Archive for August, 2010

Maybe it’s because one of the first bands I really loved as a teenager in the late 1980s was REM, whose frontman Michael Stipe spent most of the ’80s singing in a barely comprehensible murmur, but I’ve never had a problem with listening to music whose lyrics I couldn’t understand.

The usually jolly Wir Sind Helden, meine Lieblingsgruppe, in somber mode for their new album

Yes, song lyrics have been hugely important to me over the last 20 years or so, but I don’t think you need to understand what someone’s singing about to appreciate music (otherwise most English-speakers wouldn’t get much out of opera). So I’ve always liked non-English-language pop music. Despite never having learned French (I did German and Latin at school and then German at university) and not really understanding very much of it at all, I’ve long been a big fan of old-school French stuff, worshiping at the altars of Serge Gainsbourg, Francoise Hardy and Jacques Dutronc. In fact, once upon a time I loved it so much that my friend Claire and I ran  a one-off club night called Bon Bon devoted to French pop of all kinds, with a bit of Northern Soul, Tropicalia and random ridiculous fun stuff thrown in. And yes, I played this song. I love you, Jacques!

Of course, we can’t forget Jacques’s one-time ladyfriend Francoise Hardy, who, along with ’60s-era Marianne Faithfull and Mary and Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, was my fashion idol for most of college. I adored her music and thought she was the coolest woman ever. Behold:

I discovered Francoise Hardy thanks to my dad’s vinyl copy of Francoise Hardy Sings In English, which is an awesome album, even though it was responsible for an extremely embarrassing few minutes back when I was 20. Having snogged one of my best friends, I was trying very hard to get things back to normal and so invited him over to my house. Things were going pretty well and I was thinking “Okay, our friendship isn’t ruined after all! We’ll just pretend it never happened!” I had put the Francoise album on but had forgotten about one particular song until it came on during a brief pause in our conversation. Just imagine these words ringing out as two people try very hard to think of something innocuous to say:

I was going to say that this wouldn’t have happened if I’d played the French version, but actually he was doing French in college so it probably would.

Anyway! As well as my love of all things French (I strongly recommend tracking down all the albums in the Ultra Chicks series, compilations of the finest yé-yé girls from Paris), over the years I’ve loved everything from Japanese pop to the delights of the awesome Komeda, who recorded their first album in Swedish before moving on to English. But I know that lots of Anglophone folk don’t want to listen to pop music that isn’t in English, which is why lots of international artistes, from A-Ha to Air, have made so much Anglophone music. And which is why I salute those who would rather write decent lyrics in their native tongues, even though it obviously limits their international appeal.

This goes especially for German band Wir Sind Helden. Now, I can actually understand frontwoman Judith Holofernes’s sweet, smart, funny lyrics, and I’m pretty sure that this is part of why I like them, but their jaunty, ridiculously catchy yet bittersweet indie-pop crosses languages barriers.  The long-awaited (by Germans, and me) new Helden album Bring Mich Nach Hause (trans: Bring Me Home) came out on Friday, and I was possibly the only person in Ireland who was really excited about it. And rightly so, because it’s great, if a lot more folky and melancholy than their previous work.

Speaking of which, here’s their very first self-released single ‘Guten Tag’, a perfect slice of jittery electro-pop:

And ‘Gekommen um zu Bleiben’ (trans: Here To Stay) which is unashamedly goofy but which I’m including because I love the video and it always cheers me up (possibly because I wish I could take part in a video like this):

And speaking of cool videos, I love this Tin Tin-inspired one too (I often find myself singing this song while pootling around the kitchen):

So surely I’m not alone in my defiantly uncool affection for non-English-language pop music? What are your international favourites? Do you prefer people who sing in a language that you can understand, even if it’s not your native tongue? Or do you, like me, rather like the layer of mystery that comes with complete incomprehension of the lyrics?

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What kind of taxi driver have you got lately?

THE GANGLAND GUY: Dark-haired, slick and slightly ugly, this guy is a rabid fan of stripey shirts and bobbing dashboard Holy Mary’s. He knew Marlo Hyland personally and it wasn’t all broken bones and bullets in the head… he bought local people hampers and goldfish at Christmas… a decent old spud, if you happened to be on his good side. This geezer was also the first taxi driver to take Paul Williams out to Ballymun to interview real drug-pushers. “I could tell ye some stories, wha!” he’ll say, as the car clock ticks in time to your tachycardia. “The cops are wide to who blasted Hyland, but they just want them all to do each other in ‘cos it saves them having to do a job at the end of the day. It’s not just 9mm handguns anymore, they’re coming down with Glocks, Berettas, machine guns, even bombs.” You’ll also find out which inner city Garda station houses the most crooked cops, the best way to jump a bank counter (while keeping da eyes peeled), how drugs are smuggled into The ‘Joy inside hard-boiled eggs and the intricacies of the ‘Knacker Nelson’, a variant of the Full Nelson, that will cut off the flow of spinal fluid to any enemy’s brain. “Click Clack!” he’ll say, as you cautiously shift one leg out the door and tell him to keep the change. “Gone in the wink of a bleedin’ eye if ye do it nice ‘n proper,” he explains. “Have a nice noight!”

THE MARSHMALLOW CULCHIE: He’s going straight home after this for a ham sandwich and a bowl of leek & potato soup. In all their 52 years of marriage never a day goes by that she doesn’t make a big pot of the home-made soup. Sometimes even with the pearl barley in it. But she’s in a bit of a tizzy this week because she has a 21st down in Clonakilty, though she doesn’t want to go on account of her not drinking, but she’s just a bit concerned it’ll offend the sister, who’s had no luck lately ‘cos of the son in Mallow General getting the stomach pumped and him with a terrible drink problem after causing the family no end of shame. There’s 12 on her side and 15 on his, and three of them are called Bridget but that’s a whole different story, and if the young fella doesn’t stop drinking he’s going to surely die, the whole family driven demented with it and hadn’t the uncle only recently got him into the AA, after him being through the same thing too, but sure it did no good at all and The Girlfriend went ahead and left him after not being able to take any more and didn’t she shack up with a mechanic from Skibbereen which sent the nephew back on the drink altogether and sure the 21st will only bring it all to a head, which is why The Wife doesn’t want to go, but they’ll discuss it again over the bowl of soup when he gets home and decide then. “Do you want a receipt for that?”

THE CONSPIRACY FLIRTIST: “Do you believe in UFOs luv ?” [silence] “Ah, so you’re the suspicious type? Or else you are a believer but you just don’t want to say ‘cos it’s so early in the morning and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘this taxi driver is a bit of a bleedin’ spacer!?'” [pause: well, I was going to say…] “Let me stop you there luv, have you heard of a website called theinsider or abovetopsecret or evidence? [silence] “No? I didn’t think so. Most people think those sites are just for madsers, like, but I’ll give ye a proper example. You know the whole thing: did they land on the moon or didn’t they – well they did go to the moon and they did land there but all that coverage of them getting out and walking around in slow motion – that was shot in a studio later when they got back to earth – do you know why? [silence] “Because there was already space craft on the moon when they got there. And it wasn’t ours! And don’t be thinking either that Bush didn’t head on in to Afghanistan or Iraq for no reason! They needed the oil and resources to bring to de other planets. They’re colonising the planets and the rest of us are going to be left pretty much fucked and who do you think will be the first ‘up there’ with the Americans?” [silence] “The Israelis of course. Yer man Benjaminwhatshisface. And all the Bin Ladens too. And  that muppet Blair. The whole lotta dem. Mad stuff altogether. You see luv I’m not a conspiracy theorist, I’m a conspiracy factist, cos it’s all 500% above-board-true. Anyway, lovely talking to ye.” [silence] “Here’s me card if ye ever need another taxi”. [silence]

THE RECESSION VIRTUOSO: A sandy-haired, freckled and excitable critter with two or three tabloids and loose food items straddled between the front seats (squashed coleslaw roll, The Irish Sun, Mars bar, The Daily Mail, Johnny Onion Rings, Fanta, etc.). Wears a Karl Jackson ‘affordable’ suit. Whiffs of Aramis. Photo of two young girls on park swings bluetacked to the dashboard beside a miniature Padre Pio head made of tin. Within two minutes of take-off he lets loose that he was once a valued employee in an insurance claims department or that he trained as an actuary or had his own stationery business before 1. divorce, 2. redundancy, 3. recession. But more importantly: he knew about our economic kiss of death, five years ago. “I’d a guy here in the car one day, now I won’t say who, but believe me this is a face you’d instantly recognise off the telly… let’s just say, for the sake of argument, this guy was talking to another guy, right? An economist type, again you’d instantly recognise off the telly, an exuberant sort of chap, let’s not name names here, and the well-known guy, let’s just say again for the sake of argument, he was a Minister back then, the navy three-piece, über polished shoes, cufflinks, the works, and he’d just come from a top-notch meeting of some sort on Kildare Street there and he said to this other guy: ‘Have you any investments stashed away at all? Because I’m telling you now boyo, after what I’ve just heard, they won’t be there in a year’s time’.  Now no word of a lie that was back in early 2005 or was it in the summer when I got the house done? Definitely 2005 anyway, when the property boom was still chugging away and every eejit was grabbing a holiday home in Kusadasi or the south of France. I knew what was going to happen. Tried to warn people, but…”

THE SEETHING RACIST: Irish women weren’t getting raped before ‘they’ came here. Not content with taking our jobs they want all our women as well. Or maybe that’s no surprise because they probably get bored beating the shite out of their own. You see they want it so there’s a load of brown kids out there and we can no longer decipher black from white in this country anymore. Every scam under the sun. ATM machines to illegal casinos and identity fraud. Ten of them working a cab 24 hours on the trot and up to 20 sharing a house so they can rent out the free ones they’re getting from the government and make even more money that way. The Eastern Health Board have no problem buying them taxis, buying the plates for them and sure here, throw in the driving lessons and the tax and insurance while you’re at it, because bubbawubba or whatever his name is allegedly came from some shit war zone and needs all the help poor old little Ireland can give, even though we’re stone broke and can’t even hold up our own. Except that he forgot to mention he stopped off in the Netherlands for ten years where he ran a successful drug empire and now he’s selling crack to Irish kids up in Moore Street out of some makey-uppy hairdressers or Internet shop. Makes me sick to the stomach. If I had my way I’d shoot the lot of them, stone dead, and save up the bodies for bonfires at Halloween.

THE ERUPTING PERV: You know it amazes me how many youn’wans out there seem to think it’s A-OK to have a night out on de razz wearing Sweet-F-A. What’s all that about, huh? We’re not talking here about the auld tic tacs hanging out, I’ve no problem with that, I’m just as red-blooded as the best of them: I’m the first to admit I get a horn that would beat a donkey out of a quarry when I see a really good-looking woman… but skirts so short you can almost see the tampon string hanging out! Now don’t mind me, I just speak me mind, nothing wrong with that, is there? What age are you, jaysus now, I’d say you’re no more than 28. Anyway, I just say it how it is. That’s me. But you wouldn’t believe the way some of these young girls throw themselves at ye when they’re bombed outta their little heads. I’ve had girls in here talkin’ sausages, totally out of it, fallin’ all around the seats showing their knickers ‘n all sorts. Total pecker wreckers, and byjaysus if they’re lucky enough to score a youn’fla they’ve no problem at all trying to give him a handy shandy in the back, knowing full well that I’ve no choice but to look in the mirror when I’m trying to keep an eye on the road. Do they think they’re on bleedin’ Xhamster or something!? I had two youn’wans in the cab only last week, a fare all the way out to Ashbourne, about 1am, sozzled, both of them. When we get there one says to the other, ‘you go on in and I’ll deal with him’, then didn’t she only turn around and offer to get down on her knees and suck the shark for the taxi fare! Tell me, what would you do if you were me and you were faced with that dilemma?

June Caldwell is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blog here:

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Canadian writer Lisa Moore has written four novels. Her debut, Alligator, won the Giller Prize, the 2006  Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and was long-listed for the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Her latest novel, February is long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize and is published by Chatto & Windus.

What’s the first record you ever bought?

It was called “Sound Explosion” and was advertised on 
television. I ordered it through the mail. It had the song called “I Don’t Like
 Spiders and Snakes” on it.  Very subversive.

your favourite smell?

Cinnamon, when it hits the hot burner of the stove by 

you ever had a nickname?

No, but I had an imaginary friend named Pingalie. My 
daughter had an imaginary friend named Rain-drizzle-and-fog.

is your favourite room in your house?

My husband just built a floating dock
 with a room covered in bug screen. We float on the lake looking at the stars.

are your guilty pleasures?

I like people reading to me while I drive long
 distances.  Skinny dipping.
Tiramisu. Scruncheons (fried bits 
of fatback pork) with deep-fried cod and chips.

would people be surprised to know about you?

I’m a vegetarian.

 is your closest female friend?

I went to an all-girls Catholic school and so I 
have a lot of very close female friends. They are all talented and beautiful 
and very funny. They just happen to have those things in common.

you have any tattoos or piercings?

No, but I have few battle scars.

would you most like to live?

In downtown St. John’s, Newfoundland with a view of 
the harbour.

 was your first kiss and where did it happen?

Oh. Oh. My parents had friends 
over and they’d brought a boy. I was thirteen; the guy was sixteen. He was very 
handsome. It was a Spring day, but there was still tons of snow. Everything was
 sparkling and I had let a horse out of the barn and it was galloping in the 
field around us in wide circles bucking and rearing, sending up sprays of snow 
and – surprise – he kissed me (the boy, not the horse). Beautiful. Amazing.
Unforgettable. Except by him. I think he forgot it. I never saw him again.

the most unusual question you’ve ever been asked?

“Where does it hurt?”

the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?

Four giant stretchers, for 
stretching canvas for painting.

 is your favourite word?


 was your first love?

Paul. He is now a marine biologist. He has visited the
 very deepest darkest bottom of the ocean in a one person submersible. I once 
made him a eight-layered chocolate cake for his birthday which slithered and
 splatted apart and I wept and he mushed it back together and jammed knitting 
needles into it so it stayed together and he made me feel better.

you weren’t doing what you do, what might you have become?

Art teacher. I love mucking around with 
clay and paint and charcoal. I love watching children make art.

 there a book you’ve bought several times as a gift for someone?

Mavis Gallant’s
The Paris Stories.

happens after we die?


 female historical figure do you admire most?

Isadora Duncan.

 yourself up in three words:

Dandelion-fluff, granite, crepuscular.

 finally… What are you anti? What are you pro?

Anti-video games. Pro-barbeques on a lake in the wilderness.

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‘Give us a smile!’

No other sentence can elicit in me an immediate drop in humour quicker than a demand to smile made by a random stranger- usually male. Give you a smile? Why? Do I know you? Have you entertained me in some way? No, you’ve just gawked at me, stood in my way and demanded I grin at you like a trained chimp. Gee, let me see how I feel about that. Why can’t I turn my frown upside down!?

The right to wander about the land unsmiling and minding one’s own business ought not to be such a major issue, and yet and yet and yet.

This past Summer the good weather (!) has allowed people to spend large chunks of their time outdoors enjoying outdoor pursuits. I am a runner, and I cycle quite a bit. To do so I wear running gear or clothing appropriate for such a sweat inducing activity. Sometimes I will expose – hold on to your smelling salts– arms and other times –OMG– legs, two of ’em in fact.

For some reason, this entirely non sexual exposure of limbs attracts the attention of random men who are so special and interesting their every comment must be uttered aloud, pondered upon and found to be amusing and ‘just a compliment’. Except when it isn’t a compliment, and even then one must remember one ought to have a ‘sense of humour’ and laugh it off.

These random outbursts can come in a dazzling myriad of styles.

The wolf whistle – easily ignored expression of appreciation.

‘Nice arse/ nice jugs!’ Oh the hilarity.

”I would so hit that-‘ opined within hearing distance but after runner has gone by enough so that they probably won’t stop and give you a bollocking for being a bad mannered wally. Usually uttered by gormless looking youth with acne who wouldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.

‘You can run me down any time!’ Buddy if you know how close you are to what I am currently thinking…

And on and on and on. Now I can ignore the quips and I run mostly with head phones which deters all but the most determined of muppet, and while annoying, the public comment is mostly water off this duck’s back. I would prefer if men kept their yaps shut, but I realise the world is not made up rainbows and sparkly butterflies.

There runs the risk however that catcalls can escalate. One friend of mine running in the Phoenix Park one Saturday morning was barked at (no really) by a car of youths, and then because she resolutely ignored the mutts was hit twice with water balloons. Had she laughed in a good-natured way at their initial woofing, perhaps charmed them with a little wave, they might very well have held their cannon fire, but in proving she was an uppity humourless bitch she deserved a soaking.

Think I’m wrong?

A discussion of this recently on a different forum brought out the apologists in droves.

‘Women should be glad they’re still hawt enough to attract attention.’

‘Get over it, it’s harmless fun. Feminazis RUIN everything.’

‘It will get to the point men will be afraid to say ANYTHING to a member of the opposite sex.’

‘Women do it too!’

‘I like compliments! You need to get over it.’

‘What if the guy was good-looking, bet you wouldn’t mind then.’

And so on.

And perhaps I am the weirdo who rather likes going about their day not having to act on demand and smile real purdy when told to, perhaps I think actual respectful behaviour is NOT bellowing like a lost calf out the window of a moving vehicle.

Or perhaps I should not have to defend my reaction, since my reaction is a response to an action I did not invite in the first place.

And while I am on the subject of reactions, there is an increasing interwebular group who pick up their misogynist pom-poms wherever a woman complains about ‘harmless’ male behaviour. Instead of stepping out of their shoes and into ours, they snap and snarl anonymously, like keyboard ninjas, draggin’ out the canards, humourless and persecuted. They will attempt to close you down when you vocally hold your hand up and say ‘you know what, this bugs me and I wish you would just stop doing it.’ It seems that when you express displeasure about certain behaviours you are riding into battle on a high horse and need to be yanked down as quickly as possible, the girth sliced quickly and cleanly.

To this I say step up. Play the ball, not the player. I am not a humourless man-hatin’ nazi of any stripe. I expect to be treated with the dignity I afford everyone else as I go about my day.

Ladies, the floor is open, if there is something you would like to say on this subject I am all ears.

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A plan is afoot  to plasterLondon buses with adverts urging the Pope to ordain women priests. It’s an interesting angle for the English to approach the pontiffs visit with, almost as if there weren’t more pressing matters with which to confront him. Then again, it would be too rude to embarrass him with messy issues like the concealment of child sex abuse by priests and the hierarchy, or their refusal to endorse the use of life saving condoms in Africa.

It’s safe to say that organised religions in general have not furthered the cause of women’s equality and emancipation.

But Buddhism has long been held as being the acceptable religion by many left leaning liberals, who would also count themselves in favour of gender equality.

It is therefore a bit depressing to note the Dalai Lama’s recent comments about the possibility of a woman succeeding him.

He begins well enough.

“The purpose of the incarnation is to serve people about dharma (faith). If the circumstances are such, female form is more useful, then why not?”

Unfortunately he then lets himself and all of man and woman-kind down with,

“And I also mentioned in case Dalai Lama’s incarnation one female comes then must be very attractive female. So the very reason, you see more influence to others, an ugly female then may not much effective,”

Oh dear.

Was he joking? He has been known to get a bit giggly at times. Perhaps he just liked the idea of coming back as an attractive woman, presumably so he could spend the day touching his own breasts and looking in the mirror?

Even more depressingly, when this comment was posted on Facebook by the smart and funny Michael Nugent, of Ireland’s atheist society, another man (we will leave him unnamed, less he become the anti-feminist equivalent of the cat bin lady), responded with:

Well, to be fair, what he said was that an attractive woman would influence more people than an unattractive woman, so that is just being realistic.

When challenged he went on to say,

you are talking about what the world should be like, and I was talking about what it is like. Just because we “find a thought depressing” doesn’t mean it can’t be true. Wow, sound familiar? We atheists are telling people that every five minutes… Anyway, I was certainly surprised that the Dalai lama said that and thought it was shockingly rude, but rude is not the same as false. I guess his culture doesn’t have the same taboos about the same impolite-but-true statements that ours does.

So I suppose religion isn’t equality’s only foe. A total lack of belief in achieving it in our lifetime is hampering all our aspirations for equal pay and status. A recent poll by the Guardian newspaper found women in the UK could not expect equal pay till about 2067.

But never mind. If you are a Buddhist believer and live a good life perhaps you will be lucky enough to come back as a dung beetle in your next life.

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Oh – haven’t you read that?

Last week or the week before (who can tell, in August?) I read Susan Hill’s book Howards End is on the Landing, about her decision to spend a year reading only books she already has in the house. Her by-the-by spins-off into various other book-related discussions helped very pleasantly to pass my annual lie-in. The book’s not really about the year of reading, nor really about the list of forty desert island reads she starts compiling halfway through, but more a review of a life of reading, not to mention hobnobbing with (or touching the gown-hems of) greats like Ian Fleming, Bruce Chatwin, Edith Sitwell (yikes), and Charles Causley.

Hill takes for granted the centrality of reading to life, and the importance of the experience of reading, of being with the book, which is refreshing at a time when outside the books pages, books (which ones, how many, before or after they won prizes) are too often regarded as cultural checkboxes to be ticked rather than dwelt on. One of Hill’s diversions is to talk about why she never read certain books, and I started thinking about it myself, about books I’ve not read, and why (too often, I’m clueless on this).

I couldn’t be bothered dissembling, so here I’m fessing up to a random ten of my gaps. I’m interested to know whether others do feel embarrassed about having skipped Daniel Deronda or whatever, or a touch more juicily, if you’ve ever lied through your teeth about having read something.

1. My mother says you’re either an Alice fan or a Wind in the Willows type, and while she’s all for Ratty and Mole and heigh-ho for the open road, I prefer to drown in my own tears and eat magic mushrooms. All that Toad Hall, parp parp stuff just made me grind my molars to splitting point, and it’s a classic I’ve never finished.

2. The first time I was aware of not having read a book that everyone else had was at college when I discovered that every other Irish student I met had read the 1936 autobiography Peig, a prescribed Leaving Certificate text. One shortcut to a discovering a shared cultural heritage missing there, then.

3. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein I expect to love. I just haven’t got round to it yet. I will, one day, soon, any day now. Not that I have a copy.

4. Unlike The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – I have two copies, and haven’t read either of them, can’t say why, sounds brilliant, no excuse.

5. The Bell Jar. Why have I never read this? I’ve read Plath’s journals, her poetry, even her Bed Book.

6. Gravity’s Rainbow or anything else by Thomas Pynchon. I can only shrug.

7. The Woman in White is a book I feel as if I have read, but I haven’t. Never even seen the film. An 1860s detective novel, multiple points of view, told through letters, everything about it recommends itself to me. It’s one I have to get off this list.

8. I may be the only person I know who hasn’t read On the Road. I’ve read Off the Road, a great memoir written by Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady’s wife and at some point Jack Kerouac’s lover, and maybe I should have saved it for later, because somehow it prevented me from reading Kerouac’s book, as if seeing behind the scenes had ruined the play to come.

9. Now of course The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a series, though it always appears on lists as one entry. Strictly speaking I think I have read one, but I didn’t get it and would just as soon eat a tablespoon of detergent as read the rest. I saw that Eoin Colfer had written a sixth in the series, but even that hasn’t tempted me.

10. On paper, as it were, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is perfect for me – long and complex, magicky, pastichey, historical – but I couldn’t make head or tail of it after fifty pages. Maybe my timing was wrong? I loved Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Makes no sense.

What essential works have you never read?

And if I were to revisit these ten, which do you recommend I pick up first?

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The Original Rose of Tralee - Mary O'Donnell

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The time when lovely girls from all over the world head to Tralee to sing songs, do a dance, tell stories and exchange awkward small talk with a lovely boy in a tuxedo. Four Anti-Room writers give their thoughts on the Rose of Tralee.


Tonight the “lovely girls” will get their second consecutive annual primetime outing courtesy of our national broadcaster, RTE and to be sure and begorrah there won’t be a dry eye in the land. These tears will be prompted by old fashioned sentimentality, raucous hilarity and, in some cases, sheer bloomin’ frustration.

For me the Rose of Tralee represents something of a conundrum – fascinating and repellent in equal measure. I’m intrigued that such an outwardly archaic and patriarchal event continues to find such universal favour, effortlessly commanding a secure place in the national broadcaster’s schedule when comparable events such as Miss World have quite rightly been denigrated and dropped.

The festival was founded by a group of four Tralee business people, amongst them one woman, as a laudable attempt to boost interest in their town. That worthy ambition has been comprehensively realised. However, it’s the vehicle that I take issue with. Organisers, participants and fans are keen to point out that this is no beauty pageant… in that case what the hell is it?

Fans maintain that the elusive quality sought is something far less superficial than physical beauty. This claim is backed up by the story of the festival’s origins, to be found in the words of a nineteenth century love song penned by one William Mulchinock, a wealthy merchant with the temerity to admire his maid, Mary O’Connor. Mulchinock claimed that his affection was roused by the fact that Mary was not merely “lovely and fair”. In fact “’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning” that prompted his admiration and that is still apparently sought by today’s judges.

So what became of this lovely Mary? Did William do the decent thing and ignore the protestations of his family to pluck her from penury and make a decent woman of her? No, he buggered off and left her to die of TB, only penning his lament posthumously.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the positive attributes of our citizens and indeed widening this to laude the qualities of members of our wider Diaspora. However, aspects of this event really bother me. It clearly discriminates along gender lines as men are precluded. It is ageist as contestants must be aged between 18 and 28 – one distraught Donegal aspirant was disqualified for just exceeding this limit in 2009. Married women are precluded from entering and, in my opinion; the whole event is quite simply sexist. Thankfully organisers recently dropped one of their harshest and most discriminatory criteria when in 2008 they allowed “unmarried mothers” to enter the contest for the first time.

According to the official website “The Rose of Tralee International Festival celebrates modern young women in terms of their aspirations, ambitions, intellect, social responsibility and Irish heritage”. All very laudable and goodness knows we women could use a bit of positive discrimination and a celebration of qualities that are more than skin deep. However, if this is the case then it does rather beg the questions why the age limit, the marital status requirement, the fancy frocks and derisible “party pieces”, the crowning ceremony and the whole darned pageantry of the thing. I’m assured that the whole occasion is “great craic” and of this I have no doubt but let’s leave the dressing up to the lovely girls and not dress it up to be more than it really is.


God bless the Rose of Tralee and all who sail in her. I don’t know if there is much craic (I’m channelling Daithi O Se here) in this year’s contestants but I don’t have much of a problem with a competition that last year saw a girl wrestle a snake, another lip sync to Bon Jovi and one who managed to fit her entire fist into her mouth.

No doubt someone will read something sexual into that last party trick but I think that says more about the critic than the woman they’re criticising. And I say that as someone whose party trick is to bend my fingers backwards to show how double-jointed I am. If you want to read something extra into how I may apply that skill in other situations, then good for you. Happy dreams.

The naysayers call the Rose of Tralee outdated and insulting to women. They say that it perpetuates the over-rated value of ninny-headed femininity, so brilliantly skewed by Father Ted’s Lovely Girls episode.

Come on. The party pieces said it all: don’t take this too seriously. It’s like the Blarney Stone – a bit of harmless tourist hokey-cokey. Everyone has a bit of a laugh, the contestants included, and the local economy gets a shot in the arm. If we’re going to get excited about this, we might want to start picketing the Ireland’s Bachelor of the Year contest. Down with this sort of thing, etc.


I just flipped the calendar and there it was. August 20th -24th, The Rose of Tralee. No matter how many times I mention it I am met by a wall of blank faces. It’s a beauty pageant, right?

“Oh no!” say shocked young women who complain every day about not getting a fair go of it in the work place because of their gender. “It’s just a “lovely girls” competition, you know, like in Father Ted.”

It’s innocent then. Nothing to do with youth and beauty and a patriarchical feminine ideal. It’s all to do with being a nice person, who is Irish, even if sometimes, somewhat, tenuously. There’s no swimsuit section so it can’t be a beauty pageant.

So if it’s not about who is the prettiest but instead who is the nicest, how does that make it any more palatable than a beauty pageant? And what, please tell me, is the male equivalent? The Thorn of Tralee (the most sullen acting fella in the village)?

And can we have it please?

Mens Hour recently started a 5 week run on BBC Radio 5 Live, to mixed reviews. Perhaps now is the time for Ireland to produce a “lovely boys” show. RTÉ could get a great reality format out of it to boot. When we get our Rose and our Thorn we could send them off to a tropical island with only her clarinet and his silence for company and see how long it takes them to try to swim for it.


The general argument against the Rose Of Tralee is that it’s outdated, sexist, and pointless, a relic that festers in the corner of our sitting rooms every August, like an elderly relative wheeled out for a grandniece’s wedding. The general retort is that the women who take part in the modern competition are thoroughly emancipated in outlook and ambition. Contemporary Roses are University-educated, career-focused gals, gleefully carting with them such a glut of extra-curricular activities that their hobby schedules sound more like a community centre’s Adult Ed. programme. One Rose will be a champion Irish dancer with a degree in astrophysics and a pet anaconda. The next will have climbed Kilimanjaro, come first in her class in marine biology, and designed her own guna for the hooley.

All very capable and wonderful, indeed, but these thoroughly modern goddesses, to me, seem the products of solid opportunity and a helluva lot of parental nagging, women who’ve had every advantage – a pricey education, Saturday activities, medals and ribbons and gloss. The perfect Irish woman, it seems, needs as much shove and moolah behind her as any amount of loveliness, or beauty, or truth-ever-dawning, and the result is as authentic a sampler as a shop-bought apple tart at the parish bring-and-buy.

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May Kay is the singer with Irish band Fight Like Apes. Their debut album, Fight Like Apes and the Mystery of the Gold Medallion was nominated for the 2008 Choice Music Prize. The band release its follow-up ,The Body of Christ and the Legs of Tina Turner this Friday and kick off an Irish tour with various in-stores along the way. They play Tower Records, Wicklow Street, Dublin at 9pm on Thursday August 26th; Friday August 27th at 1pm in HMV Grafton Street, Dublin.  Later on Friday, they play Cyprus Avenue, Cork (8pm). Other dates include Saturday August 28th at 4.30pm in HMV Barrock Lane, Galway, followed by an 8pm gig at the Roisin Dubh; Tuesday August 31st at 1pm in HMV Scotch Hall SC, Drogheda, Louth and Wednesday September 1st at 1pm in Rollercoaster Music, Kieran Street, Kilkenny; Thursday September 2nd at  5.30pm in BPM Records, Waterford and Sunday September 5th at The Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Laois. For more info, see www.fightlikeapesmusic.com

What’s the first record you ever bought?

Hole – Live Through This.

What’s your favourite smell?

Petrol, unleaded.

Have you ever had a nickname?

Yes. Penelope Party Pants. No one’s called me that in ages. I miss it so bad.

What is your favourite room in your house?

My kitchen. It smells of dogs & basil.

What are your guilty pleasures?

Dogs & basil.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

That I’m watching Big Brother while typing this…

Who is your closest female friend?

Sarah Geraghty.

Do you have any tattoos or piercings?

Just ear piercings. Tattoos are not in my budget – for the near future at least.

Where would you most like to live?

New York.

Who was your first kiss and where did it happen?

Do people actually answer this???!

What’s the most unusual question you’ve ever been asked?

I once got asked why I was so annoying. I obviously repeated the question back, irritatingly mimicking his voice.

What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?

A punch bag.

What is your favourite word?


Who was your first love?

Will Smith.

If you weren’t doing what you do, what might you have become?


Is there a book you’ve bought several times as a gift for someone?

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

What happens after we die?

I wouldn’t have a fucking rashers to be honest.

What female historical figure do you admire most?

Joan Jett.

Sum yourself up in three words:

Really, really hungover.

And finally… What are you anti? What are you pro?

I’m anti-Diet Coke, pro Bill Murray.

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Oliver Cromwell: a man with a lot to answer for

A good many moons ago, when Ireland was dubbed the ‘sick man of Europe’ and Wurzel Gummidge was being suitably saucy on tea time TV, I found out I was directly related to Oliver Cromwell. Although only ten years old, I knew it had to be De Da’s side of the family as he was particularly gifted at starting bloody civil wars in the house and claiming zero responsibility for the body parts.

American genealogists had dropped the bombshell in a registered letter to Dublin with a $2 note for a prompt reply. Oliver Cromwell’s mother was Anne Caldwell of Solway Firth. At some stage they moved to Northern Ireland and branches of sprogs settled in Fermanagh and Donegal, while others fled to America when Cromwell turned against them after Charles II returned to power. Cromwell’s right-hand General was also a Caldwell. You get the sordid sorry picture.

Whatever the truth, there’s skimpy point getting anal about it…or is there? Cromwell was obsessed with the bowels. His famous retort: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken! wasn’t blurted in isolation. While he died of typhoid on the battlefield it was also documented that he’d ‘terrible trouble’ with his bum and may have been diseased in that region too. And he may have passed it on. Last summer as my 46-yr-old brother’s colon tumour made its way by courier to a fancy genetics lab in the EU, I sat the old man down to ask how his siblings and family members had snuffed it. “Oh the two brothers died of bowel cancer or…hold on, no, eh – can you get me some water for the whiskey – one died of a rectal disease…and the Da died of colorectal cancer at age 58 and I think an aunt did as well, at the age of 23…but I couldn’t be sure of her, there was talk she might’ve been a prostitute”. The glorious eejit had never mentioned it. I’d had my suspicions about bipolar disorder, alcoholism, schizophrenia and depression, hedging my bets for a lengthy stay at a nut house any day soon. A could-be related cancer to his lot was there too on my mother’s side: four near relatives were wiped out by the stomach variety, the youngest at 36. “Even aunt Lena the almost vegetarian!” she exclaimed. “And her who wouldn’t even eat peas from a tin!”  

The brother in England (with the travelling tumour) rang the hospital with my mother’s family history and asked what was the difference between bowel and stomach cancer? “Basically a few inches,” the geneticist replied. Double whammy for our generation of Caldwell’s so. The results back from the lab confirmed there was a ‘virulent’ familial strain. A few months later, by shabby coincidence, my mother was diagnosed with the same thing too. She’s just been through major surgery and follow-up treatment this summer. (An upside to the chemo for her is the restaurant in the Mater Private with its great array of delicious food, we always go for dinner afterwards. My brother also cited an unobvious benefit to his chemo many miles away in Ipswich: “the steroids give you a permanent hard-on”). The rest of us are currently marching along for tests. As I write I’m staring at a large box of ‘Klean Prep’ which I have to consume in a 4-litre load, to induce in vitro mud-slides, followed by a polite impaling at Beaumont Hospital in a few hours time.

Here’s the thing: genetics and predictive medicine is where it’s at. We’re on the cusp of a gilded age in science when a good old goo at your DNA code will reveal an accurate risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Medical folk will then be able to predict what drugs or treatment will work to keep you alive and well the longest. Within the next two to five years, geneticists maintain they’ll have the sequence of every major human cancer. Eventually they’ll ‘tinker’ with fated diseases when human life is still curled snug in the womb. In the bland old meantime, Irish families are still reluctant to talk about what killed those who came before them. “It’s not the done thing,” my mother said. “In my day people were dropping of TB and all sorts but we were too busy trying to get by to worry our heads about it”. Diagnosis was all over the place then, if anyone died of an unknown condition, it was generally lumped under the heading: ‘consumption’. The doctor, just like the priest and possibly the politician, was a sacrosanct golden cow you could only ever bestow a “thank you” to, and not bother with serious concerns or even questions.

Ireland has the second highest breast cancer rate in Europe, staggeringly high skin cancer rates too, and a steady stream of lung, ovary and prostate. We also have the third highest incidence of colorectal cancer for both males and females in the EU. Around 21,000 people are diagnosed every year with some form of the disease as well as a host of other auto-immune conditions, a lot of which could have hereditary starting points. The sooner you sit down and have that ‘genetics’ conversation with older family members, the quicker you’ll be able to jump on your health horse and deal with it. My near-genocidal ancestor (if I’m related to him) may have been a heinous shit, but he’s left me with a clear will not to kill indiscriminately and to breathe in and out for as long as is reasonably possible. How about you?

June Caldwell  is a writer, who after 13 years of journalism, is finally writing a novel. She has a MA in Creative Writing and was winner of ‘Best Blog Post’ award at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. You can read this post on her own blohere:

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Modern life is tough for teenage girls. Early and inappropriate sexualisation combined with a culture of binge drinking can lead to some fairly risky behaviour and very unpleasant outcomes. Pubescent girls are under intense pressure to conform to various idealised and unhealthy body stereotypes. No wonder mothers, older sisters and concerned females who have reached the relative safety of our twenties and thirties (ok, and forties) worry as they watch these vulnerable young women with their post-coital hairstyles, Day-Glo tans and ill-fitting air of insouciance hanging around pubs and nightclubs, often the worse for wear.

The temptation may be to consider curfews aimed at curbing the more excessive manifestations of carefree youth but we all know that knee-jerk draconianism doesn’t work. Ever since Rapunzel let down her hair teenage girls have been climbing out of upstairs windows and shinning down drainpipes to join the fun. Ensuring the safety and well-being of our teens surely depends on them taking responsibility for their own behaviour without feeling smothered by the fear of what might happen. After all it is nothing short of essential that independence is asserted. We all deserve our opportunity to enjoy the careful hedonism of our teens before taking on the weighty responsibilities of adulthood.

Perhaps a Swedish organisation established by teenagers can provide a model for young Irish girls to better protect themselves. United Sisters has helped hundreds of Swedish girls aged between 12 and 20 to cope with the pressures of life. The scheme, developed by two Swedish teenagers  in 1996, aims to shore up self esteem by exploding myths relating to body image and early sexualisation. The girls who participate are drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds and all projects are developed in response to the suggestions and requirements of participants. Weekly get-togethers facilitate discussions that encompass relevant issues including sex, drugs, role models, violence, and prejudice. The intention is to give participants the opportunity to explore these highly charged topics in a safe, supportive and informed environment. Voluntary adult coaches are on hand for times when their intervention is deemed appropriate.

Perhaps the most radical and effective aspect of the programme is the voluntary night patrol involving girls aged 16-20 who walk the streets of Gothenburg and Stockholm helping young people who are too drunk to take care of themselves; embroiled in a hostile or confrontational situation; or simply upset and in need of someone to talk to. Each volunteer undertakes an intensive three month training programme aimed at teaching participants self-protection techniques, first aid, ethics, legal studies, drug knowledge and conflict resolution.

Would a similar scheme work here in Ireland? Would Irish teenage girls welcome such an initiative?

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