Inside Track with John McIntyre
THE optimists among us didn’t think last summer that Ireland would still be at the mercy of Covid-19 come the following spring. Some form of normality had returned last July and August as many businesses reopened and most sport resumed even if crowds were very limited.
Daily transmissions of the virus were nearly down to single figures and there were days on end when there were no recoded fatalities. Social distancing was still a way of life and hand sanitisers were everywhere, but the overall outlook was encouraging. Covid-19 was in retreat.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t turned out that way. Ireland like much of Europe and the USA is now in the grip of a third wave of the virus and we are currently in a lockdown which will at least continue until the end of January. Retail life with the exception of supermarkets is virtually extinguished, while only sport at elite level is allowed to continue.
There are lots of other restrictions which continue to turn our daily lives upside down. Depression and despair are widespread, while unemployment figures are soaring again. So many businesses have gone or will go to the wall. The days are long for many and boredom is crippling a big section of the population.
Leaving aside going to or participating in matches, look at all the other things we took for granted that we can no longer do. Restaurants and pubs are closed; so are hairdressers, cafes and fashion retailers. Swimming pools and gyms are off-limits as well, while you can only train on your own outside of elite sport.
Holidays to sun spots or the annual ski voyage are in the realms of pipedreams, while international travel is also seriously compromised. All the while, you are obliged to wear a mask indoors in any place that remain open. This is a completely foreign existence to us, but understandably governments and health authorities are not for turning.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.
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Father Ted ‘TedFest’ returns to Inis Mór next month
After years of staging TedFest on Inis Mór, the event’s co-founder says his absolute favourite part of the mayhem is watching an occasional unknowing tourist react when they find themselves plonked in the middle of the surreal universe of Craggy Island.
“There’s always some hardcore Scandinavian or American visitor who researched the hell out of Dún Aonghasa but didn’t know it was Tedfest weekend,” reveals Peter Phillips.
“Then they see all these priests, nuns playing five-a-side football on the beach, people dressed as Mrs Doyle, My Lovely Horse playing on repeat.”
The festival sells out every year early due to the limited accommodation open in the first weekend of March. It missed out on one year during the Covid lockdowns and was one of the few festivals to be held in the country in 2020.
Originally attracting around 100 fans of the Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted, it now boasts 300 revellers, thanks to the addition of glamping pods at the campsite in Kilronan and the chalets behind the Aran Islands Hotel.
Described one year by a criminal psychiatrist who attended with her husband as ‘Lord of the Flies on crack’, events will largely follow the same format as when it first began in 2007.
Returning will be the ‘Lovely Girls Competition’; King of the Sheep; Pat Mustard Lip Sync Showdown; Ted’s Got Talent; The Screeching Competition in a Very Dark Cave; Matchmaking with Nellie, The Priests’ Dance Off; The Reverse Wheel of Death and Hide a Nun and Seek.
The cult favourite originally ran for three seasons between 1995 and 1998 with two of the lead actors no longer alive – Dermot Morgan played Father Ted and Frank Kelly starred as the inimitable Father Jack.
The show won a Bafta for best comedy and Dermot Morgan and Pauline McLynn were awarded Baftas for best actor and actress.
Dermot Morgan died from a heart attack aged 45 on February 28, 1998, just 24 hours after he had finished recording the last episode.
Original cast member Patrick McDonnell will travel to Inis Mór to host Blind Date with Eoin McLove and Joe Rooney will return as Fr Damo.
But after that don’t expect to see Ardal O’Hanlon, who played Fr Dougal, or Pauline McLynn as Mrs Doyle pouring copious cups of tea.
“It’s the opposite of a cheesy TV fan convention. The idea was always about giving people the chance to live on Craggy Island, to experience the madness,” reflects Peter.
“People might think that it’s quite cliquey and it’s the same people year on year. We have 20-30 hardcore fans but what I find is they come back every five years. They say it was the weekend of their lives, but it takes five years to get over it.
“People genuinely have trouble going home, they just get absorbed in this surreal life. In the beginning it’s a novelty dressing up but by Saturday afternoon nobody is batting an eyelid when they see Darth Vader buying a pint of milk in the shop.”
The organiser of the biggest Elvis festival in the world in Porthcawl, Wales, Peter has moved the antics to other locations such as the Irish Centre in Camden, London and Parks, NSW, Australia. The latter was a disaster when the local police closed the bar following noise complaints.
After the inaugural festival, there were complaints from neighbouring Inis Oirr that they were in fact the true Craggy Island because of the show’s opening sequence capturing its shipwreck.
That dispute was settled in true Fr Ted Crilly form with a five-a-side football match on the beach between teams managed by Ireland football legends Tony Cascarino and John Aldridge. Inis Mór won 2-1.
“There’s a certain type of person who fights their way to Inis Mór for three days in the middle of March. It’s just not the same going to Camden. I’d question how those who do the trek to the Aran Islands function for the other 362 days of the year.”
The story of how the whole thing was conceived could well be a Father Ted episode.
The native of Cardiff had lived in Roundstone for a year writing a biography on Connemara politician ‘Humanity Dick’ Martin, who is regarded as the father of animal rights. Peter found himself in a Sri Lankan war zone organising the charity donation of a bus following the devastating tsunami the year before.
He got chatting in a beach bar to Galwegian Fergal McGrath, who was an ardent fan of the sitcom. He was intrigued by the Elvis festival and they agreed to meet up in Neachtain’s pub in Galway City to explore the idea of a similar event celebrating Father Ted.
Inis Mór was the chosen location because they knew publican PJ O’Flaherty, who ran a hotel there.
The island is bracing itself for an influx of visitors keen to visit the spectacular scenes in the Banshees of Inisherin. There is still the possibility of “a seven-fingered throwing contest” in TedFest in a nod to Martin McDonagh’s dark comedy.
Revellers are advised not to buy a ticket for the festival unless they have sourced accommodation “or permission from another ticket holder to sleep with them”.
There is space to pitch a tent which can be booked at irelandglamping.ie. TedFest takes place from March 2-5.
Cocaine culture makes policing Galway at night more difficult
Nightlife is becoming more aggressive and difficult to police due to the prevalence of cocaine, according to Galway’s Garda Chief.
At a meeting of the County Joint Policing Committee on Monday, Chief Superintendent Gerry Roche said it was markedly more difficult to deal with revellers under the influence of drugs compared to alcohol.
“It is not easy to police when someone is high on drugs,” said Chief Supt Roche.
“When someone is on cocaine, they are quite lively and they can get quite robust, and a lot of force has to be used. This means members of the public and gardaí get assaulted.”
He said this was an issue being reported by gardaí across the country, in what he referred to as ‘cocaine culture’.
“Nightlife and society are becoming much more aggressive across the country,” added Chief Supt Roche, something he said was wasting garda resources that could be better used elsewhere.
Figures provided to members of the JPC showed a year-on-year increase in the number of serious assaults, up 25% on 2021 to 96 last year. This also marked an increase on the pre-Covid figure of 85 for 2019.
Minor assaults were also up 10% last year to 339 from 308 in 2021 – and 293 in 2019. Cllr Liam Carroll (FG) said these were worrying statistics and should be a warning to those entering into physical altercations.
“One punch can create a fatality – people should be thinking about that before getting into a row,” he said.
Mount Carmel in Loughrea set to get new lease of life
Mount Carmel in Loughrea is set to get a new lease of life after being purchased by a local businessman for his global headquarters.
Social entrepreneur Mike Feerick – who employs around 200 staff across 35 countries through his Alison.com free online learning platform – bought the former Carmelite monastery at the end of last year.
He said the monastery “will be reborn to a new life as an international education and training institute” for his business and will serve as headquarters for his companies.
While the businessman finalises the design for the new HQ, Mount Carmel will be accepting Ukrainian refugee families – around 80 people in total – in the short-term.
He told the Connacht Tribune: “It is a big project taking on the monastery property, but we’ll digest its potential step by step. All in all, the plan is to develop Mount Carmel is a very community friendly way.
“In the near term, we have agreed to accept Ukrainian Refugee families as part of Ireland’s response to the international emergency. It is an ideal place for women and children to be located, if even short term, and we are very conscious of that.
“Alison is a technically focused business. Behind the website that provides 5,000 free courses and psychometric assessments to 25 million people worldwide, there is a lot of number crunching through code and analytics – and that work is very much computer based done by individuals working on their own remotely across many different countries.
“Now and then however, it is important for our team to meet physically, and that is the vision behind the new Loughrea HQ which has over 20 bedrooms – that our staff can come, even with family, and stay at Mount Carmel, and meet other team members from across the world, in training workshops and various management meetings. Having a location that is quiet, with pleasant gardens to enjoy, yet near the centre of a town like Loughrea makes it’s a very compelling place to visit.
“While the business may be a virtual operation, there is still a need to meet up face to face, to work, learn, and socialise together from time to time, and it was that need that first led to the interest in acquiring the Mount Carmel property. There is a need for hosting our people coming to Ireland. It saves on having them in local hotels,” said Mr Feerick.
He said that at the moment, Alison is entirely virtual and remote-working based – even for its team who had been based in Parkmore in Galway for the past twelve years.
It is hoped that parts of Mount Carmel will remain “community-focused” and open to the public, such as the chapel and gardens.
“An education company taking over the property is a nice coincidence. In the mid nineteenth Century, Loughrea was in dire need for a girl’s primary school, and the Carmelite Sisters broke their custom of being a contemplative order to provide Loughrea with the needed school until the arrival of the Mercy Sisters. Many years later, empowering people through education will once again be the focus at Mount Carmel,” said Mr Feerick.
Mount Carmel was vacated by the Carmelite Sisters in December 2020 and was purchased at the end of last year for a figure believed to be in the region of €450,000.
Meanwhile, Mr Feerick, who is also the Founder and Chairman of Ireland Reaching Out – a national volunteer-based charity which helps the Irish Diaspora connect to their place of origin in Ireland for free – is keen to contact anyone with information on the history of the monastery and those who lived there.
“It is a history we should understand and celebrate. We have ideas of who funded the main convent building in 1828, on land leased from the local landlord Clanrickarde, but we would love to learn more. It is very important that the legacy of Carmelite Sisters and their contribution to Loughrea is remembered, and we will make sure that happens over time,” he said.