Monday, 19 September 2016


                                     Learning to drive takes all the excitement out of life.

I HAVE discovered that the most effective way to tone tummy muscles, is to be the qualified driver in the car with a learner.

I sit, doing my best not to be a nervous passenger, as the eldest shudders into gear and we are suddenly motoring along the widest, quietest road we can find.

"You're doing really well," I say, when she manages not to cut out every time she slows down. "Coming to a yield sign now, so that means stop. Any time now. This side of the white line." I practise keeping my voice calm and encouraging.

By this stage, my muscles are clenched so tightly, my tummy has almost disappeared into my spine.

I have no idea what the average learner-driver age is, in other European countries. But I know, thanks to my love of American movies, that youngsters often drive to school in the US. 

Which, given the size of the country, and the vast distances people regularly have to travel, is hardly surprising.

Public Transport is tragic

But Ireland is a small country. And you would imagine that owning, or indeed knowing how to drive a car, isn't high on a young person's list of priorities. You'd be wrong.

This is largely because public transport is tragic. We happen to live in Dublin, not far from the Dublin train (DART) which runs along the coastline, from Greystones on the southside to Howth on the northside of the city.

Generally speaking, our bus service isn't bad. There's also a relatively new tram service (LUAS) which is currently being extended.

That sheer rush of adrenaline when you manage to dodge death

None of which is good. Let's face it, if public transport is alright, then why bother lacing yourself into your runners to walk to work?

Or hop on a bike to experience that sheer rush of adrenaline, when you manage to dodge death, in Ireland's totally ignored or non-existent cycle lanes?

Happily, if you live outside the major cities, your fitness levels tend to be better. Here, public transport is hit and miss. If you can't drive, you rely heavily on private bus services and the good will of family and friends with their own wheels.

Or you take to the roads as best you can. And when we say roads, we mean that literally. The Irish countryside is full of picturesque little places, unsullied by unsightly footpaths.

Which is fine, if you remember to walk in the direction of oncoming traffic and wear bright clothing.

Nothing like living on the edge

And there's usually a hedgerow where you can burrow with your bike, if the road is a bit narrow for both you and that speeding car. Nothing like living on the edge to hone those reflexes.

But here in Dublin, bus drivers are doing their bit for the health of hundreds of thousands of Dublin people, by striking right through September and October.

In fact, between now and the end of October, commuters will experience 13 more strike days. About 400,000 commuters are affected by the strikes.

Although given the fact that many will have used up all their annual leave as they can't get to work, can we call them commuters? A pedantic argument, maybe.

The drivers are striking over pay. Dublin Bus says that stoppages have cost it about €4million so far. And the department of transport (Dublin Bus is a public company) is refusing to budge.

*Meanwhile, homeless charity Focus Ireland has spent almost €20,000 on bus fares for homeless children this year, despite a government promise to pay for public transport for families in "emergency accommodation". (Irish Times, 17/9/16)

All the more reason why everyone should just walk

Which means that for the hundreds of families living in budget hotels and hostel accommodation, things are even more on the edge than before.

Tough enough for a child to get to school when they're living miles away, in a single room with their whole family. Tougher still when there's no public transport running that day. But at least the difficulties in getting there become academic.

Which makes the argument for rising early and walking instead, all the more compelling. What's five miles when you're a child? Or ten miles when you're a nurse or a factory worker or a mechanic or a teacher?

And for the lazy, there's always the option to drive. If you're lucky enough to own a car. If you've managed to pay for all those driving lessons. And passed your test. And can afford the insurance, tax and petrol.

Details, right?

The eldest is in her early 20s. She saved for her own lessons and car insurance. She practices in the family car.

She's one of the lucky ones.

As for her parents, we'll just have to continue walking for the fun of it. For the whole fitness thing, you know?

And resign ourselves to those ugly footpaths. No living on the edge (should that be walking on the edge?) for us.

But you can't have everything.


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Monday, 5 September 2016


              Cats' eyes: prepare to be hypnotised to perform random acts of kindness.

THERE are three cats sitting on my doorstep when I stumble down to breakfast during one of the last days of summer. 

They are peering into the kitchen, making cat noises and looking lost.

I stop and stare at them. They stare right back. Strange, I think. Very strange. I don't have three cats. In fact, I don't even have one cat.

Yet here they are.
       'Who owns the cats?' I ask nobody in particular.

       'Yeah, forgot to tell you about that. They were doing a three-for-two at the local cat shop.' The middle child is deadpan.

"You can't come of us has a cat allergy."
Hilarious. I look at them a bit more closely. I recognise two: they belong to a neighbour. The third is a huge tabby. No collar. I'm not sure I've seen it before.

       'I'll have some breakfast. Maybe they'll just go away.'

       'Maybe they'd like some breakfast too.'
       'Maybe they'd like to catch their own. Like one of those smaller, recent visitors to our garden. The one that rhymes with cat.'
       'You're so mean, Mum.'

After my oatmeal, I go to inspect the doorstep. The neighbour's cats are gone. The tabby is still there. I open the door slightly and he (I've decided it looks like a he) sticks his nose in.

       'Sorry, you can't come in. One of us has a cat allergy. And you'll have to move, because I need to hang out the washing.'

       'Mum, who are you talking to?'
       'Er, the cat.'

I manage to get past him, but as soon as I step into the garden, he starts to rub up against my legs. I almost fall over. Clearly, this is a domestic cat. He's also a persistent one.

But most importantly, he's also lame. He's walking with a limp.

Of course! I mentally smack my forehead. The tabby is stuck in my high-walled, tree-lined back garden. He obviously got hurt and now can't get home. I finish the laundry, carefully scoop him up and bring him out to the front garden.
       'There you go. So, er, off you go home now.' I make an expansive arm gesture. The cat looks around and then looks at me. Like I've just killed his mother.

I go back into the kitchen and stutter to a halt.

Confused, I close the door. Ten minutes later, I open the front door again. The cat is nowhere to be seen. I walk out and hunker down to look under the car.

Not there either. He's obviously on his way home, I think. I congratulate myself. I've never had anything to do with cats, but it's such a good feeling knowing I've helped one in distress.

I go back to the kitchen and stutter to a halt. The tabby is sitting on the doorstep again.
       'Well you're obviously capable of jumping walls!'
       'You talking to the cat again, Mum?'
       'Look up the website for the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, will you?'

As the middle child searches for the site, I try to ignore the piteous noises coming from the cat. I phone my mother.
       'Whatever you do, don't feed it. It'll expect you to feed it forever,' she says.
       'Right, thanks.' I put down the phone and meet his green eyes. They're hypnotic. In a minute it'll have me thinking that he lives here, and the person with the cat allergy will just have to move out.

They can be lactose intolerant.
       'Oh this is ridiculous, he's clearly starving.' Although he doesn't look starving. He actually looks quite well fed. A minor detail. I pour him a saucer of milk and put it outside the door. The cat gets stuck in.
       'Never give stray cats milk. They can be lactose intolerant,' says the middle child.
       'What?? Where did you hear that?'
       'It's on this website.'
       'Oh God, what have I done? I've probably killed the cat.'

She scrolls down.
       'No, that won't kill it, you're fine.'

Whew! And while I'm at it, since when are cats lactose intolerant? That's like saying Santa Claus is lactose intolerant. Everyone knows the man loves milk!
       'You should leave out a saucer of water.'
       'Right.' To make up for the dairy mistake, I pour a whole container of water. The cat looks unimpressed.

Later that evening, I smuggle out some more food to him. Proper cat food this time.
       'What'll you do if he's still there in the morning, Mum?'
I sigh.
       'I'll have to bring him to the local vet. He'll be able to see if he's chipped.'

The night is warm and soon the cat disappears to do whatever cats do at night. 
When I come down the following morning, there's no sign of him.
I refill the container with fresh water.

Just in case.


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