of our interview. "It was a guy I had met and the guy who killed him was a guy a few of my friends knew -- sorry, this is depressing -- he actually went and turned himself in afterwards." (I check the story out later and it's true. A 14-year-old was convicted of first-degree murder for strangling a classmate with his belt in Cera's Canadian high school in 2003. Cera would have also been 14 at the time.)

There is nothing dramatic in the way Cera retells the story and he almost seems sorry he mentioned it. But it's clear there are worse fates in those unsteady teen years than being considered on the margins of the in-crowd.

Cera himself is not entirely unhip. Those glasses are less of a mask than part of a personal style, best described as 'young fogey'. Cera once cited his comedy hero Larry David as his style icon. Today he wears the kind of green cords and button-down shirt combo one might expect to see on a 60-something-year-old man, but he's also sporting a pair of scuffed but classic Adidas Superstars. It's not a studied look, but it's cute.

He's self-aware, not self-conscious. He laughs at himself going through intense physical training for his new movie, Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Based on a comic-book series, it's part fantasy, part superhero epic with Cera required to fight off the Seven Evil Exes of his new girlfriend, cool indie chick Ramona.

"We had to build up some endurance," he says. "It wasn't even about specific moves but learning the language of that physical stuff because for anyone who hasn't done anything like that, those movements are unnatural."

He says he loved doing what comes unnaturally -- but won't suddenly become the next Jason Statham, flexing his pecs in the way he's spent the past 10 years buffing his comedy muscle. "I got a glimpse of it and, man, it's hell." He describes himself as kind of average. "I hang around a lot of short people to make me look good," he deadpans.

Cera does a lot of this, making sure we know he doesn't take himself too seriously but not exactly being self-deprecating. Scott Pilgrim, for example, looks set to consolidate Cera as an alternative hero for gamers and comic-book fanboys, but he's not willing to set the character up as a god.

"Scott's a bit of a Homer Simpson character -- he's a bit of a dope. You can tell with certain gags -- the spinning wheel in his head, 'What am I going to say?' It was just fun to play a total idiot. Like Homer (he gets the girl). Like how did Homer get Marge?"

In Cera's mind, the movie is played out through how Scott sees the world. "Even the evil exes, maybe they're not that evil, they're just against him. It's him against the world, you know? It feels like he's the hero of his own movie in his mind."

Cera's a pretty clear-sighted guy. Growing up in the suburbs outside Toronto with parents who he has described as "funny, funny people", he takes his growing fame as it comes. He even finds he can laugh at the absurdities of LA, where he now lives.

"They have everything in LA. They have dog hotels, which is not something you'll find in Toronto." And what do people do in Toronto when they go on holidays? Tie their pets up in the back yard? "Yeah," he says, cracking a grin, "You just leave him tied up with a bowl of food and tell him everything's going to be fine."

Maybe it's the relaxed Canadian vibe or maybe he just likes taking the Michael. Either way, Cera is fun, in a very gentle sort of way.

Not that he's always entirely at ease with being the centre of attention. "I've been scared before," he says of the growing recognition he gets from movie fans. "The first time I really felt weird about being recognised was at the Toronto Film Festival when I was there for this movie Nick and Norah. For some reason, maybe because Toronto's my home town, it just seemed very intense. Just the amount of people coming at you."

But he's learning -- and from a master schmoozer. "It's really nice when you work with someone who is so much more famous than you are because it makes you realise it could be worse. Jack Black is one of the most famous people I've worked with (in Year One) and he's like Santa Claus. We'll go to a restaurant and people will be lining up to meet him like Santa Claus in a mall."

He also thinks one of his Scott Pilgrim co-stars, the laconic Kieran Culkin, is "a very cool guy; if there's cool, whatever that means, he's got it".

You're not so uncool yourself, I tell him. He smiles and shakes his head, but in Scott Pilgrim he looks as comfortable as Jack Black, rocking out on a bass guitar. He has co-written a score to a small independent film that was well-received at the Sundance festival. Last year he had a short story published in Dave Eggers' cult literary journal, McSweeney's Quarterly.

"Dave Eggers was really nice to me, he sent me a nice email about it," he says modestly. Michael Cera: redefining cool.

Le geek, c'est chic - movies where nerds rule

- THE NET (1995)

Sandra Bullock strikes a blow for computer geeks by fighting shady corporate entity The Praetorians when they steal her identity. She does, however, look unfeasibly hot for someone who supposedly spends 24/7 in front of her computer, eating pizza.


Relates the early IT battles of Steve Jobs and Apple, and Bill Gates and Microsoft. Noah Wyle (Dr Carter from ER) was so convincing as Jobs that Jobs had Wyle impersonate him on stage at the 1999 Macworld Expo.

- X-MEN (2000)

Labelled freaks by 'normal society', it is actually their mutations that give the X-Men their super powers. It's also based on a Marvel comic book -- nerd heaven.


Teen geek Napoleon wears high-waisted jeans and the only sport he plays is tetherball (although he boasts of his martial arts prowess with 'numchucks'). Then he blows away his high-school doubters with a funktastic dance.

- SUPERBAD (2007)

Cera stars in this tale of high-school awkwardness with Jonah Hill, but the movie belongs to Fogell/McLovin'. He's a geek to rival Booger from 1984's Revenge of the Nerds, but a geek who (almost) gets the girl.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Travel: Cote Vermeille

Forget the overcrowded, glitzy resorts of the Côte d'Azur -- Susan Daly discovers unspoilt charms and affordable indulgence on Côte Vermeille in the south of France

Saturday August 14 2010

You couldn't miss the couple strolling hand-in-hand along the harbourside. They were both decked out in dazzling white, top to open-toed sandal.

There is a franchise of popular French boutiques called Blanc du Nil, which specialises in linen clothes, and these two looked as if they had just won a trolley dash through the local branch.

The man, in his late 40s I guessed, had a silvering mullet to match his flowing linen trousers and open-necked shirt. He stopped to snuggle the girlfriend, about 10 years younger in a floaty white sundress, and then snatched her hand in both of his to plant an adoring kiss.

Luckily for me, elbow deep in a plate of fresh anchovies drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, I have a strong constitution. I returned to my fishy lunch, the speciality of that pretty fishing port of Collioure. In any case, you must be prepared to stomach overt displays of amour fou here: the town has been inspiring romantics for generations.

Sandwiched between the French Pyrénées and the Mediterranean, it was to Collioure that Matisse and his Fauvist painter pals flocked in the early 20th century to capture the particular purity of the light there. Using large, expressive brushstrokes (they painted like 'fauves', or 'wild beasts') and brilliant colours, they chronicled the intensity of sunsets over the red cliffs of the Côte Vermeille. The works they have left behind are still vivid with the play of light over pastel-coloured houses and Catalan-style fishing boats bobbing in the harbour.

While our canoodling couple might have been more at home in a Jack Vettriano than a Fauvist masterpiece, they were clearly feeding off the painterly atmosphere of the place.

Galleries and artists' studios still line the narrow cobbled streets, although there is a definite commercial buzz to them these days. Collioure is essentially what this little department at the bottom westerly tip of France is all about. The 200km-long Côte Vermeille, and the Pyrénées-Orientale area to which it belongs, remains as beautiful and untouched as it was in Matisse's day.

More fool us that we have been blinded to its charms by the Côte d'Azur, its glitzier sister further up the Mediterranean coastline with its monster yachts and overcrowded resorts.

Situated so close to the Spanish border -- hence the Catalan influence on culture and food in the area -- it has been opening up to Irish visitors in recent years thanks to a number of low-cost air routes. Ryanair flies to Perpignan, which is the capital city of the Pyrénées- Orientales.

Another option is to fly with the same airline to Girona airport, just one hour's drive over the border in Spain. Another Irish-owned bit of entrepreneurship, the low-cost coach service Frogbus, shuttles passengers from Girona to Perpignan with great efficiency.

Budget-conscious travellers might already be canny to the attractions of the area, which has a long history as the campsite capital of southern France. The resort of Argelès-sur-Mer, with its grand sweeps of beachfront and parks, was a sort of primitive camping destination in the 19th century. The wealthy families built wedding-cake villas along the seafront, but when the town council planted pine trees to reclaim marshy tracts of land just slightly inland, they attracted local peasants and small farmers.

On their rare days of leisure they would flock there in covered wagons to enjoy lazy picnics and take respite in the cool sea breeze from the sweltering heat of the countryside. No doubt the villa owners were not at all impressed by this invasion of the ignobles.

These days you can carry on camping in the area -- although the facilities are far from plebeian. Five-star sites with swimming pools, fine restaurants and indoor leisure complexes are not uncommon, although it is more than possible to find modestly priced sites with little notice (apart from the last two weeks in August, when France descends en masse for its summer break).

If you can tear yourself from the campsite, there is plenty to interest those of an active disposition. The local tourism board has been smartly appropriating large areas of wilderness and appointing them nature reserves. During one brief walk on a bright autumn morning in the Mas Larrieu outside Argeles, we watched fish leap in an inviting, unpolluted freshwater lagoon and listened for the cries of the thekla lark. Were you so inclined you could even walk to Spain.

A more manageable proposition might be to hike the coastal path south from Argeles so that you might discover secluded beaches such as the blue-flagged Le Racou and march triumphantly into Collioure or Banyuls-sur-Mer, a town famous for its wine cellars and therefore the perfect place for a fortifying tipple.

If, like me, you spend most of your time indulging in the consistently brilliant local cuisine, you might be better off hauling your bloated self onto any one of the fun little cruisers that skirt the edge of the coast. They pause to let you take in breathtaking cliffs and picturesque port towns where the kings of Majorca scattered fortifications and summer retreats.

Eating like royalty was the highlight of my visit. I'm not sure if it's an individualism forged from the area's particular Catalan identity, but there is an immense sense of pride in anything perceived to be local. This might perpetuate itself in something like the fanaticism for the Perpignan rugby team (our usually soft-spoken guide Cecile was particularly voluble in her support for the lads).

The native pride is even more evident when it comes to cuisine. Well, this is France after all. They have Michelin-starred restaurants, for sure, but more important it seems is the local branch of the Toques Blanches (White Hats) association, a standard-bearing group run by local chefs themselves.

Le Cédrat, the restaurant of the president of Toques Blanches, Monsieur Jean Plouzennec, is bizarrely grafted onto the side of a casino on the road outside Le Boulou. But you quickly forget you are sitting across from a line of one-armed bandits when he serves up a five-course meal themed entirely on locally-bred duck and figs from his own garden.

This is the secret of this mysterious little departement: pleasure is around the most unlikely of corners.

Need to know


Ryanair (0818 303 030; has opened up both the Pyrénées-Orientales and its neighbouring region of Languedoc-Roussillon with flights to Girona (in Spain) and Carcassonne. Irishman Joey Shannon has instigated a frequent and efficient coach service between Perpignan and Girona (about 85 minutes, with return tickets ¤20 on the bus or discounted if booked in advance on


As well as camping options all over the region, there are some wonderful boutique hotels and converted farmhouse accommodation. I stayed at Auberge du Roua, a former winery homestead now stylishly reimagined. Breakfast and a truly delicious dinner are on the menu. Doubles start at ¤95 in high season but fall during the winter (0033 468 958 585;


In the Pyrenees-Orientales, set some of the budget aside to indulge at any of the Toques Blanches restaurants listed at toques-blanches-du-roussillon. com. My waistband was tested several times, notably at Le Cédrat in Le Boulou (0033 468 830 120), La Littorine in Banyuls-sur-Mer (0033 468 880 312) and La Galinette in Perpignan (0033 468 350 090).


Late winter can be rough if storms hit, but March to October is a wonderful season in which to visit. Beware of August, when the French descend en masse.


Walk the Côte Vermeille. The track along the vermilion-coloured coast is easy to follow; alternatively, the Argeles tourist office (0033 468 811 585) runs three-hour guided tours for just a few euro, from April to September.

Cast an artist’s eye on Céret. Like Collioure, the town has a tradition of inspiring and housing artists, most notably Picasso. The museum of modern art at 8 Boulevard Marechal Joffre has a wonderful collection by those who have passed through its medieval streets.

Visit a dynamite factory. Or rather, the site of the former Alfred Nobel dynamite factory at Paulilles. Nestled between Cape Bear and Cape Oullestrell on the rocky coastline, another huge nature reserve has been established here. The tranquillity of the place is all the more poignant for the on-site museum dedicated to factory workers who died in explosive accidents or as a result of dealing with toxic substances before it closed in 1984. (Museum: 0033 468 952 340.)

Spot a flamingo: As well as the impressive reserve at Mas Larrieu, the salt marshes half an hour further north at Canet en Roussillon are worth a visit, not least because they come alive in summer with flocks of pink flamingos.

An afternoon in Perpignan: You could spend days exploring the ancient city of Perpignan, but an afternoon will at least give you a taste for its curious mix of Catalan and French influence. See the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, or simply sit on a terrasse café in the pedestrianised old town.


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Silly Ideas Amnesty Day

We all make mistakes but some of us are better at admitting them than others. Certain politicians, for instance, are quite incapable of holding up their hands in public. What goes for the most macho of men, goes doubly so for those in public life. Never show weakness. Never say you’re sorry. Never say: I was wrong.
This might explain why the ridiculous 30kph speed limit along the north and south quays of the city remains in place nearly nine months after it was introduced to a chorus of disapproval. Twelve-pound babies have been easier to deliver than this ill-conceived legislation.

The AA pointed out that it would create dangerous bottlenecks but the brass necks wouldn’t have it. There would be no U-turn because to make one would be to admit that the whole idea was a half-hearted and badly-thought out stab at making Dublin’s roads safer. Delineating the cycle lanes more clearly along the quays would have been a better start.

Only now is a proposed amendment to the limit being formulated. Dublin city councillors will decide in the autumn on whether to raise the limit outside the stretch between Capel Street and O’Connell Bridge. We wait with bated breath (as we sit in stalled traffic).

Sorry seems to be the hardest word. Look at the e-voting machines fiasco. If someone had laughed hard enough at Noel Dempsey when he started promoting them as the future in 2002, he might have stopped flouncing about like some class of Buck Rogers of the ballot box. If someone had told Martin Cullen to cop himself on when he expanded on Dempsey’s minor brainwave, we might not have spent over €50m on them.

Instead – because no-one was man or woman enough to say that this was a ninny-headed idea and that they should be sold off immediately – we are only now looking at offloading them. It has just emerged that the Government might, maybe, perhaps, tentatively have found a buyer for the wretched machines.

You wouldn’t wait eight years to return a too-small pair of shoes to the shop. Why spend €183,000 a year on storing these machines rather than admitting they were completely the wrong fit?

If our bull-headed leaders won’t admit their mistakes, maybe we need to give them a get-out clause. I hereby propose a Silly Ideas Amnesty. For one day only, let all parties, in and out of power, all local authorities and lobbying groups, take the opportunity to retract all the most ridiculous proposals and legislation they’ve made in, say, the past ten years.

The rest of us will agree to turn a blind eye, and never mention the dumb ideas again. I figure there are many proposals made in the heat of a Dail debate or on the promise of a vote or two that could be made to sleep with the fishies and the country would be better for it.

Perhaps Clare County Council could rethink the outrageous new charges that will likely scare motoring tourists from visiting the Cliffs of Moher. Would Energy Minister Eamon Ryan gladly retract his public service obligation levy (ie, jacking up electricity prices for householders) if only we couldn’t witness his embarrassment at being seen to do so?

Maybe the person who thought letting TDs continue to charge for some unvouched expenses might like to think again. Perhaps Mary Harney could go back and knock together the correct heads in the HSE – the ones in the boardrooms, rather than on the frontline – if we’d only look out the window a bit and whistle Dixie.

At the end of Silly Ideas Amnesty Day, we could recreate that special effect in Men in Black. The one where Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones wipe the memories of the humans who see aliens in their midst. We would be none the wiser – but wouldn’t such ignorance be bliss?

The Secret to (her) success

The author who found The Secret to success with a best-selling self-help book is about to unleash a new tome on having it all.
(I wrote this for last Saturday's Review section in the Irish Independent - The Power was published yesterday)

The key to success is apparently now one of the world's worst-kept secrets. When self-help manual The Secret was published in 2006, it claimed to contain a formula to personal fulfillment that had been jealously guarded by some of history's finest minds down through the centuries. Four years later, The Secret has been imparted to around 16 million people who have bought the book.

Not content with sparking one global pop cultural phenomenon, The Secret's Australian author Rhonda Byrne is launching a follow-up, The Power, next Tuesday. Her publishers say it is set to reveal everything Byrne has learnt and attracted to herself since the release of her first book.

The basic premise of The Secret was that if you focus hard enough on what you want most from life, the universe will deliver it. It's a simple credo that certainly seems to have worked for Byrne. The slim tome became an instant hit, championed by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres. It went to No 1 in Ireland on its publication here in 2007. It has remained on the hardback bestsellers' list for so long that the publishing industry hasn't been this geared up for a sequel since the release of the second Harry Potter book.

Byrne herself has somewhat retreated from the public eye since the 2006 launch of The Secret. Time magazine named her one of the world's most influential people in 2007 but she hasn't given any major interview in the past two years. She doesn't need to: the global spread of The Secret has taken on a self-promoting life on blogs, TV chat shows and by sheer word-of-mouth.

Back in the early 1990s, Byrne was a prominent reality TV producer in her native Melbourne. Even then she showed a knack for having a finger on the pulse of popular culture: she specialised in programmes about UFOs and near-death experiences. Her Prime Time production company created the much-syndicated World's Greatest Commercials series and Sensing Murder, which had 'psychic detectives' tackle famous unsolved murders. Former colleagues recalled that she was ambitious and hard-working.

By 2004 however, Byrne experienced a plunge in her personal fortunes. She was divorced and a single mum to two children, she had fallen out with her business partner and her father had just died. It was at this low point that her daughter handed her a copy of The Science of Getting Rich, a get-rich-quick classic published in 1910. Byrne began to devour other self-help manuals and realised that they had a key message in common: the power of positive thinking.

Doing what came naturally to her, Byrne decided to make a TV documentary based on the teachings of several self-help gurus and motivational speakers. These "transformational experts" as she calls them included already established names in the genre like Jack Canfield, author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Byrne managed to source funding from Australian and US sources but she also mortgaged her own house to make the film.

The risk paid off. (Although The Secret would say that there is no risk involved: if you just focus hard enough on your heart's desire, the universe's Law of Attraction will bring it to you.) A trailer for the DVD became a viral success on the internet, and linked to where the film could be streamed -- for a price. The film is reported to have grossed nearly $20m in its first eight months online and Byrne wrote the book to go with it.

The core message of the book doesn't seem that revolutionary. The power of positive thinking has been a mainstream pop psychology subject since Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends and Influence People was published in the Great Depression in 1936. Byrne's readers are exhorted to "Ask, Believe, Receive" -- a theory of 'prosperity consciousness' that goes back to Christian Scientists in the 1800s.

The Secret, and Byrne, have their critics. Some question the materialism of the success being sold and the ease with which readers and viewers are told they can achieve it. In the movie, dramatisations show a little boy dream of owning a shiny red bicycle. In the next frame, one appears outside his door. A woman gazes longingly at a necklace in a shop window -- and suddenly, it is around her neck.

More serious criticism has been aimed at messages like the one where readers are told that to avoid getting fat, they should not look at people who are overweight in case the negative image is catching. "If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it," says the book.

Byrne writes: "Imperfect thoughts are the cause of all humanity's ills, including disease, poverty, and unhappiness." When asked by one interviewer if this meant that the Jewish people were responsible for the Holocaust, she replied that "many factors" cause millions to die in tragedies such as the Holocaust, but "if their dominant thoughts and feelings were in alignment with the energy of fear, separation, powerlessness and having no control over outside circumstances, then that is what they attracted".

Nonetheless, the simplicity of The Secret is also its power. Wish the dream and then live the dream. Byrne herself claims that she got rid of her reading glasses in three days flat by thinking correct thoughts about her eyesight. Its universally accepted repeat rule that positive thoughts are good; negative thoughts are bad is easy to sell. Oprah Winfrey thought so -- she devoted two shows to The Secret in 2007, exposing it to her audience of 23 million people and leading to a huge sales boost.

The American Spectator has called the initial internet campaign to launch The Secret, "the greatest success story in the annals of viral marketing". It used tease advertising and personal recommendations on blogs to pass information along in a word-of-mouth way that seemed authentic and intimate.

Even the name, The Secret, is genius. It layers up on the persuasive argument of the book that there is just one overarching powerful secret to success that has been known to the best and brightest in history -- and now it was available to you and me. Plato, Shakespeare, Da Vinci, Beethoven, Einstein are all name-checked as 'keepers' of The Secret.

Donavin Bennes, a buyer for major US book chain Borders Books said: "We all want to be in on a secret. But to present it as the secret, that was brilliant."

The now instantly recognisable cover of the book was made to look like a reproduction of a medieval scroll, complete with scarlet wax seal. It's the Da Vinci Code of self-help: seductively suggesting that this is tapping into a vein of ancient wisdom.

"The Secret reveals the most powerful law in the universe," reads The Secret's official website. "The knowledge of this law has run like a golden thread through the lives and the teachings of all the prophets, seers, sages and saviours in the world's history, and through the lives of all truly great men and women."

The Secret also harnessed an immediate fanbase from the already-popular spiritual and self-help experts who contributed to the initial film, such as Jack Canfield and Esther and Jerry Hicks who had already published best-selling books around the laws of attraction. The Hicks declined to appear in a second version of The Secret film.

Now that Byrne has passed on The Secret to the world, it might seem her work here is done. However, her publishers at Atria say that she was inspired to write The Power as a response to the thousands of letters written to her by readers of the earlier book. Of the sequel, her publishers will only say that "Now with The Power, Rhonda reveals the single greatest force in our universe." This air of mystique has understandably sent fans flocking to book advance copies.

As for Byrne, the 59-year-old has become the best advertisement for The Secret she can be. She ended up buying a prestigious gated home in California, just down the road from her celebrity fan Oprah Winfrey.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Sing like you mean it

You're either a singsong person or you're not. Most Irish people are singsong merchants. At any given gathering of my extended family, you can't clink a spoon against a glass for fear someone takes it as their cue to tune up.

This ditty diarrhoea is the one cultural presumption that I don't mind people making about the Irish. Failte Ireland should make a merit of it and get the Yanks back in by hinting that we're as likely to burst into a spot of Spancil Hill as look at them.

Who wouldn't come to Ireland on their holidays if they thought it gave them a walk-on part on the set of some real, live Celtic Glee? Clee, if you will.

I even have my suspicions that the Russian spy who was passing himself off as a Murphy in America until recently might have some Irish blood in him after all. Who would have pegged Vladimir Putin as a singsong fan? But he was, in a tightly controlled fashion and for one night only. And when did it happen? When he met up with the 10 Russian spies who were expelled from the States, our man Murphy among them.

Putin later reported that they sang the unofficial KGB anthem What Motherland Begins With "and other songs of that character". I'd bet anything Murphy was at the bottom of this patriotic little concert. What did he sing? Dearg Doom? The Boys Are Back In Town? Rat Trap (And You've Been Caught)?

I can't talk. I spent last Saturday night blowing the earholes off some unfortunate taxi driver duetting on I Know Him So Well with a woman I had met just two hours earlier. I have decided that she is my singsong soulmate. We like the same 80s power ballads. When she started singing Hazel O'Connor, she went high, I went low. We were harmony in motion. We were annoying as hell.

It had began in someone else's kitchen -- where else? -- earlier that evening. There is always one person in any given social group who spends the night itching to start a singsong. You can see them, fidgeting with frustration when people go outside to smoke because their potential audience is dwindling and distracted.

Then the snatches of song start to appear. It's a bit like Hyacinth Bucket singing the shopping list at her neighbours, pining for everyone to just shut the frig up and LISTEN! Eventually they just go for broke and burst into an ABBA medley. I appreciate these people because I'm not brave enough to be one. It's like dancing -- I'd never be first on an empty dancefloor, but as soon as it fills up, I'm out there throwing all sorts of shapes.

Our Saturday night singsong was truncated by some howling dogs. I can't say I blame them. So we never did establish who would take on the traditional sing-a-long roles.

There is always the one who has been breastfed on a diet of X Factor, Pop Idol and Everyone's Got Talent. They will warble their way through some excruciating version of I Will Always Love You because they have been taught that anything is possible if you only Believe In Yourself. Never mind that not even Whitney Houston can hit a Whitney Houston high note these days.

I like listening out for the dark horses. The hairy-knuckled hobbit in the corner who gives a sweet and unaffected rendition of Hallelujah before going back to frowning into his can of Bulmers. The quiet girl who breaks into a rocked-out version of Common People and then runs away in embarrassment.

They just about make up for the ballad purists who insist on all 12 verses of The Raggy Boy, and the armchair republicans -- there's always one where I come from -- who can't get to the chorus of One Flew Over The Wall without breaking down into tears.

If there is a kingdom of heaven, though, blessed are the instrumentalists. Unless you are willing to play until your fingers bleed, don't ever volunteer guitar skills at a party. At first everyone is in awe that you know all the chords to Ride On, all three of them, and the introduction to Blackbird. An hour later and you're nothing but an accompaniment monkey. The minute someone asks for Stairway to Heaven, do the right thing. Go home.


Thursday, August 12, 2010


By Susan Daly
Tuesday Aug 10 2010

Loneliness is considered a relatively modern affliction. Even though communications technology has advanced beyond our grandparents' wildest dreams, many people feel disconnected. Community and family ties have loosened and it is possible to feel isolation in the most crowded city.

Perhaps this is why a service has launched in the UK for lonely people to hire someone to spend time with them. This isn't about sex -- is a strictly platonic service. A spokesperson said: "You can rent a local friend to hang out with, go to a movie or restaurant with, someone to go with you to a party or event, someone to teach you a new skill or hobby, or someone to show you around an unfamiliar town."

Companionship rental is already a growing industry in the US where research says one-in-five people -- that's 60 million -- feels lonely at any given time. The concept originated in Japan where rented pals gloss over a multitude of social awkwardnesses, from stepping in as a best man to filling in as the plus-one at a dinner party.

It sounds depressing but the notion of friendship is constantly evolving. Even Aristotle, with his high ideals of friendship or 'philia', noted that not all friends were created equal. He separated them into categories -- the useful friend, such as a boss; the common-interest friend, ie, the bloke you go golfing with; and the 'virtuous' friend who loves you for what you are.

The problem for many people is that they don't know who their 'virtuous' friends are. From Seinfeld to Friends to Sex and the City, popular culture lays as much store in the core group of close friends as Aristotle did.

But as we know from these shows, a good friend is hard to find. Teens watch MTV's The Hills and learn about 'frenemies'. We're exhorted by magazines to declutter our social circle of 'toxic friends' and 'emotional vampires'. Presumably these are people who take Gore Vidal's most famous quote as a personal motto. Vidal admitted: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."

Still, we can't help idealising the concept of friendship. In his book, Friendship: An Expose, essayist Joseph Epstein says that: "The idealisation of friendship may be owing to the fact that the most intense time for friendship, for men and for women, is during adolescence. This is also a period when time itself seems inexhaustible, and life's pressures are well off in the distance. Friendship can be explored, friends cultivated, unambiguously enjoyed, luxuriated in."

That period of adolescence has extended -- or at least the period in between leaving the family and starting one's own has -- to the point that friends have assumed a huge importance in our lives. Any absence is much more noticeable than it would have been to our parents, already busy with children and marriage in their 20s.

Yet, as a result of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we are in contact with more people than ever. So what's the problem? Well, there is a disconnect between having the virtual world at your fingertips and keeping the real world shut outside the front door.

Social-media agony-aunt Amanda Brown says it has never been easier to strike up a friendship over social networks, but that there is distrust without a face-to-face meeting.

"The big thing with any relationship, romantic, platonic or otherwise, is trust," says Brown. "You can have a cerebral connection with someone online but with humans trust is established with eye contact and body language."

Evolutionary psychologist Will Reader of Sheffield Hallam University confirms that his research shows that 90pc of people feel face-to-face associations are imperative to forming close bonds.

An unexpected side-effect of Twitter for example, where users communicate in short messages, is a phenomenon called 'tweet-ups' where groups of people who converse online decide to meet up 'in real life'. As someone who works from home and checks in with Twitter several times a day to 'chat' with others, I have been to several 'tweet-ups' and the result has been that real friendships have developed once faces have been put to online names.

Amanda Brown doesn't believe that using Facebook means you sacrifice time with old friends to hang out in the virtual world. "But people are getting confused between those who are acquaintances and those who are friends. Social media can become very competitive with some people 'collecting' friends who aren't friends."

Social anthropologist Robin Dunbar has theorised that the number of individuals our brain can comfortably connect with at any time as friends is 150.

"I had someone ask me for advice who had 950 'friends' on Facebook. Then his Hotmail account was hacked and the hacker got into Facebook as a result," says Brown.

"In a panic, this guy shut down his Facebook and Hotmail. It's all about trust and it's hard to have trust with people that you don't really know."

At least with rented friends, you get a receipt.

HOW WE MADE IT LAST: Sinead Gallagher and Jeanette Dunne speak about how they managed to stay friends from their student days through motherhood and, now, working together.

JEANETTE: "We met in 1994 when we started training as nurses in St Vincent's in Dublin. We really bonded on a holiday to Corfu and we've had a great social life, going to the Galway Races, going out on Friday nights after work.

"Later on, we both branched out into sales repping and four years ago we saw a gap for a nurse-only aesthetic clinic and went for it. We had no reservation about it because I think what is important is that we have always had common goals.

"Our friendship has evolved over time -- it had to. We have children now and we're trying to juggle home and work but we appreciate each other's circumstances."

SINEAD: "We were just always on the same wavelength. We were pipe-dreamers together. Saying that, we are both complete opposites -- she is more laidback, I am more open and out there.

"But that works for our friendship and it is why we can work together -- we naturally fall into complementary roles. She looks after the accounts and I look after the PR. We trust each other and that is paramount. When we go out together socialising we never mention work. We are friends first, business partners second."

Jeanette and Sinead run Renew clinic, off Baggot Street in Dublin

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass

The egalitarian friendship between black abolitionist Douglass and President Lincoln during the American Civil War proved a role model for the new America.

Douglass remarked, "In his company I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular colour."

James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley

These four young men became friends when they met in the English Midlands in the 1760s.

They founded the Lunar Society and spurred each other into making discoveries that kickstarted the Industrial Revolution; steam engines (Watt), the discovery of oxygen (Priestley), mass production (Wedgwood's pottery), evolutionary theory (Darwin, followed later by his grandson Charles).

Michael Collins and Harry Boland

Collins and Boland helped bring the British to the Treaty table but the best friends ended up on opposite sides during the ensuing Civil War.

When anti-Treatyite Boland was shot in August 1922, a devastated Collins wrote to Kitty Kiernan that "my mind went to him lying dead there and I thought of the times together".

Thelma and Louise

Alright. They're not real people: but the on-screen sacrifice of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis moved the phrase 'till death do us part' beyond the realm of romantic love.

Ben Affleck and Matt Damon

The partnership of Affleck and Damon might not be as earth-moving as that of, say, DNA scientists Crick and Watson (unless you are a person who believes Good Will Hunting is the Best Film Ever Made).

But their close relationship, eclipsing even Affleck's penchant for famous Jennifers, is the prototype for the 'bromance' phenomenon of recent popular culture.


What's the magic number?

How many lovers in a lifetime is too many?
Susan Daly finds that today's world is not as sexually liberated as we think it is.
Monday August 09 2010

If you thought the dreadful Sex and the City 2 had hammered the final nail into that particular coffin, think again. For Christina Saunders, the SATC-inspired empowerment has only just begun now that she has reached her target of sleeping with 1,000 men in tribute to man-eating character Samantha Jones. Well, everyone should have a hobby, right?

The problem is that Ms Saunders, from Hertfordshire, England, now worries that future lovers might be put off by her 'reputation'. She said: "Good friends stuck by me but others accused me of being a slut . . . Now all I want to do is settle down. I just hope I haven't put men off."

At the other end of the spectrum last month -- the 'sextrum' if you will -- Girls Aloud singer Kimberley Walsh was reported to have had just two lovers in her life and was proud of it. Now Ms Walsh has hit back at these reports to clarify that she had said she had only ever had two serious relationships.

"I never said anything about how many people I'd slept with! It's a very personal thing," she said.

What are we to take from these tales? That it is possible to have too many lovers?

It is presumed that in modern society sexuality has been liberated from the shackles of marriage or, indeed, that sexual mores have never been slacker.

Certainly the most comprehensive global study of sexual attitudes (in 2006) said Irish people were among the most promiscuous in the world. The average Irish person has -- brace yourself, Bridget -- 11 sexual partners in a lifetime. Eleven. Is that really a high figure? (Notwithstanding that anything under 100 looks practically virginal compared to Ms Saunders's exploits.)

Psychology professor David Buss wrote a book on the history of desire and he says that there is "no reason to think that we do more now than in the past, although we are certainly more frank about it".

Religious and social constraints may well have limited the number of sexual partners the Irish had for most of the 20th Century but, historically, the Celts were pretty free and easy with monogamy.

Under Brehon Law, Celtic women had the power to move on to another lover once they walked out of their marriages on February 1. This is an interesting contrast to today's society in which Christina Saunders felt herself judged a "slut", while swordsman Warren Beatty is viewed with a certain awe.

By the 1500s, sex was an important part of Irish festive occasions and wakes often descended into group orgies as a sort of resurrection motif.

There are no shortage of sexually voracious female characters in Irish historical annals and literature.

Pirate queen Grace O'Malley seized castles for her property portfolio and the lords who lived in them for her bedchamber; 18th-Century Irish poem The Midnight Court describes how a middle-aged bachelor is punished by a fairy queen for failing to bring fulfilment to young Irish women; Molly Bloom's romps through James Joyce's Ulysses are deemed to promote "a great deal of unmitigated filth and obscenity".

By these standards, modern lovers are merely getting to first base. What's more, the fact that we talk more about about who is doing what and how often they are doing it, we might be fooled into thinking everyone else but us is at it.

Christina Saunders, for example, was wrongheaded in thinking that sleeping with 1,000 men would emulate her TV heroine Samantha Jones. Across the six seasons of Sex and The City, Jones actually 'only' had sex with 41 men, and one woman.

As for the sex surveys, those cannot be entirely trusted either. Most surveys in the US, the UK and abroad have found that men report two to four times as many sexual partners as women do.

Statisicians -- and anyone with a grasp of simple maths -- say that can't be true. Presuming the men aren't counting incidents of self-love, both genders must average out at the same number of lovers.

Psychologists at the University of Michigan think that the discrepancy is a result of the very different methods men and women use to make estimates. Women are more likely to rely on enumeration. "This is a strategy that typically leads to underestimation," says psychologist Norman R Brown.

"Men are twice as likely to use rough approximation to answer and that typically leads to over-estimation."

It may be that celebrity womanisers like Warren Beatty or Mickey Rourke are neither lovers nor liars after all. They are just bad at counting on their fingers.

Does the 'lover number' matter? What the experts think...
Lisa O'Hara, relationship counsellor with Marriage and Relationship Counselling Services (

"What I find is that it is a partner's relationship history, rather than their sexual one, that bothers people. It is how their history of relationship dynamics repeats that can be damaging.

"My own thought is: don't talk about how many sexual partners you have had. You put ghosts in the bedroom of your current relationship, and if you are a person who has had many partners it can be misinterpreted. It can be just down to the age you are.

"Saying that, if you have a person who had loads of casual sexual flings, I wonder if when they were in a relationship, would they crave the variety they once had?"

Dr Derek Freedman, specialist in sexually transmitted diseases:

"I think to try and quantify what is 'normal' in something as biologically dynamic as sexual activity is difficult. The point is that people go through different stages in life.

"One thing I find striking is that those people coming in to me who have had a higher number of lovers -- and I've seen people who have had 250/300 partners -- I am more likely to find that they are clear. It is often the person who gets drunk once and sleeps with someone, unprotected, who is infected.

"The bottom line is that it isn't the number that matters -- if you are irresponsible sexually even just once, there is always a risk, and one should be tested for peace of mind."



DNA screening has showed that 8pc of the Central Asian population is directly descended from 13th-century warlord Khan. He took many wives while conquering lands from China to India to North Africa to Eastern Europe.


Horsepower aside, the Empress Catherine was a prodigious lover. She handpicked the most handsome men in the Russian empire and then gifted them some land as a farewell when she tired of them.


"Cultivating whatever gave pleasure to my senses was always the chief business of my life," wrote mathematician and lawyer Casanova. How true -- history does not record his arithmetic skills.


LA Lakers basketball player Chamberlain bested Warren Beatty's 12,775 lovers by claiming he slept with 20,000 women. Well, probably not 'slept'. He can't have had much time for shuteye.


Again proving that being active in the bedroom doesn't preclude getting a good day's work in, it is said that Castro had sex twice a day for 40 years -- and never with the same woman.



Yes, the 'Virgin Queen' moniker is highly disputed as we now know she had several 'close friendships'. But any union when you are Queen of England is loaded with power issues so while Elizabeth had her cake and ate it, she was careful to brush the crumbs from the table.


Being a virgin doesn't mean you can't relate to the full spectrum of human passions and fears. Virginal Dickinson left behind over 1,000 poems after dying a virtual recluse.


The creator of Peter Pan remained a virgin all of his 77 years. He was said to have an overbearing mother.


He spent a lifetime theorising about human psychosexual behaviour but only experienced the sexual act upon his marriage at the age of 30.


Again, no longer a virgin, but the singer was a role model to the teen abstinence movement, 'saving' herself for marriage to Nick Lachey at 22.

Jeepers creepers, where'd you get those peepers?

By Susan Daly
Saturday Aug 7 2010

Lady Gaga's cartoon-style eyes have sparked a dangerous craze for the doe-eyed anime look, with teens buying large circular lenses on the internet reports Susan Daly

The outrageous Lady Gaga has set quite a few trends in her brief time at the top of the pops, from metal-spiked shoulder pads to precision-cut peroxide bobs.

We didn't see this one coming though: fans have now fallen for her wide-eyed look in her Bad Romance video. In the bathtub scene, Gaga flashes huge peepers in the tradition of doe-eyed Asian anime characters. The look was also channelled in a popular photoshoot the singer did to celebrate the 35th birthday of Hello Kitty.

While computer-generated imagery and liberal use of eyeshadow on closed lids was used to create Gaga's saucer eyes in the video and the photoshoot respectively, devoted female fans have been trying to emulate the look with super-sized contact lenses imported over the internet from South Korea, Japan and China.

Known as 'circle lenses', they are larger than average-sized contacts and extend beyond the iris over the whites of the eyes to make the iris look freakishly big.

The Association of Optometrists in Ireland warns that the lenses can starve the eyeball of oxygen and lead to serious infections, and even blindness.

The look is hugely popular in Asia where it fits in with the 'ulzzang' ideal of beauty. Ulzzang literally means 'best face' in Korean and encompasses a street style in which eyes are the main focus, with girls using circle lenses, eyeliner and lots of fake eyelashes to highlight them. They team the dramatic eyes with fair skin, again just like anime characters.

The female characters in anime and manga cartoons have been drawn with large eyes since they became popular in the 1960s. Japan's best-known anime artist, Osamu Tezuka, felt they better expressed emotion and femininity.

Asian girls associate the wide-eyed look with youthful beauty. That mindset has been compounded by the more recent notion that rounder, Western-shaped eyes are more desirable than their traditional almond shape.

Some have resorted to more desperate measures to get the look. An Irish ex-pat living in Tokyo notes "they are obsessed with having big eyes over here. A lot of the girls glue their eyelids to show more of their eyeball -- they can't even blink properly".

Now, as with karaoke, hi-tech gadgetry and so many other pop-culture trends, the bug-eye craze has transferred back westwards. More than nine million people have viewed US make-up artist Michelle Phan's YouTube demo of how to get the Lady Gaga anime look.

"In the past year, there's been a sharp increase in interest here in the US," Joyce Kim of Asian pop fansite told the New York Times earlier this month. "Once early adopters have adequately posted about it, discussed it and reviewed them, it's now available to everyone."

It is illegal for anyone in the US, as in Ireland, to sell contact lenses of any description without a prescription.

However, there are countless websites based in Canada, Holland, Asian countries and other territories where such restrictions don't apply, and they will ship circle lenses to anywhere in the world for an average of €5 a go.

It's not illegal for Irish consumers to buy these lenses, nor for these sites to sell them to us -- but it does mean that the consumer doesn't ever have to see an eye doctor and this is what worries optometrists.

"They can't be sold in Ireland but it's so easy to get them over the internet," says Lynda McGivney-Nolan, optometric advisor at the Association of Optometrists in Ireland. "They are being bought without prescription, without being fitted properly to the eye. You can't even be sure what materials are being used to make them. Do they contain dyes that are going to leak into the eye?

"Wearing them reduces oxygen to the cornea and that can affect sight," says Linda. "Then because people are not shown how to put them in properly, there is a huge risk of bacterial infections. Some of these infections can be severe enough to cause corneal meltdown. If you're very lucky, you might be able to get a corneal graft. If not, you could go blind."

Looking at a selection of the websites selling these circle lenses, these risks are not immediately evident. A few contain small sections on eye care.

Prominent Korean website writes in an email to Weekend that the circle lenses they sell are indeed bigger than regular lenses, but that "this is also true for other major brands' colour lenses as well

"We ask our customers to receive prescriptions from their eye care specialist before placing an order, and advise them to receive proper care advice from them... (btw, our products are all KFDA approved.)"

Even if young women and teenage girls know all the dangers, will that stop them buying into this latest eyewear craze?

A few years ago, as Etsuko points out, coloured lenses to intensify your baby blues were all the rage and they too could be bought, completely unregulated, over the internet.

"I even heard about a fleeting craze for this contact lens that had a chain attached to it with a little diamond on the end," says McGivney-Nolan.

"I can't even begin to imagine why you would stick that in your eye."

Read more:

Would you buy sperm from these men?

As the world's first 'test-tube baby' celebrates her 32nd birthday, Susan Daly looks at IVF in the 21st Century

Saturday August 07 2010

Few postal workers have their birthday marked by the media every year. Louise Brown, the world's first so-called 'test-tube baby', is an exception. Now the mother of a two-year-old boy in Brighton, England, she celebrated her 32nd birthday last Sunday, a fact noted in several newspapers.

Brown lives an ordinary life -- an achievement in the circumstances -- but her birth is still a source of fascination because it hailed a new era in human reproduction. Unbelievable as it seems, when around 600 babies are conceived each year in Ireland through IVF, at the time it provoked some criticism for 'interfering' with nature.

The ethical questions surrounding assisted baby-making have not disappeared, in particular around the use of anonymous egg or sperm donations and the rights of the child to know their biological parents. (Louise Brown was conceived from material taken from her parents, John and Lesley.)

The latest concerns are over unregulated 'fertility matchmaking' websites that put members in touch with sperm donors. Fertility experts worry that they are exploiting vulnerable would-be parents and putting their health, and the health of babies conceived through unscreened sperm, at risk.

Many of these types of sites encourage 'recipients' and 'donors' to register details which can then be browsed by other users. Membership costs around £10 a month to £300 for an "introduction" between a recipient and donor.

The donor indicates on their profile if they want to remain anonymous, have contact with the child after it reaches 18 or even have a co-parenting role. Most users whose profiles Weekend Review scanned wanted to be anonymous donors.

"I would be very nervous of these sites," says Helen Brown, chairperson of the National Infertility Support and Information Group (NISIG). "They are preying on the vulnerable, probably on single women or single-sex couples, but also on the fact that to get donor sperm and IUI (artificial insemination) in a clinic costs between €600-€800 a time.

"People might think these websites are a bargain, but for that higher price in a clinic, they procure the sperm, wash it, check it, ultrasound the woman to make sure she's ovulating and so on."

Dr David Walsh is director of Ireland's largest private fertility clinic, Sims Fertility, and he too is concerned by the health risks.

"The sites are acting as brokers and of course it's money-making. But the real problem here is that it is unscreened sperm," says Dr Walsh.

"If I donated sperm to a licenced establishment, they won't release that sperm until nine months later when it has been quarantined for diseases that incubate over a number of months."

The 2005 Irish Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction recommended that only frozen donor sperm be used in fertility treatment.

Some site owners claim to have set up their businesses out of altruistic motives. But clearly the logistics of procuring "fresh" sperm from a UK-based website should be a hurdle for Irish women but it turns out that some are not deterred.

"I'm sure there are Irish people on these sites," says Dr David Walsh. "And it's probably a cost issue because most clinics would treat single women now, for example. We have seen this before, a few years ago, where it seemed essentially that sperm was being delivered in the equivalent of a pizza box on the back of a motorbike."

Solicitor Marion Campbell, a leading specialist in family law, warns that these sites are "unlegislated for and unregulated" in Irish law.

'Any contract the two sides makes between each other about 'no contact' or co-parenting on these websites doesn't stand up in law. Where are the rights of the child to know who the father is in all this?

"I know people can be desperate to have a baby and they will do anything to achieve that, and it leaves them very open and vulnerable."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Prayers for Bobby

WHEN Mary Griffith was a teenager in the 1960s, she never heard the words gay or homosexual. “People would be described as sissies,” she says. “That was the word we used – and I wasn’t even sure what that meant.”

Astonishing then that Mary would later become a leading figure in the American gay rights movement - and more astonishing still for the fact that when her own son Bobby told her he was gay, she thought it was an “evil” of which he could be “cured”. She sent Bobby to Bible school and a Christian counsellor in the hope that her God would turn him away from, as she saw it, a road that would lead to hell.
At the age of 20, Bobby Griffith threw himself from a freeway bridge in front of an 18-wheel truck.

Prayers for Bobby, a movie starring Sigourney Weaver, chronicles this tragic story and how Bobby’s suicide led Mary to re-examine the homophobic values she had been brought up with. The film shows tomorrow (that was August 1) in Dublin, one of the highlights of the 18th annual GAZE Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

It is based on a book that Washington Post journalist Leroy Adams wrote with Mary on her journey from blind intolerance to becoming an advocate for parents supporting their gay children. When the film was first aired on American TV last year, Mary said it was incredibly difficult to watch Weaver’s portrayal of the person she used to be.

“Daniel (Sladek, executive producer) brought the film to us and we went to my friend’s house to show it,” says Mary, on the phone from her home in Walnut Creek, California. “My granddaughter turned to me and asked, ‘Were you really like that?’ And I said, that, yes, that was the truth. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. She has only known me after Bobby died and I’m so happy that I am who I am now for her.”

Who Mary is now – an active member of the American organisation PFLAG, which helps parents to support their gay and lesbian children – is far removed from Mary, the suburban mom whose world imploded when her 16-year-old son Bobby told her he was gay.

“It frightened me,” she says. “Gay people were invisible for me; I had no context for them. We lived in Danville, California at the time in a close, religious community. I was very confident that God was going to cure Bobby. I thought he’d go to a Christian counsellor and be cured.

“Bobby didn’t go there very long – he felt it was a waste of time. I still remember what he said: that he wanted to be the kind of person God wanted him to be. Looking back on it now, he already was what God wanted him to be. He was perfect but I couldn’t see that.”

This was the early 1980s and the sort of “conversion therapy” that Mary describes was beginning to take a foothold in evangelical Christian America. Groups like the Love in Action ministry purported that sexual orientation was a choice and that gay people could be “turned off” homosexuality through counselling and the power of prayer.

In some cases, horrific aversive treatments have been used in an attempt to “convert” gay people; electric shocks and nausea-inducing drugs administered at the same time as showing the “patient” homoerotic images.

The American Psychiatric Association and the Canadian Psychological Association have both stated that “conversion” is mentally impossible as being gay is not a learned behaviour. Just this month, the British Medical Association branded gay conversion therapy as thoroughly harmful.

Mary Griffith says that it took a few years after Bobby died before she could leave the dogma of her religious upbringing behind her to understand who her son had been. “God didn’t cure Bobby because there was nothing wrong with him,” she says simply.

Most heartbreaking of all was her discovery of Bobby’s old diary, in which he records his anguish at being misunderstood and alienated.
“The most outstanding thing that Booby wrote was that he was always so afraid and angry that people didn’t understand him and that he was frightened young man and angry at the world,” says Mary.

“It wasn’t of comfort to read the diary but it helped me realise why he was so angry and so upset. I could see that everything I was doing was pushing him away.”
She spoke to other religious ministers outside her own evangelical Christian community, including those of the Metropolitan Community Church which was open to gay members of the congregation. She discovered that Bobby had even attended a few of their meetings.

“I had a dream after Bobby died of Bobby as a small baby. In the dream, I was focused on his head and it came to me that this is what I had been missing. It is all there, our psychology, our personality, our sexuality, when we are born. Bobby hadn’t changed and become gay, he was born that way and it was natural.”

By the time Bobby died, he had moved to the larger city of Portland in Oregon where he had found a boyfriend and was living openly as a gay man. He had become estranged from his family back at home, something that Mary, now 74, still bitterly regrets almost 30 years on. “I just wouldn’t give in and I’ll always have a problem with that,” she says.

“Lies destroyed Bobby, and ignorance. It has gotten easier with time and I can sense Bobby’s presence every now and then. But the thing I want other parents of gay children to know is that they are a lifeline. Their children need their support, they need their family behind them.”

After years of campaigning to help young gay people in the way she hadn’t managed to help Bobby, she feels some sense of peace. “I just felt I had to do that. I felt that it’s never too late to right an injustice done to another human being.”

When she was approached about the possibility of turning her story into a movie, she saw it as an opportunity for others to learn from her mistakes. Oscar-winning actress Sigourney Weaver was moved enough to visit Mary in her Californian home.

“I had a lot of questions,” says Weaver. “I wanted to be sure that I could tell Mary's story, that I understood it. I needed to sit down with her myself and ask, ‘Who were you that you could so close your eyes and ears to what Bobby was suffering?’ She was very generous with me, very forthcoming.”

At the end of the film, as Sigourney leads a gay pride march for PFLAG in San Francisco, Mary and her husband Bob have a cameo role as supporters in the crowd. It’s ironic, thinks Mary, because she used to watch those marches on the television news before she lost Bobby and wondered how those parents could support their children in being gay.

When she eventually joined PFLAG, some of her extended family had a problem with it. “I had to question the Bible and it was a very scary thing for me. But nothing happened, God didn’t strike me down.”