The year the plan expired

Life is full of moments. This is one now and that was one then. If you walked into that Dublin hotel you could, as a non-privy spectator, have mistaken it for a wedding reception, such was the crowd. The same crowd that could confuse would also, on closer inspection, give the game away. The colours were all wrong.

Dark shades and black ties had won out. Hands were busy, holding either hot drinks or each other, offering a consoling hand on the shoulder or a hug to those who needed something more. Caffeine trumped alcohol as we talked with family and friends, reminiscing about my father, whose funeral had been that morning.

2007 had an awful lot to answer for.

With a breaking heart and a muddled brain my phone rang, and I answered it. I excused myself and confirmed it. As planned, the phone line would be connected tomorrow. No ifs or buts. And no father. He had visited the busy construction site before and we pointed out the place we believed to be ours. I hope he saw the one we meant. I know he felt our excitement.

The year could not, would not, end this way.

We finally had our keys and, after two years, couldn’t wait a minute longer to move in. Our relationship was going from strength to strength. Our subsequent desire to make a ‘grown-up’ decision was to put us in the company of thousands of others – not of developers, or investors, but of couples in love who wanted nothing more than the opportunity to turn a house into a home, our home.

In the five years that passed, it never became that to me. I couldn’t bring myself to let it.

The property crash, and the gradual realisation that we were to become a statistic in the mess and little more, led to a deep inward resentment. It goes without saying that I, like many many others, did not see the crash coming. There are plenty who will say that they did, but had they been of a certain age, means and motive, would have done similar. They now have hindsight, without the bittersweet aftertaste, and can rewrite their own personal history as they see fit.

The truth be told, we did our best to be pragmatic, making sure to stick below the €317,500 in order to avoid paying stamp duty. That additional outlay is now but a small percentage of what we owe, which will never be recouped by what we own.

Watching things pan out in a way you never expected, with each twist and turn making it painfully clear how little control we have over this situation has proven to be gut wrenching and too often, gut wrenching on a daily basis. The five-year plans of many homeowners have by this stage fallen by the wayside.

2012 was our expiration date.

Wearing the now tattered and ill-fitting clothing that is negative equity does little to compliment the outfit that is our life in 2013, and what it has become. The term ‘long-term’ has for too long held only negative connotations for me. My imagination, vivid as it is, would struggle to visualise a different property in our future, the property that would become our real house, the one that would allow for pet ownership, better amenities and a shorter commute.

Thankfully, the starting of a family, whenever that will happen and however it’ll be funded, is considered a compromise too far by both of us. There will come a point, however, when space, or the lack of it where we are, may come to play a part in that as well.

By virtue of the things this real house would allow for, it couldn’t but become a home.

Couldn’t it?

As a journalist I spend a great deal of each day being objective. My own inner newsreel does not benefit from any such objectivity, however, when thoughts of signing on the dotted line 2005 are replayed. No balance. Just bias. And let’s not forget the misplaced self-criticism at not being able to foresee what the future would hold.

In the years that have passed, life has gone on in this house. Ten birthdays and six Christmases have been celebrated here. Having never missed a mortgage payment and with two incomes (for now), we remain the lucky ones. There are those who can no longer afford their mortgage repayments, those whose homes have been effected by pyrite, and those from Priory Hall who remain in limbo.

I can only write about my reality, however, and the reality is that holding onto that five-year plan and watching it count down to zero was a waste of time and energy. When everything had changed but the self-imposed deadline which justified the purchase, simple math rendered our best intentions redundant.

It’s time for a new plan.

What is common to us all, regardless of our financial burdens – past, present, or future – is that each of us remain in possession of something that has never dropped in value, and never will.

If you’re still struggling with your New Year’s resolution for 2013 and, more importantly, if you find yourself struggling in general, adopt the one that I should have adopted in 2009 – the one that I am adopting now.

Be a better friend to yourself.

Feel the fear, do it anyway, but accept yourself – always and without condition. Be your own best friend and safeguard the only thing you will ever own that is truly priceless.

It’s time I made this house my home.

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Cloyne report uncovers many broken systems

The main thing which has come out of the Cloyne report is also the least surprising one. As if it needed confirmation, we now know that there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept of reporting abuses perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church to other members of that same church. In an ideal world, where men of the cloth held themselves to the same moral standards that they preach from the pulpit, it shouldn’t make a difference. The findings of the Cloyne report, however, prove that we live in a far from ideal world.

If you were mugged, would you report it to a family member of the accused, in the hope that their moral compass would direct them towards the local Garda station? Of course not. So why should the Catholic Church act as the middle man for such heinous offences?

What is equally as worrying is the apparent inability of state services to communicate with each other. How did alarm bells not sound when 6 of the 15 complaints were reported to the Gardaí and none to the HSE? Simple communication between the 2 bodies could have uncovered this sorry mess years ago.

It is clear to see that there is something very wrong with the Catholic Church. As a practicing Catholic whose religious beliefs have survived intact into adulthood, it’s a sad thing to have to admit. But it’s true, and obvious. Anyone who calls themselves Catholic should have a genuine interest in rescuing their religion instead of continuing to hide its indiscretions, further dragging it into the abyss. And yet the Catholic Church appears happy to do so.

While Pope Benedict may believe that gay marriage poses an “insidious threat” (to exactly whom I am unsure), far more harmful is the churches reluctance to clean up its act. As long as the church fails to practice what it preaches, its numbers will continue to dwindle, and this Catholic will find it harder and harder to remain one of the faithful.

Standing up

“Hi, my name is Paul and I’ll be your comedian for the seven longest minutes of your life”. It was with this opening salvo that my first, and thus far, only foray into the world of stand-up got underway. I even managed to squeeze a joke in there, I think.

Whereas a crowning achievement for the Irish familial unit was once to produce either a doctor or priest, our sense of humour ensures that the mere act of getting your umbilical cord cut on Irish soil gives you at least a fighting chance of another occupation – comedian! On Tuesday the 25th of January 2011 at 9:30pm I sampled this lesser considered occupation. At 9:37pm that same evening I handed in my notice, thankful of the fact that I had not given up my day job. That said, those seven minutes provided me with a feeling of exhilaration, joy, and downright fear which I have yet to recreate all these months later.

It all started in December 2010 when, in my ever more erratic attempts to find my niche in life and to try something new, the thought of an open mic comedy stint came to mind. Once the seed had been planted, it began to grow and develop like the badly formed jokes I would find myself writing. The more I thought of doing it, the more it scared me. Never one to take the easy way out, the resultant fear all but sealed the deal.

Having scoured the internet for places offering me the chance to humiliate myself, I stumbled across the Ha’Penny Bridge Inn, an old style pub on Dublin’s Wellington Quay. It listed Tuesdays and Thursdays as open mic nights. Having read every line of text and studied every picture on their website for some insight as to what I was letting myself in for, contact was made.

I was responded to almost immediately, and was faced was two further challenges straight out of the gates. I would need to learn my seven minutes off by heart and keep the content relatively clean throughout. With very little material already prepared, the thoughts of having to filter what came to mind put me under even more pressure. Despite the trepidation I was excited! Once accepted, I knew putting myself in front of a public who expected to be entertained would generate a fight or flight response unlike any other I had ever experienced. I wasn’t to be disappointed.

As the date neared, self reassurance became a daily necessity. After all, I thought to myself, I have spoken in front of crowds before. Failing to realise that I was in no way comparing like with like, this kept the wheels turning. Looking back now, I wished I could put this self confidence down to youthful exuberance, but I’m not sure whether, at 30, I am too tall for that particular ride.

With an entire three weeks to play with between sign up and stand up, you would be forgiven for thinking that seven minutes doesn’t sound like much, until you realise that, well, it is! Seven times as much material as I had when I confirmed the date and time of my gig, in fact. Pinching my arm to confirm that I wasn’t, in fact, dreaming, I sought a second opinion by pinching the other one. The only way to get the material together was to find the funny in everyday, which unfortunately had the effect of making every day thereafter appear decidedly unfunny. My past would have to suffice. Never one to fear self-embarrassment, tales from puberty were built upon, and dragged kicking and screaming into my routine. All bets were off!

Seven minutes of material scraped together, the night came for me to face my own personal Everest. With just my worried wife in tow, I arrived at the pub for 8:00pm, cue card in back pocket and backup in front pocket. The open mic was to take place upstairs, and it was here that I got an additional shock. It cost €5 to get in! At this point, the audience I would be facing took on a new dimension. While the majority would still be there to support their act on the night and would be good natured, they were paying for the privilege. How forgiving would they be?

As the other acts went on before me, I found myself gauging the reaction they received. Some jokes were laughed at, some weren’t. At least I knew I wouldn’t be the only one to go down in flames. Far too nervous to take alcohol on board, Diet Coke was the order of the night until, at 9:30, my name was called. The rest, as they say, is history!

Things got off to a good start, with my first joke getting a bigger laugh than I had imagined it would. This, however, delayed my routine, and before I knew it, I had drawn a blank. Other acts before me had already resorted to notes so I didn’t feel quite so deflated when I had to take my cue card out. Back on track, the rest of the seven minutes passed off without major incident. Signing off with “My name was Paul and you’ve been very understanding”, I was straight to the bar. A Diet Coke was not ordered!

Looking back now it still feels surreal. A comedian who took to the stage before me spent the first 30 seconds of his routine jumping around the stage screaming “look at me, look at me”, garnering laughter from all, especially those who were soon to occupy the same stage. Months later his humorous observation has stayed with me. What makes people want to become comedians? While there are those who believe the world needs their comedy and use it to effect social change, for others, the laughter is the motivation. There are also, of course, those who love the attention above all else, and the adulation that comes with success.

It takes a certain kind of person to stand up on stage and say “look at me, look at me”. Egotistical, I hope not. Confident, probably. Adventurous, I reckon. Having done it, I still can’t fully explain my reasons, or what kind of person I believe I am. What I can tell you, though, is that I’ve never felt more alive than when I was on that stage. Most of my friends still don’t know I did it. Will I ever so it again? Probably not.

What will never change, however, is that I, on the 25th of January 2011 was a stand up comedian in the Ha’Penny Bridge Inn and I made strangers laugh. Does my mantelpiece contain the “Rubber Duck” award (go there to find out what it is)? No it does not. Do I care? Absolutely not. The next time you feel that your week is looking a little too similar to last week for your liking, or that you are starting to take yourself a bit too seriously, do something new.

As your heart beats out of your chest, you’ll question why you broke your weeknight routine but, believe me, you’ll know you’re alive. After all, isn’t that what we all want to feel before our time on the really big stage runs out?

The PIGS!

Who put the ‘I’ in PIGS? We, the Irish did – along with Italy, apparently. As one of the more insensitive acronyms to come about as part of the financial crisis, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain have found themselves in the trough together, sniffing desperately for the truffles that will lift them out of the mess in which they find themselves. In the meantime, however, perhaps us swine can help make each other’s lives more bearable until we strike gold?

In an unfortunate case of life imitating art, or more accurately, an iPhone app, the walls around us are beginning to cave in, as the Angry Birds of Europe and further afield are hell bent on our total destruction. Far from wanting to huff, and puff, and blow our houses down, the wolf in the modern day version of the Three Little Pigs (the fourth one doesn’t pay any rent and therefore isn’t officially listed) is more concerned with repossession. And what are we pigs managing to do about it – little more than to survive by the hair on our chiny chin chins.

But no more I say! Us pigs must formulate a plan, and work together to see it through. While we Irish had, for many years, demonstrated great foresight in trying our best to keep the economies of Portugal, Greece, and Spain afloat as part of our annual search for the sun, the Celtic Tiger gave us the gall to want more. No longer content with San Miguel, Linekers Bar, and headaches by the pool, the words “budget”, “package”, and “holiday” found themselves in fewer and fewer sentences uttered by the “new” Irish.

As the snowboarding and scuba-diving equipment from holidays past gather dust in the attics of homes throughout Ireland, us pigs need to band together, and create holidays for each other “on the cheap”. We need to open our homes to our struggling European neighbours, ensuring they have a holiday that they will never forget. And what should this new venture be called? “When Pigs Fly”, of course!

I can see it now! For a fee not much greater than one of those “special price” watches we Irish bought many a time in P, G, or S; visitors to our shores can enjoy such Irish delicacies as boiled pig’s feet, washed down by our finest Poitín. This homemade paint stripper of a drink will not only cleanse the palette of the taste of trotter by stripping a layer of skin clean off the inside of the mouth, it will also render our visitors incoherent and comatose until the plane comes to take them home. Cost of holiday – €10 plus flights and medical bills.

Our Portuguese neighbours could repay the favour with their own budget dalliance. For an ultra low price, the Irish traveller can be dropped into the countries capital, Lisbon, where they can learn firsthand what it is to protest against government. For the particularly budget conscious traveller, accommodation can be booked via the Portuguese Police. Cost of holiday – €10 plus flights, solicitor fees, and a notebook and pen.

Greece can put together a nice island hopping package, which skimps on costs by having visitors swim between them. Long periods in the water will not only improve fitness considerably, but will increase the chance of catching some fish, thus reducing the food bill significantly. Cost of holiday – €5 plus flights and a fishing net.

Last but not least, Spain can offer the festival feeling of Oxygen or Electric Picnic to Irish visitors at a fraction of the cost, and with considerably less music. With little more than a tent and a healthy dose of patience, visitors can experience firsthand what it is to be an “Indignant One” by camping out for long periods of time until something happens. Cost of holiday – €5 plus flights, tent, and a good book.

So there we have it! Being one of the PIGS doesn’t mean that you have to go without a holiday this year, it just means you’ll have to do without all the unnecessary nonsense associated with holidays of old, such as having a good time and enjoying a safe return. Mine’s a San Miguel! Cheers!

Dying to beat the recession

While economist Morgan Kelly may view Patrick Honohan, Governor of the Central Bank, as engaging in the “costliest mistake ever made by an Irish person”, the brother Edmund, Master of the High Court, recently highlighted a cost much greater, and one which cannot be righted by a thousand bailouts. Ireland’s recession, and the resultant pursuance of those in debt as a result of it by the banks and other lending institutions “to the bitter end” is causing some to take their own lives; a tragedy which will only get worse if left unchecked.

Never before have so many been affected by a recession in this country. While the lower classes will always be hit the hardest, no one has been spared this time around, and never before have so many sections of society been tied down with such enormous debt. While there are those who may feel that the Celtic Tiger roared by them at the time, never getting to share in the benefits it afforded many, those who gained significantly, and subsequently lost, are equally, if not more at risk from the comedown after the artificial high.

Ireland has always suffered from a disproportionately high level of suicide in comparison to other countries, with young males being especially susceptible. Despite our increase in wealth and greater ability to distract ourselves during the boom time, this problem never went away. Now that the money has run out and the realisation has hit many that the only thing they ever truly owned was their debt, things are getting worse, with our national rate of suicide rising by a quarter over the last three years.

Recent statistics released from the Central Bank shows that nearly 50,000 residential mortgages are now in arrears of 90 days or greater. While this number does not equate to 50,000 families affected, due to some having multiple properties, this remains a worryingly large number. The fact that some households now have multiple mortgages that they cannot repay acts as an almost unbelievable reminder to a time when people who would never have dreamt of owning more than one property started to collect them like kiddies’ football cards, having gotten caught up in the buzzword that was the property “portfolio”.

The emotional turmoil and distress suffered by many in this situation starts long before the first mortgage payment is missed. When the boom ended and negative equity reared its ugly head, the struggle to keep their heads above water began. Bills were still being paid, just, as discretionary expenditure became a thing of the past. Treading water for so long soon grows tiresome, however. Then came the dreaded day when the financial calculations no longer added up, and mortgage payments started to be missed. It is at this time, when already at their lowest ebb, that the banks typically step in.

The Central Bank’s revised code of conduct on mortgage arrears, which came into effect in January of this year, requires lenders to work with those in trouble. According to the Central Bank’s director of consumer protection, Bernard Sheridan, a manageable and sustainable solution can be agreed “where appropriate”. It is these two words that are of great cause for concern, for the failure to help those who are struggling can leave those same people feeling like they have run out of options. Who within the banking institutions are qualified enough to determine the emotional wounds which have been inflicted on those whom they pursue? Who can determine the tipping point at which some debtors can no longer grin and bear it, and can no longer accept the complicity that Brian Lenihans’ idiotic idiom that “We All Partied” implies?

While the chief executive of the Irish Banking Federation, Pat Farrell, accused Edmund Honohan of being too emotive in his description of those who commit suicide under the burden of debt, is it not emotion and compassion that is in too short a supply? The harsh reality is that this time next year there are a number of social welfare and jobseeker allowance payments which will no longer be made. Not because the recipient has managed to “validate” themselves in the eyes of our government and banks by no longer taking but once again contributing through finding work, and not because they have resigned themselves to emigration in order to keep the ember than remains of their hopes and dreams from being extinguished completely. Instead, these payments will remain uncollected because at some point their recipients decided that they had been squeezed just that little bit too much, and that the Ireland of 2011 had not given them an out.

While our economists will continue to debate if the property and financial crisis could have been spotted earlier, Ireland’s crisis should come as a surprise to no one. As long ago as 2009, President Mary McAleese underlined the need to invest in suicide prevention programmes to help those for whom unemployment and debt were taking their toll. Having already heard ad nauseam of the political blame games in Leinster House, of pension levies and the banking big wigs who “escaped”, the level to which ordinary working people have been affected on an emotional level by the crisis still remains largely unreported, and infinitely worse, unresolved.

In 2007, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern displayed our nation’s laissez faire attitude towards suicide and its prevention as he spoke about those who expressed doubt regarding the future of our economy, saying “I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide”. Four years on, we need to remember that our greatest asset is, and always has been, our people. The citizens of this Republic must be protected at all costs, for they are truly priceless.

Sorry Ma’am, but Queen there, done that…

NOTE: A recent assignment as part of my journalism course required me to write a piece which offered an opinion which I didn’t believe. To this end, I wrote as convincing an argument as I could muster for why the Queen of England should not visit Ireland. Below is the vitriolic result. Enjoy!

May is going to be a particularly expensive month for the Irish exchequer as both Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama pay visit to our penniless shores. While I will be the first to extend a céad míle fáilte to the US President, the undoubted leader of the free world, I would be tempted to utter a less flattering Irish phrase to Britain’s monarch.

At a time when we can least afford it, our country will have to outlay approximately €25 million for the pleasure, the majority of which will go towards protecting the Queen, whose 4 days in the Republic smacks of an elderly relative who overstays their welcome. While Joe Higgins of the United Left Alliance may not get his wish that she pays towards her “bed and breakfast” at a time when Ireland is “figuratively, almost sleeping rough”, it should be noted that Barack Obama will only be on Irish soil for a period of hours. Why so short, I hear you ask? Because he actually has a job to get back to!

If our binning of the last Government has shown anything, it’s that Ireland has finally grown tired of useless figureheads which don’t actually do anything. In this regard, why splurge cash we don’t have on England’s equivalent, who recently had the gall to spend taxpayers’ money on the wedding of her grandson, at a time when England continues to deal with its own recession? On the same weekend as the she was happily spending other people’s money with reckless abandon, Barack Obama, our second VIP of the month, was ridding the world of one of its worse terrorists, and helping us all to sleep better at night.

It should, of course, be remembered that whatever the outlay for protecting these foreign dignitaries is, a healthy 5.8% should be added to the bill when we are to consider the real cost to us, the Irish taxpayer, as we are blowing the IMF’s money and not our own, which we are paying top dollar for. Having had to go crawling to the EU/IMF with our begging bowl few will argue that it could be put to better use than on protecting the ageing dinosaur that is the British monarchy.

While a clearly delusional Enda Kenny continues to tell anyone with ears that Ireland is open for business, the working classes continue to suffer. Having recently spotted a bunch of Gardaí hovering over a drain in the city centre, my initial thought was that they had finally been reduced to supplementing their much depleted incomes by searching for loose change. Instead, they were busy spending the majority of their annual budget on sealing manhole covers in preparation for our impending visitors.

While it is only right that the US President is protected from those who wish to cause him harm, especially in the light of his triumphant victory over Osama bin Laden, the arrival of Mrs. Windsor does nothing but expose her and our fellow countrymen and women to an otherwise avoidable threat. The RIRA and their ilk, with the blood of PSNI innocent Ronan Kerr still dripping from their hands, will have no problem adding a few “Free Staters” to their list of casualties if it means getting their shot at their perceived enemy.

While the Queens visit may bolster tourism to Ireland from the UK, we should be aware of the fallout between England and Ireland, should something happen during her time here. The level of anti-English sentiment that still exists in Ireland would leave the Irish government facing an uphill battle in convincing the British that they hadn’t colluded with the paramilitaries in much the same way that many believe the British did in times past.

If I could sum up my feelings for her visit to Ireland, it would be “Queen there, done that, we have bigger fish to fry!”