An Post Irish Book Awards – Glitzy Litzy Shindig

Tuesday was my annual big night out. Clocks struck six and writers, editors, publishers, bloggers, readers and what have you came out from behind their desks, left the red pens behind and donned some glamorous attire to ascend on the Irish writing industry awards event of the year. As ever, everyone was dolled up to the nines and looked fantastic. From the verges of the red carpet, to the welcome of trays of bubbly by the bar, the place was buzzing from early on. It was Hollywood in Dublin 4.

My friend and long time supporter of the Book Awards, Patricia Gibney was nominated in the Ryan Tubridy Listener’s Choice Category, so it added to the overall hype of the night for my group of pals. Patricia’s Lottie Parker crime series has entertained so many readers since its launch two years ago. She’s a prolific writer who completes a number of novels PER YEAR, and also happens to be a genuinely wonderful person so seeing her take her rightful place among the nominees was fantastic. To me, as with so many of her readers, she is a winner every day.

Another book I was thrilled to see among the shortlisted nominees in the Sports Category was The Hurlers by Paul Rouse. As sports books go, this is exceptional. It captures a superbly researched mix of Irish social and cultural history, in addition to telling a fascinating story about the first All-Ireland hurling final. Its language, rich anecdotes and the sheer volume of information offers the reader much more than just the history of the game. It is a reenactment of sorts. On reading it , I felt I had been in Birr at the game, or at the very least, watched Up for the Match in advance. Again, as with Patricia, the author is one who produces nothing but great quality work.

On Tuesday evening, all pens set aside, hundreds buzzed and mingled in the happy crowd that filled the banquet hall. Wine and conversation flowed. Dozens of turkeys and hams were devoured. It is always the perfect prelude to Christmas, and Tuesday was no exception. With Christmas trees by the bar, our seasonal menu and everyone looking très swanky, we were the epitome of festive. When the awards drew to a close, everyone gravitated towards the bar and chatted to anyone near enough or merry enough to listen. Wine became gin became Guinness. Spirits soared. Revellers mingled over cigarette smoke outside the door. Fans selfied their way through many pixels with their favourite authors. The Happy Pear smiled and smiled. Do the Happy Pear ever stop smiling? Did anyone on the night?

By 4a.m, some of us were perhaps somewhat less giggly, but I seem to have misplaced my memory at some point after midnight, so all I have to go on are photos on a pal’s phone of the pair of us doing baby Guinness way into the small hours. God bless photographic memories – the filler in of blanks! I was still smiling, and still am today. I can’t wait for next years instalment.

I scream

Some things in life are so beautiful you never want them to end. Slow sex with the man of your dreams, sharing happy Christmas mornings with your family, a delicious meal under the Italian sun. The Italian dining experience is one that needs no further writing. The world does not need one more sentence documenting the merits of a succulent veal escalope washed down with caraffes of local wine in a tiny restaurant in Positano or Padua. It doesn’t need one more word about how the fat tomatoes taste like sunshine and make for the most honest arrabiata sauce ever tasted, or how the local wine in Lecce tasted of honey and heaven when you tried it with antipasti di mare in a coastal ristorante.

But what I am going to inkify are the details of a visit to an ice cream parlour in the Vale di Comino, Frosinone. I promise not to rave on about the gelato. In fact, I’ll just mention it once, I had a cherry ice cream. There, it’s out of the way, so I can tell you about the evening in Gelateria Persichini.

It was after seven on a hot July evening when we arrived. The huge car park outside was packed and the crickets had commenced their evening chorus. The lights of the villages high up in the mountains twinkled in the evening heat. Fireworks sparked off from the direction of Brocostella or whichever village was holding its festa. My friend spoke to one of the waiters, who looked around at all the full tables, muttering ‘aspetta’. Then, as if by miracle, three people arose from a table on the front terrace and went inside to settle their bill. The waiter led the three of us in the direction of the vacated table.

He left us with some enormous laminated menus and busied off to a nearby group. The customers reminded him that they had been waiting over an hour for their order. He apologized and again uttered ‘aspetta’ as he disappeared inside. Dario already knew what he wanted, he never deviated from his Copa Fragola when he comes back to visit Italy. Lara decided on a pistachio affair that sounded ambitious, even by Italian standards. I already mentioned what I ordered, and do apologise for mentioning ice cream a further twice, but when in Rome a gelateria…

Twenty minutes passed, and we had discussed our sunburn, the day by the pool in San Donato and how early we’d need to get up in the morning to miss traffic on our way to the beach at Sperlonga. The family at the next nearby table were still ice creamless. We hadn’t yet ordered. A look around at the other tables showed that only a few had been served their dishes. Most tables were empty. Most eyes were on the door, desperate for the return of the waiter, or anyone in gelateria officialdom who could preside over the delivery of their preferred dish.

Dario took a call from pals up in Casalattico. Would he be up soon? They were at the bar, the Macaris and Apriles had arrived back from Dublin today and they were all out. By the sounds of the call, the bar was where all the fun was at. We’ll be up soon was the gist of Dario’s response. And so another twenty minutes passed. ‘Aspetta’ came to take our order. We talked on about the beach, about going to Rome on Saturday, about taking a trip to Ischia next week. The nearby family finally got their order. And another table too, near the plants by the front.

Lara had been to Ischia before on a school trip. She recommended we stay in an agriturismo because hotel rates would be insane this time of year. Unless the three of us wanted to share a room, she suggested, to which Dario had a minor fit.

-Noi tre! Insieme? Va *******! It’s not happening. What if I meet a woman? Where do I bring her, back to my room with the two of you? No, no, no.

-Da, you reckon you’re going to meet a woman there? When was the last time you met a woman you liked in Italy? Lara said.

-I want to keep my options open, he replied.

-Va bene, she said. But you know the answer!

-Si. A long time, per o, I am feeling lucky this summer, he said, and swiped across his phone screen again to check the time. Madonna, they are slow tonight.

We googled an agriturismo on Ischia and found one with two nights availability next week so booked it. An hour had passed. We hadn’t smelled an ice cream.

A man at a table next to us finished his box of cigarettes and cursed that he had no more with him. I got a text from Ireland that took three texts to answer. A further fifteen minutes were spent. I no longer wanted ice cream, I craved wine. Or vodka. Or anything with a respectable alcohol content. But still we persevered.

One hour and fifty nine minutes after we sat down, the waiter arrived at our table with our order.  Two sundae glasses were laid in front of Dario and me, and Lara was given a dish that resembled a miniature canoe. Alas, I will keep my promise of not overbearing on the gelato. Suffice to say, we devoured the contents in ecstatic silence. Some things in life are worth the wait.

In case

There’s an unwritten code that pyjamas are the first things to be packed into a suitcase. No matter how hip the destination, you know you’ll definitely be sleeping. In they go, with the good intentions of anything packed early. They are laid out with precision, taking care not to fold them too much so they won’t hog excess space.

They are generally followed by underwear, which is always an easy choice. For a seven night trip, bring fourteen pairs of knickers and a handful of bras in assorted colours. Socks are dictated by the climate, if it’s going to be sandally weather, then just about five pairs are needed (for when the gym gets hit) because you will be pedi-commando for the duration. But if it’s an Irishy climate, then lob in fourteen pairs too. Better safe than sockless.

Tops have to go next, they’re another uncomplicated choice and they slot in well in lovely easy layers. These are followed by dresses. A double fold of each and the case starts to fill up. Gym gear gets thrown in at this point – just a few sets, there’s no need to be overly ambitious about how many times the treadmill will be visited in the week, but enough so that the same gear won’t have to be worn more than once.

And now the real work starts. The chunky pile of trousers, jeans, footwear, hair straightener and toiletries that sits menacingly beside the case. The shoes alone could fill it. It’s time for revisions. Three pairs of good ‘spares’ are case aside. They’re the ‘just in case’ shoes that get brought on the off chance that your favourites fail you. The favourites will have to do. There can be no substitutes. Space is at a premium.

The mound of toiletries is examined and potions and lotions are dispensed into miniature travel sized bottles. It’s then time to examine trousers and jeans. If you wear jeans to the airport, that’ll save you case space, and bingo, that’s half your ‘airport outfit’ picked already! Would one pair extra be enough? Or would two pairs of trousers be a better option? Trousers are lighter. Although, if it’s as sunny as forecast, no will trousers be worn. You’ll wear the jeans and squeeze in one pair of trousers (just in case).

Am I forgetting anything? Chargers, chargers, chargers! Laptop, phone, other electrical device that you are not admitting to packing but it also needs a charger. Spread the tangle of wires across the top of your case, then slide the hair straightener in along the side. At this point, you’ll re-check the hotel website to make doubly sure they supply hair driers, and sigh with relief when they confirm that they do. There is no room for a hair drier, much less a hair, in your case. Damn, runners still have to go in. And a cardigan. What about a light jacket? A spare handbag? Books? Adaptor plugs. No matter how well you plan, you’ll always find something else needed ‘in case’.

Where the reg reads CN

It’s just after 5, and a half moon glows in the sky. It’s almost too dark for walking in the forest park, but you continue on, enjoying the novelty of walking in dark woods. The scent of moss sweetens the air and you breathe in as much you can. Every now and then, where the tree canopy has given way to Winter, the pathway brightens and you can make out the oranges and yellows of wet leaves that mulch underfoot. The river comes in and out of earshot as you round the pathway and pass by Lady’s Lake. Ducks move silently across the surface.

You make for the path along where the chestnut tree used to be. All that remains of it now are a few husks of trunk, strewn about in the very spot that houses so many special memories. It was the chestnut tree that we played in as kids, that our parents and grandparents played in before us. We picnicked beneath it, collected her conkers. It was sent around the world on postcards. The iconic feature of Dún a Rí Park now reduced to a pile of gnarled wood. You walk on.

The path by the Wishing Well is inky black. The heavy arch of laurel leaves covering it blots out light even on the sunniest of days. Now it adds darkness to darkness. You mind your step and pass through it, thinking about a story you have to finish when you get home and another you’d like to write. On down by the river and the evening coolness is  invigorating. You don’t want to leave this place, but dusk is falling like a fog around you. So you climb the steps that lead to the gate and go home to work with your words.

Dream Team

What were you doing at 7p.m on Saturday 17th November? Ask any Irish person and they’ll tell you that they were watching Ireland beat the All Blacks. But maybe don’t ask them too loud, especially not first thing the next morning.

Sessioning spilled over into the small wee hours, everyone toasting Joe Schmidt from the highways of Faranfore to the byways of Gweedore. There were more glasses raised to him last night than for any manager in the history of Irish sport. Jack Charlton and Kevin Heffernan certainly earned their fair share of toasts, but the genius gent that is Joe Schmidt deserves any accolades he gets.

The local in Kingscourt was no exception. Men women and children (yes, I have reached the age where the current crop of youth all look terribly young) were gathered in the Block Malone’s to watch the game. Women sipped gin and eyed up Rob Kearney. I sipped Coors Light and did the same. The Irish boys were up for it from the start. From one to fifteen, they put in an immense shift and had the Kiwis under pressure. Peter O’Mahony made a great case for beatification.

When Sexton took his kicks, the pub fell silent, observing the hush of the Aviva. When Stockdale made it over the line, the place erupted. There was an outbreak of hugging. Seeing O’Mahony, Kearney, Best and Furlong leave the field peaked the nerves. More Coors Light was knocked back. In the final ten, New Zealand found form and looked threatening. Ireland held tight. When the ref blew it up, there was more hugging.

The island swayed to the rhythm of four million dancing fans. It was an unforgettable performance from a world-class Irish team. Beating the All Blacks in two of the last three tests is a decent record. Hopes are justifiably high with the Six Nations around the corner and the World Cup just beyond it. Joe Schmidt and his backroom team were rightly toasted last night. And this morning, I offer up my hangover to him.

Gunning for Hemingway

Anyone who’s ever been gifted an upgrade to business knows that it is a whole different ball game. I will be forever grateful to the angelic soul who made it possible for me. (He knows who he is.) And as if landing in Chicago for the first time couldn’t be more exciting, I’d just travelled business from Dublin so was off-the-charts happy.

I took a cab to the Mag Mile, checked into the Conrad, then ran out to start exploring.  There was so much to see and I didn’t want to waste a minute. Willis Tower got hit first, then Cloud Gate, on down to see what Navy Pier had to offer and then cocktails at the top of Water Tower Place. The people were great and there was a really positive vibe around the city. Of course, Macy’s was given some attention, and my favourite shop, Ann Taylor. Investments were duly made and then it was time to head to a show in the Goodman Theatre.

The hotel was conveniently located near The Purple Pig restaurant, a must-visit spot that pals had recommended. It was a unique experience with their quirky dishes and serving platters that have a distinctly ‘farmers market’ feel. I woke up the next morning to a snowy wonderland. Everywhere was covered in several feet of snow and through it I trudged up to the Adler Planetarium which turned out to be one of the coolest places I visited. They put on some shows that were truly mind-blowing. I could easily have spent the day there, but off with me to the next door Field Museum.

Lake Michigan was covered in great blocks of ice, and even the Bean was layered thick with snow. Little kids in ski gear skated around a small square that had been turned into an ice rink. The snow fell heavier and I made for the warmth of the Ralph Lauren restaurant at Water Tower Place, another recommendation from a friend back in Ireland. It didn’t disappoint, and from there I was able to watch how the snow slowed the city to a grinding halt. Businesses closed early, putting notices in their windows that due to the adverse conditions, they would remain shut until further notice. Traffic became lighter and lighter. I drank more wine and ordered some cheese. Chicago is amazing.

The next morning I awoke a year older. As a birthday treat, I headed down the street to the Peninsula for breakfast. In the opulence of her great lounge, I wrote a few lines, had birthday bubbles and was given a complimentary birthday cake by the lovely staff. It was a gorgeous long and lazy morning. And then it was time for what I’d been looking forward to most. Heading out to Oak Park to visit the house in which Hemingway grew up. The hotel staff I had consulted seemed surprised that I wanted to go to Oak Park and recommended I take a cab, rather than try navigate that area by public transport. I seemed surprised that they seemed surprised. Why would anyone not want to visit Hemingway’s house and the nearby Hemingway museum?

I hopped into a cab with a pleasant Iranian driver. He looked a little confused when I said Oak Park, but then nodded and said that he’d bring me. I sat back and watched the blocks roll by. We drove for over twenty minutes until I noticed the complexion of my tanned driver pale a little. A red light. A crossroads. He looked out the windscreen, then in the mirror at me, then at the traffic light. There was a sharp intake of breath. My gaze followed his out the window. On each street corner stood a gang of guys. They weren’t the type you’d want to ask for directions. Some wore gold chains round their necks, the kind you’d only ever seen on BA Baracas. Some had guns tucked into their low hanging jeans. We drove on, but stopped at the next junction, we were surrounded by the same thing. Gangs of black men in chains and vests, with baggy jeans or track bottoms and weapons on view. Again, at the next junction, it was the same story. Some of the dudes were just a few feet from the car. They looked in at the Iranian and the red Irish woman and I genuinely thought they would shoot me. I begged God to save us, the poor driver was no doubt imploring Allah and together we gave cursory glances in the mirror and shared an unspoken code of terror.

Soon, we arrived at the address. I hadn’t seen a cab miles, so I did a deal with the lovely driver to wait ten minutes for me to being be back into the safety of the City. I promised to run around the museum and the house. The metre was already hot, so he knew he’d get double and a tip. He waited and I actually did speed through the museum, taking photos of all exhibits so I could read them properly in the car on the way back (once we’d passed the ghettos). I sat at a desk for a photo in the house, checked out his bedroom and surprised the curator by getting it all seen in around four minutes. “You sure you don’t want another look around M’am?” he said. My bum was already on the backseat of the cab by the time he finished the sentence. Was it good to see where he was born? Yes. Would I do it all over again? Never. I have never been as terrified as I was that day.

The next day, the snowstorms had got worse and my return flight was delayed by five hours which was great news. It meant I got to watch the Super Bowl in an airport lounge with a really sound man who was equally as happy with the arrangement. He was an Irish man living in Chicago with a business in Ireland which meant he goes back and forth quite a bit. We had many beers and enjoyed the game, and yes, in true Irish style, almost missed our delayed flight on account of having another ‘one for the road’.

Weather or not… The four sessions

Where else only in Ireland would you have names for your sessions? We give them terms of endearment, because the ritual of an Irish session is truly an endearing experience.

Take Ophelia for example. Ophelia was a 1 litre bottle of Jameson, 24 can slab of Coors light and 2 bottles of Sauvignon Blanc over fifteen hours for the three of us at home. (Figures are correct at time of going to press. Three people, all of that sauce, fifteen hours.) The liquids may also have been accompanied by a 6 pack of King crisps, a tube of sour cream and onion Pringles and two bars of Dairymilk. No take-away food was injured in the making of this session as all local take-aways had closed for the day due to an outbreak of fear. Met Éireann had propagated this fear, touting severe weather warnings, which transpired to mean ‘a fair aul wind for an hour or so’. Chippers and Chineses battened down the shutters and kept closed until the breeze passed. We dined on crisps washed down by whiskey and watched a trampoline next door levitate in the breeze. Our Twitter feed showed us the ‘real’ effects of the weather. Leaves had blown from a tree near Manorhamilton. A green bin had toppled over outside Durrow. “It’s quare blowy out haigh”, said an eyewitness in Kileshandra.

Emma was our next big ‘mad one’. A prolonged engagement that lasted the best part of the week. It actually turned out to be the best part of the week! Ireland had been granted a duvet week on account of the island finding itself under a thick blanket of snow. Roads were impassible, schools and businesses were closed. Many shops opened for just skeleton hours, enough for weather stricken Gaels to procure shed loads of sliced pans, Tayto (yes, in times of crisis we can’t get enough potato snacks) and wine – all of which are the staples of any self-respecting Irish household.

And who ever thought snow could be so fattening? Cut off from the gym, washing down your Tayto with vino and lard-arsing your way through the entire back catalogue of Netflix was a thoroughly clothes shrinking experience. But the craic was great all the same. There’s no guilt in opening a second bottle at two in the day when it’s Mongolia outside. Anchored by the blazing fireside, dressed in baggy track bottoms, replenishing vanishing glasses of red and singing ballads was the order of the day. Every day. For a week.

We (I mean I – my brother was trapped in a house in Ballyfermot and my mother is afraid of snow) trudged around to the local filling station through four foot of snow to drag back bales of briquettes, bottles of merlot and fags for the Mammy. The hour-long queues outside when it opened each day were made up of people like me, all in search of crisps, firing and wine. We were allowed in on a five at a time basis, to quickly grab supplies while trying not to slip on floors sloshing with melting snow, then return to the white landscape of Tymon to make the journey around the corner of the estate and up the hill to home. The scenes were reminiscent of 1980s Russia. Lines of people freezing in the cold for provisions. Except we are Irish and we just used storm Emma as good justification for a domestic session. She came, she snowed, we scooped. It didn’t take Glasnost and Perestroika to bring an end to our panicked queuing, just a thaw.

And so for a while, sessions resumed to the usual shadowing of the religious calendar. Glorious St. Patrick, Good Friday and Easter. That is until the next meteorological mystery struck and the country was slow cooked in a heat wave for two months.

The heat wave became the provenance of BBQs and flip flopped feet, flowy maxis and beer. All the beer. I tried Bud Lite for the first time, the perfect accompaniment to the heat. Unprepared for warm weather, or for any type of weather apparently, the nation tossed and turned on top of the bedclothes with windows cast open, accompanied by the odd insect who was equally as confused at the equatorial temperatures. Only a select few own such things as fans. We stared out at yellowed scrub where our gardens had been all our lives and we talked to anyone who’d listen about the rainless tropic that had become Ireland. We prayed for a light breeze, or even just a few clouds – anything to take the edge off. Some of us went so far as to announce that we’d “murder a bit of rain”. I bumped into neighbours in Dunnes Stores. Like me, they had the same idea of just hanging out in the meat coolers to chill a little. We were just short of having picnics there in the fridges. The kids wanted sleepovers. For the first time on record, Irish people had tans. We even had a hosepipe ban. Men got to drive about with the tops down on their middle-age crisis convertibles. People smiled a lot. Did I mention the beer? We christened the summer ‘the heat wave’. Plain and simple. No need for high falutin lyricism, just ‘the heat wave’. And Bud Lite saw us through it.

I can’t wait for the next one. The entire nation dancing round our kitchens to the tune of an oncoming Twister will have us all fit for Dancing with the Stars. The question remains… how many litres of whiskey will see us through a polar vortex?