Category Archives: life in general

People who get up early in the morning

Enda Kenny announced during the week that he was stepping down as leader of the party currently in minority government, and this, needless to mention, caused a leadership battle. The two front runners included Leo Varadkar. It was reported during the week that he wanted to lead the party “for people who get up early in the morning”. (Irish Times report)

This is generous of him but it hides something. Many people in Ireland who get up early do so not because they are spectacularly productive but because they have no choice. Leo Varadker wants to lead a party for people who spend 3 to 4 hours a day commuting to jobs in Ireland’s urban centres. Some of these people are not that far from work as the crow flies, it is just they need to negotiate the M50 in Dublin or the N20 and Dunkettle Roundabout in Cork. Leo Varadker was Minister of Transport who shelved the M20 from Cork to Limerick and also, who applied the first delay to Metro North in Dublin. He cut PSO subsidies too.

I used to live in Dublin, and I used to get up early in the morning. Much of that was to ensure I got across the city without spending one hour in traffic. There was a time it was to get stuff done in the mornings, like study, self education and the like. But that stopped when I stopped working somewhere that didn’t involve city centre traffic, for example. When I hear Leo Varadkar talking about being a leader for a party for people who get up early in the morning, he is probably trying to make you think he wants to be a leader for a party for the movers and shakers in the country. Watch any two bit productivity how to be successful video on youtube and many of them will talk about getting up early. Set your alarm 30 minutes earlier. None of them then say “and go to bed 30 minutes earlier”.

But the vast majority of people getting up early in the morning are losing hours of their lives daily to commuting. They are trying to exist as best they can in a country which does nothing if its back is not up against a wall pushing bricks out behind them over a cliff.

We are not talking about armies of Steve Jobs here. We are talking about the kind of people that Theresa May in the UK described as JAMS. Just About Managing.

I’d like to see someone have a vision for Ireland. Radically improved public transport in Dublin and its hinterlands is something which should be built not grudgingly and as little as possible, but with a lot more forward thinking and reality. Stop talking about Metro North and build it. Stop talking about the M20 and build it. Rethink how Ireland approaches public transport. Desire for people to have better lives. Not to be spending hours trying to commute to and from work or school. Desire for more people to be able to live close to work and work on that. This means rethinking how we approach accommodation. Talk about building a better lifestyle for Ireland. Which feeds into better mental health and better physical health. People who are spending 3 to 4 hours commuting daily are shattered. They are not getting enough exercise, they are probably not eating healthily. They are not spending enough time with their families.

Be the leader for a party fighting for these people, Leo. And drop the pity slogans about “people who get up early”.

Is this a trolley I see before me

I bought a trolley yesterday. It had been the subject of a couple of discussions on FaceBook and much was made of the grannyness of such an idea.

I am not a granny.

When I moved to Dublin in 1999, I realised very quickly that as a city, it sucked to try and do anything without a car, so I bought a car and drove around Dublin, specifically to and from Marks & Spencers and Tesco. A girl must eat now and again.

One of the many things that grew to irritate me about Dublin was that it got hard to get around. Where I lived wasn’t handy to a decent shopping centre by foot, for example and it seemed to be a palaver to go grocery shopping at any time other than 8am on a Saturday morning. I had my own parking space next to the M&S collection point in the Jervis Street Shopping Centre.

In 2016 I moved to Luxembourg. The car got sold. I’m probably the only member of my family and extended family without a car at the moment. Actually that’s a lie. My niece in London is likewise carless. She has gone before me. She too has a trolley.

Now that I have a trolley, I am seeing that everyone has trolleys. In Ireland, only old people, old ladies usually, have shopping trolleys. Often they feature tartan. That is not the case here.

When I came here, one of the key contributions to the decision was a desire to live somewhere that it was possible to live very successfully without a car. In a European city, it tends to be. Luxembourg is a bit of a nuisance on the IKEA front but there’s Conforama as a useful substitute. Apart from that, I can walk most places. There is a grocery store around a 5 minute walk away where I can get the essentials. I got a shopping trolley because I also liked shopping in the big – some might say utterly ginormous – hypermarket in Kirchberg.

I think Owen Keegan, the city manager for Dublin, should consider what could happen to his city if every one had shopping trolleys and the bus system ran efficiently, and there were decent hypermarkets (there aren’t. We do not know what a decent hypermarket is in Dublin).

French Presidential

The first round of the French presidential election is taking place today and I am a little fascinated by a lot of things about it.

The top three candidates are pretty much within the margin of error for polling purposes so it really isn’t safe to attempt to predict the outcome on the basis of polling data. Additionally, there is some variation between the top two which means some polls indicate Marine Le Pen will come first; some indicate Emmanuel Macro will come first.

The coverage in the United Kingdom has been interesting. I know the world suggests you should never read below the line in the Guardian but I find it more entertaining at the moment given Brexit than it has been for years. Below the line on the New York Times is good. We have forgotten to value other people’s views.

It seems to me, vibe wise, that a lot of UK press seems to be gunning for a Le Pen victory and a lot of their commenters (usually ones angling for a free and perfect Brexit) too. Almost as though what is likely to be most disruptive is also most desirable. I call this playing with fire.

You could, to some extent, understand the desire on the part of the average rabid Brexit supporter for Le Pen to win in France as they are being fed a line that this would finish off the hated EU altogether. I consider that a bit childish in my own view – whether the EU continues to exist or not is of limited importance if you really believe what is right for Britain is to be outside the EU. If Britain’s only chance of success is that the EU gets smashed also, then that has to call into question the convictions about Freedom, Independent Britain and a Bright New Future Taking Back Control. I sometimes think they’re a bit like that character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the one who crashes his father’s Ferrari.

Both the New York Times and the Guardian have large numbers of commenters below the line who truly appear to be convinced that France’s only chance is if they vote in Le Pen. On the NYT in particular, some commenters have a focus on how dangerous France is given Terrorism but who don’t appear to understand that regardless of the numbers killed in France through terrorism lately, it is still less than the numbers killed through gun violence in the US since the start of the year. In other words if you want my opinion, the US is probably far more dangerous than France is by some distance and accelerating. France is fighting terrorism. The US is not giving up the second amendment.

I wouldn’t pretend to suggest that France got a great choice of candidates this year but as a country, they are not unique in that. I estimate that the most visionary speech made by a prime minister in the UK in the last 20 years was Hugh Grant talking about David Beckham in Love Actually. And let’s face it, the US voted in Donald Trump who makes absolutely every French candidate look competent and statesmanlike, even Le Pen.

As a general note, I sometimes feel that the English language populations are somewhat poorly served by their media when it comes to news about foreign countries where they do not speak English. Absent forcing every one to somehow magically become fluent in a foreign language, I wonder how we fix this. Force journalists to have some command of the language of the countries they are reporting on, I suppose.

A lot to think about…difficult to find a practical solution.

Looking at stubby fingers

Via the wonders of the internet it is possible to get at sheet music online rather than waiting to go through the pile of it 1000km away in Ireland and remember to pack it the next time I am travelling. And so it is that the 2 piano arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto is safely stashed in pdf form on my Onedrive and I can access it from my iPad. Joy to the world and all that.

Rach 2, as you’ll see it named on Youtube, has been my very favourite piece of music for nearly 30 years. In that, at least, it has outshone Eagle by Abba. I bought the score as arranged for 2 pianos in a shop off Tottenham Court Road when I was 14 because I wanted to learn it. This was highly ambitious since only two years previously I had been ruining my mother’s life with a rather chaotic arrangement of the Rose of Tralee which for some reason I had elected to learn when I started learning piano “properly”. IE, by learning to read both the treble AND bass clefs. My teacher could not get me onto the grades half fast enough. I have no idea where the sheet music to the Rose of Tralee is now. I might check the piano stool when I get home. It had a sky blue cover and it was so old that it is not to be found on a Google image search now. All sorts of things are hidden in the piano stool, and there it may be hiding. But I digress. Back with Rachmaninoff.

The shop off Tottenham Court Road only sold sheet music. I’m pretty sure it is long gone because when I was living in London in 1997, studying to be an interpreter, about 10 years after I bought this particular piece of music, I could not find it again. I always thought it was called Oxford University Press for some reason – maybe it said it on the plastic bag it came in – but that could be fiction on the part of my memory. I do remember the shop though. It was magical then and I have never seen anything like it since. It was floor to very high ceiling wooden drawers. There were probably discrete labels here and there to ensure that the right sonatas and fugues could be extracted.

I wanted two piano concertos, the aforementioned Rachmaninoff, and additionally, a Grieg piano concerto. When push came to shove, however, a choice had to be made on financial grounds because two together were just a bit much for 14 year old me. In the end, Rachmaninoff, despite being marginally more expensive, won, and Grieg was left aside for another 3 or 4 years.

I guarded it with my life back to the small town in Cork where I grew up and it took up residence on the top of the piano, sharing space with the various exam pieces I had to do for the RIAM grade system and the music exam for the Intermediate Certificate at school, an exam I passed almost completely on the strength of playing because it was not on the back of my prolific knowledge of required musical theory as laid out in the syllabus.

I worked at the Rachmaninoff on and off over the years. I have very clear memories of sitting in the car, reading along with the sheet music while listening to a tape of the piece ad ensuring I could track which bits were were on the tape. There are still annotations in the book aligning certain sections with times on my favoured/only available recording at the time. And I have very clear memories of using the week before my Leaving Certificate to spend 5 or 6 hours a day working on the second movement. In the days running up to a life defining school exam, I could be found crouched over the piano; a pint glass of Ribena resting on top of the piano, carefully hauling my fingers into the shape of the opening notes of the second movement.

I am never without a recording of the piece of music. For years, the recording I had was Julius Katchen’s recording which had been released as part of the Great Composers part work series sometime in the 1980s – a wonderful resource which introduced me to an awful lot of classical music, and many key performers of the time. When my chips are down, the world tends to feel better with a sound track of that and his glorious Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (which, to be honest, I might see if that’s available too). Lately I have been listening mainly to Yuja Wang and Leif Ove Andsnes playing it.

To some extent, when I pick up the music with a view to playing this piece, it is less to play it, and more to spend time with an old friend. I know there will never be an orchestra behind me ready to enter after those titanic opening notes. Last night when I did so, it was to the news that my fingers no longer fitted the opening chords of the first movement, if indeed they ever did. I can still manage some of the second movement almost even by heart despite it being 27 years since I prepared for seven honours subjects in the Leaving Certificate by drinking Ribena and repeating the opening eight bars of the second movement ad infinitum…There are places I can still go with Rachmaninoff; and there are places he will not take me.

Things every house should own

I was reading a fascinating article on Ars Technica the other day – mostly to be honest, I read these things because I am intrigued to see what the comments will be like – if I am honest. Anyway, the article concerned the hacking of an emergency notification system in Dallas Fort Worth. Here’s a link to it.

As it happens, the comments were the usual mix of rank ignorant and rank knowledgeable and a scale of non-rankness in between. One of the key questions from the “we recognise we are ignorant” is why the area still used this kind of alert system – basically sirens given that the technology existed for things like cell phone warnings and this is where it got interesting.

Dallas Fort Worth is in Tornado Alley and so the alert system actually gets used, and often at short notice. And the reason it continues to be used is that a) it works and b) it is reliable. There is already a lot of experience to demonstrate that in emergency situations, cell networks are not reliable (although landlines are tending to stand up to disaster a bit better). Well, this system is reliable as long as no one tries to hack it but that’s a wider moral discussion. The point is, cellphones are often switched off, on silent, in the room downstairs, or whatever other excuse you are having yourself. In the context of the onset of a tornado that’s never going to be enough.

A couple of things struck me about the conversation – one was the usual tendency of people who live somewhere with gigabit fibre to assume that everyone has gigabit fibre, and similarly, the tendency  of people to assume modern might always be better than old tech. Sometimes and often times it isn’t. Anyway, another point which popped up almost in passing in the comments was identifying other sources of information in the event of an emergency. A siren is one thing to tell you hunker down, avoid, escape to high or low ground, or whichever is appropriate for your situation (CF earthquake drills in Japan as another example). Someone mentioned that they would always have a battery operated radio in the house just in case power was taken out.

This caused me to pause and think. I have a torch in the house at all times, and it has a place where it lives. I’ve always felt that you should always have a functional torch in the house and that’s why there were 4 in the last house. But if I lost electricity, I have maybe mobile phone for up to 24 hours if it was fully charged when I lost electricity and provided I switch off cellular data. I live in a temperate area and normally, you’d expect that I might be out of electricity for a relatively short time.

It’s just lots of people have found out the hard way that this might not be a completely safe assumption.

So I added a battery operated radio to the shopping list and found a small Sony for 25E in a local electrical shop. I need to get some batteries for it because of course it’s a different size to the set of batteries I have here already.

You can wander around Youtube and find all sorts of survival kits, squeezed into tiny Altoids boxes if you want to be really creative. But in the context of living in a city with no desire to go off-grid, as it were, possibly your shopping list should include a torch, a radio, spare batteries for both and a few litres of water at the very least. And at that, I’d like to think we’d be able to see the biggest problems coming from a long way off.

Myths or not myths

Colm Ó Broin has an article in the Journal today on the subject of the Irish language which annoyed me greatly for a number of reasons. I could add to the dozens responding on both the Journal’s site and on their Facebook page but then when would I bother paying for a hosting package.

Anyway, my primary issue with it is that it’s an incredibly poorly argued piece and it centres on what he considers to be the main myths around the Irish language. For simplicity I am going to list them, and then I will respond to them, and then I will add some other thoughts on the question of Irish in general terms.

  1. Irish is a dead language.
  2. Ireland would be poor if we spoke Irish.
  3. Gaeilscoileanna are elitist.
  4. Irish shouldn’t be an EU language.
  5. Irish isn’t compatible with modern technology.
  6. We don’t have to speak Irish.

The number one problem I have with this is that most of these aren’t myths; at best you could say some of them are opinions and some of them are assertions. Collectively they are a strawman, but I am going to comment on each of them.

Irish is a dead language.

No it isn’t and it is not one of the myths I hear being thrown around too often either. However, you would have to be delusional to not accept that it is a language which is living on the edge in terms of endangerment. We are having this entire conversation because the Census figures revealed that the numbers speaking Irish have dropped somewhat over the last 5 years.

A worryingly low number of people speak Irish in daily life although interestingly enough, I know about five of them living here in Luxembourg.

I suppose you could possibly call this a myth because Irish technically isn’t dead. But those supporting Irish need to recognise the reality that it is endangered and more to the point many efforts to resuscitate it have been singularly unsuccessful. If I had to choose one successful item, it would be TG4 but there’s a horrible risk that this has been a bit too late.

But the problem is, it did not have to be this way and some contributions as to why it is this way are linked to decisions made in the past. There is a whole cohort of Irish people who will never forgive the Irish schooling system for inflicting Peig on them. There is a whole cohort of Irish people who were native speakers of English who were taught Irish as though they were native speakers of Irish and who struggled with it because no one with any authority was willing to admit that for a large proportion of the population, Irish was at best a second language and for many people, it was rather foreign. The fact that many of these people after 14 years cannot or have no confidence to speak Irish is a shocking reflection on the education system of the time. There are cultural reasons for this which I will come to later.

Ireland would be poor if we spoke Irish.

Historically it could be argued that there is some truth to this. There were times in the history where children were supported to learn English within their families because there were good economic reasons to do so, of which one was emigration to a larger and more economically viable English speaking country. But in this day and age, this is not a fact, or a myth but an assertion and more to the point, I have not heard anyone suggest it in the last 30 years.

ETA: in any case, it would be profoundly prudent to maintain a situation where people were also able to speak English as this is a pretty handy skill to have. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we become monolingual Irish speakers. Plus take Luxembourg. Most people are equally at home in French, German or Luxembourgish

Gaeilscoileanna are elitist.

For the purposes of any non-Irish people floating around a Gaelscoil is a school taught through the medium of Irish. There have been an increasing number of these in the last 10-15 years.

However, they have always existed, at a time when they were just known as schools in local areas where Irish was the locally spoken language, and still is in a number of locations. I think it can be safely argued that Gaeilscoileanna are not elitist in locations where in fact, they are basically the local school because this happens to be a Gaeltacht or Irish speaking area. But it is not such a safe argument in areas which are English speaking areas. Historically they have attracted students at times when they tended to have smaller class sizes and often, less diverse in terms of class, and in the modern age in terms of ethnicity and were chosen for that reason. Obviously there are downsides to smaller schools in that they often may not have the same level of facilities but if you have high parental engagement that can be countered.

In other words I don’t think it is safe to assert that Gaeilscoileanna are not elitist. Historically, some of them appear to have been, I do know that on the ethnicity side of things, some schools have broadened their cohort’s diversity. But additionally, children attending Gaeilscoileanna tend to have a high level of parental involvement and in urban areas that tends to indicate schools with a certain level of elitism.

Irish shouldn’t be an EU language.

The problem I have with this is it is an assertion or an opinion but it is not a myth. In many ways it is a choice to be made. There are arguments to be made in both directions but to select it as a leading myth is just not one of them.

Irish is not compatible with modern technology.

I’m stunned to hear anyone assert this. Ultimately there was actually an argument of this nature with respect to Irish about 70 years ago and it was a valid argument. This is because at that time, Irish used a script which has a lot in common with what are now called uncial scripts, and for which there wasn’t a commonly available typewriter. To be fair, the Irish alphabet at the time was heavily Roman in style but with certain stylistic features and slightly different ways of writing certain letters – the letter A being a key example the S also, and the G. Its way of handling miniscules and majuscules was a little different in that it was a question of scale rather than the case in the Roman alphabet where there are differences in  form between the miniscule and majuscule letters.

So the decision was made to move to a fully Roman style to cater for the fact that all our typewriters tended to be UK quertys. It also reduced the number of alphabets which needed to be taught in primary schools thus apparently aiding the teaching of reading. This matters because if someone had had a chat with the Germans, we could have gotten a QWERTZ which also catered for that other problem which was not resolved at the time, namely, the Síne Fada, known to the French as the acute accent in terms of form. They certainly weren’t pronounced the same way. In Ireland, they were typically handwritten in after the typing was done.

Modern technology does away with that. If we had Unicode seventy years ago, we could have just installed another font on the computer, baby, and typed away. As it now, it is trivial to add fadas to vowels in Irish even on an English keyboard. Alt-GR is your friend. And to be honest this is a problem that the French, Germans, Spanish, Danish and Greek have had to solve in some shape or form. In a way, the English centric world of Ireland caused us not to be aware that other people were dealing with not being English too. Suffice to say, writing in Irish is now a whole lot easier than it was when we didn’t have any technology at all. I’d argue that this is a myth and countering it is useful if people are asserting it. It is just that, amongst the whinging comments about Irish I hear from time to time, not being compatible with technology is not one.

We do not have to speak Irish.

Strictly speaking this is 100% true once you get out of school. We do not have to speak Irish. It may be desirable that we do, but it is not necessary. Describing this as a myth is not much of an argument.


So much for the myths.

I live in Luxembourg, a place with about half a million people living there, and most of the natives, which is not close to most of its population, speak Luxembourgish, French and German. To some extent Luxembourgish has been the subject of a bit of a revival, particularly since the 1940s as I understand it. There is an argument – and I wouldn’t make it to any Luxembourger hanging around – that the line between it being a separate language and a dialect of German is a bit thin. I can, however, confirm that if you do speak German, this is no guarantee that you’ll understand Luxembourgish. It is also spoken in parts of Belgium and Germany and possibly northeastern France as well. Regarding the number of native speakers, estimates vary between 250,000 and 400,000. The interesting thing about Luxembourgish is that it has historically not been the national language. Luxembourgish for a long time was a German speaking area, and then it switched to French – this is linked with various events and transitions in its history. Luxembourgish became the official national language in 1984.

70% of the people in Luxembourg speak Luxembourgish daily according to the government here. That is far in excess of the numbers speaking Irish daily although less than those who claim to know a bit. The point that I am driving at here is that Luxembourg has been comparatively successful in turning Luxembourgish into a national language in use by a large proportion of the population and Ireland really has not. Maybe ten times the number of people speak Luxembourgish daily as speak Irish.  Yet Irish is an EU language and Luxembourgish is not. It is something which perhaps we need to think about.

If you talk to any Irish people, they will have very strong opinions on what went wrong in Ireland. They will point at the teaching and I would argue that in truth the teaching left a lot to be desired. Not necessarily because of the teachers but because of the context they were required to teach it in.

  • assumption that everyone spoke it anyway
  • delusions about creating a particular cultural form of Ireland – ask anyone about the dancing at the crossroads colleens
  • poor teaching materials
  • poor teaching methods.
  • a focus on the literary and not the language as a tool for communication.

The problem is the way I learned 20 years ago – which was terrible – is almost certainly not the way it is being taught today so people’s arguments about it is based on something which is not a reality any more. There has been an recognition at some point that most people don’t speak it and there has been an effort to start teaching it as an acquired second language in some places. At this point I have some concerns about the Gaeilscoileanna because we are basically teaching kids to read Irish before they can speak the language at the same time as we are teaching them to read English. There is some research floating around that kids below the age of about 7 have trouble with bilingualism and tend to be a little behind for a while before catching up.


The biggest problem that I saw with Irish 25 years ago, and very little has changed, is that it really wasn’t massively relevant to young people’s lives. There was no pop radio in Irish. No Irish rock bands or pop bands. Even the Scots had Runrig who were a credible rock outfit in Scotland at least in the 1970s. We had nothing. We had people who were angling to create a culture where we all listened to trad music, went to céilís and were basically living the life off a John Hinde postcard. Raidio na Gaeltachta started a series of world music at some point in the late 1990s, late on a Friday night if I remember rightly, and the purists went mad. People had already thrown fits about songs in English being played on RnG.

This basically ensured that the young Irish population who were interested in pop music and rock music listened to English language radio. Actually, we listened to a lot of pirate stations because it was in the 1980s when we got Radio 2 which was dedicated to younger people’s music. I’m sure some people didn’t like that either. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Raidio nan Gael was playing the hell out of the Highland Connection by Runrig because it was one record in their collection that appealed to young people in their broadcast area and there were songs in Scots Gaelic on it.

We didn’t do this in Ireland. We tried to shape the young generations into an image of Ireland that might have never really existed but which you could buy for 50p in any newsagent in the country and stick a stamp on instead of recognising that a living language lives and develops with its young people. And we lost one, two, maybe 4 generations. If I’m honest forcing young people to read Peig and delight in the life of an old lady living on an island off the coast of Kerry was not likely to be successful either. I know she’s been replaced so I refuse to complain about it as a problem now.

But the thing is, I cringe when I see the arguments about Irish coming up because they tend to be predictable and both sides get stuck in a rut.

I never see good reasons to study Irish being pushed. If you look at Colm Ó Broin’s piece it’s basically a moan of “why won’t you understand and speak my lovely language?” But he does not give us one good reason to do so. And this is a bit dumb because actually, there are a bunch of good reasons to speak Irish. Of course, it would help if it were taught properly but, here’s a few options.

Irish has a wider range of phonemes than English.

Eh wha? This basically means that Irish has a wider range of actually sounds you have to make. Now you might not care one way or the other about this but this actually makes it easier to pronounce other foreign languages and therefore supports the learning of other foreign languages (some industrialists suggest Chinese but I’d still suggest French or German and let me say German and Irish have a few useful phonemes in common).

In simple terms, if you learn Irish it should be easier for you to learn another language later on. In particular you are aware that things work differently to English syntax sometimes. Our verbs come before our subjects and we have those wonderful prepositional pronouns.

Irish is pretty handy for cursing.

Those wonderful curses that we have in Ireland which usually sound like cruel or unusual punishment. The Irish Times has a bunch of them here.

It’s an amazing opportunity for making up your own words.

Sasamach. That’s all I have to say.  Oh yeah, the official word for Sasamach is Breatimmeacht which is pretty decent too when you think about it. But there is no other language in which you could create that pun, or play on words like that about Brexit. (oh btw – Sasanach is the Irish word for English person and amach is one of the Irish words for outside, specifically, the one used for when you are transitioning to being outside).

Unique #hashtags on twitter

You just know that something #sneachta is not going to be about 3m of snow in New York but will refer to 3cm of snow in Palmerstown or possible 7cm of snow in the Sally Gap. And of course there is the classic #whatthefliuch meaning I have certain concerns about the amount of rain which has been failing for the last half an hour which even by West Kerry standards is somewhat excessive and it may be that getting home after work could be fraught with difficulty. No mere English hashtag could squeeze in all that meaning

It explains an awful lot of the lyricism and imagery of the English as mangled I mean spoken in Ireland

On the downside, that gave us James Joyce. Your mileage may vary on that. But the whole thing around alliterative adjectives of which I cannot think of one example right now comes straight down the pipeline from An Ghaeilge.

Actually, we do some fairly spectacular mangling of English. I give you this tweet from The Irish For discussing the verb to shift, a verb which Collins English Dictionary asserts means to move or change.

On the other hand, the past weekend has seen a discussion on what it actually means in an Irish context.  On twitter (what was that about Irish and technology again?). I’m going to link to this one because it demonstrates other words which have specific local meaning in Ireland and which I suspect many foreigners would have some issues with unless they have seen the Snapper. In any case, Collins is not familiar with the concept of shift being an activity engaged with in courting, as it were.

That case system is pretty handy for learning Finnish

Just trust me on this.

It hasn’t got a lot of irregular verbs.

11 I believe.

People will ask you to same something in Irish.


Rinne sé bean di.

I have very clear memories of a teacher in a convent struggling to explain what this actually meant. We none of us really wanted to buy the “oh well that just means they got married. Yeah, they got married”. Is Toraíacht Dhiarmada Agus Gráinne still on the syllabus? If not, it is one hell of a pity.

But the point is, Irish is one of the oldest written western European languages, if not the oldest (okay depends on how you define Greek) and as such it’s got a very handy selection of myths and legends which are real myths and legends. We had superheroes before Marvel Comics did. Check out Fionn MacCumhail, occasionally good and occasionally bad, or Cuchulainn. It is something to behold really when you think about it.

Moving forward

To be honest, I learned French by watching Beverly Hills 90210 so I’m really happy to know that we have Irish translations and dubbed versions of some of the Harry Potter stuff, for example. We need more of this stuff.  I was also delighted that (despite the lack of support from some people) that there were pop programmes on TG4 and a lot of cartoons were dubbed. Also, some of the Asterix and Tintin stuff is now available in Irish. I would love to see Calvin and Hobbes available in Irish too. These are all good things. TG4, operating on a shoestring budget, has done spectacular things to get the Irish language in to public consciousness, such as Rugbaí Beo and a lot of fascinating documentaries. The language has a special place in the education system and it would be wonderful if, going forward, this time was not wasted but resulted in people who spoke the language as a means of communicating and not because it was some way of proving Irishness

In the meantime, it seems to me that we would get a lot further if we looked at good reasons to speak it and learn it rather than trying to refute myths which aren’t really myths.

Aaaannn this is 3352 words. Oops. I had other plans for this evening.



Taking pleasure in the small things

I moved to Luxembourg at the end of last year – a move which, to be honest, quite a few of my friends would not necessarily have considered doing because they had Commitments. Children. Houses. The like.

I did not have Commitments. I have had a singular failure in hanging onto any Commitments longer than about 5 minutes, and the net result is there haven’t been children either. Not having a house is a feature of having lived in Dublin and having had a deep desire not to endebt myself to the tune of 10 years gross salary. This has meant, however, that I have had choices at certain points in my life that other people have felt as though they have not had choices and so, I took some rather serious decisions which eventually resulted in me getting on a plane with a suitcase, some clothes, a kindle and an iPad and an illusion I could live without a laptop for very long at the end of last November.

That being said, while I was angling towards a big international housemove, the truth is, I did not expect it to be Luxembourg. This is a pity because Luxembourg has turned out to be a rather happiness inducing gem. Possibly if I were 22 I would find it a bit quiet but so far I have been able to create a life here that makes me feel a lot more content, a lot more relaxed and in general, sleeping better. It has a great concert hall where I’ve been fortunate enough to hear Yuja Wang and Joshua Bell already this year; I am planning on getting a ticket to Anne-Sophie Mutter in a month’s time too. But that isn’t really it. It is possible that my view at the moment is coloured by the fact that for the past 3 weeks or so, the weather has been singularly stunning. The place is a gorgeous golden colour when you walk around it. It is swimming in parks. Lots of it is picturesque. For the most part, the services are very decent. There is nothing really to beat the feeling of walking around a place and just feeling happy all the time. Possibly this is because I get to walk around most of the time, rather than driving.

Who knows what the underlying reason is. Point is, life seems to me to be better when it is relaxed rather than when it is not relaxed.

on attitudes to others

This is one of a few pieces around the piano which will come up.

Yesterday I signed up for gold membership of Piano Street. A couple of their features drew me to do this, namely the sheet music library (okay it’s not petrucci but it has some useful stuff and also, annotations for learners), there is access to the full Naxos classical catalogue. Naxos have a great search too. Access to International Piano as well. I found that quite interesting.

Piano Street is something I hadn’t paid for before but I had signed up for silver membership years ago and via that, got limited time offer for a reduced cost access. I might not have done it for the full whack. It fascinates me as a resource. Clearly, the key attraction has to be the Naxos library followed by the sheet music. The part which most people have access to, however, is the forum and to be honest, I find it a bit hit or miss in terms of the community. I might ask for advice about a piano, but not necessarily about playing it.

This is not to say that the average community of contributors to Piano Street are bad musicians. There are some very knowledgeable people there and I’ve found some interesting threads on repertoire there – it’s through that site I have found a lot of the less well known piano concerto works, including Paderewski, Medtner and a couple of others. I don’t always find their attitudes to be less than somewhat jaded. In certain respects, I can’t blame them. Two threads caught my attention yesterday, one relating to someone whose teacher had told them to give up on their dream of being a concert pianist. The other related to a 14 year old looking for advice on playing a rather highly rated piece on the difficulty scale.

There were a variety of answers to both questions although both voiced dissatisfaction with the idea that they might take time to respond to people who might be trolls.

I have mixed views. I used to mod two internet fora in Ireland and the issue of bad faith posters, well it’s just one of those features of the forum. However. Neither got an answer that I felt was really useful.

If we take the 19 year old who wanted to be a concert pianist, the first thing any 19 year old should be concerned about is where they are relative to their business competitors. Being a concert pianist is less being a musician and more being a business person. If you are 19 years old, you need to look at the people you want to be competing with for engagements, and where you are. We were all 19 once, and we were all probably clueless once. But I had established by the time I was 16 that I wasn’t going to make it as a concert pianist, key amongst them is that even though I might have been one of my teacher’s star pupils, I wasn’t yet playing what you might today call the sexy music. I was 15 by the time I got to Fur Elise which with the best will the world, is definitely on the easy side of repertoire. A 19 year old who is at Ronda Alla Turca is competing against people who have been in the Julliard School since they were 14 or 15. Of that class in the Julliard School, it’s not likely that many of them will make it either. If you have reached the age of 19 with a desire to make it as a concert pianist and do not know whether it is too late or not, the likelihood is that it is too late. If not, there’s a lot of rehearsal ahead of you. I was working on Rach 2 – ambitiously – at the age of 14  but I knew at that point that playing it on the stage of a concert hall as a star was a dream and it was not likely to turn into reality any time soon. Didn’t stop me spending hours at a time working on tiny sections of it, because that wasn’t why I did it in the first place.


One of the things that in hindsight got on my nerves is that when one of my co-students saw I had got the Rachmaninoff two piano script for the second piano concerto, flicked through it and pointed at bits that said “it’s impossible. You’ll never do it”. It’s a rotten seed to plant in someone’s head. It didn’t help on the journey which I am still nowhere close to finishing.

I’m much more in tune with people being realistic about how likely it is going to take. I think sometimes we tend to want to protect youngsters from stretching themselves. So I’m more in favour of saying to a youngster that if they want to try it, perhaps they should, but to recognise that a journey which is worth while may occasionally take you in a different direction to what you expected. The piece of music in question was the Chopin Ballade No 1 which is on my wishlist but not high enough up it for the moment. It is unquestionably a lovely piece of music, but, almost like Rachmaninoff 3 is getting a bit hackneyed owing to a reputation.

I remember reading an article about Rachmaninoff 3 – never my favourite of his works – in which someone asked was it really the hardest in the repertoire. This was sometime after the David Helfgott biopic, and a senior teacher from Julliard responded to the journalist in question that yeah, you know it’s really hard. Then he paused. “But I have 25 16 year olds in a class who can all play it perfectly, you know.” The point is, the standards move and sometimes, when a lot of people target something, something of its mystique leaves us.  Ballade No 1 is iconic, so yes, teenagers are going to want to play it. And they approach problems in a different way to adults in many respects. Adults look at the risks and the pitfalls. Teenagers look at the opportunities.  I don’t regret starting Rach 2 when I was then, and in many respects, still am not, technically tooled up for some of the challenges in it. I do regret though that parts which are not in my view, the hardest parts in that work were pointed out to me as “impossible”.

And so, I tend to favour supporting teenagers attempting to do something hard but laudable. So many of them are not attempting to do hard stuff after all.


I spent some time yesterday and the day before considering whether to restart piano grades or not. If you spend any time around some of the piano forums on the internet, you find this is a question which quite a lot of adults who have gaps in their piano playing life address at some point, and a question that beginners want to deal with. Since most people doing grades tend to be children or teenagers, it is a question which causes a certain amount of nerves. A bit like someone going back to school after 30 years away because they never did do a school leaving exam. In many respects, on account of being completely out of whack with the rest of your cohort, it can be very nervewracking to be different, older and behind. Plus, children and especially teenagers, can be quite cruel sometimes.

On balance there’s a part of me that would like to finish things out. I made it to grade five with the Royal Irish Academy of Music before school got in the way and then I started on a journey through life where access to a piano was erratic at best. It is the same part of me that tries to tempt me into signing up for a PhD. I don’t have time to do all the things I want to do because unfortunately I also have to work. And I like my job. I like the meeting of other people. Anyway it is in that context that I was considering this. I had a look at repertoire for the Royal Irish Academy and against, that, for ABRCM and Trinity in the UK. I could not find a local centre that made sense to me, but ABRCM have an exam centre here in Luxembourg

From what I can see, the RIAM offers the grade structure, but also a couple of recital options. ABRCM seems to be double grade – performance and musicology. I can’t remember too many details about Trinity. Anyway, I had a look down through the assigned pieces for each of the examining authorities and one of the things that struck me was this: There are pieces I want to play. And there are pieces on the assigned lists. The overlap was sadly, rather limited. On the basis of this years sets of lists, I will not be starting back at grades.

One of the many things which cratered my attachment to music as a child was an assigned piece for grade 3 or 4 – so not exactly beginner but not very high up the scale  – by Bela Bartok called Pentatonic Tune. I continued on because I knew enough to know that in general, this awful, awful piece of music which I hated but which some examiner had thought valid for a young person was not representative of all music. You will have teachers who consider this stuff required to have a well rounded musical education. I am not sure I agree – Bartok existed way after the piano repertoire – Liszt seemed to survive okay without him, as did JS Bach who didn’t per se write for the piano. What came into consideration for me as I reviewed these lists was this question: do I want to play these pieces, do I want to put the very minimal time I have free to do this into pieces I wasn’t really inspired to play in the first place? Where Bartok is concerned, the answer is a straight no, and I’m not too enamoured of Prokofiev either. They could both be avoided

I’m not afraid of hard work with the piano. When I have the freedom to do so – and I am having increasingly more of it – I am well capable of sitting at the piano for 2 to 3 hours at a time, breaking the hearts of my neighbours upstairs in constant repetition of parts to master fingering. I’m also not afraid of the piece I am learning taking a long time to learn. I’m aware that I have a massive gap in my practice, and I have some weaknesses with sight reading. But I also have some pieces I am motivated to learn, some easier than others. I spent a good chunk of yesterday with a piece of Handel which, if fortune smiles on the spare time front this week may well be finished by Easter. It’s a short piece. It’s an easy piece. And it is something to play for when people say “Play something there”. People tend to want the well known.

But I have a couple of serious stretch targets, here on my desk beside me is a book of the Chopin ballades of which I started work on the second the last time I had reasonably dependable access to a piano (thanks to the nice people at the music department in UCD). There is a choice to be made between hours into a Chopin Ballade which really interests me – challenging and a bit beyond me yes – and hours into a few pieces, most of which I am not yet familiar with and of those, not on my radar. It may be that I would be better off sitting down with a teacher and considering the recital exams with the RIAM instead and selecting three pieces which appeal to me, or possibly 2 plus one obnoxious piece of modern stuff which I don’t much like to round off completeness. It is a hard call.

In the meantime, if it comes to me to spend around 4 hours with the piano transcript of Sarabande by Handel, I’m not sure I’ve lost anything because I’m not doing the grades. I suspect it is a decision I will be revisiting on a year to year basis.