An Opinionated Overview of Irish News of Importance to Folks Moving Here.
IN THIS ISSUE: Fergie; Buttercup Time; The Latest Health Service Reorganisation; European Travel; Coronation Day; First Communion
Fergie? Wasn't she married to Britain's Prince Andrew and wasn't she the woman who specialised in cringingly inappropriate behaviour? How did she find time to manage a soccer team?
It took me a few disconcerted seconds to figure out that the Fergie in discussion this past month was Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United Football Team. Since Manchester United has dominated the British game for the past few decades under Sir Alex's direction, his retirement was a big enough story to lead the news for a solid week.
Now I'm not a complete sports dolt, merely uninterested. If you live in Ireland, the English and European football results are the leadoff staple of the hourly sports news. So, Alex Ferguson and his pugnacious pronouncements and personality have been important stories for the past 26 years that he's led his team to victory after victory.
But, he was always Alex Ferguson, or Sir Alex after his knighthood was conferred by Queen Elizabeth (Lizzie?) in 1999. He just wasn't the kind of guy that reporters addressed as Fergie. Suddenly, though, the familiar and diminutive nickname dominated the headlines. When did this happen? Like many Man United supporters must feel, I wonder if it betokens the end of the world as we know it? Will anyone else be able to lead the team to 38 trophies at league and European level, provide equally controversial post-game quotes AND supply the cute moniker makers with suitable inspiration?
Luckily, the Duchess is available and so is Stacy Ferguson, the singer-actress-American TV host who has the additional attraction that she's cuter than Sir Alex. Fergie forever!
What passes for spring has sprung. The grass is growing, the cattle out in the fields and gardeners are busy sowing their veggies and potting petunias. But, Ireland is still suffering through unusually low temperatures that have cut grass growth by up to 70pc.
During what should be the premier grass growing season of the year, Irish farmers have had to import feed from France. With a national herd of 6 million cattle, the importation of a few thousand truckloads of grass amounted to "a drop in the ocean" according to one farm spokesman. It brings seriously into question the planned doubling of farm output in the next few years as restrictions and quotas come off European farmers. If you can't feed 100 cattle, how will you manage 200? Climate change is here. Now!
Nonetheless, we can be sure the season has finally arrived because that infallible indicator of warmer weather has appeared.
It's buttercup time!
"We'll go to the meadows, where the cowslips do grow,
And buttercups, looking as yellow as gold;
And daisies and violets begining to blow;
For it is a most beautiful sight to behold..."
IF I HAD A HAMMER...
If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
This bit of folk wisdom particularly applies to the bureaucrats who run Ireland's health service. Since I arrived in 1975, the health service has been chronically in "crisis". The governments of the day always address the "crisis" with the same hammer - a bureaucratic reshuffle.
So, we've gone from the Department of Health running everything to Regional Health Boards to a Health Service Executive without ever getting any closer to solving the "crisis." Something approaching two hundred billion has flowed into the health service over this period. Yet the jam in emergency rooms never abates, the horror stories never cease and the number of hospital beds continues to fall.
But, not to worry. Current Health Minister Dr. James Reilly announced the latest hospital reorganisation this past month. So there, everything will turn out fine. Just take two aspirins, rearrange the deck chairs into six new regional groups, provide no extra money or resources, and call Dr. Reilly in the morning - of 2023. By then, the experts will have the next new plan rolled out "in line with best international practice."
"Best international practice" inevitably means hiring high priced international consultants. For them, practice has never been better.
One of the biggest pluses of living in Ireland is that it's relatively inexpensive to travel to completely foreign lands. Different foods, architectures, languages and weather all beckon from regional airports at affordable rates. My wife and I travel out of Cork Airport, only an hour's drive away. From there we've flown direct to London, Rome, Lisbon, Barcelona, Paris, Milan, Munich and Amsterdam. Umpteen cities within Poland and the UK are also available. Most of Europe lies within a three hour radius. And from Dublin the choices of destination are much greater.
Interestingly, those who develop a penchant for international travel usually have a favourite country that strikes a chord and to which they return again and again. For me, that country has been the Netherlands because my best college friend now lives there and he provides free accommodation. I get a cheap vacation (about 100 euro round trip, no hotel bills) to a nation that treasures bicycles and rational planning and cheese. How couldn't I love it?
So, here's a happening only tangentally related to Ireland. But, hey, these days we're all good Europeans...
The day dawned orange, a bright orange peel orange - the kind of orange that stands out, safety vest orange, pared carrot, grab-your-eyes, gleaming and shiny orange. And on this one day, this last Queen's Day, the city of Amsterdam blossomed orange.
The Netherlands has been ruled by the House of Orange since the 1500's and the last three rulers have all been female. Wilhelmina, Juliana and Beatrix maintained an unbroken matriarchy since 1890. And for that period of time, the Queen's birthday has been a national holiday, a day when proud Dutch men and women celebrate their nation and their way of life.
On this one day of the year, most everyone wears orange. The street stalls are filled with orange tchotchkes during the days leading up to the great festival. You've got your choice of orange hats and scarves and t-shirts and frew-frews. On the day itself, cheap orange hats are given away. A chameleon wanting to disappear on this one day would turn itself bright shades of... orange.
Queen's Day 2013 was the last for a generation. For, on this special date, Queen Beatrix addressed the nation for the last time as Queen and resigned her office. The Queen knows her successor extremely well since it is her son Willem-Alexander. Into his hands, on this last Queen's Day, Beatrix entrusted the well being of the Netherlands. And then King Willem-Alexander was crowned in front of the Dutch people who were glued to their TV sets or packed into Dam Square in the centre of the city.
Well, that's the official version. Plenty of folks were celebrating right through the Coronation. Just about everyone in the Netherlands had the day off and many started their celebration the night before. In the early morning the kids turned out by the thousands to run wee yard sales in the city's largest park. Some sang or played musical instruments - but in both numbers and quality they weren't a patch on their Irish counterparts. Some of the young entrepreneurs sold lemonade or, blessings upon them, tea. Unexpectedly, a little baggie full of popcorn had been sprinkled with sugar.
Pretty soon the streets were clogged with people bopping up and down and swaying with the sound of air blistering speakers dialled past loud to 'shatter a sports stadium' decibelation. The streets filled with people, as in, full up, no more room, can't handle another body squeezed into the mix.
So the best thing was to sit alongside a canal and watch the traveling show. An unending cavalcade of boats crowded onto the canals. The boats were filled with people, crammed jammed tipsy and each biggish boat had its own sound system.
Boats with particularly loud and compelling music accreted a flotilla of admiring boat companions. Eventually so many vessels jammed onto the city's canals that the entire water system became one vast agglomeration, drifting nowhere rhythmically. Rhythmically and LOUD! The kind of loud that sends a pressure wave beating at your body as the drums thump.
This is the home of Heineken, so fermented barley played a leading part in proceedings. But absolutely everyone was in a great mood, smiling, beaming, having a great time. It was medieval Carnival transmuted orange.
And it doesn't end there. For next year, on the date of the new King's birthday, the 27th of April, the Dutch will celebrate the first King's Day in 124 years. Lang leve de Koning!
Leo XIII was probably the most imperious of all Popes. He insisted that visitors should kneel throughout audiences and even his closest confidantes were obliged to stand in his presence. In twenty five years he addressed not a single word to his coachman.
Upon Leo's death in 1910, the cardinals wanted a change, a man with the common touch. The man they elected to the papacy was Giuseppe Sarto, the son of a village postman and a seamstress, and the first peasant in three centuries to fill the shoes of the fisherman.
Pius X, for such was the name he chose, had been a parish priest for eight years and it was said of him that, although he had held the offices of Bishop of Mantua and Patriarch of Venice, a parish priest he remained. Once enthroned, he worked to streamline the curia, he rewrote the catechism and encouraged all Catholics to take communion regularly.
Communion, in fact, was very much on the new Pope's mind. Up to this time, confirmation and first communion took place simultaneously. But Pius, with his parish background, thought that children should experience the Eucharist when they first reached the "age of discretion" which he defined as the point where a child begins to reason.
For months, the new Pope prayed about this matter for this was a change not to be entered into lightly.
Meanwhile in County Cork a young girl, four year old Nellie Organ of Waterford, was dying. Nellie's mother had recently passed away from tuberculosis. Overwhelmed and feeling unable to properly care for his children, Nellie's father placed them in the care of religious orders. Nellie spent the remainder of her life in the care of the nuns of Good Sheperd Convent in Cork. Shortly after arriving, she was diagnosed with TB, the same disease that had claimed her mother.
The child was remarkable. The nuns were impressed with her "mystical aura." As other children keep dolls, Nellie kept a Child of Prague beside her bed and prayed, in her childlike way, to her "Holy God."
As the girl wasted away, the Nuns asked their bishop if Nellie could receive her first holy communion. The bishop gave his permission. Several weeks later, Little Nellie of Holy God breathed her last.
In time, word of this noteworthy child and her unorthodox communion reached Rome. When Pope Pius heard the tale, his response was immediate. “There! That is the sign for which I was waiting.” Soon after, he issued "Quam Singulari", the decree admitting children to communion at the age of seven or eight.
Springtime is Communion time for the vast majority of youngsters of Ireland. Like billions of other children since 1910, their day will be shaped by the brief life of an Irish girl.
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